Every dead thing, p.11
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       Every Dead Thing, p.11

           John Connolly
 

  I slipped on a pair of gloves and climbed down the ladder into the sewer. I gagged with my first breath, the river of filth that ran beneath the tree-lined avenues of the city forcing a taste of bile into the back of my throat. “It’s easier if you take shallow breaths,” said a sewer worker who stood at the base of the ladder. He was lying.

  I didn’t step from the ladder. Instead, I pulled my Maglite from my pocket and pointed it to where a small group of maintenance workers and cops stood around an arc-lit area, their feet sloshing through stuff about which I didn’t even want to think. The cops gave me a brief glance, then returned with bored looks to watching the med guys go about their business. Stephen Barton lay about five yards from the base of the ladder in a tide of shit and waste, his blond hair moving wildly with the current. It was obvious that he had simply been dumped through the manhole at street level, his body rolling slightly when it hit the bottom.

  The ME stood up and pulled the rubber gloves from his hands. A plainclothes Homicide detective, one I didn’t recognize, directed a quizzical look at him. He returned one of frustration and annoyance. “We’ll need to look at him in the lab. I can’t tell shit from shit down here.”

  “Come on, give us a fucking break,” the detective whined lamely.

  The ME hissed through his teeth in irritation. “Strangled,” he said as he elbowed his way through the small group. “Knocked unconscious first with a blow to the back of the head, then strangled. Don’t even ask for a time of death. He could have been down here for a day or so, probably no longer. The body’s pretty flaccid.” Then the sound of his feet echoed through the sewer as he began to clack up the ladder.

  The detective shrugged. “Ashes to ashes, shit to shit,” he said, then turned back toward the body.

  I climbed up to street level, the ME behind me. I didn’t need to look at Barton’s body. The blow to the head was unusual, but not extraordinary. It can take as long as ten minutes to kill a man by strangulation, assuming he doesn’t manage to break free in the process. I had heard of would-be assassins losing handfuls of hair, patches of skin, and in one case, an ear to a struggling victim. Far better, where possible, to tap him on the head first. Tap him hard enough and strangling him might not be necessary at all.

  Walter was still talking to the feds, so I moved as far away from the sewer as I could get while still remaining within the police cordon and drew deep breaths of night air. The smell of human waste underpinned everything, clinging to my clothes with the grim resolution of death itself. Eventually the feds returned to their car and Walter walked slowly toward me, hands stuck in his trouser pockets.

  “They’re going to bring Sonny Ferrera in,” he said.

  I snorted. “For what? His lawyer will have him out before he even has time to take a leak. That’s assuming he was even involved, or that they can find him. This bunch couldn’t find the ground if they fell over.”

  Walter wasn’t in the mood. “What do you know? The kid was running shit for Ferrera; he fucks him over and ends up dead, strangled what’s more.” Strangulation had become the mob’s preferred method of dispatch in recent years: quiet and no mess. “That’s the feds’ line, and anyway, they’d bring Sonny Ferrera in on suspicion of ignoring a no-smoking sign if they thought it would stick.”

  “C’mon, Walter, this isn’t a Ferrera job. Dumping a guy in a sewer isn’t…” But he was already walking away, a raised right hand indicating that he didn’t want to hear any more. I followed him. “What about the girl, Walter? Maybe she fits in somewhere?”

  He turned back to me and put a hand on my shoulder. “When I called you, I didn’t think you were going to come running in like Dick Tracy.” He glanced back at the feds. “Any sign of her?”

  “I think she blew town. That’s all I’m saying for the present.”

  “The ME thinks Barton could have been killed early Tuesday. If the girl left town after that, it could tie her in.”

  “Are you going to mention her to the feds?”

  Walter shook his head. “Let them go chasing after Sonny Ferrera. You stay on the girl.”

  “Yassuh,” I said. “I’ma keep lookin’.” I hailed a cab, conscious that the feds were looking at me even as I got in and we drove away into the night.

