Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Power of Life and Death by Arthur Davis

Albert Mercante, a quiet man bored with his marriage, witnesses a gangland killing, but will he have the courage to do the right thing? by Arthur Davis.

Albert Mercante was not a brave man. The retired sixty-four year old English teacher who, along with his wife Bea, had earned his tenure in the New York City schoolrooms considered himself fortunate to have served in a district where you did not measure success by how well you survived the day. But he did believe in fate.

Inwardly Albert knew his good fortune began when he first garnered the attention of one Bea Hastings, an attentive, affectionate girl originally from Armonk, New York, who also believed that life was a matter of doing your best, throwing in a little prayer, and of course when all else failed, serving an ebullient bowl of chicken soup to quell the vicissitudes of life.

Creatures of such belief often follow the precept of continuity. Organizing a neat and orderly world in an environment where change was the only constant offered a sense of needed stability. So Albert and Bea Mercante worshipped at the altar of regularity and constancy, sacrificing both imagination and daring, and were thereby anchored in a harbor of safety.

Bea Mercante was just as devoted a mother as she was a wife, providing tender times and firm direction. She was both a source of pride to her family and resource to her neighbors. But of late she had become less enchanted with her role, not because she wanted more or something different, but because she sensed that her partner of a lifetime did. There was nothing concrete she could point to, but waves in the ethers that surrounded her beloved Albert had recently become unstable, and it was that unpredictability that stiffened her antennae, flushing up primal fears from her roots.

Albert and Bea played bridge every Thursday night. Bea was better because she was more focused, less given to distraction. They splurged on Broadway shows several times a year with friends they had grown up with, and shopped at the Village Farmer's Market at 14th Street and Fifth Avenue every Saturday morning. Dominic Ferraro was there too, only he wasn't interested in food, unless he was ordering it with a flourish in an expensive restaurant.

Ferraro owned the Village Farmer's Market and others like it in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago, leasing out space at premium rates to local farmers who sold the finest produce, fresh bread, cookies, and cakes, and artisans whose stalls were crammed with expensive handcrafted candles, blankets, jewelry, leather ware, clothing, and curios. And business was excellent in his cavernous Manhattan warehouse. He spent heavily on promotions and culinary demonstrations to entice and inform his customers. A new high-rise residential complex had recently gone up in the neighborhood doubling the number of weekend shoppers.

This Saturday morning in late March, Dominic Ferraro met Albert Mercante. It wasn't the kind of introduction where two men shook hands, compared jobs, families, and birth dates, and shared the unpredictable idiosyncrasies of their wives. It was the kind where one watched the other get gunned down in front of a dozen terrified people as oranges, tomatoes, and zucchini were catapulted from bags and bystanders grabbed their offspring, ducked behind food bins, and prayed.

"I didn't see who did it," Albert repeated to what seemed to be every man with a badge after the police and ambulances arrived amidst a bloodstained flurry of hysteria and chaos. The only thing Albert admitted was that he was closest to Dominic Ferraro, that when the gun went off behind him he turned and saw Ferraro grasp his side and hit the sawdust-covered wood floors by the time the third shot rang out. Mercante ducked down, away from the direction of the gunfire, and it was only because he wanted to see where he was falling that he even noticed Ferraro's crumpled body.

"Officer, if I could help, I would have," he said to the unshaven detective from the 39th precinct who drove him and a badly-shaken Bea Mercante home later that afternoon. "I was just a bystander," he said to a network newspaper reporter who had already decided he needed a hero for his evening byline.

The late March sky swelled with a light shade of gray foreboding before it darkened completely. The Mercantes sat in rigid, reflective silence in their kitchen; neither speaking, but clutching their favorite coffee mugs - the ones Cara, their oldest girl, had given them for their tenth anniversary. Bea was genuinely concerned with Albert's health. Neither was young anymore. But she was having trouble reaching out to him, offering him the full measure of her compassion which was tainted by her problematic suspicions. What if it was only a late mid-life crisis, she questioned, instead of something more personally threatening? She reached out for his hand. It was cold, unresponsive in her grasp.

"Do you want to cancel going out with Sid and Winney tonight?"

Albert wasn't listening. He hadn't been, really, for most of the morning before they were plunged into near tragedy. Well before they had arrived at the farmer's market, his attention had turned to Jessica Wilkins; a woman twelve years younger who returned to the school where they used to teach before moving to California with her second husband three years ago. Jessica and Albert knew each other as professionals and once, in an encounter in the high school cafeteria she had given him a note that hinted something that a man - a quiet, reconciled man like Albert Mercante - does not easily forget.

Bea got up and came around to him. The paramedic that had bandaged Albert's bruised elbow had cautioned both to be alert to the possibility of post stress trauma. She ran her fingers over the edge of the bandage remembering how fortunate she was to have been shopping for raspberry tortes several aisles away from him when Ferraro was murdered. "Are you all right?"

The image of a strange woman flashed before him, but there was little emotion to feed it on. "What if you had been with me when he was killed?"

