“Baby, what are you worried about?” Mickey, in the lounge chair, took a sip of his Bloody Mary, white chest hair peeking from the neck of his lime green golf shirt.
The air was like crystal and a breeze raised ripples on the lake that began at the edge of Mickey’s sloping lawn. “What do you think I’m worried about?” Linda was picking at the fruit salad, the glass-topped table cluttered with their breakfast dishes. “It’s my ass that’s on the line.”
“And a sweet one it is, too,” he said, giving her the grin.
Moments like these, she wanted to smack him. If she was smart, she’d go home. “You live in a dream world, that’s your problem,” Linda said. “This deal goes bad, it’s not going to be like fixing a traffic ticket.”
“Listen to what you’re saying. Do you think I would have gotten you involved if I didn’t know this was one hundred fifty percent safe?”
Oh she loved it when he did his injured party routine, the hurt look on his face.
“Did we have a problem with the Burkes?” he asked. “Or the old man, Klein? Or with the woman? What was her name?”
“Mrs. Marino. No.” Linda looked out at the lake, again asking herself why she didn’t leave.
“Not one hitch.” He stood and pointed to her glass. When she shook her head, he went to the bar at the end of the deck, mixed himself a fresh drink, and then sat back down. “But here’s the point I want you to keep in mind. You’re the village code enforcer, and you were doing your job. The houses were in serious violation of the safety code. You didn’t make that up.”
“Just exaggerated a little.”
He waved that off. “What you did, you got four old people out of very dangerous living conditions.”
“They should give me the Nobel prize,” Linda said.
“You’re making a joke, but you know what? It was a humanitarian act.”
“Oh for chrissake. We robbed those old people blind.”
“No!” Mr. Indignant, a finger in the air. “Making a profit is not a crime in this country—not yet.” With a nod, like he’d said something profound.
Sometimes she wondered whether the fairy tales were for her benefit, or whether he actually thought that if he clapped his hands and yelled I believe, Tinkerbell would live forever.
Two years ago, he suggested she check out a house on Campbell Street for code violations—crumbling chimney, three huge half-dead trees on the property line, plus whatever else she came up with if she poked around a little. Turned out he had a buyer for the place and hoped high repair costs, courtesy of his cousin Ray, the contractor, would scare the owners into selling. Kosher? Not quite. Illegal? Not really, not until she accepted the fat envelope Mickey handed her after the deal was closed.
The money couldn’t have come at a better time. Her son was starting his second year of college, and even with student loans and him working two part-time jobs, they were coming up short. It wasn’t a fortune in that envelope, but enough for her to say to Daniel: Quit one of the jobs; go have some fun for a change.
But here was the difference between her and Mickey. There was just so long she could pretend no one was getting hurt. What finished it for her was the look on Mrs. Marino’s face when she realized she was going to lose her home. Three months ago, after Mickey re-sold that house at close to triple what he’d paid Mrs. Marino for it, and, yes, after she, Linda, accepted another fat envelope, she told him she wasn’t playing any more.
Then last night he started working on her. A friend of the couple who bought the Burkes’ place was looking for something in that same neighborhood, and Mickey knew just the house. A fixer-upper with violations potential, and an old lady living on her own. Linda said no, but he kept pushing as she knew he would because without her the game was over.
“One last time, baby. One last job and I swear on my mother’s grave I’ll never ask you again.”
She kept her eyes on the lake, following the path of a small skiff as it passed close to Mickey’s dock.
“I wouldn’t have asked you this time, knowing how you feel, but the truth is, I need the money. I mean, I really need the money.”
She glanced at him. Quite an admission from the big spender. She’d suspected for a while that he was having problems. She took in his sad dog look and the thinning gray hair and the knobby knees sticking out of his Bermuda shorts, and thought, heaven help me. She wasn’t in love with him, but she did have feelings for him. And in his sixty-three year-old eyes, she was the hottest thing since Gina Lollobrigida, never mind that she was fifty-one and dumped by her ex-husband for a woman half her age.
“This is it, the last one,” she said. “And I swear to God, Mickey, if you ask me again, we’re finished.”
