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Hostile Witness Part 17

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"You can still cheat even if you're single."

"I'm pretty loyal."

"You're a boy scout, is that it?"

"I was, as a matter of fact."

"I was never a boy scout," said Moore. "I was too pa.s.sionate for the boy scouts. There was too much I wanted to hold." He leaned over to Veronica and with his hand turned her face toward him and kissed her with an open mouth. To see it knotted my stomach again.



"How's your wife doing, Councilman?" I said.

Veronica's eyes bugged out at me even as she was kissing Moore, but he just laughed when he was through. "Very fine, thank you, Victor. So nice of you to be concerned."

"I find her very sweet and very sad," I said. "Lonely, I think."

"She is all of that and more," said Jimmy. "But tell me something, Victor, how much sadness can we endure before we run for the light?" He snapped his fingers and one of the young girls with bare legs quickly threw her arms around my neck and her tongue in my ear.

"Hey, Chuckie," said the councilman. "Victor here thinks you killed that lousy ballplayer."

"Oh, he does, does he?" said Chuckie.

"You mean Zack?" said one of the girls. "He was so sweet. Why would you do something like that, Chuckie?"

Jimmy started laughing, losing control as he laughed harder, so hard he could barely get out the words, "Victor thinks you're a murderer, Chuckie."

"Victor better be careful," said Chuckie, looking at me with an unkind eye. "He might just be right."

I had left finally, feeling the tug of too much work and not enough time, the tug of responsibility, downing the last of my champagne and staggering out of the club into the cold misty night. I was looking for a cab on the deserted street when Henry came from behind me and grabbed my arm and led me to the limousine.

So we were traveling north now, across Arch, under the 5th Street tunnel, into the ragged and unlighted sections of Northern Liberties. It was after midnight and still kids sat out on the stoop and young men leaned against boarded up buildings, looking suspiciously into the darkened limousine windows, and teens loitered in groups in the middle of the street, illuminated by our headlights as if caught in twin beams of unreality, unwillingly moving aside as the limousine slid through.

"Where are we going, Henry?"

"We be there soon, no problem."

"I'm starting to worry."

"You with me, mon. You safer than safe."

Northern Liberties was where my grandfather Abraham and his parents, fresh off the boat from Russia, had settled. It was a poor Jewish section then, crowded and hubbubed, Philadelphia's answer to the Lower East Side. Marshall Street: kosher butchers and discount clothiers and vegetable carts parked wheel to wheel, all catering to the immigrant families crowded four to a row house. My great-grandfather had learned to cobble in a shtetl outside Kiev and so in America he repaired shoes in a little store on Marshall Street, just north of Poplar, and my grandfather shortened his name and went into retail, working the store the whole of his life, even as the neighborhood changed and he moved with his family to the new Jewish paradise in Logan. Logan is no longer a paradise and Northern Liberties has fallen into such disrepair that Marshall Street is deserted and great swaths of the neighborhood are rubble. In the eighties there was an attempt at gentrification and some restaurants and stores opened up in the old Jewish center, but that too failed. There was nothing left of what my grandfather had seen as a little boy in his introduction to America.

We pa.s.sed north out of Northern Liberties and through another neighborhood of boarded-up buildings and narrow, crowded streets and finally reached a corner that looked like a marketplace from h.e.l.l. There were at least a hundred people hanging around, sitting on steps or patrolling the curb or just lolling on the outskirts of the crowd, heads jacking back and forth. In the streetlight the scene held a demented quality, unformed, chaotic, deeply dangerous. In front of us a flat-green Pontiac stopped and three kids jostled each other for a place at the driver's door. Money pa.s.sed from the car to one of the kids and the kid ran over to an older man with dreadlocks and gave him the money. I watched the man nod to a different kid, who reached for something under a stoop and ran over to the car. In less than a minute from the time it had arrived, the flat-green Pontiac was on its way. Henry stopped the limo and immediately a kid started tapping at the closed window beside my head. Henry turned around and smiled at me.

