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Thomas H. Cook


  Thomas H. Cook



  Title Page


  Part 1

  Part 2

  Part 3

  Part 4

  Part 5

  Part 6

  About the Author

  Other Books by Thomas H. Cook


  For Imre and Mary Greenfeld


  Bird Alone


  Each time she thought of it, she felt her body shiver, felt the pistol cold in her hand, the pressure of her finger as it drew down upon the trigger. And so she put it out of her mind, because if you played it over and over, the shadows would deepen around you, thicken until they suffocated you, or until you became a shadow yourself. And so she put it out of her mind because she couldn’t stand the shivering anymore, the icy feel of the metal, the way her eyes had narrowed into slits at that moment, as if she were melting in this boiling pit of hatred. Kill him, the voice had commanded at that instant. Kill him now!

  She whirled around and headed up the stairs to the bedroom she’d shared with Tony for the last nine years. With every step she crumbled a little, just as she had years before when she’d fled the South, headed north, already making up a new name, a new identity. She half expected parts of her body to fall away as she continued up the stairs, a tuft of hair on the third step, a hand on the fourth. But she moved determinedly despite the sensation of breaking apart, and somehow the forward movement knit her together, momentum a force in itself, driving her onward like a stone hurled through bushes, razing the path it took.

  Tony’s underwear lay crumpled on his side of the bed. The rest of his clothes were strewn haphazardly about the room, lifeless as pelts. He’d thrown them on the floor, probably because his father had told him that was what a man should do. Tony’s father. She closed her eyes tightly and tried to squeeze him out of her mind. Even so, she could hear Leo Labriola going at Tony, laying down the law, daring him to disobey it. A woman has to learn certain things, Tony. One of them, she thought, was to stoop. Another was to keep quiet no matter what raged inside you. And the last, and for the Old Man, the most important, was that a woman should always be afraid.

  And she had been afraid, she realized, and not just of Labriola or Tony or of Sheriff Caulfield on that summer afternoon he’d pulled her over, citing a broken taillight. She’d been afraid all her life—afraid to cross her father, afraid to be alone, afraid to stay and afraid to leave, afraid to say no to some things and yes to others. Now she was afraid of the future. And these large fears fueled smaller ones, so that at this very moment, in the midst of flight, she remained afraid even to leave Tony’s clothes on the floor, though at last she decided to do precisely that, leave his clothes scattered across the plush blue carpet, his first clue that things had changed. When he got home tonight, he’d notice that his clothes had not been picked up, and there’d be a click in his head, audible as a pistol shot, She’s gone.

  She spun violently and strode to the closet, yanked the suitcase from the shelf, and began to pack. She took no shorts or swimsuit or sandals; she was packing not for a few days away but for the rest of her life, and she made sure there was nothing temporary about the clothes she selected, nothing that suggested she might change her mind, return to the sun-drenched house, the glittering pool. The clothes she chose were decidedly simple, the colors gray and black, appropriate camouflage for the hidden life she would live from now on. She selected them like one readying for nocturnal battle, and as she packed each item she tried to think of herself as one of the women warriors she’d read about, armored, mounted, broadsword in hand, brave in a way she’d never been but now had to be if she were going to climb out of the quicksand of her life.

  The pistol, she thought suddenly, then walked to the bureau where Tony kept it, dug beneath his carefully folded underwear, felt its cold steel heft. For a moment she’d been determined to take it but now decided not to, because if she were ever cornered she would use it, and once she’d done that, taken that final, fatal step, then any dream of a better life would be forever shattered. That was where she was, she realized, poised between equally desperate alternatives, flight—unarmed flight—the only vaguely open door.

  She took a moment to look over the room a final time. Everything in it looked frilly. Lacy pillows. Fringed draperies. All the colors were pastels. It was a little girl’s room with muted hues and caressing fabrics, a vision of safety where there were no shadows or sharp corners. “Barbie doll,” she whispered, still unable to map the route by which she’d reached this place, though she knew it had started in a field, then moved on through worlds of loss and insecurity, a grasping need for a big happy ending that appeared, at that instant, to explode before her, set her hair ablaze.

