Don't you like the food?" Katrina, my wife of twenty-three years, asked.
"It's delicious," I said. "Whatever you make is always great." In the corner there sat a walnut cabinet that used to contain our first stereo record player. Now it held Katrina's cherished Blue Danube china collection, which she inherited from her favorite aunt, Bergit. On top of the chest was an old quart pickle jar — the makeshift vase for an arrangement of tiny wildflowers of every color from scarlet to cornflower blue to white.
"But you're frowning," my beautiful Scandinavian wife said. "What were you thinking about?"
I looked up from the filet mignon and Gorgonzola blue cheese salad to gaze at the flowers. My thoughts were not the kind of dinner conversation one had with one's wife and family.
Known to Evil
By Walter Mosley
Hardcover, 336 pages
List price, $25.95
I have a boyfriend now, Aura Ullman had told me that morning. I wanted to tell you. I didn't want to feel like I'm hiding anything from you.
"Where'd you get those flowers, Mom?" Shelly asked.
His name is George, Aura told me, the sad empathy in the words making its way to her face.
I had no reason to be jealous. Aura and I had been lovers over the eight months Katrina abandoned me for the investment banker Andre Zool. I loved Aura but gave her up because when Katrina came back, after Andre was indicted for fraud, I felt that she, Katrina, was my sentence for the wrong I had done in a long life of crime.
"I saw them at the deli and thought they might brighten up our dinner," Katrina told her daughter.
Shelly had been trying to forgive her mother for leaving me. She was a sophomore at CCNY and another man's daughter, though she didn't know it. Two of my children were fathered out of wedlock; only the eldest, sour and taciturn Dimitri, who always sat as far away from me as possible, was of my blood.
Do you love him? I hadn't meant to ask Aura that. I didn't want to know the answer or to show vulnerability.
He's very good company . . . and I get lonely.
"Well?" Katrina asked.
Something about those flowers and the echo of Aura's voice in my mind made me want to curse, or maybe to slam my fist down on the plate.
"Hey, everybody," Twill said. He was standing in the doorway to the dining room; dark and slender, handsome and flawless except for a small crescent scar on his chin.
"You're late," Katrina scolded my favorite.
"You know it, Moms," the seventeen-year-old man replied. "I'm lucky to get home at all with everything I got to do. My PO got me workin' this after-school job at the supermarket. Says it'll keep me outta trouble."
"He's not a parole officer. He's a juvenile offender social worker," I said.
Just seeing Twill brought levity into the room.
"It's not a he," Twill said as he slid into the chair next to me.
"Ms. Melinda Tarris says that she wants me workin' three afternoons a week."
"And she's right, too," I added. "You need something to occupy your mind and keep you out of trouble."
"It's not people like me that get in trouble, Pops," Twill sang. "I talk so much and know so many people that I can't get away with nuthin' somebody don't see it. It's the quiet ones that get in the most trouble. Ain't that right, Bulldog?"
"Can't you be quiet sometimes?" dour Dimitri said.
Twill's pet name for his older brother was an apt one. Like me Dimitri was short and big-boned, powerful even though he rarely exercised. His skin was not quite as dark brown as mine but you could see me in every part of him. I wondered why he was so angry at his brother's chiding. Even though Dimitri never liked me much he loved his siblings. And he had a special bond with Twill, who was so outgoing all he had to do was sit down in a room for five minutes and a party was likely to break out.
"Are you all right?"
Even though we'd drifted apart like the continents had —long ago —Katrina could still read my moods. We had a kind of subterranean connection that allowed my wife to see, at least partly, into my state of mind. It wasn't just Aura's decision to move on that bothered me. It was my life at that table, Dimitri's uncharacteristic anger at his brother, and even those delicate flowers sitting where I had never seen a bouquet before.
There was a feeling at the back of my mind, something that was burgeoning into consciousness like a vibrating moth pressing out from its cocoon.
The phone rang and Katrina started. When I looked into her gray-blue eyes some kind of wordless knowledge seemed to pass between us.
"I'll get it," Shelly shouted. She hurried from the room into the hall, where the cordless unit sat on its ledge.
Katrina smiled at me. Even this made me wonder. She'd been back home for nearly a year. In that time her smile had been tentative, contrite. She wanted me to know that she was there for the long run, that she was sorry for her transgressions and wanted to make our life together work. But that evening her smile was confident. Even the way she sat was regal and self-assured.
"Dad, it's for you."
Standing up from my chair and moving into the hallway, I felt as if I were displaced, another man, or maybe the same man in a similar but vastly different world: the working-poor lottery winner who suddenly one day realizes that riches have turned his blood to vinegar.
"Hello?" I said into the receiver.
I was expecting an acquaintance or maybe a credit-card company asking about a suspect charge. No one who I did business with had my home number. The kind of business I was in couldn't be addressed by an innocent.
"Leonid," a man's voice said, "this is Sam Strange."
"Why are you calling me at my home?" I asked, because though Strange was the legman for Alphonse Rinaldo, one of the secret pillars of New York's political and economic systems, I couldn't allow even him to infringe on my domestic life, such as it was.
"The Big Man called and said it was an emergency," Strange said.
Sam worked for the seemingly self-appointed Special Assistant to the City of New York. I say seemingly, because even though Alphonse Rinaldo was definitely attached to City Hall, no one knew his job description or the extent of his power.
I had done a few questionable jobs for the man before I decided to go straight. And while I was no longer engaging in criminal activities I couldn't afford to turn him down without a hearing.
"What is it you want?" I asked.
"There's a young woman named Tara Lear that he wants you to make contact with."
Sam rarely, if ever, spoke Rinaldo's name. He had an internal censor like those of old-time printers who replaced "God" with "G-d" in books.
