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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Victoria Weisfeld: Here's Looking at You

102_ym_hereslookingatyou_jelliott.jpg
Art by J. Elliott © 2024

HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU

 

By Victoria Weisfeld

 

 

My office, Monday morning. Drinking the sludge from the coffee machine, feet up on the desk I’d rescued after the shady tax accountant next door left one night via the window, six stories up. Porcupines playing nine-ball in my skull. Why’d I feel like this? Better not to know.

My secretary Darleen stuck her head in my office, her voice like a slipping fanbelt. “Someone to see you.” She was new. She let her surprise show.

“Client?”

“Maybe. A guy.” Great. Just what I needed. Someone who’d feel obliged to tell me how to solve his problem. “Handsome dude,” she added.

“Give me a minute.” I shooed her out. I swept the desktop debris into a drawer. Empty cardboard cups from Theo’s, last week’s newspapers, overdue utility bills, and a bottle of Maker’s Mark, the better part of which I’d drunk from one of those cups after another slow week at Cole Investigations.

Darleen showed him in. I wasn’t expecting much, so it would have been hard to be disappointed. But the tingle I felt assured me I wouldn’t have felt let down, even if I’d been expecting Brad Pitt. An aura came off this guy like he’d just been polished and buffed. Not a hair, not a thread out of place, except maybe in his life, since he looked like he hadn’t slept since last week. Spoiling the illusion, he pulled a tissue out of his pants pocket and blew.

“Allergies,” he said.

Uh-uh, baby. Whatever happened to the starched, discreetly monogrammed linen handkerchief? Someone uses a throwaway tissue, makes me think I could be thrown away too. Get dirty for you, then good-bye.

I half-stood and reached across the desk, hand out, causing one of the porcupines to hit a powerful bank shot that almost knocked me back into my chair. “Frankie Cole,” I said. He didn’t take the hand. Instead he fumbled for his wallet. I sat down.

“And you are . . .?” to remind him about “conversation.” I talk, then you do. Then I do, but only if I feel like it. Increasingly, I didn’t.

“Vincent Pane,” he sniffed. He laid a business card on my desk that read: “Vincent L. Pane, PE, Structural Engineering.” I heard the name as “pain,” and so far, it fit. Still. The way he filled out his polo shirt a sneeze might rip it down the middle, and the biceps started me wondering how much he could bench press. He could probably explain all the engineering forces involved too. While I wouldn’t turn down a closer look at his structure, it was hidden under that pesky polo.

“You said ‘Frankie.’ That for Frances?”

Right off, a personal question.

“Francine. How’d you hear about me?”

“Guy who works for my dad said you’d help.”

If he wanted me to know who his dad was, he’d have said. Didn’t matter. Who he was just clicked into place.

My pleasant smile froze. I was sitting across the desk from a hand grenade.

“How can I help?” I leaned my chair back, putting my fingers together in a prayerful way.

The opening scene of his story played out yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum, where he was chaperoning a field trip for his four-year-old’s co-op preschool. In the Egyptian exhibit, due to some combination of staff laxity and youthful chaos, a valuable carnelian scarab had gone missing.

The loss was noticed immediately, and the poor teachers, frazzled parents, and hapless tykes were grilled at length by the head of museum security. My potential client admitted he lost it. He berated the museum staff for accusing a member of their group, as there were plenty of other people around. Kids crying. Desperate teachers. The security chief finally released the class in disgust, and everyone went home unhappy.

Retelling the episode upset Vincent all over again, and I could see why they let the kids go. Impressive temper. He probably didn’t realize anger made his dark eyes flash most provocatively, and his face colored to the roots of his wavy black hair, one curl coming loose in the excitement.

After his kid—a terror named Joey—went to bed last evening, Vincent gathered up clothes for the laundry and found the scarab in the boy’s cargo shorts.

“Give it back?” I suggested with scant enthusiasm, knowing it wouldn’t earn me much of a fee. But, he nixed that. After the fit he threw at the museum, he was too embarrassed to fess up. “Anonymously?” I suggested.

“That sounds simple,” he said, “but while I was still looking at the damn thing in amazement—our upstairs neighbor phoned. His son and mine are in the same class, and he was a chaperone yesterday too. He said he saw my son take the scarab, got it on his cell phone camera. He wants $100,000.”

I tsk-tsked. “Or . . . .?”

“He’ll go to the museum and the newspapers, and my son will never get into Blessingham Academy.” From Vincent’s alluring lips, the name was a sacrament.

“What’s his mother say?” Something unstated was going on here, but I was too foggy to figure it out. Blessingham Academy was a ritzy Upper East Side school, but was it worth $100,000 to get in there? Maybe Vincent thought so. Or his neighbor did.

