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To Forget Mary Ellen
THE TWO MEN SAT in Gibbons's 1990 Ford Taurus in the parking lot of Freddie's Diner on the West Side of Manhattan. In November it was already dark at five-thirty. Everyone on the street, except the homeless, was bucking the wind, homeward bound. The two men were unnoticed.
Joseph (Red) Gibbons was a retired New York detective. The subject of unproven charges of corruption and misconduct, he'd been given early retirement several years before. It was widely suspected also that he abused his wife, but Mary Ellen simply would not swear out a complaint against him. He was an affable man most of the time, generous, with a glib tongue and a ready handshake. He was also a bully, and it came out when anyone of lower rank crossed him, or when he'd had a few drinks, or, unpredictably, with his wife.
Billy Phillips was crouched down on the passenger side. The round-shouldered Phillips had crouched so much of his life it was his natural posture. On the move he was quick and simian; huddled in a chair or a car seat he had very nearly the inanimacy of a rag doll. In the neighborhood he was thought to be a kind man, he was very good to Marge, his wife, and he adored their ten-year-old son, William. There were rumors that he was connected with the Rooney Gang, but nobody suspected in what capacity. Some said it had to do with gambling. Phillips was a hit man, a paid killer. His wife took for granted that they lived on the horses and what she earned as a hairdresser in a neighborhood beauty salon. Billy was a good handicapper and every once in a while took off without notice for a few days at whatever track was in operation at that time of year.
Gibbons and Phillips had met only once before, when Gibbons was still a working detective. Phillips had made a rare slip-up: he had left evidence that would eventually incriminate him on the scene. Rooney had told him he might get lucky, Gibbons was on the case. By appointment he had gone to Gibbons's home, a loft in the West Thirties, and Mrs. Gibbons, Mary Ellen, had opened the loft door to him, not even curious about how he got into the building. He wouldn't have told her the truth anyway. He observed an ugly bruise on her cheek, but he recognized her as a battered woman more from the wary look in her eyes, the hang of her head, the sloping shoulders, especially the shoulders. The slope had particular meaning to him—it recalled his attempts to diminish himself, to become invisible if possible, in childhood, to slip under the blows aimed at him by a runaway father whenever he was coaxed home by the parish priest. Billy Phillips had never laid a hand on his own son, even in just punishment.
The night he had gone to Gibbons's home he was prepared to mortgage his life to get the incriminating evidence back in his own hands or destroyed. He represented himself to Gibbons as an intermediary, the messenger for a friend in trouble. He spoke as an outsider, even though he knew deep down that Gibbons did not believe for a minute he was there on behalf of anyone other than himself. No promises had been given. Both men realized, despite Phillips's sham, that they were prisoners to each other whether or not any word of commitment passed between them.
A few months after that Gibbons was retired. The evidence Phillips was concerned about never surfaced. The case, like his other homicides, remained open, but inactive. The police lacked both time and new evidence. His success was attributed in part at least to his never using the same weapon twice. After making a hit he took the weapon at once to Fitz Fitzgerald, a gun fence with an overseas outlet. When he needed a safe replacement Fitzgerald always came through for him.
Phillips had a beer now and then in McGowen's Pub on Eighth Avenue and he had seen Gibbons there a few times. They had made eye contact, but that was all. They'd not spoken again until the phone call from Gibbons that set up their meeting in the parking lot of Freddie's Diner.
Phillips appeared, as out of nowhere, got into the car and closed the car door almost soundlessly.
"Been waiting all this time to hear from me?" Gibbons asked him.
"I had a little package ready for you, but I didn't hear so I figured I'd better wait."
"I thought maybe you'd forgot about it. Maybe you wanted to forget it."
"Cops and elephants don't forget. How big was the little package?"
Phillips shrugged. "I'm not a rich man."
"Maybe you're in the wrong business." Gibbons gave a snort of laughter.
Phillips didn't say anything. He felt like a mouse under the cat's paw.
"When the P.D. put me out to pasture, I went into the insurance business," the retired cop said. "I had a couple of good years in there before things dried up. I've got what my old lady calls a gift of the gab. It worked miracles when there was money around. The way things are now, half my clients can't pay their premiums. I can hardly pay my own ..."
The more Gibbons talked about himself, the more uneasy Phillips felt. Why was he supposed to give a damn what Gibbons was doing? He was being set up for something and it was going to come like a kick in the groin. Was the old evidence still around? Was the case going to open again? Gibbons sure as hell wasn't trying to sell him life insurance. But it had to have something to do with insurance. That made him even more nervous. Insurance companies had their own detectives. He pulled in tighter on himself, pushing back on the cushion, down on the seat as though he could disappear into the upholstery.
Gibbons continued, "Want to know what all this bullshit's about?"
"I want to know what size package you're thinking of, yeah."
