A Ticket to the Boneyard Page 2

We were there well past midnight. She had a small salad and a plate of the black-bean chili. I had a cheeseburger, and we both drank a lot of coffee. Jimmy had always given you a good cup of coffee. I used to drink it laced with bourbon, but it was even good all by itself.

Toni lived at Forty-ninth and Eighth. I walked her home and dropped her at the lobby of her high-rise, then started back to my hotel. Something stopped me before I'd gone more than a block. Maybe I was wired from speaking in Richmond Hill, or stirred up some from returning to Armstrong's after such a long absence. Maybe it was the coffee, maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the phase of the moon. Whatever it was, I was restless. I didn't want to go back to my little room and its four walls.

I walked two blocks west and went to Grogan's.

I had no business there. Unlike Armstrong's, Grogan's is a pure ginmill. There's no food served, there's no classical music, and there are no potted Boston ferns hanging from the ceiling. There's a jukebox, with selections by the Clancy Brothers and Bing Crosby and the Wolfe Tones, but it doesn't get much play. There's a television set and a dart board, and a couple of mounted fish, and dark wood walls and a tile floor and a stamped-tin ceiling. There's neon in the window advertising Guinness stout and Harp lager. The Guinness is on draft.

Mick Ballou owns Grogan's, although someone else has his name on the license and ownership papers. Ballou is a big man, a hard drinker, a career criminal, a brooding man of cold dark rage and sudden violence. Circumstance had thrown us together not too long ago, and some curious chemistry kept drawing me back. I hadn't figured it out yet.

The crowd was sparse, and Ballou himself wasn't there. I ordered a glass of club soda and sat at the bar with it. There was a movie playing on one of the cable stations, a colorized version of an old Warner Bros. gangster movie. Edward G. Robinson was in it, and half a dozen others I recognized but couldn't name. Five minutes into the movie the bartender went over to the set and turned down the color-level knob, and the film was magically restored to its original black-and-white.

"Some things should be fucking left alone," he said.

I watched about half of the movie. When my club soda was gone I had a Coke, and when that was gone I put a couple of dollars on the bar and went home.

* * *

Jacob was on the hotel desk. He's a mulatto, with freckles on his face and the backs of his hands, and curly red hair that's starting to go thin on top. He buys books of difficult crossword puzzles and Double-Crostics and works them in pen-and-ink, staying slightly buzzed all the while on terpin hydrate and codeine. The management has fired him a couple of times over the years for unspecified reasons, but they always hire him back.

He said, "Your cousin called."

"My cousin?"

"Been calling all night. Four, five calls, must of been." He plucked a sheaf of message slips from my pigeonhole, leaving the letters behind. "One, two, three, four, five," he counted. "Says call her whenever you come in."

Someone must have died, and I wondered who. I wasn't even sure who was left. What family there was had long since scattered far and wide. Sometimes I got a card or two at Christmas, once in a great while a phone call if an uncle or cousin was in town and at loose ends. But what cousin did I have who would call more than once to make sure a message got to me?

Her, he'd said. Call her.

I reached for the handful of slips, scanned the top one. Cousin called, it read. Nothing else, and the time of the call was left blank.

"There's no number," I said.

"She said you'd know it."

"I don't even know who she is. Which cousin?"

He shook himself, straightened up in his chair. "Sorry," he said. "Getting a little too relaxed here. I wrote her name on one of them slips. I didn't write it each time. It was the same person over and over again."

I sorted the slips. Actually he'd written it twice, on what seemed to be the first two slips. Please call your cousin Frances, I read. And, on the other: Call cousin Frances.

" Frances," I said.

"That's it. That's the name."

Except I couldn't recall a Cousin Frances. Had one of my male cousins married a woman named Frances? Or was Frances some cousin's child, a new cousin whose name I'd never managed to learn?

"You're sure it was a woman?"

" 'Course I'm sure."

"Because sometimes Francis is a man's name, and-"

"Oh, please. Don't you think I know that? It was a woman, said her name was Frances. Don't you know your own cousin?"

Evidently I didn't. "She asked for me by name?"

"Said Matthew Scudder."

"And I was to call her as soon as I came in."

"That's right. Last time or two she called, it was already late, and that was when she stressed it. No matter how late, call her right away."

"And she didn't leave a number."

"Said you knew it."

I stood there, frowning, trying to think straight, and in a wink the years fell away and I was a cop, a detective attached to the Sixth Precinct. "Call for you, Scudder," someone was saying. "It's your cousin Frances."

"Oh, for God's sake," I said now.


"It's all right," I told Jacob. "I suppose it would have to be her. It couldn't be anybody else."

"She said-"

"I know what she said. It's all right, you got it straight. It just took me a minute, that's all."

He nodded. "Sometimes," he said, "it'll do that."

