By Robert Pesa
Robert Pesa's crime and literary short stories have appeared in such publications as Conversely, Mysterical-E, Gorilla Magazine, and Shred of Evidence. His short story, "Love Triangle," was nominated for a 2005 Pushcart prize by the online literary magazine Amarillo Bay. He has just completed his first novel, a detective thriller set on the railway system of the east coast. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and four daughters.
It was only later, some time after the robbery but before the second miracle, that Colson thought he understood what the holistic guy meant by balance. That had been after two visits to the small walkup above the nail salon, Colson making the mistake, the first time, of smoking and talking on his cell phone during the prayer ritual in the waiting room. But after some sidelong glances he had gotten with it, standing and mouthing the English parts of the prayers while he waited for his turn to go in and see the healer. After that the old women had ignored him, thumbing through their rosaries in slow unison, casting their murmured prayers at the shrine of fresh flowers and candles in the corner.
That first time Colson had worried, wondering whether the healer would somehow see through him, knowing what Colson did and judging him on his way of life. But when he finally got in to see him, the man, who introduced himself as Richard, had surprised him, not getting into Colson’s occupation but immediately asking why he was here, how he could help. Colson had also been surprised by Richard’s look, expecting a religious persona, but finding Richard behind the big oak desk in jeans and a Red Sox pullover, his hair swept back in a contemporary style. Also by his eyes, which had a look that said Richard enjoyed a taste of the communion wine now and then.
“I’m told you can heal people,” Colson said, sitting in the stiff wooden chair and trying to keep his eyes from wandering, the office itself more shrine-like than the waiting room. Statuettes, crucifixes, goblets, most of them gold. Apparently there was money in healing.
Richard looked at Colson over the desk, smiling. “That depends on the ailment.” His accent was Portuguese, no surprise in this section of town; all the faithful out in the waiting room, mostly older women but a few younger, were either first- or second-generation Azorean. Colson’s only attempt at small talk had been with an attractive young woman, but her response had sailed past him, Colson’s rudimentary Portuguese good for ordering food or a pack of cigarettes but useless when it came to listening.
Instead of describing his ailment, Colson stood, wincing, and lifted the back of his shirt. The gash, just below the line of his ribs, had taken on too many colors, a polluted sunset. It oozed something yellow when he twisted.
“How did this happen?” Richard said, his features temporarily collapsing into a look of concern.
Colson dropped the tail of his shirt – tucking it in would have hurt too much – and sat again. “Occupational hazard.”
“Why aren’t you going to the hospital?”
Colson had anticipated the question. “I have no insurance.”
Richard slowly nodded, then, “That is not the type of problem I usually help with. Arthritis, bad circulation, these are the things people come to me for. Also sometimes –”
“So you can’t do anything?” Colson would have stood to leave but for the moment it felt better to stay seated.
Richard didn’t answer at first. He watched Colson with his red-rimmed eyes. Colson stared back, beginning to think he was wrong about the look, maybe not alcohol but something else, possibly fatigue, or maybe Richard had been weeping before Colson came in. There were stories, the man extracting evil spirits from people’s bodies, taking them into his own.
“You steal things from people,” Richard finally said.
Colson’s eye had drifted to a golden chalice on a shelf in the far corner. He had an eye for valuables and this thing looked like it was worth something. Now he looked back at Richard. “What?”
“You are a thief.” Richard’s tone was neither critical nor accusing. His smile remained constant, unless it had taken on a more perceptive slant, which Colson didn’t know him well enough to call.
Colson thought of asking the obvious, how Richard knew that, but did a slow three count and rejected it. Instead he said, “I was told you look past certain things.”
“I don’t mention it to make a judgment. Only that it affects the way I treat you.”
Richard paused again, this time so long that Colson had to resist the temptation to speak.
“You have to trust my treatment,” Richard said at last. Colson noticed that for the first time Richard’s smile was gone. “You may not understand it, but you must follow the steps as I tell them. You must have faith.”
“You’ll give me some medicine?”
“Healing is about restoring balance in the soul. Nothing more.”
“Balance,” Colson said.
Colson thought about the ritual in the waiting area, wondering if Richard was going to send him to church, make him say a dozen Hail Marys or something, light some candles. He shrugged.
Richard peeled a sticky note from a pad on his desk, began writing.
