MCCALL & COMPANY: SWOLLEN IDENTITY

A NOVEL BY RICH LEDER

 

CHAPTER 3

DON’T BELIEVE WHAT YOU READ

 

The alarm woke me, although I think I had been dreaming that my estranged sister, Marilyn, a dental hygienist, six years older than I am and living in Cleveland with her dentist husband and poorly-behaved pets and children—yes, the children were poorly behaved too—was coming at my eyeball with a dental drill (that sounded like my alarm) while accusing me of being a lesbian.

I took a shower, wrapped myself in a towel, and walked through the kitchen, through the dining room, and into my walk-in walk-through closet, where my real-world clothes shared space with the costumes and theatrical accouterments of the characters I had played for twenty-seven years in no-budget independent films, late-late-night television commercials, and way-off-Broadway musicals, where busted budgets were often mended by auctioning off the wardrobe department at dollar-store prices. The closet had plenty of shelves and dressers, a large armoire, and a 1940s vintage vanity table. There was a big mirror and lots of lighting. I chose a soft pair of Levi’s, a navy-blue, button-up blouse, and slip-on red leather Keds.

My first floor apartment was a two-bedroom railroad flat, meaning the rooms were laid out in a straight line from front to back, like train cars, so that my living room led into my bedroom, then into my second bedroom—now my walk-through closet and dressing room—then into my dining room, and finally into my kitchen. The bathroom was a separate room off the kitchen. The living room and kitchen each had a plate glass window covered with bars. The living room faced 83rd Street. The kitchen overlooked the backyard, where I’d almost buried the box at Jimmy’s wake.

I had acquired a good deal of thrift-store and sidewalk-sale furniture throughout my adult life—which started, by the way, on my seventeenth birthday with the birth of my son—so my house felt full and homey. I have varied taste in home decor, but it all summed up somehow as French-Countryside/Flea-Market-Chic—feminine but not girly. I vacuumed and dusted and scrubbed the place clean, but I also held on to things—magazines, books, playbills, programs, posters, stills, scripts, and other mementos of my career—not to the point of being a hoarder, but just to the point of making my house a bit messy, as in cluttered, as in where did my sunglasses go?

Framed photographs of Matthew, from his first day of life to his first day on the job at the Manhattan DA’s office and every important moment in between, covered my walls, shelves, tables, dressers, and counters. Family pictures of my sister and me and our parents were also everywhere. It was my house, my stuff, my life.

I went into the kitchen and made myself a patty melt on fresh-baked sourdough and a small salad with dried cranberries and goat cheese. Like many New Yorkers, I love food and eat well, both in restaurants and at home, meaning I buy fresh, organic, real food, meaning Dean & DeLuca and Zabar’s and Murray’s Cheese Shop and Citarella and Lobell’s and Fairway and Despana, meaning nothing processed passes my lips. Unless I’m hungry and there’s no real food around—say only Fig Newtons or Pizza Bites or Cheez Whiz—then I eat that like crazy. (Can to mouth for the Cheez Whiz.)

While I ate my lunch, I looked for a Blood Song and Dance review in the newspaper. I didn’t find one. Reviews would come eventually, though, and would likely be as bloody as the play itself: inane vampire musical is a bloodbath of off-off-off-off Broadway nonsense, or something like that. It would be true, of course, but so what. The play was loud and fun, albeit indecipherable, and I was singing and dancing and biting people in the neck on a stage in the city of New York.

Oh sure, I wished it were a grander stage and a better show, but if the choice was singing and dancing and acting at the D-Cup or not singing and dancing and acting at all, then that was a no-brainer. What I was doing up there was fulfilling my destiny while becoming one with the universe. I was born to be an actor. It was who I was and had been since I starred in our elementary school production of Bye Bye Birdie.

I finished eating, did my dishes, and called LaTanya. I asked if she was anywhere near the Upper East Side and if she was, could she pick me up and take me to the theater? I got an affirmative for a fifteen-minute arrival, made myself presentable, grabbed my bag, and went outside to sit on the stoop and wait for her yellow Volvo cab.

Al and Warren were on the sidewalk, clucking like hens over three different decade-old Toyota Corollas that were parked one after the other in front of the building.

“What’s all the hubbub?” I said to them.

“This is how it starts,” Al said.

“How what starts?” I said.

“My rental car business,” Warren said.

“Warren bought two more Toyotas,” Al said. “I’m his general manager.”

“Because I work at night, when the fleet needs managing,” Warren said, “and Al, well, Al’s up.”

Al Cutter lived in apartment 5A. He was thirty-four, tall and thin, with long, stringy, dirty-blonde hair and deep-set eyes that had been bloodshot for years due to the fact that he hadn’t slept since he was eighteen and a freshman at Fordham, when his college roommate held him hostage at gunpoint for ten hours—the barrel of the gun in Al’s mouth—while the roommate, Elliot Morgan, tried to ransom an A in biology.

“Plus Warren can’t manage his way through a shit tunnel,” Al said. “And I can.”

“Nobody’s more at home in a tunnel of shit than Al,” Warren said. “That’s why he’s working for me.”

“As a consultant,” Al said. “1099 from day one. Meet the new Al Cutter, all-night management consultant. You want me, you pay me, or you cut me in on the gross.”

“On the net,” Warren said.

“We’re working on the fine print,” Al said. “But it’s all good. You’re looking at the launch of Warren Rental Car.”

“Hertz, Avis, Warren,” Warren said.

