Authors: Charles Benoit
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2003 by Charles Benoit
First Edition 2003
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2003
ISBN: 1-59058-091-5 Hardcover
ISBN: 978-16159-5013-3 eBook
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
Poisoned Pen Press
6962 E. First Ave., Ste. 103
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
All my love, always and all ways.
The first shot went through the oriental patterned upholstery and lodged in the wood frame of the chair. Later, Singapore police were able to match this bullet to the 7.62 Russian TT-33 Tokarev pistol with the initials CH engraved along the back of the grip that they found under the stairwell behind the New Phoenix Hotel.
Originally known as the Peacock Hotel, the current building was gutted by a suspicious fire in the 1930s and when rebuilt was renamed, naturally, the Phoenix Hotel. Gutted again during the Japanese occupation, the owners rebuilt one more time and, to ensure that their target market—AWOL sailors, prostitutes and opium smokers—would recognize a name they had come to trust, they called it the New Phoenix Hotel.
The second shot passed through the open window of the New Phoenix Hotel and was not recovered.
The third shot struck Russell Pearce in the throat, severing both his jugular vein and his windpipe. There was an amazing amount of blood, but it pooled in the center of the room, under the body. The shots did not attract attention—it took much more than a few gunshots to attract attention in this section of Singapore—but the manager was eventually forced to check the room when Danny Wu, a permanent resident of the hotel, complained that there was blood dripping on his ceiling fan, spraying his flat with a fine, red mist.
The body matched the U.S. passport authorities found in the coat pocket. The passport stated that Russell Pearce was twenty-eight years old, which he was, and a professional athlete, which he was not. Given his passport photo Pearce could have claimed to be an Arrow Shirt model, which would have been closer to the truth, but the blood-covered face was starting to swell in the midday heat, and while it was definitely Pearce, it was no longer photogenic.
The room was not registered in Pearce’s name, nor was he a resident of the hotel. The scrawl in the guest book, like most of the signatures in the New Phoenix guest book, was illegible and fictitious. The man who worked the front desk, a Kashmir Sikh who also served as the hotel’s pimp, stated that he had no recollection of who rented the room and that he did not see Pearce enter the hotel, nor did he hear anything unusual since gunshots were not all that unusual at the Phoenix. He had his own reasons for not cooperating with the police but he also had three twenty-pound notes in his wallet that ensured his lack of cooperation.
For the past month, Pearce had been staying at Raffles, the once spectacular colonial hotel that served as a second home for many of the region’s expatriates and the handful of tourists that were trickling back to the island. He had a modest single room and his freshly laundered clothes hung in his closet. The staff and guests remembered him as friendly and carefree, typically American in that he was just too loud most of the time. He drank, no more so than everyone else, at the hotel’s Long Bar, but avoided the fruity gin slings for which the hotel was famous.
His conversation centered on sports and he nightly lectured on the superiority of American baseball over sports he did not understand. He proved willing to build an impressive bar tab and therefore he was mourned and missed for almost two days.
To assist in paying this bar tab and outstanding hotel bill, his possessions were claimed by the hotel and sold to a used clothing store in the Islamic quarter. His sunglasses were donated to the chief porter, and, in case he was indeed a professional athlete, his baseball glove and ball were placed in the hotel’s already overcrowded trophy case. A handwritten card identified the tattered objects.
Russell Pearce had mentioned, often, that he was waiting for his friend Charley Hodge to arrive. He said his friend was “a firecracker” and that they would paint the town red when Charley got there. Since the authorities already had the CH engraved murder weapon, everyone assumed that while Charley had arrived, the reunion did not go as Pearce had planned. Charley Hodge was never found.
For the two days that the murder was a topic at the Long Bar, patrons joked that while Russ and Charley had not painted the town red, they did a fine job painting Danny Wu’s room.
Twenty kilometers outside of Toronto, Douglas Pearce reflected on his first visit to a foreign country.
Three hours earlier he had crossed the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls and passed through the security check without the guard so much as asking him if he was an escaped felon or weapons smuggler. No passport, no visas, no “papers, please”—just “have a nice visit.” Not that he was an escaped felon or a weapons smuggler, but he was disappointed they didn’t even ask.