“Even some ointment,” Colson said. “Some topical stuff?”
But Richard wasn’t listening.
On a Sunday evening three days later, Colson sat in his Olds watching the residential address Richard had given him. A run-down duplex, the left side dark, the right being used for a small fence operation. Three nights, the routine had been the same: two men, angling an SUV into the tiny driveway and unloading stolen goods, then disappearing into the house for two hours. Then around nine one of them always leaving in the SUV, coming back ten minutes later with something from the chicken place down the street.
So a ten-minute window to do what Richard had asked. The place had to be wall-to-wall goods after what Colson had seen going in. Electronics equipment, appliances, even some crates of cigars, he assumed Cuban. But the balls of it was, he was only here to take the goddamned head scarf. Nothing else; Richard had been adamant about that.
Part of him – a big part – wanted to go back and tell Richard to go to hell. The man who stayed behind each night almost certainly kept a gun in the place, probably on his person. The street was dark, nearly deserted, the only light coming from an anemic street lamp, half a block away and shrouded in fog. He could get his ass shot off here and no one would ever know.
Colson’s real niche was stores. Package stores mostly, but also convenience stores if you could time it right. Wait for a break in the customer flow and get in and out, taking whatever was in the register, hoping the lazy help had been delinquent with the drop safe, which they usually were.
But then he had found this little section of town, an unexpected vein of gold. Most of the old school Portuguese carried cash, none of the first generation putting their faith in banks, many unable to speak enough English to maintain an account anyway. And the proprietors of the small markets were too naive to keep a drop safe, thinking they were still in the Azores where everyone knew each others’ names.
It was that same trust that caused the proprietors, for the most part, to be unarmed. Seven stores over a four-week period, and not a single weapon. Until the asshole with the machete, that was. Colson rubbed his side with the memory, the wound still on fire, even after two weeks.
“No bags,” the old woman behind the counter had said in broken English, the machete-wielding husband still out of sight. At first Colson thought she was refusing to give him one. Then realized, to his astonishment, that the place didn’t offer bags. Six other markets, all of them providing bags to take home groceries, then this one – no bags, nowhere for Colson to put the money from the register. What kind of market didn’t offer a bag?
Colson had looked around, spotted nothing. Then noticed the old woman’s head scarf. By then the husband had shown up behind the counter, coming in from a back room, his hands empty, his tired eyes going wide at the sight of the gun.
“Take the money,” the husband said, his old-man voice hoarse, his gnarled fingers making shooing gestures in Colson’s direction.
Colson looked down at the scatter of bills on the counter, mostly ones and fives but also several tens and twenties in the mix. No way to corral it in with his single free hand. Then nowhere to put it if he did.
He pointed the pistol at the old woman’s head. “Take it off.”
She cringed, squinting her eyes, but didn’t move, her hands still raised. It took Colson a moment to realize she didn’t understand.
“The scarf.” He made a gesture with his free hand, miming the act of removing the scarf. “Take it off. Put the money in it.”
She glanced at her husband, who apparently spoke better English. His face had gone ashen. Colson watched as he rattled off a few short sentences in Portuguese.
The woman looked back at Colson. Her wrinkled face had pinched into a look – to Colson’s mind – of unwarranted horror. She made no move to remove the scarf, her hands still thrust stiffly in the air.
“Do it now, Vovozinha,” Colson said, using the word for grandmother, one of the few he had learned during his brief stakeouts of the markets. He found he could be more intimidating by using personal references.
But the woman only wailed, her voice trailing off into a string of unintelligible language, the words slurring together in the mushy way these people had of speaking. She began blessing herself and looking at the market’s dingy ceiling.
All this for a scarf, Colson thought. The thing all natty, showing through in places where the blue fabric had worn thin, the white patterned edging gone almost beige with age. It hung to her shoulders, a style Colson associated with peasants, women stooping in fields.
In the end the woman had done it, but by then Colson had been distracted and didn’t see the husband coming around the counter. Where he had gotten the machete, Colson couldn’t tell. Colson had given him a good knock with the butt of the gun, but not before the old bastard had slashed him, the pain bright and instantaneous as Colson pushed through the door and got out.
