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Late one Tuesday afternoon, Joe Kurtz rapped on Eddie Falco's apartment door.
"Who's there?" Eddie called from just the other side of the door.
Kurtz stood away from the door and said something in an agitated but unintelligible mumble.
"What?" called Eddie. "I said who the fuck's there?"
Kurtz made the same urgent mumbling noises.
"Shit," said Eddie and undid the police lock, a pistol in his right hand, opening the door a crack but keeping it chained.
Kurtz kicked the door in, ripping the chain lock out of the wood, and kept moving, shoving Eddie Falco deeper into the room. Eddie was several inches taller and at least thirty pounds heavier than Kurtz, but Kurtz had momentum on his side.
Eddie swung down the 9mm Browning. Still shoving the taller man across the floor and into the wooden blinds on the window side of the apartment, Kurtz had his arm blocked across Eddie's chest, his right hand squeezing the base of the man's upper bicep. He quickly slid his left hand across the top of the Browning.
Eddie squeezed the trigger. Just as Kurtz had planned, the hammer fell on the webbing between the thumb and forefinger of Kurtz's hand.
Kurtz took the weapon away from Eddie and backhanded him into the wall.
"Fucking sonofabitch!" yelled Eddie, rubbing blood off his face. "You broke my goddamn" Eddie made a lunge for the pistol.
Kurtz tossed the Browning out the open sixth-floor window, held Eddie off with his left arm, and kicked the other man's legs out from under him. Eddie's head hit the hardwood floor with a bang. Kurtz knelt on his chest.
"Tell me about Sam," said Kurtz.
"Who the fuck is ..." gasped Eddie Falco.
"Samantha Fielding," said Kurtz. "The redhead that you killed."
"Redhead?" said Eddie, spitting blood. "I didn't know the bitch's name, I just"
Kurtz put all of his weight on one knee and Eddie's eyes bugged out. Then Kurtz held his left hand palm out, jabbed hard, and flattened Eddie's broken nose against the screaming man's cheek. "Talk nice," he said. "She worked with me."
Eddie's face was alternating chalk white and dark red under the blood. "Can't breathe," he gasped. "Get ... off ... please."
Eddie gasped some more, spat blood, got to one knee slowly, and then threw himself through the kitchen door.
Kurtz followed him into the tiny kitchen.
Eddie swung around with a butcher knife. He crouched, feinted, lunged, and then seemed to levitate up and back as Kurtz place-kicked him in the balls. Eddie came down hard on a counter filled with unwashed dishes. He was gasping and retching while he rolled, smashing soiled dishes under him.
Kurtz took the knife and threw it at the far wall, where it stuck and vibrated like a tuning fork.
"Sam," said Kurtz. "Tell me about what happened the night you killed her."
Eddie lifted his head and squinted at Kurtz. "Fuck you!" He grabbed another, shorter kitchen knife from the countertop.
Kurtz sighed, forearmed the thug in the throat, bent him back over the sink, and jammed Eddie's right hand down deep into the garbage disposal. Eddie Falco was screaming even before Kurtz reached over and turned on the switch.
Kurtz gave it thirty seconds and then shut off the disposal, ripped Eddie's bloody undershirt down the front, and wrapped the rag around the stumps of the man's fingers. Eddie's face was now pure white under a spattering of blood. His mouth was open and his eyes were protruding as he stared at what was left of his hand. Someone began pounding on the wall from the apartment next door.
"Help! Murder!" screamed Eddie. "Somebody call the cops! Help!"
Kurtz let him scream for a few seconds and then dragged him back into the main room and dropped him into a chair next to the table. The pounding on the wall had stopped, but Kurtz could hear shouts from the neighbors.
"The cops are coming," gasped Eddie Falco. "The cops'll be here in a minute."
"Tell me about Sam," Kurtz said softly.
Eddie clutched the bloody rag around his hand, glanced toward the open window as if expecting sirens, and licked his lips. He mumbled something.
Kurtz gave him a hearty handshake. This time, the screaming was so loud that even the neighbors fell silent.
"Sam," said Kurtz.
"She found out about the coke deal when she was looking for that runaway brat." Eddie's voice was a gagging monotone. "I didn't even know her fucking name." He looked up at Kurtz. "It wasn't me, you know. It was Levine."
