I’ve made a few bargains with the devil.
You can trust him. He is what he is. It’s all on the table. The ones who admit that they’re the devil never do more or less than they agree to. Those who claim to be holy will get you every time.
“He wants to meet you on the Albino farm? Tools, it’s been good to know you.” Carl Vandy’s hung-over corpse stood in the doorway to the kitchen. “You aren’t crazy enough…”
“Sally, get our guest a cup of coffee.” She did it before she realized I was the one telling her to. Ms. Rosemond gave me another of her inexhaustible supply of contemptuous expressions.
“Carl, meet Father Ken Corleone, formerly of Infant of Prague Parish, now exiled and penitent. Father, say hello to Carl Vandy, the head Detective on Terri’s murder and Torey’s sexual abuse case.” I’m not sure if Ken wanted to touch him, but he extended his hand. Damien did not show such courage with the lepers of Molokai.
“Former head Detective. Always glad to meet another former.” They shook hands.
I was surprised again. It was getting to be an unpleasant tradition. “Wait, Carl, you said former?”
“It’s the old story. Cop meets body. Cop arrests creep. Cop steals DNA from church property after bloody suicide. Cop retires from force, under pressure from powerful cabal of politicians and clergy. You’ve heard it all a hundred times. Got any Sweet n’ Low?”
“You were stirring up too much dust?”
“I stirred up the whole dune, my friend.” Carl was sucking on his mug like a babe at the teat. “I heard what your friend here said, Tools. It would seem you had left me in the dark on a lot of things. I might have been able to help — if you’d asked.”
“I’m used to keeping secrets, Vandy.”
“For good reason. Give me a refill, will ya’?” He was treating Sally like a waitress. I loved it. “You’re not going to meet Redlands, are you?”
“Of course not. I have had enough contact with dear Officer Redlands this week.”
“He’s an asshole; a dangerous asshole. He’s got a very thick file full of citizen’s complaints. A thousand of ‘em are typical bullshit, but sad to say, there are two thousand in the stack. I might be exaggerating, but not much.” Carl drained the cup and held it out towards Sal.
“What are you going to do, Marty?” Valerie wanted to make sure that I didn’t have one of my great ideas. It’s that whole “great” becomes “idiotic” thing again.
“I’ve got to get close to the Chancellor, that’s all.”
“Stop right there, Sonny!” Vandy was spitting coffee. He wasn’t angry. He frequently spit coffee. He’d have something to say, and he’d forget there was something in his mouth. The others were a bit grossed out, but I knew Vandy. “If you’re thinking of killing him, I’m not going to allow that. He’s a slime, and he did something unspeakable to Torey. But I can’t let you grease him, as richly as he deserves it.”
I had my code, and Vandy had his. I respected him. I wasn’t going to drag anyone else into this; not him, not Valerie, Kenny, not even Sally Rosemond. That sounds altruistic, doesn’t it? Tools protects his friends. He takes up his lonely cross, and through him, and him alone, all are saved. That’s closer to the truth of it. That’s the level my ego can operate on.
Whatever was going to happen, it was something I had to do on my own, in my own way. Terri and my son demanded justice. Like most of the little deities who run around this world, pretending to care, I can be a very selfish god.
I had to figure out how much of the truth I could get away with. “I need to get close to Shuldik. I need to say something to him.”
Valerie leaned forward. There wasn’t enough room in the kitchen to do much else. It was very crowded. No wonder Val never threw parties. “What are you going to say to him?”
“Something that will shake him up. Something that will make him nervous. I want him to make a mistake.” It was two-thirds of the truth. I had envisioned Shuldik’s death, but I couldn’t let Vandy in on my plan. He’d stop me.
Vandy wasn’t sure of me yet. Had he seen something in my eyes? He was capable of that. I’d have to be very careful. “You want him to screw up so we can arrest him?”
I didn’t want to lie. He would know. I threw a curve ball in the dirt. “Arrest him? I thought you were retired.”
Distracted, strike one! “Not until the first of the year. They gave me that. I’m on a desk, but I’ve still got a badge, and in case you try anything stupid, a gun.” He meant it.