The ex-cop chortled. "You've got it all wrong, my friend. It was you mentioned the package, not me. I've got a job for you, Phillips, something in your line."
He ought to have known, probably did. Only he didn't want to admit it. He didn't want the job, not for Gibbons. But he was afraid to say so. "You know how I make a buck these days? I handicap horses—all over the country. I guess you knew that, huh?"
"Twenty thousand," Gibbons said, ignoring Phillips's attempt to head him off. "Five when we shake hands, five when the job's done, and ten two years later. We can set the date."
Phillips bit his tongue. It was enough money to choke a horse. His instant calculations ran to where it would be safe to invest it, and how much it would grow to by the time William was old enough for college. It happened to him every time there was a possibility of real money. "What's the two year business?"
"Two years minimum. We're talking insurance. They don't pay till they can't get out of it. They want absolute proof whatever the claimant says happened did happen. We can handle that. We can see it happens the right way."
Phillips thought he had it now: proof that the deceased died by the rules set down in the policy fine print. Gibbons had got himself named beneficiary of some old Bridget or Norah he'd charmed with his Irish gab. Now he was ready to pull the plug on her. It had to look like a break-in or a street crime. High risk and tricky as hell. Twenty thousand wasn't all that much money.
But he said, "Tell me about it."
"I couldn't do that, Billy, without a commitment from you."
"I can't give you a commitment till I know what I'm getting into. Who? Where? How much time have I got?"
"I'll be working with you all the way."
Phillips was suddenly wary for another reason: Gibbons could be undercover, working for the cops again. He could've got religion. "I work alone," he said. "It's done my way or it ain't done by me."
"I buy that," Gibbons said, "but you might feel different in this case." The lights of a passing car flashed across his face. They caught the screwed-up eyes, the smug grin on his pudgy face.
"I do every case different," Phillips said, "but they all come out the same. See what I mean?"
"Whoever you take a contract on, they're dead. Is that what you're saying? What in hell would I be doing here if I didn't know that?"
"What's the job?"
"I want you to kill my wife."
Phillips wasn't prepared for that one, but he should've been, he thought: Gibbons the wife beater. He had an instant memory of the battered woman who opened the door to him that night five years ago. Gibbons would be working with him all the way. He believed him. And he hated him. Not that he'd loved any bastard he had ever done a job for. "I never did a woman," he growled.
"You know the sign in the window of the beauty shop where your wife works—UNISEX? Look at it that way."
The son of a bitch.
They met the next night two hours later in the same place. Freddie closed early. His main business came at noon from workers in nearby industry and warehouses. A few neighborhood stragglers hardly made it worthwhile to serve evening meals. By eight o'clock the only cars left in the lot would stay overnight. Freddie paid half his rent that way. Gibbons was one of his regulars, familiar to anyone who observed his comings and goings. No one did that night. Phillips considered himself invisible. He'd worked at it long enough, a master of every detail of misguidance. Even Gibbons didn't see him until he opened the car door and slipped in.
"I was thinking," Gibbons started, "you might want to come up to my place and look over the setup. She's home most of the time except on card party nights, but I don't see what difference it makes whether she's home or not. Except on the big night, of course."
"The big night," Phillips repeated.
"Yeah." After a few seconds Gibbons said, "Ever have anyone hang on to you, Phillips? The more you shake them off the tighter they hang on. She's like that. When I can't stand it anymore I let her have it, and you know, the poor girl likes it? When I get over the rage, see, I'm sorry. Then she's all over me. Do this to me, do that. I go out of there hollering. If I didn't, I'd kill her."
"So why don't you?"
"Don't be a smart-ass," Gibbons said.
"You're still living in the same place?" Phillips asked.
"Same loft, same wife, same stinking elevator. You'll have to watch that."
Phillips had no intention of going near an elevator. Elevators were traps. If there weren't stairs ... but he knew there were. He'd used them the one time he'd been there. He said nothing, however. He'd hear Gibbons out. He did things his way, but that wasn't to say it couldn't be changed to suit the circumstances.
"I got to tell you, we've been broken into twice. That's how I got the idea. I scared them off once. Next time I wasn't there. They beat up on Mary Ellen ... Messed the place up. I figured it's a good idea for us to mess things up, too."
Us, Phillips noted.
"I could do it myself when I get there," Gibbons reconsidered. "No, better not. You never know how you'll feel when the time comes. We've been married thirty years, you know. If we'd had kids everything might have been different."
Yeah, you'd beat up on the kids, Phillips thought. He twisted in his seat. The family talk was making him nervous. "Let's stick to business, okay? Let's hear your game plan and I'll tell you if it'll work."
"It's so simple, it's scary. The first two floors in my building's industrial, see—in by eight A.M., out at five. I've got the fifth floor, right? I've been there fifteen years. But the owner's turning the third and fourth floor into apartments. More bucks. All these classy apartments are ready. But they can't get occupancy certificates. The plumbing's fucked up. A few hundred bucks under the table, no problem. But it's not my business. The thing is, after quitting time there's nobody, but nobody, in the building."
