The street wasn’t dead yet. Not all the way. Old Charlie Wing had given the kids from the next block the last of the leechee nuts, and was packing his meager belongings for a U-haul ride to Los Angeles and his relatives and then on by plane to his home province in China where he would be the richest man in the village and a big daddy to his horde of great and great-great grandkids.
Two houses down, the wicked witch of the neighborhood, ninety-year-old Bessie O’Brian, hung out the window, cushioning herself on a red velvet pillow as old as she was. When it snowed she stayed inside, only sliding the sash up if she heard gunshots. Hardly anything ever happened that she didn’t know about. She saw Findley get killed, the cops nail the pickup truck loaded with five million bucks worth of narcotics, was able to identify over twenty muggers and was the State’s foremost witness when Tootsie Carmody shot The Frog, the super peddler of heroin in the area. She wouldn’t go to court to identify the shooter. She made the court come to her and for one day her tenement building was jammed past inspection requirements by New York’s legal elite.
Bessie didn’t wave. She just yelled down, "Kill anybody today?"
"Not yet," I yelled back.
When I passed the brownstone where Bucky Mohler had lived, I could still see the faint outlines of the white 703 he had painted there when he was a trouble-making twelve-year-old punk. He had been knifed and shot twice before he was sixteen, then the Blue Uptowners nailed him with the radiator of a stolen car because he messed with one of their chicks.
That was a long time ago.
The Street was starting to die about then.
Set fifty feet back from the corner, so there would be ample curb space for a few squad cars, was the timeworn station house. It was an old-fashioned name for an old- fashioned building that had been born in the eighteen hundreds when this part of Manhattan still had goatherds and potato fields.
Until two years ago it had been well taken care of, but the financial cut-off had let the cement chip away from the courses of brick and left a blackboard for the damn graffiti artists to spray-paint insults on. A couple of those slobs were still wearing bandages. The station house wasn’t going at full throttle, but the few left for roll call were the tough apples.
I used to be the boss man there. Captain. Hardass but fair. Good record. I got along with the troops and we kept the area as straight as it could get.
I retired out after wearing the badge for thirty years. I had gone into the Academy straight out of the Marine Corps back in ‘75, so I still had some good years ahead.
But I sure missed the Job.
It was quiet today. Overcast with a snap in the air. October was almost here and a fresh season of trouble was gearing up. Sergeant Davy Ross was standing beside an unmarked police vehicle, talking to a tall, thin guy in his fifties wearing black-frame glasses who had a white trench coat draped over his arm. In his hand was an inexpensive cardboard folder people keep receipts in and when Davy turned his head, glanced my way and said something, I knew they were talking about me.
Hell, I was the living anachronism, the old firehorse they couldn’t get out of his stall, a dinosaur at fifty-six. Had to show up at home base the first of every month just to keep an eye on things.
Sergeant Ross grinned while we were shaking hands and said, "You got a fan from Staten Island, Jack. You remember that place?"
"Other side of the river, isn’t it?"
"Roger. I think it still belongs to New York City, though." He paused and nodded toward the thin guy. "This is Dr. Thomas Brice."
When I took the doctor’s hand, he said, "I’m a vet."
He grinned and the eyes behind the specs were alert and blue. "No, I mean I’m an animal doctor, Captain Stang. Don’t want to get off on the wrong foot."
"No sweat," I told him. "I’m an animal lover myself."
Davy Ross cut in with, "You guys have your conversation. I’m going back to work."
We both told him so long and watched for a few seconds as he walked away.
When Dave went through the door, I said, "What’s all this about, Doctor? You know, I’m not on the payroll anymore. I draw a pension."
Brice stared at me for a couple of seconds, his eyes reading me as though he were examining a strange breed of dog. It was an expression I had seen a lot of times before, but not from someone who didn’t want to kill me.
Softly, Brice said, "Is there somewhere we can sit down? You must have a coffee shop around here somewhere."
I told him Billie’s was down the avenue two blocks, an old cop’s hangout that was about to go into the chopper when the station house shut its doors. Billy was finally going to have to go home and eat his wife’s cooking for a change.
Two of the detectives from the other shift were winding up their tour and waved at me. Both of them eyed Thomas Brice with one of those cop glances that take in everything in a blink and they both had the shadow of a frown when they realized he was one of those clean civilian types and figured he probably was related.
I winked and nodded back. They seemed relieved.
Over coffee and a bagel lathered with cream cheese, I said, "I haven’t been to Staten Island since I was a kid." My eyes were cold and I scanned his face carefully.
"I understand," he told me.
"Neither do I remember ever having a case that involved that area."
His tongue ran over his lips lightly and his head bobbed again. "I know that too. I did some research on you and..."