Sally decided to put me in my place. “I’m sure the Chancellor will just invite you over for tea. You do not move in his circle, pal.” She was right. She’s a pain in the ass, but she’s no dummy. I had to give her that.
“How are you going to get to him?” Val made a poor choice of words. It sounded like a gangster movie.
Ken lifted his head and joined the conspiracy. He sure had enough motivation to want Shuldik to get his cumuppence. Forgive him, Father, he knows not what he does. “There’s a party tomorrow night.”
“A party?” Vandy was waking up. Between his odor and the coffee, the rest of us had been quite alert for awhile now.
Corleone couldn’t stop now. He was in too deep. “A big fundraiser at the Chancellery. He’ll be there. He loves the smell of money.”
“How uncharitable of you, Ken. I’m shocked.” I wasn’t.
Sally stuck to her realism. “A little late to RSVP, Martin. Did you misplace your invitation?”
“You’re right, Sally. It’s not my social circle. But I have a friend.” I had a plan. I was getting a great idea. As usual, I was operating on the fly. It felt good, very good. This idea couldn’t miss. It was, pardon the expression, a dead solid lock.
“Marty?” Val had picked up something.
“What’re you up to, Tools?” Vandy was sniffing the air. So were the rest of us.
“Go home to your daughter, Vandy. She’s probably worried sick. By the way, she spent the night at Jackie’s.”
Worried, strike two! “Shit! Jackie’s? I gotta go.” He headed towards the door. Fresh November air filled the room. What a relief.
“Hey, Carl, be back here tomorrow night at eight and pick me up.”
“Where are we going?”
“To a party. I’m going to have a talk with the Monsignor. I’m going to blackmail him. Offer him a way out of his predicament. And you can stand by my side to make sure I don’t stick a butterknife in his testicles.” Vandy would figure I wouldn’t do anything with him at my elbow.
“Blackmail him? How does that help?” Vandy was trying to follow my plan.
“He has nothing but contempt for all of us. If I ask Shuldik for money to keep quiet it’ll confirm his conception of who we are — especially who I am. I’ll make a desperate little blackmail pitch to him at the fundraiser. The next day, Sunday morning, he celebrates Mass at Infant of Prague; I’ll go there and play him some more, try to set up another meeting for the payoff.”
“You think he’ll pay?” Vandy was up to speed.
“Sure. And he’ll talk. He’ll say something we can use to nail him.”
“So now you’re in law enforcement?” Vandy was skeptical.
“What else can we do, Vandy?”
“I’ll tell you one thing. I’m going with you, Tools. I’ll be sitting on your ass at the fund raiser and in church on Sunday. There won’t be any vigilante stuff. So forget it if you’re thinking that way.” Vandy leaned towards me. “We’ll do this together.” It was a real pity that Vandy couldn’t trust me. Friendship doesn’t mean what it used to, I guess.
“I’m going with you, too, Marty.” Val didn’t trust me, either.
“If you’re going, so am I,” said Sally. Great, it was a double date for the party, and church on Sunday.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, gang.” What could I say? Besides, they couldn’t stop me. And they really had no idea just how widely I had cast my net of vengeance. Excuse the super-hero riff and my cavalier attitude. I repeat, it’s the way I work, and I had to think funny in order to do the serious work ahead.
“O.K., I guess this might work,” said Vandy.
Overconfidence, strike three! Yer out! And he was. We could all breathe again. We’d probably have to get a tomcat to piss on the rug so it wouldn’t stink so bad. But at least the air was clearing in the kitchen. I had tricked old Vandy.
Normally, he would have seen through me. Heck, if he had been maintaining a regular drinking schedule over the years instead of sobering up in AA, he might have been sharper. As it was, the bender had put him in a state that he was no longer accustomed to. If he were his old self, he would have seen it clearly. Chancellor Monsignor Leo Shuldik was going to die. And Vandy would be there when it happened. I could see it all.
“Just one problem; I can’t get you an invitation to the fundraiser, Marty.” Father Corleone sounded genuinely sorry.
