The Hanged Man Chapter One
The first card of the major arcana. The Magician represents a person with an almost mystical ability to solve problems and rectify karma. The person must realize his or her full potential and act upon it.
Friday, July 9, 2010
Buckston, New Jersey 9:07 am
Walking out of the small town Jersey police station, I’m immediately faced with a throng of reporters. They’re waiting at the bottom of steps outside the building. A barrage of questions hits me like I’m a pop-up target in a sideshow booth.
“Mr. Ross, how do you feel about your arrest?”
“Do you have anything to say to the Church?”
“Do you know the Church is planning to sue?”
“What do you say to the allegation you did this for the publicity?”
“Do you regret interfering with the family’s privacy?”
I give the reporters the evil eye and say nothing. The videos of the incident at Teresa’s funeral yesterday are going viral on YouTube. A couple of the Buckston cops showed them to me while I was waiting in the squad room last night. I’m not a narcissist so I don’t enjoy watching myself in this context. Especially in the current fallout over what I was doing at the time, what I was saying at the time…
Why I punched the preacher in the face.
The reporters continue their slings and arrows, undaunted by my silence. “Do you think you’ll lose your license?”
“Are you against free speech?”
“Are you responsible for your friend being outed?”
I ignore them all and move down the stairs. My friend, Sergeant Teresa McKinney, died in combat from a hidden IED outside of Baghdad; her funeral was held yesterday in Buckston. A so-called church group called the Fundamental Righteousness of Baltimore protested her funeral, as they have been doing over the last few years with dozens of other dead service members. Their protests involve vile slogans of homophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. Not all the military whose funerals they protested were gay, but some were. Teresa was. Whether gay or not, what this group does is beyond low, beyond unethical, beyond sick. Nevertheless, a controversial Supreme Court decision has allowed them the legal right to do so. Nobody likes this group, its leader Reverend Mel Bunton, or the exploitation of the First Amendment.
I couldn’t stand Teresa’s family suffering through the incessant chanting and screaming outside the cemetery gates. I left the graveside service and went to the street to tell the fundamentally righteous assholes to shut up. They gleefully got in my face–Rev. Bunton standing so close I could feel the saliva. He and his flock tried to provoke me by calling me faggot and then insulting my dead friend with further obscenities. And I lost it. One might think my loss of temper wouldn’t be publicly vilified under the circumstances. However, judging from the perspective the local news stories have taken–that I acted to exploit the incident for my benefit–nothing I say now is going to be construed in my favor.
A tall white fortyish man in an expensive tailored business suit catches my eye. He stands well behind the reporters, smiling at the goings-on. He nods to me; I realize he’s my appointment. I had come back to the police station to pick up my belongings following a night arraignment, and he had arranged to meet me here. He steps away from the crowd and gets into a black for-hire car with New York plates, parked a short distance from the station.
Behind me my attorney and close friend Michaela Connor stays near the steps and draws the press away from me by making a statement. My case is Adjourned in Contemplation of Dismissal–meaning it will be dropped if I stay out of trouble. Michaela, a striking black woman in her early thirties, explains my legal situation to the press and also offers a proclamation of outrage on my behalf for them to chew on. This gives me the chance to hustle away from the melee and over to the hire car. I duck inside before the reporters can realize I’ve left the scene. The car accelerates, and begins heading for the George Washington Bridge and New York City.
The car has a tinted Plexiglas window between the front and back seats, giving us privacy. The man in the Brioni suit is Raymond Booth, also an attorney. He reaches to shake my hand. “Mr. Ross.”
“Call me Gabriel. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Booth. At least, I appreciate the ride back to the city.”
“My pleasure. This is a good opportunity to talk. Are you okay after staying in jail overnight?”
I try to smooth the wrinkles out of my clothes, noting the bruises on the knuckles of my right hand from slamming against the preacher’s bony jaw. “It’s a small town lock-up, not so bad. The cops just didn’t like the publicity of the whole event. I guess it hasn’t ended yet.”
Booth laughs. “No, I’m afraid not. I noticed at first the feedback was all supportive of you. When I heard of it and saw you in those videos, I was thinking how much you rock. But somehow this has turned into an Inquisition of your motives.”
