XVI.

 

                        He had to cool his heels at the lockup for half an hour before his appointment with Arlene.  At the appointed hour he was led into the interview room, a cheerless cinderblock hallway divided down the middle by a long, narrow table.  Prisoners were seated on one side and visitors on the others and between them was a thick plexiglass wall.  Instead of the telephones he expected, communication was through little clusters of holes drilled in the plexiglass, making the place look like an enormous check-cashing store.  Zelbo was sitting, waiting for him, fussily shooting his cuffs and checking his watch.  He didn't stand.

                        "Where's your client?" asked Loomis.

                        "I don't want to waste her time until I know what it is you have to offer us."

                        "Waste her time?" said, Loomis, giving a pointed once-over to his surroundings.  The gesture was lost on Zelbo.  Loomis sat and drew his chair up as close as possible to Zelbo.

                        "Don't dick with me, Zelbo.  The only person's time I care about is mine.  Get her out here and lets get this over with."

                        Zelbo turned after a moment and nodded to a guard who nodded to another guard on the other side of the plexiglass who went through a steel door for a moment and returned with Arlene.  She didn't look good.  The guard had her by the elbow and she moved with the self-will and grace of a fork lift.  He positioned her in front of her chair and released her elbow and she sank into her seat.  Luckily, the guard had positioned her well.  If she had missed her chair she would have continued right down to the floor.  She was haggard and breathless, like a dying dog.  She looked like she was scraping up the last of her reserves.  There was some hostility left, but not much and nothing else.

                        Zelbo didn't look at her, but remained facing Loomis, bestowing on him his curious flickering gaze.  In the conversation that followed, Loomis spoke almost exclusively to Arlene who watched Zelbo carefully for her cues who almost never took his eyes off Loomis.  The guard standing behind them must have thought all three of them were nuts.

                        "Okay, Arlene, this is what I can do for you.  I've spoken to the State Police and the Ocean County Prosecutors.  As far as they're concerned, you're it.  They got your fingerprints on the murder weapon and they can put it in your hands within the last week.  The way they see it you help out their theory that Elroy killed the Cap'n because you were his girlfriend and now they have a revenge killing.  But, of course, that works the other way, too.  Arlene, are you listening to me?"

                        "She hears you," said Zelbo.

                        "All right, here's the thing.  I got a glimpse, a shadow of a look at the person that shot Elroy.  I've already told the Prosecutor's investigators that I wasn't positive it was you.  I could leave it like that and you could take your chances with the rest of the evidence.  Or I could think about it some more.  It seems to me that the more I think about it the less the shadow looks like you.  But it was very traumatic, you understand?  I don't like thinking about it.  How much I think about it is a matter of motivation, if you know what I mean.  Are you following me?  Arlene?"

                        It appeared as if she did follow Loomis.  Her attention had wandered back to Loomis as he was talking and her face had narrowed to a weary shrewdness.  She started to respond and then folded her lips together and looked back at Zelbo.

                        "She sympathizes with your ordeal and understands perfectly how you feel."

                        "I appreciate that."

                        "You're welcome."

                        Zelbo began tapping his index finger on the table.  Loomis folded his hands and smiled like a lunatic.  Arlene sat like a stone.

                        "Ahem," said Zelbo.  "Naturally, she's curious about the kind of thing that might motivate you."

                        "Naturally," said Loomis.  "Its simple, really.  I have a few questions.  I don't see how answering them honestly can possibly hurt you, Arlene.  Your lawyer is here to keep you from hurting yourself.  But it could help me a great deal -- clear up some problems for me and give me some time to think more about your problems.  I'm not trying to proove anything against you and I don't believe Keever killed the Cap'n.  Unless you killed Fishbein or Keever you've got nothing to fear from me.  It's a pretty good deal."

                        Zelbo tapped some more, Loomis smiled some more, Arlene sat.

                        "There's no harm in asking," said Zelbo, finally.

