First, thanks so much for coming during the hurricane. As I told Big Al on the phone, the upright piano in the dining room needs to be moved into one of three upstairs rooms.
I am talking about the Steinway, not the Baldwin, which is slated for destruction and may already be rigged with explosives. The first and best option for the Steinway upright (please do not move the Steinway grand) is the bedroom in the southwest corner of the west wing of the second floor. Take precise measurements of the hallway before you start. Of particular concern is the sharp left zig-zag leading to the small stairs. Remove the handrail but under no circumstances are you to destroy it – nothing should be destroyed unless you receive instructions from me to the contrary. If you are able to navigate the west wing stairs, hallways, and hairpin turns place the piano along the south wall. As always, before moving the piano, please check inside for dead animals.
Should the southwest second floor bedroom prove inaccessible, try the north tower. Again: measure, measure, measure. You may use my husband Derek’s surveying tools as long as you wipe your fingerprints from them when you return them to cold storage. The round tower stairway may prove tricky, however, I have every confidence in your abilities. If needed, you may construct and install a suitable winch which should be removed upon successful completion of the move. Place the piano in the exact center of the tower facing west so that my daughter Ezmerine can play her little concertos at sunset, her only real joy. If you see Ezmerine, please do not comment on or make notice of her nudity. Though she is a free spirit, she is very touchy on the subject. On second thought, the tower is the first choice.
If options one or two fail, then as a last result, use the east by northeast drawing room. I don’t think any explanation is needed here as I’m sure one of the first two options, particularly number two, which is now to be considered first. If this third option is even a consideration, contact me on my fourth mobile phone. Big Al should have briefed you, but phone #1 is for my husband and family; #2 is for my agent and attorneys; #3 is for my current lover, Geoffrey, although it’s possible that Antoine, Isabella, or Gert may still have that number as I haven’t blocked their calls yet. Just in case. So, cell phone #4 only. #5 is for my aftermarket medicinal supplier.
Anyway, it’s a small job and I expect you to be finished in under an hour. Help yourself to the special brownies as you leave. Should the access road to the house be under water due to the hurricane, you may wait out the storm in your truck.
“Vince, it’s a beautiful day for America’s Pastime here at Money Bank Ballpark, and we have two teams struggling to stay above .500, dealing with the decimation of their respective rosters.”
“That’s right, Robin, a beautiful day. Of course, flags are flying at half-mast, this time for the recent shootings in Seattle, Albuquerque, Waltham, Haverford, and Kansas City.”
“That would be the Kansas City in Kansas, not Missouri.”
“Correct as always, Vince. Kansas City, Missouri was last spring if memory serves.”
“Right, and a particularly difficult time that was for the country.”
“But we move on, and on we move.”
“OK, the lineups have been handed in, and the boys choir of Carterdale is out to sing the anthem. And symbolically, there is a single gap in the first row of singers for the boy who was tragically and senselessly gunned down while he walked to school yesterday morning, just a few blocks from the stadium.”
“Very moving scene here on the field. A reminder, the national anthem is brought to you by Hartford Ammunition and Arms Supply Company of Hartford, Connecticut.”
“And, Vince, the hometown Whackadoos have a couple of new faces – recent callups – as they take the field. In left, Jimmy Marksman, who hit an impressive .330 in single A ball, and at first, Walt Pellet, who was the player to be named later in the Snark deal.
“Robin, on the mound, we see the return of Randy Cartridge, the fireballer who last saw action at the end of last year before going on injured reserve.”
“Yeah, he’s got a dangerous sidearm delivery – no pun intended – and it’ll be interesting to see what his command will be like and if he has that famous temper of his under control.
“First batter he’ll face for the visiting Comanchos is Frank Glick, the shortstop.”
“All right. Here’s the pitch, and it’s high and tight and Glick doesn’t like it. He takes a step toward the mound, but changes his mind.”
“Yeah, good idea on his part. Cartridge is packing and he’s really quick on the draw. You don’t want to challenge him.”
“And Glick isn’t carrying, though he’s quite the shot. To me, that’s a real head scratcher.”
“You know, a growing handful of players don’t arm themselves while batting saying that the gun and holster interfere with the swing. Anyway, no need for him to pack heat. First base coach Tommy Flintlock has him well-covered.”
