was hot that summer of 1988, as it is almost every summer in New York.
I was sitting back with my feet on the desk in my office, admiring the
print on the wall, Homer Winslow's The Gulf Stream, thinking to myself
that I'd hate to be those sharks circling the dismasted boat because
the black man at the helm looked angry enough and ugly enough to drop
the tiller and jump in and beat the crap out of the whole family.
The sign on my door read: DAN HEALEY - INVESTIGATIONS, but things had been slow for the last while. As if in answer to a prayer, my secretary and the love of my life, Liz Moore, interrupted my reverie with word that I had a visitor in the outer office. She did not, however, use that word.
"There's some turkey out here slinging his weight around. Wants to see you like yesterday."
"Liz," I started-and gave up. One of these days I was going to have to explain to her that we don't refer to possible clients as "turkeys." I settled for "Did you get a name?"
"He said nothing about building materials. He said Philip."
"One and the same. In the rackets"
She laughed. "I knew it, and I'll bet a week's wages-well, make it worth while, a month's-that he's only a little league rat."
"You'd win," I said. "Numbers, the odd shakedown, a couple of girls. Operates in our old stamping ground up in the Kitchen. Send him in."
Larkin entered. I hadn't seen him in years but he hadn't changed: lanky, lean, and mean, a nose you could butter bread with, a tight mouth, a real Jack Spratt. He lowered himself joint by joint into one of my client chairs and looked around.
"This the best you could do, Healey?"
Once a Kitchen boy... and so on. You can take the boy out of the Kitchen, but. .. blah, blah. We knew each other from those bygone days when we were both growing up, trying to establish ourselves as forces to be reckoned with.
"You taking up interior decorating, Fluebrick?"
He tried to look threatening. "I don't go by that name no more."
"Why not? It has a certain something. Gives you some weight.”
The side of his mouth twitched as he tried to turn it humorous.
"I could use a few pounds."
I said nothing, waiting. The pleasantries were over as far as I was concerned. If Fluebrick Larkin wanted something from me, I wanted him to get to it right now so I could say no and get rid of him.
"I hear you rent out your gun," he said.
"Who wants it and what for."
He digested this as he smoothed the crease in his pants, already sharp enough to cut a finger.
"Do you know Ignatius McBride?"
I looked at him as if he had two heads. "Is the Pope Catholic?"
"I'll take that as a yes."
The man we were talking about, Big Iggy McBride, was six-three, two hundred and eighty pounds. Hard. Iggy'd been a longshoreman out on the Hudson River piers, around Pier 94. He'd knocked enough heads together and surrounded himself with enough goons over the years to face down any opposition in his section of the Kitchen.
"He's trying to move in on me," Larkin said.
I laughed. "If Iggy wanted what you have. Fluebrick, he'd just take it."
"I told you I don't use that name no more." Annoyed.
"I heard you, Fluebrick."
He studied me calmly. "Tough guy, ain't you, Healey?"
"I get by."
Here we were, two mid-thirties guys, reaching again for our teen-age toughness. Our “mine is bigger than yours” way of settling things.
"You were always tough back in the Kitchen," he admitted.
I was getting a little fed up with myself-and him. "Okay, Fluebrick," I said. "We've established my toughness. What do you want?"
"Think you're tough enough to take down Big Iggy?"
"Why would I want to?"
"Because I want to hire your gun to get rid of him."
"He's cutting into your drug trade?"
"I never touch drugs-and you know it."
I did, in fact, know it. But I'd been out of touch with events in the Kitchen lately, and you never knew what a little rat like this would be up to.
"That's something else," he said. "None of us want drugs in our schools up there-and that's exactly what'll happen if Iggy shoves me out."
"So you're concerned about the good of the community?"
His close-set eyes almost crossed in frustration. "You know what I'm saying, Healey. Don't pretend you don't."
I toyed with my letter-opener. It's handy for marking time while your brain tries to stay abreast of what's going on. This sounded too intriguing to turn down flatly. I wondered how far it'd go.
I said, "When you say 'take him down,' what do you mean exactly?"
He sneered. "Do I have to spell it out for you? I mean eliminate the opposition."
