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Authors: Howard Shrier

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective

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BOOK: Boston Cream
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The big man said, “Yup.”

“I bet he thinks we’re holding him up. Is that what you think, Harry? You think this is a holdup?”

“No,” Harinder said quickly. “Of course not. It’s just that I was about to close for the evening.”

“Ah. Closing time, huh? Long day serving all your customers. Good day today? Lots of people in and out?”

“I can’t complain,” Harinder said.

The big man by the door snorted. “Maybe you should,” he said. The man at the counter looked over at him and the big man said nothing more.

Harinder looked at the clock over the door. Two minutes past ten. What if his wife came downstairs to help him close up, as she sometimes did. Would they panic and harm her? “What can I get for you?” he asked.

“Now that,” the man said, “is the fifty-thousand-dollar question.” He walked over to the counter, unzipped his coat and reached inside it.

Dear God, Harinder thought, here it comes. But instead of the pistol he was anticipating, the man took out an envelope and placed it on the counter next to the cash register.

Harinder looked at the envelope but didn’t move to touch it. It seemed thick, as if a letter had been folded over many times.

“Open it,” the man said.

The envelope wasn’t sealed. The flap at the back was just tucked in. Harinder opened it and saw a stack of hundred-dollar bills.

“That’s five thousand right there,” the man said. “You want to count it or take my word?”

“I don’t understand,” Harinder said.

“Are you going to take my word or not?”

“Of course. But what does this have to do with me?”

“You could use fifty thou, am I right? In cash, tax-free. I know your situation, Harry. Fifty grand would pretty much bail you out.”

Fifty thousand dollars? Was the man joking? It was the answer to his prayers. He’d be able to pay his mortgage arrears, the suppliers who were threatening to cut him off, Sanjay’s tuition costs for the next semester. It was as if he had won a lottery prize without even buying a ticket. But how did this man know so much about his finances?

Again he said, “I don’t understand.” Because he truly didn’t.

“Do we have a deal?” the man asked.

“But I don’t know what you want for this.”

The man said, “Does it matter?” He reached into the pocket of his jeans and took out something Harinder couldn’t see. He took Harinder’s wrist and pressed his thumb hard into the veins there and Harinder’s hand opened involuntarily. The man put something cold and hard into his hand and forced it shut. “That’s what you get if you turn me down.”

Then he turned and walked to the front door. The big man standing there opened it for him and the two of them walked out, leaving the door open as the cold wind blew in again, bringing with it a few flakes of snow. “We’ll be in touch,” the leader said. “Tell you where you need to be and when.”

Only when he had closed the door behind them did Harinder open his hand and stare at the brass bullet and the groove the man’s hard thumbnail had left in his skin.

CHAPTER 1

F
uck. I woke up this morning with a headache. After two weeks without one. Not as brutal as the ones I’d had throughout the fall and into the new year, but bad enough. Like a jackhammer drilling into my left temple and radiating out from there. It kicked in harder when I got up to find my Tylenol so I sank back down and lay flat, eyes closed, trying to breathe through it. It didn’t help. It was ten to seven. I had to get to a meeting with a new client on the other side of town. And I had to pee.

I opened my eyes, took a few more breaths and sat up very slowly, trying to will the pain away from my head. I rose softly, not too steadily, and stood rocking gently back and forth until I found the place where I was centred, and kept breathing until I was sure I wouldn’t fall down. I breathed some more and decided it was worth risking one foot forward toward the bathroom. Then the other foot. I told myself there were lovely liquid gelcaps in there, plus a toilet, even a tap where I could wash my face and rinse my mouth and cool a cloth to put on the back of my neck. Step by step I did it. Out of my room, across the hall and into the bathroom. I exceeded the recommended dosage of Tylenol, but not by that much. Peed in the dark. Showered in the dark—lukewarm, to keep the blood from
rushing to my head. Shaved in half-light. It all helped a bit, especially the cold cloth on my neck. Coffee helped too. Getting dressed was largely neutral. By seven-thirty the pain was receding and I felt ready to leave for my meeting. Functional and focused, which meant no one needed to know about this little setback. Not Jenn, or the agency’s insurance people, or anyone even distantly related to me. And definitely not Dr. Nancy Carter.

