Chapter Thirty Seven IV
There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia,
daughter of the philosopher Theon,
who made such attainments in literature and science,
as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.
Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus,
she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors,
many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions.
On account of the self-possession and ease of manner,
which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind,
she not infrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates.
Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men.
For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue
admired her the more.
Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History
Janah, “Professor James, I’m happy to meet you, please, have a seat. Would you prefer tea, or coffee?”
“Tea please, they have a jasmine green here that’s quite remarkable.”
Janah orders, a big pot appears, a selection of pastries. They sit quietly while the tea steeps.
“It is quite good. I love green tea, jasmine is one of my favorites. We already have common interests.”
Professor James, “I understand you are here as a daughter of a former student. I am told you are a graduate student in philosophy, seeking to discuss a paper you wish to submit as a doctoral candidate?”
“I presume it’s too much to expect you have a real interest in philosophy.”
“I have many interests. While I am here to investigate the circumstances surrounding your recent annoyances, we can discuss anything you’d like.”
Professor James, “I’m afraid my interests are limited to a narrow range of philosophers.”
Janah proceeds to run through the list, skipping the obvious ancients like Plato and Socrates, rather focusing on James’ favorites, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Russell, Heidegger, even Gödel. She summarizes their tenants, and offers a brief, clear critique of their limitations.
“Kierkegaard’s observation that external proofs are manifestations of the strength of inner desire, I find troublesome. For instance, his notion that the proof for eternal life is that an individual desires to live forever. The thing is there, within, then arises externally, or verbally, as we struggle to be understood. I haven’t found that the brain works that way. Or course, Kierkegaard had no neuroscientific research to examine. Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered.”
She continues, “Hegel did much the same thing. His identity indifference seems to me similar to Kierkegaard’s external manifestations being the result of inner drives or desires. I have no objection, Nisargadatta says something tangentially similar, but would deny the reality of inner drives and desires arising from the self as illusory. Further, the idea that we can read God’s mind by examining our own thought is not tenable. I have no idea of God. Anything conceptualized by thought, as best as I can tell, is merely fragmented, thought being limited.”
Professor James, “Thought is limited, how do you mean that?”
Janah, “The brain is a connection of neurons, pre and post synaptic. These connections are memory stirring a recollection, or an impulse to action. The behavior of these synaptic receptors are not perfect. So what is recalled is often inaccurate or incomplete. We take this incomplete information, memory, and project it into the future. This is fragmented, not whole. Fragments cannot produce clarity. To say the internal manifests the external, even if accurate, doesn’t help define truth in any way, other than as a moving target of inaccurate data. Just the observation of the external interferes with its accurate perception. If that’s true, then the observation of the internal suffers from the same interference.”
Ezra James stares dumbstruck, “You are no mere graduate student, certainly not a philosophy dilettante, or armchair academic. Where have you studied, why have I read no papers by you?”
“I am merely an observer. As far as papers, monographs or articles, I’m afraid those hold no interest. Unfortunately, I cannot reveal my real name, nor provide any clue regarding my credentials. I’m not here for that, and revealing my name stands to create difficulties in my investigations. I apologize, but you must see the necessity of anonymity. As far as we are concerned, my name is anything you wish it to be.”
“Then I shall call you by the name of the most highly regarded female Greek philosopher, also a distinguished mathematician.”
“Then I am honored to be, at least temporarily, Hypatia.”
Professor James, "You know of her, amazing! I trust you will not come to the same end.”
“I have no intention of having my skin scraped from by body by Christians. Neither do my associates, who are nearby.”
“Hypatia it is.”
“Do you have an opinion as to what is behind your current problem?’
“If I say none whatsoever, would you believe me?”
“I don’t deal in beliefs, another digression from Kierkegaard, who, as you know, felt faith to be valid only by doubting the thing one had faith in. I stick to the doubt part, belief has no meaning. Beliefs tend to be messy and emotional. I don’t mind being messy and emotional, much of life is. When it’s harmless or fun, it makes life interesting and lively. When it causes me to waste time on fabrications and illusions, then it’s neither.”
Professor James, “Perhaps I’m a particularly skilled liar. I’ve dealt in words and ideas all my life. And I’ve been questioned by some highly intelligent students. Even a few, I reluctantly admit, more intelligent than I.”
“Tell me about your early life, before college. I don’t need intimate detail, just free associate."
Professor James tells of an ordinary childhood, two parent family, mother a casual musician, father owned a clock and watch store, did mostly repairs. James has a fondness for grandfather clocks and pocket watches, he takes out a pocket watch, obviously antique, in perfect condition. Clearly a favorite possession.
Janah, “Ah, lovely. A Waltham Rose Gold Box Hunters Case, beautifully kept.”
“You are a philosopher and a pocket watch collector?”
“I collect information. I happened to have seen this style at an auction, it’s a disappearing breed, so I’ve read.”
Professor James, “And so I’ve discovered. It’s not wildly valuable, in this condition, it might bring a couple of thousand, maybe nearer three. You don’t think it has anything to do with the break ins?”
“No, he could have taken it when you were assaulted. I expect you carry it all the time.”