"Then I would be the hero and you would be fawning over me."

"You know what I mean."

Bea tightened the woolen shawl over her shoulders and stood up, making an exaggerated attempt to straighten her posture. She had noticed a stoop in her back staring at her in their bathroom mirror just last Christmas. It worried her. It bothered her more that it might have been a fixture of her character long before that holiday. "I'm just glad we're both here to reflect on this."

The image of Jessica Wilkins, with her dark hair neatly pinned back in an old-fashioned bun, her crisp white blouse and the posture she had inherited from her Marine grandfather quickly dissolved. It bothered Albert that his recall of this image was so accessible. "He's got my wallet."

"Who?"

"Whoever killed that guy."

Bea flushed with adrenaline and fear. She had once lost her wallet. Beyond the frantic calls to cancel credit cards, her whole world had to be reconstructed. Many of her most precious baby photos of Cara and Jonathan were lost. "I didn't hear you tell that to the police."

"I didn't realize it was missing until we were in the squad car coming home."

She didn't want to panic. Albert needed her now more than ever. "Anyone could have picked it up. You might have lost it on the bus we took to get there."

Albert didn't believe that, but there was no harm in allaying Bea's apprehension. It had already been a difficult day. "Possibly." But Albert could not, would not, let go of the scraping suspicion that out of all the people caught up in that hellish maelstrom, the killer had marked him and would come after him through his own carelessness. It would happen just that way. That's the kind of thing Albert Mercante expected out of life.

"I think you should call up the police, that detective who gave you his card, and let him know. Just in case," she said in that tone women get when they want you to know the issue is settled and there's no reason for further deliberation.

Albert looked across the table at her through a strange sense of disaffection. She was worried about him. She always was. But today it was not enough. Not at all comforting. Albert got up and made the call, explaining his concern about the wallet falling into the wrong hands, all the while thinking that his circumstances were more threat of retribution than coincidence. "You're a married man," he heard himself chant inwardly as the detective expressed doubt that his wallet would ever be returned. But Albert, ever watchful of the slinking symptoms of diminished luck, believed the next time he had such thoughts about another woman, the gunshots would be a lot closer.

The Mercantes spent the rest of the day responding to friends as rumors spread and their faces appeared briefly on local news. At first Bea was apprehensive, though as the congratulations and admiration for her husband's implied bravery poured in, she thought better of her reluctance and began to enjoy the publicity. Albert was cordial, giving detailed accounts, though there was painfully little to tell, then fell into a stupor of indifference, counting his blessings more than his bravery.

"They wanted to send a message," one of Bea's bridge partners advised over the phone. "You don't gun down a man in broad daylight in front of hundreds of people and not want the word to get around."

"You sound like an authority," Bea responded, while watching Albert sit silently in his favorite living room chair, his face riddled with uncertainty. Bea would have given much to know what was gnawing at him. "I have such an expert on gangsters for a husband?"

The balance of the night brought little relief to Albert Mercante. He blamed himself for encouraging, as if his natural warmth could be misconstrued, Jessica's suggestive cafeteria comments, and for standing next to Dominic Ferraro. His father had counseled that there were "reasons for everything." Years later Albert offered his children the same equally solemn intonations.

Albert believed as he had been taught. He also believed that, with time, the vision he caught as he fell would bring itself into focus as the face of the killer - a man who had fired two bullets into the thick chest of Dominic Ferraro. When Bea inquired why someone would want to murder such an agreeable man, one of the detective's mentioned offhand that Ferraro's recent success may have made him less interested in keeping up his protection payments.

Bea was startled. Albert listened, thinking that grasping the reasons for death were not as important as preserving the frail sanctity of life. There was nothing more he could do about the murder of Dominic Ferraro, and he'd just as soon redirect his attention toward solving the quagmire of his own predicament.

"Supposedly, the guy went crazy, bananas, when they raised his protection fee," the detective continued. "According to one of our informants, he flat out refused to pay. Guess this was their answer."

By the time Bea finished her phoning, especially to the kids, it was bedtime. Albert affixed himself to a hockey game on television and avoided the news channels. He promised her he would be up in a minute as a vision of the killer finally emerged full-face, thoughtfully during the intermission between the second and third period. The man was over six feet tall and two hundred pounds. A thick-skinned man with dark, deep-set eyes. He was wearing a black turtleneck sweater under a dark leather jacket with the collar pulled up tightly around his neck. The man's presentation wasn't sinister, it was ordinary for a large man.

There were several witnesses who gave parts of this description to the police, but from the composite completed by the police artist who spoke to the more enthusiastic of the patrons of the farmers market that day, the sketch looked nothing like the vision tracing its way into Albert's recall.

It was a face that fit neatly, conveniently, in a crowd, or a smoky pool hall or where your name meant less than your reputation. The man was perfect as a killer - there was nothing too distinct or out of the ordinary unless you considered the eyes. Albert had done little else as the hockey game ended and an old black and white Western began. Bea called down from the top of the stairs for the second time. He reluctantly gave up the diversion, switched off the lights and made his way up to bed.