Raymond Booth’s dark hair is styled in an expensive cut, framing a smooth movie-star face. We have the same dark Irish coloring but his pricey clothes make my off-the-rack black suit seem even more rumpled than it is. I’m acutely aware I need to shave, take a shower. But Booth doesn’t seem to mind. And I don’t mind being told I rock, under the circumstances.
“My motives were res ipsa loquitor.” Meaning, the thing apparent on its face.
Booth smiles, hearing a non-lawyer quoting legal concepts. However, I’ve worked as a paralegal and investigator for attorneys, so I can use the terminology properly.
“I thought so.” He pauses to open the interior window and ask the driver to pull over for coffee before getting on the bridge, then turns back and smiles at me. “A story takes on the narrative of whoever tells it. I believe an ‘unnamed source’ in your industry is spreading the word you’re prone to exploit cases. Anyone you know?”
The car stops in a Starbucks parking lot, and the driver goes inside. Booth is scrutinizing me, and I’m checking him out as well. I can size up people quickly from my experience and training.
I like Booth thus far. He had learned Michaela represented me for the assault charge in Jersey, and when she told him I was being released this morning, he asked if he could pick me up to consult about a job offer. I was fine with that. Booth is a name partner in Kline, Booth and Cheng, a firm specializing in high-end art litigation, intellectual property rights, and art-related tax and insurance issues. The firm has a pristine reputation.
I consider his question, though I’m 90 percent sure of the answer. “You’ve done some digging yourself to find that out, I take it. The source is probably Gerry Doniger, I used to work for his investigative firm. Actually, his partner Manuel Smith was my mentor in the business. But when he died, there was no love lost between Gerry and me. We’ve clashed before. If I fell in the East River, he’d be out on a boat–chumming for sharks.”
Booth smiles again and leans back. “I like your honesty. You’re blunt.”
I shrug. “Before I left the station this morning, I checked my messages. Four of my regular clients have informed me that they no longer need my services. Because I couldn’t stand hearing some bigoted prick saying my ‘dyke’ friend was going to burn in Hell. I made the choice to do what I did; I knew it wouldn’t end well, but he assaulted my friend’s dignity. I’ll pay for standing up to him, but I can live with that for her sake. So what’s to lose by being honest? Since you did some fast work to find out where I was today, Mr. Booth, you deserve as much.”
“Make it Raymond.” We collect our coffee from the driver and begin the trip again. Raymond leans in a little closer. He has a hint of good musky cologne; I’m always aware of good and really bad colognes. Under different circumstances, I’d ask what it is.
“I want to hire you precisely because of that attitude. New York has plenty of good firms. Large high-tech businesses with ex-CIA and Special Forces people and small operations run by former cops. You don’t fit in those categories, but you have a good reputation. You mentioned on your website you help the LGBTQ community; I like that. I need an investigator, and you intrigued me. Not just in taking a risk–no doubt many would be willing to bend a law on my behalf–but your principles. I go by instinct, and you attracted me.”
I resist smiling at the double-entendre and put on my professional expression. “Fine by me. Tell me about your problem–something related to sexual orientation or…?”
“No, I just liked that you mentioned it. Personal reasons…” He holds my gaze for a beat. Although I feel like an unkempt bum at the moment, I’m flattered. He smiles again. “My problem, though, is business-related.”
He takes an iPad from his briefcase and shows me an elegantly subtle website for a nonprofit organization, the New York Foundation for Art and Culture. “I’m on the board of directors here. I have been for five years. Something happened recently to another board member that I found highly disturbing.”
I search in my messenger bag for my own iPad, which thankfully is intact and working. I can’t afford a replacement. “Who was the other board member?”
“Eleanor Whitford. I’ll arrange for you to speak with her.”
“Okay. What happened, exactly?”
“She overheard a conversation in the Foundation that upset her a great deal. I’ll discuss the other persons involved after we sign a retainer agreement. I need to maintain confidentiality, and of course in working for an attorney you’ll have that privilege. But the context was another board member who apparently has been associating with a known war criminal.” He taps the iPad for emphasis, with long expressive fingers.
I look up, with growing interest. “Serbian? African?”
I pause in my writing. “Really. My God, those people have mostly died off. Who’s left?” I feel a little rush of excitement. Long ago, my mom had told me that if she could have, she would have dedicated her life to finding Nazis and other war criminals. Sometimes I feel I need to carry on her idealism.
