The drive is always the best part.  The anticipation.  The tingling fingertips and sweaty palms.  The clean mountain air, so much fresher than the stale city filth.  The drive always makes Jack happy.

Jack Maddox taps along to the beat with one hand while waving his other in the air like he’s conducting a philharmonic.  He balances the steering wheel in place with his knee.  The music–a song about a brown-eyed girl–blasts out the open window.  He doesn’t care how silly he looks to passing motorists and the balmy air feels nice as it blows through his hair.  Jack peeks in the rearview to see a clean-shaven reflection.  A picture on a string hangs from the mirror.  The two females in the picture smile eternally, and Jack smiles back at them as they bob on their string along with the music.

Jack has a promise to keep to those two beautiful souls.

Melting snow drips from tall trees just to the side of the two-lane roadway.  A green sign reading Last exit before Thruway appears, and Jack puts on his right-hand turn signal.  He safely maneuvers the black Honda Civic off the exit and drives on a narrow, windy road for a bit.  Then another sign, this one black and white and reading Route 9 to Brattleboro appears.  He veers towards the sign, but the Honda doesn’t get on Route 9.  Instead, he turns towards a third sign, this one a hand-carved wooden sign mounted on a wood post that reads, Cherry Hill Road and below it a diamond-shaped yellow sign reads, Private Road – Not A Through Street.  That sign always makes Jack chuckle.  Of course it’s a through street.  Sticking up a yellow sign doesn’t change that.

Jack turns on to Cherry Hill Road–a dirt road barely wide enough for two cars to fit across–and then slows.  His temples begin to throb, his teeth clench tightly.  There is a lone telephone pole on Cherry Hill Road and Jack stops in front of it, a few yards behind a silver BMW already parked.  His ears ring and he shuts his eyes tight and takes in a big inhale of the fresh air.  The headache quickly subsides, and Jack shuts the windows and turns off the car.

There are only two houses on Cherry Hill Road, both just east of the roadway.  A large field several acres across separates them.  Jack walks towards a dirt path that leads up into the field, ignoring the No Trespassing sign that stands in front of it.  Once on the path, Jack walks around puddles of melted snow, trying to avoid soiling his black dress shoes.

She stands alone in the middle of the wet field, a dead ringer for the woman in the picture that hangs from the rearview mirror.  But not to Jack of course.  He could tell his wife apart from her sister from the first day they’d met.  Not from their looks necessarily.  But there were quirks and gestures that gave them away: Heidi’s angry glare; Jessica’s voice just a hair higher; winks, twitches, laughs.  The things that make up the individual seem subtle sometimes, other times they are quite glaring.  These are the things that shouldn’t be taken for granted; they should be cherished.

A picnic basket hangs from her side held by one hand while a blanket is tucked underneath her other arm.  She smiles widely as Jack approaches.  Her unbuttoned beige overcoat veils a thin but shapely body.  She has curly (but currently frizzy) brown hair and the sharpest hazel eyes one could imagine.  She is wearing a good deal of makeup, but not enough to cover the bags underneath her eyes.

“I knew you would be waiting for me,” Jack says.

“I always do.”

“You were always the dependable sister, Heidi.”

“Still am.”  Heidi’s stiff shoulders move up towards her ears as she forces out a laugh.

“Jessica was always the wild one.”

“Ah, not that wild.”

“When we first met, she could be so impulsive.  There was this one time we went to a midnight showing of…what was the movie?  Dammit, I can’t remember.”

Heidi giggles and shrugs again, this time more genuinely, then says, “She told me about that.”

“She what?”

“Oh, come now.  You know we had no secrets.”
“We were sitting in the back row, I was looking at the screen, but not paying attention, and she…”

“Okay, Jack!  That’s enough.  We both know what Jess was doing.”

Jack flashes an evil grin, then says, “It’s a good thing it was dark and the theatre wasn’t too crowded.”

“I guess so.”

“How was the drive?” Jack asks.

“Not bad.  Almost four hours.”

“Barely three and a half for me.”

“You were probably driving too fast.”

“Not really.  It’s my short cut.  It saves a full fifteen minutes.  I don’t know why you refuse to take it.”
She quickly changes the subject.  “Not a bad day for a picnic.  Just a little soggy.”

“Yeah, bit of a heat wave for February.”

“Oh, Jack.  Look at your shoes.  They’re soaked.”  She points down to her own feet, dry in a pair of furry, designer boots, “You should wear some boots.”

“I like to dress nicely for the picnic.”

“I know,” she says softly, still looking down at Jack’s muddy dress shoes.  Heidi perks up, and says, “I brought all your favorites.”

