After our trip to London where Uncle Horatio’s investigative skills were displayed in a virtuosic performance of forensic intuition in the case of the Van Gogh paintings, we returned to my modest dwelling in the Front-Range of the Rockies where we waited-out the winter.
Fortunately, spring arrived early that year in the canyon, and by early April, the unseasonably warm weather saw the Aspen catkins in full bloom, and the alpine meadow below the house covered in a fragrant and dazzling display of wildflowers.
As the days grew longer, White Tail Deer, Big Horn Sheep, Red Fox and Elk soon appeared in great numbers and the harsh blizzards from the north-west soon turned into warm, gentle showers.
Uncle Horatio had settled comfortably into our surroundings and as rich as he was, seemed to take solace in the simplicity of mountain life that my modest home afforded. Ever aware of his health, he maintained a strict vegan diet of brown rice, tofu, legumes and Chia Seeds which we received in bulk-deliveries from a supplier in Chiapas, Mexico. He tried valiantly to purge me from my vices which included, whisky, cigarettes, and fast food, but rather than succumb to his austere and boorish lifestyle, I learned to indulge my obsessions in secrecy. Since his attention to detail and observation skills were greater than any person I’d ever known, it became a friendly game of cat and mouse between tormentor and tormented with regard to camouflaging my bad habits. I usually lost.
As the weather warmed, he convinced me to take up the art of Tai-Chi Meditation which we practiced every morning for forty-five minutes, rain or shine, naked, in a grass-clearing in front of the house. It would have presented a disquieting sight for anyone unfortunate enough to drop-in on us — two peculiar men, chanting like Tibetan Monks, one in good shape but wrinkled and drawn, the other, bordering on morbidly obese with fat cells that shook like water balloons at every twist and turn.
One particularly fresh clear morning I heard Horatio singing The Caissons Go Rolling Along on his return jog from the internet café in Cripple Creek, which was a fourteen mile roundtrip excursion. He was in such good shape that even at an altitude of almost 9,500 feet, he barely broke a sweat. He burst through the front door with a smile and threw a printed piece of paper on the coffee table.
“Have I ever told you that scoundrels make the best spies?” he said, walking to the counter where he always kept a half-gallon of filtered, room-temperature water at his disposal.
“I don’t believe you have. Do tell.”
“Well they do, and one of my most reliable may have come-through for me in the Windy City.”
“You mean Chicago?”
“Don’t be obtuse, of course Chicago. To give you some background, knowing where a bad-guy resides, is like holding a pair of pocket-aces in a game of five-card stud. It gives me confidence and power. There’s nothing quite like showing up at a man’s doorstep who wants to kill you, telling him you have his number and are acquainted with every move and bad habit. Last night one of my long-time allies sent me an email informing me that he observed one of my adversaries having dinner at a Greek restaurant on Randolph Street in Chicago. I feel compelled to pay this person a visit, to in essence, lay down my metaphorical hand. If we hurry we still might be able to catch a decent flight to O’Hare. Are you in?”
“Now who’s being obtuse?”
“That’s my nephew! Just to be on the safe side, would you mind bringing your Beretta Tomcat, and pocket holster? The gentleman we may be calling on has a penchant for violence, in fact he’s killed or maimed at least twenty-two individuals that I’m aware of. He is in short, a paid assassin who knows no equal.”
“Can’t you simply call the FBI or local authorities?” I asked.
“This man is too smooth, too thorough, and too lethal, when it comes to his trade. It would be a complete waste of time and probably put my own personal operative in jeopardy. In fact, it would be placing any law enforcement personnel in grave danger by virtue of a face-to-face contact.”
“Will we be safe?”
“In that case, I’m in? In fact, I’ll be ready and waiting and have our reservations completed on-line before you’ve finished your shower.” I said, as he disappeared into the guest bedroom.
“Hold off on the reservation until I give you the details of our travel requirements,” he shouted, from behind the door
“Please just wait.”
The wait had soon approached an hour, and I was almost finished with a new Smithsonian Magazine when there was a sharp knock on the front door. I thought it odd because I hadn’t heard any vehicle approach the property. Having been around Uncle for several months, and buying into the apprehension that his enemies were everywhere — I suspected the worst and retrieved the 38-caliber Barreta from my travel bag.
