IX.

 

                        Magic Hour at Loomis Associates.  In the movies, about half of all scenes are shot at 6:45 a.m., or whenever the slanting beams of the early sun throw a golden antiquing over all anxiety and pain.  They call it Magic Hour.  The quality of light is warm and dense, tender and soothing.  Nature's cinematographer.  Ideal for scenes of quiet courage and gentle affirmation.  Good also for painful goodbys.  Loomis was trying to remember a movie where they used it for a hangover scene and he remembered the beginning of Harper.  Perfect.

                        Loomis very rarely drank to excess.  He knew he had a weakness for the stuff, but had only been drunk two or three times in his life.  He had no idea why he had gotten drunk the night before.  Everything had been nice.  They had watched a movie and gone to bed and made love.  Very nice.  He couldn't sleep.  He lay in bed for half an hour or so and then got up and walked straight into the kitchen and pulled down a bottle of bourbon that was two years old and almost full.  He drank about half of it and passed out on the couch.  He woke up just before dawn and had gotten into his car and driven to the office.  He drank three containers of coffee from Dunkin' Donuts.  He put his feet up on the desk and tried to sleep.  No way.

                         At ten o'clock he called Mrs. Fishbein.  Yes, she had called Mozarsky.  He was going to drop a restraining order on Arlene and the boat wasn't going anywhere until everything was cleared up.  She gave Loomis a list of eight names that she said constituted the total of the Cap'n's friends and associates and bet him five bucks the list would be worthless.  He almost hoped he lost so that he could put it on his expenses.

                        She was agitated and querulous.  The police had already been around that morning and asked if she knew, or if she knew that the captain knew, a fellow named Ciscone.  Loomis perked at that and then figured they were just checking out the vague association he had given Schneider.  There was an unmarked car parked all morning at the corner.  She took them coffee just to show she wasn't going to be pushed around.  They thanked her and asked for sugar.  The way she described them they had to be cops, not friends of the Ciscones.

                        "So what is this?  The Mafia's involved now?  We going to have the CIA next?  Elroy's giving away atom bombs?  He took the Lindbergh baby?

                        "Mrs. Fishbein, its not the Mafia.  What it is, I don't know."

                        "Its bad, whatever it is."

                        "No.  Its good, whatever it is.  If its got nothing to do with the case its just distracting the cops.  If it does, its coming to us.  Try and stay calm, Mrs. Fishbein.  I got a feeling things are going to work out."

                        "That's nice."

                        Loomis listened to her panting thickly for a few moments.

                        "All right, Mister Loomis.  I'm calm."

                        She blew out a long slow breath to prove it.

                        "You'll just never know what it was like.  My life was like everybody else's life.  I mean, time went on, shit happened, da-de-da.  It was just life, and not bad.  But I want to tell you right now, Mr. Loomis, what we went through the last couple of weeks don't happen to everybody and they'll never know how lucky they are.  Me and the Cap'n and Elroy, its like we were locked in a tiny room and thrown in the air.  It just bang, happened out of the blue and when I try to remember it its just a bunch of noise.  Its not . . . its not any kind of life I know about."

                        This was the same kind of thing that Arlene described for him, but he didn't say so.

                        "We're going to fix it, Mrs. Fishbein.  We're going to make it come out right."

                        "Well, if you can do that I reckon you've earned your money."

                        "Just leave it to me.  You think of anyone belongs on this list you let me know, okay?"

                        "Okay."

                        "One other thing.  The Cap'n's papers."

                        "What about them?"

                        "No idea where he took them?"

                        "Christ.  You and the police.  Believe me, if they're not in the office I got no idea."

                        "Take it easy.  I believe you.  What kind of papers are we talking about."

                        "The accounts from the boat.  The registration.  I can understand why he wouldn't want me to see that.  I don't know.  All his legal stuff."

                        "Okay, do me a favor and think about it."

                        "Sure, sure," she said and she hung up.

                        He had some calls to make, but decided to take the ten minute drive over to the Manasquan boardwalk.

                        It was an almost perfect day.  Like other good days on the shore it seemed like there was almost too much light and that the sky was higher and bluer to hold it all.  It was just a little too cold and the wind was a little too high for comfort, although it was therapeutic for the remnants of his shakes.  There were only a handful of people on the beach; a few kite flyers and a few others sweeping the area with metal detectors.  A wobbling "V" of geese puttered south and the seagulls seemed to be sunning themselves in shifts.  The sea itself was as blue as it ever gets in the North Atlantic and punching ashore lazily.  He was hoping there might be one sausage stand open, but there wasn't.  Just the police substation and Martha's.