Jane Silver would have ignored the rapping at the front door if not for the damn barking. She set down her paintbrush, wiped her hands on her already stained pants, and muttered to the dog at her heels, “You’re a pain in the patoot.”
“What?” she said as she opened the door, and to the dog, “Shut up.” Then to the woman on the other side of the screen, “Please go away. I don’t want any.”
But the woman, Linda Starr, she said her name was, had nothing to sell. She was the village code enforcer, and had come because of safety violations on the property. All this in a loud voice in case Jane, given her advanced age, was hard of hearing. Which she wasn’t.
For a second, Jane was too stunned to open her mouth. They’d been talking for months about how to nail this woman, and now here she was, gift-wrapped in a pale green suit, on her doorstep. Streaked blond hair, the chin beginning to meld with her neck. Age adding some interest to an ordinary pretty face that in ten years might be worth painting.
“I’m not sure I understand,” Jane said, to which the woman replied—and it was as if they were reading from the same script—that she’d be happy to sit down and go over the violations. She knew this business could be confusing.
Jane led the way to the front room, the terrier dashing ahead of them. Newspapers covered half the couch and books were stacked on the coffee table, along with two mugs that were empty except for teabags that lay like dead mice at the bottom. Dust motes gave a soft quality to the morning light.
Jane apologized for the mess, but the woman seemed not to notice. She was looking at the paintings that covered the walls, approaching one large canvas, Sisters Dancing in White Dresses, before turning to Jane.
“You’re the Jane Silver,” the woman said. “I saw your show last year, I’m trying to remember which gallery. I love your work.”
They were both seated now, Jane in the gray chair, the woman perched at the edge of the couch. The Jane Silver. She didn’t often hear that in Laurel Pond. She nodded her thanks, awkward as usual in that kind of situation. Aside from the scenery and the air and the quiet, privacy was the main reason she’d moved to this small Catskill town years earlier.
“So you’ve come to tell me my house is about to come down on my head,” she said, glancing at the paper she’d been handed at the door. Her friend Hannah had said from the beginning—from the day they learned Victoria had lost her house—that the whole business stank, but without evidence, they had nothing to take to the district attorney. Until now, Jane thought. If she didn’t blow it, if she let the woman hang herself.
“I don’t think it’s quite that bad,” Linda Starr said, with a sympathetic smile, “but there are serious problems.” As she went down the list of violations, Jane thought about Victoria, how confused and frightened she must have been listening to a similar spiel from this woman.
“Not to scare you,” Starr said at the end, “but God forbid kids are walking by when that retaining wall collapses or the crumbling chimney gives way or one of those trees comes down in a storm.”
Smooth as cream, Jane thought. Not to scare me, my Aunt Tillie. She scanned the list, then ruffled her short white hair and made a gesture of utter confusion. “I’m trying to think what to do first. I guess I should have someone take a look at it.”
“Absolutely,” Linda Starr said. “I don’t know if you have a contractor in mind …?”
Again Jane gestured, indicating she was at a loss in that department.
Linda Starr seemed to hesitate, then pulled a card from her purse and handed it to Jane. “I don’t normally make recommendations, but this fellow’s very reliable and he does beautiful work. We got a few estimates for our kitchen last year, and no one else came close to his price.”
“Sounds like a gem.” Victoria had said someone recommended a contractor, but she was vague on who it was. Jane should have looked into it when she had the chance. She should have done a lot of things.
“So you’ll let me know what you decide?” Linda Starr stood. “If you can’t swing the repairs, maybe I can help you out. There are other options.”
“Such as?” Jane thought about the red squirrel she’d caught last winter, first leaving the bits of chocolate outside the trap, eventually moving them in past the pedal that would slam the door shut. This woman was good at that, patiently baiting the trap.
“Well, selling,” Linda Starr said. “These old houses are such money pits, and it is an awfully big place for a single person. Actually…” digging in her purse and handing Jane another card “…if you decide to go that route, I understand this realtor specializes in old houses.”
