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In the Mean/Time

A Spy in Love




Chapter Five

The ferry voyage back to Manhattan drew nervous giggles from the tourists on board. Tossed by wind and lashed with rain, they rocked and rolled to keep their cameras steady. Diesel engines pushed the ferry’s wide, steel hull through the churning bay while the captain zig-zaged through the wind. Clawing through the weather added 10 minutes to a normal 20 minute trip. Riding through a squall in New York Bay forces city dwellers to commune with nature.
By the time we reached Manhattan the rain had stopped, the squall was beating itself to death over Long Island, the temperature had dropped six degrees and the sun was glinting off the spires of commerce once again.
The sea air and the afterglow of a cleansing rain helped clear my mind. I was no longer in a hurry to see Grace: Walter would dominate our time together, yet again. I needed time to think. Am I a suspect? Where is Walter? Will I need a lawyer?
I walked through Battery Park, found a fairly dry bench overlooking the harbor, sat down and stared at the Statue of Liberty, which somehow reminded me of Paris, which reminded me of Grace, which brought me back to Walter.
"Walter is fair game for every loose woman who crosses his path," Grace said more than once. The divorce came about because Walter's affairs had gotten out of hand. Grace felt humiliated. Yet she remains loyal to him. What’s the reason?
Grace implied that Walter didn't have a happy childhood. That may explain why Grace treats him like a doting parent stuck with an errant child, grousing and complaining, but still doting. She also believed Walter's success fed his insecurities because, a shrink told her, Walter unconsciously felt his success was undeserved.
So far as I was concerned, anyone who lives off churning other people’s money is an undeserved success, a parasite on human capital producing nothing of value to anyone outside Wall Street’s loop -- that’s 98 percent of the world.
I remembered yawning when Grace first quoted the therapist’s remarks about Walter’s insecurities. Grace was in earnest, of course, and my yawn drew a snappish reply: “If you're tired,” she said, “why don't we say goodnight?" I said she was using sex as a weapon and she came over and blew in my ear.
Funny the things one recalls at times like this. Sex and money: Walter's alimony is Grace's main source of income.
Has my relationship with Grace – our easy-going stroll through Manhattan’s cosmopolitan attractions and our mutually satisfying sex life –- enabled their crazy parent-child relationship to flourish?
Grace enjoyed sex because she didn't read a lot into it. There is always plenty to read into, of course, if the warmth of a loving embrace fails to ignite sexual desire, or when one party seeks a purely sexual release from an undefined tension that has nothing to do with the sexual partner. All I knew about that was that she liked what I did to her and vice versa.
For Grace, Walter's problem was that he got bored screwing the same woman. He craved variety. Grace felt she was all the woman he needed. She took great care of herself, waxed and preened into an object of any man’s desire. Being desirable turned her on. She enjoyed the image. She wasn’t doing it just for me. Did she still hope to ignite Walter’s desire?
Walter! What was Walter to me, or me to him? I had him to thank for a co-op loan locked into a ridiculously low rate, God bless him. I kept his ex-wife entertained and out of his hair. I hoped he appreciated that.
But I didn't really know Walter, and that was a problem.
I knew where he bought his shirts and which secretary he was probably sleeping with at any given time but I didn't know how the man would handle himself in a crisis.
I got up and walked along the esplanade, listening to the dark waters slap against the sea wall.
Slap! Walter was Grace's problem, not mine.
Slap! Walter was now my problem, too.
Slap! Will Grace become a problem for me as well?
I thought about some of the wonderful times I’ve had with Grace. For better or worse, she was the only woman in my life. I was pushing forty, tired of dating, basically a loner. My idea of a good time was exposing the links between crooked developers and venal politicians, seeing it on the front page of a newspaper, taking a swim at Grace's health club, working out for an hour, joining her for a quiet dinner and a glass of wine, and depending on her mood, a toss in the sack, followed by a good night’s rest.
Replacing her wouldn’t be easy. But a man was dead and Grace’s reaction suggested she was hiding something. Normally far from clueless, she professed ignorance about the deal with Rigi while making excuses for Walter.
The suicide note implied Rigi lied: Who had he lied to? Rigi’s nephew mentioned a briefcase: I never saw one. Maybe it was on the floor under the desk, but I hadn’t ventured far enough to look. Did the nephew mention the briefcase to the cops? What was in the briefcase? Were the cops looking through it now? Or had Rigi’s assailant walked off with it?
The cops surely noticed I wasn’t carrying a briefcase. At least I hope they noticed. I hate being a murder suspect.
My stomach growled. Nerves or hunger? I opted for hunger. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
I needed food, a glass of wine and more information about Walter Baxter and his relationship to the late Mr. Rigi.
I walked to Trinity Place to a little bar called Griff's, where the specialty of the house is organic veal sausage and the house wine is Müller Thurgau. If I was lucky, I’d find Jack Farnsworth, an old friend who edits one of Wall Street's more arcane financial newsletters, propping an elbow on the bar.
Farnsworth was there, all right, waiting to pick the brains of "back office workers,” Wall Street's forgotten heroes who do the monkey work that keeps the money-go-round spinning so the dealers and traders don't fall off their high horses more than a couple of times a year. Back in the glory days they shared in the spoils at Christmas time. Nowadays some back office folks greet the New Year with an ax to grind or a score to settle with their masters. Some think they're smarter than their bosses (some are) and love to crow I-told-you-so when a high flyer crashes over a bad bet.
Farnsworth courts them all, especially unhappily married drinkers. Jack tends their wounds, picks their brain and finds out many interesting things about the market that wind up in the next issue of his newsletter.
I knew Jack from City Hall, when he had worked as a wire service reporter. Jack knew how far into debt a mayor could go before the Wall Street boys slapped his wrists. I have trouble splitting the check in a restaurant, but with Jack's help I was able to read between the lines of the mayor's annual budget message and predict a hike in real estate taxes. During the dot.com boom Jack moved to an investor relations job on Wall Street. It wasn’t long before he launched his own newsletter. Jack knew the money game.
He was deep into the Financial Times’ bond charts when I sidled up and elbowed his ribs. He turned quickly, flashing a strobe of indignation before emitting a howl of approval.
"Darenow! Fearless Scribe! Chronicler of Misery and Impending Doom! What brings you to the canyons of greed?"
I leaned in close, shook Jack’s hand and whispered conspiratorially: "You ever hear of Koenig and Weiss, investment bankers?"
I spoke with a certain gravity to indicate the seriousness of my visit, signaling that I wanted Jack's attention and his opinion only, not the opinion of everyone at the bar. Jack could get effusive and office drinkers thrive on gossip and celebrity. In the world of Wall Street bar flies, Jack and I qualified as celebrities of a sort: "Sorry I'm late, dear. I was having a drink with The Street’s Jack Farnsworth and Max Darenow from the Graphic and just couldn't get away."
"Kunning und Vise," mused Jack, taking the bait and slipping into his Baron von Munchausen accent.
"Kunning und Vise, mur-chunt bonkers, venty neuf Wall Street. Founded by German-Jews in the 1920s. Pushed German bonds for the Dulles brothers until Hitler turned them into hot potatoes in 1939. Coasted along on money smuggled out before the Holocaust, then made a fortune off the Marshall Plan after World War II. Offices in Minneapolis, Stockholm, Hamburg and as of last month, Paris, although only God knows why -- Prague, Budapest, St. Pete’s or Moscow would have been my choice. They secured a bridgehead in East Europe in the 1990s, brokering deals all over the old Comecon countries, including Russia. Kunning und Vise have a profound sense of history.”
"Very good, Jack," I said. "May I buy you a drink?"
"Thanks but no, mate. I'm coasting myself. I have two more gin mills to visit. Now I must ask you: Why is our fair-haired reporter interested in Kunning und Vise? Don't tell me: You're investing in Czech bonds, Russian oil? Next question: Where did you get the money?"
"You're incorrigible, Jack. I'm trying to get a line on one of Koenig & Weiss's partners, fellow named Walter Baxter."
Jack wrinkled his brow. "Don't know him, but I can tell you Koenig and Weiss are on a roll. When the Berlin Wall came down they were in on the ground floor. They ignored Wall Street’s conventional wisdom and hired bankers and economists with Washington connections –- Commerce, Agriculture, State, CIA – not all spooks, per se, mostly commodity traders who knew their way around. ”
“I must admit I never heard of the firm before.”
“They played a niche market, Max, and stayed with it while other small shops went belly up trying to catch the great techno-wave. The Export-Import Bank likes them and so do the foreign exchange traders: K & W throws a shit load of business their way.”
"I really need a line on this guy Baxter," I said glumly.
“You running background checks on investment bankers for someone, Max? Vetting Gordon Gekos for a search firm? Hey, I don’t care. We both know investigative reporting went out with Ida Tarbell. We all have to make a living.”
“You’re a cynical, cold-blooded son of a bitch, Jack.”
I ordered bratwurst and a glass of wine. We sat in silence for a while. Jack had done his share of vetting young tyros for Morgan, Barclays and others when he was between jobs. He also knew I had sometimes engaged in what he called “remedial journalism,” which meant turning over dirt on a known Wall Street crook to the proper authorities in lieu of writing a story that wouldn’t get published anyway since the crook had more clout with our media bosses than either one of us.
“Of course I’ll look into this what’s-his-name for you,” Jack said.
“His name is Walter Baxter. And since you mentioned the Ex-Im Bank, he did some business with a very old export-import guy named Stanislaw Rigi, who did business in East Europe. I wouldn’t mind a line or two on Mr. Rigi, if possible.”
Farnsworth wrinkled his forehead in thought, took out his notebook and jotted the names down. His interest was piqued.
“Cunning und Vise is an interesting shop,” he said. “Back in the Cold War days it was rumored they helped bankroll the Comecon black market with the connivance of the CIA. Sort of a patriotic favor for people in Washington who had helped them get wheat contracts. Or so it’s been said.”
“Thank you, Jack,” I said. “It’s a personal favor and I’ll appreciate your usual discretion.”
Jack cracked a wry smile: “I’ll be discrete, Max. But keep in mind you’re known as a man of many parts, known for turning over rocks the rest of us would just as soon ignore. Am I going to run afoul of dark powers? Perhaps the NYPD, the Mafia, the FBI?”
I sighed contritely. I’d had some problems once with what Jack called the dark powers. Although very little of that story made it into the newspapers, word got around.
“I hope not, Jack.”
“That’s cold comfort!” Jack snorted. “I mean having mad drag queens, the State Department and a few CIA thugs-for-hire on my case – it has no appeal for me. You know, you never did tell me what the hell that was all about. A Park Avenue heiress … someone said she was crazy about you, wanted to get married and you walked away! Was that true?”
“She was crazy, Jack. Period. Those people are not on the radar this time. Promise.”
The image of Rigi’s lifeless body hanging from a door hook flashed behind my eyes. Farnsworth caught the flash. I hoped an obscure Staten Island suicide wouldn’t merit more than a paragraph in the Post, the elderly victim’s name withheld. If Jack smelled blood, the price of a favor went up.
“You’re still a swashbuckler, Darenow. I can see it in your eyes. Get it off your chest. What’s her name?”
Jack had a knack.
“It’s not about a woman, Jack. I need a line on this man Baxter. There’s money involved. There’s a favor involved. I need to know more about him.”
I’d said too much: Jack smelled blood. “Well, let me buy a round before I go.”
I begged off, saying I had a column to write. Start drinking with Farnsworth and your brain gets picked while you get pickled.
"Oh, well, Max, I’ll let you finish your lunch but . . . do you still get the occasional ticket to a Broadway show? Theatrical flacks don't seem to think a blurb in my sheet is worth a pair of opening night comps, but my wife enjoys such things."
"Your wife's wish will be my command," I said. "It isn't the season for openings, but when it comes around I'll see you're on someone's list."
"Well done, lad," said Jack, tucking his notebook away. "I'll run Baxter through the grinder. And the other man, too, this Rigi guy. Are you in a hurry for this?"
“The sooner the better, Jack. I’d like to clear this up and move on.”
“I’ll do my best. And then you’ll give me the whole story about the jilted heiress, yes?”
Jack left. I finished my bratwurst and walked over to Broadway and Wall Street to catch the Lexington Avenue subway uptown. Had I accomplished anything? Had I said too much? “It’s not about a woman, Jack.” Wrong.