"Levine said it was you."
Eddie's eyes flickered back and forth. "He's lying. Get him in here and ask him. He killed her. I just waited in the car."
"Levine isn't around anymore," said Kurtz, his tone conversational. "Did you rape her before you cut her throat?"
"I tell you it wasn't me. It was that goddamn Le" Eddie started screaming again.
Kurtz released the shapeless pulp that had been Eddie Falco's nose. "Did you rape her first?"
"Yeah." Something like defiance flickered in Eddie's eyes. "Fucking cunt put up a fight, tried to"
"Okay," said Kurtz, patting Eddie on his bloody shoulder. "We're about done."
"Whaddaya mean?" The defiance turned to terror.
"I mean the cops will be here in a minute. Anything else you want to tell me?"
Sirens wailed. Eddie lunged to his feet and staggered toward the open window as if to scream at the cops to hurry, but Kurtz slammed him against the wall and held him in place with a forearm hard against his chest. Eddie squirmed and struck at Kurtz with his left hand and the ruins of his right fist. Kurtz ignored him.
"I swear I didn't"
"Shut up," explained Kurtz. He grabbed the bigger man by what was left of his shirtfront and dragged him closer to the window.
"You're not going to kill me," said Eddie.
"No," Eddie twitched his head in the direction of the window just inches away. Six stories below, two police cruisers had slid to a stop. Neighbors were broiling out of the apartment building, pointing toward the window. One of the cops drew his gun as he saw Kurtz and Eddie. "They'd send you away forever!" gasped Eddie, his breath hot and rank in Kurtz's face.
"I'm not that old," said Kurtz. "I have some years to spare."
Eddie lunged away, ripping what was left of the rags of his shirt, stood in the open window and waved and screamed at the cops below. "Hurry! For fuck's sake, hurry!"
"You in a hurry?" said Kurtz. "Here." He grabbed Eddie Falco by his hair and the seat of his pants and threw him out the open window.
Neighbors and cops scattered. Eddie screamed all the way down to the roof of the closest police cruiser. Pieces of chrome and glass and Plexiglas from the gumball-flasher array on the top of the cruiser flew in all directions after Eddie hit.
Three of the cops ran into the building with their weapons raised.
Kurtz stood silent for a second and then went over to open the door wider. He was on his knees in the center of the room with his fingers linked behind his head when the cops burst in a moment later.
In the old days, they would have opened the front man-door for Kurtz and let him leave wearing a cheap new suit, with his possessions in a brown paper bag. These days they provided him a cheap vinyl bag for his possessions and gave him chinos, a blue button-down shirt, an Eddie Bauer windbreaker, and a bus ride into nearby Batavia.
Arlene Demarco picked him up at the bus station. They drove north to the Thruway and then west in silence.
"Well," Arlene said at last, "you look older, Joe."
"I am older."
About twelve miles farther west, Arlene said abruptly, "Hey ... welcome to the Twenty-first Century."
"It arrived inside, too," said Kurtz.
"How could you tell?"
"Good point," said Kurtz and they were silent for another ten miles or so.
Arlene ran her window down and lit a cigarette, batting the ashes out into the brisk autumn air.
"I thought your husband doesn't like it when you smoke."
"Alan died six years ago."
Kurtz nodded and watched the fields go by.
"I guess I could have come to visit you once or twice in eleven years," said Arlene. "Keep you up to speed on things."
Kurtz turned to look at her. "Why? No percentage in that."
Arlene shrugged. "Obviously, I found your message on the machine. But why you thought I'd pick you up after all these years ..."
"No problem if you didn't," said Kurtz. "The buses still run between Batavia and Buffalo."
Arlene smoked the rest of her cigarette, then tossed it out the window. "Rachel, Sam's little girl"
"Well, her ex-husband got custody, and he still lives in Lockport. I thought you'd want to"
"I know where he lives," said Kurtz. "Attica has computers and phone books."
Arlene nodded and concentrated on driving.
"You're working with some legal outfit in Cheektowaga?"
"Yeah. Actually, it's three law offices in what used to be a Kwik-Mart in a shopping center. Two of the firms are ambulance chasers, and the third one is just a capper mill."
"Does that make you a full-fledged legal secretary?"
