Read Mask Market Online

Authors: Andrew Vachss

Tags: #Private Investigators, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction, #General, #Hard-Boiled, #New York (N.Y.), #New York, #Burke (Fictitious Character), #New York (State), #Missing Persons, #Thrillers

Mask Market

BOOK: Mask Market
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for…

Eddie Adams, who risked his life to show us the truth;

Joe LaMonte, who finally found his way to the door;

Eddie Little, who fell off the Horse no man can ride forever;

Rex Miller, who told it big;

Son Seals, who left to work a better room;

and for…

Steve: childhood pal, crime partner, lover of science, doomed boy.

 

“I
’m not the client,” the ferret seated across from me said. He was as thin as a garrote, with a library-paste complexion, the skin surrounding his veined-quartz eyes as papery as dried flowers. He was always room temperature. “You know me, Burke. I only work the middle.”

“I don’t know you,” I lied. “You knew—you
say
you knew—my brother. But if you did—”

“Yeah, I know he’s gone,” the ferret said, meeting my eyes, the way you do when you’ve got nothing to hide. With him, it was an invitation to search an empty room. “But you’ve got the same name, right? He never had any first name that I knew; so what would I call you, I meet you for the first time?”

It’s impossible to actually look into my eyes, because you have to do it one at a time. One eye is a lot lighter than the other, and they don’t track together anymore.

A few years ago, I was tricked into an ambush. The crossfire cost me my looks, and my partner her life. I mourn her every day—the hollow blue heart tattooed between the last two knuckles of my right hand is Pansy’s tombstone—but I don’t miss my old face. True, it was a lot more anonymous than the one I’ve got now. Back then, I was a walking John Doe: average height, average weight…generic lineup filler. But a lot of different people had seen that face in a lot of different places. And the State had a lot of photographs of it, too—they don’t throw out old mug shots.

I’d come into the ER without a trace of ID, dropped at the door by the Prof and Clarence—they knew I was way past risking the do-it-yourself kit we kept around for gunshot wounds.

Since the government doesn’t pay the freight for cosmetic surgery on derelicts, the hospital went into financial triage, no extras. So the neat, round keloid scar on my right cheek is still there, and the top of my left ear is still as flat as if it had been snipped off. And when the student surgeons repaired the cheekbone on the right side of my face, they pulled the skin so tight that it looked like one of the bullets I took had been laced with Botox. My once-black hair is steel-gray now—it turned that shade while I was in a coma from the slugs, and never went back.

The night man sitting across from me calls himself Charlie Jones—the kind of motel-register name you hear a lot down where I live. A long time ago, I’d done a few jobs he’d brought to me. The way Charlie works it, he makes his living from finder’s fees. Kind of a felonious matchmaker—you tell him the problem you need solved, he finds you a pro who specializes in it.

Charlie pointedly looked down at my hands. I kept them flat on the chipped blue Formica tabletop, palms down. He placed his own hands in the same position, showing me his ID.

The backs of his frail-looking hands were incongruously cabled with thick veins. The skin around his fingernails was beta-carotene orange. The tip of the little finger on his right hand was missing. I nodded my confirmation. Yeah, he was the man I remembered.

Charlie looked at my own hands for a minute, then up at me. The Burke he knew never had a tattoo, but he nodded, just as I had. Charlie was a tightrope dancer—perfect balance was his survival tool. His nod told me not to worry about whether he believed the story that I was Burke’s brother. By him, it was true enough. Where we live, that’s the same as
good
enough.

“It’s a nice story,” I said, watching as he lit his third cigarette of the meet. Burke was a heavy smoker. Me, I don’t smoke…except when I need to convince someone out of my past that I’m still me.

“It’s not
my
story,” Charlie reminded me. “Your brother, he was an ace at finding people. Best tracker in the city. I figure he must have taught you some things.”

