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The killing kind, p.16
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       The Killing Kind, p.16

           John Connolly
 

  I hoped he didn’t mean it. Al Z and I had had our run-ins in the past; at one point he’d given me twenty-four hours to live if I didn’t find some money that had been stolen from under the nose of the underboss Tony Celli. I found the money, so I was still alive, but Tony Clean was dead. I had watched Al Z kill him. The only aspect of it that bothered Al Z was the cost of the bullet. A lot of Tony’s men had died in Dark Hollow, due in no small part to the efforts of Louis and me, but Tony was the only made man to be killed, and since Al Z had killed him that took a lot of heat off all of us. We in turn had taken the heat off Al Z by returning the money Tony had stolen, with interest. My relationship with Al Z could have been used to define “complicated” in the dictionary.

  Since the end of the Celli affair, Al Z had been keeping tabs on me. He knew enough about my business to learn that I was investigating the Fellowship and that, somehow, the man named Mr. Pudd was tied into its workings.

  “As I recall,” I pointed out gently, “you invited me along.”

  Al Z pretended to be taken aback. “So I did. It must have been a moment of weakness.” He immediately dispensed with the small talk. “I hear that you may be sticking your nose into the affairs of the Fellowship.”

  “Why would that be of interest to you?”

  “A lot of things are of interest to me. How did you enjoy meeting Mr. Ragle?”

  “He’s a worried man. He thinks somebody is trying to kill him.”

  “I fear Mr. Ragle may be about to suffer grievously for his art.”

  He gestured at the two gunmen. They left the room and closed the door behind them.

  Al Z stood and walked to the window, then stared down on the tourists shopping on Newbury, his basilisk glare flicking from face to face. Nobody died.

  “I like this street,” he said, almost to himself. “I like its normality. I like the fact that I can step out onto the sidewalk and the people around me are worrying about their mortgages, or the cost of coffee beans, or whether they just missed their train. I walk down there, and I feel normal by association.” He turned around to look at me. “You, on the other hand, you seem normal. You dress like any other mook. You don’t look no better or no worse than a hundred other guys on the street. But you step in here, and you make me nervous. I swear, my fucking palms itch when I see you. Don’t get me wrong; I respect you. I may even like you a little. But I see you and I get this sense of impending doom, like the fucking ceiling is about to cave in. The presence of your pet killers in Boston doesn’t make me sleep any easier. I know you got a woman here, and I know too that you were eating with your friends at Anago last night. You had the beef, by the way.”

  “It was good.”

  “For thirty bucks, it better be real good. It better sing a fucking song while you chew on it. You talk business, or pleasure?”

  “A little of both.”

  He nodded. “That’s what I thought. You want to know why I pointed Ragle toward you, why I’m interested in this man who calls himself Pudd? Maybe I figure, what can I do for Charlie Parker? Whose life can I turn to shit by letting you dig around in it?”

  I waited. I wasn’t sure where the conversation was going but the turn that it suddenly took surprised me.

  “Or maybe it’s something else,” he continued, and the tone of his voice changed. It now sounded a little querulous. It was an old man’s voice. Al Z turned away from the window and walked over to the sofa, seating himself only a few feet away from me. His eyes, I thought, were haunted.

  “You think one good action can make up for a lifetime of evil acts?” he asked.

  “That’s not for me to judge,” I replied.

  “A diplomatic answer, but not the truth. You judge, Parker. That’s what you do, and I respect you because you act on your judgment, just like me. We’re two of a kind, you and I. Try again.”

  I shrugged. “Maybe, if it’s an act of genuine repentence, but I don’t know how the scales of judgment are weighted.”

  “You believe in salvation?”

  “I hope for it.”

  “Then you believe in reparation too. Reparation is the shadow cast by salvation.”

  He folded his hands in his lap. They were very white and very clean, as if he spent hours each day scraping the dirt from the wrinkles and cracks on his skin.

  “I’m getting old. I looked around at the graveside this morning and I saw dead men and women. Between them all, they had maybe a couple of years to live. Pretty soon, we’re all going to be judged, and we’ll all be found wanting. The best we have to hope for is mercy, and I don’t believe you get mercy in the next life if you haven’t shown it in this one.

