DEATH IS IN QUARANTINE
When I was in elementary school, I read a story about a boy who gets tired of eating bread all the time and wants nothing but meat for the rest of his life. He winds up in the care of an old man who grants his wish. After a while, the boy begins to abhor meat and craves bread. I honestly forget how it ends. I just remember that part of it.
Now, I’m sure the lesson was: appreciate what you have. (Of course, it was a Russian story. So, maybe the lesson was: you have nothing, and you’ll like it.) Looking back, it was an early insight into human behavior. We most want what we don’t have and least want what we have in abundance. The current state of the world underscores that.
You used to hear people say, “Man, I’d love to spend all my time in the house” or “I don’t want to go to school” or “I wish I had time to binge all these shows I’ve been hearing about” or “I just need to be away from people for a while.” Well, jackpot, motherf-ers.
Unlimited time in the house is far less appealing when the government, on behalf of a global pandemic, orders you to do it. That’s not to put all the blame on the government. When the big bad wolf is lurking, you’re not inclined to leave the house anyway. Now, we’re stuck with only Tiger King, Facebook games and Rick-rolling (for God’s sake, Rick-rolling) to keep us entertained. It won’t be long before we’re reduced to a feral state.
Next time, just wish for a pony.
My name is Joe Davis. I get paid to write stuff like that.
If you know anything about me, you might assume a stay-at-home order is right up my individual alley. After all, I’m a thrice-weekly columnist for The Daily Bugle, a former indie rag that ditched the rag portion a few years back and focuses strictly on being a website. My column, Cup o’ Joe, covers all manner of topics: pop culture, entertainment, sports, social niceties (or the lack thereof). All done with the sort of in-depth analysis one normally associates with the Looney Tunes. The column (barely) pays my bills and allows me a goodly amount of free time. I work at the corner desk of my one-bedroom apartment on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. I live with my two cats, Lenny and Squiggy, while merrily avoiding humanity whenever the opportunity arises.
Now that I’m required to do it, not only for my own health and safety, but the health and safety of my friends, my loved ones and the vulnerable in my community, I’ve got to tell you: it really sucks.
On the other hand, my friend Mike largely lived in a feral state before the coronavirus hit. Looking at him over Skype, the transition is going smoothly.
“Is that the same shirt you were wore yesterday?” I ask.
Mike looks down, almost out of the frame. “Yeah. So what? I’ve seen you wear the same shirt two days in a row.”
“But I think you’ve been wearing that shirt for two weeks in a row.”
“You sure?” He sniffs the shirt and recoils. “You might have a point there.”
“I’d feel better if you changed your filth every now and again.”
Mike gives me the stinkface. (In this case, truer words…) “I suppose your place is spotless, you’re eating healthy and all that shit?”
“Cleaning, yes,” I say, “Eating healthy, not so much.”
Mike runs a hand through the brush of dark hair atop his big bulldog head. “If this thing goes on very long, everyone’s going to look like those fat little people from Wall-E.”
“Socially, we were already well on our way.”
I get up from the desk, move around the breakfast bar and into the thin kitchen to refill my coffee. I can still be seen and heard from the computer. “So, you’re just going to ride this out by sitting around and decomposing?”
Mike sounds offended. “I’m using the time wisely. I’m contemplating the meaning of life, experiencing a spiritual growth, becoming wiser and more aware.”
“Uh-huh,” I say, “What are you actually doing?”
“Masturbating mostly.” Mike sips some grape soda. “You heard from Carol or Lars?”
Carol and Lars represent the rest of our little quartet of friends. Carol was once Mike’s girlfriend and they’ve managed to (not all that smoothly) make the transition to being friends. Lars is my downstairs neighbor and the building’s superintendent. I set my coffee on a coaster on the desk.
“I haven’t heard from Carol,” I say, “I think she’s busy with work. Lars stopped by yesterday.”
Mike’s eyebrows go up. “Really? Last time I talked to Lars, he said he wasn’t taking any chances with this thing.”
“He’s not. He bought himself a hazmat suit.”
Mike waits for me to say I’m kidding. But he knows Lars, so he swiftly realizes I’m not. “A hazmat suit?”
“Indeed,” I say, as Lenny, my alpha cat, hops into my lap and curls up, “Management was giving him grief about never leaving his apartment. They wouldn’t keep giving him a break on his rent if he didn’t do his superintendent duties. So, he found a website that would sell him a hazmat suit. It’s creepy. I told him to take the damn thing off, but then he informed me he was naked under the suit, so…”
“Your hands were tied.”
“They were.” My cell phone buzzes on the desk. I give it a glance. “It’s Carol. I should take this.”
“Feel free. I need to get back to it, anyway.”
“Get back to what?”
He shrugs. “The masturbating, I guess.”
Swell. I exit out of Skype and grab the phone. My voice drops an octave as I answer.
“Congratulations! You are the ninth caller in WANK’s Barbarians at the Gate giveaway! You’ve won an all-expenses-paid trip to Calcutta. Actually, it’s New York, but at the rate things are going, what’s the difference?”
There’s a pause, then Carol’s sardonic voice comes on the line. “Did you just come up with that?”
“No, I’ve been working on it. Not a lot else to do.”
Carol takes a quick breath. “I need your help. Something’s been stolen.”
I get up from the chair, dislodging Lenny (to his everlasting resentment). “Stolen from where?”
“Your apartment? How could something be stolen from your apartment? Aren’t you in your apartment all the time?”
“I am. But this was stolen. And it’s valuable!”
Carol sounds like she’s coming unglued. And Carol doesn’t generally do unglued. I pace past the arch windows at the front of the apartment and circle around the living room (because that’s what I do for exercise these days).
“Okay, back up,” I say, “What was stolen?”
“A brooch,” Carol says, “It’s a family heirloom. My grandma brought it with her when she came from Ireland. She gave it to my mom. My mom gave it to me. I keep it in a curio cabinet in the living room. I know it was in there this afternoon. I was cleaning the apartment and I dusted the cabinet. I just checked it again and it’s gone.”
Wow. Crime in our fair city when everyone and their mother is hanging out at home? (In some cases, with their mother.) This is weird, wild stuff. I pause at the breakfast bar and jog the memory banks. I’ve seen this brooch while hanging out at Carol’s place. It’s silver with a Celtic tree of life in the middle. There’s an inscription on the back with the name of Carol’s grandmother and the date she came to America.
“Is there any way you could have lost it?” I ask.
“Joe, how am I going to lose something if I didn’t touch it or take it out of a cabinet? No, I didn’t lose it.”
All right, stupid question. I’ll give her that. “Were you in your apartment all afternoon?”
“Yes,” Carol says, “And I had the door locked. There was no way someone could have gotten in.”
I’m intrigued, I’ll admit. A valuable brooch stolen right out from under Carol’s nose? Who could have done it? And how? I wonder if Ant Man is stalking Carol’s apartment building.