Professor James, “Creature of habit. Do you have any idea what’s going on? I chalk it up to coincidence. But a former student and friend refuses to believe it. I don’t know who he contacted, but he told me someone, he didn’t know who, would show up and try and sort things out, and here you are. Are you a detective? You don’t look old enough to be that sort of thing.”
“I’m just Hypatia. A curious woman who likes to solve puzzles.”
Professor James laughs, “Well said. And I shall turn the matter over to you. If there’s a riddle, surely Hypatia can decipher its meaning. Tell me what I can do to help.”
“I have associates who will be watching your house. While we’ve been here, they’ve been in your home looking for listening devices. If they are found, we can track the source, or disable them. I would prefer to let them be for now. No one can get into your home while we’re here. If you wish to continue on your evening walks, or leave the house at any other time, it’s not problem. You will be watched. You won’t know anyone is looking out for you, you need not change your habits in any way. If anyone tries another assault, they’ll be dealt with long before they get to you. I may decide otherwise, depending on developments, for now, it’s better if you act like all this is an annoying coincidence.”
Professor James, “How did your person get into my house? Or should I ask?”
“Nothing was broken. Common locks are absurdly simple to defeat.”
“You think there is a real problem?’
“Not enough data. We’re going to find out. If someone is intent on getting into your home, or scaring you, they’ll try again.”
“What if they see I’m being protected?’
“You won’t see anyone, and you know there’s someone watching. They won’t see anyone.”
“Your people must be remarkably good at what they do.”
“You have no idea.”
“Is there anything else. I mean that you need to know from me?’
“When did you buy the house?”
Professor James, “Ten years ago. I lived in one down the street, it didn’t have the privacy of the one I have now, I sold it when my current home came on the market. I say I’ve lived in it for years, but the fact is I’ve lived within a few doors for years. I lived in the first house for nearly twenty. Before that, I was an apartment dweller. I wasn’t making much then.”
“Why was the house you have now up for sale?’
Janah cocks her head, “Someone was killed in the house.”
“Wife killed her philandering husband so the story went. Property values had gone up substantially over the years I owned my first house, and it was paid for. The murder house, my current one, was offered below market for obvious reasons. I’m not superstitious, the whole place was thoroughly cleaned, repainted, new bathrooms and a new kitchen, it was completely updated and renovated. But it still wouldn’t sell. The renovations were just a happy benefit. The woman drugged then suffocated her husband. It wasn’t like there was blood all over the floor or bullet holes in the walls. I haven’t been troubled by any ghosts. I haven’t been troubled by anything until this recent set of events.”
“Students didn’t mind coming to the murder house, of course. They would think it exciting.’
“I couldn’t have kept them away. We had the most delightful evenings there. They loved the whole grisly history.”
“Shall we go there now?”
“Your associates are finished?’
“Good thing I don’t have secret things lying about.”
Janah, “Professor, we aren’t interested in anyone’s personal habits, at least not in this case. I’ve been asked to find out if there is an ongoing threat to your safety. That’s what I’ll do, with your permission. If you tell us to go away, we go away.”
“Oh my, no. How could I meet a living Hypatia and then ask her to leave? I may as well revoke my entire career. You are invited to see this through, and beyond. I may be doubtful as to the necessity, but I’m far too curious to simply abandon such an adventure?”
“Let’s see the house then.”
Janah follows the professor around his home, not big, but more than sufficient. It’s lovely, well cared for, neat as a pin. He is no sloppy, absent minded professor. She gleaned that much from his meticulous dress and the condition of an antique pocket watch. Such a man would not live a disorganized life at home.
“Your housekeeper is to be complimented.”
“How do you know I have one? Perhaps I enjoy the distraction of dusting and vacuuming.”
“What about the baseboards?”
Janah, “They’re clean, there’s no little pile of dirt in the corners. The guest bath, which is virtually unused since you have few visitors, is meticulous. The towels are folded with a woman’s touch, the underside of the faucet is spotless, there is some water in the drain, which means the faucet has been turned on recently, but not so much as a leftover stain of water on the surface of the basin from hand washing. The toilet seat is down, in the Master bedroom it is up. The guest bath toilet paper is folded into a point. Your housekeeper formerly worked in a hotel, a good one.”
“Amazing, all sensible observations, but not one many people would have made. Particularly after a quick glance through the rooms.”
They sit on a comfortable sofa in the living room.
“What do you know about the former owners, besides the grisly part?”
“Very little. There is a sadness about whatever drove a woman to such violence. I was told it was all rather confusing. It the sense that there was no prior violence in the marriage. She had never been seen with a mysterious bruise, or a broken arm. Neither had the husband, I understand that spousal abuse occasionally works the other way round. There were never any domestic disturbance calls, no neighbor heard voices raised in anger. This is all third hand. I didn’t inquire of the neighbors when the event took place, I knew there was some problem, I lived on the next block then. I saw the ambulance, police cars, I assumed an illness. The real estate agent gave me details. If the husband had a history of fooling around, it had not resulted in any domestic disturbance anyone knew about. I can only presume the poor woman just snapped, but I really don’t know.”
“Were they rich, middle income, what kind of work did they do?”
“You know, I don’t think I ever asked, and the agent didn’t say anything specific. As a matter of fact, I’m recalling that she said she didn’t know them, she had been hired by the estate to sell the house. There was a niece, or cousin someplace who inherited. They had no children, no really close relatives I remember the agent saying.”