Charlie never invested himself emotionally in any matches he made. He was way past indifferent, as colorless as the ice storm that grayed the window of the no-name diner where we were meeting. But Charlie had something besides balance going for him. He was a pure specialist, a middleman who never got middled. What that means is, Charlie wouldn’t do anything
except
make his matches.

Everyone in our world knows this. And for extra insurance, Charlie made sure he never knew the whole story. So, if he got swept up in a net, he wouldn’t have anything to trade, even if he wanted to make a deal. Sure, he could say a man told him about a problem. And he might have given the man a number to call. He had liked the guy, even if he’d only met him that one time. Felt sorry for him. In Charlie’s vast experience, drunks who babbled about hiring a hit man were just blowing off steam. You give them a number to call—
any
number at all, even one you remembered from a bathroom wall—it helps them play out the fantasy, that’s all.
“What!? You mean, his wife’s really
dead?
Damn! I guess you just never know, huh, officer?”

“This guy, he must not be in a hurry,” I said.

“I wouldn’t know,” Charlie replied. His mantra.

“It’s been three weeks since you reached out.”

“Yeah, it took you a long time to get back to me. I figured, with the phone number being the same and all…”

“Most of those calls are people looking for my brother. I can’t do a lot of the things he used to do.”

“Yeah,” he said, an unspoken
I don’t want to know
woven through his voice like the anchor thread in a tapestry.

“But, still, three weeks,” I reminded him. “I mean, how do you know the guy still wants…whatever he wants?”

Charlie shrugged.

“You get paid whether I ever call him or not?”

Charlie lit another cigarette. “He knows these things take time. You don’t call, someone else will.”

I waited a few seconds. Then said, “You want to write down his number for me?”

“I’ll say the number,” the ferret told me. “You want it on paper, you do the writing.”

 

C
ity people call winter the Hawk. Not because of the way it swoops down, but because it hunts. Gets cold enough in this town, people die. Some freeze to death waiting for the landlord to get heat back into their building. Some use their ovens for warmth, and wake up in flames. Some don’t have buildings to die in.

I pulled out a prepaid cell phone, bought in a South Bronx bodega from a guy who had a dozen of them in a gym bag, and punched in the number Charlie had given me. A 718 area code—could be anywhere in the city except Manhattan, but a landline, for sure.

“Hello?” White male, somewhere in his forties.

“You were expecting my call,” I said.

“Who are—? Oh, okay, yeah.”

“I might be able to help you. But I can’t know unless we talk.”

“Just tell me—”

“You know the city?”

“If you mean Manhattan, sure.”

“You got transportation?”

“A car?”

“That’ll do,” I said. I gave him the information I wanted him to have, walked to the end of the alley I’d been using as an office, and put the cell phone on top of a garbage can. Whoever found it would see there were plenty of minutes left. Probably use it to call his parole officer.

I pulled the glove off my left hand, fished a Metrocard out of my side pocket, and dropped below the sidewalk.

 

“C
harlie,” said the little black man with the ageless, aristocratic face. “That boy’s one diesel of a weasel. He might slouch, but he’d never vouch.”

“I know, Prof. But no matter who this guys turns out to be, there’s no way that it’s me he’s looking for. If anyone asked Charlie to put him in touch with a
specific
guy, it would have spooked him right out of the play.”

The only father I’d ever known closed his eyes, looking into the past. The ambush that had almost taken me off the count years ago had been set up by a middleman, too. Only, that time, I was told the client wanted me for the job. Me and only me.

“How much green just to make the scene?” he asked.

“Two to meet. For me to listen. That’s as far as it’s gone.”

“It’s a good number,” the little man mused. “That’s serious money, not crazy money.”

“The job is finding someone, Prof.”

“Charlie don’t find people,” the little man said. “He finds even one, he’s all done.”

“I did meet him, though.”

“Charlie?”

“Yeah. And I called the spot.”

