By Jay Barrett
I awoke two hours later than usual at 8:30 a.m. The light, brightening off-white plaster walls of my bedroom, announced the coming of another day. The ancient steam radiator of this century-old red brick building hissed loudly, slaving to push the room temperature above sixty. Weak sunlight, contributing no heat, slid through the gaps of lowered shades covering windows that faced Boston Harbor. Half asleep, I reached over to Ellen’s side of the bed, then remembered why she wasn’t with me, and sighed.
Rolling onto my back, I stared up at the aging plaster ceiling and replayed Katharine Hepburn’s call in my head:
A woman, I’m sure I never met, calls at one a.m. saying it’s urgent to see me. Doesn’t say why. Makes her connection to me through Chuck Wilson. Where has Chuck been in these last five years? I haven’t even talked to him since leaving Panama. How Chuck operates, though, he would know what I do, and where.
She sends Henry, her chauffeur, to take me to Weston. He gets here in a black Bentley. In the time it takes me to get down to the street from my apartment, Henry and the Bentley disappear. Did she call Henry off? If she did, something must have happened in the twelve minutes between the end of her call and my getting down to the street. She doesn’t call again, so she’s not surprised that I don’t show. Yet she insisted that I meet with her last night. What happened to the urgency? I can’t call her because she hung up on me before I could get her name or phone number.
I decide Bob will help me find her.
I have a racquetball match at 11:00 a.m. with chunky Bob Berry, a Boston police detective. We grew up together and are best friends. For an Irish kid and an Italian kid to be friends in the 1940’s was unusual.
After graduating high school, Bob joined the Boston Police Department. I went on to Northeastern University School of Law, Co-op and ROTC programs. My year of Co-op was with the Criminal Division of the United States Justice Department, but I wasn’t interested in becoming a lawyer. My goal was to become a Private Investigator.
When I graduated, I served my obligatory three years in the military. After a tour in Vietnam, I was accepted by the Army Special Forces (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Upon graduation, I was assigned to Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone where I met Colonel Chuck Wilson. Our mission was training the Latin Americans in counter-insurgency warfare. Most of my tour was spent in the mountains and jungles of Ecuador.
The day I left the service, Bob had met me at the airport. I still remembered the conversation:
“Good to have you home, Tony.”
“Thanks. You’re looking happy and healthy. Sandra and the kids good?”
“Sandra is good. The kids are growing like weeds. They can hardly wait to see their Uncle Tony. I expected you’d be coming home married to Bonita.”
“Came close. Have you seen my mother lately?” “Yesterday. I didn’t say anything about you coming home.” “How is she?”
“Honestly? Not good. Her conversation with me was more detached than ever. There’s no room in her mind for anything other than Michael and Maria.”
Michael, my father, was killed serving in the Army Air Force during World War II. He was 24 years old, and mother was pregnant with Maria. Five-years after he was killed, Maria was taken from a neighborhood playground, molested and murdered. At the time she was abducted, my mother, Laura, was helping bandage another girl’s knee and had left Maria unattended for less than a minute. She never forgave herself. On the day they found Maria dead, I knelt down and swore to God that I would find Maria’s killer.
“Bob, I can’t say I’m surprised. When I called her and said I was coming home to stay, she didn’t react at all, just rattled on about a children’s book she was reading.”
“Now that you’re out of the service, what are you going to do?”
“I’m sure I can get back into Justice. In two years, I’ll have my PI license. Then I’m going after that no-good bastard who molested and killed Maria.”
“Tony, I have done everything I was allowed to do, and more, to find that scum. In the Special Forces, you were tracking and confronting men that slithered through the jungle like poisonous snakes. Look out the window, Tony. You may not see it, but it’s a jungle out there, too. I work every day tracking down and confronting dirt bags.”
“So, what are you telling me?”
“I am telling you, that when you get your Private Investigator license, we’ll partner up. Now, I have to walk the fine line of department regulations, but you won’t have to. Together, we can take more dirt bags off the streets, and have a better shot at finding Maria’s killer.”
Two years later, Maria’s killer was arrested and convicted, and while gratifying, it had turned brutal. Bob had arrested a pedophile, and while searching the perp’s house found a naked picture of Maria. Whoever had taken the picture had attempted to make her smile. Her tear-streaked face revealed a frightened little five-year-old girl with a forced closed-lips smile. Seeing it made my mouth foam like a rabid dog. Bob determined the pedophile was not the one who had taken the picture, and the scumbag couldn’t remember who had given him the photo. It had been my job to refresh his memory.
On the night the pedophile made bail, and was released, I knocked on his third-floor tenement door. He opened the door wide with a smile like he was expecting company. I observed a clean kitchen with a red and grey linoleum covered floor, four metal red vinyl cushioned chairs set around a red metal expandable table, and a white four-burner range. On the table were two glasses, a bottle of white wine, three lighted pillar candles, and a vase with a single yellow rose.
The bald, baby-faced, half-pint suddenly realized by my squinted eyes and tight lips that I wasn’t a friendly visitor, and tried to close the door. I pushed my way through, grabbed him by the throat, and shoved the featherweight across the room over to the kitchen stove.
