CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

I was out there on the porch again, standing under the ceiling fan and listening to a Jimmy Rushing tape. A pair of robins were hopping and clucking on the lawn. Joe’s unmarked cruiser swung onto the gravel turnaround and he and Sam came up the walk.

I went into the kitchen and checked the standing rib roast. I told Mary the guests had started to arrive, poured her some red, and made silver bullets for the three of us. When I came back, old Mr. Five-by-Five was belting out: “Every-day, every-day, every-day, every-day, I have the blues-“

“Ain’t he a killah?” said Sam, looking up at the speakers.

“How’s the new man working out?”

“Doc, he’s great, lemme tell you. Big and rough and gentle. He rides my old bike. Oh yeah. And that foxy mama he’s got, that Loretta

… mmmmmmm-mmmm.”

“Good. Well, you can thank Moe Abramson for both of them.”

“And me,” said Joe.

Brian showed up, and then Moe, who brought ginger beer, tofu, and bean sprouts. We almost threw him out. He was delighted that Loretta was settling in. I was worried about her past and told Mary so. But she’d eyed Amos Railford- the Jamaican recently incarcerated in the Dedham jail, until Joe and Moe sprung him- and said his past wasn’t so rosy either. She also took a long look at his body and then said she doubted that he was a virgin, so maybe it didn’t matter about what poor Loretta had done in her past.

Roantis showed up toting a strange bundle. He asked to use my workshop for a few minutes and I let him down there. When he didn’t show, we all went down and found him standing at my reloading bench, running patches through the ugliest-looking pump gun I’d ever seen. I guess the two cops didn’t know Roantis was on probation. I said nothing.

“What the hell is that?” asked Brian.

“My streetcleaner. Needs cleaning. Pass the oil.”

Schlick, schlick. He worked the action on the old piece with the shortened barrel and black friction tape wrapped around the stock.

“I don’t think that’s a dove gun, Liatis.”

“Nope.”

The piece was about as handsome as Godzilla.

“Tell me, Roantis,” said Joe, “how’d you ever get the drop on that guy Lundt anyway? All I heard was he crept up behind you on that cliff and surprised you, then marched you down the hill. What happened?”

“I’ll tell you,” I said. “Roantis tripped and fell flat on his face. I didn’t know he had faked it; that’s how real it looked. So I went and bent over him until Lundt approached and waved me off. The only strange thing I noticed was that Roantis’s watchband was turned inside out. Show them, Liatis.”

Roantis flipped his expansion band around so that the back of his watchcase showed. It was stainless steel polished to a mirror finish.

“See that? He’d done that before he fell down. When Lundt came and stood over him with the shotgun, Liatis could see his every move. Then, jerk that he was, Lundt reached down and grabbed Liatis’s collar and tried to yank him up to his feet. It was the last move he got in, ’cause our friend here struck like a swamp adder. Before old Lundt even hit the ground for the first time Roantis had taken the shotgun and tossed it to me. From then on I had Lundt covered, as if I needed to. Mr. Roantis here, though he can be uncouth at times, moves with surprising grace and speed, don’t you, Liatis? Sort of the Rudolph Nureyev of violence.”

The short man with the droopy mustache grinned and put a dab of Gunslick in the receiver.

“Well, during the next thirty seconds or so Mr. Lundt did not have a very good time. He spent a lot of it airborne, and the landings weren’t pleasant. It was over pretty quickly. It was silent too, except for the grunts, cracks, and thumps made by poor Lundt. Liatis put on quite a display- all at Lundt’s expense. So when he was softened up sufficiently- Liatis had removed the sap and the pistol early on- we stood him up, brushed him off, and made him carry the emptied shotgun behind us as we went through the gate to Old Man Critchfield’s estate. There we went, up those terrace steps and into the huge living room. And all the time Critchfield was convinced Lundt had us covered.”

“Let’s get another drink,” said Roantis, stifling a yawn. We went upstairs. It remembered that just before we stood Lundt back on his feet after Roantis had finished with him, I ran my fingers down the lapels of his trenchcoat. Each one had two pounds of lead shot sewn inside thin leather bags. The old Parisian policeman’s trick: buckshot sewn in the cape. Swing the cloth around and you put out people’s lights. Roantis had marveled at it, saying it was funny. I had said it was funny all right. A regular riot…

Roantis put his streetcleaner back under the rear seat of his old sedan and joined us on the porch. The irony was that he’d become friends with Lundt, who turned out to be another former mercenary. Figured. In fact, Roantis had just come back from visiting Lundt in the hospital. He was going to pull through, thanks mostly to those teeny-weeny slugs. When he’d come to he’d turned on old Critchfield like a cornered bobcat. He’d sung like a bird, and said all kinds of bad things about the old geezer. So the old man hired a superb legal team and railed on and on about treachery, betrayal, socialism, and everything else until he developed a severe headache. An hour later he collapsed, and three hours after that he was dead of a massive “cerebral vascular accident.” So time had finally caught up with him, as it does with everyone.

