The last time an attractive woman tried to pick me up in a bar was never, so when the young lady climbed the stool next to mine, flashed a 100-megawatt smile, and said, “Are you McKenzie?” my first thought was “Is this a trick question?”
“Yes, I am,” I said aloud. “And you are…?”
Usually when people introduce themselves they offer you their hand. She didn’t. I tried to place her in my memory. She was not a classic beauty. So many attractive women tend to look like so many other attractive women, each of them borrowing heavily from the same magazines, TV shows, movies, and whatever else drives what we consider fashion these days. Yet Riley’s face, liberally sprinkled with freckles, was as unique as her name, and startling ivory-colored hair cut close to her scalp emphasized the individuality of her looks. I suspected that half the people she met thought she was pretty; the other half not so much. I was in the first camp. On the other hand, she was maybe twenty years younger than me, so I immediately deposited her into the look-but-don’t-touch category despite the way her skirt slid up to there. If a man knows what’s good for him, he’ll limit his lust to women who are roughly the same age as he is.
“How do you know me?” I asked.
“My grandfather. He speaks of you often, although I’m not sure he likes you very much.”
“McKenzie, how brave are you?”
“How brave do I need to be?”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“What exactly do you want, Ms. Brodin?”
Nina saw the exchange from where she was standing at the far end of the bar. She had never seen an attractive woman try to pick me up, either. I’ve known her long enough that I could read the expression on her face as she approached. “Now what?” it said.
“Hi,” she spoke aloud when she reached the end of the bar where we were sitting. I took a deep breath. Her perfume tinged the air with the faint scent of vanilla, and I was reminded of the eclairs you can get at Wuollet Bakery down on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. I love eclairs.
Riley smiled brightly. “You‘re the lovely Ms. Truhler, aren’t you?” she said.
Nina’s eyes flitted to my face and then back to the girl’s. I was curious as to what her response would be, but Riley cut her off before she could speak.
“I apologize,” she said. “That was rude of me.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Nina told her.
“That’s how my grandfather refers to you. The lovely Ms. Truhler. He likes to hang labels on people, using adjectives to describe them. I’m his clever granddaughter. My father is that deadbeat son-in-law. My mother is—well, that doesn’t matter.”
“Who is your grandfather?” I asked.
I stopped breathing. Nina did, too, but not before gasping a mouthful of air to tide her over while we digested the news. Walter Muehlenhaus—I knew him as Mr. Muehlenhaus—was rich, powerful, and connected in the way you’d expect the old robber barons like J. P. Morgan and James J. Hill to be connected. Those conspiracy movies Hollywood makes where the hero follows the clues all the way to the top? That’s where Muehlenhaus sat. He’s the reason the state legislature voted to build a billion-dollar football stadium for the Minnesota Vikings on the exact location of the old stadium even though it would have been cheaper and far more convenient to move it to any of the other sites that were proposed.
After regaining my composure, I said, “Mr. Muehlenhaus sent you?”
“Oh, no,” Riley said. “He’d be furious if he knew I was here.”
“Why are you here, then?” Nina asked.
“I’m embarrassed that I’ve never been to Rickie’s before.” Riley turned on her stool to examine the neighborhood bar-slash-restaurant-slash-jazz-club that Nina had named after her daughter, Erica. Most of the tables, booths, comfy chairs, and sofas arranged downstairs were filled, as was usually the case on a Tuesday evening, and half of the tables in the upstairs dining room/performance area were occupied as well, even though the music wouldn’t begin for another two hours yet. “I don’t get across the river very often,” she added.
That didn’t surprise me. Folks in St. Paul and the eastern suburbs, if you gave them a good enough reason they might be induced to cross the Mississippi into Minneapolis. However, the people who live there rarely, if ever, travel to this side of the river. Most natives will tell you that whoever invented the label “Twin Cities” was being ironic. We aren’t twins. We aren’t brothers. Hell, most of the time we aren’t even friends. Which made the question that more imperative.
“What do you want, Ms. Brodin?” I asked again.
“My BFFs call me Riles.”
“I need a favor. My grandfather says that’s what you do. Ever since you quit the St. Paul Police Department to collect the reward on that embezzler you tracked down, you do favors for friends.”
“We’re not friends.”
“I know, but—”
“And your grandfather—the last time I saw him he was trying to frame me for murder.”
