Hughes Keenan began his writing career at The Kansas City Star and was a member of the staff awarded the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for reporting. He has been a correspondent for United Press International, The Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg News, covering war, politics, sports and finance. His first novel, The Harvest Is Past, was a finalist for the Thorpe Menn Award for Literary Excellence.
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I’m a morning writer. Early until noon, or as late as three o’clock. A lot of coffee until noon. I also talk to myself when I write, so privacy is generally a good thing. Still, I began my career as a sports writer so I’m accustomed to cranking out copy amid large and loud crowds. After I’m done writing I’ll go for a run. It helps me sort through the day’s work, and what needs to be done the next day.
Born to wealth and nobility, Jack Muerce is obligated to bestow a favor that draws him into a string of grisly murders that stain the Lenten calendar as his own season for atonement and absolution unfolds. The grotesque condition of the victims’ bodies mimic a series of six famous Medieval tapestries on display at the city’s elegant fine arts museum, and earn the killer the name – The Death Weaver. As the dismembered and elaborately embroidered corpses turn up across the city, Muerce comes face-to-face with a genocidal war criminal known as the Dragon, a psychopathic plastic surgeon, a flamboyant mob boss named Titty Boy, and his own shameful demons from the past. Like the tapestries, Muerce struggles to balance the five senses of earthly desire with his chivalric duty – A mon seul desir! Saigon Laundry is the first book of the Atonement Trilogy.
Saigon Laundry was owned and operated by the Trung family. They had come to America in two waves after the end of the Vietnam War. The first contingent of the family arrived shortly after the fall of Saigon
in April 1975 with Colonel Bao Van Trung, who served in the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. He had been politically connected throughout the U.S. involvement in the war, and that qualified him to evacuate with the U.S. forces. With him came his wife, who adopted the name Minny to better fit into to their new home in America, their four children, and Colonel Trung’s mother, Madame Trung. The second wave of Trungs—made up of the Colonel’s brother, Banda, his wife and children, and several cousins—were granted admission to the U.S. in the early 1980s as part of the Orderly Departure Program. That’s how Muerce first came to know, and eventually become part of, the extended Trung family. They, in turn, saw him as their guardian angel in a new, strange, and sometimes hostile land. For the Trung family, Jack Muerce didn’t just walk on water—he turned it into wine.
Muerce was fresh out of law school, working for a prestigious law firm, when he was assigned a pro bono case to help a Vietnamese refugee family navigate the bureaucratic confusion of immigration and commercial commerce laws. He had no idea what he was doing, but jumped into the work with all he had, partly to impress his superiors, partly because of the way he was raised, but mostly because he could help people. He liked how it made him feel. Helping people who needed it the most became more than a compulsion for Muerce. It was his duty, and it was chivalrous.
While working with the Trung family, Muerce learned how to leverage the resources he had been given by birth to get things done. He was intel
ligent, handsome, charming, and pragmatic. It also helped that his family was socially and politically connected, and very rich. The Trungs also opened a world to Muerce to which he had never been exposed—the world where people struggled each day to survive, whether it was putting food in their stomachs or a roof over their heads. It was a world where warm clothes and dignity were, too often, scarce commodities. What Muerce admired the Trungs for the most, was that they managed daily life with grace.
He also came to know the Trung family at a time in his life when there was a developing relationship with a young woman who would shape Muerce for the rest of his life—whether that was a good thing or a bad thing was something he struggled with daily. Its ending, and the circumstances around it, left Muerce off-¬balance, and feeling incomplete for a long time.
The heav y rain abated. Now just a few intermittent sprays were blown by rising winds that typically followed a storm to dry everything off. Muerce liked to think of it as Nature’s Car Wash where he imagined God and the angels as a crew of minimum wage earners toweling off the Cadillac Escalades, and their chrome rims, like the guys at the Suds Barn just down Canary Street.
He pulled the Mercedes to the curb in front of Saigon Laundry, and turned the engine off. For a moment, Muerce was lost in the silence of the car. He recalled her face, what her voice sounded like. Even though it had been a long time, all of it was as fresh as the rain. He became frustrated when his thoughts kept wandering back to Ashley’s face smiling at him from the bed not more than an hour ago.
The Mercedes door closed with a whong. Saigon Laundry was his office, and it was time to go to work.
Saigon Laundry was many things besides a two-¬story business front. The facade of the building was made of light ocher brick, and ornately carved limestone corners and arches. It sat on half a city block. The second floor, which was comprised of a dozen apartments, housed the extended family, and visiting Trung relatives. Over the years, Colonel Trung had purchased the large Victorian home behind the building, which had once been an upscale residential neighborhood. That was before the suburbs exploded, and the term “White Flight” was coined.
The front of the 1920s era building was plain except for a large neon sign Colonel Trung had installed in the late 1980s. The sign proclaimed “Saigon Laundry”, which was formed with an elaborate script, and painted in bright yellow with red trim. Within the letters, pink fluorescent
tubing spelled out the name of the business when night came. It was, Muerce thought when Colonel Trung first had it installed, a gaudy waste of money. Time had proved Muerce wrong, and the Colonel right. The sign did its job. It brought in business, and the business, like the Trung family, thrived.