  13

  I T WAS common knowledge that the old man was having trouble keeping his only surviving son under control. Ferrera had watched the Cosa Nostra tear itself apart back in Italy as it tried, with increasing brutality, to intimidate and destroy the state’s investigators. Instead, its methods had served to reinforce the determination of the braver ones to continue the fight; the families were now like one of their own victims bound in the incaprettamento, the method of execution known as the goat strangling. Like a victim bound with ropes to his arms, legs, and neck, the more the families struggled, the more the rope around them grew tighter. The old man was determined that this should not happen to his own organization.

  By contrast, Sonny saw in the violence of the Sicilians a method of tyranny that suited his own aspirations for power. Maybe that was the difference between father and son. Wherever possible old Ferrera had used the “white lupara” when an assassination was necessary, the complete disappearance of the victim without even a trace of blood to give away the truth of what had taken place. The strangling of Barton was certainly a Mafia hallmark, but the dumping was not. If the old man had been responsible for his death, then his final resting place would probably have been the sewers, but not before he had been dissolved in acid and poured down a drain.

  So I didn’t believe the old man had ordered the killing of Isobel Barton’s stepson. His death and the sudden disappearance of Catherine Demeter had come too close together to be mere coincidence. It was possible, of course, that Sonny had ordered them both to be killed for some reason, for if he was as crazy as he seemed to be, then another corpse would be unlikely to trouble him. On the other hand, it was also possible that Demeter had killed her own boyfriend and then fled. Perhaps he hit her once too often, in which case Mrs. Barton was now paying me to find someone who was not only a friend but, potentially, her son’s killer.

  The Ferrera house was set in tree-shrouded grounds. Entry was by a single iron gate, electronically operated. An intercom was set into the pillar on the left-hand side. I buzzed, gave my name, and told the voice I wanted to see the old man. From the top of the pillar a remote camera was focused on the cab, and although no one was visible in the grounds, I guessed three to five guns were in my immediate vicinity.

  Some one hundred yards from the house sat a dark Dodge sedan with two males sitting in the front seat. I could expect a visit from the feds as soon as I got back to my apartment, possibly sooner.

  “Walk through. Wait inside the gate,” said the voice from the intercom. “You’ll be escorted to the house.” I did as I was told and the cab pulled away. A gray-haired man in a dark suit and standard-issue shades appeared from behind the trees, a Heckler & Koch MP5 held at port arms. Behind him was another younger man, similarly dressed. To my right I could see two more guards, also armed.

  “Lean against the wall,” said the gray-haired man. He frisked me professionally while the others watched, removing the clip from my own Smith & Wesson along with the spare clip on my belt. He pulled back the slide to eject the round in the chamber and handed the gun back to me. Then he motioned me toward the house, walking to my right and slightly behind me so that he could keep an eye on my hands. One man shadowed us at either side of the road. It was hardly surprising that old man Ferrera had lived so long.

  The house was surprisingly modest from the outside, a long two-story dwelling with narrow windows at the front and a gallery running along the upper level. More men patrolled the meticulously kept garden and the graveled driveway. A black Mercedes stood at the right of the house, its driver waiting nearby if needed. The door was already open as we approached, and Bobby Sciorra stood in the hallway, his right hand clasping his left wrist like a priest waiting for the
offerings.

  Sciorra was six feet five inches tall and probably weighed less than one-sixty, his long thin limbs like blades beneath his gray single-breasted suit, his striated neck almost feminine in its length, its pallor enhanced by the pristine whiteness of the collarless shirt buttoned beneath it. Short dark hair surrounded a bald pate, which ended in a cone so sharp as to appear pointed. Sciorra was a knife made flesh, a human instrument of pain, both surgeon and scalpel. The FBI believed that he had personally committed more than thirty killings. Most of those who knew Bobby Sciorra believed the FBI was conservative in its estimate.

  He smiled as I approached, revealing perfectly white teeth glistening behind narrow, slash lips, but the smile never reached his blue eyes. Instead it disappeared in the jagged scar that ran from his left ear across the bridge of his nose and ended just below the right earlobe. The scar devoured his smile like a second mouth.