  “And I’m not a merciful man,” he concluded. “I have never been a merciful man.”

  I waited, watching as he twisted the wedding ring on his finger. His wife had died three years before, and he had no children. I wondered if he had hopes of meeting her again, in some other life.

  “Everybody deserves a chance to make amends for his life,” he said softly. “Nobody has the right to take that away.”

  His eyes flicked back to the window, drawn by the light. “I know something of the Fellowship, and of the man it sends to do its business,” he said.

  “Mr. Pudd.”

  “You’ve met him?” There was surprise in Al Z’s voice.

  “I’ve met him.”

  “Then your days may be numbered,” he said simply. “I know about him because it’s my business to know. I don’t like unpredictability, unless I figure that it’s worth gambling on it to use for my own ends. That’s why you’re still alive. That’s why I didn’t kill you when you came looking for Tony Clean, and that’s why I didn’t kill you even after you and your friends took out most of Tony’s crew in that snow-hole town two winters ago. What you wanted and what I wanted—” He moved his right hand, palm down, in a balancing motion. “Plus, you found the money, and that bought you your life.

  “Now, maybe I figure that we could have another meeting of minds on Pudd. I don’t care if he kills you, Parker. I’d miss you, sure. You brighten things up, you and your friends, but that’s as far as it goes. Still, if you kill him, then that would be a good thing for everybody.”

  “Why don’t you kill him yourself?”

  “Because he hasn’t done anything to bring himself to my attention or that of my associates.” He leaned forward. “But that’s like noticing a black widow in the corner of the room and figuring that you’ll leave it alone because it hasn’t bitten you yet.”

  The spider analogy, I knew, was deliberate. Al Z was an interesting man.

  “And there’s more to this than Pudd. There are other people, people in the shadows. They need to be flushed out too, but if I go against Pudd for no reason other than the fact that I think he’s evil and dangerous—and that assumes that I could find him and that the people I sent after him could kill him, which I doubt—then the others in the background would move against me, and I’d be dead. I don’t doubt it for one second. In fact, I think that the moment I made a move against Pudd, he’d kill me. That’s how dangerous he is.”

  “So you’ll use me to flush him out.”

  Al Z actually laughed. “Nobody uses you, I think, unless you want it. You’re going after Pudd for your own reasons, and nobody in my organization will stand in your way. I’ve even tried to point you in the right direction with our pornographer friend. If you corner this man, and we can assist you in finishing him off without drawing any attention to ourselves, then we will. But my advice to you is to move everybody you care about out of his reach, because he will kill them, and then he will try to kill you.”

  He smiled conspiratorially.

  “But I also hear that you may have some competition in trying to finish off Pudd. It seems that some old Jews have got tired of torchings and killings, and that the death of the rabbi in New York this week was the last straw. I tell you, don’t mess with the fucking Jews. Maybe it ain’t like the days of Bugsy Siegel no more but t
hose people, they know how to bear a grudge. You think the fucking Sicilians are bad? The Jews, they’ve had thousands of years of experience of bearing grudges. They are to grudges what the Chinese are to gunpowder. These fucking people invented the grudge, excuse my language.”

  “They’ve hired someone?” I asked.

  Al Z shook his head. “Money isn’t the prime motivator where this man is concerned. He calls himself the Golem. He’s Eastern European—Jewish, naturally. Never met him, which is probably a good thing. Way I understand it, anyone who meets him winds up dead. The day I see him, I’m gonna be kissing St. Peter’s ring and apologizing for having an attack of selective amnesia where the Ten Commandments were concerned.”

  He twisted at his wedding ring again, the light from the window reflecting on it and sending tiny golden spears shooting across the wall.

  “The guy you want to talk to is Mickey Shine, Michael Sheinberg. We called him Mickey the Jew. He’s retired now, but he used to be part of Joey Barboza’s crew until Joey started ratting people out. I heard that maybe he was the one killed Joey in San Francisco in seventy-six. He ended up working for Action Jackson for a time, then got tired of the whole racket and bought a flower shop in Cambridge.” He took a pen and scribbled an address on a piece of paper, tore it from the pad, and handed it to me.