“I don’t need you to, Father. Valerie, my sweet. I must be off.” I grabbed my coat off the back of the chair. I made it to the sidewalk.
Valerie was at the door looking down at me, as was appropriate. “Tools, what are you up to?” She wasn’t hung over.
“I need to check on a few things. I’ll be back later.”
“You be home by midnight.” She was afraid.
“Do you think I’m stupid? I’d have to be worse than crazy to go up there tonight.”
She knew I hadn’t really said anything. “Say it!”
“O.K., I will not meet Officer Redlands alone on the Albino Farm tonight at midnight. There, good enough?”
She ran back the tape. Sally put her hand on Valerie’s shoulder from behind. “Fine, be here by midnight. And don’t get arrested.”
Touched by Sally. Strike three! Yer out! Val never thought clearly with Sally around. Too many inner conflicts started churning. Thank you, Ms. Rosemond.
“And don’t get drunk!”
“I won’t.” I felt like a little boy heading off to school with his mother shouting guidance from the front porch. Men are always little boys. Women, the best ones, are always mothers at heart. Little boys are always up to something and moms, the best ones, always know it.
Val closed the door. I was standing on the sidewalk, looking for the keys to the Sebring in my pocket, when a little Miata pulled up — such a little cute car with a little cute driver. She was blond, her hair cut very short, and she had that slim supermodel look. Let me correct myself, that slim lesbian supermodel look. She had to be a friend of Sally’s. I hoped so, if Val… Well, I know what I can’t compete with. I’ll leave it at that.
She popped up out of the car like she was spring-loaded. She had a brown manila envelope in her hand and a smile on her face. “Is Sally here? This is the right place, isn’t it?” She was a bubbly, happy lesbian.
“Yes. I mean, it’s the right place, but Sally’s not here.”
“Oh…” She bit her full lower lip. Very cute.
“You got something for Sally?” I rarely miss it when some of my blind luck magically appears.
“Yeah. Some records from the archives, and something that…” She stopped — considering what she should tell the strange man. So cute. “…Something that another friend dug up at city hall. Sally said…”
“Yeah, she was expecting you. I’ll take ‘em.” I grabbed the envelope. “Thanks. Sally said she’d call you later. Bye.”
For a second she thought… and then thought… “Cool.” The little Miata putted away up the street. I stuck the envelope in my pocket, and headed to “my” car. I felt so alive as I drove south, imagining the death of a monster. That’s what he was. Monsters are real. Tell your kids. It’s best that they know.
I followed all applicable local traffic ordinances in the Sebring. I didn’t want any attention. I had a lot of errands to run. I headed towards Younger Street again, but Baldie’s wasn’t my destination. As I went past, I gave a little casual finger wave to my little friend at the gate. He gave a tiny nod, man to man. I think he liked my ride. I felt guilty. I was being a poor role model. He wasn’t in school again today. I figured he had other role models besides me, like Dennis Rodman, Notorious B.I.G., and Kenneth Lay.
I passed the sewing machine place, driving slowly. I’m a little superstitious. I half expected to see Redlands in his patrol car. I didn’t, probably because I crossed myself. Hey, it worked for Jose Canseco a few times. Which reminds me, my butt itched.
I turned past Pies’ house. I parked down the block. The dirty red brick wall of the Amalgamated Lead Refinery towered above me. It had been there for almost a hundred years. Back in the last golden age of no government regulation they had smelted millions of tons of delicious sweet lead here. You can still taste it in the dirt, and it is so sweet.
Kids love it. In the dirt, off their dusty tricycles or the chipping paint on the windowsills, lead destroys strong bodies twelve ways. And the great thing is, it lasts forever, or at least until the lead company can mutate and reorganize so it’s no longer liable for any of the unfortunate damage. They talk about cleaning it up, but clean-ups are slow and expensive, and you can’t cut a ribbon for a clean-up, so politicians avoid them if they can.
