The Devil Knows You're Dead Page 11

 But I couldn’t sleep for the longest time. I turned the TV on and off, picked up books and magazines, read a page here and a page there and put them down again. I even tried the Big Book, that time-honored soporific, but it didn’t work. There are times when it doesn’t, times when nothing works, and all you can do is look out the window at the rain.

 Chapter 9

 “Ihate to say it,” Joe Durkin said, “but I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I wish you would give the guy his money back.”

 “That’s something I never thought I’d hear you say.”

 “I know,” he said. “It’s not like me. When a man gets a chance to make an honest dollar, who am I to stand in his way?”

 “So what’s the problem?”

 He leaned back in his chair, balancing it on its back legs. He said, “What’s the problem? My friend, you’re the prob-lem.”

 We were in the detective squad room on the second floor of the Midtown North station house on Fifty-fourth Street. I’d walked over after breakfast, going a little bit out of my way in order to have another look at the Eleventh Avenue murder site. It was a lot livelier on a Monday morning, with most of the shops and showrooms open for business and more vehicular traffic on the avenue, but it didn’t offer any fresh insights into the last moments of Glenn Holtzmann.

 From there I’d gone to Midtown North, where I’d found Joe at his desk. I’d told him how Tom Sadecki had given me a retainer, and now he was telling me to give it back.

 “If you were almost anybody else,” he said, “you’d do what almost anybody else would do, which is put in a dozen hours or so and then tell your client what he probably already knows, which is that his nut job of a brother did it. That way your client knows he did all he could, and you earn yourself a decent piece of change without busting your hump to do it.

 “But you’re a contrary bastard, and on top of that you’re as stubborn as a fucking mule. Instead of just taking your guy and shining him on, which is all he really wanted in the first place, whether he knows it or not, you’ll have to make sure you give him his money’s worth. And you’ll find a way to convince yourself there’s a possibility the brother didn’t do it, and you’ll put in the hours, and you’ll break every-body’s balls, mine included. By the time you’re done you’ll have so much time invested that you’ll be lucky to clear min-imum wage for your troubles, and you’ll have come to the reluctant conclusion that Lonesome George is every bit as guilty as everybody knows he is, but you’ll have done every-thing in your power to fuck up an open-and-shut case. Why are you staring at me like that?”

 “I was just wishing I had a tape of that speech. I could play it for prospective clients.”

 He laughed. “You think I went overboard there? Well, it’s a Monday morning. You have to make allowances. Seri-ously, Matt, just go through the motions on this one, will you? It’s a high-profile case. We solved it fast with some good police work, but the media’s in love with the story. You don’t want to give ’em an excuse to open it up again.”

 “What would they find?”

 “Nothing. The case is solid. It was a good bust.”

 “Were you on the case, Joe?”

 “The whole precinct was on it, along with half of Manhat-tan Homicide. I didn’t have much to do with closing it. Once they picked him up it was closed. He had the brass in his pocket, for Chrissake. The casings. What more do you need?”

 “How did you know to pick him up?”

 “Information received.”

 “Received from whom?”

 He shook his head. “Uh-uh. Can’t tell you that.”

 “From a snitch?”

 “No, from a priest who decided it was time to violate the seal of the confessional. Yes, of course from a snitch. As far as the identity of the snitch is concerned, don’t ask.”

 “What did the snitch have to say?”

 “I can’t tell you that.”

 “I don’t know why not,” I said. “Was he on the scene? Did he see something, hear something? Or did somebody just pass on a rumor that led you to George?”

 “We have an eyewitness,” he said. “How’s that?”

 “An eyewitness to the actual shooting?”

 He frowned. “I always tell you more than I planned,” he said. “Why do you figure that is?”

 “You know it’s the best way to get rid of me. What did your eyewitness see?”

 “I already said too much, Matt. There’s a witness and there’s hard physical evidence and there’s the next best thing to a confession. Sadecki says he figures he probably did it. The case is so solid even the perp’s convinced.”

 It had me convinced, too, but I had a fee to earn. “Suppose what the witness saw was the aftermath,” I said. “George bending over the body, picking up the shells.”

 “After somebody else shot him.”

 “It’s possible.”

 “Oh, sure, Matt. Somebody fired from the grassy knoll. You ask me, the CIA was in on it.”

 “Holtzmann could have been mugged,” I said. “It’s not exactly unheard-of in that neighborhood. He could have been shot resisting a robbery attempt.”

 “No evidence of it. He had a wallet on his hip with over three hundred dollars in it.”

 “The mugger panicked after the shooting.”

 “Funny way to panic. First he fires a very deliberate fourth shot into the back of the neck, then he panics.”

 “Who else was on the scene? Who else did the witness get a look at?”

 “He saw George. That was enough.”

 “What was Holtzmann doing there? Did anybody bother to check that out?”

 “He went for a walk. It’s not like commercial aviation, you don’t have to file a flight plan first. He was restless and he went for a walk.”

 “And he stopped to make a phone call? What was the mat-ter with the phone in his apartment?”

 “Maybe he was trying to call his apartment, tell his wife when he’d be home.”

 “How come he didn’t reach her?”

 “Maybe the line was busy. Maybe he had the number half-dialed when Boy George shot him. Who the hell knows, and what the hell difference does it make? God damn it, you’re doing just what I knew you would do, you’re trying to pick holes in a perfectly solid case.”

 “If it’s really solid I won’t be able to, will I?”

 “No, but you’ll make a real pain in the ass of yourself in the meantime.”

 I’m the one fly in the ointment, Tom Sadecki had said. I’m the pain in everybody’s ass.

 I said, “What do you know about Holtzmann, Joe?”

 “I don’t have to know anything about him. He’s the vic-tim.”

 “That’s where a homicide investigation starts, isn’t it? With the victim?”

