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The Disappearing Body

The Disappearing Body by David Grand
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At once a noir thriller and a literary excursion into urban America between the wars, The Disappearing Body is a tale of drug dealing and union-busting, murder and mayhem on both sides of the law that combines the atmospheric richness of Dashiell Hammett and the irresistible, subversive humor of Thomas Pynchon.
When Victor Ribe, an ex-junkie and World War I veteran, is mysteriously released from prison after serving fifteen years for a murder he didn’t commit, the city he returns to is heating up for another kind of war. Prohibition has been repealed and the underworld is developing a new source of profits–illegal heroin trafficking. Meanwhile, the city’s legitimate industries are launching an offensive against unionization and the specter of Communism–and they’re not above fighting dirty.
When Victor’s old Army buddy Freddy Stillman, a munitions salesman, reports a murder but can’t explain why the body has disappeared, he unwittingly pulls himself and Victor into this bewildering swirl of corruption. It is a conspiracy that encompasses everyone–from a rising politician who may have just run into the end of his career to a young journalist driven as much by the nonstop energy of the Metro desk as she is by the mystery of her father’s suicide–in the book’s vast, noir cityscape.
David Grand, whose first novel, Louse, transformed the last days of Howard Hughes into compelling fiction, works the same dark magic here, weaving suspenseful mystery into his stunning, perversely hilarious portrait of the corruption, ambition, passion, and innocence of post-Prohibition America.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; February 2002
320 pages; ISBN 9780385504881
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Title: The Disappearing Body
Author: David Grand
Chapter One
Early one frigid Thursday morning in mid-January 193—, sometime between the hours of four and five, a tired-looking prison guard holding a set of leg irons and handcuffs appeared outside Victor Ribe’s cell. The guard, a burly man whose gray wool uniform tightly hugged at his shoulders and thighs, knocked his baton on the foot of Victor’s bed and ordered him to get dressed. Victor, who didn’t undress during the winter months, rolled back his tattered blanket and put on his boots and longcoat. The guard motioned with the baton to the cell operator, and Victor stepped up to the bars, his hands at his sides, palms extended outward. The roll and clank of the door echoed through the cell block; when the violent sound quieted, the guard motioned the baton at Victor as if he were tracing the shape of infinity in the air. “Out,” he said, dropping the shackles and chains on the floor.

With his hands in plain sight, Victor took one large step out from his cell and with a practiced hand quickly arranged the cuffs and chains around his ankles and wrists; once they were set in place, the guard bent down and fastened the locks. He then stood before Victor, close to his face, so close that Victor couldn’t look away from him.

“Is there any one thing in there you don’t want to live without?” the guard asked quietly, almost intimately.

“Why?” Victor asked.

“Is there any one thing in there you wouldn’t want to live without?” the guard repeated, this time with a sense of urgency. The guard continued to trace long figure-eights with the point of his baton.

“Underneath the mattress,” Victor said reluctantly, as quietly as the guard spoke to him. “Beneath the pillow, under the mattress.”
The guard walked into Victor’s cell and from underneath the mattress at the head of the bed, he removed an old photograph, whose paper had turned yellow and thin from touch. It was a picture taken in front of a cheap backdrop of a carousel, a picture of Victor, looking much younger and vital, and a young slender woman on his arm. They looked carefree, happy, unhindered. The guard respectfully placed the photo in the pocket of Victor’s coat, and then circled around him.

“Walk,” the guard ordered.

Victor Ribe, who was serving the fifteenth year of his twenty-five-year sentence, walked with the guard through the cell block, through damp rusting corridors. They walked outside, over a long narrow stretch of the yard’s stiff frozen grass, which led them to the prison’s gates, where waiting was a somber-looking sheriff’s deputy and a paddy wagon with its engine running. Victor turned his head over his shoulder. “What’s happening?” he asked.

“Eyes front,” the guard ordered. The sheriff’s deputy opened the back of the paddy wagon and pulled out a crate. “Inside,” he said to Victor.