“Who is it?” I asked, from behind the door, with the pistol off-safety, held ready at my chest.
“I said who is it? Please state your name and business.”
Silence — then more pounding.
I pressed my body against the wall next to the door, and slowly moved to the window, where I attempted to see outside. It wasn’t a good angle and all I could make out was the hint of a shadow. The pounding resumed, this time in earnest. With my left hand I jerked the door open and pointed the gun at the visitor. I stood face to face with an old woman in a shin-length dress, cream Cloche hat, and matching silk scarf. Uncle Horatio!
“Good God, you scared the life out of me. What in the world?” I said, stepping back.
“Truman, we really do need to work on your defensive skills. Never open a door to an unknown caller and certainly never give your position away by asking who it is from directly behind the door. Shotguns rarely miss their mark when a target is three feet away. Most amateurs also make the mistake of opening a door, standing behind it to the left when it’s opened. Fundamentals, fundamentals! No, in the future please throw open the door with your left hand and stand to the right of the opening. That being said, what do you think?” he said, walking into the house.
“Not bad, a bit heavy on the rouge, but otherwise you’d be a catch for any man over eighty, with the patience of Job.”
“Young man, be careful,” he said, in character, “I carry mace and several Chinese Throwing Stars in my clutch.”
“What is the world coming to? An AARP Ninja?”
“That’s the spirit, now if you’d please stop this indecorous flirting; you’ll need to book our flight. I’ll be traveling as Catherine Archer, a widow of thirty years and persnickety recluse. As for accommodations, any room on Shoreline Drive with a view will suffice.”
We caught an early afternoon flight out of Colorado Springs with a transfer in Dallas and arrived in Chicago just after 7:00 p.m.. Uncle Horatio walked with surprising assurance in one-inch heels and in no time, we were checked-in to our hotel. Twenty minutes later we were in a cab as the shimmering moonlit body of Lake Michigan appeared on our left.
“I don’t know about you young man, but I’m simply famished and have an irresistible urge for good Italian food? Driver, Don Guiseppi’s on Randolph Street please.”
“Uhh, Miss Archer, do you actually think we’ll get a table in a nice restaurant at this time of night without a reservation?” I asked.
“Of course — I always make my reservations with Ulysses Grant. He never lets me down.”
At 9:00 p.m. we stopped in front of the restaurant where there was a street musician in a small brick alcove adjacent to the restaurant playing an impressive rendition of Paganini’s Caprice 24. He was unshaven and wore a tattered canvas coat, and his glasses were held together on one side with duct tape. When he smiled, he did so revealing crooked, yellow teeth. A small crowd had formed around him and we took a few minutes to enjoy his masterful playing. Before leaving, Uncle Horatio dropped a twenty dollar bill in the open violin case at his feet.
“When was the last time you saw a player of that caliber on the street,” he remarked, as we made our way up a short flight of stairs to the restaurant entrance. The place was busy, but Horatio shook the maître d’s hand with two $100 bills in his palm, and we were soon sitting at a lovely table for two, hurriedly set up in front of a crackling fireplace.
Horatio ordered a salad with mixed greens in a light vinaigrette, and I began with Tomatoes Caprice made with fresh buffalo mozzarella, Roma tomatoes, basil and high-quality olive oil. We were in no hurry. Our contact was to take place the following day so Horatio started in on a long dissertation of the merits of Eastern Medicine, and the Chinese art of Qigong.
After almost an hour, and two glasses into a splendid 2007 Gaja Barbaresco, the haggard street musician who had been performing outside was escorted into the room and seated a few tables away from us. Several patrons clapped at his presence and he smiled uneasily and acknowledged them with a quick wave. A waiter soon brought him a large steaming plate of pasta in a red sauce which he devoured in large slurping bites.
Across the room there was also a commotion as a woman was having a waiter take her picture with a well-dressed man who was eating alone. She was loud and gushing and made an entirely unnecessary scene at the expense of the handsome gentleman who simply smiled. A burgundy silk scarf hung around his neck and his blousy, French-cuffed sleeves looked like the work of a custom tailor. Apparently he was a celebrity of some renown, because she took a pen and paper out of her purse and asked him for an autograph. When the maître d’ passed our table, I stopped him and asked if he knew who the celebrity was.
