My mother left an ambiguous message on my answering machine: Robby baby, don’t you think it’s time to visit? I need to talk to you about passing away.
She lives in a gated community in Boca Raton, Florida. I visit her twice or thrice a year in a devoted son routine, but until now I’ve always combined the trip from Buenos Aires with other business in the States. At the moment I had no other business there, but you can imagine why after receiving a message like that and trying unsuccessfully to get her all day on the phone, I’d take the first plane north. My mother is in her late eighties and except for some mild memory problems has always been healthy, but at that age anything can happen, and fast.
I rented a car at Miami International Airport and drove up to Boca Raton in less than an hour. Once off I 95 I turned west and drove about five miles inland, which is still Boca, but not on the sea where Chris Evert and other tennis celebrities have their clubs and mansions. My destination was Century Village West, not to be confused with Century Village East, North or South, all identical gated communities with artificial lakes, four-story apartment blocks, swimming pools, clubhouses and total security. Minimum age: 65; no children allowed except as visitors. My mother, Angela, has lived there for over ten years. Not long after my father died she got an offer from his best friend to Come Live with Me and be my Love - which she accepted, and far from the grime of Brooklyn. They lived happily, but not forever after, for Bob also died on her. So now she is alone, although in a recent postcard she slyly suggested a new boyfriend by signing it Angela and Carlos.
Angela was originally Argentine and she was my father’s secretary when he was the manager of the Argentine branch of a multinational company. So I was born in Buenos Aires, lived my first ten years there, until we were transferred back to the States. After military service - in Germany where I added that language to my short list - I joined the FBI and did a lot of international work because of the languages. Finally I took early retirement and settled in the city of my birth and of last posting, Buenos Aires, where I’m still trying to be a successful author of children’s books. Nevertheless, because of previous fame I guess, I’m still offered occasional investigative cases by private clients. I take some, either for the money or personal sympathy, or both.
The entrance to Century Village West (CVW) consists of two car lanes in and two out. The right lanes are for residents with cards with which the gate opens automatically, the left one is for visitors. I got behind several cars in the left ingoing lane and after a short wait told the uniformed guard my name and that I was visiting my mother. He checked a list of names on a sheet of paper tacked to the wall and asked me how long I’d be staying. I said a few days, although I really didn’t know. He gave me a gate pass good for three days and wished me a good day. I knew the way to Cherry Tree Lane, which has no cherry trees, so I was parked in front of my mother’s apartment. I got out of the car and looked up at the sky. A fleecy pink cloud trailing faint streaks of color looked down at its shadow on the lawn. The heat was staggering. My mother is on the second floor (stateside counting, it being the first floor everywhere else in the world), so I climbed one flight of outside wooden stairs and saw she had left the door open for me, because the guards always telephone ahead when someone is coming.
When I stepped into her two-room, nicely air-conditioned apartment she was standing in the middle of the room with her arms open and a big smile, immaculately dressed as always; a handsome woman still.
“Darling boy”, she gushed as I walked into her arms and got a big kiss, “you visit your mother so seldom. When are you going to come back home?” She asks that every time I see her, so I could safely ignore the question, which I didn’t know the answer to anyway.
“What’s this about passing away? You look fine to me.”
“Not me, silly. Whatever gave you that idea?”
I disentangled myself, relieved, annoyed and amused. “You did, darling girl.” I sat in an easy chair and quickly ran my eyes over the surroundings. Little change as far as I could see; the usual bric-a-brac, figurines and photos she had had decades ago in Brooklyn. There I was as a baby, a boy, a young man and one taken last year with my graying beard. Alongside it a new photo of Angela arm in arm with a strange man.
“What would you like to drink? Coffee, beer, coke?” she asked.
“Beer. Who’s passing away?” I said to her back retreating into the kitchen. She came back with a small Heineken and a sherry for herself.
“Already passed.” She sat on the couch across from me and shook her head sadly. A histrionic pause.
There was a knock on the door, actually a rap by the metal knocker. Angela rose slowly with age, pushed aside the curtain to look out and opened the door. “Hi, Hon, she said, come on in, I was expecting you earlier.” (Angela calls everyone Hon, short for Honey, whose name she can’t remember.) A stocky, middle-aged woman entered carrying a briefcase.
“Hi Angela,” she said. “I’m running late. You know Betty Flynn and how she loves to talk. It’s hard to get away.” Whatever she was selling, I bet it was hard to get away from Angela as well. She opened the briefcase and took out what looked like a silver cigarette case.
“I’d like you to meet my son, Roberto. He came all the way from Argentina to visit me.” She likes showing me off. I rose and nodded.
“I’ve heard so much about you,” Hon said, smiling.
“All good, I hope.”
“Oh yes, except you don’t visit your mom enough. Argentina eh, how interesting.” She clicked the silver case open and took out a white wafer. Angela sat in her armchair, closed her eyes, smiled beatifically and stuck out her tongue, upon which Hon placed the wafer. Angela swirled the wafer around in her mouth anxious to be able to speak again before Hon could escape.
“Did you know…” Angela began, but Hon already had the door open. “Gotta run,” she said. “See you next week, Angela.”
“What the hell was that?”