For fifty of his sixty-three years, Warren White had been an accomplished coin, currency, and stamp collector, which, as he often told me, made him one of the very few men on the East Coast who was concurrently a numismatist, a notaphile, and a philatelist. “Watch your mouth, Warren,” was my usual response. He was a short, bald, overweight African-American night-shift doorman, welcoming home self-absorbed, greed-driven moneymen and their snooty society wives and portly private school children in a modern, upscale Third Avenue apartment building. He lived in 4B and had, until today, owned a single used Toyota Corolla, stripped down to its barest bones—no radio, no nothing—that I sometimes rented for peanuts. Now he had three of them.

“Is it aboveboard, Warren?” I said.

“Define aboveboard,” Warren said.

“Licensed, insured, permits in place, aboveboard, as in legal,” I said.

“You wearing a wire, McCall?” Al said. “It’s not that we don’t trust you. Well, yes it is. We don’t trust you.”

“Not as far as we can spit,” Warren said.

Neither Al nor Warren were particularly nice men, not to each other—they were simultaneously co-dependent best friends and worst enemies, frenemies—or to anyone else, but they each had special talents that I had made use of whenever the time was right.

“I’m clean,” I said.

“Off the books,” Warren said.

“So it’s the launch of your illegal rent-a-car business?” I said.

“If by illegal you mean prices too low to be legal, then you’re right about that,” Warren said. “You want a long-term lease, McCall? Al says you’re going to need one with all the clients and cases you got.”

I fixed my eyes on Al. Most of the time, he looked like a zombie from The Walking Dead. Today he looked worse. “What clients and cases would those be, Al?”

“Fu said some rich lady lost her identity and you were charging her three bills a day plus expenses to find it,” Al said, “so that’s one.”

Fu Chen, my Chinese mob-assassin maintenance man. For someone who, for two whole years, didn’t let on that he could speak English, he sure had developed a big mouth now that his secret was out. “You said cases, as in more than one,” I said.

“Your old man’s killer, that’s another,” Al said.

“What are you talking about?”

“Every now and then, when there’s a break in a trade, I clear my head by looking at police reports on another screen, seeing how the original digital files compare to what the newspapers say. You know, when somebody you heard of gets whacked or arrested,” Al said. “What did they leave in? What did they leave out?”

He was a voracious eBay trader by day, and until the launch of Warren Rental Car, just this last hour or so, and because he was a hopeless insomniac, he worked four nights a week as well—two as a limo driver and two more deep-frying donuts at a shop around the corner on First Avenue. To “clear his head” during the day and the three long and lonely nights he wasn’t otherwise occupied, he hacked into systems and files and folders where no one without the highest-level security clearance was allowed to go: the medical records of the Governor of New York, for instance, or the United States Navy’s nuclear war-game logs, or Harvard University’s endowment fund accounts, or Fannie Mae’s financial reports, and now, no doubt, Enterprise Rental Car’s customer database.

No place on the web was off limits to Al, who traversed the digital universe with an impossibly powerful computer that he’d designed and built by hand with parts he traded for on eBay, surfing under, over, around, and through top-secret corporate codes and foreign government password sequences. He had half a dozen monitors, each with its own tower, multiple speakers, keyboards, printers, and scanners and two six-foot-tall IBM mainframes, the kind that no one in their right mind has—or needs—in the privacy of their own home, the kind that keep multinational corporations and governments going.

“And?” I said.

“And two days ago William Webb was found dead in his Hudson River boathouse up in Nyack,” Al said.

“Who’s William Webb?” I said.

“She’s unbelievable,” Al said to Warren.

“Like she lives under a rock,” Warren said to Al.

“Like she is a rock,” Al said to Warren.

“I’m sitting right here,” I said to them both, “listening to you talk about me like I’m not sitting right here.”

“William Webb is…was…the co-founder, president, and CEO of Superior Press, one of the largest privately owned corporate printing houses in the country,” Al said. “Forms, reports, newsletters, invoices, leaflets, posters, brochures, cards, catalogues—if you printed it for business, chances are Superior had a hand in it. Webb’s worth a couple hundred mil, if he’s worth a dime. Times obit said he died of a heart attack.”

“Don’t believe what you read,” Warren said.

“Why do I care, Al?” I said. “I never heard of Webb or Superior Press.”

“You care, McCall,” Al said, “because the police report, written by Orangetown cops named Millard and Leland, was filed, retracted, and then filed again. Not rewritten. Replaced. New report. First report deleted. Most people wouldn’t know that or, if they knew, wouldn’t know where or how to find the original. Most people wouldn’t look.”

“Al’s not most people,” Warren said.

There’s an understatement, I thought.

“Just because you hit delete don’t mean it isn’t somewhere,” Al said. “Most people don’t take that into consideration when they’re covering shit up.”

“Millard and Leland were covering shit up?” I said.

“And then some. Their second report matches the newspaper account. Heart attack. But their original report, the one they removed right after they filed it, says they found Webb tied to a chair, both eyes shot straight out of his head.”

I stopped breathing. I stopped moving.

“She really is a rock,” Warren said.

“A rock in shock,” Al said.

“Why didn’t you tell me two days ago?” I said.

“Because that’s when Webb was in the paper. Millard and Leland’s bullshit report didn’t surface until this morning,” Al said, “and you were sleeping, and then, hey, look at that, I told you right away. Thank you very much. Don’t mention it. Here’s twenty bucks for your trouble. You shouldn’t have. Oh yeah, you didn’t.”

“The real question is what are you going to do about it?” Warren said.

“Bingo,” Al said. “Memorial service is Sunday in Nyack. What are you going to do?”

My father’s killer had returned, and as of this morning, my day job was private investigator—I knew exactly what I was going to do. “I’m going,” I said, “to pay my respects.”

“We’ll give you a good price,” Al said, gesturing at the Toyotas.

“But not too good,” Warren said.

 

READ CHAPTER 1  //  READ CHAPTER 2