Douglas Pearce had left his home outside Pottsville, Pennsylvania; earlier that morning and, other than having to ask for directions three times, he had had little trouble. So far this international travel thing was all right by Doug.
There was that confusion about the speed limit, and it took him a frantic ten minutes to figure out that “Speed Limit 100” meant 100
an hour. He managed to get his Ford pickup to a truck-shaking ninety before he realized his mistake. Still, the Canadians seemed to treat the speed limit as a mere suggestion and, even at ninety miles an hour, he was passed on both sides.
From what he could tell, Canada seemed a lot like the U.S. True, he had only traveled through a small part of it, but then he hadn’t seen much of the U.S. either. He knew a fair piece of central Pennsylvania, bits of western New York State, and most of the area around the Massaweipi Boy Scout Camp in West Virginia; where he had spent six days when he was a kid. Most everything he had ever seen looked a lot like central Pennsylvania, just sometimes not as hilly.
He worked at the Odenbach Brewery in Pottsville, or he had until four weeks ago when, for no reason he could figure, he was laid off. Sure, he’d been late now and then, and he took home an occasional six-pack, but so did everyone else. He wasn’t the worst employee they had, in fact he was probably better than most. But old man Odenbach had called him in, told him foreign investors were phasing out his position, and gave him a check for a thousand bucks. In the eighteen years he had worked there it was only the third time the old man had talked to him—one of those times he had mistaken Doug for someone else. And the grand surprised him, too. The Odenbach family was not noted for giving their employees any more than they deserved, and Doug couldn’t figure out any reason why he’d deserved it. Doug had replayed his meeting with the old man dozens of times and it still didn’t make sense.
Really, he thought, nothing in my life has made sense since I got that letter.
“Dear Mr. Pearce,” it read. “You don’t know me but I was a friend of your Uncle Russell.”
Uncle Russ. Crazy Uncle Russ. Wild Uncle Russ. Dead Uncle Russ.
No one in the family talked about him, none of the adults who knew him anyway. The only time Doug even heard his name was when he was listening in on late-night whispered conversations in the kitchen. And all he knew about Uncle Russ was what he could piece together from his own screw-ups. When he was caught cheating on an algebra exam, and when the cops busted him for drinking beer in the park, his father warned that if he didn’t straighten up he’d end up “just like my lousy brother.” Caught smoking cigarettes, “that’s how Russell started out.” Totaled his first car, “you’re no better than he was.” A black eye from a barfly, “God, how can there be two in one family?”
Thanks to these comparisons, exaggerated and obscure, Doug was able to determine that Uncle Russ drank whiskey from a hip flask, smoked unfiltered Camels, caught the clap from a prostitute in Philadelphia, was busted out of an unnamed branch of the service, was a reckless driver, and would cheat at cards if he thought he could get away with it. He never wrote, he never visited, and he died in Singapore.
For much of Doug’s life it was a simple formula: Fuck up and learn about Uncle Russ.
But there were times, usually in early fall, when his father would get sentimental and make comments that told him more about his uncle. When Doug helped turn a triple play in a county-wide semi-final, his father, over the first beer he had ever bought his son, mumbled that he “looked a lot like Russell out there.” And when he nailed thirty skeet in a row, he overheard his father say, “His uncle once got a hundred.” Slowly Doug uncovered that, along with being responsible for most of the crimes in central Pennsylvania, Uncle Russ could have made it to the majors, was a decent horseman, taught himself to play the guitar, and would never turn his back on a friend. There were times that Doug felt his father looking at him out of the corner of his eye and he knew that something he had just done sparked a memory his father had thought he’d long forgotten.
Uncle Russ had died fifty years ago in Singapore—end of story. Doug learned never to push for details, not from his father or from his aunts or from his mother’s two brothers, who seemed to know more than anyone else, at least they said they did. “He wasn’t so bad,” Uncle Carl would say, “your dad just never forgave him for running off the way he did. And five years later, when your folks got married, I think he hoped Russ would be there, do the Best Man thing, but of course that didn’t happen. That’s what your dad remembers.” When Doug’s father died three years ago, Doug felt that they would tell him more about Uncle Russ, but it was as if his father’s last wish were that no one mention his brother again. And no one ever did.