"I see. Let me think about it."
"What's to think about? You either take the job or not."
He pulled out his wallet and started fingering a wad of bills that wasn't quite as thick as a dictionary. "Put your money away," I said. "It's not as simple as take it or leave it. I have my own neck to think about. Let me make a couple of calls, then I may be ready to relieve you of some of that weight." I nodded at his wallet.
"Don't mention my name."
"My lips are sealed, Fluebrick."
"Leave me a phone number where I can reach you in a couple of hours," I said.
He took the pad I shoved across the desk and jotted down a number. "I'll be there the rest of the day-until about six."
"You'll hear from me."
I called my good friend and old partner when I was on the job, Sergeant Ozzie McPheeters at the Fifth Precinct. When I went back on duty after being wounded in a shootout, they consigned me to desk duty, so I took my pension and went private. A bullet had nicked my lung, that was all, but it meant I could pretty well give up my hopes of ever running the Olympic torch to the top of the stadium. I was definitely a bit slower and shorter of breath, but Mac said I was no hell in these areas to begin with, so what difference did it make? Still, I couldn't convince the doctors I was fit for the street again, so I left.
I was doing okay on the private side, and Mac threw me the odd case that the department didn't want or couldn't handle for lack of evidence. Usually these cases came with a request to do whatever it took to get them off the books, usually jobs they thought might be better solved without benefit of a trial, or without anybody left standing at the end except me.
These departmental requests were taking more and more of my time, which was a pleasant relief from my early days of divorce cases, so you can understand why I'd want to discuss Fluebrick Larkin's offer with Mac before I accepted it. After all, I didn't want it to run in conflict with any official wet work for the city, nor did I want to become involved with Larkin if he was currently under investigation or if there was any possibility the department would be moving against him in the near future.
"We're keeping an eye on him," Mac said. "But he's too small-time for us to concentrate on. He's not into dope, and that's in his favor."
"Well then," I said, "should I take the offer?"
Mac thought about it a bit. "Maybe we can get a two-fer here, and you can get paid by both of them."
"I don't work that way."
"Pardon me all to hell. I thought you did."
"I sell my services," I said evenly, "but only to one customer at a time. I work for that man, not against him."
"Okay, okay, don't get snarky. Try this-what if, on the side, your man gets rubbed too?"
"Nothing I could do about that."
"That's what I thought."
We hung up. Now Mac knew about it, and if he really wanted this two-fer, he was going to have to play his part in the show.
I called Larkin back at the number he'd left. "I'll take it on," I said. "Usual rates-five hundred a day plus expenses."
"I thought it was three."
"You thought wrong. Special rates for you, Fluebrick."
"And you'll eliminate the opposition for that?"
"I might be able to persuade Iggy to lay off. That's what you're buying."
"No, I mean it."
"Look, Healey, are you suffering from brain damage? I want him dead."
I let the silence drag until the humming on the line was loud in my ears. Then I said, "I see. Then the price just went up to ten thousand."
"But you said---"
"I know what I said. Ten large is my fee for wet work. Take it or leave it."
"Payable in advance."
"Now just a goddam minute."
"Look, Fluebrick, that's the way I work. How do I know you won't welsh on me after I do the job?"
"How do I know you'll do it if I pay you in advance?"
"Ask around. See if I ever welshed on a deal."
There was a pause. "I already did," he said grudgingly. "So okay, the word on you is good."
"Dammit, Healey, all right then. Ten it is, payable in advance."
"I'll need the money in the next two days."
"Will an hour's time be all right?"
"That'll be fine," I said, ignoring the sarcasm. "Leave it with my secretary. She'll give you a receipt."
"No paper," he said hastily. "I don't want anything coming back at me if this goes sour."
"Thanks for your vote of confidence."
"You get that with the ten G’s," he said. "That's it then? It's sealed?"
"Not quite. It'll be sealed when the money arrives in this office."
"Good enough," he said and hung up.
I told Liz to expect a package within the hour. "Open it while he's here. It's money. Count it. It should be ten thousand exactly. I don't want any messenger boys ripping us off. Then put it in the Mossberg and call me at Hogan's to let me know everything's okay."
