Dead … Again by Bill Capron
The web site was online two days and the flood of calls was swamping us. “Yes, that’s my son’s picture.” “It’s my husband’s watch.” “I think it’s Karen’s wedding band? Can someone read me the inscription on the inside?” “Where can I see it?” “When can I pick it up?” “Could you send it to me?” I thought the items would bring closure, but after fielding one-hundred and thirty-seven calls it seemed more like we had spilled salt on the wounds. One woman, on reading the letter her husband left her after he knew he was going to die, said, “He always told me he loved me more than I loved him. I didn’t really understand what he meant.” She was sobbing. “Now I do.” Then a shrill angry, “How could you do this to me?”
It was tough right from the git-go; you can’t unleash this much pain — even when the victims demand it — without being caught in the backwash. I deal in pain all the time. I’m a cop. No, I was a cop. I couldn’t take the pain. Still, when they needed bodies to man the phones once the artifacts of the September 11th terrorism went online, I volunteered. Half a lifetime ago I lived in New York for five years, and I knew a couple of people who died. New Yorkers are tough on the outside, but inside they’re like everyone else, almost. So I flew from Portland on my own dime to spend a month — again on my own dime — being the good guy.
What did it earn me? I got to hear the tears behind the words, the unrequited love with no outlet except a hopeful eventual dissipation, the guilt of a morning argument never to be resolved. It happens a hundred times a day all over America, but this huge event concentrated it in one place, making it real beyond the immediate families. The feedback made it a tsunami of pain. I felt that pain; it was a growing ache above my abdomen; I should have known better.
I looked at my watch, 2:59. One more minute. The phone rang. The woman said, “I need to see someone.” She understood the reality of modern technology; she asked, “Are you actually in the building?”
I scanned the bank of wired boxes. The other phones were ringing in fire and police stations across the five boroughs from where they accessed the common database; and the girls in the lobby. I was the only human being there in the office. “Yes, ma’am. How can I help you?”
“I need to talk to a real person.”
“You can go to the front desk.”
“I’ve been there. They won’t help me.”
“What can I do?”
She slighted the girls; “I have to see a real person.”
I parted with my most understanding “Why?”
“My husband died in the Towers.”
My exasperation tinged my voice, “A lot of people died.”
She presented the hook; “No, you don’t understand. He’d been dead for eight years.”
I bit; “What do you mean?”
“I saw his picture on the web. A recent picture. He was older. I couldn’t believe it.”
“Many people look alike.”
“This man didn’t look like him. He was him.”
“I’m getting off for the day. Come up to the ninth floor and we’ll talk about it.” I closed up my phone and exited to the lobby fronting the block of offices that served as the clearing house for the items rescued from the debris.
Four women worked the counters as seven people filled out the triplicate paperwork any government needs for even the most basic of functions. Clare, the short pretty one with black hair, waved a goodbye; she has the hots for me, but she’s eighteen years younger than I am. She was the one who showed me the exhibits after I arrived on Sunday, the day before we went online. Everything was categorized and numbered, referenced and cross-referenced. Most of the pictures had been restored by one of the nation’s business giants, and, out of the shear meanness of their dark corporate hearts, they provided two experts for the first few weeks.
As each item was claimed, one of the women removed it from the web site. There were no men among the six face-to-face customer service people. Why? Blatant and correct discrimination; because women are more sympathetic, empathetic, and because they feel the pain. At least this group did.
I edited and condensed what I knew with, “Clare, I got a call from a woman who is on her way up. She says her already dead husband died in the Trade Center — that she was here already.”
The girl nodded like she wasn’t confused. For all I knew she could drive and talk on the phone at the same time. She mixed her various past tenses flawlessly, “Yes. I saw her. Since it wasn’t her then current husband, I couldn’t let her have the pictures.”
She shrugged. “She said she wanted to see my supervisor. I told her I was the supervisor.” She pointed a thumb at her chest. “Maybe I was too curt, but there was a line at the time. I told her to go to the cops if she thought that man was her not-so-dead husband?”
