Everybody Dies Page 14

"Why couldn't you tell them that?"

"Because it would tie me to Mick Ballou and drop both of us in the middle of a full-scale homicide investigation. They'd want to know where all the bodies were buried, and that's not a figure of speech. I'd be on the spot for failing to report the murders of Kenny and McCartney, and for in fact actively covering up their deaths. We broke a lot of laws the night we dug up Mick's back yard."

"You'd lose your license."

"That's the least of it. I could face criminal charges."

"I didn't think of that."

"It seems to me I committed a couple of felonies," I said, "and we crossed a state line with a trunkful of corpses, so there might be a federal charge involved as well. Even so, I might have taken my chances if I'd thought leveling with Wister would do any good."

"It won't bring Jim back."

"No, but neither will anything else. It won't catch his killer, either. Jim was an innocent bystander who walked into the middle of a gang war."

"Is that what it is? Gang warfare?"

"That's what it looks like. That's what it looked like in the storage room in Jersey. If I'd had any sense I'd have bowed out then and there."

"I wish you would stop blaming yourself."

I let that pass. She'd said it more than once, and I still didn't have a response to it. I said, "There are things the cops are good at, but solving gang-related homicides isn't one of them. Even when they get lucky and learn who gave the order and who pulled the trigger, they can't put together a case that'll hold up in court."

"I guess they're helpless against organized crime."

"Not exactly helpless. The RICO laws gave them broad powers, and in the past few years they've made some major cases and put away a lot of mob guys. They'll get somebody to wear a wire, they'll get somebody else to roll over on his boss, and next thing you know there's one more guy in the federal joint at Marion, complaining that nobody there can make a decent marinara sauce. That works, and so do some of the local stings they run, like renting a storefront and receiving stolen goods, then locking up all the people who walked in the door with minks and TV sets."

"They get a lot of press when they do that."

"And I'm sure that's one of the things they like about it. But it's good police work just the same. Some of my contemporaries might disagree, but I think the NYPD's better than when I was a part of it. They're doing a superior job. But that doesn't mean they're going to come up with the guy who shot Jim."

"Still," she said, "it bothers you that you held out on them."

"I think it would bother me more if I hadn't. I'd have had fun explaining a lot of things, including the gun I was carrying."

"I was wondering about that. Nobody spotted it?"

"I wasn't a suspect and nobody had any reason to pat me down. I kept my windbreaker zipped up. It was chilly in the restaurant and on the street, but it was warm and stuffy in the squad room at Midtown North. I kept waiting for Wister to tell me to take off my jacket and get comfortable, but he never did."

"But if you'd told them you were the intended victim…"

"Then they'd have asked me a few hundred questions, and everything would have had to come out, including the gun. 'This? Well, you've already got the murder weapon, and anyway this is a.38, not a.22, and you can see it hasn't been fired recently. I haven't registered it yet because I just acquired it the other day from this guy who was pounding on my stomach.'"

"How is your stomach, by the way?"

"It's fine."

"But it must be empty. You didn't get dinner, you haven't had anything since lunch."

"I don't want anything."

"If you say so."

"Why the look?"

"I was just thinking what Jim would say about letting yourself get too hungry."

"He'd say not to," I said. "But I'm not hungry. Right now the thought of food turns my stomach."

"If you change your mind…"

"I'll let you know. Say, is there any coffee? I could stand a cup of coffee."

"What bothers me," I said, "is that I held out without thinking twice. It was second nature."

We were at the kitchen table, with coffee for me and herbal tea for her. I had taken off the windbreaker, and the gun and holster. I'd taken off the polo shirt, shucked the Kevlar vest, and put the shirt back on again. The vest was draped over the back of a chair now, and the gun and holster were on the kitchen counter.

I said, "I was a cop for a lot of years, and then for a long time I worked private without a license. I finally got one because it was an inconvenience not to have it, and it was costing me work. But there was another reason. I had it in the back of my mind that it would make me respectable."

"You never said that before."


"When you and I got married," she said, "I told you something. Do you remember what it was?"

"I was just thinking about it the other day. You said it didn't have to change anything."

"Because we were already committed to each other, so how could a piece of paper change things? And you were already respectable."

"Maybe that's the wrong word. Maybe I was looking for the license to make me more legitimate, more a part of the establishment."

"And did it?"

