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Authors: Jane Haddam

Dear Old Dead (25 page)

BOOK: Dear Old Dead
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Gregor got out in front of the Sojourner Truth Health Center’s front doors and looked around. The doors were open, but the sidewalk was deserted. Robbie Yagger, who could usually be found pacing up and down with his sign, was nowhere to be seen. Gregor paid the cabbie and added a nice large tip—it was a kind of blood offering, a prayer to the gods that the man would not come back to drive him again—and decided to go inside. Maybe Robbie was in the cafeteria, nursing along a cup of coffee. That would be ideal for Gregor’s purposes.

Gregor went up the steps and in through the doors. The young woman at the admitting desk looked up when she heard someone come in, saw who it was, and nodded hello. In the past days, almost everybody at the center had learned to recognize Gregor on sight. He went down the hall to the back, looking around as he walked. The nurses’ station was unmanned. The open examining rooms were empty. On a bulletin board on a wall next to a room marked “
PEDIATRIC EMERGENCY
” there was a poster with a picture of a cloud on it with sharp-edged rays of light coming from its center. Under the cloud were the words: “
ON FATHER’S DAY, REMEMBER YOUR FATHER IN HEAVEN
.” Gregor shook his head. What he remembered were the Sisters of Divine Grace back in Philadelphia and the way they had celebrated Mother’s Day. Nuns. Nuns never changed.

Gregor went down the back stairs and across the open space to the double doors of the cafeteria. He looked inside and frowned. Robbie Yagger was not there. Not much of anybody was there. He wondered where everyone had gone. Sister Kenna was sitting by herself at a table in the corner of the room, reading intently in what Gregor thought was her Divine Office. At this distance, it was difficult to tell. The largest round table in the room, near the rail for the cafeteria line, was taken up by a crowd of very young women wearing blue smocks and volunteer staff pins. They were alternately whispering and laughing hysterically.

Gregor moved cautiously into the room. Maybe Robbie was in the men’s room. Maybe he had run downtown a block or two to buy cigarettes. The trouble was, if Robbie wasn’t in the cafeteria and he wasn’t out picketing, Gregor had no idea of where to look for him. The idea that Robbie might simply not be at the center today struck Gregor suddenly. It was a possibility that was both logical and appalling. Gregor knew from his long lunch with Robbie Yagger that Robbie didn’t have much of a life outside his self-imposed mission at the center, but he did have some life. Maybe he had gone home to live it. Did anybody know where he was from, what his address was, if he had a phone number? Would anybody be able to find him if he decided to disappear?

Gregor had had enough coffee while he was watching Hector Sheed eat lunch, but he hadn’t had any lunch, and he was starving. He picked up a cafeteria tray and one of those free copies of the New York
Sentinel,
ordered himself a couple of grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches and a side of french fries, and then virtuously took a large bottle of Perrier water to drink with them. In his head, he could hear Bennis Hannaford counting up the cholesterol, but he ignored her. He got out his wallet and paid the woman at the cash register.

He was just about to put his tray down on one of the small tables against the wall when a young woman he vaguely recognized walked up to him, looking very tense. Gregor tried to remember where he had seen her before, but couldn’t. Whatever he associated her with seemed to be vaguely disturbing.

The young woman had her hands behind her back. She was shifting from one foot to the other. “Excuse me,” she said. “You may not remember, but we met. My name is Julie Enderson.”

“Julie Enderson,” Gregor repeated. It didn’t ring a bell.

“It was upstairs after Rosalie van Straadt died,” Julie said. “In the hall outside Dr. Pride’s office. My friend Karida and I watched the door for you when you went down to call the police.”

“I remember,” Gregor said, and he did, too. Karida was the one with the makeup. This was the pretty one.

Gregor put his tray down on the table and pulled out a chair. “Would you like to sit down? I was just about to have lunch. Could I get something for you?”

“Oh, I’ve had lunch already, thanks. I’m not hungry. It’s just—I mean, do you think you’d mind if I sat down for a while and, you know, um, well, talked to you?”

“No,” Gregor said. “I wouldn’t mind. Is it something important?”

“I don’t know,” Julie said truthfully. “I just thought I’d tell you and you could decide for yourself.”

“That sounds fair enough,” Gregor said. “Have a seat.”

“I will.”

