I suppose it began when Harry told me that he was having a guest over for the evening. He still takes guests since his stroke (although he won't admit it to himself, the lasting effects have slowed him down some) so it was not a complete surprise; still, he usually tells me far in advance when he's hosting someone or other, even though they can access his rooms directly from an outside stairway that Harry had built. "Harry, why didn't you tell me sooner?" I asked, a hint of annoyance creeping into my voice.
"I didn't want you to get all fussy again, like you do every time somebody comes over." Harry picked up his spoon and resumed slurping his soup, trying his best to ignore me.
I am not that easily forgotten, and he knew it. "Harold Beeker, I do not get fussy when you have company. I'm just... particular about how the house looks."
"Sure you do. Each time I've told you in advance, you've spent the next two or three days cleaning the house from top to bottom. For Pete's sake, Gerry, the house is immaculate already. You don't need to be running around cleaning everything in sight at your age."
The moment he said the words his face went ashen and a coolness seemed to fill the room. Harry knew that I despised the topic of my age (sixty-six is not that old, and I've always been a firm believer in being only as old as you feel), especially when it was used as part of an argument. "What about my age?" I asked, barely able to hide the edge in my voice.
"Nothing, Gerry. I'm sorry I mentioned it. It's just that this man might be able to help me find a way to pay off all the medical bills." Harry pushed the bowl away from him and stood, looking out at the early autumn light that filtered through the window. "I'm a little nervous, that's all," he said, and walked out of the small dining room.
Harry had been paying off Cook County Hospital for almost a decade now for the bills his late wife's cancer incurred. It's been very hard on him, too hard for a younger man such as himself; the cancer ate his wife away, and then the bills ate every dollar he could squeeze out of the sale of his successful roofing business and his three bedroom home in the suburbs... and it still was not enough, even with the help of insurance. I was Harry's secretary for many years, and it pained me greatly to see my former employer - who had treated me very well, along with all the people who ever worked for him - suffering so badly. Nobody deserves that sort of pain, and I know it all too well.
And so I insisted that Harry move into my own two-story home almost six years ago. At first he adamantly refused, saying that he had no right to intrude upon my life in such a fashion, but I knew that he was very mistaken... and I told him so. After my husband's death in 1978, Harry stood by me for as long as I needed him, which was loonger than I would like to admit. He was a friend, and he was also more than that... although exactly what to call our bond escapes me.
But that was before I learned to hate the name of Conrad Deems.
It was well after midnight when I awoke, feeling for the life of me that something was wrong. I have no true belief in a sixth sense or ESP, but the sensation that roused me from sleep and passed through my mind was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I groped for the bedside lamp and flicked it on, squinting as my eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness. The house was almost silent except for the gentle sound of a television coming from upstairs, from the rooms I had set aside for Harry's personal use. He paid a modest rent, he helped me out around the house, and he made sure the place kept from falling down for one more year, insisting that he would never accept charity. I rarely complained because a lifetime of working with his hands had made Harry invaluable throughout our neighborhood, just south of Chicago. Harry was just happy to be doing something, to be needed, I guess.
I padded out into the hallway and up the stairs, my slippered feet barely making a sound on the cedar floorboards. I always keep a few lights burning (just to be safe), so it was easy to get upstairs into the long hallway that runs the length of the second floor and then the door to Harry's bedroom. The door was ajar and light was pouring out, which struck me suddenly as odd; Harry was meticulous about closing doors and keeping the heat within each room. I slowly walked forward and said, "Harry? Are you awake?"
There was no response. I thought that Harry might have fallen asleep with the television on, leaned back in his recliner with a can of Miller at his side as he sometimes did, so I pushed the dor open and looked into the room. At first nothing seemed out of place, but then the faint smell of copper and smoke reached my nostrils and, the fear rising within me, I stepped inside. the bed was unmade over in one corner, and the television was blaring with some advertisement for a device to tone one's thighs, the cacophany filling the room as I caught sight of a bare foot just beyond the bed. I stepped closer and rounded the edge of the bed... and then saw what had been left of my former employer and friend, quite obviously dead.
