She slid a thick file across her desk. “That’s what you asked for. You’ve got current addresses—home and business—phone numbers, e-mail addresses … everything. There’s only one guy, this … Judas Wannsee, that we’re having a little trouble locating.”
In 1981, Judas Wannsee was the leader of the Yellow Stars, a Jewish anti-assimilationist cult headquartered in the Catskill Mountains. His group had provided cover for the woman who had started the fire that killed my high school crush. The group had attracted some national media attention in the early part of the decade, but by 19 9 0 had fallen into the creases of history the way pocket change disappears into the furniture.
“Okay, have Devo keep looking.”
“So, where do we start?”
don’t. I’m flying solo. There are some people I need to talk to by myself.”
“You still have that package in the office?”
Carmella knew what I was asking for and pulled a large plastic bag out of her drawer.
“Good. Patrick and his boyfriend Jack had that tattooed on their forearms.”
“So you told me, but that had to have been at least—”
“—twenty-three years ago. I know, but I want you to send some people out to tattoo parlors to see if anyone’s had a tat like this done within the last few months.”
“Moe, these days aren’t exactly like when my dad was young and the only people who got tattoos were sailors and bikers. There are probably more than a hundred tattoo and piercing joints in Manhattan alone. Maybe double that. Never mind the boroughs.”
I suppose I hadn’t given it a lot of thought. “You really think there’s that many?”
“Shit, everybody’s got ink these days.”
“You do! What of? Where?”
“You should’ve asked me that about twenty minutes ago. There’s a good chance you would have seen for yourself. But we’ll talk about that some other time. I bet you Sarah got one.”
“I don’t think so.”
Carmella just shook her head and smiled at me. “Okay, so we’re going tattoo hunting. Anything else?”
“Casting calls,” I said.
“Casting calls! Tattoos and casting calls, what’s this about exactly?”
“At the airport …” I hesitated.
“At the airport what?”
“Remember when Raheem pointed and said that the guy that paid him to deliver the—”
“—package looked like the guy in the painting. I remember. He fed me that same line of crap when we had our little debriefing. The kid was trying to get over is all. He was full of shit.”
“No, he wasn’t, Carm.”
“I saw him.”
“You saw who?”
“You outta your fucking mind?”
“I think maybe I am, but I know what I saw and I saw him.”
“So maybe he really isn’t dead,” she said.
“No, he’s dead.”
“I didn’t see an older, not a forty-year-old Patrick. I saw Patrick from when he was in college. And there’s only two explanations for that. He was a ghost or a—”
“—look-a-like,” she finished my sentence.
“If he wasn’t a ghost, then somebody was shopping around for a replica and the best way to find one in this city is to hold auditions for a very special part.”
“Okay, Moe, I can see how this would work, but I don’t understand the why. Who could hate you guys this much?”
“When we find out who,” I said, “the why will be self-evident.”
“When we do. When!”
We discussed a few more details and I got ready to head back home. Carmella was still in her office. I stuck my head through the door.
“You gonna be all right?”
She didn’t answer immediately. “Me? I guess I will be, but this isn’t only about me anymore, is it?”
“I guess not.”
“I won’t pretend I’ll be able to forget it, but don’t worry about it.”
“Safe home,” she said, turning her chair back toward the window.
Safe home yourself, I thought, although I knew she’d be spending the
night here. Would anyone walk past our offices and wonder about the light leaking through the bottom of the door?
WHEN I GOT back to Sheepshead Bay, Sarah had gone. Her note said she had decided to spend a few days with her mom. It was the right choice for all of us, especially for Katy, Folded into the note were my Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association card and Carmella’s Detective’s Endowment Association card. The postscript read, “You were right, Dad. I was being a hypocrite. Thanks for the card and thank Carmella for hers, but I won’t be needing them anymore.”
Sarah really was the best of both Katy and me.
