The Olympic Games are coming to Boston! Or are they? When a burial detail to the paupers’ grave on Boston’s Rinker Island comes up with one extra coffin, Dan Burton is called in to take the case. The murdered man is one Constantine Boustaloudis, a neighborhood activist against the effort of rich and powerful interests to bring the Olympic Games to Boston.
At the same time, Donald Maldonado, cousin of the infamous Icky Ricky Maldonado, tries to create a place for himself in the Boston underworld, taking over his cousin’s criminal activities. He jostles with Mickey Barksdale, Burton’s childhood friend, for a piece of the illegitimate prospects of the Games coming to town: construction contracts, union connections, and so on. Complicating matters is that Elder Darrow’s thieving girlfriend Kathleen Crawford has stolen something of Maldonado’s and he wants it back. Badly enough to kill anyone in the way.
Real estate speculators offer to buy the Esposito and turn the block into a velodrome for the proposed Games. Elder is tempted, unsure that he wants to continue in the bar business. The confusion turns the world around Mercy Street into an uproar.
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"Randolph Coyne." The dapper gentleman — sharply tailored black suit, handmade brogans, and a drily elegant aftershave — reached his hand over the bar of the Esposito to shake. He bore a long thin nose on a long thin face and a haircut with the sides shaved and the top slicked back like a Spanish soccer player. "I'm an associate of Mr. Maldonado."
"I thought Ricky moved to Miami," I said.
Ricky Maldonado, our neighborhood nickel-and-dime gangster, had developed a spate of health problems a couple years back that made it increasingly difficult for him to manage even the pint-sized fiefdom the city's serious mobsters had left him — they'd tolerated him out of a sense of nostalgia more than anything. But after he lost his chief lieutenant and heir apparent Tommy Cormier in a bomb blast, Ricky retreated to South Florida for his health. Or so the story went.
"I was referring to Mr. Donald Maldonado," Coyne said.
I translated the name in my head.
"Donald Bad Donald?"
Coyne's mouth puckered as if I'd insulted him. The lines radiating out from the corners of his mouth suggested the expression was habitual, that the world perpetually disappointed him.
He was clearly not in the Esposito for the ambience, not that the bar showed itself best at ten o'clock on a Tuesday morning. The bar had come a long way since I bought it: you could drink without getting into a fist fight and step outside to smoke without worrying about being mugged. And the food was better than edible, thanks to Marina. Cleaning up the place had been more work than I expected, but in addition to keeping me more or less sober, it helped me develop an instinct for trouble. And Randolph Coyne was trouble.
And he wasn't here for the music, either. Wes Montgomery's California Dreamin' flowed like liquid sunshine from the Boston Acoustics speakers mounted up in the corners of the bar. Before Randolph Coyne tip-tapped his way down the twelve steel stairs — who wore Italian loafers in the winter? — I was thinking what a perfect time of year early March was for being somewhere other than Boston. The daytime skies were iron-colored and dull. Slush froze and refroze in masses along the sidewalks and black ice skimmed the streets. There was still another four or five weeks before the first green shoot of spring and even though I could finally afford it, I wasn't going anywhere. I had a bar to run.
"I didn't know Ricky had a brother."
"First cousin," Coyne said. "Once removed."
He placed his hands palm down on the bar top. They were scabbed and scarred, the knuckles knotted from impact and old breakage. Martial arts. Though smart fist fighters always punched the soft parts.
"Richard signed over control of all his enterprises to Donald," Coyne said. "Effective this date."
I swallowed my amusement. At its apex, Ricky's enterprises comprised a pair of meth-addicted muscle men, a loose and intensely disloyal network of street dealers, and an Apache second in command obsessed with business management skills. Tommy Cormier might have been Ricky's only scary asset, but the car bomb had taken him out of the picture and soon thereafter, Ricky quit and left town.
"Ah, Randolph. I'm not sure you know what Ricky was actually doing here in the city, but ..."
