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Thursday, July 28, 2011

EXCERPT FROM BURNING QUESTIONS

Chapter 1

On the day before I met Christina, I was doing a very credible impersonation of a bum. I’d even begun to believe it myself. But in my defense, I was facing the prospect of being drafted and there didn’t seem to be much point in having ambition.

I once had a professor of trial practice who began his classes by reading from an instruction judges routinely give to jurors at the beginning of a case:

“Remember to keep an open mind and do not form or express an opinion about the case until all the evidence has been received.”

He said it was sound advice for lawyers too. “If you fail to reserve your judgments...” he wagged his finger. “…someday you’ll find yourself in the middle of a trial confronted with a messy little fact that you overlooked. If you have to lose a case, don’t do it because, in your prejudice, you overlooked a messy little fact.”

If people had been following his advice, I’d never have met Christina Lima. We both were messy little facts.

* * *
I was absentmindedly tapping into a can of Krueger ale when a rag-top Coupe DeVille, just off the showroom floor, pulled onto Shore Road. Though much of her face was hidden by a broad-brimmed straw hat and oversized shades, enough epidermis was out there to tell that its driver was a classy lady with a “Coppertone tan.” She pulled to a stop beneath my window, got out and mounted the stairs slowly. Her slender hand gingerly dodged the splinters on my paint-chipped rail-ing. I didn’t know anybody who could afford a new Caddy. I assumed she’d come to the wrong address.

She was dressed in an expensive plaid skirt that stopped at mid-thigh, and a sleeveless top. Her fine-boned arms had muscle definition and despite some knobbiness in the knees, her legs were long, slim, and looked like they’d seen a lot of exercise. As she neared the top of the stairs, she removed her shades, revealing lines etched in her face. She had a good fifteen years on me. I didn’t mind the etchings. On her they looked good.

I licked a few lingering stalactites of ale foam from my ragged moustache and pushed open the torn aluminum screen door. She halted on the landing a step below me, looked up, rocked back and rolled her eyes.

Her judgment was justified. I was barefoot. My torn-at-the-knees jeans were grease-stained and hung low on my hips. A mis-buttoned blue and gold Sunoco work shirt falsely identified me as “Mike.” I topped this off with my well-worn Sunoco cap, my wild hair dashing for freedom below the rim.

“Ah hello,” she said in a high-pitched Yankee accent. Her eyes focused on the name on my shirt. “I’m looking for Nathan Lewis.”

“You found him,” I said, watching a disapproving frown replace the hopefulness of the moment before. “What can I do for you?”

She bit her lip then straightened out her face. “I’m Ann Foster diSimone,” she said, emphasizing the “Foster.” She seemed to assume that I recognized the name and held out her hand with reservation.

Her moniker didn’t register in my addled mind. “Pleased to meet you,” I responded, taking her hand, not certain how hard to squeeze. I decided that just a brief, flimsy tweak would suffice. She still hadn’t answered my question but something about her made an end run around my suspicious nature. “Place is a mess. Wasn’t expecting any company.” I looked back over my shoulder into the dust-infested gloom, shrugged, held open the door with a foot and made room for her. “C’mon in.”

She stepped in gingerly, as if expecting an ambush, while casting a judgmental eye around the place. Sucking breath, she stared out my front windows. Two weary lobster boats were pulling traps in the cove. Dusky blue clouds of fumes clung to their sterns while the rasps of their marine diesels penetrated the tranquility of our tiny village with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. We were in the midst of a New Eng-land Indian summer, warm and windless. Massachusetts Bay was as smooth as a mirror and met the faded blue sky seamlessly. Off to the west you could see the top half of Boston’s new Prudential Building peeking over the hills.

“You’ve got a...er...delightful view,” she said, and sniffed. Her breathing was short, as if she were seeking to avoid inhaling the stench of a rotting corpse.

I pushed aside a week’s worth of Boston Globe newspapers to make room for her on my threadbare, Danish modern sofa. She accepted the invitation with reluctance and sat cautiously, her knees together, her purse balanced on top of them as if she were expecting to be goosed by a wayward spring. When she removed her hat, her heavily-frosted coif seemed to pop back into the shape her stylist had intended when she left the shop—like a semi-inflated beach ball in the hot sun. I sat facing her on the matching easy chair that made you feel like you were sitting on a toilet without a seat.

“It’s pretty hot, no?” I held up my brew. “Can I get you something? I’ve got more in the fridge.” I pointed toward a back wall where the Kelvinator—part of my trio of dinged-up appliances that included a scarred metal sink and coffee-stained GE electric stove—whined asthmatically.

She declined my offer.

“I got some Canada Dry. Tropicana? Maxwell House?”

She rejected each proposal in turn until she must have finally decided that I wasn’t going to stop making offers. “I’ll just have a glass of water, please,” she said with resignation.