Julie had a large, heavy book in her hands. As far as Gregor could tell, it was some kind of history textbook. Julie put it down on the table with a thump, pulled out the chair facing Gregor, and sat down.

2

I
T MAY HAVE BEEN
true that Julie Enderson had eaten lunch, but it was not true that she was no longer hungry. Gregor wondered what it was about the people he had met up here. Did living and working in Harlem make you hungry? It didn’t necessarily make you fat. Julie Enderson was thin as a rail. She had Gregor’s order of french fries in front of her, covered with enough ketchup to drown a cat. She was eating her way through them as methodically as a paper shredder ate through paper.

“It isn’t about Rosalie van Straadt I wanted to talk to you about,” she said. “I don’t know anything about that. It’s about Charles van Straadt. The first one.”

“I remember Charles van Straadt,” Gregor assured her.

“Yeah, well, Karida was with me that night, too, except Karida wouldn’t know, because Karida’s never worked anywhere but uptown. I used to work down in the Square, though, when I was younger. If you’re black and you get to maybe fifteen, sixteen, down there they don’t have any more use for you. You know we used to be hookers? Karida and me and all the other girls in refuge?”

Gregor knew that “refuge” was what the center called their program to help hookers leave their pimps. He wondered how old Julie had been when she started hooking. Young enough, obviously, to think of fifteen or sixteen as getting old.

Julie had finished the french fries.

“That’s where I first saw Michael Pride,” she said. “In the Square, I mean. He didn’t buy time with hookers. When all that stuff came out in the papers everybody was shocked, but I wasn’t. That’s how I ended up here the first time. Two years ago. He came up to me where I was standing and gave me a card with the center’s name on it and the address and the number. Then he said I was smart enough to know I couldn’t do what I was doing forever, and then he disappeared.” Julie laughed. “I told myself he was some kind of higher-class pimp and the center was a fancy house with million-dollar clients and women dancing around in their underwear, but I didn’t believe it. With Michael, I couldn’t believe it. Did you know there are rumors all over the center that he’s sick?”

“Sick?” Gregor was startled.

“Never mind,” Julie said. “They probably aren’t true. If Michael got sick, he’d tell us about it. He wouldn’t just go off somewhere to die. I was going to tell you about Charles van Straadt.”

“That’s right.”

“Well, you see, I started to tell you upstairs right after Rosalie van Straadt died. About my mother, you know, who lives with this guy in a gang, and I came down from the east building with Karida to see if she’d been hurt in the shoot-out. I don’t know why, I really don’t. It’s not like she cares about me one way or the other. It’s not like she cares about anybody. I don’t know. I was worried. So I went.”

“I think that’s understandable.”

“Yeah, well, the thing is, the stairways are all crazy in the west building, because of the way they remodeled to put in the elevators. You can’t just get started on a stairwell and go down and down and down. You go down some and then you have to cross the hall and then you go down some more. When you come off the stairs from the fourth floor to the third you can pass Michael’s office and Father Donleavy’s. And there was a light in Michael’s office, you see, so I stopped.”

“Because you wanted to see Dr. Pride.”

“Everybody wants to see Dr. Pride, Mr. Demarkian. Dr. Pride doesn’t have time to talk. Almost ever.”

Gregor nodded. “Did you go into Dr. Pride’s office?”

“Oh, no,” Julie said. “I’d never do that without permission. I just wanted to know what was going on in there. But I also thought it was very odd. I mean, we were in the middle of a major emergency. There had been loudspeaker announcements all evening—when there’s a shoot-out or a major drug bust or something and the emergency room is going to be jammed, they put an announcement over the public address system about how we’re all supposed to stay in our rooms and not go over to the west building except for a real emergency. Not even to come in here and get food. So I thought it was odd, you see, that there would be someone in Michael’s office. I didn’t think it really could be Michael. If he needed anything, one of the nurses or the orderlies or the volunteers would go get it for him. I didn’t understand who could be in there with the light on. And there was a voice, you see, but it wasn’t Michael’s voice. The whole thing felt—creepy.”

“Was there only one voice?” Gregor asked her. “You didn’t hear two? It wasn’t a conversation?”

