henever the weather turned bitter cold, when the streets were filled with blaring carols and when I felt like I was being strangled with boughs of holly, I didn’t think about winter wonderlands or a manger in Bethlehem. I thought about a young girl I hardly knew as brave and dumb as only a nineteen year-old could be. I thought about a friend as brave and dumb as a man, who thought he knew everything, could be. And I thought about a woman who could have been everything.
It started on a cold Wednesday back in 1953. I was with some friends. The Wednesday Night Fights were on TV. If it had been Friday, it would have been the Friday Night Fights. If it had been Monday, it would have been the Monday Night Fights. Between boxing and wrestling, you couldn’t turn on a television set without seeing two muscular men in shorts or tights trying to hurt one another—or at least pretending to.
We were all veterans. Larry was a marine in the Pacific. Billy had done convoy duty in the Atlantic. Freddie and I had been in Europe. We never talked about the war. But it was always there in the background. So once every week or so we would get together to pretend it didn’t matter. But we all knew it did. It was the only thing that mattered. Sometimes we played cards, but, mostly, we watched fights on television and ragged on each other.
This Wednesday, it was at Larry Kennedy’s house. Larry didn’t have a wife anymore so it was easy for him to host the fights. Two months after he got back from Korea with about six ounces of Chinese steel floating around in his left leg, Katie announced she was going to Florida with Ham Hammernick who used to deliver oil to the house. Two wars in less than ten years had been too much for her. She took everything but the big easy chair she said smelled like Larry and the TV that rolled the picture.
Since she had left in April, Larry had bought nothing to replace his living room furniture. We had to sit on a set of wooden fold up chairs that Larry stole from the Elks summer picnic. On the back of each chair were stenciled the large black letters B.P.O.E. It was a pretty grim setting, but it was Larry’s turn. Billy had the best set, a big blond DuMont, but his wife told him that she didn’t want the smoke, the beer, and, especially, the swearing in her house anymore. And, anyway, she didn’t like us. She wanted her husband to finish the bathroom they were putting in place of a hall closet. We were holding up the job.
We weren’t too crazy about her either. She covered the living room with placemats and coasters when we came. But we put up with her because Billy had the best set with the best reception. Larry’s picture rolled when the set got hot. On baseball nights, we would turn the set off for the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings so it could cool down. If it were a good game, we would watch right through the rolls. You could almost see everything. When we watched the fights, the set made boxing very acrobatic.
When I got to Larry’s, Freddie Greenbaum was there. Freddie didn’t come to the fights that often anymore, maybe once a month. He had two hardware stores now. So he had started making excuses. Soon we knew it would be, “Anybody seen Freddie around.”
As soon as he saw me, he got up. I could see he had more than the fights on his mind.
“Hey, Greenie,” I said. “Long time no see.”
“Yeah, I know. I miss it, but the second store is…it needs more work than I ever thought. Look, Varian, can I ask you a favor?” He was very serious.
“Sure, Greenie, long as it doesn’t cost time or money.”
He gave me a hurt look. “That’s all right,” he said slowly as if to impress me with his sense of purpose.
“I’m kiddin’. Kiddin’.” I knew it was serious.
Freddie Greenbaum and I had spent the last month of the war together, waiting for our orders and then bunking six inches from each other on one of the Liberty ships that brought us all back like candles in a box. In what had to be one of the biggest games of the war, Freddie Greenbaum had won enough shooting craps on the deck to buy his first store as soon as he got back.
Guys would bet three years’ pay on a hard four. I remember one big lunk from Oklahoma. He was a big redheaded guy with a face like a twelve-year-old. Like Huck Finn must have looked. He even had the freckles. I saw him on the deck, looking back toward Europe, one day after he had thrown his pay away on nines and fives.
“Tough luck,” I said.
Not talking to me in particular, he turned and said, “I can’t make any money on this war.”
I knew what he meant, even if I didn’t agree. It was enough to be going home with two legs and two eyes. There were too many who weren’t coming home at all—men who hadn’t died to save the world, but who had given their lives for their buddies. We spent a lot of time on those miserably slow boats thinking about them, wondering how long we would remember them when the ships docked and our lives started over again.
There were lots of guys whose money produced only guilt. So somebody like Freddie had fairly easy pickings. He won so much that I had to guard him so that he could get some sleep. In a moment of euphoria, he offered to go partners with me. He had been thinking about the store for years. He knew there would be a building boom when we got back with lots of guys trying to cut costs by doing some of the work themselves. But I turned it down. I just took the money for guarding him. At the time, I had big dreams, too. I couldn’t see myself selling lawn seed and ladders for the rest of my life.
