A Repairman Jack Novel
By F. Paul Wilson, David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2003 F. Paul Wilson
All rights reserved.
Blessed be the blackmailers, Jack thought as he pawed through the filing cabinet.
He had a penlight clamped in his teeth and kept it trained on the labels of the hanging folders while his latex-gloved fingers fanned through them.
What a trove. If someone could be called a professional blackmailer, Richie Cordova fit the bill. Private investigation was his legitimate line, if such a line could be legit. But apparently he dug up lots of additional dirt during the course of his investigations, and put that to work for him. Never against his clients, Jack had learned. Did his blackmailing anonymously. That kept his professional rep clean, kept that stream of referrals from satisfied clients flowing. But Jack had picked him up on a money drop Cordova had set up for his latest fish and took an instant dislike to the fat slob. Nine days of shadowing him hadn't mellowed that initial impression. The guy was a jerk.
Cordova's PI office occupied a second floor space over an Oriental deli on the other side of Bronx Park. But his other line of work, probably the more profitable one, was here on the third floor of his house. Small and stuffy, furnished with the filing cabinet, a computer, a high-end color printer, and a rickety desk, it appeared to be a converted attic.
Where was the letter? Jack was counting on it being in this cabinet. If not —
There ... Jank. Could that stand for Jankowski? He pulled out the file and opened it. Yep. This was it. Here was the handwritten letter at the root of Stanley Jankowski's problems. Cordova had found it and was using it to squeeze the banker for all he was worth.
Jack tucked it in his pocket.
Yes, blessed be those blackmailers, he thought as he began emptying the folders from both drawers of the cabinet and dropping their contents — letters, photos, negatives — onto the floor, for they help keepeth me in business.
Blackmail was the reason a fair percentage of Jack's customers came to him. Stood to reason: They were being blackmailed because they had something they wanted kept secret; couldn't go to officialdom because then it would no longer be a secret. So they were left with two options: pay the blackmailer again, and again, and again, or go outside the system and pay Jack once to find the offending photos or documents and either return them or destroy them.
Destroying was better and safer, Jack thought. But untrusting customers feared Jack might simply use the material to start blackmailing them on his own. Jankowski had been burned and wasn't about to trust no one no how no more. He wanted to see the letter before he paid the second half of Jack's fee.
Jack spread the two drawers' worth of photos and documents on the floor. A small, voyeuristic part of him wanted to sit and sift through them, looking for names or faces he recognized, but he resisted. No time. Cordova would be back in an hour.
He pulled a pair of glass Snapple bottles out of his backpack and unwrapped the duct tape from around their tops. He was about to do a big favor for some of the people in that pile. Not all. Cordova had probably scanned all this stuff into a computer and had digital copies stashed away somewhere. But a scan couldn't sub for a handwritten letter. Cordova needed the original, with its ink and fingerprints and all, to have any real leverage. A copy, no matter how close to the original, was not the real deal and could be dismissed as a clever fake.
He looked down at the pile of damning evidence. Some of these folks were about to get a freebie. Not because Jack particularly cared about them — for all he knew, some of them might deserve to be blackmailed — but because if he took just the Jankowski letter, Cordova would know who was behind this little visit. Jack didn't want that. With everything destroyed or damaged beyond repair, Cordova could only guess.
Burning the pile would have been best but the guy lived in a tight little Williamsbridge neighborhood in the upper Bronx. Lots of nice, old, post-war middle-class homes stacked cheek by jowl in a neat grid. If Cordova's place burned, it wouldn't burn alone. So Jack had come up with another way.
He held one of the Snapple bottles at arm's length as he unscrewed the cap. Even then the sharp odor stung his nose. Sulfuric acid. Very carefully — this stuff would burn right through his latex gloves — he began to sprinkle it on the pile, watching the glossy surfaces of the photos smoke and bubble, the papers turn brown and shrivel.
He'd used up most of the first bottle and the room was filling with acrid smoke when he heard the front door slam three floors below.
Checked his watch: about a quarter past midnight. In the past week or so that Jack had been shadowing him, Cordova had hit a neighborhood bar over on White Plains Road three times, and on each night he'd hung till 1 A.M. or later. If that was Cordova downstairs, he was home at least an hour early. Damn him.
Dumped the rest of the acid from the first bottle and sloshed the contents of the second over the pile, then left them atop the filing cabinet. Now to get out of here. Wouldn't be long before Cordova detected the stink.
Opened the window and slid out onto the roof. Looked around. He'd planned on leaving as he'd entered — through the back door. Now he was going to have to improvise.
Jack hated to improvise.
Looked over at the neighboring roof. Pretty close, but close enough to ...?
Through the open window behind him he heard Cordova's heavy feet pounding up the stairs. Another glance at the neighboring roof. Guessed it was going to have to be close enough.