“I’ll say, that’s looks like a semi-automatic rifle of some kind from here…and it’s trained right on Cartridge. Don’t think that isn’t in the back of the pitcher’s mind as he rears back and fires a pitch. Oh no! He’s plunked Glick right on the knee and Glick is hot. He’s tossed his bat and he’s running out to the mound. Cartridge has drawn his pistol though and you can see the laser dot aimed right at the Comancho logo on Glick’s kevlar lined batting helmet.”
“Even with the laser sighting, You wouldn’t want to make a mistake here and hit your own catcher.”
“No one wants a repeat of what happened in Milwaukee !”
“Whoa! Someone’s taken a shot and it isn’t the pitcher. Is it Flintlock?”
“No, the first base coach throws up his arms and shrugs as if to say, ‘not me.‘ Everyone’s looking around and, Cartridge has gone down. The pitcher’s been hit, but who’s taken the shot?”
“Well, this is an open carry stadium. Could be a fan…judging by the bloodstain blooming on the downed pitcher’s back, it looks like it came from the Whackadoo bullpen, which is in the outfield behind the right field wall.”
“Now that doesn’t make any sense. Why would one of his own teammates shoot him? The Whacks are desperately short on pitchers and they really needed to get innings out of Cartridge.”
“All right. The trainers are out on the field now, covered by a security detail…”
“And I have to say those guys at Trank security do a marvelous job!”
“That they do, Vince. Indeed. OK, they’re taking Cartridge off the field and as soon as we know what’s going on, we’ll report back to you.”
“We’re going to break for commercial while the Whacks warm up a new pitcher. This pitching change brought to you by Guns on Wheels, dedicated to keeping elderly and shut-in Americans locked and loaded. An armed America is a safe America. Not affiliated with Meals on Wheels.”
“–All right, folks, we’re back. Trank Security has the Whackadoo bullpen surrounded. Though a few shots have been fired, it’s been quiet for the last minute.”
“Vince, for folks in the stands listening to the game… As you know stadium policy limits gun sales to the third through sixth innings, but the Whacks have announced that sales will start in the bottom of the first as a safety precaution.”
“And there is a special on now, for every HappyTime gun and clip you buy, you get a free 24-ounce Schlitzerman Beer.”
“Now that’s convenience.”
“It sure is, Vince. It sure is. Nothing goes better together than HappyTime and Schlitzerman, the best gun/beer combo you’ll find at any ballpark.”
“Oh, Robin, the fans have started doing the wave and chanting, ‘drone strike, drone strike!'”
“And here they come Vince, a pair of quad copters with automatics mounted and the Jumbotron is showing the drones eye view. They’re swooping down now on the bullpen, and folks are scattering.”
“Robin, just listen to this crowd – they’re going nuts. It gives you goosebumps. This has been one heck of a first inning and we haven’t even had the first out. It promises to be one heck of a game.”
“Reminder, this drone strike brought to you by our friends at SkyBullets.com, meeting all your personal aerial defense needs. Remember, with a drone, you’re never alone.”
“All right,” I said. “Tell me all about it.” Like I said, I had time and more than anything, I like a good story.
Alder Fanspree got up from the bench and turned to face me and his wife.
“I had just dug into breakfast, egg and cheese on a toasted roll, when a man sat down to share the table. This was outside. This happened often and I didn’t bother to look up. ‘Does the name Shnabullious Traffletum mean anything to you,’ he said.
“I looked at him over the top of the Post. He sported an outlandish thick moustache, curled at the ends, and his cheeks were ruddied as if by a raw winter wind.
“‘Of course it wouldn’t,’ he continued. ‘You’re just an average man caught up in a mundane life. You’re married. You have two children. The girl, the older one you have named Willow, is an athlete, a decent student who will no doubt get into a state school one day. Although, she dreams of an Ivy, it’s beyond her and she knows it. The other struggles. Maybe he’s on the spectrum. Maybe he isn’t. You think he may have difficulties in social situations that will make it harder for him as he grows up.’
“This man’s information was only partly right. I am nothing if not average. You’ve met my wife, but, we’re childless. I told him, ’You have me mistaken for someone else.’
“’So, that’s how you’re going to play it,’ he said. And he smiled and twirled the end of his moustache.