Victor stepped onto the wooden crate and then inside the windowless metal casing of the wagon. The guard said something to the deputy privately and then he looked up to Victor, raised his arm, and tipped his hat. Not knowing what to make of it, Victor squeezed his jaw tight and nodded his head, then took a seat on a bench that was bolted to the floor. The deputy slid the crate in by Victor’s feet and then slammed the doors closed. The padlock banged shut, the compartment turned black, and then, with Victor’s chains rattling all along the way, the sheriff’s deputy drove him down bumpy roads for the better part of three hours.

When the sun had risen above the horizon, and the spectrum of color had dissipated white, through a small opening in a metal slat separating the driver’s compartment from the back of the wagon, a thin stream of light crept down the arm of Victor’s coat. As quietly as he could, Victor shuffled to the opening in the slat, cupped his large hands around his face, and squeezed his eye into the light. He could see through the small hole well enough to realize that they were driving through Long Meadow, the town in which Victor had grown up. He could see well enough to find that the streets were more crowded than he ever remembered them, that many of the buildings he best recalled from his childhood were no longer there, that the town appeared to have grown more dense with commerce; instead of tourist shops selling local crafts and figurines as there once were, in place of the small boutiques, were outlets selling guns and ammunition. As they approached the factory in which his father worked as a machinist, the sight of all this became a little more clear to him, as instead of the company name reading “Barkley & Sons,” which used to manufacture bird figurines and bird feeders, it read “Fief Munitions.” Limestone walls, as tall as the walls that had surrounded his prison cell, had been built around the factory, and the factory, which had been only on two square blocks, had expanded by several more.

As they reached the plant’s entrance, Victor’s long quiet morning ride was suddenly disrupted by what sounded through the thin metal walls of the paddy wagon like a battlefield of men on an offensive. The noise was converging all around him. As he tried to see where it was coming from, a large man with a shotgun slung over his shoulder backpedaled into the street. The deputy slammed on the brakes, and the next thing Victor knew he was lifting himself up off the floor and wedging his eye back into the opening in the slat. An angry mob of men carrying guns and truncheons were now crowding before them. Victor could feel the bodies bumping up against the wagon; he felt as though he could physically touch the anger in their riotous voices.

“What’s happening?” Victor asked.

“They’re filing into the plant,” the deputy said quietly.

“What for?”

“Seems they’re taking it over.” Victor could see the deputy’s thin smooth fingers nervously tapping at the steering wheel.


“There was an explosion inside one of the shops the day before yesterday. I guess they don’t like the idea of their men getting blown up.”

“There were men killed?”

The deputy’s fingers continued tapping, slower and more deliberately than before. “Your father,” he said as the congestion of bodies began to thin before them, “he was one of them. He and a half-dozen other men.”

A tightness took hold of Victor behind his eyes. “Is that why I’m with you?”

“All I know is that your father’s dead and that I got a call to come get you late last night. That’s all I know.”

“Where are you taking me?”

“We’ll be there soon enough.”

The deputy shut the latch so that the small opening through which Victor was able to see was closed. Victor was once again in the pitch black of the wagon, alone with the news that his father was dead. He hadn’t seen nor talked with his father in the fifteen years that he was imprisoned, not since the day he was sentenced for his crime.

When the paddy wagon cleared the crowd it picked up speed. Victor felt the wagon turn left and could feel in the clattering vibration of his seat the rapid monotonous drumming of piston fire. Tired of listening to the rattle of his chains, he pulled them into his body and tried to imagine where they were driving. If he was right, they were traveling north out of town up along the woods and meadows and creeks and streams of Palisades Parkway, right into the middle of the nature preserve that gave Long Meadow its name.

They motored straight ahead for about fifteen minutes. When the wagon stopped, when the motor had been turned off, the deputy walked around back and opened the door. As if channeled through a kaleidoscope, a vermilion-colored light broke into the darkness off an ice-encrusted billboard on the side of the road. Cardinals, it read. Cardinals in June. Staggered at half-mile intervals up and down Palisades Parkway were billboards informing City tourists of what type of bird life they could expect to find in the Long Meadow Bird Sanctuary. With one of his hands resting on his holstered gun and the other carrying two large bundles wrapped in brown paper, the deputy motioned to Victor that he should stand up. “Hands,” he said.