Arlene shrugged again. "Mostly I do word processing, spend a lot of time on the phone tracking down the claimants, and look up the occasional legal crapola on the Net. The so-called lawyers are too cheap to buy any law books or DVDs."
"You enjoy it?" asked Kurtz.
She ignored the question.
"They pay you what?" said Kurtz. "Two thousand or so a month?"
"More than that," said Arlene.
"Well, I'll add five hundred to whatever they're paying you."
She snorted a laugh. "To do what?"
"Same thing you used to do. Just more of it on computers."
"There some miracle going to happen to get you your P.I. license back, Joe? You have three thousand bucks a month set aside to pay me?"
"You don't have to be a licensed P.I. to do investigations. Let me worry about paying you. You know that if I say I will, I will. You think we can get an office near the old place on East Chippewa?"
Arlene laughed again. "East Chippewa's gotten all gentrified. You wouldn't recognize the place. Uptight little boutiques, delis with outside seating, wine and cheese shops. Rent has gone ballistic there."
"Jesus," said Kurtz. "Well, office space near the downtown will do. Hell, a basement would do as long as it has several phone lines and electricity."
Arlene exited the Thruway, paid the toll, and headed south. "Where do you want to go today?"
"A Motel 6 or someplace cheap in Cheektowaga would work."
"I'm going to have to borrow your car tomorrow morning, and I thought it might be more convenient for you to pick me up on the way to your job. You can give them notice tomorrow morning and pack your stuff, I'll pick you up in the early afternoon, and we can look for the new office."
Arlene lit another cigarette. "You're so considerate, Joe."
Orchard Park was an upscale area out near the Bills' Stadium. Arlene's caralthough just a basic Buickhad one of those GPS navigational LCD-screen doohickies set in the dash, but Kurtz never turned it on. He had memorized the route and had an old road map if he needed it. He wondered just what in the hell had happened to people's sense of direction in the last decade if they needed all this electronic shit just to find their way around.
Most of the homes in Orchard Park were upper-middle-class or better, but a few were real mansions, set behind stone walls and iron gates. Kurtz turned into one of these, gave his name to a speaker grille, and was told to wait. A video camera mounted on a pillar by the gate had ceased its slow arcs and now stared down at him. Kurtz ignored it.
The gate opened and three bodybuilder types in blue blazers and gray slacks came out.
"You can leave the car here," said the smoothest-looking of the three. He gestured for Kurtz to get out of the car.
They frisked him welleven checking his groin area carefullyand then had him unbutton his shirt so that they could see that he wasn't wearing a wire. Then they gestured him onto the back bench of a golf cart and drove him up the long, curving driveway to the house.
Kurtz did not pay much attention to the house. It was your basic brick mansion, a little heavier on security than usual. There was a four-car garage set back to one side, but a Jaguar, a Mercedes, a Honda S2000, and a Cadillac were lined up along the drive. The blue-blazered driver stopped the cart, and the other two men led Kurtz around back to the pool area.
Even though it was October, the pool was still filled and free of leaves. An older man in a paisley robe sat at a poolside table along with a balding middle-aged man in a gray suit. They were drinking coffee from fragile china cups. The bald man refilled the cups from a silver pot as Kurtz and his minders walked up. A fourth bodyguard, this one wearing tight slacks and a polo shirt under his blue blazer, stood with his hands folded over his crotch a few paces behind the old man.
"Sit down, Mr. Kurtz," said the old man. "You'll forgive me if I don't get up. An old injury."
"Coffee?" said the old man.
The bald man poured, but it was obvious that he was no lackey. An expensive metal briefcase lay on the table near him.
"I am Byron Tatrick Farino," said the old man.
"I know who you are," said Kurtz.
The old man smiled slightly. "Do you have a first name, Mr. Kurtz?"
"Are we going to be on a first-name basis, Byron?"
The smile faded.
"Watch your mouth, Kurtz," said the bald man.
"Shut up, consigliere." Kurtz's eyes never left the old man. "This meeting's between Mr. Farino and me."
"Quite right," said Farino. "But you understand that the meeting is a courtesy and that it would not be taking place at all if you had not ... ah ... provided a service to us with regard to my son."
"By keeping Little Skag from being raped up the ass in the showers by Ali and his gang," said Kurtz. "Yeah. You're welcome. But this meeting is business."
