The morning after Eugene Chen failed to jump to his death from his sister’s apartment building on Cathedral Parkway, Romana buzzed Alan to say, “That Tracy lady’s on the phone, Hap. She says it’s important.”
“Mr. Gleason, I know the guy Panda wanna pay to kill you. He sell some drugs, this kid, but he ain’t a killer. He got my relation Alicia’s girl Keedra pregnant two time. She due with the baby in June.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Twenty-five grand what you need to pay for him to say uh-uh to that Panda man.”
“How on earth do you know this killer?”
“I told you he ain’t no killer. His name Shawn, but he go by Lukame.”
“He a poet.”
“Is that how poets make their money?”
“Boy been through lotta trouble, Mr. Gleason. But he ain’t no killer. What he need—he need a break.”
“You seem to know a lot of people who are somehow involved with killing me. That’s an incredible coincidence.”
“Small world, Mr. Gleason.”
“Why should I believe you? Why should I give you twenty-five thousand dollars?”
“You ain’t givin’ this money to me.”
“Why should I give it to Lukame?”
“You ain’t givin’ it to him neither. You better not give it to him. You gonna give the money to Alicia’s girl. Keedra gonna be there with him. You meet them and she take the money.”
Alan couldn’t think of anything logical to say. He realized he was standing. “It seems to me Panda will just pay someone else to kill me if Lukame says no.”
“Shawn, he got connections up in Boston, and they all got stuff on Panda. The cops they dyin’ to get suh’humm on Panda. You give the money to Keedra, and Shawn get the cops on Panda real quick.”
“And if I don’t give them money?”
“If you don’t, Shawn probably gonna shoot you. He dumb, and he right there in Morris Heights.”
“This is extortion what you’re doing.”
“E’cept Panda be the one set on killin’ you.”
“Did you have this whole thing planned out when you came to see me on Monday?”
There was a pause. “Alicia, she gettin’ ready to celebrate her fiftieth at them dance parties they got at Roseland. You know them parties from the radio station? She don’t want none ’a this shit to worry ’bout. Her grandchil’s daddy gettin’ shot or locked up before she even come out the world.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“You text Keedra and she say where you meet up. And give the money in hundreds.”
He had Romana cancel everything involved with his trip to San Diego and spent the next hour staring out the window. At times like this, he missed his old friend Neddy Sims. Neddy had some faults, but they were minor. He looked like the actor Stanley Tucci, which in Alan’s mind matched the fact that Gina, his wife, was an Italian Jew, born in Asti but educated in France and then at Yale. She was lovely and lived with a rare congenital muscle disease, never letting it dampen her zest for life. Alan followed what he could of them online, fearing that she would die or maybe even Neddy. But the news out of Brookline was all good: the two sons had made out well, the younger one just got married.
The lost people weighed so heavily sometimes. It was the same feeling right after the death of his mother and then his father—the nagging burden of something left undone or untied or open like a barn door, something no sane person would forget to not do. He also missed Kath, the woman with whom he’d started a brief affair when he got his diagnosis. She was fun—terrified of turning forty but fun nonetheless. She was smart; he would even say wise.
He needed a Neddy or a Kath to tell him what to do. Seven years ago it was crazy what he did without seeking anyone’s advice: borrow and turn over a million dollars to something that could easily have been a major scam—worse than Madoff’s pyramid scheme. Any sane person would ask: Why not just borrow the money from Carl Meacham and restart your life? But money wasn’t what he wanted.
He was numb those first two years, after he gave the Civic to Jagger, and Jagger gave him an old Le Sabre with Florida plates, registered to Alan Hapgood. His wife and children, his friends and colleagues and other family from the deep past—never to be seen or approached. He had to leave New England. He went to Cincinnati and found it too clean, Baltimore and found it too hot. Like Goldilocks, he settled on the third try, Philly. What did he do there? Read books—novels mostly, literature from the library. And take care of a cat, Roland, who had cancer and thus was wanted by no one. Roland lived a long time with the cancer; Alan, meanwhile, did accounting for restaurants and garages and hair salons and read the borrowed novels—that’s how he knew what Joan Didion looked like. He spent two years reading in a rundown apartment house, in a unit next door to a man who often laughed and said, “That’s a whole n’other book!”
There was now no way to remain numb in the world Alan inhabited. The animated tellers all knew him at his bank. It was like walking into a roomful of hyper-attentive lunchtime dental hygienists at a Park Avenue practice.
“This is for my niece,” he explained of the withdrawal. “She and her husband are having a baby. I thought I’d give them enough to go out to dinner a hundred times. Hundred for the restaurant, hundred for the sitter.”
“Oh, you are so sweet, Mr. Hapgood!” the young woman exclaimed. She looked around in wide-eyed expectation, eager for others to join in the love-fest. “Did you hear what Mr. Hapgood is doing as a baby gift?”
“Yes!” said another. “That is so thoughtful and truly awesome!”
