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Chapter 23 - The Venetian Blind
Hector Van Hooft told Rosemary Thigpen to wait for him in his apartment while he “made a few arrangements” with Gonzales Goldberg, the building’s superintendent.
Gonzales had a moral code as porous as coral, but it clung to a rock-solid work ethic, making him something of an enigma. He had a pock-marked face, a bushy mustache, curly silver hair, sad eyes, and he kept 1582 Chestnut Avenue in tiptop condition. The hall floors and stairs were always washed and waxed. The lock and buzzer on the lobby door were never broken. The intercom system worked. And complaints about plumbing, heating, malfunctioning air conditioners, etc., were taken care of within hours of being reported.
In exchange for “gratuities,” Gonzalez could be said to be “flexible.”
For a gratuity, he would give tenants like Hector Van Hooft assistance with moving furniture in or out, sign for packages, accept UPS and Fed Ex deliveries, admit repairmen, and so on. He was also an early-warning system for building gossip – even that which his boss might prefer that he kept to himself. Once, Gonzales had “rented” apartment 201, which was being cleaned up and re-painted prior to going back on the market, to Mrs. Flattery in apartment 403, so that when her sister’s family (wife, husband, four children and a blind German Shepard) came to The Big City for a visit, they would have somewhere comparatively inexpensive to stay.
Gonzales, of course, pocketed the two weeks’ rent.
The landlord knew about his super’s mercurial morality, but he considered the soft underbelly of his ethics inconsequential relative to the excellent job that he otherwise did.
So when Hector Van Hooft, a frequent and generous contributor to Gonzales Goldberg’s fiscal well-being, offered him two hundred dollars in exchange for admission to Burgess Meekly’s apartment, the building superintendent required from the executive chef only three prior assurances: One, that Hector would steal nothing. Two, that Hector would disturb nothing. And three, that before four p.m., when working tenants would begin to return home, Hector would have left Mr. Meekly’s apartment exactly as he had found it.
The deal was struck.
Gonzalez unlocked the door to apartment 302, told Hector to call his cell phone when he was ready to leave, and disappeared down the stairs.
Hector then walked down the hall to his own flat to get Rosemary Thigpen. The two of them returned to Burgess Meekly’s apartment, cracked the Venetian blinds over the living room window, and stood in silence as they stared down at the empty parking space on the street below.
They did not know what to expect. Nor did they know if it would be a “what” or a “who.”
They just assumed, as Rosemary had remarked, that they “would recognize it when they saw it.”
And they did.
At a little after 9:00 a.m. they positioned themselves at the window, and from then until when they left, they did not sit; they did not pace; they did not fidget. They disturbed nothing and they observed everything.
For over two hours, little of interest occurred on the sidewalk below. A few dozen people walked past the entrance to the building. A few old ladies walked their dogs. A few store owners shoveled snow. Finally, at 11:15 a.m., stiff from standing still for so long, someone caught Hector’s attention. She wore a bright red coat, bright red boots, and a white beret with a red pompom. She walked briskly along the sidewalk, and as she did, the pompom on her beret bounced this way and that.
Animated as she was, though, it was not her energy that Hector found compelling. It was her interaction with an old lady walking in the opposite direction. Unsteady on her feet, the elderly woman had picked her way along the slippery sidewalk, often reaching out a hand to touch the brick wall of a building for support. Just as she was about to pass the girl in red, a gust of wind eddied under the brim of the big floppy hat she was wearing and blew it off her head to the ground, where it somersaulted across the sidewalk like a tumbleweed.
In great distress, the old lady watched as it flipped over and over again, finally coming to rest atop a snowdrift in the middle of the very parking space with which the two conspirators on the third floor were so obsessed.
They stared as the girl in red leapt into the parking space, bent down, scooped up the hat, and skipped back up onto the sidewalk with the careless ease of a gardener stooping to pick a rose.
The girl then slapped the floppy brimmed hat against her thigh to dust off the snow, retraced her steps, and plopped it back on the old lady’s frizzled gray head.
Hector Van Hooft and Rosemary Thigpen stared through a gap in the Venetian blinds, and continued to track the movements of the girl in red as she approached 1582 Chestnut Avenue – the very building where Hector lived! – opened the lobby door, and walked inside.
Wordlessly, the executive chef and the meter maid stepped away from the window. Their eyes met. In tandem they ran toward the apartment door.
But Hector grabbed Rosemary’s arm, yanked her back, and raised a finger to his lips. Then very quietly and very slowly, he opened the door a fraction-of-an-inch.
Barely breathing, he and his cohort peered into the hall.
As still as tombstones, they strained their ears.
They heard footsteps climb the first flight of stairs.
And the second flight of stairs.
The footsteps continued upward until a white beret with a red pompom bounced into view.
Again, Hector yanked Rosemary away from the door.
He quietly closed it.
Again he lifted a finger to his lips.
Both listened silently and intently as Lilly Snow walked up the corridor and unlocked the door to the apartment directly opposite where they were ensconced.
A few seconds later, they heard the click of a deadbolt lock.
The collaborators relaxed.
Hector grinned evilly.
Rosemary pointed the forefinger of her right hand through the closed door of Burgess Meekly’s apartment to the locked door of the apartment across the hall.
She hissed, “Got’cha.”
Neither she nor Hector realized that the silver haired woman who had overheard their conversation in Rocco’s was still sitting at the bistro’s window table, had seen them entering Lilly Snow’s building, had observed them standing in the front window on the third floor, and had been tracking their movements ever since.
I suspect that by now you’ve realized the woman was Mayor Chiquita Bamberger’s old friend Maid Marion, proprietress of the Elegant Eccentricities Gift Shop (where Lilly Snow bought her green enamel tea kettle). As soon as Maid Marion saw the faces of the two conspirators disappear from between the slats of the Venetian blind, she called for her check, slipped into her overcoat, flung the strap of her purse over her shoulder, and walked out the door.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2021. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com