by Pierre Anton Taylor
Wayne had been impulsive. He knew that. The whole idea, the lie to cover his suspicions. It was a pipe dream. Even Old Dad would have considered it foolish. Leave the past, look to the future. Well, his future had passed. And what was left of his beginning was the old Battery Works, and the nostalgia for what he remembered as a happier time. His formative years, before being packed off to a succession of elite boarding schools that were really just warehouses for the children of the idle rich where he learned that wealth equaled power and privilege, it was the Ur currency. And that no one was ever equal or happy in their constant and ruthless jockeying for status as an endless savage battle to be king of the hill. There was only room for one at the top in a world of corrupt patricians and to remain at the top required a brutal inhumanity. The kindness and equanimity he had observed in Old Dad in his younger days had been undermined by a spiteful meanness and blatant cruelty. And maybe he wanted to recapture that innocence of those bygone days by turning the dilapidated battery factory into a monument to that memory.
He was occupying his father’s penthouse apartment now, a perk on the company dime. He could survey the entire city from his perch at the wide window looking out onto the marble deck of the balcony. The landing lights of a passenger jet heading for the municipal airport that the city council was now slated to vote on naming the Wallace W. Bruce Airport crossed his field of vision. The parallel arrays of lighted city streets and the winking red tail lights and white bright head light beams that travelled them. The cacophony of neon marking nightclub entertainment and dining, the garish ostentation of major brand billboards, the imposing corporate skyscrapers with their lighted empty offices emblazoned with their two story logos. Bruce Enterprise being one of the pretentious eyefuls with it cryptic minimalist brand of three horizontal lines followed by a full height vertical line and the three mirrored parallels again. BE, a minimalist icon if there ever was one. How many times had he stood at that window, taken in the night lit panorama and stopped his gaze at the office tower only to be nudged by that famous quote he often parodied: “To be or not to be is not the question.”
Beyond the bright lights at the far east edge of the city center, the haze of the old industrial district sodium flare streetlights cast a stark shadowless orange on the abandoned buildings and neglected apartment blocks. Out there, in one of the pockets of dark, he was going to direct all eyes to his accomplishment, a memorial, a museum, a community center and park. The trick was to not draw attention to himself. Inevitably it would leak to the press that the scion of the Bruce fortune was applying to the planning commission for a variance on the property. One of the BATS staff would release a statement indicating that the Advanced Technical Systems division would be relocating its administrative offices to the old battery works pending an EIR and a clean bill from the EPA. Everything by the book.
Wayne wandered away from the window. The lab report on his desk. Something was not right. He looked at it again. They had done a thorough scan of the contaminated area, grid by grid. In only one section did they get a hit. It was an anomaly. And it hadn’t penetrated very deep. Heavy metals associated with battery manufacture. The toxic sample was a match with the one listed on the Super Fund document. It claimed that the entire area was contaminated. The millions of dollars the cleanup contractor was charging was preposterous. The cost of the actual cleanup was negligible, it was the paperwork and the lawyers and politician, the machinery of local government whose gears needed to be greased that bled the budget. Someone was going to make millions skimming off the top. He recognized it as a scam. The site was not toxic. A lot of Federal money was poised to be spent on the cleanup, and someone would be getting a hefty percentage. He remembered plaques and civic awards on Old Dad’s office walls had been awarded for his conscientiousness, his concern for worker safety. Old Bruce had been diligent in securing and disposing of any waste, toxic or otherwise. The site had been seeded and the report falsified.
And Harold was complicit in the plan. How much did he know? He could come to no other conclusion. But why? Was it possible that the old man had found out and confronted his brother? If it were ever to come to come out, the fraud would jeopardize Bruce Enterprise’s government contracts. Old Dad would never allow that.
Ray Tso had returned Wayne’s call with the answer to his inquiry. According to a friend of his who was in the US Attorney’s office, there was an interest in policing instances of fraud associated with the Toxic Superfund. It was one of those government programs that attracted dishonesty, he’d added. There was something else that might interest him. A message had been left for him on his answering machine in the DA’s office overnight. Nothing verbal, but the machine had identified the caller’s number. Out of curiosity he had called the number only to be informed that it was no longer in service.
“So I called someone I know at the phone company and had them trace it. It took a while, but when I heard back, they confirmed that it was out of service and had been so for quite a few years. It was part of a bundle of numbers Bruce Enterprise had purchased years ago. Its physical location was the old Battery factory. It came from your old man’s office.”
“When was the called placed?”
“Not more than a week ago, I can get the exact date for you. I think it was the same day that there was that strange altercation on the Arnold expressway, the van fire and something about a kidnapping, some guy on a motorcycle, if that’s any help.”
“I didn’t hear about that.”