Saigon Laundry was actually three businesses. The door to the far right—as you faced the neon sign—led to a large self-¬service laundromat. It had twenty-¬two coin-¬operated washers and dryers lined against pale green walls, and large, faded Formica-¬covered folding tables in the middle. There were soft drink, snack and laundry supply vending machines as well. What wasn’t provided in the Laundromat was seating. The Trungs learned early on that seating became territorial for customers, who would literally fight for their space. The seating went, and the rules sign went up. Rule No. 1: No sitting on the folding tables. Rule No. 2: Bring your own chair, and take it with you when you leave. Rule No. 3: No outside business (which meant no pimps, drug dealers or solicitations of any kind—even Girl Scout cookies—allowed). The rest of the rules were general housekeeping, and common courtesy.
Over the years, and under the Trungs, the laundromat had become the unofficial community center for the neighborhood. On the front wall next to the entrance were large bulletin boards that served as a community information center, and informal mail post. A flyer from the nearby Catholic Church announced a Friday fish fry, tacked next to it was a photo-¬copy of a missing young girl with a handwritten note from her family pleading for her to return. There were items for sale, as well as the names of bail bondsmen, and posters for various social service agencies. Four times a year, the city health department set up a small table for childhood inoculations. In the fall, flu shots were provided for infants, and the elderly. On Friday afternoons, the local food pantry truck parked outside to distribute meals and food packages to families in need.
Anyone and everyone was welcome at the laundromat, as long as they followed the rules. And anyone and everyone could be found there. It drew saints and sinners alike: from the nuns that ministered at the parish during the day, to the prostitutes who worked the bars on lower Canary Street at night.
The middle door entrance to Saigon Laundry, which was framed by the simple limestone trim, and situated below the neon sign, was the main entrance. It was the second of the Trung businesses—a dry cleaning operation, and tailoring service. The tailoring was done by Minny, who had worked as a seamstress in Saigon before she met and married the Colonel.
It had not been an arranged marriage, or one that was at first accepted by the Colonel’s parents or extended family. The Trungs had been very much woven into the fabric of Colonial French culture. The Colonel was educated in Paris, as were his parents. They had a lucrative business in the bamboo and rubber industries, part of which was a specialty subsidiary that produced the finest split-¬bamboo fly fishing rods in the world. Some of those rods made in the 1950s, now fetched upwards of ten-¬thousand dollars at auction houses in the United States. Minny, however, came from a poor family that lived in the Cholon District of Saigon. She had met the Colonel while fitting him for a uniform. They fell in love. They still were very much in love, which Muerce admired, and which Madame Trung had begrudgingly learned to accept over the years.
As you entered the dry cleaners portion of the Trung business dynasty, there was a large, arched opening to the right that led into the Laundromat. Along the wall next to the entrance was a long counter with a cash register, and hanging racks of plastic-¬covered dry cleaning. The dry cleaning itself was done in another building that was connected by a back alley, and located behind the Trung’s house. For tailoring, Minny had customers come to a nicely appointed room in the back. That the dry cleaning, pressing, and such were done off site was a concession Muerce had to have the Trungs concede to so they could get the proper licensing for their third business.
Benny Trung was Banda Trung’s son. Banda died of lung cancer two years after arriving in the U.S. There was a shrine for him on the wall behind the cash register that was maintained by daily offerings of food and flowers, and the burning of incense. Benny ran the third Trung enterprise on Canary Street. While you were visually greeted by the Colonel’s garish sign on the front of the building, and deafened by the constant drumming of washing machines, dryers and loud talk in the laundromat, it was Benny’s operation that stopped you where you stood as you entered. The smells made you close your eyes, and anticipate mellifluous, tart, savory, and exotic flavors.
Benny was the chef at Saigon Laundry. The restaurant was accessed through the smaller arched entry to the left, just passed the cash register and his father’s shrine. A dark, beaded curtain separated the restaurant from the rest of the business, and most of the gastronomic world.
The bell tinkled when Muerce walked through the front door. One of the Trung grand-¬daughters was working the dry cleaning cash register. She was immersed in a college physics textbook, her notes spread out on the counter. A white plastic string fell from each of her ears and merged
into one that was plugged into the iPhone laying flat next to her notes. Muerce closed his eyes and inhaled. There was the fresh aroma of baked goods, and dark coffee. Surely, this is what heaven smells like.
When he opened his eyes the grand-¬daughter was holding one of the ear buds in her right hand, and looking at him with amusement.
“ÔNG ỎÐÂU mãy nôm nay? ” she said, a hint of inquisition in her voice. “BÂN VIÊC, Tôi lā ngǚð i danh tiêńg,” Muerce said. The grand-¬daughter smiled at Muerce after chastising him for being tardy, and had a wicked thought of what it would be like to be occupied with him.
“Well, you’re late and she’s on the warpath, giving Uncle Benny a hard time,” the grand-¬daughter said, with perfect American pitch and tone. The sound of a breaking dish came from the kitchen in the back, followed by the voices of a man and woman arguing in Vietnamese.
“C’est la vie,” Muerce said, shrugging his shoulders.
“Si dedaigneux pendant qut nous soufrons de votre ralentissmento,” the grand-¬daughter said, plugging the ear bud back in, and returning her attention to the textbook. She lifted her swan-¬like right arm, holding her hand horizontal before waving him with three quick motions toward the beaded doorway that led to the dining area. Muerce liked her sassiness, though if Madame Trung had observed the interaction she would have interpreted her grand-daughter’s behavior as disrespectful to her elder, and lacking the appropriate filial piety for the family. Muerce winced when he thought of himself as the attractive young coed’s elder, and as a possible lover. Enough. She is family, and too young.
