Everybody Dies Page 3

"Who are we talking about?"

I moved to where I could see the faces in the back-bar mirror. I couldn't find the one I was looking for. "Guy about your age," I said. "Maybe a little younger. Wide forehead tapering to a pointed chin." And I went on describing the face I'd seen while Andy frowned and shook his head.

"Doesn't ring a bell," he said. "He's not there now?"

"I don't see him."

"You don't mean Mr. Dougherty, do you? Because he's right there and- "

"I know Mr. Dougherty, and he's got to be what, ninety years old? This guy is- "

"My age or younger, right, you told me that and I forgot. I got to tell you, every time I turn around there's more of 'em that are younger."

"Tell me about it."

"Anyway, I don't see the guy, and the description doesn't ring a bell. What about him?"

"He must have slipped out," 1 said. "The little man who wasn't there. Except he was there, and I think you talked to him."

"At the bar? I been back here the past half hour."

"He came out of the john," I said, "just about the time I walked in the door. And he looked familiar to me then, and I thought he said something to you, or maybe you were just waiting for him to get out of the way so you didn't stick a dart in his ear."

"I'm beginning to wish I did. Then at least we'd know who he was. 'Oh, yeah, I know who you mean. He's the asshole wearing a dart for an earring.'"

"You don't remember talking to anybody?"

He shook his head. "Not to say I didn't, Matt. All night long guys are in and out of the men's room, and I'm here tossing darts, and sometimes they'll take a minute to pass the time of day. I'll talk to 'em without paying any attention to 'em, unless I get the sense that they might like to play a game for a dollar or two. And tonight I wouldn't even do that, on account of we're out of here the minute he shows, and what do you know? Here he is now."

He is a big man, is Mick Ballou, and he looks to have been rough-hewn from granite, like Stone Age sculpture. His eyes are a surprisingly vivid green, and there is more than a hint of danger in them. This night he was wearing gray slacks and a blue sport shirt, but he might as well have been wearing his late father's butcher apron, its white surface marked with bloodstains old and new.

"You came," he said. "Good man. Andy'll bring the car round. You wouldn't mind a ride on a fine September night, would you now?"

Mick had a quick drink at the bar, and then we went out and got into the dark blue Cadillac and drove away from what a reporter had called "the headquarters of his criminal empire." The phrase, Elaine once pointed out, was infelicitous, because Mick's whole style wasn't remotely imperial. It was feudal. He was the king of the castle, holding sway by the sheer force of his physical presence, rewarding the faithful and drowning rivals in the moat.

And he was, I've always realized, an unlikely friend for a former policeman turned private investigator. The years have left his hands as bloodstained as his apron. But I seem to be able to recognize this without judging him, or distancing myself from him. I'm not sure whether this represents emotional maturity on my part, or mere willful obtuseness. I'm not sure it matters, either.

I have quite a few friends, but not many close ones. The cops I worked with years ago are retired by now, and I've long since lost touch with them. My saloon friendships wound down when I quit drinking and stopped hanging around bars, and my AA friendships, for all their depth and solidity, center on a shared commitment to sobriety. We support one another, we trust one another, we know astonishingly intimate things about one another- but we're not necessarily close.

Elaine is my closest friend and by far the most important person in my life. But I do have a handful of men with whom I have bonded, each in a different and profound way. Jim Faber, my AA sponsor. TJ, who lives in my old hotel room and serves as my assistant when he's not clerking in Elaine's shop. Ray Gruliow, the radical lawyer. Joe Durkin, a detective at Midtown North, and my last real hook in the Department. Chance Coulter, who once trafficked in women and now deals instead in African art. Danny Boy Bell, whose own stock-in-trade is information.

And Mick Ballou.

They don't run to type, these friends of mine, not as far as I can see. By and large, they wouldn't have much fondness for one another. But they are my friends. I don't judge them, or the friendships I have with them. I can't afford

I thought about this while Andy drove and Mick and I sat side by side in the big back seat. We talked a little about the new Japanese pitcher for the Yankees, and how he'd been disappointing after a promising start. But neither of us had a great deal to say on the subject, and mostly we sat in silence as we rode along.

We took the Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey, then Route 3 west. After that I didn't pay much attention to the route. We found our way through a sort of suburban industrial sprawl, winding up in front of a massive one-story concrete-block structure perched behind a twelve-foot woven wire fence topped with concertina wire. rooms 4 rent, a sign announced, which was hard to credit, as I'd never seen a more unlikely rooming house. A second sign explained the first: e-z storage / your extra room at low monthly rates.

Andy drove slowly past the yard, turned at the first driveway, coasted past the place a second time. "All peace and quiet," he said, pulling up in front of the locked gate. Mick got out and opened the big padlock with a key, then swung the gate inward. Andy drove the Cadillac in and Mick secured the gate behind us, then got into the car.