                        "Excellent.  I feel better already.  Okay, I have just a couple questions.  The cops know that you and Keever worked for John Ciscone at the Mayflower."  Both Zelbo's and Arlene's eyebrows flipped up.  Zelbo's a lot, Arlene's a little.  Loomis continued.  "Did Keever leave that job because of a, uh, business disagreement with Ciscone?"

                        Arlene stood and put her lips up to the holes in the plexiglass.  Zelbo made a shooing motion at Loomis and pressed his ear to the other side of the partition.  Loomis slid his chair a few feet further off and made like the potted plant while Zelbo and Arlene did a Pyramis and Thisbe.  When everyone was seated it was Arlene who gave the response this time.

                        "John thought that Elroy ripped him off," she said in a small, flat voice.

                        "I see.  Were you fired?"

                        "Yeah.  He wanted to change the whole arrangement."

                        "Did Ciscone have anything to do with the two of you getting hired by the Cap'n?"

                        "No."

                        "But Ciscone's subsequent arrangement with the Cap'n came as a result of Elroy's suggestion?"

                        Both sets of eyebrows slammed down at once.  Evidently there was a lot more stuff loose than they figured.  Zelbo and Arlene consulted a long while on that one and Zelbo came back with the word.

                        "Mr. Keever was anxious to get back into Mr. Ciscone's good graces.  He felt that brokering the arrangement you refer to, the substance of which is entirely unknown to me, would accomplish that end."

                        "Why?  Why did he want to mend the fence?"

                        "She indicated to me that Mr. Keever did well in Mr. Ciscone's employ."

                        "I bet he did.  Well, as far as I know, the arrangement was for a private loan.  Was it your job to convince the Cap'n to accept the arrangement?"

                        This produced a minor shit-storm of cluckings and warnings from Zelbo, eye-rolling and lip-curling from Arlene and even a little hissy-fit between the two of them.  Finally they had an answer arranged and Zelbo delivered it.

                        "She had no job, Mr. Loomis.  She was not a party to the arrangement, nor an agent for one of the parties.  She had no relationship with Mr. Keever other than that of co-worker.  However, she did urge Mr. Fishbein to accept the arrangement when he told her about it."

                        "Why?"

                        "Simply because she thought it was a good deal for him and that it would result in their being together sooner."

                        "Uh-huh," said Loomis.  That was bologna, but he didn't care.  He had just two other questions that were mostly just curiosity.  One was the nature of Keever's tatoo, but he had to ask the other one first.

                        "Were you and Elroy lovers?"

                        "No," said Zelbo, instantly.

                        Arlene laughed. 

                        "Oh, man," she said.  "I slept with him."

                        Zelbo stood.

                        "They were not lovers and this interview is over."

                        "Relax, Leonard, wouldja?"  She and Loomis remained seated and for the first time, fully facing one another.  Her eyes met Loomis' easily, but her lips, smiling slightly, seemed to hold a memory.

                        "I liked Elroy, but he was kind of pathetic, really.  One of these get-rich-quick guys.  A loser, basically, but you had to like him.  No matter how screwed up his life was he always really believed things were going to work out for him.  We used to fuck every once in awhile, but lovers?  Nothing even close to that.  Larry was my guy."

                        "When was the last time you made it with Elroy?"

                        She shrugged, but then the recollection fell loose.

                        "Oh, yeah."  She laughed.  "It was the night you took pictures of him with Sandra."  She was seized by a low-energy fit of giggles.  "I didn't want to come over but he begged me.  He needed some comforting."

                        Zelbo was about to explode.  Red-faced and twitching, stamping his feet and rattling his briefcase, he finally got the guard over to escort Arlene out.  She was led away, still giggling.  Loomis shouted his thanks to her and she waved.  He had been just that close, one question away.  Now he would likely never know what was tatooed on Keever's ass.

                        On the steps outside, Zelbo laid his restless hand on Loomis' arm.

                        "Just so we're both clear.  Not one thing that was said in there is relevant or admissable to the present charges against Ms. Babayev."