“Great!” Jack shouts with way too much enthusiasm; they both know he doesn’t really mean it.

She hands Jack the picnic basket.  Then, Heidi surveys the ground and picks out a relatively dry spot.  She throws the blanket high into the air and it glides down perfectly in a soft breeze; not so much as a crease or wrinkle shows.

Heidi sits, and gestures for Jack to do the same, which he does.  Then, she reaches into the picnic basket.

With the gusto of a game show hostess, she says, “Look at what I have here…”  She pauses for dramatic effect.  “Turkey and Swiss.  Light mayo.  Dijon mustard, too.  Even ketchup in case you want to whip up that special sauce you love to do.”

Jack nods, then smirks, straining to look interested but doing a crummy job of it.

“Fruit salad.  Really ripe, too.”  She holds up a clear Tupperware and points, “Melon.  Pineapple.  Grapes.  Small slices of apple, peach and pear.  The slices are long and thin, just how you like it.  And I had a devil of a time finding ripe melon being out of season and all, but I pulled it off.”  She pauses and pushes the fruit towards Jack.  “Try.  You’ll see.  It’s really ripe.”

Another nod.  Another smirk.  Jack takes a piece of cantaloupe and eats it.  “Umm.  It is ripe.”  Despite the sweet taste of the fruit, he can’t get the sour expression off his face.

Again, she reaches into the basket and continues with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader, “And to drink I have iced tea.  And soda.”  She pauses again trying to build the suspense while making goo-goo eyes at Jack, her hand now deep in the basket, then she pulls out a bottle and says, “And merlot!  Your favorite.”

“I don’t think so.  I’m driving.”

“Oh, stop it.  One glass with lunch won’t kill you.”

Jack nods again.  Smirks again.

“And best of all, the dessert.”

Finally, the smirk turns to a genuine smile, as Jack knows what’s coming.

“My homemade rice pudding.  Your favorite.”  She pulls out a large bowl with tinfoil covering it.  She folds back the foil halfway and hands the bowl to Jack.

“This looks great.  Thanks, Heidi.”
“My pleasure.”

They begin to eat the meal, and Jack keeps his eyes low.  He eats a sandwich, then some fruit, and finally the pudding–three helpings of pudding–while silent the entire time.

Heidi tries to make eye contact.  She smiles.  She laughs.  She coughs.  She spills wine on her red and black checkered blanket.

“Oh sugar, would you look at this mess.”

Nothing works.  Jack’s eyes stay focused directly on the food.

Finally, Heidi breaks the silence.  “I’ve been thinking about those problems you’ve been having.  The headaches.  The memory loss.”  She pauses to allow him to answer, but he doesn’t.  “I have a friend, he’s a neurologist.  I think he can help you.”  She pauses again, this time for quite a bit longer.  When he doesn’t answer, she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a business card.  She slides it into the side pocket of Jack’s suit jacket.  “Here’s his card.  Please call him.”

Once the rice pudding is finished, Jack stands up.  Heidi stands with him.

“Thank you, Heidi.  That was delicious.”

“You are very welcome.”  She leans over, trying to kiss Jack’s cheek, but he pulls away.

“Bye.  See you next year.”

“I’ll be here,” she says, and Jack knows she means it.


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“This place could really use a paint job,” I mumbled to myself as the phone rang.  Feet up on the desk, arms clasped behind my back, eyes half shut while looking up at the cracking plaster on the ceiling, I tried to ignore the annoying buzz.  A bottle of Jim Beam—about two thirds empty—sat next to the phone.  I grabbed the booze instead of the phone.

Finally, it stopped ringing, and I took a gulp directly from the bottle.

“Hank, it’s for you,” came a shrill cry from just outside my office door.

“Take a message!” I hollered back.

The door sprung open—hinges creaking—then smacked the wall, the knob coming to rest inside the sheetrock; there was an imprint of the handle where a doorstop should have been.

“Hank!  I said phone call for you!”  It was Sandy, my secretary, five feet two inches of fury, Burberry scarf draped around her neck.

“I heard you, Sandy.  And I asked you to take a message.”

“Well, you didn’t ask very nicely.”  She did this flip-thing with her long, curly brown hair that works on me every time.

“Sandy, will you please take a message?”

“No!  It’s your mother.  She needs to talk to you.”


I shook my head while grabbing the phone as Sandy sauntered out with just enough east-to-west sway in her hips to really distract me.  “Hi, Ma.”

“My rent, Mr. Mondale.  When will I have it?”