“Something to think about.” Jane glanced at the card, not surprised to see the name engraved in blue in the center of it. MK Realty. It was clear now how the game worked. God, what pigs these people were. “The problem is, I’ve got my studio here …” Then, as if the idea had just occurred to her, “Would you like to see the studio? I know it can be a bore, looking at someone’s pictures and feeling you have to say something.”
“It’s not that,” Linda Starr said, “It’s just that I have another …Oh, shoot, it can wait. Of course I’d love to see your work.”
The studio, a one-story addition accessible through the kitchen, had two skylights on either side of the pitched roof. Canvases were stacked on deep shelves along one wall and a tidy counter held bins of brushes and paints and other art supplies. On the easel in the center of the room was the work in progress. It was close to finished, though Jane couldn’t bear to let it go.
Linda Starr seemed unable to take her eyes from the painting. After a couple of seconds, she said in a low voice, “Mrs. Marino.”
“Yes,” Jane said. “I wondered if you knew her. My friend Victoria.”
Jane caught something in the woman’s eyes—fear? Suspicion that she’d walked into a trap? She wasn’t stupid, this little blond with the chiseled nose and soft chin.
“It’s a very good likeness,” Linda Starr said. “She must be sitting for you.”
“She’s dead,” Jane said, and let that sit for a beat before adding, “It killed her, you know, losing that house.”
That was followed by silence, then a few mumbled words from Linda Starr, then the sound of the squeaky pine floorboards as she found her own way back to the front door.
Minutes later, shooting off an email, Jane worried that she’d tipped their hand with that last remark. Not that it mattered; she’d gotten what they needed. They’d meet tonight, the small circle of Victoria’s friends, and decide just how the little blonde and MK Realty and whoever else was involved in this filthy business would pay.
“We have to talk.” Linda was parked in the municipal lot across from the village hall where she had her office. Even with the sun beating against the window, she was cold. She tucked the free hand, which was freezing, under her thigh.
“I’m on another line,” Mickey said. “Let me call you back.”
“No! Goddamn it, Mickey, I have to talk to you now.”
“Oh for chrissake, hang on.” Silence. Then: “What happened?”
She’d planned to make her points calmly and reasonably. Here’s why this is not going to work. Instead the words came out like pitches gone wild, not one making it over the plate.
She started out with: “This is not some little old lady, she’s maybe five-six, five-seven.” To which he said: “You’re saying she’s tall? What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
“Listen to me, Mickey. She’s a famous painter—even if you never heard of her—and I’m sure she has a lot of friends who’ll raise holy hell—”
“Famous, like she’s rich?”
Linda thought about the house with the faded wallpaper and the kitchen from the year one. Odds and ends of shabby furniture. “I don’t think she’s rich.”
“There you go,” he said. “One for our team.”
“Not one for our team, because guess whose picture was sitting on an easel in the middle of her studio?”
“I didn’t just hang up from a living, breathing client to play guessing games.”
“Victoria Marino.” Linda paused. Nothing from the other end. “Victoria Marino was Jane Silver’s good friend. Was, Mickey, because Mrs. Marino is dead, and Jane Silver thinks we killed her.”
“She said that?” His voice crackled with indignation.
“Almost. What she said was, Mrs. Marino died because she lost the house.”
“That is such a load of crap. The woman was eighty-three. That’s what you do when you’re eighty-three. You die.”
A rap on the car window, and Linda jumped. Annie, a co-worker, was mouthing, Are you okay? Linda, mouthing back, I’m fine. Then to Mickey, “Let me tell you something else. Jane Silver is not out of it, the way the others were. She is one sharp cookie.”
“How sharp? Like on a scale of one to ten.”
“For chrissake, Mickey …”
“Like when you told her about her house falling apart and the fines and all the work that had to be done, she said, No problem. I’ll take care of it?”
“Not exactly,” Linda said. “At that point she did seem a little overwhelmed, I guess. Confused maybe.”
“And when you gave her Ray’s card, she said, never mind, she’d have her own guy look at it?”
“No. I got the impression she had no idea who to call.”