Somewhere between getting into his pajamas and kissing Bea goodnight, the face of the killer and that of Jessica Wilkins merged into a vague juxtaposed montage of what Albert could only describe as what Bea looked like as a young woman.

Bea finally fell asleep, accepting the fact that her fear of aging, and not substance, was driving her suspicions of her beloved Albert. How could she even think such foolishness. She wanted to give him another kiss goodnight, but she knew it would wake him.

The next day Albert called the school and asked that his name be temporarily pulled from the substitute teachers list. He did this because it made sense, it was Bea's suggestion, and he knew that he might run into Jessica Wilkins who was substituting for a history teacher on maternity leave. He wanted to avoid future encounters, concluding that they might be misinterpreted, by both parties.

But he had already thought, as he believed was natural, about the possibility of starting over, and with a woman who clearly admired and respected him. Not that he didn't love Bea, and she continued her outward adoration for him. But there was something so appealing about the fantasy, about being pursued, and who's to know if Bea was having second thoughts about the future of their love for reasons he may have found confounding.

Such was the depth of Albert Mercante's apprehension that he eagerly agreed to pick up the groceries at the Village Farmer's Market and a blouse being altered for Bea, the next day. It was both a relief and diversion to be alone and out of the house, though regrettably, some cause for future anguish. When he returned to his car there was a man sitting in the front seat leafing through one of Bea's bridge books. Albert knew immediately it wasn't the police.

"Relax, I'm not going to hurt you," the man said after one of the two men standing nearby made it clear that Albert would be better served by getting into the car and not taking flight. The man finished the page, tossed the book in the backseat, and turned full face towards Albert.

Had Albert finished the chapter and not taken the book with him this encounter would have never happened. He wanted to best Bea at bridge. That was the only thing missing from his total mastery. He felt it would have made him more complete. More commanding. More appealing.

Instantly, it was the man's eyes, even though shadow shielded his face, and the inside of the car was naturally dark, on this naturally dark and menacing day. The two other large men assumed their positions leaning against a nearby car. Albert also accepted the fact that if this man wanted him dead, he would already have been lying face down in a swampy New Jersey ditch with a bullet in the back of his head.

"What do you want?"

The man stared absently through the dirty windshield at the movement in the parking lot. The glass needed cleaning. Albert had thought to have the car washed Saturday before they went to the market. He was frightened and thrilled to be so close to a man who possessed such flagrant contempt for society that he could walk into a crowd and gun down another man in broad daylight. Albert was only momentarily uncomfortable with this primitive admiration.

"What did you buy?"

Albert also watched people milling about nearby cars, talking, pointing - men who had been home or elsewhere and not at the farmer's market the other day. "Groceries."

"I got my marching orders too," he said patting his breast pocket.

Albert looked on skeptically.

"You don't believe I have a family?"

"I wouldn't know." He contritely positioned his hands on his lap. He felt confined. Trapped.

The man pulled a shopping list from his pocket. "Even guys like me have to eat."

Albert couldn't allow himself a response. And he didn't believe that the man had a family. Who could love such a man? How could he father children? How did he come to his skills? Albert knew the man was going to kill him, but he wanted something first. He wanted to prove he was a man, and not a man whose life had so little purpose or value.

"You saw me, didn't you?" the man asked as cars pulled into empty spots and moved out of the parking lot.

Albert chilled. Even though he had been anticipating the directness of this question, he didn't quite realize the hard echo it would generate within his timid heart. His only comfort was the image of Bea's shawl. Do men wear shawls? he asked himself, as he searched for a response that would not end his life. "It all happened so fast," he answered, again remembering how a short woman, at least ten years his senior, answered one of the officers at the market yesterday.

"That's what you told the police. Over and over and over."

Albert didn't like the fact that the man was openly ridiculing of him. "Only because they asked over and over and over."

The man watched curiously as steam vapors spewed from between his lips in the unheated car. "Cold day. I like the cold weather."

"I don't."

"Not many people do. It agrees with me."

Men like that probably had no use for what others thought or felt. It was impossible for Albert to put himself in this man's place.

"You sweat too much in the summer. A man, you know, especially one my size, can't get comfortable. In the winter, you have shirts and sweaters and jackets. You have gloves. I have a collection of cashmere-lined, calf-skin gloves from France."

"Gloves," Albert parroted back as though both men finally reached a common ground. Gloves on hands on guns pulling triggers sending bullets deep into bodies. Gloves on hands wrapped around knives that are plunged into bodies. Gloves stretched around fingers reached out into the darkness squeezing against sinews of throat. Expensive French gloves bought to impress and conceal. And worn with contempt.

The man's hands were sizable. Albert once worked with a teacher whose hands could have easily been compared to this man's. Except the teacher preached the discipline of biology. A fine, dignified man with a fine family who probably never thought to impose himself over another man's life or take a woman to bed behind his wife's trusting back.

