The last person I wanted to see again was my mother.
But she turned up anyway.
A two-bit Mafia mug by the name of Bernie Fiore called me at my office. “Meet me at the Tiv at 3:30,” he said. “Upstairs in the loges, first row, beside the wall.”
“What the hell, Bernie? I work for a living – no time for movies in the middle of the day.”
“I can’t talk no more.” His voice a whisper now, “Just meet me there, Max. It’s about your mother.” Then he fumbled with the receiver and hung it up like a guy with ten thumbs.
I slumped in my chair, still clutching the phone, the dial tone a swarm of bees in my ear. My palm felt clammy as I plunked the receiver back on its cradle, my mind spinning.
How could it be about my mother? Was she back in Hamilton after all these years? And even more disturbing – why in hell would Bernie Fiore know a damn thing about her?
I stood at my office window, staring at the brick wall next door, as a slender, dark-haired woman slinked from the shadows of my mind. She was sheathed in a silvery dress shimmering with sequins and was smoking a cigarette in an ivory holder.
My father was spread-eagled in his armchair beside the radio; his Hamilton Police jacket, reeking of cigar smoke, was flung across the back of the sofa, his suspenders drooped at half-mast over his beer gut, and another quart bottle of Dow Ale was clamped in his massive right fist.
He sneered in her direction. “On the town again tonight?”
She turned to face him and shot back, “On the booze again tonight?”
He swallowed another long gulp, then waved the bottle toward her as though he were shooing a fly. “Good riddance.”
At the honk of a car horn she draped a lacy shawl over her arm and sashayed toward the door as she snapped over her shoulder, “Same to you, Buster.”
She didn’t say a word to me – didn’t seem to notice I was there; a skinny little kid with tears in his eyes, watching her disappear.
That was in 1923, what some folks called the Roaring Twenties. And I was seven years old when my mother roared out of my life. Now, a week before Christmas in 1947, I’d neither seen nor heard from her since.
She’d disappeared soon after my father was gunned down during a police raid on one of Rocco Perri’s bootlegging joints along the Beach Strip. Years later, I heard a rumour that she had run off with one of Rocco’s gunmen and that she might even be connected to the Mob somewhere in Florida. But I never knew for sure.
Isabel bustled into my office with a cheery “Morning, Max,” rousing me from my dismal reverie. “You okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I pulled myself together, sat up straight in my chair and gave myself a quick head-rub. “I’m a bit dozy today. Must be the weather.” I glanced toward the window – it wasn’t the weather. Sunlight flooded in, reflecting off the powdery snow that had dusted the city overnight.
Iz drew up a chair and reached for my hand. “Something’s going on, Max. Tell me.”
Her green eyes held mine and wouldn’t let go. My natural inclination to keep myself buttoned up didn’t stand a ghost of a chance. “Thinking about old times,” I half-confessed, and picked up a file folder from my in-basket. “Now, this new Nelligan case looks interesting. Think we could handle the surveillance on our own?”
She reached across the desk, plucked the folder from my hand and tossed it aside like a soiled Kleenex. “Oh, phooey, Max, the Nelligan case can wait. Now what about these ‘old times’?”
She grasped my hand and squeezed, her vivid green eyes flashing. Isabel O’Brien.
The stunning red-haired woman who’d been keeping me off balance since she’d joined Max Dexter Associates last summer to train with me as a private investigator. Six months later, I still hadn’t learned to adjust to her straight-for-the-heart delivery. Does any man truly admit that he’s met his match? That a woman – especially a woman as clever as Isabel – is almost as smart as he is? I checked myself. Forget about ‘almost’. She was sharper than a fistful of carpet tacks.
“It’s about my mother,” I said, parrotting Bernie’s phrase. “Remember I told you she left Hamilton after my father was killed back in the twenties?”
She didn’t speak, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“I just got a call from Bernie Fiore, a young guy from the old neighbourhood. Last I heard, he was an enforcer with the Dominic Tedesco crime family. He says he wants to talk to me about her.”
“She’s back in town?”
“Bernie didn’t say. I don’t know why she’d come back now. And I don’t think I’d want to meet her if she did.”
Isabel stood and stepped behind me, placing both her hands on my shoulders. Her subtle fragrance teased me as she massaged the tightened muscles in my neck.
I leaned back in my chair. “Mmm – don’t stop.”
“If she is in town then you should see her, Max. Every mother must feel something for her only child. Even after all these years.”
I reached back and held her arm. Then I gave her a big smile and changed the subject again. This time she followed my lead.
After lunch I stepped out onto King Street, relieved to see the sun had melted the light overnight snow. Wintry weather wasn’t the best time of year for a war vet making do with a shrapnel wound that buggered up his right knee. I limped to the nearby Capitol Theatre where I spotted my friend Bob seated aboard his wheeled dolly.
He looked up when I approached, a grin on his clean-shaven face. “Hey there, Sarge, how goes the battle?”
“Okey-dokey. How’s business here?”
In front of him on the sidewalk, he’d spread a small rubber mat where his pencils were lined up like toy soldiers ready for inspection. Bob had lost both legs at Dieppe but that didn’t stop him from scooting himself around the downtown streets, setting up shop at the busiest spots. Bob extended his right hand. When I shook it, I noticed the tips of the thumb and first two fingers of his woolen glove had been snipped off: I guessed so he could handle his pencils better and make change.
“Business is always good at Christmastime, Sarge. What’s up?”
I chuckled to myself. I wasn’t a sergeant in the military police anymore, but some of my fellow vets still liked to call me Sarge.
“I’m meeting a guy at the Tivoli – about 1530. Think you could set up there? Keep an eye open for me?”
“Sure. Who’re you meeting?”
“Bernie Fiore. Know him?”
He nodded then pushed back his army field cap as it tipped forward. “Yeah, I see him around quite a bit. A young mob guy: I think they’ve got him on collections – the old protection racket. He hangs out at that pool room down near the corner of Cannon and James. But dumber than a pile of bricks. His brother got all the brains in that family.”
I smiled at his description. Bernie’s older brother Nick had been a few years ahead of me at Central Collegiate: a hard-nosed lineman on the football team and that kept him in shape for his weekend job hustling booze for the Rocco Perri gang. And after Rocco’s sudden disappearance — some said at the bottom of Hamilton Harbour — Nick was playing full-time on the Dominic Tedesco team.
“I’ll be there, Sarge. You can count on me.”