the eighty-eighth key
Callahan hopped off the cable car and began the uphill slog to his apartment, stopping at the corner market for a few things before heading up to make breakfast. He picked up a copy of the Chronicle at the register, shook his head at the headlines before making his way to the steps up to his flat, but he stopped before he made it to the entry to his building.
There was a metal fire escape attached to the side of his building, a rickety old metal affair loosely attacked to the brick siding, and under the last flight were some dumpsters and a few parking spaces, but something caught his eye that morning. There under the stairs was a carefully arranged assortment of wooden pallets and plastic tarps, and as to his eye there didn’t appear to be anything random about the arrangement, he walked over to take a closer look.
He knelt and parted the blue plastic tarp and peered inside what was, for all intents and purposes, a very small living space. Three pallets made up the floor while several more made up the walls and ceiling, the whole affair sealed by one large plastic tarp. There was a mattress of sorts inside, and several bookshelves framed into two of the walls. There were more than a few books on these shelves, too; books on particle physics and ethics, and several by someone named Søren Kierkegaard. Though it was dim inside the structure he could see that two candles were burning away, and in the shadows he could just make out the crossed legs of a man sitting with his back up against the wall.
“Yes?” the man said, “can I help you?”
“Do you live here, sir?” Callahan asked.
“Why yes, I do.”
“Could you step outside, sir?”
“Why should I? Are you a police officer?”
“Yessir, I am.”
“I see.” The man sighed and put down his book, slipped on a pair of loafers and crawled towards the opening, and only then could Callahan see that the man was indeed quite old. The man stumbled a little as he tried to stand and Callahan caught him, helped him out into the early morning light, and the two regarded one another awkwardly for a moment before speaking.
“Ah, you are the policeman who lives in the building,” the old man said. “I’ve seen you come and go a few times, I think.”
“I don’t recall seeing you around here before,” Callahan said. “When did you set up camp?”
“Camp? Ah, well, I lived across the street for a while, before the owner of the store chased me off. I’ve been here a few days.”
“Why? What do you mean, why?”
“Why are you living out here? Don’t you have anyplace you can go, someone you can bunk out with?”
“Well, no, and as to the why of such things that is simple enough to explain. I lost my job and as a result I lost my home, but I have my most important books and they keep me company enough.”
“Where did you work?”
“Down the bay there, in Palo Alto” the old man said, nodding with his head towards the South Bay.
“Where? At Stanford? What did you teach?”
Callahan felt a cold chill run down his spine as he looked into the man’s eyes. “My mother worked at Berkeley. She taught physics.” Their eyes locked and the man’s never once wavered, though Callahan felt a softness in the old man’s eyes he hadn’t picked up before – only just then his face seemed to tilt quizzically. Suddenly Harry felt the old man was hiding something and that he was trying not to smile. “Are you hungry?” Harry asked.
“I suppose so, but I must tell you I have very little money.”
“Follow me,” Harry said as he turned and made his way to the door to his building. Every bit of training he’d ever had told him this was exactly the wrong thing to do, yet his every instinct told him this was something he had to do.
He took out his key and opened the door, held it open and let the old man pass into the foyer, then Callahan walked up the stairs and unlocked the door to his apartment. He followed the old man inside and put away his groceries, then put a skillet on the burner. “Bacon and eggs okay with you?”
“Just an egg,” the old man said. “Well, maybe two.”
“Go ahead and take a seat; this won’t take a minute.”
Callahan watched as the old man walked over to his bookcase and scanned the few books on the shelves; the old man scowled once and just ever-so-slightly shook his head, then he turned and sat on the Callahan’s tattered second-hand sofa – settling in and looking around the room.
“You aren’t much of a reader,” the old man observed. “Strange, don’t you think?”
“Strange? Why so?”
“Well, your mother was a teacher? I would think…”
“I’m not really like my mother,” Callahan said.
“And your father? What does he do?”
“He’s a ship’s captain. Freighters between here and Japan.”
“And he doesn’t read?”
“Not very much,” Callahan said – perhaps a little too defensively. He tended their breakfast, turned their eggs and buttered toast that popped-up out of the little toaster, then carried breakfast to the old coffee table in front of the sofa.
“You live simply,” the old man said. “Thank you for this,” he added as he took the plate Harry offered.
They ate in silence, then Callahan took their plates to the sink. He washed then dried them before putting them in the draining rack next to the sink, then he turned and looked at the old man, and again…he felt that fleeting impression of a smile…
“You know my mother, don’t you?”
“I do,” the old man sighed.
“How? How do you know her?”
“She was my wife. Before the war. Before all the other things that happened, before she forgot how to live. How to smile.”
The words hit like a gut-punch, and Callahan turned away trying to catch his breath, while the emerging cascade of burning realization and dizzying implication left him rolling in uncertainty, unsure of his footing on this earth.