I could see she didn’t mean it, about being curt, that is. “And?”
She gave me a straight smile men don’t have in the repertoire. “Maybe have to give back the insurance money?”
“My, aren’t we a bit cynical today?” The twenty-five-year-old blushed. “So, why did she call me?”
“No, Steve, not why. How did she get you, that’s the question. You’re the only one really in the building.”
I guessed, “She kept calling until she found me.”
She bent towards me to whisper, “And the guy’s wife picked up the picture an hour before she got here. I couldn’t tell her that.” She lifted her head and frowned. “There she is. Lisa Brown.”
I moved away from Clare and turned to the clatter of high heels. Lisa Brown was in her mid-forties, five-six, one-thirty with mid-sized fake boobs. She was as beautiful as Clare was pretty. She came right up to me and shook hands. “You must be Martin.”
I looked around. Yes, I was the only man. “Yes. Call me Steve.”
“I want to see the picture.”
I ignored the bureaucratic rule that constrained Clare. What were they going to do, fire me? “They’re already gone. The wife picked them up today.”
She pointed accusing eyes to Clare, but aimed her words at me; “She didn’t tell me that.”
I stood up for the girl. “Clare’s not allowed to say anything about other victims, Ms. Brown. That’s how you’d want it.”
The woman went past that; “How can it be gone? It’s only been a day.”
I took the room in with a swing of my hand. “All these people came in today —” I looked at the log; “— and four hundred others. And you.”
She ran her tongue along her upper lip. “Damn son-of-a-bitch.”
So why was she on the web site? “Were you looking for him?”
“No, my son died in Tower Two.” It attempted to wrench free a tear but got nothing to show for it. “I was looking for my grandfather’s watch. Robin kept it in a little display case in his office.”
She’d lost the thread of the conversation; “And what?”
“Did you find the watch?”
She gave me a glare that would cut through steel. “I stopped looking when I found my husband.”
“You sure it’s him?”
She didn’t blink. “I’m dead certain.”
I sat her at one of the tables. “Tell me how did your husband died — the first time.”
She used a pencil to doodle the west coast of theUSdown to South America, then marked an X off the northwest coast ofColumbia. “He was in a plane crash. Thirty-three people died. They didn’t recover most of the bodies.”
“It was an accident?”
“No. The plane was shot down by a missile from some guerilla organization no one cares two hoots about. It crashed in the ocean.”
My ex-cop radar went ‘bing’. “Give me the item number.” It was time to break with procedure. “I’ll be right back.”
I waited while Claire reviewed the forms a woman had completed, then checked her license. She pressed a buzzer and spoke into a squawk box. “Bob, bring me out 91768 and 99754.” She turned to me with a very professional look. “How can I help you, Steve?”
“I want the packet numbered 31546?”
She put a look of stonewalling on her face. “I told you it’s already been cleared.”
“You still have the copies here?”
She looked off to her left. “It’s against the rules.”
“Rules have to be broken sometimes.” With more anger than I’d intended, “Let me have it, Clare. Now.”
The woman who was waiting for her items agreed with me. “It’s not like they’re alive any longer, Hon.” She was short, borderline plump, pretty. She gave me a wink.
Clare clamped her jaw and reddened around the eyes, then relented. She sorted through the envelopes and handed one to me. “I want this back before you leave.”
“Not a problem.” I sat again across from Lisa Brown. I pulled one of the two copies of a single photograph from the envelope. It showed the front of the picture on the left and the back on the right. The right side read ‘Kodak – Developing January 7, 2001′. “This the picture?”
“Yes. That’s Jim, but I don’t know who the woman is.”
I read the receipt. “Maria Vasquez.” She shook her head. “A Colombian national. She showed her passport, and her husband’s. His name is Jaime.”
“Does he look like a Jaime Vasquez to you?”
I laughed, shook my head. Jim/Jaime had red hair and freckles.
I wrote down the information and gave the envelope to Clare. “I owe you.”