I was almost unable to call the police and tell them what had happened, that Harry Beeker had been killed in his own room that night, but somehow my numb fingers dialed the numbers and my voice explained to them that they had better send a police unit over right away to attend to it. I hardly remember what happened afterward; the officers came and went up the stairs, more people came to my door, paramedics, photographers, detectives who asked me questions and wrote brief notes of my replies in their tiny notebooks. I heard the thump as the gurney was brought down the stairs and placed onto the floor, the squeaks as the hard rubber wheels began to move under the power of the paramedic pushing it, and I was suddenly glad that I did not turn around. Afterward, when most everybody had left, the detective - a kind man named McMasters - told me that it would be all right if I stayed in the house for the night, so long as a patrolman watched over Harry's room to ensure the sanctity of the crime scene. I thanked him and walked back to my room; no tears, no despair, just this emptiness just below my heart that kept me awake until just after dawn, thinking about how hard it would be to find someone to fix the roof.
It was almost a week later when the first member of that odd trio arrived on my doorstep. I had been cleaning out Harry's room (it had taken the funeral to convince me that he was actually dead) when the gentle tinkle of the bell brought me down the steps and to the frosted glass of the front door, beyond which I could see a large form standing. I carefully swung the door inward and looked out at the man who graced my doorstep, a large, aging bear of a man with a balding head and salt-and-pepper (but mostly salt) beard. "Can I help you?" I asked cautiously.
"I hope so, ma'am. My name is Jack Marshak, and I'm an antique dealer. I'm looking for Harold Beeker."
My breath caught in my throat as the memory of that night flooded back into my mind. "I'm sorry, Mister Marshak. Harry was killed a week ago."
The look that passed over his face said so much; that this man knew death well... and that he had seen its spectre over his life far too many times, as if he regularly had the Grim Reaper over to his house for tea. Maybe I'm reading too much into this now, now that it is all over, but the elderly have a way of reading each other that younger folks just can't grasp yet. "I'm so sorry."
"Please, come in. I haven't forgotten my manners," I said, swinging the door open and ushering the man inside. I led him into the living room - which had not been so clean in years - and sat beside him on the couch, where he began asking me questions about Harry. What he had been like, if he had ever kept odd hours or come into large sums of money, both of which seemed odd enough... but then he asked me if I had everseen Harry with a set of false teeth.
At that point that I found that my patience was at an end. "I'm sorry, Mister Marshak, but I don't think I want to talk to you anymore. Perhaps you should leave." He nodded, his body seeming to shrink in defeat, and wordlessly we walked to the door. Before I opened it, he pulled a business card that had the name 'Curious Goods' printed upon it from his coat pocket and handed it to me, saying "If you happen to think of anything, please call me." Then he was gone, leaving me alone in my empty house once again. I had half a mind to tear the card up and throw it into the fireplace, but I did not. I just left it there in the hallway, sitting beside the telephone, ready for... what, exactly, I did not know. All I knew was that I had to finish going through Harry's belongings and divide them according to where they were bound; some for the Salvation Army, some for other charities, some for the few relatives he had down in Georgia. All were painful to behold.
It was about an hour after Mr. Marshak left when I found the note. It was in one of the pockets on Harry's favorite coat, folded neatly and tucked deep into one corner as if he had forgotten it was there; it was so typical of Harry to do such things. Opening it out of pure curiosity, I read these words, written in Harry's familiar scrawl: C. Deems, 9-29, 7:30.
9-19. Septermber 29th, at seven-thirty, someone named C. Deems was supposed to meet Harry.
With a shock I realized that Harry had died on September 19th. Detective McMasters was very professional when I called him, and arrived soon after. I showed him the note and reminded him that Harry was supposed to be meeting someone, but when he saw the name he just shook his head and said, "I'm sorry, ma'am, but we've already questioned Mr. Deems, and there's no connection between him and Mr. Beeker's murder." I was downcast when I saw the look on his face; he was so very sure of what he said that I knew he was right. He startled me when he asked, "Has anyone... strange... stopped by to ask questions about the murder?"