                        "Of course not.  I don't know if you know it, or believe it, but Arlene didn't kill anyone.  When's the bail hearing?"

                        "In about a half an hour.  She'll be out by this evening."

                        "Good," said Loomis, and he started to turn away, but the little bug on his arm turned into a hook and held him in place.

                        "Listen, Loomis.  I seem to be having a hard time getting ahold of Sandra."

                        "Can't help you, pal.  She's not my client anymore."

                        "She's not?  May I ask in whose interest you are pursuing your investigation?"

                        "Nope."

                        "Ah.  Well, let me just say that there may be something in it for you if you can set up a meeting between us."

                        "You just got that Santa Claus thing going today, don't you?  All right, I'll try.  But if you're trying to cut a deal with her this may be a bad time.  After all, with the charges hanging over Arlene she probably doesn't think she has to make a deal.  She'll probably want to just wait it out."

                        "Mr. Loomis, if you stick to your end of the bargain I just heard you make the charges won't hold."

                        "Oh, you'll get everything out of me you could want."

                        "I'm sure I will.  You're withholding evidence, Mr. Loomis.  You have to be to ask the questions you asked."

                        Loomis sighed.

                        "You're very sharp, Mr. Zelbo.  But you're also an asshole.  You don't have to threaten me.  I'll stick to the bargain.  But you never know with a jury.  The prosecutor really wants to put this one away and get on to other things."

                        "I realize that.  We'll all do our best for Arlene.  As for Sandra, you might tell her that it doesn't matter in the least if Arlene is guilty or not.  Her claim to the boat is unaffected.  But if Arlene does go down on these charges there will be no deal, ever.  Tell her that.  Now is the time for her to talk."

                        This struck Loomis as curious, but he said he would try and somehow avoided shaking hands.

                        Instead of taking the Parkway he went up Hooper and stopped in Brick to do his shopping.  Two small cut-up chickens and everything he needed for the world's best potato salad.  New pototoes, eggs for boiling, mayonaise, horseradish, carroway, olives, celery and onion.  He also got a jar of pickles, a box of cookies and two six-packs of diet Pepsi.

                        At home they both fell to the task of preparing the picnic as if in the company of a third, mediating presence.  The tension between them had assumed such control in the past few weeks that its replacement by an unfamiliar, benign companion was regarded by Martha and Loomis as a minor miracle, perhaps an atmospheric quirk.  The lightness of their judgements and the ease of their conversation gave rise to a whirling sensation almost like a festival or the day school lets out.  It was fun; an unexpected gift of freedom.  You can't comment on it or examine it or it might break apart.  And you can't hold back; you have to let it fling you where it will because somewhere inside you know it won't last.

                        It lasted long enough for the two of them to make a shambles of the kitchen.  Her chicken was fried and cooling on racks, his potato salad was made and in the refrigerator.  They were arguing about Buck Owens and just beginning to clean up when the phone rang.  He grabbed the kitchen extension and stuck it between his ear and shoulder.

                        "Hello?"

                        "You talked to Arlene today, didn't you, scumbag?"

                        He turned and smiled at Martha but she wasn't fooled.

                        "Who is this?  Is this John?"

                        "You're unbelievable.  You think I'm kidding?  You think I'm not serious?  Let me put it to you this way.  First the bitch you live with, and then you."

                        The connection was broken softly, but Loomis just stood there nodding for a moment and then spoke into the phone.

                        "Okay.  I see.  Thanks for letting me know.  I'll get on it right away.  So long." 

                        He hung up.  He moved over and embraced Martha lightly, letting his hands drift down and his palms make little circles on her ass.

                        "I'm sorry, kiddo, its business.  I have one call I have to make and then I swear we take the phone off the hook for the night.  Okay?"

