Authors: Susan Russo Anderson
“Have you seen him before?” I asked Lorraine.
She reminded me that Whiskey moved in only a few months ago.
“If Robbie finds out about that snake …” The rest of her thought blew away on a gust from the open window.
“But if he’d been around when you first met Whiskey—”
“I never would have rented the apartment to her with him even remotely in the picture.” Lorraine shivered, walked over to the window and shut it.
“He didn’t have anything good to say about Whiskey.”
Outside, black clouds were moving our way.
Cookie pursed her lips. “What are you talking about? He loves her!”
Lorraine and I looked at each other. The rain had started, sounding like pellets thrown against the glass. The lights flickered and thunder rumbled in my eardrums.
“Don’t you see?” Cookie persisted, her voice rising against the storm. “He’s Maddie’s father. He’s got a stake here.”
I didn’t buy Cookie’s paternity theory. Sirens sounded in the distance.
Lorraine echoed my skepticism. “He couldn’t father a feather.”
Suddenly the room flashed with a yellow-green light.
“She’s a feather, all right. Didn’t you hear him?” Cookie’s voice was raised.
“I didn’t pay much attention to his words.” Lorraine glared. A bolt of lightning so vivid I thought it was a giant strobe or Gran coming to fetch me was followed by a clap of thunder that shook the foundations four floors below us.
Cookie cupped her hands over her mouth and shouted, “He said she flitted from one man to the next.”
I couldn’t figure out why she was taking Arthur’s side, but she was beginning to get to me. “He was a slobbering drunk.”
“He wasn’t slobbering. He loves her. What was it he said about her?” Her voice was hoarse.
“That she was starstruck,” I shouted back.
“Right. Starstruck conjures waywardness, not misguided sweetness.” Cookie splayed fingers through her golden locks. “But she’s more than starstruck. She’s a slut.”
Lorraine’s face was almost purple. “Not on your life. She’s a good mother. Responsible. Never late with the rent.”
In that way some women have of fighting, raw silence took over. I thought the room was going to explode with what we weren’t saying. Meanwhile the storm was hushing.
“Whatever. I have a slew of questions for Arthur, whether or not Whiskey shows up—his reptilian personality intrigues me.”
“So run after him.”
Cookie wasn’t getting it. “I want to snag him on his own turf where I can get a better feel for him, and for that matter, for Whiskey and her past and why she’d ever date a sleazebag like that.”
Disregarding me, Cookie was leaning against the wall doing something in her notebook. In a few seconds she tore off a piece of paper and stuck it in my face. Shafts of light played around the edges of the charcoal image, a sketch of Arthur. I expected it to talk.
“Why haven’t you kept up with your art?”
“Because I’m a writer. I paint with words.”
I showed the drawing to Lorraine, who gave it a reluctant nod. “Looks just like the worm.”
Cookie pursed her lips. “I’m going to prove you both wrong. I’m going to take it to Whiskey’s old neighborhood, knock on some doors, see if anyone recognizes him.”
While I scanned Arthur’s likeness into my phone, Lorraine blocked Cookie’s exit. “He seems like someone she’d not want to keep in touch with. Matter of fact, she strikes me as the kind of woman who’d be running from a creep like that.”
“He’s Maddie’s father, I’ll bet anything. He wants to bond with his daughter. You heard him. The little girl loves him.” Cookie stood next to the desk, flipping pages in a book. Color flooded her face. “By the way, I found this in the desk.” She tossed it to me, a small, black notebook, its pages red-edged, faded, splotched with who knew what—Whiskey’s tears, maybe.
I opened it and smelled the binding as if by doing so I could decipher the mystery of Whiskey’s disappearance. Water ran in rivers on the panes. But the rain had ended. As Lorraine closed the door to Whiskey’s apartment, I saw a sliver of sun peeking through dissolving clouds. Perfect weather for kinking my curls.
Pressed Against the Sill
Time and place were fluid as Cookie and I stood by the bay window in Whiskey’s apartment while Lorraine opened the window to let out “the Arthur air,” as she put it. The sounds of Court Street attacked us.
I stared at the words on the first page of the missing woman’s diary. She wasn’t one for following rules of punctuation or grammar, but I felt her enter the room as I read.
