Every dead thing, p.6
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       Every Dead Thing, p.6

           John Connolly
 

  His face betrayed how lame he thought the link was, but he left me to voice it. “C’mon, Walter, steroids and minor coke? There’s money in it but it’s strictly Little League compared to the rest of Ferrera’s business. If he knocked off someone over musclehead drugs, then he’s even more stupid than we know he is. Even his old man thinks he’s the result of a defective gene.”

  Ferrera senior, sick and decrepit but still a respected figure, had been known to refer to his only son as “that little prick” on occasion. “Is that all you’ve got?”

  “As you say, we’re the police. No one tells us anything useful,” he replied dryly.

  “Did you know Sonny is impotent?” I offered.

  Walter stood up, waving his empty glass in front of his face and smiling for the first time that evening. “No. No, I didn’t. I’m not sure I wanted to know, either. What the hell are you, his urologist?” He glanced over at me as he reached for the Redbreast. I waved my fingers in a gesture of disregard that went no farther than my wrist.

  “Pili Pilar still with him?” I asked, testing the waters.

  “Far as I know. I hear he pushed Nicky Glasses out of a window a few weeks back because he fell behind on the vig.”

  The World Bank had loans out that attracted lower interest than Sonny Ferrera’s financial operations. Then again, the World Bank probably didn’t throw people out of the tenth floor because they couldn’t keep up with the interest, at least not yet.

  “Tough on Nicky. Another hundred years and he’d have had the loan paid off. Pili’d better ease up on his temper or he’s gonna run out of people to push through windows.”

  Walter didn’t smile.

  “Will you talk to her?” he asked as he resumed his seat.

  “MPs, Walter…” I sighed. Fourteen thousand people disappear in New York every year. It wasn’t even clear if this woman was missing—in which case she didn’t want to be found or someone else didn’t want her found—or simply misplaced, which meant that she had merely upped sticks and moved off to another town without breaking the news to her good friend Isobel Barton or to her lovely boyfriend, Stephen Barton.

  Those are the kinds of issues PIs have to consider when faced with missing persons cases. Tracing missing persons is bread and butter for PIs, but I wasn’t a PI. I had taken on Fat Ollie’s skip because it was easy work, or seemed to be at the time. I didn’t want to file for a PI license with the state licensing services in Albany. I didn’t want to get involved in missing persons work. Maybe I was afraid it would distract me too much. Maybe I just didn’t care enough, not then.

  “She won’t go to the cops,” said Walter. “The woman isn’t even officially missing yet, since no one has reported her.”

  “So how come you know about it?”

  “You know Tony Loo-Loo?” I nodded. Tony Loomax was a small-time PI with a stammer who had never graduated beyond skips and white trash divorces.

  “Loomax is an unusual candidate for Isobel Barton’s patronage,” I said.

  “It seems he did some work for one of the household staff a year or two back. Traced her husband, who’d run off with their savings. Mrs. Barton told him she wanted something similar done, but wanted it done quietly.”

  “Still doesn’t explain your involvement.”

  “I have some stuff on Tony, mild overstepping of legal boundaries, which he would prefer I didn’t act on. Tony figured I might like to know that Isobel Barton had been making low-key approaches. I spoke to Kooper. He believes the trust doesn’t need any more bad publicity. I figured maybe I could do him a favor.”

  “If Tony has the call, then why are you approaching me?”

  “We’ve encouraged Tony to pass it on. He’s told Isobel Barton that he’s passing her on to someone she can trust because he can’t take the case. Seems his mother just died and he has to go to the funeral.”

  “Tony Loo-Loo doesn’t have a mother. He was brought up in an orphanage.”

  “Well, someone’s mother must have died,” said Walter testily. “He can go to that funeral.”

  He stopped and I could see the doubt in his eyes as the rumors he had heard flicked a fin in the depths of his mind. “And that’s why I’m approaching you. Even if I tried to do this quietly through the usual channels, someone would know. Christ, you take a drink of water at headquarters and ten guys piss it out.”

