The Sisters Strange
A web exclusive Charlie Parker novella
Eleanor Towle folded her hands and waited for my response. For a guy with very few redeeming features that I could identify, Raum Buker was quite the hit with women of a certain age. He ought to have published a book.
There seemed to be no delicate way to broach the subject, so I decided to dive straight in.
“How familiar with him were you before you – ”
“Went to bed with him?” she finished. “I thought I’d save you the trouble of concluding the question, seeing as how unhappy you’re looking. By the way, is that a moral judgment I hear?”
“Let’s just say I struggle to see his appeal.”
“I slept with him,” said Eleanor. “I didn’t say I was going to marry him. Anyway, he told me he had a woman up in Maine.”
“Actually,” I corrected, “he has two women up in Maine.”
“Tattletale. Are they the ones you’re worried about?”
“That’s right. Did he mention the name of this woman?”
“Just the last name: Strange. He thought I’d find it funny.”
“And did you?”
“I might have found it funnier if he’d told me before we slept together.”
“It must have slipped his mind.”
“Must have. I reckon men’s minds are just flawed that way. Anyway, he and Egon were celebrating, I joined in, and one thing led to another. There hasn’t been a whole lot for me to celebrate lately, what with my mom dying and all, and I was grateful for the distraction. As for sleeping with Raum, I hadn’t been with a man in eight years. I’m not exactly inundated with suitors. Sometimes you take what you can get, and you’re grateful for it.”
“How did he end up here?”
“Egon brought him back. It was the first time I’d met Raum, although I was already familiar with the name. Egon had told me about him during prison visits. They’d become close – not in a weird way, though. Well, everything to do with Egon is weird, I guess, but you know what I mean.”
“They weren’t lovers.”
“No. They didn’t have much in common at all, beyond both being out of favor with the law, but somehow they got along. Later, after we’d done the deed, Raum told me that Egon had really gotten him interested in all that occult stuff. In fact, I’d even have said that Raum was more committed than my brother. After all, Egon never went and got himself a tattoo. He’s too conservative for that.”
“You said they were celebrating,” I said. “Do you know why?”
“Because whatever thievery they’d cooked up together had come off, I suppose.”
She looked away, but I wasn’t going to let her slip the hook so easily.
“Okay, I know. Is that better?”
“I told you already: I’m not the police.”
“Maybe, but you look like police.”
“I was, once.”
“You retire early?”
“Don’t want to talk about it, huh?”
“Not so much.”
“Now you know how I feel.”
“Touché. Let’s get back to the celebration.”
She rubbed the fingers of her right hand across her lips.
“Jesus,” she said, “I wish I still smoked.”
“It was coins, or mostly coins,” she continued. “With Egon, what else would it be? Egon had heard about this guy from way back. He was supposed to be a high-end coin collector, but real reclusive, and he bought only from abroad, sometimes in person, other times through agents or by remote auction. It was all ancient stuff – Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese. He didn’t just buy, either. He stole, and the rumor was that he wasn’t above hurting people to get what he wanted, with the result that his collection was the most valuable in North America. He was kind of a legend in the trade, or a bogeyman, but a lot of collectors just laughed off the stories about him. Those rumors had been circulating for decades, and some dealers could recall their fathers – and even their grandfathers – talking about the same guy. He was a campfire tale, I guess. For a long time, Egon, like the rest, wasn’t sure he even existed, until he did some homework and became convinced this man was real.”
“How?” I said.
“Because they shared some of the same interests, Egon and this guy: you know, the woo-woo stuff. After Egon was released from East Jersey, he put out bait through a dealer in Paris: an Indian coin, very old, which came with provenance linking it to Alamelamma, the wife of an Indian ruler who threw herself from a cliff back in the seventeenth century, but not before cursing the Mysore kings.”
I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow.
“Yeah, I know,” said Eleanor. “After years of living with Egon, some of this shit had to rub off on me. So the fish bit, and Egon put a trace on the delivery. It went to a PO Box in Castorville, New York, up in the boonies. After that, it was just a matter of spending a little more cash to find out who was renting the box. By the time Raum got out, Egon had a plan in place. He and Raum hit the mark a week later, and that’s what they were celebrating the night I slept with Raum. They’d taken down the bogeyman and stolen his treasure, like in a fairy tale.”
“And does this bogeyman have a name?” I asked.
“He uses pseudonyms,” said Eleanor, “but one more often than the rest.”
She was no longer smiling, and her gaze drifted past me to the gun on the console table.
“Mostly,” she said, “he calls himself Kepler.”