“We think he’s Gidon Stonovich, the famous violinist who’s appearing with the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra this weekend.”
“Have you ever heard of him?” I asked Uncle Horatio, who was picking at a plate of brown rice pappardelle noodles in a pesto of sun dried tomatoes.
“Of course; he’s world famous. I believe he’s won several prestigious Tchaikovsky Competitions and aside from perhaps Maxim Vengerov or Itzhak Perlman, may be the best soloist in the world. In fact, call me juvenile, but I’m going to shake his hand myself,” he said, rising, adjusting his skirt, and then walking across the room. He quickly returned with a broad smile, bearing an autographed white linen napkin.
“Truman, just for practice, why don’t you walk past him and discreetly make some observations about who he is, and anything else you can discern, then report back to me.”
“Won’t it seem a bit obvious and intrusive?” I asked.
“Not at all, you’re heading to the restroom, you’ll clumsily bump into the table on his left occupied by the happy couple vacationing from Brazil, and drop the cigarettes you’ve been hiding in your coat pocket. When you rise, you’ll recognize the Maestro and politely ask him for an autograph, which, by this time will have him wishing he had chosen Jay’s across the street for a steak.”
“Okay, I’m in. You’ll soon know everything there is to know about him.”
I took his advice and on my way to the restroom brushed the table of the couple sitting next to the celebrity, and in doing so, spun around and intentionally tossed my pack of cigarettes into the space between the two tables, where they landed at the celebrity’s feet. I apologized profusely to the couple and then quickly made a quick visual inspection of the man before rising to ask him for an autograph. He closed his eyes, turned his head, took a deep breath and then returned my stare with a pursed-lip smile. “I’d be glad to,” he said, pulling out a Bic pin from his pants pocket. “What would you like me sign?”
I hesitated, “Uh, how about this?” I said, as I removed a folded piece of paper from my wallet that had MapQuest directions to our hotel.
“My pleasure,” he said, making an unreadable scribble of loops for an autograph, then handed me back the paper.
After hiding in the bathroom for a brief minute, I returned to Uncle Horatio.
“Well, enlighten me dear Nephew?”
“Okay, he’s approximately sixty years old and speaks with a heavy German accent. He wears a platinum band on his ring finger, his watch appears to be a Rolex Day-Date President, his cufflinks are gold squares with diamond borders and his glasses are bi-focal. His shoes are polished cordovan, lace-up oxfords, possibly Bruno Magli or Allen Edmonds and he signs autographs with a cheap pen with a hand that shows an impeccable manicure,” I said, with self-assurance, sitting back in my chair.
“Bravo Truman, your observational skills are illuminating, if not lacking in important minutiae.”
“How so?” I asked, flummoxed at the immediate censure.
“First of all he eats and writes with his left hand, a noteworthy fact for anyone who has seen him play. He is missing several back molars and has a disturbing Basal-Cell growth, the size of an eraser on his neck below his left ear. His watch is a cheap copy of a Day-Date Rolex which is easily observed by the ticking movement of the second hand, as opposed to the constant sweep associated with an authentic model. His cufflinks, while appearing to be expensive, have the sheen of gold plating, and the stones, which at first glance look impressive, have an unmistakable lack of clarity, typically associated with cubic zirconium. What is he eating? It appears to be the nightly special, which is Mushroom Pork Scaloppini with lemon and capers in a white wine reduction — an interesting choice for a practicing Jew. His hair is dyed, and I would conjecture he did it himself, based on the slight staining below his neckline, which presents an interesting contrast to the well-manicured nails you so adroitly observed. He is in summary, a man struggling financially who is trying to display an appearance of wealth that he most assuredly lacks.”
“You never cease to amaze me. Why then, pray tell, is he putting on such a pageant? ” I said, tossing my napkin on the table in mock disgust.
“Wealth my dear nephew is the deceit of perception, the harbinger of greed and the linchpin of crime. For now, let us be satisfied with the unfolding drama.”
“I’m not following you.”