"You want compensation for helping young Stephen?" said the lawyer. He clicked open the briefcase.
Kurtz shook his head. He was still looking at Farino. "Maybe Skag told you what I had to offer."
Farino sipped his coffee. The old man's hands were almost as translucent as the expensive china. "Yes, Stephen sent word via his lawyer that you wanted to offer your services. But what services can you possibly provide us that we do not already have, Mr. Kurtz?"
Farino nodded but the lawyer showed an unpleasant smile. "You were a private investigator once, Kurtz, but you'll never have a license again. You're on parole, for chrissakes. Why on earth would you think that we need a killer ex-con washed-up P.I. on our payroll?"
Kurtz turned his gaze on the lawyer. "You're Miles," he said. "Skag talked about you. He said you like young boys and that the older and limper you get, the younger they get."
The lawyer blinked. His left cheek blazed with blood, as if Kurtz had slapped him. "Carl," he said. The goon in the straining polo shirt opened his hands and took a step forward.
"If you want Carl around, you'd better jerk his leash," said Kurtz.
Mr. Farino held up one hand. Carl stopped. Farino put his other veined hand on the lawyer's forearm. "Leonard," he said. "Patience. Why do you provoke us, Mr. Kurtz?"
Kurtz shrugged. "I haven't had my morning coffee yet." He drank some.
"We are willing to reimburse you for your help with Stephen," said Farino. "Please accept it as a ..."
"I don't want to be paid for that," said Kurtz. "But I'm willing to help you with your real problem."
"What problem?" said Attorney Miles.
Kurtz looked at him again. "Your accountant, a guy named Buell Richardson, is missing. That's not good news at the best of times for a family like yours; but since Mr. Farino's been forced out ... retired ... you don't know what the fuck is going on. The FBI could have turned Richardson and have him stashed in a safe house somewhere, singing his guts out. Or the Gonzagas, the other Western New York family, could have whacked him. Or maybe Richardson is going freelance and will be sending you a note and demands any day now. It might be nice to know ahead of time."
"What makes you think" Miles began.
"Plus, the only part of the action they left you was the contraband being brought in from La Guardia, up from Florida, and down from Canada," Kurtz said to Farino. "And even before Richardson disappeared, someone had been knocking over your trucks."
"What makes you think that we can't deal with this?" Miles's voice was strained, but under control.
Kurtz turned his gaze back on the old man. "You used to," he said. "But who do you trust now?"
Farino's hand was shaking as he set his cup down in its saucer. "What is your proposal, Mr. Kurtz?"
"I investigate for you. I find Richardson. I bring him back to you if possible. I find out if the truck hijacking is linked with his disappearance."
"And your fees?" said Farino.
"Four hundred dollars a day plus my expenses."
Attorney Miles made a rude sound.
"I don't have too many expenses," continued Kurtz. "A thousand up front for a stake. A bonus if I drag your CPA back in good time."
"How large a bonus?" said Farino.
Kurtz drank the last of the coffee. It was black and rich. He stood up. "I'll leave that to you, Mr. Farino. Now I've got to get going. What do you say?"
Farino rubbed his liver-colored lower lip. "Write the check, Leonard."
"Sir, I don't think"
"Write the check, Leonard. A thousand dollars advance, you said, Mr. Kurtz?"
Miles counted out the money, all in crisp fifties, and put it in a white envelope.
"You realize, Mr. Kurtz," said the old man, his voice suddenly flat and cold, "that the penalties for failure in situations such as this are rarely restricted to simple loss of payment."
The old man took a pen from the lawyer's briefcase and jotted on a blank business card. "Contact these numbers if you have information or questions," said Farino. "You are never to come back to this house. You are never again to call me or contact me directly in any way."
Kurtz took the card.
"David, Charles, and Carl will run you down the drive to your car," said Farino.
Kurtz looked Carl in the eye and smiled for the first time that morning. "Your bitches can follow me if they want," he said. "But I'll walk. And they'll stay at least ten paces behind me."
There was a Ted's in Orchard Park now and another one in Cheektowaga, but Kurtz drove downtown to the old Ted's Hot Dogs on Porter, near the Peace Bridge. He ordered three of the Jumbos with everything on them, including hot sauce, an order of onion rings, and coffee, and took the cardboard carton to a picnic table near the fence overlooking the river. A few families, some business types and a couple of street people were also having lunch. Leaves fell silently from the big old maple tree. The traffic on the Peace Bridge hummed softly.