"I be back, mon. You be taking things slow as they come."

He left.

I made sure my door was locked as I watched Henry approach the man in dreadlocks. They spoke for a moment. The man nodded and Henry went toward one of the houses, on the front step of which a group of very young women sat. The women wore blue jeans and leather jackets and gold. One woman had huge gold earrings, impossibly, painfully huge. Another had a gold necklace with chain links the size of manacles. When Henry arrived at the house he leaned over and kissed one of the women on the cheek. He patted another on the head and chatted a moment before squeezing through the group and entering the house. Pa.s.sing him on the way out was a skinny young man with a high nervous step and sungla.s.ses. I was watching Henry enter the house when the front door of the limousine opened and a young black man with the shoulders of a lion jumped into the driver's seat.

"Where's we off to now, Chauncey?" he said in a thin, slippery voice.

"Get out of here," I said.

He turned and smiled at me and the next moment I heard the click of the door locks and my door opened. A very thin man in a fine brown pinstriped suit leaned in the open door and said, "Move over."

I moved over. He sat down beside me.

His skin was dark brown, his fingers long and thin. There was about him a distinct air of elegance, the way he crossed his legs, the way he clasped his hands close to his chest. But more than anything he was thin, spectrally thin, droopy-eyed and gaunt, so thin it was impossible to tell his age; he could have been twenty-five, he could have been fifty.

"What can I do for you, friend?" asked the man in a deep, soothing voice.

"I'm just waiting for someone," I said. "He'll be right back. I don't want anything else."

"Generally, white boys in limousines down here want something."

"I just want to get out of here."

"Don't we all."

"Where we going?" asked the young man in the front.

"Around," said the thin man.

"s.h.i.+t," I said.

The engine s.h.i.+vered quietly to life and the limousine lurched forward, almost running down a young girl carrying a two-year-old boy in her arms as she wandered toward the marketplace.

"Jesus, take the car, I don't care," I said with panic in my voice. "Just let me out first."

"We only going for a ride," said the kid up front.

"Drive carefully, Wayman," said the thin man. "We don't want to scratch the councilman's car."

"Then you know whose car this is."

"Oh yes. Let's introduce ourselves. Call me Mr. Rogers."

"Mr. Rogers," said Wayman with a cackle. "I like that."

Mr. Rogers reached out a hand. Unsure of what to do, I shook it.

"Victor Carl."

"Well, Victor Carl, welcome to my neighborhood."

"Mr. Rogers," cackled Wayman again.

"What do you think?" asked Mr. Rogers, gesturing out his window.

I looked around at the bombed-out hulks of narrow row houses, some collapsing in on themselves, others boarded up with plywood, crumbling steps, weeds rising like bushes from the sidewalks, empty bottles scattered. An old man, lips working over his toothless gums, sat on a metal chair and stared at the limousine as we pa.s.sed.

"It's fine, I guess," I said.

"Fine for us, right?"

"No. I didn't mean that."

"Calm down, Victor." He laughed a deep, surprisingly warm laugh.

"I just want to get out of here."

"And you will. Calm down, enjoy the ride."

He pulled down a panel on the door, revealing the limousine's bar. There were decanters of liquor and gla.s.ses and bottles. He took one of the gla.s.ses and looked at the decanters.

"Now which one's the scotch," he said to himself. He reached for one, took off the crystal top, and poured. He took a sip and smiled. "That's what I like about the councilman, always the best liquor. Turn here, Wayman, and remember this car is as long as a school bus."

We turned down a side alley and then back up 6th Street, making a loop.

"I just wanted to have a little talk," said Mr. Rogers. "Nothing too serious. You like being a lawyer, Victor?"

"How did you know?"

"I would have been a d.a.m.n good lawyer," he continued. "Would have knocked aside your a.s.s in court, I know that, Victor. See, Wayman, man. It's like I've been telling you. You get back in school, you can be anything you want. Even fools like Victor here can become million-dollar lawyers."