  “What about the girl’s family?”

  He shrugged. “I don’t know much more but I don’t think there is one. Look, Bird, I’m asking you because you’re good. You were a smart cop. If you’d stayed on the force the rest of us would have been cleaning your shoes and polishing your shield. Your instincts were good. I reckon they still are. Plus you owe me one: people who go shooting up the boroughs don’t usually walk away quite so easily.”

  I was silent for a while. I could hear Lee banging around in the kitchen while a TV show played in the background. Perhaps it was a remnant of what had taken place earlier, the apparently senseless killing of Fat Ollie Watts and his girlfriend, the death of the shooter, but it felt as if the world had shifted out of joint and that nothing was fitting as it should. Even this felt wrong. I believed Walter was holding back on me.

  I heard the doorbell ring and then there was a muffled exchange of voices, one of them Lee’s and the other a deep male voice. Seconds later there was a knock on the door and Lee showed in a tall, gray-haired man in his fifties. He wore a dark blue double-breasted suit—it looked like Boss—and a red Christian Dior tie with an interlocking gold CD pattern. His shoes sparkled like they’d been shined with spit, although, since this was Philip Kooper, it was probably someone else’s spit.

  Kooper was an unlikely figure to act as chairman and spokesman of a children’s charity. He was thin and pale faced, and his mouth managed the unique trick of being simultaneously slim and pursed. His fingers were long and tapering, almost like claws. Kooper looked like he had been disinterred for the express purpose of making people uneasy. If he had turned up at one of the trust’s kids’ parties, all of the children would have cried.

  “This him?” he asked Walter, after declining a drink. He flicked his head at me like a frog swallowing a fly. I played with the sugar bowl and tried to look offended.

  “This is Parker,” nodded Walter. I waited to see if Kooper would offer to shake hands. He didn’t. His hands remained clasped in front of him like a professional mourner at a particularly uninvolving funeral.

  “Have you explained the situation to him?”

  Walter nodded again but looked embarrassed. Kooper’s manners were worse than a bad child’s. I stayed seated and didn’t say anything. Kooper sniffed and then stood in silence while he looked down on me. He gave the impression that it was a position with which he was entirely familiar.

  “This is a delicate situation, Mr. Parker, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate. Any communication in this matter will be made to me in the first instance before you impart any information to Mrs. Barton. Is that clear?”

  I wondered if Kooper was worth the effort of annoying and decided, after looking at Walter’s look of discomfort, that he probably wasn’t, at least not yet. But I was starting to feel sorry for Isobel Barton and I hadn’t even met her.

  “My understanding was that Mrs. Barton was hiring me,” I said eventually.

  “That’s correct, but you will be answerable to me.”

  “I don’t think so. There’s a small matter of confidentiality. I’ll look into it, but if it’s unconnected with the Baines kid or the Ferreras, I reserve the right to keep what I learn between Isobel Barton and myself.”

  “That is not satisfactory, Mr. Parker,” said Kooper. A faint blush of color rose in his cheeks and hung there for a moment, looking lost in the tundra of his complexion. “Perhaps I am not making myself clear: in this matter, you will report to me first. I have powerful friends, Mr. Parker. If you do not cooperate, I can ensure that your license is revoked.”

  “They must be very powerful friends b
ecause I don’t have a license,” I said. I stood up and Kooper’s fists tightened slightly. “You should consider yoga,” I said. “You’re too tense.”

  I thanked Walter for the coffee and moved to the door.

  “Wait,” he said. I turned back to see him staring at Kooper. After a few moments, Kooper gave a barely perceptible shrug of his shoulders and moved to the window. He didn’t look at me again. Kooper’s attitude and Walter’s expression conspired against my better judgment, and I decided to talk to Isobel Barton.

  “I take it she’s expecting me?” I asked Walter.

  “I told Tony to tell her you were good, that if the girl was alive you’d find her.”

  There was another brief moment of silence.

  “And if she’s dead?”

  “Mr. Kooper asked that question as well,” said Walter.

