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 splashed water on his face. From outside, he heard laughter, and a voice that sounded like Arno’s giving his opinion on the Mets, an entirely negative view that seemed to involve only the word “Mets” and a seemingly infinite series of variations on a second word that Arno, who prided himself on his sophistication when he wasn’t on his fourth double vodka, liked to refer to as “the copulative.” Arno was funny like that. He might have looked like an aging rat, but he knew more words than Webster’s. Willie had been to Arno’s apartment only once, and nearly had his skull fractured when a pile of novels came toppling down on his head. Every available space seemed to be occupied by newspapers, books, and the occasional car part. On those rare occasions when Arno was late for work, Willie was tormented by images of him lying unconscious beneath an entire stack of encyclopedias from the 1950s, or smoking away like a piece of fish beneath layer upon layer of smoldering newsprint. Well, maybe “tormented” was putting it kind of strongly. “Mildly bothered” might have been closer to the mark. Someone had written Jake is a male slut in lipstick at the bottom right-hand corner of the glass. Willie hoped that the culprit was a woman, although homosexuality didn’t bother him so much now. Love and let love, that was his motto. Anyway, that black gentleman who had saved his business (and, let’s face it, his life, because he’d always had a weakness for booze, and by the time the divorce was reaching its filthy nadir he was putting away a bottle of Four Roses a day, and say what you like about Four Roses but gentle it ain’t) had a partner named Angel, and while it wasn’t as if there were wedding bells in the offing, or an announcement in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, they were just about the closest-knit couple that Willie had ever encountered. “The couple that slays together stays together,” as Arno had once put it, and Willie had instinctively looked over his shoulder in the quiet of the garage, half expecting to see a black figure looming unhappily over him, a smaller one beside him looking equally discontented. It wasn’t that they scared him, or not much—that feeling had passed a long time ago, or so he liked to tell himself—but he hated to think that their feelings might be hurt. He had said as much to Arno, and Arno had apologized and had never issued a similar utterance since, but sometimes Willie wondered if Arno had been so far off the mark, all things considered. The door of the men’s room opened. Arno’s head popped through the gap.
“The hell are you doing?” he asked.
“Washing my hands.”
“Well, hurry up. There’s a party waiting for you out here.” Arno paused as he saw the writing on the mirror. “Who’s Jake?” he asked. “Hey, did you write that?”
He ducked just in time to avoid being hit by a wadded paper towel, and then Willie Brew, sixty years old and sometime associate of two of the most lethal men in the city, went out to join his birthday party.
THE INTERIOR OF NATE’S was dimly lit. It was always that way. Even in summer, when streams of harsh sunlight struck the windows, the beams seemed to melt against the glass and then drizzle like honey through the panes, their energy dissipated as though they, like the patrons inside, had, in the transition from beyond to within, absorbed just a little too much alcohol to be truly useful for the rest of the day. Apart from an area two feet square beside the double doors, no part of Nate’s had seen unfiltered natural illumination for more than half a century. And yet Nate’s was not a cheerless place. White fairy lights adorned the bar all year round, and each table was lit by a candle in a glass lamp seated on an iron bowl. The bowls were secured to the wood of the tables with inch-long screws (Nate was no fool) but the candles were scrupulously monitored, and as soon as they began to flicker they were replaced by a waitress or, on quiet evenings, by Nate himself, who was small, sixtyish, and jug-eared, and was said to have once bitten a man’s nose off in a bar fight down in Baja when he was in the Navy. No one had ever asked Nate if that was true because Nate would happily talk to anyone about ball scores, the idiots who ran the city of New York and the country whose space the city occupied, and the general well-being of friends and family, but as soon as someone tried to get more personal with him, Nate would wander off to clean glasses, or check the taps, or replenish the candles, and the unwise party who had inadvertently offended him would be left to wait on a refill and rue his brashness. Nate’s was not that kind of place, as Nate liked to point out, although nobody had ever managed to nail him down on just what kind of place Nate’s was, exactly. Nate liked it that way, and so did the people who frequented his bar.
