6

“How long you gonna be, Charlie?”

“That’s my business — you just hold the fort until I get back,” the doorman grunted, and looked the uniformed guard over with what he liked to think was a military eye. “I seen a lot better-looking gold buttons in my time.”

“Have a heart, Charlie, you know they’re just plastic. They’ll fall to pieces if I try to rub on them.”

In the loosely organized hierarchy of employees in Chelsea Park, Charlie was the unquestioned leader. It wasn’t a matter of salary — this was probably the smallest part of his income — but a matter of position and industry. He was the one who saw the tenants most often and he lost nothing by this advantage. His contacts outside the buildings were the best and he could get anything the residents wanted — for a price. All the tenants liked him and called him Charlie. All the employees hated him and he had never heard what they called him.

Charlie’s basement apartment came with the job, though the management would have been more than a little surprised at the number of improvements that had been made. An ancient air-conditioner wheezed and hammered and lowered the temperature at least ten degrees. Two decades of cast-off and restored furniture contributed a note of mixed color, while an impressive number of locked cabinets covered the walls. These contained a large collection of packaged food and bottled drink none of which Charlie touched himself, but instead resold at a substantial markup to the tenants. Not the least of the improvements was the absence of both a water and an electric meter; the building management unsuspectedly financed both of these major expenses for Charlie.

Two keys were needed to open the door and both were chained to his belt. He went in and hung his uniform coat carefully in the closet, then put on a clean but much-patched sport shirt. The new elevator boy was still asleep in the big double bed and he kicked the frame of the bed with his number-fourteen shoe.

“Get up. You go to work in an hour.”

Reluctantly, still half asleep, the boy crawled out of the bedclothes and stood there, naked and slim, scratching at his ribs. Charlie smiled in pleasant memory of the previous night and smacked the boy lightly on his lean buttock.

“You’re going to be all right, kid,” he said. “Just take care of old Charlie, and Charlie will take care of you.”

“Sure, Mr. Charlie, sure,” the boy said, forcing interest into his voice. This whole thing was new to him and he still didn’t like it very much, but it got him the job. He smiled coyly.

“That’s enough of that,” Charlie said and slapped the boy again, but this time hard enough to leave a red print on the white skin. “Just make sure the door is locked behind you when you go, and keep your mouth shut on the job.” He went out.

* * *

The street was a lot hotter than he had thought it would be, so he whistled for a cab. This morning’s work should net him enough to pay for a dozen cabs. Two empty pedicabs raced for his business and he sent the first one away because the driver was too runty and thin: Charlie was in a hurry and he weighed 240 pounds.

“Empire State Building, Thirty-Fourth Street entrance. And make some time.”

“In this weather?” the driver grunted, standing on the pedals and lurching the creaking machine into motion. “You want to kill me, general?”

“Die. It won’t bother me. I’ll give you a D for the trip.”

“You want me to die by starving, maybe? That much won’t take you as far as Fifth Avenue.”

They haggled the price most of the trip, twisting their way through the crowded streets, shouting to be heard above the unending noise of the city, a sound they were both so used to that they weren’t even aware of it.

Because of the power shortage and lack of replacement parts there was only one elevator running in the Empire State Building, and this one went only as high as the twenty-fifth floor. After that you walked. Charlie climbed two flights and nodded to the bodyguard who sat at the foot of the stairs to the next floor. He had been here before and the man knew him, as did the three other guards at the head of the stairs. One of them unlocked the door for him.

* * *

With his shoulder-length white hair Judge Santini bore a strong resemblance to an Old Testament prophet. He didn’t sound like one.

“Crap, that’s what it is, crap. I pay a goddamn fortune for flour just so I can get a good bowl of pasta and what do you turn it into?” He pushed the plate of spaghetti away distastefully and dabbed the sauce from his lips with the large napkin he had tucked into his shirt collar.

