The Devil Knows You're Dead Page 6

 Chapter 5

 “Iappreciate this,” he said. He spooned sugar into his coffee as he talked, stirred, added milk, stirred some more. “You know,” he said, “I almost let it go. I came this close to not calling. I looked up private investigators in the Yellow Pages. Well, all I knew was your first name, and I didn’t see any guys listed named Matt, and I figured maybe I’m sup-posed to keep my hands off this one. Let go and let God, right?”

 “That’s what the bumper stickers say.”

 “Then I thought, Tommy, take one shot and see what hap-pens. Don’t knock your brains out, don’t go and hire another detective to look for this detective, but at least pick up the phone and see where it gets you. Don’t push the river, but at least get your feet wet, and who knows? Maybe you catch a wave, maybe you can go with the flow.”

 The flow thus far had led him to the Flame, where we were sharing a booth in the smoking section. Years ago I used to meet prospective clients in bars. Now I meet them in coffee shops. I’ve gone with the flow myself, and look how far it’s carried me.

 “So I called Intergroup,” he said, “and I asked for a contact person at Keep It Simple, because I knew that was your home group. Unless you switched home groups since then, or moved to another neighborhood or out of the city altogether. Or even picked up a drink, because who knows, right?”


 “Anyway, they gave me a guy to call, and I called it and I told a lie. I said I met you at a meeting and you gave me your number and I lost it, and that I never did get your last name. He didn’t know your last name either, but he knew right off who I meant, so that let me know you were still sober and still in the area. He gave me another number to call, a fellow named Rich, and I don’t know his last name either, but he knew your last name, and he had your number in his book. So I called, last night and again this morning, and you called back, and here I am.” He drew a breath. “And now you can tell me I’m crazy and I’ll go home.”

 “Are you crazy, Tom?”

 “I don’t know,” he said. “You tell me.”

 He looked sane enough. He was about five-eight or -nine, the same height but a little thicker in the body than those welterweights I was currently missing on Wide World. He had a round face, its boyishness offset by frown lines on his forehead and creases at the corners of his mouth. His light brown hair was worn short and thinning on top. He had wire-rimmed eyeglasses, and I guess they should have been bifocals, because he took them off to study the menu before ordering his cup of coffee.

 He wore a light blue sport shirt tucked into pleated chi-nos. His shoes were brown penny loafers with crepe soles. On the seat next to him he’d placed his jacket. It was teal trimmed in navy, with an L.L. Bean logo over the breast pocket. He wore a plain gold wedding band on the appropri-ate finger and a Timex digital watch with a stainless-steel band, and he had a pack of Camels in his shirt pocket and a lit one in the ashtray. He didn’t look like a style-setter, but he certainly looked all of a piece, a Brooklyn neighborhood guy, a family man who worked hard and made a living at it. He didn’t look crazy.

 I said, “Why don’t you tell me why you think George is innocent?”

 “I don’t even know if I got a reason.” He picked up his cigarette, flicked ashes from it, put it back down again. “He’s five years older’n me,” he said. “Did I mention that? There was him, then my sister, then me. Growing up, of course I looked up to him. I was fourteen when he went into the ser-vice, and by then I knew there was something different about George, the way he had of staring off into the distance and sometimes not responding to questions. I knew this, but still I looked up to him.” He frowned. “What am I trying to say? That I know him and he could never kill another human be-ing? Anybody could. I came this close myself.”

 “What happened?”

 “This is maybe two years before I got sober, okay? I’m in a bar. Nothing unusual in that, right? So there’s an argument, guy pushes me, I push back, he shoves, I shove, he swings, I swing. He goes down, not because I give him such a good shot. He more or less trips over his own feet. Wham, hits his head on something, the bar rail, base of a barstool, I don’t know what, and he’s in a coma for three days and they don’t know if he’s gonna live, and if he dies I’m on the hook for manslaughter. What am I gonna say, I didn’t mean for it to happen? That’s what manslaughter is, when you don’t mean it.” He shook his head at the memory. “Long story short, he comes out of it on the third day and refuses to press charges. Wouldn’t hear of it. Next thing you know I run into him in a bar. I buy him a drink, he buys back, and now we’re the best of friends.” He picked up his cigarette, looked at it, stubbed it out. “He wound up getting killed about a year after that.”