Nate’s, like its owner, was a relic of another time, when this part of Queens was predominantly Irish, before the Indians and the Afghans and the Mexicans and the Colombians came along and began carving it up into their own little enclaves. Nate wasn’t Irish, and neither was his bar: even on St. Patrick’s Day, Nate wasn’t about to change his white fairy lights for green ones, or begin drawing shamrocks on the heads of his patrons’ beer. No, it was more to do with a certain state of mind, a particular attitude. Surrounded by foreign smells and strange accents, in a city that was constantly changing, Nate’s represented solidity. It was an old-world bar. You came here to drink, and to eat good, simple food that didn’t pander to dietary fads or concerns about cholesterol. You behaved yourself. If you used foul language, you kept your voice down, particularly if there were ladies present. You paid your tab at the end of the night, and you tipped appropriately. The chairs were comfortable, the restrooms, occasional graffiti apart, were clean, and Nate’s pouring hand was neither too heavy nor too light. He made good cocktails, but he didn’t do shooters. “You want shooters, go to Hooters,” as he once told some college kids who had made the mistake of asking for a tray of Dive Bombers. In fact, as Nate said later, once he had thrown their asses out, their first mistake was coming into his bar to begin with. Nate did not like college kids, which was not to say that he was not proud of the local boys who had made good by going on to further education. He knew their parents, and their grandparents. They were not “college kids.” They were his kids, and they would always be welcome in his bar, although he still wouldn’t serve them shooters, not even if a shooter was going to cure them of cancer. A man had to have standards.
The bar did not have a private room, but there were four tables at the back that were cut off from the rest of the premises by a wall of wood inset with three frosted-glass panes, and it was there that the party to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of Willie Brew was taking place. In truth, the party had spread out a little as the evening drew on. There was a noisy core of six or seven seated around Arno, then a second table of four or five that was quieter, mellowed by Jameson and the general good nature of those gathered there. A third was occupied by assorted wives and girlfriends, of which Willie had initially not entirely approved. Willie had been under the impression that this was to be a men-only night, but he supposed that, under the circumstances, he could afford to be tolerant, as long as nonmales kept themselves to themselves, within reason. Actually, he supposed that, deep down, he was a little flattered that they had come along. Willie was gruff, and he was by no means a looker. Since his wife left him, the only females with whom he had enjoyed actual physical contact were metal and had headlights where their boobs should have been, and he had almost forgotten how good it felt to be hugged by a woman, and smothered in perfume and kisses. He had blushed down to his ankles as a series of what might generally be termed “women of a certain age” had, either singly or in pairs, reminded him of the charms of the fairer sex by pressing said charms firmly against Willie’s body. One of the reasons he had headed for the men’s room was to remove the lipstick traces from his cheeks and mouth so that he no longer looked, as Arno had put it, like an overweight Cupid advertising a poor man’s Valentine’s Day.
Now, as he stood at the men’s room door, he took in the assorted faces as though seeing them afresh. The first thing that struck him was that he knew a lot of people with criminal pasts. There was Groucho, the hot-wire expert, who might have made a good mechanic if he could have been trusted not to boost and then sell the cars on which he was supposed to be working. Beside him was Tommy Q, who was the most indiscreet man Willie had ever met, an individual apparently born without a filter between his mouth and his brain. Tommy Q, a purveyor of illegally copied movies, music, and computer software, was such a pirate that he should have sported an eye patch and carried a parrot on his shoulder. Willie had once, in a fit of madness, bought a bootleg copy of a movie from Tommy, the soundtrack to which had consisted almost entirely of the sounds of someone munching popcorn, and a couple having sex nearby, or as close to it as they could get in a crowded movie theater. In fact, thought Willie, it had been pretty similar to the actual experience of seeing a movie in New York on a Friday night, which was precisely why Willie didn’t go to the movies in the first place. Tommy Q’s inexpertly wrapped birthday tribute to Willie sat on top of the pile of gifts in one corner. It looked, thought Willie, suspiciously like a collection of pirated DVDs.
Then there were those who should have been there but, for vastly different reasons, were not. Coffin Ed was doing two-to-five in Snake River over in Oregon for desecrating a corpse. Willie wasn’t sure what the precise wording of the charge had been and, to be honest, he didn’t want to know. Willie wasn’t the kind of man to judge another’s sexual proclivities, and one naked person being found in a position of intimacy with another naked person didn’t bother him in the slightest, but when one of the naked people was in something less than the fullest bloom of health, then that was slightly more problematic. Willie had always thought there was something kind of creepy about Coffin Ed. It was hard to feel entirely comfortable around a man who had attempted to make a living from stealing corpses and holding them for ransom. Willie had just assumed that Coffin Ed kept the corpses in a freezer somewhere until the ransom was paid, not in his bed.