After the robbery, Colson had passed the scarf to one of his fences, recycling it to hold a handful of cheap rhinestone jewelry he had scooped out of a counter display at a liquor store. Somehow Richard had found out where it went from there, had put Colson up to getting it back. Full circle, whether by design or coincidence Colson didn’t know. And in any case worth it if Richard could stop the pain in his goddamned side. Colson had finally talked him into some ointment and herbal pills, but the thing still throbbed.
Now that he was here, in the nighttime fog outside the duplex, Colson felt like an ass, following the man’s instructions. But something about Richard also made him feel funny – he couldn’t explain it – like he wanted to please him. He couldn’t remember feeling that way since elementary school, wanting to please his teacher, and not so much even then, his rebellious nature already showing itself at that age.
At 9:03 PM, as Colson watched, the right-hand door swung open and the shorter of the two men stepped out and climbed into the SUV. Once he had disappeared, swallowed up by the fog at the end of the street, Colson checked the load in his Sig, took a breath, and went in.
The robbery itself went like clockwork, the tall guy almost shitting his pants when he saw the gun, telling Colson to take whatever he wanted. Colson had looked around, goods scattered everywhere, piled on the floor or heaped on the furniture, even on top of the stove burners, which Colson didn’t think was a sound safety practice but declined to point out. It took about four minutes – Colson timing it on his watch – to locate the scarf, draped over a silver bird cage in the bathroom. Colson slipped it off, expecting to find a squawking bird, but the parrot was dead at the bottom of the cage, its yellow feathers jutting out at odd angles.
Six minutes to spare, with the tall man still cowed in a corner, Colson turned for the door. Then paused as he passed an open cardboard box, spying a scatter of documents at its bottom. He pulled one out, looked it over. Almost certainly a bond, its face scrawled with elaborate foreign lettering and some fine print. Colson had heard of bearer bonds, which were registered to no particular owner and entitled the holder, whoever it may be, to face value. He guessed them to be Azorean, another example of the immigrants’ mistrust for American banks. He flipped through the others, different sizes and ink colors, but similar. There were no recognizable numbers, but the values were probably spelled out somewhere in the documents. His first inclination was to take the whole box, but then thought better of it, noticing the bottom was soggy when he moved it. Then he remembered the scarf.
Back in the Olds, he glanced at his watch. He had cut it close, but didn’t see the SUV and believed he was safe. He felt good, the usual rush of a successful job, also a bonus. But something else. He paused, thinking it out, then had it. The wound on his side. Probably his imagination, but damned if the thing didn’t feel better.
He started the car, peering ahead across the foggy headlamp beams, and that was when the windshield caved in on his face in a shower of safety glass.
After the forty-five minute rosary ritual – which he sat out – and an interminable wait afterwards, Colson stepped into Richard’s office and sat in the wooden chair. Today Richard wore a blue silk shirt, open at the neck, and some dangling gold jewelry. His eyes were clear. So no evil spirits today.
“You left the scarf at the place I told you?” Richard said.
“The Blessed Virgin Mary Parish on Bedford.”
“And your wound?”
Colson caught himself grinning, mirroring Richard’s unfailing smile. “Much better.”
Richard nodded. “So you have restored balance.”
Colson shrugged. Here in the daylight he believed it had been the ointment and the herbal pills, but what the hell.
“What was that thing, anyway?” Colson asked. “I mean, all the fuss about a scarf. What’s it an heirloom or something?”
Richard didn’t answer right away, his hands steepled under his chin. He watched Colson for a long time, then seemed to make a decision.
“The people in this community believe it was worn by one of the three children of Fatima. Specifically Jacinta.”
“You are not familiar with the legend? The small village in Portugal where the Blessed Mother appeared?”
Colson remembered an old fifties movie he had seen, some kids who saw lights in the sky and supposedly an appearance by the Virgin Mary.
“That happened a long time ago,” Colson said.
“My point. This woman wearing it all the time, it should be shredded to dust. It’s what, ninety years old? She must wash it sometimes.”
“It is not always that woman. The scarf is passed around the community. It is said to bring prosperity.”
“Is that true?”
“If it is true or not is unimportant,” Richard said. “What matters is that there is faith.”
Colson thought about that for a moment. Was about to comment, then let it go.
Richard said, “What happened there?” Nodding at Colson’s forehead.