  “What did you say?”

  He swallowed the last of his whiskey, the ice cubes rattling against the glass like old bones. Behind him, Kooper was a dark silhouette against the window, like a promise of bad news.

  “I told him you’d bring back the body.”

  In the end, that’s what it all came down to: bodies—bodies found and yet to be found. And I recalled how Woolrich and I stood outside the old woman’s house on that April day and looked out over the bayou. I could hear the water lapping gently at the shore, and farther out, I watched a small fishing boat bobbing on the water, two figures casting out from either side. But both Woolrich and I were looking deeper than the surface, as if, by staring hard enough, we could penetrate to the depths and find the body of a nameless girl in the dark waters.

  “Do you believe her?” he said at last.

  “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

  “There’s no way we’re gonna find that body, if it exists, without more than we’ve got. We start trawling for bodies in bayous and pretty soon we’re gonna be knee deep in bones. People been dumping bodies in these swamps for centuries. Be a miracle if we didn’t find something.”

  I walked away from him. He was right, of course. Assuming there was a body, we needed more from the old woman than she had given us. I felt like I was trying to grip smoke, but what the old woman had said was the closest thing yet to a lead on the man who had killed Jennifer and Susan.

  I wondered if I was crazy, taking the word of a blind woman who heard voices in her sleep. I probably was.

  “Do you know what he looks like, Tante?” I had asked her, watching as her head moved ponderously from side to side in response.

  “Only see him when he comes for you,” she replied. “Then you know him.”

  I reached the car and looked back to see a figure on the porch with Woolrich. It was the girl with the scarred face, standing gracefully on the tips of her toes as she leaned toward the taller man. I saw Woolrich run his finger tenderly across her cheek and then softly speak her name: “Florence.” He kissed her lightly on the lips, then turned and walked toward me without looking back at her. Neither of us said anything about it on the journey back to New Orleans.

  5

  I T RAINED throughout that night, breaking the shell of heat that had surrounded the city, and the streets of Manhattan seemed to breathe easier the next morning. It was almost cool as I ran. The pavement was hard on my knees but large areas of grass were sparse in this part of the city. I bought a newspaper on the way back to my apartment, then showered, changed, and read over breakfast. Shortly after 11 A.M. I headed out to the Barton house.

  Isobel Barton lived in the secluded house her late husband had built in the seventies on Todt Hill, an admirable if unsuccessful attempt to replicate the antebellum houses of his native Georgia in an East Coast setting and on a smaller scale. Old Jack Barton, an amiable soul by all accounts, had apparently made up with money and determination for what he lacked in good taste.

  The gate to the drive was open as I arrived, and the exhaust fumes of another car hung in the air. The cab turned in just as the electronic gates were about to rumble closed, and we followed the lead car, a white BMW 320i with tinted windows, to the small courtyard in front of the house. The cab looked out of place in that setting, although how the Barton household might have felt about my own battered Mustang, currently undergoing repairs, I wasn’t so sure.

  As I pulled up, a slim woman dressed conservatively in a gray suit emerged from the BMW and watched me curiously as I paid the cabdriver. Her gray hair was tied back in a bun that did nothing to soften her severe features. A large black man wearing a chauffeur’s uniform appeared at the door of the house and moved quickly to intercept me as I walked from the departing cab.

  “Parker. I believe I’m expected.”

  The chauffeur gave me a look that told me, if I was lying, he’d make me wish I’d stayed in bed. He told me to wait, before turning back to the woman in gray. She glanced at me briefly but nastily before exchanging a few words with the chauffeur, who moved off to the back of the house as she approached me.

  “Mr. Parker, I’m Ms. Christie, Mrs. Barton’s personal assistant. You should have stayed at the gate until we were sure who you were.” In a window above the door, a curtain twitched slightly and then was still.

  “If you have a staff entrance I’ll use that in future.” I got the impression from Ms. Christie that she hoped that eventuality wouldn’t arise. She eyed me coldly for a moment, then turned on her heel.

