Everybody Dies Page 5

I did the math. "Ten thousand dollars," I said, "in round numbers. That's enough to make it worth stealing."

"Indeed it is. Why do you think we stole it in the first place? Though we didn't feel the need to kill anyone."

"If it wasn't somebody who just happened to be there," I went on, "then either somebody followed McCartney and Kenny or else they had the place staked out and waited for somebody to come and open up. But what sense does that make?"

There was an opened bottle of whiskey on his desk. He uncapped it, looked around for a glass, then took a short drink straight from the bottle.

"I need to know," he said.

"And you want me to find out for you."

"I do. It's your line of work, and I'd be entirely useless at it myself."

"So it would be up to me to learn what happened, and who was responsible."

"It would."

"And then I would turn the information over to you."

"What are you getting at, man?"

"Well, I'd be delivering a death sentence, wouldn't I?"

"Ah," he said.

"Unless you're planning on bringing the police into it."

"No," he said. "No, I wouldn't regard it as a police matter."

"I didn't think so."

He put a hand on the bottle but left it where it stood. He said, "You saw what they did to those two lads. Not just the bullets but a beating as well. It's no more than justice for them to pay for it."

"Rough justice, when you mete it out yourself."

"And isn't most justice rough justice?"

I wondered if I believed that. I said, "My problem's not in the action you take. My problem's being a part of it."

"Ah," he said. "I can understand that."

"What you do is up to you," I said, "and I'd be hard put to recommend an alternative. You can't go to the cops, and it's late in life for you to start turning the other cheek."

"It would go against the grain," he allowed.

"And sometimes a person can't turn the other cheek," I said, "or walk away and leave it to the cops. I've been there myself."

"I know you have."

"And I'm not sure I chose the right course, but I seem to have been able to live with it. So I can't tell you not to pick up a gun, not when I might do the same thing myself in your position. But it's your position, not mine, and I don't want to be the one who points the gun for you."

He thought that over, nodded slowly. "I can see the sense in that," he said.

"Your friendship is important to me," I said, "and I'd bend what principles I have for the sake of it. But I don't think this situation calls for it."

His hand found the bottle again, and this time he drank from it. He said, "Something you said, that it might have been men acting on impulse. Lads with a storage bin of their own, seeing a chance for a fast dollar."

"It's certainly a possibility."

"Suppose you were to look into that side of it," he said evenly. "Suppose you did what you do, asked your questions and made your notes, and learned enough to rule that possibility in or out."

"I don't understand."

He went over to the wall and leaned against it, looking at one of the hand-colored steel engravings mounted there. He has two groups of them, three scenes of County Mayo in Ireland, where his mother was born, and three others showing his father's birthplace in the south of France. I don't know which ancestral home he was looking at now, and I doubt he was seeing it.

Without turning around he said, "I believe I have an enemy."

"An enemy?"

"The same. And I don't know who he is or what he wants."

"And you think this was his doing."

"I do. I believe he followed those boys to the storage shed, or got there first and lay in wait for them. I believe the whiskey he stole was the least of it. I believe he was more intent on shedding blood than in stealing ten thousand dollars' worth of stolen whiskey."

"There have been other incidents," I guessed.

"There have," he said, "unless it's my imagination. It could be I've turned into an old maid, checking the cupboards, looking under the bed. Perhaps that's all it is. That, or else I've an enemy and a spy."

I have a license now, issued by the State of New York. I got it awhile ago when one of my lawyer clients told me, not for the first time, that he'd be able to give me more work if I were licensed. I've worked a lot for lawyers lately, and more than ever since I picked up the license.

But I haven't always had a license, and I haven't worked exclusively for members of the legal profession. I had a pimp for a client once. Another time, I worked for a drug trafficker.

If I could work for them, why couldn't I work for Ballou? If he was good enough to be my friend, if he was good enough to sit up all night with, why couldn't he be my client?

I said, "You'd have to tell me how to find the place."

"And what place would that be?"

"E-Z Storage."

"We were just there."

"I wasn't paying attention once we got out of the tunnel. I'll need directions. And you'd better let me have a key for the padlock."

"When do you want to go? Andy can drive you."

"I'll go by myself," I said. "Just tell me how to get there."

I jotted down the directions in my notebook. He proffered the roll of bills, his eyebrows raised, and I told him to put his money away.

He said this was business, that he was a client like any other, that he expected to pay. I said I'd be spending a couple of hours asking questions that most likely wouldn't lead anywhere. When the job was done, when I'd done as much as I felt comfortable doing, I'd tell him what I'd learned and how much he owed me.

"And don't your clients usually pay you something in advance? Of course they do. Here's a thousand dollars. Take it, man, for Jesus' sake! It won't obligate you to do anything you don't want to do."