Saigon Laundry, the restaurant, wasn’t particularly big. It wasn’t located in any of the ritzy or fashionably hip parts of town, meaning it took real effort, and for some diners, a strong sense of adventure and courage, to journey there to eat. It was more than just the best French-¬Indochine cuisine you could find. Benny had taken Saigon Laundry to a new culinary level, earning rankings as one of the best restaurants in the world by a number of prestigious gastronomic associations, and publications. With a scant four, four-¬top tables at which only dinner was served, and a prix fixe menu at that (Benny prepared only what he wanted to serve over seven courses), made Saigon Laundry one of the toughest eateries in the world to get a seat. If dinner reservations were a commodity, getting a table at Saigon Laundry was like scoring a moon rock. Friday and Saturday nights were booked a year—sometimes two years for holidays—in advance. Weekday dinner reservations were full for up to eight months, depending on the day of the week.
Compounding the scarcity and exclusiveness of Saigon Laundry was that it was closed every Sunday and Monday—which Benny used to plan and shop for his menu for the week ahead. And there was only one seating per table per night; sixteen meals, eighty total for the week. All dinner reservations were for eight o’clock in the evening, starting with aperitifs and light hors d’oeuvres. Dinner service generally lasted until eleven o’clock with dessert or cheese and champagne. Diners had no choice in what spirits they were served. Benny matched cocktails and wines with the food. There were no substitutes, save for food allergies, which were addressed when the reservation was accepted, and again when a confirmation call was made the week before the assigned night. If a party cancelled, or did not show within twenty minutes of their reservation, there was a long waiting list of people willing to throw down whatever they were doing, and race to Saigon Laundry for dinner. Muerce couldn’t remember the last time he saw an empty chair at dinner, and he would know because he ate there almost every night.
For his relationship with the Trungs, and the legal and financial efforts he had put in on their behalf over the years—including loaning Benny the money to attend both Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York—the lone two-¬topper table wedged against the far wall was exclusively his. It included breakfast, lunch and dinner. He was the only person other than members of the Trung family, to be fed from Benny’s kitchen during the day. The two-¬topper also served as Muerce’s tacit place of business.
For what Muerce did, he only needed a phone, a roof over his head, and a good cup of coffee. He had long ago given up working inside the boundaries of a law firm.
The squabbling in the kitchen ceased. Muerce, now sitting at his crisp, white linen-¬covered table, prepared to be chastened by Madame Trung. She approached him from the kitchen with a silver tray that held a full French press, coffee cup and saucer, and a plate of beignets fresh from the oven.
Madame Trung was the third most remarkable woman Muerce had ever met in his life. There was his mother, certainly, and the woman he did not talk about.
Though the Colonel was the Trung patriarch, there was no doubt as to who had the final say in all family matters. Although eighty, Madame Trung looked like she was in her early sixties. Her features, attractive and intact, were ageless. She was medium height, still thin, and the few lines on her face did not hint at her age; the harsh black tint of her dyed hair, however, could not go unnoticed.
Madame Trung wore a dark purple ao dai. The right sleeve of the traditional garment was folded and pinned to her shoulder with an antique Tiffany brooch. Madame Trung lost the arm in an automobile accident in France when she was attending university in the early 1950s. She spoke little of it other than to refer to the incident as “The Tragedy.” The only details she had ever given to Muerce was that she had been riding in a delightfully sporting automobile, and the driver, a man, a poet, was killed in the crash. She only spoke of it to Muerce once, many years back, when she had consoled him through his own tragedy. He never forgot the sadness in her voice, or his own sadness.
Madame Trung set the tray on the table with an ease that was impressive for someone of her age and impairment. She had compensated for the lost limb with a grace of movement that made one forget what was missing. She smiled as she plunged the French press to the bottom of the glass container, then poured the hot, dark liquid into the cup. As she bent down, he noticed the large, crudely swathed black cross adorning her forehead. She was a true French Colonial. A devout Catholic. Madame Trung had gone to early Mass for ashes.
“Bonjour Madame Trung, merci beaucoup,” Muerce said, as she finished pouring the coffee.
“Bonsoir Monsieur Muerce,” she replied, dryly and emphasizing the greeting for the latter part of the day. And so it begins.
“Pardonnez, s’il vous plait, mes offenses,” Muerce said. “It was an active evening, and I did not get much sleep.”
Madame Trung arched an eyebrow, and gave a speculative look at Muerce before putting her one hand on his left shoulder, patting him softly.
“Et ne nous soumets pas a la tentation,” she said. Temptation was Muerce’s favorite distraction. He lifted the cup to his face and absorbed the aroma of the coffee and the beignets, which held the promise of a hint of maple syrup goodness. The coffee was Trung Nguyen. Dark and strong. The first two sips cleared away what remained of the champagne fog. He closed his eyes and savored another sip before biting into one of the warm pastries sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar. There was the distinctive maple sweetness that merged with the airiness of the pastry, and made a subtle crunch when he chewed. Perfection.