  “You got some balls coming here,” he said, still smiling, his head shaking gently from side to side as he said it.

  “That an admission of guilt, Bobby?” I asked.

  The smile never faltered. “Why do you want to see the boss? He’s got no time for shit like you.” The smile broadened perceptibly. “By the way, how are your wife and kid? Kid must be—what?—four by now.”

  A dull red throbbing began to pulse in my head but I held it back, my hands tightening at my sides. I knew I’d be dead before my hands closed on Sciorra’s white skin.

  “Stephen Barton turned up dead in a sewer this evening. The feds are looking for Sonny and probably for you as well. I’m concerned for your welfare. I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to either of you that I wasn’t a part of.”

  Sciorra’s smile remained the same. He seemed about to answer when a voice, low but authoritative, sounded over the house intercom system. Age gave it a gravelly resonance from which the rattle of death was not absent, lurking in the background like the traces of Don Ferrera’s Sicilian roots.

  “Let him in, Bobby,” it said. Sciorra stepped back and opened a set of draft-excluding double doors halfway down the hall. The gray-haired guard walked behind me as I followed Sciorra, who waited until he had closed the draft doors before opening a second door at the end of the hall.

  Don Ferrera sat in an old leather armchair behind a big office desk, not entirely dissimilar from Walter Cole’s desk, although its gilt inlay raised it into a different league from Walter’s comparatively Spartan possession. The curtains were drawn and wall lights and table lamps gave a dim yellow glow to the pictures and bookshelves that lined the walls. I guessed from their age that the books were probably worth a lot and had never been read. Red leather chairs stood against the walls, complementing Don Ferrera’s own chair and some sofas that surrounded a long low table at the far end of the room.

  Even sitting down and stooped by age, the old man was an impressive figure. His hair was silver and greased back from his temples, but an unhealthy pallor seemed to underlie his tanned complexion and his eyes appeared rheumy. Sciorra closed the door and once more assumed his priest-like stance, my escort remaining outside.

  “Please, sit,” said the old man, motioning toward an armchair. He opened an inlaid box of Turkish cigarettes, each ringed with small gold bands. I thanked him but refused. He sighed: “Pity. I like the scent but they are forbidden me. No cigarettes, no women, no alcohol.” He closed the box and looked longingly at it for a moment, then clasped his hands and rested them on the desk before him.

  “You have no title now,” he said. Among “men of honor,” to be called Mister when you had a title was a calculated insult. Federal investigators sometimes used it to belittle mob suspects, dispensing with the more formal Don or Tio.

  “I understand no insult is intended, Don Ferrera,” I said. He nodded and was silent.

  As a detective I had some dealings with the men of honor and always approached them cautiously and without arrogance or presumption. Respect had to be met with respect and silences had to be read like signs. Among them, everything had meaning and they were as economical and efficient in their modes of communication as they were with their methods of violence.

  Men of honor spoke only of what concerned them directly, answered only specific questions and would stay silent rather than tell a lie. A man of honor had an absolute obligation to tell the truth and only when the behavior of others altered so far as to make it necessary to break these rules of behavior would he do so. All of which assumed that you believed pimps and killers and drug dealers were honorable in the first place, or that the code was anything more than the incongruous trapping of another age, pressed into service to provide a sheen of aristocracy for thugs and murderers.

  I waited for him to break the silence.

  He stood and moved slowly, almost painfully, around the room and stopped at a small side table on which a gold plate gleamed dully.

  “You know, Al Capone used to eat off gold plates. Did you know that?” he asked. I told him that I hadn’t known.

  “His men used to carry them in a violin case to the restaurant and lay them on the table for Capone and his guests, and then they’d all eat off them. Why do you think a man would feel the need to eat from a gold plate?” He waited for an answer, trying to catch my reflection in the plate.

