BUT THAT WAS the morning and now, in the deep of the night, I sat on a curb at the crime scene, about twenty yards from Joey Cheap’s corpse, and held my head in my hands. I held my head in my hands because it felt like it was breaking apart.
I had already given a full statement, identifying the victim, identifying myself as his lawyer, indicating I had seen him that very afternoon at a restaurant on Front Street. I told what I knew of his vital statistics, age, place of birth, rap sheet. And before I sat down on the curb I told the police where his mother lived. I could imagine the scene, the police detective stepping inside the dark house, the near blind woman offering coffee, offering cake, offering to heat up a piece of veal. The officer declining, asking the old woman to sit down, telling the old woman he has terrible terrible news. The way her face collapses as she learns the truth. If I had courage I would have done it myself, but I’ve never been accused of having courage.
“You look like a sick puppy” came McDeiss’s voice from in front of me.
“He was a client,” I said.
“Why don’t you stand on up so we can talk some more.”
“If I stand I’m going to puke.”
“You keep on sitting, then.” He hitched up the pant fabric at his knees and squatted beside me and I couldn’t help but wince.
“Your knees sound like walnuts cracking in a vise.”
“I’ve been younger, I admit it,” said McDeiss.
We didn’t get along so swell, McDeiss and I. We’d had a piece of business together in the past which had turned out poorly: a couple of dead bodies and a bad guy who in the end had gotten away. Still, I couldn’t help but admire McDeiss. He was Ivy-educated but he didn’t show it off, he was a righteous cop but he didn’t preach, he was better at his job than I was at mine. And to top it off, he knew all the best restaurants.
“The first cops on the scene found your card on him,” he said. “When the captain called out the case your name was prominently mentioned.”
“And because of that you volunteered?”
“We picked straws. Mine was seriously short. Mine was the runt of the litter, the jockey of straws. So lucky me, here I am to interview you. This afternoon you were with this Parma at a restaurant?”
“That’s right. La Vigna.”
“What did you have?”
“Not good enough that I want to taste it twice.”
“When did you last see him?”
“It was about eleven-thirty when we left.”
“You and Parma just met up for an early lunch?”
“Something like that.”
“Simply a friendly chat?”
“What did you two boys chat about?”
“He was a client.”
“You’re claiming privilege,” said McDeiss, nodding his head. “I have a great respect for constitutional privilege, yes I do. I would never do anything to trample on privilege.” Pause for effect. “But your client is dead.”
“It doesn’t make a difference.”
“Don’t be a dickhead.”
“Tell it to the Supreme Court.”
“We already know they’re dickheads. But, see, I’m a little puzzled with you claiming privilege. We checked his record. You had just gotten this Parma off the burglary rap, some sleazy trademark Victor Carl maneuver from what I understand. But Parma wasn’t up on anything else. No pending charges, no parole violations. What I’m wondering is what kind of trouble was he in which required him to consult with his criminal defense attorney at eleven in the morning?”
I didn’t answer, I just lifted my head out of my hands and stared at the detective.
“Anything that might have gotten him hurt?”
I said nothing.
“The killing was apparently done somewhere else, a knife through the throat, in a car maybe, and then he was dropped here. Forensics will check him for fibers, see if we can match a make and model. Wherever he was killed, there’ll be a whole lot of blood. And it looks to us like he was beaten too. His eye, for example, was pretty busted up. How’d he look when you saw him?”
“His eye was busted up already when I met him.”
“That you can tell me?”
“It’s not privileged information. When you talk to the waiter at La Vigna, a guy named Louis, he’ll tell you the same thing.”
“But you won’t tell me anything else?”
“Because right now, Carl, we don’t have a clue as to what actually happened here tonight. His wallet was missing so it could have been a robbery, but his Timex is still on his wrist and word is this Joey Parma never had anything worth stealing. So was this a mob execution? Was this drug-related? Was he stepping out with someone else’s wife? Did he owe someone money? Anything you can tell us would be mighty handy.”