“Vietnam style, no chicory,” Madame Trung said of the coffee, her hand still on Muerce’s shoulder as she turned to address the kitchen, and began yelling. “~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~”
“You go to ashes?” she said, returning her attention to Muerce. “Noon Mass with my mother at the Cathedral,” Muerce said. At Madame Trung’s barked command, Benny appeared in an instant
with a crisp, white linen napkin he placed on the table. “~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~” Benny said. Madame Trung removed her hand from Muerce’s shoulder, waved it in
the air at Benny in a dismissive gesture, and began muttering in Vietnamese as she returned to the kitchen.
“~~~~~~~” Muerce said to Madame Trung as she departed.
Benny clasped his hands together, as if in prayer, and bent down slightly to greet Muerce.
“How is it, Jack?” he said.
Muerce looked up at Benny, rolled his eyes and contorted his face to mimic a moment depicting the peak of sexual passion, and emphasized the gesture with a moan. Seriously Benny, what do you expect?
“Excellent, will you be with us for dinner?” Benny said. “Yes, early though Benny,” Muerce said. “What’s on the menu?” “Seafood all this week. The presentation will be a surprise.” “Sounds wonderful,” Muerce said, biting into another pastry. “We missed you last night,” Benny said. “Did you find a better place to eat?” “Not possible, and you know that,” Muerce said. “Mardi Gras party. I was obligated to attend.” “Good gumbo?” “Awful gumbo. But lots of pretty girls who drink too much.” Benny winked at Muerce. “What time tonight?” “Early, say six if that’s okay,” Muerce said. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.” “Yes, that was the speculation when you weren’t here… at your regular time,” Benny said, looking toward the kitchen. “Six is good.” Some kind of ruckus had begun in the kitchen, and Madame Trung was yelling in Vietnamese. Benny put his hand on Muerce’s shoulder, and gave him a look of exasperation. “I’ve got to go. She’s been at it all morning,” he said. “More beignets?” “Yes. Sorry for being late.” Muerce said, chagrined that his intimate conquests were part of Trung family conversations. That’s how families are.
Muerce savored the coffee, the beignets, and the sudden quiet that settled in the dining space with Madame Trung and Benny back in the kitchen. There was only the gentle drumming of the machines coming from the Laundromat.
He surveyed his surroundings. It amused Muerce, that the restaurant side of the business was in such contrast to the rest of Saigon Laundry. While the décor of the laundromat, dry cleaners and tailoring was well suited for the rundown part of the city—although close in proximity to Downtown—the design of the dining room was high-¬end French Colonial Vietnam. Paris on the Mekong. It exuded a feeling of expensive and ornate furniture slowly decaying in the fetid heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. Two large ceiling fans circulated the air, which was warmed by the busy nature of the laundromat, and the ovens and stoves in the kitchen. It really was a small space. Two of the four-¬top tables were tucked toward the back of the room with the opening archway leading to the kitchen. Benny liked that the kitchen was somewhat open for viewing. It enhanced the dining experience, allowing customers to see, smell and hear their food being prepared. That way, Benny believed, all of their senses were heightened when the food arrived at their table.
The other pair of tables were nestled partly into each of the two bay windows at the front of the building. Benny had sealed off what used to be an entrance. Along the front window and where the door used to be, was an elaborate collection of plants and flowers that included some of Madame Trung’s finicky orchids. In the fall she would swap out some of the containers for mums. In the spring there would be tulips and daffodils. There were also pots of different herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme, lemon grass and mint.
Large colonial shutters framed the front windows. The floor had been renovated with an ornate parquet pattern that squeaked when you walked on it. On the walls were gilt-¬framed antique street maps of Paris, and what was now Ho Chi Minh City. On the wall above Muerce’s table was a framed linen napkin. On the napkin was a drawing of an abstract likeness of a young Madame Trung. It was signed by Picasso. Madame Trung delighted in never telling the full story of the napkin, only saying how upset her father was with the friends she had made attending university. Who, Muerce knew, included the dead poet. Madame Trung, Muerce liked to believe, was very wild in her youth.
She was now, however, immune to Muerce’s attempts to flirt with her. Nonetheless, he made efforts to on occasion. When he did, she would smile, and dismissively pat him on the head with her one hand.
Briefly lost in his thoughts, Muerce snapped back to reality when he remembered he had a voicemail waiting for him. He pulled the phone from the pocket of his suit coat that he had draped over the back of his chair. He fingered the bottom button that brought the black screen alive with various colored icons, and navigated his way to voicemail with his index finger.
The drawl was unfamiliar, but the name was not. The call was from Tyler B. Squire, the chief executive officer and chairman of the board of what was now referred to in business parlance as one the largest “healthcare systems” in the county. To Muerce they were still hospitals. Just a lot of them under one publicly traded umbrella. You went there if you were sick, or dying. Otherwise, you avoided them as best as possible. Tyler B. Squire was originally from somewhere in the South—Texas or Alabama, or something like that. Muerce wasn’t sure. As is the custom in the South, the health care executive’s name had been shortened to T.B. Squire. Muerce rolled the humor around in his head. Was there irony in a man in charge of a national chain of hospitals being saddled with the name T.B., or was it just a cruel coincidence?
Distracted with the inane amusement, Muerce missed the point of the message and replayed it, this time intent on listening. He had never given T.B. Squire one of his business cards. That the man had his mobile number meant that either someone of some influence had provided it to him, or someone to whom Muerce was indebted had.
T.B. Squire’s message was polite, brief and to the point. Would Mr. Muerce please return his call at his earliest convenience as it was a personal matter involving his son. T.B Squire ended the message saying he was giving Muerce his own private mobile number, and not his work mobile number, and that he would be monitoring for his call as to not miss him.