Chapter Six

When I arrived at French Reflections, Grace's little shop, she greeted me with a feather duster that she waved nervously in front of her, as if she were shooing me back through the door. She complained loudly about the heat, the rain and a leak in the cellar before she got close enough to address me in a low voice.
"I spoke to Walter's lawyer," she said glumly. "Let's go get coffee or something."
She jammed the feather duster under a chair cushion and told a bright faced young girl she'd be right back. We went across the street to a Greek luncheonette and ordered iced coffee.
"Walter tried to reach you but you had already left your apartment," Grace said when we were settled. “He's completely embarrassed about what happened."
I thought embarrassed was a poor choice under the circumstances.
"You spoke to him?" I asked.
She pouted, shook her head. "No, but his lawyer says . . "
"Wait a minute, Grace. Where's Walter right now?"
"Europe. It's all on account of Rigi," she said peevishly. "He left Walter holding a lot of paper that needs to be investigated and the lawyer says it's better he gets to the bottom of it before he speaks to the police."
"What's going on, Grace? The cops think Rigi may have been murdered. Was Walter there? I really need to talk to him."
Grace heaved her bosom and stared blankly out the window. She flicked her eyes at me once, shook her head and stared some more. I'd seen her do this before. It precedes an attack of stubbornness.
"Walter personally guaranteed a loan to Rigi," Grace said evenly. "The loan enabled Rigi to buy the cargo. Now, some people are disputing Rigi's claim to those goods. These people are crooks. Walter must prove that Rigi's company is the rightful owner."
She reached across the table and took my hand before I could reply -- if I had a reply, which I didn’t.
"I need your help, Max. I steered Walter to Koenig & Weiss with my father’s recommendation. It’s a very connected old firm. It cost Walter a lot to get into Koenig & Weiss. He had to put up his life's savings to buy in as a partner. It's very clubby and the dues are enormous. But so is the pay-off."
"Who are the people disputing Rigi's ownership?"
Grace looked away. She wasn't eager to answer. "You know how the Mafia works, don't you?"
"Aww, Grace," I moaned. "Don't tell me Walter tried cutting a straight deal with the mob. Doesn't he know better?"
"Rigi was acting for someone else," Grace said wearily. "That's why Walter's in Europe."
"Names, Grace. I need names. Who is Walter dealing with? Or who does he think he's dealing with?"
"I have all the papers at my apartment. Well, most of them, anyway. Walter says they're all you'll need to start."
"Start what?" I winced.
Grace took my hand again. She hunched her shoulders and thrust her head forward slowly, turtle-like -- sticking her neck out. Was I supposed to stick out my neck, too?
"Walter thought you could talk to one of your Mafia friends and maybe they'd have some advice for him," she began sheepishly. “Maybe they’d recognize some names. Fight fire with fire . . . you wouldn’t be involved at all."
I did know some Mafia guys. I owed them a favor once and I repaid the favor. We were even now. That's the way I wanted things to remain.
"When did you last speak to Walter?" I asked casually.
"No-oo-oo," Grace cooed deliberately. "The lawyer spoke to Walter and then the lawyer spoke to me."
"You have a stake in this, Grace," I said somberly. "I'm sorry about that, but this is something you leave to cops and lawyers to straighten out. You don't jump into these kinds of disputes like you slip into a new dress.”
Grace nodded thoughtfully, then smiled. It wasn't the reaction I wanted.
“Simyon Yavet," she said brightly. "His name is on some of the papers Walter thought you should see. At one time, he and Rigi were partners in some deal. Simyon Y-a-v-e-t . . . he’s Russian . . . Walter thinks he’s mobbed up . . . the Russian mob of course . . . ever hear of him?"
“No.”
“Maybe one of your Mafia contacts would know who he was.”
“I don’t think so. For one thing, there’s hundreds of ‘Russian mobs.’ It’s not like the Italian Mafia, or what’s left of it. I’m no expert.”
Grace leaned across the table and crooked a perfectly manicured finger at me. She cupped her hands around her mouth as if she was going to whisper something in my ear. I cocked my head and leaned in timorously, half-expecting more shocking secrets. Instead, she took my neck and pulled me closer, thrusting a wet tongue into my ear. I had stuck my neck out.
"Let's go to Paris when this is over," she whispered before letting me go.
“Grace, I just came from discovering the body of an old man hanging from a rope slung over a door. Not a pretty sight. I was grilled by policemen and detectives. For all I know, I may be a suspect.”
“You don’t know he was murdered,” she said dismissively.
“I must, repeat, must, talk to Walter ASAP,” I said. “Afterwards, maybe I'll look over the papers you described.”
I ignored the subject of contacting mobsters on Walter's behalf.
Grace paid for the coffees and said she had things to do at the shop. We arranged to meet at her apartment at 7:30 that evening. The maid would leave a cold supper for us and then we'd look at Walter's papers.
I watched her run across the street as the light was changing against her. Some women have a style of running that's very sexy. Grace was one of them. She knew it, too. She reached the opposite curb, glanced back and threw me a kiss.
I almost purred, until I thought of Rigi’s body hanging from the door and Jack Farnsworth’s crack about swashbuckling.



Chapter Seven

It was close to 7:30 when I arrived at Grace's pad. The sky was brushed with broad sweeps of grey, but a rosy glow in the west signified change.
One of the drawbacks to Grace's penthouse was that the elevator didn't go to the roof. You had to get off on the 15th floor and walk a short flight of stairs.
When I reached the door, which was usually left closed but unlocked, I heard Grace arguing with someone. I pressed the buzzer as a warning. Grace yelled “Come in!”
I entered as Grace was wresting herself from a beefy thug in a striped shirt and dark pants who had apparently been holding her forearm much too tight. She rubbed her arm furiously, glanced at me with relief, then lashed out with a back-handed slap toward the man’s face. His left arm shot up, blocking her move, and then he had her by the wrist again.
I went straight to him and hit him with a palm shot to his right temple while he was glaring indignantly at Grace. He let go of her fast and now looked indignantly surprised.
I stepped in close and snapped a half nelson on him while I groped for his free arm. I pulled it behind his back and twisted to let him know I was there.
He tried curling his leg around mine but I knew it was coming and yanked his wrist halfway up his back. He screamed something in Russian.
"Shh-shhh," I whispered in his ear. "Let the lady talk."
Grace was suddenly speechless. Her mouth hung open and her eyes were glued on me. She covered her mouth with her hand.
"What’s going on, Grace? Who is this guy?"
"He's . . .oh, God, I'm sorry you walked in on this." She appeared dazed. The man relaxed, smiling docily, but I knew he was quick with his hands so I held him while I questioned Grace.
"Grace? Speak to me! Who is this man? What's going on?"
The man spoke.
"I am diplomatic person. Release me please. I do not wish to hurt this woman. I have business with this woman’s husband. She herself is a thief."
I relaxed my hold a bit. I didn't want to create an international incident.
"Did he break in or didn't he?" I asked Grace.
"Hold him there," she said, ignoring the question. She stuck her nose into the man's face: "If he lets you go, you better behave. "
"I want my documents," he said wearily. "I cannot leave without these.”
He tried to crane his neck around to address me. “She is making more difficulty. Please tell me what is your position, sir?" He was very polite.
"Half-nelson and an arm lock," I answered.
Grace bit back a smile.
"He's a thug from Moscow," she snarled.