I had been to Paris. I had a picture taken in front of Shakespeare & Co. I saw myself, somewhat vaguely, I admit, as part of a larger world—a world of adventure called to me and not Black & Decker. In the eight years since we had walked off the boat, he never mentioned his generous, drunken offer. He and I both knew that the offer had been genuine, but it was a one-time thing. In the grand scheme of things, it had been my mistake. I knew it and he knew it. It never came up and we were still friends.
“What’s the problem?” I tried to make my voice sound serious. It’s hard when you only had a good time on your mind.
“Let’s go outside.”
We made our awkward excuses.
“Whatever you need Greenie,” Larry said.
We entered the cold air, each of us taking a deep breath.
“You know Manny, my brother?” Freddie asked.
“Yeah, the doctor. I met him at your daughter’s party. The one…” I tried to remember what it was for, but I didn’t need to.
“He’s got a daughter, too. A year older than Annie. It seems she’s disappeared. She’s up at UConn. She never came back to school after Thanksgiving vacation.”
“Do you want me to look into it for you?”
“I want you to find her. I’ll pay whatever you get, and more. Whatever it takes. I told Manny you would help. I should have asked, but he was beside himself. I had to tell him something. I had to do something. You were the only one, the first one I thought of. We go back—If you have something else going, if you have to finish whatever, I’ll take care of that, too. Get somebody to take over. I’ll pay. What do you need?”
“Hold on, hold on. These things are usually a false alarm. They’re kids, you know. They’ll drive you—”
“I just want you on this, Varian. I have a real bad feeling about this. Real bad.”
“You don’t know Lara. She’s the perfect kid. She’ll call home if she hits too many red lights—she’s that way. Annie sometimes forgets where she lives. I wouldn’t be surprised if Annie didn’t come home at all sometimes, and she’s only eighteen. But Lara. I don’t know. You meet her once. You can’t forget her. Do you know her third grade teacher came to her high school graduation? She said that Lara was the smartest, brightest…”
I could see that Freddie was beginning to lose it. I didn’t like seeing him this way. I wanted to tell him that it would be all right. I wanted to tell him the things that a friend would say, should say, those meaningless little gestures of reassurance we offered those who are suffering that were really about our own discomfort. I could say those things to Larry when his wife left him. I could tell him that he was better off without her, even though I could tell that he wished that she had stayed. His eyes told me that he was lost without her. I could tell Larry what I couldn’t tell Fred. Because losing wives and children were different. I knew that without having either.
As soon as he told me what he wanted, I was working for him. But I had to be a professional. It was all I had. What I did was find things, fix things, and figure things out. I began to question Freddie about Lara. I could tell that he just wanted me to take over. To fix it. To make things right. To get the weight of it off his shoulders.
“I’ve got to see Manny.”
“Can you see him tonight?”
I knew Manny was waiting for me. “Well, why not? Sure.”
“Here’s two hundred. That’s enough right, to start?”
“What do I want with that?”
“Varian, I want you on this because you are a friend. But it’s more than that. I want you because you are good. I don’t want this to be a favor. Do you know what I mean? It’s more important than that. It’s family. My family.”
“But you said—”
“I know what I said. But this is what I mean. I want you to work on this full time. All the time until…she’s back. Take it from me, I know about business. It’s better if, from now on, it’s business. And money makes it business. It’s the only way.”
I knew he was right. I went back in to say my good-byes to Larry and Billy. I told them I had something to take care of. They were trying to follow Chico Vejar as he rolled over and over on the screen trying to avoid Kid Gavilan’s left hooks. They mumbled something without moving their crooked necks.
Fred had decided that it would be better if I went to Manny’s alone. So we said our awkward farewells as we walked next to each other to our cars. Freddie went to his new Caddy and I to my old Chevy. Just before he got into his car, he stopped and looked as if he wanted to say something. I waited. I stopped and listened to the icy wind coming in from the north. He looked at me and then looked at his shoes. I took the hint and got into my car.
There was already frost on the window and my defroster was on the fritz. There was ice on the inside of the window. I used my hand to try to scrape off a little spot so that I could drive. I remembered listening to Freddie talk his way to sleep after shooting dice for twelve straight hours. He was high from the money and the excitement. As I drove north, I could hear his voice that came from somewhere out of that time…
Excerpted from "Delicious Little Traitor: ~ A Varian Pike Mystery (Varian Pike Mysteries) (Volume 1)" by Jack DeWitt. Copyright © 0 by Jack DeWitt. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.