He should have never come here, not yet, but his brother’s last words were “Meet Allen Z. at Tip’s.” And he didn’t want to dishonor Len, two years younger. Now gone. But it gave him the creeps. This was the epitome of the sort of place Len frequented, smart in a moderately chic way, crowded with bodies and words, chairs surrounding each table so people kept attaching themselves to conversations. Too many suits for Rudy. It had been hard to find a spot where he could wait undisturbed. He’d had to put his backpack on a chair across from him and his foot on another. Still, a man built like a cement block had put his hand on a chair back, eyebrows raised, as if he was sure of this seat with or without permission. He backed away after a pronounced glare.
He’d arrived before the lunch crowd poured in so he’d ordered and consumed a BLT sandwich, the cheapest thing on the menu. Len and he had met here once every couple of months when Len was about started college and Rudy had been moved to full-time at the Rialto Theater. Still, it was Len who could afford the salmon salad. He had money coming in from their great-uncle, whose vote of confidence was so great he’d long ago set aside money for his charming, studious great-nephew’s education.
Everyone knew that was right. Rudy didn’t think much about it until he couldn’t get a job following high school. He sweated it out in the basement rec rom at the parents’ and Len sympathized as he scored the honors’ list again. Rudy wished he’d had both the flair and committment to academics his brother did. But it was a short-lived sulk. The job at the New Rialto Theatre was one he’d coveted since he was a kid. It was perfect hours (late afternoon til one a.m.); it showed independent and old movies and hosted other kinds of performances; and it afforded him a good look at Lucy now and then. He had yet to find the temerity to speak to her. It was just as well. She looked the other way when she saw him. If only Len could tell him what to do about that.
“I’d say wait for her after her shift and offer to view an ole Lauren and Humphrey, then have a chat over a microbeer. Or exotic coffee. Dazzle her with film trivia. She’ll love it.”
“Good idea. I think. She’s so smart, I’ll probably put her to sleep with my little movie anecdotes.”
Rudy put his hand to his mouth. Had he been speaking aloud? That was happening lately. He mostly knew Len was gone, but he found himself talking with him, both in his head and as if he was there. How long would it take for that to stop? Six more months? Or maybe this would all be straightened out and Len would be back.
A sputtering laugh startled him. He looked around. A businessman was blowing smoke rings and his table mate was jowl-deep in the roast beef special. Rudy studied the front door as it opened and closed, finishing the dregs of cold coffee. He shivered. The air conditioner was blasting despite the forecast of cooler days. Len wore a sweater; he chilled easily. Or, as Len said, he didn’t thaw after March like others, but he did shed the ratty goose down jacket.
Where was this mysterious Allen Z.? The tasteful wall clock indicated he was fifteen minutes late. Allen Z. would be wearing a red shirt and black pants so Rudy wouldn’t miss him. But who would notice if he slipped in and out with all those people blocking the light from windows and doorway? The loudest people attracted attention but only momentarily. It was the ordinary, silent ones who needed watching. Rudy knew that from years of being one. No one was so observant as he because no one paid much attention to him. He could absorb a lot in a short time just by being still. And he knew much about fascinating things, including people, he liked to think.
Len told Rudy he had to have been a cat in his last life, quick and good at sneaking around. Len put him up to things even though he was the younger one, like getting him to bring up the carton of ice cream to their room when his mother was finishing laundry right by the kitchen. Or stealing the bourbon bottle from the cabinet behind his father as he read the newspaper in his easy chair. There was the one double date they had that ended up with Rudy being nearly charged with trespassing. He’d been sent ahead to scout out the lay of the land behind a mansion on Lake Road. Len had planned a take-out picnic at midnight by the big pond behind the estate. Instead, they were sighted anyway, the cops were called and Rudy was the last to roll down the hill, smack into a flashlight’s glare. After that, Rudy taught Len how to do the slinking around, passing for a shadow. It was a relief to be done with such games.