"You can get warm. Food tastes better in the winter. I even like the snow," he chortled on. "It's bad for the old people, skidding around on the ice, but it makes me feel better. Now, a few more weeks of cool weather then Spring and then the Summer."

Albert wondered if the man was referring to him as one of the "old people." "Not for Dominic Ferraro," Albert heard himself comment with an unaccustomed boldness. How unlike his natural timidity. Yet he did think he was holding up rather well under the circumstances and precariousness of his future. Albert also felt an exhilaration that he knew had been missing all his life, even if it meant keeping company with mistresses and executioners.

The man pivoted slowly towards Albert. "Do you know who I am?"

What did it matter? Albert thought. You only die once. "No."

"You will, Mr. Mercante. Tomorrow you're going to asked to identify me from a police mug shot."

"Why?"

"Because the police aren't through with you."

"I told them all I knew." That was less true today than it was yesterday.

"You never tell the police all you know. People recall things, faces, days and weeks later. The cops know this so they keep coming back at you. They never give up."

"Did someone else identify you?"

The man surveyed Albert. The old man did not yet pose a threat. And through it all, especially from all the news accounts, the geezer had showed some spunk. The man admired that. He didn't want to kill him and draw more attention to his presence, but he was not averse to taking another life. That was what he did. It was a necessary part of his work. More than once, he questioned why others didn't realize how cheap and fleeting life really was. "Not yet. And I expect they'll be smarter than that."

"Then how did they make the connection?" Albert asked, bemused at the ease of this conversation; as though he were exchanging reminiscences with a man who had returned from travels and was renewing the acquaintance of an old friend. Just talk, and yet it was thrilling, an excitement he had never felt, though wasn't prepared to fully embrace.

"You know, you're not what I thought you would be."

Albert's eyes widened. He was unsure, though experiencing a flash of relief. "Is that a compliment?"

"Most witnesses are small, frightened people."

Albert grabbed the steering wheel tightly. "Don't let size fool you. Most big men let their guard down when a small man comes into a room. It's not smart." He had learned this from a policeman who had once lectured at an assembly at school. None of the children seemed to listen, but Albert made mental notes, determined to find a way to use this revealing precept in some future conversation.

"You have spunk, old man."

"I have a family I love and the only reason you're here is to threaten that."

"Have I threatened you?"

"Not yet, but you will if you think I am going to identify you to the police."

"The name is Connors. Teddy Connors. Teddy the Tool, they call me. I used to own a tool and die company over in Newark some years ago. I'm an engineer by trade. You wouldn't think it to look at me. I mean I have an education."

"And now?"

"Now I'm just like everyone else. I run a business, and I mind my own business unless I'm crossed."

Albert couldn't restrain himself any longer. If he was going to be killed, let it be done quickly. "I told them I didn't see you."

The man turned, resignation blanched his face. "It doesn't matter much now does it?"

Albert wanted to get angry, become enraged if only silently, but the man did not instill such emotions. He was polite, almost cordial in his candor. He had killed a man, and that was part of his business. America had become the land of guns and complacency. "If you thought I saw you, why didn't you just threaten or kill me."

"Is that what you think I would do?"

"You gunned down a man. You don't seem afraid of the law. Or of being caught," Albert said, alarmed that curiosity had overtaken fear.

"I killed Dominic Ferraro because he had two of my men, as you said, gunned down last week in a parking lot at the LA Airport. Did you read about it?"

Albert had. And been thrilled by the boldness of the venture. "Yes."

"In broad daylight."

"It was just after lunch."

"Then you know why I did what I did and the way I did it?"

Apparently Bea's friend, the one with the instincts of a gangster, was correct. "It was horrible, the newspapers said."

"Murder is always horrible, Albert. No matter who you kill, there are always friends or brothers or sons who will remember what you've done. There's always the threat of retribution. I have already received threats for what happened yesterday. That's why those men, and two others you can't see, shadow me night and day."

Albert was impressed with the men flanking his car. They were big, foreboding types you see in television gangland movies. The kind he had sometimes wished he could be. They represented the darkest side of society. They looked so out of place in a parking lot filled with women dragging their children in tow and husbands pushing carts filled with a week's worth of groceries. "Then why do it?"

"Because sometimes you have no choice."

Albert listened to the words slip out without being tethered to a conscience while watching a friend of his wife's pass two cars away. She didn't recognize him. He never liked her, but Bea insisted that she was a good woman at heart. Albert Merchant's dyspeptic predilection was that he happened to believe just the opposite about most people. He also happened to believe that the man sitting next to him would never have addressed him as he had unless he wanted a favor. That meant he needed Albert alive, if only temporarily.

"I didn't say anything."

"I know that, Albert. I know exactly what you said. I also know you must have had your reasons why you didn't tell them."

Albert recalled giving his statement to one detective, then another. He assumed they compared notes, but never that one or both or the officers processing the final report was accessible to this man. "I just wasn't sure."

