The killing kind, p.14
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       The Killing Kind, p.14

           John Connolly
 

  I watched her quietly for a time, but I knew she was telling the truth. Ali Wynn hadn’t been in the car with Grace on the night that she died. More and more, Marcy Becker was looking like the most likely candidate. I sat back and examined the crowds entering and leaving the T, the tourists and locals with bags of wine and candies from Cardullos, Black Forest ham and exotic teas from Jackson’s of Picadilly, bath salts and soaps from Origins. Grace should have been among them, I thought. The world was a poorer place for her passing.

  “Has that helped you?” asked Ali. I could see that she wanted to leave.

  “It’s cleared a few things up.” I handed her my card, after writing my home telephone number on the back. “If you think of anything more, or if someone else comes around asking about Grace, maybe you’ll give me a call.”

  “Sure.” She picked up the card and placed it carefully in her purse. She was about to move away when she paused and placed her hand lightly on my arm.

  “You think somebody killed her, don’t you?” Her red lips were pressed tightly together but she couldn’t control the trembling of her chin.

  “Yes,” I answered. “I think somebody did.”

  Her grip tightened momentarily and I felt the heat of her penetrating to my skin. “Thanks for the coffee,” she said, and then she was gone.

  ∗ ∗ ∗

  I spent the rest of the afternoon buying some clothes for my depleted wardrobe before heading back to Copley and the Starbucks on Newbury to read the newspaper. Reading The New York Times on a near daily basis was a habit I hadn’t lost, although buying it in Boston made me feel kind of guilty, as if I had just rolled up the newspaper and used it to slap the mayor.

  I didn’t even notice the start of the story on the far right of the front page until I came to its continuation on page seven and saw the photograph accompanying it. A man stared out at me in black and white, a black hat on his head, and I recalled the same man nodding to me from a darkened Mercedes as I approached Jack Mercier’s house, and sitting uneasily with three other people in a framed photograph in Mercier’s study. His name was Rabbi Yossi Epstein, and he was dead.

  According to the police report, Rabbi Yossi Epstein left the Eldridge Street shul at 7:30 P.M. on a cool Tuesday evening, the flow of traffic on the Lower East Side changing, altering in pitch, as commuters were replaced by those whose reasons for being in the city had more to do with pleasure than business. Epstein wore a black suit and a white shirt, but he was far from being the traditionalist that his exterior suggested. There were those in the shul who had long whispered against him; he tolerated homosexuals and adulterers, they said. He was too ready to take his place before the television cameras, they argued, too quick to smile and pander to the national media. He was too concerned with the things of this world and too little concerned with the promise of the next.

  Epstein had made his name in the aftermath of the Crown Heights disaster, pleading for tolerance, arguing that the Jewish and black communities should put aside their differences, that poor blacks and poor Jews had more in common with each other than with the wealthier members of their own tribes. He had been injured in the riots that followed, and a picture of him in the Post, blood streaming from a wound in his head, had brought him his first taste of celebrity due to the photo’s unfortunate, and unintended, similarity to representations of the suffering Christ.

  Epstein had also been involved with the B’Nai Jeshurun Temple up on Eighty-ninth Street and Broadway, founded by Marshal T. Meyer, whose mentor had been the conservative firebrand Abraham Yoshua Heschel. It was easy to see why someone with Epstein’s views might have been attracted to Meyer, who had fought with the Argentine generals in his efforts to find disappeared Jews. Since Meyer’s death, in 1993, two Argentine rabbis had continued his work in New York, including the provision of a homeless shelter and encouraging the establishment of a gay congregation. B’Nai Jeshurun was even twinned with a congregation in Harlem, the New Canaan Baptist Church, whose preacher sometimes spoke at the synagogue. According to the Times, Epstein had fallen out with B’Nai Jeshurun and had taken to holding twice monthly services at the old Orensanz Center on the Lower East Side.

  One of the reasons for the split with B’Nai Jeshurun appeared to be Epstein’s growing involvement in anti-Nazi groups, including the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta and Searchlight in Britain. He had established his own organization, the Jewish League for Tolerance, staffed mainly by volunteers and run from out of a small office on Clinton Street, above an empty Jewish bookstore.