“This wasn’t an accident, was it?” Callahan said. “This meeting, I mean? I would have seen you, even across the street.”
The old man indeed smiled just a little, then looked out the window down to the street below. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. Once upon a time we were very good at hiding from policemen, your mother and I. But no, I set up my little ruse yesterday.”
“You didn’t teach at Stanford, then?”
“Oh, yes, that much is very true. When I found out your mother was alive, we worked to bring her here.”
“Those of us already in the States, with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation. We resettled academics where we could. Many out here in California, though a few chose to go home. And a few, like me, decided on Israel.”
And now the room began to spin out of control, and Callahan sat quickly as waves of heat washed down his face. “Israel?”
“Yes, Israel. She is, after all, my wife.”
“Does my father about know any of this?”
The old man nodded: “All of it, Harry. He knows everything.”
“You know my name?”
“Of course. I’m not your father, but in a way I feel you are a part of me, too.”
“Why are you here? Why did you come now?”
“A message from your mother. She wants you to know she is happy, and she wants you to start on your music again.”
“That’s it? She couldn’t write?”
“There are many pieces to this puzzle, Harry. You must be patient. Many things will become clear in time.” The old man sighed, continued his survey of the street below. “I must go now, but the books below, in the shelter? They are yours now. I brought them for you. Thank you for breakfast,” the man said as he walked to the door.
Who was out the door in a flash and moving down the stairs before Callahan realized what was happening. He got out of his chair and followed the old man out onto the street, and he just saw the old man slide into the back seat of a waiting sedan double-parked in front of his building. As the car’s door slammed-shut Callahan dashed forward to get a better look at the car as it sped away…
…and all Callahan saw was the rear license plate.
…a diplomatic plate.
He committed the number to memory as the car disappeared, then turned and went to the little shelter the old man had been sitting in. Crawling inside, he found the books neatly stacked and inside one of Kierkegaard’s works a sealed letter. In the sole physics text he found a picture of the old man taped to the cover page, and this he assumed was indicative of authorship. He looked around, wondered if he should get fingerprints off the items, yet in the end he decided to leave the little hovel intact. He then gathered the books and carried them up to his flat, placed them on his little bookcase…all but the Kierkegaard tome with the letter inserted.
He went to the sofa and opened the letter, looked at his mother’s florid cursive script and read her mea culpa, then his eyes opened wide at the last paragraph…
“…Harald, I would enjoy nothing more than for you to visit with us next month. Actually, it is vital for us all that you do. If you would call the number penciled on the envelop and ask for Mr Shektor; he will take care of the arrangements. And please, tell your father nothing of this. Love -…”
He looked at those last few words, then the trailing word ‘Love’ all on its own. Not ‘Love, Mother,’ or even ‘Love, Imogen,’ but the simple, single word. Alone, as if bathed in guilt and left to dry under a harsh middle eastern sun, he wondered what exactly this was all about.
A visit? Yet ‘vital for us all’? What on earth could that mean?
He looked at the phone number on the envelop, the anonymous scrawl just barely legible, and without really knowing why he carefully dialed the number, waiting impatiently for the rotary dial to wind and unwind with each number. Then a woman answered…
“Yes?” the disembodied voice said.
“Mr Shektor, please.”
A brief pause, several clicking noises in the interval, then…
A man’s voice, the pronunciation forced, the middle eastern accent thick yet oddly familiar: “Mr Callahan?”
“A car will pick you next Friday, in front of your residence at eight in the morning. You will be away for ten days, and you will need clothing for warm weather.”
“Look, I don’t have a passport…”
“One will be provided, Mr Callahan. And look for a delivery within the next hour, so stay at home for the time being. Oh, this number will not work in the future, so do not call again.”
And with that, the line went dead.
“Swell,” Callahan sighed. He went to the window and scanned the street below, looking for who knew what but nonetheless feeling like he was being watched. He called dispatch and asked one of the girls to run the diplomatic license plate’s number, and it came back as registered to the Israeli Consulate’s motor pool. No surprises there, he groaned as he watched a large delivery truck pull up in front of his building. A man emerged and a moment later he heard a knock on his door.
“This the Callahan place?” the uniformed driver asked, his accent also thick with the same dense middle eastern lilt.
“Gonna be a bitch getting that thing up these stairs. Where you want us to put it?”
The guy looked amused on hearing that. “Your new piano, Mr Callahan. A gift, I guess you’d call it, from some new friends of yours.”
He sat in the still of the fading light, looking at the massive thing taking up most of his living space. ‘Is this a joke,’ he thought once again – and who knows, maybe he said as much out loud? ‘What do they want in return…?’ kept running around in his mind, so much so he wasn’t too startled when he heard another unexpected knock on the door. He slid off the sofa and walked to the door.