Meanwhile, Jay, who used to do some part-time work for Willie, and who was the best transmission guy Willie had ever met, had died five years earlier. A heart attack had taken him in his sleep, and Willie supposed that it wasn’t such a bad way to go. Still, he missed Jay. The old man had been a rock of decency and common sense, qualities that were sadly lacking in some of the other individuals gathered in Nate’s bar that night. Old man? Willie shook his head sadly. Funny how Jay had always seemed old to him, but now Willie was only five years younger than Jay was when he died.
His gaze moved on, lingering briefly on the women (some of whom, he had to say, were looking pretty attractive now that his beer intake had softened their lines); passing over Nate at the bar, who was reluctantly making up some complicated cocktail for a pair of suits; glancing at the faces of strangers, men and women cocooned in the comforting dusk, their features glowing in the candlelight. Standing where he was, half hidden by shadows, Willie felt momentarily cut off from all that was happening, a ghost at his own banquet, and he realized that he liked the sensation.
A small side table had been set up for the buffet, but now only the scattered remains of fried chicken and beef tips and firehouse chili lay upon it, along with a half-demolished birthday cake. In a corner to the right of the table, seated apart from the rest, were three men. One of them was Louis, grayer now than he had been on the first day that they had met and a little less intimidating, but that was simply a consequence of the years that Willie had known him. Under other circumstances, Louis could still be very intimidating indeed. To Louis’s right sat Angel, nearly a foot shorter than his partner. He had dressed up for the night, which meant only that he looked marginally less untidy than usual. Hell, he had even shaved. It made him look younger. Willie Brew knew a little of Angel’s past, and suspected more. He was a good judge of people, better than he was given credit for. Willie had met a guy once who had known Angel’s old man, and a bigger sonofabitch had rarely walked this earth, the guy said. He had hinted darkly at abuse, at the farming out of the boy for money, for booze, and sometimes just for the fun of it. Willie had kept these things to himself, but it partly explained why there was such a fierce bond between Angel and Louis. Even though he knew nothing of Louis’s upbringing, he sensed that they were both men who had endured too much in childhood, and each had found an echo of himself in the other.
But it was the third man who really troubled Willie. Angel and Louis, silent partners in his business, were, in their way, less of an enigma than their companion. They did not make Willie feel that, in their presence, the world was in danger of shifting out of kilter, that here was a thing unknowable, even alien. By contrast, that was the effect this other had upon him. He respected the third man, even liked him, but there was something about him…What was that word Arno had used? “Ethereal.” Willie had been forced to look it up later. It wasn’t quite right, but it was close. “Otherworldly,” maybe. Whenever Willie spent time with him, he was reminded of churches and incense, of sermons filled with the threat of hellfire and damnation, memories from his childhood as an altar boy. It made no sense, but there it was. He carried with him a hint of night. In some ways, he reminded Willie of men whom he had known in Vietnam, the ones who had come through the experience fundamentally altered by what they had seen and done, so that even in ordinary conversation there was a sense that a part of themselves was detached from what was going on around them, that it resided in another place where it was always dark and half-glimpsed figures chittered in the shadows.
He was also dangerous, this man, as lethal as the two men beside him, although their lethality was part of their nature, and they had accommodated themselves to it, whereas he struggled against his. He had been a cop once, but then his wife and little girl got killed, and killed bad. He found the one who had done it, though, found him and put an end to him. He’d put an end to others since then, foul, vicious men and women, judging from what Willie had learned, and Angel and Louis had helped him. In doing so, they had all suffered. There had been pain, injuries, torments. Louis had a damaged left hand, the bones smashed by a bullet. Angel had spent months in a hospital enduring grafts on his back, and the experience had drained some of the life from him. He would die sooner because of it, of that Willie was certain. The third man had lost his PI’s license not so long ago, and things still weren’t right with his girlfriend, and probably never would be, so that he didn’t see his new daughter as often as he might have liked. Last Willie heard, he was working behind a bar in Portland. That wouldn’t continue for long, not with a man like that. He was a magnet for trouble, and the ones who came to him for help brought dragons in their wake.