The Devil Knows You're Dead Page 8

 For all the years I’d lived at the Northwestern, I had spent precious little time on Eleventh Avenue. This stretch of it ran to auto showrooms and warehouses, building-supply outlets and collision repair shops. They were all closed now, as they would have been on the night of the shooting.

 I walked around some, trying to get the feel of the crime scene. There was nothing to identify it as such, no chalk out-line to mark where the body had lain, no yellow plastic Crime Scene tape.

 No visible bloodstains.

 I could picture him standing there, lifting the receiver, digging in his pocket for a quarter, dropping the coin in the slot. Then something makes him turn—a sound, perhaps, or movement glimpsed out of the corner of his eye. He starts to turn, and even as he’s turning a shot rings out, and he’s hit.

 The bullet takes him on the right side below the rib cage. It pierces the liver and severs the portal vein, the large blood vessel that services that organ.

 A mortal wound, in all likelihood, but he won’t live long enough to die of it. He reels toward the shooter, who fires twice more from point-blank range. One slug glances off a rib and plows through muscle tissue, doing little serious damage. The other finds the heart and causes virtually in-stantaneous death.

 He’s on the ground now, sprawled full length on the side-walk with his feet at the base of the post on which the phone is mounted. There’s a fourth and final shot, a coup de grâce, fired into the back of his neck. It’s as loud as the others, but he doesn’t hear it.

 Hard to say how long he lay there, or how much blood spilled out of him. Dead bodies don’t bleed much, as a rule, and the heart wound would have brought death quickly, but I couldn’t guess how much blood might have gouted from the liver wound before the heart stopped its pumping. In any event he lay there, first bleeding and then not bleeding, until someone picked up the dangling receiver and phoned it in.

 Tom Sadecki had given me the address of the building where his brother rented a room. It was on Fifty-sixth just off the avenue, a red-brick old-law tenement with an identi-cal building on its right and a rubble-strewn vacant lot on its left. A flight of steps led down to the basement entrance. The door at the bottom of the stairs had a glass window set at eye level, but I couldn’t see anything through it. The door was locked. It didn’t look as though it would be terribly hard to force it, but I didn’t try. I don’t know that I would have wanted to go in even if it had been unlocked.

 I went back to the corner of Fifty-fifth and Eleventh, got out my notebook and made a rough sketch of the scene. There was a Honda dealership on the corner where Holtz-mann was killed, a Midas Muffler franchise directly across the street. I remembered Tom Sadecki’s scenario and tried to figure out where George might have lurked in the shadows while somebody else did the shooting. I didn’t see any door-ways, but there was a spot alongside the entrance to the Honda showroom where a person might have stood or crouched without being too conspicuous. There was a trash can on the corner, not ten yards from the pay phone, and oth-ers on the opposite curb and ranging alongside the muffler shop.

 The sun had been shining when I left Elaine’s apartment. Clouds obscured it by the time I reached the site of the mur-der, and the sky kept getting darker by the minute. The tem-perature was dropping, too, and it occurred to me that the jacket I was wearing wasn’t going to be warm enough. I headed back to my hotel to change, and pick up an umbrella while I was at it.

 But when I got to Ninth Avenue there was a bus just pulling up and I ran and caught it. Maybe the rain would hold off, I told myself. Maybe the sun would come out and warm things up again.

 Sure. It was almost twelve-thirty when I walked into a room on Houston Street, filled a Styrofoam cup with coffee, and took a couple of cookies from a chipped china plate. I found a chair, and someone stood up and read the AA preamble and introduced the speaker.

 The group was mostly gay, and a lot of the sharing was about AIDS and HIV. At one-thirty we held hands and had a moment of silence, followed by the Serenity Prayer. The young man on my right said, “Do you know how they close the meetings at the agnostics’ group? They have a moment of silence, followed by another moment of silence.”