  According to the Times, Epstein was believed to have received considerable funding in recent weeks to enable him to commence a series of investigations into organizations suspected of anti-Semitic activities, among them the usual suspects: fanatics with “Aryan” prominent in their names and splinter groups from the Klan who had left because the Klan now frowned on burning down synagogues and chaining blacks to the back axles of pickup trucks.

  Whatever his critics might have said about him, Yossi Epstein was a brave man, a man of conviction, a man who worked tirelessly to improve the lives not only of his fellow Jews but of his other fellow citizens. He was found dead in his apartment at 11 P.M. on Wednesday night, apparently after suffering some kind of seizure. The apartment, in which he lived alone, had been ransacked and his wallet and address book were missing. Foul play was suspected, according to the report, a suspicion increased by another incident earlier that night.

  At 10 P.M., the office of the Jewish League for Tolerance was firebombed. A young volunteer, Sarah Miller, was working there at the time, printing off addresses for a mailing the following day. She was three days short of her nineteenth birthday when the room around her became an inferno. She was still on the critical list, with burns over 90 percent of her body. Epstein was due to be buried at Pine Lawn Cemetery in Long Island that day, following the prompt autopsy.

  There was one more detail that caught my attention. In addition to his work on right-wing organizations, Epstein was reported to be preparing a legal challenge to the religious tax exemption given by the IRS to a number of church groups. Most of the names were unfamiliar to me, except for one: the Fellowship, based in Waterville, Maine. The law firm employed by Epstein to handle the case was Ober, Thayer & Moss of Boston, Massachusetts. It was hardly a coincidence that the firm also took care of Jack Mercier’s legal affairs and that Warren Ober’s son was soon to be married to Mercier’s daughter.

  I read through the piece again, then called Mercier’s home. A maid took the call, but when I gave my name and asked to be put through to Mr. Mercier, another female voice came on the line. It was Deborah Mercier.

  “Mr. Parker,” she said. “My husband is not available. Perhaps I can help you?”

  “I don’t think so, Mrs. Mercier. I really need to speak to your husband.”

  There was a pause in the conversation long enough to make our feelings about each other clear, and then Deborah Mercier concluded: “In that case, perhaps you’d be kind enough not to phone the house again. Jack is not available at present, but I’ll make sure he hears that you called.”

  With that she hung up, and I got the feeling that Jack Mercier would never know that I had called him.

  I had never spoken to Rabbi Yossi Epstein and knew nothing more about him than what I had just read, but his activities had awakened something, something that lay curled in its web until Epstein caused one of the strands to twitch and the sleeping thing roused itself and came after him, then tore him apart before it returned to the dark place in which it lived.

  In time, I would find that place.

  9

  I RETURNED TO RACHEL’S APARTMENT, showered, and in an effort to cheer myself up for the evening ahead, put on some of my sharp new purchases: a black Joseph Abboud coat that made me look like I was auditioning for the second remake of Nosferatu, black gabardine pants and a black DKNY V neck. Screaming “fashion victim,” I walked down to the Copley Plaza Hotel and into the Oak B
ar.

  Outside, the traffic on Copley melted away, the sound of horns and engines smothered by the red curtains of the Oak. The four big ceiling fans scythed the air and the ice in the raw bar glittered in the dim light. Louis was already sitting at a table by the window, his long frame folded into one of the bar’s comfortable red chairs. He was wearing a black wool suit with a white shirt and black shoes. His dark head was no longer shaven and he had grown a small, vaguely satanic beard, which, if anything, rendered him even more intimidating than before. In the past, when he had been bald and devoid of facial hair, people crossed the street to avoid him. Now they probably felt the urge to book a trip somewhere safe and quiet, like Somalia or Sierra Leone.

  There was a presidential martini on the table before him, and he was smoking a Montecristo No. 2. That was about $55 worth of vices. He blew a stream of blue smoke at me in greeting. I ordered a virgin cocktail and shrugged off my coat, ostentatiously showing Louis the label as I did so.

