Fade Away Page 24

Myron entered and was immediately greeted by the familiar yet nonspecific smell of a Manhattan diner. Fat was in the air. Taking a deep breath felt as if it would clog an artery. A waitress with hair bleached to the point of straw offered him a table. Myron asked her for the manager. Using her pencil she pointed over her shoulder at a man behind the counter.

“That’s Hector,” she said. “He owns the place.”

Myron thanked her and grabbed a soda-fountain stool at the counter. He debated spinning himself in the seat and decided the act might be viewed as immature. Two stools to his right, an unshaven, perhaps homeless man with black Thom McAn sneakers and a tattered overcoat smiled and nodded. Myron nodded and smiled back. The man went back to his coffee. He raised his shoulders and huddled into the drink as though he suspected someone might try to swipe it in mid-sip.

Myron picked up a vinyl menu with cracked binding. He opened it but didn’t really read it. There were a lot of worn index cards jammed into protective plastic cases announcing various specials. Worn was an apt description of the Parkview Diner, but it didn’t fairly convey the overall impression. There was something welcoming and even clean about this place. The counter gleamed. So did the utensils and the silver milk shake maker and the soda fountain. Most patrons read a newspaper or gabbed with one another as if they were eating at home. They knew their waitress’s name, and you could bet your last dollar she didn’t introduce herself and tell them she was going to be their server when they first sat down.

Hector the owner was busy at the grill. Almost two P.M. It wasn’t the height of the lunch hour, but business was still pretty brisk. He barked out some orders in Spanish, his eyes never leaving the food. Then he turned around with a polite smile, wiped his hands on a rag, and asked Myron if he could help him. Myron asked if he had a pay phone.

“No, sir, I’m sorry,” Hector answered. The Hispanic accent was there, but Hector had worked on it. “There’s one on the street corner. On the left.”

Myron looked at the number Lisa had given him. He read it out loud. Hector did several things at the same time. He flipped burgers, folded over an omelette, checked the french fries. His eyes were everywhere—the cash register, the clientele at both the tables and the counter, the kitchen to his left.

“Oh that,” Hector said. “It’s in the back. In the kitchen.”

“The kitchen?”

“Yes, sir.” Still polite.

“A pay phone in the kitchen?”

“Yes, sir,” Hector said. He was on the short side, thin under his white apron and polyester black pants. His nose had been broken several times. His forearms looked like steel cords. “It’s for my staff.”

“Don’t you have a business phone?”

“Of course we do.” His voice spiked up a bit now, as if the question was an insult. “We do a big takeout and delivery business here. Lots of people order lunch from us. We have a fax machine too. But I don’t want my staff tying up the lines, you know? You get a busy signal, you give your business to someone else, yes? So I put a pay phone in the back.”

“I see.” An idea came to Myron. “Are you telling me customers never use it?”

“Well, sir, if a customer truly insists, I would never refuse him.” The practiced politeness of a good businessman. “The customer must come first at the Parkview. Always.”

“Has a customer ever insisted?”

“No, sir. I don’t think any customers even know we have it.”

“Can you tell me who was using the pay phone at nine-eighteen P.M. last Saturday?”

That question got his attention. “Excuse me?” Myron started to repeat the question but Hector interrupted him. “Why would you want to know that?”

“My name is Bernie Worley,” Myron said. “I’m a product supervising agent with AT&T.” A product what? “Somebody is trying to cheat us, sir, and we are not happy about it.”

“Cheat you?”

“A Y511.”

“A what?”

“A Y511,” Myron repeated. You start tossing the bull, your best bet is to just keep tossing. “It’s an electronic monitoring device built in Hong Kong. It’s new on the market, but we’re onto it. Sold on the streets. Somebody used one on your phone at nine-eighteen P.M. on March eighteenth of this year. They dialed Kuala Lumpur and spoke for nearly twelve minutes. The total cost of the call is twenty-three dollars and eighty-two cents, but the fine for using a Y511 will be at least seven hundred dollars with the potential for up to one year in prison. Plus we’ll have to remove the phone.”

Hector’s face became a mask of pure panic. “What?” Myron wasn’t thrilled with what he was doing—scaring an honest, hard-working immigrant like this—but he knew that the fear of government or big business would work in a situation like this. Hector turned around and shouted something in Spanish to a teenager who looked like him. The teenager took over the grill. “I don’t understand this, Mr. Worley.”

“It’s a public phone, sir. You just admitted to a product supervising agent that you used the public phones for private use; that is, for your employees only and denying public access. This violates our own code, section one-twenty-four B. I wouldn’t report it normally, but when you add in the use of a Y511—”

“But I didn’t use a Y511!”

“We don’t know that, sir.” Myron was playing Mr. Bureaucrat to the hilt; nothing made a person feel more impotent. There is no darker pit than the blank stare of a bureaucrat. “The phone is on your premises,” Myron continued in a bored singsong voice. “You just explained to me that the phone was only used by your employees—”

“Exactly!” Hector leaped. “By my employees! Not me!”

“But you own this establishment. You are responsible.” Myron looked around with his best, bored expression—the one he learned while waiting on line at the Division of Motor Vehicles. “We’ll also have to check out the status of all your employees. Maybe we can find the culprit that way.”

Hector’s eyes grew big. Myron knew this would hit home. There wasn’t a restaurant in Manhattan that didn’t employ at least one illegal alien. Hector’s jowls slackened. “All this,” he said, “because someone used a pay phone?”

“What someone did, sir, was use an illegal electronic device known as a Y511. What you did, sir, was refuse to cooperate with the product supervising agent investigating this serious matter.”

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