“They think it’s the same guy, some kind of vigilante doing nobody any favors. The odd purse snatching, petty theft, vandalism are just a consequence of the larger crime by people who don’t get their hands dirty.”
“Remind me again, you work for the DA not the Public Defender, right.”
“Yeah, sometimes I think Tara wonders as well. I’m the token idealist. Anyway, I thought I’d run that by you. It was weird, and I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“What was the number?”
Wayne had reason to suspect that it was the unknown number he’d received the day he’d discovered an office full of cats and that someone had been living in the old office building. Scrolling through his pager he found it and the two most recent. He had called the number when it no longer seemed like a coincidence and had bumped into the same out of service dead end. His own search of the reverse directory had only confirmed that it was no longer functioning. He didn’t want to believe in ghosts, either, or coincidences.
The BATS lab report on the sample of vomit the homicide detective had provided had not found anything other than what had been ingested by Wallace Bruce the evening of his death. Absent an autopsy, there was no real evidence of foul play. Yet the absence of evidence seemed to confirm his suspicions.
Reconstructing the old man’s last day had not been difficult. He’d had his usual breakfast at the Empire Club, once the haunt of rail barons, now catering to the more well to do among the well to do. It retained its 19th century stuffiness like a badge of honor. The staff were only too pleased to be of assistance, and the manager inquired if he had given any thought to becoming a member, follow in his father’s footsteps. If so, they’d be delighted to have him.
The car service had picked him up and taken to the country club, his regular driver, Cornell, affirmed. That was just before ten. The country club listed his tee time for a foursome at ten. Linus Pall was one of the quartet, Aldo Ring, a city councilman, and also a name that was not familiar to him. One of the staff at the Pro Shop said she’d heard that there had been a loud argument in the locker room between Doctor Pall and another man who was not a club member but a guest. The restaurant staff served Mr. Bruce at his usual table and he had had his usual French Dip and iceberg lettuce salad with tomato and mayonnaise. And of course iced tea.
The midday shift host was Emily and had probably been there since the restaurant’s beginning. Wayne knew her and she knew Wayne. The only thing unusual was that his father had lingered longer than he usually did. Maybe he was waiting for someone or something. Another round of golf. It was not unheard of, but it was usually the younger guys who had the stamina to attempt it. Cornell had picked him up at three from the country club and took him back to the penthouse. The boss told him he wouldn’t need him any longer and he could take the night off. On his dime. Cornell knew what that meant.
The lobby camera was focused on the main banks of elevator doors, the penthouse elevator appeared only as a peripheral image but enough to show the old man insert the key followed by the doors sliding open. The time date stamp read 3:30 and the concierge had noted his arrival in the register as well. Confirmed by the doorman who had been minding the door at least as long as Emily had been hosting tables, Rodrigo was his name.
Rodrigo flagged a cab for him at around 8 PM. A Red Dot cab. He didn’t recognize the cabbie. The woman answering the phone at the Red Dot Cab Company was polite but firm, “If you ain’t the cops, get a court order.” He had consulted with Gordon James. The detective knew someone, one of the drivers owed him a favor, unofficially, of course. The driver remembered the old man because of where he dropped him off. In the warehouse district where they hold raves and fly by night clubs that are essentially transient drug shops trying to stay one step in front of the law. In the detective’s opinion. The club he dropped him off at was called Joker’s Wild.
When Wayne showed up at the club, it was closed but someone was inside cleaning up. It was a large open warehouse bay, painted black, catwalks skirting what was ostensibly a dance floor, cluttered with the debris of the previous night’s activity. There was a bar near the front of the door. The man sitting at the bar stool with the push broom in his hand was the manager as well as one of the bartenders, the DJ, and sometimes the doorman. His name was Peter. He’d looked at the corporate photo of Wallace Bruce and shook his head.
“No, I’ve seen old guys come in here before but they never stay long. I know this guy, right? On TV?”
“My father, Wallace Bruce. And I agree, he would not normally come to this kind of night club. He was more of a Bach Brahms Big Band Swing kind of guy. Does anything strike you as unusual about that night? More old guys than usual? Bigger crowd, smaller crowd?”
“The only older guys that come here regular are the gorilla suits sent by Joe Kerr and they only stay long enough to pick up their cut. That night was like most nights, although it doesn’t get as crazy as the weekend, but it was hopping. One night blends into the next, as you can imagine. Yeah, sorry I can’t help you. . .except, wait, maybe that was the night the society dame was in here with a gaggle of spoiled brats. I don’t know what they were wasted on, but they were in the upper stratosphere. Teeny, one of the waitresses had to deal with them. They commandeered a booth by the stage and were capping on the dancers, you know ridiculing their moves, that kind of privileged it’s-all-about-me attention seeking. So Teeny says, ‘You know who that is, don’t you? That’s Charlotte Taste.’ That’s how I knew they weren’t just some uptown trade. And ok, you may be right, because, Teeny again, stepped out the side door to get some air. It can get pretty smokey and close in here, as you can imagine. And I put it out of my mind, but Teeny said she saw Charlotte Taste arguing with her sugar daddy out by the parking lot. And I thought that it was just Teeny talking because she does do that to make up for her size, you know, because she’s tiny. But she’s tough, don’t get me wrong. Anyway. I dismissed it because I thought, if she’s this high class society dame, what’s she need a sugar daddy for?”