"Would's I also have to dress like him?" asked Wayman from the front seat, looking back at me in the rearview mirror.

Mr. Rogers sized me up and down, my scuffed wing tips, my s.h.i.+ny blue suit, my striped polyester tie. "Point taken," said Mr. Rogers. "Where'd you get those shoes?"

"You want them, take them. Anything. Just leave me alone."

"Last thing I want is those shoes. Where did you pick those flippers?"

"Florsheim."

He snickered. "Turn up here."

"I want you to stop the car and let me out, now," I said loudly. The crack about my shoes had somehow set me off. I sat forward in the seat. "This is kidnapping. I insist you stop."

"Victor, trust me," said Mr. Rogers. "You don't want us to let you off here."

I looked around. Two kids were shadowboxing in a corner under a dim streetlight on an otherwise deserted street.

"Maybe you're right," I said, slumping back.

"You know, you are messing in things way above your head, things you can't even begin to understand. No sir. All politicians are liars, don't you think?"

"There are some honest ones, I guess," I said.

"But not Jimmy Moore. He's a h.e.l.l of a politician, but he lies and he steals and in the end he takes away everything he promised to give. Now I'm a businessman. I sell a product for a fair price and my customers keep coming back. And I make d.a.m.n sure I get paid for it. But Victor, I sell more than just a product. I sell my customers a reason to wake up in the morning, a purpose for their lives, something to give meaning to everything they do. In that way, Victor, I'm like a G.o.d, and Jimmy resents that. You see, G.o.dhood was his career goal, but it wasn't working out for him. I went to him after his sweet daughter died. I brought him proof of where she got the merchandise that killed her. It was a white group from the suburbs, from Bucks County, from Bensalem. And you think this is a h.e.l.lhole. That's where it came from and I had to hurt some people to get that proof. He said he didn't care, that no matter where it came from I would pay the price. We were two men at war. We bloodied each other. But now the war is over."

"I don't understand."

"There are things you'll never understand, so I will make this simple." He wagged a long, bony finger at me and spoke slowly, carefully. "I've been getting reports about you. You've been asking about missing money. Don't. You've been stepping out of your role. Step back in. Listen to what I say, Victor, your health and career both depend on it, though I don't really have any control over your career."

He opened his eyes wide and peered at me, to be sure that I understood, and I did.

"Besides, Victor," he continued, "anything you would do would hurt more than help. That's simply your destiny. We all have destinies, Victor, and yours is to be a f.u.c.kup. Now, in addition to all this, it seems you know a friend of mine."

"No. I don't," I said.

"How do you know who my friends are?" he said, a slash of anger in his voice.

"I don't, I mean, I'm sorry."

"Shut up, Victor."

From the front seat Wayman laughed like a little maniac, first a hoot and then a series of loud snivels.

"This friend is very special to me, do you understand, and I like to keep track of who she is with."

"She? A her?"

"You are a bright one, aren't you. This friend of mine," said Mr. Rogers, "she has this way of... let's say attaching herself to people. I don't want her to attach herself to you."

"Who are we talking about?"

"We aren't talking," he said sharply. "I'm talking. Who I'm talking about is Ronnie Ashland. It is all part of the same thing. And what I'm saying is you stay away from her."

"Veronica?"

"I a.s.sume you heard me, then. Any part of what I said you didn't understand?"

"Why? What's she to you?"

"He wants to know why, Wayman."

"It's not such a swift idea to ask why 'round here," said Wayman.

"I'll tell you why," said Mr. Rogers in a sweet voice. "Because if you don't I'm going to hurt you."

Wayman let out his scary, sniveling laugh again.

"I'm going to hurt you bad."

"That's why enough for me," I said quickly, almost gaily.

"Good, Victor. Maybe you're not as stupid as you look. Take us home, Wayman."

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About Hostile Witness Part 17 novel

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