Hauling in a deep breath, Jack took three running steps down the shingled slope and leaped. One sneakered foot, then the other, landed on the opposing roof and found traction. Without pausing to congratulate himself, Jack used his forward momentum to keep going, his rubber soles slipping and scraping up the incline toward the peak.
A loud, whiny "Noooooo!" followed by a bellow of rage and dismay echoed from Cordova's house, but Jack didn't turn to look — didn't want Cordova to see his face. Then he heard a shot and almost simultaneously felt the slug zing past his ear.
Cordova had a gun! Jack had figured he'd have one somewhere, but hadn't expected him to shoot up his own neighborhood. Two miscalculations tonight. He hoped he hadn't miscalculated on getting home alive.
Dove over the peak of the roof and slid down toward the gutter, the shingles shredding the palms of his latex gloves and wearing away the front of his nylon windbreaker like an electric sander. Halfway to the gutter he slowed his slide and angled his body ninety degrees. That slowed him a little more. Further angling around allowed him to get his foot in the gutter and stop altogether.
Not home free yet. Still two stories up with Cordova no doubt pelting down his stairs and heading for the street. Plus this house was occupied, probably with two families, since that seemed the rule around here. He could see the glow of lights turning on inside. He was sure the owners were dialing 9-1-1 right now to report the racket on their roof. Probably thought he was a clumsy second-story burglar.
Jack peeked over the gutter and positioned himself over a dark window. Slid off the roof feet first and belly down, easing his weight onto the gutter. It groaned and creaked and sagged as he hung by his fingers. Before it could give way he managed to place his feet on the windowsill and let that take his weight. Eased himself into a crouch to where he could grip the sill with his hands, then dropped again. He clung to the sill only a second or two, poising his feet a mere six feet off the ground, then let go. He twisted in the air and hit the ground running.
His sneakers made no sound as he sprinted along the sidewalk. He bent as low as he could without compromising his speed and waited for a second shot. But none came. Took a left at the first corner and a right at the next and kept running. At least now he was out of the line of fire — if Cordova stayed on foot. But if he got into a car and started cruising ...
Plus, cops should be on their way.
What a mess. This was supposed to be a simple in-and-out job with no one the wiser until later.
Kept moving in a crouch, watching the passing cars, on alert for flashing lights. Slipped out of his partially shredded windbreaker — he was wearing a WWE Lance Storm T-shirt beneath — and pulled the Mets cap from the pocket. Jammed the cap on his head and bunched the jacket into a nylon lump the size of a softball. Palmed that and slowed to a speedy walk.
Slowed further when he hit 232nd Street. Stuffed the windbreaker down into a trash receptacle as he walked to the elevated subway station on 233rd. Caught the 2 train and settled down for a long ride back to Manhattan.
He patted the letter folded in his jeans pocket. Another problem fixed. Jankowski would be happy, and Cordova ...
Jack smiled. Fat Richie Cordova had to be fuming as much as the sulfuric acid on his photos and papers.
A man who was something more than a man crouched among the foundation plantings of a two-story house in a quiet Connecticut community. He moved through the world under different guises, using different names, but never his own, never his True Name. And as he traveled, doing what must be done to prepare the way, he searched out places such as this family home.
He sat with his spine and the back of his head pressed against the house's concrete foundation. Someone coming upon him might have thought he was an indigent sleeping off a bender. But he hadn't been sleeping. He required very little rest. He could go for days without closing his eyes.
And even if this had been one of those rare occasions when he needed rest, he would have found sleep impossible while basking in the exhilarating emanations from the basement of this house.
On the other side of the wall ... systematic torture, mutilation, and defilement. The victim wasn't the first so abused by this family of three, and would not be the last. Or so the man who was something more than a man hoped.
What the two adults within had done to the ones they'd captured and imprisoned over the years would have been sustenance enough for this man. But the fact that they had debased their own child and made him a willing participant in the systematic defilement of another human being ... this was exquisite.
He flattened his back more firmly against the wall, drinking, feasting ...
After stopping at Julio's for a couple, Jack fell into bed when he got home. Jankowski could wait till morning for the good news.
Somewhere around 3 A.M. the ringing of the front-room phone dragged him from slumberland. The answering machine clicked on and out came a voice he hadn't heard in fifteen years.
"Jackie. This is your brother Tom. Long time no see. I assume you're still alive, though it's hard to tell. Well, anyway, Dad was in a car accident earlier tonight. He's in pretty bad shape, in a coma, they tell me. So give me a call, prontissimo. We need to talk."
He rattled off a number with a 215 area code.
Jack had been up and moving at the mention of his father's accident, but didn't reach the receiver in time to pick up. He stood over the phone in the dark.
Dad? In an accident? In a coma? How the hell —?