“Don’t be blasphemous, Roberto, I just took communion.”
“I can see that, but since when?” I remembered my parents lying in bed till noon on Sundays while my Aunt Gert came and dragged me off to mass at St. Rose of Lima.
“Since when what?”
“Since when have you gotten religious?”
“Well, now that you mention it, actually since I met Carlos. Did I tell you about him?”
“No, you only hinted at him on a postcard. Who is he, your new boyfriend?”
“He’s very religious, goes to mass every day for god’s sake.”
“So you have mass come to you?”
“If you can’t go, they send someone to your home.”
“You can’t go?”
“I can go and I do go, only on Sunday - remember that movie? - but if you put your name on the list they send someone anyway.” She smiled. “Carlos recommended it because I don’t really feel like going every day. I go on Sunday with Carlos. They say it’s one of the richest churches in the country. You can come with us on Sunday. It’s fun, especially the coffee and cake part afterwards.”
“I don’t think I’ll be here on Sunday, Mom. I’m glad you’re having fun though. How about confession? Do you tell the priest dirty jokes?” If you think she was offended by that you don’t know my mom. She laughed and said, “Not a bad idea if I went, but I don’t want to become a fanatic for Christ sake.”
“Tell me about this Carlos, I said. Does he live here in Century Village”?
“Oh no, he has a nice house outside where I stay most weekends.”
“You don’t say.”
“Don’t go getting ideas, sonny boy, we sleep in twin beds.”
I couldn’t help laughing. “Why?”
“Cause that’s what’s there,” she guffawed.
“Look Mom, I was wondering why you talked about passing away in that message.” Another knock on the door. Angela opened and a stooped old man entered. His eyebrows were his most salient feature; to say they were bushy would be a grave understatement. All his hair was concentrated in his eyebrows, leaving nothing on top except a yarmulke. He wore a blue sport shirt, white shorts and slippers and was sort of gnome-ish. He slid over to me with his hand out. We shook, his hand was like parchment.
“How ya doin’, Sy?” my mother asked him.
“The Golden years are tarnished, Roberto,” Sy said. “She asks me how I’m doing, if I recited a list of my ailments we’d be here all night.” I recognized his accent.
“You’re from Brooklyn, aren’t you Sy?” I said.
Sy sighed. “Yes, my boy, just like you guys. It ain’t possible to hide our voice boxes. He sat down on the couch, crossed his pipe-thin varicosed legs and looked at Angela. "Did you tell him about Sadie?”
“Not yet, haven’t had time.”
“You mean you want me to tell him” Sy said.
“I didn’t have time, he just got here for cryin’ out loud.” She smiled. “But yeah, I want you to tell him.”
They looked at me as though trying to decide if I was worthy of their confidence. I resisted their transparent objective of making me ask Who’s Sadie? Angela surrendered first, she’s never had much patience.
“Sadie was my next door neighbor,” she said. “Tell him, Sy.”
Sy sighed and said, “Sadie passed away yesterday.”
“Last week, Sy,” Angela protested. “What are you talking about?”
“Last week then. What’s a week compared to the evolutionary race since the Big Bang?”
“Big Bang, big shabang, it’s important now!”
“Okay, okay, so she passed away last fucking week already.”
“Watch your language, Sy. Have some respect.”
“Your mother thinks there was foul play involved, Roberto.”
“His mother! You and just about everyone else who knew her,” Angela corrected him again.
“Let me put it this way then,” Sy said, glaring at her: “Some of us suspect there was foul play; your mother knows there was.”
I was getting the picture. Angela deliberately sent me that ambiguous message about passing away, knowing that if she’d said her next door neighbor passed away and there was foul play and I should fly three thousand miles to investigate, I’d still be in Buenos Aires. I shrugged mentally: might as well get it over with.
“If you want to tell me, tell me now, Sy, or forever hold your peace,” I said, angry at Angela for having duped me and taking it out on poor Sy.
“Yes, of course,” he said, “sorry. Sadie passed away, apparently (with great emphasis) from an overdose of sleeping tablets.”
“Hogwash!” Angela said.
“Don’t interrupt, Mom. Go on, Sy.”
“We don’t think this is possible, despite the fact that an empty bottle of pills was found on her night table.” He looked at Angela, who nodded.
“That’s all? I asked.”Why don’t you think it’s possible?”
“Because we know Sadie!” Angela said, waving her index finger in my face.
“You see,” Sy said calmly, “Sadie was a very religious Jewish lady, much more so than most of us here, although as you begin to realize with old age and its related ailments that death is near you maybe get religion again, just in case.” He touched the yarmulke on his dome.”I hadn’t worn this since I was a kid, but put it on again after my last visit to the doctor.” He smiled ruefully. “But Sadie was different, she’d always been religious, knew her Talmud and could have been a rabbi if she went for the liberal wing of Judaism. But she didn’t, she was orthodox.”
“And against suicide,” Angela added, “just like Catholics.”
“Suicide comes up occasionally around here what with so many people sick or going out of their minds,” Sy explained. “And Sadie’s was always the strongest opposing voice.”
“She even quoted scripture,” Angela butted in.
“Yes, you see, Judaism places great emphasis on the sanctity of life and views suicide as a serious sin.”