If her name is familiar, it’s probably from the sports pages. She’s the neurologist who treats all the hockey and football players with head injuries. I was lucky to get an appointment with her, her receptionist said. “She needs people like you for a new study she’s starting.”

People like me. The concussed. The severely concussed. I had sustained what Dr. Carter called a contrecoup, my brain banging against my skull when I was hit from the side but good with a barbell, resulting in a Grade 3 concussion.

She said a third of the players she saw developed post-concussion syndrome: “You might get headaches, bad ones, and experience dizziness or sensitivity to light. You might notice behavioural changes, such as depression, anxiety or irritability.”

“If I don’t notice,” I said, “my mother will.”

She was right about the headaches: more frequent and intense than any I’d ever had. The first month, there were days I wouldn’t get out of bed for fear I’d set one off. Or puke. That was always fun first thing in the morning. I sometimes got dizzy without warning. One time I came to on the floor with a nasty welt on my eyebrow and no memory of falling face first. My focus, whether at work or at home, was also Grade Three. I’d stare at my computer, unaware of what I was reading, or forgetting what I’d been searching for. Was I depressed, anxious and irritable? Tick all those boxes. Just ask Jenn, ask my family. Ask anyone who had the displeasure of my company back then, especially after we changed the clocks
in the fall and light began to bleed from our northern skies.

Only after three full months did Dr. Carter clear me to start light training. Oh God, I wanted to shout, bring it on. Exercise and martial arts are how I normally keep myself sane. But those first workouts wouldn’t have tired out someone in a walker. I had zero endurance. Light pedalling on a stationary bike could bring on the whirlies. I had to do the simplest katas in slow motion to avoid falling on my ass. And even as I improved over the following month and began to believe I might one day actually get back to full strength, Dr. Carter forbade contact training. “Once you’ve had a concussion, others happen more easily unless it completely heals. Think Eric Lindros. He was done as an elite player at thirty. You don’t want that, Jonah. That means thirty days symptom-free, no cheating, before I let you off the leash.”

Which had meant no Krav Maga training with my teacher, Eidan Feingold. Eidan didn’t know the meaning of hold back; when we sparred it was all-out war.

Finally, a week ago, at my monthly exam, I told her I had reached the thirty-day mark, which was so close to true. There had been one headache the first week that I didn’t count because I’d had a few glasses of red wine the night before, and another around the twentieth day that came and went so fast I didn’t even take a third gelcap.

You call that cheating?

So Dr. Carter had cleared me to go back to fieldwork and resume light contact training—no blows to the head, even with headgear—and no isolated headache was worth reporting. Everyone gets one from time to time, whether from stress, alcohol, a bad night’s sleep or a broken heart.

Maybe I wasn’t quite ready to spar with Eidan or win a bar fight with a head butt, but I did feel I could brave the morning traffic from Riverdale, on the east side of the Don River Valley, to Bathurst and Lawrence in the northwest end. Compared to
what I had been going through since the fall, that made it a pretty good morning.

Ron and Sheila Fine lived in a bungalow at the wrong end of Glengrove Avenue, west of the Allen Road. The lot was big but the house was old and tired. If any renovations had been made to it since it had been built, they were craftily hidden. On the better blocks of the street further east, old small houses on big lots like this had been torn down and replaced by monster homes. At this end, the gentrification was scattered at best; many of the houses were still occupied by their original owners: Italians, Jews, Caribbeans.

I met Ron there on a cold March morning, the sun high in a hard blue sky. He was an optometrist with a storefront in a strip mall on Marlee; Sheila was principal of a Jewish day school attached to a Conservative synagogue on Bathurst. She had left the house before I got there, to open the school for early daycare drop-offs. His shop was a five-minute drive away and he didn’t open Wednesdays till ten, so he was the one to fill me in on his son David’s disappearance in Boston. Two weeks now missing.

“He is not the kind of boy to simply vanish,” Ron told me.

“Boy?”