“How long have the neighbors been here? Anyone still around that might have known them?”
“The house next door sold a few years ago, I was here then. The one across the street still has the same owners that were here when I moved in. They’re elderly, hardly see them. The rest, I don’t know, I see vans now and then, I suspect a lot of people have moved.”
“What were their names?”
“Well, I bought the house from the estate. But I think the family name was Jensen. I could call the real estate agent. She’s still in the business.”
Janah, “No, I have resources to find out who they are. I don’t want anyone’s attention aroused.”
Professor James, “You believe that there is something here, in this house, that the former owners left, that has some important value to someone. It’s the only thing that explains your line of questioning.”
“It’s the only thread we have. Your money is in investments, not stuffed in the mattress. You have some items of value, but not the kind of things a persistent thief is going to spend time on. He could have lifted the watch during the assault, and it’s valuable, but not that valuable as an item to fence. Somebody wants you out of the house long enough to do a thorough search. You never go anywhere for more than a couple of hours. If they tear up the place and don’t find what they want, then you’re on guard. Their job becomes harder. If they can get you in the hospital for a couple of days, that’s all the time they need. Killing you outright is messy, and they may not be sure enough that there’s anything here to do murder over. This is all just a guess of course. But it’s what I’ve got that holds the story together.”
“Or it’s all coincidental.”
Janah, “I’m in no position to deny the possibility.”
“And you will be safe going to wherever you are staying?”
“My safety, like yours for now, is guaranteed.”
“So there’s more than just you and an associate.”
“Don’t concern yourself with details. By the way, your house isn’t bugged. If there’s something here, hidden, they don’t believe you know about it.”
James, “How do you know? You haven’t spoken to anyone?”
Janah thinks, ‘Actually I have, but no way to explain that to the professor,’ she says, “My associate would still be here.”
“I can see the end of this discussion. And, logically, I’m reluctantly forced to agree. You need me gone for a while, don’t you? Right now, you have to watch me when I’m out and the house the whole time. Of course, then the daughter of a former student story doesn’t work.”
Janah, “Then I’m the daughter of a former student visiting just before your trip. I’m considering enrolling at Stony Brook, he called to ask you if I might ask a few questions, you were happy to help. If it ever comes up, it will make people think you are unconcerned about the break ins, that they truly were just coincidence.”
“I’ll do it. Promise to give me the juicy story when I return, if there is one?’
Janah, “Of course, and you can recount your vacation. Where do you want to go?’
“Not far, I dislike airports. I haven’t been to Manhattan except for a short trip in and out again. I do have a couple of acquaintances at Fordham and Columbia, I could go to Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center.”
“Good. Tomorrow, a man will be here to pick you up. He’ll take you to a hotel in Manhattan. He’ll be around, not intrusive. If you visit friends, or old colleagues, he’ll be there, out of the way.”
“Seems rather rude.”
“He won’t see it that way. It’s a job, he’ll do it well. I don’t think you’re in any danger, particularly out of town. I just don’t know enough to know you’re absolutely not in danger.”
“How do I recognize him?’
“He’ll call you when he’s driving up. I don’t know what kind of car, but the man will be unmistakable. Think of a very large football player, then think larger, and black, shaved head, brilliant smile. You can call him Mr. Hunter. He’ll have you checked into a hotel, he’ll give you the key. You won’t need to register, if you order room service, put your room number and sign illegibly with something that looks like the name they’ll use when you call for room service. Good hotels will greet you by name when you call down for something, they have your room number and name right on their computer screen.”
“Really? When did all that happen? I must get out more often.”
Janah laughs, “Enjoy your mini vacation. Our man will be here in the early afternoon.”
Chapter Thirty Eight IV
They are born, then put in a box;
they go home to live in a box;
they study by ticking boxes;
they go to what is called ‘work’ in a box,
where they sit in their cubicle box;
they drive to the grocery store in a box to buy food in a box;
they go to the gym in a box to sit in a box;
they talk about ‘thinking outside the box’;
and when they die they are put in a box.
All boxes, Euclidian, geometrically smooth boxes.
Nassim Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes
Black appears in the early afternoon. He’ll take the professor to the St. Pierre, at the southeast corner of Central Park. Black has a room next door. Professor James called a couple of colleagues at Fordham, NYU and Columbia. One is on sabbatical, the other two delighted to hear from him and filled his schedule with activities, both asked if he would lecture to their summer classes. The second also arranged a dinner at the faculty club.
On the drive into the city, Professor James asks ‘Mr. Hunter’ several questions, not personal ones, he knows the huge man is there to escort him, not to chat. But he discovers that, whoever Mr. Hunter is, he is deeply knowledgeable about Buddhist principles, and has more than a working knowledge of poetry and English literature. He also speaks Chinese.
Professor James, “Mr. Hunter, I must say, whatever your relationship is to Hypatia, her acquaintances, excepting your size, are not what one imagines as typical bodyguards or detectives. Please understand, I am clear that you are neither Mr. Hunter, nor are you going to give me any information regarding your association with Hypatia. I am grateful for her assistance in my situation, and I plan to keep my curiosity in check, and fully comply with the ground rules.”
