Authors: John Connolly
Tags: #Mystery & Detective - General, #Irish Novel And Short Story, #Assassins, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction - Espionage, #General, #Suspense, #Murderers, #Thrillers, #Suspense fiction, #Fiction, #thriller
Willie was wearing black Sta-Prest trousers, a white shirt veering toward yellow due to age, and a gray jacket that he liked to think of as a classic of tailoring but was, in fact, just old. He was also sporting the new tie that Arno had handed to him that morning with the words, “Happy birthday, boss. You gonna retire now and leave me the place?” It was an expensive tie: black silk embroidered with thin strands of gold. This wasn’t the kind you picked up in Chinatown or Little Italy from a guy selling do-rags and knockoff watches on the side of the street, everything wrapped in plastic and bearing a name like “Guci” or “Armoni” for rubes who couldn’t tell the difference, or who figured that nobody else could. No, the tie was pretty tasteful, given that Arno had bought it. Willie figured that maybe he’d had a little help in choosing it since, as far as Willie could recall from a funeral that they had attended together earlier in the year, Arno only had one tie in his wardrobe, and that one was maroon polyester and stained with axle grease. The thing about it was, Willie didn’t feel sixty. He’d lived through a lot—Vietnam, a painful divorce, some heart trouble a couple of years back—and it had certainly aged him on the outside (those lines, and his few remaining gray hairs, were hard earned), but inside he felt like he always had, or at least the way he had since he was in his mid-to late twenties. That was when he had been at his peak. He’d survived two years in the Marines, and had returned home to a woman who’d loved him enough to become his wife. Okay, so maybe she hadn’t exactly been Lassie in the faithful companion stakes, but that came later. For a time, they had seemed pretty happy. He’d borrowed some money from his father-in-law, started renting premises in Queens, over by Kissena Park, and applied the mechanical skills that he had honed in the military to maintaining and repairing automobiles. It turned out that he was even better at it than he had thought, and there was always enough business to keep him occupied, so that after a few years he had hired a small Scandinavian guy with bristly hair and the attitude of a junkyard dog to help him out. Thirty years later, Arno was still with him, and still had the attitude of a junkyard dog, albeit one whose gums hurt and who could no longer scamper after female dogs with the same vigor that he once had shown.
Vietnam: Willie hadn’t come back scarred from his time in Nam, either physically or psychologically, or not so that he could tell. He’d landed in March 1965, part of the Third Marine Division assigned to create enclaves surrounding vital airstrips. Willie ended up in Chu Lai, sixty miles south of Da Nang, where the Seabees constructed a four-thousand-foot aluminum runway in twenty-three days amid cactus and shifting sands. It was still one of the finest feats of engineering under pressure that Willie had ever witnessed. He had just turned nineteen when he signed up for service. He didn’t even wait for the draft to find him. His old man, who had come here in the twenties and had served in the military himself during World War II, told him that he owed something to his country, and Willie didn’t question his judgment. By the time he came home his father’s friends were breaking heads down on Wall Street and over at Washington Square Park, teaching the long-hairs a little something about patriotism. Willie neither condoned it nor objected to it. He’d done his time, but he could understand why other kids might not want to follow in his footsteps. It was a matter for their conscience, not his. Some of his buddies had served, too, and they had all returned home more or less intact. One of them had lost an arm to a grenade hidden in a loaf of bread, but he could have lost a lot more. Another came back minus his left foot. He’d stepped on a bear trap, and the jaws had snapped shut above his ankle. The funny thing about those bear traps—funny if you didn’t have your foot caught in one—was that they needed a key to open them, and bear trap keys weren’t the kind of thing you just happened to have in your pack. The bear trap itself would be chained to a slab of concrete buried deep in the ground, so the only way to get the wounded soldier to safety was to dig up the whole arrangement, often while under fire, and then transport it back to camp, where a doctor would be waiting, along with a couple of men armed with hacksaws and cutting torches.
Both of those guys were gone now. They’d died young. Willie had attended their funerals. They were gone, but he was still here.