 “Not when you can cut to the chase. When you’ve already got the killer in custody, you don’t have to turn the victim in-side out. Why the thoughtful expression?”

 “You know what’s wrong with the case, Joe?”

 “The only thing wrong with it is you’re taking an interest. Aside from that it’s perfect.”

 “What’s wrong with it,” I said, “is you solved it too fast. There are a lot of things you would have learned—about Holtzmann, about other people in the area—but you never had to pursue them because why bother? You already had the killer in custody.”

 “You think we’ve got the wrong man?”

 “No,” I said. “I think you’ve got the right man.”

 “You think the police work was slipshod? You think we missed something?”

 “No, I think the police work was excellent. But I think there are some avenues you haven’t needed to explore.”

 “And you figure you’ll take a little walk down them.”

 “Well, I took the man’s money,” I said. “I have to do something.”

 The Donnell branch library is on Fifty-third off Fifth. I spent a couple of hours in the second-floor reading room go-ing through all the local papers for the past ten days. Once I got past the hard news, most of which was already familiar to me, the bulk of the stories turned out to be non-stories, pieces about homelessness, about neighborhood gentrifica-tion, about crime in the streets. There were interviews with people who’d lived for years in the area’s tenements and apartment houses, with others who’d recently moved into Holtzmann’s high-rise, and with a few who lived on the street. Every columnist with an ax to grind found a way to hone it here. Some of it made interesting reading, but it didn’t tell me much I hadn’t already known.

 There was one essay I particularly liked, a Times Op-Ed piece by an advertising copywriter who was identified as re-siding within two blocks of the Holtzmann apartment build-ing. He had been unemployed since late May, and he explained how his economic circumstances altered his per-spective.

 “With every passing day,” he wrote, “I identify a little less strongly with Glenn Holtzmann, a little more closely with George Sadecki. When the news first broke, I was shocked and horrified. That could have been me on the sidewalk, I told myself. A man just past entering the prime of life, a pro-fessional man with a bright future, living in Clinton, the most exciting area of the most stimulating city in the world.

 “And as the hours and days slip by,” he went on, “it is a subtly different mirror in which I see myself. That could be me on Rikers Island, I find myself thinking. A man on the verge of middle age, an unemployed idler in a dwindling job market, drifting through the days in Hell’s Kitchen, the most unsettling area in the most desperate city on God’s earth. I still ache for the man who was killed, but I ache too for the man who killed him. I could have found myself in either man’s shoes, in Glenn Holtzmann’s well-polished wing tips or in George Sadecki’s thrift-shop sneakers.”

 I walked back to my hotel, pausing along the way for a hot dog and a papaya drink. I checked at the desk for messages but nobody had called. I picked up a container of coffee at the deli next door and carried it across the street to the little park adjacent to the Parc Vendôme. I found a place to sit and took the lid off my coffee, but it was too hot to drink. I set it down alongside me on the bench and got out my note-book.

 I jotted things down, thinking on paper, beginning with the assumption that George Sadecki was innocent. Trying to prove it was a waste of time; what I had to do was find some-one else who could have done it. Someone with a reason to kill Glenn Holtzmann, or someone who might have done so with no more reason than George had.

 Glenn Holtzmann. From where I sat I could see the top floors of his apartment building. If I turned around I could see the table at the Morning Star where we’d had our last conversation. Lisa had lost the baby, he’d told me. I had felt for him that afternoon, but still had remained disinclined to get close to him. I’d felt distanced from him, and was happy to keep him at a distance. I hadn’t wanted to get to know him.

 Now it looked as though I had to. A homicide investiga-tion, I’d reminded Joe, properly starts with the victim. To find a killer you look for someone with a reason to kill. To learn the reason you first learn who the victim is.

 If someone had a reason.

 But maybe he had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He could have been the victim of a failed rob-bery attempt. Joe had made it sound unlikely, ridiculing the notion of a holdup man who would take the time for a coup de grâce, then dash off without retrieving the money. What he’d said made sense, but that’s more than most criminals do. They’re disorganized. They act impulsively, operate irra-tionally, and change course abruptly. A relative handful are stable and well organized, but the great majority do some-thing stupid every time they leave the house.

 Not that a would-be mugger was the only sort of person who might have killed Holtzmann for no good reason. He could simply have spoken out of turn in a city where al-together too many people walk about armed. Any kind of argument—over the use of a public telephone, for example— had the potential to turn violent.

 Or he could have been killed by mistake. That had hap-pened a few years back at a restaurant in Murray Hill. Four men, three of them furriers and the fourth their accountant, had just taken a table and ordered a round of drinks. Two men came in the door and one took out an automatic weapon and sprayed the furriers’ table, killing the four men and wounding a woman at the table next to theirs.

 It was a very obvious mob hit, and for a week or two in-vestigators probed for mob infiltration of the fur industry, or evidence linking any of the dead men with one of the five crime families. As it turned out, none of them had ever come any closer to organized crime than buying a candy bar from a vending machine. The intended target had been four other men, principals in a mobbed-up construction firm in Jersey City, who had been sitting on the other side of the restaurant when the hit occurred. The shooter, it turned out, was dyslexic, and had turned left when he should have turned right. (A DEADLY MISKATE was the Post’s headline.)

 Well, these things happen. Everybody makes miskates.

 So there were two ways to approach it. I could look to the victim or at the event itself. I was about ready to flip a coin when I saw a familiar face no more than twenty yards away. Hair like white Brillo, high cheekbones, a narrow nose, hornrimmed glasses, skin the color of my coffee. It was Barry, George Sadecki’s friend, and he was sitting on an up-turned milk crate, with a three-foot concrete cube serving him for a table. He had a chessboard set up on it and he was smoking a cigarette and studying the pieces on the board.

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