Lunch at Ta-boo

“Lunch at Ta-boo on Worth Avenue.” Just saying the line out loud makes one feel superior, even if you can’t quite justify seventy five dollars for the caviar appetizer at the top of the lunch menu on your company credit card. Mara, the real estate broker sat as lioness in the booth with her back to the Zebra upholstered throne. In another day and time, she could be seen sucking the bone tip of a vintage enameled cloisonné gold cigarette holder delicately positioning the fourteen karat gold band between her ivory fingers blowing smoke from her puckered lips at the room. Now that no smoking rules had deprived her of such pomp, she instead gently kissed the rim of a Martini glass as she waited for her client. Five pear shaped Winston Cluster diamonds clung to her earlobes and caught brief flashes of light as her head turned to meet the prospect.

Martin showed up in his self important rush explaining how being fifteen minutes late was someone else’s fault. “Martin,” Mara said, as she held the stem of her Martini glass and refusing to stand to greet her new customer. “I like that name.”

Martin had dyed black hair with just a hint of silver at the temple and sideburns, and as he sat he seemed to enjoy brushing his slight wave off his forehead calling attention to his fastidious mannerisms. Mara took note of his cashmere and silk sport coat with the checkered pattern in shades of gray over his black silk tee shirt. He adjusted monogrammed gold cuff link on the sleeve of his left arm as he sat and offered, “I was told that you are the only broker to handle a purchase here.”

“There have been good years,” she said.

“My friend told me that you have a way of finding properties that are not on the market. Is that true?”

“Depends on your must have list.”

“The main concern is the right address.”

“What could be a bad address on our little island paradise?”

“In my circle, celebrity has a value.”

“No shit,” Mara said and laughed. “You and everyone else that crosses the Royal Park Bridge. What I need to know is, do you want a one bedroom condo for half a million or Ocean Boulevard from forty five million?”

“This purchase is the third leg of my triangle. So, single family at least four bedrooms.”

“I know of one property in the ten million range on El Vedado, but its five bedrooms.”

“Where’s that?”

“Right around the corner. It’s on one of the famous El streets lined with mansions built by the old guard.”

“Tell me about the neighbors.”

“When you say the third leg of your triangle, I assume you already own in the Hamptons and New York.”

This was a trick Mara practiced with clients to get them talking about themselves as she already had the answers. She always researched potential clients before meeting them. There’s no way she’d be sitting in Ta-boo with some no load that wanted a tour. Mara knew that Martin had married into a family fortune, and his only claim to fame was his charm, charisma, and good looks even if his frame was more boyish. She had to figure he must be good in bed as well. Mara held the cards in this conversation. She knew already the family portrait looming over the fireplace mantle in the Hamptons screamed WASP with parents and children decked out in the latest Dior and Gucci garb. She jousted at Martin to get him to admit to some prejudice lurking behind his blue eyes. She knew he wanted a broker that knew the old guard gambits to ferret out the addresses where Jews could fit in or stand out to piss off the old farts that had deep roots here. She would not play along. Instead, she took a matchbook from her purse.

“That’s rare,” he said. “A matchbook from Ta-boo, they still hand these out?”

“I’ve collected matchbooks for years. I have quite the rare collection at home. Hobbyists that collect these things are called phillumenists. That’s supposed to mean lovers of light. I think of all my matchbooks as a just a collection of lovers. When I was younger, I always kept restaurant matchbooks from dates that gave me a good poke.”

She wrote something on the inside cover and handed it to Martin, “No good for smoking in restaurants today, but these are special.”

Martin fingered the gold embossed logo that said all that needed to be said. ‘Ta-boo’. He looked inside to see Mara had written an address and a number.

“That’s it?”

“What? You expect some brochure or listing presentation. That stuff is for losers. I don’t deal paper; I deal mansions. Check it out. Let me know. If you like the address, I’ll get you in.”

 

After lunch, Martin followed Mara’s direction to hang a right from Worth Avenue to South County Road also known as Highway A1A. The drive took him past the private Everglades Club whose elite members never have to worry about tee times or worrisome undesirable types found across the bridges. The El streets presented the perfect enclave of historic homes for Martin; the one final finishing touch for his triangle. He turned at the ‘Dead End” sign where the tall hedges of El Vedado guarded the secrets of the Mizner mansions. Finally the address he sought came into view with just barely the second story of the mansion peeking over palm trees and framed at street level by two ancient Banyan trees. The circular drive outside the guard wall provided a place where Martin could park and take in the only view he could have without Mara paving the way. He sat with car windows down feeling the warm salt breeze and listening to palm fronds sway above him. He opened the match book to call Mara and stared at the paper matches lined up like little soldiers around Buckingham Palace; perfect stiff and in place. He decided to try one; see if it worked. Using his thumb and forefinger he peeled the first paper match back from the row that makes up the comb of igniters. With the first match out, he struck the read head against the black strip of the striker. The smell of sulphur filled his nostrils as the match flashed for an instant. The match did not burn down; just flashed. With that exact instant he felt he heard in his mind a voice that said, “I know what you did.”

Martin dismissed the idea and threw the match out. The electric gate began to open and to avoid confrontation; he started his Mercedes and zipped out the opposite entry of the circular drive before any existing vehicle would catch him snooping. He headed back out the dead end to retreat and glanced in the rear view to catch the view of the Bentley leaving the mansion. Headed north on South County Road the route led back toward Worth Avenue. Just before the bend in Highway A1A, he turned into the drive at the Colony Hotel; his hangout while shopping his next purchase. Martin enjoyed slipping the valet a twenty with instructions to park his Mercedes out of the way of any dings or scratches, as if the valet cared about some Mercedes in a parking lot of Bentleys and Rolls. “Mr. Lieberman,” he greeted Martin with reserved courtesy. “I trust your ventures around town have been successful to date?”