I shrugged. I retrieved one of my cleanest glasses from the cupboard while I let the water run, and then waited as long as I could for the rust color to fade. “It’ll settle,” I assured her as I placed a glass of the opaque liquid on the table in front of her and waited some more for her to get around to telling me what the hell she was doing in my pad.

She fiddled with the glass, turning it in circles, but avoided taking a sip. Finally she said, “You were recom-mended to us...to me, that is, by Timothy Cleary.” She jutted her prominent, cleft chin and scrunched her slightly upturned nose, making the etchings deepen at the corners of her eyes and mouth. “I need someone to conduct an investigation and prepare a report.”

I raised an eyebrow. Timothy Cleary was one of Gloucester’s most prominent attorneys. Senior partner of Cleary & Murphy, he’d served six terms on the City Council, one as mayor. Several years before, he’d turned down a governor’s appointment to be District Judge—Murphy took it. Now he shunned the spotlight.

The firm had originated as counselors to ship owners and the fish processing plants but, like the economy, it had morphed into representing real estate developers and the multi-nationals buying up everything of value in town. With offices above the Cape Ann Trust Company, Cleary & Murphy was the place to go if you wanted to get anything developed in Gloucester or Rockport. To be accepted as a client of Tim Cleary was to say you’d made it on Cape Ann.

I’d been a friend of old man Cleary’s son Jimmy since we were kids. We were among the very first surfers ever on the North Shore, but recently it seemed he’d moved on—grown up. The last time the surf was up, I couldn’t talk him into playing hooky from work. We used to call those jaunts “board meetings” but it was like he’d recently resigned. Still, Jimmy had pulled some major strings that summer to get me a few month’s work with the firm as an intern, work that had been undistinguished and which he knew would be spotty when there were waves to be ridden. So the recommendation was flattering yet curious. Ann Foster diSimone must have been a firm client, ergo wealthy, ergo able to pay, ergo fussy about who was involved in her affairs. Why the hell did the old man refer someone like her to someone like me? What incomprehensible piece of dirty work does he have in mind for me? “I’m not admitted yet,” I confessed.

She nodded. “Mr. Cleary told me.”

“I just graduated from Lowell Law School,” I disclosed, assuming that the lowly rank of the school would be a turnoff for a snob like her.

She smiled and I noticed a gap in her set of otherwise perfect white uppers. “He said you were just the person to make a few discrete inquiries on my behalf. He said that the investigators he knew wouldn’t be able to pry a word out of the kids, but that you probably could do it. If you didn’t know them, you’d know who did. I understand you surf. Kenny liked to surf.” She sniffed again.

“Just look out there, you dumb shit. Do you see any god-damn surf? Ocean’s been as flat as fucking stale beer since mid-September. No one surfs around here, lady,” I wanted to say. But I didn’t. Instead I stood up, straightened out my shirt and nodded in the direction of the ocean. “I was hoping for a hurricane season, some big waves to ride, but the great Kahuna’s gone AWOL.”

Was there anything I could say that would shake her determination to hire me? I decided to test the water. “I graduated in the top two-thirds of my class.”

“That’s wonderful,” she replied.

She didn’t give a damn about my pathetic academic re-cord. “I can’t work as an investigator,” I tried to explain. “Investigators need to be licensed. I’m not. Mr. Cleary knows that.”

“Mr. Cleary said you could work for me under the aegis of his firm.”

My eyes widened. “He did, huh?”

“And...that you’d be less expensive than an associate...” She blinked her baby blues in my direction.

“He did, huh?” My eyes narrowed. “Did he happen to mention my fee?”

“He said he’d leave that up to you. That he knew you’d be reasonable, once you heard the story.”

“I knew there’d be a story,” I said.

She grimaced. “My son was killed a month ago,” she replied almost as an admonishment while taking a nip on her lower lip to keep back tears. “He was shot.” She looked past me into the haze of Massachusetts Bay and continued, as if by rote. “The coroner ruled it suicide. They said Kenny had been playing Russian roulette.” She pulled back her far-away stare and caught my eye. “But that’s not what killed him. He was murdered.”

I felt like a heel. “Murdered? Like during a burglary or a fight, or premeditated?”

“The latter.” She refused to release her gaze.

“How do you know?”

“A mother knows these things.”

She must have seen my skepticism. “I’m not crazy, Mr. Lewis,” she said, teeth bared. “I know my son.” She pulled a worn front page from a Daily Times, dateline Wednesday, September 18, 1969, and pressed it into my palm.

TEEN FOUND SHOT DEAD.
 

Kenneth diSimone, 17, son of a prominent Gloucester family, was found dead of a gunshot wound yesterday at the family home. Police chief Jack Dunfey told the Times that the wound appeared to be self-inflicted.
 

Police reported that Ann Foster diSimone, the victim’s mother, found the teenager dead after re-turning from shopping. The victim was a popular junior at Gloucester High and a star halfback on the “Fighting Fishermen” football team, earning honor-able mention last year from the Eastern Mass Coaches’ Poll.
 