“I did the best I could,” his wife shouted back. She was small and dark and twenty years younger than he. “You want somebody to make spaghetti for you by hand, you should have married a contadina from the old country with broken arches and a mustache. I was born right here in the city on Mulberry Street, just like you, and all I know about spaghetti is you buy it from the grocery store—”

The shrill ring of the telephone cut through her words and silenced her instantly. They both looked at the instrument on the desk, then she turned and hurriedly left the room, closing the door behind her. There weren’t many calls these days and what few came through were always important and about business she did not want to hear. Rosa Santini enjoyed all the luxuries that life provided, and what she didn’t know about the judge’s business wasn’t going to bother her.

Judge Santini stood, wiped his mouth again and laid the napkin on the table. He didn’t hurry, not at his age he didn’t, but neither did he dawdle. He sat down at the desk, took out a blank notepad and stylo and reached for the phone. It was an old instrument with the cracked handpiece held together by wrappings of friction tape, while the cord was frayed and spliced.

“Santini speaking,” he said and listened carefully, his eyes widened. “Mike — Big Mike — my God!” After this he said little, just yes and no, and when he hung up his hands were shaking.

* * *

“Big Mike,” Lieutenant Grassioli said, almost smiling; even a mindful twinge from his ulcer didn’t depress him as it usually did. “Someone did a good day’s work.” The bloodstained jimmy lay on the desk before him and he admired it as though it were a work of art. “Who did it?”

“The chances are that it was a break and entry that went wrong,” Andy said, standing on the other side of the desk. He read from his notepad, quickly summing up all the relevant details. Grassioli grunted when he finished and pointed to the traces of fingerprint powder on the end of the iron.

“What about this? Prints any good?”

“Very clear, lieutenant. Thumb and first three fingers of the right hand.”

“Any chance that the bodyguard or the girl polished the old bastard off?”

“I’d say one in a thousand, sir. No motive at all — he was the one who kept them both eating. And they seemed to be really broken up, not about him I don’t think, but about losing their meal ticket.”

Grassioli dropped the jimmy back into the bag and handed it across the desk to Andy. “That’s good enough. We’ll have a messenger going down to BCI next week so send the prints along then and a short report on the case. Get the report on the back of the print card — it’s only the tenth of the month and we’re already almost through our paper ration. We should get prints of the bird and the bodyguard to go with it — but the hell with that, there’s not enough time. File and forget it and get back to work.”

While Andy was making a note on his pad the phone rang; the lieutenant picked it up. Andy wasn’t listening to the conversation and was halfway to the door when Grassioli covered the mouthpiece and snapped, “Come back here, Rusch,” then turned his attention to the phone.

“Yes, sir, that’s right,” he said. “There seems no doubt that it was a break and entry, the killer used the same jimmy for the job. A filed-down tire iron.” He listened for a moment and his face flushed. “No, sir, no we couldn’t. What else could we do? Yes, that’s SOP. No, sir. Right away, sir. I’ll have someone get on it now, sir.”

“Son of a bitch,” the lieutenant added, but only after he had hung up the receiver. “You’ve done a lousy job on this case, Rusch. Now get back on it and see if you can do it right. Find out how the killer got into the building — and if it really was break and entry. Fingerprint those two suspects. Get a messenger down to Criminal Identification with the prints and have them run through, I want a make on the killer if he has a record. Get moving.”

“I didn’t know Big Mike had any friends?”

“Friends or enemies, I don’t give a damn. But someone is putting the pressure on us for results. So wrap this up as fast as possible.”

“By myself, lieutenant?”

Grassioli chewed the end of his stylo. “No, I want the report as soon as possible. Take Kulozik with you.” He belched painfully and reached into the drawer for the pills.

* * *

Detective Steve Kulozik’s fingers were short and thick and looked as though they should be clumsy; instead they were agile and under precise control. He held Shirl’s right thumb with firm pressure and rolled it across the glazed white tile, leaving a clear and unsmudged print inside the square marked R THMB. Then one by one, he pressed the rest of her fingers to the ink pad and then to the tile until all the squares were full.