A very loud sigh. “So we have a tall old lady with a crumbling retaining wall and no money, relying on us to get a contractor to give her an estimate on getting the work done. What is the problem, here?”
“Mickey, my gut is telling me this is going to end very, very badly.”
“And I’m telling you that everything is going to be fine. So who are you going to listen to, baby, me or your gut?”
She muttered, “Moron,” as she shoved the phone into her purse. He thought nothing could touch him, that was the problem. He was part of the club that ran this Catskill backwater. Donny and Richie and Stevie and Frankie and Billy and Mickey. Guys who’d never outgrown their little-boy names and who now ran the town. They sat on the village board and funded projects that never went out to bid, they passed zoning variances with a wink and a nod, and they made traffic tickets disappear, as Mickey had once done for her son. An email to his pal Donny, the village justice, was all it took.
But what they didn’t realize—she was out of the car now, briefcase in hand, waiting for the light to change—was how small their scummy pond was. Step outside this village, and Mickey’s connections meant nothing. As the village code enforcer she was breaking the law, inventing violations, or maybe exaggerating was a better word, and terrorizing old people into selling their houses cheap. God help her.
Even if she walked away now, her butt was on the line. She was the one who’d told Jane Silver the retaining wall was about to come down when in fact it wasn’t. She was the one who’d pushed for Ray the contractor, and she was the one who’d hinted that selling the house might be the best solution and recommended a realtor. And Mickey? If this blew up in their faces, maybe he’d get a rap on the knuckles from some state licensing board.
How the hell could she have been so stupid?
It turned out only Rebecca and Hannah could make the meeting, which was fine with Jane. As long as Rebecca, the lawyer in the group, was there, they should be able to get moving on this thing. She’d wasted the whole damn day as far as her work was concerned. After talking to Linda Starr’s contractor and then to the builder who’d put up her studio, she was too distracted and angry to pick up a paint brush. There was no doubt in her mind that she—and Victoria and who knows how many others—had been targeted because they were old. Well, the hell with that. Jane muttered those words to the old lady in the mirror as she washed up in preparation for her guests.
Twenty minutes later, Rebecca arrived, straight from her office in a suit and heels, and Hannah five minutes after that with the pizza. As they ate at the kitchen table, the dog snoring nearby and a sweet mountain breeze coming through the open windows, Jane passed around the business cards Linda Starr had given her and told them about the visit.
“Brilliant move, shilling for these people,” Hannah Fox said. “Why doesn’t she just wear a sign that says, ‘I’m on the take.’” Hannah, slight, dark-haired, not yet fifty, was the baby in the group. She was the one who’d first become suspicious when she learned that MK Realty had offered to take Victoria’s house off her hands the day after “someone from the village”—Victoria’s words—told her it was unsafe and would cost a fortune to fix.
Had she gotten an estimate on the repairs? Jane had pressed that question, but Victoria, confused and frightened, had said there was no point. The list of violations was long, and anyway, she’d already agreed to sell.
Two months later, soon after Victoria’s funeral, Hannah stormed into Jane’s studio and slapped the local weekly on the counter. According to the listing of recent real estate transactions, Mickey Klinger of MK Realty had sold Victoria’s house to a couple from New York City for two hundred-and-twenty thousand dollars. “He paid Victoria seventy-five thousand for that house,” Hannah said. “You tell me she wasn’t set up.” Jane’s response: “You tell me how we prove it.”
Now, the meal over, they carried their wine glasses into the studio and settled on the battered armchairs and ancient sofa that took up one corner of the room. Victoria’s portrait on the easel nearby glowed in the fading light.
Did they know enough about Linda Starr’s connection to MK Realty to interest the district attorney? That was the question they’d been batting around. Hannah, impatient, wanted to charge into the D.A.’s office tomorrow; Rebecca, cautious in her lawyerly way, said not yet. Yes, it appeared that Linda Starr and Klinger were in cahoots, but they had no proof.
“What about the contractors’ bids?” Jane had told them earlier that she’d gotten estimates, but hadn’t yet mentioned the numbers.