"No, not really... why do you ask?" I said, thinking of Jack Marshak and his business card.
"No particular reason, I guess. Just looking to cover all the bases." With that McMasters offered his goodbyes and I closed the door behind him, sliding the bolt home and resting my head against the cool wood frame. I don't know why I neglected to tell him about my afternoon caller; perhaps I just thought that it wasn't important.
Or perhaps I wanted to find out for myself what this Jack Marshak really wanted. As I stated earlier, the elderly can read each other, adn I was reading something very large and very secret coming from Mister Marshak... and all be damned if I wasn't going to find out exactly what it was. As Harry always used to say, I'm nothing if not tenacious (a trait which came from years of pestering clients to pay their delinquent bills) and so I began calling up every contact I knew, looking for information on Jack Marshak and this 'Curious Goods' place. I soon had several pages of a notebook filled with scribbles of information; that Jack Marshak was, actually, co-owner of an antique store; that he had a partner named Michelle Foster, formerly of Los Angeles, CA; that he paid his bills (eventually)... and that there seemed to be an awful lot of strange things that happened around that store. Disappearances, property damage, noise complaints, you name it and it was likely to have happened there at some point over the last twenty years.
Instead of packing up Harry's things, I spent the next week in libraries and the county records office looking for something that might explain why Harry had been murdered. I was convinced that he had something to do with it, although I had no idea why... or how. And so I flipped pages of ledgers, looked through property tax records until my fingers were unable to bend, trying to pin down what, exactly, was gnawing at the base of my mind.
A name that came up early was Lewis Vendredi, original owner of the store that Marshak now worked in. This Vendredi character apparently was very successful, and had put a significant amount of money into various trusts and securities... but the money was long gone now, as was the man himself some three years earlier. The police report stated that Vendredi had been found sitting in the store, a snifter of brandy in one hand and his shirt soaked with blood from the aneurysm that had ruptured and killed him. Some six months later, the place passed into new ownership after a fierce battle during probate - Vendredi's nephew and niece, Ryan Dallion and Michelle Foster. After a time, references to Dallion stopped; there was no record of him selling his share to Marshak, no paper trail of any kind saying what had happened to the man... just that his share in Curious Goods had been transferred to Marshak one year before.
And all the while there were odd happenings at the store. The police disregarded most of them, as they had for many years while Vendredi ran the place (a classic case of Boy-who-cried-Wolf Syndrome, I suppose), but there was a disturbing pattern of violence and damage that had escalated after Vendredi's death. Some of it was very public; you may remember the public death of Winston Knight, the anchorman for KBLA who had died on live television when he was exposed as the 'Machete Murderer' who called during his live news broadcasts. There were ground tremors, power surges, problems with water and telephone lines on a regular basis, gunfire and screaming... and they all led right back to that store.
So that was why I found myself opening the ancient door of Curious Goods on that fateful September day, armed only with what I knew but fully prepared to use it to devastating effect if these people refused to tell me what was going on. I remember the smells in the dusty air as I stepped inside, like the scent of a tomb that was now someone's home; like the dead, it would never truly go away. The place was small but filled with every type of antique imaginable, from lace fans to tribal masks to this awful little shrunken head on a wooden stand that a young, dark-haired man was toying with when the door closed behind me. "Good morning," he said as I walked up the three steps to the main landing.
"Morning, young man. Tell me, is Jack Marshak in today?" I put on my best old lady smile and laid on the charm as best I could. "I have business I need to discuss with him."
"Yeah, I'll get him." He trotted up the stairs to the second floor and for a few moments the place was almost silent, with just me and my thoughts to fill the space. It looked much like any old shop yopu can find in any city, but I could see many things that most might pass over (a side effect of spending years on job sites with Harry as he looked over the work his men did); a rather deep gouge in the wooden floorboards, another section that had been totally replaced as if it had been torn up at one point. There were many spots on the walls that had been plastered and painted over, far too numerous and small to be in such a place, even as old as the building was. With a sharp intake of breath, I realized that they were bullet holes.