"I believe you. You wouldn't want to implicate an innocent man."

"No. Certainly not."

"Well, that's the problem here, you see. Not yours, of course, but mine. You see one woman in the crowd, she was standing off to the side with her groceries, which she dropped, I am sad to say, thinks she saw a man answering my description. With the help of a police sketch artist, her representation came pretty close to me."

All this time Albert was thinking how - if - he would explain why he was late coming home with the groceries. He thought for a moment; why should he have to explain? Why did he always have to explain? Bea wasn't like that when he married her. He wondered if Jessica Wilkins would be so demanding. "Then they already think you did it?"

Connors shifted uneasily in the small seat. "Right now it's one of their theories."

"Well, I didn't say you were there."

"I know Albert, I know," he said in an uncharacteristically comforting manner, "Only, it may not be enough."

"Then I don't understand, what's this got to do with me?"

"You really didn't see me, did you?"

"I turned and saw a flash. That's all."

"Exactly what you told the police. Short and to the point."

Albert was visibly upset by this. There was only one way Connors could be so certain of the details of his testimony. Seeing police corruption in the movies is not the same as having it visit you in your car. "What do you want?"

Connors moved closer. His jacket opened, exposing the butt of a pistol slung next to his ribcage. "More of the same."

Albert was confused. "I already told them all I know."

"Albert, see, the thing is I need your help. I realize you don't have to help me, but I would be very grateful."

Albert thought he had done and said whatever he had to say or do. "For what?"

"Tomorrow, the detectives who interviewed you are going to ask you to repeat your story in front of a third detective. It seems that what little description you gave them does not coincide with this woman's account of what happened. That inconsistency between her testimony and yours is important to me. The more you make out of your story, and go out of your way to discredit what she says, the greater the chance their case will collapse."

The man wanted a simple favor Albert concluded, and was not as threatening as he first feared. "They'll ask me the same questions?"

"Exactly. Nothing you've not been asked before."

"So all you want me to do is repeat what I've already said."

"No more than that, though I would appreciate more emphasis. You don't have to get adamant. You know what I mean."

"Yes. I see."

"Albert, they know there was bad blood between Ferraro and me. It goes back a long way. They already questioned me about the killings in LA. They know I lost two men. They know I would never let something like that stand unanswered. And it's not about paying for protection for his markets. If they told you it was for that, they're dumber than I thought."

"Just business," Albert said silently speculating on the tone of the conversation this man or his associates were going to have with the woman who gave the most reliable identification. Perhaps Teddy Connors' visit with her might not be as cordial. Albert did not want to speculate further about what they might do to her if she showed the slightest hesitation to recant.

Albert Mercante believed in the value of simplicity, the art of clarity, and the proof of the truth. Yet he was being asked to breach all he believed, or was he overstating the nature of a simple request? He was left to rearrange the woolen material of his jacket shoulder where Connors' large hand, the same one he had seen hold the gun, had rested, patted, and squeezed only moments earlier. Albert sat in his car a long time after Connors closed the door and disappeared in the maze of abandoned shopping carts and parked cars.

Fragments of Jessica Wilkins' thoughtful stare returned, long-lost parts of his life with Bea passed by hurriedly, images of his children and parents visited him but their genuineness seemed greatly diminished. He watched a car nearly back up into an old man scurrying along with an oversized bag of groceries. Albert knew he was close to that man's age. How quickly fate rejects our sense of momentary complacency with a puzzle, with a test of courage and confidence, or a challenge to our humanity, he thought.

Albert started the engine, but he didn't have his heart in it. He quickly switched off the ignition. How could he simply drive home and explain his cowardice? Would Bea understand? Would Jessica? At first, he thought Connors' appearance was linked to the disappearance of his wallet. But it wasn't. His wallet was out still there and now Albert Mercante had a new and even more disturbing problem. He knew that by the time he got home the police might have already called him and requested that he reappear. One of the detectives who marked their diligence with thoughtful, reassuring statements; one or both was making a living within a living.

"You look terrible," Bea said taking the bag of groceries from him.

"The car wouldn't start. I sat a while until it turned over."

"You seem very upset."

"A delayed reaction to yesterday, I think. I have a headache. I'm going to go upstairs and close my eyes a while. I'm exhausted."

Bea came up several times that afternoon to see how he was doing. Each time she found him resting comfortably. Each time she was misled by his unresponsiveness. His eyes were closed. But he was transfixed by Jessica Wilkins' note posted securely on the back of his lids where it had been since the moment he closed his eyes. The thrill of something so illicit, regardless of his motivation, was intoxicating to Albert Mercante, a man who was unknowingly trying to reenact the passion of what he thought should have been a more adventurous life.