Muerce contemplated the information, and tone of the message. T.B. Squire had a son in trouble. A son he apparently cared about because his voice was heav y with concern, if not a little fear. If T.B. Squire didn’t care about his son, Muerce would have picked up on anger beget from annoyance. If that had been the case, Muerce would politely return Mr. T.B. Squire’s call, and without asking what the problem was, say he was unable to be of any help. Muerce shied away from favors having to do with spoiled rich kids. He had done enough of those to know that, in most cases, the kid was better off learning from the consequences than being bailed out by Mommy and Daddy. That, and the return favor was rarely honored.
It was unlikely, though, that Mr. T.B. Squire’s troubled son was facing a drunk driving or drug possession charge. Either of those could be han
dled by an army of attorney’s the CEO had at his disposal. Muerce also factored in that the call had come very early in the morning—the memory of Ashley naked in his bed flashed in his head again—and the man had gone to the trouble to find an alternative solution to his problem. Muerce was the alternative people turned to before they had to come face-¬to-¬face with the last resort—reality. Anyone who knew Jack Muerce knew that you did not share his mobile number freely. Muerce’s business card was as rare a commodity as a dinner reservation at Saigon Laundry. You treated either as a divine gift. Nothing goes down on this, Muerce thought, until I know who gave out my number.
He poured the last cup of coffee from the press, and took several sips. It was time to go to work. He thumbed the button that returned T.B. Squire’s phone call. It rang only twice before it was answered.
“It’s pronounced mercy,” Muerce said, disappointed that T.B. Squire hadn’t done all of his homework.
“I apologize Mister Muerce.” There was a moment of pregnant silence between them. “I’m returning your call, Mister Squire,” Muerce said. “Ah, yes. I’m sorry Mister Muerce. I’m not sure how this works.” “How what works, Mister Squire?” “Well, frankly, as I said in my message, how I go about asking you to, perhaps, help my son,” Squire said. “It’s Jack isn’t it. May I call you Jack?”
Time to set some boundaries.
“My friends call me Jack, Mister Squire. Are we friends? Have I ever been invited to your home for dinner?”
A few fleeting seconds of awkward silence followed. “I understand Mister Muerce,” Squire said. Good. “Can you help me, Mister Muerce?” Squire said, subtly pleading. “I don’t know, Mister Squire, can I?” Muerce said. “How was it you came to get my name and number?” T.B. Squire hesitated. He was a man used to making important, and very expensive decisions at a moment’s notice. He knew when to heal a decision, and when to unleash one quickly. This one involved his only child, his son, so he went with honesty.
“Detective Trumbley,” Squire said, pausing. “He asked that I not use his name, Mister Muerce. I wanted to respect that request, but I also want to respect yours as well. Although we’ve never been formally introduced, I have heard of your family, and your… reputation.”
Right answer, though you should have asked about proper pronunciation if you say you know of my family.
“I appreciate that Mister Squire,” Muerce said. “There will be no repercussions for disclosing Detective Trumbley’s identity.”
Muerce knew Trumbley well. Nick Trumbley could call him Jack. He could call Jack anything he wanted, and get away with it. Few people could do that. Trumbley was a good man, and an honest vice cop who wouldn’t hand out Muerce’s name on a whim. He wouldn’t refer T.B. Squire to him unless it was a sensitive, or nearly impossible problem. It was Trumbley asking for a favor, and Muerce would do the best he could to fulfill the request, and find out why later.
“All right Mister Squire,” Muerce said. “How time sensitive is the problem with your son?”
T.B. Squire felt like he had been holding his breath beyond his capacity. His chest was heavy. He exhaled and took in fresh air that gave him a positive outlook.
“I’m not sure what you mean by time sensitive?” he said.
“I’d rather not talk about particulars over the phone Mister Squire,” Muerce said. “Especially cell phones. I’d like to meet, so we can be… properly introduced.”
“Ah, yes, I see,” Squire said. “There’s a little time, a few days.”
“Good,” Muerce said, reviewing his schedule for the next twentyfour hours, and realizing that he could only fit T.B. Squire in at dinner. “Six o’clock, Mister Squire. Six Twenty Five Canary. Park out front. Go through the middle door. Ask for me. I’ll see you tonight”
Muerce pressed his thumb on the red icon that ended the call.
T.B. Squire scribbled the information on a fluorescent orange Post-¬It note without giving the address any thought. He was a transplant to the city, and was still unfamiliar with street addresses. Particularly addresses in the part of town where Saigon Laundry was located. Given the discourse with Muerce, T.B. Squire was savvy enough to know that he was to come alone. He would have anyway. The trouble his son, Travis, had gotten into was something he wanted as few people as possible to know about. Not for his own sake, but for his son’s.
Muerce placed the phone on the table, and rubbed his hands over his face in a massaging motion. Despite the strong coffee, he was still groggy from too much champagne, and too little sleep. He hoped the vigorous motion might alleviate the faint throbbing in his head. Some of the night before started to return to him. He and Ashley had gone at it, rather loudly, for some time. He didn’t think they fell asleep until three
o’clock that morning. He also began to realize that his pelvic bone was sore. The duration of their carnal activities, and the soreness it left, made him smile. His headache abated some.