“‘Look,’ I pressed on. ‘You have confused me with someone who looks a lot like me. I get it – I have one of those faces. But I don’t have children. You’re after another man. Not me.’
“He slid a 9 & 12 envelope across the table to me. ‘Open it,’ he said.
“There was a photo of a man jogging in the early morning along the river. It was an excellent capture of a tall, strikingly handsome man in the midst of an easy run. In the background, another runner out of focus, followed.
“‘That is Shnabullious Traffletum.’”
“I flipped the photo over and in the next image Mr. Traffletum was out of focus and the trailing runner was in sharp focus. That runner looked a lot like me, but it wasn’t me. For one thing, he wore a knee brace. I didn’t know who he was, but he must live nearby. We’d seen him around. I could see how we’d get mixed up. I often run past the same place.
“This man had information about a guy who looked like me, his children, and maybe every salient detail about his life. Stuff he could use to leverage the guy.
“‘Look at him,’ I said. ‘He’s wearing a knee brace. I don’t have one. My knee’s fine. And I don’t run that early. It’s not me.’
“‘That was Saturday,’ the stranger said.
“The next image showed Mr. Traffletum again, this time from the side passing a gate that separated the running path from the river.
“‘The gate is not latched,’ he said. ‘What I’d like you to do, Mr. Grass, is nudge Mr. Traffletum as he passes the gate tomorrow morning on your run. The gate is not latched – it’s there for kayakers and they never lock it. It will be low tide and the rocks at river’s edge will be exposed and Mr. Traffletum will trip as he falls through the gate and if god is with us, he will strike his head on the rocks below, hopefully doing permanent damage. Or, render him unconscious so he can drown. If he remains conscious, he will get carried off by the swift waters, and as he cannot swim, he will likely drown anyway. Eat your sandwich before it gets cold.’
“I noticed the egg and cheese perched in my hand next to my head and took a bite. It was still warm and the cheese was gooey.
‘What do you say? Can we count on you? Do this for us, and our relationship ends and Willow grows up and, who knows, maybe Princeton takes her. Maybe Clem – is that short for Clematis? – gets a little specialized attention to help him over this rough patch he’s going through. Maybe your beautiful wife doesn’t get snatched and held and…’ He paused and fiddled with his moustache again. ’She’ll live. We’re not animals. But would she ever be the same?’”
Laurel had stood up some time ago and she was pacing back and forth.
“Me?” I said. No one comes to see me. Not anymore.
“You are Mr. Pyrus,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“Just Pyrus will do. My friends call me…”
“We shan’t be friends,” she said with a sweet smile. “Can we talk somewhere?”
Shan’t we? Has this woman modeled herself on an Audrey Hepburn character, I wondered. Anyway, we couldn’t go back to my office, not with Thorn strapped to a street sign. “Let’s take a walk.”
All that commotion surrounding the shooting spree was ramping up. Police cars, helicopters, ambulances, TV reporters – all the usual. The city was getting good at dealing with this nonsense. We walked in silence down 9th toward Gansevoort Street, where the Whitney Museum had relocated a couple years ago. It was a nice space if you were into art. We ducked into a cafe on Washington St., a place with $7 coffee and $10 muffins. The place had changed. The whole damned city had changed.
I bought her a cup of coffee. She declined the muffin, saying, “I don’t eat bread.”
“What’s this all about?”
“It’s my husband,” she started. She wasn’t wearing a ring, but I could see the outline as if she’d just slipped it off. “He’s a runner. He likes to run in the early morning. When he came home Friday morning after his run…”
She looked around. We were sitting outside on a bench, our backs to the Ripoff Cafe watching people walk by. “That man who was following me…”
“Don’t worry about him,” I said. At least not for now. Maybe later.
“When my husband came home, he was agitated.” That word was a little warning sign to me. People don’t use words like agitated when they’re about to describe a traumatic event. Maybe they’d say upset. Or freaked out. But agitated? No.
“And his name is?”
“Oh, yes. Of course. Alder Fanspree. I’m Laurel.”
“What happened next, Mrs. Fanspree?”
A man in running attire came around the corner of Horatio St. and stopped in front of us. Mrs. Fanspree gasped and quickly rose and touched his cheek with her hand. He was taller than she was by a few inches. They kissed.