“All right, let’s figure it out,” I say, “What time were you dusting the apartment?”
“Around two,” Carol says.
“And what time did you notice the brooch was gone?”
“Just before I called you. It’s, what, six now?”
“It is.” I step away from the breakfast bar and pace more slowly. “Okay, somewhere between two and six, the brooch disappears. What did you do during that time?”
Carol lets out an impatient breath but gives it some thought. “I finished dusting. I wiped down the kitchen. I called my parents—ugh, my mom’s going to freak if I have to tell her about the brooch—vacuumed the living room and bedroom. I got on Skype with Jane from down the hall.”
“You got on Skype with a neighbor?” I say.
“We don’t like talking in the hallway and it was raining out. Skype was the best we could do. Anyway, after I got off Skype with Jane, I took a shower, made myself something to eat, and—”
Bingo! “Wait, wait, wait,” I say, “You took a shower?”
“Yes, Joe. I’m not going to go full Cro-Magnon like Mike.”
“That had to be when it happened. When you took the shower. It was the only time the rest of the apartment was out of your sight.”
Carol considers this. “But how could someone have gotten in? The door was locked.”
“Absolutely. I locked it before I went to bed last night, like I always do, and I haven’t left the apartment today. I’m looking at the door right now.”
“Any sign of a break-in?” I ask.
“Joe, how am I supposed to know what a break-in even looks like?”
I try to keep my patience. “Just look at the door. See if there are any scuff marks, scratches, any sign that someone picked the lock or shoved the door open.”
Carol can be heard going to the door and checking it. After several seconds, she says, “Nothing. No scratches or marks. The door is locked, and the deadbolt is in place.”
I picture the layout of Carol’s apartment. “You don’t have a chain on the door, right?”
“Right. Just the deadbolt and the door lock.”
“What about the windows? Are they locked?”
Carol groans. There’s a sound of air rushing as she moves across the apartment. “I’ll check, but seriously, I live on the third floor. There are no decks or anything else outside. Who’s going to come in through the window?”
Carol checks the windows and reports, not surprisingly, they are locked and there are no signs of forced entry. I stand, frozen, between the futon couch and the comfy chair. Under normal circumstances, I’d rush over there and look at the crime scene. But normal has gone on vacation to Tahiti, leaving no forwarding address.
“Okay, the thief had to have two things,” I say, “the keys to your apartment and knowledge that you were in the shower.”
“Knowledge that I was in the shower? Seriously?”
“Think about it. Even if they have the keys, someone isn’t going to stroll into your apartment on the off chance you’re either not home or in the shower. Not in this day and age. They had to know the coast was clear.”
Carol considers this. “I guess Jane knew. I think I mentioned I was going to take a shower just before we ended the Skype call. But Jane couldn’t have gotten into the apartment. And she wouldn’t have done it anyway. She isn’t a thief.”
Nobody’s a thief until they steal something. But I don’t know this Jane and I don’t want to antagonize Carol, so I take her work on it. Besides, there are other avenues to pursue.
“About the keys,” I say, “Who would have access to them? You have your own set.”
“You have my spare set.”
“And we can rule me out.” Not only am I above such deeds, I have no eye for jewelry. You could tell me your class ring is the Black Pearl of the Borgias and I’d believe you. “Anyone else who might have access?”
Carol thinks it over. “There’s Rich, the super. Please don’t ask if he knew I was in the shower because I can’t really handle the thought right now.”
“Bit of a creeper, is he?”
“I don’t think he’s peeking at peepholes or anything,” she says, “But he’s interested in me. He even asked me out. Anyway, he’s the only one who could have gotten in.”
And if the dude is a creep, would he have passed up the opportunity to peep at Carol in the shower? But, per her request, I’m not going to share that with Carol.
“Anything else you can think of?” I ask, “Anything out of place or anything unusual?”
“Nope. Just my missing fucking family heirloom!”
Maybe, under normal circumstances, Carol would handle this better. Maybe the isolation is getting to her. Maybe she just needs an outlet, something crazy to happen to go crazy about. It’s my job keep the crazy from overwhelming her.
“I’ll talk to Rich, the super,” I say.
“How are you going to do that?” Carol asks, “We’re supposed to stay at home.”
“There’s such a thing as mass communications. I’ll find a way to chat with him.”
“And I’m going to call the police. They won’t be able to do anything, but the building owners will get pissed if I don’t report it.”
I can see how that’s going to go. The police will give it a looksee, tell Carol they’ll get back to her and that’s the last she’ll hear from them. She’ll be on her own to get the brooch back. Well, not entirely on her own.
“I’ll call Rich tomorrow,” I tell her, “See what I can get out of him.”
“Just be careful,” she says, “I don’t know the guy did it and I still have to live here.”
“Understood. I’ll be my usual subtle self.”
Carol considers a comment, but lets it pass. Then she says, quietly, “Thank you.”
I give that a flip of my hand, even though she can’t see it. “Don’t worry about it. You’ve got to help out a friend in need.”
I’m also bored off my ass and could use the distraction. I’d call that a win-win.
I’ve never been a big fan of talking on the phone. It must be something about talking to a disembodied voice in space that just makes me uncomfortable. I’m old enough to have seen technology move from old-fashioned flip phones to the current smartphones. Some serious Stark Industries tech is probably in the not-too-distant future. And I’m cool with that. That’s why I love the march of technology. The more tech we stuff into these phones, the less we use them as actual phones. Emailing, messaging, texting, live chatting. It’s been my life’s dream to own a phone I didn’t have to actually talk into.
I’m taking advantage of this right now. Rich, the super, is willing to do a Zoom meeting. I could use either my laptop or my desktop, but I decide to go with the phone. It gives me the freedom to wander around the apartment. I can walk off the anxiety and get some exercise at the same time. The cats watch me from the couch, probably wondering what I’m doing and why I’ve been spending so much time around the house, even by my standards. I’m strolling down the hallway toward the backdoor when I finally get online with Rich.
“What can I do for you?” the guy asks, without preamble.
Rich, near as I can tell, is in his early forties. He’s got a round face, straight black hair, unfocused eyes and a slack mouth. I don’t get malice from the guy, so much as a deep social awkwardness. I introduce myself and tell him I’m looking into the disappearance of Carol’s brooch.
“I thought she called the police,” he says, befuddled.
“She did,” I say, “I figured I’d give her some additional help.”
“Why talk to me?”
“You’re the building’s super. You must know everything that goes on in the building.”
He nods as he takes this in. “That sounds proper. But I don’t know who broke into Carol’s apartment.”
Time to tap dance around a direct accusation. “We figure the break-in happened around five o’clock yesterday. Did you see anything around that time?”
He scratches his jowls. “Five o’clock? I was here in the apartment. Having a beer, watching TV.”
“Anyone with you?” I ask.