“There’s always a range. I’m not sure a high bid proves anything,” Rebecca said.
“Starr’s contractor is supposed to email me his formal bid tomorrow,” Jane said. “His ballpark was sixty-five thousand dollars. My contractor, who very kindly squeezed me in this afternoon when I told him it was an emergency, said there’s nothing wrong with the retaining wall except for some loose stones that he can wedge back in place, and, yes, the chimney needs re-pointing, the tree back by the shed should come down, but the sidewalk, which Linda’s person made into a big deal, is the village’s responsibility, not mine. So we’re talking about maybe four or five thousand in repairs.”
Jane expected cheers but instead there was silence. She guessed they were all thinking the same thing. How easy it would have been to make Victoria’s problem go away, and how evil the people were who’d done this to her. And then the guilt, on her part at least. She should have persuaded Victoria to move in with her instead of to that awful senior living place where, two months after the move, an attendant found her dead in bed. Old age, the doctor said, which was garbage. Victoria had the constitution and the genes to make it to one hundred. She’d died because she’d lost her home.
After a couple of seconds, Rebecca said, “Okay, here’s how we play it. We don’t go to the district attorney, Linda Starr does. As soon as Jane gets those bids in writing, she calls Starr and tells her they need to talk, in person. When Starr gets here, we’ll be waiting to make her an offer. She gives us Klinger—that is, she goes to the district attorney, pleading a guilty conscience, and tells him everything—or we go to him and she’s screwed.”
“If she agrees to go what happens to her?” Jane, remembering Linda Starr’s stunned expression when she saw Victoria’s portrait, was surprised at what she was feeling. You give evil a human face and somehow you feel pity? An odd thing to learn at her age.
“If she has a good lawyer and the D.A. is willing to do a deal, she could end up with a few months in jail, or maybe just a fine and probation,” Rebecca said. “The payoff for us is that we get Klinger, who I assume was the brains—so to speak—behind this thing. I’m sure Linda Starr was paid off, but I’m guessing he was the one who made the big money.”
“And if she turns us down?” Hannah asked.
“Depending on how much money changed hands, she might be looking at fifteen years in prison.”
Linda sat still, barely breathing. We have to talk, Jane Silver had said on the phone that morning. What Linda expected to hear when she got to the house was: I can’t afford to fix the place up. And that would be her cue to call Mickey and say: There’s a lady here who needs your help. So wasn’t she surprised to find this reception committee waiting for her, Jane Silver and her two unsmiling friends in the dusty front room.
The dark-haired woman, Hannah Fox, was doing most of the talking, stopping every once in a while to give Linda a chance to respond, but why bother? These women knew she was hooked up with Mickey, they knew about the list of overblown violations, and they knew about Ray with his inflated estimates.
Linda felt numb, and very tired. She wanted to leave, but it would be stupid to do that before she heard them out. She guessed they were going to offer her a deal—why else would they have asked her here?—but warned herself not to get her hopes up.
And now here it came, courtesy of the blond, Rebecca something, who talked and looked like a lawyer in her gray suit and expensive haircut. They were prepared to go to the D.A. tomorrow morning, she said, with enough information to indicate collusion between Linda and Klinger, unless Linda agreed to go to the district attorney herself. If she admitted to her part in the scam and told the D.A. she was there because her conscience was bothering her, he might go easy on her. If not, she could be facing felony charges.
Felony. The word was so distracting she barely heard Hannah Fox, who’d again taken the floor, wondering aloud how Linda and Klinger had split the hundred and forty-five thousand dollar profit on Victoria’s house. When Linda didn’t respond, she pressed on. “You should have gotten half, considering the risk you were taking. Was that how it worked?”
Linda wanted to smack the woman’s face hard enough to leave a hand print. She ordered herself to relax, to breathe, to think. If they had any real evidence, they wouldn’t be offering her this deal.
