Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Twist Of Noir 084 - Albert Tucher

RENDO"RSE'G - ALBERT TUCHER

Originally published in the 2005 Summer issue of the now-defunct Lynx Eye Magazine

“Rend-er-sheck,” said Diana.

“Not bad, but not quite,” said the officer. “Rendo"rse'g.”

This time she did better at removing the bite of the “r” while leaving the voluptuous core of the “o” sound.

“With me,“ he said.

Their duet felt as intimate as a kiss. He was very cute. Some would say he was too young for her, but who were they?

“It means, ‘Police.’”

“I had a suspicion,” she said.

His uniform was one clue. The prominent lettering on his patrol car was another.

“I am the rendo"rtiszt,” he said. “Police officer.”

He smiled. He did it well.

“You would be the rendo"rno". Police woman.”

“If you only knew.”

She had been a prostitute for almost fifteen years and an ex-hooker for less than three. She was glad that the calluses had worn off her reactions to appealing men, but she also felt some alarm. With her right thumb and forefinger, she rubbed the fourth finger of her other hand, where she would have worn a wedding ring. She wasn’t sure what a ring on that finger would have meant to Europeans, but it didn‘t matter. The massage was for her own benefit.

He studied her with mock severity.

“You are Hungarian in origin?”

“My grandmother said her father came from the Taba'n section.”

“Across the river in Buda, between the two hills. I will show you, if I may.”

That wouldn‘t do at all.

“I was there earlier today,” she said.

All morning she had wandered and tried to sense her great-grandfather walking those same streets. She had and she hadn’t. It was one of those things.

Maybe he wasn’t sure he approved of her.

“Taba'n is known for beautiful women,” said the man she sensed too well.

It must be true, she decided. Who could lie in an accent like that?

“Where do you stay?”

“The Grand Hungarica.”

Oh, she thought.

She had sworn she wouldn’t tell him.

The radio in his car began to squawk in Hungarian. He frowned. She smiled in relief.

“Please enjoy your visit.”

“Definitely.”

But disappointment pierced her, now that he had to move on.

“Rendo"rse'g,” she said.

It would be hard to forget.

Diana rounded the corner of the Hyatt Regency. She smiled again. There was Bert, the man who had never failed to be where she looked for him. He stood halfway across the Chain Bridge. He had been communing with the Danube for more than an hour, and he showed no sign of moving soon. She had spent a few minutes with him on the bridge. She knew he had a railing to lean on and a breeze to soften the early summer sun. Occasionally, a ship or barge slid into his field of vision, but he seemed to prefer it when he had nothing to look at but the water.

She could leave him there for a while. Where was Howard?

She turned inland and walked along Roosevelt Square. Just a few minutes down Va'ci Street, she found him. What she saw wasn’t good. Howard was eighteen and a new high school graduate. In September, he would start his freshman year at Princeton. With his command of languages, he had guided Diana and Bert through Paris and Vienna. None of that made him a match for the young woman, who had lured him to a table in one of the outdoor cafes. She was at least in her mid-twenties, and she had the kind of legs that made designers keep turning out miniskirts and stiletto heels. She also had the look.

Takes one to know one, Diana thought.

She didn’t think that Howard never needed to meet a hooker, but this encounter would do him no good. The woman was out to get something for nothing, and she had help if she needed it. Diana already didn’t like the two large, unfriendly men who had started toward Howard.

Diana got there first. The woman glared at her. Her meaning was plain--this one‘s mine.

“Rendo"rse'g,” said Diana.

She had no ID to show, but she didn’t worry about it. She had heard things about Eastern European police. Fifteen years after Communism, they still ignored the niceties.

The woman gave her an incredulous look and asked her something. Diana wondered whether she should have said, “Rendo"rno".”

She tried to look as if she had understood the question but didn‘t consider it worth answering. She kept staring the woman down.

It worked for the moment. The hooker got up and stalked off into the café. Howard made petulant noises.

“You need to come with me right now,” said Diana. “Let’s go. Quick.”

Howard sulked, and then it was too late. The two men had reached them.

