Authors: S.J. Rozan
my agent, Steve Axelrod my editor, Keith Kahla what a pair
Emily Horowitz, who first told me I was writing a novel the experts
David Dubai, Joe Karas, Pat Picciarelli, Carl Stein and Harvey Stoddard
Betsy Harding, Royal Huber, Barbara Martin, Jamie Scott (and her damn owls), and, on this one, Becca Armstrong and Steve Landau
Steve Blier, Hillary Brown, Max Rudin, Jim Russell, and Amy Schatz
the muse Richard Wilcox
the genius Deb Peters
the goils Nancy Ennis and Helen Hester
It can be a treacherous road, State Route 30, especially rain slick in the twilight of late winter, but I know it well.
I sped along its badly banked curves faster than legal and faster than necessary. I was heading for Antonelli's; I had plenty of time. I drove that way just for the charge, pushing the road, feeling its rhythm in my fingers, its speed in the current in my spine. Water hissed under my tires and my headlights reflected off the fat raindrops that splattered the blacktop in front of me.
Years ago, 30 carried a fair amount of tourist traffic, but even then it was people on their way to somewhere else. Now that the state highway slices through the northern part of the county and the Thruway wraps around it, no one passes through Schoharie anymore unless they mean to stop, and not many have a reason to do that. The tourist brochures call this countryside picturesque. If you look closely, though, you'll see the caved-in roofs and derelict silos, the junked cars and closed roadside diners with their faded billboards. These rocky hills were never good for much except hunting and dairy farming. Farming's a hard way to make a living, getting harder; and hunters are men like me, who come and go.
The hiss of water became the crunch of gravel in the lot in front of Antonelli's. I swung in, parked at the edge.
I had Mozart in the CD player, Mitsuko Uchida playing the B-flat Sonata, and I lit a cigarette, opened the window, listened as the music ended in triumph and the exhilaration of promises fulfilled.
Then I left the car and strolled over to look across the valley. I was early. City habits die hard.
Hands in my pockets, I let my eyes wander the far hills, asked myself what I was doing. Work wasn't what this place was about, for me. But on the phone, when Eve Colgate had called, I'd heard something: not her words, clipped and businesslike, but the long, slow melody under them. Raindrops tapped my jacket; a tiny stream ran through the gravel at my feet, searching for the valley.
Unexpectedly, I thought of Lydia, her voice on the phone when I'd called to tell her I was coming up here, would be away awhile. There was music in Lydia's voice, too; there always was, though I'd never told her that. She wasn't surprised or bothered that I was leaving. Over the four years we've known each other she's come to expect this, my sudden irregular disappearances and returns. In the beginning, of course, I never told her when I was going, didn't call when I got back. Then, we just worked together sometimes; if she needed someone while I was gone, there were other people to call. But at some point, and I couldn't say just when, I'd started calling, to let her know.
The rain was ending. Wind rolled the high black clouds aside, revealing a sky that was still almost blue. The air was full of the smell of earth and promise, everything ready, tense with waiting. Soon spring would explode through
the valley and race up the hills, color and noise engulfing the sharp silence I stood for a while, watched tiny lights
the windows of distant homes. When the sky was
1 turned and went inside.
The crowd in Antonelli's was small and subdued. A golf tournament, all emerald grass and blue sky and palm trees, flickered soundlessly from the TV over the bar. A couple of guys who probably thought golf was a sport were watching it. A few other people were scattered around, at
bar, at the small round tables. None of them was the woman I had come to meet.
I slid onto a bar stool. Behind the bar, Tony Antonelli, a compact, craggy man whose muscles moved like small boulders under his flannel shirt, was ringing up someone's tab. He looked over at me and nodded.
"Figured you were up," he said, clinking ice into a squat glass. He splashed in a shot of Jim Beam and handed it to me. "Saw smoke from your place yesterday."
"Big help you are," I said. "Whole place could burn down, you'd just watch."
"Happens I drove down to make sure your car was there, wise ass. I oughta charge you for the gas."
"Put it on my tab." I drank. "How's Jimmy?" I asked casually.
Tony turned, busied himself with glasses and bottles. "Still outta jail."
I said nothing. He turned back to me. "Well, that's what you wanna know, ain't it? Make sure all your hard work ain't been wasted?"
"No," I said. "I knew that. How is he?"
"How the hell do I know? He don't live with me no more; he moved in with some girl. If I see him I'll tell him you're askin'."