 “Another bar fight?”

 “A holdup. He was assistant manager of a check-cashing place on Ralph Avenue and there was three of them shot, him and a security guard and a customer. He was the only one died. Well, shit happens, and maybe his number was up, but if his number’d been up a year earlier I’d be a guy’d done time in prison, a guy you’d describe as having a history of violent behavior, and all because a guy gave me a push and I pushed him back.”

 “You were lucky.”

 “I been lucky all my life,” he said. “My poor fucking brother’s had no luck at all. He’s a man who walks away from confrontations, but all the same he could find himself in a fight, given the right set of circumstances. Life he led, violence is always waiting for you around the next bend in the road.” He straightened up in his seat. “But what hap-pened last week,” he said, “it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit George.”

 “How do you mean?”

 “Okay,” he said. “Here’s how the police reconstruct it. Holtzmann’s on the corner making a call from a pay phone. George approaches him, asks him for money. Holtzmann ig-nores him, tells him no, maybe tells him to go fuck himself. George pulls out a gun and starts blasting.”

 “What’s wrong with that?”

 “You saw George around the neighborhood. Did you ever see him ask anybody for money?”

 “Not that I can recall.”

 “Believe me, you didn’t. George didn’t panhandle. He didn’t like to ask anybody for anything. If he was really broke and he wanted to scrape a few bucks together and he couldn’t do it hustling bottles and cans, maybe he’d go up to cars at a stoplight and wipe windshields. But even then he wouldn’t press hard for the money. He certainly wouldn’t disturb some guy in a business suit talking on the phone. George walked right by guys like that.”

 “Maybe George asked the time of day and didn’t like the answer he got.”

 “I’m telling you, George wouldn’t even have spoken to the guy.”

 “Maybe he had a flashback, thought he was in a fire-fight.”

 “Triggered by what? The sight of a man making a phone call?”

 “I see what you’re saying,” I said, “but it’s all theoretical, isn’t it? But when you look at the evidence—”

 “Okay,” he said, leaning forward. “Good, let’s talk about the evidence. As far as I’m concerned, that’s where their whole case breaks down.”

 “Really? I thought it was pretty persuasive.”

 “Oh, it looks solid at first glance,” he said. “I’ll grant you that. Witnesses placing him on the scene, but what’s so re-markable about that? He lives just around the corner from there, he must walk past that pay phone every day of his life. They’re supposed to have another witness says he was talk-ing about guns and shooting, but who are these witnesses? Other street people? They’ll tell the cops anything they want to hear.”

 “What about the physical evidence?”

 “I guess you’re talking about the cartridge casings.”

 “Four of them,” I said, “matching the four nine-millimeter slugs they took out of the victim. They would have been ejected automatically from the murder weapon when the shots were fired, but they weren’t at the crime scene when the cops got there. Instead they turned up in the pocket of your brother’s army jacket when the police picked him up.”

 “It’s strong evidence,” he admitted.

 “A lot of people would call it conclusive.”

 “But to me it just proves what we already know, that he was there at the approximate time the shooting took place. Maybe he was just steps away, standing in a doorway. Holtz-mann wouldna seen him and neither would the killer. Holtz-mann’s on the phone, the killer shows up, maybe on foot, maybe he hops out of a car, who knows? Bang bang bang bang, Holtzmann’s dead and the killer’s out of there, takes off running or jumps back in his car, whatever. Then George comes forward. Maybe he watched the whole thing, maybe he was nodding and the shots woke him up, but now there’s a man down and the light from the streetlamp is glinting off four pieces of metal on the sidewalk.” He broke off, lowered his eyes. “I’m getting carried away here. I better stop before you figure I’m crazier than my brother.”

 “Keep talking.”

 “Yeah? Okay, so he steps forward to get a good look at the victim. That’s something he might do. And he sees the cas-ings, and he was in the military, he knows what they are. You remember what he said to the police? ‘You have to police the area,’ he told them. ‘You have to pick up your own brass.’ ”

 “Doesn’t that suggest that he was responsible for their presence? That they’d come out of his own gun?”