Sixty years, thirty-four of them in the same business, most in the same building. Only once had the security of his postservice existence been threatened. That was during the divorce, when his wife had sought half of all that he owned, and he was faced with the possibility of being forced to sell his beloved auto shop in order to meet her demands. While he might have been kept busy with a steady stream of repairs, there wasn’t a whole lot of money in the bank and much of Queens hadn’t been like it was now. Then there was no gentrification, no single men and women driving expensive automobiles that they didn’t know how to service for themselves. People drove their cars until the wheels came off, and then came to Willie looking for a way to get another three, six, nine months out of them, just until things improved, until there was a little cash to spare. There were cops being shot on the streets, and turf wars, and protection money to be handed over, even if it was paid in kind by carrying out repairs for free, or by not asking questions when someone required a quick spray job on a car that was so hot it ticked. Elmhurst and Jackson Heights became Little Colombia, and Queens was the main entry point for cocaine shipments into the United States, the money laundered through check-cashing businesses and travel agencies. Colombians were dying every day in Willie’s neighborhood. He had even known a couple of them, including Pedro Méndez, who campaigned for the antidrug president Cesar Trujillo and took three in the head, chest, and back for his troubles. Willie had serviced Pedro’s car the week before his death. It was a different city then, almost unrecognizable from the one that existed today.
But then Queens had always been different. It wasn’t like Brooklyn, or the Bronx. It was disparate. It sprawled. People didn’t write affectionate books about it. It didn’t have a Pete Hamill to mythologize it. “Someplace in Queens”: if Willie had a buck for every time he’d heard someone use that phrase, he’d be a wealthy man. For those who lived outside the borough, everywhere within it was just “someplace in Queens.” To them, Queens was like the ocean: big and unknowable, and if you dropped something into it, it got lost and it stayed lost. And, despite it all, Willie had loved almost every minute of his life there. Then his wife had tried to take it away from him, and even with Arno adding to the fund the money that he had saved there still wasn’t enough to pay her off. To cap it all, the landlord had put the building up for sale, so even if Willie managed to satisfy his old lady’s demands he still wasn’t sure that he would have a business once the premises were sold. He had been left with forty-eight hours to make a decision, forty-eight hours to write off nearly twenty years of effort and commitment (he was thinking of the garage, not the marriage), when a tall black man in an expensive suit and a long black overcoat arrived at the door of the little office in which Willie tried, and usually failed, to keep track of his paperwork, and offered him a way out. The man knocked gently on the glass. Willie looked up and asked what he could do for him. The man closed the door behind him, and something in Willie’s stomach tensed. He might have been a mechanic in the military, but he’d learned how to fire a gun, and he’d had to use it more than once, although as far as he knew he’d never managed to kill anybody with it, mainly because he hadn’t really tried. Mostly, he had just done his best to avoid getting his own head shot off. He wanted to fix things, not break them, didn’t matter if they were jeeps, helicopters, or human beings.
In turn, he’d been surrounded by other men who were like him, and some who were not, the kind who were willing and able to kill if push came to shove. There were the ones who did so reluctantly, or pragmatically, and there were a couple who were just plain psychotic, who liked what they did and got off on the carnage they wreaked. And then there were those—and he could have counted them on his thumbs—who were naturals, who killed cold-bloodedly and without remorse, who derived satisfaction from the exercise of a skill with which they had been born. They had something quiet and still inside them, something that could not be touched, but Willie often suspected that the thing inside them was hollow, and it contained a raging maelstrom that they had either learned to accommodate or declined to acknowledge, like the great protective frame that houses a nuclear reactor. Willie had tried to stay away from such men, but now he sensed that, once again, he was in the presence of one of them.
It was dark outside, and Arno had just gone home. He had wanted to stay with Willie, knowing that, if things didn’t work out, tomorrow would be their final day in the shop, and he didn’t want to lose a single minute that might otherwise have been spent in its environs, but Willie had sent him on his way so that he could be alone. He understood Arno’s need to be there because he felt it himself, but this was still his business, his place. Tonight, he would sleep here, surrounded by the sights and smells that meant most to him in the world. He could not imagine a life without them. Perhaps, he thought, he could get some work in a body shop elsewhere, although he would find it difficult to toil for someone else after so many years as his own boss. In time, he might even be able to set himself up again in other premises, if he could save enough money. His bank had been sympathetic to his plight, but finally unhelpful. He was a man in the throes of a painful and potentially ruinous divorce, with a business (soon to be half a business, and that was no business at all) that was profitable but not profitable enough, and such a man was not worth the bank’s time or money.