The Mossberg was an old-fashioned floor safe that sat in one corner of my office. It would take five men and a team of donkeys to move it.
"Yes, sir, boss," Liz said. "Goody, goody, we eat this week. I'm surprised that that slimeball can come up with that kind of money.
"That gentleman is our client, Liz."
"Looks like what he is, a low class slimeball."
Subtlety is lost on Liz. We'd been together since our school days up in Hell's Kitchen, and there was nothing we didn't know about each other. We tried, and often succeeded, in keeping our relationship on a platonic level.
"D'you know how he got the name Fluebrick?" I asked.
"We went to the same school, remember?"
"Of course. How stupid of me."
One day back in Grade Six in PS 111 Philip Larkin stood up after being severely cuffed by one of the more brutal teachers, Bart Ashfield, reached into his desk, came out with a brick which he slammed into the teacher's groin, and when he doubled over in pain, Larkin brought the brick up sharply into his face, breaking his nose and knocking out several teeth. As Ashfield lay on the floor, moaning, Larkin drew back and drove the brick as hard as he could at Ashfield's ankle, which broke. He dusted his hands, sneered, "Don't ever fool around with The Fluebrick Kid," and swaggered out. He was all of fourteen at the time.
That ended Larkin's formal education (and Ashfield's teaching career), and from then on he was known as Fluebrick in the Kitchen and his weapon of choice became as widely known as him until he graduated to blackjacks, knives, and guns. Unfortunately, he never had a day of glory as great as the day he earned his moniker.
Now, he was what he was - a small-time hoodlum with big dreams, an ignorant and amoral man whose only code was to get even or get out. If he couldn't stand off this threat to his territory in his own small part of the Kitchen, he'd lose respect and have to move on. In Fluebrick's world, that just couldn't happen. When threatened, the only answer is to fight back with any means at your disposal, including using the services of an honest workman like myself.
I say "honest workman" with no attempt at humor. The men I have killed were trying to kill me or someone I was being paid to protect. I have never just killed a man. I have never been just an assassin. There's nothing simpler than to kill a man. All it takes is careful timing, meticulous planning, a sense of justice, and a bit of luck. When only the first two are present, you have your ordinary, everyday assassination. But when you include the third and fourth, a sense of godliness prevails, a sense of doing right. Without all four, you would be in emotional and mental trouble. At least, I would.
But then, maybe I am anyway and just don't know it. All I know is that over and over again I seem to put myself in situations that require killing. I guess there has to be something wrong with a person like that, something missing. I try not to think about it.
I was beginning to form an idea of how I was going to deal with Iggy McBride. Big Iggy was no knockover and nobody's fool. When it comes to survival, nothing beats street smarts-not formal education, not upbringing, not any amount of toughness, nothing. It's pure survival of the fittest, and when you make your living on the streets of New York, no jungle, no desert, no prison, is a tougher place to survive. And Iggy had not only survived, he'd prospered.
I was nursing a Guinness at Hogan's when I got the call from Liz that the money had been delivered and it was all there "except for twenty dollars I took as an advance on this week's salary."
I went back to the office and made three phone calls with precise instructions: to Mac, to Larkin, the last to Big Iggy. It took me twenty minutes of non-stop lying to convince Iggy to come to my office to hear a proposition that was guaranteed to make him money. Then I gave Liz her instructions. "Do this right," I said. "And I'll even throw in the twenty you already took as a bonus."
She shook her head. "It's true what they say about you, Healey, you're all heart."
Big Iggy was about as wide as a fire engine and just managed to squeeze through my door. He wore a dark blue pinstripe suit and you could tell he had an excellent tailor. The white shirt and dark tie almost gave him the appearance of a business executive. When you looked into his eyes, though, you knew this was not your ordinary CEO, and you knew that when Iggy said, "We'll kill 'em," he was not speaking of outdoing a business competitor. And if the eyes didn't do it, the broad hands and long thick fingers hanging down his side and flexing as he stared at you would give you nightmares thinking of them wrapped around your neck.
I shuddered at my ghoulish thoughts. Iggy laughed, a short, brutal bark.
"Got a cold, peeper?"
