From the top of her head as she trots up his office stairs, Chris judges Brandy Mueller to be in her late 20s. The part in her dull brown hair is straight as a plumb line, and her brown toenail polish matches the color of the strap on her clogs. Shadowy with summer, his office is a converted one-bedroom in a Romanesque townhouse on Madison Avenue and 93rd Street just inside a 20-block radius he refuses to walk beyond from the Carlyle Hotel where he lives. This Brandy Mueller person, “Terry’s sister,” according to her intercom announcement, is very lucky to catch him in because he wanders up here more for the exercise than to do any work. Actually, none of his enterprises qualify as work, although his accountant does show up religiously twice a week to clip bond coupons and keep his books in order.
Brandy Mueller is a tough little buster in a stretchy halter top under a short open jacket. She’s showing some muffin top and belly button over the strangle fit of her jeans. “So, you’re Terry’s friend,” she says.
“How’s he doing?” Ten days ago Chris lent her brother eight thousand dollars.
“Doing?” she says. “Doing missing is how. You try getting hold of him. What? He dropped his cell phone in the toilet? He has fucking disappeared.”
“What’s going on with the bookie?”
“Why I’m here. Terry says you know people.”
“Hold on,” he says. “What do I need to know people for?”
“What, you don’t give a shit about your money?”
Trick question. “No,” means he’s a prick who thinks he’s above everybody he lends money to. “Yes,” means he’s a tight-ass who expects to get his money back.
“So here’s what happened,” he says. “Terry drew down a couple of markers and now he’s rolling around with a girl somewhere. Any idea which one?”
“He’s going out with some rich bitch.”
“What about his job? He doesn’t have to show up?”
“Job?” she says.
“Plumber’s helper, he told me.”
She laughs. “Not for like five years. Plumber’s helper? He’s a bike messenger.”
“No. So I told the cops.” She stops, glances around the room. “This your office? More like an apartment.”
He should probably ask why she didn’t just look up his number and call him instead of visit, but he knows why and has the gloomy pleasure of watching her wish he was better looking and not so plump and at least acted wealthy.
“So,” he says.
“So I called the Nineteenth. Something feels off. A Missing Persons report, right? Which is what I did. But nothing about owing money.”
“Which you should have done, okay? They’d take you more seriously. They didn’t, did they?”
“Anyway, you think you could find out if he paid off? Might explain things.”
Chris sighs. “Not even Terry would. Honestly.”
“Do something that stupid? Sure he would.”
“These guys don’t forgive. He runs off with the money? No way.”
“Or he got degenerate and blew it,” she says. “So.”
“So? ‘So,’ what?” says Chris. “So find his bookie, you mean?”
“All I know is it’s a West Side guy. Terry told me some story about you.”
“Christ!” Chris says, annoyed. “You check hospitals?”
“Yeah. I wouldn’t come to you if there’s anyone else.”
He tries to keep his temper. “Let’s not get into that.” Probably Yorkville, but wherever she grew up, there’s a dozen neighborhood guys who could hook her onto Terry’s bookie. No, she wanted to meet the rich guy her brother plays basketball with.
“Lemme give you my number,” she says, stuffing her fingers into her fleshwound of a jeans pocket, except now it occurs to her she shouldn’t act so sure of him, so she goes into a looking-for-something-to-write-on routine, which he allows to play out before tearing off and handing to her the end of a confirmation order.
“Probably he just,” she says, jotting down her number, “... you know.”
She gives the room another 180 degree pan, works up a “brave” smile, heads for the door. Chris heaves to his feet, guessing she’d probably love to have back the half hour she wasted selecting a color-coordinated outfit for this expedition.
“I’ll be in touch if I hear anything.”
“Yeah, do,” he says, watching her center-parted hair bob off down the stairs.
First thing he does is call Terry: immediate-message, cell phone and landline both. So no Terry, and here Chris is already busy enough with hobbies, pursuits, interests, entanglements, with a call sheet of obligations for each. This is one of those times when he wonders wouldn’t he really be better off having a job.