“My wife died in a car accident last year. I’m a single dad.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, frowning as hard as I could to beat back a smile. “This neighbor have a name? What’s his angle? He need the money?”

“Charles Collingwood.”

I recognized Collingwood’s society-page name. Friend to all. Lover of boats and horses and dogs. Owned many of each. Houses in Bar Harbor, Palm Springs, and Manhattan.

Vincent continued. “And no, he doesn’t need the money, per se. It’s more a matter of decreasing my assets rather than increasing his own. He wants his son to go to Blessingham, just like we want Joey to go there. They take only a certain number of kids from each preschool, so his son and my Joey are competitors.”

“They’re preschoolers.”

“Exactly. Now’s the time. Set him on the path to success.” I consider it a mark of professionalism that I didn’t roll my eyes. Yikes!

He derailed this train of thought by crossing his nice long legs. I liked the legs, despite the wacko value system. Of course, I’ve never had kids, so I probably don’t understand.

“Couldn’t you just as easily damage his rep, by exposing the blackmail attempt?”

“First of all, no witness, whereas I do have the scarab. Second, who’d believe it?” He got that right. Collingwood was wealthy as sin. Not a plausible blackmailer.

Before my next question, he said, “I’d like to get this solved quickly, before my family hears about it and decides to step in.”

“Your family?” I figured he couldn’t hide it any longer, and he didn’t.

“My dad’s Joey Pane. Like my son.”

“Oh.” Earlier, he’d pronounced his name like window-pane, but when he referred to his father, it was PAH-nay, Italian for “bread.” Looked to me like Little Joey was following right in Big Joey’s dirty footsteps, though Big Joey long ago moved up from simple theft to more lucrative crimes. I didn’t blame Vincent for wanting to keep clear of that bunch.

What Vincent didn’t know was that Big Joey thought I owed him. And he was willing to—I should say, planning to—make a point of it, eventually. I’d done free work for his legitimate businesses, but not nearly enough to cancel my obligation. I saw a pretty bright line there, and I’d never stepped over it. My little brother Larry had. Drowning in gambling debts, Joey’s minions helped him out, right onto the path to the poorhouse or prison.

To clean up that mess, I had to eat a lot of crow and sell some assets I’d been saving. At least Big Joey did forgive the vig. Kind of. I still hear his “Don’t forget you owe me.”

“Another thing,” Vincent continued, “the scarab story was all over last night’s news. And on the front page of today’s paper. I want to get rid of it!” The eyes flashed.

“So, where do I fit in?” Somewhere, I hoped. I wanted more chances to gaze at the wide shoulders and narrow hips of Joey Pane’s dad.

“Here’s my plan. Tell me what you think of it.”

Ah, here it was. Telling me my business. But, how would I turn this problem into billable hours? So far, it didn’t sound like a money-maker. “You still have the scarab? You could give it to me. I’ll mail it back to the Met, and the story will simmer down pronto. Once it’s found, people won’t care what your neighbor says.” I thought another moment. “But there’s still the blackmail.”

“I’ll give the damn thing to Collingwood this evening, along with an address in Brooklyn, where one of my fa—my associates will exchange it for the money.”

“So, you’ll pay him the hundred grand? You have that kind of cash on hand?”

“I want him off my back.”

“And he’s taking the scarab with him to Brooklyn, why?”

“So they give the money to the right person.”

“So, by the end of this transaction, you’ll have the scarab again.” I was thinking out loud now. “You don’t want to be handling stolen property, even if . . .” I started to say, “the thief is a four-year-old child,” but instead said, “the theft was a silly and expensive mistake.”

He frowned.

“You wanna know what I think of this plan?” I asked.

“Do I?”

“You’re here.” His look allowed that was so, and he nodded.

“First of all, this won’t be the end of it. Your Joey and Collingwood’s kid are still competing for a scarce resource. He recorded the theft on his phone. As we said, people know he’s rich, so won’t believe he’d squeeze you for a hundred K. Any time he wants, he can play this card again. No chance you’d consider another school for Joey?”

“My wife had her heart set on it.”

No arguing with the dead. “Let me think.” I worked the problem over from several directions then told him what I thought he should do. I also mentioned the matter of my fee for the consultation and my role in developing and carrying out the plan.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ll pay you.”

I had an idea of what currency I’d prefer, because, as he stood to leave, the sun hit his belt buckle and reflected back into my eyes like a lightning bolt. I could so easily imagine grabbing that belt, unbuckling it, running my fingers under his waistband to undo his khakis, and slowly lowering the zipper. I’d like to see those pants slide down what I would surely be strong, shapely legs, and puddle on the floor around his feet.