And a third: “You understand exactly what new parents want!” Then she assumed a teasing posture. “That is so rare in men acting alone!”
Alan smiled and looked down—the gesture that always made Mariette laugh (“So demure!”). “Do you think you could wrap it up in baby paper?” he asked one woman while glancing at all attentive eyes. “Put it in a nice bag to show it’s a special gift?”
“Oh, absolutely, Mr. Hapgood. How fun!”
It was embarrassing, how young women could enshrine the spectacle of a man of presumed means spending his money. It was embarrassing, how little twenty-five thousand meant to white people like him in 2012. Chunk change. Taking possession of the disguised clump of cash, he felt like Jesus carrying a lamb around his neck.
Keedra had texted to meet at 7:30 in the Starbucks next to the Target on 225th.
“How will I know you?” he texted back.
“We C U.”
When Alan entered the Starbucks he saw at least four pregnant women, including a barista. One of them waved, unsmiling, from a table. Sitting beside her was a guy slouched in the chair, legs spread out, as if this rendered him not really there.
“You Hap?” the mother-to-be asked. She was pretty—and so young.
He put out his hand. “Keedra?”
She shook it. He did the same to the guy, who simply looked at the hand and then up at Alan’s face, as if Alan might be pulling something by possessing both together.
Keedra slapped the guy’s arm. “Shake his hand, you jerk-ass. Show you’re not retarded.”
He slapped his palm into Alan’s and quickly pulled it back. Then, almost as a reflex, he pulled up on his nylon jacket to indicate what might be weighing down the pocket. “Cockin’ a Glock I aim and SHOOT.” It was shouted whisper.
Keedra slapped his chest so hard you could hear it. “Shawn, you fucking stop that shit right now.”
Alan sat in the chair facing them and set the gift bag on the table. He lifted out the wrapped money and set it in front of Keedra.
“That it?” she asked.
“Open it,” demanded Shawn.
She slapped him again. “We don’t need to open it.”
“How we know it’s not napkins he stuck in there?”
Alan shrugged. “I’d get shot? Eventually?”
Shawn had a backpack on the floor that he lowered his hand into. “I gonna give you this for free.”
Alan braced himself, but the item produced was a copier paper document covered in acetate. Shawn handed it to Alan. The acetate was sealed, containing a handful of printed pages bearing the title “Lukame: Poems from My Life.” Alan turned it over. There were printed blurbs like you might find on the back of a Maya Angelou book.
Keedra sighed in the tone of a sneer. “He big man passin’ his stuff out on the subway. For a dollar.” She turned to him. “Right, Shawn? For a dollar.”
Alan smiled. “I look forward to reading your work.” He looked at Shawn. “How do you know this Panda?”
“He come to Shawn,” said Keedra.
Her sideward glance seemed to Alan one of the best sideward glances he’d ever seen. “He come to Shawn because his brother”—here she started nodding. “He a real killer, Shawn’s brother real bad.”
Shawn laughed and looked off to the side. “Panda thinks I’m all like Levon.”
Alan stared at him, then at her, then at him again. “Are you Mariette Bonilla’s brother?”
“Fuck!” In a flash Shawn was standing straight as telephone pole.
Keedra rolled her eyes, put her elbow on the table to hold up her forehead. “How ’bout you si’down, Shawn. Right now.”
Alan looked back and forth between them. “I’m her boss, you realize.”
Now Shawn did the pivot where you look like you might be walking away but you don’t. “Muth’fuck!”
Keedra looked up at him. “Why you always wanna run? Anything go down you always run away. You headed for the Railroad or somethin’? What, I gotta be Harriet Tubman and fetch you the other end?”
She dropped the package in the bag and shoved it back to Hap.
“Jesus Christ, why you do that, bitch?” yelled Shawn.
“Shut the fuck up, Shawn. I thought I told you si’down.”
The minute he sat, Jude appeared, holding a chair, on which he sat as well.
“What the hell are you doing here?” asked Alan.
Shawn was up even faster than before, holding up his hands and backing away. “Fuck this shit, man.”
“Shawn, you fucking sit down on this chair or I’ll have this baby on your fucking face.”
He pulled the chair farther from the table and sat.
Jude looked at everyone and then Hap. “Romana said you were acting weird. So I followed you.”
“Oh, I forgot you’re a stalker.”
“I thought I put that on my résumé.”
“Keedra,” said Alan, “this is Jude, who works with Mariette too. Jude, this is Keedra, who’s having a baby as you can see. And this is the baby’s father, Lukame, Mariette’s brother and also a poet.”
Keedra looked at Alan. “Panda wanna pay Shawn to”—she made a gesture with her shoulder—“someone for ten G, but that man ain’t you.”
She seemed exhausted as she shook her head at him. “Stop sayin’ that! What—you think you like Jay-Z? Well, I ain’t Mrs. Carter, bitch.”
Alan was confused. “Tracy said—”
“What Tracy said a load a’ shit, ’K?”