“Here’s my offer,” she said, her mouth so dry it was hard to get the words out. “You don’t go to the D.A. and I promise you the game is over.” As soon as she caught the exchange of looks between the three women, she knew she’d just handed them what they needed. The game is over implying there had been other targets besides Victoria Marino? They hadn’t known that until she opened her mouth.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. She got to her feet, avoiding their eyes and ignoring Jane Silver who called after her as she headed down the hall to the door. Once she was on the road, steering with one hand, she punched in Mickey’s number. When he asked how it had gone, she said, “Not on the phone.” She’d be at his house in fifteen minutes and he damn well better be there.
She turned the a/c to high, her silk shirt sticking to her back. A gas station was coming up on her right, but screw it. She’d needed to pee for the past half-hour but she’d hold it in until she got to Mickey’s.
What killed her about those women? The fact that they thought she was a moron. When Mickey proposed the first job, a few weeks after they started dating, she wasn’t surprised. She’d guessed right away that their supposedly chance meeting at the Brew Pub that Friday night was a set-up. “So it’s not my body you were after,” she said when he laid out his plan, and he laughed and said, “Let me tell you, that didn’t hurt.”
As far as the money was concerned, of course he was the one getting rich. And, no, she didn’t haggle because what those women didn’t know was that Mickey Klinger was a generous guy—picking up her mortgage payments when she was short, the diamond and gold necklace for her birthday, a decent used car for her son when he left for college.
The other thing they didn’t know? No matter how she and Mickey had started out, it turned into something else. Maybe not love, maybe just a second cousin, but it beat being alone.
Now she thought about the lawyer’s deal and what she would say to Mickey. She also thought about what Mickey had said to her more than once. You think I’d leave you hanging out to dry? Well, she’d find out.
He was waiting at the house when she got there, tie off, shirt sleeves rolled. Looking old and tired, she thought. She used the bathroom while he made them drinks. When he proposed going out on the deck, she said she’d rather stay inside. The cool dimness of the living room was more comforting than the glare of outdoors.
She told him about the meeting at Jane Silver’s. He listened, his elbow on the arm of the wing chair, his hand cradling his head. At the end, he said, “Who the hell would have thought.”
I thought, Mickey. She almost said that. Instead, after he topped off his drink and sat back down, she said, “Tell me what to do.”
“They’re right,” he said. “You go to the D.A.—with a lawyer, and I will get you an excellent one—and do exactly what they said.”
She turned away so that he wouldn’t see her eyes filling.
“Baby, whether you go or not, the D.A. is going to come after me. So what we need to think about now is getting you the best deal we can. And that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“You’re full of surprises,” she said, her voice shaky.
He laughed and said, “Haven’t I been telling you that? Mickey Klinger, a surprise a minute.”
She smiled, despite her fear. Then she waited while Mickey went into the next room to call his pal Richie, the lawyer who was tight with someone who was tight with the D.A.
Six years ago, when her husband left her, she’d been scared, like she was at the edge of a cliff with nowhere to go but over. That was nothing compared to the terror she was feeling now. The best deal we can get, meaning what? Ten years in prison? Five? How do you say that to your nineteen-year-old son?
She was shivering but couldn’t make herself cross the room to get the afghan on the back of the wing chair. She wished there was someone to blame, someone to hate, but there wasn’t. Not Mickey, not Jane Silver, not even her piece of shit ex-husband. No one but herself.
She thought about that as Mickey came into the room and sat down next to her, giving her a squeeze, saying everything was going to be okay. She knew that wasn’t true but she let it go. That was Mickey, that’s who he was, and he was there for her, at least for now. It helped, a little.
Anita Page is the editor of Family Matters: Murder New York Style, an anthology of twenty short crime stories by members of the New York/Tri-State chapter of Sisters in Crime. She’s the author of Damned If You Don’t, a Catskill Mountain mystery recently reissued as an e-book by Glenmere Press. Her short stories have been appeared in webzines and anthologies including Mysterical-e, Beat to a Pulp, The Back Alley, Family Matters,Fresh Slices, Deadly Debut, and The Prosecution Rests. Her story “‘Twas the Night” (The Gift of Murder, Wolfmont Press) won a Derringer Award in 2010. She blogs atwww.anitapagewriter.blogspot.com and www.womenofmystery.net