“He could have tried harder, McKenzie. He didn’t because he respects you. Still, you did cause him a great deal of embarrassment giving out the names of the politicians and businessmen involved in that online prostitution ring.”
“He wasn’t on the list, and he didn’t like the men who were any more than I did.”
“Grandpa’s strength comes from the perception that whatever it is, he can fix it, break it, build it, or make it go away. People came to him for help, and he was unable to provide it because of you, and those men remember; they remember that he was unable to help. It diminished him. Anyway, that’s why I’m here. I need someone who can stand up to my family.”
“You mean your grandfather,” I said.
“That’s not something I’d like to make a habit of.”
Riley nodded as if I had spoken a truth universally accepted and began glancing around the club again. I liked her face despite the freckles—or maybe because of them. Her eyes glistened with intelligence, and her mouth seemed capable of warm and generous smiles. Yet there was something sad about it, too, as if it were well acquainted with sorrow. I had the uncomfortable feeling she wanted to share the sorrow with me and didn’t know quite how to go about it.
“I met him, you know,” Riley said. “Mr. Teachwell. The embezzler you caught. He came to the Pointe when I was a little girl. Some party or something. That’s what we call the house on Lake Minnetonka. The Pointe.”
“Riley,” Nina said. She spoke in a voice I’ve heard her use only when speaking to her daughter. “Do you want a drink? Something to eat? We have a fine bar menu.”
“You can talk to us when you’re ready.”
“I need McKenzie…”
“Do you want me to leave?”
“I need you to find my boyfriend.” Riley was staring into Nina’s silver-blue eyes when she spoke. She spun on her stool to face me. “I need you to find Juan Carlos.”
I don’t know what Nina was expecting, but she said “your boyfriend” the way some people say “bubonic plague” and stepped back from the bar.
“How long has he been missing?” I asked.
“Three days,” Riley said.
“That doesn’t seem like a very long time.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Nina and I have often gone more than three days without seeing or speaking to each other.”
“Yes, but we always knew where the other person was,” Nina said.
She had me there.
“You don’t understand,” Riley repeated. “He’s not at his house. He doesn’t answer his cell. I can’t find him anywhere.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want you to find him,” I said.
Her brow knotted, and her lips formed a thin line that plunged downward at the ends. For a moment she looked ugly.
“I’m not a starry-eyed teenager, McKenzie. I know what it’s like to be dumped by a guy who doesn’t even have the courtesy to call. This is different. Something is terribly wrong.”
“Have you contacted the police?”
“You know who I am. You know I can’t call the police without provoking a scandal.”
“The cops out where you live aim to please. They’re trained to keep secrets of the rich and famous.”
“No,” she said.
“Why would there be a scandal?”
“Not scandal, exactly.”
“You make every question sound like an accusation.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Listen to yourself.”
I was starting to lose patience. I glanced up at Nina to see if she had an opinion. She shrugged her indifference.
“Ms. Brodin,” I said. “You’re a member of one of the wealthiest families in Minnesota, if not the nation. You have plenty of resources to draw on, and not just the police. Yet you come to a complete stranger for help. Stop hemming and hawing. Tell me what and tell me why or go away.”
She stood, although I don’t think she meant to. It was as if the tension in her body caused it to levitate off the stool.
“People don’t talk to me that way,” Riley said.
“Let me guess—you don’t like it.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Do you get a lot of that—people telling you what to do?”
“Yes. At least I did before my trust fund kicked in. Now my family only makes strong suggestions.”
“Strong suggestions involving your boyfriend?”
“He’s intelligent and handsome and charming and good and I know he loves me.” She chanted the words as if they were an incantation that would make him miraculously materialize out of a wisp of smoke. When that didn’t work, she spoke in a weak voice. “Will you help me?”
“Tell me something, Ms. Brodin. You said your grandfather likes to label people. Just out of curiosity, what does he call your boyfriend?”
“What does he call me?”
Riley hesitated. “He says…”
“When he uses your name, he always calls you ‘that fucking McKenzie.’”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll help you.”
