The cop stands there, I guess thinking. I mumble some more and try to struggle, but I’m barely standing on my own power, that and my ability to speak is somewhat hampered by the fact that my jaw doesn’t seem to move on its own. It’s my imagination, I guess, because I cough, and dark blood splatters out onto the pavement. The cop steps back, and says, “This man needs medical attention. We can go in my car.”
“We ain’t takin’ him to no hospital,” says White Man. “Get on.”
It’s about this time that things get confusing. I lurch forward, and I say, “Help me,” in the strongest voice I can muster, through broken teeth and blood, and he stares at me for a microsecond and then grabs me and then there’s a flurry of movement. I see legs and arms someone gives a shout, and then there’s a gun and I’m falling and there’s a pair of shoes and then another with white pants attached to them and then I’m looking up and I see the cop holding White Man’s shoulders. I see an arm, a gray arm coming into my view, and it reaches under the cop’s arms and then a glint of metal, the gun, and it turns and it fires, and the cop stops moving, and goes limp, and White Man slowly lets him down, turning him over, laying him on the pavement.
Rough arms pull me up and White Man says, “Go park that car. We’ll dump it later. I’ll get him inside.”
I see Gray Man pick up the cop and then White Man half drags, half carries me up the steps to the front door of Building 120, and he produces a set of keys. “Got a set of these, don’t you?” he says. The door unlocks with a ponderous yawn, and we step into the darkness.
And now, the continuing adventures of Ferret-Eye Jack…
CHAPTER 16 – REMAINDERS
So I’m sittin’ here, thinkin’ about how a week ago, or nearly, I was wakin’ up from a bender with a phone call from a black man about his kid getting murdered. How quickly things change. Now I’m sittin’ with half my teeth dangling in my throat, leaving the other ones in a piano key arrangement, except they guys who just worked me over aren’t exactly musicians, if you know what I mean.
Even after Aries came up as the target, it wasn’t enough. Now I’m in Ernst Villig’s office-the late Ernst Villig-with two monkeys who just killed a cop rifling through these files, looking for something. I’m guessing the same thing I was looking for.
Now that we’re inside, they?ve got me tied to a chair. I’m feeling a little better now, though my ribs hurt like hell and like I say my face isn’t looking like it used to. Before, I only had one or two bruises. Most of ‘em were from friends, or at least guys I knew. These guys, though?
My right eye is almost completely swollen shut, but I can see fine out of my left. I’m not coughing up blood, so I guess it was just my teeth gettin’ knocked in. I can feel a few missing, but instead of being angry, I just feel sad. I had some nice teeth.
White and Gray have these boxes and file folders out all over the place, most of them just thrown on the floor. They seem pretty methodical, these guys, and I wonder who they work for. Might as well ask ‘em.
“Who are you guys?” I ask. I make do with the pain in my mouth, and it comes out all right.
“Shaddup,” Gray Man says.
Easy enough, I suppose, but I’ve been worked over once already. Twice in a day wouldn’t make me break into a sweat, even if these are the guys that did it. I press on.
“Who are you working for?”
“Shaddup,” says White Man.
Before I can ask ‘em something else, Gray Man wordlessly hands his partner a box with a label on the top. I can’t read it. White Man grabs it and pushes aside everything on the desk. He pulls out one of the folders and spreads it out, laying his hands over it like a little kid at Christmas.
“This is it,” he says.
“This is what?” I ask. They both look at me at the same time.
“SHADDUP!” they both tell me together. I am about to speak again, but White Man makes the universal sign of death, the hand motion under the chin, and I get the picture. They obviously are keeping me alive for some reason, otherwise, why wouldn’t they have killed me right away, or killed me when they killed the cop. They’ve got orders, but from whom?
“He wants to know, doesn?t he?” I ask. It’s kind of a hack trick, bluffing like you know something to get ‘em to tell you what you don?t know, but sometimes it works. “He told you you’d find them here. And me. Right?” They look at each other, I guess with a knowing glance, and White backhands me, hard, against my left temple, and I’m seein’ spots of black along with the image Gray shoves in front of me-a photograph, portrait sized, of the man whose only name was a brass tag on a false policeman’s uniform. This time, he’s dressed in checkered slacks and a light sweater, and he had a cigar in his mouth and a piece of paper in his right hand. He’s smiling at someone, someone just outside the frame, and the building behind him I can tell is the Veggie Store.