The victim’s stepfather, Gloucester developer Stephen diSimone, owner of the weapon involved, told the Times that his stepson was trained and experienced in the handling of firearms. District Attorney Kevin Rohan said that his office would review the matter once the police complete their investigation.

I finished reading and looked up.

“Do you know Doc Oliver?” she asked.

“Of course.” I nodded. Everyone knew the Doc. Bumbling quack turned druggist but in reality, soda jerk. “He’s just down on the corner. What’s he got to do with this?”

“He’s the assistant coroner who came up with the suicide opinion,” she said, her eyes rolling. “Enough said. Now, these.” She slid me a coroner’s report, a toxicology report, an autopsy report, a forensic physical evidence examination re-port, a reconstruction analysis, and a psychiatric report. The packet was two inches thick.

“Whoa!” I held up my hands to stop her. “I haven’t decided to take the case yet. That’s a lot of stuff. I need to talk to Mr. Cleary first. I shouldn’t even be looking at any of this stuff ’til I’ve got his okay to open a file. Besides, I only plan to be around for another two or three weeks at the most. Until I know whether I’m going to get drafted or not. If not, I’m heading to the Coast, maybe Hawaii.”

“Two or three weeks should be quite sufficient,” she said, replacing the paperwork in her purse. “It’s a small town.”

“What if I was to take the job, and I came to the conclusion that he did kill himself?” I asked.
She seemed to shudder at the possibility, caught herself and smiled. “But he most certainly did not kill himself, Mr. Lewis.”

“Could he have been having some kind of problem, a breakdown or something that would have made him depressed?”

She patted the stack of paper. “There’s a psychiatric re-port in the packet. They interviewed some of Kenny’s friends. You can start there if you want. But you should know, Mr. Lewis, Kenny was not insane. We were planning a trip to Hawaii for Christmas and he was quite excited about it. Now if he were planning to commit suicide, would he be acting that way? I doubt it. Don’t you?” She stood up and straightened her clothing. “Do you have a, uh, bathroom?”

It was a valid question, given what she’d seen of the place. “Sure.” I pointed to the door to my tiny bedroom, barely large enough for a double bed, a bureau and a night-stand. “Through there,” I said. “Don’t flush.”

She screwed up her face as if I’d offered her a trench latrine.

“This used to be a garage,” I explained. “That’s why it’s right up to the edge of Shore Road. It’s built on bedrock. Not a good choice for a septic system. So it backs up a lot. Landlord won’t fix it. I get about two flushes a day.”

“What do you do after that?” she asked, as if I were a do-cent on a slum tour.

“Mike’s Sunoco is only a couple of blocks down,” I told her while pulling on the logo of my shirt.

She decided to forgo the facilities. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Lewis,” she said, edging her way toward the door.

“I’ll talk to Mr. Cleary about this,” I replied, slowing down her departure. “If he gives me the okay, I’d like to meet at your home. You know, check out the scene. We can dis-cuss a fee then and I’ll take a look at the papers.”

She nodded and decided there was more to be said. “I found him, Nathan.” She choked it out. Blood rushed to her cheeks. Her temples began to throb. “I found my son, my child. On the floor. In his own blood—my flesh and blood.” She blinked again and again. “It’s not like at funerals, Nathan. They make the dead look good at funerals. What I saw was nothing like that. Nothing.” I thought she might cry, but she didn’t. Patricians don’t do that sort of thing with strangers. They were born with those stiff upper lips.

“The police took pictures. They didn’t want to give me copies. They said that the photos would be too disturbing.” She tapped her file. “How much more disturbing could they be than actually seeing your own child lying there? Touching his still-warm skin. The more they refused the more I had to have them. To remind me, Nathan. To remind me not to give up. I don’t know what your religion is,” she said, almost as an afterthought. “I’m Catholic. In our religion, suicide is a sin. I won’t have Kenny dying under this cloud. Do you understand? I won’t have it.” She gave me a thin smile. “I want someone who really wants to do this investigation, Nathan. Please don’t humor me.”

“No, no. I just need to talk to Mr. Cleary first. Give me your address and phone number. I’ll be in touch tomorrow.”

She handed me an embossed card with her information. I accompanied her to the door. “Please accept my condolences,” I said, touching her arm lightly, uncertain of what else to do.

She stepped down onto the landing. “I’ll be expecting your call, Nathan.”

I watched after her as she took the steps gracefully. She slipped behind the wheel of the black and chrome Caddy that was reflecting the late afternoon sun like a De Beers diamond. She didn’t return my wave.

The glass of water had cleared. I looked at her card. 375 Hesperus Ave. The stone mansion across the way from the Hammond Castle. So she lives in that place! I always wanted to know who the rich SOBs were who lived there. Tomorrow, I’d actually get to see the inside.

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