2014: A Spring II
The apartment was rich with the smell of fresh coffee.
A second pot. A third.
Jonah’s left eye started to twitch, the nerves overtaxed and blearing the slanted writing that ran from one page to the next. He no longer felt a compulsion to stand on ceremony with the book, and so, when he and Morgan arrived to his apartment, he’d torn all the pages he’d already read from between the covers and handed them to her. She read much faster than him, and before the witching hour settled its cowl outside, she sat on the couch with her feet tucked under her, watching Jonah read, waiting for him to finish one page, tear it out, and hand it to her.
A few minutes after one o’clock, Morgan set the page she was currently reading aside, glanced at her empty coffee cup, and grimaced. “I don’t know if it’s all the caffeine or what I’m reading, but I feel like I could puke.”
Jonah looked up from the considerably thinned journal, blinked several times, and set the book down. “Probably both,” he said. “Let’s take a break. I’ll make us something to eat.”
Morgan paled. “I really don’t know if I can handle anything more than soup. And just broth, at that.”
“Then that’s what I’ll make.”
Morgan followed him toward the kitchen and sat at the counter that looked in from the living room. Jonah busied himself preparing the soup.
“I can’t believe he was a father,” Morgan said, seeming to muse more to herself than to be striking up a conversation.
“It’s disturbing,” Jonah agreed, pouring a can of chicken soup into a saucepan and setting it atop a burner. “But it’s not really surprising. A lot of killers lead double lives. Look at John Wayne Gacy, Richard Kuklinski—shit, even Jack the Ripper was thought to be a well-respected physician.”
Morgan made a disgusted face. “Your point?”
Jonah stirred the soup. “My point is that a natural killer doesn’t have to be a Norman Bates. Our anonymous hitman might be a lunatic, but being nuts doesn’t preclude having a family. I only hope whatever poison was inside him didn’t bleed over to his daughters.”
Morgan looked thoughtful for a moment. “It really seems like keeping his wife and kids happy was his first priority, doesn’t it?”
Jonah nodded. “I don’t know how genuine his intentions were, though. Could be he just wanted them out of his hair.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it. Comfort makes people docile. The more docile people are the fewer questions they ask about their situation. Drown them in comfort and they’ll never ask to come up for air.”
Morgan sighed. “You’re just a pocketful of sunshine, aren’t you?”
“I have my moments.” Jonah ladled soup into two bowls, passed one to Morgan, then stood staring into his own.
“What’s the matter?”
He looked up at her. “Reading that bastard’s journal always kills my appetite.”
“Sack up,” Morgan ordered, gesturing with her spoon. “We still have a lot of reading to do.”
Twenty minutes later Jonah and Morgan lay on opposite ends of the couch. Both were dozing, and so only a slim percentage of the words they read actually made it through the scrim of exhaustion that had settled atop their heavy lids.
“It’s no good,” Jonah moaned. “I’ve read the same line six times now. I need to sleep.”
He fell back with a grunt. Morgan crawled over to him, her own exhaustion making her movements slow. “No, no, no,” she said. “C’mon. We have to keep at it.” She pulled him to a sitting position and crammed herself behind him so her body was pressed to his back, holding him up. “You doze,” she said, “I smack you. I doze, you jab me in the ribs. All right?”
Jonah tried to turn toward her but Morgan gripped his head firmly in both hands and bent it back to the book.
“Only a few more pages left,” she said.
Jonah was vaguely aware of Morgan’s body pressing against his own, the firm smoothness of her warmth. “We’re going to have to talk about your definition of ‘a few’ sometime,” Jonah groused.
They read on—Jonah at his stolid, brow-furrowing pace and Morgan nearly gobbling the pages. It didn’t help that the anonymous writer had decided to become nearly prolific during the year of 1956. Entries that were once separated by a span of weeks now fell within a day apart of each other—sometimes two or three in one day. Jonah noted that the change seemed to have come around the time the writer accepted a particular contract in June of that year. Apparently our dear anti-hero had decided to hedge all his cards on this last job and then pull out of the game altogether.
I can’t keep doing it, the hitman wrote. The ghosts are with me all the time now. They don’t speak. They just stare. It’s enough to make a body wish he were blind.
But then they would speak, Jonah thought.
I’ll tell Merlin after I finish this last one. Better yet, I’ll pass the message along with Tony.
Jonah’s eyes widened. “Oh shit,” he muttered.
Morgan flailed behind him, giving an unlovely snort before mumbling, “Huh? What’s ’at?”
