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Thursday, August 30, 2001
After four loud rings he lifted the receiver, mumbled hello, and then Danny heard a gruff voice say, "Your father's dead."
Eleven months before, on his forty-ninth birthday, Danny Cassidy had decided that before he turned fifty he would stop running. He had lived like a fugitive for thirty-two years. Haunted, rather than hunted, he always expected a knock on the door in the middle of the night followed by handcuffs, trial, jail.
Maybe even the death penalty for killing a cop.
With the sixth decade of his life looming, Danny Cassidy was no longer going to skulk through life looking over his shoulder, afraid of the ghosts of 1969. He was determined to confront the nightmare of that year head-on before he turned the proverbial big five-oh.
But even with that commitment made, Danny had procrastinated most of his forty-ninth year. He got up each morning in his onebedroom apartment in West Hollywood, determined that this would be the day he would take the old knapsack out of the big trunk in the back of the closet and confront the year that had ended in horror a year from which he had been on the lam ever since.
But as Labor Day approached, he still hadn't opened the trunk, still hadn't worked up the balls to take out the knapsack, which he'd carted across the country and through the decades, and once and for all piece together the broken shards of his life.
The dirty canvas knapsack was what most of the hippies in the late sixties called a head bag, carried on the shoulder and covered in peace signs and smart-ass protest buttons. Danny had carried his head bag through all of 1969 in Brooklyn filled with Bambu rolling papers; hash pipes; roach clips; pill boxes; incense; eighttrack tapes of Dylan, Donovan, and the Doors; a copy of Francois Villion's collected poems; and a trade paperback on the life of Hieronymus Bosch, replete with color plates of the Flemish master's nightmarish paintings.
There were also several handwritten letters from Danny's older brother, Brendan, written from Vietnam, and eleven marble-design copybooks, one for each month of 1969 through November, which served as Danny Cassidy's detailed and drug-addled journals of the worst year of his life.
To Danny the head bag was the decade itself, sealed in a trunk like a vampire in his coffin. He was afraid of opening it and releasing the monster that used to be Danny Cassidy.
Now in his forty-ninth year, Danny found that the phone call about his father sent him skipping through time, forever changing his life.
"What did you say?" Danny said, reaching past the digital clock that said it was 4:59 A.M., for the pack of Vantage.
"I said your old man bought the farm," said the now familiar voice of Ankles Tufano. "Sorry, kid."
Danny hadn't seen Ankles in over thirty years but every two or three years, always on November 21, the anniversary of Vito Malone's unsolved murder, Danny would receive a long-distance phone call from him. Just a dirty little middle-of-the-night-piss call to let Danny Cassidy know that there was still an open homicide file on Ankles's desk and that Danny's name was still in that file as the prime suspect.
Ankles reminded Danny again that there was no statute of limitations on murder. Every time he called, Ankles said he had every intention of solving this case before he retired. He would ask Danny to come back to Brooklyn to cooperate. Danny would always refuse, and then Ankles would tell him that he always knew where he was, what he was doing, and whom he was doing it with. Just a shout-out to tilt Danny's life off-kilter, to keep him from ever having a good night's sleep.
Danny tried to live a low-key, normal existence, but Ankles popped out of the past every once in a while just to add melodrama and angst and uncertainty to his life. Just enough of an intrusion to keep Danny smoking, eating junk food, suffering from insomnia and an occasional case of hives. It helped wreck his marriage and helped strain his relationship with his only daughter, Darlene. The calls from Ankles were out of a past that kept him distracted enough so that he could never break out of the grind of the daily newspaper life into the broader world of the novel, movies, or theater. He chose to stay under the radar, afraid that any kind of high-profile success or fame would add heat to the old murder case. Years ago he even switched from the hard-news beat of the front of the paper to middle-of-the-book entertainment features, just so he wouldn't have to cover homicides, which always caused him to turn the bloodstained soil of his own past. He even turned down most freelance magazine assignments, except for occasionally agreeing to write a short story for one of the skin mags, and always under an assumed name.