Swiveling in his chair, Muerce lifted the empty press up so Benny could see him. Benny acknowledged with the wave of one finger and spoke to Madame Trung, who reacted with a barrage of Vietnamese that Muerce could not make out. Several minutes later, Madame Trung was at Muerce’s table with a fresh press of coffee, and another plate of beignets.
“Merci, merci beaucoup,” he said. “Vous vous etes top rejouis hier soir,” Madame Trung said. “Yes, too much fun last night,” he said. “I’m sore, every where.” Madame Trung frowned and pressed too hard on the plunger. A spurt of coffee and grounds was ejected from the lip of the container, staining the white, linen table cloth. She shook her head in disapproval, not at the mess she had made but at what she guessed to be Muerce’s activities the previous night.
“Good thing Lent come,” she said, in broken English. “You no so young no more.”
Muerce screwed up his face in a dramatic wince.
“~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~,” she said. “Old Vietnamese proverb.”
“It’s an old Greek proverb,” he retorted. “The Romans translated it as, Modus omnibus in rebus.”
“Vietnam older than Greeks,” she said. “You older than Greeks, I think.”
“~~~~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~,” Muerce said, clutching his right hand to his chest as if he’d been shot.
“You hurt self. You get ashes with your mother. You start atone.”
That last word landed like a lance, and the past spilled into his thoughts like the coffee staining the table cloth. The memories were granular, dark, hot, and messy. Her face was as clear as if she were sitting across the table from him. He felt like his flesh was being torn from his body.
A loud commotion erupted in the laundromat, and the face disappeared. Madame Trung and Muerce went to see what it was about.
“You can’t leave that baby here,” said the Trung grand-¬daughter, the white cords of her ear buds dangled from her shoulders.
She was addressing a short, pasty-¬skinned woman with dark hair cropped very close to her head. The woman wore heavy, black eye makeup, which complimented her black, leather mini-¬skirt. Her outfit was accented by a tight pink blouse hidden under a white, faux fur jacket. She teetered on pink stiletto heels. Her wardrobe left no doubt that she was dressed for work, and the look of desperation on her face indicated she was late. Her boss would not be happy, or understanding.
“It’s not my baby,” the woman said, with a defiant and heavy SerboCroation accent. “Is Redzil’s. I was just watching it for a few days while she… was away. For work.”
“So?” the grand-¬daughter said. “You’re responsible. You can’t just leave a baby here. This isn’t daycare drop off.”
The crying baby was wrapped in an assortment of dingy blankets, and had been placed inside a dilapidated wicker basket. Muerce guessed the infant was, maybe, three months old.
“Red. Redzil, will be here soon,” the woman said, her voice becoming more anxious and desperate than defiant. She kept looking toward the front window at a car idling outside. “She promised to meet me here. Just watch it for a little bit. I have to go. I have to go!”
A white Cadillac Escalade with a cascade of gaudy gold trim and gold rims was parked behind Muerce’s Mercedes. The drumming of the washing machines and dryers was interrupted by a series of aggressive honks from the waiting car.
The darkly tinted passenger window slid down, and a pale hand covered with gold jewelry that matched the trim of the Escalade aggressively motioned for the woman to hurry.
Madame Trung frowned, and looked at Muerce. Fine, he thought, I’ll take care of it.
“Nobody go any where,” he said, looking directly at the pink and black dressed woman. “I’ll be right back.”
The bell on the front door of the laundromat tinkled behind Muerce as he stepped outside and approached the open window of the waiting car. The wind had picked up, lifting his tie over his right shoulder, and the temperature had dropped a good ten degrees.
The ostentatious car belonged to Mikal Delic, who liked to call himself “Pimp Deluxe”. He was also known as “Micky D” for his fondness of the Golden Arches. Mikal was in his late thirties and had come to the U.S. in the mid-¬nineties after fleeing the hostilities and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-¬Herzogovina. There was, at that time, and again in the early 2000s, a flow of immigrants, mostly Muslim, into the city, along with a few Christians. The ethnic cleansing from the “old country” spilled over onto American soil in the form of gang warfare. A lot of it played out along the Canary Street corridor. It had been no different for previous waves of immigrants—Nigerians, Vietnamese, Hmong, Jamaican, Cuban,
along with the original settlers of the city; the Irish, Italians, and Germans. Most of them, however, had long ago climbed up the economic ladder, and out of the now worn and squalid neighborhoods that made up Canary Street.
Muerce rested his arms on the open window of the Escalade, and leaned inside.
“Micky D, what shakes?” he said.
Mikal flashed a hip-¬hop smile. His top left, front tooth was encased in gold. A one-¬carat diamond was set in the middle of the tooth. He reached across from the driver’s seat with an open hand, palm up.
“Jock Mur-¬see, what it is, my man,” he said, smiling, his Serb-¬Croat accent thicker than the pink and black girl’s mascara. Mikal’s gold chains made a metallic rustling sound as he leaned over. He wore a purple, velour track suit, and a white “wife-¬beater” t-¬shirt.
“What it is, Deluxe,” Muerce said, slapping Mikal’s hand.
“Stock market good,” Mikal said. “Bidness been booming. Girls busy for Deluxe. Think economic finally looking up.”
“Yeah, move everything out of treasuries. Yields crap,” Mikal said. “More opportunity in equities. Deluxe not need to be so liquid. You should talk to my broker.”