“So, if he was fingering you…”

“Right. That diner, it’s down by the waterfront. All kinds of bums hanging around. And, in this weather, you could put a dozen men on the street in body armor, and nobody’d even look twice.”

“There’s something else about Charlie,” the Prof said, nodding to himself.

“What?”

“Maybe he’s going along with you being your own brother, maybe he’s not.” The little man’s voice dropped and hardened at the same time. “But he knows what number he called to get you to show up. You be Burke, you be his brother, don’t make no difference. Because Charlie, he knows you not by yourself. You got family. He can’t snap no trap on
all
of us. He double-crosses you, he’s out of the middle. For as long as he lives. No way our boy bets
that
number.”

 

I
cicles fringed the bottom of the venom-yellow streetlight reflected in my rearview mirror, turning it into one of those old-fashioned parlor lamps, the kind with tassels hanging off the bottom of the shade.

I felt right at home. Waiting.

I’d set the meet for one in the morning, at a West Side bar in a building slated for demolition. New York is a big piece of machinery; it needs its gears greased to keep running. So the whole neighborhood was getting plowed over, like a field being readied for a different crop. That’s Manhattan today—all the money goes up top, while the infrastructure wastes away from neglect. The famous skyline is a cheap trick now, a sleight-of-hand to draw your eye from the truth, as illusory as a bodybuilder with osteoporosis.

In the neighborhood I’d picked, strip joints where “upscale” meant five bucks for a bottle of Bud Light were driving out residential buildings. Only the rumors that our sports-whore mayor was going to find a way to green-light massive razing so he could build a gigantic football stadium near the Javits Center kept the whole area from being leveled. Building owners were laying in the cut, waiting to see the City’s hole card.

My ’69 Plymouth was huddled against the alley wall, its black-and-primer body mottled into an urban camouflage pattern. Anonymous, near-invisible. Like me, to most.

A cinnamon Audi sedan—a big one, probably an A8—circled the block for the third time, cruising for a place to park. I figured it for the guy I had been waiting for. There was an open space in front of a fire hydrant just across from me, but parking tickets can cost you more than money—ask David Berkowitz.

My watch read six minutes short of the meet time when a man came up the sidewalk toward the bar. He was bareheaded, hunched over against the razoring wind, wearing a camel’s-hair topcoat with a white scarf. The kind of guy who would drive a hundred-grand car, and be used to parking it indoors.

I let him get inside before I made my move. I hadn’t seen enough of his face to pick him out of a crowd, but I wasn’t worried—it wasn’t the kind of joint where you checked your coat.

 

H
e was standing at the bar, facing the doorway, the camel’s-hair coat opened to reveal a charcoal-gray suit, white shirt, and geometric-pattern tie that flashed green-gold in the dim light. He had a shot glass in his right hand, a pair of butter-colored gloves in his left.

I walked toward him. He saw a man in a well-traveled army jacket, winter jeans, and work boots. If anyone asked him later, he would say the man’s hair was covered with a watch cap that came down over the top of his ears, and his eyes were unreadable behind the heavy lenses of horn-rimmed glasses. My face was temporarily unscarred, thanks to Michelle’s deft touch with the tube of Cover-mark she always carries.

The man coming toward him had a pair of gloves, too…on his hands.

I nodded my head to my left. He stepped away from the bar and walked in the direction I had indicated. I slipped past him and took a seat in an empty wood booth, facing the door. He sat down across from me.

Up close, he was older than his voice, but a guy who took care of himself, or had people do it for him: hundred-dollar haircuts, facials, manicures. I was guessing a heavy pill regimen, regular workouts, maybe even a little nip-and-tuck, too.

“Are you—?”

I held up two fingers.

He nodded, reached into the inside pocket of his coat, and brought out a plain white envelope. He put it on the table between us. I picked it up, slipped it into a side pocket.

“You’re not going to count it?”

“You want something done, what’s in it for you to stiff me on the front end?” I told him.

BOOK: Mask Market
3.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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