I licked my lips and ushered him to the door. I refrained—barely—from patting his tight little ass.

Then he was gone. I wandered to the window and lifted a broken slat of the venetian blind to watch him depart. He emerged from my building and crossed the intersection below, taking the stairs down to the Lexington Avenue subway.

Darleen interrupted my musing. “Phone call. Some guy named Pahnay.”

That didn’t take long.

“Say, isn’t that the same name as—”

“Shut the door on your way out.”

“Good morning, Francine.” The unmistakable gravelly voice.

“Joey.”

“What did my son want? I’m told he visited you.”

“Spot of bother. We have it covered.”

“Yeah? Tell me about it.”

Big Joey hoarded secrets, but he didn’t like other people to have them. Some arm of his business would come up with the hundred thou, and he’d hear about Vincent’s predicament eventually. I described it in full. Little Joey’s misdeed elicited a grandfatherly chuckle.

“A lot of fuss over some little piece of shit,” he said.

“A very valuable little piece of shit.” I’d been wondering about something, so I probed. “Your son has a fancy address. He must be doing well. Fancy neighbors, too.”

“Yeah. I bought him that apartment when he and Carla got married. He does all right. Helps not to have a mortgage. So, Francine, how will you help my son?”

Naturally, I told him.

* * * *

Vincent was in my office bright and early the next day, but when he took off his dark glasses, I could see he still hadn’t slept. He wore a gray knit shirt that matched his complexion nicely. It was unbuttoned at the top, and dark chest hairs curled over the edges. I could almost feel them under my fingertips.

“So?” Before I’ve had enough caffeine, I’m short on preambles. “You gave me the gist last night, but I want the details. Starting with your visit to Collingwood.”

According to our plan, he went to Collingwood’s apartment about nine to give him the scarab. Collingwood grabbed it, then showed Vincent an envelope tucked into the inside pocket of his sport coat.

“My insurance policy,” Collingwood said. “It has a full description of what I saw Joey do, how you talked our way out of the museum. And how, as of this writing,” he tapped the envelope, “you haven’t returned it.” He held the translucent red-brown scarab up to the light and peered through it. “As we can see.”

Vince said the man’s tone was infuriating, but he kept it together. He told Collingwood where he should be at ten p.m. last night—the Starbucks at East 77th and Lexington Avenue. It’s the only one in the area open late, maybe because Lenox Hill Hospital is right across the street. Someone would contact him there with the details on how to get the money. “If you think you can manage that,” Vince said, per the script we’d worked out. People like Collingwood don’t like sarcasm, especially directed at them.

Starbucks had been my idea. I wanted Collingwood out of his apartment and, more important, with his phone and its incriminating photos. I was counting on his having only the one phone, at least for personal matters. When he left the apartment building, Vince discreetly followed.

My plan didn’t give Collingwood much time. Under an hour to get to the coffee shop. Not enough to formulate a lot of doubts and questions. Certainly not enough to prepare some elaborate plan of his own.

When Vince phoned to tell me Collingwood was approaching Lex—and alone—I sent him home.

Later that night, I called him to say his problems were solved. Details tomorrow, I said, but mostly I wanted to see him again. Now it was morning, and I had to fill in my part of the story. I arrived at Starbucks well before ten and went upstairs to the mezzanine, which has a clear view of the comings and goings below. I leaned against the wall, sipping a double mocha latte, until a table became available. Then I settled in, opened my tablet, and fired up a mobile security camera app. I got pix of Collingwood’s arrival and filmed his pacing, waiting for the ten o’clock contact. I let him wait.

He became increasingly nervous as the appointed hour came and went. Finally, at 10:15, I phoned him. In the most businesslike voice I could muster, I told him to grab a cab and gave him the Brooklyn address Vince had provided.

“I reminded him not to use an Uber,” I said. “And I said he should tell the taxi to wait for him at the other end.”

“How helpful,” Vince said, displaying a charming smirk.

“I needed to focus him on what he’d do after the meet-up, not what might happen during it. And I didn’t want him thinking about the problem of finding a cab that late in the rain. Insulted, anxious, wet—it would throw him off his game.”

“Blackmail isn’t easy.”

“Yeah, well. After the call ended, I headed outside and popped open my golf umbrella just as Collingwood stepped out into the street to flag down a cab. Big puddle he had to navigate.”

“Lex is one-way southbound, so taxis would be coming from where? Harlem?”

“Farther uptown, anyway. But then the plan went out the window.”

“Huh?” For the first time, Vince sounded nervous.

