Howell was still on the lam. He’d been a grifter most of his life, a guy without a permanent address. He had six Social Security cards, seven driver’s licenses, a potpourri of voter-registration cards, bankbooks under a dozen names. He was Mark Crawford in Florida, Mel Eisenstein in Tennessee. He’d never declared any income, never paid any taxes, never been caught. His grift was quite simple. He’d settle into a small town, deposit $10,000 into the local bank, walk around in a very conservative suit, register at the best hotel, and wait: the women would always come to him. He never poked around, never asked questions, never made a list of wealthy widows.
Howell had beautiful hands; that’s what the widows noticed first when they stepped onto the porch of the hotel and discovered Howell reading The Wall Street Journal. Sometimes they hinted at marriage after a 10-minute talk. Howell avoided spinsters and old maids, who were nervous about money no matter how much they had in the bank. He would have had to be a bird of prey, a handsome hawk, to pry a bankbook from their fingers. But the widows fell right into his grift. The secret was very simple: they didn’t like to live alone. The widows were the real birds of prey. They grasped at Howell with their forceful talons.
He could have wreaked havoc on the town had he been some kind of Don Juan. But he always settled on a single widow and shut his eyes to the rest of the field. And it usually wasn’t the richest one. The grift depended on how authentic he was. He would only chisel from a widow he might have married. He had to be attracted to the woman, imagine spending his life with her. He couldn’t have lasted five minutes with a chatterbox. And when he took her to bed, he wasn’t dreaming of his score. The chiseler fell in love, even if only for five minutes. And the widow could feel the tug of his passion.
He didn’t discuss money. The widow would bring it up, talk about her holdings, as if to lasso him to her heart. She didn’t want him to stray, to find his adventure elsewhere. And then she be would be curious about what her new intended did. Howell would smile and make love to her again. She’d have to use very tender talons. Couldn’t she invest in one of his enterprises? It would tie him to her. And he’d offer her a share of some phantom enterprise at a stingy rate of return, less than she could make on a jumbo certificate at the bank. It was the unattractiveness of what he offered that always drew the widows in. He’d suggest a cautious investment of a few thousand dollars, and she’d write him a check for 50 grand.
Howell didn’t disappear with the check. He’d let it sit for a while, have lunch with the widow’s daughters and sons, and begin returning bits and pieces of her investment, until she had half of it back, and then he’d close his account and move on. It was Howell’s own sense of limits that saved him. Sometimes a widow didn’t wake to the chisel for months, and sometimes she never woke to it, having convinced herself that her sweetheart with the beautiful hands would return with the remainder of her capital.
That’s why Howell was never caught. He lent a certain grace to his grift, even value to whatever he grabbed. The widows never felt cheated. They remembered the dark-haired stranger who drifted into their lives and made love to them like some Manhattan sheik. But Howell had little to do with Manhattan. He was from the Bronx. And because of his own odd chivalry, that ceiling he put on whatever he stole, Howell never grew rich.
He was middle-aged, well past 50, and couldn’t bear to romance another widow. A swindler might fall prey to someone else’s grift and end up panhandling on South Beach, among all the models and the movie stars. And he couldn’t even say what kind of curious radar or homing device had brought him back to the Grand Concourse in his Lincoln Town Car. Howell had little nostalgia in his blood. He was the son of a Bronx superintendent and happened to grow up among all the rich Concourse brats. He inhabited a cellar apartment, with barred windows that gave out onto a backyard and a storage bin for the building’s junk. But he’d had a Concourse address, like all the brats. He lived at the Lorelei, an Art Deco apartment palace near Joyce Kilmer Park, on a hill above what was then Yankee Stadium. He could peer right into that enormous horseshoe from the Lorelei’s roof, and that’s how he watched Yankee games; even with binoculars he couldn’t see very much, but he could tell when the Yankees were at bat from the tumult of the crowd. And as a boy up on the roof, Howell realized he would never be near enough to what he wanted; he would always be “binoculars away.”
And here he was, driving past the Lorelei, when he saw a huge signboard on the front wall:
Superintendent on the premises
Finding an apartment at the Lorelei had once been impossible; except for the Lewis Morris Apartments, near Mount Eden Avenue, it was the most distinguished address on the Concourse. But the Lewis Morris didn’t have Yankee Stadium at its door; the Lorelei did. And what kind of crazy impulse sent Howell looking for the superintendent, who no longer lived in the cellar, but had a sterling apartment on the ground floor?
Howell didn’t care how many apartments were available, or if the first month was free. The super seemed desperate to have him. His name was Nando, and he was from Venezuela.
“I want Apartment 6A,” Howell said.
Nando peered at him like an artful poker player. “That’s impossible. It’s our flagship apartment, the top of the line—with a triple exposure. It’s like being on your own planet.”
But Howell saw right behind the super’s ploy. “You don’t have to tell me about 6A. I’ve played hopscotch on its parquet floors.”
Now Nando was alarmed. “Are you some kind of burglar?”
Howell laughed and told him that he’d lived in the Lorelei as a child, that his own father had once had Nando’s job.
“Then you know about Miss Naomi?”
Howell froze; he’d tumbled into a secret little game. Miss Naomi. She was the reason he’d drifted back to this land of desolation. Naomi Waldman, the little Bronx debutante who’d driven Howell wild when he lived under the ground with his Pa.
The Waldmans owned the building and two or three other Art Deco palaces along the Grand Concourse. Apartment 6A was their castle keep, the official residence of the Waldmans, where they gave their parties and concert recitals, and where Naomi Waldman, their only child, studied and took private dancing lessons in one of the Lorelei’s sultanic rooms. Hugo Waldman was the paterfamilias of the whole tribe—nephews, cousins, and uncles-in-law who lived along the Concourse in lesser palaces. He’d come from Hungary at the age of 5, was orphaned at 9, but was still able to attend Harvard and Columbia Law. He’d been a fencing champion at Harvard and he fluttered around on the balls of his feet, like a man who was superior to anyone else in the room.