"I’m clean," I interrupted.
"Yes, I know. You have a lot of commendations."
"A lot of scars, too."
I took a bite of the bagel and sipped at my coffee.
"It’s a tough job, Captain," Brice said quietly.
"But nothing ever happened in Staten Island."
He was staring back at me now. I knew my eyes were growing colder.
"Captain, you’re wrong," the doctor told me softly. "Something did happen on Staten Island."
I laid the bagel on the plate and under the table my fingers were interlaced, each hand telling the other not to reach for the gun on my belt. I didn’t wear the shoulder holster with the old .45 Colt automatic snugged in it anymore. I was a civilian now. Still authorized by the state of New York to pack a firearm. But I wasn’t on the Job any more. Caution, I kept telling myself. Easy. Play this hand carefully.
Something was going down.
And the doctor was reading me. His hands stayed on the tabletop.
For several seconds his eyes watched mine, but they were encompassing every feature of my face. Then Dr. Thomas Brice broke the ice. It didn’t tinkle like a dropped champagne glass—it crashed like a piece from a glacier. "Long time ago, you were in love with a woman named Bettie..."
A pair of tiny muscles twitched alongside my spine. It wasn’t a new sensation at all. Twice before I had felt those insidious little squirms and both times I had been shot at right afterward.
He was saying, "She was abducted and stuffed into a van but an alert had gone out minutes before and a police car was in pursuit. The chase led to the bridge over the Hudson River where the driver lost control, went through the guardrails and over the fencing and fell a hundred and thirty feet into the water."
My hand was on the .45 now. My thumb flipped off the leather snap fastener and eased the hammer back. If this was a pathetic jokester he was about to die at this last punch line.
Softly, I said, "There was an immediate search party on the site. They located the wreckage. The driver was dead. There was no other body recovered."
The doctor’s expression never changed, the eyes behind the lenses unblinking. He let a moment pass and told me, "Correct, Captain, no other body."
Something seemed to jab into my heart. I waited, my forefinger curling around the trigger.
He added, "The next morning, right after dawn, one of the dogs in the cages at a veterinary clinic began whimpering strangely. It awakened the doctor—"
"A doctor named Brice?"
"Yes. But not this Brice—my late father. I was around, but not a vet yet. May I continue?"
"Anyway, my father got up to see what the trouble was. The animal was fine, but it was whimpering toward the rear lawn that bordered on the Hudson River. My father didn’t quite know what was going on, but went with that dog’s sensitivity and walked out the back."
Somehow, Dr. Brice read my expression. He knew that if there was a downside on his story, he was never going to finish it....
"There was a young girl there. Alive."
"One arm was gripped fiercely around an inflated inner tube."
He must have seen my arm move. Somehow he knew there was no tense finger around the hammer of a deadly .45 automatic any longer.
"The night before, we had heard about the altercation in the city, and we both knew at once that this girl was the one who had been abducted. The late news mentioned that it was a mob snatch, as they called it, because sources within the NYPD indicated she had information that could seriously damage a major Mafia group."
"So you didn’t report it," I stated.
"Fortunately not," he answered quickly. "My father checked with one of his friends on the local police force, who told him that the heat was on like never before and whatever that girl had could break up crime outfits from the city to Las Vegas."
"But nothing ever happened," I said. Something had rasped my voice. It sounded low and scratchy.
"Wouldn’t have mattered," Brice told me.
He let a few seconds pass before he said, "Because the girl...and she was a girl, twenty, twenty-one...had no memory at all of anything that had happened before the car crash."
And it was my turn to take a deep breath. "Nothing."
Dr. Brice shook his head.
I felt like vomiting. "Damn!"
"And that’s not the only thing," he added.
The eyes narrowed behind the lenses. "More than her memory was gone, Captain—she was blind. A terrible blow to her head had rendered her totally sightless. She would never be able to identify anybody...or be able to remember her past."
"So she was no threat to the mob...."
"Come on, Captain. You know different. Until an identifiable body turned up, those people would never stop looking."
"That was more than twenty years ago," I reminded him.
Brice nodded slowly, his eyes on mine.
Before he could say anything, I let the words out slowly. "Where is she?"
He didn’t tell me. He simply said, "That’s why I’m here."
I knew there was a quiver in my voice when I asked, "Is she still alive?"
He nodded a yes and my pulse rate went up ten points.
She was alive! My Bettie was alive! I didn’t care how she looked or how she remembered things, what she could see or couldn’t see; my Bettie was alive and that’s all that counted.
The old waitress came over, cleaned up what I had left of my bagel and refilled my coffee cup. I dropped in a couple of Sweet’n Lows and stirred them around. She squeezed my shoulder like she always did, and when she had walked away I asked the vet, "Where, Brice?"