“You know this joe?” White asks me, and I shake my head.
“I don’t know. I figured he was a friend of yours.” Gray grunts and snatches the photograph away from my face and back into the box. White laughs, sits back on the desk and looks at me. He’s confident, but then again, he’s got muscle and grits to back it up. Me, I must look pretty pathetic right about now. Fishing for answers with my hands tied behind my back.
“You know, for a Injun, you sure ain’t got sense. What you thinkin’, takin’ money from a nigger? Ain’t nothin’ there but trouble. How much he payin’ you anyway?” White grins, his eyes white like his hat. Gray continues to sift inside the box, picking up documents, scanning them and then dropping them like leaves to the table. “You know, they say the best lie’s the one you never tell. You know how you do it? You let someone else do the lyin’ for you. Heh. Found anything yet?” Gray shakes his head, and White gently pounds his fist against the desk surface. He cracks his neck, leaning just away from Gray, and through my one good eye I can see a scar above right eye, exposed by the dim lamplight, just under the brim of his hat where the shadows normally hide. Anything I might be able to save for later.
“Why are you keeping me alive?” I ask. “Gotta be a reason for that. Who wants to see me?” White bends down in a conspiratorial fashion and holds up his finger to his mouth.
“Shhhh. It’s a secret, see?” He starts to laugh, but there’s a shot and he lurches back, and his white suit suddenly isn’t so white where his breast pocket is. Another shot, and I duck, rolling so my chair and I both fall on our sides, and I can see White lying sprawled and then I see Gray, or his feet anyway, spin around, hit in the shoulder. I look up, and he draws his gun and then his face goes blank from another shot. I can see red blood pumping out of a fresh hole in his chest and he moves his hand to cover it up, but it just flows out red and dark and ugly, and he raises the gun again but another shot knocks him over. He hits the desk and the box and papers on it and they fall together, and now it really is like autumn leaves, his blood soaking his gray coat, turning it black like coal, and other parts going wet and shiny, and pieces of paper going mottled red, floating gently down to the floor. Gray stumbles, lands on his knees and then hits the floor face first, a sickening crunch, and now that everything is quiet, a piece of glass falls and crashes to pieces inside, and there’s a crunch of footsteps outside.
I wriggle around, trying to see something, anything, but I?m too beat and tied up to do much but squirm, and the door out in the hall opens up. Footsteps, heavy but quick, reach the office and the door is pushed open. Man, I swear, it’s just like the movies. I can see his frame, but his face is obscured in the shadows. Having just seen a picture of him, though, I recognize him. But that doesn’t mean I’m not surprised.
“Avery?” He steps in, and he’s even larger in life than I had first imagined him. That night in front of the Veggie Store I could see he was big, but now, standing in the lamped office, he-he’s huge. His chest is a barrel, and his head is shaped like a square block of wood. He even has sideburns neatly shaped like decorative stains on his oaken face. He looks concerned and in two steps is down at my side, lifting me and the chair up.
“Who the hell are you? Who’re these guys?” I ask him. He shoots me a mild look, possibly as an excuse to show off his pearly face, but more likely to figure out why half my face looks like a circus balloon.
“Are you alright?” he asks. “Jesus, they worked you over something good.” He withdraws a knife from some back recess, clicks it open and cuts me loose. “My name’s Campbell Avery. And you’re lucky I was tailin’ you tonight.”
“You? You were my tail? I thought those guys were,”
“You know, for an Injun, you’re not too bright are you?”
“Hey, you know what? Why don’t you shut the hell up? I’m not exactly in shape here. Just who the hell are you anyway?”
“I told you. Name’s Campbell Avery. I was Aries Verona’s bodyguard.”
I stand up at this, and he does too, and he?s about a head taller than me (and I’m six foot one). I stare at him for a second or two and he looks now about as harmless as he looked like a gorilla when I first saw him on that dark street a couple of nights ago. Amazing what five words does to fix the picture. It’s like bumping the radio antenna. Suddenly it’s a clear picture. Well, as clear as the mud in Bayonne Bay.
“Her bodyguard? No one ever mentioned a bodyguard, not her father, not her brother, not the police,” I say.
“Police don’t know about me.”
“Why were you following me? How are you mixed up in all this?” He glances toward the door.