Black nods, not to agree, rather to let Professor James know he’s listening.
“However, may I suggest it would be far less troublesome if you were to adopt the role of a student, familiar with the city, who has agreed to earn a few dollars by squiring me around to my various meetings and engagements? You won’t have to disappear into the shadows, you’ll just be there. I’ll tell my acquaintances that I am simply enjoying the convenience of a driver and guide, rather than dealing with taxis and subways. If it comes up, I can explain it away by saying I am just treating myself. It will be easy for them to assume what is quite true. I’m not young, spending extra money for convenience for a week in Manhattan is not a financial burden, it’s actually sensible.”
Black, “Hypatia expects us to use our on the ground judgment. She doesn’t have a rule book. I don’t see a problem with your approach. And you’re right, it’s much easier to be the guy who is helping you have the trip work more smoothly than figuring out if you can get a cab, find your way around the subway, or walk everywhere. The subway is great, but people misjudge how far it is from the subway stop to their destination. Manhattan blocks are long, the concrete is hard. If it’s raining, or a busy time of day, available taxis are scarce.”
“Then, it’s settled. Who do you want to be? How do I know you?”
“Someone you know at Stony Brook referred you to me. I have a small sideline business doing for people exactly as I’m doing for you. There’s no regulation about hiring a guy with a car to take you sightseeing or to appointments. I’m a jack of several trades, one of them is a by the day or week driver. No one will ask me much, you offer a simple explanation, they’ll buy it and ignore me.”
“Hiding in plain sight as they say.”
Black, “That’s about it. I’ll talk to Hypatia, I call in several times a day, I want her to know the arrangement. It’s better if we’re all on the same page.”
“As you wish. Can we chat about philosophy while we drive around? Or will I bore you to death?”
“I don’t get bored, and it will be like a free philosophy class from an highly regarded academic. Can’t beat that.”
Black gets his charge settled into the room, “Professor, this is a GPS tracking device. Please keep it with you all the time,” he holds up a phone, “I can follow you on it. We don’t think you are in any danger here, but better to have a few tricks up our sleeve.”
Professor James, “Today’s technology, just amazing. I’ve seen this sort of thing in cars, friend of mine uses one. It talks to him along the way. At first I kept thinking someone else was in the car.”
“You have dinner downtown in three hours. We can go for a walk, or you can relax in the room. Call room service for coffee or tea, or anything else, Hypatia went over the procedure?”
“Yes, just sign the tab with an illegible signature, I’m not registered under my own name. Perhaps a stroll through Central Park for an hour.”
Black drops off his bag in the adjoining room, he and James go across 5th to the park.
Back at the scene of the crime, Chan and I install video cameras in every room, and the front and rear of the house.
Two days of nothing happens. I shut down the exterior lighting timer. The professor had one installed after the break in. Then he was assaulted, but the house hadn’t been reentered.
Janah, “We’re going about this backwards. Daphne, go to the house, turn the exterior lighting timer back on. Take Nikko and both of you stay out of sight. Chan and I will be there in the morning in a van with a bunch of remodeling equipment. We’re going to search the house until we find out whatever it is someone wants so bad. Then we’ll know what to do.”
Janah calls the Society and has them deliver the van and enough tools to build a house. They also supply a remodeling permit to slap on the front door. There are fairly restrictive building codes in the neighborhood and Janah doesn’t want nosy neighbors deciding to call the county to find out if the professor has the appropriate permits to do whatever it is he’s having done. She also got the original plans, and the plans for what had been done when the house was remodeled ten years earlier, after the murder.
She asks them to find out a few more details, where are the relatives of the couple? Who are they?
Janah and I kneel on the floor and examine the two sets of plans. While we look for the specific changes, Chan and Nikko measure every inch of every room, including the basement and the attic. Then they measure every inch of the exterior.
Mrs. Epstein calls, “The family is out of the question. A nephew inherited, he’s been in the homeopathic therapy business in Arizona for years. The money he got for the house and their investments allowed him the time to pursue his wanderlust for a couple of years. The usual, India, Thailand, Mexico, gave him some credentials. His place is filled with photos of him with one or another guru, healer or shaman. He has a couple of massage therapists, an astrologer, does the homeopathy himself. Sells distilled water he waved a flower over to restore the energy flow of this or that. He’s got a following of sorts, makes a living. He’s not our guy.”
Janah, “Last request, I think it is anyway. Find out everything there is to know about the people who did the remodeling after the murder. It never made much sense for it to be family, the murder was ten years ago. It was just a long shot. It’s either the contractor or one of the subcontractors who did the remodeling, or one of the students who used to visit the professor at this house. The work was done ten years ago. Why wait ten years after hiding something in a remodeled house to go back and get it? The students are more recent, the professor is just two years retired. But that assumes a student hid something here, hid it well enough that he didn’t have to tear out a piece of sheetrock then fix and paint it in an evening’s visit, that a very thorough housekeeper never came across.”
Mrs. Epstein, “You have quite a little mystery on your hands. The people who could have hidden something wait ten years to come and get it, and the recent visitors have to hide something quickly but it is never discovered.”
“That doesn’t hold water anyway. If they hid it, they’d know where to look. They had enough time in the house during the break in. They’d have gotten it on the first try.”