Brown tweed sport coat, slate colored turtleneck, dark flannel slacks – and white Adidas tennis shoes – peregrine eyes, hands in pockets.
He looked familiar, maybe he’d seen him at a recent homicide? Then he saw the badge clipped on the belt, and the familiar bulge under the shoulder.
“Callahan, right? Mind if I come in?”
“No. Come on in.”
The man walked in, saw the piano in the middle of the room and shuddered to a stop; he turned and looked at Harry – a razor-sharp grin spreading from ear to ear.
“You play?” the man asked.
“Yeah, but not so much the past couple of years.”
“Decided to take it up again, huh?”
“No, not really. Look, I hate to be an asshole, but do I know you?”
The man shrugged, then stepped forward with his hand extended. “Bullitt. Frank Bullitt. Homicide.”
Callahan took Bullitt’s hand. “Something I can help you with, Inspector?”
“Yeah, for one thing, you can tell me about this fuckin’ piano…”
So Harry told him. About his mother leaving for Israel, her wartime experience and how she came to America. He talked and talked, about all the things he had never known about her past, and about the encyclopedia of secrets his parents had maintained almost his whole life. Then the old man in the alley, and all of the day’s other bizarre events…
And at first Bullitt listened with the same sharp grin on his face…until Callahan mentioned the sedan with the diplomatic plates, as well as the none-too-subtle gift his ‘new friends’ had planted in his living room earlier that day…but by then Bullitt’s eyes had turned cold and hard, like a bird-of-prey in a lance-like descent, zeroing-in on its prey.
Bullitt was, however, on a mission this evening. Captain Bennett wanted to know more about Callahan too, and had asked Frank to scope him out, follow him around for a few days while Internal Affairs did a preliminary background check on Callahan. If everything passed muster Bennett wanted to talk to Callahan about taking the upcoming civil service exam for CID, the Criminal Investigations Division. Because the word on the street was simple enough: Callahan had an eye for detail and got things done – one way or another. Even Briggs over in Internal Affairs liked Callahan, and Briggs didn’t like anyone.
But this? Israeli spooks trying to compromise an SFPD street sergeant? That just didn’t make any sense at all…or did it? There were just too many holes in the story so far.
“So, you called the number?” Bullitt asked.
“Yeah. They want to pick me up next Friday, 0800, down on the street,” Callahan said, nodding with his head to the street below.
“Pick you up and take you where?”
“Israel, I think. Said they’d provide a passport.”
“And you agreed?”
“Nope. Told me then hung up.”
“So, how’re you gonna play it?”
“I don’t know. Ask for the time off, I reckon.”
The sudden change that came over Bullitt’s face startled Callahan; it was like the detective had performed some kind of rapid calculus, come to a decision and had decided to act – all in the blink of an eye…
“No, not yet.”
“Could I use your phone?”
Callahan pointed to the kitchen counter and Bullitt walked over, dialed a number then spoke in rapid, hushed tones before hanging up and turning back to Harry: “Right. Let’s go.”
Bullitt had parked about a block away; he was driving an old Porsche 356c Speedster, kind of a pale canary yellow color, and the top was down.
“Remind me not to ask how much money you make,” Callahan smirked as he eyed the deep burgundy leather interior. He crawled into the passenger’s seat, his eyes about even with the top of the windshield.
“It’s my wife’s,” Bullitt added unnecessarily.
“She a doc?” Or a lawyer?”
“Architect. Pretty good one, too. She’s up north, working on a house at Sea Ranch, left me this thing. Needs some work, though,” Bullitt added as he started the car and peeled out into traffic. “You ever met Captain Bennett?”
“The Homicide commander? No way; little over my pay-grade.”
Bullitt looked at Callahan and laughed, shaking his head a little as he turned towards the Marina District. “You like hot dogs?”
“Well, we’re going to Bennett’s and he’s cooking hot dogs out back. If you want some friendly career advice, tell him they’re the best goddamn hot dogs you’ve ever had in your life.” Bullitt turned from Columbus onto Bay at a sedate seventy miles per, his eagle’s eyes scanning the way ahead as street lights winked on.
“I’m just curious, but do you know there’s, like, a speed limit around here?”
Callahan nodded. “Is that what you tell ‘em when they pull you over?”
“Fuck that. Who bothers stopping?”
“Swell,” Callahan muttered…
The little Porsche pulled up – relatively unscathed – in front of a two story house a few blocks up from the marina, and Callahan could smell seared meat wafting all around the neighborhood…like backyard Bar-B-Qs were aflame behind each and every house. Bullitt led the way around to the side of the house, opened a small gate while keeping an eye out for something, or someone, holding the gate open for Callahan and slamming it shut just as a small wooly mastodon came ambling around from the backyard.