My Very Dearest Albert:
I am trusting you with this note, as this note entrusts you with my heart. I returned some months ago because my life in California had no further purpose. Lawrence, my husband, passed away after a prolonged illness. I still grieve at this loss, but realize life must go on. Perhaps, with a renewed acceptance of how brief it can be, for all of us.
I sold his business so, for the first time in my life, my financial security was not an issue. I could return to my family, my neighborhood, and my longing which, with Lawrence's passing, had now become the driving unresolved issue in my life.
I will not dwell on the fact that I am aware of the regard you hold for your wife. I find this apparent everywhere I go. Whomever I speak to holds you both up as models of love and uncommon devotion.
Should that ever change, should tragedy strike your good fortune as it did mine, or should you ever wish to take my hand as a friend or more, you should know that all these years I have in my own way been as in love with you, as devoted and admiring of you, as any woman on earth.
With the greatest affection,
J.W.

Albert didn't count how many times he had read this note, picking apart the sentences, probing the inferences, unsuccessfully trying to recount his earlier interactions with Jessica Wilkins, which he had thought were innocuous enough. Though he had some reason for suspicion that his intentions were not entirely academic. That had been so long ago, and with no communication, how could she have arrived at such a desperate, unrealistic conclusion? Was he that transparent, or was he only to Jessica? He wanted to defend Bea, her rights as his wife, the mother of his children, and the one he loved. And during Jessica's life in California he had thought about her only in passing, never with the stirring that she seemed to possess about him, but rather an admiration for following her husband, an ill man whose life expectancy, just about now, seemed to match his.

It had been only a week since he had received the sealed note. In that time, Jessica had not been called to substitute teach. But in the past, she had worked five or six days every month. It was only a matter of time before she would reappear and, from that moment forward, expect a more tangible response. When Albert returned to school, he knew he would be greeted as something of a hero. And something more of a confessed coward to himself. He would be questioned by the principal who would be concerned that he was not hurt and more, that his notoriety would not disrupt his classes.

The next day the detectives called and asked him to return for additional questioning. He was willing, to a point, and was picked up in a squad car which thrilled the neighborhood children, but which only meant he was about to be tested on a subject that was riddled with trick questions, the wrong answers to which could end his life. He knew he was clever enough, and really, what was the issue? He had already answered these questions. He had to focus. He had to be better than Bea at bridge.

Now, however, his job was substantially more directed. He could no longer be as casual, indifferent, or distant from the details of his story. He had to convince the detectives that there was no doubt in his mind and he had to make his act persuasive, so much so that when it was reported back to Connors, and he knew now that it would be, it would erase all doubt as to his hesitancy. The squad car pulled up and he was ushered to the same interrogation room. He was greeted warmly by the detectives who offered him a fresh cup of coffee and apologized for the continued inconvenience. They mentioned something about how appreciative they were that he had taken his civic duty so seriously, but he wasn't paying attention.

Albert swelled with confidence and pride and considered himself particularly persuasive as they lead him through each step of the incident. After two hours, they were convinced, even if they missed a peculiarity of his whereabouts of the previous Sunday and the agreement he had struck with one Teddy the Tool. Albert Mercante had testified on behalf of the murderer, but for a very special favor.

"Who do you want killed?" Connors had asked, only half seriously after the old man proposed terms. He was more amused than offended, so great was his focus on the tale he wished be reported just so to the police without gusto or embellishment, so as to convince without question.

"I don't know yet."

One of Connors' men tapped on the front windshield with his wristwatch. Connors nodded. "You go in there and give the performance of your life and then we'll talk."

"No."

Halfway out of Albert's car, Connors turned, with a visible shade of pique "Excuse me?"

"That's not good enough."

Almost patronizingly, "Albert, right now you're a concern to me, don't make yourself an inconvenience."

Albert braced himself, exactly as he had seen so many times on television, when the hero was about to confront the villain. "You know what impressed me the most about the murder of Dominic Ferraro? Well, I'll tell you; it was with the sheer indifference of the act. That indifferent look I saw in your eyes just as you pulled the trigger for the second time."

Connors eased back into his seat, no longer indolent with disinterest. "Then you did see."

"Everything," Albert said lying beyond the envelope of his capabilities. "But it doesn't matter now, as you've already said. If I said I did to the police, I would have disappeared."

"You would have disappeared dead."

"Just my point Mr. Connors, so why are you so alarmed that somebody besides yourself has an agenda? I am not trying to blackmail you. I would never think of such a thing. It is a simple and unthreatening request. Not even a favor for a favor. Let's say a favor from an admirer, which of course, you are under no obligation to fulfill."

"Then you really do want me to kill someone?" Connors concluded, with the hint of a newly-found respect for Albert Mercante.

"I want to know that when and if the time comes and I pick up a phone you will give my request the consideration it deserves."

Albert remembered speaking slowly, with a contained confidence during the questioning. The two original officers noticed the properly measured sentences, as though they had been rehearsed in front of a mirror; in fact, they had. The third officer, a Lieutenant Chris Robinson sat in the corner watching, but never interrupting. Albert could feel his presence. He could only speculate how far the hand of Teddy Connors' payroll extended. These men made fifty or sixty thousand a year, including overtime. In some parts of America, that would comfortably service a family of four. In New York, it was hardship pay.