In the meantime, the street musician had left the restaurant and had forgotten to take his violin. Several of the staff had laid it on the table, opened the case, and were admiring it. Seeing this, Gidon Stonovich walked over to the table and put his arm on the shoulder of the maître d’. The room had thinned noticeably and I easily overheard the conversation: “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Pietro Guarneri in such good condition. In fact, to my knowledge, there are only a few in existence. Do you know the owner?” Stonovich asked, removing the instrument from the case and holding it at eye level to check the neck for warping. “See the initials PG through the sound hole? I’d venture to guess it may be worth half-a-million dollars.”
He held it up to his ear and gently plucked a few strings, then turned it over and closely examined the woodwork of the body, before carefully placing it back into the case.
“Unbelievable. I watched him play briefly outside and was impressed by his technique. I never in a million years would have guessed he was playing a Pietro Guarneri. When he comes back would you please give him my card? Tell him Gidon Stonovich will pay a king’s ransom for it. I’d love to stick around, but need to take care of some pressing business. If he’s unsure, tell him to take it to Bein & Fushi on 32nd street where they’ll give it a thorough appraisal. Tell him to ask the owners to bill me for the cost. I know them well. Promise me, you won’t let him leave without presenting my offer. He can reach me at this number any time,” he said, removing a card from his wallet. “Also, tell him I’d love to personally meet him and find out how he acquired such a rare instrument. I’m performing this Sunday with the Philharmonic and would love to arrange for several seats in a private box, if he doesn’t mind sitting with several of the Chicago Bulls.”
He then walked back to his table, where he paid his bill and then left.
Three men including the maître d’ continued to hover over the instrument.
“Look it up on the internet,” the oldest of the three said to the youngest waiter. “I’ve heard of Bein & Fushi. See if there’s something on their website.”
Ten minutes later, the young waiter returned and whispered in the ear of the maître d’ who then said, “Get Mr. Mangielli.”
“What do you think about all that?” I asked Under Horatio who was observing the whole proceedings in silence and now glaring at me as I finished a decadent Cannoli with a double-espresso. He sipped on hot water with lemon, as he paused to consider the question.
“I think you’re about to see an unpleasant side of human nature.”
“The performance is nearing a crescendo, please just watch — as you continue to poison yourself with fat, sugar and caffeine.”
Twenty minutes later, the disheveled street musician returned with a panicked look. The man they called Mr. Mangielli met him in the lounge and took him aside to the small bar in the front of the restaurant where they sat down and began an earnest conversation. After ten minutes, Mangielli signaled to the maître d’ who came over to them with a small leather pouch, like the kind used in making cash deposits at the bank. Mangielli then pulled out a stack of bills from the pouch, counted them on the table and handed them to the musician who stood up and hugged both Mangielli and the maître d’. He appeared to be crying as he left the building.
“Quick Truman, we need to go,” Horatio said, as he laid $300 on the table. We hurried out of the restaurant where he did a quick scan up and down the street and said, “there,” pointing to the musician who was walking briskly north on Randolph, towards Lakeshore Drive. Three blocks up, the musician slipped into a three-story boutique hotel where we followed him to the front desk. Horatio tapped him on the shoulder.
“David, nice work tonight, you’ve taken your act to a whole new level,” Horatio said, as the surprised musician, turned to look at us.
“Horatio, is that you? Last time I saw you, you were a blind Vietnam Vet.”
“Quite right, I think it was Grand Central Station in New York three years ago. Where’s the Maestro?” Horatio asked.
“He’s upstairs in a room with Bridget.”
“How’d you make out tonight?” Horatio asked.
“Six thousand — not bad! The Maestro is expecting me. Oh, and please excuse my lack of manners. David Lockwood, this is my cousin Ramsey Teller,” he said, turning to me and winking.
“Please to meet you,” Lockwood said, extending his hand with a warm smile.
“What have I just seen?” I asked.
“Here is certainly not the place — I suggest we move the discussion to your room?” Horatio said, smiling and putting his arm around Lockwood’s shoulder.
Up two flights of stairs and down a short hall, we arrived at room 333 where Lockwood made one quick knock on the door, followed by three, then two.It opened and we stood face to face with Gidon Stonovich and the adoring female fan from the restaurant.
