Trade Paperback | Vintage | Mystery | 0-375-70074-9 | March 1999 | 12.00 | Buy
"More than just rough talk and slick prose, each page of Safe House reads like a literary title fight with Vachss trying to put every other pulp writer down for the count. Tough, terse, vivid, Vachss keeps pouring on until, from equal measure bruising and pleasure, the reader screams 'No more, baby, no more.' If it were anymore real you'd get twenty-five to life just for cracking the cover."
...I'd heard Hercules was heavy-lifting for hire. Not a made man,
not even part of an organization. He was a disposable samurai,
and whatever he wanted to tell me wouldn't be good news.
"What did he say, Mama?"
"Say meet. Second shift. Butcher Block. Okay?"
Meaning: did I understand what he meant?because Mama sure as hell didn't.
"Sure. It's all right. I'll take care of it."
"You need Max?"
"No, Mama. He's a friend."
"I not know him?"
"Sure," Mama said, cutting the connection. I wondered what I'd done this time.
The second shift meant prison timethree in the afternoon to eleven at night. When you set up a must-come meet the way Hercules had, you always give the other guy a wide margin for showing up. The Butcher Block is an abandoned loading dock under the Brooklyn Bridge. It got its name because thieves used to meet there to cut up the swag from the trucks in the nearby Fulton Fish Market. Hercules didn't know where I lived. Guy like him knows that, he drops by one day, just to say hello. Maybe brings a six-pack. Or the cops.
I slid the Plymouth to a stop on Broadway, just across from the outdoor homeless shelter the politicians call City Hall Park. In another few seconds, the passenger door popped open and the Prof climbed in.
"If it's Herk's game, you know it's lame. Gonna be some motherfucking sorryass shame," the little man greeted me, his voice sour with disgust.
"You want to pass?" I asked him.
"You know I can't do that, Schoolboy. Man was with us, right? He took the weight, we got to pay the freight."
That said it all. We'd hold up our end. Obligation and honor, same thing. But that was no middle-class citizen's one-way street. What drove us was the certain knowledge that, if we called Hercules from a pay phone in Hell, he'd drop right in. You can't buy loyalty like that. But you have to pay what it costs. In installments.
"Where's Clarence?" I asked him.
"Clarence? That boy don't have nothing to do with this, whatever it is. He don't owe, so he don't go."
"Fair enough," I told him, meaning it.
I hooked left just before Vesey Street, doubled back up Park Row, ignored the entrance to the bridge and forked to the right, staying low like I was heading for the FDR. When I spotted the opening, I nosed the Plymouth inside, peering through the windshield.
"I got him," the Prof said. "Over there."
A man was approaching the car. A big man with long dark hair, looking even bigger in an ankle-length yellow slicker like traffic cops wear. The Prof jumped out and slipped into the back seat, leaving the front door open, a clear invite. The big man piled in, shaking himself like a damn Saint Bernard, showering me with icy water.
"Burke!" he said, extending his hand to shake.
"Herk," I greeted him back, my voice low, sending him a message. Which he promptly ignored as soon as he spotted who was in the back seat.
"Prof! Hey, this is great!"
"Be cool, fool," the Prof told him. "This ain't no reunion. You got business, right?"
The big man shook his head again. Hard, like he was trying to remember something. Something important. "I'm up against it," he finally said.
"Spell it out," I told him.
"There was this girl. . . ."
"Goddamn it, Schoolboy. What'd I tell you? This chump is a bull, and gash is the pull."
"Easy, Prof. Whatever it is . . ." I let the sentence trail away, turned to Herk, opened my hands in a "Tell-me" gesture.
"There was this girl," he said again, like he was starting the tape from the beginning. "She was getting . . . stalked, like. You know what I mean?"
"No," I said, edging my voice just enough to tell him to get on with it.
"Okay. Her boyfriend used to beat on her. All the time. For nothing. Then he'd say he was sorry and she'd take him back. Finally, he puts her in the hospital. Not just the E-Ward, like he did before--they had to operate. On her face. I guess she was too fucked up from the drugs they gave her to cover for him, I don't know. Anyway, the rollers took him down. He went easy," Herk said, his voice veined with a hard-core convict's contempt for anyone who doesn't automatically resist arrest. "Anyway, she says she ain't gonna press charges, and you know what the Man said? You ain't gonna believe this, Burke. They don't need her--they could just go ahead and lumber him anyway, no matter what she wants. I mean, they could make her come to court. Jesus."
I took a pack of cigarettes off the dashboard, offered one to Herk. He shook his head. Same way he was in the joint. A serious bodybuilder, the only drug Herk would play with was Dianabol, and he'd stopped the red-zone steroids when we'd pulled his coat to the cold light at the end of that tunnel. But the Prof snatched the butt out of my hand before I could light it. I heard a match snap into flame behind me. "Thanks, bro," he said sarcastically. I lit another one for myself. "What's the rest?" I asked the big man.
"He gets some bullshit baby-time. Six months on the Rock, out in four. She gets one of them Orders of Protection, you know what I mean?"