ALTHOUGH AARON LIVED
there and our biggest moneymaker was on Long Island, the place still gave me the chills. When I was growing up and kids from the neighborhood would vanish over summer vacation, there would be whispers about their families having fled to far off places with idyllic names like Valley Stream, Stony Brook, and Amityville or to places with unpronounceable names like Ronkonkoma, Massapequa, and Patchogue. It was all Siberia to me. I lived in secret dread that one of my dad’s business ventures would finally succeed and that he’d move Mom, Aaron, Miriam, and me to one of those awful places where people lived in big houses on quiet streets. My fears might have been allayed had I bothered looking at a map to see that Brooklyn and Queens were actually part of Long Island. I needn’t have worried in any case. My dad’s bad fortune would tie me to Brooklyn forever.
Elmont was a faceless town that was close enough to the city line to blow kisses at New York across the Queens border. It was the home of Belmont Park racetrack where the third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, was held every June. If not for the track, Elmont would be notable for being on the glide path to Kennedy Airport and for its cemeteries. My parents were buried in Elmont. In the end, I guess, they had moved to Long Island, but, as yet, without Aaron, Miriam, and me. I had come to see a man in Elmont about an empty grave.
I have heard it said that concentration camp survivors sometimes pass on their torments to their children, that the victims become the victimizers. I don’t know if it’s true or not. People say a lot of things. What I do know is that Mr. Roth had been my friend, a second father to me, and a surrogate grandfather to Sarah. He was affectionate, warm, funny,
and philosophical in spite of what he had endured, maybe because of it. Yet he, by his own admission, had been an unfaithful husband and a negligent father. I knew about some of his failings, but had come by the knowledge indirectly.
Steven Roth, on the other hand, was so utterly familiar with his dad’s failings that escaping their reach seemed beyond his ability or desire. Steven was a bitter, angry man, so full of rage there wasn’t room in him for anything else but alcohol. That toxic mix of bitterness, rage, and alcohol had caused his father and himself nothing but grief. He had done a long bid in prison for manslaughter—a bar fight, of course—and a second stretch for DWI. He had been in and out of marriage, jail, and rehab so frequently by the time his father passed away, it was difficult to keep count.
We’d met a few times over the years and it was never pleasant. My relationship with his dad was a constant source of irritation, an allergen from which he could not find relief. Once, a few months before he died, Mr. Roth hired me to get his son out of some trouble, big trouble. But when that trouble went away, Steven Roth treated me not with respect or gratitude, but with contempt. It all came to a very ugly head at the memorial service for his dad. Steven was lit like a roman candle and in a particularly foul mood, spouting off about how his dad should have been buried, not cremated and how
should have been the one to see to his dad’s remains. When he shouted at Sarah that he would see to burying
father, I punched his lights out. Aaron tells me, I was still swinging when they pulled me off him. All I remember was that he was smiling at me. Even though I’d broken his nose and split both his lips, he was smiling.
Walking up the few steps to the front door of the neat little saltbox Cape, I had second thoughts about not bringing Carmella along. If things got ugly this time, there might not be anyone around to pull me off. I held my finger a few inches away from the bell and rechecked the address. Well-kept houses on twisty quiet streets were not usually Steven Roth’s style. Not unlike my late friend Rico Tripoli, Steven Roth’s taste ran to the darker edges of town, to places where the blackness of their souls blended in with the scenery. I couldn’t speak to his resources or to his abilities as a schemer, but there was no doubt he hated me enough to hurt my family anyway he could. I pressed the bell and listened to the muted chimes ring inside the house.
When the door pulled back, I stood facing a very attractive woman in her mid-forties. Beyond her broad smile and positively sparkling blue-gray eyes, it was difficult to say what was so attractive about her. Her face, in fact, was rather plain and round and her hair was a mousy brown. She was
thin, I guess, but her generic jeans and sweatshirt did nothing to highlight her shape. Yet there was something undeniably appealing about her.
“Good morning,” she said without a hint of guile or wariness.
“Hi, my name’s Moe Prager. I was wondering if Steven—”
“Moe Prager! Moe Prager. Steven will be thrilled you’re here.” She beamed and shouted over her shoulder, “Honey, come here, there’s someone to see you.”