And now someone he didn’t know from a foreign country he’d never been to was writing to tell him about an old friend, his uncle. And it was a woman.
“I knew your uncle for about ten years and I have a lot of great memories courtesy of Russell,” the letter continued. “I also have a box of his things and I thought you may want them. If you’re interested.…”
He called the woman, Edna Bowers, in Toronto and made plans to come up that week. He had no place to be on Monday morning, unless sitting on the couch, flicking continuously through the same sixty-two cable channels, was a place to be. At first it was great to be home watching TV all day, but after two weeks of it Doug found the magic was wearing thin. He had added “hanging out at the mall” to his daily itinerary and that made things better, but even that was starting to seem sort of dull. And now the chance to take a few days off before he filed for unemployment and pretended to look for a job looked more interesting than staying home.
Mrs. Bowers sounded like a nice old lady—if she knew his Uncle Russ she had to at least be in her seventies—and of course there was that hope that he’d learn something new about the Pearce family Official Black Sheep.
Doug missed the turnoff, missed the exit, missed the right-hand turn and the second left, and had to drive up and down the street three times before he found the address, an ivy-covered brick building in the Rosedale area, just outside of downtown Toronto. A small brass nameplate by the door held the hand-printed names Mr. and Mrs. Frank Bowers.
When the door opened, Doug figured he had the wrong address. Dressed in the kind of suit he’d seen on network news women, and wearing her tin-colored hair in a short, almost boyish style, this women looked more like a flattering “where are they now?” shot of some Fifties movie starlet than anybody’s grandmother. He was ready to apologize and leave when she opened the door further.
“You must be Douglas,” she said. “I’m Edna Bowers. I hope you were able to find the place alright, I can’t say I’ve ever given directions from Pottsville before.”
“No, I found the place without a problem,” he lied and followed her up the stairs and into a brightly lit townhouse. He’d seen places like this, but not in Pottsville. They were the kind you found on the covers of home remodeling magazines and in sitcoms set in wealthy, big-city neighborhoods. Everything, he was sure, was part of a plan created by some high-priced interior designer. He was just as sure that nothing Edna Bowers owned came from K-Mart. Everything matched, everything fit, everything except the large painting on the wall that just did not go with the couch.
The misfit painting was flanked by bookcases, fifteen feet tall, which wrapped around the room. Light poured in from the skylight and the glass doors leading to the patio. He had never been in a home like this before. No television, though. And that probably meant no cable. Rough.
“I can’t thank you enough for calling me and agreeing to come up. It had been years since I thought about Russ and, from the way he talked, I assumed that no one in the family would want to hear from me.”
She pointed to a leather chair as she took a seat on the couch across from him. “Did your parents tell you much about Russ?” she asked.
“No, I’m afraid not, Mrs. Bowers, and I can’t say that I know a lot about him either. You were right, my family wasn’t too fond of my uncle.”
“First, there’s no Mr. Bowers,” she said, “I just put that on the door to scare off trouble. And please, call me Edna.”
“Well, uh, Edna,” he said, “I didn’t know him—my uncle that is—but I guess you did. And you’re the only one talking.”
She laughed as she stood up. “That’s funny,” she said, “there was a time when
talked about Russ. I was just about to have some wine, care for some?” He said yes, although he would have preferred a beer. Nobody he hung out with drank wine except at Christmas. That gay guy in the brewery’s accounting department drank wine. At least he looked like he’d drink wine, and he looked gay. Here’s the first thing I won’t tell the guys back home, he thought.