I nodded and worked on my bourbon. Tony opened Rolling Rocks for two guys down the other end of the bar. He racked some glasses, filled a couple of bowls with pretzels. Then he turned, reached the bourbon bottle off the shelf. He put it on the bar in front of me.
"Sorry," he said. "It ain't you. I oughta be thankin' you, I guess. But that no-good punk pisses the hell outta me. He never shoulda came to you. He gets his ass in trouble, he oughta get it out."
"Uh-huh," I said. "How come you never gave him a break, Tony?"
Tony snorted. "I was too busy feedin' him! What the hell you see to like in that kid, Smith?"
I grinned. "Reminds me of me."
"You musta been one godless bastard."
"I was. Only I didn't have a big brother like you, Tony. I was worse."
"Yeah, well, he should'n'a came to you. And don't think you're gonna pay that candy-ass lawyer you brought here. I told you to send me his goddamn bill."
"Forget it. He owed me."
"That's between you and him. I been bailin' Jimmy's ass outta trouble for years; I got no reason to stop now. I don't like the kid, Smith, but I'm family. You ain't."
I looked at Tony, at the sharp line of his jaw, his brows bristling over his deep-set eyes. "No," I said slowly. "No, I'm not." I poured myself another drink, took
bottle to a table in the corner, and sat down to
for Eve Colgate.
Another bourbon and a cigarette later, the door opened and a tall, gray-haired woman stepped into the smoky room. No heads turned, no conversations stopped. She looked around her, reviewing and dismissing each face until she came to mine. She stayed still for a moment, with no change of expression; then she came toward me, contained, controlled. She wore a down vest over a black sweater, old, stained jeans, muddy boots. I stood.
"Mr. Smith?" She offered her hand. Her grip was sure, her hand rough. "Thank you for coming."
"Sit down." I held a chair for her.
"Thank you." She smiled slightly. "Men don't do this much anymore—help ladies into their seats."
"I was born in Kentucky. What are you drinking?"
"Tony keeps a bottle of Gran Capitan under the bar for me." The skin of her face was lined like paper that someone had crumpled and then, in a moment of regret, tried to smooth out again. Her blunt, shoulder-length hair was a dozen shades of gray, from almost-black to almost-white. I went to get her drink.
Tony gestured across the room with his eyes as he poured Eve Colgate's brandy. "You know her?"
"Just met. Why?"
"I meant to tell you she was askin' about you, coupla days ago. Wondered about it, at the time. She don't usually talk to nobody. Comes in alone, has a shot, leaves alone. Maybe sometimes she talks cows or apples with somebody.
She ain't—I don't know." He shook his head over what he didn't know. "But she's got money."
"My type, Tony." I picked up her brandy from the bar.
"Hey!" Tony said as I turned. I turned back. "You ain't workin' for her?"
"Nah. She just thinks I'm cute."
"With a puss like you got?" Tony muttered as I walked away.
Eve Colgate's mouth smiled as I put her drink on the scarred tabletop. Her eyes were doing work of their own. They were the palest eyes I'd ever seen, nearly colorless. They probed my face, my hands, swept over the room around us, followed my movements as I drank or lit a cigarette. When they met my eyes they paused, for a moment. They widened slightly, almost imperceptibly, and I thought for no reason of the way a dark room is revealed by a lightning flash, and how much darker it is, after that.
I smoked and let Eve Colgate's eyes play. I didn't meet them again. She took a breath, finally, and spoke, with the cautious manner of a carpenter using a distrusted tool.
"I'm not sure how to begin." She sipped her brandy. If I had a dollar for every client who started that way I could have had a box at Yankee Stadium, but there was a difference. They usually said it apologetically, as if they expected me to expect them to know how to begin. Eve Colgate was stating a fact that I could take or leave.
"I called you on a matter difficult for me to speak about. I don't know you, and I don't know that I want you closely involved in my—in my personal affairs. However, I don't
to have many options, and all of them are poor you may be the best of them."
She looked at me steadily. "Don't be silly. I can't pretend to welcome the intrusion you represent. I'm too old to play games for the sake of your pride, Mr. Smith. I may need you, but I can't see any reason to be pleased about it."
I couldn't either, so I let it go.
She went on, her words clipped. "However, things are as they are. At this point, Mr. Smith, I'd like to know something more about you. All I have up to now are other people's opinions, and that's not enough. Is this acceptable?"
"Maybe. It depends on what you want to know."