“Smooth, my man.” “How you do Jock?” “Business is good,” Muerce said, pausing to look back into the laun
dromat, then back at Mikal. “What’s the four-¬one-¬one inside?” “Beech is late for work,” Mikal said, agitated. “The baby, Micky D,” Muerce said. “What time your girl shows up for work is none of my business.” Mikal pushed his lower lip up his face and made a slight nodding motion with his head, indicating he understood. Mikal respected Muerce. If you didn’t, he knew all too well, you could get burned in a way you had never thought of before. Muerce was fair. He knew what was, was, and what is, is. It was better to work with Muerce than against him. You don’t fuck with the man who’s armor shines brightest.
“Belong to Redzil, Redzil Hadzic,” Mikal said. “She belong to you?” Mikal nodded his head that she did. “You know her Jock?” Mikal said. “Maybe she please you sometime?
The tall red-¬head. Pretty face, big lips, long legs. You like the long legs, Jock, yes?”
The description registered with Muerce. He had seen her in the laundromat before. She was pretty, and she did have the kind of long legs he liked, though she, like all the working girls that frequented Saigon Laundry, were, of his own accord, strictly off limits. Don’t blur boundaries.
“Your girl, your responsibility,” Muerce said. Mikal rolled his eyes. “I Pimp Deluxe not Montessori,” he said. “Besides, it deal Redzil make
with beech inside. I not baby daddy.” “The one inside, she got a name?” Muerce said, his voice rising. “Mirsad. I lose respect fucking around babysit beech’s kids.” “You lose street cred too if you don’t take good care of your girls, Mi
kal,” Muerce said. “No more Pimp Deluxe. They’ll go to someone else, or start freelancing.”
Mikal gripped the leather wrapped steering wheel. His knuckles turned white.
“Look, Jock, you do me favor I do you favor?”
“You still owe me favor, Mikal, lots of favor. I want to know what is going on. Now.”
“Da, da, da,” Mikal said. “Beech inside—Mirsad—say other beech— Redzil—have side deal she not tell me about. Freelancing, like you say. Piss me off. She give baby to Mirsad take care of while she go for weekend. Weekend come and go, no Redzil. I tell beech inside got to get back to work. Fuck Redzil. Fuck beech’s baby.”
“Mirsad just volunteered that information, did she?” Muerce said.
“I convince her a little,” Mikal said. “Not hurt her bad. Just help get to truth faster.”
“Maybe I help Pimp Deluxe get to the truth a little faster,” Muerce said. “Does this look like an orphanage Mikal? You just drop the kid off in a basket, and that’s it?”
“Like I said, Jock. You do Deluxe favor, he do you favor.”
Muerce was losing his patience when he felt a tug on the back of his shirt. It was Mirsad. She wanted past him, and into the Escalade. There was no baby in her arms. Muerce glanced back into the laundromat to see Madame Trung holding the baby in her one arm. It had been decided, not by him, that Muerce would grant a favor. But it wouldn’t be for Pimp Deluxe, it would be for the baby. Not so much for the baby’s mother, Redzil Hadzic, wherever she was. Muerce opened the car door for Mirsad. As she passed he could see bruising on the back of her neck.
“Look at me Mikal,” Muerce said, leaning back into the open window as Mirsad fumbled with the seat belt. “When I call, and I will call, you get one ring. If I hear two, I’ll hang up. And then I’m going to start twisting you. Very hard. No more treasuries, no more equities, no more liquidity, no more beeches for you.”
Mikal smiled his pimp smile, and nodded.
“I have a special dentist who owes me a favor,” Muerce said. “Maybe you pay what you owe me in gold.”
Mikal’s smile disappeared.
“When your girl turns up, tell her the kid is in the system,” Muerce said.
Mikal put the car in gear, pressed down hard on the accelerator and sped off, kicking up a dirty spray from the wet streets that soiled the back panel of the pearl white SUV. Muerce stepped back from the car as it bolted away, his hands in the air, feeling like he’d just been robbed at gunpoint despite his threat.
The hot, humid air of the laundromat enveloped Muerce like a blanket. He fixed his tie, frowned at Madame Trung, and reached in his pocket for his phone. The baby was quieter in her arm.
“Miriam, it’s Jack Muerce,” he said into the phone. He reached voicemail, and left a short message. “I need a favor…”
Half an hour later a black-¬and-¬white was parked outside. Muerce gave the two patrolmen what little information he had about the child when Miriam Estrada walked in. She was carrying an infant car seat, and a large diaper bag that she tossed onto the laundry table. She waved her Family Welfare credentials at the patrolmen without looking at either them. Her eyes were fixed on Muerce.
Miriam was a welcome sight, and not just because it meant the cops, Muerce and the Trungs could beg out of dealing with an abandoned child. The Welfare Lady, as Miriam was commonly referred to, was a handsome woman in her late thirties. She was tall with dominant Aztec features: dark skin, high cheekbones, and emerald green eyes. She and Muerce had a brief history, once, years earlier. At the time, she was separated. Her husband had been a good cop with a bad problem. He and Trumbley were partners. Miriam’s husband was a drinker. A big drinker. When his liver gave out, Miriam took him back, and nursed him until the end. She called it off with Muerce, who understood her decision. Muerce did everything he could, from a distance, to help her care for her dying husband. After he passed, they decided to remain friends, and only friends.
