…in which we take a ride to a butterfly farm.
Again, a very rough chapter, but I wanted to get this out of the way so I could focus on what’s next. As always, any constructive criticism or suggestions from the peanut gallery would be mightily appreciated.
Peter Arsenal rolled over groggily at the sound of the doorbell. This was odd, he mused. Nobody ever rang his doorbell. Guests were supposed to be intercepted by the doorman, interrogated, and if suitable, called up appropriately. It must be a mistake. He yawned and buried his face in the pillow.
The doorbell rang again.
How annoying. Where was Charlie, anyway? No, wait, what was today? Saturday morning? It would be that new kid, Hamid or whatever his name was. Mentally, Peter excised Hamid from the list of servants to be tipped at Christmas.
Heavy pounding at the door. A voice calling from the hall—perhaps the building was on fire? Peter sat up and looked around. It didn’t feel hot in here. No smoke odor, either. And wouldn’t the sprinklers have been activated by now, if that were the case? There was something very peculiar about this whole business, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Cautiously, Peter adjusted his silk pajamas, stepped into his slippers and went down the hall toward the front door.
He started to look through the peep-hole, but not yet having inserted his contact lenses, everything was a blur. Several people standing out there—it must be an emergency, after all. Well, well. Peter Arsenal opened the door, replacing his expression of curiosity with one of concern. “Yes?”
Detective Buckley held up her badge and smiled. “We’re here to exercise a search warrant.”
Detective Pisciotta handed Peter Arsenal a sheaf of papers. “Lovely morning, isn’t it?”
Ever witty, Peter Arsenal replied, “Shit.”
Downstairs, on the street below, Hangdog was saying the very same thing: “Shit.”
Sharp-Nose looked around at the police vehicles double-parked all up and down Riverside Drive and slumped at the wheel of the truck.
They sat there for a while, watching uniformed and non-uniformed investigators go in and out of the building. The doorman (Hamid, who wasn’t getting a Christmas tip from the tenant in the penthouse apartment) was standing off to the side, being questioned by a uniformed policeman and apparently enjoying the chance to bad-mouth Arsenal. A gaggle of early risers with nothing better to do had assembled to watch the proceedings.
Sharp-Nose sighed. “Want to go get some pancakes?”
“Yeah, pancakes sound all right.”
They found a parking spot a few blocks up and went into a coffee shop. Neither of them spoke until they both had coffee in front of them and Hungry Man Specials on the way.
Sharp-Nose raised his eyebrows significantly. “Ever notice how every breakfast place has a Hungry Man Special? I defy you to go into any coffee shop or diner and not find a Hungry Man on the menu. It’s one of those comfort things, something you can get anyplace and it’s always the same. Kind of like McDonald’s.”
Hangdog, whose actual name was Dean, ignored this revelation. “I figure we go back to our original plan. Screw Arsenal—he’s out of the picture anyway, looks like—we go to the insurance company, show them the goods, get paid ten percent of the take and call it even.”
“That’s all well and good, but we need a middle man to handle the insurance people,” countered Sharp-Nose, who was born as Kirby.
Hangdog/Dean agreed. “That fence Arsenal recommended is out of his gourd, and unless you found another fence in the meantime, we don’t know anybody who deals in art. We gotta find somebody who’s just a little shady, with some kind of art background to make the deal. And then you know they’ll want a cut, too.” He leaned back while the waitress deposited two platters of eggs, home fries, bacon, ham and sausage on the table, flanked by two stacks of silver dollar pancakes and matching plates of toast. When she’d gone, he added, “The main thing, priority number one, is we need a place to park the truck. That, or a place to stash the crates till we make the deal.”
“You know, that guy Snake said Saul Hersch had his good days and his bad days. Why not give him another try?”
“I have an aversion to being attacked with fire extinguishers.”
Kirby swallowed some coffee. “What are the odds of it happening again?”
“What were the odds of it happening in the first place?”
“Oh, come on. You want to talk about odds? What were the odds of us getting sucked into this scheme to begin with?”
Dean folded his arms over his chest. “It wasn’t my fault. Could have happened to anybody.”
“What did you say when we were breaking into Arsenal’s apartment? ‘What are the odds of him coming back from Europe early?’”
