Everybody Dies Page 6

But it wasn't even good for that. The crime scene had been compromised beyond recognition, with the murders unreported, the bodies spirited away and tucked in an unmarked grave. What I held in my hand was evidence that a bottle had been broken. I knew people who'd call that a crime, but nobody who'd want to run prints to hunt down the man who'd broken it.

I stood inside the doorway, listening to traffic sounds, then lowered the steel door all the way down. I couldn't hear anything now, but it was hard to say what that proved; the traffic hadn't been all that loud.

What I was wondering about was the noise of the gunshots. I was assuming the killers had lowered the door before opening fire, but that wouldn't necessarily render the cubicle soundproof.

Of course they could have used suppressors. If so, that made it a little less likely the incident had been a spur-of-the-moment response to an unexpected opportunity for gain. A couple of resourceful sociopaths could have been on the scene, could have seen all those cases of booze. And they could have been carrying weapons at the time- some people, more than you'd think, never leave home unarmed.

But who routinely carries a silencer? No one I'd ever known.

I raised the door, stepped outside and looked around. Half a dozen units away, a man was shifting cartons from the back of a Plymouth Voyager, stowing them in his cubicle. A woman in khaki shorts and a green halter top was leaning against the side of the van and watching him work. Their car radio was playing, but so faintly that all I could tell was that it was music. I couldn't make it out.

Aside from my Ford, theirs was the only vehicle on that side of the building.

I decided the killers probably hadn't needed to muffle their gunfire. The odds were there hadn't been anyone around to hear it. And how remarkable would a few loud noises be? With the steel door shut, anyone within earshot would write off four or five shots as hammer blows, somebody assembling or disassembling a packing case, say. This was suburbia, after all, not a housing project in Red Hook. You didn't expect gunfire, didn't throw yourself on the pavement every time a truck backfired.

Still, why shoot them?

"Names and addresses," TJ said, and frowned. "These be the dudes renting alongside where the two dudes got shot."

"According to the storage company's records."

"Somebody's bad enough to shoot two dudes and steal a truckload of liquor, you figure he'd put his real name down when he rents storage space?"

"Probably not," I said, "although stranger things have happened. There was a fellow a couple of months ago who robbed a bank, and his note to the teller was written on one of his own printed deposit slips."

"Stupid goes clear down to the bone, don't it?"

"It seems to," I agreed. "But if the shooters used a false name, that's a help. Because if one of the names on our list turns out to be phony- "

"Yeah, I get it. So we lookin' for one of two things. Somebody's got a record, or somebody that don't exist at all."

"Neither one necessarily proves anything," I said. "But it would give us a place to start."

He nodded and settled in at the keyboard, tapping keys, using the mouse. I'd bought him the computer for Christmas, at the same time installing it- and him- in my old room at the Northwestern. When Elaine and I moved in together I'd kept my hotel room across the street as a combination den and office, a place to go when I wanted to be alone, sitting at the window and thinking long thoughts.

I'd met TJ on Forty-second Street long before they prettied up the Deuce, and early on he appointed himself my assistant. He turned out to be not merely street-smart but resourceful. When Elaine opened her shop on Ninth Avenue, he took to hanging out there, filling in for her on occasion and revealing a talent for retail sales. I don't know where he lived before he took over my old room- the only address we ever had for him was his beeper number- but I guess he always found a place to sleep. You learn a lot of survival skills in the street. You'd better.

He'd since then learned computer skills as well. While I leafed through Macworld magazine, trying to find something written in a language I could understand, he tapped keys and frowned and whistled and jotted down notes on the sheet of paper I'd given him. Within an hour he'd established that all the names Leon Kramer had supplied belonged to living human beings, and he was able to furnish telephone numbers for all but two of them.

"This don't necessarily mean that all the information's straight dope," he pointed out. "Could be somebody rented a bin and put down a real name and address, only it's a name and address belongs to somebody else."

"Unlikely," I said.

"Whole deal's unlikely. I'm at my storage locker, and I happen to see you got all this liquor in your storage locker, and there I am with a gun in my pocket and a truck parked alongside?"

"The first part's plausible enough," I said. "You're there and you spot the whiskey. But why shoot me?"

"On account of you might not care to stand idly by while I load your booze onto my truck and drive off with it."

"Why not wait?"

"Come back later, you mean."

"Why not? I've got a station wagon, I'm not going to haul off more than a few cases. The rest'll be there when you come back with a truck and somebody to help with the heavy lifting. You can even do it at night, when it's less likely anybody'll see what you're doing."

"You go away and come back, you got the padlock to contend with."

"So? You drill it out or hacksaw it. Or spray it with Freon and take a hammer to it. What do you figure is trickier, getting past a padlock or taking out two men?"