Bit of a risk, asking if there is a witness for his alibi. But Rich, his mouth hanging open slightly, doesn’t seem offended by the question.
“I was here by myself,” he says. He lets out a sigh. “I used to have a little happy hour here. Have a beer and play some cards with the guys. Bowdren in 225, Lockwood in 118, Leonard in 324. It was fun.”
I’m sure it was a blast, but not relevant to what I’m looking for. I switch tracks, trying carefully not to arouse his suspicion.
“I suppose you have the master keys to all the apartments,” I say.
Rich cocks his head to one side. “How did you know that?”
“My buddy Lars is the super in my building. He’s in charge of the keys around here.”
“Oh, I get that,” Rich says, “Yeah, I got all the spare keys. And my own master set.” He fishes around for something offscreen, then holds up a large ring of keys and jingles them for me. “Used to have a couple of sets, but I haven’t seen one of them in months. They’re around here somewhere.”
Hmm. I wonder about the fate of that other set of master keys. If Rich still has them and there was no sign of a break-in, that makes him the most logical suspect. But like I told Carol, he isn’t about to wander into her apartment without knowing the coast is clear. And the missing set of keys presents some possibilities. I turn away from the backdoor (I haven’t decorated for summer or cleaned the deck and I can’t bear to see it that way) and head back toward the kitchen.
“I’m just trying to figure out who might have broken in,” I say, “Carol’s a good friend and I want to help her out.”
Rich’s slack mouth rises to a sort of sneer. “Friend of yours, maybe.”
When in doubt, play dumb. “The two of you have an issue?”
He rubs his face, displaces the hair atop his high forehead. “Ah, it was nothing. I was trying to be friendly and she took it the wrong way.” Thankfully, he’s willing to leave it there. I don’t need details on his failed attempt to ask Carol out. Saves me the trouble of pretending I care. Rich blunders on. “She didn’t even care about me losing my car.”
“You lost your car? How did that happen?”
Rich flips a hand, disgusted. “Ah, I had a side job working at Goodwill. Part-time. Just to pay a few extra bills. They had to close when the corona hit. I couldn’t pay for the car. It got repo’ed.”
Ouch. Money worries. It’s going around. I have a job where I work from home anyway, but a lot of people haven’t been so lucky. I feel for them and, strangely, Rich as well.
“Sorry to hear that,” I say, though it sounds inadequate.
Rich’s face falls (though it didn’t have far to go). “Thanks. I get my rent free, but everything else is up in the air. You’d think Carol would give me a little sympathy.”
In this case, Rich is using sympathy the way one generally uses it, or pity, as the antecedent to a sex act. I suppress whatever look wants to cross my face and give Rich a simple shake of my head.
“Women,” I say, figuring a vague statement is better than none.
“I know,” Rich says.
I’ve run flat out of things to talk about (thankfully), so I thank Rich for his time and hasten to end the conversation. He asks me to pass along a message to Carol about possibly getting together for a drink. I tell him I’ll do it, although I never will.
“I appreciate that,” Rich says, “It’s a real shame. Perfectly good-looking woman, sitting up in that apartment, wasting away. Makes you think—”
“You have a great day,” I say, stabbing the screen to end the call.
Just in the nick of time. One thing calling and live conferencing have in common: the other party will always know when you’re vomiting.
I frequently wonder what it’s going to be like when the virus is no longer a threat and we can all go back to some semblance of normal. Just because the government says, “You can all go out and mingle, tip your waiters and waitresses, try the prime rib” that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll feel safe doing so. Sure, there are gun-totin’, beer drinkin’ morons who’ll rush right out to their local Hobby Lobby. But once we’ve sacrificed them to the virus, what will the rest of us do? I’m reminded of the line from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One when Owen Glendower warns Hotspur that he can call spirits from the vasty deep and Hotspur replies, “Why, so can I. So can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?”
But it will still feel weird to talk to someone from six feet away.
“She’ll be down in a minute,” Carol says, with an anxious look back.
We’re on the lawn outside of Carol’s apartment building. It’s a nice enough place. A squat, four story brick structure. Around the side, there’s a play area for children (currently blocked off with crime scene tape because the children haven’t been traumatized enough). The day is bright and a warm breeze rolls through. I haven’t seen Carol in person in a few weeks, though it seems longer. She’s hanging in there. Her dark hair is pulled back into a ponytail and she wears a black sweater and jeans, a far cry from the professional appearance she usually sports. The laser blue eyes are sharp as ever. We’re passing the time, waiting on her friend Jane.
“Did you tell her about the brooch?” I ask.
“Not yet,” Carol says, “I just told her you were coming over.” Her mouth turns down in a sour look. “She reads your column.”
I start to put my hand over my mouth, to cover my grin, then remember I shouldn’t touch my face. Carol will have to suffer me being insufferable. The weenie bit of celebrity that comes with my column never ceases to amuse me and annoy her (which makes it all the more amusing). I slip my hands into the pockets of my Adams College hoodie.
“You said Jane is married?” I ask.
“Yes,” Carol says, acid creeping into her tone, “So, there won’t be any asking her out.”
“That’s not what I was thinking. Besides, how the hell would I even do that? ‘Hey, you want to go to dinner? We could pick up some takeout and eat it on separate picnic tables. Then I’ll walk you home and give you the best goodnight wave you ever had.’”
Carol squares me with a look. “Did you just come with that or—?”
“I’ve been working on it. The reason I asked is that Jane knew you were in the shower and couldn’t keep an eye on the brooch. What about her husband?”
“Pete wasn’t home when I was on Skype with Jane.”
Dammit. I got nowhere with the super and I’m not sure how far I’m going to get with Jane. Maybe it’s time we consider the possibility little elves took the thing. Personally, I’d love to interrogate them. Maybe waterboard the little bastards. (Jeez, isolation is bringing out my dark side.) Carol twists her mouth to one side, doing some mental calculations.
“Are you sure we’re six feet apart?” she asks.
“Positive,” I say, “I’m six feet tall. If I fell forward right now, there’s no chance I would hit you.”
Carol tilts her head, accepting my explanation. I glance toward the building and see two people walking across the lawn toward us.
“Is this Jane?” I ask.
Carol turns to look. “That’s her. She’s with Pete.”
“Show time,” I say.
Jane gives us both a big smile. Pete walks a half-step behind, looking away. She’s blonde and curvy, with a wide mouth and bright blue eyes. He’s about my height and his dark hair is combed back, revealing a widow’s peak. His goatee covers what I suspect is a weak chin. He carries a black water bottle with a yellow top, and he slouches slightly around it. Jane and Pete come to a halt about eight feet away, causing us to stand in a weird triangle formation.
Carol waves a hand toward me. “This is my friend Joe.”
Jane turns her bright smile toward me. “I recognize you from the photo next to your column.”
I give her my well-practiced (and nearly sincere) shy smile. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.” And that’s my well-practiced (and nearly sincere) modest response.