Victor, whose hands were tethered by chains to his ankle bracelets, moved his arms from his sides.

“Back to me,” the deputy said as he stepped up and in.

“Do I know you?” Victor asked as he turned his back to the deputy.

“We went to school together,” the deputy said as he placed the bundles on the floor. He removed a set of keys from his belt, and moving from one lock to the next, he set Victor free. “My mother worked alongside yours before . . .”

“Right,” Victor said. “I remember now.” The image of the deputy’s face came into his mind as he stared at the wall of the wagon and he could suddenly see what he looked like when he was young.

“Get dressed,” the deputy said. “I’ll wait outside.”

Victor opened the packages. Inside he found the set of clothes he had worn the day he was sentenced, as well as a beat-up scarf and coat. Standing exposed to the freezing wind rushing into the back of the paddy wagon, he removed his prison clothes and quickly redressed. When he had knotted his tie and tied his shoes, he removed the photo of himself and the woman from his prison longcoat and delicately slipped it into the breast pocket of his jacket. He then stepped out from the wagon onto a heavily wooded road.

“You’ll be going with them,” the deputy said to Victor as he pointed to a car parked across the road from where they stood. Two grizzled-looking men in heavy belted coats and fedoras, each of them with a cigarette sticking out the corner of his mouth, waved him over. They were a dark pair, unshaven, one distinguishable from the other mainly in that one looked happy and one didn’t. Victor looked to the deputy for some assurance, but he said nothing more. Without looking at Victor again, he got back into the paddy wagon and drove away.

“Ride up here with me,” the one with the sunnier disposition said to Victor as Victor walked toward the men. Victor did as he was told. He rode up front, and together the three men drove down the road.

“What’s happening?” Victor asked again.

“You like to play cards?”

“Sure,” he said. “Why?”
The man up front pulled the cards out of his pocket as he drove and held them in the palm of his hand. “High-low,” he said. Victor hesitantly grabbed a handful of cards from the top of the deck. He drew a nine of hearts. The man up front placed the cards in Victor’s hand, then drew a one-eyed jack of clubs. He held the card up for Victor to see, for the man in the back to see, and smiled. “I think we’re gonna get along just fine, you and me.” The man scooped up the cards from Victor’s hand and placed them back in his pocket.

“You’re not the ones I’m talking to, are you?” Victor said.
The two grizzled men didn’t say anything more. They drove down the wooded parkway in silence until Victor could see the broad-shoulder fenders of a black Ford sedan gleaming on the roadside. “Shut your eyes and keep still,” the man in the back said to Victor.


“Do as I said.”

Victor shut his eyes. He felt the man in the backseat shroud a smooth piece of fabric over his forehead and nose, and then it tightened. The man then placed a musty-smelling burlap sack over his head. As the sack touched Victor’s shoulders, the car pulled over and came to a stop.

“Don’t go anywhere,” the man in the back said.

The front door opened and closed. The back door opened and stayed open, so the frigid air blew up into the sack, onto Victor’s neck. He could hear footsteps approaching on loose dirt, the car wobbled, the door slammed shut, and then a calm, measured voice, damp and guttural and unhealthy-sounding, spoke to him from the backseat.

“You have any idea what you’re doing here, Mr. Ribe?”

“No, I don’t,” he said, smelling his own dank breath as it hovered between him and the scratchy burlap of the sack.

“Did anyone tell you what happened to your father?”

“The sheriff. He told me.”

“A real shame that is,” the man said. “My condolences.”

“What’s this all about?”

The man in the backseat struck a match. Victor could hear the match spark. Then the smell of sulfur and burning tobacco. “Your father and I, we had a deal. I’m making good on my end of it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will, in good time; but for now, I’ve got a proposition for you.”

“Who are you?”