  “Mickey Shine,” he said. His eyes were distant and there was a sepia tint of nostalgia to his voice. “You know, we went drinking, summer of sixty-eight, started out in Alphabet City, and I don’t remember anything else until I woke up in this Turkish bath wearing only a towel. I was lying on a slab, surrounded by tiles. I swear, I thought I was in the fucking morgue. Mickey Shine. When you talk to him, you tell him I remember that night.”

  “I will,” I said.

  “I’ll ask someone to call ahead,” said Al Z. “Barboza was hit four times with a shotgun. You go waltzing in there with a gun at your shoulder asking about Mickey Shine’s past, you’re likely to find out how Barboza felt, if you get my meaning.”

  I thanked him, then stood up to leave. By the time I reached the door, he had resumed his seat at his desk, his hand still toying with the gold band.

  “We’re two of a kind, you and I,” he repeated as I paused at the door.

  “What kind is that?”

  “You know what kind,” he replied.

  “One good act,” I said gently, but I wasn’t sure that would be enough. Al Z’s business was based on drugs and whores, porn and theft, intimidation and wasted, blighted lives. If you believe in karma, then those things add up. If you believe in God, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing those things in the first place.

  I, too, had done things that I regretted. I had taken lives. I had killed an unarmed man with my bare hands. Maybe Al Z was right: perhaps we were two of a kind, he and I.

  Al Z smiled. “As you say, one good act. I will help you, in this small way, to find Mr. Pudd and put an end to him and those around him. You step lightly, Charlie Parker. There are still people listening for you.”

  When I left, he had resumed his seat and his hands were once again steepled beneath his chin, his face hovering over them like that of some malicious, pitiless god.

  11

  MICKEY SHINE WAS ABOUT FIVE-SIX and bald, with a silver ponytail and a silver beard, both of which were designed to distract from the fact that he didn’t have more than six hairs above the level of his ears. Unfortunately, when your name is Mickey Shine and the bright lights of your store reflect the dazzling brilliance of your skull, then cultivating a goatee and opting to grow your hair long at the back aren’t exactly fail-safe options in the distraction stakes.

  “You ever hear the joke about the two legionnaires walking through the desert?” I asked him, as the jangling of the bell above the door on Kendall Square faded away. “One turns to the other and says, ‘Y’know, if her name hadn’t been Sandra I’d have forgotten her by now.’ ”

  Mickey Shine looked at me blankly.

  “Sand,” I said. “Sand-ra.”

  “You want to buy something already?” asked Mickey Shine. “Or did somebody send you here to brighten up my day?”

  “I guess I’m here to brighten your day,” I said. “Did it work?”

  “Do I looked brightened up?”

  “I guess not. Al Z gave me your name.”

  “I know. A guy called. He didn’t say nothing about you being a comedian, though. You want to lock the door, turn the sign to Closed?”

  I did as I was asked, and followed Mickey Shine into the back of the store. There was a wooden table with a cork bulletin board above it. On the board were pinned the floral orders for that afternoon. Mickey Shine began pulling orchids from a black bucket and laying them out on a sheet of clear plastic.

  “You want I should stop?” asked Mickey. “I got orders, but you want I should stop, I’ll stop.”

  “No,” I replied. “It’s okay.”

  “Help yourself to coffee,” he said. There was a Mr. Coffee machine on a shelf, beside a bowl filled with nondairy creamer and packets of sugar. The coffee smelled like something had crawled into the pot to die, then spent its final minutes percolating.

  “You’re here about Pudd?” he asked. He seemed intent upon the orchids, but his hands faltered as he said the name.

  “Yes.”

  “So it’s time, then,” he said, more to himself than to me. He continued arranging the flowers in silence for a few minutes, then sighed and abandoned the task. His hands were shaking. He looked at them, held them up so I could see them, then thrust them into his pockets, the orchids now forgotten.

  “He’s a foul man, Mr. Parker,” he began. “I have thought much about him in the last five years, about his eyes and his hands. His hands,” he repeated softly, and shuddered. “When I think of him, I imagine his body as a frame, a hollow thing to carry around the evil spirit that resides inside. Maybe this sounds like madness to you?”