 “It suggests to me that he was confused. There was a dead man on the ground and cartridge casings alongside it and his only reference for that was Vietnam. He remembered right off what they told him about picking up shell casings on pa-trol and that told him what to do in the present situation.”

 “Isn’t it simpler to assume he was trying to conceal evi-dence of his own involvement?”

 “But what the hell did he conceal? He dropped the god-damn things in his jacket pocket, he walked around with them for a full day until they picked him up. If he wanted to get rid of them, he had plenty of chances. They say he walked over to the river to get rid of the gun, that he flung it off a pier into the water. He threw away the gun but kept the casings? He could have tossed them anywhere, a trash can, a Dumpster, a sewer grate, but instead he carried them in his pocket all day? Where’s the sense in that?”

 “Maybe he forgot they were there.”

 “Four brass casings? They’da rattled around in there. No, it’s senseless, Matt. Senseless.”

 “I don’t think anyone’s tried to argue that your brother was behaving rationally.”

 “Even so, Matt. Even so. Look, speaking of the gun. The murder weapon was a nine-millimeter pistol, right? The bul-lets they dug out of Holtzmann were nine-millimeter, and so were the casings in George’s pocket.”


 “So George had a forty-five.”

 “How do you know?”

 “I saw it.”


 “Maybe a year ago. Maybe a little less than that. I came looking for him, I had some stuff for him, and I drove around until I found him. He was in one of his usual spots, near the entrance to Roosevelt Hospital.” He drank some coffee. “We walked back to his room so he could stow what I’d brought, clothes mostly, and a couple of bags of cookies. He always liked those Nutter Butter cookies, with the peanut-butter filling. From the time we were kids, that was his favorite kind of cookie. I always brought him some whenever I went looking for him.” He closed his eyes for a moment, opened them and said, “We got to his room and he told me he had something to show me. The place was a mess, piles of crap everywhere, but he knew right where to look and he moved some junk out of the way and came up with a gun. He had it wrapped in this filthy hand towel, but he unwrapped it and showed it to me.”

 “And you were able to identify it as a forty-five?”

 He hesitated. “I don’t know a lot about guns,” he said. “I’ve got a revolver I keep at the store, a thirty-eight, it sits on a shelf under the cash register and I don’t even touch it from one month to the next. We’re on Kings Highway west of Ocean Avenue, household appliances, we’ll sell you any-thing from a Waring blender to a washer-dryer, and there’s not a whole lot of cash comes over the counter. It’s all checks or plastic nowadays, but they’ll hold up anything, they smoke a little crack and they can’t think straight, and if the cash register’s empty they’ll shoot you to make a point. So the gun’s there, but I pray to God I never have to use it.

 “It’s a revolver, I don’t know if I mentioned that. The gun George showed me wasn’t, it didn’t have a cylinder like mine. It was L-shaped, rectangular.”

 He sketched its outline on the tabletop. I told him it sounded like a pistol, but how did he know it was a forty-five?

 “George said that’s what it was. He called it a forty-five-caliber pistol. What was the other phrase he used? A military sidearm, that’s it. He said it was a government-issue military sidearm.”

 “Where did he get it?”

 “I don’t know. I asked him and he said something about carrying it in Vietnam, but I don’t believe he brought it back with him. I think he may have had one like it over there. My guess is he found this one or bought it on the street. I don’t know if it was loaded or if he even had any bullets for it. The cops turned up people from the neighborhood who said he used to carry a gun and he’d take it out and show it around. Maybe he did. Life he led, I can see him carrying a gun for protection, even using it to defend himself. But why would he have to defend himself from a man making a phone call? And anyway, you can’t shoot nine-millimeter bullets out of a forty-five, can you?”

 “What happened to the gun?”

 “The one I saw? You got me. It wasn’t on him when they picked him up. They didn’t find it when they searched his room. They say George told them some story about throw-ing it off a pier into the Hudson. They sent divers down and came up empty, but who even knows if they had the right pier. You want to know what I think happened?”

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