"I'll tell you what I do know. I know you bought Tony's father's cabin ten years ago. You come up here irregularly, sometimes for long periods. Tony says you're moody and you drink. Other than that he speaks very highly of you. I understand you helped get his brother out of serious trouble recently—and went to considerable trouble to do it."
"The kid deserved a chance. He was in over his head in something he didn't understand. I bought that cabin twelve years ago. I sleep in the nude."
She looked at me sharply over her brandy. Her movements were small and economical. In contrast to her eyes, her body was composed and still.
"And are you always rude to your clients?" she asked.
"More often than I'd like to be." I refilled my glass from Tony's bottle. "I've been a private investigator for sixteen
years, twelve in my own shop. Before that I was carpenter. I've been to college and in the Navy. I drink, I smoke, I eat red meat. That's it."
"I doubt it," said Eve Colgate. "Have you a family, Mr. Smith?"
I took a drink. "I had."
"But no longer?"
"I'm hard to live with."
"Was your wife also hard to live with?"
"Her second husband doesn't think so."
That was territory where no one went. I drank, put my cigarette out. "Look, Miss Colgate, you called me. I can use the work, but not the inquisition. I gave you references; call them if you want, ask about me."
"I have." She didn't continue.
"Well, that's all you get."
We drank in silence for a while. Eve Colgate's eyes never rested. They swept the room, probing the corners, counting the bottles on Tony's shelves. They inspected the cobwebs at the raftered celling. Every now and then, unpredictably, they returned to me, settling on my face, my hands, taking off again.
"Yes," she said suddenly, draining her glass. "You'll do. I'll expect you tomorrow morning. Do you know where I live?"
"You'll expect me to do what?"
"Some—things were stolen from me. They're worth a good deal of money; and yet they're not as valuable to the thief as they are to me. I want them back."
"The police are good at that sort of thing."
Her eyes flashed. "I'm not a stupid woman, Mr. Smith. If I'd wanted the police involved I would have called them."
"Why haven't you?"
She stood. So did I. "I don't want to discuss it here. If, after I tell you what I need done, you don't want to do it, I'll pay you for your time and your trip. Thank you for the drink, Mr. Smith." She walked from the room, her back straight, her steps measured.
When the door shut behind her the bar was the same as it had been before, as it had always been. Men and women who'd been stopping in at Antonelli's after work since Tony's father had run the place bought each other drinks, talked quietly about sports, the weather, their cars, and their kids. In the back, laughing, smoking, drinking beer from the bottle was a tableful of young kids who'd been children when I first started coming here. Now that rear table was clearly theirs, Antonelli's as much their place as their parents'. Room had been made for them, and Antonelli's continued.
I swirled the bourbon around in my glass, then signaled to Marie, Tony's waitress, who was leaning on the bar chewing gum and trading wisecracks with the Rolling Rock drinkers. "Hi," she said, bouncing over to my table. "Can I get you something?" Her shaggy hair was bleached to a very pale blond, fine and soft.
"Hi." I pointed to my glass. "I need more ice, and I'm starving. What do you have?"
"Lasagna." She nibbled on a maroon fingernail that must
have been an inch long "And bean soup. And the usual stuff." She giggled.
I ordered the lasagna. Marie bounced off chomping openmouthed on her gum. I glanced up at the TV. The golf was over, the news was on. That meant there'd be NCAA basketball soon. I had a client, a bellyful of bourbon, and Tony's lasagna coming. I stretched my legs and idly watched an elderly couple a few tables over. They were eating dinner in a silence punctuated only by quiet remarks and small gestures that dovetailed so perfectly they might have been choreographed.
I'd told Lydia I was coming up here, told her I'd be away; but I hadn't said I'd be meeting a client, that I might be working.
I got up, bought a
from the pile by the bar. Sipping my bourbon, I caught up on what had been happening since I'd last come up.
There was federal DOT money coming along and with it the state was planning to replace or rebuild three county roads. That was bad. Seven years ago they'd replaced this stretch of 30 with a faster, straighter road on the other side of the valley. Now this was strictly a local road and most of the establishments along it had died slow, lonely deaths. Antonelli's was one of the few still open.
I glanced at the other lead stories. Appleseed Baby Foods was expanding. That was good. Appleseed was the only major employer in the county. Appleseed CEO Mark Sanderson smiled from a front-page photo. I sipped my bourbon, considered the photo. In the old days, pictures of the state senator's Christmas party or the county Fourth