"Someone just walked on my grave," I said.
"Could be me," he said, considering the idea with evident relish. "Could just be me."
I stood up and came around my desk, hanging one hip on a corner. I'd moved the two client chairs over by the window to keep him clear of me. Iggy took one. He looked around. "Nice picture," he said, admiring the Homer. "I'd bet on the sharks."
Takes one to know one, I thought. I said, "You'd probably be right."
"So," he said, "what've you got for me?"
I told him that Larkin was worried about his territory and wished to buy him off. "He's prepared to offer you five thousand dollars," I said.
"He thinks of it as a one-time payment."
Iggy laughed, a rumble that shook the walls.
"I move in there I'll be taking out that much or more in a week."
"Yes, but there'll be the bad press about drugs, and Larkin won't give up without a fight."
"Bad press never worried me, and I'll wipe Larkin off the map if I have to."
"Look, Iggy," I said, appealing to reason. "You take in more now in a month than you'll ever be able to spend. Why can't you leave a small-timer like Larkin alone?"
He glanced contemptuously at me with the avaricious eyes that any millionaire will show you should you dare suggest that nine million is as good as ten.
"Five thousand bucks! I'm wasting my time!" He pulled himself to his feet.
Liz's timing was impeccable. She knocked and opened the door and said, "Mr. Larkin to see you," practically shoved him in, and closed the door. She'd done her part.
Larkin's eyes opened wide when he saw Iggy. "You!" he shouted and grabbed for his gun. Iggy went under his arm for his. I already had my Glock in my hand.
Larkin cleared his easily. A Colt .38 Special danced in his hand and barked twice as Iggy fumbled with his big hands for his gun. As he was falling backwards it came clear, an S&W .45, an ugly big-framed weapon, that discharged upwards with enough power to blow a hole through the ceiling into the room above. I just stood there with my Glock by my side watching the mountain that was Iggy topple over and fall. Larkin turned his gun on me.
"You rat!" he shouted. "You double-crossed me!"
"That's not true, Fluebrick," I said, trying to be calm, fear gnawing at my vitals. "You're my client. I worked only for you."
"Well you didn't do too good by me, did you? Goodbye, Healey."
I saw his trigger finger turn white.
"Wait!" I shouted. "Just a goddam minute. I was here to back you up. If you hadn't got him, I would've."
"Sure. And if he got me, you'd be standing there telling him the same thing."
It was useless arguing. I saw his eyes change, the decision made. I sensed his trigger finger tightening, and I whipped up the Glock..
His shot slammed me into the wall. I fired as I began sliding down the long slope to unconsciousness, and saw my bullet take Larkin between the eyes. The last thing I remember was the look of annoyance on his face and the flash of pleasure I felt that I'd been the cause of it. The next thing Mac was standing over me. I had a terrific pain in my chest.
"What kept you?" I asked weakly.
"The usual. Traffic."
"And as usual," I said, "I had to do it all myself."
"You're lucky," Mac said.
"Luck had nothing to do with it," I said, climbing to my feet with Mac's help, rubbing my chest gingerly "Kevlar. I'm glad it was the .38, not the .45."
Mac patted my back. "Good work, kid. Now it looks like you're out of it. These two guys just shot each other in a dispute over territory."
I looked at the arrangement of the bodies, the guns. I pointed to the late Fluebrick.
"What about the bullet in his head?" I said. I pointed to the late Iggy. "It's not from his cannon."
"Now don't you be worrying about details," Mac said, relieving me of my unregistered Glock. "We'll fix that up with the M.E. The thing you do now is take Liz and get to hell out of here and let the big boys take over. Hope you got paid in advance."
"Don't I always?" I said. "Except when I work for the city. But I know you're always good for it. Without a guy like me, how else could you keep the streets of New York even halfway clean?"
"Ain't that the truth," Mac said, lifting the phone to call in reinforcements.
"C'mon, Liz," I said, rubbing my chest. "I'm injured and weary, but let's hit the town and blow that twenty."
"The last of the big-time spenders," she said to Mac on the way out. "He really knows how to show a girl a good time. Where we going, Healey? The lunch counter at the five and dime?"