“Avi?”  Sandy would say anything to avoid having to do some work and she knew I was avoiding my landlord.  “One second, please.”  I cupped the receiver, then yelled, “You lying little bitch!”

“Sorry.  Tee hee.”  That phony, obnoxious laugh always pisses me off and she knows it.

“Avi, sorry to keep you holding.”

“Mr. Mondale.”  He spoke with a horrible lisp and seemed to sing his words more than speak them. “Today is the sixth.  Your rent was due on the first…of last month.”

“I know, Avi.  And I’m sorry.  I’m caught just a little short this month.  But I’ll have your money.”


“Soon.  I promise.  Soon.”

“Very well.  I’d hate to start the eviction process again.”

“Me too, Avi.  Me too.”

“Good day.”

“Yeah, yeah.  Bye now.”

I hung up the phone, then took another swig of Beam.  I got up and walked to the door.

“Sandy, that wasn’t very nice.”

“Why should I have to deal with him?  You’re the one who owes him money.”

“Because you’re my secretary.  When I ask you to take a message, you take a message.  That’s your job.”


“Yes, job.  You work for me, remember?”

“A job implies that I get paid, Hank.”

“Very funny.  Sandy, I’ll have your money today.  A couple guys owe me money.  Don’t worry.”

“Would you turn up the heat?  It’s freezing in here.”

“Go ahead.”

She walked to the thermostat and turned it up.  Nothing happened.

“You didn’t pay the heating bill either, did you?”

“Don’t worry, Sandy.  I’ll get this sorted out.  It’s no big deal.”

She grabbed one end of her scarf, threw it dramatically around her neck and said, “I don’t know why I stay with you, Hank.”

“Maybe because you’re too lazy to find another job.”

I walked back into my office and sat down.  My brain was racing as I flipped through my appointment book, then my phone book.  There had to be a case out there for me.  A way to make some legit money, and quick.

But legit money rarely comes quick.

I got up, grabbed my overcoat, and walked out of the office.

“I’m going out, Sandy.”


“If anyone calls, take a message…please.”


“I mean it.  I’m expecting a big call on a big case.  It’s important.”

“Yeah, right.”

I shot her a snarl.  She shot one right back.  We both knew I was lying but I wanted to keep Sandy’s spirits up.  She works harder when her spirits are up, not that that’s saying much.

I stepped out onto the downtown Manhattan street and walked towards Second Avenue, buttoning my coat as I walked.  I put on my black gloves, squeezing my hands in, then instinctively rubbing them together.

Just past Third Street stood my favorite haven: Dempsey’s Pub.  A simple joint where a simple guy can get a shot and a beer, or just a bourbon with ice and not see his wallet get raped.  I’m in the place just about every day.  Still, this trip wasn’t a pleasure visit.  Rory owed me two grand, and I needed it.

Monday Night Football posters and beer signs hung from the walls and the place was dim.  It always was.  A short flight of steps below street level with just two tiny windows letting in the smallest hint of sunlight, you could rarely tell day from night inside Dempsey’s.  The customers liked it that way.  I know I did.

I bellied up to the bar and hopped onto the first empty stool.  The usual afternoon crowd was there: two haggard-looking drunks on barstools and a few people eating quietly in booths towards the back.

Rory worked six days a week tending bar at Dempsey’s and usually spent his day off there getting hammered and watching football.  He lived in a small apartment above the joint.  He’d probably be buried underneath it one day.

“Rory,” I called out and waved him over.

“Hey, Hank.  What can I get you?”  He was a Scottish native, but moved to the city so long ago that his accent blended to the point that no matter whether he was home or abroad people thought he talked funny.

“My two grand.”

“What?  No hello?  No, ‘I’d like a Jim Beam please, Rory?’”

“Okay, I’d like a Jim Beam please, Rory.  And my two grand.”

“I’m a little light today, Hank,” he said as he threw a glass on the bar and dropped two ice cubes in it.  Rory knows how I prefer my drink, cool but never watered down.

“So am I.”

“Can you talk to Flip for me?  Buy me some time?”

“I need the money, Rory.  I told you not to bet Cleveland.”

“It was a lock.  Everyone and their mother had Cleveland.”

“Exactly.  It was a trap game.”

“Either way.  Can you just stall Flip for me?”

“He told me if I don’t get your money today to bust you upside your head.”  I said it with a wry smile, hoping he wouldn’t feel threatened.  After all, I like Rory.  But I really needed the cash.

“Would you stop it.  We both know you’re not the muscle.”

“Exactly, so settle up with me now, or else Flip will send that idiot cousin of his down here.  And we both know you don’t want that.”