“Gretchen!” Bullitt howled, and the dog screeched to a halt then got down on her front legs – her butt pointing skyward and her tail flailing like a whipsaw – just before Bullitt pounced on her. The Great Dane pinned him effortlessly then proceeded to relentlessly lick Bullitt’s face – until Captain Bennett rounded the house…
“Gretchen! Come!” came the thunderous command, and the pup paused for a moment, then slinked away into the shadows. “Frank, you know I’m trying to break her of that! Why do you keep teasing her!”
“I can’t help it, Captain. She gives great tongue.”
Bennett shook his head and turned for the smoking grill in the backyard. “Callahan? Beer’s in the cooler; make yourself comfortable.”
Frank led the way to the cooler and pulled out two Anchor Steams, picked up the opener and popped both caps off, handing one to Callahan before walking off into the far reaches of the yard. Harry turned, saw two teenagers throwing a football and turned to follow.
“Callahan?” Bennett called out as Harry passed. “Got a minute?”
“No yessir-no sir stuff in the backyard, okay? Watch the fire while I go check on some stuff in the kitchen.”
Bennett walked to the house, shaking his head ever so slightly as he went, and Harry turned to the grill – something called a Hasty-Bake – and he saw seven large t-bones pushed back from the flames, cooking ever-so-slowly. He took the spatula and pressed gently on two of them, felt the softness and judged they still had a few minutes to go, so he took a long pull on his beer, watching Bullitt and the two kids back in the shadows as they tossed the ball. One of the boys, Harry saw, was a helluva passer.
“He starts at Oregon next fall,” Bennett said as he came back to the grill. “We’re proud as hell, of course. Did you play?”
“Baseball and track. Too skinny for football.”
“How’re the steaks?”
“‘Bout medium rare. Those two are, anyway.”
“Better pull ‘em, then. Beverly can’t stand a tough steak.”
Callahan pulled two, checked the rest and decided to let them rest off the flame for a minute and pulled them all off, though he didn’t notice how Bennett watched him while he did these simple things, and so had no idea that his every word and deed were being studiously scrutinized.
“Come and get it!” Bennett yelled to the footballers, then he turned to Callahan again. “Get ‘em on that platter and carry ‘em over, if you don’t mind?”
“Not at all, sir.” Callahan missed the approving nod, and the knowing look Bennett and Bullitt exchanged.
Dinner was polite chit-chat, what the boys wanted to study, what Bennett’s daughter was going to wear to a school dance next week – and Callahan did his best to keep engaged. The kids cleared after dinner while Mrs Bennett supervised, leaving the three cops alone in the backyard.
“Anyone need coffee,” Captain Bennett asked, his demeanor suddenly one hundred percent on-duty cop.
“Be good,” Bullitt answered.
“Yessir,” Callahan chimed-in.
“Beverly? Make it three!” Bennett turned to Callahan, his eyes hard and all business now. “Callahan? We have three slots open in CID, and your name has come to my attention. You interested?”
“In CID? Yessir, very much.”
“Civil Service Exam coming up pretty quick. Got enough time to study?”
Callahan looked at Bullitt’s razor sharp expression, then nodded. “I think so, sir.”
“Now, what’s all this shit about Israel – and their consulate?”
Callahan told him, leaving nothing out.
“So,” Bennett sighed, “Friday morning? You’re gonna go, I take it?”
“If I can get the time off, yessir.”
Bennett leaned back in his chair, steepled his hands over his belly then sighed. “Okay, as of right now you’re working for me. You’ve got the time off, but go into work tomorrow night as usual, don’t alter any routines, don’t do anything out of the ordinary. Get off work, go home and study for the exam. Do exactly what the Israelis have told you to do, and don’t tell anyone a word about what you’re up to. Frank’ll drop by a couple of times at work, when you’re on the street; other than that you just keep to the routine. Got that?”
“Now, I’ve been going through your jacket and there’s a big hole starting late in ’68. You’re Army Reserves, right? What was that all about? Vietnam?”
“Your file was pulled last year, and as best I can tell the CIA pulled it. About fifty pages heavily redacted. I tried to find out what that’s all about and got nowhere. Now, mind you I’m a colonel in the reserves and still work DIA from time to time, and they still won’t let me in on it. I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me what that was all about?”
“Not really, sir.”
Bennett smiled, looked at Bullitt and nodded.
“Alright, Harry,” Bullitt said quietly, why don’t you start at the beginning again, and tell us what’s really going on here…”
Callahan looked down into his coffee, looked at the reflections gathering there, swirling in a black cadence all their own…
“Nothing much to tell,” Callahan whispered.
“Good,” Bennett said gently. “Then this won’t take too long.”
(c) 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw
(a simply revised version of chapters 1 and 2 was recently posted at Lit, and chapter 4 should post here soon. thanks for dropping by…)