  She grabbed the suitcase, raced downstairs, called a cab, and waited by the door, watching the morning light build over her neighbors’ houses. Again, the irrevocable nature of what she was doing settled over her. She would never see this street again, never wave to her friend Della across the cul-de-sac or shop with her in the local supermarket. Della, like everything else on Long Island, was already disappearing from her life, growing translucent in her memory. She would call her when she got to the city, let her know that she’d made it, but all the rest—whatever job she got, where she lived—all of that she would have to keep secret for fear of being found.

  The phone rang but she didn’t answer it. She was terrified it might be Tony and she didn’t want to hear his voice. Or it might be his father, whose voice would freeze her in place. No, she decided, the only voice she would listen to now was her own.

  “All right,” she whispered vehemently, “go.”

  And suddenly everything grew oddly weightless and insubstantial, the past years of her life, the long hope she’d nurtured for that big happy ending, all of it suddenly rising from her like the final bubbles of a dead champagne.


  “How did this fucking happen?” Labriola demanded. His eyes glowed hotly in the murky darkness of the living room.

  Caruso gripped the arms of the worn Naugahyde chair and shifted nervously. “He’s always been good for it before.”

  “And so you let him get in this deep? Fifteen fucking grand?”

  “Like I say, he was good for it before, and so . . .”

  “Before?” The Old Man’s mouth jerked violently, spitting words like stones. “You mean before he suddenly wasn’t good for it no more?”

  “Yes, sir,” Caruso confessed weakly.

  Labriola’s eyes narrowed. “Well, here’s my question, Vinnie. Why the fuck do I care what he was before if he ain’t good for it now?” His massive frame blocked Caruso’s view of the street outside, the gabled row houses of Sheepshead Bay. “Can I spend the money this guy ain’t good for?”

  “No, sir,” Caruso answered meekly.

  Beyond the window, children played on the sidewalk and women stopped to chat, their arms filled with grocery bags or the latest baby. Caruso wondered what it would be like to live on such a street, have a house, a wife, kids, be complete and on his own. His cramped apartment surfaced in his mind, the rumpled sheets of his bed. He called it his bachelor pad, but it was no such thing. A bachelor pad was a place a guy fixed up nice and kept clean because he might meet a girl and bring her home. The room he rented in Bay Ridge was just the place where he slept and ate pizza from the box and waited for the phone to ring, summoning him here, to face the smoldering figure of Leo Labriola.

  “You listening to me, Vinnie?”


  “Are you fucking listening to me?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Labriola ticked off all the things he couldn’t buy
with money he didn’t have—fancy cars and whores and diamonds for Belle, his longtime mistress. And if “some broad” wanted a sawbuck for a blow job, he’d have to pass on that too, because Caruso had let this deadbeat fuck get in over his head, which wasn’t going to stand, because nobody came up empty on Leo Labriola. No. Fucking. Body. Ever.

  “So what I’m saying is, make him good for it,” Labriola fumed. “You don’t make him good for it, Vinnie, then I’ll make you good for it.”

  “Yes, sir,” Caruso said. His fingers rose to the knot of his tie. “Don’t worry, Mr. Labriola. I’ll get the money.”

  “You fucking better. Because I don’t make threats, right? I make promises.”