“I thought we agreed not to bring that up again, Kirby.”
“Well, yeah, but I’m making a point.”
“Point’s moot. Look, we didn’t get arrested.”
“And Arsenal got us to pull this job, and we still stand to make some money off it as long as we play our cards right.”
Kirby slopped syrup on his pancakes. “If he doesn’t turn us in.”
“How? He doesn’t know anything. He’s got the number to an anonymous prepaid cell phone. That’s all he’s got on us, and we can get rid of that anytime. Doesn’t know our names, our addresses, nothing.”
“He’s got our fingerprints.”
“On the inside of that truck he rented.”
Dean swiveled around in his seat and signaled the waitress. “Check, please!”
Minutes later, they were headed down the West Side Highway toward the Holland Tunnel. Kirby was at the wheel, as usual.
Dean was thinking fast. “We’re getting rid of the truck. First, we gotta find a place to stash the crates.”
“Or give them to that fence, Hersch.”
“Okay, we’ll give him another shot. But if it doesn’t work out with Hersch, we find a place for the crates. Then we clean the truck, wipe down the entire interior and exterior, and leave it double-parked with the engine running.”
Kirby shook his head. “Why not just take it back to the rental?”
“We don’t want anybody at the rental to know what we look like, either. An obvious parking violation where the truck has to be moved out of the way, the cops’ll impound it before they even know they’re looking for it. No questions asked.”
“Oh, yeah! Nice. Then by the time they do realize they’re holding their own evidence, anything we might have accidentally left in it will have been smeared up anyway by the cops and the tow crew.”
“Right. Then all we have to do is unload the goods and rest easy.”
Kirby smiled at the wheel. “I like this plan. This is a keeper.”
“Well, let’s not get excited till it’s finished without us being arrested. So quit speeding.”
This being a Saturday morning, the entrance to the Holland Tunnel wasn’t as bad as usual. Normally, it’s a vehicular hellhole in that area at this time of day. Kirby and Dean reached Saul Hersch’s apartment building in less than forty minutes.
When they rang the bell for apartment 201, a familiar voice answered. “Helena, is that you?”
Kirby answered. “No, I’m here to show you some stuff.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, I’m not really looking at things these days.”
Kirby buzzed back. “It won’t take a minute. A guy from a gallery sent us—there’s two of us, me and my friend—and he said you might be interested in what we picked up.”
After a moment, the vestibule door buzzed and they entered. Kirby beamed at Dean. “See? He has his good days.”
“It remains to be seen.”
Saul Hersch was waiting at the top of the stairs. He had probably once stood at five-eight, but age had shrunken him at least an inch. He was slender, with bright chocolate eyes and a fine smattering of white hair on his head. Saul Hersch wore a short-sleeved light blue dress shirt and dark gray trousers. Leather slippers were on his feet.
“Nice to meet you fellows,” Mr. Hersch said as he ushered them inside the apartment. “I hope you didn’t have to come a long way.”
“Nah, Manhattan’s all.” Kirby was cheerful. “Nice place you’ve got here. I notice the medals you got framed there on the wall.”
“Thank you. I also have a small collection of Roman coins framed over here.” He indicated the wall near the telephone. “But I must apologize for whoever sent you. I’m very old, I’m afraid, and I haven’t done much business in many years. Retirement agrees with me.”
Kirby was still doing the talking while Dean looked around. Hard to tell if there were any wires in here. The doors to the bedrooms and the bathrooms were open, though, and he didn’t see anybody in there. As far as he could tell, the three men were alone in the apartment.
“You’ve retired? Get out! You’re awful spry for a gent your age,” Kirby was saying. “How long were you in business, anyway?”
“Oh, fifty years or so. How long have you been in business?”
“I don’t get you.”
“Picking things up. Been at it long?”
“Since I was in high school. Maybe twenty years. Nothing compared to you, sir. But I’m semi-retired, myself.”
“Really? At your age? You must have done quite well for yourself.”
Kirby smiled proudly. “Well, me and my partner here, we got into what you might call a new line of work. We still pick things up occasionally, but mostly we’re doing this other thing, and I personally find it very satisfying.”
Hersch blinked curiously. “I bet it has to do with computers. Am I right?”
“Not at all.”
Dean shook his head, but Kirby was telling Hersch anyway.