He tapped the sheet of paper. "Sounds like we wastin' our time on these here."

"Unless somebody on the list happened to see or hear something."

"Long odds against that."

"Long odds against most things in life."

He looked at the list of names and numbers, shook his head. "Guess I got some calls to make."

"I'll make them."

"No, I'll make them. They mostly in Jersey. You make them, they go on your phone bill. I make them, they be free."

A couple of years ago I'd used the talents of a pair of high school computer hackers, and in gratitude they'd given me an unrequested perk. By doing some backing and filling within the phone company's labyrinthine computer system, they had so arranged things that all my long-distance calls were free. By leaving their handiwork in place, I was technically guilty of theft of services, but somehow I couldn't get too worked up about it. I wasn't even sure which long-distance carrier I was defrauding, and hadn't a clue how to go about straightening it out.

The free calls went with the hotel room, so TJ inherited them when he moved in. He'd installed a second line for the computer modem, so he could talk and tap keys at the same time.

That's the future, and I guess it works. I'm old-fashioned, and take perverse comfort in telling myself I'm too old to change. All I know how to do is knock on doors and ask a lot of questions.

"Use your Brooks Brothers accent," I said.

"Oh, you think, Dink? What I was figuring was I'd try to sound like a dude with a 'tude." He rolled his eyes. In the voice of an NPR announcer he said, "Let me assure you, sir, that neither asphalt nor Africa will register in my speech."

"I love it when you talk like that," I told him. "It's like watching a dog walk on his hind legs."

"That a compliment or an insult?"

"Probably a little of both," I said. "One thing, though. Remember you're talking to people from Jersey. If you speak too clearly, they won't be able to understand you."

Elaine and I went out for dinner and a movie, and I wound up telling her what I'd been doing. "I don't think TJ's going to learn anything," I said. "It's not too likely any of the other tenants were around yesterday when the shit hit the fan. If they were, I'd be surprised if they saw or heard anything."

"Where do you go from here?"

"I probably give him his money back, or as much of it as I can get him to take. The money's the least of it. I think he's afraid."

"Mick? It's hard to imagine him afraid of anything."

"Most tough guys are afraid a lot of the time," I said. "That's why they take the trouble to be tough. At the very least, I'd say he's anxious, and he's got reason to be. Somebody executed two of his men for no good reason. They didn't have to shoot anybody."

"They were sending him a message?"

"It looks that way."

"But not a very clear one, if he doesn't know what to make of it. What happens next?"

"I don't know," I said. "He didn't tell me much and I didn't ask. Maybe he's in a pissing contest with somebody. Maybe there'll be a certain amount of pushing and shoving before things sort themselves out."

"Gangsters fighting over territory? That kind of thing?"

"Something like that."

"It's not really your fight."

"No, it's not."

"You're not going to get involved, are you?"

I shook my head. "He's my friend," I said. "You like to talk about past lives and karmic ties, and I don't know how much of that I believe in, but I don't rule it out. Mick and I are connected on some sort of deep level, that much is clear."

"But your lives are different."

"Utterly. He's a criminal. I mean, that's what he does. I'm hardly a candidate for canonization, but essentially he and I are on opposite sides of the law." I thought about that. "That's if the law is something with only two sides to it, and I'm not sure it is. The job I did for Ray Gruliow last month was designed to help him get a client acquitted, and I know for a fact the son of a bitch was guilty as charged. So my job in that particular case was to see that justice wasn't done. And when I was a cop I gave perjured testimony more times than I can remember. The men I testified against had done what they were accused of doing, or else they'd done something else that we couldn't pin on them. I never framed an innocent man, or one who didn't damn well belong in prison, but what side of the law was I on when I lied to put him there?"

"Deep thoughts," she said.

"Yes, and I'm the Old Philosopher. But no, I'm not going to get involved in Mick's problem. He'll have to get through it on his own. And he probably will, whatever it is."

"I hope so," she said. "But I'm glad you're out of it."

That was on Thursday. There was a message from TJ when we got home, but it was late and I didn't call him until the following morning, when I learned that he'd reached everybody on the list, including the two whose phone numbers he'd been previously unable to obtain.

"Computer gives you the world's longest arms," he said. "You like Plastic Man, you can reach out and touch someone and pick their pockets while you at it. But what good's it do you if their pockets is empty?"

And in fact his report was that he had nothing to report. Only one of the people on our list had paid a visit to E-Z Storage on the day in question, and she hadn't seen or heard anything memorable, let alone suspicious. If there'd been a truck there with men loading boxes onto it, she hadn't noticed. If there'd been gunshots, or loud noises of any kind, she hadn't heard them.

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