Rudy absolutely wanted to leave now. The call had been made to Allen Z. after everything happened, then quieted down. Rudy had not been in a hurry. It was so overwhelming when Len vanished after his car accident that Rudy half-forgot about the name and number jammed in his jeans pocket. Detectives had found no decent leads and time dragged on. After Rudy woke up from the shock of it all, it finally occurred to him that the stranger might know something useful.
The voice that answered was refined and smooth as fine leather, as if he was expecting a pricey client on the other end.
“Allen Z. here. And to whom am I speaking?”
“Well, Mr. Janus, good of you to finally call. I’ll meet you at Tip’s tomorrow at one o’clock.”
“It’ll be lunch rush. Couldn’t we meet somewhere else?”
“Not at all, it’s perfect, busy is good, they have excellent espresso if in fact I’ve slid right into an early slump. Which happens more often than not after noon.”
“But it was one of Len’s favorites and…”
“Yes.” Allen Z. paused a split second. “See you at one unless I’m delayed for some reason or another. Then I’ll get back to you eventually. I’ll be in a good red shirt, black slacks.”
It seemed impossible that Rudy didn’t know the person he was to meet any minute. He knew most of Len’s friends. Well, until the past year when his little brother made himself scarce. Their mother had often tried to send him to Len’s place to check on things, see if he was okay. Which he was, or appeared to be, when he was around. He was just immersed in another paper or the latest girlfriend. And why did everyone keep track of him when he had been on his own awhile now– just like Rudy? When Rudy said he only wanted a good dinner out of him, he chuckled. They ate well that night and talked just like old times. But that was rare.
Then Len was in a three car accident, was in the hospital with a bad concussion, deep lacerations, bruised ribs. They were observing him. And one night he disappeared.
Rudy rubbed his eyes.
“Mr. Janus, I suspect?”
The speaker held out a long-fingered hand. His back was to the streaming light so it was hard to see his face. Rudy stood and took the man’s palm hesitantly. The so-called red shirt was a muted wine color, the pants charcoal and expensively-tailored. They sat.
Allen Z. had the clearest, lightest blue eyes Rudy had ever seen, and the effect of looking at them too long was that of staring at a bright twilight sky or pristine pond: mesmerizing. He didn’t like them, or his silky shirt and beautiful slacks. Something was off. The man wasn’t Len’s type of friend, was at least ten years older. Something else bothered him that he couldn’t name. He looked down to break the spell, then up again.
“Allen–what’s up with the Z.?–whoever you are, we’re meeting because Len told me to call you. I’d like to know why. Skip the bull.”
“Neither are you who I was expecting–a surprise.” He waved the waiter over, told him to bring espresso. “It’s simple. I’m giving you money for him and clearing up a few things. He asked for this and because he’s a good one, rising fast when he isn’t put on hold, I’m sharing minor information. I always have discretionary powers.”
“‘Oh hold’? What does that mean…Are you some lawyer?”
He laughed from belly-up. “That’s rich!” He smoothed his pale mustache which Rudy found to be a poor excuse for hair growth. “Hardly. I’m his boss, but we are better described as associates.”
“I didn’t know he was in business.”
“What sort of business?”
“Objects d’art, truth be told.”
“Like paintings and such? Fine art?”
Allen Z. gazed at him, then nodded at the waiter who put down the white espresso cup and saucer.
“How? Tell me. And where he is!”
“He has a talent for finding art, shall we say. He finds it for me. Rather, for my clients.”
Rudy sat back. “He has gone to auctions, prowled antiques shops or what? How did he get this odd, unknown talent you speak about? He likes art but he doesn’t make it a priority. I’d be surprised if he could tell the difference between a Van Gogh and a Picasso. That’s more up my alley. I love the stuff, the older the better, the rarer the better.”
“You’re a wonder to behold. Len informed me of your interest before he left.”
Rudy sat forward and grabbed the man’s sleeve, hissed into his face.
“Left for where? Is he in trouble? And are we talking black market here, illegal activities, is that it, Z.?”