"They lock up at ten," he explained, "but they give you a key to the lock. You've got twenty-four-hour access, with no attendant on hand from ten at night to six in the morning."

"That could be convenient."

"Why I picked it," he said.

We circled the building. There was a roll-up steel door every fifteen feet or so, each of them closed and padlocked. Andy pulled up in front of one and cut the engine. We got out, and Mick fitted another key into this lock and turned it, then gripped the handle and raised the door.

It was dark within, but information was coming my way before the door was all the way up. I sniffed the air like a dog with his head out the car window, sorting the rich mixture of scents that came my way.

There was the smell of death, of course, of lifeless flesh spoiling in a warm unventilated space. With it was the smell of blood, a smell I've often heard described as coppery, but it has always reminded me more of the taste of iron in the mouth. An ironic smell, if you like. There was the burnt smell of cordite, and another burnt smell as well. Singed hair, for a guess. And, as unlikely background music for all these sour notes, I breathed in the rich nostalgic bouquet of whiskey. It smelled like bourbon, and good bourbon at that.

Then the light came on, a single overhead bulb, and showed me what my nose had led me to expect. Two men, both wearing jeans and sneakers, one in a forest green work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, the other in a royal blue polo shirt, lay sprawled just a few feet left of the center of a room some eighteen feet square and ten feet high.

I walked over and had a look at them, two men in their late twenties or early thirties. I recognized the one in the polo shirt, although I couldn't remember his name, if in fact I'd ever heard it. I'd seen him at Grogan's. He was a fairly recent arrival from Belfast, and he had the accent, with his sentences turning up the slightest bit at their ends, almost like questions.

He'd been shot through the hand, and in the torso, just below the breastbone. He'd been shot again, and conclusively, just behind the left ear. That shot had been fired at close range, the blast singeing the hair around the wound. So it had indeed been singed hair that I smelled.

The other man, the one in the dark green work shirt, had bled abundantly from a bullet wound in the throat. He lay on his back, with the blood pooled around him. Again, there'd been a coup de grace, a close-range shot into the middle of the forehead. It was hard to see the need for it. The throat wound would have been enough to kill him, and, judging from the blood loss, he may well have been dead before the second shot was fired.

I said, "Who killed them?"

"Ah," Mick said. "Aren't you the detective?"

Andy waited outside with the car, guarding our privacy, and Mick lowered the steel door to screen us from any chance passerby. "I wanted you to see them exactly as I found them," he said. "I didn't care to walk away and leave them like this. But how could I tell what clues I might be disturbing? What do I know of clues?"

"You didn't move them at all?"

He shook his head. "I didn't have to touch them to know they were beyond help. I've seen enough dead men to know one on sight."

"Or even in the dark."

"The smell was less a few hours ago."

"Is that when you found them?"

"I didn't note the time. It was early evening, with the sky still bright. I'd say it was between seven and eight."

"And this is exactly what you found? You didn't add anything or take anything away?"

"I did not."

"The door was lowered when you got here?"

"Lowered and locked."

"The cardboard carton in the corner- "

"Just some tools in it that it's useful to keep here. A pry bar for opening crates, a hammer and nails. There was an electric drill, but I guess they took that. They took everything else."

"What was there for them to take?"

"Whiskey. Enough to fill a small truck."

I knelt down for a closer look at the man I recognized. I moved his arm, lined up the wound in the hand with the wound in the torso. "One bullet," I said, "or at least it looks that way. I've seen that before. It seems to be instinctive, holding up a hand to ward off a bullet."

"And have you ever known it to work?"

"Only when Superman does it. He was beaten up, did you notice that? Around the face. Pistol-whipped, probably."

"Ah, Jesus," he said. "He was just a lad, you know. You must have met him at the bar."

"I never got his name."

"Barry McCartney. He would be telling you he was no relation to Paul. He'd not have bothered saying that at home in Belfast. There's no lack of McCartneys in County Antrim."

I looked at the hands of the other dead man. They were unmarked. Either he hadn't tried catching bullets with them or he'd tried and missed.

He looked to have been beaten around the face and head as well, but it was hard to be sure. The bullet to the forehead had distorted his features, and that was enough to explain the discoloration.

To me, at any rate, if not to someone who knew what he was looking at. I'd been to my share of crime scenes, but I wasn't a medical examiner, I wasn't a forensic pathologist. I didn't really know what to look for or what to make of what I saw. I could pore over the bodies all night and not pick up a fraction of what an expert eye could tell at a glance.

"John Kenny," Mick said, without my having to ask. "Did you ever meet him?"

"I don't think so."

"From Strabane, in the County Tyrone. He lived in Woodside, in a rooming house full of North-of-Ireland boys. His mother died a year ago. Saves having to tell her." He cleared his throat. "He flew home, buried her, and came back here. And died in a room full of whiskey."

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