                        "Of course," she said.  "I understand."  She was smiling, but there was some effort involved.  School was back in.  He went into the bedroom and closed the door.  What he ought to do was immediately call Schneider and give him everything he knew and everything he suspected.  That might not solve the problem, though.  They weren't going to just go out and arrest Ciscone on his information.  They'd have to check it out, go through the records.  So far he had nothing to connect Ciscone to the murders, but he was a long way towards proving a big case of transport, possession and sale.  But the cops had that already on the Mayflower end.  They were waiting for more.  A task force is a bureaucracy within a bureaucracy.  How long would it take them to move?  Could he get Ciscone jailed for the threat?  Probably not, as long as a dozen cops were building a major case against him.  It seemed that his only choice was to sit tight and, if possible, not give Ciscone any more reason to get cranky.  It was, after all, only a warning.  For the first time since the whole mess began he felt truly frightened.  He remembered that this was a warning, apparently a final warning, from a guy who he was sure had already killed at least twice.  Another thing.  He truly had no idea if he and Martha were going to stay together.  He couldn't tell her about this, but otherwise he could take no chances on her getting hurt.  That was something he knew he could not live with.  He had to keep working on this and get something fast, but he had to stay far out of John Ciscone's way.

                        He shook himself and stood.  He sat down again and picked up the bedroom extension.  He had to call Sandra and might as well get it out of the way before he tried to salvage the rest of the evening.  When she answered she sounded like she was in a perfect state of drunkeness -- her words were perfectly formed, but reckless.  Soft and brutal.

                        "Who, may I ask, is this person talking to me now?"

                        "Sandra, its Loomis.  I have a message for you.  Do you have something to write this down on?"

                        "I assure you, Mr. Loomis, if this is Mr. Loomis, that I will retain any message you are kind enough to relay to me and may I say to you, fuck you."

                        "Fuck you, too, Sandra.  Very much.  Now listen.  I talked to Zelbo today and he wants to meet you."

                        "Why ever would he want to do that?"

                        "If I'm reading him right he's saying if you want the boat you have to make a deal now, tomorrow."

                        "Ah ha," she said, sweetly.  "Ah so.  This is where he is wrong.  The scum-sucking, puss-faced shit hole.  I am simply going to wait until they put the bitch in the gas chamber and then I am going to say fuck you to all of you and sail away, sail away, sail away."

                        "He says no.  He says it doesn't matter what happens to her, she keeps the boat.  Sandra, I'm not sure, but I have a feeling he's right.  Check with Mozarsky tomorrow.  Zelbo says this is your last chance."

                        "He says that, does he?"   There was a long silence.  Loomis was afraid she'd passed out.

                        "Yes he does.  He says that."

                        "I see.  Well, I do not have to check with any lawyer.  Tell Mr. Zelbo that I am engaged tomorrow afternoon but I will be at his office at oh let's say six tomorrow evening and we can straighten everything the fuck out.  Would you do that for me?"

                        He felt like saying call him yourself, I don't work for you.  But he liked her and, more importantly, she had given him a generous settlement.  It would be a good deed to help her sail away, sail far away from everything that had happened.

                        "Sure, I'll do that, Sandra.  Six o'clock tomorrow.  Write that down, would you?"

                        "I assure you," she said and dropped the phone.  It took her awhile to find it and when she did she hung it up.  He immediately decided he wasn't calling her tomorrow to remind her since her afternoon engagement would undoubtedly be sleeping off a monster.  Maybe she'd remember.  He'd done his deed.

                        He shook himself again and went back into the kitchen.  Martha wasn't there, but she'd gotten most of the spoilable mess wiped up and everything organized to wash.  He went into the living room and found her on the couch.  She didn't look festive anymore.  She looked sad.  She also looked naked.

                        "Well," she said, "we probably ought to turn in.  Nice to, you know, get started early."

                        "Well," he said, "let's get started."

 

                                            *       *       *       *       *

 

                        By the time Loomis got up in the morning a little after nine, Martha had everything pretty much ready.