                        She seemed to think a second before smiling at him and his heart dropped a floor or two because it was the first moment he had admitted to himself that they might be in trouble, that they might not make it.  And because he really wasn't sure how he felt about that.

                        "Hi, Slugger.  Feeling better?"

                        "I could use something cold."

                        The front of the building was formed by two garage-type doors, about twenty foot each.  Only one was open and right inside was an antique soda machine.  She handed him a couple of slugs and he got himself a Dr. Pepper.

                        "Ah," he said.

                        "Next time you have a party, why don't you invite me?"

                        "That wasn't me."

                        "No?"

                        "Huh-uh.  I don't know who it was, but I hope he's gone."

                        She shrugged.

                        "Are you all right?"

                        No.  I'm dying, in fact.  I don't know if I love you enough and if I can't love you, let's face it, I'm shit out of luck because I could never find anybody better.

                        "Sure."

                        "How's the case?"

                        "Early days.  So far, so good."

                        "We take them one game at a time."

                        "That's right.  If we stay healthy, we've got a chance."

                        There were only two customers, both apparently friendless adolescents, one playing Skee-ball, the other pumping quarters into a computerized car racing game.  Both of them were astonishingly good at their chosen professions.  Loomis took a long strip of tickets and watched the Skee-ball wizard pop one 100 point ball after another.  He had to go back twice in ten minutes for more tickets.

                        "How many tickets you got, kid?"

                        He had tried to catch the kid in his backswing, but he failed to disturb the perfect release and follow-through.  100.

                        "Two hundred and forty two thousand, something."  100.

                        Loomis looked up at the display prizes.  The most expensive prize was an Atari set and he was well on his way to his second.  He must have been at it all summer.  If he really wanted to cause problems he could demand 100,000 spider rings.

                        Mario Andretti had finally had enough and gone home.  Martha came over and stood next to Loomis watching the Skee-ball master.  Loomis handed her what was left of his tickets.

                        "I gotta get something to eat."

                        "Home early?"

                        "Yeah."

                        He grabbed her and kissed her as hard as he could.  She resisted mildly for a second and then jumped at him.  They really had something going there for a minute, then he released her.  As he walked out he glanced back.  The kid had thrown three tens in a row.

                        Back at the office he didn't feel so much like eating and rewrapped his meatball hero after a bite or two.  He called and left a message for Schneider and then started in on Mrs. Fishbein's list. 

                        Most of them turned out to be fairly casual acquaintances and one or two had to be prodded into remembering who Larry Fishbein was.  The only response that peaked Loomis' interest was a Jack Goesser.  Mr. Goesser had a soft voice and a faint Yiddish accent. 

                        "Fishbein?" he said.  "I don't know no Fishbein."

                        "I was told he was a friend of yours, Mr. Goesser."

                        "Ah.  Mr. Loomis, somebody once told me I looked like Paul Newman.  My brother-in-law told me to buy some stock last year.  The next I.B.M., he said.  A new Xerox."

                        "I don't understand.  Do you know Larry Fishbein?"

                        "Now.  Neither my mother nor my brother-in-law was lying to me, exactly, but that doesn't mean what they told me was the truth.  You follow me?"

                        "Sure.  You're broke and ugly.  But you do know Larry Fishbein, don't you?  Kind of a big guy, in his fifties.  Black hair.  Horn rims.  Party boat captain."

                        Goesser thought it over for a few moments, murmuring 'mumumumumum'.  And then 'Ah.  Yes.'  He seemed to be getting older and more Jewish as he talked. 

                        "Oh, Cap'n Fishbein.  Sure.  I remember.  Nice guy.  Kept to himself.  How is he?"

                        "Well, I'm sorry to have to tell you, but he's dead."

                        "Ah, what a shame."

                        He didn't sound all that broken up nor did he ask for any details. 

                        "Yes, his wife, of course, is very upset."

                        There was a stony silence on the line and when Goesser spoke he had lost all the decrepitude and ethnicity he had accrued during the conversation.

                        "What is it exactly you want with me, Loomis?"

                        "Perhaps you haven't heard, but Cap'n Fishbein was murdered."

                        Nothing.

                        "I'm a private investigator looking into the circumstances of his death."

                        Nothing.

                        "Since I was told you were friends, I just wanted to talk to you to see if you could provide any details about the last few weeks of his life."

                        "No."

                        "No?"