He heads back home, sweating like a fat girl even on the shady side of the street. Yeah, like a fat girl living unmarried on inherited money, substituting “missions” like this one for any blood, sweat and tears commitment to the greater social good. Which brings him to Terry and this loan business, originally put to him as a puzzling mix of dire straits and what-the-hell. Even the number requested seems like a rounded-off lucky digit from a license plate Terry spotted on his way over to the gym. And the touch itself comes in the middle of waiting to play the next five-on-five, and follows all the usual wouldn’t-do this-unless-I-had-to, don’t-feel-bad-if-you-can’t disclaimers to which Chris says, sure, why not, and meets Terry the next day at Finnegan’s Wake, a bar they often stop off in after basketball, and here the cash changes hands, supposedly in transit to Terry’s bookie.
Terry bets sports. Chris does too, but not the way Terry does, even if they will sometimes argue metaphysics in the context of opposing bets. The difference is the gambling serves Terry as a way to stay close to his athletic prowess and confirm his belief that divine providence is at work in football scores. Whereas for Chris, sports betting is just money made by guessing right. The stock market, in other words.
Terry, the gambler, is not why he lent Terry the money, though. Terry, the basketball player, is. The quickness, the airborne grace, the chess club brilliance of his moves without the ball. He can stop and pop from anywhere on the court, and in the paint he’s a soaring saxophone solo. His game seems to unroll in a different time signature than do those of the other players; his instinctive decisions light trail visible among the grunts and lunges of the ordinarily skilled. So, yes, a basketball giant in the neighborhood, even if not so tall mentally. What the hell did he do with the eight grand?
Chris realizes he should have sent Brandy Mueller back down the stairs with a “no,” but something else is laying up against his second thoughts. Terry, the bike messenger. A guy in his late thirties spinning on spindly metal wheels through the daily blare of Manhattan traffic. Not a plumber’s helper, not a supply clerk or scaffold monkey. He’s Chris without the money, a windblown leaf.
So the next afternoon, Chris is straddling a stool at Private Eyes in what he’s sure will be a fruitless search for Billy Farrell, and failing that, Rick Petratos, and completely failing that, Jack Drown, who once cordially offered to beat him to death with a cane. Studiously blank looks have met all queries as to the whereabouts of these stalwarts. Farrell, et al, are the “people,” c.f. Brandy Mueller, Chris reportedly knows.
Well, he tried, he decides, ordering a beer. What was he supposed to do, anyway, with that one dumb clue, West Side bookie. The beer, unfortunately, leads him to reflect on how little has changed at Private Eyes since he was here a year ago. At the end of the bar, the same but different girl in the silver streamer “cage” still sways to the music in her head. In his pulpit by the door, the manager still bathes his paperwork in the pour of a pinlight. The off-duty strippers still pad over the germy carpet in flipflops and shortie robes, and in the shrieking lounge the “dancers” are still leg-locking the smudgy metal poles and spread-eagling themselves like starfish for an audience of two. An image of Jack Drown returns to Chris in all its vividness: the limp, the threaded eyebrows, the cane. And one of Farrell, too: the bifurcated knuckles at the end of his boxer’s arms. And finally of Petratos, the Greek voice of reason, hoping a maroon sports coat upgrades his look to “suave.” Now also returns the memory of paying these guys two thousand bucks for the name of that dead stripper Marie was trying to find. Which brings back Petey from the grave, ducking into the subway for the trip to his flophouse downtown.
Flicking $10 onto the bar, Chris walks out. The heat wraps him in a horse blanket, but this is not unpleasant after the polar bear temperatures inside. Different doorman, he notices, but the same casting decision: a pencil-armed kid in a short-sleeved shirt and an outsized Latin American dictator’s hat.
“Say, listen,” he says. “Billy Farrell come around anymore?”
Bad timing. The kid’s winging the glass door open for two guys in muscle shirts and over-barbered hair. “Try the Westway. Ninth Avenue.”
Chris sets off along 43rd Street and halfway down the block passes Farrell. “Hey.” Farrell whips around. “It’s Chris Bickerstaff, Billy.” But Farrell has no idea who Chris Bickerstaff is.
“The fuck,” he says, murderously annoyed.
Inspiration strikes Chris. “Blonde FBI girl.”
Slowly, into Farrell’s face comes an awareness of who Chris might be. “Yeah. Sure. Didn’t recognize you right off. What, you put on some weight or something?”
“Took some off, I think.”
He can see Farrell working out the necessary street calculus, e.g. what does this clown want, who else is involved, what’s in it for me. Farrell now wears his black hair slicked back straight, older mobster style. A dye job might be involved here because his fishbelly white skin seems even whiter against the shoe polish black of his hair. He’s with a smaller, younger genetic copy of himself, a recent matriculant, evidently, in the William Farrell College of Crime.