Jane introduces me to Pete, who gives me a small wave and looks away. I get the feeling his being here is Jane’s idea. She gives me the usual (and always welcomed) compliments about my column. We all make small talk for a minute (most of which I leave to Carol and Jane). I exchange a look with Carol, wondering how we’re going to bring up the missing brooch.
“It’s crazy,” Jane says, looking out at the street, “Usually, the street’s full this time of day. People coming home from work. Today, it’s like…”
“A ghost town?” I say.
Jane shivers. “Exactly.” She glances back at Pete. “This would be the time I would have been coming home from work.” She looks at me again. “I work in the office at a food delivery company. We do most of our business with offices. No offices are open, so no deliveries. And no need to have people in our office.”
“You were let go?” I ask.
“Laid off, furloughed, whatever they want to call it. But I don’t know when I’ll go back. Or if the business will even be there.”
I wince. “Sorry to hear that.”
Jane shrugs. “It’s just how it goes, I guess. We’re making do but it’s not easy.”
Another round of money worries, another bit of motive. I try to adopt a casual air (and it’s an effort to effortless, believe me).
“Carol lost something as well,” I say.
Jane throws a look at Carol, more confused than anything. “What was that?”
“I lost a brooch,” Carol says, “It belonged to my grandmother. I think it was stolen.”
“Stolen?” Jane says, “From where?”
Carol goes on to explain the theft-while-in-the-shower scenario. Jane’s mouth hangs open slightly. Pete remains impassive. Jane shakes her head when Carol’s finished.
“Unbelievable,” Jane says, “Times like these, you’d think the one thing that couldn’t happen would be a burglary.” She turns to Pete, drawing him into the conversation. “That must have been after you left. Did you see anyone in the building? Anyone you didn’t recognize?”
“Nope,” Pete says, “Not even a pizza guy. I was at that meeting.”
“With who?” I ask. One sharp look from Pete tells me I’ve overreached. I try to cover. “It seems like every meeting these days is online. Meeting face to face almost sounds unusual.”
Pete stares at me, not entirely friendly. Finally, he shrugs and says, “Just a guy I know. Barney Hanrehan. We’re looking to sell Jane’s car. Go down to one vehicle because it’s cheaper. The guy might be willing to sell it for us.”
I’m tempted to ask the guy’s name, but I’d be pushing my luck. No sense poking the bear, rattling the cage, beating the bushes and any other hackneyed metaphor you can think of. I look toward the front door. Rich, the super, steps out and sweeps the front step. Conversation ceases until heads back inside. Jane looks like there’s a bad smell in the air.
“That guy gives me the creeps,” she says.
Pete flips a hand at that. “He’s not so bad.”
Jane glares at him. “You weren’t saying that after that card game.”
There’s a crackle of tension in the air and most of it is one side. Jane’s eyes are lasered in on Pete and he shrinks under it. Carol rolls her eyes. Pete runs a hand over his forehead.
“Well, we don’t do that anymore,” he says, “I haven’t talked to the guy in a couple months.”
Jane folds her arms across her rather ample chest. She says nothing but doesn’t really have to. I don’t know the full story, but I do know it’s none of my business. I clear my throat.
“Rich mentioned he’s been having money problems as well,” I say.
Jane answers for Pete. “I’m not surprised. He’s exactly that sort of person. Not good with money. Not good with people. Not good with anything.” She raises her eyebrows at Pete. “You’re better off without him.”
“Yep,” Pete says, looking at the ground.
We make some more small talk, but thankfully, it doesn’t last more than about thirty seconds. Jane says its nice meeting me and wishes Carol luck with finding the brooch. Pete gives us a little wave and follows Jane back to the building. Carol and I are quiet until they’re back into the building.
“They seem happy,” I say, deadpan.
“Jane’s nice,” Carol says, “She just…likes things a certain way.”
That might be yet another reason I’m not married. I have this strange desire to go through life with my balls attached to my body.
While my apartment is modest, its location is rather significant. Go one direction for less than a mile and you run into the State Capitol. Go the other direction for less than a mile and you find the Governor’s Mansion. Truly, I’m occupying the seat of power in Minnesota. (Well, more a corner of the arm rest, but still…) Today, that affords me a view of people walking down the street, holding signs, getting ready to protest the governor’s stay-at-home order.
I look past the computer and shake my head. “It could be a year and a half before a vaccine is available,” I say, “And these people didn’t make it two months. World War II would have really given them a case of the red ass.”
“What can you say?” Mike says, “They need their haircuts and bar stools.”
From my computer screen, Mike looks as if he’s showered and changed his clothes. But his hair is piled high. His permanent wave will soon reach the ceiling if not tamed. Unlike the chuckleheads gathering at the Governor’s Mansion, he’s not taking up arms to protest this condition.
“I bought a hazmat suit,” Mike says, “Just ordered it today. It should be here by tomorrow.”
“You’re really going to wander around in one of those things?”
“I’d like to have some options in case I need to leave the apartment.”
Of course. Mike’s taking his lead from Lars in dealing with the pandemic. The blind leading the stupid. Kind of a snapshot of America today. I wish Mike luck with what’s going on in his world, then we move on to other issues. I give Mike an update on my conversations with the super and the happy couple.
He bobs his head. “The wife sounds like a ballbreaker.”
“She is. She’s a hottie, though.”
“That’s a shame. Hottie and a ballbreaker. Those things shouldn’t go together.”
I’m sure in Mike’s mind, the fear of being emasculated is also the reason he’s not married. That reason and no other. He scratches the stubble on his jaw.
“I remember seeing that brooch,” Mike says, “It was an antique. I think there’s some value in it.”
“And everyone I’ve talked to has money worries. If there was a way to get it and hock it, they’d be in business. I’m positive it was one of them.”
“So, Jane, the wife, was at home and the super claims he was at home, too. What about Jane’s husband?”
“Pete? He had a meeting with some guy. Barney Hanrehan. You believe that name?”
Apparently, Mike does, because he doesn’t respond right away. His eyes flick around as he thinks. Finally, he looks at the camera. “Barney Hanrehan? You sure that was the name?”
“You think I’d forget a name like that?” I cock my head to one side. “Why? Do you know the guy?”
Mike thinks, then shakes his head. “No. Just sounds familiar.” He chews a corner of his goatee. “So, it had to be either Jane or the super?”
“That’s what it looks like. But I keep coming back to the same problem. Rich, the super, had access to Carol’s apartment, but couldn’t know she was in the shower. Jane knew Carol was in the shower but didn’t have access to the apartment. Round and round the mulberry bush.”
Mike sips his beer. “What’s your next move?”
“Carol took a bunch of screenshots of her conversation with Jane,” I say, “She posted one of them on Facebook. I asked her to send them to me. Maybe there’s something there. It’s worth a shot.” I sit back in my chair. “I don’t know what to do with Rich, the super, though. I talked to him and I can’t do anything else without making him suspicious.”