Riley looked at Nina and smiled. Nina smiled back. I gestured at the stool. Riley reseated herself, smoothing her skirt over her thighs. She took Nina up on her offer and ordered a Cape Codder—cranberry juice and vodka with a twist of lime. She made no effort to pay for the drink after it was served. She sipped the beverage and started talking. She became more animated as she spoke; her breath came out in gusts between her words. Nina wanted to listen, but the responsibilities of owning a high-class saloon started pulling at her. She’d leave to deal with a patron or an employee and then return to hear a bit more of Riley’s story before being drawn away again. She paid an assistant manager to take care of these problems for her, but Nina had given her the evening off. Foolish girl. ’Course, she knew I would tell her what she missed, later. I always told Nina everything. Well, not everything.
“His name is Juan Carlos Navarre,” Riley said.
That made me lean back and say, “Huh.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” Riley told me. “There’s a sleepy little village called Navarre on a spit of land between the upper and lower parts of Lake Minnetonka, pretty much at the center of the lake. Juan Carlos said he looked into it and couldn’t find a connection to his family or even the region called Navarre in northern Spain. It’s just a coincidence.”
Actually, that’s not what I was thinking. I was thinking that Navarre’s name was very similar to Juan Carlos Navarro, the captain of the Spanish Olympic basketball team that the USA beat for the gold medal in London, yet I nodded my head in agreement just the same.
“What does he do?” I asked.
“He’s an entrepreneur. Like his father.”
Felipe Navarre had owned several businesses in Spain, most of them headquartered in Madrid. Riley read the names carefully to me from a document that she had stored on her smartphone. She had compiled all the information she had on her boyfriend, which I found telling—although I didn’t tell her that.
According to Riley, Juan Carlos was the only child of Felipe and Susan Kowitz, an American who grew up in Prior Lake, Minnesota. Sadly—and Riley sounded sad when she told me this—Felipe and Susan were killed in an automobile accident seven years ago while Juan Carlos was away at college. The boy inherited everything, but he didn’t want to run his father’s businesses as much as he wanted to build his own, so when the debt crisis hit Spain, he sold off his holdings and decided to try his luck in the United States. He had dual citizenship because he was his mother’s son, so there wasn’t an issue with him immigrating to America.
“Juan Carlos speaks perfect English with the cutest accent,” Riley said. “He came to Minnesota because he wanted to be close to his roots, his mother’s roots. He settled on Lake Minnetonka because, well, because he fell in love with the place just like the Europeans who used it as a summer vacation home did back in the 1850s.”
They met—Riley and Navarre—at Club Versailles, also located on Lake Minnetonka. The club had a swimming pool, a diving pool, hot tubs, saunas, a private beach, and a pier with slips for dozens of boats both big and small. It had tennis courts, an executive golf course, a driving range, walking and bike trails, locker rooms, a fitness center, a ballroom, banquet facilities, a restaurant and bar with live music on the weekends, hotel rooms for rent and condos for sale, and a long waiting list. It was one of those places that sold shares instead of memberships, and if you had to ask how much it cost you couldn’t afford to join. I had heard about it but have never been inside the place.
“It was love at first sight,” Riley said. Nina had returned to our spot at the bar just as Riley spoke those words, and she smiled. “During the Fourth of July weekend. There was a dance at the club after the fireworks. I was standing on one side of the dance floor and Juan Carlos was at the other and our eyes met and I—I don’t even remember who I was with, who I was talking to. I just walked toward him and he walked toward me and we met in the center and—have you ever seen West Side Story, the part where Maria met Tony? It was like that. It was like—it was like we had known each other before and we were being reunited after many years. Have you ever had that feeling? I told Juan Carlos about the feeling, and he told me that we had met before. In our dreams.”
The way Riley smiled, I got the impression she liked the dream.
“Let me guess—the Sharks and Jets are against it,” I said.
“My family hates him, if that’s what you mean. My father especially hates him. He claims Juan Carlos is nothing but a con man who’s only after my money. Why else would he be interested in me, my father says. I’m not pretty, he says, so why else would a man care about me except for my money. I’m smart, though. McKenzie, I might not be pretty, but I know things.”
Not pretty? my inner voice asked. I raised my hand like a cop trying to stop traffic. “Wait,” I said. Nina caught my eye. She shook her head in a way that Riley couldn’t see. “Never mind. What about the rest of your family?”
“My grandmother, grandfather, they keep asking what do I know about the boy, the imm-i-grant. My mother—I don’t want to talk about my mother.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“Saturday. No, I saw him Friday night. But I spoke to him on Saturday at eleven thirty. Eleven thirty A.M. We were supposed to meet for lunch.”