  “When you have a lot of money, your tastes can become peculiar, eccentric,” I said. “After a while, even your food doesn’t taste right unless it’s served on bone china, or gold. It’s not fitting for someone with so much money and power to eat from the same plates as the little people.”

  “It goes too far, I think,” he replied, but he no longer seemed to be talking to me and it was his own reflection he was examining in the plate. “There’s something wrong with it. There are some tastes that should not be indulged, because they are vulgar. They are obscene. They offend nature.”

  “I take it that isn’t one of Capone’s plates.”

  “No, my son gave it to me as a gift on my last birthday. I told him the story and he had the plate made.”

  “Maybe he missed the point of the story,” I said. The old man’s face looked weary. It was the face of a man who had not enjoyed his sleep for some time.

  “The boy who was killed, you think my son was involved? You think this was a piece of work?” he asked eventually, moving back into my direct line of vision and staring away from me at something in the distance. I didn’t look to see what it was.

  “I don’t know. The FBI appears to think so.”

  He smiled an empty, cruel smile that reminded me briefly of Bobby Sciorra. “And your interest in this is the girl, no?”

  I was surprised, although I should not have been. Barton’s past would have been common knowledge to Sciorra at least and would have been passed on quickly when his body was discovered. I thought my visit to Pete Hayes might have played a part too. I wondered how much he knew, and his next question gave me the answer: not much.

  “Who are you working for?”

  “I can’t say.”

  “We can find out. We found out enough from the old man at the gym.”

  So that was it. I shrugged gently. He was silent again for a while.

  “Do you think my son had the girl killed?”

  “Did he?” I responded. Don Ferrera turned back toward me, the rheumy eyes narrowing.

  “There is a story told about a man who believes he is being cuckolded by his wife. He approaches a friend, an old, trusted friend, and says: ‘I believe my wife is cheating on me but I don’t know with whom. I have watched her closely but I cannot find out the identity of this man. What do I do?’

  “Now his friend is the man who is cheating with his wife, but to divert the other’s attention he says that he saw the wife with another man, a man with a reputation for dishonorable conduct with other men’s wives. And so the cuckold turns his gaze on this man and his wife continues to cheat on him with his best friend.” He finished and gazed intently at me.

  Everything has to be interpre
ted, everything is codified. To live with signs is to understand the necessity of finding meanings in seemingly irrelevant pieces of information. The old man had spent most of his life looking for the meanings in things and expected others to do likewise. In his cynical little anecdote lay his belief that his son was not responsible for Barton’s death but that whoever was responsible stood to benefit from the concentration of the police and FBI on Sonny’s assumed guilt. I glanced at Bobby Sciorra and wondered how much Don Ferrera really knew about what went on behind those eyes. Sciorra was capable of anything, even of undermining his boss for his own gains.

  “I hear maybe Sonny has taken a sudden interest in my good health,” I said.

  The old man smiled. “What kind of interest in your health, Mr. Parker?”

  “The kind of interest that could result in my health suddenly ceasing to be good.”

  “I don’t know anything about that. Sonny is his own man.”

  “That may be, but if anyone pulls anything on me, I’ll see Sonny in Hell.”

  “I’ll have Bobby look into it,” he said.

  That didn’t make me feel a whole lot better. I stood up to leave.

  “A clever man would be looking for the girl,” said the old man, also standing up and moving toward a door in a corner of the room behind the desk. “Alive or dead, the girl is the key.”

  Maybe he was right, but the old man must have had his own reasons for pointing me toward her. And as Bobby Sciorra escorted me to the front door, I wondered if I was the only person looking for Catherine Demeter.

  There was a cab waiting at the gates of the Ferrera house to take me back to the East Village. As it turned out, I had enough time to shower and make a pot of coffee at my apartment before the FBI came knocking on my door. I had changed into tracksuit bottoms and a sweatshirt so I felt a little casual next to Special Agents Ross and Hernandez. The Blue Nile was playing in the background, “A Walk Across the Rooftops,” causing Hernandez to wrinkle his nose in distaste. I didn’t feel the need to apologize.

 
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