"Mrs. Logan?" a voice said behind me. I turned around to see Jack Marshak standing there, that look of gloom still in his eyes... but also a glimmer of hope. "I'm glad you stopped by. Have you remembered anything about what I asked you about?"
I, having never been accustomed to beating around the bush, said exactly what was on my mind. "Mr. Marshak, what the hell do you want to know about a set of false teeth for? Especially when so much of what you seem to do around here is so much more... interesting."
The look of shock on his face told me that I had struck a nerve and so I continued, closing in on him as he backed toward the desk. "Oh yes, I know about the odd things that happen here. I know about the noise complaints and the gunfire and the very odd hours you and your companions keep. I know that in the past three years, what had already been a strange place has become even stranger under your ownership, along with Michelle Foster and Ryan Dallion - the now-vanished Ryan Dallion, I might add." I stopped to let this sink in before letting go with my final volley:
"What I don't know is what either a set of false teeth or the death of a very good friend have to do with all that." My eyes bored into his own, and for a moment I could see the gears turning in his head, judging the weight of whatever knowledge he had against whatever might happen if he shared it with me.
Finally he said, "All right, Mrs. Logan. I'll tell you what you want to know, but only if you promise to hear me out fully before you say anything." As he spoke, the young man and an attractive red-headed woman came down the stairs with looks of concern on their faces; they had probably heard me when I confronted Marshak, as my voice has a tendency to carry. "Micki, will you please make a pot of tea? I think we may be needing it..."
Foster went back up the stairs, and the young man - whose name, I was told, was Johnny Ventura - brought me a chair to sit in. After Micki brought the tea back down, the three of them began telling me the most fascinating, the most incredible... the most horrible tale I had ever heard in my life. They told me of Vendredi's deal with Satan and his eventual renouncement, of how the store had passed into their hands and how they had discovered what the antiques their uncle ahd sold could do. They told me how, in 1982, one John Miller had purchased a set of false teeth from Vendredi, and how somehow they turned up in the possession of Harry (probably as a gag gift or to settle a poker debt, I thought with a small grin; they were probably the only thing that he ever won while playing cards). Jack had stopped by that day to try and buy them back, totally unaware that Harry was dead.
"... and so, Mrs. Logan, we have no idea where they could be now. Whoever killed your friend most likely has them now, and we have no idea who that person may be," Jack said, finishing his tea and refreshing my own cup.
"You mean, you've been getting these... things... back for three years, putting them down in your Vault where they'll be safe?" I shook my head in amazement, still unable to believe what I had just been told. "I'm sorry, Mr. Marshak, but your story just doesn't hold water. I've seen many things in my time on this earth, but what you're describing is just... impossible."
He stood and motioned for everyone to follow him to the back of the store. "Then I have something you should see." We walked through a clutter of crates and straw and then down a flight of stairs, down into a dark, dank basement... and, not more than ten feet in front of me, were the most massive iron doors I had ever laid eyes on. Jack turned a brick in the broken wall that had been hastily removed to accomodate the Vault and the doors swung open with a deep grating sound, exposing the hideous treasures within. "You're the first person we've actually brought down here to see this," he said, picking up a delicate china doll with a hinged mouth; to my left, I could see Micki shiver visibly. "This is the place where we keep all these things, hopefully for eternity." He walked toward me and held out the doll, and I ran my hand over the face. "This used to be worth hundreds of dollars. Now... it's worth so much more to some."
Then he threw it to the concrete floor with a savage fury like I had never seen in my life. I expected to be pelted with shards of class, expected to hear the shattering of glass... but all that happened was a thump at my feet. I looked down and saw the doll was perfectly intact. "That's not possible," I murmured.
"None of these things can be destroyed, not ever. So you see, we have to get them all back before they can do more harm. Please... can you help us?" I looked into his eyes and finally knew the secret that he was carrying was so much darker than I could have imagined, knew why his eyes were so haunted on that day he came to see me.
"Harry had an appointment with someone named Conrad Deems on the night he was killed. He was very nervous about it; the man was supposed to be able to help Harry with all of his bills. We should probably start with him."
"We?" Johnny asked, casting a doubtful look toward Jack.