"Safe," he told me.
"I didn’t ask you that." There was an edge in my voice now.
"Can I finish the story?"
It was moving too damn slowly, but I wasn’t leading the parade this time. It was his fifteen minutes of glory and, unless I wanted to risk slapping him around and losing his good will, I had to let him spell it out his way.
This is what he said:
"My father raised her. He nurtured her, cared for her in every way, educated her, made her self-sufficient in every manner imaginable. She was like a daughter to him."
"And a sister to you?"
Brice nodded. Then he leaned forward. "But there was always a little twitch in her memory, so to speak, that indicated she had a past somewhere. Not that it ever bothered anybody. In time even that went away completely."
"Did it?" I asked. "But you’re here now."
His smile was thinner than he was. "Very astute, Captain."
"Where is she?" I asked again.
"Safe," he said again.
"A prelude first...friend?"
"Make it quick. Friend."
"My father knew he was dying. The disease was incurable, but it gave him time to accomplish what he had to do."
"His priority was to make sure Bettie was well taken care of. She had to be protected." He paused and added, "Well protected."
I nodded again, wondering where all this was leading.
Brice asked me, "Have you heard of Sunset Lodge in Florida?"
I bobbed my head quickly. "Sure."
He waited, wanting a further explanation. "So?"
"It’s an SCC place."
When he scowled, I added, "Special Civil Service. A lot of the retired civil servants from the big city wind up their retirements there. Now they got the Jersey troops and the firemen in for neighbors."
"What else have you heard?" he asked me.
"Hell, they even have their own fire stations down there and the old cops are playing around with the kind of equipment we used to beg for. Man, the power of retirement voters."
"Florida loves them," Brice told me. "The cops all carry badges, legal but generously given, have permits to carry weapons; the firemen have all the best equipment and a real playground to spend their retirement years in."
"Who pays for all this?"
He didn’t tell me. He simply said, "You’d be surprised."
We stared at each other across the table.
I finally said, "And she’s there."
Dr. Brice looked at me sagely and nodded.
"Surrounded by experienced ex-officers, I’d say yes, quite safe. They think she is the wife of a former officer who died in the line of duty. And believe me, those ex-cops take care of their own."
"She’s blind," I almost hissed.
"Yes, and she lives alone. But her neighbors know her special needs, and those needs are surprisingly small. Anyone outside of this closed community of cops, well, she could fool into thinking she’s sighted."
"Don’t shit a shitter, Doc."
He shook his head. "I assure you, I’m not. Her physical actions...and reactions...are incredible. Her response to voices and sounds belies her blindness. She has a dog...not an ordinary seeing-eye dog, but a greyhound that had used up his running life on a racetrack. They were going to dispose of it until she took him in. That dog is her right hand and as friendly as it is, I’d hate to be a person who tried to attack her."
"Has anyone tried?"
"Not so far."
When the waitress came by again, I waved her off. Across the table Brice was watching me closely. But this was an old game with me and I played all my cards right.
I asked, "She lives alone, you say?"
"My late father bought a home outright, deeded it to her, established some investments that feed a healthy account in a local Florida bank that should take care of all her needs for...for as long as she lives."
The doctor didn’t know that I could read eyes as well as I could. A tight grin was twitching at my mouth when I said, "But that’s the issue, right, doc? As long as she lives? What’s the rest of the story?"
A subtle smile turned the corner of his mouth up and he remarked, "I’m playing in your back yard now, aren’t I?"
I just nodded. There are times when it’s better not to say anything.
"My father left money in a trust and gave me instructions, in the event that I thought it necessary to...well, I bought you the house right next door, Captain Stang."
He slid the envelope he had been carrying over to me. "All the paperwork is in there. You also have a bank account opened in your name for one hundred thousand dollars. That and your pension should set you up pretty well. Just sign the papers and turn them in. I’m sure you’ll know what to do."
I didn’t bother to look. Crazy as it sounded, I knew what he was telling me was the truth and small shivers were beginning to run up my back. Not the money shivers. Not shivers from the owning of property. Just shivers from knowing that she was alive. She was twenty years older. She had a seeing-eye dog and now she was living next door to me. At Sunset Lodge. Damn.
Only I was twenty years older, too. And I’d always been older than Bettie, and...
No. Hell no. Age was gone. Age was something that was starting all over again. Starting now.
I grinned and wouldn’t let Dr. Brice pay the tab. Not after his father’s generosity—and his own. I laid a ten-dollar bill on the waitress’ check, and we walked out.
On the sidewalk we shook hands solemnly and Brice said, "For a minute there I thought you were going to shoot me."
"For a minute there," I said, "I was."
Copyright © 2007 by Jane Spillane and Max Allan Collins.