One of the other fun things about making lead is that it produces something called thallium. It is a lovely element. Its atomic number is 81. Doctors use it in an irradiated form to do heart circulation studies. That’s safe. Don’t worry if, when your chest hurts, they want to give you a thallium test. You’ll be fine. But thallium nitrate is a different matter entirely. It will kill you dead. It is a particularly bad way to go.
First your hair falls out. That’s not bad. It saves you money on shampoo and blow dryers. The next part gets nasty. Your nervous system starts to die, inch by burning debilitating inch. You are bedridden in fiery agony as your little living wires incinerate themselves. It would be better to cover yourself with tar and walk into a stream of molten lava. That’s if you get a merely borderline fatal dose. Just imagine. I did.
How do I know? I’ve read Agatha Christie. She wrote a book where thallium is the modus opperandi. I also saw a movie called “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook” a couple years back. I just grabbed it at Blockbuster when I couldn’t find the Christian Slater film I wanted. Valerie didn’t like it much. It wasn’t a chick flick. I also read about a guy in Florida or somewhere who kept some in old Coke bottles in the garage. He was an unpleasant sort, as someone close to him discovered too late. Sadaam, the new Nebedcanezzar, used it on the Kurds.
Thallium poisoning is as far from slapstick as you can get. Once I learn something, from whatever source, I file it away. When I need it, there it is.
They used to use it for rat poison. Nothing’s too good for rats, of all varieties. They still sell it in Portugal, but that wasn’t convenient. What’s the old saying? There’s no place like home? My little fantasy had everything it needed right here in Tirawa. They ended up with a lot of left-over thallium at Amalgamated Lead.
While I cased the joint, I pulled out Vandy’s cell phone. Last night, after I talked to young Sammi, I sort of decided to borrow it. I owed Vandy two cell phones now. What the hell, they’re practically free.
Mattie Robinson had given me her card at lunch that day I trashed hubby’s surrogate Hummer pee pee in the parking lot. I rang her up.
“Mattie, it’s Tools.” I hoped she wouldn’t hang up.
“Oh, how delightful. Would you like my ex-husband’s address? He still has things I would love to see vandalized.” I loved her sense of humor.
It turned out she wasn’t kidding. She considered it a quid-pro-quo for the favor I asked. It wasn’t much of a price. I’d probably find some things worth keeping. Either way, I was ahead. She promised to get me an invite to the Bishop’s soiree the next night. She’d messenger it to Valerie’s address. A messenger? She did have class. I promised to follow through on the matter of the ex’s valuables soon. She invited me to take a dip in her indoor heated pool. I’m not sure if she meant swimming or something else.
I returned to my lead plant vigil. I knew how it could be done. It ran like a movie when I closed my eyes. When I opened my eyes, it was time to work.
I watched one group of guys leave the side security gate and climb into their Dodge Ram pickups. The cleanup crew was leaving a little early. No surprise, it was a government job. Taxpayers were footing the bill since Bush II had stopped making the polluters clean up after themselves. Taxpayers never show up to supervise. Four-thirty was close enough to five, so off the gang went.
Of course the security gate was locked, so I went straight in. Those new fangled card scanners are simple if you’ve got a refrigerator magnet on you. Mine was in the shape of a cute little cow head.
Right inside the gate was a trailer with a big sign that said, “Suit-Up.” I popped the dead bolt on the door, went on in, and found the cutest yellow plastic body suit with matching gloves and inflatable helmet. I grabbed a name badge. I wanted to look the part. I’m a method actor. Finally, I slipped on some orange booties to complete the ensemble and headed out into the plant.
The Amalgamated Lead Smelting complex was in poor repair. Fact is, they were slowly dismantling the damned thing. Some Halliburton subsidiary had the contract. Take down a wall. Decontaminate the debris. Put it on a truck and bury it in Wyoming. Two or three out-buildings were gone. I could see the outlines on the ground where they had once stood. A huge pile of broken concrete and bent rusty re-bar dominated the old loading dock area.
That’s where I was, looking around like a tourist, when somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around without thinking.
“You working late, Tony?” It was the supervisor.