“Your name,” he says, “what was it?”
“Chris. Like I said, Chris Bickerstaff.”
“So, what do you want, Chris?”
“Last time I was using an alias.”
The kid with Farrell grins, his upper lip stretching over his teeth like a rubber band. “Yeah,” says Farrell, “right.” The kid is laughing now. Maybe he doesn’t understand what an alias is. “What was her name?”
“Who?” says Chris. “Marie, you mean?”
“Yeah, Marie,” he says impatiently. So what’s up? I got shit to do today.”
In disgust Farrell turns away. “You know a guy named Terry Mueller? Anyway, forget that,” Chris says when Farrell turns back to him.
The kid looks focused now, as though a lesson in gangster deportment is being exampled in this exchange.
“This is needle in a haystack stuff, ” says Chris. “I’m doing somebody a favor.”
“Jesus!” says Farrell, turning away again.
“For the guy’s sister, I’m doing it. Finding out who’s holding his action. Her brother, this is, Terry Mueller.”
“How the fuck would I know?”
“That’s the thing. You wouldn’t.” Humiliation ebbing, Chris is beginning to see the comedy in this.
“No shit I wouldn’t.”
“Terry Mueller,” Farrell says. “Brandy?”
“His sister, yeah, why? He has others?”
“One’s enough,” says Farrell, turning to the kid. “A real piece of work. Fuck you ‘til your ears bleed.” Eagerly, explosively, the kid guffaws. “She mention me?”
Chris goes with the truth. “No.”
“How’s she looking?”
“Fine. She’s looking fine.”
Farrell stares at the kid, then says to Chris, “So what’s with Terry?”
“He owes and he’s in the wind,” says Chris, pleased to remember the police expression for vanished; displeased to think that Brandy Mueller, that bitch, who could have called once she saw he wasn’t her cup of tea, who could have at least left a voice mail, didn’t. And Farrell is laughing now, shaking his head. Surely Chris is the biggest patsy he has met in the last week.
“Looking for you, yeah,” says Chris.
When they all arrive back, the doorman nods to Chris in complicity, which, oddly enough, cheers him up. At the bar his non-respondents, who know very well who Farrell is and no doubt his recent movements, wordlessly welcome Chris into the club of those happy to be known by Farrell. From a different stool than a moment ago, Chris orders another beer. Farrell has a Singapore Sling, operating on the certainty that Chris is paying, or can be made to pay. The kid with Farrell is his nephew, probably underage, but a Singapore Sling is ordered for him, too.
“So, yeah,” says Farrell, “Terry. Tell you what, though. I got a deal I’m working on. That sunk ship they raised out the Hudson? They made a club out of it.”
“Did they?” says Chris.
“Yeah so there’s another sunk ship. And I’m putting together a group.”
“To do what?”
“To do what the fuck you think! It’s Pier 80, where there’s cruises coming in.”
“So, then, another club,” says Chris. Farrell’s nephew is now gulping down his drink. “Pretty strong, right?” he says to the newphew.
“Tastes good,” says the kid, truculently.
“Hey!” says Farrell.
Further down the bar, a few heads turn, then turn away fast, seeing who it is.
“No, I heard you.”
“So what do you say?”
“Tell you the truth,” says Chris, “I’m a little annoyed with Brandy.”
“It was your money?”
“That’s not the point.”
“So then it’s not the point I’m asking for five large,” says Farrell.
“You’re thinking last time.”
“Absolutely, yeah, why I’m asking. But that was for the chick, right? The cop.”
“This time I could give a shit, except Terry’s a friend of mine.”
“How much you hand him,” Farrell says, “hand Terry. You come in on the thing I’m talking, you make money, not flush it down the toilet.”
“In on the club?” says Chris. “Right. You want another drink? I’m taking off.”
Farrell turns to his nephew. “Fucking Terry Mueller. I bet your mother knew him.” Ordering another Singapore Sling, the nephew is too busy to respond. “Tell you what. Your FBI girlfriend? She did me a solid. You didn’t know that, did you?”
“Recently?” says Chris, wincing at the casual irony of “girlfriend” and wishing it were actually true. And then being glad it isn’t and being surprised by that.
“Marie? A while back. Hey, Claude.”
At the far end of the bar, an older guy looks up. He’s checking a stack of paper slips against a larger printed sheet. Farrell quits his stool, strings his way along the bar like a strand of Christmas lights, looping to every other drinker, even pausing at the stripper, for a word or two. “Don’t drink too many of those,” Chris says to the nephew.