I knew that. How could money obligate me more than friendship had? I said, "You don't have to pay in advance. I probably won't earn all this."

"Little enough you'd have to do. My lawyer gets as much every time he picks up the telephone. Take it, put it in your pocket. What you don't earn you can always give back."

I put the bills in my wallet, wondering why I'd even bothered to argue. Years ago an old cop named Vince Mahaffey told me what to do when somebody gave me money. "Take it," he'd said, "and put it away, and say thank you. You could even touch your cap if you're wearing one."

"Thanks," I said.

"It's I should be thanking you. Are you certain you don't want someone to drive you?"

"I'm positive."

"Or I can let you have the use of a car, and you can drive yourself."

"I'll get there."

"Now I've hired you, I'd best leave you alone, eh? Just let me know if you need anything."

"I will."

"Or if you learn anything. Or if you determine there's nothing to be learned."

"Either way," I said, "it shouldn't take more than a day or two."

"Whatever it takes. I'm glad you took the money."

"Well, you pretty much insisted on it."

"Ah, we're a fine pair of old fools," he said. "You should have taken the money without an argument. And for my part, I should have let you refuse it. But how could I do that?" His eyes caught mine, held them. "Suppose some wee fucker kills me before you finish the job. How would I feel then? I'd hate to die owing you money."

I was up a little before noon, and by one o'clock I had picked up an Avis car and found my way to E-Z Storage. I spent the afternoon there. I talked to the man in charge, one Leon Kramer, who started out wary and turned into Chatty Cathy before he was done.

Elaine rents a storage cubicle in a warehouse a few blocks west of our apartment- she stores artwork and antiques there, the overflow from her shop- but the system at the E-Z facility in New Jersey was different, and a good deal more casual. We have to sign in and out whenever we visit our bin, but E-Z, unattended at night and offering twenty-four-hour access, can't attempt anything like that level of security. A sign over Kramer's desk insisted in large print that all storage was entirely at the customer's risk, and he made the point himself three times in the first five minutes I spent with him.

So there were no records kept of comings and goings, and nothing stronger than the tenant's own padlock to keep others out of his storage bin.

"They want to be able to come here any hour of the day or night," Kramer said. "Their brother-in-law needs to store some stuff, they can hand him the key without worrying did they put his name on a list of persons authorized to have access. They don't want to sign in each time, clip on a security badge, fill out a lot of forms. What we got here is more convenience than security. Nobody's renting one of our bins to stash the crown jewels. Anything really important or valuable's gonna go in your safe deposit box at the bank. What we get is your mother's dining room set and the files from Dad's old office, before you went and put him in the home. All the stuff you'd keep in the attic, except you sold the house and moved to a garden apartment."

"Or things you'd just as soon not keep around the house," I suggested.

"Now that I wouldn't know about," he said, "and I wouldn't want to know. All I need to know's your check cleared the first of the month."

"A man's storage space is his castle."

He nodded. "With the exception that you can live in a castle, and you can't live here. There's a lot of other things you can do. We call it storage, but it's not all storage. You see that sign, 'Rooms 4 Rent'? That's what we're offering, the extra room your house or apartment hasn't got. I got tenants'll store a boat here, boat motor and trailer, 'cause they got no room to garage it where they live. Others, the room's their workshop. They set up their tools and do woodworking, work on their car, whatever. Only thing you can't do is move in and live here, and that's not my rule, it's the county's, or the township's, whatever. No living. Not that people don't try."

I'd shown him my business card and explained that I was working for a tenant of his who'd had some goods disappear. He didn't want to make it a police matter until he'd ruled out the possibility of employee pilferage. That was probably what it was, Kramer said. Somebody who already had a key, went and made himself the boss's silent partner.

By the time I left him I had a list of the tenants on the side of the building where John Kenny and Barry McCartney had been shot to death. I'd fumbled my way to a pretext- maybe another customer had seen or heard something- and Kramer went along, either to get rid of me or because we were old friends by then. Ballou's cubicle, I noted, was officially leased to someone named J. D. Reilly, with an address in Middle Village, in Queens.

I had a sandwich and fries at a diner across the road, asked a few questions there, then returned to E-Z Storage and used Mick's key to have another look at the murder scene. I could still detect all the odors I'd smelled the night before, but they were fainter now.

I'd brought a broom and dustpan, and I swept up the broken glass and dumped the shards into a brown paper bag. There was a reasonably good chance that one of those chunks of glass held an identifiable fingerprint, but so what? Even if it did, and even if I found it, what good would it be to me? A single print will nail a suspect, but it won't produce a suspect out of thin air. For that you need a full set of fingerprints, and you also need official access to federal records. What I had was useless from an investigative standpoint, and would be useful only when a suspect was in custody and a case was being made against him.

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