One of the men was plainly the boss. He was the smaller of the two, but that still made him big enough. When he spoke, Diana wanted to arrest him just for his tone.

“What is this?” said the gestures that went along with his words. “A crackdown? Why didn’t anyone tell us?”

She continued to stare at him.

“Don’t we pay you enough?”

His meaning was unmistakable She raised her eyebrows as if to say, Don’t go there. She decided to outflank him.

“Young man.”

She put on a Hungarian accent in case the man understood English. The inflections came easily. Her grandmother had imitated her father many times.

“Young man, you must go. Up. Now.”

Howard finally grasped that he was in trouble. He jumped up and nearly ran from the cafe. Diana watched him turn left and disappear into a side street.

When she turned to follow him, a strong hand gripped her bicep. She counted three and looked up at the man. She stared through his eyes to the back of his skull.

He released her. She walked away from him without looking back.

Diana turned up the same side street that Howard had taken. It felt like a mistake, and she realized why. A cop would have moved on. Now she looked like Howard’s confederate. It was too late to fix her error now. She kept going.

Howard waited for her in the ATM lobby of a bank. He wasn’t alone. The man loitering near him ignored the cash machine. Diana figured him for a pickpocket or worse.

Howard didn’t see her coming. At that moment, she felt completely exasperated with him. Did he have to walk around with a target on his back?

She yanked the lobby door open and said, “Come on. This isn’t cool at all.”

He came with her. She pulled him across the street into a restaurant that had a six-stool bar. She ordered two small beers. The bartender seemed to expect her to speak English. Howard looked chastened.

“That was really dumb,” he said.

“Yes, it was.”

She relented immediately. He was a kid.

“My guess is, when you asked for the bill, it would have had a few extra zeroes on it, and those two no-necks would have dragged you to the nearest ATM. I also think the cops don’t usually hassle them about that scam. They seemed really surprised.”

It occurred to her that it wouldn’t be smart to retrace their route back to Bert. She dug in her bag for her rented cell phone.

“Where did you disappear to?” said Bert.

“Later,” she said. “We’re … where?”

The bartender told her the name of the restaurant and the street, which she relayed to Bert. Diana paid for the beers and tipped the man extra. After about twenty minutes, Bert appeared. Diana thanked the bartender and led Bert and Howard out into the street. They began to walk in the direction of the hotel. Howard drifted ahead to avoid hearing about his adventure.

“Impersonating a police officer,” said Bert. “Not the best idea back home. Could be even worse here.”

“I knew it as soon as I said it. But you know me.”

Bert smiled and put his arm around her shoulders.

“Yeah, I know. The Queen of Blurt.”

They planned to shower and rest for a while before going out to dinner. Howard went to his room. Diana watched Bert put the key card into the lock of their room. When the door swung inward, she pushed him lightly but insistently toward the bed. He twisted around and landed on his back on top of the bedspread. She climbed on top of him and kissed him.

“You’re in for it, Mister.”

“Be gentle with me.” His grin said the opposite.

“Hah.”

She had issues to work on. There was the adrenaline left over from her encounter with the local wildlife. Then there was the young cop, who had stirred feelings in her that she wanted to put back where they belonged.

The knock on the door was curt. Diana and Bert looked at each other. They both knew who knocked like that.

They were still dressed. Diana got up and went to the door. When she opened it, she began to smile, which annoyed her.

Her young boyfriend didn’t look friendly at all. Neither did the other uniformed officer with him. The two cops came uninvited into the room.

“Diana Andrews,” said her now ex-boyfriend. “Of Driscoll, New Jersey, U.S.A. I have just spoken on the telephone with Chief of Driscoll Police Fornerato.”

Oh terrific, Diana thought.

The current Chief enjoyed making life difficult for Diana and for Bert Jadlowsky, his predecessor. The call from Hungary had given him the opportunity to do just that without leaving his desk.

“Mrs. Andrews.”

She didn’t correct him.

“Chief Fornerato says you are the prostitute. Clever, never convicted of any crime.”