While she got the drinks he took a look around the room. The books were a mix of biographies and fiction, but nothing like the stuff the women at the brewery read. No thick romances with busty women with piles of hair hanging on half-dressed men with even more hair. Some of the books were in what he assumed was French and he wondered if she could actually read them or if she had them only for looks, like his copy of
. There were some seashells, some small wooden carvings, and a lot of old black and white photos in silver frames. He picked up one, a group shot of men and women sitting in a park, smoking cigars and holding up bottles of beer. In the far background, to the left, he could make out the Eiffel Tower. His eyes locked onto a stunning, dark-haired woman in the front row. She sat on the ground, her head tilted a bit to the left, a half drunk look in her eyes, a look Doug found sexy. She wore baggy khakis and a man’s shirt, but he could still tell she had an athlete’s body—firm and well maintained. He looked at her face again. She was amazing, like an actress or a model, but at the same time she looked so approachable. She was holding a cigar, too. Then it hit him. Same-shaped face, same eyes, younger than now, of course, but it was her. Edna Bowers, the old woman getting the drinks. He put the photo down.
“I hope you like cabernet,” Edna said as she returned to the room, handing Doug both the bottle and an empty glass. “I wasn’t sure so I didn’t pour. Some people find my taste in wines a bit overpowering, especially this early in the day.”
Doug looked at the label like he knew what he was looking for. “Don’t worry,” she said, “it’s not a Canadian wine. I might be a poor host, but I’m not a cruel one.”
Doug laughed, but he wasn’t sure why. He was already feeling like some pervert—the way he had ogled the dark-haired Edna in the photo. Now he began to feel ignorant as well.
“Did you notice the photo of Russ?” she said, crossing over to the bookcases. She picked up the group photo Doug had looked at and he wondered if she had seen him staring. “Back in Paris, just after the war, a group of us used to spend too much time being crazy. We had this nickname for our group…a policeman actually gave it to us…he called us
les suspects habituals
.” She smiled so Doug smiled, not about to ask. “That’s Russ with his arm around my roommate.”
Doug had only seen one picture of his uncle, many years before. His father had left his gun cabinet unlocked once and, taped inside the door, Doug had found a faded picture of his father standing next to Uncle Russ—it had to be him, the family resemblance was too strong. They were teenagers, Doug’s age when he saw it, and they were standing on his grandfather’s front porch. And they were laughing. His father never left the case unlocked again, never asked about the missing “photography magazines” Doug had found on the shelf. When his father died three years ago he looked in the cabinet before his Uncle Carl loaded it on his truck, but the photo was gone.
The face in Edna’s group photo startled Doug. The man looked so much older than the image he had created of his uncle. He needed a shave, had a fighter’s build, and looked a hell of a lot tougher than his brother. His eyes, even when he was laughing, looked hard. He had the same firm jaw line as most of the Pearce men, the same small ears, the same charcoal-colored hair that, if he had lived, would have turned more gray than black. But there was something about the man in the photo, something none of his uncles seemed to have, an edge maybe, a sense of danger that just didn’t fit with the genes he knew. So this was the terror of the Pearce clan, the token rebel, this twenty-four-year-old with Dillinger’s eyes? Actually, it wasn’t hard to imagine.
“Russell had the best stories,” Edna said, breaking the silence. “You never knew if they were true or not and I suppose we didn’t care. His gift was keeping us all entertained with tales right out of Conrad, full of jungles, gunfights, jailbreaks, beautiful women and jealous husbands. Just when you were certain he was making the whole thing up, that it was just too much, he’d say something like ‘and that’s where I got this…’ and he’d pull out some souvenir—a glass eye, a shark’s tooth on a chain, an opium pipe with a bullet lodged in the bowl, a fresh scar. They were never proof, and he never convinced
the stories were real, but it was fun listening and pretending. We all pretended a bit too much then, I suppose. It was a different time. But,” she said, motioning with her wine glass, “I guess everything I have I owe to your Uncle Russell.”
Doug followed the wine glass and took in the room. “He must have left you a fortune.”
Edna laughed and sipped more of her wine. “The only things Russ left me with were memories,” she said and laughed again. “But, yes, I guess it was a fortune because I wouldn’t trade those memories for the world. What I meant was that the things I learned from your uncle allowed me to earn my keep. His expertise was smuggling and you couldn’t spend as much time with Russ as I did and not master a few skills. Later, when I returned to Canada, I put those skills to use.”