“There was only one voice,” Julie said definitely. “Maybe he was talking on the phone. I didn’t see. I went down along the hall toward the door, thinking I’d look in and see who was there, and then as I was still on my way, he came out. Charles van Straadt. Except I didn’t know that he was Charles van Straadt at the time. I didn’t know that until the next day, when I saw the papers. I just saw this man come out of the doorway really quick, so quick he scared me, and I kind of shrieked.”

“And this was Charles van Straadt?”

“Oh, definitely, Mr. Demarkian. I knew as soon as I saw the newspapers with his picture in it. He wasn’t a very usual looking man.”

“No,” Gregor admitted. “No, he wasn’t. Was he the only person you saw? Not only in the room, now. I mean on your whole trip downstairs.”

“He was the only one. Until we got to the first floor, of course, because down there there were tons of people. Nurses. Doctors. Ambulance men. And that guy who carries the sign out on the sidewalk out front.”

“He was in the building?”

“Oh, yes.”

“What time was this?”

Julie Enderson shrugged. “I’m sorry, Mr. Demarkian, I really don’t remember. I’m sure I checked, but I can’t make myself hold the information. Augie always says I ought to, that I’ve got to learn because when I have a real job I’m going to have to, but I never do seem to remember.”

“Was it closer to six? Seven?”

“Oh, it was after seven, I’d think. It took me a long time to work up the nerve to come over. It was against the rules, you know, and I don’t like to break the rules. I don’t want to get kicked out of the program.”

Gregor thought this over. “When you got down to the first floor, did you see any of the other van Straadts? Rosalie, the one who just died? Martha? Ida Greel?”

“I saw Ida Greel,” Julie said. “She was on duty in Emergency with everyone else. And later in the east building I saw the guy. You know, Ida’s brother, the cute one with no brains.”

“That about sums it up,” Gregor said dryly.

“He was sitting in the reception room over in the east building for a while, but that was later on at night. I don’t remember what time that was, either, Mr. Demarkian. Karida said she saw all three of them except Rosalie down in the cafeteria that night, but you’d have to ask Karida. I didn’t have the guts to come down in here. I got my information and then I went back home.”

“Had something happened to your mother?”

“Not as far as I could tell. I don’t even know if she’s alive, Mr. Demarkian. We’ve lost touch.”

Julie had finished the french fries. Gregor still had a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich. He offered her half. Julie took the half unselfconsciously and began eating.

“You know,” Julie said, “if this was all, I wouldn’t have bothered you. I mean, this isn’t much. What keeps bugging me is what I know about Charles van Straadt that nobody else seems to. I mean, I keep hinting and hinting, but nobody picks up on it.” She stared at the ragged edge of her half-eaten half sandwich. “I don’t know about Dr. Pride. I haven’t had a chance to bring it up with him.”

“I should think everybody on earth knew who Charles van Straadt was,” Gregor said. “He’s had one of the most spectacularly public careers in the history of capitalism.”

Julie shook her head. “Some of it may be public, Mr. Demarkian, but all of it isn’t. Look, when I was about twelve or thirteen years old, I used to work in this revue in the Square. It was a musical thing, you know, but this one was all kids all under fourteen, some of us as young as eight or nine, and we’d dance to things like ‘Big Spender’ and then we’d strip. And then later, you know, the place made private arrangements with the guys who came to see us.” Julie’s face broke into a big grin. “After I came here, Michael and Augie helped me set it up so that the place got raided, and half a dozen people got arrested and now they’re probably going to go to jail. Of course, another place just like it probably opened up a week later and a block away, if you know what I mean, but there isn’t anything I can do about that.”

Surely there had to be something somebody could do about it, Gregor thought, but nobody seemed to.

“Was Charles van Straadt one of the clients?”

“Oh, no,” Julie told him. “An old man like that, if I saw him on the street and I was hooking, I wouldn’t even bother to ask. He just doesn’t care. You can tell. No, it wasn’t like that. It was this one night. A really dead night. There had been a whole lot of raids over the month before and business was slow. The cops don’t really care about what goes down in the Square, and they really, really don’t care about the prostitutes, but every once in a while they try to clean up the kiddie stuff because they do care about that. And they stage raids on the gay stuff, too, you know, because it gets their rocks off. Excuse my language. Augie keeps trying to teach me to talk right but I just go on and on like I was ignorant or something.”

BOOK: Dear Old Dead
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