“Who gave you the picture?” I demanded, pushing his head down sideways on an unlit burner. I shoved Maria’s picture in his twisted face. He just groaned.
“Ok, asshole, you want to go up in flames, it’s all right by me.” I put the picture in my pocket and reached over his head to turn on the gas.
“Stop! I’ll tell you! I’ll tell you!”
He dropped a dime on a bespeckled, bald, ugly forty- three-year-old college economics professor. Bob’s search of the professor’s apartment uncovered more pictures of Maria and two other young girls he had also molested and murdered.
Later, the professor was sentenced to life in prison, but I wanted him dead. Bob kept me away from the fuck. He knew prisoners wouldn’t let a child molester and killer, live for long. Within three months, the pedophile was dead, stabbed to death in the shower.
Sadly, the trial’s graphic evidence and testimony proved too much for my mother. She died shortly afterwards from a cerebral embolism at the age of fifty-two.
Now, a while since she passed, I was on my way to play racquetball with Bob, anxious to talk about my early morning Weston phone call. It was a cold, crisp, sunny day. Temperatures were in the high twenties. The wind had died down to a whisper. Snow dust had gathered in doorways and corners of buildings. With daylight, the street was filled with people and parked cars. The North End was awake as I bumped through it.
At one end of my street there’s a small grocery store. The owner, Mr. Martinelli, was standing outside in the freezing weather with no hat, no coat, just a long-sleeved white dress shirt tucked into baggy pants. He had to be seventy years old or better, but his lean six-foot body didn’t even shiver.
Mr. Martinelli liked to observe what was going on in the neighborhood. When a stranger came into the neighborhood, he always knew whether they were a tourist, a businessperson, or someone up to no good. He had alerted me several times before about trouble hanging around my apartment building.
“Buongiorno, Signor Martinelli.”
“Buongiorno, Anthony .”
He’s known me since I was a little kid, and we share the same first name, Anthony, my proper given name. Also, my father, Michael, worked part-time for Mr. Martinelli while attending Northeastern University. He loved my father. It had brought us close.
Every time we meet, he asks to see the photograph of my father that I carry in my wallet.
“Anthony, show me the picture.”
The photo shows my father standing with his crew below the nose of their B-26 Marauder. Above them, “Laura’s Guys” was painted in two-foot high letters. During the war, there wasn’t a week that went by without my mother sending Dad and all the crew a care package. They became known as “Laura’s Guys”. In the photo, he was wearing his Army Air Corp uniform, Captain bars on his shoulders, silver wings and ribbons pinned to the chest of his jacket. I don’t know when the picture was taken, but I do know that on May 12, 1944, he flew out of Corsica and was shot down over Fondi, Italy. The airplane exploded and no one survived. He died just seven days after his twenty-fourth birthday. I was four years old, and my sister Maria, was just born. He never got to hold his little Maria.
In his letters home, father told of how he kept us close to him on every mission. He would put his wallet, with our picture, in the breast pocket of his flight suit. When I was twelve years old, I got a wallet for Christmas. Ever since, I have carried two photos with me—a copy of the yellowing, black and white picture of mom, dad, and me that he carried on the day he died, and the picture he sent of him with “Laura’s Guys.”
Mr. Martinelli took the Laura’s Guys photo and stared at it like it was the first time he had ever seen it.
“Michael was a strong, handsome man. You look so much like him, this could be you in the uniform.”
“How come I no see you in your uniform?”
“Well, you know my mother never married again.”
“Yes, I know. Many a man would have liked to marry her.” “All through the rest of her life, she grieved over my father’s death. It took a mental toll on her. When I received my ROTC military officer commission, she never acknowledged that I joined the military. So, when I came home on leave, I never wore my uniform, never talked about being in the military, never showed her a photo of me in uniform.”
“Yes, Anthony, her broken heart turned her mind from wine to vinegar.”
He handed the picture back and asked, “Coma va, Anthony?” “I need your help.”
Mr. Martinelli brightened. He liked my answer and looked side to side seeing if anyone was within ear shot. Then he looked at me with an expression that said: ’get on with it’.
“If you see a black Bentley pull up near my place, try to get the license plate number. And, like you always do, let me know if any strangers hang around or go into my flat.”
I didn’t have to go into details of why. He was already looking up the street to my flat.
“I’ll let you know all about it. Ciao.”
He wouldn’t miss a beat.
I turned the corner onto Hanover street towards the athletic club. The sun had risen halfway overhead and now provided some welcome heat on a water-freezing day. People walked on the warm side of the street out of the shadows of buildings. A woman approached me with a little boy, maybe four, bundled up in a black parka and knitted beanie. The child was taking two hurried steps to her one. As they walked by, he looked up at me with inquiring brown eyes, and I smiled. As they passed me, he stopped and turned like he wanted to come to me. His mother jerked his hand to keep him walking.
That brief encounter pushed aside the storm clouds that caused my reluctance to marry. I wanted a son, just like him.