"It went just like the other day," Albert answered Bea after he returned home from the second interrogation. "They even offered me coffee and some dry crumb cake." The crumb cake was a lie.

This was a different Albert Mercante. You wouldn't know it to look at the man whose pallor rarely varied beyond off-white and sallow, or his slight bend, or the sustained green iridescence of his often-empty glare.

He had walked on the beach of life, stumbled upon a lamp, and a genie with a gun and an instinctive impunity had been brought forth. A wish, just one, had been granted, but it was a wish for the worst. This genie couldn't save lives, grant absolution, change the course of raging rivers, grace you with compassion or wisdom, or fulfill dreams. He could simply take lives, property if you wished too. Albert found himself empowered as he never had before. It didn't seem to matter how his newfound strength manifested itself.

With some satisfaction, the kind a student might have felt after procuring the answers to a test he was taking the next morning, Albert Mercante settled down with his dilemma. Bea's love and affection didn't make it any easier. Even before Jessica had returned, perhaps as far back as three or four years, he had been feeling the consequences of his age. Restlessness had overtaken him as it should have a decade earlier. His relative position on the planet seemed to be somewhat diminished at first. Then, with each passing month, lessen noticeably. Albert Mercante was searching to reverse the inevitable. He was desperate for a solution.

In an offhand comment he spoke of it to Bea and his doctor. Their response was almost identical and completely unhelpful. They nodded affectionately, loving in fact, embraced him and said, "That's to be expected."

It was late for a traditional mid-life crisis so Albert concluded it was a late-blooming mid-life crisis. Anyway he perceived it as a crisis only made worse with the arrival of temptation in the seductive form of Jessica Wilkins who made a practice of always looking like she was about to be featured on the cover of a fashion magazine.

That night, long after Bea had fallen off, Albert reflected on what he might do. He had an opportunity, not to be a hero, but to justify his citizenship, exert the nationalism and ideals he had spent a generation boasting about to his students. He could say nothing; or he could redeem himself in the eyes of his soul. He rattled around their home for the next hour and finally fell asleep before dawn. The next thing he knew Bea was at his side tapping his hand. "Honey, are you sick?"

Albert opened his eyes. As she had been for over forty years, Bea was there ready to embrace him. "I had a bad dream and didn't want to disturb you."

Bea was overcome with guilt at her distrust of him. The man could have been killed. Then what would she have? "This whole affair has upset you. Maybe you should see a doctor?"

He reflected for a moment on the word "affair." "You may be right."

The doorbell rang. Bea took her time getting there. A late model car was pulling out of their driveway. Later Bea would describe the driver as a middle-aged man wearing a blue baseball cap and glasses. Seated next to him was a middle-aged woman with dark hair set in a tight bun. Bea thought the woman might be pretty, but couldn't be certain. She bent down and lifted the package left on their doorstep and returned to the kitchen table where Albert was waiting. She handed it to him, "Do you think it's safe?"

"I think so," he said and tore open the brown envelope. His wallet fell onto the table. He fished out a note written on yellow pad paper.

Mr. Mercante:
I believe this belongs to you, I believe the truth belongs to all of us. Everything is in your wallet is as it was when you dropped it. You have a beautiful family.
In return for this act of good kindness, I would like to believe you will recant your story and tell the police what you saw. I was right across from you when the man fired his gun, killing an innocent man. I saw you look up. I saw you look away after observing the murderer's face. I know what you saw.

"I don't understand," Bea said, flipping the paper over as if there had to be more. "It's unsigned."

Albert searched through his wallet. "It's all there."

Bea chose her words carefully. She had been working on this question for two days and holding on to it was beginning to rasp at her insides. "Albert, please tell me, did you see him?"

"Yes," he said quickly, glad to finally have it out.

"And you didn't tell the police?"

"No."

"Not even me?"

"For the same reason."

"Albert?"

"I saw him," Albert barked, with noticeable annoyance. "If I had said it we would have both been in jeopardy."

Disappointment marked her expression. "You could have told me."

"You would have insisted I turn him in. You would not have let this one go regardless of your safety. It would have eaten at you."

She thought for a moment. "You're right."

"You would have put our responsibility above our welfare. I believe in just the opposite."

"Is there anything else?"

"Isn't this enough?" he said picking through his wallet and avoiding the yellow handwritten note on the kitchen table. It was from Jessica Wilkins. He was certain of the flourish of her handwriting. He had seen it on the blackboard often enough. She must have followed him to the Village Farmer's Market and been watching him and Bea all along. He resented her spying, but was secretly gratified that he could garner such implacable adoration.

Bea paced about trying to resolve her distress. "Can't you change your mind?"

Albert didn't think that would go over too well with Teddy Connors who would find out about it all too soon if he changed his statement. Albert Mercante went into the living room, switched on the news and closed his eyes. Bea sat with him, neither speaking, but holding hands as always during a crisis. What went wrong? Why didn't he just tell the truth from the start? He had no idea. Simply that. When the reality of Connors' face finally came to him, it was after his first statement and right before he went shopping and had visitors in his car. Knowing that the police had tipped off the killer only confirmed his hesitation.