"Of course we," I snapped. "I helped Harry when he needed it, and he did the same for me. I will not stand by and let you go about finding his killer alone. I owe him that much." I didn't realize it until much later, but tears were flowing from my eyes.
"We're glad to have you, Mrs. Logan," Jack said.
"Gerry," I corrected him. "Call me Gerry."
We spent the rest of the day tracking down the man named Conrad Deems, sitting around the desk and making telephone call after telephone call. Deems was not listed in any current phone book, nor could we find a current address anywhere in or near Chicago; after a while, we managed to figure out that he was probably staying just ahead of his creditors, using false names and probably living out of a suitcase, which made it that much harder to track him down. These three brave souls seemed to have an incredible number of contacts from all walks of life, far more than the ones I had used to find out about them in the first place. We called morgue assistants, we called police desk sergeants; Johnny managed to track down Deems' rap sheet, which was full of swindles and fraud... mostly of the elderly. He would worm his way into the lives of the desperate and then take everything they had, and had done it several times before.
I barely kept the tears from falling as I thought about how Harry had been the first one he killed. Harry, who had never treated anyone badly in his life; oh, sure, he had been harsh and even mean on occasion, but his heart was always in the right place, even if he couldn't quite figure out how to show it. After a while, Jack took me back to the couch and gave me a cup of tea with a generous spoonful of honey, telling me that he would be sure to wake me if they found out anything more. "Jack," I asked, never being one for formalities, "do you know what the teeth do?"
"I'm not really sure, but I suspect that they may allow whoever uses them to influence the thoughts of others. That's probably how Deems escaped the attention of the police." Jack turned away and looked at his hands, almost as if he were embarassed.
"What's the matter?" "Nothing. It's just - well, you remind me of someone I used to know. You look nothing like her, but your spirit is the same, vital and full of life." He let the corner of his mouth turn up slightly at that, but there was a sadness in his eyes that spoke volumes.
"Who was she, Jack? And why didn't you go after her?"
"I wanted to, Gerry; Lord knows, I wanted to. But I kept my distance out of respect to an old friend who was there first." He looked down at the floor, and I could sense the pain he was feeling right then almost as if it were my own. "And then she died, without me ever having told her how I truly felt. She died, and my friend lived... and then he made all this -" Jack waved his hand across the store - "happen. I don't know why I'm telling you this. I shouldn't be troubling you -"
"It's all right, Jack. We all need to talk to somebody sometimes. Your friends are very nice, but they just can't understand what our worldview is like. They're just starting their lives, and we've both seen so much that it's hard not to become jaded about the whole experience. They don't understand, and they won't until they reach the point where we are... by which time, I guess it won't matter, will it?"
Jack looked up and saw the smile on my face, and his own tried to resurface as well. "Is that supposed to brighten my mood?"
"No. It's supposed to brighten mine."
A few minutes later, Johnny came up to us and relayed the news of the death of one Samuel Marks, seventy-three years of age, owner and majority shareholder in Illinois Steel Co. I recognized the name quickly; Marks had been donating vast portions of his fortune to charities and medical research for almost longer that I could remember, but what made the news story noteworthy was that his fortune was now bequeathed - in its entirety - to a young man who had apparently just met Marks a few days before.
The man was Conrad Deems.
"It'll be impossible to get close to him," Johnny said as he draped his coat over the back of a chair. Jack and I were sitting at the desk when Johnny came in from trying to get an appointment, sweat-soaked hair hanginf from his brow. Deems was staying in the Marks mansion, an opulent estate some ten miles outside of Chicago (and a place that I knew well; Marks had employed Harry's business on many occasions when storms damaged his roof), and Johnny had followed up his efforts at an appointment by walking all aorund the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the estate. "I looked all over the fence, and there's no way to get past the security system or the dogs. It's like Fort Knox, Jack."
"We have to try something else then, some other plan."
"He's not taking any visitors, and unless you can tunnel us in, Jack, I don't see what we can do. The only people going in are construction crews that are tearing up one of the wings. I guess they're fixing up some storm damage."