So Colson told him about the guy with the bat, coming back and somehow figuring out what Colson was up to, parking the SUV in the fog and waiting. The guy a powerhouse for his size, almost pulling him out of the car before Colson could hit the gas and get the hell out. He’d given Colson a nice love tap on the forehead with the bat for his efforts. Damn thing had bled like a slaughtered hog. Colson left out the bonds, the fact that he had taken too long getting them, instead of just grabbing the scarf and getting out.
“So your balance has still not been achieved.”
Colson stood. “I’ll live.” Then, “Listen. Do you know anyone who can redeem bonds? Bearer bonds. I think they’re Portuguese.”
“Do you have one?”
Colson pulled one of the folded sheets from his breast pocket, having anticipated the question. He unfolded it and passed it over the desk.
Richard looked it over for a long moment, reading the lettering. Then nodded and wrote down an address.
Colson sat in the Olds, staring at Richard’s sticky note in the fading afternoon light. This was the right address. He had checked it twice already. The name on the glass door was written in Portuguese but also in English below: Mendoza Brothers Real Estate Agency. Another walkup like Richard’s, this one above a bakery. Colson had expected some sort of foreign exchange office, or a consulate. He almost started the Olds and turned it around. Then remembered what Richard said about having faith, and went in.
The small waiting area was crowded and he had to wait almost an hour for his turn. Apparently the locals didn’t believe in any sort of appointment system; like the healer’s place, it was first-come, first-served. People knew whose turn it was by some unspoken consent, unless it was discussed in the rapid Portuguese that flew in scattered bursts around the room. His forehead throbbed beneath the bandage, wearing on his patience. At least there was no praying.
At last his turn came – a nodded agreement by an old woman who had shown up after him – and Colson stepped into the small office. A hulking, jowly man sat behind a steel desk. His walls were decorated by an assortment of framed real estate photos, mostly residential, save for the rear wall. That one was dominated by an enormous pewter crucifix, surrounded by religious art and lacquered prayers Colson couldn’t read. The drone of a TV talk show came from somewhere in another room, probably the man’s apartment.
“Welcome to Mendoza Real Estate,” the man behind the desk said. His English was crisp and perfect, his broad face smiling. “I am John Mendoza.” He looked at Colson, waiting for an introduction.
“I’m told you’ll pay for these,” Colson said, sliding three of the documents across the desk. “I have others.” Which he had left in the car in case Richard had steered him wrong and he got a bad conversion rate.
Mendoza lifted the topmost document and looked it over. As Colson watched, the smile faded from the jowly face. Mendoza put it aside and picked up the second one. He read for a moment, then looked up at Colson. “You want money for these?”
Colson nodded. “Only face value. There may be interest or something, but I’m not looking for it.”
“Where did you get them?”
“You have the castanhos to come in here, try to sell me this?” Mendoza said, his voice exploding across the desk.
The muted game show in the other room abruptly went off.
Colson stared back, keeping his expression level. “All I want is face value.”
A door opened to Colson’s left and a younger man stepped in. He shared Mendoza’s features but without the jowls, the attributes which had advanced to their inevitable conclusions in the older brother still stony in the younger.
Without a word, Mendoza handed the document to him.
The younger man scanned the document. “This is Aurelio Garcia’s house,” he said. His English was not as polished as his brother’s, a slight slur on the soft consonants. “It is in Santa Maria. I was there once as a boy.”
A brief, heated conversation in Portuguese ensued. The older man seemed to have some news the younger hadn’t known. As he listened, the younger man’s eyes darted back and forth from Colson to his brother, his hard features tightening.
At last the older Mendoza turned to Colson. “First you insult these people with your loans, your inflated interest rates. Then you say, ‘We no longer have your titles.’ You say they were stolen. Now this. You come here to sell them to me?”
Mendoza’s face had turned an alarming shade of red. “These homes are all these people have.”
Colson was about to get up when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder, the younger man moving quickly behind him.
The older Mendoza was saying something about his people, the sacrifices they had made to come to the country, the elation they would experience in getting their properties back. How the Lord worked in mysterious ways and all that, blessing himself, but Colson wasn’t listening. What he was thinking, as the barrel of the gun nudged the short hairs on the back of his neck, was how much better the wound on his forehead felt.
Robert Pesa ©2006
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