“You fell asleep,” Jonah said, but there was no remonstrance in his voice.
“Yeah, well you didn’t wake me. What happened? What did you find?”
“Our hitman made a mistake.”
Jonah sat with the book in his lap, staring at the name “Tony.” Could there be a last name somewhere?
A knuckle dug into his back. “Hey!” Morgan called. “You want to share?”
Jonah passed the book back to her. “A name,” he said. “After all this guy’s caution, he finally dropped a name.” Jonah paused then said, almost to himself, “He must’ve really been fraying at the edges.”
“Tony?” Morgan said. “That’s it?”
Jonah turned to face her. “It’s a start, isn’t it?” He tapped the page. “Maybe there’s a last name somewhere. Maybe we can cross-reference it with ‘Merlin,’ or something. Either way, it’s a thread, and if we can clinch it, we might be able to unravel the whole damn thing.”
Morgan looked doubtful. “So, if he made one mistake then maybe he made more. But couldn’t Tony just be a pseudonym? A red herring?”
Jonah sighed. “Yeah. I guess so.”
Morgan’s eyes dropped to the page, a slow smile creeping over her face. “You didn’t read this whole entry, did you?” she said, glancing up.
Morgan cleared her throat theatrically and read: “‘I’ll be using all of their names from now on. You, my dear journal (yes, I think I’ve become comfortable with that term), are going to be my insurance. I’ve strung up all my shit-stained laundry in your thick pages, and now I’m going to hang out some others’ with mine. If Merlin won’t let me out the easy way—which I expect he won’t—then this book (you, my friend) might convince him to reconsider his options. To think, I’ve spent so much time stepping carefully around my words, thinking they might incriminate me—and, my God, how they would—but suddenly, my friend, you’ve become my greatest insurance policy. And the irony of my double-life as an insurance salesman does not escape me, thank you very much.’ Jesus,” Morgan lowered the book in her lap. “He’s going to spill it all. We have to keep reading now.” She set back in, but only for a moment. After a few sentences she looked back up, catching Jonah’s gaze.
“What?” Jonah asked.
Again, Morgan read: “‘My boss’s name is Salvatore Puccini.’ Holy shit.”
“I guess that means something to you.”
Morgan stared at him, incredulous. “You never heard of Sal Puccini?”
“I wasn’t really into the Godfather movies.”
Morgan dug into her hip pocket, retrieved her phone, and started typing on the tiny keyboard. Less than thirty second later, she held the phone out to him, and despite the tension of the moment, Jonah had to marvel at just how simple it was these days to sieve through an endless assortment of information and pluck what you wanted from that vast and invisible realm known as the Internet.
The article was short. It read:
Salvatore Gargiulo Puccini (October 16, 1917-Disappeared July 13, 1956).
Salvatore Puccini (common aliases: Sal the Club, Smiling Schmerl, Puck, and Merlin) began his organized crime career as a lowly numbers man, collecting bets for the Profaci family in Brooklyn. His low-man days were destined to be ephemeral, however. Sal quickly earned his nickname “The Club” for his tendency to beat defaulters with a modified broom handle. The weapon was of his own design, sources claim. The handle was sawed to three-quarters of its length, partially immersed in a cylinder of wet cement, and, when the cement hardened, “The Club” was reputed to tote the deadly weapon on his back in a makeshift scabbard.
Puccini ascended the ranks quickly, his ruthlessness carrying him through family customs and “made men” that would have daunted lesser criminals. Former crime boss Giuseppe Proface (aka Don Peppino) quietly asked Puccini to head one of the new satellite groups springing up across the Hudson River. Puccini earned millions of dollars for the Proface family: extortion, racketeering, loan sharking, and prostitution were just a few methods with which Puccini boosted his reputation.
By 1950, Puccini had earned the right to run his end of the “Jersey Racket” with little to no interference from the Family. The Profaces continued to reap the rewards of Puccini’s diligent criminality. By this time, Puccini was widely known as “Merlin” a name men in Puccini’s employ started using after Puccini correctly divined the location of a key witness and ordered the witness’s assassination. Said witness was Ben Coleman, a public defender who had run interference for several of Sal’s compatriots. Coleman had been goaded into turning states evidence against Puccini and his comrades after law enforcement agents caught him soliciting a prostitute.
Puccini’s success would not last the decade, however. On July 13, 1956, Puccini went missing. His remains were never found. When questioned, his cohorts refused to comment, and law enforcement was not hard-pressed to come up with a theory on the crime boss’s fate.