“See, what happened was, I’d been fooling around on the guitar for years, and although I knew Dean—that’s my partner, here—played the bass, we never really put two and two together until one night, my girl and I are over at Dean’s house with his wife, and we’ve all had a couple of drinks, and his wife suggests we try playing a couple songs together.”
“Yeah! Turns out we both like folk music, so we started working on some songs, and played them in coffeehouses, and people liked them, so we wrote some more, and started playing more, and—”
“But that’s not why we’re here this morning,” Dean added.
Saul Hersch smiled at him. “Let’s sit down. Would you like some tea? Let your friend tell me about your folk singing and then we’ll take a look at what you’ve brought.”
As it turned out, Saul Hersch was a great admirer of Simon and Garfunkel. Kirby was ecstatic. “I’ll bring you a copy of our CD, then. You’re gonna love it.”
Saul Hersch told them about some of the heists he was involved in, long ago, before he became a fence. He clearly enjoyed remembering the old days, and they were interesting stories, but when he finished them, he looked confused. “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten—were you here from the doctor’s office?”
“No, sir, we’re here because we have some things to show you.” Kirby pulled a slender white box from his backpack. “Medals.”
“Oh, I’m afraid you’ve made a mistake, young man. I’m retired.”
Dean glanced around to be sure Hersch didn’t have a fire extinguisher handy.
Kirby opened the box and held it up so Saul could see the art inside. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it. What is that, a portrait of a woman, a pretty woman? I don’t know much about art, but I can see it’s really nice.”
“Yes, it’s nice, but I can’t buy anything from you. Really, thank you for stopping by, but I’ve got things to do.”
“It’ll only take a minute. Look, I’ve got another one.”
Saul Hersch pointed at Dean. “Who is he?”
“That’s my friend, the one who planned this job. Now, I got five crates in a truck out there—”
Saul Hersch declined, getting up from his chair. “No. I’m sorry, boys, but I…I believe I have something to do this morning. You’ll have to leave.”
Kirby stood up. “But you haven’t seen all the medals. And I was going to give you a copy of our CD.”
Saul blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
Dean touched Kirby’s arm. “Let’s go. Nice meeting you, Mr. Hersch.”
Saul Hersch’s fingers were cold, his grasp feeble. “Pleasure meeting you. You were with Helena, you said?”
Leaving the building, Dean shook his head. “I knew this was a bad idea. Look how much time we just wasted.”
“Look on the bright side. We got one less option to check out now. Right?”
Dean sighed grimly as he pushed out the front door.
Outside, a black Monte Carlo with a snake decal on the hood had just pulled up. Kirby recognized the guys in the car. “Hey, Snake, how are you?”
“Just had a long fuckin’ night. How about you?”
“I just talked to your friend Mr. Hersch. He can’t help us out.”
Freak got out of the car. “I’m gonna get a nap. See you in a couple hours.”
“Okay, dude.” Snake turned back to Kirby and Dean. “That sucks, but I told you, he has his good days and his bad.”
Dean shrugged. “This started out as a good day, but it degenerated pretty quick.”
“Oh, man. So you got anybody else you can see about this stuff?”
“No. We don’t usually pick up this kind of material.”
“Yeah, but fuck, probably anybody would take watches. They’re easy to re-sell.”
Kirby leaned in. “Yeah, but these are really hot. So we were thinking of finding a place to keep them till things cool down. You know, someplace we’re not normally associated with. But we can’t rent it or anything.”
Snake considered this. “I might be able to help you out. Hop in.”
Dean shook his head. “I don’t want to leave the truck.”
“Then follow me. We’re only going a couple blocks.”
Dean crossed his arms. “Why don’t you tell me about it first?”
“Well, my brother runs the family business out of our house. I help him out. We have a two-car garage, and for this business, he has to keep a lot of stuff in the garage, so it’s really his warehouse. We don’t use it as a garage at all. And instead of paying rent, I help him out, which includes keeping inventory of everything in the garage. Get it?”
Kirby nodded. “He doesn’t go into the garage?”
“Every once in a while. But as long as there’s space for his stuff, he doesn’t care if I put other stuff in there, too. Come take a look and see if you think there’s enough room.”