“Like a mortal sin, Roberto,” Angela said.
“Suicide has always been forbidden by Jewish law,” Sy went on. “Sadie not only knew this, she preached it. So we thought how could she, of all people, commit suicide?”
They were both looking at me, so I had to say something. “What’d the police say?”
“A Protestant,” Angela said enigmatically.
“We told him, the cop, but he didn’t understand, a Protestant.”
“What she means,” Sy said, “is that the cop didn’t understand that Sadie couldn’t possibly have committed suicide, so he was probably a Protestant.”
“Autopsy?” I asked.
“The son said no,” Angela said.
“Yes,” Sy explained. “Her son came down here and said no autopsy, that it’s against their religion.”
“Looks like it. He quoted scripture. I have it here.” He took a small notebook from his pocket, flipped it open and read: “The Jewish belief in the inviolability of the human body is reflected in its attitude to postmortem examinations. The Talmud (Sanhedrin47a) asserts that the biblical imperative of speedy burial (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) is based upon the prohibition of disgracing a corpse. The scope of this prohibition extends beyond delayed burial. Scripture proscribes the inflicting of any form of disgrace upon a corpse. In general, this includes the disfigurement of the body as a result of postmortem dissection (autopsy).”
“But surely if the police had reason to suspect foul play, as you amateur detectives call it, they can override that” I said.
“That cop was incapable of suspecting anything,” Angela replied. “Do you know what he said?”
“How could I know if you haven’t told me yet?”
“He said that if they autopsied every octogenarian who died in Century Village it’d cost more than the Iraq war.”
“He said that?” I was beginning to dislike the guy.
“He really did,” Sy confirmed. “He also said that even if she didn’t die from an overdose, she could just as well have died from old age.” That’s what the doc put on the death certificate: natural causes.
“He couldn’t have put death by sleeping pill overdose without an autopsy,” I said, disliking the doctor as well.
“And now the son wants to cremate her, so an autopsy will never happen,” Angela added.
“Imagine,” Sy said with a wry smile, “the guy won’t allow an autopsy because of his religion, but he wants to cremate.”
“So cremation is prohibited by Jewish law. Even I know that.”
This was beginning to interest me. I said: “Are you sure of that?”
“Sure. Cremation is prohibited by Jewish law. The main reason is that Jews show kavod - that’s honor - for the body that housed the spirit and the breath of God. I’d like to add another reason. Too many Jews were burned to death over the centuries, during the Inquisition, in the wooden synagogues and ghettoes of Europe, and in Nazi ovens during the Holocaust. It is inappropriate for us to willingly add to the cremation of our people.”
I saw the connection of course, and the fact that Sadie’s son didn’t want an autopsy for religious reasons and wanted cremation ignoring the same religious reasons was suspicious, but not definitive.
“All you have to back up your foul play theory is your opinion that Sadie wouldn’t commit suicide and that her son isn’t consistent regarding his religious beliefs,” I said. They looked at me like they thought I was on the cop’s side. “Right? And even if an autopsy were to show that she hadn’t taken the sleeping pills, the death could still have been caused by old age. How old was she?”
“Eighty-seven,” Angela said.
I shrugged and now they looked at me like I was on the son’s and the devil’s side. “Look, I admit it looks fishy, but I don’t see what you or I can do about it.”
“You could check out her apartment", Angela suggested.
“Don’t they always at least do that?”
“Didn’t the police do it?”
“They were in there five minutes; they couldn’t care less,” Sy said.
That’s when Sy finally mentioned the item which sealed my involvement.
“Sadie had money. We don’t know how much but her son probably does, or thinks he does.”
“She was always generous,” Angela said, “even paid for Carole Danniel’s operation, and Carole isn’t even a Jew.”
“You said the son only thinks he knows how much money is involved, Sy,” I said. “What do you mean by that?” Sy scratched his head, which indicated, I assumed, that he was thinking. Finally he said, “Well, there’s Addie Luftschutz.”
“Awful name,” Angela said.
“Yes, well anyway, Addie is a - whaddayacallit … seer?” He looked at Angela for help.
“Psychic,” Angela helped. “But I don’t know if we should go into that.”
“Why not? We must give Roberto all the facts, else how can he get to the bottom of it.”
I already regretted having asked.
“Anyway,” Sy went on, “Sadie and Addie were the best of friends and Sadie confided to Addie that she was giving a large sum of money to some do-gooder in Brazil. I don’t use the expression ‘do-gooder’ pejoratively, mind you, but literally as someone who does good.”
“And furthermore…” Angela tried to get in.
“Please don’t interrupt, Angela. We’ll get to furthermores later,” Sy said, and continued. “We don’t know how much, but it could be close to a million dollars.”
“In her will,” Angela said.
Sy glared at her and agreed, “Yes, in her will. She already sent some money down there, but the bulk would be in her will. So if she really made the will the son might not be getting much.”
“Or anything,” Angela said. “She never mentioned that she had a son, not even to Addie.”
“Then you don’t know if she ever made the will?” I asked Sy.
“Actually no, she died so suddenly.”
“And there’s something else, Robbie,” Angela said.