“I know, I know. He’ll be thirty on his next birthday.” Ron was about fifty-five, dressed in a white shirt and black pants, a skullcap clipped to his greying hair, a face that seemed kind and open. The lines on it told you he had spent a lot of time both smiling and frowning. A thinker and a feeler.

“And he’s a surgical resident?”

“Past that already. He’s a transplant fellow at Sinai Hospital in Boston.”

Another Jewish overachiever, like a certain older brother I know. I was glad my mother wasn’t in the room. Her sigh of envy would have filled it.

“To be honest,” I said, “you’d have better luck with
someone in Boston, someone with local contacts and a better grasp of the city.”

“And I’ll be honest with you, Jonah,” Ron said. “That’s what I thought when your brother told me about your agency. Initially I was only going to ask you for a reference. I didn’t want to pick someone out of a Boston phone book. I wanted a personal recommendation. I hoped there was someone you had worked with or knew of.”

Then he said something that went straight past surprising to stunning. “But your brother said some very nice things about you. Very good things.”

I tried, and likely failed miserably, to hide my surprise. “Like what?”

“That you don’t give up, Jonah. That you never have since you started out, not even once. No matter what happened to anyone. You break a few dishes, he said, but you keep at it. You don’t care who you piss off, pardon my language, but that’s what Daniel said. And he said you play above your weight. I’m not a big sports fan but I know what that means.”

“You’ll get my best.”

“You can’t understand the hell we’ve been through the last two weeks,” he said. “It doesn’t sound like a long time, two weeks—some people suffer all their lives—but in seconds, half seconds, micro-seconds, it’s agonizing. Where is he, Jonah? Is he alive, is he dead? I have no idea how Sheila is hanging on. I have no idea how I’m hanging on. I can tell you’re not Orthodox, Jonah. But do you believe in Hashem?”

Some Jews are so devout they won’t even say the word God. They use Hashem, which means “the name” in Hebrew. The name too great to speak. “No. Not for a long time.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, with his first smile of the morning. “I do. And I think Hashem wants you to find David. That was my feeling when your brother spoke of you and that’s my feeling now. Hashem wants you to go to Boston and find
David for us. Or—and this he should forbid, and forbid it with all his
koyach
, all his strength—if something has happened to David, you find out what it was. And if someone did something to him …” His voice caught and he had to stop.

“Tell me,” I said. “Everything you know so far.”

According to a security guard at Sinai Hospital in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area, David Fine exited around a quarter to seven on the last day of February and walked north on Francis Street. It had been a mild night, by winter standards, but then again, David almost always walked home because it kept him in shape and saved money, according to Ron.

Home was Brookline, less than two miles northwest of the hospital. He should have arrived home by seven-fifteen, seven-thirty at the latest. “He wouldn’t have stopped to eat because he only ate kosher, and usually at home,” Ron said. “Also to save money.”

“But he never got home?”

“According to his roommate, no.”

“What’s his name?”

“Sheldon Paull. Also going to be a doctor.”

“You have his number and email?”

“Of course. Then David missed work Friday. Well, you know, he’s not a kid—he’s thirty, not married, you don’t want to crowd him too much. If he was falling in love, his mother and I would be thrilled. It’s time already. But then he didn’t call to wish us good Shabbos. That’s when I knew something was wrong. He always, always called Friday before sundown, when he knew we’d be home but not eating yet. Wouldn’t matter where he was or what he was doing, he’d call. His brother Micah, bless him, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a Shabbos call. I’m not sure he always knows what day it is, but David? He could be at the North Pole in a snowstorm, if it was Friday afternoon he’d find a phone. So Saturday night, as soon as Shabbos was
over, we called him. No answer. That’s when I spoke to Sheldon. And when he didn’t come back Sunday and didn’t come in to work Monday, that’s when I called the police.”

“What did they say?”

“Well, first I called the Boston police but they said David lived in Brookline, so I had to report it there. I called Brookline and they said I should make the report in person, if possible. Not that I had to, they would do it over the phone. But it would be better if they could assess my report face to face. In plain English, to make sure I wasn’t just some hysterical parent. So I didn’t argue, I went, I flew there the next morning. I went to Brookline and reported him missing.”

BOOK: Boston Cream
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