Tony? Oh, yeah, I had the ID badge on. “Sure.” I grunted more than I spoke.
“Don’t forget to lock the gate. I’ll see you at the bar.” The boss headed towards the Suit-Up trailer. Lucky for me, all white guys look the same in yellow plastic jumpsuits and inflatable helmets. I checked my identity badge — a little late, but I wanted to be thorough. I looked at Tony’s picture. Surprise, Tony was Toni. Toni was a girl. Lucky for me, all bipeds look the same in yellow plastic jumpsuits and inflatable helmets. Though I wondered why my deep masculine grunting reply had fooled the boss.
I really had no idea where any surplus thallium might be kept. I was working on a hunch that there’d be some. With the supervisor gone, there was really no time pressure, but the suit smelled like Toni. I really didn’t want to think about what my nose was telling me for too long.
My luck held. Around a corner, tucked in against a stained brick wall, was another trailer. This one was smaller and oranger than my booties. There were enough hazard symbols tacked to the side walls to scare anyone away. One had a circle with a silhouette of a man clutching at his throat like he was choking. Another symbol involved a dead bird falling from the sky, and the scariest was an eyeball that had cartoon smoke pouring out of its pupil. Those universal danger signs plus the words “Poison Collection” on the door told me I was in the right neighborhood.
Inside the trailer. No need for me to describe the shitty lock on the door, is there? There were some steel cabinets. My fingernail file would have worked great on the cabinet locks, but as it turned out, all the hatches were unbattened. That was good, because I had no idea how to get the file out of my pocket while wearing the Haz-Mat suit.
Everything was arranged neatly. There were containers full of little slivers of a blue soft metal. That was the pure thallium. Useless for my purpose. There were some white powders and some bluish tinged scrapings. The middle cabinet had about twenty plastic jars full of fine white crystals. I could have guessed, but I didn’t need to. The jars were labeled “Thallium nitrate.” Amalgamated had sold the stuff to pest control companies as a key ingredient in rat poison. That business had ended with a federal ban in 1981. No problem, thallium has a long shelf life, two or three thousand years.
Over to the left on a stainless steel counter was a box of small high quality plastic bags. Each bag would hold about five grams. Carefully, I took one of the thallium nitrate jars down and oh so carefully opened the lid. There was a small hiss. I watched closely, no dust in the air. The well-equipped trailer supplied me with a Pyrex scoop which I used to carefully fill five of the bags. That gave me 25 grams. I was starting to sweat like Toni. I stashed the bags in a pouch on the front of my suit.
I knew what I was going to do. Now I had what I needed to pull it off. So long as Vandy didn’t interfere.
I drove up to Kim’s and tried to see Torey. I wanted to convince him not to serve Mass for Shuldik. I got the reception I’d anticipated.
“Go away, Marty.” Kim wouldn’t even open the door. There was nothing more that I could do but hope. I’m not comfortable depending on such a sentimental concept, but I had no choice. I left Kim’s and headed north to the big houses.
I made one quick stop. To you it might be called burglary, to me it was investigation. I had to go break into a house to check a medicine cabinet, a dressing table, and a painting. When I saw the portrait, my chest got a little tight. Art can speak to you. It spoke to me. I don’t know art, but I do know what, I hate. I didn’t hate the painting. I hated where it was. I had to work at focusing my eyes, like I was almost going to cry. But my vision cleared. I looked long and hard at that picture. I would remember it always. I would never see it again.
A few hours later, after a few more professional errands – hey, I’m a thief and I had a little time to, pardon the expression, kill — I parked up the block from Ahmed’s. I pulled out a black Gucci briefcase I had acquired. Let’s just say high-end stores are easy unless you’re Winona Ryder. This lovely little leather bag now held two plastic-wrapped mega-doses of thallium nitrate. I felt jaunty. Gucci always makes me jaunty. I almost bounced into Ahmed’s yard.
“Crew, lovely evening, isn’t it?”
Crew was unloading a truck. I’m not sure it was his truck, but idle hands, as they say. “Yes, Tools, a lovely crisp evening.” He hit every syllable perfectly.