Dedication: To Brighton Beach
A windswept day in November
Our apartment is on the top floor. Looking out my window, I can see the whole neighborhood, as if I am a fish eye lens attached to a very fine camera, a camera capable of recording the pastness of the present. The landlady, Mrs. Ovesky, wears a scarf and keens into her handkerchief while she rocks on the front porch of her four-flat. If you don’t count seagulls, birds don’t sing in Brighton Beach, but neighbors shout to one another, and fat ladies sweat bullets. We are the only Irish family on the block. Outliers.
I’m leaning out my window, elbows pressed against the sill. The wind contains everything, garbage smells, a lovers’ kiss, honking horns, laughter, the first chill of winter, bright signs, yellow, blue, red. I smell salted cod. I can almost touch fluffy clouds tinged with pink while the Wonder Wheel whirls in the distance like a promise and subway cars sway on rickety tracks. I see an old man sitting on the boardwalk. He stands and points up at me. Scowling, he says, “Someday you’ll grow up and you’ll leave. They all do.” Gulls attack loaded bins. Beyond it’s hot dogs and egg cream, Brighton Beach gives me something. After I die, I’ll know what it is. Maybe a sense of being outside and looking in, the right, the duty to question on the edge of the world, and a certain melancholy. The brain has more neurons than stars in the Milky Way. I read that somewhere. But what about the mystery of the mind? The soul? I can get maudlin. That’s the Celtic in me, I guess.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “It’s her journal,” I said, turning the book over in my hand.
Cookie nodded. “But she’s not a writer, not like me.”
Lorraine shot me a look. What was it with Cookie?
“Months go by and she doesn’t write a word.”
“Too interested in meeting some dude with a name and having a good time.”
“She’s a good mother, believe me,” Lorraine said. “Takes her daughter to the park after school. I see the two of them holding hands as they walk down the street.”
“Not everyone is compulsive about writing,” I said. “Doesn’t mean she can’t sling words.”
“Check out the dates,” Cookie said, hands on her hips. “On the top of the first page, it’s November. Two short paragraphs of drivel, and it’s January. Worse, there’s nothing about her daughter, only herself. What kind of a mother is that?”
Lorraine threw up her hands. I said nothing. What I’d read gave me a glimpse into Whiskey’s soul, but what I was hoping for was some clue as to why she went missing.
“You should keep an open mind about this Whiskey character. Both of you.”
Lorraine knew enough not to argue. I just shook my head.
“She’s been gone how long—four, five hours? Too early to say there’s been foul play, other than she’s left her kid.”
Whatever broom was up Cookie’s rear, it was a big one.
I concentrated on the book, the way it felt in my hand. It was covered in soft leather with a shiny ribbon marker, the kind I’d seen in a dozen stationery stores. And there was a lightness to it, like Whiskey’s soul weighed against the grand sum of global heft. But as I stared at it, the diary seemed to come alive. I thumbed through until the words began to pop out and coalesce, accusatory. “Why haven’t you found me yet?” it whispered. I couldn’t help myself, I had to read more.
A Monday in January
The last time I saw Ma, she was standing under a streetlight waiting for the bus. It was early, before the sun was up, and she was tilting against the wind, none too sober.
I get this feeling in my socks every time I think of it. It makes its way up my legs and works my stomach like a bulldozer scraping out my insides and spewing them onto the road. To this day I can see her standing there, the first in line, etched against the dark, a stubby woman swaying a little and patting the locks of her hair. Out of nowhere it comes again, the screech of metal, the hulk slamming into her. They said she didn’t feel a thing. But I knew, I knew what would happen seconds before the truck rammed into her. If I’d have been two feet closer, I could have saved her. I could have yelled out, but I didn’t. Knowledge like that slowly sucks the life out of you. That’s maybe what’ll get me in the end.
I closed the book, disinclined to share. Instead I slipped the journal into my pocket. It seemed to have a pulse when I touched its edges, telling myself the next chance I got, I’d read some more. So I closed my eyes, hoping I’d had the smarts to find its writer. At the very least, Whiskey was in peril. I knew it. And if she were in danger, what about her daughter? I mean, if someone took Whiskey for whatever reason, would they come back for Maddie, too? I wrestled with myself, but I couldn’t call Jane, not yet. If only Denny were here, I could talk things over with him. He’d understand my predicament, but I couldn’t call him, not on the only guy vacation he’d taken since we met.