Salvatore Puccini’s untimely disappearance remains…
Jonah handed the phone back to Morgan, his face slack. “You think our guy made him disappear?” he asked.
Morgan shrugged. “I know one way to find out.” She held up the journal briefly before diving back into its pages, and Jonah resigned himself to making yet another pot of coffee.
The pot had just stopped bubbling and Jonah was set to pour when Morgan called out: “Oh my God!”
Hot coffee spilled over Jonah’s knuckles as he slapped the mug down and dashed back into the living room. “What is it?”
Morgan’s face was twisted in an expression that could only be described as extreme distaste. “He’s a cheat!” she said, craning her neck toward him. “Killing people isn’t bad enough, now he’s gone and had an affair with some trailer-park whore.”
Jonah shook his burned hand in an effort to get the nerves to quit their caroling. “Let me see,” he said, holding out his other hand for the journal. Morgan tore the pages she’d read from between the covers, handed them over, apparently happy to be rid of them, and continued reading.
Jonah leafed through the pages, his strained eyes still unwilling to read a complete paragraph.
She’s poisoned my heart, the bitch… How did she know me? How could she possibly… Jesus, Rebecca. I’m sorry. You’ll never know how much, because I’ll die before letting you read these pages… Her hair flowed over her shoulders like rich syrup, curling, moving, never hardened into one particular shape… Sal will never let me out now, even with the eye he’ll figure it out… I’ve compromised everything. But what scares me is that I’d do it again. Even now I know that… Verina Magus has ruined me…
The pages tumbled from Jonah’s fingers and sprayed across the floor like a cataract of autumn leaves. Morgan glanced up at him, saw the set of his jaw, the bulge of his eyes, and she was up, her firm hands gripping his shoulders. “What is it?” she said, shaking him gently. “Jonah, what’s wrong?”
He met her eyes. “Momma Magus,” he whispered.
Morgan looked dubious. “Who?”
Momma Magus will teach you!
“My dreams,” he said, touching her hand, needing her warmth. “Verina Magus. I dreamed of her. But not the way this guy saw her.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. All I know is that I started dreaming of her right around the time I moved in.”
Morgan shook her head. “How?”
“I don’t know. I’m always in a cellar. An old cellar. The kind with a dirt floor. And there’s a steamer trunk.”
Morgan’s eyes were wide. “A trunk? The cellar at the Avalon House?”
Jonah nodded. “I guess so. I didn’t realize until now—”
“I move the trunk aside and start digging. I always know what I’m going to find and what will happen when I find it, but I dig anyway.”
Morgan was shaking her head. “What is it? What do you find?”
“An eye. A glass eye. And it stares at me. And just before I pick it up the cellar door slams open and something shouts down at me, ‘Are you still playing, boy? Momma Magus will teach you!’ And then she runs down the stairs. I can hear the hard-soled shoes clacking on the risers, can see the horrible shadow that thing throws against the wall. And then I wake up.”
Morgan was studying him, silent. Finally, she put her arms around him, held him tightly, and he was glad for the comfort.
“We need to keep reading,” he said. “We need to find out more. Fuck all the details. Just look for passages that mention Verina Magus.”
Jonah snatched up the journal and started ripping through the pages, his face grim and gray. Morgan watched, her body poised diffidently. In that moment, she finally started to be afraid.
Melissa Montez’s Volkswagen was parked beneath the blinking streetlight on Knoll Avenue. Amber flashes painted the car, illuminated Melissa’s worried eyes as they gazed intently up at the large window of Jonah’s apartment. She was up there. The girl Melissa knew Jonah thought of often, though he refused to admit it. They had been up there for hours. Doing what? Well, Melissa had pointedly ignored that particular question each time her mind brought it up.
When she’d arrived here just after nine-thirty she’d noticed the extra car parked in the driveway and thought nothing of it. She climbed from her car, toting the Tupperware of oatmeal cookies she’d made for Jonah (he’d told her oatmeal was his favorite) and the Victoria’s Secret bag holding the new panties and stockings she’d bought for after the cookies, and glanced up at the windows, hoping to spot Jonah’s shape behind the curtains. But the curtains were open. And a woman was staring out from the behind the glass. The winking glare of the streetlight reflecting off the glass made it hard for Melissa to make out the woman’s features, but based on Jonah’s description of her, this woman was not his sister Amy. Then Jonah was there, closing the curtains, not bothering to even look down to the street where Melissa stood holding two presents for him. She got back in her car, turned on the radio, and waited, demanding her eyes to remain dry.