Allen Z. pulled his arm back slowly, beamed those eyes on him, then placed folded hands on the table between them. He leaned into Rudy’s space.
“Quiet now. You need to listen well. Your brother is quick of mind and hand, can access places no one else has, can perform a risk assessment before cameras know he’s there and then he brings back treasures. But he made a grave error. Now he has to do business elsewhere a few months, perhaps longer. He’s on a private research trip, let’s say. Just keep you mouth shut as Len said you would or there will be other matters for you to deal with. In the meantime, he wanted me to give you this.”
A medium sized, brown leather, zippered pouch was slid across the table. Rudy felt fear like a knife blade sliding down his back. He should get up and leave now. His brother couldn’t know this man. But there were the worn, gold stamped initials of “LJ” on the bag he had gotten for graduation from high school. “For incidentals” his mother had said and Len had used it ever since for one thing or another. Rudy fingered it, took a good breath and opened it.
Inside was something wrapped in paper, he thought, then, no, he pulled it out just enough to get a look. Crisp bills. Lots of them. He put them back in, zippered it shut, sent it back over to Allen Z.
“Not mine.” Rudy trembled despite willing otherwise.
“It is now. I don’t mix with small interests like this. It’s what is left of his trust fund and more. He wants you to have it. He said you ought to finally take Lucy to a good restaurant and if that goes well, to the mountains for a week-end.” He tossed back the espresso and licked his lips clean.
A heaviness came over Rudy. His head buzzed with the crook’s energy or it was fear or the noise of all those people eating and talking, making things complicated for each other. Why didn’t Len just call him from wherever he was? How could he know for sure this was the truth, at all? Or if it was money that belonged in the family?
“And he said to give you the temporary cell number, so here it is.” A blank card with two numbers was handed over. The first one was the Allen Z.’s, the crook’s. “I’m off. I have classier conversation to pursue.”
He rose and blocked out the light once more. Then he bent down to Rudy’s ear.
“If you’re ever interested in a job we might be able to use your burgeoning passion for the arts. Time will tell.” He stood tall and placed his hand on Rudy’s shoulder, gave it a rough squeeze, then walked away, leaving behind the scent of expensive cologne that made Rudy cough.
The pouch sat there, waiting. Looking too obvious. He picked it up. Paid his bill. Made his way through the line of customers at the door and into the blinding sunshine. At the corner Rudy held Len’s number up close and dialed it. It rang and rang. No voice mail. And then it was picked up.
“Rudy? That you, bro?” His voice was tinged with the usual huskiness.
“Len! What’s going on? We thought you were dead, maybe! Where are you? This is some insane joke!”
“No joke. Take the money, have fun, put it in savings. I’m okay, just away from the contiguous states. Tell mom I’m okay if you need to. Later, Rudy. We’ll talk again. And be smart.”
And that was it. “Be smart,” as if he meant something more. Rudy was taken over by a swift surge of adrenalin and he walked the streets of the city for a long while, thinking of everything, wondering why, wishing they were kids again, filled with an odd excitement. A twinge of guilt hung on–both of them playing cat in the dark all those years, snatching things. Then dread pounded his chest. Intense curiosity. Sadness. He thought he’d have to scream a little over the freeway, then just sat down, drained.
But he also thought about the room full of old films, some rare, and how he loved them and how others did, too. He would always protect them, that was what mattered to him, right? Then it was back to Len, his gifted brother, an art thief! Ridiculous, yet it made a strange sort of sense, too.
All of it worried him.
He locked away the pouch in a metal box in his apartment. Then he got ready for work, washed his face and changed shirt and tie, took the bus to New Rialto. When he passed her, he didn’t greet Lucy, not yet.
At break time she sauntered over to him, long hair swept up in a topknot this time. He liked seeing more of her.
“You have anything special going on tonight, after work?” she asked.
“Not at all,” Rudy said, leaning back against a wall. “Not one single thing.”