“At Club Versailles?”
“No, at Casa del Lago. It’s a Mexican restaurant in Excelsior. Which is another thing. Juan Carlos owns the place. He bought it after he first came to Minnesota, after he moved to his house on Lake Minnetonka. It was run-down and I heard it was going bankrupt and he took it over and turned it into a real hot spot in just a few months. Would a con man do that?”
“Tell me about the lunch.”
“He didn’t show,” Riley said. “He called and said something came up and he couldn’t make it. He was very apologetic. He said he would call me and we would do something later. He said something else. He said, ‘I’ll never give you up.’ He didn’t say it in a creepy way, though. He said it…”
“Like someone was trying to keep him from seeing you,” Nina said. “And he wasn’t going to let them.”
“You said Navarre has a house on Lake Minnetonka,” I reminded her.
“He does.” Riley dove into her bag, produced a key, and slid it across the bar. I did the math quickly in my head and thought, They’ve known each other for just a breath over three months, yet she has Navarre’s key.
When did you give Nina your key? my inner voice asked, but I didn’t answer.
“Have you been there?” I asked. “To his house?”
“I went this morning,” Riley answered. “I knocked, rang the doorbell. There was no answer. I didn’t go inside.”
For a moment her eyes lost their color.
“I understand,” I said.
I took the key and slipped it into my pocket.
“Thank you,” Riley said.
I hesitated for a moment before I had her send all the information she’d gathered on Navarre to my smartphone. In the beginning I had zealously guarded my cell number from all but a few close friends, yet slowly it escaped my grasp. Now it seemed as if everyone knew how to reach me, including a few nonprofits and political organizations seeking financial support.
I also had her send me a photo of Navarre.
“This is the best one I have,” Riley told me. “He gets upset when people take his photo. I don’t know why.”
Some people might have found that suspicious. Not me. I don’t like to have my photo taken, either. I have pretty much bought into the belief held by some primitive civilizations that a camera has the ability to steal your soul.
The photo Riley sent displayed a handsome young man wearing a pink polo shirt and standing in front of a cabin cruiser emblazoned with the name Soñadora. His dark hair was tousled by the wind, his dark eyes half closed against the bright sun, and he was grinning sheepishly as if he were caught doing something that embarrassed him. He didn’t look like an immigrant, Hispanic or otherwise. He looked like a kid who worked for Goldman Sachs. Maybe that’s why he was embarrassed.
“If I find Navarre, what do you want me to tell him?” I asked.
“That I love him,” Riley said. “That I want to see him. That he should call me.”
“What if he says no?”
“Then I’ll be wrong about him. And my family will be right.”
The way she said it, I got the impression that she was more fearful of the latter than the former.
A few moments later she left Rickie’s. Nina and I watched as she crossed the floor and passed through the doorway. Riley was an accident of family and wealth, and I wondered briefly if she would be able to survive it.
“Do you think she’s pretty?” I asked.
“She’s an interesting-looking girl,” Nina said.
“Is she pretty, though? She doesn’t seem to think so.”
“If you’re told something long enough, you start to believe it. I’ve been told, for example, that I’m the lovely Ms. Truhler.”
“That’s what I heard, too.”
“Do you think Riley was telling the truth?”
“About you being lovely?”
“About Juan Carlos. About her family.”
“No. Not all of it, anyway. But then people seldom tell you all the truth.”
“She loves him. I think that’s true.”
“Tell me—was it love at first sight when you met me?”
Nina’s downcast eyes told me she was disappointed in my answer.
“No, it was a few days later when I saw you at the Minnesota Club,” I added. “You were wearing a long, sleek, searing-red evening gown. Remember?”
“You pushed that thug down a flight of stairs.”
“That’s when I knew you were the woman for me.”
“You’re such a romantic. That’s why you’re going to help Riley, isn’t it? Because you’re a romantic.”
“That and to annoy Mr. Muehlenhaus.”
That fucking McKenzie, my inner voice said.
“You think that’s a good idea? Before when you messed up his plans it was kind of an accident. It wasn’t personal. They just got in the way of what you had set out to do. This time, though, it’s his family.”
“It’s something to think about.”
Copyright © 2014 by David Housewright