The words were hardly out of her mouth before her jaw dropped in alarm.
"Who are who?" she demanded, addressing someone over my shoulder.
I spun around for a look, if you can call it spinning when you're dragging 200 reluctant pounds with you. The new man was older, twice as brawny as his pal, casually dressed; casual all around: he didn’t walk, he strolled. He was strolling in from the bedroom hallway, very much at home, it seemed.
"Release him," the newcomer said. "We are with Russian trade mission. Let him go. We’re leaving anyway."
He ignored me and addressed his pal: “She’s hidden it somewhere. Let’s go.”
"Grace, we need a decision, make it quick. What's going on?"
Her eyes narrowed into mean little slits.
"Hold him there," she said. "I’ll call the police. Don't let him go."
She moved toward the phone. I moved after her, dragging Boris, or whatever his name was, with me.
"Grace!" I shouted.
That's all I managed. I felt a soft, heavy slap on my temple. A hollow ring echoed through my skull. I knew it was a sap, probably a nice padded leather sap filled with sand and birdshot, and I knew it was a good hit, but I didn’t know I was going down until I woke up about 15 minutes later.
All was quiet in Grace’s house. A couple of birds chirped outside on the terrace, mockingly, or was that just in my head? I got up slowly and wandered through the apartment, softly calling Grace’s name. Grace was gone. The Russians were gone. I looked in a mirror. The left side of my face was red and swollen. I wandered back to the living room. I’d somehow missed the note propped on a chair near where I fell. It was from Grace.
“Max – They promise you’ll be OK – says he knew how to hit you. I pray he’s right. They’re mad at Walter, not me. I have to go with them and settle this before it gets worse. I am sorry. I should be back tonight. I’ll call you. DON’T CALL COPS! I’M OK. Forgive me. All will be explained. LOVE Grace.”
The mantle clock chimed 8 p.m. I had arrived a little before 7:30. I went to the intercom and quizzed the doorman. He confirmed that Grace left the building with “the two gentlemen” about 15 or 20 minutes ago, “roughly.” They went south in a chauffered black SUV that had been double-parked about 50 feet from the entrance. All three in the back seat. Grace seemed OK, maybe a bit distracted, not angry. She told the doorman to ring up and check on me around 8:30. She said I wasn’t feeling well and was probably taking a nap.

CHAPTER EIGHT
I decided to give Grace two hours before calling the cops. I hoped she’d call me before then. I made coffee and poked through an antique secretary desk in the living room and came up empty. I poked through a desk and a file cabinet in the bedroom: ditto. I woke her laptop and browsed her files: the ones that looked interesting were locked; ditto her e-mail. I played with passwords to no avail. I gave up and reheated the coffee I forgot to drink. I checked the refrigerator for a snack and settled for a glass of white wine. I went back to the laptop and found some unlocked files. Most were Internet downloads: catalogs from antique dealers and manufacturers of fine reproductions. The antique secretary in the living room popped up in full color. I was getting nowhere. I was getting antsy. It was 9:10.
I was curious to see how much a reproduction of an 18th Century secretary desk cost. I scrolled down and found, not a price tag, but a copy of the original illustration covered with computer-generated notes and squiggly lines. The lines were traced around the two sliding bars that supported the fold-down writing surface and extended down the back panel of the cabinet, the part behind the three bottom drawers.
Someone, apparently, sought to modify the cabinet’s interior. The notes suggested a change in dimensions corresponding to the areas where the squiggly lines were drawn. Why? The cabinet certainly didn’t need reinforcing.
The answer seemed obvious: create interior space without eliminating braces or framing or visibly altering the exterior. The only way to do that was to create a false panel.
I went into the living room and pulled the secretary away from the wall. I tapped the back panel lightly. It sounded hollow at some points, solid at others. The solid parts were confined to the lower portions of the back panel. I ran my hands around the moldings and closely examined the joints. They appeared seamless and tightly fastened. I removed the bottom drawer and peered inside. Nothing seemed out of place, until I went to reinsert the drawer. The rear joints were slightly off-color, as if they had been reglued.
I opened another drawer and found evidence of the same, as well as a tape measure. I measured the exterior and interior sides of the cabinet and found a difference of three inches, plenty of room for a false panel.
The question remained: How to open it?
It was now 9:40. I had twenty minutes to kill before deciding what to do about Grace. I put the drawers back and pushed the desk against the wall.
What would I do when the clock struck ten? Piss and moan? Call the police? And tell them what? That I’m the guy who discovered Rigi’s body and now I’m claiming two Russians kidnapped the ex-wife of another man wanted for questioning in Rigi’s death. How do I know this woman? Duh.
Who are the Russians? Grace gave me a name – Simyon Yavet. Was he one of the men who left with Grace for parts unknown? Were they really diplomats, attached to a trade mission? Or thugs? Or both? One of them sure knew how to use a sap on a sap like me.
I dialed information. No listing for a Russian Trade Mission. I tried the Russian Mission to the United Nations and got the after-hours recorded message.
I did have a U.N. telephone directory and a directory of U.N. foreign missions –- at my apartment. It was now 9:55.
Perhaps I should try calling the Plaza Athenee In Paris and ask for Walter.
I went to the kitchen to put ice on my throbbing temple. I saw the cold supper and was suddenly famished. I wolfed it down over the kitchen sink. It was 10:10. I poured another glass of wine and sat on the living room couch near the phone.
I was staring at the floor when the phone rang at 10:15. I picked up on the third ring. It was Grace, relieved at finding me conscious, full of apologies She sounded fine. Perky, in fact.
She had to talk fast. She’d spoken to Walter. He was “somewhat helpful.” Walter was in Paris. The Russians are truly sorry they sapped me but they thought I was Grace’s bodyguard and that’s what happens to bodyguards sometimes, nothing personal. She was in good hands. She was getting a ride home.
“Grace, where are you calling from? Where are you right now? Who are you with?” She skipped right past all that.
“I’ll be home in half an hour,” she said. “Will you please stay until I get there? Have you eaten? There’s cold supper in . . .”
“Where are you right now? Tell me or I’m leaving.”
“Don’t worry,” she laughed. Her voice dropped to a whisper, “I’m actually sitting with three FBI agents. There’s an unopened bottle of Sancerre somewhere in the fridge. Open it. I’m on my way.”
There was something comical here, but I couldn’t pin it down. Grace’s delivery was so off-hand and my mind so full of painfully whirling questions, I was left speechless.
“Max, are you OK?”
“I’ll wait for you,” I said, dully.
“Poor baby,” she cooed. “I’ll make it up to you . . . I promise. See you soon!” For a second, I thought she was talking to a child. She hung up.
There were so goddamned many questions whirling crazily through my mind it took me a while to put the phone down. Then, without further thought, I picked up the phone and dialed star 69 to see where Grace had been calling from.
It was a Manhattan number. Oddly familiar. I went to the phone book I saw in a drawer of the reproduction secretary in the living room. I went into the blue federal government pages and kept repeating the number as I ran a finger down the columns.
BINGO! The number fit the main exchange at the Foley Square office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Grace was telling the truth.
How did she get there? What happened to the Russians? What kind of game was she playing? Did I want to be in the game? I wasn’t sure. I’m never sure. I wander into these things and for lack of anything better to do, I go with the flow.
I did know that I must speak to Walter –- eye-to-eye, up-close and personal, no phone calls, e-mails or interlocutors
– - as soon as possible.
Was my passport up to date?

A Spy in Love A novel in progress.

A SPY IN LOVE

By Richard Nusser


To win without fighting is best.

Sun Tzu -- The Art of War


There are five kinds of spy: The local spy, the inside spy, the reverse spy, the dead spy, and the living spy. When the five kinds of spies are all active, no one knows their routes -- this is called organizational genius.
Local spies are hired from the local populace. Inside spies are hired from among enemy officials. Reverse spies are hired from enemy spies. Dead spies transmit false intelligence to enemy spies. Living spies come back to report.
Sun Tzu -- The Art of War