Coyne raised an index finger, the end of which pointed sideways. There was nothing I liked better than being shushed by a thug, even a well-dressed one.
"Mr. Maldonado is a very astute business person. He has been extremely successful at growing operations in hitherto underserved locations."
Hitherto? Randolph must have checked his word a day calendar this morning. It didn't make him less of a thug.
"I had very little contact with Ricky." I shaded the truth only a little. "Nothing much, either personal or commercial."
Coyne leaned across the bar.
"I know. A shame. Such a wasted opportunity."
My face must have shown that I wasn't impressed, because he bared his teeth and smiled like a wolf. I felt the fear in my backbone — I'd run up against some genuine hardasses in the Esposito's lurch toward respectability and Randolph rated right up there. I wondered what Mickey Barksdale, the reigning boss of crime right now, would say about him.
"But that is not why I have come here to see you today."
He wasn't using contractions and the rest of his syntax was formal. It sounded memorized rather than learned. My instincts said I didn't want to hear what he had to say. Not yet, anyway.
"I'm not being a very good bartender here. Can I offer you a libation?" His light gray eyes glinted, as if he thought I might be mocking his diction.
"Do you stock Fernet-Branca?"
I didn't even know what it was.
"No matter, we should maintain our focus on the business at hand. I believe you have had the acquaintance of a young woman named Kathleen Crawford."
Hearing her name out loud spiked the hair on the back of my neck. She and I had had a too-brief encounter recently enough that I hadn't gotten over it yet. She'd worked in a local bank and owned a house in Cambridge, and while I'd thought we might have had something serious going, my cop buddy Burton had found out she was a thief. She'd disappeared, leaving me a cryptic video about being pursued by one of her victims.
"Don't believe I've heard the name."
Coyne slapped a black and white picture down on the bar, a fuzzy still from a surveillance camera: the angle of the shot was from high over her head. In the picture, the woman's hair was chopped very short and so blond it glowed in the photo. And she wore no earrings. When she'd been here with me, Kathleen had long black hair threaded with silver and shefavored long dangly pendants that caught the light when she moved her head. The shape of her skull looked familiar, but that wasn't enough to identify her to Coyne.
He held up his hand, as if to stop me from saying anything. I didn't want to lie to him outright until I was sure it wouldn't cause me any trouble.
"I might have met her once or twice," I said. "A lot of women come into the bar."
Coyne's long face twitched.
"I believe you two were much better acquainted than that. But no matter. I have no interest in your private life."
Wes finished up California Dreamin' and segued into Road Song, one of my recent favorites. I'd started to hear it as a personal call, to think about doing something new.
"And why would you be looking for this Ms. Crawford?"
Coyne nodded to himself, as if I'd admitted something, and sat down on a stool.
"Excellent. I much prefer that we do not dance around the truth." He folded his gnarled hands on top of the bar, as if offering a prayer. "Your lady friend is a very accomplished professional thief."
I kept my expression flat, something I'd gotten better and better at the longer I stood behind the bar and listened to the stories and confessions that alcohol freed from the mouths of my customers. Kathleen had told me her father financed large-scale criminal activities in New England. He'd been the man to see if you needed weapons, explosives, vehicles, or heavy equipment to take on a job. And before I'd found out she was a thief, she'd shown me flashes of an outlaw personality. It was probably why I'd been attracted to her.
"Really? News to me."
I grabbed a rag and started to polish the pristine beer taps. Coyne held up his hand to stop me, as if aware I was doing it because I was nervous. He inclined his head.
"Be that as it may. Your Ms. Crawford is in possession of something Mr. Maldonado desires."
"Not something he owned?"
Coyne coughed drily. I poured him a glass of club soda and he nodded his thanks.
"Let us just say ownership is a mutable concept in the case of this item."
"Possession not counting as nine-tenths of the law?"
"Perhaps not. But insofar as a right to possession exists? It accrues to Mr. Maldonado. Ms. Crawford's appropriation of the item was adverse."