“Jimmy, Carol, it’s been too long,” Horatio said, embracing both people, then offering each a double-cheeked European kiss.” I’d like you to meet my nephew, Ramsey Teller. Ramsey this is one of my oldest dear friends, Jimmy DeJesus and his lovely wife Tina, musicians and grifters extraordinaire. What a command performance tonight. David’s playing has reached a whole new level!” In the meantime, the man called David removed his mouthpiece of fake yellowed teeth.
I sat down on the edge of one of the queen beds.
Horatio looked down at me and smiled, “Don’t look so perplexed, the fiddle-play is one of the oldest cons in the books. It’s special because it will never be reported. The violin is obviously a cheap fake. Jimmy, acting as an international maestro, pretends the violin is a priceless masterpiece. Carol reinforces his persona by gushing over him and requesting an autograph. In this case, you and I both added to the recital as extras by asking for autographs. The now-conniving waiters, maître d’ and manager, believing a fortune has been metaphorically laid at their table, offer the unsuspecting hermit pennies on the dollar for his four-stringed treasure. They pull together as much cash as they can master in a short time, in this case $6,000, and then send him on his way, with tears of gratitude. The luckless staff will soon discover the violin is a cheap fake, but what will they do — report to the authorities that they deceived a helpless street musician into believing they were doing him a favor — that they were conned in their own con?
He then spoke to DeJesus who was packing a small travel bag. “You said you saw the Scorpion last night. Are you sure it was him?”
“Positive — I was scouting locations on Randolph Street and saw him enter the Greek restaurant on the corner of Randolph and North Michigan. I was disguised as a California tourist with dark sunglasses, a long black wig, and fake arm-cast. I went in and asked to look at the menu and had an innocuous conversation with the receptionist while I observed him. He sat by the window and seemed focused on the foot traffic below on the sidewalk. His appearance hadn’t changed much, about the same as the last time I saw him in New York, wiry thin with bulging eyes and that prominent hawk-like nose. His hair was short and he was taping his left fingers in a nervous pattern on the table, as if he were playing the piano. There was a camera sitting by his water glass, probably a Canon D-Series or equivalent and a small shopping bag from Nordstrom. That’s all I have. I left after a few minutes and emailed you immediately from my cell phone.”
“Well done Jimmy. I’ll wire a finder’s fee to your bank later today that’ll make your Fiddle-Con proceeds look like a welfare check. You put yourself at great risk for my sake and for that I am extremely grateful. Where are you all heading?”
“The Dallas Symphony has a spring concert series beginning next week and I’m guessing the great Gidon Stonovich will be making a guest appearance.”
“Splendid. Good luck old friend.”
“Same to you Horatio.”
It was 1:00 a.m. when we left their room and walked north on Randolph towards the Radcliff Hotel on Lakeshore Drive. The city still glowed but traffic was noticeably lighter. Cabs plied the streets and the steady breeze off Lake Michigan was cold and sharp. We were under-dressed for it, but Uncle Horatio insisted we walk the eight or nine city blocks to the hotel to rejuvenate as he put it, “my hibernating metabolism.”
In the dimly lit entrance of a service alley just north of Slater Street, a bony thin homeless man jostled a plastic cup and mumbled, “spare change for a veteran?” as we passed. He wore a tattered camo jacket many sizes too large and a green slouch hat. A khaki ski mask covered his face and he shuffled his feet as if to ward off the cold.
Uncle Horatio, as I’d previously observed, normally ignored these admonitions, however on this occasion he stopped and faced the man and began searching his purse for change. “Where did you serve young man?” he asked, in an effeminate high-pitched voice, as he dropped several coins into the shaking cup. “My husband died in Vietnam in 1968 in the Battle of Hue during the TET Offensive. Ghastly war, we never should have gone, but he died a hero. You look like you’re about sixty. Your coat has the insignia of the Airborne Rangers. Were you over there?”
The man coughed as he spoke, “How’d you guess — did two tours between ‘66 and ‘69. I was a LURP in the 75th Infantry — spent most of my time in the hill country north of the DMZ. Got spit on when I came home. Not like the grunts today who get treated like some kind of heroes.