“Well, you’ve ruled out everyone. Coming home now?”
“Sounds like we ought to for all the progress we’ve made. But that doesn’t leave the professor any better off, and I can’t stay here forever. I have a plan.”
“I never doubted it. Let me know how it works out. If you need anything else, you know what do to and when to do it.”
They disconnect, I’m still pouring over plans and measurements.
“Find any discrepancies?”
“It isn’t going to be as easy as Sherlock Holmes. The story where there was a difference in the interior of the house versus the exterior, Jonas Oldacre was hiding in the extra space.”
Janah, “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder. I recall they set a small but smoky fire that caused him to bolt out of his secret compartment. You want to burn down the whole house?”
Nikko, “We aren’t looking for something a big as a hidden man. Either it’s small enough to be between the sheetrock and the exterior wall, or it’s under the concrete in the basement floor. It would help if it was metal, we could try a metal detector, although the concrete would pose a problem. I don’t think they work through anything that dense. And if it’s reinforced concrete, there’s metal grating there anyway.”
Janah, “We’re getting really good at figuring out what won’t work. Before we take the house apart, let me call the Society one more time.”
She decides to call Mrs. Epstein. She could have called her Society contact directly, but she knows Mrs. E enjoys being in the loop.
“I knew you’d think of something, how can we help?”
Janah, “The only thread I have is that the contractor or one of the subs had something to hide. They hid it in the house with the intention of coming back during the remodeling and retrieving it. That obviously didn’t happen. Can you find out who did the work, the contractor and the subs, and if anything happened to one of them during the job? In the sense he wasn’t able to return and get what was hidden. Maybe he went to prison, died in an accident, had a heart attack. If the person who hid it was in prison for instance, he’d still know where he hid it when he got out. So it’s not likely that the same person who hid something here, is the same person looking for it, unless they have a really bad memory.”
Mrs. Epstein, “So you think somebody hid something, that somebody dies, but left papers, or a clue of some sort. Years later, the information is uncovered by a third party. One who believes there’s something to find, even knows what it is, he just doesn’t know where it is?’
Janah, “I know, it’s a weird set of circumstances, but I have nothing else. All the other likely suspects are too far removed, or would have come and gotten what they wanted long ago.”
“This one may take a day or two. I’ll call when we have something. What are you going to do in the meantime.”
“We have a remodeling permit stuck on the door. Chan will stay in the house, we’re down the street. In the morning, we drive up in our van and drag tools inside. While Chan and I make occasional tool noises, drills, electric saws, play obnoxious classic rock or hip hop like real remodeling crews, Daphne and Nikko are going to crawl over every inch of the basement floor for anything that looks like a crack. The basement wasn’t remodeled, but if I had the time, I’d hammer a hole in the floor and put my little secret in it. A patch with quick drying concrete, sand and paint the floor, nobody is going to notice anything.”
Nikko and I try the easy way, we go over the floors with a metal detector, including the basement floor. Nothing. There’s metal, but it’s wiring mostly. The metal detector in the basement is useless, the floor is reinforced concrete. A metal grid is inlaid within the concrete, all the detector does is buzz. We aren’t even sure we’re looking for metal.
Mrs. Epstein calls two days later, “A flooring subcontractor on the professor’s house was arrested for theft. Nothing was proved, but he died of a heart attack a month after the accusation. No relative we could find suddenly got rich, there was a small insurance policy paid to the wife. She is sixty-eight now. Doesn’t live rich, gets a social security check. There’s a son and a daughter. The daughter lives in California, hasn’t been back East in months.”
Janah, “Where’s the son?”
Mrs. Epstein, “Interestingly, he lives on Fire Island. He doesn’t live rich, but shares a house with three roommates, all men.”
“They are as queer as you and your girls. From our brief investigation, they’re just guys living together. We set up listening equipment. They watch television, complain about work, make dinner, have a glass of wine or a joint. I hope you and your girls are having more intimacy than our Fire Island boys.”
Janah giggles, “If we had much more intimacy, we wouldn’t have time to do these jobs.”
Mrs. Epstein laughs.
“Okay, you’ve listened in on them, if there was anything revealing, you would have said so. You have something else though, it must be what the subcontractor was accused of stealing.”
“Diamonds. Lots of them.”
Janah, “Ah. It had to be money or stones. The metal detector was revealing nothing. It wasn’t gold bars, or Rolex watches. Goody, now we can really put Daphne’s ears to work.”
Ten minutes later, I’m lying on the basement floor, Nikko taps a pipe against the concrete. I’m listening for anything that sounds remotely hollow or insubstantial. There are years of small cracks on the floor. That doesn’t mean much, concrete cracks. Janah and Chan sit on the basement steps, Nikko taps, I listen.
Finally, I point to a spot under Nikko’s pipe, “There, chisel out that spot, right there.”
After fifteen minutes of Chan chipping away, he pulls out a pouch. We empty it on the floor. Diamonds, cut and ready for mounting. They run from, Janah estimates, a carat, to three or four. Counted out, there are over three hundred. Janah calls Mrs. Epstein.
“I’m looking at least seven hundred to a thousand carats in diamonds. They appear to be good quality, Daphne’s super vision says the cut and clarity are excellent. At a thousand a carat minimum wholesale, there’s a million dollars of compressed carbon here.”