The man breathed a difficult breath that sounded like the thin, leafless branches of the birch trees whipping about in the cold wind outside.

“I’m listening,” Victor said.

“If you agree to help me, when we’re through with this, you’ll walk down the road and attend your father’s funeral as a free man.”

“How’s that work?”

“It just does.”
Victor suddenly remembered which road he was on. He remembered the grove of cherry blossoms that bloomed in the springtime. He remembered walking barefoot with his childhood sweetheart, along one of the many brooks that fed the river. He remembered the plot by the field in which his mother was buried after she was taken by the Spanish flu. He could see in his mind the priest waiting for him at the foot of his father’s grave. Considering that all his father’s men were inside the plant, he thought that unless he walked down the road, the priest would more than likely be standing there alone. “What would I have to do?”

“Help me finish what your father started. Help me take care of the men who murdered Boris Lardner.”

As when he’d heard the news about his father, it took a moment for this to sink in. Then the words came out like a stone skipping across water. “You mean, you don’t think I killed him?”

“I know for a fact that you didn’t.”

“For a fact?” As Victor said this, a sadness came over his voice, a sadness that amounted to fifteen years of sadness. “And my father?”

“He knew it too.”

“How?” Victor said, the sadness in his voice lingering.

“I’ve got evidence.”

“Then what do you need me for? What did you need my father for?”

“To help me deliver the evidence.”

“How do I know you’re being straight with me?”

“You couldn’t possibly know.”

Victor was quiet. He listened to the man’s labored breathing. He could see in his mind his father lying in his casket above the frozen earth, his hands folded over his chest in a way he would have never folded them over his chest in his lifetime. “Was it my father who caused the explosion at the plant?”

The man didn’t say anything.

“Why won’t you answer me?”
The man still didn’t say anything.

Victor’s head started to sweat from the warmth of his bad breath under the sack. “Where would I go from the funeral?” he said.

“The boys’ll drive you to Fuller House, downtown. They’ve got it all set up for you. You stay there until you’re needed.”
Victor listened to the wind for a while longer. He listened to the wind and all he could see in his mind was himself sitting in his small damp cell, listening to the wind blowing and not being able to see the rustling trees beyond the prison walls. He could see in his mind the picture of himself and the woman in front of the backdrop of the carousel. He could see her as a young girl staring at him through her bedroom window as he stood on the street under a downpour of cold rain. He turned his head in the direction of the man behind him. “I’ll need some money.”

“Five hundred dollars has already been deposited under your name at First City Bank.”

“Five hundred?”

“That’s right.”

“What’s five hundred buy you these days?” Victor wondered out loud.

“In this case, peace of mind.”

“Yeah,” Victor said, not knowing what else to say. “All right,” he said after another thoughtful pause, “I’ll do whatever you want.”

“We’ll be in touch, Mr. Ribe,” the man said abruptly. And with that said, the car door opened, the car wobbled, and Victor could hear the footsteps on the road’s shoulder. After a few moments of sitting still, he heard the car engine turn over and the car pull away. He could then feel the two grizzled men retake their places.

“You can take that stuff off your head,” the sourpuss in the backseat said.

Sunshine up front started the car, drove behind some nearby brush, and parked. “Get out. We’ll be watching you from the woods. When you’re through, walk back out to the road.”

Victor dropped the blindfold and the sack onto the seat, opened the door, and stepped out. He looked back for a moment. “Go on,” Sunshine said. He pointed up ahead to a clearing past a stand of trees. Victor walked into the woods and from the woods into the field. He could see the priest and the gravediggers standing in a small cemetery whose far border ran along the edge of the bird sanctuary. Victor walked to the gravesite and looked onto his father’s casket, and looked over the frozen earth that extended as far as the precipice on the Palisades, and looked onto the icy current of the Westbend River at the bottom of the enormous bluffs, and he could see the immense grid of the City on the other side of the current, the island city that expanded into the distance like a continuation of the headstones in the graveyard, the island itself like an enormous tablet drifting into a gray industrial mist, eastward, as far as Victor could see.
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