There was never nobody, by Phillips's reckoning, but he said, "Okay, let's have the rest of it."
"A couple of nights a week I'm in the habit of staying out late. I don't stay over, but I stay plenty late. She knows where I am but I call her anyway, especially since the break-in. I got a downstairs key for you. You'll have to get rid of it good."
"I don't want your key," Phillips said.
"The night we settle on, you'll be in the hall outside the door when I phone. I'll let you know the time I'm going to call her and you'll wait a couple of minutes after you hear the phone ring. Then you'll ring the doorbell. Maybe knock and ring at the same time. The bell doesn't always work. I'll tell her to find out who it is, and when she calls out to you, you'll say it's Sergeant Nichols from the precinct. You brought a package 'round for me." Gibbons laughed. "That little package keeps turning up, don't it? Fact is, that's what happens once in a while. I'll tell her to open the door and it'll be that simple."
"Nothing is ever that simple," Phillips growled.
"But we can work 'round it?"
"Suppose I can't make it on target, or something gets in the way, like the real Sergeant Nichols?"
"There is no Sergeant Nichols. Then we start over another time. If you're not there she can't let you in, can she?"
"Have you got a revolver, Sergeant?"
"I've got my service .38. I was damn glad to break it out the night of the attempted robbery."
"What if your wife has it in her hand when she comes to the door?"
"She can't. I took it over to the office last week when things got uptight between her and me."
"Think she'd kill you if she got the chance?"
"Hell no. I was scared she might kill herself."
Stupid-head me, Phillips thought. Insurance companies didn't pay off on suicides. "I want that gun," he said.
"The hell you do. It's got my name all over it. I had to register it at the precinct when I retired."
"The weapon's no problem, but I want that one. I'll tell you why. This is how it's got to play to Homicide: No phone call. Let them figure out why she opens the door. You've told her time and again not to, right? So when she opens it, she comes on with your revolver—" Gibbons tried to interrupt. "Listen to what I'm saying. She comes on with the gun. The guy outside the door knocks it out of her hand. Maybe she gets shot in the scuffle. The cops can figure that out, too. That's how it's got to play to Homicide. In real life the shooter hangs up the phone before he leaves the premises. That way you know it came out like it was planned. Is there a witness on your end of the phone?"
"There won't be."
"You won't have to mess up the apartment. The shooter's got the piece. To him it's worth the kill."
"I want to think about it," Gibbons said. "That gun's like my right arm."
What bothered Phillips more than anything else about the job was his hatred of Gibbons. He didn't like working inside a building. He'd take fences over walls any day. And he didn't like it that the contract was on a woman. But every time he thought of Gibbons it was like something started crawling inside him. He could see his puffy face, his screwed-up eyes. And he knew that if ever he saw this man lay his hand on the wife he'd go berserk. It was like that when he saw anybody knocking a kid around. He'd almost got arrested once in a supermarket when he caught hold of a woman and pulled her away from where she was slapping the kid in its stroller. He didn't want to think too much about Mary Ellen. Where the hell was women's lib? She'd be better off dead, he told himself, than spoiling her life with Gibbons. But there was the twenty thousand dollars. The most he ever got for a hit was five grand.
The final meeting before the hit date occurred at Gibbons's loft. Mary Ellen played cards every other Wednesday night at the church hall. Gibbons would go over to McGowen's Pub for a few beers and then pick her up on his way home. When he told her he was staying home that night, that he didn't feel so great, she wanted to skip the card game. But when he blew up at her for it, she took off. He called after her that he'd pick her up as usual.
Phillips was watching from across the street. There wasn't much traffic, most of it the precinct cops taking in the whores from Eleventh Avenue and the crosstown Thirties: sweep night. There were night-lights on all the floors of Gibbons's building—pale, low-wattage bulbs you'd think would die any minute. And he couldn't see a homeless slob on the street, the cleanest street in town. Real treacherous. Gibbons's wife left the building at ten minutes to eight. He wasn't sure at first that it was her, the way she walked with her head up, her shoulders back, a tote bag swinging at her side. Good legs and noisy heels. It had to be her. The time was right and nobody else came out of the building. He could hear the clack of her heels far down the street.
That night he got into the vestibule the way everybody else did, by ringing Gibbons's bell and waiting to be buzzed in. He even took the elevator to the fifth floor. Never again. It climbed one floor after another as though it wouldn't make the next. Gibbons was waiting for him in the hallway. "Did you see her?"
"It must've been her. Nobody else came out of the building."
"I don't pick her up till ten, but I'd like to get you out of here as soon as we get things settled."
"Want a drink?"
Excerpted from In the Still of the Night by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Copyright © 2001 Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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