Irving Bernstein as a character resulted from a conversation that began with a talk about a black fedora. It ran onto a talk about bad suits sold at a famous discount store.
And then he showed up in my work in progress, NAGLER’S SECRET, as a source about the early life of my cop hero, Frank Nagler.
Nagler’s Secret is book six in the award-winning Frank Nagler Mystery series about the life and times of Ironton, N.J. Detective Frank Nagler
Find them here:
“Irving Bernstein was one of those guys.
He was everywhere.
And you knew it was him, even if you didn’t see his face because he was wearing one of his gawdawful red yellow green blue checked plaid striped sports jackets that looked like it was sewn from the stuff left on the cutting room floor after the good suits were made.
Frank Nagler would spot him on the street or at the edge of a crowd at a crime scene, start to ask him a question, and then dazzled by the sheer audacity of a garment so awful, would shake his head and say, “Irv.”
The other thing about Irv is that he knew everything.
Nagler could never figure out how Irv knew all that he knew.
He just knew it.
It wasn’t that Irv was a criminal, although he appeared to have no means of support, and he wasn’t a snoop, a pimp or a loan shark.
Irving Bernstein just was.
Irv sat alone smoking a comically fat cigar, his eyes like a ferret’s, buried inside his fat face pushed up from his collar-buttoned shirt like it might burst. The gamblers hunched in the dark over beers and weak whiskey at computers underneath screens flashing games of all sorts or announcers moving their mouths but making no sounds.
It was all remarkably refined, Nagler thought, soul killing, cold and about as much fun as a tax audit, but refined, bloodless.
Nagler had dropped into the old horse betting shops when he was a kid. Smoke and curse filled parlors of dead hopes, factory guys trying to turn a two-dollar bet into grocery money.
Irv waved his cigar.
“Thought you couldn’t smoke in here,” Nagler said as he sat on a chair opposite Irv.
Irv grinned and expelled gray smoke through his teeth.
“Who’s gonna stop me?” He sucked on the cigar again. “World’s too polite, Franky. Look at this place. Betting on stupid stuff. Is the next pitch gonna be a ball? Will the player make that free throw? They lose, there’s no consequence because they put it on their Amex. Back in the day, Franky.” He waved the cigar. “Back in the day.”
“Back in the day, Irv, the wrong bet got you killed.” Nagler leaned back to get out of firing range of the cigar. “How old are you, Irv? You seemed to be a hundred years old when I was a kid.”
“Ah, you was never a kid, well, you was never young. Couldn’t be, coming out of that ghetto. Always looking for something, and you found it with your wife. She was something. I knew her parents, did business with her father. Oh boy, did he dislike you at first, poor ghetto kid, factory kid. But that Martha. Aces, Franky, aces.”
Nagler winced. “She tracked me down, filled me up.”
“Then, she …”
“Yeah, hardest thing, hardest thing ever. What was I like after that, after she died? I try to look back, but it’s a hole.”
“You was hollow. Somedays I was waiting for you to crack like a fancy flower vase, pieces all over the street. Know guys who did.” Irv waved the cigar again. “But you didn’t, and now look at ya, you’re a big shot.”
“Naw, Irv. I’m just a cop, and I got a question.” He pulled out the Polaroid that showed him and the woman with the porcelain face and black hair. “Know her? Or someone who might?”
“She ain’t involved with the white suits and the dead kids, Frank. She’s got another gig. Not any better, but not that one.”
“Why don’t I remember her?”
Irv shrugged; the ash tip dropped off the cigar onto the table. “Cause you don’t wanna.”
Nagler slapped the table, scattering the ashes. “I have to. We found this picture on the wall of an eastside drug house.” He narrowed his eyes. “Come on, Irv. You know something.”
“Sweet nothings, Frank. Pink pens, little hearts. Infatuations. You were running, running after things, running from things, but when you think about that time, there was a moment when you slowed down, maybe got distracted.”
“Got your old yearbook, Frank?”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Means what it says.” Irv leaned in, gray ash hiding the burning cigar tip. “You always wonder what I do, dontcha? I get people unstuck. Did that for Martha’s old man, and he was really stuck. You, not so much. You’re just stubborn, afraid of being wrong. We’re all wrong sometimes, Franky. You were moving so fast, you never faced it.” He leaned back and sucked on the cigar and exhaled a billow of smoke that ran up his face. “Go talk to Kate, the old nun.”
“Sister Katherine.” Nagler chuckled. Christ.
“Me and her go way back.”