Mike drums his fingers on the table. “We can always do a break-in of our own.”
I let out a groan. We’ve done a few break-ins in recent months, more than should be healthy, and always with mixed results.
“I don’t think Carol will go for it,” I say.
“If it’s the only way to get her brooch back, she might,” he says.
He’s got me there. Carol is certainly desperate. But there are logistical problems to consider.
“It’s the same deal with the break-in at Carol’s,” I say, “How do you find a time when the super isn’t going to be home?”
“He’s got responsibilities in the building. He could leave his apartment at any time. Probably just have to stake the place out. Wait for him to leave.”
Oy. Break-in and stakeout. We’re really on a roll. On the bright side, being killed in a break-in would end the suspense over being killed by the virus. So, we’ve got that going for us. Which is nice.
“I’ll do the break-in,” I say.
But Mike shakes his head. “It can’t be you. You’d never be allowed to wander around the building. Five-will-get-you-ten everybody in that place recognizes everybody else. They’d see you and call the cops.”
“Then who…” And of course, it hits me. “We’re going to make Carol do it?”
Mike scoffs. “One thing I’ve learned about Carol is that you can’t make her do anything. But if she wants to get the brooch back, she’s going to have to do this.”
He’s right, but that doesn’t mean I want to go along with this. “Carol doesn’t know how to break into an apartment. Or anything else for that matter.”
Mike flips a hand at this. “Nothing to it. I can walk her through it.”
I know he can do that. Mike had a sideline business as a cat burglar when we were in college. He wasn’t exactly a one-man crime spree. He only took small ticket items when he was hard up for cash and couldn’t ask his parents for money. I like to think Mike left all that behind him in college. But we’ve had need of these services in recent months and, well, let’s just say he hasn’t seemed rusty. Schooling Carol on such things, though, is a totally different matter. But if it’s the only way to get her brooch back, she’ll probably do it. Desperation can be a real bitch.
“If she asks,” I say, “I’ll let her know it’s your idea.”
“I got a virus out to kill me, you think I’m afraid of Carol?” He holds up a hand. “Forget I said that.”
Despite my solitary nature, I’m a big believer in the notion It takes a village. After all, if there wasn’t an abundance of morons on this planet, what would I have to write about? Everything is a team effort.
Even something as ridiculous as a break-in.
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Carol says.
Truthfully, it didn’t take much effort. Sure, Carol balked at first, but the thought of never getting her brooch back soon made her amenable, if not agreeable. We handled it as best we could. Mike gave her a break-in seminar over Zoom. And since Carol wasn’t about to do this job alone, I agreed to go along. Virtually.
“Any sign of Rich yet?” I ask.
“No,” Carol says.
We’re both on Skype, but that’s where the similarity ends. I have it open on my laptop, sitting in the comfort of my living room. Carol is on her phone, jammed into the corner of the first-floor hallway. She’s been keeping an eye on Rich’s apartment for the last half-hour.
“You’re sure he’s in there?” I ask.
“Positive,” Carol says, “I saw him when I first got here. I’m lucky he didn’t see me.”
Carol paces a little, trying to stay patient. She also needs a certain movement in case someone bumps into her. She can claim she was on her way up to her apartment and got distracted. Actually, she could use a little distraction, given the agony of the stakeout.
“Jane wants her husband to stay away from Rich,” I say, “Any idea what that’s all about?”
Carol rolls her eyes. “She thinks Rich is a bad influence. They’d play cards and a few months ago, Pete lost a bunch of money. Jane got incredibly pissed. She was close to paying off a credit card and was going to use the money for that. She told Pete she didn’t want him to hang around Rich.”
“And that ended it?”
“As far as Jane knows. I get the feeling they still hang out on the sly.”
Huh. Guess if I had the option, that’s how I’d conduct most of my marriage. On the sly.
All talk of marriage and the sly ends when Rich steps out of the apartment, carrying a mop and a bucket. The screen shakes as Carol slips back into her hiding place. It goes black and there is some shallow breathing. (Welcome to the New Age Obscene Phone Call.) After several seconds, Carol’s face appears.
“The coast is clear,” she says.
“Go to it,” I say.
“All right, but I’m going to have to stick you in my pocket.”
I let about fifteen smartass remarks pass as the screen goes black again. I can hear the rattling of the lock as Carol works on it. I’m getting nervous, even in the relative anonymity of my living room. I’ve grown used to Mike’s quick work at lock picking. I’m forcibly reminded that Carol is a rank amateur (which is to her credit as a person, if not as an asset to this mission). Finally, the screen slides around again, and Carol comes into focus.
“I’m in,” she whispers, “I can’t believe this actually worked.” She shakes her head. “Ugh. I’m going to hate telling Mike that.”
Carol flips the phone around so I can look at the apartment with her. The layout is fairly simple: a large living room, a thin kitchen, a separated area that qualifies loosely as a “dining room.” A short hallway leads to the bedroom and the bathroom. The place hasn’t exactly been kept up. Clothes, books and magazines are strewn about. The trash bins are overfilled. Dirty dishes are piled on the counter next to the sink. Even through the phone’s camera, a thick layer of dust is visible on most surfaces.
“This is the guy responsible for maintaining your building, huh?” I say.
The disgust is clear in Carol’s voice. “I hope nothing ever breaks down in my apartment.”
She’s hesitant to touch anything, but nonetheless goes through drawers, picks up strewn clothes and looks under piles of discarded papers. Sadly, there’s no sign of the brooch. She opens a small closet in the kitchen. It contains little more than a trash can and a broom. The camera shakes as Carol steps back.
“Oh God,” she mumbles.
“Bad smell?” I say.
“Like a garbage dump with B.O.”
The camera flashes about, hastily. There’s a hook on the door, with a series of keys. Two hooks on the end are empty. Carol closes the door and takes another look around. Then the camera comes to a sudden halt. It spins around and Carol’s face comes into view.
“Someone’s coming in,” she says, her eyes wide, her voice a whisper.
“Hide!” I say.
Another shaking of the camera and the screen goes black again. I wait for several seconds, barely breathing. Finally, Carol’s face appears again. A shadow falls across half of it and she’s difficult to make out.
“Where are you?” I ask, whispering.
“I’m hiding in the shower,” she says, “It’s so gross in here.”
I recoil. “Just wait. See if you can find a way out.”
A thought occurs to her. “Oh my God, what if he comes in here to use the bathroom?”
I open my mouth a couple times, but any suggestion ebbs away before I can articulate it. My prevailing thought is, “Better you than me” but that’s not going to help. We sit and wait. Apparently, the door to the bathroom is open because Rich’s voice can be heard coming down the hall. From the sound of it, he’s on his phone and it’s on speaker, allowing us to hear the other end of the conversation.