The lobby camera at the Legacy had caught Old Bruce crossing to the penthouse elevator at around eleven that night. Wayne had replayed the ghostly low resolution footage numerous times as if it would reveal what had happened to his father in the three hours from the time he had been dropped off at Joker’s Wild and his return to the penthouse. With the exception a slight slowness and weave to the old man’s walk and his leaning a hand on the wall next to the elevator to steady himself while he searched for his keys, nothing seemed unusual or out of place.
What was unusual was his meeting with Charlotte at the night club, if it had been him the waitress had seen arguing with his fiancé, ex-fiancé, and that seemed so out of character. Old Dad was always so circumspect when dealing with volatile issues, the calm in the midst of a storm, his management style firm but one of consensus and de-escalation. He would have to talk to Charlotte to get her side of the story. Another loose end he had yet to tie up. She hadn’t returned any of his calls. He didn’t blame her after the way he had broken off their engagement. His father’s passing had dropped into his otherwise uneventful life like a landslide of huge boulders obstructing the path ahead, and until the roadway was cleared, he could not move forward and resume the life that had been mapped out for him as part of his father’s business legacy and, of course, his mother’s outsized social ambition.
Accompanying by his cogitations, Wayne’s pacing in the book lined study had brought him in front of the gas fireplace and the large portrait oil of his father that hung above the marble mantel. The old man hated the painting Trish had made him sit for as a mark of his status as a captain of industry. Old Dad had made many disparaging comments about the painting, particularly at the pretentiousness of such a display, and had hidden the canvas at the back of the wardrobe in master bedroom of the penthouse. Wayne had found it and restored to its spot above the flickering flames of the fireplace.
He contemplated the painted figure with a bitter sadness that slowly transformed to a helpless rage that brought tears to his eyes. If the picture could talk it would insist on vengeance for the old man’s murder, he was convinced. It bothered him that his suspicion centered on his uncle, Harold. Could the Superfund scam have gone ahead without his says so, without the old man knowing? Add to that Harold’s now vehement opposition to the restoration of the old battery factory as a memorial to the old man’s memory. He kept insisting that it was too late, the contracts had been signed, that they would be sued. He had yet to confront the new president of Bruce Enterprise with his evidence of fraud, details of which he was perhaps already familiar.
Turning, he lifted the contract from the folder and read again the name of the company, JKR Waste Management & Drayage, Inc., an address in the next State over. Near where the old man had gone on his golfing junket not long ago as a matter of fact. He picked up the phone and dialed a number, let it ring twice, and hung up. Shortly the phone on the desk rang and he put the receiver to his ear. There was silence. Then a voice said, “Speak.”
“Robin, I hope I didn‘t wake you.”
“Night is the best time for what I do. I never get to bed before dawn.”
“Like a bat.”
“Yeah, except my name, Robin, is a bird. What can I do you for?”
“I require your off the books research skills. A deep dive into tax records, incorporation papers, who their lawyers are, a full work up. Can you fit that in you nocturnal schedule?”
“As they say, the early bird gets the worm. What they don’t say is that the early bird has been up all night waiting for that worm so that he can get it and go take a nap.”
“I’m sorry I asked.”
“I’m still tracking the source of that DARPA leak. I’ve been dialing in on a lot of conference calls and the talk is that rogue engineers are getting to be like rock bands, they’re working out of their garages. IBM is pissed. They want to go after the independents like they did Olivetti.”
“That must be interesting to eavesdrop on.”
“Unfortunately like any group discussion there are a few lucid moments, the rest of the time it’s like being in a ping pong ball free-for-all, everyone bouncing their crazy ideas off the wall.”
“This shouldn’t take up too much of your phone phreak time. JKR Waste Management & Drayage, address over the State line. The usual work up.”
“That figures, the tax break State. For the right people, at least. It goes to the top of the list.”
Thanks, anything else in the wind?”
“No, nothing, the usual chitchat and scuttlebutt. Oh, but that there might be some kind of vigilante operating in the east end. Beating up people. It’s not very credible. Someone’s been reading too many comic books.”
“Maybe. One last thing. Is it possible that a phone number that has been out of service for almost a dozen years could be dialing up my pager?”
“Not likely. Unless someone has found a way to reactivate the number. It’s either that or a ghost.”