  “Yeah, very impressive,” he said unconvincingly. “Not even last season’s. You so cheap, your hourly rate probably got ninety-nine cents at the end.”

  “Where’s the insignificant other?” I asked, ignoring him.

  “Buying some clothes. Airline lost his bag.”

  “They’re doing him a favor. You pay them to lose it?”

  “Didn’t have to. Baggage handlers probably refused to touch it. Piece of shit practically walked to La Guardia by itself. How you doin’?”

  “Pretty good.”

  “Still huntin’ pen pushers?” Louis didn’t entirely approve of my move into the area of white-collar criminals. He felt that I was wasting my talents. I decided to let him go on thinking it for a while.

  “The money’s okay and they don’t tend to kick up a fuss,” I replied, “although one of them called me a bad name once.”

  Close to the door, heads began to turn and one of the waiters almost dropped a tray of drinks in shock. Angel entered, dressed in a yellow-and-green Hawaiian shirt, a yellow tie, a powder blue jacket, stonewashed jeans, and a pair of red boots so bright they throbbed. Conversations died as he passed by, and a few people tried to shield their eyes.

  “Off to see the wizard?” I asked when the red boots finally reached us.

  Louis looked like someone had just splashed paint on his car.

  “Shit, Angel, the hell you think you are? Mardi Gras?”

  Angel calmly took a seat, ordered a Beck’s from a distressed-looking waiter, then stretched out his legs to admire his new boots. He straightened his tie, which did nothing to help in the long term but obscured some of his shirt for a while.

  “You look like a used car salesman on acid,” I told him.

  “Man, I didn’t even know Filene’s Basement had a basement,” said Louis. “Must be where they keep the real shit.”

  Angel shook his head and smiled. “I’m making a statement,” he said, like a teacher explaining a lesson to a pair of slow children.

  “I know the kind of statement you makin’,” replied Louis as Angel’s beer arrived. “You sayin’, ‘Kill me, I got no taste.’ ”

  “You should carry a sign,” I advised. “ ‘I will work for fashion tips.’ ”

  It felt good to be here with them. Angel and Louis were just about the closest friends I had. They had stood by me as the confrontation with the Traveling Man drew closer, and had faced down the guns of a Boston scumbag named Tony Celli in order to save the life of a girl they had never met. Their gray morality, tempered by expediency, was closer to goodness than most people’s virtue.

  “How’s life in the sticks?” asked Angel. “Still living in the rural slum?”

  “My house is not a slum.”

  “It don’t even have carpets.”

  “It’s got timber floors.”

  “It’s got timbers. Just ’cause they fell on the ground don’t make them a floor.”

  He paused to sip his beer, allowing me to change the subject.

  “Anything new in the city?” I asked.

  “Mel Valentine died,” said Angel.

  “Psycho Mel?” Psycho Mel Valentine had been working his way through the A-to-Z of crime: arson, burglary, counterfeiting, drugs . . . If he hadn’t died, then pretty soon the Bronx Zoo would have been mounting a guard on its zebras.

  Angel nodded. “Always thought the ‘Psycho Mel’ thing was unfair. Maybe he’d have been psychotic if they quietened him down some, but ‘Psycho’ seemed like kind of an underestimation of his abilities.”

  “How’d he die?”

  “Gardening accident in Buffalo. He was trying to break into a house when the owner killed him with a rake.”

  He raised his glass to the memory of Psycho Mel Valentine, gardening victim.

  Rachel appeared a few minutes later, much earlier than expected, wearing a yellow coat that hung to her ankles. Her long red hair was tied up at the back of her head and held in place by a pair of wooden skewers.

  “Nice hair,” said Angel. “You pick up all the channels with those things, or just local?”

  “Tuning must be off,” she replied. “I can still hear you.”