“It’s been a real pain in the ass,” the voice on the end says, “I can work from home, but it’s not covering the bills. And I’m just here all the time. You know?”
“I get it,” Rich says, close, maybe out in the hallway, “But that’s my life all the time. Being stuck in the building.”
The voice on the other end sounds vaguely familiar. It’s too tinny to make out clearly, but I recognize it from some place. Thankfully, so does Carol.
“That’s Pete,” she whispers, barely audible, “Jane’s husband.”
Ah. Apparently, the dutiful husband hasn’t cut off all ties to his erstwhile drinking buddy. I’d find this a lot more interesting if not for Carol’s potential arrest and/or death. I’m tempted to step into the kitchen and refill my coffee cup, but abandoning her, even temporarily, would feel gauche.
“What about Jane?” Rich asks, “She going to get any work?”
“There’s nothing to get,” Pete says, “Offices aren’t hiring. Jane doesn’t want to do delivery work or anything. She could probably get a job at Amazon, but she doesn’t want any part of that.”
“Too bad,” Rich says, “Tough time to get on your high horse.”
“She’s trying to sell off some stuff. She’s got a lot of antiques. Stuff we don’t use. She can sell it online.”
Hmm. Carol’s brooch would be a nice little item for that business. The voices fade as Rich moves down the hallway. Carol pokes her head out of the shower, straining to listen (and maybe get some fresh air).
Rich’s voice can be heard, faintly. “You think you can get down here for another card game?”
“Can’t take the chance,” Pete says, “I’m not worried about the virus, but if Jane finds out we’ve been playing cards again…
“I get it.” Rich takes a breath. “Hey, no offense about your little woman, but she can be a real pain. You know she called me up and practically accused me of stealing her friend Carol’s brooch?”
“Yeah, I heard that,” Pete says, “She did it right after we talked with Carol and some friend of hers. The one who’s got that column online. Jim Davis?”
“Jack Davis.” Fucking assholes. “I talked to him, too.”
“I don’t know why Jane cares,” Pete says, “She hates Carol.”
Rich must be right outside the bathroom door. “Seriously? I thought they were buddy-buddy.”
“No, Jane can’t stand her. I mean, she doesn’t let Carol know that. You know how women are. She’s all smiley and friendly, but when Carol isn’t around, Jane rips her a new asshole. It’s because she thinks I have a thing for Carol.”
“Oh yeah,” Pete says, “You’ve seen her. She’s hot as hell.”
“Yeah, well, I know Jane. Let’s just leave it at that.”
The voices trail off again. Carol suddenly hops out of the shower and moves into the hallway. I’m guessing Rich has gone into the bedroom. The camera shakes as Carol runs toward the front door. Suddenly, it jumps to one side and into the kitchen. Rich’s voice is heard, coming down the hallway. Carol won’t get to the front door before Rich sees her, so she needs another hiding place. She opens the door to the little closet in the kitchen. There’s a moment of hesitation, then she plunges in. The screen goes dark.
“Oh dear God,” Carol says.
Rich and Pete are audible but muffled. I grip the edge of my desk. The hiding place can only be temporary. Sooner or later, Rich will throw something in the trash and discover his uninvited visitor. Assuming the smell doesn’t asphyxiate Carol long before then.
A few minutes go by, though it feels like hours. The voices fade again. Maybe Rich has gone back to the bedroom or to the bathroom. Carol peeks out of the closet. The camera is tilted up at the row of keys. A large ring now sits in one of the two empty slots at the end. I recognize it as the ring of master keys Rich showed me. None of the other keys quite resemble it. The camera lingers on it before Carol makes a move. Again, the screen shakes as she sprints through the kitchen and over to the front door. It’s like a low-rent Michael Bay film (and I don’t like high-rent Michael Bay films). Carol carefully opens and closes the front door. She runs to the staircase before pausing to catch her breath.
“Oh my God, that was so gross,” she says, “And I didn’t even find the brooch.”
“Not for a lack of looking.” I’m finally able to take a deep breath. “What do we do next?”
“I’m going home and taking a shower,” she says, “For a month.”
“Okay, fine,” I say, “Just prop me on the sink.”
“Goodbye, Joe.” And the screen goes blank.
Rough days, these.
The dirty little secret of this quarantine business is that a stay-at-home order is really more a stay-at-home suggestion. You are to stay in your home. Unless you have to go to work. Or the grocery store. Or to grab some coffee. Or to go for a walk. Or maybe a drive. Y’know what? Just don’t go to an office or a bookstore. That’s what we’re telling you here.
Personally, I haven’t lacked for much since the quarantine started. I can’t go to the health club, but I can still go for a walk or a bike ride. Really, it’s purely a mental thing, the Pavlov’s dog of confinement, when fresh air feels shocking.
I go out for a walk at least once a day. When the weather’s fine, like today, I take my laptop down to Nathan Hale Park (a little patch of park overlooking Ramsey Hill) and do some writing. Provided, of course, I can find a bench to myself and remember to bring my facemask. The ability to do work combats the feeling I’ve been let out into prison exercise yard.
Today, though, I’m not doing work. Carol has sent me the screenshots of her conversation with Jane. She took six of them before deciding which one to post on Facebook. Carol’s face is visible in a small box in the upper right corner. Jane’s face dominates the screen. Jane is apparently in the bedroom. A doorway looms behind her and the kitchen counter (which resembles my breakfast bar) is visible in the background. Pete’s yellow-topped water bottle sits on the counter. The pictures are largely indistinguishable from one another. There are two in which Jane leans to her right and blots out the view of the kitchen. Beyond that, they’re virtually the same. I should know. I’ve gone through them about eight times.
My phone buzzes in my pocket. I take it out and glance at the caller ID. It’s Mike. I answer. “Kray Brothers Corpse Disposal. You hack ‘em, we sack ‘em. Joe speaking. How can I help you?”
“Is this your new running gag?” Mike says.
“Figured I’d run it up the flagpole, see who salutes.”
“Oh, I’m giving you a salute. You just can’t see it.”
Everyone’s a critic. I switch subjects and fill him in on the screenshots and Carol’s break-in. Mike listens, patiently. He’s in need of entertainment as well. When I’m done, he considers the information.
“Sounds like Carol didn’t get much out of it,” he says.
“Beyond a smell she probably won’t be able to get out of her nostrils for a goodly number of years.”
He lets out a breath. “What are you going to do next?”
I slump back on the bench. “I don’t know. I’m looking over these screenshots, but there isn’t much here. I hate to say it, but maybe the brooch is gone for good.”
“There’s a good chance it’s been hocked already.”
“The only hope is that we can find the thief and they can tell us where the brooch is.”
He thinks about it for a second. “This Jane called the super to complain? Doesn’t sound like something a suspect would do.”
“Unless she’s trying to throw us off the scent,” I say, “Maybe me asking questions make her nervous.