“I was the prostitute.”

Damn it, she thought. Can’t I ever stop doing things like that?

“I was a prostitute. I have not been for three years.”

“And you are married to this policeman.”

“Ex-prostitute, retired policeman,” said Bert.

Diana liked his answer. If she had to, she could remind the cops that she and Bert had never said they were married.

“You are young to have this eighteen-years-old son,” said the cop to Diana.

“I adopted him. His parents are out of the picture.”

“Where have you been since we met?”

Diana hesitated.

“This is not America. You must answer questions from the police.”

“We’re tourists. We walked around. We looked at things.”

“Is that all?”

Great, she thought. Now it might come out that she had impersonated a police officer.

“We took a break at a bar in one of the restaurants.”

“Ah. Do you recognize this man?”

The young cop handed her a Polaroid photograph. She looked, looked again, and handed the photograph to Bert. The young cop gave her a testy look, but she couldn’t worry about that. Bert needed to know what kind of trouble they were in.

The image from the photograph stayed with her. The bartender who had served Diana and Howard in the restaurant lay on his back with his hair in an unkempt halo around his head. Someone had held the camera directly over his face. Diana knew death when she saw it. The bartender was dead.

Another man appeared in the doorway and stopped. There wouldn’t have been room for him inside. The man was about sixty and obviously the boss. He looked as massive and as likely to smile as a bust on Mount Rushmore. His civilian suit might as well have been a uniform.

Diana thought. The bartender had been alive less than two hours earlier, and the cops had already found her. It was fast work--too fast. At least one of these three cops had known where his investigation would lead before he started it. And how could the other two have watched the third make huge intuitive leaps without becoming suspicious?

All three must be involved with the hooker and the thugs from Va'ci Street. If she had other enemies in Europe, she didn‘t know about them.

She could see it. The three from Va'ci Street figure out that she isn’t a cop. They go around asking people about her. They question the bartender and go too far with him. They need help, and they know where to go.

Honest or corrupt, the boss was the one to deal with, but how could Diana manage it? If the young cop had made the call to Fornerato, it was probably because his boss didn’t speak English.

Then Diana heard Howard’s voice in the hall. She listened, but nothing she heard made sense. Oh wait, she thought.

She had heard Howard’s German before. The man in the suit listened as Howard explained and persuaded. Diana switched her attention to the young cop, who stood stoically.

He doesn’t understand either, she thought.

The boss raised his hand to silence Howard. He rumbled something in Hungarian to his two subordinates, who both answered at length, agreeing with each other on some points and disputing others. Both young cops left the room and disappeared in the direction of the elevators.

“Come in, please, young man,” said the boss in English. He turned sideways to allow Howard into the room. Howard still had a hard time squeezing by the man’s bulk. “I am Inspector Balint. Madame, your son has told me an interesting story.”

“Oh,” said Diana.

Her theory had collapsed.

“Your son was correct in his thoughts,” said Balint. “The younger Hungarians have English. The older have German. He did not know that I am paid to have both. And Russian. The last century was eventful for my country.

“Tell me about your encounter in the Va'ci Utca.”

Diana told him. She understood that he wanted to compare her version with Howard’s. She hoped that Howard had told the truth.

“I must discourage you from pretending to be a police officer in my country,” said Balint when she had finished.

“It was a bad idea,” she said. “But why don’t the police do anything about scams like that? That’s extortion. Or something.”

“It is certainly something,” said Balint, “but our laws have not caught up to the new ways of doing things.”

“I think your young man knows these people,” said Diana.

“We all know them. Someday we shall be able to do something about them.”

For the first time, he showed an emotion. He was angry at Diana, or his powerlessness, or both.
“But that is not why we are here. We received an anonymous tip about you.”

His mouth twitched a millimeter.

“We say that now. ‘Anonymous tip.’ From American police television. Someone described a woman and a younger man, both Americans. They entered the restaurant just before the man was killed. Imre said that the description might be a certain American woman. He said that you might have a young man with you.”

