Read from Andre Alexis’s Hidden Keys
Presenting the 2017 Windham-Campbell Winners
Mr. Armberg called himself a businessman but he liked to say that what he did was none of your business, even when it was your business. A friend of mobsters, bikers and pushers, he had a bit of a name but he was not as powerful as he imagined. He was what you might call middle management, and this rigmarole with Colby and Freud was proof of it. Powerful men didn’t send dealers for people like Tancred. There was no need. Tancred was a known commodity, someone whose services could be used: a man good at what he did, one who kept his word. Had Armberg been really dangerous, Tancred would have been more careful. Still, Armberg was connected enough that it was worth at least hearing what he had to say.
Then again, had he known the meeting was in Etobicoke, he’d have resisted. Etobicoke was soulless and shiny, an encroaching wasteland, a tree-barren edge of the world. Tancred sat unspeaking in the back of the car—a Volkswagen—beside Freud, who listened to Drake at such volume that ‘Headlines’ bled from his earbuds. Colby drove along Etobicoke’s version of Dundas: malls, tar, cement and glass.
Somewhere around Kipling, they turned onto another street and then into the parking lot of a tall building. It occurred to Tancred, as they were buzzed into the building, that they had entered a mausoleum: the fountain in the lobby a scene from some gruesome mythology—a dragon spraying water upward as a knight plunges his sword in the beast’s side—the lobby itself so pungent with chlorine his eyes stung as they crossed it.
As they entered Armberg’s apartment or office or whatever it was meant to be, Tancred was momentarily bewildered. The place was beyond crass. It was a Rona-catalogue version of luxury. To begin with, the floors were covered in white shag carpeting.
–You should take your shoes off, said Colby.
Then, all the tables in view were silver and glass—that is, soldered, silvery frames on which heavy panes of glass rested. On the walls there were paintings, their wooden frames carved into patterns of leaves. The paintings were reproductions of religious subjects: putti cuddling the infant Christ, angels hovering above the Virgin.
Colby led him into an office where, mercifully, the floor was varnished wood. They sat in silver-frame chairs with clear plastic backs and white cushions for seats. Before them was a desk—silver-framed, of course, with a thick glass desktop. Behind the desk, a chair very like the ones they sat in.
–How you doing, Nigger? said Armberg as he came into the office.
The man was somewhere under six feet, not particularly fat, though you could have called him paunchy if you were being critical. His skin was pale with reddish blotches beneath his chin and on his forehead. His hair had receded, but only a third of the way up his scalp, leaving something like an inlet. Nor did he comb his hair over to hide where he was balding. His hair was cut short. What was not short was his moustache: a full walrus that was darker than the hair on his head. In principle, he was well-dressed—dark-blue Hugo Boss two-piece suit, white shirt, orange silk tie—but everything on him looked about half a size small, save his shoes—oxblood Hush Puppies—which looked incongruously wide. Overall, there was an off-kilter stylishness, a not-quite-style that Tancred found surreal.
–You’re Tancred? Armberg asked. Strange name, eh? Never mind. I heard you’re a stand-up guy. Even Nigger thinks so and I can’t tell if Nigger even likes you. You like him, Nigger?
–I haven’t had any trouble with him, said Colby.
–Well, it’s a start, said Armberg. Okay, that’s enough small talk. I invited you here, Palmieri, because we maybe have an interest in common. I’m saying, maybe, because now Willow Azarian’s dead, maybe things are changed.
This was the moment Tancred learned of Willow’s death. He showed no emotion but he briefly saw—of all things to recall—Willow raising a hand to cover her mouth as she bit into a chocolate doughnut.
–Nigger here’s told me everything about Willow Azarian, especially the business with what her father left her. I got to be honest: to me, it sounds like a fairy tale. But Nigger thinks it might be real. I heard a lot about Robert Azarian when he was alive. He wasn’t that cute, you know what I mean? Not the treasure-hunt type. So, I’m on the fence about all this. But the man had more money than chinks got Chins and if he didn’t leave all of it to his children, who else did he leave it to?
Tancred said nothing because there was nothing to say. Armberg was so obviously insincere, it would have been ridiculous to take him seriously. This was all a performance for his benefit, but it was not good, more comic than threatening. Armberg pulled out a cigar and lit it. He seemed to contemplate something as he drew on his Schimmelpenninck. He was not a gangster, thought Tancred. He was somebody’s idea of a gangster.
–We’re going to be partners, Tancred, you and me. It’s like we’re on an expedition, like looking for a sunken ship. You like that idea?