“Look, you want to grab whatever he was looking at and scram before we become a police matter?” Avery looks at my face again and then says, “Forget it. I’ll get the stuff. You look a little worn.”
“Thanks, you’re a real humanitarian.” I bend over White and pat his pants. He’s got a wallet in his back pocket. Nothing much, just a driver’s license, a couple of bills, a spare key. “So you’re telling me you followed me all the way from Bayonne? How long have you been on this?” I pat White’s jacket and inside is something hard. I pull it out and my breath catches in my throat. It’s a shield, a Bayonne badge. I look up at Avery and he nods.
“I mean another police matter,” he says with a grim shake. He shoves the remaining papers in the box Gray was rummaging through and tells me, “C’mon. I’ve got my car.”
“What about mine?” I ask.
“Don’t worry about it. You parked far enough away no one should notice it. We can come back later. Besides,” he turns from the doorway. “you’re in no driving shape.”
I follow him out and he leads me to an old Ford, even opening the passenger side door for me. I shake my head and mumble out a sardonic, “Thanks,” he says to me, “Don’t take it as a favor from me. I’m just a heavy you misjudged.” That shuts me up. I did have him figured all wrong. He could be playin’ me, but then again, why would he have shot those two cops back there? How the hell was he mixed up in all this? A bodyguard who didn’t do a very good job of his client doesn’t usually stick around to fix his mistake. If it was a mistake.
We get going and I tell him, “You still haven’t answered my question. What’s your involvement with the Verona’s?”
“Mr. Verona hired me to watch his daughter. You know how it goes. Someone needs protection, it usually means they’re in danger. Anyway, I’m from New York. He knows me from a couple years back, kind of asks me to do him a favor. “Just watch my daughter,” he says, but he won’t say what she’s got into. Knowin’ her, it could have been any number of things.”
“He wouldn’t have told you why, and you wouldn’t have asked. I get you. So what happened?” I’m being pretty caustic, I know, and I can tell I’ve hit a mark when I see his face in a passing light. It’s glazed over with a pain you see in soldiers after they’ve been told their mother or father is dead, or a dog after you kick him. There’s always a little bit of guilt there, like it was the dog’s fault for being there, or the soldier’s fault for not being there. Avery sighs.
“I liked her. I liked her a lot. Not like a dame, but just a person, you know? She had something goin’ for her. Not the usual kind of thing you look for in a woman, but she was never bored, and she never asked for nothing, least not that I could tell. She lived rough, but it was honest.”
“How long were you employed by Verona?”
“I began working for him in April. Just over four months. Anyway, nothing happened for a while. Couple of months go by, and she?s doing what she does, which is to say, some of it I can?t divulge details.”
“Sex?” I ask. I notice turnpike mileposts whipping by on my right, and I can tell we’re heading back toward Fenton.
“Mostly drinking. Some drugs, a few men. I just did what I was told, just watched out for her, took her to and from parties, that sort of thing. Well, around June she started seeing the black fella. You know, on an intimate basis. I heard of such things, whites carryin’ on with blacks. They call it miscegenation down South.
Anyway, couple times, those boys, Eddie and Jimmy, they come up from Princeton. I knew Eddie from back when he was a kid burning small animals.” I look at Avery in surprise. “Yeah, who knew, right? He’s not quite right in the head, I don’t think.”
“So I would see Jimmy and Aries together. He had quite a thing for her. Lotta back and forth between ‘em, but by the time August ran around, things had gotten rough. Jimmy, when he saw her, would mock her, call her a whore, then he’d come back later and apologize. Aries just ignored him for the most part, or tried to. She had her own boy, and I guess she knew Jimmy wasn’t for real anyway.”
“I didn’t know Jimmy and Eddie came up that often. I was under the impression that they only came up at semester end,” I say. I settle into the seat and feel under my eye. It’s puffy and tender, probably starting to turn purple.
“Are you kidding? It was almost every weekend, sometimes Thursdays even.”
“How involved in this were you?” I ask him.
“I wasn’t always in the same room, so I don’t know what happened behind closed doors. When we were out-well, I drove her around, I would go into the clubs with her but stay a distance away. I was a bodyguard. When we were at the Verona house, I would usually stay one room away. Occasionally she asked me to just be with her. She liked having someone else around.”