Diana glanced at Bert. Sooner or later, he would make the connection. Why would a young man like Imre think she would associate with young men?

Again, Balint nearly smiled.

“Imre is very keen. He will be a good policeman when he learns to be less...”

He turned to Howard. “...heftig.”

“Impetuous,” said Howard.

“Thank you,“ said Balint. “I blame you Americans.”

Diana looked at him without understanding.

“There have been many Americans in our city since 1989. Imre has friends among them. They give him bad habits. It was not his place to call America. Now. Why should I not arrest you for murder?”

“Because we didn’t do it?”

“We will search your rooms.”

It wasn’t a question.

“Will we find a knife or bloody clothes? Now is the time to tell me.”

“No, you will not,” said Bert.

“You are a policeman?” said Balint.

“Retired.”

“I should be retired also.”

Balint shrugged.

“But I am not. Madame, who might have killed the owner of the restaurant?”

“I thought he was the bartender.”

Oh, for God’s sake, she thought. Who cares? But she thought about it and saw that it might make a difference. “The pickpocket,” she said. “I mean, I thought he was a pickpocket.”

She told Balint about the man lurking in the ATM lobby across from the restaurant.

“I’ll bet he was watching the place. I think he made the anonymous call, maybe after he killed the owner. It might have been about a protection racket. Does that happen here?”

Balint didn’t answer. He walked ponderously to the phone next to the double bed. Diana and Howard scrambled to let him pass. He spoke a few sentences of Hungarian into the phone. Imre and the other young officer appeared in the hall. Two other uniformed officers were with them.

“Come out, please,” said Balint.

He led Diana, Howard and Bert from the room into the hall. Without being told, they lined up against the wall. Diana looked at Bert and read his mind.

How did we become such good citizens so fast?

Two uniformed cops searched the room. They were thorough and unconcerned with the conditions they left behind them. The other two gave Howard’s room the same treatment.

“Madame, you will please come with us,” said Balint.

“Why is that necessary?” said Bert.

Balint gave him a hard look, but it didn’t work. Bert had his own cop look.

“She must look at photographs. Mug shots.”

Balint seemed to have drawn the same conclusion as Diana. Howard hadn’t noticed enough about the man at the ATM to be useful.

Diana moved closer to Bert.

“Why don’t you and Howard get some dinner in the restaurant downstairs?”

It was nothing like their plan before the police had appeared.

Balint had a Mercedes and a driver, but Diana rode in the back of the subcompact police car. Imre and his partner ignored her.

She had never been arrested, but several times she had answered unfriendly questions in police stations. The place they took her smelled like a police station, and the cop talk around her sounded as familiar in tone as its words were strange.

For more than two hours, she flipped through books of photographs. The man she had seen wasn‘t in them. It seemed less and less likely that he was just a local thief.

Imre dropped her off at her hotel. He still hadn’t spoken to her. The cops obviously expected her to go to her room and stay there. She didn‘t feel like cooperating. She also didn’t want to look at Bert after she had ruined the last part of their trip. He wouldn‘t blame her, which would make her blame herself.

She started to walk toward the center of the city.

She didn’t know her destination until she had nearly arrived. Ahead of her was the restaurant where the bartender had died. What did she want there?

The answer came to her. She felt guilty. She wanted to reassure herself that the man hadn’t been killed because he had let her and Howard linger over drinks. But how could she hope to find out what had happened?

She glanced up and noticed a new sign above the restaurant. She couldn’t remember the old name, but the new one was “Druzba”. She pushed the door open. Customers sat around bistro tables. Ten o’clock was late for dinner in Budapest. Most of the tables had nothing but drinks on them, which suited her. She still had no appetite.

She also had no interest in meeting the woman who looked up at her from one of the tables. Howard’s Va'ci Street hooker had a new job. Diana understood. She had blundered into a criminal power struggle that someone had just won. She wondered how much of the city had changed hands, and how many nearby doorways would have led her into the same invisible war.

She looked around for the two thugs from that afternoon. Did they also have new jobs? Maybe they now starred in Polaroid photographs on Balint‘s desk.