Rory shook his head and blew a lip-fart.  Then he walked towards the cash register and grabbed some bills from the tip-jar that stood next to it.  Rory fumbled through the old glass jar, then his pockets.  He handed me a disheveled wad.

A fast count of the cash followed by a chug of sweet bourbon whiskey and I stood up, dropped a ten on the bar and walked towards the door.

“Thanks, Rory.  See you later.”

“Yep,” he said with a nod of disgust.

I walked down Second Avenue then turned down First Street.  The storefront office quickly came into view: Mondale Investigative Services, read the white letters engraved into the small black sign that was glued to the entryway my office shared with Kim’s Dry Cleaner.

I waved to Mr. Kim.  The old guy nodded back; his nods were subtle—very slight, but definitive in a way I always admired.

Mrs. Kim called out from behind an old black sewing machine where she spent most of her days, “Hi, Mr. Mondale.”

She spoke perfect English, and he didn’t speak a word of it.  The Kims were solid, decent people—not enough solid people left in New York.

As I opened the door, Sandy quickly shuffled something into her oversized name-brand pocketbook—a cute-looking leather thing; nothing but the finest name brands for that girl.

“Sandy!  What are you doing?”

“Nothing.  Nothing at all, Hank.”

I walked quickly towards her and grabbed for the bag.  She wouldn’t let go so I gave it a hard yank.  It came free and crap shot out every which way: a stapler, a lipstick, a box of pens, a small mirror and yellow sticky pads went flying about.

“You bully,” she said, trying to sound helpless—not that I was buying it.  “You don’t need to be so rough.”  She rubbed her arm

“Sandy,” I said as I shook my head and sighed.  “Are you stealing my staplers again?”

“It was only one stapler.”

“You’re too much.”

“I was just borrowing it.  I was going to bring it back tomorrow.  I have a project to work on at home tonight.”

“A project?”

“Yes, a project.  Do you have a problem with that?”

“What sort of project?”

“If you must know, I’m revising my résumé.”

“Yeah, right.”

“I need a job that actually pays me.”

I dropped the bag on her desk then reached in my pocket for the wad of bills.  I counted off five hundred and handed it to her.

“There.  Five hundred tax free dollars, cash.  What job is going to pay you that?  Huh, Sandy?”

“Thank you!”  She grabbed her bag and put the money in her wallet.  Then began picking her stuff up off the floor.

“Here, take this too.”  I handed her two hundred more then helped her gather up her junk.  “Run down to Con Ed and pay our heating bill.”

Her eyes lit up as she grabbed the cash and stood up.  “Now you’re talking!  While I’m out, I think I’m going to stop at Macy’s.  There’s this cute pair of Jimmy Choo’s I’ve been eyeballing.”

“Aren’t those like a thousand dollar pair of shoes?”

“More like five hundred.”

“Are you kidding?  Don’t you have rent to pay?  Groceries to buy?  You’re going to dump your entire week’s pay on one pair of shoes….that you don’t even need.”

“Don’t worry about me, Hank.  With role models like you, it’s no wonder I never pay my bills on time.”

“Very funny.  Just make sure you pay for those shoes.  I don’t have any bail money.”

“Yeah, yeah.  Later sweetie.”

No sooner did she shut the door than the phone rang.  There’s nothing worse than answering my own phone.  It wasn’t good for appearances.  A proper private investigator should have a secretary answer his calls.

“Hello.  Mondale Investigative Services.  Hank speaking.”

“Hennnn-reee, it’s your mutha.”  The familiar voice was all Brooklyn, a heavy accent with a horrible, hoarse smoker’s throat that worries everyone who loves her, especially her only son.

I should have known better than to answer the phone.

“Hello, Mother.”

“Henry, will you be coming over for dinner tonight?”

“Not sure, Ma, got a lot to do.”

“What could you have to do that’s more important than spending time with your mother?”

“Just some business to take care of, Ma.”

“You know, Henry, we don’t know how much time I have left.  It’s important I should share my time with the ones I love.”

“Mom, stop being so melodramatic.”

“Melodramatic?  Is that any way to talk to your mother?”

“If you’re worried about living longer, then quit smoking.”

“I like smoking.  At least I can always count on my smokes being here when I need them.  My smokes and my sweet Fluffy are all I can say that about.  Certainly not my son.  He comes and goes as he pleases.”

“Mom, I’ll try and stop by.  I’ve gotta go.”

“Fine, if this is the way you treat me…”

“Call you later.  Love you, Mom.”

“Goodbye, Henry.  I love you, too.”