I was sure I wasn’t dreaming it, but not of much else. I was having a full out
moment. Then, when Steven Roth appeared with his right hand extended and a wide peaceful smile on his face, I thought to look for the hidden camera. When he took my hand, shook it, embraced me, I was still in shock.
“Praise Jesus, my prayers have been answered.”
“Praise Jesus,” the woman repeated.
“Moe, this is my wife Evelyn. Evelyn … Moe Prager.”
We shook hands.
“Come on in, Moses. That is what Steven’s father called you, right?” she asked, folding her arm in the crook of my elbow. “Come have some coffee with us.”
“Yes, he called me that and Mr. Moe most of the time.”
“Steven has told me a lot about you and his father. I want to hear it from you.”
The three of us sat around the kitchen table and shared coffee in a sort of stunned silence. Then Steven, who still bore the bend in his nose from when I broke it, spoke up.
“I’m sorry, Moe, for treating you the way I did in the past. I was such an angry and empty man until I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my savior. When Evelyn and I found each other and God in AA, I just knew this day would come. I should’ve sought you out, but I was weak and afraid. Even with the Lord, I have my weaknesses and my bad days. Jesus has forgiven me, but I have prayed for the strength to come speak to you and ask your forgiveness. I can only pray for my father’s forgiveness, but I can ask for yours.”
“Sure, Steven, I forgive you.” Then I put his alleged faith to the test. “It’s what your dad would want me to do.” If anything would set him off and cut through his “The New Me” veneer, it was those words.
He smiled. “You always were a clever man, Moe, but you can’t rattle my cage. The pain and rage are gone. I don’t blame you for not believing me. I was a pretty awful human being for a very long time. I think my dad loved how sharp you were. You were clever and quick like him. I am glad he had you to comfort him in his later years. Lord knows, I was no comfort.”
“No,” I said, “you weren’t, but he always loved you. Your dad told me he wasn’t a very good father or husband. In some ways, I think Izzy felt he deserved what you put him through.”
“No one deserves what I put him through or what happened to him in the camps, but growing up, it was so hard for me to have perspective. My life was one long terrible journey of understanding, a long lonely time with a cold heart in a barren desert. Then I was saved.”
Tears were pouring down Steven Roth’s face. Evelyn reached across the table and clutched her husband’s hand. They bowed their heads in silent prayer. After a few seconds and almost simultaneously, they looked up and said, “Amen.”
I stayed for about another half hour. Steven showed Evelyn and me some old family pictures. It was good to see Israel Roth’s face again. In some of the photos, he was a young man. I had never before seen him as a young man. The emotional scars from the camps were more evident, the pain much closer to the surface in those days. I told some stories about Mr. Roth and me and how well he treated us over the years. Still, Steven showed no signs of resentment whatsoever.
“I’m glad that my dad could open his heart to someone and that all the love he had to give did not die locked up inside him.”
Evelyn and I said our goodbyes in the kitchen. I thanked her for her hospitality and wished her well. She assured me that as long as she followed the path that the Lord Jesus Christ had laid out for her and Steven, they would be well. Steven Roth walked me to the door.
“Thank you, Moses,” he said before once again embracing me. “You’ve helped lift a terrible weight off my shoulders.”
“Steven, I can’t explain it, but seeing you and Evelyn like this … Well, it’s done the same for me.”
“I know you don’t believe, but I also know that the Lord Jesus Christ has a place in his heart for you and can show you the way if you just look.”
“I’ve always been good at finding things by myself,” I said.
“Sometimes, it’s not the finding so much as being prepared to accept what you find.”
I drove around the corner and parked. My car was still, but my mind was all over the place. Hypocritical, intolerant, money-grubbing TV preachers made it kind of easy for the rest of us to turn devout Christians into cartoonish caricatures, but there was nothing remotely cartoonish about the time I’d just spent with Steven Roth and his wife. I hadn’t known Evelyn before she found God. I had, however, known Steven and he truly was a changed man. He was right, I didn’t believe and I was unlikely to ever believe, yet who was I to argue that Jesus Christ hadn’t saved him?