“Were you romantically involved?” Avery looks at me but then averts his eyes. “No. I mean-no. But I had grown fond of her.” I want to press him on this-he’s still a suspect, and if he was her bodyguard, he’d have been in a good position to do her in. In fact, he still hadn’t told me about Friday morning.
“Okay, skip that for now. Tell me what happened Friday morning. When everything went wrong.”
“First, what I have to say may implicate certain people. I’m just not sure how it would go over, bein’ who they are.”
“Don’t worry about that.”
He doesn’t do any of the normal, clich’d movie bits to show he’s nervous, like licking his lips or running his hand through his hair. He just sort of looks straight ahead at the dark road, and I can see the wheels spinning inside his head. I can tell he’s nervous, and his hands aren’t even shaking.
“Well, that morning I woke up around eight. I won’t go into Aries’ room, not unless she invites me in, but her door was open, and so I looked in. She wasn’t there. I searched the house and then I went out to the garage. All the cars were there, but Aries wasn’t. What could I do? I went back to bed, thinking she had just slipped out but would be back. It’s the worst thing I did that day, and I hate myself for it. Every time I wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t…”
He trails off and I am content to keep my trap shut. Whether he’s responsible or just takin’ on blame, it’s a delicate matter.
“Anyway, we got the call around nine that morning. Mr. Verona fired me immediately, and I thought about leavin’ town.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Something didn?t feel right. You know, too many things went wrong that morning, like you said. Why would Aries, of all people, be in danger? And why’d she choose that morning to ditch me, knowing why I had been hired, knowing she was in danger? Why’d she end up dead?” He shakes his head. “No sir. There were too many questions that nobody seemed to be answering. After getting fired I went down to the scene and hung around all day. I talked to the cops, and was able to get into the store before they carted the body out. That’s lousy police security, if you ask me, even if I was her bodyguard. They didn’t even check with Mr. Verona if my credentials were legitimate.
“Inside, the scene was a mess. Cops everywhere, not one fingerprint duster. He didn’t arrive until almost ten o’clock. Ten o’clock! By then fifty men had come and gone in that place. And they still managed to miss the shell.”
“Yeah, I picked it up that night I first saw you outside. Say, where’d you get that uniform anyway? I figured you for a watcher. A hired gun. Then when you disappeared, and my office got ransacked, I assumed you were working for somebody. Somebody.” I wonder why I’m telling him this. “You seem to know your way around. Around a crime scene, I mean. You’ve got the lingo and everything.” I am not sure how I feel about this.
“I used to be a cop in New York.”
“Yeah? I used to live there.”
“It’s brutish. New York’s the reason I became a bodyguard.”
“All right, well look, back to the murders. You decide things aren’t kosher, so you stick around town, do a little snooping?”
“That’s right. I knew you were on the case, but with the way the cops were being, I didn’t trust anyone, even you, with some of the information I had.”
“What kind of information?”
“Nothing solid or incriminating. Just insinuations. Coincidences.” Avery takes the exit heading into Fenton. “Where do you want me to take you?” he asks.
“My office. I can get cleaned up there, and we can finish talking.” I give him the address. “So, what kind of coincidences are we talking about here?”
“Well, before Friday I had begun to suspect we were being followed. I had seen a fella on a motorcycle a week before when I was driving her to a western bar out on the Plains. He followed us all the way to the 73 mile marker and drove past as we pulled in. I couldn’t see his face, but he looked about average height and build.
“I saw him again later, back in Fenton. On Wednesday he drove past the Verona house a couple times, once in the morning and once in the evening. He may have found a place to watch the house all day. I should have been more alert.”
“What else was there?” I ask. We pull up to the street below my office. He parks and kills the lights and we sit in the darkness.
“How much do you know of Eddie and Jimmy?” he asks me, turning in the half light. I can see a small sparkle in his eye. Not malicious, just alive, like a caged animal.
“I know less than I’d like. Those two-I can’t quite figure them out,” I admit.
He turns in the seat to face me directly. “Would it interest you to know that they came into town the Thursday night before Aries was murdered?” He asks.
I stare hard at him. “You’re yankin’ my leg, right? They didn’t get in until Saturday.”
“No way,” Avery says, emphasizing the “no” part. “I saw them myself. Guess what else?” I shake my head, questioning. Avery smiles. “Eddie has a gun collection,” he says.