  She pulled the sticks from her hair and let it hang loose on her shoulders. It brushed my face as she kissed me gently before ordering a mimosa and taking a seat beside me. I hadn’t seen her in almost two weeks and I felt a pang of desire for her as she folded one stockinged leg over the other, her short black skirt rising above midthigh level. She wore a man’s shirt, white and with only one button undone. She always wore her shirts that way: if any more buttons were opened, the scars left by the Traveling Man on her chest became visible. As she sat, she placed a large Neiman Marcus bag by her feet. Inside was something red and expensive.

  “Needless Markup,” whistled Louis. “You givin’ away money, can I have some?”

  “Style costs,” she replied.

  “That’s the truth,” he said. “Try telling it to the other fifty percent of the group.”

  The 25 percent that was Angel searched through the big NM bag until he found the receipt, then dropped it quickly and rubbed his fingers like they’d just been burned.

  “What she buy?” asked Louis.

  “A house,” he said. “Maybe two.”

  She stuck her tongue out at him.

  “You’re early,” I said.

  “You sound disappointed. I disturb a conversation on football or monster trucks?”

  “Stereotyping,” I replied. “And you a psychologist.”

  We talked for a time, then crossed the street to Anago at the Lenox and spoke about nothing and everything for a couple of hours over venison and beef and oven roast salmon. Then, when the coffee arrived and while the other three sipped Armagnacs, I told them about Grace Peltier, Jack Mercier, and the death of Yossi Epstein.

  “And you think these old guys are right, that Grace Peltier didn’t kill herself?” asked Angel when I had finished.

  “Things just don’t fit. Mercier could probably put pressure on the investigation through Augusta, but that would draw attention to himself and he doesn’t want that.”

  “Which is why he hired you,” said Angel. “To stir things up.”

  “Maybe,” I replied, but I felt that there was more to it than that, although I couldn’t say what.

  “So what do you think happened to Grace?” asked Rachel.

  “Speculating, I’d say that Marcy Becker might have been the other person in the car with Grace for most of her trip north. But Marcy Becker is missing, and she left in enough of a hurry to forget a pack of cigarettes that was probably sitting on the dashboard in front of her.”

  “And maybe left her bag of coke as well,” said Angel.

  “That’s possible, but I don’t think so. The coke looks like a plant, a way of making Grace appear a little less clean than she was. Drugs, pressure of study, takes her own life with a gun that seems to have popped up out of nowhere.”

  “What was the piece?” he asked.

 
Smith & Wesson Saturday night special.”

  Angel shrugged. “Not hard to lay your hands on one of those, you know who to ask.”

  “But I don’t think Grace Peltier would have known who to ask. According to her father, she didn’t even like guns.”

  “Do you think Marcy Becker could have killed her?” asked Rachel.

  I toyed with my water glass. “Again, it’s possible, but they were friends and it hardly seems likely that this girl could frame a pretty good imitation of a suicide. If I had to guess—and Lord knows, I’ve done enough of that already—I’d say that Marcy Becker might have seen something, possibly whoever killed her friend, while she was away from the car for some reason. And if I can figure out that Grace wasn’t alone in the car for most of her journey, then someone else can figure it out too.”

  “Which means you got to find Marcy Becker,” said Louis.

  “And talk to Carter Paragon, whose secretary says that Grace never showed for their meeting.”

  “And how does Epstein’s death fit into all this?”

  “I don’t know, except that he and Mercier shared legal advisers and Mercier obviously knew Epstein well enough to bring him out to his house and hang a picture of him on his wall.”

  Finally, I told them about Al Z and Harvey Ragle, and Mr. Pudd and the woman who had accompanied him to my house.

  “You telling us he poisoned you with his business card?” said Angel incredulously.

  Even I was embarrassed by the possibility, but I nodded. “I got the sense that he had come to see me because that was what was expected of him, not because he thought that I’d actually back off,” I explained. “The card was part of that, a means of goading me to take action, just like letting me see that I was being watched.”

  Louis looked at me from over the top of his glass. “Man wanted to take a look at you,” he said quietly. “See what he was up against.”

  “I waved my gun at him,” I replied. “He went away.”

  Louis’s eyebrow rose a notch. “Told you you’d be glad of that gun someday.”

 

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