Something was tugging at my memory but I told it to shut up. “What?” I asked Angela.
“She came back to Addie.”
“What do you mean, came back?”
“In a vision, you know, and told her she didn’t commit suicide, could never do that.”
“Uh huh. Do either of you know who the do-gooder in Brazil is?”
“Angela and Sy looked at each other. Finally Sy shrugged and said,”Don’t know the name, some German woman who works in those whaddayacallem - shanty towns?”
“That’s right, I think, whatever. Something to do with anthro-something.”
“Anthro-something?” I said, wondering once more about life’s syncronicities. “Would that word be Anthroposophy?”
“Yeah, could be.”
Angela’s mouth was open to speak, but I stopped her with: “May I use your phone, Mom, long distance?” I checked my cell phone for the number and called Dagmar Rosenkranz in Sao Paulo on Angela’s land line, which had more chance of getting through. She is a good friend of mine and although there must be other female German do-gooders in Brazil, she’s the only one I know of who works from an anthroposophical basis. I was in luck and Dagmar answered. After exchanging greetings and me telling her that I wasn’t in Sao Paulo but that I would surely be visiting her any day, which she countered by reminding me that I’d been saying that for over a year, I asked if she had recently received a donation from … What’s her last name? I asked Angela … Sadie Roth, an American. Dagmar said that yes, they had indeed received a surprise donation of ten thousand dollars. She started to tell me what they were doing with the money, but I cut her off. And did she tell you you’d get more, much more, once she died? (We were speaking in German, which must have been frustrating for Angela and Sy.) Dagmar confirmed that as well. Naturally she asked me why I was asking, so I told her I’d tell her as soon as I had more information. She accepted it. Dagmar is like that: trusting.
After ending the call I sat there for a good minute trying to convince that memory tugger to come out. Angela and Sy didn’t dare interrupt me. Then I remembered and called, cell to cell this time, an FBI friend in the Washington H.O. He’s an ex-Special Agent kicked upstairs and running something or other. We keep in contact sporadically mostly for old times’ sake, but we can sometimes give each other information. I asked him the location of the Bureau’s office responsible for Boca Raton and the name of the agent in charge. It was North Miami Beach (tough assignment) and the agent was Timothy Rhattigan. He asked if I wanted him to give Rhattigan a call to open doors, but I told him it wasn’t necessary, that I knew Timmy. He gave me Rhattigan’s priority-only cell number. By then both Sy and Angela had gone to the bathroom quickly and were back sitting with their eyes bulging out at me. I walked out of the room onto the long porch which served all the apartments on the floor, and dialed Rhattigan.
“Hi, Timmy, you keep a cell phone in your bathing suit?”
“Nah, I got it hanging on my balls. So who’s the wise guy?”
After I identified myself and we went through the how ya doin, long time no see routine, I asked him if he remembered a case from back in the nineties in New York in which a con artist had posed as a close relative of an old man who had no relatives in order to be the beneficiary of his money when he died. He thought for a moment, then said yes, an old guy in Brooklyn. I reminded him that there was also a case in New Jersey, which he didn’t remember or wasn’t involved in.
“I might have a new one here in Florida,” I said.
“You working for us on cold cases?”
No, I said, this was personal, and I gave him the details as I knew them. He said what I knew he would, and that he knew I would know, that until there was some indication that it was the same scam and the same scam artist as in New York, and therefore interstate, it was something for the local police and the FBI couldn’t intervene. But that if I could show that he’d be glad to help, which, as we both knew, meant take over.
I went back into the apartment and sat down facing my accomplices. I can frankly say that if Dagmar’s project in Brazil hadn’t been involved, I probably would have told them that I couldn’t help and all they could do was continue trying to convince the police. In other words, cop out. But Dagmar and her people really do great things for the poor children in a couple of favelas in Sao Paulo. I’d seen it, and that made it not only personal, but a matter of conscience. I didn’t really care about some con-man making a buck which, if he didn’t, would probably go to the government or a bank. But money which could otherwise do some much needed good in the world, and in good hands to boot, was a wholly different scenario.
“Now what about her apartment?” I asked them. “Why do you think I should see it?”
“There might be something in there,” Angela said.
“What, for example?”
“She kept a diary,” Sy said, “spent a lot of time on it. It’s in German, which you can read, Angela told me.”
“You could jimmy the lock, Robbie,” my dear old mother suggested.
“Breaking and entering is a felony,” I reminded her. “Can’t do that. Who has the key?”
“The administration office,” Sy said, “but they won’t give it to anyone but the police and they’d need a warrant by now.”
“Sure we did,” Angela said. “Listen, the real estate agent has one, must have one, I mean.”
“It’s for sale already? The son already has possession?”
“It has to go through probate still, which will take a few months, but it’s already on the market,” Sy said. Then: “you could pose as a buyer and see it that way. Just occurred to me.” He grinned, showing beautiful false dentures.
“What did you do before you retired, Sy?” I asked him.
“Lawyer, corporate stuff, but I read a lot of detective novels.” He said it deadpan, but was probably smiling inside.
“In case you want to know the realtor’s name, I happen to have it here,” Angela said.
I wondered how long they had rehearsed all this.