“Is my good friend, may Allah be with him, Ahmed in?”
“Yes, sir, he’s in the office. Go right in.” If Crew was outside and Ahmed was inside, you always want to ask permission to enter. It’s a rule. Crew is good at enforcing rules. He can be quite frightening if he is stirred to action. Even then he is quiet, never angry, but very deadly. I saw him once… well, I promised not to talk about it. The other person there that night certainly wouldn’t, ever.
“Thank you, Crew.” Always be courteous where courtesy is due.
“You are welcome, sir.” He returned to his labors.
I went into the office. Well, I got as far as the steel door. I hit the buzzer. After a few seconds — I’m sure there was a camera somewhere — I was buzzed in. The room was mahogany, the back wall covered with filing cabinets and a vault door. It was open. Stainless steel is beautiful. To the left was a painting of a smiling John Paul II. To the right it was Malcolm X with, I swear, the exact same happy smile. Ahmed was counting money. He was grinning like a Polish Pope, wearing a Nehru jacket like Mr. X. He’s always happy when he counts money.
“My, my, my. What’s shakin’, Tools? What can Ahmed do fo’ you this fine, fine night?”
“I need a gun.”
“Firs’ you needa taxi, den you need a gun. You be getting your cute white ass in some trouble, boy.” He was still grinning. He was still counting. He didn’t like those machines. He liked to touch it. I was sure Crew, the human calculator, had already totaled it up. Ahmed trusted him completely. But, he did like to touch it.
“I need a gun.” It was eleven-thirty. I didn’t have time to chit-chat.
“Eaaaasssssy, cowboy. Ah got cher back.” He swiveled around in his high back chair and reached in a filing cabinet drawer. He came back with a great big nickel-plated Smith and Wesson cannon. It was capable of bringing down the walls of Constantinople or turning a man’s chest into reddish Cream of Wheat.
“I’m not hunting elephants, Ahmed.”
He turned back and showed me a little gray and bluish gun about the size of my hand. “It’s a Taurus, man.” He tossed it my way.
I snagged it with my left. “You flunked gun safety, didn’t you, Ahmed?” All of Ahmed’s guns were always loaded. To him, if they weren’t loaded, they weren’t guns. This was a gun all right.
“Thas’ a P-T One Foe Tea., a millennium semi-auto-mat-tick. Ten plus one, bro.”
It was cute. I’ve said it before, I hate cute. I hate guns. But I needed one, so there it was in my hand. I settled up with a promise to bring in some swag next week and the car keys to the Sebring down the block. That worked out well, considering I was going to be doing that little courtesy for Mattie. It’s great to have a good credit rating at Ahmed’s. You just don’t ever want one of Crew’s collection letters.
Speaking of Crew, he was kind enough to give me a lift over to Saint Phil’s. I didn’t want to push my luck driving around in the stolen Sebring anymore than I already had. On this trip we listened to the Byrds. I grabbed the Gucci attache and bid my ebony friend a good night. He just nodded as “Turn Turn” jangled on.
I hopped the wall directly into the cemetery. I didn’t want to go near the Refectory. That memory was way too clear. I checked my jail-bought watch. It was five ‘til the witching hour. The switchback path was dark but dry. I hoped I was there first.
I moved slower and more carefully as I neared the top. I wondered if Redlands was the punctual sort. I came out into the first clearing and tried to remember how Indians walked when they stalked game. I was moderately successful and only stepped on every other snapping twig. I eased up on the lilac bush where they found Terri. I set down the briefcase and checked the gun in my pocket.
There was a small hump or hillock by the bush. I crouched there and peered through the branches, trying to see if anyone was on the lookout. It was very quiet on the Albino Farm.
Even when the gun slid slowly up to my temple, it was quiet. I didn’t feel a thing until the mouth of the barrel touched the short hairs in front of my ear. The pressure increased, but it was never too hard – the gentle touch of fatal foreplay.
I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew who would speak. He did.
James Redlands sounded very, very cold.
some reason I couldn’t speak.