Shawn threw his head back. “Fuck!”
Alan remained confused. “So Panda’s not my wife’s boyfriend?”
“He the fucking boyfriend all right,” she said. She paused and put both forefingers to her temples to rub circles. “Shit! OK, so the true part is: She dyin’ and she’s Panda’s girlfriend. But Panda wanna get rid of this guy down here, so he finds someone who finds Shawn and offers ten-G. And I don’t want him to do it and my mom don’t want him to do it and Tracy don’t want it either so she comes up with this plan.” She paused and put both hands on her stomach. “So you keep it.”
“No,” said Alan, moving the bag back to her, “you keep it. Really.” He looked at Shawn. “You’ve got kids. You don’t shoot people, starting now.”
Shawn reached for the bag and Keedra slapped his hand. Then she took it herself. “Thank you.”
“What are the names?” Alan asked as she stood with the baby and Shawn with the backpack of poems.
“It’s a girl,” she said. “We gonna call her Whitney, after Miss Houston. She a Newark girl. Me too.”
When the pair had left, Alan leaned back in his chair. “They’ve got such a long way before the cottage with some sort of clinging vine.” He handed Jude Lukame’s poetry. “I thought you were in Toronto. What are you doing following me?”
“That’s what I asked myself when I was on the 1 headed for the Bronx.”
“How on earth did you follow me when I was driving?”
“You asked Romana if there was really a Starbucks in the Bronx. There happen to be five. Then you asked if there was a Target in the Bronx. There are two. You need to get out of your comfort zone more often.”
“You think you’re crime-solving now?’
“Maybe I should I start calling you Shaggy.”
“Épat, Hap. Snowball through the heart.”
“You set yourself up.”
“Oh, look,” said Jude, pointing to the back of the acetate. “He’s been reviewed favorably in the Voice.”
Alan remained distracted. “Mariette should know this; she has the right to know. But I don’t want her to know that I gave her brother twenty-five grand.”
“Shit. You put twenty-five grand in that baby bag?”
“If she knows I gave Shawn that money she’ll go kill him herself.”
“God, I don’t know what to do.”
Jude tossed the poetry on the table and stared at it. “Maybe I can just tell her parts of the story.”
“No,” Alan snapped. “When you’ve got a situation, don’t tell parts of the truth. It’ll only fuck you up.”
“I’ve never heard you say fuck before.”
“Believe me; I think it all the time.”
Jude looked down at his lap. “So you’ve got a wife?”
Alan still wasn’t paying attention. “Does Mariette know about Levon?”
“What about Levon?”
“It appears that he’s a hardcore contract killer.”
“Shit. So much for the stabilizing force of the high jump.”
“All right. Go ahead and tell her the truth as you see it.”
“What about Ted?”
“What about Ted?”
“I don’t know. Does he have the right to know?”
Alan threw his hands up. “Ted’s brother wasn’t about to shoot me for ten grand.”
Jude made a face. “Ten grand seems really low. Like an estimate for driveway sealant.”
Alan didn’t answer.
“You heard Keedra,” said Jude. “Shawn was going to shoot some other guy for ten grand, not you.”
Alan shook his head. “Might as well tell them both. Be nice to Ted though. He had a jumper yesterday.”
“What do you mean ‘jumper’?”
“That Columbia kid. He threatened suicide but ordered sushi instead.” He paused. “It’s over, Jude. You tell everyone I’m not going to be in the office tomorrow. I’ve got to think about what I have to do.”
Jude grabbed the acetate poetry and rolled it like a diploma. Then he looked down again. “I’m thinking right now of a lyric by this singer called Joan as Policewoman. It goes You won’t be found unless you want to be . . . found. As in a state of being, like healed.”
Alan stared at the empty table. “There are a lot of songs that go a lot of ways.”
Jude nodded, tapping the diploma against his knee. “True.”
“There’s a song by Kevin Salem called ‘Shot Down.’ He was in Dumptruck, one of those Boston garage bands from olden times. The song begins In walks betrayal. That’s how I feel right now. In walks betrayal.”
“You listened to that kind of stuff?”
Alan shook his head. “I don’t know. I was an old man at twenty-five. I had two kids. I was an up-and-comer at a Boston investment bank—way before private equity. But I’d listen to ’FNX in the car—for, like, my whole life before middle age. And then came this time in the nineties I was going to walk away from it all. I remember the albums from that time—by Sugar, Sebadoh, and Kevin Salem. But I didn’t. Walk away, I mean.”
Jude stared blankly. “So you’re from Boston too? This backstory is really freaking me out, Hap.”
“And I have a wife who’s dying.” He swallowed hard. “But that’s a whole n’other book.”
Jude trained his stare onto the table.
Alan smiled as he stood. “You want a ride, or are you going back on the 1?”
Jude didn’t move from his chair.
“What do you want, Jude?”
“I don’t know,” he said, looking around. “What do I want, Hap?”