“Here it is,” she said, taking a slip of paper from a breast pocket. “Rebecca Moskowitz. Want her number?”
“No, but give it to me anyway.”
It was a cell number. “Who should I say recommended her to me?”
“Someone in the Century Village West office,”Sy said without having to think.
“What’s Sadie’s apartment worth?” I asked him
“About sixty thousand.”
I pushed buttons on my cell phone. A recorded message. I said to please call back into my phone.
“She’ll call right back,” Sy said. “Always does.”
She did. “I’m looking for an apartment around here for my mother, Ms. Moskowitz,” I told her.
She didn’t ask who had recommended her. She was more to the point: buy or rent, how many rooms and what price category, all in a throaty, unmistakably educated Brooklynese. I told her up to sixty thousand to buy, two rooms. She asked where I was and I told her in the Holiday Inn near Century Village, where I had stayed during previous visits to Angela. She offered to pick me up there in fifteen minutes, I made it an hour.
“Is anyone around here not from Brooklyn?” I asked Angela and Sy.
“If you include the other four boroughs and New Joisy we look like a majority,” Sy was happy to confirm. “What did she say?”
“I don’t know if she has Sadie’s apartment in mind to show me, so I’ll say my mother won’t be moving in for about six months for some reason I’ll think of, which should point to it, I hope.”
“You could say she’s resisting moving from Brooklyn”, Angela offered.
“Who would resist moving from Brooklyn?” Sy asked.
“Good point,” Angela agreed, and they both laughed.
“She’s certainly an eager-beaver, wanted to pick me up in fifteen minutes.”
Sy and Angela answered together, the former saying that Rebecca Moskowitz was a really good salesperson, Angela commenting on ‘eager-beaver’: “I haven’t heard that in a dog’s age, Robbie. You’ve been away from the homeland too long, I fear.”
“I don’t want everyone on the floor rubber-necking, if I may use that ancient expression, when and if we come here, especially not you two,” I warned them. “So please keep low profiles. And Sy, I want you to call her number after we’ve been in the apartment exactly two minutes.” I want to distract her so I can look around more carefully.”
“What’ll I say?”
“Tell her you’re looking for an apartment, or better still a house, make her interested so she won’t put you off. Think you can do that?”
I could tell Angela was disappointed that I hadn’t asked her, so I said something about a man being more likely to control the purse.
“No sweat,” Sy assured me. “And I like your old-timer metaphors, Roberto.”
After checking in at the Holiday Inn, showering and changing my clothes (I decided not to shave because I narcissistically think a one-day growth enhances my macho handsomeness) and ordering a turkey sandwich and watery American coffee from room service, I descended to the lobby at the appointed time to find Rebecca Moskowitz awaiting me there. She was far from what I’d expected. I’d imagined someone like my old history teacher at Erasmus Hall, mustache and all. But no, she was a dark, middle-aged beauty with short black hair, long tanned legs, outsized breasts for her slim build and a large, but not exaggerated smile as she turned from the reception desk to face me. “Mr. Fox?”
“In person, and you must be Ms. Moskowitz.”
“Roberto.” We shook hands.
She took my arm and led me away from the reception desk till we stood in the middle of the lobby. “I have at least two properties which I think meet your expectations,” she said, not wasting time. “One, though, is still going through probate and won’t be available for final sale for a few months.”
My cue: “That’s not really a problem, Rebecca, my mom is active in charity work up north and she wants to tie up loose ends before leaving.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Where up north?”
“I’m originally from Brooklyn myself,” she said. “Do you still live there?”
“No, I live in Argentina.”
“Argentina? How interesting! You’re a long way from home, Roberto. But you sound like an American.”
“I am, actually. You’re a relatively long way from home, too, Rebecca. How long have you been in Boca?”
“About ten years.”
“Family here, too?”
That’s the wrong question to ask a savvy woman - wanting to know if she’s married, protected that is, or lives alone. I may be polite and charming, but serial killers often are too.
“More or less,” she said. “Actually, the apartment that’s not immediately available is the nicer of the two. Would you like to see it first?”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to get personal. And yes, I’d like to see that one.” So we drove in her car back to Angela’s and Sy’s building. They were peeking through the venetian blinds. Rebecca showed me into the deceased Sadie’s apartment. It was clean and tastefully furnished and had the same lay-out as Angela’s. It was hot and musty though, so Rebecca flicked on the air conditioning and opened the windows. She told me how nice it was with the usual realtor spiel as we passed through the kitchen, looked into the bathroom and finally into the bedroom which had a screened-in balcony, something lacking in my mother’s apartment. It was friendlier than the other rooms, containing only a single bed with a night table, a desk, two chairs, some Chagall prints on the walls and a full bookcase.
Rebecca’s cell phone rang as planned. She answered, seemed about to ask for the caller’s number to call him back, then got interested and glided back into the living room. Sy was doing the job well. I glanced quickly at the books, more intellectual stuff than I’d expected, most of them in German. I went to the night table, opened the drawer and saw two books in it: a Bible and a diary. The empty sleeping-pill bottle was still on the night table. I was wearing a polo shirt and cotton trousers with large army style pockets on both legs at knee level. I put the diary in one of them and strolled casually onto the porch and stood there watching a couple of geezers passing by below in slow motion.
