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RINGER  A Crime Novel
 

CHAPTER 1

    Father Gomez Entropica was an aging brown fireplug topped by a bush of white hair. Judging from his rough visage, fate might have made him into a deadly gangster had God not made him a priest. He stood behind a desk that was as large and rough- hewn as an overturned native fishing boat. Save for a
crucifix on the wall behind him, the stained plaster walls were bare. A tropical breeze scented the room with bougain villea.
     I had been summoned by Father Gomez to Nuestra Señora de Cortez, a castle- like church in downtown La Paz. This town is located in the Baja peninsula, a commanding finger of Mexico below California that points into the blue Pacific. La Paz is the ancient seaside village where I live. Or lived, so it would seem.
     Why had I been summoned? I had every reason to believe that Father Gomez wanted to thank me. After all, I had given his orphanage a hundred thousand, cash. That is a lot of scratch, let me tell you. It had been at least six months since I had given it to Father Gomez, and to be brutally honest, it had started to bug me that I had not even received a thank- you note. Back in Brooklyn, people used to send such things even after a small bowling party or tar beach cookout. So it seemed to me that the priest could have at least sent an e-card or dropped by my hacienda to shake my hand.
     I wore my white suit and Panama hat for the occasion. There’s no sense being rich and living in a sea- view villa if you do not have at least one white suit, and I think a fancy walking stick is also a nice touch. I was, after all, no longer a house cleaner. With a few million in the bank, I no longer cleaned houses. I was La Paz gentry.
     I sat across from the priest in a heavy wooden chair that was cold as stone, my legs crossed, hat and walking stick in my lap, a jaunty beneficent smile on my tanned face. Part of me hoped the priest did not weep with gratitude and kiss my hand. Another part wished he would. Show me a man who does not like gratitude and I will show you a woman who does not like a compliment. Instead of blubbering, the squinty brown fireplug in the cassock and collar slid what looked like a small gilded humidor across the desk.
     “Open it,” he growled in Spanish.
     This I had not expected. A gift! I thought to myself this was better than a weeping, grateful priest. I could put this humidor on my mantel and savor cigars of the holy gratitude I had earned.
     “There is no need, Father. It is enough that I have helped those less fortunate.” I was speaking Spanish, too. In Brooklyn, I spoke very little, but in my new homeland, I had picked it up out of necessity. “My father was an orphan here, so I feel in some small way beholden to this beneficent institution.”
     His pinched face became more pinched, and he growled once more, “Open it. It is very old.”
     “If you insist, but this is too much.”
     I lifted the lid of the box, and there was only one cigar. It did not look like a very good cigar, either. Still, as gentry, it is my obligation to always be gracious, so I forced a smile and said, “They do not make quality cigars like they used to, do they, Father?”
     One of his tiny blue eyes popped out of his wrinkles like a bird on a cuckoo clock.
     “It is a severed finger, señor. Not a cigar.”
     It didn’t look like a very good finger, either, but on closer inspection I could see a fingernail at the tip and smell the faint musk of decay.
     “Oo, very nice, Father.” I opened my eyes very wide to keep from looking like I might decorate his desk with vomit. “I do not have a finger. Except on my hand, of course. A finger in a box, it makes for an excellent conversation piece, does it not?”
     Father Gomez covered his face with his hands. “This is not a gift, señor. This is a holy relic that has been desecrated.”
     “It does look dried up, I agree.”
     Father Gomez sank into his chair and took a deep breath. Then he took his hands away from his face. “The finger in the box is that of Hernando Martinez de Salvaterra.”
     “The conquistador?” I sat forward. “I am descended from him. I think.”
     “Hernando Martinez de Salvaterra wore a gold ring bearing the cross of Caravaca. It is a double- crossbarred crucifix. It was cast from a golden Hapsburg medallion that encased a part of the true cross. Hernando Martinez de Salvaterra wore this ring, and he believed himself invincible as long as he wore it. That is, until the finger was cut from his hand while in battle defending a monastery in Peru. Only the finger was recovered and returned to his family in La Paz, and the brave conquistador’s fortune helped establish this orphanage. Hernando Martinez de Salvaterra was himself an orphan raised by the church. The finger was enshrined in the altar.”
     “Where is my ancestor’s ring now? It is not on the finger.”
     Father Gomez put his hands together as if in prayer. “Fifty- five years ago one of the boys entered the sanctuary at night and pulled the ring from Hernando Martinez de Salvaterra’s finger.”
