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Authors: Ira Berkowitz

Old Flame

BOOK: Old Flame
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OLD FLAME

For Danny, Robin, David, Allison, and Michael.
With love.

PROLOGUE

A
ll through dinner she sensed something was wrong.

The group at the next table was partying hard, knocking back drinks and growing more raucous as the evening wore on. But she knew that wasn’t it. It was over between them, and the only thing left was to speak the words.

The possibility had been brewing for some time. During the last few months, he had become more distracted. Edgier. The easy smile gone.

A couple sitting at a nearby banquette held hands and spoke low to each other. And she envied them. If this was the end, he had picked the perfect place. Formal. Public. A place where scenes were frowned on. Not that she would have made a scene. It wasn’t her style. And he should have known that. But if it was over, it was time for the charade to end. She had to know. Now.

She broke the uncomfortable silence.

“This has gone on long enough,” she said. “We have to talk about it. Tell me what’s wrong.”

He looked past her, staring off into the distance.

“Nothing.”

A shriek of laughter came from the next table, and she reached down for her pocketbook.

“Let’s change tables,” she said.

He put a restraining hand on hers.

“No,” he said. “They’re not bothering me.”

“Then what is, damn it?”

He waited several moments, deciding whether to confide in her, wondering how she would react.

“It started a few months ago with the phone calls,” he finally said.

It wasn’t the answer she expected.

“What phone calls?”

“To my cell phone. Long silences, and then a hang-up. Eight to ten a day. Sometimes more. Some at work. Some early in the evening. Some later. It gave me the creeps.”

Her relief turned to anger.

“Why didn’t you tell me? Isn’t that what people who care about each other do?”

“I didn’t want to worry you.”

The simple honesty of his answer was enough to mollify her.

“I called the telephone company,” he said. “They said the calls came from a prepaid cell phone. A disposable. There was nothing they could do. I changed the number. The calls continued. Always from a different number.

“Suddenly,” he continued, “the pattern changed. There was a voice at the other end.”

“What did it say?”

“ ‘Get out!’ ”

“That’s it? ‘Get out’? Of where?”

“I don’t know. There’s more, though.”

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a sheet of paper, and handed it to her.

While she read, he gazed out the window at the white ribbon of traffic stretching as far as he could see. Just beyond was the black ribbon of the Hudson. The image curled his lips into a bitter smile. Two ribbons. One black. One white. Light and dark. Good and evil. The way of the world.

She put down the paper.

“This is awful,” she said.

“It is.”

A waiter appeared at the next table with a giant cupcake. A sparkler was stuck in the middle. Five people serenaded the sixth — a woman in her midtwenties — with a spirited version of “Happy Birthday” and toasted her with flutes of champagne. Her cheeks were flushed with excitement.

“Have you shown this to the police?” she said.

He continued to stare out the window, and the bitter smile reappeared. “Are you kidding?”

“I’m frightened,” she said. “Whoever sent this means business. For Godsakes, we’ve got to—”

He cut her off. “It’s meant for me, not you.”

“So that makes it all right?”

“I won’t let anything happen to you.”

She reached over and took his hand. The color was gone from her cheeks.

“Who’s doing this?” she said.

“I have my suspicions.”

She waited for him to elaborate.

Instead, he signaled for the bill.

As the waiter approached, the birthday girl thrust a camera into his hand and asked him to take pictures. When he had snapped a few, she gave the camera to her friend and draped her body around the red-faced waiter. More photos.

“The only thing I believe is that I want to get the hell out of here,” he said. He peeled three one-hundred-dollar bills from a roll and threw them on the table.

Outside, traffic on West Street slowed as the occupants of the vehicles watched a Coast Guard cutter, its running lights ablaze, head upriver.

It was almost midnight, and the street was empty of pedestrians.

She took his arm and cuddled up close as they walked to his car. “I want to talk about this some more,” she said. “We just can’t do nothing.”

“I’m done talking. I’ll handle it.”

They rounded the corner, and he stopped and turned around for one more look at the river.

“It’s the damnedest thing,” he said.

“What is?”

“Look at the water. See how those lights just dance on its surface, like white fire on black fire.”

And then his world exploded.

CHAPTER

1

J
eanmarie Doyle, my ex-mother-in-law, loathed me in a biblical way, had poisoned my marriage, and now sat at my kitchen table smiling sweetly, coiled to strike again.

In the years since Ginny divorced me, Jeanmarie’s black hair had turned white, her body had thickened, and deep lines crosshatched her cheeks. But if you looked closely, the same feral madness still bubbled in her eyes.

For the better part of a half hour she sipped coffee from an NYPD mug with a crack in its handle and rattled on about people I didn’t remember and deaths I didn’t mourn. Even though the snakes in my head screamed that she was about to screw up my life, I didn’t interrupt. Jeanmarie got to things in her own time.

After the second refill, the well of small talk had run dry, and Jeanmarie got down to business.

“Steeg,” she said, “I need your help.”

My mother, Norah, used to say that the fairies give each of us a measure of cheek at birth. And as the years pile up on each other, all we’re left with is humility. It was fair to say Jeanmarie’s measure had a long way to go before the larder was empty.