“Sorry,” Rebecca said, suddenly at my side. “Well, how do you like it?”
“Nice,” I said, “very nice. I think mom would be very comfortable here. How much did you say it is?”
“The owner wants sixty thousand, but if you make a deposit now, even before the probate is finished, he’ll probably accept fifty. I don’t think he’s very interested in getting more because the owner, his mother, is deceased and he’ll be coming into quite a bit of money.”
“I see, but what if there’s a snag with the probate?”
“Oh that’s not a problem,” Rebecca said, smiling at my innocence. “I’ll prepare a contract specifying that if ownership isn’t cleared by a certain date the deposit is refunded. It’ll be in escrow so he can’t touch it.” She cleared her throat.” Of course we can still look at the other one. But frankly, it’s not nearly as nice.”
I walked back through the bedroom, checked the bathroom again and was in the living room wearing a deep frown as though I were trying to decide. She followed me of course. I turned, smiled as best I’m able, and said, “Sounds good, Rebecca, let’s do it. Is ten percent okay, for the deposit, I mean?”
“That’ll be fine. I can draw up the contract by tomorrow, if the owner agrees of course and if I can contact him today.”
“Actually, I have a golf date tomorrow morning and then I have to go to Miami for a few days.”
“Well…there’s no great hurry I suppose,” she said. But realtors are always in a hurry to close a deal before the sucker can change his mind.
“Look,” I said, “if you can draw up the contract this afternoon I could sign it tonight and give you a check. If the owner doesn’t sign right away it doesn’t matter, he can do it later.”
She was pensive, but it was an act, then she jumped. “I think I can do that. How about if I go by your hotel around five-ish?”
“Sure. No, wait a minute, I forgot something. Make it seven-ish, okay?”
“Okay, Roberto.” She was happy, I could tell.
The diary was written in German by a strong hand. I started at the end and soon found what I was looking for. Sadie had read Dagmar’s book about her work with the favela children and had flown to Sao Paulo to see for herself. She was so impressed by Dagmar and the work she and her collaborators were doing that she decided then and there to leave all her money to the non-profit corporation which Dagmar had set up. There was no mention of a living son. The last entry read: ‘appointment with Poppelbaum day after tomorrow about will’. The date was one day before she died. There were three Poppelbaums in the Boca Raton phone book, two doctors and a lawyer. I wasn’t sure then, but guessed that in the absence of an heir, the diary’s testimony would be sufficient to serve as a valid will before a sympathetic judge, especially if the lawyer, Poppelbaum, could testify that she had made an appointment with him to prepare her will. The key was, of course, in the absence of an heir.
I lay down for my siesta, a pleasant habit I’d picked up in Argentina, and slept longer than usual due to jet lag. Upon waking I considered taking a walk, then remembered that there were no sidewalks outside to walk on. Florida is not a pedestrian paradise. So I ordered a double cappuccino and chocolate layer cake from room service and settled down with my Portable Joseph Conrad. When one leads a dull life like mine, reading about adventurous ones is almost as good as exercise. As the time for my appointment with Rebecca Moskowitz approached, I dressed in chino slacks, a blue sport jacket and, after consideration, a tie. Rather than going down to the lobby I waited for her to call me. I found myself looking forward to seeing her again, and not only because of the case. There was more, something personal about her I wished to investigate. You know the feeling, sometimes described as a throbbing heart, although I hesitated to go that far, yet.
She had also dressed differently: a low-cut knee-length fuchsia dress, higher heels, matching earrings, and she had obviously washed her hair, which glistened. Was it for me or was she going somewhere afterwards? I’d soon find out. She opened her purse, took out a folded paper, the contract, and handed it to me. I glanced at it and pursed my lips.
“Let’s go into the restaurant,” I said. “We can talk better there.”
They dine at an uncivilized early hour in Florida, but seven is at least bearable. The restaurant was almost full, but I had taken the precaution of reserving a table. Holiday Inn decor seems determined by the location and Boca Raton rates the best. The lighting was dim, the service excellent and there was a candle and a small vase of real flowers on our table.
“We might as well have dinner as long as we’re here,” I said as though it had just occurred to me. “You haven’t eaten yet, I hope.”
“Fine, the fish is usually quite good here. Do you prefer red or white wine?”
“Red, despite the fish,” she smiled.
“Great, me too.” We ordered filet of sole and a fine Chilean Malbec.
“Let’s talk about Brooklyn,” I suggested, “before getting down to business. Whereabouts in Brooklyn did you live?”
When ex-Brooklynites shoot the breeze it can go on forever with laughs and nostalgia. It turned out that we had attended the same high school, though I was ten years ahead of her. We talked about that and about landmarks, old boy-and-girlfriends, why we left (we both attributed it to good karma) and life past and present.
“What we are, what we were, what we will be,” Rebecca mumbled, looking down at her fruit salad with vanilla ice cream dessert.
“Is that what we’re talking about?” I asked her.
That’s when I made the decision, the final one that is. I had been considering it for some time. “Rebecca,” I said, and paused when she looked up at me with her deep dark eyes as though preparing for a disappointment. “Rebecca, I’m a fraud.”