I didn't know the number. I had known it, of course. I had known it well for many years, but I hadn't called it in a while and couldn't summon it up from my memory. It was in my address book, though. I had recopied my address books several times since I'd last had occasion to call that number, but I must have known I'd want to call it again, because each time I'd chosen to preserve it.

Elaine Mardell, I had written. And an address on East Fifty-first Street. And a phone number that was familiar to me once I saw it.

I have a phone in my room, but I didn't go upstairs to use it. Instead I crossed the lobby to the pay phone, dropped a quarter in the slot, and made the call.

An answering machine picked up on the second ring, and Elaine's recorded voice repeated the phone number's final four digits and advised me to leave a message at the sound of the tone. I waited for it and said, "This is your cousin returning your call. I'm home now, and you have the number, so-"

"Matt? Let me turn this thing off. There. Thank God you called."

"I was out late, I just got your message. And for a minute or two there I couldn't remember who my cousin Frances was supposed to be."

"I guess it's been a while."

"I guess it has."

"I need to see you."

"All right," I said. "I'm working tomorrow, but it's not something I can't find a free hour in. What's good for you? Sometime in the morning?"

"Matt, I really need to see you now."

"What's the problem, Elaine?"

"Come on over and I'll tell you."

"Don't tell me history's repeating itself. Did someone go and blow a main fuse?"

"God. No, it's worse than that."

"You sound shaky."

"I'm scared to death."

She had never been a woman who scared easy. I asked if she was still living in the same place. She said she was.

I said I'd be right over.

As I left the hotel an empty cab was cruising by on the other side of the street, heading east. I yelled at him and he stopped with a squeal of brakes and I trotted across and got in. I gave him Elaine's address and settled back in my seat, but I couldn't stay settled back. I rolled down the window and sat on the edge of the seat and looked out at the passing landscape.

Elaine was a hooker, a classy young prostitute who worked out of her own apartment and got along just fine without a pimp or a mob connection. We got to know each other back when I was a cop. I met her for the first time a couple of weeks after I made detective. I was at an after-hours in the Village, feeling very good about the new gold shield in my pocket, and she was at a table with three European manufacturers and two other working girls. At the time I noted that she looked a good deal less whorish than her sisters, and a lot more attractive.

A week or so after that I met her in a bar on West Seventy-second Street called Poogan's Pub. I don't know who she was with, but she was at Danny Boy Bell's table, and I went over to say hello to Danny Boy. He introduced me to everyone there, Elaine included. I saw her once or twice after that around town, and then one night I went to the Brasserie for a late bite and she was at a table with another girl. I joined the two of them. Somewhere down the line the other girl went off on her own, and I went home with Elaine.

For the next several years I don't suppose there was a week when I didn't see her at least once, unless one or the other of us was out of town. We had an interesting relationship, and one which seemed to serve us both. I was a sort of protector for her, usefully supplied with cop skills and cop connections, someone she could lean on, someone who could push back hard if anybody tried to lean on her. I was, too, the closest thing she had or wanted to a boyfriend, and she was as much of a girlfriend or mistress as I could have handled. Sometimes we went out- for a meal, to a fight at the Garden, to a bar or an after-hours. Sometimes I dropped in on her for a quick drink and a quick bounce. I didn't have to send flowers or remember her birthdays, and neither of us had to pretend we were in love.

I was married then, of course. The marriage was a mess, but I'm not sure I realized it at the time. I had a wife and two young sons living in a mortgaged house out on Long Island, and I more or less assumed the marriage would last, just as I assumed I would stay on with the NYPD until departmental regulations forced me to retire. I was drinking with both hands in those days, and while it didn't seem to get in my way any it was having a subtler effect all along, making it remarkably easy for me to turn a blind eye on the things in my life I didn't want to look at.

Ah, well. What Elaine and I had was a nonmarriage of convenience, I suppose, and we were hardly the first cop and hooker to have found this particular way to do each other some good. Still, I doubt it would have lasted so long or suited us so well if we hadn't liked each other.

She had become my cousin Frances so that she could leave messages for me without arousing suspicion. We didn't use the code often because there wasn't much need for it; our relationship was such that it was usually I who called her, and I could leave whatever message I wanted. When she called me, it was generally either to break a date or because of an emergency.

One such emergency had come to mind while I was talking to her, and I'd alluded to it, recalling when someone had blown a main fuse. The someone in question had been a client, an overweight patent attorney with offices way downtown on Maiden Lane and a home up in Riverdale. He'd been a regular john of Elaine's, showing up two or three times a month, never giving her any grief until the afternoon he picked her bed as the site for what a medical examiner later called a massive myocardial infarction. It's high on every call girl's list of nightmares, and most of them have given a little thought to what they'll do if it happens. What Elaine did was call me at the station house, and when they said I was out she told them to get word to me, that it was a family emergency, that I should call my cousin Frances.

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