                        "No.  I can't.  My name is rabbit, Mr. Loomis.  I know nothing.  Maybe you could answer a question for me."

                        "If I can."

                        "Who told you we were friends?"

                        Normally, of course, that was none of Goesser's business.  Since the downward spiral of the conversation began with the offhanded mention of Mrs. Fishbein, however, Loomis was curious to know what would happen if he told.

                        "Actually, it was Mrs. Fishbein."

                        "That's who you're working for?"

                        "That's right.  She said . . ."

                        "Goodby, Mr. Loomis.  I have nothing to say to you."

                        The phone was replaced gently rather than slammed down, but the dial tone in Loomis' ear was just as emphatic.

                        "Goodby, Mr. Rabbit."

                        Jack Goesser wasn't listed in the Monmouth or Ocean books and Mrs. Fishbein wasn't answering her phone.  He made a note to ask her where this guy lived and then spent a half an hour hunting up the slip of paper on which he had noted telephone numbers from Arlene's address book.

                        In terms of sheer volume of information, Loomis did much better with Charlotte Pincay of Pitch Lake, Arkansas.  What he learned, such as the weather in Pitch Lake, the latest antics of her son Judson and the plot of Anything Goes, which her husband, Ray, had taken her to see at the Olde West Dinner Theatre the previous Saturday, was not a lot of help.  Eventually he learned that Charlotte was Arlene's sister and that she hadn't heard "word one" from Arlene in at least five years.  She was sure no one else had, either, but she offered to go across the yard and ask her mother.  Before he could say no she was off.  She came back ten minutes later with the news that her mother hadn't heard word one either.  She offered to run down to road to her other sister Janine's, but Loomis headed her off this time.  The name Keever meant nothing to her.  She knew nothing of any of Arlene's East Coast relationships.  She hoped Arlene had found a nice boy and asked Loomis to tell her to give her a ring sometime.  He said he would.  She never asked why Loomis was interested in all this or even who he was.  Even when Loomis asked, as diplomatically as possible, about the possibility that Arlene might have used drugs at one point in her life, Charlotte merely pulled out what sounded like the family boilerplate.

                        "People said that, but I don't believe it.  No, sir, Arlene's much too smart for that."

                        Loomis thanked her and hung up.

                        He glumly padded his notes and reassured himself that he wasn't actually stealing from Mrs. Fishbein.  He had been on the case for less than twenty-four hours.  It wasn't alarming that nothing was starting to move yet and that so far he had failed to uncover his first hand-hold.  That was almost to be expected.  He was going to need a lot of luck to beat the cops to Keever; their advantage was enormous.  He just didn't know what to do next.  There was the desk clerk at the motel.  He could call him or take Keever's picture around to show him, but what if he was Keever's friend?  What if he knew where Keever was?  If Keever got flushed at this point the already prohibitive odds in favor of the cops would shoot up instantly.  The easiest way to get caught is to run.  The next easiest way is to scamper for a tree and hide.  The worst way is to simply drop where you are and wait and wait.  Loomis, if he was to have any chance of finding Keever before the cops, needed him to have chosen the third way and he didn't want to do anything to change his plans.  That meant staking out the motel to find out who this guy was and where he went after work.  He tried to think of an easier way, but he couldn't.

                        He finished his sandwich and was headed for the door when the phone rang.

                        "Francis.  Carl."

                        "Hello, Trooper Schneider."

                        "What can I do for you?"

                        "Two things.  One, don't call me Francis."

                        "Why not?  Isn't that your name?"

                        "No.  Its not my name.  People tend to think F.A. stands for Francis Albert, I don't know why.  It doesn't."

                        "What should I call you?"

                        "Either Loomis or make something up."

                        "Roger."

                        "All right."

                        "No, I mean . . . what was the other thing?"

                        "Ah.  Its about the Ciscones."

                        "They still bouncing you around?"

                        "Well, in fact, they tried to dust me up pretty good last night."

                        "Sounds like you still got your teeth."

                        "I brought help, but thank you for your concern."

                        "You have a question?"

                        "Well, since they seem to have interposed themselves between me and my goal, and since my information suggests the vast resources of the NJSP have been inquiring into their activities, I wonder if you have uncovered any specific links between Mr. Keever and Mssrs. Ciscone."

                        "I see.  You want the taxpayers of the Garden State to underwrite your investigation."

                        "That's it exactly."

                        "Well," said Schneider.

                        "You did.  You did find a connection."

                        "I didn't say anything, uh, Loomis."

                        "You didn't have to.  You're a book, Trooper Schneider.  Tell me.  Come on, why shouldn't you?  You're allowed to tell me if you want to."