A Spy In Love
Chapter One
I should have known better than to do a favor for the ex-husband of a woman I was sleeping with but I felt I owed the guy.
At the time, I thought I was getting the better part of the deal. The woman in question was a trusted companion and lover and had lent me a considerable sum of money when I needed it -- his money, of course. The woman in question had abundant charm, tolerated -- nay, encouraged - - my foibles, The funny thing was, when we first met, she was the one who had needed a loan.
She was Grace Mahoney Baxter, a big-boned, small town, blue-eyed blond with too much hair, a convent school education and grand ambitions. Catching the right man had been her primary goal since the sixth grade. She was also very smart, sparked with a gene frok mher father’s side that gave hwer a full mind.
She knew men, and she knew what she wanted in a man. She wanted someone who was rich, successful and in need of mothering. She applied herself to the task of finding the right guy with the single-minded devotion of a rare coin collector. But when she found her dream boat, she found he came with strings attached.
He was Walter Aaron Baxter, a lawyer who discovered he could make far more money putting deals together himself than he ever could drafting contracts for deal-making clients. He left a law firm chockablock with former presidential advisors and secretaries of state and joined the rough and tumble scramble that ensued when European nations on both sides of the Iron Curtain began privatizing and decentralizing their economies in the 1980s. He made a fortune simply by bringing buyers and sellers together for one of the big Wall Street investment banks, then branched out on his own.
I'd been sleeping with his ex-wife, off and on, mostly on, for a year. He chose to look the other way since the dalliance served his purposes. It kept Grace out of his hair and gave him the freedom to pursue a life full of travel and deal-making -- the rootless existence of a rain-maker, which was his calling.
I first met Grace in Paris, a year before we began our affair, for an affair is all it was and all it ever would be. The Baxters, you see, were divorced in name only. The marriage was over -- lust had blazed, intimacy consumed itself like flash paper. Out of bed, their personalities settled into a symbiotic relationship built around interesting ways of making a buck, or as Grace preferred, making a point with other people’s money. Each partner assisted the other in some way, investing time or money or both in a range of investment opportunities.
We met for the first time accidently -- clumsily -- in Paris. Grace was lushing it up in a deserted brasserie on the Blvd. St. Michel at two o'clock in the morning, a time when even disreputable Parisians had gone home to bed. I was perfectly sober and full of good intentions, having come out to mail a free lance travel article I'd written that was long overdue. I'd worked for 12 hours on the piece and when I discovered the corner brasserie was still open I decided I deserved a nightcap. She had been drinking red wine and cafe noir and had just discovered she hadn't enough money to pay the bill. Despite her tipsiness, she was too well-dressed and full of American self-confidence to be a deadbeat. I heard her explain to the waiter in very passable French that she had left her wallet at her hotel because she was thinking about other things.
"A quelque chose qui la occupie," she shrugged.
The waiter smiled knowingly -- there was a Gallic insouciance in her delivery -- and said he understood her predicament only too well, but he had already rung up her check and now he must cover the amount himself in order to close out the register. I decided to butt in. I adored blondes with hair the color of wheat, skin that glowed like perfect afternoons and sky blue eyes so impenetrable I felt like a passing cloud in their presence. For all that, blondes rarely gave me a tumble. Brunettes like me. Because I’m blond, I suppose.
Confronting blondes takes courage, so I locked on her eyes and addressed her in English. She was obviously American. I asked how much she owed.
"Eighty francs," she said absent-mindedly, without looking in my direction.
Eighty francs was about $16 at the time and since the waiter was being rather civil I offered to settle things by paying her tab. I addressed the offer to her, making sure the waiter understood. Maintaining good relations with the local pub in any port is a good idea.
She looked at me as if she had just become aware of my presence or had awakened from a dream. She squinted and smiled, eyeing me suspiciously.
"You're a complete stranger. How would I repay you?"
"Don't worry about it," I smiled. "I'm studying to be a diplomat."
“A diplomat! My oh my.” She laughed a bit self-consciously. “Really?”
“I’m a writer, a journalist,” I said. “I’m trying to be very diplomatic right now and I’m studying my actions.”
All true. I was on my best behavior, charming, good manners, cautious, too -- but undeniably looking for some touch.
She smiled back with a hint of mischief, followed by what seemed to be an involuntary toss of her head that caused her blond hair to sweep gently to and fro, like a portrait jarred inside its frame. Was she playing with me? Or just being tipsy and cute?
She shook her pale amber locks again, deliberately.
"I don't take handouts," she said, looking me straight in the eye.
The waiter cleared his throat. She smiled ruefully in his direction and turned back to me.
"You win," she said, "but I will pay you back. " She was suddenly all business, sober and full of purpose. "I'll need your address."
I said it wasn't necessary but she wasn't listening. She drew a sharp breath through her nose.
“Do you have a business card?” she asked.
I took a pen and scratched my name and the address of my hotel on a napkin. I wasn't going home to New York for three weeks.
She took the napkin, folded it into her hand and looked toward the door. "I'm doing this because it's the least complicated," she said, turning and locking the sky blues on me again. "Otherwise I'd phone my husband and have him bring money."
“That’s up to you,” I said. “But why don’t I just put you in a cab and send you -- where? The Ritz, George Cinque, the Plaza Athenee?”
She smiled big. Her lips curled back like a blushing rose, her teeth shone like a chorus line; she had dimples, a peachy complexion, a straight nose and laughing eyes. She glowed for an instant before a curtain of embarrassment dropped over her.
I gave the waiter 80 francs. He showed his appreciation by inviting us to stay while he locked the doors and began his clean up.
Grace and I chatted while I finished my beer. She asked, and I told her what I doing in Paris. I asked the same of her. It was her fourth visit here. She was accompanying her husband on business. The first time was on her honeymoon. She loved Paris and told me she learned French at a boarding school near Washington.
I asked if she had children -- don’t ask me why! -- and she shuddered no, as if to shake the thought from her mind. She asked me where I was staying and I told her -- across the street at the Hotel Bailly St. Germaine.
She smiled again -- there was no mistaking the mischief spinning in her eyes -- and asked if I had any coffee in my room. I had a jar of instant, a tiny electric coffee pot I used for travel, a few bags of sugar caged from restaurants, no milk. No non-dairy creamer. Hate non-dairy creamers. Hate inorganic chemicals. I informed her of all this but stopped short of extending an invitation.
"Black coffee is fine," she replied. "Too bad you don't have any brandy to go with it."
I told her my travel kit included a flask of Jack Daniels and she said that would do fine -- all she needed it for, really, was a sweetener. I wondered how much she liked liquor and how much she had in her and had much of it she could take before she got drunk and disorderly or sloppy or sleepy or stupid or nasty or maudlin or any one of those things too much drink can do to people. I don't take advantage of lady drunks. I wasn't even sure if she was drunk. Tipsy, yes. Disorderly? Not so far.
She didn’t belong in a cafe littered with cigarettes and reeking of wine and spilled beer. I no longer wanted my beer, so I took a last sip, put it down and motioned for the door. She needed a pedestal right away.
Women like her don't fall across my path very often. The problem of being a 38-year-old bachelor in Manhattan is that most women my age are older and wiser than I am. The younger ones are too high maintenance. The women I like are either happily married or looking for a guy who makes bigger bucks than I do.
I asked her where she grew up. Her eyes lit up.
“Minnesota,” she laughed. “My father had a big farm, way out on the prairie. He was a Granger. I was 4-H, Junior Horsemen of America.”
A conglomerate bought the farm when she was 13. Daddy went to work for them as a lobbyist. The family moved to Minneapolis. Her mother was crushed. Her mother loved the farm. She fought with her mother. Her parents divorced.
She talked as we walked slowly to the hotel. The conglomerate transferred her father to Washington. She spent her last year in high school at the swanky Madeira School in Virginia to be closer to him.
We entered the hotel and rode the elevator to the third floor. She stopped talking when we entered the room. She drifted out to the balcony while I made coffee. I joined her on the balcony. Her mood had changed. She was pensive, wary, but determined to finish her story.
“Where was I?” she said. “The divorce? No! Washington! Daddy and me! More Madeira?, my dear? I thought boarding school was so cool. I’m not sure anymore.”
She poured it all out in a rush of memories tinged with bitterness. She had three older brothers, much older. She was, she said, “basically an only child.” She loved living in Washington and got herself into George Washington University, majoring in business. She summered with her mother and her brothers’ families at a lake in northern Minnesota. Her mother died a month before Grace graduated from college: “Drank too much, I guess.”
Grace met Walter at a party in Washington in her senior year and fell in love. Or was it lust? And guess what? Walter came from St. Paul and had a business degree from Georgetown.
She laughed, finally, and asked for a dollop of Jack Daniels to sweeten her coffee. She turned pensive again and picked up her narrative. It became a dry recitation.
She and Baxter married and moved back to Minneapolis, where her father had gotten Walter a job, “but Walter got itchy” so they moved back to Washington where Walter studied for a masters degree in international finance and she took a low-level government job.
She thought she and Walter would grow to be partners in business, marriage and ultimately, parenting, but the lightning-swift world of international deal-making “really brought out the best in Walter” while Grace, who had been brought up to dot her i’s and cross her t’s, found it shallow and confusing.
She sighed and shrugged off her past with a wan smile, but she wasn’t finished. She needed to explain why she was standing in a stranger’s hotel room.
She had insisted on accompanying her husband to Paris on this trip because it fell on their ninth wedding anniversary. She wasn’t sure there would be a tenth. She was filling in for her husband’s secretary who had originally been scheduled to make the trip. Grace wound up answering phones, sending faxes, hiring cars and interpreters and making reservations for lunches where she was not invited. She resented being unable to spend time sight-seeing or visiting museums and although she knew how busy a secretary’s day could be, she couldn’t help thinking Walter and his real secretary would have made time, at some point, day or evening or later, for what Grace called “fun.”
It didn't take much to read between the lines. It seemed obvious Walter had intended to fly off to Paris under the cover of commerce for an assignation amoureuse, if not with his secretary, someone else. Thwarted, he saddled his wife with endless chores.
On this particular evening, after dinner at La Tour D'Argent with a party of ten from the American and Czech embassies, Grace stalked off by herself to revisit the Left Bank she loved so well, not realizing she had no money or credit card in her purse.
She recited all this while staring into the night, her eyes fixed on distant points, until her story came full circle.
“What was I thinking?,” she said, finally turning to face me. “How stupid not to bring money, not even a credit card!”
“It happens . . . ” I said weakly. I trailed off before I got to expressing an opinion about why it happens, because it really was none of my business.
We stared into each other’s eyes for a moment and then gazed off again, both of us gripping the balcony rail so as not to be drawn into one of those vague and distant points in the night.
A motorcycle broke an awkward silence.
Grace looked at me and smiled wryly.
“I’m telling you all this and I don’t even know you.” Her eyes glistened, deep and blue. “You are so kind ...”
She offered me her hands. I took them and held them and lightly drew them towards my chest. The rest of her came along. Our eyes locked again.
I went for the kiss too late. She nestled her brow into my chin, then tucked her head on my shoulder. I let go of her hands and slid mine loosely around her waist. She flexed her body tight against mine and kissed my neck. I kissed her ear, lightly, and we drew a collective breath. Her body hummed like a tuning fork until she relaxed in my arms with a deep sigh. We stayed like that awhile until she kissed my cheek and drew away.
“I should call the hotel so he doesn’t worry,” she said. She spun around lightly, with a dancer’s confident step, then stopped and composed herself. She was still a little tipsy.
She crumpled into a chair, dialed the phone and told whoever answered, in better French than she displayed in the bistrot, not to ring her room. She left a message saying she was fine and on her way back to the hotel.
I asked how she planned to get there. She said she'd take a cab and have someone from the front desk come out and pay for it. I told her it would be easier all around to lend her another 30 francs. She refused.
"I pay for my sins," she said cryptically, getting up to leave. I had no intention of pursuing that remark. She was tempting, but I have no stomach for domestic strife. We went to find a cab.
"You were very nice to do this," she said. "Would you mind if I called you if I'm in New York?"
I had no objections so long as her husband wasn't in tow. She responded with an understanding nod. I flagged a cab and put her in it. I pressed 30 francs into the driver’s hand and told her I had. She reached out and touched my hand lightly before I shut the door. She looked about to cry.
I slept the next day until noon, when a messenger came by with an envelope bearing the crest of the Plaza Athenee, one of Paris' grand hotels, where rooms go for $500 a night and up. Inside was a crisp100 franc note and a two sentence letter: "Sorry, I had nothing smaller. Hope to see you in New York." It was unsigned.
Toujors amor. Vive l’amor.