Absent Farrell, the kid doesn’t know how to respond. “Fuck you,” probably occurs to him, so does “Okay,” but he settles on, “They’re good,” and slurps down his second Sling. Chris signals for another beer.
“How you know my uncle?” the nephew says.
“Through a guy who’s dead now.” Chris is watching Farrell talk to Claude.
“How’d he die?”
“Heart attack. Billy’s buddies still around? Rick Petratos?”
“I don’t know,” says the nephew. “I live in Jersey.”
Farrell crooks his finger at Chris, who dismounts and makes his way along the bar. To cement his sudden sense of belonging here, he glances up at the stripper in her flimsy cage. She stares at him emptily. Okay, so he doesn’t belong here. Farrell introduces him to Claude Ryan, Terry’s only bookie, a fact which is stressed.
“’Only?’ Why so?” says Chris.
“Because he doesn’t bet at all well,” says Ryan, with a slight brogue. “And time to time he forgets to pay, and has to be reminded, or thinks he made a bet he didn’t.”
“But tell him, Claude,” says Farrell.
Claude Ryan’s thinning silvery hair is as wiry and undulant as unstranded cable. His fleshy earlobes and nose, his wristbones the size of darning eggs, are relics of a former massiveness.
“Terry Mueller,” he says, “is not standing too deeply in the shade just now.”
“Like only two bills,” says Farrell.
Claude Ryan slides his pale eyes from Chris to Farrell to determine the extent of obligation here. He removes from under his betting slips a small moleskin ledger book. Slipping on a pair of reading glasses, stored loose in his shirt pocket, he crisply pages to the entry he wants. “Exactly two hundred fifty six dollars,” he says.
“Any recent bets?” asks Chris.
“He has not,” says Ryan, consulting a separate page.
Farrell now steers Chris away, gripping his arm. “So now you been done one.”
“Not what I’m getting at.”
“I know,” Chris says, “a favor. But, honestly.”
“Now that you told it to me, I’ll remember your name. You understand that, right?”
Chris can feel Farrell’s intensity through the strength of his grip. “I’m not saying it won’t work, this idea of yours, the club.”
Farrell laughs. “You crazy? It fucking sucks.”
“Well, yeah, it does.”
“Even straight out then, you won’t.”
Chris shakes his head, no. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Farrell’s nephew locked in the depthless stare of a car accident victim seat-belted into his seat dead.
“So tell her I said ‘hi,’” says Farrell. “Your girlfriend.”
“I don’t see her much.”
“You got a card?”
“A what?” Then the word registers. Chris pulls out his wallet and extracts one.
“What the fuck’s this?”
“I travel a lot,” says Chris, who has rarely been out of Manhattan. “This way, I can put where I’m staying and my room number.” He elbows between two occupied stools and writes his phone number on his card, which otherwise has only his name.
Farrell glances at the number. “You got a cell?”
“That is my cell.”
“Okay, I’ve got a cell, but I never use it. Barely remember the number. That one’s my home.”
“What, you think I’m calling every minute?” says Farrell, offended. “Jesus! Listen, your guy took off or he’s working some scam.”
“I’ll tell her I saw you.”
“Brandy? Fuck her! She played you, man.”
Farrell’s nephew carefully descends from his stool and stands next to his uncle, weaving slightly. Chris has the momentary impression that these two plan to accompany him out the door, over to the East Side and into his livingroom. Right now he wants away from Private Eyes, and yet his encapsulated afternoon gives him a sense of return. Riding back uptown in a cab, he feels surprisingly energized. Walking into his 35th floor apartment at the Carlyle, he goes straight to his desk and pulls out his address book. Deliberately unmindful of the consequences, he calls Marie at work.
“Possible to call back,” she says in her law enforcement voice. “I am in middle.”
“Of something, sure. It’s only a quick one, though.” Chris’ heart is sinking, but what did he expect. “Know anyone at the Nineteenth. A Missing Persons deal.”
“So I call back,” she says, immediately hanging up.
Embarrassed, Chris curses himself. He shouldn’t have let a trip down memory lane trick him into making such a stupid move. Marie. He can’t do this to himself again.
Thomas Carney has written for Esquire, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, American Letters & Commentary, Tupelo Quarterly and Frontline (PBS), among other publications. He lives in New York City.