  “If you’ll come with me, please,” she said over her shoulder as she moved toward the door. The gray suit was thread-bare at the edges. I wondered if Mrs. Barton would haggle over my rates.

  If Isobel Barton was short of cash she could simply have sold off some of the antiques that furnished the house, because the interior was an auctioneer’s wet dream. Two large rooms opened out at either side of a hallway, filled with furniture that looked like it was used only when presidents died. A wide staircase curved up to the right; a closed door lay straight ahead while another nestled under the stairs. I followed Ms. Christie through the latter and into a small but surprisingly bright and modern office with a computer in a corner and a TV and video unit built into the bookshelves. Maybe Mrs. Barton wouldn’t haggle about the rates after all.

  Ms. Christie sat down behind a pine desk, removed some papers from her valise, and shuffled through them in obvious irritation before finding what she wanted.

  “This is a standard confidentiality agreement drawn up by the trust’s legal advisers,” she began, pushing it toward me with one hand while clicking a pen simultaneously with the other. “It is an undertaking on your behalf to keep all communication relating to the matter in hand between Mrs. Barton, myself, and yourself.” She used the pen to point to the relevant sections on the agreement, like an insurance salesman trying to slip a bum contract past a sucker. “I’d like you to sign it before we proceed any further,” she concluded.

  It seemed like nobody involved with the Barton Trust had a particularly trusting nature. “I don’t think so,” I said. “If you’re concerned about possible breaches of confidentiality, then hire a priest to do your work. Otherwise you’ll have to take my word that what passes between us will go no further.” Perhaps I should have felt guilty about lying to her. I didn’t. I was a good liar. It’s one of the gifts God gives alcoholics.

  “That’s not acceptable. I am already unconvinced about the necessity of hiring you and I certainly feel it is inappropriate to do so without—”

  She was interrupted by the sound of the office door opening. I turned to see a tall, attractive woman enter, her age indeterminable through a combination of the gentleness of nature and the magic of cosmetics. At a glance I would have guessed she was in her late forties, but if this was Isobel Barton, then I knew she was closer to fifty-five, maybe older. She wore a pale blue dress that was too subtly simple to be anything but expensive and displayed a figure that was either surgically enhanced or extremely well preserved.

  As she drew closer and the tiny wrinkles in her face became clearer, I guessed it was the
latter: Isobel Barton did not look like the sort of woman who resorted to plastic surgery. Around her neck gold and diamonds glittered, and a pair of matching earrings sparkled as she walked. Her hair too was gray, but she let it hang long and loose on her shoulders. She was still an attractive woman and she walked like she knew it.

  Philip Kooper had borne the brunt of the media attention following the disappearance of the Baines boy, but that attention had not been significant. The Baines boy was from a family of dopers and no-hopers. His disappearance merited a mention only because of the trust, and even then the trust’s lawyers and patrons had called in enough favors to ensure that speculation was kept to a minimum. The boy’s mother was separated from his father and they hadn’t been getting along any better since he left.

  The police were still trying to trace the father in case of a possible snatch, even though every indication was that the father, a petty criminal, hated his child. In some cases, that might be enough to justify taking the child and killing him to get at his estranged wife. When I was a rookie patrolman, I once arrived at a tenement to find a man had abducted his baby daughter and drowned her in the bath because his ex-wife wouldn’t let him have the TV after they separated.

  Only one piece of coverage of the Baines disappearance stuck in my mind: a picture of Mrs. Barton, snapped head-bowed as she visited the mother of Evan Baines in a rundown project. It was supposed to have been a private visit. The photographer, returning from the scene of a drug killing, just happened to be passing. One or two papers took the picture, but they ran it small.

  “Thank you, Caroline. I’ll talk to Mr. Parker alone for a while.” She smiled as she said it but her tone brooked no argument. Her assistant affected a lack of concern at the dismissal but her eyes flashed fire. When she had left the room, Mrs. Barton seated herself on a stiff-backed chair away from the desk and motioned me toward a black leather couch, then turned her smile on me.

 

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