“Good. We know from whom they were stolen. If the diamonds you found match the description of the stolen diamonds, then we’ll let the insurance company sort it out with the owners. We have no real evidence that our Fire Island boy did anything. He knew his father has been accused, and of what. He was young at the time. I think he may have found a clue that dad had hidden the diamonds, and where, but little else. Once the diamonds are returned, he’s not going to pursue the professor, there’s no point. Right now, he’s not under any suspicion, except by us. We’ve been listening to every conversation. If his housemates know anything, it hasn’t come up.”
“I don’t want the professor further harassed. I need to know these are all the diamonds, or enough of them that a further search isn’t worth the trouble. I’m sending the girls to have a chat with him, just to make sure he understands it’s over.”
“Good. How do you want to get the diamonds to us? You can’t be involved, the professor needs to understand that, and that any story of diamonds found in his basement is surely going to bring on an unknown person who thinks there may be more. The Society will say they came into our possession anonymously. He won’t be involved at all. You’ve already thought of the wild card.”
Janah, “Nikko and Daphne will get him clear that he needs to move on with his life. Chan and I will bring in the merchandise tomorrow, the girls will deal with the loose end.”
Chan and Janah take one car, Nikko and I go to chat up Fire Island Boy, then return to Manhattan.
Ning takes the children with her to the kitchen, “David Li, mind your sister please. It is time for silence, so the aunts and your father can speak without interruption.”
David begins to roll a soft ball to his sister, who picks it up and rolls it back. He retrieves it and they began again. He will play the game as long as it takes, until the talk is done, or his sister falls asleep. He has Chan’s endless patience, and could occupy himself for hours appearing to do almost nothing
Janah, “Please retell the story for Chan, I know what happened. We can see if there is further work to do.”
“The Society knew what time Fire Island Boy had to be at work. He works for a caterer. Some days there’s nothing, his housemates all have day jobs, so he’s home alone most mornings. Most catering is evening work.”
Janah, “So you were able to approach him at home.”
“Yes, we did a make-up light. Big dark sunglasses, watch caps. Fake facial tattoos. He won’t recognize us if we pass him on the street tomorrow. We knocked on the front door, he was the only one home, we walked in uninvited. He was actually a bit intimidated. He knew someone had caught up to him, he just didn’t understand how. We didn’t explain. I told him what he’d done, and when he’d done it. He balked at first, but he kept looking over at Nikko, who had the chain she usually keeps wrapped on her arm flipping around her hand. Then, as he reached for his glass of tea, she zinged it right through the plastic. He sat staring at the half left in his hand. I told him it really got her irritated when people tried to bullshit us.”
Janah, “And he got very cooperative.”
“He started to cry, really cry. He said he’d felt so guilty about hurting the poor old man. He confessed he’d found a note of his father’s that told him the stones were in the murder house. It was just a short note. It wasn’t clear why there was a note at all. He figured his father lost some physical faculties with the heart attack and was concerned that he might actually forget what he’d done with the diamonds. He wrote himself enough of a note to jog his memory, the address of the house, not the location of the diamonds. He had a second, fatal, heart attack soon after, he’d never been in any position to recover the stones himself.”
Janah, “And his son estranged himself enough from dad by being gay that his father didn’t just tell him where to look. Didn’t plan on telling him anything.”
“He didn’t trust his son. He said his dad considered him weak and unreliable and that if he had known then, he would have probably turned his father in. When his mother was infirm enough to be put in a home, he came across his father’s effects. His mother just stuck things in a box. Years had passed, he assumed the insurance had been paid, who could be hurt if he got the diamonds and sold one or two once in a while?”
Janah, “The idea that the insurance company was out a fairly large sum of money didn’t matter I guess. Most people have a dim view of insurance until they want a claim paid.”
“He didn’t mention that part. He was persuaded the adventure was over. He was genuinely sorry about the professor. He wasn’t just selling a story. He knows we can implicate him. The professor is fine, fortunately. Fire Island Boy even offered to apologize. I told him we’d pass along his apology, and that the best thing he could do to insure his own future is to forget the professor, the murder house and diamonds.”
Janah, “He was relieved to have the whole thing over.”
“Well, I also explained that keeping Nikko satisfied would be in his best interest.”
Chapter Thirty Nine IV
All attachment implies fear, for all things are transient.
And fear makes one a slave.
This freedom from attachment does not come with practice.
It is natural, when one knows one’s true being.
Love does not cling, clinging is not love.
Nisargadatta, I Am That
When Janah noticed that we don’t appear to age, she set up a laboratory in the remaining empty space on our floor, across from Chan and Ning’s place. Her eidetic memory made learning the procedures simple enough for her.
What she discovered is our unusual DNA. Instead of defective DNA, it seems more like enhanced DNA. The genes that normally die off or mutate, don’t. She drew blood and took tissue samples two years ago. She says we’re almost boring, we never change. Our SIRT1 genes, sirtuins, are the same as when she started. Sirtuins act as gene suppressors, repairing mistakes and keeping the aging factors from activating. We have more NAD, nictotinamide adenine dinucleotide, which further boosts SIRT1 activity. She also found a larger than normal amount of DAF-16 genes. I presume that’s something we all have in common, or at least in some similar combination. Why two not blood related girls have these characteristics in common is a mystery. Janah thinks that since badly folded proteins can create aging problems, better than normal folded proteins are just as possible.