“No way to know for sure.”
“Not at this point.”
With that pleasantness out of the way, we BS for a bit, trying to stay off the subject of Carol’s brooch. As soon as we ring off, I pack up my stuff and start back toward the apartment.
As I walk, carefully moving to the other side of the street when someone is coming the opposite way, something keeps picking at my brain. Something in the pictures. Heretofore, I thought them useless, but I’m beginning to wonder. It’s frustrating. Like a dream you can’t quite recall. The picture just out of focus.
Someone rides past me in the bike lane. She takes a drink from her water bottle and slips it into the holder on the frame. I stop. The picture in my head comes into focus. I step into the grass on the boulevard and take the laptop out of my backpack. I set it on the grass and go through photos again. Sure enough. There it is, right there. All of it starts to come together.
I pull the phone out of my pocket and call Mike. He answers, quickly.
“Something wrong?” he asks.
“Just the opposite,” I say, “I think I know who stole Carol’s brooch.”
“This is completely stupid,” Carol says, “I can’t believe you want me to do this again.”
I knew it was going to be a hard sell. Carol’s first experience with a solo break-in did not go well. Why would she be besotted with the idea of another? The only thing in my favor is the possible recovery of her brooch.
She paces around her apartment. “Are you sure it’s in there?”
“No,” I say, “But there’s a good chance it is. You willing to take the risk?”
Carol looks up as she considers the plan. It takes her face almost out of the frame and gives me a nice view of her ceiling. I sway back and forth in my desk chair. Again, we’re hooked up on Skype; Carol on her phone and me on my computer. Time’s a-wasting. According to Carol, Jane is getting groceries and Pete is out for a walk. Their apartment is empty, but how long is that going to last? Finally, Carol’s face returns to the frame.
“I’ll do it,” she says, “But for only two reasons. One, I really want my grandmother’s brooch back. Two, Jane and Pete are couple of two-faced assholes and they’re dead to me.”
It isn’t the most joyous response, but sometimes you have to focus on the ends rather than the means. Carol opens the door of her apartment and peeks into the hall. She holds the phone at her side, giving me a look. No one in sight. Carol moves carefully out of her apartment.
“Once I get in there,” Carol says, “Where am I going to find the brooch?”
“I’m not sure.”
Carol’s face, looking not all pleased, fills the screen. “What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s in there. I just don’t know the exact spot.”
“Then how am I going to find it?”
“You look around,” I say, “Which you’ll have more time to do if you quit arguing.”
Carol’s mouth tightens to the point of implosion. But a moment later, she’s moving again. I know she’s pissed at me. I find myself glad for social distancing.
The screen goes black as Carol slips the phone in her pocket. There’s jiggling and scraping as Carol works on the lock. It stops a moment later. Much faster than her first break-in. she’s getting better at this, whether she likes it or not. Carol takes the phone out of her pocket and I get a look at the apartment. It’s a mirror image of Carol’s. A decent-sized living room, a dining area, a thin kitchen with a counter, and a single bedroom. It’s clean and tastefully decorated, something I attribute entirely to Jane. Carol turns the camera toward her face.
“Where should I look?” she asks.
“Jane is selling off stuff for money. Look around and see if she’s gathered it anywhere.”
Carol turns the camera so I can look with her. The living room and kitchen are spotless. There are no boxes under the dining room. Same with the hall closet.
“Try the bedroom,” I say.
Carol complies. Jane’s desk is visible in the corner. It is, to be expected, neat as a pin. Carol swivels the camera toward the other corner of the room. The bed is up against one wall. Boxes are piled up next to the closet.
“I think we’ve found it,” Carol says.
“Okay, go through the boxes,” I say.
Carol sets the phone down on the nightstand, so I can see nearly everything she sees. She assists me by holding up everything she finds and tilting it toward the camera. It isn’t a promising collection. Old clothes, books, vases, paintings, various other tchotchkes. The brooch is not among them. My heart sinks into my gut.
“I thought for sure it would be here,” I mumble, “It has to be. Nothing else makes sense.”
“This doesn’t make sense,” Carol says, “You haven’t even told me how you came to this conclusion.”
“It’s a long story. I worked it out with Mike.”
Carol stops rummaging. “Wait a minute, I rate below Mike?”
“Just keep looking. We can debate this later.”
She gives me a sour look but does as I ask. She holds up a few more antiques, a scrap book and a lithograph. She’s just put the lithograph back when something hits me. I lean closer to the screen.
“Wait, wait, wait,” I say, “Go back to the scrapbook.”
Carol holds up the scrapbook. The cover is green velvet, with a recessed area under clear plastic. I study it for a moment, then practically jump to my feet.
“Look at the cover,” I say, “Dead center. Behind the plastic. What do you see?”
Carol turns the book toward her face. Her eyes get wide. “That looks exactly my grandmother’s brooch.”
She peels the plastic away and, after a little tugging, comes up with the brooch. She holds it toward the camera. It gives her a look at the back of it. The surprise causes her to drop the brooch.
“Oh my God,” she says, “The inscription on the back. This is my grandmother’s brooch!”
I slap the desktop in triumph. I knew it. Everything did work out. Logic has not been mocked. Score one for Mr. Davis.
All triumph disappears when a voice is heard offscreen. “Put the goddamn thing back.”
Carol stands up, the brooch now locked in her fist. She backs toward the boxes, but quickly realizes there’s no escape route. A moment later Pete comes into the frame. He’s holding an aluminum baseball bat. I don’t like where this is going.
Carol holds up a hand. “Six feet. Remember?”
“Fuck you,” Pete says, “Put the brooch back.”
“It belongs to Jane now.”
I pick up the phone and frantically dial 9-1-1. It feels useless. Unless a cop happens to be patrolling the building, they’ll never get there in time. Carol knows karate, but it won’t do her any good against a baseball bat. The emergency operator answers, and I babble out the situation and Carol’s address. They assure me someone is on the way. I hold on to the phone and stare at the computer. Pete takes a step forward. Carol is backed against the boxes. Pete uses the bat to point at the keepsake book.
“How did you know?” he asks.
Carol swallows hard. “A friend of mine worked it out.”
“Me,” I say, “Joe Davis.” Pete jumps back, clutching the bat, ready to swing at the ghost voice. He must not have seen the phone on the nightstand. “I’m witnessing everything,” I say, “I’d proceed carefully if I were you.”
Pete lowers the bat slightly. He speaks to me but focuses on Carol. “How did you know?”
I need to stall him. The police are on their way. I just have to give them time. “There were some screenshots,” I say, “I looked at the series. Jane had her back to the kitchen counter. In one of the shots, your water bottle was on the counter. Then there was just Jane’s face, blocking the counter. Then in the next one, the water bottle was gone. Jane never left the room. You had to be the one to move the water bottle. Meaning you didn’t actually leave the apartment when Jane was online with Carol. You overheard their conversation, right?”