Unease trickled through his gut. The past he'd cut himself off from was worming its way back into his life. First he runs into his sister Kate last June, and a week later she's dead. Now, three months after that, he hears from big brother Tom that his father's in a coma. Was he detecting a scary symmetry here? A pattern?
Deal with that later, he told himself. First find out what happened to Dad.
Jack replayed the message, writing down the phone number. He used his Tracfone to return the call. That same voice answered.
"Well, I'll be. The long lost brother. The prodigal son. He lives. He returns a call."
Jack didn't have time for this. "What's the story with Dad?"
Jack had never particularly liked his brother. Hadn't disliked him either. They'd never had any sort of a relationship growing up. Tom — Tom, Jr., officially — was ten years older and seemed to have viewed his little brother as an inconvenient pet, one that belonged to his parents and his sister but had nothing to do with him. He'd always been self-involved to a fault. Kate had said he was on his third wife and hinted that the latest marriage was headed for the same fate as his others. Jack hadn't been surprised.
Tom had been a Philadelphia lawyer for a couple of decades and was now a Philadelphia judge. Which meant he was an officer of the court, a cog in the wheels of officialdom. All the more reason for Jack to keep his distance. Courts gave him the creeps.
"Pretty much what I told you. I got a call from this nurse at the Novaton Community Hospital that Dad was involved in an MVA and —"
"Motor vehicle accident — and that he's in bad shape."
"Yeah. A coma, right? Jeez, what do we do?"
"Not we, Jackie. You."
Jack didn't like the sound of this. "I don't get you."
"One of us has to go down there. I can't, and since Kate's not exactly available, that leaves you."
"What do you mean, you can't?"
"I — I'm in the middle of a bunch of legal business ... judicial matters that have me tied up."
"You can't get away to see a comatose father?"
"It's complicated, Jackie. Too complicated to go into on the phone at this hour of the morning. Suffice it to say that I can't leave the city now."
Jack sensed a lot more going on here than Tom was telling.
"Are you in some sort of trouble?"
"Me? Christ, why would you ask something like that?"
"Because you sound funny."
Tom's tone took on a sharp edge. "How would you know what I sound like? We haven't spoken in, what, ten years, and you're going to tell me how I sound?"
"It's been fifteen years" — not quite long enough, Jack thought — "and yeah, I'm telling you you sound funny."
"Yeah, well, don't worry about me. Worry about Dad. He gave me your number before he moved to Florida. 'Just in case,' he said. Well, 'just in case' just happened. Tag, you're it."
Jack sighed. "All right. I guess I'll go."
"Don't sound so enthusiastic."
Jack shook his head. First off, he hated to leave New York for any reason, period. Plus, this wasn't a good time for him to be heading for Florida or anywhere else. He had another fix-it in the early stages of development, but he'd have to let it wait. Worse, an emergency trip like this meant that driving and Amtrak were out. He'd have to take a plane. He didn't mind flying itself, but all the extra security since 9-11 made an airport a scary place for a guy with no official identity.
But then, it was his father down there.
Tom said, "In a way you're lucky he's in a coma."
Strange thing to say. "How's that?"
"Because he's pissed at you for not showing up for Kate's funeral. Come to think of it, so am I. Where the hell were you?"
As if he'd tell a judge, even if that judge happened to be his big brother.
Big Brother ... judge. How Orwellian.
"Suffice it to say," he said, deciding to give Tom a dose of his own medicine, "that it's too complicated to go into on the phone at this hour of the morning."
"Very funny. I tell you, though, I can't say I was unhappy about him taking a turn on you. All we heard for years from him was how he wanted to reach you and bring you back into the fold. That was how he put it: 'Bring Jack back into the fold.' It became his mantra. He obsessed on it. But he's not obsessing anymore."
Jack felt he should be glad to hear that — he'd had no intention of ever returning to any fold anywhere — but he wasn't. Instead he felt a pang of regret, as if he'd lost something.
A decade and a half ago, when Jack had dropped out of college, out of his family, and out of society in general, his father spent years tracking him down. Somehow he found someone who had Jack's number. He started calling. Eventually he wore Jack down to the point where he agreed to meet him in the city for dinner. After that they got together maybe once a year for a meal or a set of tennis.
A tenuous relationship at best. The get-togethers were always uncomfortable for Jack. Though his father had never said it, Jack knew he was disappointed in his younger son. Thought he was an appliance repairman and was always pushing him to better himself — finish college, get a pension plan, think about the future, retirement will be here before you know it, blah-blah-blah.
Dad didn't have a clue about what his younger son was about, the crimes he'd committed, the people he'd had to kill while earning his living, and Jack never would tell him. The old guy would be devastated. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Gateways by F. Paul Wilson, David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 2003 F. Paul Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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