 I walked down through SoHo, stopping at a pizza stand for a Sicilian slice and a Coke. Lispenard Street is just below Canal and only two blocks long, and Jan’s loft is on the fifth floor of a six-story building wedged between two larger and more modern buildings. I stepped into the vestibule and rang her bell, then went back onto the sidewalk and waited for her to open the window and throw down the key.

 That’s what she’d done the night I met her, and on quite a few subsequent occasions. Then for a while I’d had a key of my own. I’d used it a final time on the afternoon I came to pick up my things. I had filled two shopping bags with my clothes and left the key on the kitchen counter, right next to the Mr. Coffee machine.

 I looked up. The window opened and the key sailed out, hit the pavement, bounced, clattered, lay still. I picked it up and let myself into the building.

 Chapter 7

 “Come on in,” she said. “It was sweet of you to come. You’re looking well, Matthew.”

 “So are you,” I said. “You’ve lost weight.”

 “Hah,” she said. “Finally.” She tilted her head and looked me in the eye. “What do you think? Is it an improvement?”

 “You’ve always looked good to me, Jan.”

 Her face clouded and she turned from me, saying that she’d just made a fresh pot of coffee. Did I still drink it black? I said I did. No sugar, right? Right, no sugar.

 I went to the front of the loft, where floor-to-ceiling win-dows looked out over Lispenard Street. Her bronze head of Medusa, the hair a writhing mass of snakes, stood on its plinth to the right of the low sofa. It was early work; I’d seen it and remarked on it the night we met. Don’t look her in the eye, Jan had told me, for her gaze turns men to stone.

 Her own gaze when she brought the coffee, out of those large unflinching gray eyes, was almost as intimidating. She had lost weight, and I wasn’t sure it was an improvement. She looked older than the last time I’d seen her.

 Her hair was part of it. It was completely gray now. It had been liberally salted with gray when I first met her, and never seemed to get any grayer. Now there were no dark hairs visible, and that coupled with the weight loss added years to her appearance.

 She asked if the coffee was all right.

 “It’s fine,” I said. “Aren’t you having any?”

 “I haven’t been drinking much coffee lately,” she said. Then she said, “Oh, what the hell. Why not?” She disap-peared into the kitchen and came back with a cup of her own. “It is good,” she said. “I’d almost forgotten how much I like the stuff.”

 “What have you been doing, trying to switch to decaf?”

 “I pretty much got away from coffee altogether,” she said. “But let’s not have one of those deadly AA conversations about all the things we don’t do anymore. What’s that story about the old guy in the Salvation Army band? ‘Yes, broth-ers and sisters, I used to drink, I used to smoke, I used to gamble, I used to go with wild, wild women, and now all I do is beat this goddamn drum.’ ” She took another sip of cof-fee and set the cup down. “Bring me up to date, Matthew. What have you been doing?”

 “Beating my goddamn drum. Doing a little day work for a big agency. Working when I get a client, coasting when I don’t. Going to meetings. Hanging out. Keeping company with Elaine.”

 “That’s going well, then? I’m glad. She seemed very nice. Matthew, I told you I wanted to ask a favor.”


 “So I’ll just come right out and ask it. I was wondering if you could get me a gun.”

 “A gun.”

 “There’s so much crime these days,” she said levelly.

 “You can’t pick up the paper without seeing something aw-ful on every page. It used to be that people were safe in de-cent neighborhoods, but now it doesn’t seem to matter where you are or what time of day it is. The incident last week, with the young publisher. Right in your neighbor-hood, wasn’t it?”

 “Just a couple of blocks away.”

 “Terrible,” she said.

 “Why do you want a gun, Jan?”

 “For protection, of course.”

 “Of course.”

 “I don’t really know anything about them,” she said thoughtfully. “Of course I would want a handgun, but there are different styles and sizes, aren’t there? I wouldn’t know what kind to pick.”

 “You need a permit to own a gun in this city,” I said.

 “Aren’t they difficult to get?”

 “Very difficult. About the best way is to join a gun club and take a course, and in return for a fairly stiff fee they’ll help you fill out an application and steer you through the whole process. The training’s not a bad idea, actually, but the entire procedure takes a while and it’s not cheap.”