The funeral was very small, although Joseph Carlton Critchfield hadn’t planned it that way. Not even the household staff showed up. And nobody ever found a trace of Geoffrey, the Hispanic guard, or the big Caddy. They just went away and never came back. The following day Joe III announced he was withdrawing from the gubernatorial race because of his grandfather’s “tragic death.” Mary said it was a crock of shit, just like everything else about the family.

I guess I felt a little sorry for Joseph Carlton Critchfield III.

He seemed a capable guy, and might have made a decent governor. I doubt if he knew anything about his grandfather’s implication in the trial of the 1920s. But he sure paid the price all right;_as things stood, he couldn’t have won a race for county pencil sharpener.

He declined comment on the Sacco-Vanzetti papers, which had made the front page from coast to coast. Well, he might have declined comment, but the North End went wild. It made the Feast of St. Anthony’s celebration look like a warm-up. They danced and sang in the streets for three days and nights, and erected a bronze tablet to Nick and Bart right at the old dock on Eastern Avenue where the penny ferry used to land.

We had a nice meal and a great party afterward, with the two offspring, Jack and Tony, joining in. As the festivities drew to a close I confided to them that I had bought tickets for them too. We were to leave in two days for three weeks abroad. Later, after everyone had left, Mary and I sat alone on the couch. She was on my lap. Her hair smelled nice. She looked at the Mickey Mouse watch on my wrist. The thugs had stolen the Omega when they beaned me up in Lowell.

“Where’s your fancy black watch?” she asked..

“Oh. That damned Blackwatch Chronograph Adventurer broke on me. You believe it? I wore it to the Critchfield house with Roantis so I’d be prepared, and the goddamned thing stopped.”

“Serves you right. Gee, it’s great the boys will be going with us, Charlie. Wow!” She kissed me and patted my thigh.

“Mary, I have a confession to make. After the past month what’s happened and all, and considering the nature of it- I’m kind of overdosed. You know?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, when I bought the kids’ tickets, I made some, uh, changes in the destination. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Changes? Then where are we going?”

“Norway.”

***

The jumbo 747 jet sat back on its tail and climbed. I saw the JFK runways fall away beneath us as we approached the harbor. Then we would make a buttonhook to the north and head back out over the ocean. We’d come down for the flight the previous day and visited the Tall Ships. Some appeared below us now. We all leaned toward the windows.

A blonde SAS stewardess got up from her safety harness and slowly walked the aisle, checking everybody’s seat belts. Mary stared up at her, looking daggers. She has a thing about blondes. She doesn’t like them. I think, for some strange reason I cannot understand, she is afraid of them.

“I dunno, Charlie. Norway’s pretty and all… and clean. God knows it’s clean. But it’s boring. God, how am I going to take three weeks of it? Three weeks of hot cocoa and trolls?”

“I need it, Mary. I need it like the roses need the rain. I need blonde and boring. I need people whose idea of a great meal is hard bread, smoked fish, and turnips. I need people who’ve never heard of Sacco and Vanzetti or the Cosa Nostra. I need Lutherans, Mary. I do. I need people who eat a crumb cake with powdered sugar and think they’re sinning.”

She sighed and looked down at the harbor.

“But I have another surprise too. If you look at the tickets, you’ll see.”

“Venice! Oh Charlie, when? The last three days?”

“Yep. I just couldn’t stand it. I figure I’ll be fully decompressed by then. We’re staying at the Paganelli. We’ve got that same room, Toots, facing the lagoon.”

Well, that made it perfect. I knew it would. just then we banked and began the turn north, to head back out over the ocean. And down below us, looking like somebody’s doll, was that lady with the book and the torch, standing on her own little piece of turf. Tugs and ferryboats left white wakes all around her. You cannot look at her and not get a lump in your throat.

“Ohhh Charlie… she’s so beautiful. My dad-“

“I know.”

I looked at Mary. Her big brown eyes were very wet. When she finally spoke it was to the statue, and she talked in a heavy whisper I could barely hear.

‘Be right back, ” she said. “Don’t go away!”

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