                        Loomis had no charm in the morning.  That's about the best you could say.  He was trying though.  He showered long and drank deep from the coffee pot.  By the time his level of consciousness was within shouting distance of hers he realized things were a little different this morning.  They were still being nice to each other, still acting as if under reprieve from their problems with each other, but the fabric was brittle and the tension underneath was showing through the holes.  It was like they were walking on ice and neither of them were confident but both felt an obligation to appear so.  She was not made happier when he told her he had to wait until ten to make a call to a bank.  He went into the bedroom to make it, but she decided to rearrange her sock drawer and couldn't help but overhear.

                        "First Jersey, Mortgage Division, may I help you?"

                        "Hi," he said, "this is Bob Cholkis from Pioneer Mortgage in Colombia, South Carolina?  How are you this morning?"

                        "Mr. Jokus?"

                        "Good, good.  I hope you can help me.  I'm acting as mortgage agent for a party down here that's buying a boat up there.  Now the title's clear, the bank's on board, the seller's happy and I'm about to make some money.  My records show that you held the previous mortgage on this boat that was retired in 1989.  All I need is the date you received the final payment and we can all start smiling."

                        "I'm sorry, Mr., uh.  Why do you need this?"

                        "I don't, darlin'.  But its a hole on the page and it makes me crazy.  When I'm crazy I make everyone else crazy.  It's one of those things, you know what I mean?  It says 1989, but when?  I suppose if I tried I could think of a way that it might come back to bite me, but the kind of guy I am . . ."

                        "All right, yes, I understand.  Who was the mortgagee?"

                        Loomis gave her a soft rebel yell and the particulars.  A minute later it was confirmed that the boat was paid for on 10/1/89 and his figures for the dealings between Ciscone and Fishbein were correct.

                        He hung up at the same time Martha was done with her socks, but when he picked up the phone and dialed again she slammed the drawer shut and left the room.

                        "Mozarsky?"

                        "Speaking."

                        "Loomis."

                        "Ah.  You feeling better?"

                        "Yes, thanks."

                        "That's good.  You calling about Sandra?"

                        "No.  She fired me, not surprisingly.  But you're going to have your hands full.  She's a mess."

                        "Its been a rough few weeks, for sure.  She'll be all right, she'll pull through."

                        "I hope so.  No, I called to see if you had found anything about Zelbo."

                        "Oh, yeah.  I did ask around a little.  Not thorough, not conclusive, but unanimous.  Nobody likes him.  Nobody trusts him.  He seems to be trying to set a record for complaints to the Bar Association, but he hasn't been censured yet so he's not stupid.  Even the crooks don't trust him."

                        "One sentence?"

                        "He's not stupid, but he does stupid things and so far he's managed to wriggle loose.  One word?  Nixon."

                        "Thanks.  One more thing.  Zelbo says it doesn't matter if Arlene Babayev gets the ax for Keever's murder, its still her boat."

                        "He's right.  Probably.  You never know what's going to come out, but my feeling is that the prosecutor wants to keep this simple.  She doesn't profit by killing Keever.  Unless she's tied directly to Larry's murder, it's hers."

                        "That's what I thought.  I appreciate this, especially since we're not sharing a client anymore"

                        "No problem.  I feel the need to show a difference face of the profession."

                        "So long."

                        "Stay in touch."

                        He called Zelbo and told him Sandra would be by around six.  Zelbo didn't mention the 'little something' he had spoken of the day before.

                        They had decided to picnic at Ocean County Park in Lakewood over Martha's mild objection.  It was farther than other places they could have gone, but he was from Ocean County and it was still his favorite place.  Origionally, it had been John D. Rockefeller's summer home, or one of them.  When Loomis was in high school the mansion had finally been pulled down, but other than that and the addition of a couple of parking lots, it was essentially the same as it was back then -- a quiet, peaceful place of broad green fields and groves of exotic pines.  So much of the shore was cheesy and raucus, filled with slap-dash hustle and frenzied development that each time he returned he was amazed that it had escaped.