With 1969 always simmering like a low-grade fever in his veins, Danny developed a kind of ADD that kept him from concentrating on anything longer than a newspaper article. Any writing that required sustained concentration shattered into bloody images, fragmented flashbacks, thoughts of a fierce but ruined first love. Sometimes a song triggered one of these unsettling episodes. Or a movie. Or a TV or radio broadcast reference to 1969. Sometimes a newspaper story about an old sixties radical like Brinks robbery suspect Kathy Boudin, or anti-Vietnam war firebomber Howard Mechanic or Symbionese Liberation Army would-be bomber Kathleen Soliah being busted after decades on the run made Danny too nervous to sleep. Even prosecutions he applauded scared him, like the arrest in the murder of the four children in a Mississippi church bombing that was prompted by Spike Lee's documentary Four Little Girls. Or the indictment of the mayor of Yorkville, Pennsylvania, for a race-motivated murder dating back to 1969.
But most times his fears were in direct response to the occasional phone calls from Ankles.
What made the anxiety worse was that after three decades he just couldn't remember whether or not he'd done the murder. He was so stoned on drugs and booze that long-ago night that he'd suffered a total blackout. The night of November 20 was like a page from an FBI file with all the important sections Magic-Markered out.
Danny once even paid for a private lie detector test that came up as inconclusive. Try as he might with the help of shrinks and hypnotists in the years since, Danny could bubble up no memory of that awful night. He read once that a killer lived inside of every man. But am I a murderer, Danny wondered.
Now, as he approached fifty, he decided that even a yes answer would be better than not knowing.
But there was never any solid indictable proof that he was the killer. He might have had motive, means, and opportunity, but there were no witnesses, no smoking gun, and not one shred of forensic evidence not enough to arrest or convict Danny at the time, or in the years since. The dead cop had been dirty, so from the beginning NYPD tried to downplay the case, hadn't put on the usual cop-killer full-court press. An embarrassment. But Ankles had never given up. He had never even liked the dead cop in question, but the murder had happened on his watch, on his stomping ground, and ever since it had nagged him like a dent in his otherwise flawless gold shield.
After Danny witnessed Malone's partner, Jack Davis, kill himself in front of his wife and kids, he hit the road, facing possible jail. Danny never returned to Brooklyn. He ran from that night, that year, that Brooklyn neighborhood, and that dead cop. He ran from a fractured family, a shit father, a dead mother, and a first love. And he ran from that murder, across the decades, across a continent.
Now he was being confronted with it again in his bachelor pad on Sweetzer Avenue in West Hollywood.
"Who is this?" Danny asked, pretending he didn't recognize Ankles's unmistakable voice.
"You know who this is," Ankles said. "Don't play fucking games, Danny. Big-city reporter. Married. Divorced. Kid in Harvard. Fiftysix hundred and change in the bank. Over twenty large in debt. Turning fifty next month "
"Which gotta make you seventy."
"Sixty-nine," Ankles said.
"I thought NYPD gave you the mummy walk," Danny said.
Danny knew that after his NYPD mandatory retirement at age sixty-five Ankles had signed on as an investigator at the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office, the elephants' graveyard where a lot of old detectives too active for Florida golf went to beef up their city pensions.
"How...Why do you know all this about me, Ankles?"
"What, I'm too fuckin' stupid to use a computer? Even before computers, I knew where you were every day, all these years. From Boston to Fort Myers to Vegas to Los Angeles. Your ex-wife got a guy living with her in the house you bought. Your daughter is doing great in school, needs help with math, though. You work out every day in Gold's Gym, pumping iron. Maybe you wanna make sure you're in shape when I snap the cuffs on you. You should cut down on the smokes, though; they banned them in prisons in New York State. Your eye doctor says you need prescription glasses now. But you never got them filled. Not on your lousy medical insurance anyway."
"Why are you calling me now?" Danny asked, his mouth dry, his palms damp, his heart thumping, biting a smoke out of the pack, switching on the green desk lamp on his wooden night table, pulling on a pair of nonprescription magnifier glasses with a 200 intensity. He was ready for 250s. "It's the day before Labor Day weekend, Ankles. You're not due to call and pester me till November 21. My old man was nothing to you."