“Joey was never part of the mob. A wannabe maybe, but that’s it. And the drug conviction was well in his past. Best I could figure, he was trying to go clean. But his street name was Joey Cheaps, which means he owed everybody money.”
“Anyone in particular?”
“Oh, I bet he did. Anyone else? Anyone mad enough to extract it in blood.”
“Not that I know of. But as to what we talked about, there is nothing more I can tell you.”
“He’s your client, Carl. Doesn’t that matter?”
“Clients die, Detective. It happens all the time. Rich old ladies with wills to probate. Cancer-ridden smokers waiting on their suits against the tobacco companies. For criminal lawyers there are good ways to lose a client and bad ways to lose a client. A good way is for a client to die in his bed, surrounded by his family, receiving last rites from a priest. A bad way is for a client to be strapped on a gurney with a line in his arm, as the victim’s mother stares stone-faced through the viewing window. I don’t know why Joey was killed, but it wasn’t the state that killed him, or a fellow con with a prison shiv, and so I figure this falls on the right side of my line.”
“All righty then,” said McDeiss without rising from his crouch. “I suppose then there’s nothing more to be done.”
“I suppose so.”
“Thanks for all your assistance.”
“It was nothing,” I said. “You need any help getting up?”
We should have been through, I should have stood, kicked the curb, left, gone on with my life. I should have, yes, but that thing I had said about clients dying all the time, that whole cynically hardboiled little speech, was an utter lie. They didn’t die all the time, and when they did, I couldn’t just shrug it off. So I didn’t stand, kick the curb, and go on with my life. Instead, I said, “Before you go, Detective, I wonder if you could do me a favor.”
“A favor. Is this related or unrelated to what happened to Mr. Parma?”
“Unrelated. I wonder if you could check your files to see if any unidentified floaters turned up about twenty years ago in the Delaware River. And maybe you could also see if you have a file on a missing man named Tommy, who disappeared twenty years ago and was never found.”
“An unidentified floater and a missing person, name of Tommy.”
“Or Thomas. Or Tom.”
“Twenty years ago.”
“And this is unrelated to your friend Parma.”
“But you just happen to ask me this favor after your friend Parma meets with his criminal defense attorney for no apparent reason and then gets dumped between two rusting shipping containers with his throat slit and his blood flowing into the Delaware.”
“And I should do this why?”
“Because I’m a sweet guy.”
“You make it hard to want to help you, Carl.”
“Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.”
We stayed at the curb, me sitting, my head still in my hands, the nausea turning the edges of my vision pale, McDeiss still in his squat. We stayed there for a while until McDeiss said, “Know what I got a strange hankering for right now? Ossobuco. You ever had a great ossobuco?”
“Do you mind? I can still smell the blood.”
“Veal shank braised in a wine sauce till it melts at the touch. And then, at the last moment, the secret ingredient is added, the
“Perfect for a homicide detective, I suppose.”
“I’ll consider if the information you sought is worth pursuing.”
“That’s all I can ask.” I paused for a moment, thought about what he had just said. “And maybe,” I continued, as if struck with a plan out of the thin of the air, “if you find something, we can discuss it over dinner.”
“What a wonderful idea.”
“There’s a place on Seventh Street I’ve been told about.”
“A little expensive, I’m sure.”
“Yes it is,” he said, letting out a soft groan as his knees popped once again and he stood. “But worth every penny.”
“You’ll keep me informed of what you find about Joey?”
“Don’t worry, Carl, one thing you can be sure of is that you’ll be hearing from me.”
By the time I left the scene the coroner’s van had shown up, the body had been scraped off the tarmac, the arc lights taken down. The immediate scene had slipped back into the innocent darkness, but there was still the stain on the ground, still the remnants of what had been lying there not thirty minutes before. There wasn’t anything more I could do about Joey Parma’s legal problem – it’s amazing how quickly death cleanses the docket – but that didn’t mean he and I were through.