She isolated the factors, SIRT1, NAD and DAF 16 genes, and injected Nishiko over three months. Two years later and none of us has aged a day. Photos and measurements from two years ago are identical. Same weight, same breast, waist and hip size; thighs, calves, forearms and upper arm, all identical to the earlier measurement. Nikko calls herself a genetically modified organism. Then again, the consequence of daddy’s sperm entering mommy’s egg is nothing more than a GMO. We’re all GMOs.
We decided, before offering the proteins to the rest of the family, we would wait the two years to see what happens with both us and Nikko. First, we don’t know why our genes picked twenty five, why not fourteen, or nine, or forty? Nikko is a shade younger, she’s more like twenty three or four. So far, there is no strange or harmful side effect. We don’t have any urge to sleep in a coffin all day and go in search of blood at night. Nikko liked her steak rare before she got the treatment.
Susan is fresh from a pummeling by Nikko. Chris won’t fight seriously with Susan, Nikko won’t fight any other way.
Janah rests her hand on Susan’s neck, warmth floods her shoulders. She puts a thumb on her lip, there is icy cold, the lip closes, swelling subsides. She works the bruises gently for another hour. While she does her qi thing, Janah explains that people had been asking questions about three girls who hung out at the Village Diner.
There had been no threats, perhaps they had a need for our services, perhaps they had something less savory on their minds. In any case, the family would be guarded until things clear up.
Chan knocks, Susan leaves with him to go to her place.
Chris, “You needed an escort to walk two blocks? Something’s up. What is it?”
Susan, “Somebody’s asking about the girls. We need to watch out for each other more carefully than usual, that’s all I know. Nikko tried to murder me, I’m tired.”
“You look like you need a nap. I’ve got writing to do, climb in the bed and I’ll shut the door. You aren’t going to class, neither am I. I’ll call Karen and Janine. The women will appreciate your gentle touch even more after a couple of classes with those two.”
“I saw something else, I’m still between in shock and awestruck.”
“Want to tell me now, or sleep then talk?”
“I saw the girls merge.”
“Get out! They never do that in front of anyone, well, except Nikko. What happened?”
“Strangely, nothing out of the ordinary. When Daphne and Nikko were leaving to practice, Daphne leaned over to kiss Janah. I had the feeling they had been mentaling. There’s that look they get.”
“You mean when Daphne gets dreamy eyed.”
“Yes, and Janah has a little half smile. Anyway, I had my head in Janah’s lap, laying on the couch. Daphne leaned over and kissed her, a long kiss, not passionate smooching, just a tender kiss…..there was only one girl. There was Daphne’s long black hair and Janah’s creamy smooth face, then Daphne’s oriental eyes, as blue as Janah’s. Then a pure white shroud around only one head, I couldn’t take my eyes off the single figure. They had become one.”
Chris sighs, “How beautiful,” she leaves Sis to rest.
She goes to her desk, the laptop is on, the screensaver flipped different photos of the family every thirty seconds. She touches the mouse, the latest page of her book pops up on the screen, she stares. The screensaver pops up, still, she’s motionless for almost an hour. The photos change, she doesn’t see them, lost in Susan’s story.
She wonders about the people asking about us, whoever it is will need convincing explanations. Chris laughs to herself, then grimaces, thinking about what would happen if Nikko trapped the stupid bastards alone.
Chapter Forty IV
Do not piss-off Nishiko. Don’t…just….don't even...
Mini calls Nikko, “I’ve got one of the pricks in my restaurant. The other two are in the park, they figured out that staying out of the line of sight of Juju and Mighty Jim is probably in their best interest, life-extension-wise.”
Nikko says nothing, Mini continues, “He’s having coffee, and a slice of pie. Chuck is chatting him up, just bullshit, to keep him occupied. What do you want to do?’
“Has he asked about Janah and Daphne?”
Mini, “Chuck says he danced around it, but yes, he’s one of the guys. I also got one of my cooks to ask Quiet Man to pass by the window and nod yes or no. The answer is yes.”
“Give me five, then tell him, he will find what he’s looking for by going out through the back. Chan will see to it he goes no farther than the storage room. Oriental men will approach the Jamaicans. Quiet Man can point out the other two, then Nikko will sort out the problem.”
Mini, “What about Ange Blanc and de Seelk?”
Nikko, “They will be resting quietly in the apartment. God can’t get in here.”
Mini hangs up.
He looks at Chuck, “Tell the chump that there’s trouble for him if he goes out the front door, but you can get him out the back way. Jerk him off another five minutes first. He ain’t going no further than the back room, but I gotta wait for Nikko and Chan.”
Chuck nods, then says loudly, “You tell that asshole that he better get my delivery here, or I’ll find someone who can. I’m tired of his bullshit excuses.”
Chuck walks back to the man’s table, “Sorry, I got a delivery guy can’t seem to get my take out stuff here on time. I got no place to store a two week supply, we gotta lot of takeout orders. This jerk is always calling about traffic, breakdowns, didn’t get his deliveries. He’s busting my balls here with his crap. Don’t never get into the restaurant business my friend. It’s always some problem with this or that, the city, the cops, the cooks, deliveries.”