Chapter Two
I thought about Mrs. Baxter a lot over my remaining weeks in Paris, fantasizing that she may decide to leave her husband and the stifling confines of the Plaza Athenee to share my modest room on the Left Bank, but that never came to pass. When I returned to New York and got caught up in the maelstrom of the Big Apple, Grace was all but forgotten.
But true to her word, she did come to New York, sans husband, a year later. She called and invited me to dinner at New York's Plaza Athenee, where she was staying.
I accepted the invitation, not knowing what to expect. She was drunk and teary eyed the last time I'd seen her although I thought she had too much intelligence in her blue eyes to have a drinking problem. On the other hand, she fit the profile of a spoiled, rich suburban matron, getting back at her husband, looking for love in all the wrong places.
She was seated when I arrived for dinner and as I approached her table she stood up and shook my hand, as if I were an important client or a visiting nabob.
"Thank you for coming," she said. She wore a blue evening suit that looked expensive and very French. She wore her hair differently. No mousse, no bulk. It lay flat, silky and blond, falling in straight lines around her face. One side was pulled behind her ear and fastened tightly with a clip, prim and also very French.
She wasn’t quite the same woman I’d met in Paris. She was appealing for reasons beyond her looks. She looked as if she knew who she was and how she got there. She had a presence spoiled suburban matrons don't usually possess.
She spoke tré bon French to the waiters, who catered to her with a gravity that drew envious stares from other diners. She dismissed my questions about why she was in New York and where her husband was with an airy wave of her hand.
"Let's not talk about me tonight, O.K.?" she said. I told her I thought the hostess had every right to set the tone of the conversation and she laughed and said we were going to get along just fine.
She got my life story from birth to the present by asking clever questions, one after another, stringing an otherwise one-sided conversation together with insight, humor and, I thought, affection.
She insisted on taking a walk after dinner so we did. She led the way and seemed to know where she going. We turned up Madison and walked for a long time. She commented on buildings and stores we passed and knew more about Manhattan real estate trends than I did. When I suggested stopping for a nightcap, she said we’d have one when we got to the Hotel Carlyle. Why the Carlyle? She said she’d tell me when we got there.
When we got there, she said: "Are you ready for Bobby Short? I have reservations."
I said: "Why not? Music is the loving tongue." I was of two minds, really, about this turn of events. I felt obligated to pick up the tab, which would be steep.
By the time Bobby Short finished his set, Grace was holding my hand and I was staring into her eyes like a man in love. The waiter reminded us that if we wanted to hang around there'd be an additional cover charge. Grace wanted to stay. It was her treat.
I protested, of course. I said I must pay for the second show.
She took both my hands, clasped them to her chest and looked me straight in the eye.
“Don’t be a fool. When someone offers you something, be gracious and accept it. ”
"Where is your husband?" I asked.
It was a serious question and she knew it. She smiled grimly and started talking. She talked right through the intermission and by the time the second set began she had brought me up to date on her life. And we had struck sort of a deal.
She was getting divorced and moving from Washington to New York. Walter had recently signed on as a full partner with Koenig & Weiss, a Wall Street investment bank. She was going to do volunteer work at the United Nations. She might open a shop and sell antiques or smart French reproductions. She was going to need someone to "show her around" and she thought I was the ideal candidate.
I told her she hardly knew me.
She said it didn't matter. She'd downloaded some magazine articles I'd written and liked them. She asked me why I wasn't writing books and I told her they took too much time to write and the payoff was hardly worth the effort. She squeezed my hand and told me it was only a suggestion. I told her I'd gladly show her around but I was used to picking up the tab, at least once in a while.
She smiled and told me, without a hint of malice, that I was a jerk, that money was only a means to end, and that I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.
"I thought you liked me?" she said. "Was I wrong?"
I'm not used to being swept off my feet. I took a deep breath and answered uneasily: "No." I felt like kissing her then and there, but I didn't. Caution was in order. If I wasn't going to be a gigolo, I'd have to remain a gentleman, which meant I had not to appear in a hurry to take this woman to bed.
Grace spent a month in New York before returning to Washington to close on the sale of their house and testify about her husband's infidelities. We saw each other a dozen times before she left. We dined at Elaines, the Russian Tea Room, Orso, Joe Allen’s and spent an entire Saturday wandering through SoHo and Tribeca, bar-hopping from one French-speaking bistro to another, well past midnight. We even went to mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, her idea. Grace let me pick up the tab six times, I think.
She sublet a two bedroom penthouse with a large terrace in a pre-war co-op on West End Avenue with an option to buy. The asking price was half a million, an absolute steal in the market. It was a warren of antiquated plumbing and wiring, cracked ceilings, roof leaks and buckled floors. The terrace was a carpet of crumbled terra cotta tile. The exterior needed new windows, doors, brickwork and roof. I had a hunch it would cost another half mil to make it livable.
Only half in jest, I suggested she take the money and buy a place in Paris. She looked at me as if I was about to open a can of worms.
"No dice," she said gravely. "Walter needs me here."
I couldn't let the subject of Walter, and his continuing relationship to Grace, slide by forever. Grace knew that. But she wasn't going to be rushed into explaining it. What was obvious was this: Divorced or not, Grace and Walter were still tied to each other. Tied by love or money.
Grace and I started dating -- for lack of a better word -- when she returned from Washington three months later. The divorce, she said, was a fait accompli. In three months it would be final. The settlement enabled her to go into business for herself. She rented a store on Lexington Avenue and was stocking it with antiques and antique reproductions from France and England.
We started seeing each other two and three times a week. I found excuses to drop by the store. We’d have coffee while aging chorus boys and set designers Grace called her shop girls waited on interior decorators and their mostly female clients. She described her life to me minute-by-minute. I heard about every phone call, every customer. Everything in her day came up for review, including Walter’s latest deal, or latest girlfriend. Her life was the store, her aging father, Walter, legions of tradesmen and contractors and real estate agents and moving and storage firms. Her social life revolved around frequent visits by friends from Washington and quality time with me.
I absented myself when the folks from Washington dropped by but plunged happily into supervising what needed to be done to renovate Grace’s apartment, haggling with contractors and nurseries, sketching out plans and garden designs over romantic dinners and falling asleep in a four poster bed amidst a jumble of unpacked cartons and demolition rubble.
How sweet it was.
As time went by I came to know Walter intimately but not at all well. I knew where he bought his shirts, where he got his hair cut, how he fared on the golf course and which of his secretaries he was sleeping with. I just hadn't met him yet.
Grace's devotion to her ex-husband grew more apparent each time we dated. Walter's photo, in an elegant silver frame, dominated the family photo collection. Grace's generous alimony payments were contingent upon her remaining unmarried. Meanwhile, Walter's career was on an upward roll.
"I think Walter can't live without you," I said.
"Do you really think so?" she replied innocently. "It doesn't matter, you know. We are divorced."
Ironically, it was Walter, or too much of Walter, that finally brought Grace into my arms and into her bed. Sex isn't everything, and it was sort of fun being a chaste gigolo for a while, but after dating for three months, I told Grace I'd had enough talk of Walter and I wanted in, or out. Or both.
She said she knew exactly what I meant and had been wondering when I was going to cave in and demand it.
There was one hitch. Grace hated my apartment, which was on a semi-slum block on the northern edge of Greenwich Village. She came there once, sniffed the air, and didn't like it. She said it was time I bought a co-op and I agreed. I just didn't have much cash. I told her my savings were tied up in a IRA-based retirement plan plus stocks and treasury bonds my father left me that I'd been advised not to sell. The nest egg earned an average of 10 percent a year over the decade I held it. Tying it up in an apartment didn’t seem wise.
Grace reviewed my portfolio, which consisted of a couple of manila envelopes in a sock drawer. "Don't sell the stocks," she declared, handing the envelopes back.
Two days later she told me she had found a terrific bargain -- a one-bedroom apartment in the East Eighties. She said the co-op market was soft, now was the time to buy. She would arrange a loan through Walter's bank.
I looked at the apartment and I checked co-op ads in the Times. It was a fair price. The maintenance was less than the rent I was paying. Grace’s own apartment was just on the other side of Central Park. I said I’d look into it.
Grace pushed the deal. She found out the co-op board required a 50 percent down payment and enough assets and income to guarantee all monthly expenses connected to the apartment with plenty left over for a rainy day.
“Your income and your portfolio might not meet their standards,” she said. “Let me come with you when you meet the board. Perhaps I should co-sign the note.”
I started to reply but she cut me off by saying there’s no sense talking about it until she spoke to the bank.
This is where I should have said “no” and walked away. In fact, I did say “no,” but I didn’t walk away. Instead, a few days after saying no, I agreed to join Grace for dinner at a precious little restaurant in the middle of a tree-lined East Side block noted for the privacy of its booths and its French provincial menu and decor.
That dinner left me wide open for an entreaty from Grace that called into play many things, starting with planning for my future and ending with an appeal to my patriotism, of all things.
“Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” she asked at one point.
I told her I was an independent, although I hadn’t seen a Republican I could vote for in a while.
She said that was good. She said she was a Democrat and so was Walter and that made us all soul mates. She talked about the importance of Walter’s work, how so many of his deals created partnerships that accomplished far more than diplomacy and foreign aid ever could.
“Walter picks people who aren’t going to sell their own countries or Uncle Sam down the river,” she said. “They’re democrats, too. They’re not thugs, or financiers seeding wars for arms merchants, or lining their own pockets at their country’s expense or pushing fascism or dictatorships.
“Walter ... I ... we both ... take seriously what we do with our lives. I know you’re the same.”
Walter, Walter, Walter.
I nodded gravely. “That’s good,” I said.
She smiled and drew an envelope from an oversized bag she was carrying. She leaned across the table and took my hand.
“I want us both to be happy,” she said. She told me Walter had personally approved a loan for the cost of the apartment at a point above the prime rate, with herself as co-signer. Furthermore, Grace would negotiate terms with the seller, put together a contract of sale, and prepare financial statements for the co-op board. She presented me with paper work for the bank loan and ordered a bottle of champagne.
A week later she accompanied me to a meeting with the co-op board who, bedazzled by Grace’s financial acumen, greeted me like an old friend.
That’s how I came to owe Walter a favor. What follows is the story of how I repaid the favor, repaid the loan, and lived to tell about it.
It's not something I would do again.