I could afford it, even in New York. “Friday.”
She smiled. All was forgiven. The woman who was still waiting for her items bent close to Clare as I made my way back to Lisa Brown. She said, “If you don’t like him, Hon, let me know.”
I took Lisa’s elbow. “Okay, Ms. Brown, let’s find out what is going on.”
We went back into my cubicle and got onto the system. I looked up Jaime Vasquez, the same bio that ran in newspapers around the country for a month after the attack. “Jaime Vasquez was the President of Colombian Products, an importer of baseball bats and balls. He was a Colombian national who moved to the United States in 1995 —”
”That’s the year he died.”
“ — with his wife Maria and five-year-old twin daughters, Inez and Jocinta. He will be greatly missed by friends of the family in Union City, New Jersey, as well as his native Colombia.” That was the all of it.
I jumped to a conclusion; “Was Jim into illegal drugs?”
She shook her head, loosely like a bobble-doll. “No, never.”
Did I say I was a cop? Well, lies are the coin of the realm. If you can’t tell they’re lying, you’re in the wrong business. ”And?”
“His company made baseball bats in Colombia for sale in the U.S.”
Jim/Jaime had stuck with what he knew. What could you put in a baseball bat? “Metal?”
My guess, customs didn’t cut the bats in half.
I asked, “You know how to get to Union City?”
“Sure.” She pulled her jacket on. “My car’s in the parking garage.”
It took two hours in the traffic. It’s not as if we had a lot to talk about, so after a brief foray of information gathering the silence dominated the conversation. I learned though that besides her son, she had three daughters in college, a house in Scarsdale, and a bank account sufficient to let her spend her time doing volunteer work. I asked her where the money came from. She said her parents were generous. She never asked anything about me, but that wasn’t a big deal; she didn’t care.
The Vasquez home was inside a gated community with an unobstructed view of downtown Manhattan. They wouldn’t let us in. I called the phone number on the claim form. Maria Vasquez answered. I said, “Jaime’s wife from before he was dead wants to talk to you.” She called me some names in Spanish, but nothing I hadn’t heard before. She wouldn’t let us in either. Lisa dropped me at a rental car place in White Plains where I got something roomy and sturdy. I told her I’d call the next day when I knew more. She said that wouldn’t be necessary, she’d take it from there. I’m not so easily dismissed. I left a message with Clare that I’d be out of the office the next day or two.
I found an Internet café and got to work. What did I learn? First, from the wedding announcement for Lisa and Jim, I found her parents; the O’Haras were not rich, and never had been. They were regular folks with regular jobs. Her husband did die in the plane crash, but supposedly he wasn’t a wealthy man, and at the time they lived in a upper-middle class neighborhood ofYonkers. His life insurance policy paid her five-hundred thousand. Three months later she moved a million miles north to Scarsdale, paying nine-hundred grand for the house, which was not a lot by Scarsdale standards. She had no mortgage. The kids went to a private school, and were attending Ivy League colleges. And, yes, her Harvard-educated son Robin was killed in the attack, but the money went to his wife of three weeks. Question: Where did Lisa Brown’s money come from?
Second, Maria Vasquez received almost four million in total government compensation from the death of her husband. She was living at her current tony address from a year before Jaime’s death. They paid three million for the house. Again, no mortgage. She owned two Mercedes, and had kept her husband’s restored 1923 Stutz Bearcat which was worth a cool million plus. Her twins went to a top-of-the-line private school. Question: How profitable can baseball bats be?
There was so much money floating around Vasquez that there was no way, despite his status as a foreign national, the IRS hadn’t gotten the necessary red flags, or that the DEA wasn’t on his trail when he died. I called in some chits I held with the Feds; the guy was dead, so they should tell me, right? Right! I got stonewalled, a sure sign whatever had been going on was still going on.
What did I know? Lisa wasn’t stupid, and I’m guessing Maria wasn’t either. So they knew exactly what Jim/Jaime was up to. Sure, it was possible he never told them, but they were women and saw the signals most men never notice, like those whistles only dogs hear. So Maria had what she needed; the money from the government, and access to the cash Jaime squirreled away. She would work hard to keep to the background. I understood her motives.