“Mr. Pyrus, this is my husband.”
I reached out to shake his hand.
“I was about to tell you that he was missing,” she said. “But I think we may not be needing your services after all.”
I shook his hand.
“I’m afraid we do,” Alder Fanspree said. “Need your help, I mean. Does the name Shnabullious Traffletum mean anything to you?”
“No,” I said. “Not really.” I was beginning to doubt the Fansprees. “Traffletum. Come on, that’s not even a real name.”
They were wasting my time. On the other hand, I had a lot of free time and they both did appeared to be genuinely shaken up. We sat down on the bench, the three of us. Mr. Fanspree also had the shadow of a ring on his ring finger.
It’s a bad idea, going after the woman. It’s already cost me a sport coat and pair of pants. Nice pants. If I think about it I’m already invested in this case. What case? She has disappeared up ninth and I’m a block away.
On top of that, I’ve pissed off whoever Thorn works for. Thorn’s a common simpleton with bills to pay. But his boss, he’ll come calling on me, no doubt. I round the corner at ninth, pedaling uptown now. The street’s packed with the usual traffic. Trucks double- and triple-parked unload produce, pedicabs slow down the one lane that is moving. There’s no space to squeeze through with the old bike so I jump the curb and now I’m swerving through a mass of foot commuters.
“Get off the curb, asshole,” a guy shouts.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I say.
“Get off and walk it or you’re getting a ticket,” a cop says. “Oh, hey, Pyrus, how you doing? I didn’t see it was you”
I dismount. “Hey, Weed,” I call back over my shoulder. I stop. “You see a pretty redhead in a black skirt come by?”
“‘Bout a minute ago she crossed 19th.”
At 19th, I lose her. I look left. I look right. I check straight ahead. I turn on 19th, heading west, toward the High Line and the Hudson River beyond. It’s a nice day. Maybe I’ll lock the bike and walk, or ride in the park next to the river.
I pass the galleries and coffee shops, peering in the windows to see if I can catch a glimpse of red hair. The galleries aren’t open yet but the coffee shops are crowded with morning types wanting their specialized brews. Just give me a simple espresso and I’m happy.
I’m near the High Line when I hear a rapid firing of shots followed by screams and more shots. I see a man running and shooting calmly on the raised park, an old train line that serviced the butcheries and factories of the former meat packing district.
“Great. Another angry man with a gun,” a woman says. Standing beside me, two cups of coffee in hand, is the redhead. She hands me a cup. “I assume you take it black?”
We stand there and watch the man duck behind cover. He’s cleared the High Line and now he comes to the railing and starts shooting at people in the street below. “Maybe we should get out of here,” she says.
But then a single loud shot cracks and the man tumbles forward over the railing smacking onto the street below him. Later, we’d learn that he killed seven and wounded 23. My buddy Weed, a member of NYC’s finest, heard the shots, grabbed the rifle from the trunk of his cruiser and nailed him with a single shot from a block away.
“I wanted to thank you for stopping that man earlier.”
“Sure. Where were you heading to in such a hurry?”
Editor’s Note: this is a continuation of story started two posts earlier about a reluctant detective. You may recall that the narrator observed a man chasing a woman down Eighteenth Street and out of a sense of either chivalry or boredom decided to intervene. There’s no connection to the most recent post, and no way to explain that entry’s appearance other than we’ve had some difficulty with the writer lately and he’s back on track now after we threatened to replace him with either a robot or a random word generator.
I’m standing there on Eighteenth in the shadows of the overhead building corridor, twisting the arm of a thug I happen to know who goes by the name of Thorn. I shove his face into the wall, just enough to let him know that he’s got some explaining to do.
“Thorn,” I say. “How’s things?”
“Not bad. Keeping busy,” he says.
“That kid of yours ever get straightened out?”
“Yeah. You wouldn’t believe it, but he’s applying to law school,” he says. “Thanks for asking.”
“Great. That’s great to hear. Why are you chasing the lady?” I ask.
“There’s no chase,” he says. “I’m just in a hurry.”
With my free arm, I increase the pressure on his face. It has to be uncomfortable, but he doesn’t make a sound. The red-headed woman is now nearly a block away. Even with her in those heels, I wouldn’t be able to catch her on foot. She looks back over her shoulder, stops for a moment, appraising the situation, then slows to a casual walk. She looks familiar, but then, everyone does at a distance.
