41. Brand of the Dead

“What you mean, what have we been up to?” Roscoe said to Doris.

Doris is not intimidated by authority. That goes double for the type of authority Roscoe represents. From her he got a poker face.

Roscoe broke first.

He clapped his hands, then made a show of eyeballing the main hall. It’s lined with quarter-sawn oak that leads to the stairway. If you had a few suits of armor and a herd of stuffed animal heads, that’s where you’d put them. Duke, however, left behind oil portraits that look like Dutch masters, except that there’s always an inappropriate touch — a hand groping here, a garment gaping there, a priapic cupid tucked in a corner, that sort of thing. Vintage Duke.

“Some joint,” Roscoe said, craning his neck.

“Home sweet home,” said Doris.

“More like you invite the board of directors over for cocktails. That your style now?”

“Our style seems to be open house for the underworld.”

Doris headed for the kitchen.

“You want coffee, right?” she called over her shoulder.

We tagged along behind her.

“Let me handle that, baby,” I said. Our coffee maker looks like a peewee boiler from a steamship — nozzles, valves, gleaming brass, a lot of hissing and burbling. By the time you get a cup of coffee a lot has happened.

“So the dead drop by?” Roscoe asked.

I shrugged. “Now and then.”

“Any hook up between them and Artie?”

“Charles, if you had anything to do with that poor man’s death…” Doris said.

“I don’t know he was a poor man. For one thing, the Mercedes. Another, he’s lucky he died before Simon Wiesenthal caught up with him.”

“Rumors,” said Doris. ”You don’t know that.”

“Artie,” said Roscoe. “There were suspicions. Inquiries. Unsubstantiated. But still. He had enemies. An old guy with a paper route, and he had enemies.” Roscoe shook his head.

“That’s not what killed him,” I said.

“You know?” Roscoe asked.

“I got reason to believe.”


Roscoe pulled out a notebook and pen.

“No point in writing this down,” I told Roscoe. “You tell anyone with a straight face, they’ll have you committed.”

Roscoe set down his pen. “So tell me.”

“Duke, his people, they’re developing a brand.”

“Dead guys are working on their brand?”

“Whatever else you say about them, they got some insight.”

“So what’s their big idea?”

“Death. It gets between you and living.”

Roscoe gave me that I’ve-heard-it-all cop deadpan. Then he started to laugh.

“That strike you as obvious?”

“The idea is, people would live differently if they knew when they were going to die.”

“Not that I paid that much attention. But some of the basics of our education did sink in. ‘Ye know neither…’”

“You don’t know, I don’t know.”

“So who does?”

“The dead.”

“Duke and his pals know when we’re going to die?”

“I didn’t believe it either.”

“What’s this got to do with Artie?”

“They asked me the name of our paper guy. As a test case.”

“Poor Schmachel. Too bad you get the paper.”

“Artie was scheduled to die this morning?” Doris asked.

“Some time in 2021, actually.”

“But he died today. So Duke doesn’t really know.”

“The dead can intervene. Pull the plug themselves if they want. I didn’t believe them. So they made Artie a case in point.”

“You killed Artie, Charles?” Doris said.

“That’s a little strong,” Roscoe said. “More like Fatman was an accessory to the crime.”

“Show me the statute that covers this,” I declared.

“There’s right and there’s wrong, Charles,” Doris declared. “There doesn’t always have to be a law.”

Monday: What about some common sense?

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