                        "I want to, Loomis, but its the kind of thing you might well get yourself in trouble with."

                        "This is better than I thought.  Keever worked for Ciscone, right?  Where?  The pet shop?  The pizza parlor?"

                        Schneider dropped a sigh at the beginning of a long pause as he made up his mind.  Loomis waited patiently, knowing Schneider's mind was already made up.

                        "All right," said Schneider, "Trooper Nadratowski had some luck with her computer.  She found a couple of other businesses John Ciscone has been involved with."

                        "They were hidden?"

                        "Not in any sophisticated way.  No off-shore corporations or anything like that.  Just run through a couple layers of cousins.  There's a small taxi company in Toms River he's trying to sell, a diner in Lakehurst that's dying and a bar in Seaside that's doing pretty well."

                        "Buddy's"

                        "That's right.  How'd you know that?"

                        "Scene of an unreported crime."

                        "I see.  He's also got a motel."

                        "A motel?"

                        "Keever was desk clerk at the Mayflower for about a year until just before he went to work for Cap'n Fishbein."

                        That explained how he knew the current Mayflower desk clerk and was also probably the         beginning of the explanation of why the Ciscone's were looking for him.  Maybe he stole some towels.  They sat silently on the line for a minute while they each mulled over what else it might explain.

                        "That's very interesting, Trooper Schneider.  So he's running a vast crime empire, huh?"

                        "Not likely.  But tax evasion for sure.  Who knows what else we find when we get in there."

                        "Tax evasion's for the feds, isn't it."

                        "Evading federal tax if for the feds.  Evading New Jersey tax is our job.  They'll get in on it, for sure, but not until we got our part wrapped.  Trooper Nadratowski's got the go-ahead for a task force.  Once he's bagged I'll see that you get a pat on the head."

                        "I'm hugging myself, Carl."

                        "You put us onto him.  That's the only reason I'm talking to you now."

                        "You mean, this is one of those policefavors I keep hearing about?"

                        "That's right.  I hate calling you Loomis."

                        "Call me what you want."

                        "My advice, Francis, is not to push it.  I'm giving you a lot of stuff here.  You do not use anything I give you to spook Ciscone, you understand me?  You can ride up one side of him and down the other to find this Keever guy, but if he gets the idea anyone's interested in his 1040 you are outside.  I will make sure you are put outside.  And another thing.  You tell me everything.  If you hold out on me and make me look like an asshole . . ."

                        "Oh, Carl . . ."

                        "You understand me?"

                        "Sure, sure.  What's her first name?"

                        "Who?"

                        "The trooper with the computer."

                        "Babette."

                        "I love it.  I absolutely adore it.  Any details on where this Keever guy came from?"

                        Schneider gave him some stuff that they had collected on Keever's background.  He was from Indiana.  His mother still lived in Fort Wayne.  Had no record outside of some minor thievery as a boy and a DWI three years back.  He had a clean, but remarkably undistinguished service record in the navy.  He was a loner's loner.  He didn't even have a credit card.  His only known address on the Shore had been the trailer.  There was some other stuff and Loomis made notes, but it was no good to him.  If Keever had managed to slip out of state, a not very difficult feat, he was beyond Loomis' reach.  He had to be here and someone had to be hiding him for Loomis to have a chance.                                                                   "Oh, you might as well know the other thing."

                        "Tell me the other thing."

                        "The Mayflower used to employ a housekeeper."

                        "Ah.  Arlene Babayev."

                        "Amazing."

                        "I know.  I scare myself."

                        It was no great leap to put Arlene at the Mayflower.  Loomis was still the only one who believed Elroy and Arlene were getting it on and while he was willing to suspend his disbelief in Keever's innocence of murder, he was still convinced the two of them were up to something.  These two went back; he was sure of it.  He considered telling all this to Schneider, but then reconsidered.  If he couldn't use what Trooper Schneider gave to poke around Ciscones business holdings, it hardly made sense to give Carl anything to help him find Keever.  Call it a Detectivefavor.

                        "By the way, have you given up on that little prick in the trailer next to Keever?  I can't help feeling he knows something."

                        "We had the same feeling, so we went back twice.  Nada.  I figure if you asked him about Judge Crater he'd give you the same feeling.  He likes to get your interest so he can shit on you."

                        "Yeah, that's probably it.

                        Loomis thanked Schneider and promised to be on the horn with every little thing he picked up.  For some reason he was always more comfortable lying to friends than strangers.