Nothing. It’s nothing. Just a friend. Don’t get crazy over it. She’ll be gone soon. Then you can go up and have a nice, calm conversation about it.
But the hours rolled forward, and Melissa’s spirits slipped. The only reason she hadn’t driven off was because the lights shining through the curtained windows never went out. If the lights had been put out that could mean only one thing, and Melissa would preserve enough of her dignity and drive off, never looking back. But the lights never went out, and, in a way, that was crueler. The presence of the lights gave her hope, gave her a reason to think Jonah’s late-night visitor was nothing more than a friend, a cousin, an accountant.
She’d turned off the car to keep the battery from dying out and now sat watching the digital clock on her phone flash to 3:07 a.m. What the hell were they doing up there?
Maybe she likes it with the lights on, a traitorous part of Melissa’s mind opined. Maybe she’s secure like that. Unlike you.
The first tears appeared, but Melissa stifled them, feeling simultaneously ashamed and angry at their appearance.
She’d waited long enough. She dialed Jonah’s number. The line rang once, twice, thrice, then was interrupted by a stock voicemail message. Melissa let the phone drop between her thighs. Had she really developed such strong feelings for this man—this stranger—that he could hurt her so? The simple answer was yes. He’d ignored her call. Melissa was sure of it. Which meant he was otherwise engaged. Wasn’t that how assholes referred to fucking? In movies and pop-fiction, for sure.
She turned the ignition, performed an angry U-turn, and sped along Knoll Avenue, fighting tears. Where Knoll Avenue gave onto Brooks Road, she pulled over, not trusting her bleared eyes to lead her through the dense dark.
“He was supposed to be different,” she muttered, and then laughed at the obvious cliché. Sure, they’re all supposed to be different, but that’s the lie. A lie told to us by movies and books. Probably movies and books written by men to keep women blind to the truth that all men are as shallow and dirty as muddy puddles.
She wiped her face with some spare tissues she kept in the glove compartment, smearing the light mascara she’d worn for Jonah. The rearview mirror showed a reflection she did not like, and she suddenly hated Jonah for bringing this part of her out where the thinking portion of her mind could witness and judge it. And when the phone rang and her heart rose up giddily at the thought of that same man, Melissa cursed herself, wishing more than ever that the heart was a thick knot of muscle in her chest and nothing more.
She picked up the phone, not bothering to look at the caller ID. “Yeah?” she said.
“Liss?” a familiar voice replied, and even though she didn’t recognize the sound of that voice right away, Melissa knew very well that only one person called her Liss.
“Em?” she said. “What—why are you calling me? Do you know what time—”
“I need to see you, Liss.” The pleading in Emery’s voice was so insistent and so utterly unlike him that Melissa was unable to reply at once. “Liss?” Emery said again. “Are you still there?”
“Yeah, Em. But—it’s late. I can’t—Where are you?” She was unconsciously twining the damp tissue between her fingers.
“Do you remember the house you told me about?”
“The one on Avalon?”
“That one, yeah. Can you meet me there? It’s really important.”
“Em, it’s not a good idea. I’ve got to get to sleep.”
A pause, a breath, then Emery’s voice came back, sounding oddly wet and thick. “I need you, Liss. You’re the only one who—You’re the only one that understands. I—she left me.”
“The client I told you about. Remember? You said I was in love with her, and I really didn’t believe that. Couldn’t believe it, ya know? But then—Look, I don’t want to get into the whole thing over the phone. You’re the only friend I’ve got here, Liss. Please?”
So Emery Winnan had finally had his heart crushed. The odds of such an event were long, but the odds of said event occurring the same night Jonah Burch broke her heart—that was too karmic to be ignored. And why shouldn’t she provide Emery with a little comfort? Maybe he could comfort her in return. God knew she had nothing better waiting at the apartment—just a lumpy pullout bed and a dozen oatmeal cookies.
“I’ll be there in five minutes,” she said.
Another sigh. “Thank you,” Emery said, and the genuine gratitude in his voice made Melissa’s skin tingle. She hung up, glanced sidelong at the Victoria’s Secret bag. Maybe she’d be wearing her new panties and stockings tonight after all.
“Your loss, Jonah,” she said and smiled at the reflection staring back at her in the rearview mirror. She liked herself again. She liked the chill that descended over the wound. Would it last? No, but that really didn’t matter. So long as she could look in the mirror and not find herself hating or, worse, pitying the person staring back then all could be right in the world.
She shifted the Volkswagen into drive and started her way to the Avalon House.