Now his solitude had been disturbed by the visitor, and to Willie’s burdens had been added a strong helping of unease. Willie could have sworn that he had locked the door behind Arno when he left, but either he hadn’t done it properly or this was an individual who wasn’t about to let the small matter of a locked door stand in the way of whatever business he might wish to conduct.
“Sorry, we’re closed,” said Willie.
“So I see,” said the man. “My name is Louis.”
He extended a hand. Willie, who was never one to be ruder than necessary, shook it.
“Listen, I’m happy to meet you, but it doesn’t change anything,” said Willie. “We’re closed. I’d tell you to come back another day, but I got my hands full just finishing what’s out there already, and I’m not even sure if I’ll still be here once the sun sets tomorrow.”
“I understand,” said Louis. “I heard that you were in trouble. I can help you out of it.”
Willie bristled. He thought he knew what was coming. He’d seen enough jumped-up loan sharks in his time not to be dumb enough to put his head between their jaws. His wife was about to take half of all that he had. This guy was trying to take what was left.
“I don’t know what you heard,” Willie replied, “and I could give a damn. I can take care of my own problems. Now, if you don’t mind, I got things to do.”
He wanted to turn his back on the man in a gesture of dismissal, but despite his bravado he felt that the only thing worse than facing the visitor would be not facing him. You didn’t turn your back on a man like this, and not only because you might end up with a knife in it. There was a dignity about him, a stillness. If he was a loan shark, then he wasn’t a typical one. Willie might have differed on occasion with some of his customers (and, indeed, Arno) on the definition of how much rudeness was appropriate in the course of one’s daily affairs, but he wasn’t about to cross this man, not if he could help it. He’d talk his way out of it politely. It would be a strain, but Willie would manage it.
“You’re going to lose this place,” said Louis. “I don’t want that to happen.”
Willie sighed. The conversation, it seemed, was not at an end.
“What’s it to you if I do?” he asked.
“Call me a Good Samaritan. I’m worried about the neighborhood.”
“Then run for mayor. I’ll vote for you.”
The man smiled. “I prefer to keep a lower profile.”
Willie held his gaze. “I’ll bet you do.”
“I’ll invest in your business. I’ll give you exactly 50 percent of what it’s worth. In return you’ll pay me a dollar a year as interest on the loan until it’s paid off.”
Willie’s jaw went slack. This guy was either the worst loan shark in the business, or there was a catch in the deal big enough to snap Willie in two.
“A dollar a year,” he said, once he’d managed to get his mouth under control again.
“I know. I drive a hard bargain. Tell you what, I’ll leave you to think about it overnight. I hear your wife has given you forty-eight hours to reach a decision, and half of them are already gone. I guess I’m just not as reasonable as she is.”
“Nobody ever called my old lady reasonable before,” said Willie.
“She sounds like a special person,” said Louis. His expression was studiedly neutral.
“She used to be,” said Willie. “Not so much anymore.”
Louis handed Willie a card. On it was a telephone number, and the image of a snake being crushed underfoot by a winged angel, but nothing else.
“There’s no name on the card,” said Willie.
“No, there isn’t.”
“Hardly worth having a business card that doesn’t have a business on it. Must be hard to make a living.”
“You’d think, wouldn’t you?”
“What do you do, kill snakes?”
And the words were no sooner out of Willie’s mouth than he regretted them, his mind uttering a silent “Goddamn” as it realized that it had lost the race to catch up with his tongue.
“Kind of. I’m in pest control.”
“Pest control. Right.”
The man extended his hand once again in farewell. Almost in a daze, Willie shook it.
“Louis,” said Willie. “That’s it, just Louis?”
“Just Louis,” said the man. “Oh, and as of today, I’m your new landlord.”
And that was how it had begun.