Dean relaxed. “Yeah, I’ll follow in the truck. If it looks good, maybe we can put the crates in there right now.”
The house was a couple blocks over, a tall, narrow Victorian number that rose to three stories via various towers and gables in the front, and rambled on for some distance in the back. A surprisingly neat wrought-iron fence ran along the front, with gates opening into a driveway, where Snake parked in front of the garage. A sign hung from the arch over the driveway, Hudson Rivers’ Butterfly Farm in green calligraphy over a field of peach.
“Should be River. Singular,” Kirby remarked as they got out of the car to wait for Dean. “Or move the apostrophe over.”
“No, that’s my brother’s name. Our last name’s Rivers, and we’re all named after rivers. I was almost named Nile.” Seeing the look on Kirby’s face, he shrugged. “It’s complicated.”
Dean walked up the driveway next to them. “What’s complicated?” Nobody answered.
Snake opened the garage door with a key. Inside, screens were leaned against one of the walls according to size. Boxes and boxes marked as containing varying sizes of glass frames were stacked high all around. Some garage type stuff was scattered around a workbench to one side, and an old bicycle was suspended from the ceiling, but for the most part, it really did look like a warehouse.
“I’d put the crates over here in this corner, near the workbench, and put some paint cans and shit around on it, so it’s not clear if it’s business stuff or personal. And being over here in the back, nobody could see it from the street if I have the door open. What do you think?”
Dean poked around a little bit, checking the perimeter. “Pretty good, actually. You’re not dealing or anything, right? No reason for the cops to come around?”
“Nope. Everybody knows my family. We’re good. Which reminds me. If you’re gonna stow it here, I want to clear it with my brother.”
Kirby was polite but firm. “No reason to bother him about it. We’ll give you a little something for helping us out, of course.”
“Naturally. But look, my brother runs the business and the house is in his name. He stands a lot to lose if something happens—which is why nothing’s gonna happen, you can trust me on that—so I gotta clear it with him. Trust me, he’s cool. Come on, he’s probably in the sanctuary.”
Dean looked dubious. Kirby shrugged. What else could they do?
Snake locked up and led the way around the side of the garage to the back of the house. A great glass greenhouse took up most of the yard, filled with a wide variety of flowering plants and miniature trees.
One screen door opened into a little glass vestibule with a second screen door at the other end. “This is like an airlock,” Snake explained. “So if anything escapes by accident as you’re leaving, you can catch it and put it back so it doesn’t get out into the open.” He pushed through the second door and into a miniature summer paradise. Blooms of every color blossomed forth from urns set all along the walls and baskets and bowls hanging from the ceiling. Overhead, fans set into the walls admitted a gentle breeze that kept the sanctuary from getting too hot.
Snake ignored the profusion of color and scent and headed for a screen room at the rear of the greenhouse. “Hud, come out for a sec. Got some visitors.”
From somewhere on the floor rose the biggest man Dean or Kirby had ever seen. Snake was tall, but this man was taller, more classically proportioned. He was naked from the waist up, muscles glistening with sweat. A long mane of blond hair highlighted by strands of silver crowned his head. A beard of the same color jutted forth proudly from the man’s chin. He was barefoot, clad only in cutoff jeans.
Kirby caught his breath. Except for the cutoffs, this man looked exactly like Thor. Or Odin. Some Norse god, anyway.
Dean choked. “There’s a butterfly in your hair.”
Hudson Rivers gently rifled his fingers through his hair, plucking a huge brown insect from the tresses. “Attacus lorquinii.”
“Atlas moth,” Snake said helpfully. “It’s called a butterfly farm, but we do a lot of business in moths, too. Hey, Hud, these friends of mine need a place to keep some of their stuff, only it’s a little hot.”
“Warm, really,” Kirby added.
“Yeah. It’s just a couple crates of watches. You mind if I keep ‘em in the garage? If anybody comes asking after them, course, you don’t know anything, it’s all mine. Right?”
The Norse god shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”
“Thanks, man. They’ll be out as quick as they can unload ‘em.”
Dean nodded. “As quick a turnaround as we can make it.”
And so seven crates of stolen art medals found a home on a butterfly farm.
Copyright 2006 Amy Frushour Kelly. All rights reserved.
Reproduction by any means prohibited without prior written consent.