CHAPTER THREE
It all began on an unseasonably hot and humid evening in late June. I'd come home exhausted, barely gathering the will to strip off the sweaty shirt, tie and blue serge suit I’d worn for a late afternoon meeting with the owner of the New York Graphic. The meeting was about a column I had written questioning the mayor’s ties to real estate developers. It wasn’t the principle of the thing that bothered me anymore. It was having to come up with another column on short notice. I was losing interest in being a newspaperman, a phenomenon that happens every five years which I attribute to burn out.
I was sitting in bed with a notepad, watching the late news, hoping something totally lame would pop from the mouth of a talking head to stir my bile and send me dashing to the computer to pound out another angry column denouncing the media’s naiveté when Grace called.
I was hoping she'd been working late and would want to come over to my place because that would take care of everything. I’d work, lulled into creativity by the sound of her voice and her mere presence; she’d talk in a monotone, recounting her day without caring what I happened to be doing – cooking, writing a column, poem or letter to an old Army buddy, or reinforcing an already groaning 15 year-old bookcase so I could add a jerry built top shelf.
Grace informed me at the outset that this wasn't a social call. She was an honest woman; not necessarily an honest person, but certainly an honest woman. There is a difference, as I found later. Grace began by describing a deal Walter was putting together for a client known to her family. Our conversations often started this way, even ones that concluded later in my bedroom or hers, after what Grace perceived to be Walter's problems were thoroughly aired and analyzed.
Grace described Walter's client as a "sweet old man" who was selling the import-export business he'd founded during World War II. Walter was handling the sale and had a personal stake in the outcome, beyond the bank's involvement. The old guy, Stanislaw Rigi was his name, brokered trades in anything that could be shipped or warehoused. Aside from his name and connections and existing contracts with shippers and truckers, Rigi’s company’s worth was based on physical assets -- tangibles -- warehoused in buildings in half a dozen cities in Europe and North America.
Rigi hoarded certain tangibles -- commodities with long shelf lives, rare timber, precious metals -- all listed on his company's books as assets and inventory.
Walter wanted someone -- me -- to run over to a warehouse on Staten Island and verify a certain cargo by observation, then take at random a sample of the product and bring it to Grace for shipment to Walter wherever he was.
"I know it's an imposition, Max, but it'll only take an hour or two and there will be a consulting fee of $1,500," she said. "Walter was due back from Minneapolis, but he just found out he has to go to Paris for a few days. Otherwise he’d go himself. He wants the three of us to have dinner together when he gets back. You'll finally meet him."
I told her the fee wouldn't be necessary, meaning I'd accept payment if she insisted on it. What really interested me was the opportunity to meet Walter, fool that I am. I was hoping somehow he’d give a sign showing he really didn't mind my having an affair with his ex-wife.
"Where do I go and what do I do?" I replied.
The meeting was for the next morning at 11 at a warehouse on Staten Island.
The sun was in full glare the morning I set out on the errand. It was barely 10 o’clock and the streets and sidewalks were hot to the touch. The sun was angry because it was hemmed in on two sides by bilious clouds that spelled rain. I took the subway to Bowling Green and walked three blocks to the Staten Island Ferry.
The ride across the bay was a relief from the oppressive heat. I doffed my suit jacket and stood on the bow.
My destination was a shabby three story brick warehouse in Stapleton, a block from the waterfront and a short cab ride from the ferry. A formidable-looking street level door that led to the upstairs offices still carried a coat of red primer paint. It looked new compared to the rest of the building. It was open. I walked in.
The floor directory was in a splintered glass frame, the bottom filled with dead flies and plastic letters representing tenants long gone. Rigi Import-Export, where I was going, was on the second floor. On the third floor, the directory listed an employment agency for day laborers but the dust was so thick on the stairs they couldn’t be in business. The hall reeked of old sweat and fresh mold. The wooden stairs were soft and rotting. The place was a fire trap.
I navigated the stairs wondering why an operation as small and shabby as Rigi's was worth Walter Baxter's time or money. The single door on the second floor, which was ajar, said, in faded gold leaf letters on frosted glass:
Rigi Import-Export
Freight Forwarding
There was no bell. The reception area was grim economy -- faded linoleum, faded plastic ficus tree, a Danish modern sofa that was modern 30 years ago and a cast iron wall fan that didn't work. The inside office door was unmarked and closed. A radio in the inner office was tuned loud. The air was thick and stale. I called Rigi's name. I called Baxter's name. It took some effort to be heard. I had to shout over a shrill sales pitch for cut rate life insurance for people over 55. My shouts had no effect.
I knocked on the inner door, paused for a response, and obviously not thinking straight enough, impatiently turned the knob and released it. The door swung open, like the arc of an arc of moist, dead air that turned . Wooden blinds covered a large window behind a wooden desk, but there was nary a hint of light peeking through. A dim bulb from a gooseneck desk lamp drew my eye to a letter placed squarely on the desktop, otherwise clear of anything save a layer of dust. The letter stood out because the paper was fresh and everything else in the room was worn and stiff with age. The desk lamp threw enough light to a straight back chair in front of the desk and as my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom I noticed something else, about three feet off to the right of the desk.
It was, as I discovered later, Mr. Rigi, the man I had come to meet.
Mr. Rigi was hanging by his neck from a length of nylon rope stretched over an open door which led to a small bathroom. The rope was tied around the door knob on the inner side. His feet were barely six inches off the floor. His rheumy blue eyes bulged in their sockets. The skin on his face and neck was swirled in shades of purple, red and a deeper blue than I'd ever seen. It was loose skin, old and dry, despite the crimson sheen. A worn leather swivel chair lay on its side about two feet from the body. Flies were buzzing around Rigi’s face and shoes.
The old guy looked to be about 70, a smallish man, neat in an Old World way. The too-small knot on his too-wide tie was undisturbed, laying as it did under the rope around his neck. He wore a French-cuffed nylon shirt with collar points too long and garters on the sleeves. If I wasn't mistaken, Rigi was the name of a mountain in the Alps.
The man was so obviously dead checking his pulse would have been a conceit. Besides, now that my eyes were taking in whatever glimmer of light existed in the room, I could make out footprints in the dust near the body and I had no mind to disturb them. The sound from the radio seemed to coming from somewhere behind the desk but I couldn’t see it. There was no telephone in sight.
The piece of paper on the desktop – letter size, clean, crisp, plain white and placed squarely so it could be read by anyone facing the desk -- demanded a closer look. It was just a brief, handwritten note. If it was a suicide note, it indicated the deceased was truly a man of few words -- seven, precisely. They were printed neatly, like a draftman’s note.
"I am sorry I lied to you."
The note was unsigned.
I sighed and glanced at the corpse to see if he might have anything to add, but he didn't, so I tippy-toed back through the dust and out the door.
Leaving the premises was foremost in my mind. Calling the cops was next. I headed for the corner and a pay phone. There was no one else on the street.
I dialed 911 and told the operator what I had. I gave her my name and said I hoped the coroner would come and claim Rigi's body before the flies did. I called Grace at the shop. She wasn’t in. I called her at home and got the machine. I left no messages, went into a deli and bought a can of iced tea. The deli wasn't air conditioned. I stood on the sidewalk and sipped tea until I saw a blue and white car gliding through waves of heat like a mirage.
Somewhere around that moment the world inhabited by Grace
and Walter Baxter began to unravel, and I knew then as sure as the sun did shine I was going to be all tangled up in it as well.
To think it all started in Paris.


