Aaron and I owned four stores. City On The Vine near the American Museum of Natural History was our first. Two years ago we ventured into the wilds of New Jersey and opened Que Shiraz in Marlboro. Red, White and You was our big volume location on Long Island. But our second store, Bordeaux In Brooklyn on Montague Street in the Heights, was closest to my house and to my heart. I’d run the store for years and even after I turned it over to a new manager, it was my base of operations. It was also less than three blocks away from the offices of Prager & Melendez Investigations, Inc. That was no accident. I had to go into the store, but I had other business first.
When I got off the elevator at 40 Court, I found Devo doing yoga in the hallway outside our office door. Carmella and I picked 40 Court Street for practical reasons. Besides its proximity to the State Supreme Court Building and the Brooklyn Tombs, it was filled to the brim with law firms. Funny how cops have no use for lawyers until they’re off the job and looking for work. Then it’s no longer about them having use for lawyers, but lawyers having use for them. And if you are going to feed
off their scraps, you better have a good seat at the trough. 40 Court was front row, ringside, orchestra. Well over half the jobs we worked were farmed to us by lawyers or other investigative firms that shared our address.
Devereaux Okum—Devo—was a thin black blade of grass with a shaved head, soft voice, vaguely feminine features, and a shaman’s eyes. He was in his early thirties and claimed he came from down South somewhere, but would never say exactly where. Frankly, he was more off-worldly than out-of-state. He had that’70s David Bowie mojo working. It was probably foolish, but Carmella and I never pressed him too hard on his background.
What we knew about him was that he was a vegan with a sweet disposition and formal manners who was great at what he did and worked harder at it than anyone else in the firm. Devo did gadgets. Gadgets, that’s what modern investigations were all about. From tracking devices to cameras to computers, he had it covered. We paid him a big salary and had several times offered to get him licensed, even to give him a piece of the business. He had so far resisted our offers. He seemed content. I had known what that was like once, being content.
He didn’t say anything, slowly letting out a deep breath, prayerfully pressing his palms together in front of him, a few inches from his chest. He turned to me, removing a sleek, white metallic box from his shirt pocket.
“Good morning, Moe.”
“This,” he said, removing the earphones, “is the coming revolution.”
“Looks like a cigarette case, not a revolution.”
“It’s an Apple product that won’t be out for another few months yet.”
I didn’t bother asking where or how he’d gotten hold of it. He was always getting things logic and the law dictated he shouldn’t have.
“What does it do, tune your circadian rhythms and access the internet?”
“It stores and plays music.”
“It plays music, that’s it?”
“How much did it cost?”
That elicited a sheepish smile.
“Okay, I’ll bite. How much will it cost regular schmos like me?”
“Around four hundred bucks,” he said.
“Just to play music.”
“Just to play music,” he repeated.
“Some revolution. They won’t be able to give those things away.”
I had called Devo before hitting the Dewar’s the night before. I wanted him to come in early specifically to discuss my dead brother-in-law’s voice mail message from the great beyond. Until I could get a copy of it—and I meant to get a copy—I wanted to have some idea of what I was dealing with. When we sat down in my office, I described as closely as I could what I had heard on Katy’s machine. I tried to mimic the intonation of the voice, the timing involved in the dialogue, etc. Devo didn’t hesitate to ask the million dollar question.
“Was it Patrick’s voice?”
“Moe, I did not ask if it was actually him calling. I asked if it was his voice. Those are two very different things.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “We spoke only once, very briefly, but Katy seemed pretty convinced. Katy would know her brother’s voice.”
Devo was unpersuaded. “She has not heard his voice in twenty years.”
“Twenty-two plus, but who’s counting? I don’t think that matters. I haven’t heard my mom’s voice in longer than that and I’d recognize it.”
“Possibly. I think it is situationally dependent, Moe, but let us come back to that in a moment. First, tell me if there was anything obviously mechanical about the voice. Was it robotic? Did it sound spliced? Were there inappropriate pauses? Was it scratchy like an old vinyl recording? Was there any background noise?”
“No, there was nothing like that. It sounded pretty much like I did it for you before. Why? Does that mean it wasn’t doctored?”
“No, not at all. With a reasonable laptop and software you can download from the internet, you can make sound sit up and beg or fetch the newspaper. There would be no limit to what a person or persons with more formidable resources could do. I simply wanted to make certain that we are not dealing with pranksters or rank amateurs.”
“Okay, rank amateurs and pranksters eliminated.”
“Did the voice sound conversational?”
“See, Devo, that’s harder to answer. There were so few words exchanged and Katy was so emotional … and not for nothing, but what were you talking about before when you said recognition was situationally dependent?”
“Simply that the events of Sunday sensitized Katy for the call on Monday. The caller might just as easily have phoned late Saturday night before the desecrations were spotted, but he didn’t. Why do you suppose that is?”
“Because Katy had to be primed to recognize the voice. The stuff at the gravesite played with her head. It got to those last shreds of hope and denial we hide deep inside.”
Devo smiled a smile at me that made me feel like an apt pupil. Maybe he’d put a gold star next to my name.
“Do you have enough to make an educated guess about whether it was someone imitating Patrick’s voice or some digital wizardry?” I asked.
“We are certain he is dead, are we not?”
“Everybody but Katy.”
“Well, until I have a copy of the message, I cannot say. Even then, I may not be able to render a definitive opinion, but it is almost beside the point.”
“For someone to imitate a voice they have to hear it. And if Patrick is dead …”
“… they either had to have known him or have a recording of him. Even if the mimic knew Patrick, it would be hard to do his voice flawlessly simply from memory.”
“Imitation is a matter of trial and error, of feedback and fine tuning,” he said. “Hard to get accurate feedback from old memories.”