Decision time: get some answers from the thug, or go after the woman and see if she has anything to say. There’s a third option. Keep the thug here long enough to let the woman get away, then get back to the business of finding some business.
I twist Thorn’s arm with a bit more pressure. “Still got nothing to say?”
This time he responds, “Unnnnh.” I’m getting through, but not fast enough. I think maybe the woman might be in a chattier mood.
“Have it your way,” I say. I pull a zip tie out of my pocket, untwist his arm and zip his wrists together behind his back. With another tie, I zip him to a street sign. Then with a third, I zip him at the ankles to the sign. That ought to keep him still.
“Good luck with things,” I say, waving goodbye.
“Yeah, you too, Py,” he says.
I unlock the door to the Flamm, grab my bicycle, a Rudge, and sling my leg over the seat and wheel off down Eighteenth in pursuit. My right pant leg, however, gets caught between the crank and the chain and in an instant the bike halts and I go over the handlebars landing hard on the cobbled street. I pick myself up to check for damage. A hole in the jacket and shirt at the elbow and a bloodied, skinned elbow showing through. The right pant leg torn at the cuff. Damn. I like this jacket.
I tuck the pant leg into the sock and start off again, a little more slowly.
The morning of the takedown was the first time dad said to Mara and me, “Don’t waste food,” and it had real meaning. We might regret not having that food soon enough. She was little and had burned her bread and didn’t want to eat it. Dad said the time of excess was coming to an end and people had to compete with each other and with wildlife for the first time in anyone’s memory.
We walked to the big hill, my sister and I each gripping one of my father’s gnarled hands. The people circled the great White Oak that stood with giant sheltering arms spread over the hillside, stretching some 120 feet into the sky. Mrs. Heiser arrived and the circle parted and let her in. “Quercus alba,” she said, and, shading her eyes with a hand, looked up to its crown. “All things must pass,” she said to the crowd.
“All things must pass,” they replied.
She walked completely around the base of the tree, running a hand along the rough bark. After completing a circuit, she stopped and stood with a palm resting on the bark, eyes closed. The tree was sick, beginning to show the early signs of the blight. “We must take her now,” Mrs. Heiser said. “so that we can salvage her wood.”
“What does she mean, dad,” Mara asked.
“She means that the blight hasn’t gotten deep into the wood yet, but it will. If we don’t cut her down, she’ll fall soon enough and the wood will be useless, even for burning.”
“All right,” Mrs. Heiser said. “We’ve all done this before. If you don’t know what to do, now’s the time to ask because once we start, it gets dangerous. This beautiful old white oak was here before your great grandparents and probably would have gone on living if times had stayed the way they were.”
“But they didn’t,” a man called out.
“They didn’t!” the people replied in one voice.
“They didn’t, and we’re the reason,” Mrs. Heiser said.
“We’re the reason!”
“We honor this tree by cutting her down and using her branches and boards, for shelter, for heat, for whatever may come.”
“For whatever may come!” the crowd called out.
She strapped crampons on her boots and wrapped a strap around the tree, sliding her hands through loops at each end. With a flick of her wrists, the strap went up several feet and she scampered up so that she was now about four feet off the ground. She repeated the process so that in a burst she stood hugging the tree some 30 feet overhead to where the lowest branches split out. She rolled up the strap and hooked it to a clip on her belt and continued climbing by hand until she stood at the point where one of the highest branches split off at an angle. She quickly attached a rope and lowered it. Without a word, someone tied a basket on one end and someone else put in a gigantic pulley with a handle on it.
“That’s a winch,” the father answered without being asked. “Watch.”
In a few minutes a man strapped a harness on, it was Mr. Paulings, the tooth man. He waved an arm, and called out, “OK, pull me up” There were two sets of winches, one at the top that Mrs. Heiser turned and a large one at the bottom with a big steel wheel turned by two hulking men. Mr. Paulings was up in a matter of seconds. The two hitched themselves to the trunk and walked out on the branch, and about halfway out, began sawing.
This would have been quick work with a chain saw, but the community voted to use hand tools to minimize noise and the chance of rovers detecting us.