CHAPTER FOUR
The bluecoats were friendly enough. Staten Island cops live and work in a different world, a world lots closer to middle America than you would expect from one of the five boroughs of New York City. For one thing, the borough commander on Staten Island reports directly to the police commissioner, rather than to a division commander, as his counterparts do, giving him the clout of a police chief in a city of 350,000. (check stats) For another thing, Staten Island's crime rate is the lowest in the city, which may or may not have something to do with the fact that more than a dozen well-heeled, well-connected and highly organized criminals – Russian, Chinese, Colombian and a few old fashioned Mafioso make their homes on Staten Island.
The arriving bluecoats were a pair of muscled veterans who could have passed for brothers except they had different last names. I identified myself, explained why I was there and described what I'd found. The cops nodded thoughtfully and one, older by a few years than the other, suggested we go upstairs to Rigi's office without further ado.
The radio droned on. All the latest news, all the time. The older cop paused in the reception area and told us to wait there. He slid his hand behind the doorframe and found a wall switch inside the inner office, which I hadn’t. A florescent ceiling light sputtered on but only one bulb worked. The radio crackled. The older cop ran his flashlight over Rigi's face and frame then played the light on the floor, the bathroom door and the wooden swivel chair that lay on its side.
He took off his shoes, entered the office and checked the body for a pulse: "He's dead all right; you alone when you found him?"
I said yes.
“Was the connecting door open?”
“No. I knocked loudly. The radio was on. I called out and when I got no answer I went in.”
"You turned the knob?”
“Yes.”
“You walk over to the body or you just stood there and figured he'd had it?"
"I stopped about there," I answered, pointing vaguely in his direction. “A couple of feet shy of where you are. Then I went and called 911."
The cop resumed his inspection of the floor. When the light played over the area between the desk and the bathroom door you could see scuff marks and foot prints in the dust. There was a small puddle under Rigi's feet. The cop ran the light across the floor over to the doorway where his partner and I were standing.
"Not much we can do, Mr. Darenow," he said, snapping off the light when it reached our knees. "We called the sergeant and now we wait for him to arrive. It shouldn't be too long."
He stepped into the reception area, leaving the connecting door ajar.
"I think we can all go downstairs,” he said, addressing his partner. "Maybe you can get some more information from Mr. Darenow in the meantime."
We stepped out into the sun. The entrance hall was cooler but who was I to complain?
"You know the deceased's name?" the partner began.
I said I wasn't sure. I explained that the man I was supposed to meet had been described as an elderly European gentleman named Rigi and the body fit that description.
"You mentioned another man," the older cop said. "Baxter. Where is he?"
“Mr. Baxter ... is the man I was doing the favor for, coming here to examine some cargo, verify it.”
“Where can he be found?,” he asked politely. “See, the detectives may want to confirm things with him, not that I’m accusing you of anything, but that’s what they usually do.”