"He just wants you to speak to her and to make sure everything's all right. He told me to tell you that he would consider this a great favor."
Being able to do a favor for Special Assistant Rinaldo was like winning six lotteries rolled into one. My blood might turn into high-octane rocket fuel if I wasn't careful.
Not for the first time I wondered if I would ever get out from under my iniquitous past.
"Leonid," Sam Strange said.
"When am I supposed to find this young woman?"
"Now ... tonight. And you don't have to find her, I can tell you exactly where she is."
"If you know where she is why don't you just tell him and he can go talk to her himself?"
"This is the way he wants it."
"Why don't you go?" I asked.
"He wants you, Leonid."
I heard Twill say something in the dining room but couldn't make out the words. His mother and Shelly laughed.
"Leonid," Sam Strange said again.
"You know I'm trying to be aboveboard nowadays, Sam."
"He's just asking you to go and speak to this Lear woman. To make sure that she's all right. There's nothing illegal about that."
"And I'm supposed to tell her that Mr. Rinaldo is concerned about her but can't come himself?"
"Do not mention his name or refer to him in any way. The meeting should be casual. She shouldn't have any idea that you're a detective or that you're working for someone looking after her welfare."
"You know the drill," Strange said, trying to enforce his personal sense of hierarchy on me. "Orders come down and we do as we're told."
"No," I said. "That's you. You do what you're told. Me — I got ground rules."
"And what are they?"
"First," I said, "I will not put this Tara's physical or mental well-being into jeopardy. Second, I will only report on her state of mind and security. I will not convey information that might make her vulnerable to you or your boss. And, finally, I will not be a party to making her do anything against her will or whim."
"That's not how it works and you know it," Sam said.
"Then go on down to the next name on the list and don't ever call this number again."
"There is no other name."
"If you want me you got to play by my rules."
"I'll have to report this conversation."
"Of course you do."
"He won't like it."
"I'll make a note of that."
He gave me an address on West Sixtieth and an apartment number.
"I'll be staying at the Oxford Arms Club on Eighty-fourth until this situation is resolved," he said.
"You can call me there anytime, day or night."
I hung up. There was no reason to continue the conversation, or to wish him well, for that matter. I never liked the green-eyed agent of the city's Special Assistant.
Alphonse had two conduits to the outside world. Sam was the errand boy. Christian Latour, who sat in the chamber outside Alphonse's office, was the Big Man's gatekeeper and crystal ball combined. I liked Christian, even though he had no use for me.
I stood there in the hall, trying to connect the past fifteen minutes. Dimitri's uncharacteristic barking at his brother and their mother's newfound confidence, the crude vase and its lovely flowers, and, of course, the memory of Aura in her heartfelt concern and almost callous betrayal.
I went to the closet in our bedroom, looking to find one of my three identical dark-blue suits. The first thing I noticed was that the clothes had been rearranged. I didn't know exactly what had been where before, but things were neater and imposed-upon with some kind of strict order. My suits were nowhere in sight.
"What are you doing?" Katrina asked from the doorway.
"Looking for my blue suit."
"I sent two of your blue suits to the cleaners. You haven't had them cleaned in a month."
"What am I supposed to wear?" I said, turning to face her.
Sometimes when Katrina smiled I remembered falling in love with her. It lasted long enough to get married and make Dimitri.
After that things went sour. We never had sex and rarely even kissed anymore.
"You have the ochre one," she said.
"Where's the one I wore home tonight?"
"In the hamper. The lapels were all spotted. Wear the ochre one."
"I hate that suit."
"Then why did you buy it?"
"You bought it for me."
"You tried it on. You paid the bill."
I yanked the suit out of the closet.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"It's a job. I have to go interview somebody for a client."
"I thought you didn't take business calls on our home phone."
"Yeah," I said, taking off my sweatpants.
"We have to talk."
I continued undressing.
"The last time you said that I didn't see you for eight months," I said.
"We have to talk about us."
"Can it wait till later or will you be gone when I get home?"
"It's nothing like that," she said. "I've noticed how distant you've been and I want to, to connect with you."
"Yeah. Sure. Let me go take care of this thing and either we'll talk when I get back, or tomorrow at the latest. Okay?"
She smiled and kissed my cheek tenderly. She had to lean over a bit because I'm two inches shorter than she.
I put on the dark-yellow suit and a white dress shirt. Since I was going out for such an important client I even cinched a burgundy tie around my neck. The man in the mirror looked to me like a bald, black-headed, fat grub that had spent the afternoon drying in the sun.
I was shorter than most men, and if you didn't see me naked you might have thought I was portly. But my size was from bone structure and muscles developed over nearly four decades working out at Gordo's Boxing Gym.
"Hey Dad, " Twill called as I was going out the front door of our eleventh-floor prewar apartment.
"Yeah, son?" I said on a sigh.
"Mardi Bitterman's back in town. Her and her sister."
Mardi was a year older than Twill. She and her sister had been molested by their father and I had to intervene when Twill got it in his head to murder the man.
"I thought they had moved to their mother's family in Ireland."
"Turns out that they weren't related," Twill said. "Her father bought Mardi from some pervert. Her sister, too. I don't know the whole story but they had to come home."
"Okay. So what do you want from me?" I was impatient, even with Twill. Maybe the fact that his relationship to me was the same as Mardi to her father cut at me a little.
"Mardi's taking care of her sister and she needs a job. She's eighteen and on her own, you know."
"You're always sayin' how much you want a receptionist. I figured this would be a good time for you to have one. You know, Mardi's real organized like. She'd tear that shit up." Twill was a born criminal but he had a good heart.
"I guess we could try it out," I said.
"Cool. I told her to be at your office in the morning."
"Sure, Pops. I knew you'd say yes."
Reprinted from Known To Evil by Walter Mosley by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright 2010.