  I shook my head and recalled my first impression of Mr. Pudd, the way his eyes peered out from behind their hoods of flesh, the strange, unconnected movements of his fingers, the hair below the joints. I knew exactly what Mickey Shine meant.

  “I think, Mr. Parker, he is dybbuk. You know dybbuk?”

  “I’m sorry, I don’t.”

  “A dybbuk is the spirit of a dead man that enters the body of another living being and possesses it. This Mr. Pudd, he is dybbuk: an evil spirit, base and less than human.”

  “How do you know of him?”

  “I took a contract, is how I know. It was after I left, when the old ways started to fall apart. I was a Jew, and Jews do not make the book, Mr. Parker. I was not a made man, so I thought I would walk away, let them fight to the death like animals. I did one last favor, then left them to die.” He risked a glance at me, and I knew that Al Z had been correct; it was Mickey Shine who had pulled the trigger on Barboza in San Francisco in 1976, the last favor that allowed him to walk away.

  “I bought my store, and things were good until about eighty-six. Then I got sick and had to close up for a year. New stores opened, I lost customers, and so and so . . .” He puffed up his cheeks and let his breath out in one loud, long exhalation.

  “I heard that there was a paper on a man, a strange, thin man who killed out of some . . . misguided religious purpose, or so they said. Doctors in abortion clinics, homosexuals, even Jews. I don’t believe in abortion, Mr. Parker, and the Old Testament is clear on . . . such men.”

  He tried not to catch my eye, and I guessed that Al Z had told him a little about Angel and Louis, warning him to watch his mouth.

  “But killing these people isn’t the answer,” he resumed, with all the assurance of a man who has killed for a living. “I took the paper. I hadn’t fired a gun in many years, but the old instincts, you know, they die hard.”

  He was rubbing at his arm again, I noticed, and his eyes had grown distant, drawing back from the memory of some ancient hurt.

  “And you found him,” I said.
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  “No, Mr. Parker, he found me.” The frequency and force of the rubbing increased, harder and harder, faster and faster. “I found out he was based somewhere in Maine, so I traveled up there to look for traces of him. I was in a motel in Bangor. You know the city? It’s a dump. I was asleep and I woke to a noise in the room. I reached for my gun but it wasn’t there, and then something hit me on the head, and when I came to I was in the trunk of a car. My hands and feet were tied with wire, and there was tape on my mouth. I don’t know how long we drove, but it felt like hours. At last the car stopped, and after a time the trunk opened. I was blindfolded, but I could see a little beneath the fold. Mr. Pudd was standing there, in his mismatched, old man’s clothes. There was a light in his eyes, Mr. Parker, like I have never seen. I—”

  He stopped and put his head in his hands, then ran them back over his bald head, as if all he had intended to do in the first place was smooth down whatever straggling hairs remained there. “I almost lost control of my bladder, Mr. Parker. I am not ashamed to tell you this. I am not a man who scares easily, and I have faced down death many times, but the look in this man’s eyes, and the feel of his hands on me, his nails, it was more than I could take.

  “He lifted me from the car—he is strong, very strong—and dragged me along the ground. We were in dark woods, and there was a shape beyond them, like a tower. I heard a door open, and he pulled me into a shack with two rooms. The first had a table and chairs, nothing more, and there were bloodstains on the floor, dried into the wood. There was a case on the table, with holes in the top, and he picked it up as he passed and carried it with him. The other room was tiled, with an old bathtub and a filthy, busted toilet. He put me in the tub, then hit me again on the head. And while I lay stunned, he cut my clothes with a knife, so that the front of my body, from my neck to my ankles, was exposed. He smelled his fingers, Mr. Parker, and then he spoke to me.

  “ ‘You stink of fear, Mr. Sheinberg,’ was all he said.”

  The store around us receded and disappeared. The noise of the traffic faded away, and the sunlight shining through the window seemed to dim. Now there was only the sound of Mickey Shine’s voice, the stale, damp smell of the old hut, and the soft exhalations of Mr. Pudd’s breath as he sat on the edge of the toilet bowl, placed the case on his lap and opened it.

 
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