Still, her eyes twinkled whenever she saw Jack Muerce. 28
“Been awhile Mister Muerce,” she said, addressing him in front of the patrolmen. She turned to the senior cop. “You guys got all you need? I can take it from here.”
“Yes ma’am,” the cop said, glad they could get on with their day, but disappointed they couldn’t linger to gawk at Miriam a moment or two longer.
“I’m sure you two have more important things to do than change diapers,” she said, in a tone used to usher them on their way.
When she heard the tinkling of the bell above the laundromat door as they left, Miriam retrieved the child from Madame Trung’s arm, turned to Muerce and smiled.
“You look good Jack,” she said, holding the baby in her arms. Her eyes smiled in a way that Muerce thought might indicate a change in their agreement to be friends, and just friends.
“Not as good as you look Miriam,” he said. The memory of her soft dark skin, and the dimples at the small of her back came to him easily.
“I drop everything to run down here and that’s the best line you have, Jack, really?” she said.
Madame Trung barked an order in Vietnamese for her grand-¬daughter to get back to the dry cleaning counter, and then excused herself. The handful of customers in the laundromat returned to their wash, gossip, and magazines. Miriam turned her attention from Muerce. Cradling the baby in one arm, she spread out a disposable paper blanket on the laundry table, and went about giving the child a cursory examination for any indications of abuse, or poor health.
“Seems healthy, fairly clean and well-¬cared for,” she said, removing the soaked disposable diaper. “Male. Hmm…”
Miriam looked at the child’s irregular facial features. “Not the prettiest baby I’ve ever seen,” Muerce said. “As if you’ve ever seen many babies,” Miriam said, still examining the
infant, who was, she guessed, about three months old. “I’ve seen enough of them,” Muerce said. “You mean you’ve dated enough of them,” she said. “And I thought you were happy to see me,” Muerce said. “So, is some
thing wrong with it?” “Don’t know. Could be fetal alcohol syndrome, crack baby, or any other number of congenital or genetic tags,” Miriam said. “Or just plain and simple FLK syndrome.”
“FLK syndrome?” Muerce said. 29
“Funny Looking Kid,” Miriam said. “It’s not a real term, Jack. He got a name?”
“Mother is a prostitute, Bosnian, I think, goes by the name Redzil,” Muerce said. “I forget the name but I can try. Her street name is Red. She dumped the kid off with a… co-¬worker slash friend… for a weekend special, and hasn’t shown up. The friend got behind on her work hours taking care of the kid, and decided to drop him off at Madame Trung’s Orphanage.”
Miriam looked around the room. “This is as good a place as any, if not better. Hell, it’s cleaner than any of the fire stations, or police precincts.
“So, he’s a John Doe? Or should we call him Jack Doe?” “Not funny, Miriam,” Muerce said. She put a fresh diaper on Baby John Doe Redzil, and gleefully handed
Muerce the old one before dressing the infant in a floral one-¬piece cotton jumper that was too big. Muerce held the soiled diaper as if it were nuclear waste.
“What do you want me to do with this?” he said.
“Are you really that clueless, Jack?” she said, pulling a wet wipe from a container, and handing it to Muerce. She placed the child in the infant car seat, and secured the straps.
“Throw it in the trash,” she said. “You can flush the wipe if you want when you’re done.”
Muerce dropped the diaper in the trash can next to him, wiped his hands with the wet wipe, and disposed of it with the diaper. Miriam jumped up to sit on the folding table next to the baby, who was sucking on a small formula bottle she had produced from the diaper bag. Some of the customers in the laundromat frowned at her. Rule No. 1: No sitting on the folding tables. But nobody was going to mess with the Welfare Lady, and she knew it.
“Baby Jack is hungry,” she said.
“Yes he is,” Muerce said. Miriam either ignored or missed his inflection, so he changed the subject. “Do you want some coffee?”
“Nah, too much already,” she said. Muerce could make out the faint smear of ashes on her forehead. A good Catholic girl.
Miriam had a girlish smile. She averted her eyes from Muerce’s, and looked through the archway that led toward the restaurant.
“Last time I was here was for dinner,” she said. Muerce didn’t say anything.
“I miss that,” she said, wistfully. “Miss what?”
“Going out to dinner.”
“It’s been, what, two years?” he said, opting to drop the “death” part from the rhetorical nature of the question. “You’re an attractive woman.”
“With two teenage boys, Jack,” she interjected. “You want to go down that road? Get real.”
“Doesn’t mean you can’t go out to dinner every once in awhile,” he said.
There was a loud sucking sound that indicated Baby Jack Doe Redzil had finished his bottle. Miriam turned her attention to the child, which let out a loud burp. She slung the diaper bag over her shoulder, and picked up the infant seat holding the baby. As she turned to head toward the door, Muerce stepped in front of her.
“Do you want to have dinner sometime?” he said. “With you?” she said. “Dinner with Jack Muerce is never just a meal.” “Is that a yes or a no?” The tension in her face eased, and Muerce thought he saw a hint of
coquet as she batted her eyelashes a few times without looking directly at him.
“Maybe,” she said, slightly embarrassed. Then she walked straight out the door, secured the infant seat in her car, and drove away. Definitely call Miriam.
Madame Trung stood in the archway, Muerce’s suit jacket and raincoat draped across her arm.
“You going to be late for ashes,” she said. “You hurry.”
He looked at his watch. Now it was his mother who was going to be pissed.
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