“Could I have your name, miss?”

“Shirl Greene, that’s spelled with an e on the end.” She stared at the black-stained tips on her fingers. “Does this make me a criminal now, with a record?”

“Nothing like that at all, Miss Greene.” Kulozik carefully printed her name with a thin grease pencil in the space at the bottom of the tile. “These prints aren’t made public, they’re just used in conjunction with this case. Could I have your date of birth?”

“October twelfth, 1977.”

“I think that’s all we need now.” He slid the tile into a plastic case along with the ink pad.

Shirl went to wash the ink from her hands, and Steve was packing in the fingerprint equipment when the door announcer buzzed.

“Do you have her prints?” Andy asked when he came in.

“All finished.”

“Fine, then all that’s left is to get the prints from the bodyguard, he’s waiting downstairs in the lobby. And I found a window in the cellar that looks like it was pried open, better check that for latent prints too. The elevator operator will show you where it is.”

“On my way,” Steve said, shouldering the equipment case.

Shirl came out as Steve was leaving. “We have a lead now, Miss Greene,” Andy told her. “I found a window in the basement that has been pried open. If there are any fingerprints on the glass or frame and they match the ones found on the jimmy, it will be fairly strong evidence that whoever did the killing broke into the building that way. And we’ll compare the jimmy marks with the ones on the door here. Do you mind if I sit down?”

“No,” she said, “of course not.”

The chair was soft and the murmuring air-conditioner made the room an island of comfort in the steaming heat of the city. He leaned back and some of the tension and fatigue drained away; the door announcer buzzed.

“Excuse me,” Shirl said and went to answer it. There was a murmur of voices in the hallway behind him as he flipped the pages in his notepad. The plastic cover was buckled on one of the sheets and some of the lettering was fading, so he went over it again with his stylo, pressing hard so that it was sharp and black.

“You get outta here, you dirty whore!”

The words were screamed in a hoarse voice, rising shrilly like a scraped fingernail on glass. Andy climbed to his feet and jammed the notepad into his side pocket. “What’s going on out there?” he called.

Shirl came in, flushed and angry, followed by a thin gray-haired woman. The woman stopped when she saw Andy and pointed a trembling finger at him. “My brother dead and not even buried yet and this one is carrying on with another man…”

“I’m a police officer,” Andy said, showing her his buzzer. “Who are you?”

She drew herself up, a slight movement that did nothing to increase her height; years of bad posture and indifferent diet had rounded her shoulders and hollowed her chest. Scrawny arms dangled from the sleeves of the much worn, mud-colored housedress. Her face, filmed now with sweat, was more gray than white, the skin of a photophobic city dweller; the only coloring in it appeared to be the grime of the streets. When she spoke her lips opened in a narrow slit, delivered the words like metal stampings from a press, then closed instantly afterward lest they deliver one item more than was needed. Only the watery blue eyes held any motion or life, and they twitched with anger.

“I’m Mary Haggerty, poor Michael’s sister and only living relation by blood. I’ve come to take care of Michael’s things, he’s left them all to me in his will, the lawyer told me that, and I have to take care of them. That whore’ll have to get out, she’s taken enough from him…”

“Just a minute.” Andy broke into the shrill babble of words and her mouth snapped shut while she breathed rapidly through flared righteous nostrils. “Nothing can be touched or taken from this apartment without police permission, so you don’t have to worry about your possessions.”

“You can’t say that with her here,” she squawled and turned on Shirl. “She’ll steal and sell everything that’s not nailed down. My good brother…”

“Your good brother!” Shirt shouted. “You hated his guts and he hated yours, and you never came near this place as long as he was alive.”

“Shut up!” Andy broke in, coming between the two women. He turned to Mary Haggerty. “You can go now. The police will let you know when the things in this apartment are available.”

She was shocked. “But — you can’t do that. I have my rights. You can’t leave that whore here alone.”