She took a sip of wine and waited calmly as though she’d expected as much.
“I mean about the apartment. I have no intention of buying it. I only pretended to in order to get in.”
“Oh,” relieved. “Why?”
I told her the whole story. She listened intently and said nothing, not even when I finished.
“The diary is in my room; I can show it to you,” I said. “Do you read German by any chance?”
“I can understand a little, from Yiddish, but no, not enough to read. Why are you telling me this now?”
“Because I know I can trust you and I don’t want to deceive you and, well, I like you so much, Rebecca.”
“And perhaps you want my help?”
“Is that an offer?”
“Not yet. I’d like to see that diary.”
Probably you’d like to know all that happened in my hotel room. I showed Rebecca the diary and translated the part about Sadie’s wanting to donate her money to Dagmar’s favela initiative in Brazil. She was convinced and said she would help in any way she could. I wanted her to return the diary to Sadie’s apartment, because it would be necessary for the police or FBI to find it and not me by means of subterfuge and illegal entry. She could also find out from Sadie’s lawyer, Poppelbaum, if she had indeed made an appointment with him in order to make a will, and if he knew to whom she wanted to leave her money. And, finally, to find out from the Century Village administration if Sadie had designated a next of kin on her residence application. She agreed to do all those things, not try, but do, which I thought was pretty cool considering that she’d just lost a considerable amount of commission for the sale of Sadie’s apartment. When I mentioned it to her she said she didn’t lose it because she never had it, and that she’d sell the apartment sooner of later anyway.
The rest, whether or not she fell into my irresistible arms and stayed overnight, I must, as a gentleman, deny, or at least leave to your creative imagination.
Rebecca was as good as her word, better, in fact too good. The next afternoon she came to my room at the Holiday Inn, very excited. She had put the diary back in Sadie’s room, had confirmed that Sadie had made an appointment with Popplebaum to make a will and had told him that she wanted to leave everything to a charity in Brazil. So far, so good, even better at Century Village’s administration office. She knew the administrator well and asked her to see Sadie Roth’s application, which was of course confidential, so Rebecca told her that the son was selling the apartment, but she had reason to doubt that Sadie even had a living son. They both looked at it. On the next of kin line a word had been erased somehow. It was hard to see unless you were looking for it, and Rebecca was looking, because the words ‘Joshua Roth-son’ had been written over it. The administrator told Rebecca that she knew Sadie and was sure the application had originally indicated that there was no next of kin. She said there were only two possibilities: either someone had broken in after hours and changed the records (there was no security), or one of the three office workers had done it. Rebecca showed me a photocopy, in which, however, the erasure wasn’t visible.
She had lunch and had gone back to her office. She no sooner arrived than Joshua Roth phoned her and said he’d heard someone was interested in the apartment. Rebecca had no time to think about how he could have known that, she had to say yes. I think the Century Village administrator must have confronted the employees, who would have denied changing the application, for money of course, and the guilty one tipped off ‘Joshua’ immediately.
“That’s good work, Rebecca,” Joshua said. “What’s his name?
She pretended to be looking it up and wondering if she should tell him or stall in order to ask me first. Finally she said, “Roberto Fox, from Argentina”. .
Silence at the other end, until: “Is he still in town?”
“I think so. He’s going to call me after I ask you if you’d be willing to go down to fifty thousand.”
“I see. Do you have his number?”
“No, he’s going to call me.”
“That’s fine, Rebecca, thanks. Let me know when he calls, okay?”
“Sure, what about the fifty thousand?”
“What…oh yeah. Tell him fifty-five.”
But it was he who called. The phone rang while she was telling me all that. He said he was Joshua Roth and knew I was interested in buying his mother’s apartment, that he’d like to negotiate the price face to face. He was downstairs in the hotel lobby. I looked at Rebecca with the surprise apparent on my face. She was about to say something, but I held my palm up and told Joshua I’d meet him in the bar in a few minutes.
“You didn’t tell him where I’m staying?” I asked her. She shook her head. “He must have followed you here then. That’s scary.”
“But you did tell him my name. Google, damn it!”
“What? I don’t understand.”
“He Googled me. Besides children’s books I also write about some of my cases, which are published in an electronic magazine called SouthernCrossReview.org. The editor, a guy name of Smith, puts them in the fiction section, probably because he thinks no one would believe they’re true. Anyway, my name is all over Google, and my FBI background is mentioned. So he must be thinking: what’s an ex-FBI agent and sometime private investigator from Argentina doing buying his mother’s apartment?”
“What are you going to do, Roberto?”
“Go down to the bar and find out. What else?”
She put her hand on my arm. “I don’t think you should, Roberto. That guy is scary.”
“You stay here, Rebecca. If I’m not back in an hour… I’m kidding, I’ll be back.” I kissed her and then stepped out into the hallway. I turned towards the elevators and saw a Bruce Willis look-alike pointing a gun cum silencer at me.
“Let’s go back into your room, Señor Fox. I’m sure it’s more comfortable than here in the hallway.”
“If you say so.” I inserted the keycard and re-entered the room closely followed by my new guest.