Pete shuffles his feet. “Yeah. So?”
“So, we thought only Jane knew that Carol was about to step into the shower and that her apartment would be unattended. But you knew as well, right?”
He doesn’t respond. Carol looks toward the camera. “But how did he get into my apartment?” she asks.
“Hanging out with Rich, the super,” I say, “Rich had two sets of master keys. He thought he’d lost one. But he didn’t, did he, Pete? You stole the other set. During one of those card games you weren’t supposed to be attending. That’s how you got into Carol’s place and stole the brooch.”
Pete remains silent, but the angry look on his face tells me I’m on to something. Carol’s head swivels between Pete and the phone camera.
“I don’t get it,” she says, “Why would you steal the brooch?”
I answer for Pete. “To replace the one he’d already stolen. The one he didn’t think he’d need to replace. Until Jane planned to sell off some old keepsakes. Right, Pete?”
He doesn’t offer up an answer. This time, though, it’s not out of petulance over being caught. He’s distracted by something. He disappears from the frame, moving, I assume, to the windows.
“Cops!” he says, his voice coming in from offscreen, “What the fuck?” He comes back into the frame, pointing the bat at Carol. “You called them!”
She waves a hand toward the camera. “My phone is over there.”
Pete looks my direction. “It was you?”
I don’t say anything. The pause is enough to let Pete know who the guilty party is. He lunges toward the nightstand and takes a swing at the phone. There’s a crash and the screen is jostled. Then more crashing and screaming and yelling. I jump back and forth in front of my computer screen, wondering what the hell is going on. All I can see is the ceiling. Then Carol’s face appears. She seems to be in one piece.
“That was exciting,” she says, out of breath.
“You take care of the guy?” I say, leaning toward the computer.
“Not really,” she says, “I had to keep my distance. Six feet and all. I had a little help.”
She raises the camera, and someone appears over her shoulder. A guy in a yellow hazmat suit. Mike’s face is visible through the visor.
“So, next time you think me, or Lars has a stupid idea…?” he says.
Ugh. Yet another victim of the pandemic: my high horse.
If I had to do this whole quarantine thing over again (beyond retiring to a well-stocked cabin in the woods right around January), I would have invested my meager savings in Zoom. Seriously, The Beatles didn’t go from obscurity to superstardom as fast as this application. While I’m normally a little slow to embrace such things, the opportunity to do happy hour with friends eases the adjustment.
In one corner of the screen, Lars, his quasi-pompadour and his orchestra, holds up the glass of Hefeweizen sitting on his breakfast bar. “Here’s to the hazmat suit,” he says, “And to Carol’s continued good health.”
Carol is sitting on her sofa and sipping a glass of white wine. “It was a close one.” She looks to where Mike is located on her computer screen. “How did you know I needed help?”
“Joe texted me before you broke into the apartment,” he says, “When I realized who you were dealing with, I thought you might need some help.”
Carol looks down, torn. She’s grateful to Mike, but hates being in his debt. She waves her glass. “Okay, let me in on all of this. Jane had a keepsake book with a brooch on the cover. This brooch looked exactly like my grandmother’s brooch, right?”
I swivel in my desk chair, sipping red wine from an old jar. “That’s correct. Pete stole and hocked the original brooch. I guess he figured Jane would never find out. But then she wanted to sell off her stuff and she’d certainly notice the brooch was missing. Pete knew Carol had a similar brooch, so he stole it and put it in the book. He figured once Jane sold off the book, he’d never have to worry about it again.”
Carol tucks the white wine glass under her chin. “Why did he steal the original brooch?”
“He needed the money,” I say, “Turns out he had another issue with gambling debt. One of Rich’s card games. He had borrowed some money and needed to keep the loan shark at bay. Like you do.”
“How did you figure that out?” Lars asks.
I wave the jar toward Mike’s corner of the screen, “I have Mike to thank for that.”
Mike clears his throat. “I’m familiar with Barney Hanrehan. He’s a loan shark. And don’t let the name fool you. He might sound, look and act like a geek, but the guy’s a predator. Not somebody you want to owe money to. I had a friend get in trouble with him once. It, uh, it didn’t end well.”
Carol slumps back on the sofa. “Wow. No wonder Pete was in a panic.”
“Exactly,” I say, “Pete got out of debt with Barney Hanrehan, but then he had to deal with the only person on earth he feared more than Barney Hanrehan.”
“His wife,” Carol says.
Lars slides his beer around the counter. “Desperate as this fella was, it sounds like you’re lucky to be alive, Carol. After he went for you with the baseball bat.”
A chill feels the Zoom meeting. Carol shakes her head, the full depth of her debt to Mike becoming clear. Squiggy hops into my lap and I sip my wine.
“On the bright side,” I say, “Pete’s in police custody. Which keeps him safe from his wife. I wonder how Jane’s doing.”
Carol says, “I don’t know” and Mike simultaneously says, “She’s hanging in there.” They both stop and I half-expect them to look each other’s direction, ala The Brady Bunch. Carol narrows her eyes.
“How do you know that?” she says, slowly.
Mike avoids eye contact with the camera. “Just one of those things. I got a hold of her. Thought she might need someone talk to. A shoulder to lean on.” He mumbles into his drink. “A guy to move on to.”
Carol power-rolls her eyes. I drop my forehead to the rim of my glass, covering a smile. Lars slaps the breakfast bar and holds up his pint glass in a toast.
“Well, I wish you kids the best of luck,” he says.
Our Lars. He’s got his thumb on the pulse of the situation. Only to find out that’s not the part of the body where you check the pulse. Meantime, Carol holds the brooch up for the camera.
“The important thing is that I got my brooch back,” she says, “And I have you all to thank for it.” There’s a pause and Carol says, quietly, “I miss you guys.”
None of us knows what to say to that. We all look down or toy with our drinks. I clear my throat. “We all stay in touch,” I say, “I mean, we’re here now.”
“It’s not the same,” Carol says.
“I know,” I say.
We sip our drinks and say nothing. We all take it day-to-day, but every now and again, you realize how much life has changed, suddenly and it sometimes feels irrevocably. I lean toward the computer screen.
“The couple of times I ran the Twin Cities Marathon,” I say, “I used to have a beer the night before. Figured it wouldn’t break my training too badly. I’d do a little toast, thinking about the beer I was going to have after the marathon, when all the suffering was done. I’d lift a glass and say, ‘Here’s to the one after.’” I raise my glass. “Here’s to the one after.”
Lars breaks into a toothy grin and hoists his glass. “Here’s to the one after.”
Mike and Carol follow suit. That done, we chitchat about what we’re binge-watching, what little exercise we’ve gotten, what ridiculous games we’re playing on social media. It feels like our old conversations. It’s how we’re getting through it. How we will get through it.
I guess that’s how you survive temporary misery. You hold on to the things that endure.