     “I hope you gave the boy a stern talking- to.”
     Father Gomez’s lip twitched, and somewhere down the street a dog yelped. “Had I discovered who had perpetrated this abomination, I would have done more than talk, Señor Martinez.
     “So you never discovered who stole my ancestor’s ring?”
     “We did not know. The ring was lost. Forever. Until this.”
     Father Gomez reached into his cassock and slid a picture across the desk. It was part of an article from Forbes magazine about someone named Robert Tyson Grant, apparently the founder of a successful discount chain called Grab-A-Lot. His teeth were very white and his hair very silver, the black eyes sparkling with the guilty glee of the super- rich. Dressed in yachting togs, he was posed aboard a large catamaran. His right hand grasped part of the rigging close to the camera. On that hand was a buttery gold ring.
     The ring bore the double cross of Caravaca.
     I stood, my face warm.
     “So this scoundrel has the sacred ring of my ancestor?”
     Father Gomez looked down at the desk. “I regret I did not properly thank you for your kind donation to our charity, Señor Martinez. Under the circumstances from which it came, I thought it perhaps better that we did not meet. As you know, Mexico has many unsavory people. It is not unusual for the drug cartels to donate cash to churches to try to buy off their guilt. Our lawyers advise us against making any acknowledgment that we receive these gifts, and yet the money does go to a good cause, to God’s work, and so we accept it. In your case, well . . .”
     “I understand, Father. Say no more. I gave the money out of respect for my father’s memory. And for a good cause, not for the gratitude of the church.”
     “After your generosity, it makes it all the more difficult to ask a favor of you. I would like to ask you to go to Robert Tyson Grant in New York and ask him to return the ring.”
     Yes, I had been a humble Brooklyn house cleaner, and then I had a windfall and retired to La Paz, my father’s ancestral home, to fulfill my destiny and birthright. All the same, since getting myself set up in my villa, and becoming white- suited gentry, I had felt like something was missing. I had begun reading to see what some of the world’s great thinkers like Abraham Lincoln had to say about what makes life complete. Well, a good woman, of course. I had started sorting out the local females, but it was hard to find one that was at once chaste and would also put out. This is a problem all men have, and in Mexico I had found the girls tend to be all one or the other. It may sound like what was missing was that I was not getting laid, which was factually correct. Yet there was a hollow feeling beyond my loins. What was missing from me was the Holy Spirit, a purpose as God’s minion. It would be as the instrument of God that I might earn contentment, and at the same time earn a gorgeous woman I could call my own.
     My epiphany was such that I could hardly breathe. I croaked,
     “Why do you honor me with this task?”
     “You are a wealthy American. He is a wealthy American. I do not speak English well enough. Also, your ‘letter’ to me”— yes, the white- haired brown fireplug actually made air quotes with his fingers before continuing—“about that money you generously donated to the orphanage gave me the impression that you
are blessed with resourceful ways.”
     “I should have Robert Tyson Grant arrested for the theft is what I should do.”
     Father Gomez waved his hands in the air. “No, Señor. If you appeal to Robert Tyson Grant’s conscience and tell him the story of the ring, God will touch his heart and he will do the right thing. Have faith in God to guide him. We have no idea how Robert Tyson Grant came upon this ring. He likely bought it, or it was given to him, legitimately.”
     “I see.” My chest swelled. “I am to be the instrument of God, the hand of the Holy See. I am to brandish the sword of the Almighty to return this holy relic to La Paz and restore the honor of my birthright.”
     “Eh, something like that. Señor Martinez, I just ask that you go to Robert Tyson Grant and ask for the ring. As a favor to the orphanage, and as a favor to Nuestra Señora de Cortez.”
     I cinched my Panama on my head and pointed my walking stick at the priest. “Father Gomez, I am all over this, like butter on a bagel.”
     “Take the finger with you.” His palm held the gold humidor.
     “It will help authenticate your story.”
     I exited through the vaulted chapel of Nuestra Señora de Cortez, the finger of Hernando Martinez de Salvaterra under my arm, into a blue June day. My boots clacked across the sunlit cobbled plaza, my heart full of purpose and without doubt of my success in recovering the Caravaca-Martinez ring.
     God was on my side.
     Unfortunately, Satan himself was on the other.
  
This ends the excerpt from Brian Wiprud's RINGER.

 

 


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