The younger cop nodded, pulled out his memo book and made a few scratches in it.
The older cop came back, commented on the newly painted steel door, removed his hat, wiped his brow and stepped inside and beckoned us to follow.
“Lot cooler in here,” he said. He told his partner the door surprised him he because in two years on patrol he'd never seen any activity at the building.
A sergeant came by in about five minutes, conferred briefly with the older officer and went upstairs with him. They were inside about six minutes. They came down and the sergeant asked me if I knew how to reach the deceased's next of kin.
I pleaded ignorance.
"I'm going to have to ask you to hang around, Mr. Darenow, if you don't mind," the sergeant said. "The detectives have to look things over before we can release the body and they'll probably want to ask you some things. O.K., sir?"
I said that was fine and asked him if I might make a phone call. "I'd like to call Mr. Baxter's office.”
Sarge pointed to the pay phone on the corner. Rigi's phone was dead.
I dialed the number of Baxter's office that Grace had given me the night before. I reached a young female who said she was one of Baxter's assistants. She didn't know anything about a meeting of Rigi and her boss. As far as she knew, Baxter was in Europe. He wasn't expected in the office until the day after tomorrow.
I called Grace's apartment and got the answering machine. I tried the store on Lexington Avenue and got Grace. I told her the bad news. There was a long pause before she said: "Oh my God" and let out a deep breath. I told her I wasn't even sure if the corpse was Rigi's but she thought it fit Rigi's description.
"But I only met him once," she added. "Maybe he has a brother or something.” She paused. “I mean this is terrible. Where are you?”
“I’m here, the cops are here, I’m a material witness, it’s a lousy day. I called Walter's office. His assistant had no knowledge of my meeting with Rigi ...”
Grace interjected: "She doesn't know anything anyway. Walter is handling this deal himself."
Grace said she’d try and track Walter down. I might need a lawyer, she said.
“Max, I feel so bad ... “ She said she'd be in the store all afternoon. Her voice grew distant, dream-like: “Call anytime . . . God, I hope everything's O.K”
I assumed she was referring to Walter. I was hot and bothered and Rigi was dead.
I walked back to Rigi's as an ambulance from the Department of Hospitals arrived. The medics went upstairs and came back and agreed it was a job for the medical examiner. The two bluecoats who were first on the scene left next.
I bummed a cigarette off the sergeant's driver and watched the sun play peek-a-boo with the clouds. A shadow of gridwork fell across the pavement, slanting through the elevated railroad tracks that stood at the end of Rigi's street. A chain link fence lay beyond that and a couple of acres of weeds and broken pavement lay beyond the fence.
Farther away in the same direction, dozens of steel cargo containers were stacked along the quay, coming from or going to foreign ports. These were the piers that fed Europe during and after World War II, when Rigi's business was at its peak and America led the world in exports. The area had been in decline since the 1950s, when the Waterfront Commission wrested the dockworkers’ unions from mob control and containerized cargo made dockworkers redundant. The Newark docks picked up the slack because they were closer to major highways and an international airport, and time and distance is money in the freight forwarding business.
I mused on the past, imagining what things were like when Rigi was young and vital and Bay Street was bustling with longshoremen. I wondered what Rigi imported and exported in the old days and what he was handling now. I leaned against the front of Rigi's building and shifted my weight from one foot to another and wondered if any of Rigi's cargo, or Walter Baxter’s cargo, was among the containers on the quay.
I killed twenty minutes musing and staring at the cobblestones, another relic from a bygone era. Two crime scene technicians arrived in a station wagon and lugged their equipment upstairs. The street remained quiet until two homicide detectives arrived.
One was a casually dressed blond woman, about 40, wearing a Lacoste shirt, a khaki skirt and sneakers. A soccer mom with a 9 mm Glock in her shoulder bag. Her partner was an older man, a grey-haired, rumpled six-footer who wore a cheap green sports coat, brown slacks, brown shoes and a white shirt opened at the neck.
The detectives pow-wowed with the sergeant, glancing at me from time to time, until the older detective and the sarge went upstairs. The woman detective had a no-nonsense walk and a hard look in her eye.
"I'm Detective Monahan," she said. "You're Mr. . . . ?"
"Max Darenow," I replied. "I found the body."
"You can't identify the deceased?" she asked, fishing in her bag for a pad.
I said no.
"What time did you find the body?" she continued, finding and opening the pad.
"About 11:45 a.m.," I said, "give or take a minute. The meeting was for twelve."
She looked up and down the street and at the doorway to Rigi’s office.
"You write a column for the Graphic, right?" she said. "What brought you down here?"
"Supposed to inspect some cargo, a favor for a friend who’s an investment banker who had some business with . . . " I searched for a word . . . "I believe . . . with the deceased."
"Cargo inspection," she said, nodding and making a note in her pad.
"Assets belonging to Mr. Rigi's company,” I said. “That’s the way I understood it. Mr. Baxter needed someone to verify the existence of the cargo for inventory purposes."
"And where is that cargo?”
"I don’t know. Rigi was supposed to take me to it. That’s why I came to his office. For all I know, the cargo is in there, in the warehouse."
A black sedan with a city seal pulled up and a little grey haired man with a black physician's satchel got out and greeted Det. Monahan, who directed him upstairs.
“The medical examiner is gonna take over for a while and then my partner will have some questions," Monahan said. "You try calling Mr. . . . Baxter?”
“I called his wife. I don’t have his cell phone number. I’m sure he has one, but I don’t.”
She looked me over, a ragged glint in her eye.
“ You're not in a hurry, are you?"
I took too long thinking about whether I was in a hurry or not because she shot me another look, a smile.
"Still shocked?"
"I guess," I replied. I had no problem looking at least stunned.
"I'll hang around if you want, but I've told you as much as I know."
"You say the cargo is inside?" she asked.
"Don't know. Could be on a pier."
"We ought to look inside anyway," Monahan said. "Let’s wait for my partner. Then we’ll have a look."
"Right," I said.
I imagined her partner and the medical examiner upstairs comparing notes as the body was cut down. Something told me it was going to be a long day.
Monahan let me sit and have a bagel and coffee in the backseat of the detectives' car while she ran the air conditioner. She asked a few questions about my relationship to Baxter and I told her a friend had recommended me to him but that I'd never met him or Rigi before.
"So it's a mystery to you who the deceased is and why he might have killed himself?" Monahan said.
I agreed it was a mystery.
A cloud skidded across the sun, cutting the glare. Shadows disappeared, leaving a dull haze. Another half hour passed before the coroner and the sergeant came down. The sergeant conferred with Monahan and left the scene.
Monahan nodded in my direction and said: "Let's go up."
The tall, rumpled detective's name was Nordom. He was waiting for us in the reception area. Behind him, the photographer was busy, snapping pictures of Rigi's office in a hot, harsh light. Another man set up a apparatus that enabled him to point a camera straight down for an overhead shot of the footprints in the dust. The floor was covered with heavy paper.
"I appreciate your cooperation," Nordstrom said to me. "What do you know about this business deal with the other man, Baxter?"
"Very little," I said. "Mr. Baxter asked me to come here to verify a cargo in Rigi’s possession. I was to pull a sample and eyeball the rest. Count the number of boxes, compare them to a manifest probably."
Nordum nodded thoughtfully.
“You have the manifest?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “I was told Rigi would have it. I ...”
“There was nothing on Rigi’s person or on the desk resembling a manifest,” Nordum said. “The drawers and file cabinets are empty. What do you make of that?”
“I have no idea. Your partner suggested we look in the warehouse.”
“Let’s go,” Nordum said, waving Monahan and me toward the stairs.
We walked back down and around the building through a narrow, shaded alley to a covered loading bay with room for four trucks. A slice of sunshine drew everyone’s eyes to a set of fresh tire tracks running from the shadows of bay number four over the sidewalk and into the street.
“Somebody’s been here,” I said.
I looked to Nordum, who was looking at Monahan, who was looking at me. I should have let them speak first.
Monahan spoke: “Fresh tracks, no rain since ... “
“They’re fresh,” Nordum growled impatiently. “Let’s get pictures and a cast before it rains.” He shot Monahan a look and jerked his thumb toward the front of the building. Monahan went off without a word to fetch the technicians.
Nordum ran a flashlight beam around the loading bay and stopped at three wooden steps to the dock.
“We’re gonna have the same problem with footprints, so stay here,” he said.
He followed his light up the steps, crossing to the inside wall of the dock, which held three wooden overhead doors. He stepped gingerly in front of the middle door, spreading his legs and squatting down like a weightlifter. He came up fast and so did the door. The warehouse was brightly lit, which made it all the more empty. Way in the back, up high, brighter lights strained to break through the dusty slats of the wooden blinds in the window behind Rigi’s desk, which now rippled with the shadows of the police technicians.
Nordum stood in silhouette, talking on a cell phone. He was out of earshot. When he finished talking he closed the overhead door and came back to me.
"The sergeant said you called Mr. Baxter’s office. What did they tell you there?"
I had to think for a minute, which isn't a good idea when you're being questioned by police: the girl at Baxter's office had no knowledge of the meeting. That would complicate things and I was trying to avoid that. I was also trying to keep Grace out of it.
"His office didn't know where he was . . . where in Europe, I mean," I replied. Why did I ever get involved in this?
"It looks as if someone got here before you did, as the footprints suggest. Maybe someone discovered the body and fled," Nordstrom said dispassionately. "It happens. A dead body can scare people. On the other hand, someone may have facilitated the deceased’s hanging himself.”
"I don't know," I said.
Nordum looked at me and frowned ever so slightly.
"The way I understand it," he said, glancing at his notebook and back to me, "is that you're a newspaper columnist and you were advising this Mr. Baxter about a deal he had with the dead man."
"Correct," I replied. "Is Rigi the man who committed suicide?"
"That's what his wallet indicates," Nordstrom said. "You never met any of these people before?"
Before I could answer, Monahan flapped into view, wrestling with the bulky tarp to cover the tire tracks.
Nordum waited on my reply. I could almost read his mind: I never met the guy I was doing a favor for at the behest of his ex-wife? Words like "ex-wife" carry a certain ring when the subject is homicide. I had been hoping my relationship to Grace wasn't going to enter into this but there was no way to avoid it without further stonewalling. I'd been around cops long enough to know Nordum sensed something wasn't kosher.
"Walter Baxter is the ex-husband of a woman I know," I began. "He was purchasing Mr. Rigi’s company. Mr. Baxter is in Europe, apparently. Mrs. Baxter -- the ex-wife -- asked if I could do the ex-husband a favor by coming over to inspect the cargo."
"Baxter was buying or selling the cargo?" Nordstrom asked.
"I'm not sure," I said. "I understand he was trying to buy or sell Rigi's company and the cargo was part of the deal."
"Where do you know Mrs. Baxter from?" Monahan said lightly.
I should have known she would be the one to pop the question.
"I've known her for a couple of years," I replied, just as lightly.
"So Mrs. Baxter, or the ex-Mrs. Baxter, is your only connection to this," Nordstrom said.
"Right," I said.
"Fine," Nordstrom said. "Now we have to ask you some questions about what you saw and what you did when you arrived. What time was that?"
"About quarter to twelve," I said.
"And the street door was opened?”
"Yes."
"Were these doors opened?" Nordstrom asked, indicating the overheads.
"I didn’t come back here."
"So you entered in front, went upstairs and found the body."
"Right."
“Let’s go upstairs for a minute,” he said.
We went back upstairs. Nordum stopped in the hall outside Rigi’s office.
"You entered here,” he said. “The door was open or locked?”
“Uh, closed but not locked.” I said.
“So you open this door and go right into the office?”
“No. I opened this door, went into the reception area. The door to the inner office was closed. A radio was playing. I called out. No one answered. I opened that door and that’s when I saw Rigi’s body.”
“Did you close both doors behind you when you passed through this room to the office?"
"I left them open."
"The office door was opened when you discovered the body?"
"Yes. No. Closed but unlocked. I turned the knob. Just like the first door."
The harsh lights faded suddenly.
"I got some impressions but it's mostly scuff marks," the photgrapher told Nordstrom. "There ought to be prints on the door and chair if he climbed up there himself. We’ll dust anything not already covered in dust."
"Give me five minutes with Mr. Darenow," Nordstrom said. "Then we'll let the body down and you can go to work."
"They’re bringing plaster casts for the tire tracks,” the photographer said. "I’ll do prints as soon as I get a drink of something. Anybody want ice coffee?" Nobody did.
"Show me exactly where you walked when you went inside," Nordstrom said.
I did as he requested, indicating where I stood.
"No further?," Nordstrom asked.
“No further,” I said.
"What else?" Nordstrom said. "You hear anything?"
"Nope."
"You see the note?"
"Nope,” I lied.
“He says: ‘Sorry I lied.’ Got any ideas about what he meant about lying?"
"Nope."
"And that's all you did? Walk there and stop? Then you came out again?"
"Yes," I said.
“The reason I'm asking is because this office hasn't been used in years. There's a lot of dust but there's scuff marks all over the floor and we think maybe -- just maybe -- someone else might have come in before you. Maybe he brought bad news for the deceased, maybe he just looked around, dragged his feet a little. Or maybe he helped Mr. Rigi do his thing."
"Hmm," I said.
"Yeh, it happens," Nordstrom said. "It's a routine question. The suicide note isn't addressed to anyone and there was a little too much scuffling going on. Now maybe Rigi was just pacing around, dragging his heels, doing a "To be or not to be" routine. I don't know."
I looked appropriately baffled.
"Old people do commit suicide,” Monahan shrugged. “The poor man may have been depressed. Maybe he was dragging his feet, trying to make up his mind. It doesn't look like his business was thriving. Maybe he lied to your friend about how much he was worth."
"That could be," I said. "How long has he been hanging there?"
"Not long," Nordstrom answered abruptly. He wasn't interested in my question. He was thinking about answers.
A clatter on the stairs distracted us all. Monahan stepped into the hall for a look.
"I'm going to need your address and telephone number, Mr. Darenow, because you discovered the body and we may have more questions," Nordstrom said. "Home and business phones. I'd like Mr. Baxter's office number, too. We'll need to talk to him. "
I gave him Baxter's number and asked if I was dismissed.
"Not yet," Nordstrom said.
Monahan came in and announced that the morgue attendants had arrived, along with the sergeant and a nephew of Rigi's who lived nearby and would identify the body.
I drifted about six feet down the hall and poked through my wallet as if I was looking for something important. I was killing time, hoping to have a word with the nephew.
The morgue attendants clattered up with a body bag and a stretcher and went inside the office with the sergeant and Nordstrom. Monahan got my attention and turned to the nephew.
"This is Mr. Darenow, who discovered the body," Monahan said.
"George Cernik, pleased to meet you," he said. "You knew my uncle?"
"No," I said. "I’d never met him ..." I was about to say “before,” but I didn’t.
“Do you know the man he was dealing with?” I asked. “Mr. Baxter?”
He shook his head sadly. “No. The police tell me of him but no, I don’t.”
He peered into the reception area and to the room beyond, where they were cutting his uncle down. He looked at the ceiling, the walls, and down the darkened hall.
"A crazy man, my uncle. He nearly died escaping from the Germans, then he escaped from the Russians, but he couldn't let go of Europe. He traveled back and forth for years, working for Americans mostly, back and forth. He grew old but he kept traveling, working. He kept everything in his head. I worked for him one summer, years and years ago. There was little for me to do. I answered the phone, but it hardly ever rang. There was manifests and custom declarations, but they merely passed through his hands. There was barely anything to file. Relevant documents he kept in a briefcase. When the deal was over the briefcase was empty.”
The nephew smiled wistfully and tapped his forehead. "Everything was up here, everything. He could have written a book with what his brain knew, what he saw. Look at this place: He held on to it. Why? Why couldn't he let go?" His voice cracked and his eyes swelled with tears. He looked into the inner room and quickly turned away with a shudder.
The morgue attendants were putting his uncle’s body in a shiny black sack. Nordum cleared his throat and nodded to Monahan, who came over and took my elbow. Nordum did the same with the nephew, steering him further down the hall.
"We’re gonna take your shoeprints," Monahan said. "That way we eliminate yours from the rest. And your fingerprints, just to eliminate them."
I reminded her my fingerprints were on file with the Army, the Manhattan jury pool and police headquarters.
She smiled and agreed and invited me to stand on a pad a technician set on the floor.
“It won’t leave a residue,” she said. “You won’t be sticking to the floor when you step off. There now, just lift and step off.” She took my elbow again. “You’ve been very patient, sir,” she said. “You gonna write about this?”
I said I didn’t think so.
Nordum came over and shook my hand.
"You need a lift I can have my partner run you to the ferry. It looks like rain."
I said I'd hop a bus. I didn't want Monahan grilling me about Grace.
I left the building, wondering if Rigi had finally "let go" at his own volition. The sky had darkened considerably. A stiff breeze came off the water, stirring the weeds at the edge of a parking lot into a frenzy. Debris slapped against a fence. The rain wasn't far behind and I had no umbrella.
I walked quickly to Bay Street, caught a bus, called Grace and asked if she had heard from Walter.
"I'm worried," she said. " I left urgent messages on his cell. It's unlike him to do this."
I told her the cops wanted to speak to him.
"What a mess this is turning out to be," she said. She asked if I'd come by the store and hold her hand until Walter called.
I said I would and then I caught a bus going to the ferry just as the first big drops of rain hit the sidewalk.
It was 3:20. Where’s Walter?

SELECTED WORKS

ESSAY
A comprehensive agenda for combatting global warning exists. Why won't world leaders implement it? Ask Aesop
A horseback ride brings back a childhood memory of wanting to be a writer.
Mystery Fiction
"A Spy in Love" is a novel-in-progress again featuring Max Darenow, protagonist of "Walking After Midnight."
“the narrative zings with terrific tension . . .an auspicious debut”
Publishers Weekly
Poetry
Think or Swim Signaling Through the Flames; Gibbous Moon; She's One; Manhattan Then & Now;
Feature article
The author’s family awakes at 2 a.m. to find a stranger burglarizing their Manhattan apartment.