He leaned forward to set the glass back on the bar, having barely sipped. The jacket of the black suit gapped open, not incidentally displaying a black nylon shoulder holster and harness, the butt of a pistol. He buttoned the jacket, having made whatever point he was making.
I concentrated on steady breathing. He was a much higher level of threat than I was used to dealing with, higher than, say, a drunken stockbroker heckling the band.
"And you are here because you think I know her? I'm not sure how I can help."
"Ms. Crawford is not to be found in any of her usual venues, Mr. Darrow. I — we — wondered if she'd perhaps been in contact."
Other than that video, telling me she was sorry she had to disappear, I hadn't heard from her. But even if I hadn't still been harboring feelings for her, I wasn't going to deliver her to Randolph Coyne and Icky Ricky's cousin.
"You've tried the house in Cambridge? I can give you the address."
I realized I'd confirmed that I knew her, but hoped being accommodating would help. Coyne shook his head.
"I believe I said we have looked in all her usual haunts. The place has been sold."
My stomach dropped. Even though I hadn't expected to hear from her, I'd hoped she might come back once she resolved her problems. The fact she'd sold the house confirmed she wasn't returning.
"Then I guess I can't help you."
Coyne's lips crept back from his teeth.
"As a writer once said, 'Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?' I'm afraid, Mr. Darrow, that Mr. Maldonado had designated you the responsible party. You represent the most likely path to Ms. Crawford and to the recovery of Mr. Maldonado's property."
I shook my head, but Coyne talked over what I was about to say.
"And I need not draw you a portrait of the consequences of failure, do I? You do have a great deal of your capital invested in the Esposito, don't you?"
He raised his hand and flicked a plastic lighter, the flame rising six inches into the air.
All I had invested was the last of my money, my pride, a shitload of work, and my continued sobriety. Hardly a thing.
I picked up the glass of club soda and sluiced its contents at the lighter, dousing the flame and soaking the fine Italian wool of Randolph Coyne's sleeve.
"No one in this neighborhood responds very well to threats, Randolph. You might tell Mr. Maldonado that."
He didn't flinch, or even show surprise. He dropped the lighter on the bar with a clatter.
"Now I think you'd better leave," I said.
He squeezed the water out of his sleeve onto the floor.
"It has been a pleasure meeting you," Mr. Darrow. "His eyes looked past me, to somewhere remote and cold. "This time, at least."CHAPTER 2
Nina shivered underneath the unlined canvas barn coat that was all the Boston Pre-Release Center provided for the inmates who had to work outside. The sun was the color of weak lemonade in a washed-out blue sky, but at least the wind wasn't blowing in off the water any more. She'd almost frozen on the boat ride over to Rinker Island.
Standing at the edge of a hole maybe six feet deep, eight feet long, and fifteen feet wide, Nina smelled the cold minerality of the fresh-turned dirt. She nudged the huge pale mountain of a woman beside her, who was holding her own coat closed across her bulging belly with a clutch of fingers the size of carrots, her bleached thinning hair held back under a nonregulation do-rag.
"Alberta," Nina said. "At least it isn't us. Am I right?"
"This time, maybe." Somewhere between a very hard forty years old and a merely rough sixty, Alberta spit on the gravel path at their feet.
Nina volunteered for the paupers' grave detail because it was a way to get out of the facility and into the fresh air for a few hours. The stress of living with a couple hundred other women making the transition back to civilian life was more of a strain than she'd expected. For people who'd been incarcerated for any length of time, the prospect of pure freedom apparently fostered all kinds of uncertainty that a regimented schedule, a secure place to sleep, and regular meals kept suppressed. She smelled it in the disinfectant-bathed hallways of the Center, the mildewed shower rooms. She only had a couple weeks left to go and time outside meant she couldn't get in trouble inside. And she hadn't been such a model prisoner that she'd gotten used to living without sunshine and fresh air.