The sheer chutzpah of the woman was astounding.

The snakes had had enough. I got up from the table, walked to the door, and held it open.

“Have a nice day, Jeanmarie.”

“It’s not for me I’m asking, it’s for Ginny.”

That got my attention.

“Ginny and her husband are getting death threats,” she said. “I’m not surprised. It was a match I didn’t approve of.”

She wrinkled her nose and glanced out the window at a pale and listless day.

“But she’s my child,” Jeanmarie continued, “and I only want for her happiness.”

I had heard Ginny had married a fireman, a Lower East Side guy named Gerhardt. But, as I recall, there wasn’t much Jeanmarie, or her husband, Ollie, did approve of, so I didn’t pursue it.

I walked back to the kitchen.

“Did she go to the police?” I asked.

She looked at me as if I were an idiot child.

Jeanmarie Doyle was about three things: family, the Church, and hatred for the British avocation of fucking the Irish over every chance they got. Strongbow, Cromwell, the plantations, the Rising, the Troubles weren’t history. They were festering, real-time events that she took with tea at night and with oatmeal in the morning. She even kept a kitchen canister for loose change and the spare dollar, periodically collected by the Hell’s Kitchen IRA man.

But above all, Jeanmarie hated and distrusted the police, a fact that had never boded well for my relationship with her daughter. When Ginny announced that she planned to marry a cop — me — it caused a shit storm of epic proportions. Cops, especially if they were Irish, were the enemy. Jeanmarie had fought our marriage every step of the way, but Ginny was resolute. So Jeanmarie bit her lip and pasted on a smile, but she never got past it.

Yet here she was, in my kitchen.

“I didn’t raise my child to go to the cops for justice,” she said.

“I’m a cop and you’re here,” I said.

A little smile, faintly cruel, I thought, played on her lips, and I knew exactly what she was thinking. The nine that tore through my chest courtesy of Frankie One-Eye, a meth-stoked pimp, had been God’s punishment for the way I earned my living. A kind of balancing of the scales.

“Not anymore,” she said.

“Fair point.”

Neither of us spoke for a few minutes as the obvious question hung uncomfortably in the air. In the distance, a ship’s horn sounded. Loud. Not from a tug. Something much bigger.

“Why are
you
here instead of Ginny?”

She splayed her fingers on the table and gazed at them.

“It wouldn’t be seemly,” she said.

“Seemly?”

“Aye. You being her ex and all.”

Suddenly, I was back in Lace Curtain Hell with its bullshit traditions and circumscriptions. I could have pointed out that her son, Liam, a petty thief with a lengthy rap sheet, hardly fit the description of seemly. Neither did her daughter Colleen, a stone drunk who hooked whenever the unemployment insurance ran out. And then there was her husband, Ollie, who by reason of laziness, inadequacy, or happenstance occupied a premier spot on the wrong side of society’s bell curve.

“Does Ginny know you’re here?”

Jeanmarie shook her head.

“All I want is to help my little girl.” She leaned forward and gripped my hands. “No matter what has gone on before, you’re still family. And that counts for something.” Her grip tightened and her voice grew cold. “I want you to find the bastards and kill them.”

The real Jeanmarie had finally made an appearance. Her mad eyes fastened on mine and refused to let go.

The muscles in my neck bunched up.

When I was on the job, I spent my time awash in the truly terrible things people were capable of. Ever since the shooting, I’d tried to balance things a bit by hitting the museums and galleries and whatever else piqued my interest. Jeanmarie sparked a memory of an exhibition of Spanish painting I’d seen at the Guggenheim a few weeks ago. There was one work that kept pulling me back. The background was a dense black. In the foreground a gray-robed monk held a saint’s skull. And beneath the cowl, wreathed in shadows, the mere suggestion of a face. The scene struck me as a place of preternatural madness, somewhere on the doorstep of hell. I still wondered about the effect the painting had on me. The only thing I could come up with is that the artist and I saw the same demons, shared the same snakes. Wallowed in their muck.

And now I was in danger of getting lost in the muck again. But this time it was Jeanmarie’s head. A place of dark, swirling Celtic mists, of vendetta and retribution, a place of blood for blood.

I owed her nothing. The local cops could handle it, and Ginny was smart enough to bring them in when things started going downhill. Besides, whatever Jeanmarie said about “family,” thanks to my love affair with Johnnie Black, I didn’t even remember large chunks of my marriage — except for the sex. And that was very good. Funny how some things stand out, while others kind of recede into the fog.

I was about to tell Jeanmarie to piss off when the phone rang.

“Gotta talk to Jeanmarie,” Ollie said, the words colliding into each other.

I handed her the phone. “It’s your husband.”

“Ollie?” she said.

Other than a slight tightening around her eyes, Jeanmarie’s face showed nothing. “Where?” she whispered into the receiver. “Tell her I’m on my way.”

She handed me the phone. “It’s happened,” she said. “They murdered Ginny’s husband.”

BOOK: Old Flame
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