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The White Russian Caper
I was out the revolving door and halfway to my car when I remembered something important - the red heart that Millie had inscribed around the date on her calendar pad. I hurried back to the hotel and was relieved to see that the gift shop in the lobby was still open. I selected a two-pound, heart-shaped box of Godiva chocolates (the largest box on the shelf) and then cleaned the hotel flower shop out of its remaining stock of red roses. Now properly equipped with 27 red roses and the box of chocolates, I walked back to my car and drove home.
As I pulled into the parking lot behind the Carver Hill Apartments, I glanced up at our living room window and saw the curtains move. When Millie and I married last Labor Day weekend, she gave up her studio apartment and moved herself and her belongings into my third-floor, 600-square foot, one-bedroom walk-up. We’re a bit cramped for space, but the location is convenient - just ten blocks from the office. Millie must have seen me from the living room; she was waiting at the top of the stairs. Her face beamed like a six-year old who’d just been offered a tub of chocolate ice cream all for herself. “Oh, Dick!” She flung her arms around me, squeezing the candy and flowers between us. “You remembered!”
“Happy Valentine’s Day, honey,” I said, ignoring the pricks from the rose thorns. “How could I forget Valentine’s Day? Especially since you took such care to draw that big, red heart on your calendar.” She giggled in reply, and we walked back to our apartment, our arms around each other’s waists. Even though I’d told her to eat without me, Millie had kept dinner hot. We sat down to a meal of spaghetti with meat sauce, garlic bread, and a bottle of Mouton Cadet red wine. We kept the conversation light over dinner and dessert - a home-made chocolate layer cake in the shape of a heart - then adjourned to the living room for coffee. I knew that Millie was curious about where I had been that evening, but her opening gambit caught me off guard.
“What happened to your coat, Dick?”
“Your coat? The one you were wearing when you left home this morning?”
“Oh, that coat.” I feigned confusion. “What about it?”
“Where is it?”
“Left it in the car,” I replied. “It got dirty. I need to take it to the cleaners.”
Millie wasn’t biting. “Pull the other leg, Dick,” she said. “I know you better than that. When was the last time you noticed dirt on any of your clothes?” She looked at me, smiled, then cuddled up against me on the sofa. “C’mon, Dick. Tell me a bedtime story. What have you been up to? Who’s the big bad wolf this time?”
I filled her in on my evening adventure. As always, Millie was a good listener, punctuating my narration with gasps and gollies at all the right places. And when I came to the end of the story, she asked the perfect question. “Where’s the coin, Dick? Can you show it to me?”
“It’s in my trouser pocket.” I reached into the pocket with my free hand and pulled out the coin. She extended her hand, then hesitated. “Go ahead and have a look at it,” I urged. “Don’t worry about fingerprints. Mine are all over it.”
Millie picked up the coin and held it under the reading lamp beside the sofa. “Have you had a chance to look at this yet, Dick?” she asked, as she turned it over to examine both faces of the piece.
“Not really,” I replied. “Why? Can you make out anything?”
“I think it’s a Russian coin. Come and look at it under the light.” I stood up, walked over to the lamp, and knelt close to where Millie was sitting. “See these symbols?” She pointed at some marks. “I think that’s Cyrillic lettering. You know what I mean - the Russian alphabet.”
“But, if that’s a Russian coin, where’s the CCCP?”
“CCCP is the Russian abbreviation for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics - USSR.” She looked up, wide-eyed. “The date on this coin is 1811. It’s from the time of the Russian tsars.”
I leaned back and looked at her. “How do you know so much about Russia?”
“Oh,” She blushed and seemed at a loss for words.
“Come back over here.” I sat back down on the sofa and patted its seat in invitation. “I think it’s your turn to tell me a bedtime story.”
“My grandfather - my mother’s father - came from Russia,” she began. “He and my great-grandfather arrived in 1904, when my grandfather was about fourteen years old. They came by ship - in steerage, of course - and landed in Canada. In Halifax, Nova Scotia. Then they took a train to Montreal. My great-grandfather’s brother was already in Montreal, and they lived with him at first.” Millie hesitated for a moment, then continued. “My grandfather’s family was Jewish. They didn’t leave Russia voluntarily. All the Jews in their village were forced out by an edict from the tsar. When they arrived in Montreal, my grandfather was apprenticed to a tailor. There was a large clothing industry in Montreal - not as big as New York City’s, but big enough. He learned his trade and eventually saved up enough to open his own tailoring shop. After about a year, he hired a young French-Canadian woman, Marcelite Dubois, to handle the haberdashery - the shirts, ties, handkerchiefs, and so forth - and the cash register.”
“That would have been unusual in those days, wouldn’t it? Your grandfather must have been a very modern-thinking man to have hired a woman to work in a men’s wear shop.”
“He was,” Millie nodded. “He took some flak for it, but this was 1915 - wartime. Canada entered World War I in 1914 when England declared war, and there weren’t many men available for clerking or sales jobs. He was modern in another way, too. He and Marcelite fell in love. He married outside his faith.”