“So,” I said, “either way, if it’s some digitally enhanced trick or a clever mimic, there’s a recording of Patrick’s voice out there somewhere.”
“Find that recording and—”
“—I’ll find my ghost.”
I shook Devo’s hand. “How are you coming with that list of names I gave Carmella?”
“I should be finished this afternoon,” he said.
Had he been any other employee, I would have slipped him a few C-notes in an envelope or sent over a bottle of Opus One. But gestures like that were just wasted on Devo. He was old school in that he found the job itself reward enough. He wasn’t interested in the perks. I guess I liked him for that.
I CAN’T SAY that I hate the wine business, although I have, at times, hated it. I’ve often thought that if I really despised the life, I’d be out of it. I’ve always had strength enough to walk away. The thing was, the business bored me. Like I once said, there’s only so many times you can parse the difference between champagne and
without completely losing your mind. For over twenty years the wine business had kept my bank account full and left my soul empty. It afforded me a few luxuries. I’d owned a house. I had a condo. I got to drive new cars every few years. My kid could go to whatever college she was smart enough to get into.
The wine business was never my dream. I wasn’t a dreamer by nature. Even the profession I loved was the result of a drunken dare. I mean, how
many college students in the late ’60s were signing up to take the NYPD entrance exam? One year I’m tossing bottles at the cops, the next year I’m a cop getting bottles tossed at me. The wine business was Aaron’s thing. The initial plan was for me to be an investor and then to come on board after I retired from the job with my twenty years in and a detective first’s pension. Didn’t work out that way and all because I fell prey to a conspiracy of fate. In a way, I was actually Son of Sam’s last victim.
In August of ’77, when Sam was finally captured, New York City was as close to defeat as it ever was or is ever likely to be. Beaten down by years of near bankruptcy, brutal winters, blackouts, and Mr. Berkowitz, the city was a madhouse. Any street cop would know. I knew. Rage was boiling just beneath everybody’s skin, beneath the city’s streets. We were always a pinprick away from explosion. And none of us was immune to the Vietnam hangover: our national headlong rush into pot, punk, polyester, and Plato’s Retreat. I think sometimes if Gerald Ford had wanted to be a more effective president, he should have moved from the White House to Studio 54.
Anyway, when Son of Sam was arraigned, the brass wanted to make sure there were plenty of cops around for crowd control. So they bussed in uniforms from precincts all over the city. I was one of those uniforms. If you catch any of the old video from that day, you can see me standing just behind Detective Ed Zigo and to Son of Sam’s left. Although I couldn’t have known it then, it was my first appearance on television and my final shift in uniform. While I was gone, the precinct’s linoleum had been waxed for the first time in months and some careless schmuck had thrown a piece of carbon paper onto the floor. When I returned, my foot found that piece of carbon paper. Cops who were there say the sound my knee made when all the ligaments snapped was enough to make you puke. Apparently, a few people did. I don’t remember, because my head smacked the floor pretty hard. I woke up in Coney Island Hospital having taken my first misstep into the wine business.
Five months and two surgeries later, I was put out to pasture with pain pills and a patrolman’s pension. Aaron had found the perfect store, but we were still a little short on funds and worried about getting our liquor license. That’s when Rico Tripoli, my closest buddy from the Six-O, told me about some missing kid and how maybe, just maybe, if I found the kid, his influential father could get us our financing and license and how we’d be set for life.
What Rico neglected to mention was that he didn’t give a rat’s ass about the missing kid or my future. I was to be his shortcut to a gold shield and the means to the end of Francis Maloney’s political career.
Rico was right in a way. We all got what we wanted. Rico got his gold shield. His handlers got Francis Maloney to retire from politics. Aaron and I got our financing and our license and we were set for life. I got a wife and love and a family as well. Yes, we all got what we wanted, everyone but Francis Maloney. I hated my father-in-law, but I never blamed him for his hating me for my part in his demise. We all got what we wanted and the only happy one of us was Aaron.
My big brother was tinkering with the register as I walked through the creaky wooden doors of Bordeaux In Brooklyn. Aaron had aged well. His hair was thinner and all gray, but his shoulders were still broad and unbowed. Other than my chronic disinterest in the business, he had everything he ever wanted. Our success had washed away the sting of our dad’s small-time thinking and big-time failures. He had a wife he probably loved more now than the day they married, great kids, a big house on Long Island, and good health. Aaron didn’t think so, but I envied him. It was a blessing to be born knowing what you want and how to get it. With few exceptions, my wants shifted with my cases.
“Hey, big brother.”
“Christ, will you help me with this thing,” he barked.
“Here, shithead.” I banged the side of my fist into the till and it slid open. “You should come to this store more often. The drawer’s been sticking like that for years.”
“You should come to any store more often.”
“So what’s this
with your wife?”
“Ex-wife, as everyone keeps reminding me.”
“All right, your ex-wife.”
? What’s wrong with thinking your dead brother dug his way out of his grave, smashed his dad’s headstone to bits, and is making phone calls?”
“Yeah, big brother,
“What are you doing about it?”
“I was just about to call Ghostbusters.”
“Very funny, Moses.”
“I’m doing the only thing I can do. I’m gonna look into it. First, I have to pick your niece up at the airport.”
He grinned. My brother and Sarah had a special affinity for one another. “When does she get in?”
“I’m leaving for LaGuardia in about an hour.”
“Does she know what’s going on?”
“Some of it. Look, Aaron, I just want you to know, I’m going to take as long as it takes to find out what’s going on.”
“We’ve prospered for two decades without your full attention. We should be able to survive another few weeks.”
“Fuck you, he says to me,” he stage-whispered to an invisible audience. “Let’s face it, the best thing you ever did for us was getting us started. That shit with Katy’s dad, look, you never wanted to tell me much about it, okay. It was your business, but enough already.”