There hadn't been many things that you couldn't get in Attica. A Ted's Hot Dog had been one of them. Kurtz remembered Buffalo winter nights in the years before the Ted's on Sheridan had put on its inside dining room: midnight, ten below, three feet of snow, and thirty people lined up outside for dogs.
Finished, he drove north on the Scajaquada Expressway to the Youngman, east to Millersport Highway, and then northeast the fifteen miles or so to Lockport. It did not take him long to find the little house on Lilly Street. Kurtz parked across the street for a few minutes. The house was fairly common for Lockport: a basic white-brick house in a nice old neighborhood. Trees overarched the street; yellow leaves fell. Kurtz looked at the dormer windows on the second floor and wondered which one was her room.
He drove to the nearest middle school. He did not park there, but drove by slowly. Cops were edgy around public schools and wouldn't be especially generous with a recently paroled killer who hadn't even checked in with his P.O. yet.
It was just a building. Kurtz didn't know what he had expected. Middle-school kids didn't go outside for recess. He glanced at his watch and drove back to town, taking the 990 back to save some time.
Arlene led the way into the X-rated video store. The place was half a block from the bus station. Glass from countless broken crack bottles crunched underfoot. A used hypodermic syringe lay in the corner of the doorway vestibule. Most of the storefront window had been painted over, but the unpainted part above eye level was so filthy that no one could have seen into the store even if there had been no paint.
Inside it was every X-rated video store Kurtz had ever seen: a bored, acne-scarred man reading a racing form behind the counter, three or four furtive men pouring over the magazines and videos on the shelves, one junkie female in black leather eyeing the customers, and an assortment of dildos, vibrators, and other sex toys in the glass display case. The only difference was that a lot of the videos were now on DVD.
"Hey, Tommy," Arlene said to the man behind the counter.
"Hey, Arlene," said Tommy.
Kurtz looked around. "Nice," he said. "We doing our Christmas shopping early?"
Arlene led the way down a narrow hall past the peep-show booths, past a toilet with a hand-lettered sign reading DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT DOING IT IN HERE, ASSHOLES, through a bead curtain, through an unmarked door, and down a steep flight of stairs.
The basement was long and musty and smelled of rat droppings, but the place had been partitioned into two areas with a low railing separating them. Empty bookcases still lined three of the walls. There were long, nicked tables in the outer area and a metal desk in the far space.
"Exits?" said Kurtz.
"That's the good part," said Arlene.
She showed him a rear entrance, separate from the video store, steep stone steps, a steel-reinforced door opening onto the alley. Back in the basement, she went over and swung a bookcase out, revealing another door. She took a key out of her purse and unlocked the padlock on the door. It opened onto an empty underground parking garage.
"When this place was a real bookstore, they sold heroin out of the sci-fi section down here. They liked to have several exits."
Kurtz looked around and nodded. "Phone lines?"
"Five of them. I guess they had a lot of queries about their sci-fi."
"We won't need five," said Kurtz. "But three would be nice." He checked the electrical outlets in the floor and walls. "Yeah, tell Tommy this will do nicely."
"That doesn't matter," said Kurtz.
"Not to you," said Arlene. "You won't be here much if it's like the old days. But I'll be looking at these basement walls nine hours a day. I won't even know what season it is."
"This is Buffalo," said Kurtz. "Assume it's winter."
He drove her to her town house and helped carry in the cardboard boxes with all of her personal stuff from the Kwik-Mart law offices. There wasn't much. A framed photo of her and Alan. Another photo of their dead son. A hairbrush and some other junk.
"Tomorrow we lease the computers and buy some phones," said Kurtz.
"Oh? With what money?"
Kurtz removed the white envelope from his jacket pocket and gave her $300 in fifties.
"Wow," said Arlene. "That'll buy the handset part of the phone. Maybe."
"You must have some money saved up," said Kurtz.
"You making me a partner?"
"No," said Kurtz. "But I'll pay the usual vig on the loan."
Arlene sighed and nodded.
"And I need to use your car tonight."
Excerpted from HARD CASE by Dan Simmons. Copyright © 2001 by Dan Simmons. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.