A NOVEL BY RICH LEDER
THE BEARER OF BAD NEWS
“Paul Barnes,” the fire hydrant said.
He was probably sixty, but his shoulders sagged under the weight of a life much longer. His skin was nearly as gray as his suit, which looked lived-in, more like a second skin than clothing. It was possible he had slept in it. He had the unmistakable aura of unhappy tidings.
“Kate McCall,” I said.
“Can we talk in private?” the fire hydrant said. “I think it’d be better.”
“For who?” I said.
“All the way around,” Barnes said.
“I’ll be at the piano,” Posey said, and she turned and walked away.
The fire hydrant gestured inside the bathroom. I stepped aside, and he walked in. I shut the door as he took out a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes.
“Smoke?” he said.
“No thank you. I’m in the middle of rehearsal. Would you mind making this fast?”
I moved to the mirror and put the fangs in. He walked to the sink and stood beside me, watching me open and close my mouth in various patterns and shapes.
“You might want to sit down. And maybe take the teeth out,” he said, gesturing at the toilet directly across from the sink he was now leaning on.
I took the teeth out. “If Jimmy owes you money, you’re barking up the wrong tree,” I said.
“Your father’s dead, Miss McCall. Got himself murdered.”
I thought I might hear that sentence one day, but I was even less ready for it than I imagined I would be. I blinked a few times, then walked to one of the toilets, sat down, and gestured at his cigarettes. “I’ll take one of those now.” Some bad news is simply too big to process right away.
He gave me a Camel, lit it, and moved back to the sink. “I work for Mel Shavelson, your father’s attorney. I’m the bearer of bad news. That’s my job.”
He talked about how my father got himself murdered—something about sticking his nose someplace it had no business being, something else about the police finding him late last night (actually, at three o’clock on Friday morning) tied to a chair in an elevator in an office building, two big fat bullet holes where his eyes used to be—but I wasn’t really listening.
Instead, I was thinking about the final curtain of the last performance of Bye Bye Birdie. My father had given me flowers, handing them to me on the stage while the audience applauded. They were roses from a Korean market and smelled like ginger.
“Shavelson’s going to read the will, and you’re supposed to be there,” Barnes said. He put his cigarette out in the sink, tossed the butt in the trash, and crossed to the toilet, where I sat watching the Camel burn down to my fingers. (I don’t smoke.) He handed me Mel Shavelson’s business card and said, “Date and time’s on the back. Monday morning, ten thirty.”
I took the card, still smelling the ginger roses, grief growing inside me, building, building, getting ready to bust through the wall of shock that had been constructed in the same second the fire hydrant had delivered the bad news, which, as he said, was his job.
“I knew your old man,” Barnes said. “He was a hell of a PI.” And then he left.
There had been a voicemail for me from a Detective Harriman earlier in the day, but it was just a general “Please call me as soon as possible” sort of message. I had been busy, and usually the police only contacted me to verify something or other about Jimmy getting into trouble on the job. Jimmy always worked that kind of thing out for himself and had told me, “Never cozy up to the cops unless you’re impersonating one.” I deleted Harriman’s message and didn’t call him back. Maybe that’s what he was going to tell me, that Jimmy had been murdered. Anyway, now Barnes had told me.
I dropped the Camel in the toilet, looked at the card, and wept like a seventh-grade girl.