The hooker stood up abruptly and began to mutter abuse, as she worked up the nerve to get physical. Diana didn’t feel like fighting, but she refused to back away from this woman. A man appeared between her and the hooker. Diana knew him. She had been looking for him in books of mug shots.

It raised an interesting question. Was she going to die as the bartender had?

The man spoke to the hooker in a language that sounded nothing like Hungarian. The hooker froze, and her mouth slackened. She returned to her table, sat down, and stared at the drink in front of her.

The man smiled at Diana and gestured toward an empty table. As she sat, she tried to remember the last time she had obeyed a man without hesitation. The answer came to her immediately--that afternoon, with Inspector Balint.

She needed to get out of Budapest.

She had seen no signal, but a waitress set two beers in front of her and the man.

“You’re Russian,” said Diana.

“So is this restaurant,” he said. “Druzba. Friendship.”

He nodded toward the hooker. “Katia Petrovna and I understand each other. She will be your friend now.”

“I’m sure.”

So the hooker was also Russian. It explained why Diana’s single word of Hungarian had fooled her.

“You did not find photograph of me,” the man said. “You would not. I was not here two days ago, and in minutes I will be gone.”

“What did you have against him? The bartender. Did you even know his name?”

“I had nothing against him. He refused very generous business proposition.”

“Generous. He steps aside and he lives.”

“Be careful,” he said.

She decided to be careful.

“I am here to apologize,” he said, “I needed police to waste their time, but I spoiled your holiday.”

He laid his right hand flat on the table. When he took the hand away, a folded sheaf of bills remained on the tabletop. He nodded toward the money. She picked up the crisp new bills and riffled them. She still had the knack for counting quickly and accurately. He had given her ten U.S. hundreds.

“Okay, you ruined our vacation. Why do you care?”

“I am sentimental.”

“Sentimental?”

“About prostitutes. Those who survive, very tough. I like that.”

How did he know about her? He must have someone feeding him information from the police. Could it be Balint? He spoke Russian, but it proved nothing. This man spoke English. Everybody spoke English. If she had stuck to English, she would have stayed out of this mess. She could have paid Howard’s bill at the café and kept her illusion that she knew something worth teaching him.

“Do we understand each other?”

Anger at this man’s arrogance stopped her breathing. He thought he knew her. He thought he could kill a man and hang around at the scene of the murder. He thought he could buy anything. She feared he was right.

Diana set the money down and shook her head. It felt like the most dangerous thing she had ever done. Meeting his eyes was the hardest. She had stared down some vicious men, and some women who might have been worse, but this man could beat her at the game. With him, it stopped being a game.

“Do not spurn gifts,” he said. “Very serious matter for Russians.”

Serious, she thought. I know what he means by serious.

She nodded. She would give him nothing more, no matter what. He nodded back, stood up, and left.

Shame turned her throat dry. The money was hers. As a hooker, she had taken some dirty payoffs, but nothing this bad. What could she do with it? She could give it to the bartender’s wife or children, but how could she find his family without the help of the police? They would ask awkward questions. She could put the money in Howard’s college fund, but Bert would wonder how she came to have it. She could put it in her wallet and let it dribble away on daily expenses, but she would remember her shame each time she broke a hundred.

She picked the bills up and crumpled them in her hand. Katia Petrovna watched her stand and approach. Diana flicked the money onto the tabletop.

“Here,” she said. “I’m buying you off. The next time you feel like running your scam on some guy, don’t.”

The hooker beamed pure hatred at her. Even if she had understood Diana, the likelihood that she would honor their deal was zero.

“Glare all you want,” said Diana. “It’s the best I can do.”

BIO: Albert Tucher is the author of over twenty published stories and four unpublished novels about prostitute Diana Andrews. Like most authors of hardboiled crime fiction, he is a librarian in his day job.

2 comments:

sandra seamans said...

Nice to read stories about Diana after she's retired. Another great story, Al!

Paul Brazill said...

Al, a fantastic change of scene for Diana. Can't wait to read a novel. One day soon?