Andy’s patience was cracking. “Watch your language, Mrs. Haggerty. You’ve used that word enough. Don’t forget what your brother did for a living.”

Her face went white and she took a half step backward. “My brother was in business, a businessman,” she said weakly.

“Your brother was in the rackets, and that means girls among other things.” Without her anger to hold her erect she slumped, deflated, thin and bony; the only round thing in her body was her abdomen, swollen from years of bad diet and bearing too many children.

“Why don’t you go now,” he said. “We’ll get in touch with you as soon as possible.”

The woman turned and left without another word. He was sorry that he had lost his temper and said more than he should, but there was no way to take back the words now.

“Did you mean that — what you said about Mike?” Shirl asked, after the door had closed. In a plain white dress and with her hair pulled back she looked very young, even innocent, despite the label Mary Haggerty had given to her. The innocence seemed more realistic than the charges.

“How long did you know O’Brien?” Andy asked, fending the question off for the moment.

“Just about a year, but he never talked about his business. I never asked, I always thought it had something to do with politics, he always had judges and politicians visiting him.”

Andy took out his notebook. “I’d like the names of any regular visitors, people he saw in the last week.”

“Now you are asking the questions — and you haven’t answered mine.” Shirl smiled when she said it, but he knew she was serious. She sat down on a straight-backed chair, her hands folded in her lap like a schoolgirl.

“I can’t answer that in too much detail,” he said. “I don’t know that much about Big Mike. About all I can tell you for certain is that he was some sort of a contact man between the syndicate and the politicians. Executive level I guess you would call it. And it has been thirty years at least since the last time he was in court or behind bars.”

“Do you mean — he was in jail?”

“Yes, I checked on it, he’s got a criminal record and a couple of convictions. But nothing recently, it’s the punks who get caught and sent up. Once you operate in Mike’s circle the police don’t touch you. In fact they help you — like this investigation.”

“I don’t understand…”

“Look. There are five, maybe ten killings in New York every day, a couple of hundred felonious assaults, twenty, thirty cases of rape, at least fifteen hundred burglaries. The police are understaffed and overworked. We don’t have time to follow up any case that isn’t open and shut. If someone gets murdered and there are witnesses, okay, we go out and pick the killer up and the case is closed. But in a case like this, frankly, Miss Greene, we usually don’t even try. Unless we get a make on the fingerprints and have a record on the killer. But the chances are that we don’t. This city has a million punks who are on the Welfare and wish they had a square meal or a TV or a drink. So they try their hand at burglary to see what they can pick up. We catch a few and send them upstate on work gangs, breaking up the big parkways with pickaxes to reclaim the farmland. But most of them get away. Once in a while there is an accident, maybe someone comes in while they are pulling a job, surprises them while they are cleaning out the place. If the burglar is armed there may be a killing. Completely by accident, you understand, and the chances are ninety-nine out of a hundred that something like this happened to Mike O’Brien. I took the evidence, reported the case — and it should have died there. It would have if it had been anyone else. But as I said, Big Mike had plenty of political contacts and one of them put on some pressure to make a more complete investigation, and that is why I am here. Now — I’ve told you more than I should, and you’ll do me a big favor if you forget all about it.”

“No, I won’t tell anyone. What happens next?”

“I ask you a few more questions, leave here, write up a report — and that will be the end of it. Lots of other work is piling up behind me and the department has already put more time into the investigation than it can afford.”

She was shocked. “Aren’t you going to catch the man who did it?”

“If the fingerprints are on file, we might. If not — we haven’t got a chance. We won’t even try. Aside from the reason that we have no time, we feel that whoever did Mike in performed a social service.”

“That’s terrible!”

“Is it? Perhaps.” He opened his notepad and was very official again. He had finished with the questions by the time Kulozik came back with latent prints from the cellar window and they left the building together. After the cool apartment the air in the street hit like the blast from an open furnace door.

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