He didn't want to lose Bea. But if he really believed that, why was he plagued with fantasies of Jessica Wilkins? What's more, why fantasize about selling yourself and your honor? Everything he had worked for all his life seemed in jeopardy simply because of his desire to be more than he was. This was a curse he always believed would hobble lesser men.

Albert was deeply distressed - for his cowardice, for his weakness, for letting a secret come between him and his Bea. He would take this indiscretion to the grave; it was now only a matter of choice when that destination would be reached.

Bea's hand felt good. It was cool and comforting. It had always been there, as Albert's had been there for her. But sitting on the couch, Jessica Wilkins' note on the kitchen table, Albert Mercante had to ask himself, what had become of his peaceful and happy life? What did he want with a favor from a killer except to inflate his own parched ego, as only a foolish man may do late in life? Would that make him a better man or no better than the killer he had contracted with? And who did he know had caused him such an injustice so as to warrant so irreparable a sentence?

He had betrayed himself. The only redeeming outcome of Albert's discovering the breadth of his weakness was that in Jessica's eyes he would be so much diminished. With the truth, her insistence would not tug so greatly at him during moments of reflection. If that was what it took to defuse her enthusiasm than he would settle for it as a start. But he still had to confront her, tell her that he could not reciprocate now or in the future. That did not solve his other problem.

He didn't want to alarm Bea who was already so distressed she went in and brewed herself a pot of tea, something she never did unless she felt herself coming down with a cold. Instead she had been struck with disappointment. A more lingering, insidious ailment with the power to go back in time and compromise emotions, dreams, and hope.

The next day brought no relief. Albert took no pity on himself, condemning his cowardice, the thrill of being so close to a man, even one so evil that no amount of rationale could erase what he had done. It was sometime between standing at the kitchen window watching Bea talking to two of her friends, and the five o'clock news where the DA announced that their investigation had not developed any leads, that Albert Mercante decided to redeem himself.

"Is Detective Robinson there?" he asked on the privacy of their bedroom phone. "Yes, thanks. I'll wait."

Robinson was the third detective. Albert was taking an enormous chance with his life and his family's future. Not one of the original two he had reason to suspect. But a murder in LA did not sanction a murder in New York. "It's Albert Mercante, Detective Robinson. Yes, we met the other day about the death of Dominic Ferraro. I want to recant my testimony. I want you to know that I recalled the killer's face only hours after I left your precinct and was going to call you up when I was approached by Connors. Yes, he threatened me. He told me that I was going to be asked to go back in and restate my testimony. He knew this because he told me, boasted really, that one of the detectives in that room was working for him.

"If you're also on his payroll you should know that I mailed out three letters about this saying that you were the one I was going to contact and what might happen if I made the wrong choice. They were sent to people I trust and who were given instructions to open them only in case something happened to me, my wife, or family. If you're working for him, if you'll forgive the insult, you should be very clear about this."

"Are you willing to retell that story in the presence of the DA?"

"Only to the DA, and only with you present."

"I had to ask you that to see if you were serious, though it doesn't make any difference now."

"I don't understand."

"Teddy Connors was shot in his car. He died in the operating room at St. Luke's Hospital an hour ago. Two bullets in the back of his head. We think one of his own men did it."

Albert collapsed into the chair. His heart, which had been racing, nearly jumped from his throat. "He's dead?"

"But I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to come down and speak with the DA anyway. If what you said is true, then we have a problem in the three-nine."

"I'm sorry Detective Robinson, I won't be able to do that," he said, replacing the receiver on the hook.

Albert walked into the bedroom where Bea was involving herself by cleaning out a closet and relayed the conversation verbatim.

"Teddy Connors was gunned down in his car hours ago."

Bea stood transfixed, not yet realizing that there was some hope that their lives would be normal again. "What does that mean?"


"That my testimony will not be needed."

"But you lied." Her expression was painfully insistent.

"It doesn't matter anymore," Albert said, doubting his own claim. Hopefully she would never know the depth of Connors' connection in the three-nine. She would demand he sacrifice their safety to expose such a disease.

But the damage had been done. He saw it in her face, in the slight downturn of her pretty lips, the disappointment in her once embracing eyes. If he had a chance to change his story, it would have made everything right, or at least his efforts may have redeemed himself in her heart.

At that moment, he knew how much he loved her, he knew that he had betrayed himself and her trust, and that if Connors were alive he might call in his favor as a contract to be put out on one Albert Mercante.

2 comments:

  1. i loved this, such brilliant use of language, the dilemma faced by Albert and the musings on mortality

    superb

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. Well written and imaginative. Some of the narrative parts were rather extended, making less of an impact than if you'd made your point succinctly. Your ending was clever and unexpected.
    Beryl

    ReplyDelete