“Well you’re a hero in my book. Chester, do you have anything you can give this young man? He probably hasn’t had a decent meal in days. Let me scrounge through this awful purse for more change. Young man, would you mind if my nephew here took our picture together? It would mean a lot,” he said, pulling a small digital camera from his purse and handing it to me.
“No not at all,” the homeless man said, coughing into his free hand.
Horatio moved to the man’s side and put his hand around the man’s waist.
“Hurry Chester, we’re taking far too much of his time — I can tell he’s getting cold.”
I took several pictures.
“Now, please just one by himself. By the way, I didn’t get your name?” he said, as he primped the soldiers coat and hair. “My you’re a handsome man. Here, let me fix your hat,” he said, removing it from the soldier, wiping it clean with his hand. “There we go, that’s more like it,” he said, placing it back on the soldiers head, turning it so the Airborne insignia faced forward.
I took another picture and then placed a twenty-dollar bill in his cup.
“God bless you — you’re too kind,” he said.
“Don’t mention it. I appreciate your service,” I said, as we walked away.
Half a block away I spoke in a hushed tone, “What in the world has gotten into you? You’ve never shown that type of kindness to a perfect stranger. Was it because he was a vet?” I asked.
“The world is an interesting place dear nephew. I know you have little faith in things like synchronicity and psychophysic phenomena, but you really should read Carl Jung on the subject. We live the experience we choose, and determine our own fate. We are on a conveyor belt of reality that has a specific beginning middle and end.”
“My next gift to you will be a complete deck of cards because I don’t think you’re playing with one,” I replied.
“Quite the contrary, I’m as sharp and technologically sound as the three homing devices I just planted on the Scorpion.”
“You what! The Scorpion? Good God, that man was the assassin?”
“Quite right — I knew it the minute I laid eyes on him. The unmatched jacket and slouch hat were my first clue. Vets usually keep their jungle camos for life and the pattern on the hat and jacket were of two entirely different periods. Both can be easily purchased at any army surplus store and the hat was significantly newer than the jacket. The sleeves were also wrong. One can reasonably assume a homeless man, can and will, lose a lot of weight, but it is entirely improbable that his arms would shrink. His scent was also all wrong. He certainly looked the part, but easily had the best hygiene of any man in history who ostensibly sleeps in rescue missions, back alleys and cardboard boxes. As I pressed close, I even detected deodorant and the faint hint of cologne. His neckline even had the precision edge of a recent haircut. For a man so destitute, he had remarkable teeth including an expensive porcelain bridge between his number two and four molars. Show me a homeless man with good teeth and I’ll show you an imposter who panhandles with the greatest aplomb. Last, was the facemask. This was a nice touch and certainly went a long way towards hiding the distinctive morphological features of his unique profile including a nose that could punch through steel, but to the trained eye, it hid nothing more than his sinister intent.”
“You said you planted three homing devices?”
“Quite right. They are little more than sticky circles the size of a contact lens and are easily affixed to most substances with moderate pressure. That was what I was searching for in my purse when I was digging for change. You may recall how I took great care to get close and put my arm around him. One patch was slipped into his left pocket, the other affixed to the back of his coat and the third, which I concede took great practiced skill, was attached to the inside band of his hat when I removed it for straightening. He is literally a bugged assassin.”
“Why didn’t we tackle him or call for help. I’m carrying my handgun you know.”
“To do so would have sealed our own psychophysical fate. No, this man is a trained killer and could have dispatched us without much effort. That was not the time, nor place. Besides I’ll enjoy monitoring him for a while. He is well connected with several of my adversaries and our fortuitous meeting tonight will provide a unique opportunity to look into a world that heretofore has been well hidden.”
“How do the devices work?”
“Quite simple really. They send a distinct signal that is easily monitored by a sophisticated computer tracking program. I still have connections with United States Army Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir, Virginia where they can track the signal to within a three foot radius. Quite illegal for my purposes, but I think I mentioned that the G-15 pay-grade of even a top intelligence specialist is still less than most college professors. The most reliable tool in the intelligence community always has, and continues to be, the linen-based, watermarked, highly engineered U.S. greenback. There is really nothing quite like it. For now, our business in Chicago is concluded. I suggest we rent a car and take a leisurely drive to Cincinnati where we could drop in on your aunt and treat her to a Reds game.”
Audio rendition of the above story