                        The park was almost deserted.  The morning was mild, but damp.  It was overcast, but not particularly threatening.  There were several cedar ponds in the park where you could swim and come out with a slight reddish stain on all the little hairs on your body.  It wasn't a day for swimming so they went to the small pond.  There was an old pumping station that looked like a cedar shingled lighthouse and around half of the pond were picnic tables and barbeque pits.  It was also the domain of the ducks.  Some were resident, some were stopping off on their way south.  There were strange looking ones who had lived here as long as Loomis could remember and many generic looking ones.  As soon as Loomis and Martha started setting up shop on a picnic table they started coming and calling for the others to join them.  All colors, all sizes, they made a waddling wave of honking greed descending from all directions.  Loomis and Martha had no choice but to retreat.

                        They drove to the other side of the pond and walked away from it and spread their blanket on the first grass they found, just out from under the cedar canopy.  There were a few ducks in the area, but these seemed more intererested in keeping the potential bonanza to themselves.

                        They set up the casette player.  While Martha had come to appreciate some of the music Loomis listened to, she did not normally, by choice, play country.  She played jazz singers.  She put on Dinah Washington very softly, they set out the food, they stretched out on the blanket and Loomis immediately went to sleep.

                        When he woke he saw her sitting under a tree.  There were several honkers gathered quietly around her, picking up the pieces of bread she dropped and nervously checking over their shoulders.  On the tree directly over her was a sign that said 'Do Not Feed the Ducks'.  He laughed and walked over to her.

                        "I wish I had a camera," he said.

                        "Why?" she said and she looked up, but not directly at him.  He pointed at the sign and chuckled.

                        "They're not ducks," she said, "they're Canada Geese."

                        "Ah, well, we're all right, then.  Was I asleep long?"

                        "No," she said, still not looking at him.

                        "I'm sorry I fell asleep."

                        "Oh, that's all right.  We've been doing fine without you."

                        "That's good," he said and he checked the fine print on the sign for warnings about geese.  It said that the ducks were protected and described how much trouble you could get into for messing with them.  He read it again.  He was reading it the third time when he realized she was speaking to him.

                        "I'm sorry?"

                        "I asked if you're hungry."

                        "I'm sorry, what?"

                        She stood up and finally looked directly into his eyes.

                        "Fergus, are you all right?"

                        "Sure.  Oh, am I hungry?  Yes.  Yes, let's eat."

                        Usually, Loomis ate three times as much as Martha and made fun of her while doing it.  Today, neither of them seemed able to taste the food.  She tried to talk to him about how she felt, how frightened she was about their relationship and how they had to make some decisions.  It wasn't easy for her, especially since Loomis was barely responding.  He wasn't even thinking about what she was saying.  He was thinking 'Is it possible to make her understand how important this is without telling her what it's about?  How can I make her understand she's in danger without frightening her?'  He found no answers and after a half an hour he stood.

                        "I have to go."

                        "What do you mean?"

                        "Just that.  I have to go.  Now.  I'm sorry, Martha, I can't tell you about it but you have to trust me that it's important."

                        She stared at him, started to speak and stared some more.

                        "Have you heard anything I said to you?"

                        "No, I'm sorry, but I haven't.  That's why I'm saying I have to go.  We'll talk about it later.  We will, I promise.  But I . . . I have to do this first.  Please, I . . ."

                        "This is work, right?  A client?"

                        "Uh, yeah, sort of."

                        "Well, by all means," she said, standing.  "We sure don't want to keep them waiting."

                        She began furiously picking up their things and flinging them into the car.  Loomis continued apologizing non-stop, but only fed her rage.  At the exit he began to turn left toward the parkway.

                        "Turn right," she said.

                        "But . . ."

                        "Turn RIGHT."

                        He did and drove the mile into Lakewood.  She made him stop at the bus station and he began to protest.

                        "I'm taking the fucking bus," she said.  This was not the way Martha talked.  It was not the way Martha got out of a car.  It was not the way Martha closed a car door.  He watched her disappear in a moment.  As gone as a person could be.