Friday, April 11, 2008

BIG MONEY, Chapter 36

I’ve seen her gun, so the badge isn’t much of a surprise. Like love and marriage, the two are supposed to go together. What makes me squint, blink, crane, and refocus is the curious and voluminous expanse of Ms. Strawberry’s law enforcement specialties, each one clearly detailed for me on her slick, anchor-weight and permanently laminated government identification card.

Frances Dahler Chapman not only holds a captain’s rank with the New Jersey State Police, and is therefore automatically the Garden State’s best-looking Jersey Trooper, Ms. Strawberry also carries the title of Special Prosecutor for the Governor’s Select Task Force on Organized Crime, and was graduated magna cum laude from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Advanced Weapons Training School in Quantico, Virginia.

Oh my. I’m talking to the Queen of Jersey cops.

“Why did your majesty want an undercover job at Shore Securities?” I ask.

I get a sneer, more contempt in her green eyes than her twisted lower lip, and Ms. Strawberry takes her identification back. She and I face each other in the viking-hall kitchen of what she earlier described as a State Police safe house.

“Why the hell do you think?” she says. “Shore is the absolute center of this corrupt mess. Where else would I want to be?”

I can’t get over the sudden changes. Sexy Ms. Strawberry in the bar becomes big hitter, Walter’s all-business replacement, then becomes a pistol-packing state cop hunting mafia dons. The X-Men have nothing on Franny Dahler. Or Chapman. Or Ms. Strawberry. Or whatever the hell her name is.

“What corrupt mess?” I say.

“Illegal gambling, prostitution, fencing stolen goods, counterfeit securities, extortion, burglary, fraud, murder, and conspiracy,” Franny says. “I’m just getting started. Want me to continue?”

I place my hands on the kitchen table where we sit, a swimming pool-size octagon of thick, polished hand-pounded copper, and spread my fingers like I’m checking the polish on my nails. Nonchalant. “You think Shore’s involved in all that stuff?”

“Probably. Or about to be. The spoils of an ongoing war.”

This copper table shines like a gold wedding ring. Some safe house the Jersey Troopers have staked out for themselves. A rock singer’s retreat would be more apt. Twenty giant rooms of English Tudor inside a secluded, five-acre forest, a dock on the Navasquan River. The raw land has to be worth $10 million.

Speaking of dinero... “So those commission runs you showed Carmela are just bullshit?” I say. “Shore Securities is still missing one big hitter?”

“That’s right. I’m a cop, not a broker.”

Did my query sound that stupid? I guess maybe. It’s just that I have certain business responsibilities, certain financial priorities. “And you’re going to stay with us...undercover?”

Ms. Strawberry sips her third mug of premium coffee. “Probably not after tonight.” She ordered some older guy named Stuart to brew a fresh pot, Stuart probably with the Troopers thirty years, forced to search cupboards, grind and measure Colombian beans, satisfy some thirty-year-old cutie with a Trenton State law degree. “Why?” Ms. Strawberry says. “You thinking about outing me to your mafia friends?”

Maybe his boss found out Stuart voted Republican in the last election.

“Of course not,” I say. “I’m thrilled you want to put Bluefish away. The bastard threatened my children.”

“My job isn’t to help you, Carr. Although I easily could, and might, if you cooperate with me.”

“For instance?”

“For instance, was anyone in the lodge when you saw Max Zakowsky torturing this Gianni person?”

Pieces of gold sparkle inside Ms. Strawberry’s sea-green eyes. She’s wearing a white blouse tucked inside blue jeans, two-inch black heels and a gray tweed coat. Oh, yeah. And a tan leather shoulder holster.

“No,” I say.

Hardly Carr-like patter, I know, but I feel lucky to make noise. I’m still stunned by this woman’s previously undisclosed identity and intentions. Like the time my little sister’s new babysitter turned judo-meister while shaking my hand, twisting my thumb ‘til I yelped and flopped myself onto the carpet.

“Did you see Bluefish at the restaurant last night in Brooklyn?” she says.

“No.”

“What about Mama Bones?”

“No,” I say. Maybe a little too quickly.

Franny’s head slowly shakes. Her light copper hair catches highlights from the chandelier. “I’ve already explained that lying to me is a crime. I’m giving you one more chance to tell me the truth. Not sure why. Maybe I like your gorgeous smile.”

I smell sarcasm. Don’t get me wrong. I have more than a little faith in the full-boat Carr grin. It’s pulled me out of many tight and ugly spots. But this time I just don’t think she means it.

“We already know it was Mama Bones in that Escalade,” Franny Dahler says, “so do yourself a favor, don’t tell me you didn’t see her at that restaurant. You saw her plenty because she had to be the one dragged your skinny ass out of Brooklyn.”

Skinny ass? Now I have a skinny ass?

Over the course of my so-far semi-wasted life--everything but Beth and Ryan has been pretty much a disaster--I’ve found the best way to lie involves actually believing your own bullshit. You must make yourself deeply and truly accept the stink icing you are about to spread over simple righteous cake.

“I see Mama Bones all the time,” I say. “Mr. Vick asked to me to keep an eye on his mother while he was in Tuscany. But it wasn’t Mama Bones who pulled me out of that restaurant.”

Invisible fingers tug on Franny’s square-ish, magazine-cover jaw, stretching the skin. A threat sparkles in her green eyes. “You’re shielding a gang who wants to kill you, Carr. Who will kill you, and maybe your children, unless you let me protect you. But I cannot arrange your safety if you won’t cooperate.”

She searches my face for signs of intelligence.

It’s a long and fruitless journey.

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