It almost happened like in a cartoon, with the little lightbulb coming to life above my head and a ding! sound, as I realized the weak spot in Deems' defenses. "Are there roofers working?" "Yeah, I think so. I'm not sure which company, though."
Both men flashed me a funny look as I grabbed the handset and started dialing the numbers I knew by heart. "Doesn't matter, son. I know people in every roofing business in the city, and most of them owe me a favor or two." I looked at him for a moment before saying, "I bet you look good with your shirt off, too."
They caught on to my idea right away. Johnny would go in as part of the construction crew, and I could give him a general idea of the layout of the house and grounds. He would wait until Deems went to bed and then make a grab for the teeth, which we all figured that he would always keep close by. Jack and I had been talking, and he figured that the teeth had no permanent effect on the people he used them on; eventually, they would stop believing the tales he spun after he lost the teeth, which meant that the police would catch him for Harry's murder... or so I hoped. I must admit, I was rather excited to be playing such a major role in an activity so secret; it was like being in a detective story, where Sam Spade or Nero Wolfe would devise a clever plan to trap the villain and explain everything in a nice, neat bundle. But then my thoughts would wander to Harry, to the blood and savage wounds that were on his neck and chest the night I found him, and all the fanciful thoughts faded and were replaced by the certainty that Deems had to be stopped no matter the cost.
I wasn't there to see it when they returned to the store with the teeth; it took almost two more weeks for Johnny to find out Deems' patterns and finally make off with the teeth one night, returning them to the Vault in the basement, and by that time I had finished distributing Harry's belongings. Jack kept in touch (I think he had taken a shine to me; I know I liked him), and told me that soon Deems would be in a pinch because he could not keep his lies believable without them. I almost broke down weeping right then, but I've never broken down in my life and I was not going to start then. I felt relieved that it was all over as I hung up the phone -
And then the pounding on the front door began. I went over and peered through a clear section in the frosted glass, wondering who would be calling at such an ungodly hour (could it be the police, after Deems already, I hoped), and saw a man in his mid-thirties standing there, greasy black hair slicked back and wearing a ragged jean jacket. "What do you want?"
"You know what I want, bitch! Open the damn door and gimme back the teeth!" I heard him shout as he pounded on the wooden frame. I backed away as an enraged Conrad Deems pounded on my door, wanting something that I would not return to him. I picked up the phone and dialed the police, who said they would send a unit right away... but then the glass shattered and Deems shot his arm through it, grasping for the lock that kept him separated from me. I dropped the handset and backed toward the kitchen as he burst into my home, scattering shards of glass across the foyer as he ran toward me like a football player. "Where are they?" he screamed as he encircled my throat with his hands. "Where are my teeth?"
"N - no -" I gasped, and raised my right forearm with such force that I fractured my wrist. Deems suddenly released his grip on my throat and slumped to the floor, as he had more on his mind (like a pair of rapidly-swelling testicles). I crawled away from him and, barely three minutes later, two policemen came running through my front door and put Deems in handcuffs. It was a long night at the police station as I was questioned by McMasters (who was fully prepared to put Deems away for life, now that the fog of lies had been lifted) and attended to by paramedics, who put my right arm in a brace so the wrist could heal. I made a phone call and soon Jack, Micki and Johnny were all there beside me, watching as Deems was booked on two counts of murder and hauled away. You might remember the trial; Deems went psychotic when the verdict was pronounced and rushed the judge, and it took four men to subdue him.
He'll spend the rest of his life in prison for what he did, and that satisfies me somewhat. I keep in touch with them, especially Jack, and I hope that they are successful with their task of retrieving all of their uncle's cursed antiques. I keep myself busy with cleaning and vising friends, making do with what life I have left, but the space is still there that Harry used to fill. 'Hello' only means we say 'goodbye' in the end, you know, and our lives are that much more empty when those we cherished are gone. I used to cherish my life, but now it's just a matter of waiting for it to end... and each day I hope for that end, knowing that I'll see my friend again soon.
Goodbye, Harry; hello, Harry.
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This page was created on March 10, 2000.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.