“Hello, Rebecca, fancy meeting you here,” he said. “Please sit on the bed. And you, Mr. Fox, or may I call you Roberto? in that chair near the wall.” We did as instructed. Joshua-Bruce remained standing.
“Now, Roberto, I have some questions for you. First of all, I assume that you are the Roberto Fox from Argentina who is an ex-FBI agent, private eye and author of kiddy’s books. So why are you interested in buying my apartment?”
“I’m not interested in buying it at gun point,” I said.
“I can understand that,” he said, sort of smiling, “but you see I’m not very good at martial arts, not good at all in fact. I’m not even a good shot, don’t like guns at all. But you, my friend, given your background, are certainly good at such things. Therefore, considering the circumstances, you will easily understand why I would be at a distinct disadvantage without the rod. No, no, don’t bother trying to convince me, let’s rather get to the point. You will please answer my questions or I will be obliged to shoot the lovely Ms. Moskowitz. Oh I wouldn’t kill her, I’m not a killer, but you must have noticed what lovely legs she has. I don’t think they would be as lovely with her ankle shattered, by accident of course. See what I mean? Now talk, and be quick about it.”
He looked very serious. I wasn’t sure if he was, but considering the circumstances he had me over a barrel. So I decided speaking was definitely the least of all the possible evils.
He pointed the gun in Rebecca’s direction. “You have another ten seconds to decide, Roberto.”
“I’m not interested in buying your apartment. I’m really trying to prevent you taking the money Mrs. Roth left from people who need it much more than you do.”
He frowned, not expecting that. “What people? She had no heirs.”
“Wait a minute. First tell me how you got involved. You’re supposed to be retired.”
I told him the truth about my mother and the other neighbors being suspicious, then about Dagmar and her work in the favelas. “So can you understand that they need the money more than you do?”
He pulled over a chair and sat down. I considered that a good sign.
“What’s a favela?” Another good sign. I told him.
“I didn’t know about that.”
“Now you do.”
“Yes. You realize, Roberto, that I could pull this off anyway. It’s tight. And you have nothing.”
“What about the false birth certificate? That can be checked in New York.”
He smiled. “Hey, do you think I’m an amateur? It’s real, taken from the Brooklyn Board of Health records.”
I didn’t ask how much that had cost him, didn’t want to remind him.
He lowered the gun, resting it on his leg. “And if I don’t go through with it I’ll take a loss. On the other hand, my mentor told me that losses are inevitable in this business. He was a softy, you see.”
“I think you are too, Mr…”
“Just call me Joshua. Look, Roberto, I don’t claim to be a fucking Robin Hood, never gave a nickel to the poor. If they had half a brain they wouldn’t be poor. But kids in Brazil in those … what did you call them?”
“Yeah. They must be really poor, and they haven’t had a chance yet to develop half a brain.”
“That’s right, Joshua.”
“So let’s make a deal.”
“I drop the whole thing and get out of here, can’t stand Florida anyway.”
“Sounds promising. What’s my end of the deal?”
“Well, I can’t imagine you’re totally alone in this. I mean you must have clued in someone in the Bureau. Right?”
“Like that asshole Rhattigan in Miami. Right?”
“You tell him there’s nothing to it. Your mom’s imagination, something like that.”
“There’s just one thing,” I said.
“I know what you’re thinking, but go ahead.”
“The birth certificate. You could try to use it again later.”
“I knew it,” he grinned. “You’ll just have to trust me on that, Roberto. No way I can change the Brooklyn records again. They’re dumb, but not that dumb.”
“What about the pills?” Rebecca asked, somewhat shrilly.
“The sleeping pills, the empty bottle on her night-table?”
“Oh that. Yeah, I noticed it when you showed me the apartment.” He raised his eyebrows. “Do you think she committed suicide?”
“She wouldn’t do that. She was a very pious Jew.”
“Then you think I killed her with sleeping pills.” He actually laughed. “No, my dear. One: I already told you I’m not a killer. Two: With someone that old, it’s merely a matter of having patience, which I have. She was bound to die soon, which gave me time to set things up, prepare a paper trail for Joshua’s existence, which I had already begun months ago. Three: If you’d looked at the bottle, which the cops probably did, you’d have seen that it was a year old. She used the pills moderately, probably had just taken the last one.”
Rebecca looked at me. I shrugged. “We can check it later.”
“You do that, Roberto,” Joshua said. “I must admit I’m a bit offended. Luckily I have a thick skin. Oh, and Four: She died of old age, as we all will sooner or later, with luck. So what do you say, Roberto? You trust me, I trust you - honor among thieves?”
“Okay,” I said. “Deal.”
He stood up, so I did too.
“No, no, Roberto. No handshake. I trust you, I really do, but not that much.”
He backed towards the door, still holding the gun, but it was pointed at the floor. And he was gone.
Rebecca, still shaking, looked at me. “Are you serious?”
“About letting him go? What choice do I have? Don’t get up.” I walked over to the bed, lay down beside her and drew her into my arms. She sighed and when she finally stopped shaking, kissed me hard.
“Roberto,” she said, “you’re wonderful.”
“Rebecca, do you remember what you said in the restaurant: What we were, what we are, what we will be?”
“What are we now?”
She snuggled closer. “We are, darling. We just are.”