  Labriola had told him about other promises he’d made to people who’d previously crossed him or disappointed him or simply failed him in some way. They’d ended up at the bottom of the East River or curled into the trunks of old sedans on President Street, he said. And always the stories about Russian roulette, how if you wanted to face down a guy, you offered to play it with him, took the first turn yourself, proved you had the balls to look death in the fucking eye. You did that, Labriola said, nobody ever questioned who was boss. Caruso wasn’t sure the Old Man had ever actually spun the chamber and placed the barrel against the side of his head. As a matter of fact, he wasn’t sure if any of the Old Man’s gangland tales were true. Years before, when Labriola had first given him a job running numbers, he’d believed Labriola was a big-time mobster. Later he’d learned that in fact he was little more than a nickel-and-dime shylock. But by then it didn’t matter whether the Old Man was big or small. He was the guy who’d taken him in after Caruso’s father had vanished, the guy who’d given him work and patted him on the head when he did things right and yelled at him when he did things wrong and in doing that had pulled him from the boiling rapids he’d been shooting down before Labriola had yanked him from the water and given him something to do besides boost cars and raid vending machines for a few lousy bucks. Old Man Labriola had brought him under his wing, given him real work, so that he wore a suit now and looked respectable, and if you didn’t know better, you might even think he was legit.

  “So, you gonna straighten this fucker out?” Labriola barked. “ ’Cause if you don’t . . .”

  “I know, believe me,” Caruso said. “I’ll straighten him out.”

  “You fucking better,” Labriola warned. “ ’Cause nobody screws Leo Labriola and gets away with it.” He slashed the air, his hand like a cleaver. “Now get the fuck outta here.”

  Caruso rose and headed for the door. He’d already opened it when the Old Man’s voice drew him back.

  “By the way, what did you think I’d tell you, Vinnie? Huh? To just forget it? Write this fucking deadbeat a ticket? Merry Christmas. Some shit like that?”

  “I just thought you should know that in the past—”

  “You know what the past is, Vinnie?” Labriola snarled. “A dead body. It fucking smells.”

  Caruso nodded and closed the door behind him. He knew that he should be pissed at the Old Man for talking to him like he was a jerk, but each time his anger flared, he remembered how much he owed the guy, along with how much he looked forward to those moments when Labriola seemed to like him, seemed to want him around, even to think that he did a good job.

  He knew that if he did enough good jobs, then one day he’d get the Big Assignment. Labriola had never told him what the Big Assignment was, but Caruso had seen enough movies to know that it was a hit that made a guy big. Someday, he thought, Mr. Labriola would put his arm over his shoulder, give him the Big Assignment, then kiss him on each cheek. At that point it would have all been worth it. The waiting by the phone, the times he’d been chewed out. At that point it would be worth it because he’d know that he was the guy the Old Man trusted to carry out the ultimate big deal, the one guy he trusted . . . like a son.

  He knew that moment would come, and because of that, he couldn’t get mad at the Old Man, and so he immediately shifted his anger to the deadbeat bastard who’d landed him in this fix, lulled him into false trust by always being good for it before, and in that way set him up to get hauled over the coals by Labriola. It was, Caruso concluded, all Morty’s fault.


  She rinsed the coffee urn while Mike ate his breakfast and thumbed through the paper. Nicky gurgled happily in his high chair, his small pink fingers dunking in the milk, reaching for a Cheerio.

  “Where’s Denise?” Mike asked.

  She turned and saw that he’d folded the paper and placed it on the table beside his plate. “Upstairs. Primping.”

  “Primping? Jesus. She’s twelve years old.”

  “They start early now,” Della said. “More coffee?”

  Mike shook his head and got to his feet. “No. I’d have to piss halfway into the city if I had another cup.” He shrugged. “Probably will anyway.” He smiled that boyish smile of his, the one she’d fallen in love with nineteen years before. Then he turned and trudged up the stairs, his big, hulking shape a comfort to her, like living with Santa Claus. Once he’d made it upstairs, she listened as he moved from the bedroom to the adjoining bathroom, and back again. He’d misplaced something. His keys probably. What a lug she’d married. What a kind, sweet lug.

  She walked to the bottom of the stairs. “Look in the hamper,” she called. “They’re probably still in your pants.”

  She listened as he did as he was told.

  “Got ’em,” he said loudly. “Thanks, babe.”