Or sex. She hadn't been inside long enough to be tempted by anything but solo options, being a strictly hetero girl herself. And that made her think of Elder, their short intense collision — she wondered what he'd thought when she disappeared on him. She regretted not being able to explain it to him, but it was safer for him that way. If Donald ever found his way to Elder, at least Elder wouldn't be able to give her up.
"Here they come, honey chile." Alberta like to sprinkle Southern phrases into her speech like chocolate jimmies on an ice cream cone, though Nina was pretty sure the woman had never been out of South Boston.
Alberta loved this detail because she'd been a lay minister out in the world once, with a Sunday following and a storefront church, until she cold-cocked a DSS investigator who asked her if she'd ever heard of birth control. Unfortunately, the bureaucrat had a thin skull and died from the impact with a wooden door frame.
Nina shoved all thoughts of the free and outside word to the back of her mind as the stake body truck rolled up the hill from the boat landing. She tried to set herself into a respectful frame of mind, knowing what they were here to do for people who had no one else to do it for them.
"Y'all mind your ways, little girl," Alberta said. "Or you'll find yourself getting planted out here one day."
"I know, Alberta. I know."
Not too fucking likely, once she was back out in the world. She had safe deposit boxes chocked with cash in four New England states. She might die young, but she wasn't going to end up in a pauper's grave.
But she also owed Alberta some respect. When Nina — neé Kathleen Crawford — decided to hide out from Donald Maldonado in jail, she'd thought a short sentence in South Middlesex would be a snap. But the minimum risk facility allowed all kinds of visitors to come and go, and the quantities of drugs, bad behavior, and general craziness made the outside world seem safer. Nina hadn't been as tough as she thought she was and Alberta had seen her as a project in salvation.
The truck groaned to a stop, the brakes squealing.
"Shoot," Alberta said. "I was hoping he'd stay down with the boat, send someone else up."
Trick Randisi — no one knew his real name — had an infacility reputation as a leerer and a groper. He was short, with thick shoulders and a pigeon chest, and wore glasses with colorless frames. None of the women Nina talked to inside had heard of him trying for anything more than a quick grab, but all of them knew how often lines got crossed.
"He doesn't bother you, does he?" Nina said.
Alberta gave a phlegmy chuckle.
"He told me once I was too fat for him. Said he'd have to roll me in flour and look for the wet spot. I told him if he finds one, it's because I'm pissing on him."
"What was the name of your church again?"
"Climb on." Trick grouchoed his eyebrows from the open window. "Got us some stiffies to take care of here."
The back of the truck bore a seat with a small crane and a winch, the hook dangling out over the cargo. It was a light load today, only seven plain pine coffins. Nina didn't know if that meant the economy was getting better or fewer people were dying on the streets. It had been a warmer winter than usual.
She walked around the truck so she didn't have to ride on the running board with her face near Trick's. He knew better than to fuck around with Alberta.
He reversed the truck and backed it to the lip of the common grave. A small Kubota tractor idled on the other side, its driver eying Nina's ass as she climbed down, mildly embarrassed that the lines of her state-provided granny panties showed. Two more weeks and she'd treat herself — La Perla, maybe.
Trick climbed the narrow ladder alongside the cab and sat down behind the crane's controls. Alberta pulled on white cotton gloves and handed a pair to Nina, the only concession to respect she'd been able to wring from prison administration. The tractor driver climbed down into the pit to guide the coffins into a line that would fit the hole.
"Let us pray." Alberta placed both hands on the unstained wood of the nearest box. "Heavenly father ..."
Nina kept her eyes open, focused on the black steel Phillips-head screws holding the coffins together. She'd never met a heavenly father and her childhood had soured her on organized religion from puberty onward.
Trick snorted, but held his peace.
"Amen," Alberta said.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Last Call at the Esposito"
Copyright © 2019 Richard J. Cass.
Excerpted by permission of Encircle Publications, LLC.
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