An excerpt from The Fifth Man
Matt had shut his cell phone down for the ride to and from the Jersey shore. He turned it on when he got to his apartment on Carmine Street, a spacious five-room fourth-floor walkup that could house a small family and that his mother had furnished for him before his return from Europe—a bedroom, a study, a full kitchen, a living room/dining room combo, built-in bookshelves in all of the rooms, even the kitchen, many of them lined with the books Theresa had been storing for him at her big house in Jersey before she moved to Manhattan. When he turned his phone on, he was surprised to see a message from Natalya, the singer at Sabrina’s. “Matvey, Nico gave me your number. I hope you don’t mind. That was a lot of fun, Matvey. Please call me. We will do it again. Also, can you please erase the picture? Very embarrassing.”
They had drunk wawdka in Natalya’s apartment above Sabrina’s, and played music from her collection, dancing to the Ronettes and the Rolling Stones in her small living room. Before the night was over, Nico and Natalya had revealed their birthmarks, ass cheeks side-by-side. Matt had snapped a picture with his iPhone. He laughed now, remembering the proud smiles on their faces as they looked at him over their shoulders, mooning him in tandem. They may not be who they said they were, but they were a lot of fun. And Natalya, a brunette under her blonde wig, was a knockout with a sweet face and an even sweeter body. Now she was calling him.
Matt took a shower and when he came out he dressed and then dialed a number that he knew would not be answered. He opened the package of books that had arrived from the Columbia bookstore and began browsing as he waited for a return call. Modern Times, by Paul Johnson; The Road to Serfdom; Robert Conquest, Milton Friedman. Ivy League orthodoxy did not interest Matt. A double major, in history and economics, he was in a one-on-one honors program in which he was free to read, and write, as he wished. His mentor, the head of the history department, had promised to have his collected papers published, but Matt knew he would not allow it when the time came. The ringing of his cell phone broke into his thoughts abruptly.
“Dad,” he said, after sliding the unlock bar and pushing the speaker feature on his phone.
“There’s something you need to know,” Matt said, getting right to the point, hoping he had done the right thing in calling this particular number.
“Hold on, Matt,” his father said, his voice light, even teasing. “First, how are you?”
“Good. Fine. School starts in two weeks.”
“And your mom?”
“She’s fine. She went a little overboard furnishing my apartment. We’re having dinner tonight.”
“She’s joining us.”
“She’s coming over here for a few days.”
“She told me.”
Matt had been nervous waiting for his father’s call. He had dialed this number only once before, when he was sixteen and had finished last in the mile event in a high school track meet. His father had admonished him then. This number is not for hurt pride, Matt. Now he seemed breezy, unconcerned. Gods in tall buildings, Nico’s phrase, came to Matt’s mind, though he knew that the metaphor was not quite accurate when it came to his father, who might own tall buildings, but did not, as far as Matt knew, have an office in one.
“What’s up?” Chris Massi asked.
“I got a letter from a self-storage place at the shore. I thought it was Uncle Joseph’s, but it was Grandpa Joe’s. Dad, there was two million dollars in it in a duffle bag.”
Silence, in which Matt could hear the humming of his new refrigerator and his own quiet breathing as he pictured his father in his office on the top floor of that crazy old house in Piraeus.
“What did the letter say?” Chris Massi asked, finally.
“The one from the storage company.”
“That Joseph Massi had pre-paid the rent for ten years, that if he didn’t renew I was to be contacted.”
“It’s old man Velardo’s money.”
“What should I do with it?”
“It’s yours. Whatever you want.”
“There were rumors about this money, Matt. I never knew if they were true or not. Now I do. Your grandfather was holding it for the old man, but he’s dead and so is most of his family that matters. It’s the spoils of war. Joe Black obviously wanted you to have it.”
“There was no note, Dad. Just the cash.”
“He wasn’t much of a letter writer, my father.”
“It’s your money, Matt.”
“What should I do with it?”
“Think of it as a test.”
“Yes, you passed the first part. You told me.”
“What’s the second part?”
“What you do with the money.”
“I don’t want the money.”
Silence at the other end. And then: “Your grandfather left it to you, Matt.”
“He must have had his reasons.”
Matt had lived with his father in Manhattan from 2003 to 2007, while he went to high school. Except for a handful of Chris’s short absences, and the weekends Matt occasionally spent with his mother in New Jersey, they had had dinner and conversation together every night during those years. As a consequence, Matt had learned to read his father’s silences, so he knew for a fact what this last one meant.
“What’s the second thing, Matt?”
Matt paused for a second before answering. Two million dollars. Fuck. Most people would be ecstatic, but Matt was not most people. He saw the money as a burden, not a blessing. And then there was the oddness of the situation, his father’s matter-of-fact tone, as if...as if what? But his father had moved on. That part of the conversation—the part where he might have an opportunity to complain or make a joke or ask for advice—was over. That’s what his father’s silence had meant.
“One of my shipmates is here,” Matt said, finally. “The Russian guy I told you about, Nico.”
“What about him?”
“He wants to sell me some diamonds.”
“Are you interested?”
This question stopped Matt in his tracks. Are you interested? Later, when the Nico Pugach affair was over and done, he would realize exactly what the question was and what his father had meant it to be: a turning point, a choice to make.
“Should I be?” he replied, slightly stunned, but without hesitation. “He says I would have the contacts to re-sell them for a huge profit.”
“So he thinks he knows who you are.”
“Does he know about the two million?”
“I had to get a locksmith. There was a padlock on the duffle bag as well that needed to be sheared off. He saw the top layer of cash.”
“That’s not good.”
“I know. When he left, I rented another unit and put the duffle bag in it.”
“Good, that’s it? Nobody else?”
“No, no one else knows.”
“Keep it that way.”
“Did Nico mention a price? Any details?”
“Five hundred thousand. He said they’re worth ten million retail, several million or more to a middle man.”
“When are you seeing him?”
“Tell him you’ll think about it. Call me at this number tomorrow at this time. If I don’t call you back, call again the next night at the same time. Keep doing that until I do call you back.”
“Be careful of this Nico. From now on only meet him in public places, always someplace you know. Don’t go anyplace alone with him, not even in a car or taxi. Understand?”
“I have a question.”
“Is this why you made me take a year off from college?”
More silence. His father, like a Zen master, a very incongruous Zen master, had said to him many times, take everything at face value, take nothing at face value. He had puzzled over this obviously contradictory advice for years, until Nico showed up in America and seemed so different—and then asked him for half a million dollars.
“That’s a good question. And you know what I say about questions.”
“They’re the royal road to consciousness.”
“I learned last semester you stole that from Freud. Sort of. He said it was dreams that are the royal road to consciousness.”
Chris Massi laughed his deep throaty laugh, a sound that filled Matt with happiness because it was so rarely that he heard it.
“We’ll talk about Freud when I see you.”
“When will that be? Are you still coming home in two weeks?”
“Maybe not,” his father replied. “But you may have to come here. We’ll see.”