In the late autumn, down windy streets raining yellow oak and elm leaves, I went to George Armit’s funeral. It was a small affair. Almost everyone George had known was dead. Many of them were dead because George had had them killed.
My occasional employer and I sat in my old Studebaker Lark a little way down from the church. When the first mourners came out, mostly men in raven suits, Cyril Wootton said, ‘Most relieved lot I’ve seen since the plane out of Vietnam. Still, they won’t sleep easy till the ground subsides. May I be told why we’re here?’
‘Your bloke’s mate’s in deep to the Armits,’ I said.
‘How’d you find that out?’
‘Anyone could find that out. Wade through sewage for a week, that’s all it takes. George liked him. He’d be dead otherwise.’
Two big men, sallow, black hair, moustaches, came out, followed by two women.
‘The sons, Con and Little George Armit,’ I said. ‘Con’s wife’s the thin one.’
‘Well,’ said Wootton. ‘The other one appears to have shoplifted watermelons and put them down the front of her dress.’
Con and Little George and the wives lined up, backs to us, each with wife to the right. Con put his right hand on his thin wife’s shoulder. His left hand moved around slowly and squeezed his brother’s wife’s high right buttock.
‘Racked with grief,’ I said.
‘Reflex action,’ Wootton said. ‘Armits have been in the fruit business for many years.’
The box had a hard black sheen, a perfect match for the Mercedes hearse. It was carried by six young men, tanned, even height, thick necks, could have been a surfboat crew.
‘Relying on professionals to the end, I see,’ Wootton said.
When George was in place, the mourners made for their cars.
‘Well, that wasn’t exactly paydirt, old sausage,’ Wootton said. ‘You’ve brought me out here in this appalling conveyance, this hot rod, for sweet bugger all.’
‘Somewhere Tony’s going to pay his respects. In so deep, he’s got no choice,’ I said. ‘Strong on respect, the Armits. If he’s not here, the bastard’s last chance is to arselick the boys at the cemetery.’
‘I’m paying you for your time,’ Wootton said. ‘Who’s paying me for mine?’
‘Believe me, if I could do this without your presence, I would.’
The priest came around the corner in a white turbo Saab, its Michelins giving a plump little squeal of pleasure. He looked at us as he passed, a nightclub-owner’s pale face, cigarette tilted upward in the mouth, mobile phone at his ear.
I started the Stud and did a U-turn. A block down the street, I looked right and saw the car. A Hertz car. I turned first left, left again and parked behind the church.
‘I’m going in to say a little prayer,’ I said, opening the door. ‘Keep an eye on the back gate.’
‘Spoken like an officer,’ Wootton said.
‘Still rankles, doesn’t it, corporal.’
I’d known Wootton since Vietnam. He’d been in stores, stealing more goods than he dispensed.
The church door was open. Inside, the blood of the martyrs fell from the stained-glass windows and lay in pink patches. The air smelled of incense, stale vase water and brass polish.
I didn’t see him at first. There was a row of pillars across the church and he was sitting in front of the one nearest the wall to my right: man in his early forties, crew-cut blond hair, little folds of tanned fat over his collar.
I walked across and stopped behind him. ‘Hello Tony.’
Tony Ulasewicz didn’t look at me, didn’t say anything.
‘Brendan sends his regards,’ I said.
‘Remember Brendan? Brendan O’Grady. From Reservoir? From school? Your best man? Your friend? That Brendan.’
Tony sniffed loudly. ‘Whadda you want?’ He shot his left cuff and looked at his watch, a big black diver’s watch.
‘Me? I don’t want anything. Brendan, he wants you to tell a lawyer where he was on the night of February 11 at 11.26 p.m.’
Tony looked at me, shrugged. He had a small scar above his left eyebrow, like a worm under the skin. ‘Dunno what you’re saying.’
‘The two hookers, Tony,’ I said. ‘Sylvia and Carlette? Out there in that fancy hotel in Marysville. You and Brendan and Jim Beam and the hookers. Chatting, reading magazines. Just when some person unknown was shooting Frank Zakia in his driveway in Camberwell. With a .22 pistol. Many times.’
‘Know nothing about that,’ said Tony, getting up. ‘Gotta go.’
I put a hand on his shoulder, a meaty shoulder. He resisted, I leant, he sat.
‘Tony,’ I said, ‘Brendan’s going down big time. Frank’s wife ID’d him, not a doubt in her mind. She knows him. He was in the house three days before, arguing with Frank. Now Brendan says he couldn’t have been the one topped Frank because at that moment he was off with you, screwing hookers in Marysville. But you’re gone, the hookers are gone, hotel doesn’t know if it was you and Brendan or the Pope and Elvis in the room. Plus the cops find the .22 in Brendan’s office. Plus Brendan’s got more form than Phar Lap.’
Tony’s chin slowly moved down to meet his collarbone.
‘Brendan’s going, Tony,’ I said. ‘And blokes in there are waiting for him. Death penalty, that would be easier. Nicer even.’
Tony’s shoulders went weak. He tilted at the waist until his forehead rested on the pew in front.
‘Can’t,’ he said, voice spitty. ‘Fucking can’t.’
‘Why? He’s your mate.’
‘People want him. He’s owed big, three hundred grand, more, three-fifty, I don’t know. He put the weight on them, they want him gone.’
‘Frank’s wife? The ID?’
‘Bullshit. Bitch wanted Frank done. In it over her tits.’
‘Fucking. True fucking love fucking. She’s rooting a bloke, his brother owes Bren. This way, they top Frank, she gets Frank’s money. Then there’s about eighty grand belongs to Bren. Frank was hanging on to it. Bitch gets that too. And Bren goes in, close that gate, he’s history, everyone’s happy.’
Tony looked up at me, sniffed again. ‘I live,’ he said. ‘I fucking live.’