Emery looked at his phone thoughtfully for a moment, then replaced it in his pocket. The cellar was dark, permeated by a weak chill. He’d cleaned up the space a little—removing the unfortunate Zara Gildon’s bones and dismantling the remains of the shelves—and now the trunk sat beneath a single battery-powered clamp light Emery had affixed to the rafter above. The light fell in a soft cone, dusting the delicate wood and gilded hasp with a modest glow. He understood Verina was not inside the trunk, but it had come to symbolize her just the same. Emery caressed the trunk, gnawed his lower lip. Verina had not come back to him since that night. He longed for her, but he did not feel abandoned. She still came to his dreams. And it was in his dreams that they spoke of the future—their future.
“Verina,” he whispered. “Soon.”
She’d told him what he must do. Her appearing on this plain—in this world—was too difficult in her current condition. That single act of love had cost her dearly, had almost killed her, and understanding that she’d risked that to be with him made his eyes burn. “You deserve better,” he said, kissing his fingers and placing them lightly on the trunk.
Melissa was the natural choice. She was the only one he’d be able to coax into meeting with him. He’d gone out on dates over the past few weeks with hopes of finding an acceptable candidate, but all of the women had left his mouth tasting sour (which he should have expected, for no lips or tongue or breath could compare with those of Fair Verina). And then there had been that one woman, Morgan Lundy, the daughter of the man whose name was on the deed for this very house. Morgan hadn’t made his mouth sour—she hadn’t given him the chance to hug her let alone steal a kiss—but something about her character made him uneasy. Perhaps it was just the coincidence of her last name, though Emery’s instincts told him different.
Morgan Lundy would have to be a topic another night, however. Melissa would be here in minutes and he still had one last preparation to complete.
Emery slid the trunk back, his posture almost reverential, and revealed a hole that was deep enough for him to kneel comfortably inside or, if he curled up with his knees to his chest, lie down. He stared into the aperture, his mouth working soundlessly, his eyes hectic with the longing ache of which only lovers may speak. Verina’s eye gleamed violet and vital beneath the fan of light thrown down by the work lamp. Emery smiled. In any other setting—a picnic in the park, a stroll along Dock 13, nestled between blankets made warm from two loving bodies—that smile would have looked endearing, almost romantic; but here, in this dank cellar, with a work light shining down and centipedes walking on their many legs in the dark, the expression looked manic and terrible. “I love you,” he said. “It won’t hurt anymore. Soon, now.”
The piercing chime of his phone. Emery glanced at the caller ID. Brad. Fucking Brad. He answered. “Yeah?”
“Em?” Brad sounded out of breath. “Jesus, Emery! Where the hell are you?”
“Vacation,” Emery replied.
“Vac—? Vacation! Emery, it’s been three goddamn months! What the fuck are you doing to me?”
“I’m busy, Brad,” Emery replied evenly.
“You fucking little—Listen, Emery, you need to come back. Okay? Your clients’ve been asking for you. They don’t want to work with me.”
“I have to go now.”
“What’ve you lost your fucking mind! We’re losing money, Em! Losing-fucking-millions!”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t matter? Doesn’t matter!”
“You sound like an idiot when you repeat what I say, Brad. Take over my clients. If they want to leave. I don’t care.”
“I—I can’t believe—I’m going to fucking sue the shit out of you, Emery.”
“We use the same lawyer,” Emery replied evenly and hung up. When the phone rang again he turned it off. He had business.
He removed a small pocketknife he’d bought from a sporting goods store for thirty dollars, held up his hand, and bit the blade deep into the meat of his palm below the thumb. Blood welled up eagerly, pooled in his cupped hand. Emery smiled, stood, and began to walk around the hole, crossing here, turning, striding back. With that done, he wrapped one of his old ties around the wound and cinched it tight. Now he removed seven candles from a bag he’d left by the stairs. He placed each at a point around the hole and lit them. Flickering shadows danced along the concrete walls, lit on Emery’s strained face and fluttered away.
“Icht standen for this wifmann. Profferen hir name, Verina. Icht bryngan the fleisch and bryngan the new.” He ejaculated the words, speaking them with a fluidity that felt right and true in his throat.
Yes, his dreams had shown him how—Verina had shown him how—but he must be careful. There were many variables—too many, the old Emery would have said, but the risk would be worth the prize.
I will make you whole, Verina’s voice spoke in his ear, and he could smell lavender and earth and honey, and if her voice reminded him of his mother what of that? Your cup will runneth over. I will be yours, and you mine.
Emery went upstairs to wait for Melissa.