"Your voice sounds a little high-pitched, there, Danny," Ankles said. "Nervous? Palms sweaty? Heart pounding, pal? Mouth dry? Reaching for your first smoke of the day? Bet your asshole's puckering, too, like it will be in a jailhouse shower. These tough young cons love turning middle-aged baby boomers into jailhouse Maytags. Washing socks and sucking cocks."
Ankles laughed as Danny lit a Vantage with a match from a Hamburger Hamlet matchbook. "Still smoking, huh?" Ankles said. "Me, I quit. I intend to keep collecting my pension for twenny years after I clean up this last piece of unfinished business."
"Unless you got something else to say I'm gonna hang up," Danny said.
"Look, I thought you might have enough class to come home and bury your old man. And we could talk. Clear some things up."
"What did he die of?"
"Whadda you give a shit? You haven't spoken to him in over thirty fuckin' years."
"Did someone hurt him?"
"Nah," Ankles said. "Who'd kill him? Just a neighborhood guy, veteran of the forgotten war. Widower. The only enemies he had were his two sons. And his liver."
"Where is he now?" Danny blew out a stream of smoke, hacked.
"Drawer nineteen, Kings County morgue with a tag five-six-seven-two on his toe. I called Dunne's planter to go get him. I know he got a plot next your mother in Evergreen. He bragged about owning it whenever he had his lump on up in Foley's. All he owned at the end was his goddamned grave. Some fuckin' legacy."
"Foley's Bar, Dunne's Funeral Home. Out of another life."
"One keeps the other in business," Ankles said. "But Dunne's needs a family member to sign the papers, and a check."
"That neighborhood is a time warp."
"Lotta changes, Danny, but a lotta things are still here," Ankles said. "Fact, front of me on my desk, there's a thirty-two-year-old file folder on a homicide. Still open. Like his daughter Erika's legs always were for you."
Danny's heart fluttered at the sound of the name: Er-i-ka. Her flag-waving father picked the name because it rhymed with Ameri-ca. All these years later, Danny had never gotten over her. And Ankles is wrong, he thought. The funny part is she was a virgin in a time when young people shared sex like a hash pipe. But not Erika. Not sweet, beautiful, brilliant, sexy, wacky Erika. Erika, in her skintight hip-hugger bell-bottoms with the Native American-design stitching on all the seams and hems. Erika was such a nonconformist that in the hedonistic free-love summer of Woodstock she thought it was rebellious to stay clean, sober, and a virgin. Erika had her innocence stolen from her on one awful, bloody night, only months before her father was also robbed from her. Erika, he thought, was another very big piece of unfinished business. Christ almighty, I might've murdered her father.
"Maybe Vito Malone didn't want a skinny long-haired speed freak like you porking his daughter," Ankles said. "And there was that business about Wally Fortune, and maybe he wanted to whack you, but you got to him first."
"You run the same spiel every time we talk, Ankles," Danny said. "You having a senior moment, or what? Find a new case. I didn't kill Vito Malone. And I was smashed the night Wally Fortune was murdered."
"That's what you say now," Ankles said. "That's what you said then. But I always suspected you don't even know for sure. Maybe you just hope that's true. You were so shit-faced that night on your uppies, acid, booze, Dristan inhalers, and maybe a few Seconals. All that shit you freaks shoved down your throat, in your nose, up in your ass, and in your arm you have no fuckin' idea if you killed him or not. And that's why you never stepped foot in Brooklyn since. You've been running from that night, and that murder, ever since you were eighteen. You may be turning fifty, but you're still a scared little kid, Cassidy."
"I never used a needle."
"Congratulations, Mr. Clean, but guess what?" Ankles said, without skipping a groove in his rant. "The state can use one now. For cop killers."
"So what is this?" Danny asked. "A courtesy call about my father's death or an interrogation about a thirty-year-old murder? You want to grill me, I'll get a lawyer."
"I liked your old man," Ankles said. "He fought for his country, he worked for a living, he paid his fuckin' taxes that helped pay my salary. He minded his business...."
He drove my brother to that dirty fucking war, Danny thought, still as cold about his father as the day he'd left. Which drove my mother into her grave at forty-two.
"Call me old-fashioned," Ankles said, "but I want to see an old neighborhood soldier get a proper send-off."