"That's the thing," I said. "It didn't. You know, I lost most of my illusions about the system during my years as a cop. They say working in a meat-packing plant ruins your appetite for sausage, and something similar happens on the job. You're essentially taught to break the rules. I learned to cut corners, learned to stand up in court and lie under oath. I also took bribes and robbed the dead, but that was something else, that was more about the erosion of my own morals. It may have been job-related, but it didn't arise directly out of how I'd learned to regard the system.

"Then I put in my papers and quit," I went on, "and you know about that. It was abrupt, one day I was a cop and one day I wasn't, but in another sense it was a more gradual process. I was still a cop at heart. All I lacked was a badge and a paycheck. I still saw the world the same way. I knew guys working in houses all over the five boroughs, and I pulled strings and called in favors when I was working my own cases. Or I bought favors, paying cops for information as if they were my snitches."

"I remember."

"Well, the years went by," I said, "and everybody I knew died or retired. Joe Durkin's my only real friend on the job, and I never even knew him back then. I'd been working private for years before he and I got acquainted. And now he's always talking about retiring himself, and one of these days he'll do it."

"Suppose it had been him instead of Wister asking you questions tonight."

"Would I have told the same lies? Probably. I don't see what else I could have done. I might have been a little less comfortable lying to Joe, and he might have sensed I was holding out. As far as that goes, Wister may have sensed as much himself."

"It's complicated, isn't it?"

"Very. It's hard to know what I am. 'My name is Matt and I'm an alcoholic.' I've said that so many times I'm beginning to believe it, but beyond that point it gets a little fuzzy. For years I've been cutting corners and making my own rules. I learned how on the job and I never learned how not to. I've deliberately subverted the law, and now and then I've taken it into my own hands. I've played judge and jury. Sometimes I guess I've played God."

"You always had a reason."

"Everybody can always find a reason. The point is I've done illegal acts, and I've worked for and with criminals, but I've never thought of myself as a criminal."

"Well, of course not. You're not a criminal."

"I'm not sure what I am. I tell myself I try to do what's right, but I don't know how I make that determination. The phrase that comes to mind is 'moral compass,' but I'm not sure I know exactly what a moral compass is, or if I have one."

"Of course you do, honey. But the needle keeps spinning around, doesn't it?"

"The only rule I've got to live by," I said, "is 'Don't drink and go to meetings.' Jim says if I do that much everything else'll work out the way it's supposed to."

"So you do and it does."

"Oh, it works out. That's another thing he told me, things always work out. And God's will always gets done. That's how you find out God's will. You wait and see what happens."

"You've quoted that line before."

"I've always liked it," I said. "I guess it was God's will for Jim to die tonight, and for me to live. Otherwise it wouldn't have happened, right?"


"Sometimes," I said, "it's hard to figure out what God has in mind. Sometimes you have to wonder if He's paying attention."

We talked for a long time. Ages ago, in another lifetime, when she was a hooker and I was a cop married to somebody else, part of what drew me to her was that she was so easy to talk to. In a sense I suppose that was part of the job description in her chosen field. A call girl, after all, ought to put men at ease. But it seemed to go beyond that for us. I sensed that I could be entirely myself in her presence, that it was me she liked, not the man I pretended to be, not the man I thought the world wanted me to be.

Maybe that, too, was part of the job description.

I drank coffee and she sipped her herb tea and I talked about Jim. I told stories from early sobriety, before she and I had found each other again after having been out of touch for years. "At first I figured he was a nice enough fellow," I told her, "but I wished to God he would leave me alone, because I knew I wasn't going to stay sober and he was just one more person to disappoint. Then I started to look forward to seeing him at meetings. As far as I was concerned he was Mister AA himself, the voice of sobriety. As a matter of fact he came into the program less than two years before I did. I was in my first ninety days when I heard him speak on his second anniversary. I look back now, and what's two years? A person with two years is just beginning to clear the cobwebs out of his head. So he was actually pretty new himself, but from my perspective he was dry enough to be a fire hazard."

"What would he tell you now?"

"What would he tell me? He'll never tell me anything again."

"But if he could."

I sighed. "'Don't drink. And go to meetings.'"

"Do you want to go to a meeting now?"

"It's too late for the midnight meeting on Houston Street. They've got another one at two a.m., but that's too late for me. So no, I don't want to go, but I don't want to drink, either, so I guess it evens out."

"What else would he tell you?"

"I can't read his mind."

"No, but you can use your imagination. What would he say?"

Grudgingly I said, "'Get on with your life.'"


"And what?"

"And are you going to?"

"Get on with my life? I don't really have a choice, do I? But it's not that easy."

"Why not?"

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