 “I see.”

 “If you went that route you could probably get a permit entitling you to maintain a handgun on the premises, and to transport it in a locked case to and from a firing range. That’s sufficient if you want protection from burglars, but you wouldn’t be able to tuck the gun in your purse for protection on the street. For that you’d need a carry permit, and they’re very slow to pass those out nowadays. If you had a store and routinely carried large sums of cash to the bank, then you might qualify. But you’re a sculptor and live and work in the same location. I knew a goldsmith years ago who was able to get a carry permit because he frequently transported quantities of precious metals, but you couldn’t claim that without paperwork to back it up.”

 “Clay and bronze don’t cut it, huh?”

 “I’m afraid not.”

 “Actually,” she said, “I wouldn’t need to carry the gun. Anyway, I’m not all that concerned about the legality of it.”


 “I don’t want to go through a lot of red tape applying for a permit. For heaven’s sake, is it my imagination or do half the people in this city have guns? They’re installing metal detec-tors in the schools because so many students are bringing guns to class. Even the homeless are armed. That poor derelict was living out of garbage cans and he managed to have a gun.”

 “And you want one.”


 I picked up my coffee cup and found it empty. I couldn’t remember finishing it. I put it back down again and said, “Just who is it you want to kill, Jan?”

 “Oh, Matthew,” she said. “You’re looking at her.”

 “It started in the spring,” she said. “I noticed I’d lost a few pounds without even making an effort. I thought, hey, great, I’m finally getting a handle on my weight.

 “I didn’t feel so hot. Low energy, a little nausea. I didn’t attach much significance to it. I’d felt that way in December, but I always have a bad time around the holidays, I get de-pressed and I feel lousy. Doesn’t everybody? I chalked it up to seasonal malaise and let it go at that, and when it came back a couple of months later I still didn’t pay much atten-tion to it.

 “Then my stomach started bothering me. I had a pain right here, and one day I realized I’d been having it on and off for weeks. I didn’t want to go to the doctor because if it was nothing I’d be wasting time and money and if it was an ulcer I didn’t want to know about it. I figured if I ignored it maybe it would go away. So I did and it didn’t. It got to the point where I had to go to sleep in a half-seated posture be-cause sitting up relieved the pain. Well, denial can only get you so far, and finally I decided I was being ridiculous and I went to the doctor, and the good news was I didn’t have an ulcer after all. Now you’re supposed to ask me what the bad news was.”

 I didn’t say anything.

 “Cancer of the pancreas,” she said. “Do you want some more good news and bad news? The good news is they can cure it if they catch it early enough. All they have to do is re-move the pancreas and the duodenum and reattach the stom-ach to the small intestine. You have to shoot yourself up with insulin and digestive enzymes a couple of times a day for the rest of your life, and your diet is extremely restricted, but that’s the good news. The bad news is they never catch it in time.”


 “Almost never. By the time noticeable symptoms appear, the cancer has invariably spread to other abdominal organs. You know, I beat myself up at first for ignoring the weight loss and the other symptoms, but the doctor made me let my-self off the hook. He told me it had unquestionably metasta-sized before I felt the first twinge or lost the first ounce.”

 “And the prognosis?”

 “It couldn’t be much worse. Ninety percent of people with pancreatic cancer are dead within a year of initial diag-nosis. The rest of us are dead within five years. Nobody gets out of this alive.”

 “Isn’t there any kind of treatment they can try?”

 “There is, but it doesn’t keep you alive. They can do cer-tain things to make you more comfortable. I had a surgical procedure last month to bypass a blocked bile duct. They connected—well, what’s the difference what they did, but it relieved the pain and got rid of the jaundice. It also left me feeling the way you’d expect to feel if they cut you open and sewed you back up again, but I think it was worth it. The first thing I noticed after surgery was that I’d gone com-pletely gray, but that probably would have happened any-way. And if it bothers me I can always dye it, right?”

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