“Marcelite was your grandmother, then?”
“That’s right. I used to call her ‘Memère’ when I was little - I couldn’t pronounce ‘Grandmère.’ My grandfather was ‘Zayde,' which means ‘Grandpa.’ After the war was over, Memère and Zayde moved to New York to get away from their families - neither family approved of the marriage. My mother was born and grew up in New York. She met my father while on a visit to Atlantic City with her parents.”
“What happened to your grandparents? Are they still living in New York?”
“No, Memère died when I was about three years old. My parents invited Zayde to live with us in Atlantic City, but he decided to return to Montreal instead and make peace with his brother. My parents took me to visit him a couple of times in Montreal, so I remember him better than I do Memère.” Millie hesitated, then looked up at me. “Zayde is still alive. He must be over ninety years old now. I’d really like to see him again, Dick. Do you think we could manage a trip to Montreal one day?”
“Of course. I’d like to meet the old guy myself.” I gave her a squeeze. “But we seem to have strayed off topic. What does all this have to do with Cynthia’s mysterious coin?”
“Well, Zayde had saved a few old Russian coins. He showed them to me the last time my parents took me to Montreal for a visit. Except for the hole in this coin, the design and lettering remind me of them. Especially the two-headed bird.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have any of those old coins stashed away somewhere, would you?”
“No, ‘fraid not.” Millie shook her head. “But a coin dealer might have some old Russian coins that you could look at.”
“Stephane Major asked me to drop by his office tomorrow morning. I’m seeing him at nine. After I’m done, I’ll look into this coin.” I slid the coin back into my trouser pocket, placed my arm around Millie’s waist, and drew her to me. “Now, where were we before you asked about my overcoat?”
I woke the next morning to the sound of the WMID call signal on my clock radio. The seven o’clock news was as old as a stale bagel: Iran had lodged yet another complaint with the United Nations Security Council, whining that Canada had insulted Iran’s sovereignty by smuggling six US diplomats out from under the considerable nose of the Ayatollah Khomeini; President Carter had threatened, once again, to boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics over the USSR’s continued military presence in Afghanistan; and US interest rates had risen another notch in lock-step with the rising rate of inflation, while the economy continued its downward trend. The national sports news was more encouraging. My New York Knicks handed me a Valentine’s Day present by managing to eke out a victory over the San Antonio Spurs, and the US Olympic Hockey team had done likewise by crushing the Czech national team 7-3 in Lake Placid. In local news, the announcer informed his listeners that, due to a sudden and unspecified illness, the reigning Miss America had been forced to postpone several appearances. There was no mention of the vicious beating she had suffered - Stephane Major had succeeded in keeping that juicy story out of the hands of the media. Once I heard the weather report - cloudy with a chance of early morning and late evening snow flurries, and a forecast high of 39ºF - I ran out of excuses and rolled out of bed.
Millie was already dressed and on the phone with our answering service. She looked feminine yet businesslike in her brown wool slacks and long-sleeved yellow blouse, which was accented by a paisley scarf that she had tied around her neck in a big, floppy bow. The Harris tweed jacket she was planning to wear over the blouse was draped over the back of a chair. Her blond, shoulder-length hair was done up today in some sort of spiral style. She must have felt my eyes on her, because she tucked the receiver between her ear and her shoulder, freeing a hand to send a casual wave in my direction. As she returned the receiver to its cradle, I walked up to her and put an arm around her waist. She turned in my embrace and greeted me with a kiss, “Good morning, lazybones.”
I gestured at her notepad. “Anything important?”
“Could be.” She wrinkled her brow. “Derek Turpin wants to see you at nine this morning.”
“Derek Turpin, the hotel magnate?” I asked. “What does he want?”
“He didn’t say. Just that he has something to discuss with you. He said you should come to his penthouse suite at the Ritz.”
“But I’m seeing Stephane Major at nine.”
“Not any more.” Millie tapped her notepad. “The other message was from Mr. Major. He’s changed his appointment to eleven and wants you to meet him at the hospital instead of at his office.” She smiled. “If you get a move on, I’ll fix you a proper breakfast while you shave and shower.”
Millie believes in starting the day with a good breakfast, and today was no exception: fresh-squeezed orange juice, French toast topped with Vermont maple syrup and a sprinkling of mixed berries, and a bottomless mug of fresh-brewed coffee. By the time I had finished my last swallow of coffee, the clock on the microwave oven read 8:38. We made short work of the breakfast dishes before leaving the apartment and heading for our cars. I watched Millie slide behind the wheel of her ’75 Corolla before I climbed into my Celica to head for The Ritz.
Copyright © 2015 Phyllis Entis. All Rights Reserved
THE WHITE RUSSIAN CAPER: A DAMIEN DICKENS MYSTERY (Kindle edition) is available now on Amazon for pre-order. Order now at a discounted price of $3.29, and receive the download automatically on November 20, 2015 on your Kindle device or Kindle App.