“This particular person is still alive as far as I know, and he’s on the list at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Granted, I’m not well-versed in the topic of Nazi-hunting and I’ll need you to see what you can find out. I’ve spoken with some lawyers who know you, and they tell me that you’re a very good researcher. I’ve also read your articles about hate groups.”
He’s referring to my part-time gig writing for a New York-based online magazine. “Thank you.”
Raymond leans closer again. “Gabriel, you can imagine how I feel about knowing someone connected to the Foundation is friends or something with a Goddamned Nazi. I can’t let that go.”
“And the conversation Ms. Whitford overheard implied that relationship?”
“From how she described it, yes.” He shakes his head. “Since powerful people in town are connected to the Foundation I don’t want to deal with a larger firm. I wanted to find a solo investigator with integrity.”
Now I have to grin. “And the public accusation that I took a family tragedy and used it to get my name in the news doesn’t detract from your decision?”
He raises an eyebrow. “I’m familiar with bad press and how competitors can try to tear a person down. I’m going with my instinct about you. It hasn’t failed me thus far. Anyway, if you’re willing, I’m hiring you.”
I’m willing. By this time, we’ve gone back over the George Washington Bridge into upper Manhattan, and I make arrangements with him as the car travels downtown to my building on Avenue A. It is across the street from Tompkins Square Park in the part of Manhattan known as Alphabet City. Raymond is heading to his own place, on Vestry Street in the Tribeca neighborhood.
I go up to my apartment and check on my cat Archie. Archie is black and white, tuxedo-style markings. With exquisite feline sensitivity, he knows something’s been up with me and rubs against my legs for a few minutes. Then I shower off the jail, and draft a retainer for Raymond. I send a PDF version of the retainer to Raymond’s email. He’s supposed to return it to me by fax or by email, with his credit card info.
As the evening wears on I catch up with some friends on the phone, listen to many bad jokes about my behavior, and review more messages. I call my friend Jim Pollan, who’s also my New York attorney and a mutual friend of Michaela’s, and give him the story of the ACD. Jim loves bad judge stories. The New Jersey judge had actually made a condition of my sentence that I was not to return to New Jersey–banished from the state. Which is illegal, of course. Mikki laughed about that nonsense–once out of the courtroom. My voicemail is clogged with calls from local and online newspapers, bloggers, friends, my asshole father, and ordinary citizens–with them, heavy on the nutjob element. The messages range from fervent approval to scathing criticism to threats on my life. Nothing I’m worrying about tonight.
On the other hand, I don’t hear back from Raymond. Considering he went to the length of picking me up in New Jersey today, I had thought he would respond immediately. However, the hours begin to tick by, and I don’t hear anything from him on the fax, email or otherwise. I call his cell under the pretense of checking to see that he received my email, but he doesn’t answer.
The following day, Saturday, the morning goes by without any further word. I begin to be concerned–what if he changed his mind? My current personal economic situation is a microcosm of the nation’s economic crisis–bad news verging on disaster–sort of a David Gray song in real life. People aren’t investing as much in professional investigators these days, although I have built myself a decent business. I can do financial fraud investigation as well as insurance claims, missing persons, cheating partners, and I have a good reputation in spite of what happened in Jersey. Nevertheless, the industry’s hurting and I’ve been doing more investigative work for assigned counsel in New York and New Jersey, which means I wait months to see a paycheck since they get paid by the state.
In the meantime, my bills are turning into demand notices and I’m feeling the kind of unease that can easily slip into desperation. Raymond’s retainer is a nice sum to take care of having to forgo luxuries like food and electricity, and the job will put me back on track instead of being the subject of public scorn.
I spend the rest of the day worrying, but also contacting my other clients who have called out of concern or antipathy. Depending on their attitude, I either calm their fears they hired some sort of out-of-control hothead or inform them their final invoice will be sent with payment due.
On Sunday morning, my phone rings shortly before ten a.m.; the caller ID says Booth. Thank God, I tell myself. He just took a day off. Then I notice the Booth is Antoinette, not Raymond. The number is a 347 area code–one of the outer boroughs.
“This is Gabriel Ross.”
“I can’t find my brother.” The voice is female, sharp and intense with emotion. “What the fuck did you do with him?”
Copyright 2012, 2016, Alex Fiano
Page updated 2/27/2016