“A big black SUV came outta nowhere, squealed around the corner onto Lex, and hit Collingwood before he could jump back onto the curb.”

“You’re kidding,” Vince said.

I’m sure he knew I was not.

“Within seconds, it turned east on 76th and disappeared. The way Collingwood’s arms were flung out, a leg crumpled under him, even with the streetlight out, I knew your pal would never blackmail anybody again.”

“You’re kidding.”

I told Vince that a couple of bystanders were taking an interest, and I yelled at them to run across the street to the hospital emergency room. “Get help! Don’t just stand there!” Another guy positioned himself in the street facing uptown to try to wave traffic around the body.

“That big umbrella was a godsend. People thought I was protecting the body from the rain, but of course I was hiding it from them. I grabbed the phone out of his right hand and found the scarab in his coat pocket.

“A couple of busybodies still lurked about. I distracted them by pointing across the street where two men in scrubs were wheeling a gurney. Then I reached into Collingwood’s inside pocket and grabbed the envelope.”

“You got everything.”

“Yep.”

“No cops yet?”

“They did finally arrive and look the situation over. Too bad for them, the bystanders’ descriptions of the SUV, including mine, were so generic they weren’t much help. In the dark and with the rain, nobody caught the license plate number. New York plates, they thought. I admitted to moving Collingwood a bit, his arms—I said I thought he was still alive. They seemed satisfied. They even congratulated me. Good Samaritan and all.”

“You’re k—. Amazing.” I could guess what he was really thinking.

“A tragic accident. But timely. Now I’ll give you the letter.”

Blessingham Academy must be some school, I thought, looking at the handsome man relaxing across from me. How much more lucrative it would be to be this guy’s lawyer rather than his private eye, although I didn’t think he would need either, not long-term. Little Joey—that’s who I pinned my hopes on. I just had to wait about fifteen years.

“You have it?” he asked, breaking my daydream.

“Right here.” I pulled it out of my top drawer.

“You didn’t open it?”

“It’s yours. You do it.”

“No. You.”

I slit the envelope with a paper knife. “To whom it may concern” the envelope read. Right. At this point I guess the contents did concern me. I removed the two sheets of expensive stationery, unfolded them, took a quick glance, and turned them so he could see. Completely blank.

“Son of a bitch,” he said.

“I’ll say. And since his phone with any incriminating pictures is in several pieces in several city trash cans, it looks like you’re done. I’ll mail that scarab back to the museum today.”

“It’s cursed,” he said. “I know it.”

“So, back to yesterday’s question. What can I do for you?”

He thought a long time. “Unless another letter’s floating around, I think the problem is solved.”

I had to agree. I doubted there was a second letter. Collingwood was too full of himself to believe he’d need a backup plan. If the police ID’d the hit-and-run vehicle, they might link it to Vince’s family, but that was another doubtful proposition. The traffic cameras on East 76th point downtown. They wouldn’t have caught the SUV. It was a professional job, and professionals try not to leave a trail wide enough for the cops to stumble upon. There would be some fuss, because of who the victim was, but because of who he was, no one would figure his death involved anything sordid. Just a tragic accident.

The upshot of this brief engagement was that Vincent Pane discarded me like one of his damn damp tissues. He walked out of my office that day without offering to contribute a dime to the financial health of Cole Investigations. But he must have valued my assistance after all, because before I could even explain to Darleen what an invoice is and why they are important, someone slipped a $10,000 check under the door while she and I were having lunch at Theo’s. Now did that check mean “thank you,” or “keep your mouth shut”? Both, I figured. Even better, Big Joey called to say we are square.

I put the check in my briefcase and called to the outer office, “Darleen, bring me a box and some tape.” I put on a pair of latex gloves and carefully wrapped the scarab in its own story from yesterday’s front page.

THE END

Victoria Weisfeld’s short stories have appeared more than 40 times in leading mystery magazines and anthologies, garnering awards from the Short Mystery Fiction Society and Public Safety Writers Association. Her award-winning debut novel, Architect of Courage, was published June 2022. She’s a frequent blogger at vweisfeld.com and book reviewer for the UK website, crimefictionlover.com.

J. Elliott is an author and artist living in a small patch of old, rural Florida. Think Spanish moss, live oak trees, snakes, armadillos, mosquitoes. She has published (and illustrated) three collections of ghost stories and three books in a funny, cozy series. She's currently writing (and illustrating) a ghost story novel, Jiko Bukken, set in Kyoto, Japan in the winter of '92-'93. Episodes on Amazon's Kindle Vella. Paperback and eBook coming late this summer (2023). 

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