–Of course, said Tancred.
–You do? said Armberg. If you don’t mind me asking, why do you like it?
–Now that Willow’s dead, said Tancred, it’s good to know I’ve got someone who’ll put up the money I need to start my expedition.
–Money? said Armberg, What money? I’m not giving you money. Who knows if there’s anything to all this? This could all be a wet fart. Why am I going to give you money for that? You’re out of your mind.
–Then we’ve got nothing to talk about, said Tancred. Without money, I’m done. Armberg again fell into a sort of reverie, puffing on his cigar.
After a moment, he said
–I looked into you, Palmieri. I know what you’re about and I get it. This was a long shot, anyway. To tell you the truth, a man like me doesn’t have time for fairy tales. I’m only talking to you to keep Nigger happy. But I’ve got a sense of adventure. And I see your point about investment. You’ve got to give something to get something. I get that. So, just out of curiosity, what would it cost to start you off? Keeping in mind this could be pennies in a jar we’re talking about, this treasure.
Tancred looked the man in the face: crooked nose and large, brown eyes, the kind that must have been lovely when he was a child but now made him look as if he were part doe. Tancred was not for a moment interested in Armberg as a partner or associate.
–Fifty thousand dollars, he said.
Armberg took this in and thought about it.
–Is fifty thousand enough, he asked, or do you want to fuck my wife, too?
Behind Tancred, Freud and Colby laughed. But Armberg didn’t.
–That’s too much, he said. Too much.
–Without money, said Tancred, I’ve got no interest in this. And I’m not going to use my own.
–I think you do have an interest, said Armberg. And if you’re going to keep going, I want to be part of the expedition. So, I was thinking we’d just go old-school on this one. I was going to have the boys bring your friend … What’s his name?
–Olivier, answered Colby.
–That’s the guy, Armberg said. You two are always together. So, I’m guessing you wouldn’t want Freud here to slap your friend around. Am I right?
–You’re right, said Tancred.
–Good, said Armberg. We’re on the same page. So, let’s put it this way: of course, if you need a reasonable amount of money as a get-out-of-jail-free kind of deal, I’ll help out if I can. In exchange, whatever you find with this Azarian business, half of it’s mine. And because Nigger knows the story, I want you to consider him my emissary. You know what that means, right? From now on, he’ll be close to you. You find nothing, I won’t be disappointed. Things don’t always work out like we want. We’ll be all square, if you’ve been square with me. You understand me?
–I do, said Tancred.
–Good, good, said Armberg. Let’s shake on it.
–No, said Tancred, rising. I see where you’re coming from. That’s enough.
Armberg had already risen and put forth his hand.
–Shaking hands means we came to terms, he said. Haven’t we come to terms?
–I’ll let you know when I’ve got something to show you.
–Well, happy hunting then, Palmieri.
As he, Colby and Freud drove back to Parkdale, Tancred was not amused. Colby, who now sat in the back with him, would not stop talking. He was, it seemed, filled with enthusiasm for their project.
–We should stick to Willow’s idea, he said. We steal her brothers’ and sisters’ things and then we can figure this out. I feel good about this, Tan. No reason we can’t work together. Just tell me what you need.
Tancred kept quiet. He had wasted his time, learning nothing, save that Willow was dead and Armberg and Colby had no idea he’d already taken the model of Fallingwater. Then again, how would they know that? They were not the kind who had access to police reports. Armberg was—and here he remembered the man’s shoes—a clown.
–I’m sorry we had to do things this way, said Colby. But I knew you’d listen to John before you’d listen to me. Yeah?
–I need to think, said Tancred, about Willow.
–Oh, sure. No problem.
For a moment as they passed the Humber Bay Arch Bridge, Tancred wondered what his duty to Willow was, now that she was dead.
But Willow’s death changed nothing. If anything, it strengthened his resolve. He’d given his word. In the absence of any who could speak for Willow, in Willow’s absence, he had no choice but to keep it.
Beyond that, there were vaguer impulses and curiosities. He truly wondered about what lay at the end of Robert Azarian’s hunt. He did not think it could be money. Azarian’s children already had pots of cash. (Nor was he himself interested in it. Baruch had taught them to think of money as ‘the spoor of the ruling class,’ and some part of him still thought of it that way.) So what was it that Robert Azarian had sought to pass on?
His curiosity did not mean he’d leave Ollie hanging, however. As they drove along the lakeshore, Tancred decided to move into the loft on Winnett and ask Ollie to stay with him for a while.