  She felt a modest surge of accomplishment, a sense of being useful, then returned to the kitchen and began clearing the table. She’d just finished wiping milk from Nicky’s mouth when she saw Denise fly down the stairs and bolt out into the yard. Kids, Della thought, they’re so crazy now.

  “Okay, I’m off,” Mike said as he lumbered back into the kitchen. He glanced out the window to where Denise stood waiting for her bus. “She okay?”

  “Getting to be a teenager, that’s all.”

  “Anything I should know about?”

  “She talks to you as much as me.” She drew Nicky out of the high chair. “Say bye to your dad.”

  Mike kissed Nicky on the cheek. “You be a good boy now,” he said brightly. He looked at Della, and his big, clownish face warmed her. “See you tonight.”

  “We’re having tuna melt,” she told him. His favorite.

  He kissed her, walked to the car, and got in. Denise offered a grudging, halfhearted wave as he drifted backward into the cul-de-sac.

  Della returned Nicky to his chair, then began to load the dishwasher. The school bus arrived and Denise bounded onto it. Then the bus pulled away, and Della glimpsed her friend Sara’s house across the cul-de-sac. It looked cold and cheerless and abandoned, everything her house was not, and she felt inexpressibly lucky to have found a guy who’d take care of her, make sure she had everything she needed, provide a life that was truly without peril.


  As he strolled idly down the aisle of the antique shop, he thought of time, then death, then the sweetness of oblivion, how much he’d come to yearn for the end of life. So easy, he told himself, so easy just to let it go, this chain of days that stretched ahead of him. He imagined the moment, the feel of the pistol in his mouth, the shattering impact, and felt himself instantly disintegrate, burst like a vase of air, leaving nothing behind.

  Literally nothing save the few luxurious items he’d purchased because the high craft employed in making them lifted his spirits and took his mind off Marisol.

  But now, as he approached the anniversary of her murder, he realized that the power of a beautifully cut piece of glass or a perfectly woven scarf to change his mood had waned enormously during the preceding twelve months. He suspected that his getting older was part of it, though he was only fifty-three. The rest was loneliness, and the fading hope that there would ever be an end to it while he lived on earth. He’d loved once, and overwhelmingly lost that love in a whirl of vi
olence, then lived on in the aftermath of that explosion, its shattering echo forever in his mind. Now, more than anything, as he admitted to himself this morning, he wanted an end to memory. Beyond life he saw a world of utter stillness and eternal dark, and yet he harbored the hope that somewhere in that darkness the soul of Marisol waited for him patiently. The nurturing of this hope, he knew, was an act of will. But if he abandoned it, Henderson would win, and Lockridge would win, and they could win only at the cost of Marisol.

  Stark shook his head at the morbidity of his thoughts and glanced about the shop, hoping some small, precious thing would catch his eye.

  Over the years, he’d spent almost everything he made because he saw no reason to hold on to anything. He had no wife, no children, no one whose later survival meant anything at all to him. And as for saving for that rainy day when he would be old and sick, he knew that he would never reach such a point. If he got sick beyond recovery, he would simply kill himself. When he got old, when the last small joys were gone, he would tuck the barrel of his nine-millimeter automatic against the roof of his mouth and pull the trigger. There would be no rainy days.

  And so Stark spent whatever he had on clothes and restaurants and obsessive grooming. But more than anything, he spent money on delicately wrought objects, usually of glass or porcelain. They were tremendously expensive, these little statues or figurines, but in the past they’d kept him afloat. In them he’d been able to find something good in life, something done for the love of it, something to which an otherwise ordinary human being had applied the full measure of his skill.

  In the past these things had soothed him like a soft, warm light.

  But no longer.

  “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

  Stark faced the dealer, noted the small rosebud in his lapel, thought it foppish.

  “It’s sixteenth century,” the dealer added with a nod toward the fluted glass at which, Stark realized, he must have been gazing.