What about Lisa Brown? What was her motivation? Was it the man? I don’t think so. Did she want something he had? Sure. She had lived a long time off the hidden assets; maybe they were running low. How did she find them the last time? Was Jaime a creature of habit? Did he use the same banks and passwords, that kind of thing? That answer I thought I knew.
Last question: Where and with whom did justice lie in this thing? It was dirty money, and neither woman had a right to it.
I dropped my car at the airport and picked out a windowless van. I stopped at an electronics outlet and bought two remote cameras with a high-quality zoom, a split-screen monitor, and five remote mikes to a single high-tech receiver. I mounted the tiny cameras against the outside of the van and set the monitor up in the back of the van. I found Lisa’s street. Upper-upper middle-class anywhere else, but the slums ofScarsdale. I parked a half-block away. It was dark. I did a quick walk around the block coming to the house from the backside property. I placed the mikes on the windows and exited the same way.
I called Lisa on my cell. “Mrs. Brown, it’s Steve Martin. I am wondering if there is anything else you need me to do for you?”
Curtly, “No, I told you I’d take care of it.” A pause was followed by a softening of her tone. “Thanks for your help.”
I decided to scare her. “What about maybe I clue in the cops for you? They should really know about this.”
There was a long silence, then, “I think it’s best we let sleeping dogs lie, Mr. Martin. I mean, he is dead — again.” I could feel her thinking at the end of the line. “I don’t think my kids want me sullying his name after all these years.” More silence. “You know how kids are?”
I didn’t, but I do know how scheming wives are. No sooner had she hung up from me than I heard the beeping of her phone being dialed. I got her half of the conversation. “Bobby, it’s your mom. Call right away.” So much for Robin being dead. These people were like vampires, and the reporting of their various deaths were regularly premature.
Thirty minutes later Lisa’s phone rang. “Robin. I tried to reach you earlier. Where the hell have you been? — Well, I left three messages on your home phone. — I found him. — Yeah, he was using the name Jaime Vasquez. — I’ve been into his new accounts. It was like old times. — Over twenty mill. — Here, let me read you the account numbers. — “ She listed six accounts. “How long to empty them? — Two hours. Great.”
Thieves stealing from thieves. Is that so bad? Yes, it was dirty money, blood money. People died for that money. Good people. Bad people.
Two hours later the phone rang. “Robin. — You got it? — Great. — I’ll get back to you first thing in the morning. — Sure, I’ll make up your room. — An hour. — I’ll see you then.”
I was going to do a bad thing, but I wasn’t planning on feeling any remorse. I pulled the mikes from the windows. I attached two of them to trees, to monitor the situation, so to speak. I called the local cops, told them what I’d done, and what I was going to do. I told them about the son who didn’t die. I didn’t tell them who I was, but if they really wanted to know, they’d get back at me. I dialed Maria Vasquez’s number. The voice mail picked up. I said, “Ms. Vasquez, Jaime’s secret accounts have been emptied by Mrs. Lisa Brown of Scarsdale. She was your husband’s previous wife.” I heard the phone being picked up as I hung up. I’d said all I needed to say.
I parked four blocks away and waited. They were in unmarked cars and vans, at least six, so they’d gotten the State Troopers involved, and maybe the FBI. I went to the back of my van and read a book. The spit of a silenced gunshot brought me out of a light snooze. There was a zip-zip-zip of silenced machine gun fire, then two loud reports.
There was some shuffling. A man’s voice said, “Turn him over.”
Another voice, “Who the hell is that?”
Like I said, vampires.
“Isn’t he dead.”
“He is now.”
I never heard from the cops. They took the credit. More power to them.
I took Clare out to supper. She said she liked me. I said she was a pretty girl. I said she was too young for me. It didn’t break her heart any. I’m old enough to be her father. And who wants their heart broken by their old man.