We spent the next hour scouring Whiskey’s apartment for more clues into her disappearance. At first we found nothing, no notes like “I’ve gone to the store, be back soon,” but Lorraine found more journals, a load of them in the closet—in, of all places, a hatbox. I found her checkbook and copied down the bank and account numbers. There were some other legal-looking papers in the desk, but I declined to read them. It wasn’t time yet. Besides, with Lorraine being the landlady, we had easy access to the room for a deeper snoop should Whiskey not show up by evening.
“At least we didn’t find any suicide notes,” Cookie said. “No evidence of madness beyond self-absorption.”
I stared at her.
“Or dunning letters from creditors,” Lorraine said as she locked the apartment door.
Lighting a Fire
We entered Lorraine’s parlor and sat.
“You’re making too much of Whiskey’s absence,” Cookie said. “But I must admit, Arthur is one strange dude.”
Did I detect a softening in her tone or just mild curiosity?
The sounds of raucous whooping and canned clapping drifted into the room from somewhere down the hall. I turned to Lorraine. “We’d better be off. I wouldn’t want to disturb Robert.”
“Robbie and I have been together for over fifty years. I’ve never known him to be disturbed. Ever.” She pushed up her glasses.
So we sat in the parlor, deciding what to do about Maddie. As the minutes ticked away and Whiskey didn’t show up, it became increasingly clear we’d have to report her absence. I could hear Jane Templeton ranting about hampering a police investigation. Only she’d call it obstruction, reach for her handcuffs. She’s the NYPD detective who loves to hate me.
Lorraine twisted her hands. “Let’s give it another few hours. Maddie is such a sweet child. Robbie says she’s the most precocious kid he’s ever met, except for Denny, of course.”
And that was saying something. I thought Robert had no regard for anyone who wasn’t his son or a Mets fan. I was more than willing to wait, although I could picture Denny’s face when he found out we’d delayed calling the police. We’d probably have one of those fights where electricity bites you in the behind and bad stuff spews from your mouth and you’re miserable for days. I expected him back in a few hours, refreshed from whatever it is guys do when they go off into the woods together, probably guzzling beer and scratching themselves. I had to admit it, though: I missed Denny.
Lorraine told us Maddie and the neighbor’s daughter were best friends and usually walked home together. She looked at her watch. “School will be out soon.”
“Maybe Whiskey’s brother will return my call. If not, I’ll have to pay a visit to his company, wherever it is, and camp out.”
“What are you waiting for?” Cookie asked. “Call him again. Tell them it’s an emergency and you want him paged.”
I did nothing.
Lorraine was still wrapped around Maddie’s temporary arrangements, saying the neighbor wouldn’t mind feeding her dinner and putting her to bed, that her daughter would be glad for Maddie’s company. But just in case Whiskey didn’t return by dinnertime and Maddie wanted to stay with the McDuffys, she’d made enough food, corned beef. “Maddie likes me well enough, and Robbie treats her like a granddaughter.”
Cookie shot me a look.
“But I’d hate to have her life upset by a city social worker poking her nose into her mother’s absence. Once they’re in the door …”
To say nothing of Jane Templeton and her minions disrupting the hell out of Lorraine’s life.
As she talked, I called Tig Able’s number and left a message. Tig and I interned together at Brown’s Detective Agency, where we specialized in finding skips. Since then, he’d moved on to bigger and better things, namely the FBI’s office in Red Bank. He’s helped me whenever I’ve reached out to him, and I knew I could trust him. Besides he was indebted big time for a humungous surveillance gig I did last month for him.
He called me back right away and we spent a few seconds catching up before I told him about Whiskey. He balked when I asked him to snoop into her phone records and checking account, but I reminded him he owed me. I knew he’d keep it unofficial.
“You have her social?”
I must have hesitated too long because he said, “Do you want me to help you or not?”
I gave him all the numbers he’d need, telling him I was interested in recent bank withdrawals and in phone calls going back a couple of months. “I could do it myself, but I’m a little tied up now, and these days my Verizon contact gives me squat.”
“These days, he’d better not hand you info if he wants to keep his job.”
I sent him Whiskey’s photo and asked him to call me with any information as soon as he heard anything.