The man nods, commiserates, then asks for the check. Normally the check would have been slapped down when he got his order, but Chuck wanted him to stick around once he’d figured out the man is asking about Janah and the girls. He walks slowly over to the register, then pretends to have a conversation with Mini, waving his hands like he is still going on about deliveries.
He returns to the table, “You don’t want to leave by the front door. Those asshole Jamaicans have taken an interest in you, I don’t know why, they smoke dope all night, who knows what goes through their minds? I know this, they are trouble you don’t need. I can call the city, but they don’t do shit. I got a way out the back. Save you a world of grief to slide out that way and head left. They won’t know you’re gone until way too late. Don’t know why you got their attention, but you don’t want to mess with them.”
The man actually thanks him, then follows Chuck through the narrow hallway. As they pass the door to the storage room, Chan pulls the man inside. A massive hand around his throat keeps him soundless, then he’s passed out on the floor. Three minutes later, his two friends are seated beside him, both tied to their chairs, mouths duct taped over a mouthful of restaurant napkin.
Chan fishes through their pockets. There are driver’s licenses, no credit cards, a fair amount of cash. They are all Italian. Nikko calls them Pasta, Pesto and Panini. She learned from me to keep real names out of it. Personalizing makes things sticky, and it aggravates the targets to be dismissed out of hand, which keeps them on edge. I like them edgy, makes them stupid and easier to handle. Nikko likes it when guys get all macho. It’s more fun demachoing them.
She pops an ammonia cap under Pasta’s nose, the guy who was in the restaurant. He stirs, his head snaps up. She keeps it in place until his eyes tear. He isn’t happy, which makes Nikko happy, not that he could tell.
He looks at Chan, then Nikko. It takes him about a millisecond to understand who is in control. He never saw eyes so intensely blank. The big Chinese appears to be someplace else entirely.
Nikko rips the duct tape off his mouth, yanks out the napkin, then uses it to snap his cheek sharply, a red welt results. She zaps him on the other cheek.
“If I wasn’t tied, you wouldn’t get so sassy, honey.”
Not his best idea, Nikko nods, Chan unties him.
“You still got the big guy to protect you. Untying me don’t prove nothing about you.”
Chan leaves the room.
She zaps him on the cheek a third time, then lets the napkin drop to the floor. He lunges off the chair, she sticks her fist into his throat, then uses the same arm to elbow him across the jaw. She steps back, her hands down, like she’s just killing time.
He gags, rubs his throat, blood drips, she’d taken a tooth, he spits it out. He’s a big guy, six two, maybe two forty, he’d been hit before, but her speed has him wary. He picks up the chair and swings it at her, he expected her to move back, but she steps into him. Catching the leg of the chair in her hand, she drives the heel of her free hand into his sternum. She feels it crack, he drops the chair, her steel toe shoe snaps his ankle. He falls with a squish, like a sack of wet cement.
He looks up at her, his bravado evaporated. He can’t get his mind around the fact that during the sudden exchange, she barely moved, and her expression was mostly boredom. Except for those death eyes…waiting for an excuse.
Nikko goes into her clipped Japanese accent mode, “You ask around about three women. You don’t come like real man and ask. Sneak around like schoolboy bully. Bring fat friends to intimidate people. You think Jamaicans intimidated by fat guy with greasy hair? You stupid as well as fat. You the boss, Pasta, or I need wake up Pesto and Panini ? Hope they got more than you. I hardly get good workout with fat pasta boy.”
“You gonna get very dead. You think I’m gonna let this slide?”
“I think you do whatever I want.”
She kicks his broken ankle, he screeches, “Fuck and mother fuck!!!”
Nikko steps on his groin, hard, he howls again, “Nice time over. You say what you want, or when friends wake up, they find you in trunk of car, very dead.”
She dangles the keys in his face, “You got five second Pasta boy.”
She whips out her flick knife, it flips open. He’d never seen a blade with double sided serrated edges, her arm moves so fast he doesn’t see it, the leg of the chair he’d tried to hit her with is in two pieces, a clean slice through the wood.
“Your leg next. One legged Pasta boy. Tell me what you want, maybe I let you live.”
Pasta surrenders, “I work for a man, a very well connected man. He heard about a girl who can do things other people can’t. He’s done a lotta homework on this person. He’s real sick. Doctors ain’t fixin’ nuttin, he’s got this notion in his head that the white haired girl can give him time. Because of who he is, he thinks she won’t come voluntarily. We was lookin’ for an angle, leverage. I was told to just take her if I had to, but we didn’t know exactly where to look, other than the Village, and Chinatown. Now, I got a broken leg, and a missing tooth, I got no idea if my chest is cracked, and I got nothing to bring back. You may as well kill me now. I’m dead anyway.”
Nikko, “You guys all same. Think you have to push everyone around. You tell boss to call. Tell story himself, like a real man, not send fat boys around to get hurt. You tell him, he hurts anyone, he gets nothing.”
She writes down a throwaway phone number, Janah keeps several cheap phones with untraceable owners just for such moments. If the boss called, Janah would answer. If she believed what he said, she might help him. If she didn’t, the phone would be broken plastic in a storm drain.