Martin nodded and made his way in past the two doormen outfitted in bright white Bermuda shorts and sockless sneakers, “Welcome back Mr. Lieberman.”

Martin forced a slight smile as he brushed that damn bang off to the right side of his forehead in some ritual to stake out his territory.  Once in the lobby, the guy made his way past overstuffed easy chairs; each decorated with large palm leaves upholstery. The bar tender at the pool bar nodded a polite welcome when Martin navigated the way around the Florida shaped basin to sequester in the villa he rented for the month. Double French doors open to the living room and kitchen Martin would never use; the only use for a villa was to reference to those he would intimidate in negotiations. “Report back to me at my villa,” or “You can reach me at my villa for the month,” lines dropped here and there would establish Martin as a player that meant business.

Later that night the buzz from the restaurant by the pool became quiet, and ocean breezes warmed the air from the Atlantic a mere five hundred-sixty five feet east on Hammon Avenue. Rolling surf echoed off the pink stucco walls and terracotta barrel tiled roof tops along the avenue filling the void left by street noises of shoppers and late nighters making rounds. Martin searched for amusement in his loneliness. He thought of his wife and the way he had won her away from the five siblings that were all anxious to inherit the riches their father had accumulated throughout a tough won life as a builder and developer. Her father, a big boisterous man, had accomplished real tangible evidence of his efforts with buildings that raised his name above skylines in cities across the country. The one place he did not make a move was this tiny island, and now it was Martin that would create a legacy; albeit from his wife’s money. His triangle, his legacy, his winnings, even if the success was only in his own mind.

He thought of Mara, the broker. The way she looked, the way she claimed her dates had given her a good poke, the thought of her demeanor and something tempting from her that comes from an older woman whose number of matchbooks presented a formidable challenge. Martin wondered how he would measure up. Then those matchbooks, what of them he wondered. He took the packet from his pocket and stared at the Ta-boo logo. That strange inanimate object wanted something of him. The force made Martin take another stem and strike it against the black strip, and just as before it flashed for only a second and in that instant, once again the voice, “I know what you did.”

A third match ignited and once again, “I know what you did.”

He closed the cover and threw the packet onto the coffee table.

Restless nights are no strange masters to Martin Lieberman. He doesn’t sleep well. Many hours with visits from the succubus and anima have come with the moon; nevertheless the flash of inspiration that claimed ‘I know what you did’ was a new occurrence.

 

Breakfast was served on the patio. Martin wanted something lighter than the Colony Hotel Breakfast complete with meats and grilled tomato. Instead, a small fruit platter with coffee did the trick. A headline on the morning paper caught his eye as he read, ‘New Lead in 75 Year Old Murder.’ The cold case revealed the bludgeoning murder of the father of five in one of the El Street mansions. The most obvious defendant back then was the son-in-law known around town as a dandy married for money that introduced himself at the most posh balls and evenings with various names that all began with ‘Count.’ The case was thrown out and his wife, one of five children, named Nancy stuck by him throughout the ordeal never thinking for a moment the man who won her and her family fortune could never be so brutal. The murder case remained cold for over seven decades, yet the article did not give exact details about the newly discovered evidence.

The story shook Martin. He left his coffee to rush back to his villa to recover the matchbook with the address. Fact checking the article, the address was the same. The looming second story sandwiched in view between two Banyan trees was one in the same. In his mind’s eye, he remembered the winged letter ‘B’ of the hood ornament of the Bentley that chased him away the day before. That chrome emblem in the style of the classic 1940 vintage Bentleys. This was a detail that had escaped his view until seeing it large in his rearview mirror from memory.

Martin put the matchbook in his pocket and was off to the real estate office tucked neatly behind an archway covered in bougainvillea on Worth Avenue where he planned on Mara getting him into the mansion on El Vedado.  The discrete sign in the reception showcased the office was represented in New York, the Hamptons, and Palm Beach. “Hello,” Martin said with his particular air, “Please let Mara know that Martin is here.”

“Mara?”

“Yes, we met yesterday and she told me about a property on El Vedado.”

“There must be a mistake.”

Martin revealed the match book and showed the receptionist the address. Where as, she opened a screen on the desktop and reported, “There’s no listing on El Vedado.”

“That makes sense,” he said. “Mara said she had a way of knowing about properties not yet on the market.”

“Give me a moment,” she said and called the broker to the front desk.

A very highly accessorized woman introduced herself, “You are looking for a property?”

“Yes, I met with Mara yesterday.”

“There must be some confusion over names; there is no Mara on staff here. However, there was a woman named Mara that was daughter to our founding broker. But that was back in the forties.”

“You mean as in the 1940s?”

“Yes.”

“But, she was not a broker?”

“No she was the broker’s daughter. She was actually one of five children.”

Martin took in the explanation and watched the puzzled face of the broker, “Are you okay?” she asked.

“Whatever happened to the broker, the founder?”

 

Martin Lieberman wanted people to notice. New York, the Hamptons, and then Palm Beach. The three corners of his private Bermuda Triangle instead of the triangle of the rich and famous. A simple matchbook from a woman stolen from another time gave him a clue of what should have been seen as a warning. Martin’s dream would come true as people would talk of him during long lunches at Ta-boo. The problem for Martin would be those conversations would be idle gossip about the guy married to money with no accomplishments of his own. Pressure of that magnitude for the average poser is enough to drive a man to murder.