"I don't mourn his death," Danny said. "But my mother would have. So I'll come and bury him next to my mother. So she can rest in peace."
"You're all fuckin' heart, pal," Ankles said. "Call your brother. Last I checked, which was last month, he was still living in Saigon, teaching English and American history to Coca-Cola workers."
"Are you going to leave me alone when I come back?"
"Nah. As a matter of fact, I've built enough circumstantial evidence over the years to at long last sell this one to my boss here at the Brooklyn DA's office. No one wanted an arrest on this in the old days because the trial would have been too embarrassing for the PC and the mayor. It was better left unsolved. But since then the cliché is that they can indict a ham sandwich. In fact, a famous judge coined that line. He was later indicted himself for stalking a teenage girl. So indicting you now, in my boss's election year, will be easier than indicting a ladyfinger. It'll be sexy in a close race. My boss would love the headlines about indicting a big-city reporter for a thirty-two-year-old cop killing, whether he can convict you or not. The trial won't come up until after the election anyway. And the only profession John Q. Voter hates more than lawyers is the press. It's a win-win for him. It's a no-lose for me. Except I believe in a fair ball game. I don't wanna retire with any doubts in my head. I don't want someone reopening your case and proving me wrong. And if you get convicted, I don't wanna see an innocent man behind bars, even if you are a dickhead."
"Why are you telling me all this now? If you're going to give the case to the DA to bring to a grand jury, what would stop me from running to South America?"
"Because you love your daughter," he said. "For her alone you'll want to clear your name instead."
"You're still convinced after all these years that I did it," Danny said.
"Convince me you didn't and I'll leave you alone, Danny," Ankles said. "A little cooperation, even thirty-and-change years late, can open or close a door."
"Look, Ankles "
"Jeez...no one's called me that in twenty years," he said.
Danny remembered the six-foot-three cop had gotten the nickname as a uniform cop and later with the Youth Squad when he used to roust the beer-drinking hooligans in the neighborhood, kicking them in the ankles with his size-14s, confiscating their sixpacks. After a night of an Ankles rampage half the kids along the parkside of Prospect Gardens hobbled and limped home, often sidelined for an entire weekend. If they fucked up a second time, they wouldn't be able to outrun him. It was how Ankles maintained order on his beat.
Now the old cop had outgrown the nickname he once cherished. Time changed everything.
"If you can't remember your name, go ask the nurse, she'll know what it is."
"There's nothing funny about M-U-R-D-E-R," Ankles said. "In fact, you should know, a DT named O'Rourke from the Cold-Case Squad is working this case, too. Asking all over the place about you. Ready to try to make a sale on this one to my boss come Tuesday morning. I'd sort of resent CCS breaking this case instead of me after all these years. So I'm ready to beat them to the punch. But how come you never tried to find out who did it, if it wasn't you? So I'm not convinced it wasn't. My advice, come back, bury your old man, help me piece together that night, and convince me not to dump my file on my boss's desk on Tuesday morning. Otherwise you'll be dealing with a young, hungry cold-case cop looking to nail you regardless of the truth just for a cheap promotion."
Danny sat in silence, imagining another young cop burning the midnight oil trying to put him in the can. Danny had always hoped the case might die with Ankles. Now some new son of a bitch would haunt him to the grave.
"So that's why you called me this time...you want my help after all these years of making me feel like a piece of shit. Look, I'm too old for this sixties nonsense, Ankles. Like you said, I'm gonna be fifty, and you're ready for mothballs. But OK, I'll be back to bury my father. Maybe I can put 1969 in the ground with him. If I learn anything new in those few days, you'll be first to know."
"I'm gonna cling to you like ringworm," Ankles said.
"I'd like some answers, too," Danny said. "Once and for all."
"No matter how the chips fall?"
"You ready for her, too?"
"Erika Malone," Ankles said, and Danny's heart thumped again, remembering the long red hair, the skintight bell-bottom jeans that fit like another epidermis, the Catholic high school uniform.
"I hear she still comes around once in a while, to visit her mother. The old lady still lives in the same brownstone on Garvey Place."
Danny was silent for a long moment.
"Some things don't change," Ankles said.
"I have," Danny said and hung up.
Copyright © 2002 by Denis Hamill