"But that don't mean nothing. He calls her. Right from the House, calls her. Collect, okay? After a while, she don't take the calls. Even changes her number. So he writes her letters. Real weird shit--like he loves her and he had a dream that he sliced her face into ribbons."
"He's still locked up when he does this?" the Prof asked.
"She show them to the cops?" I wanted to know.
"Sure. But dig this: there's nothing they can do, right? I mean, this time she wants to prosecute his ass, and they don't do nothing. They told her those letters, they wasn't threats, just talking about his dreams and stuff. Stupid mother"
"and then he gets out . . . ," I prompted, cutting off the flow.
"Uh-huh. And he starts it right back again. Calling her on her job, leaving notes in her mailbox, all like that. He's got her scared now"
"And you're dipping your sorry wick, right, sucker?" the Prof stuck in.
"No, Prof. I swear," Herk said in a hurt tone of voice. "I mean, I never even met her, okay? It wasn't like that."
"So what was it like?" I asked him.
"You know Porkpie?"
"Yeah," I told him, nervous now. Porkpie was a minor-league fringe-player. One of those maybe-Jewish, maybe-Italian, Brooklyn-edge boys. He didn't have muscle or balls or brains, so he played the middleman role. A halfass tipster and two-bit tout--he wouldn't touch anything with his own hands, but he always knew a guy who would. Or so he said. He wasn't mobbed up. Didn't have a crew, worked out of pay phones and the trunk of his car. Only a citizen or a stone rookie would do any business with him.
Herk wasn't either one, but he was just thick enough so it didn't matter.
"Okay, so Porkpie tells me about it," he continued. "The job, I mean. He says they need someone to lean on this guy, give him the word, tell him to get in the wind, let the broad alone, understand?"
"A grand for a few minutes' work, that's what he told me."
"You was gonna move on this guy, do work on him, let them turn the key for one lousy G?" the Prof snarled. "What the fuck's wrong with you, boy? You been down twice. You can't ride that trainit ain't nothing but pain. You go bone-busting, you get called to the Walls. That's your idea of good pay for a few minutes' work?"
"It wasn't that, Prof. Honest. Porkpie said the guy was a stone pussy, okay? All I hadda do was muscle up on him, maybe bitch-slap him once. Porkpie said he'd give it up in a minute, kinda guy beats a woman. . . ."
"All kinds of fucking guys beat on women," the Prof told him. "That don't tell you nothing. You been enough places to know that, Herk."
"It don't matter now," the big man said sadly.
"Bottom line," I said. "Let's get to it. Come on."
"Porkpie gives me a picture, okay? What the guy looks like and all. And he drives me to the spot where the guy gets off work."
"You braced him in daylight?" I asked, already shuddering at his stupidity.
"Nah, Burke. He's a security guard, like. Gets off after midnight. In this big building on Wall Street. He has to go right through this alley to where they park their cars. Porkpie said I could grab him there."
"And . . . ?"
"I snatch him, okay? I slam him up against the wall, tell him I'm the girl's cousin. Porkpie told me to say that, so he'd know I was serious and all. He tries to talk to me, but I'm not playing. I told him, he wants to get down, let's do it. Right there. He drops his hands, puts his head down. I figure that's it. . . . Then he comes out with a piece. I didn't . . . think about it, man. I just plunged him."
"You shanked the motherfucker?" the Prof asked quietly, leaning forward over the back of the front seat.
"Right in the gut," Herk said. "I didn't mean to, but . . . once I stuck him, I knew he was gone. I could see it in his face, like when the light goes out, you know? He was off the count."
"Anybody see you?" I asked. It was business now.
"I don't think so. I don't know. Porkpie said he didn't see nobody."
"When was this?"
"Two nights ago. I mean, it'll be two nights when it gets dark."
"What do you need, Herk?" I asked him.
"I need a stake, Burke. I got to get outa here. Outa this city."
Herk couldn't say it, but he could feel it. He was a mine-shaft canary, just beginning to smell the fumes, fluttering his wings against the cage. I looked back at the Prof. He nodded.
"I'm gonna take you someplace," I told him. "You'll be okay there. Meanwhile, I'll see what's going on, okay?"
"Sure, Burke," he said, smiling. A big, sweet, dumb kid.
This one ain't no Fourteenth Amendment citizen, is he?" the voice on the phone said.
"He's the same fucking citizen I am," I said, keeping my voice down to a jailhouse whispersoft with threat.
"No offense, man," the voice said quickly. "But you know how I have to play it. I mean . . ."
"No offense. A yard a day, right?"
"Right. Ten-day minimum."
"He'll have it with him."
I checked on the wire. The police had it down as a mugging that went wrong. At least Herk had been smart enough to grab the dead man's watch and wallet. And toss them into the nearest Dumpster, where some foraging wino was sure to pick them up. He'd never touched the dead man's pistol, leaving it where it was. The cops had no suspects.
But I did. Herk was the third day into his hideout before we found Porkpie. He was coming out of a dive in Red Hook, wearing a snazzy dark overcoat and his trademark little hat with a fat little white feather sticking up from the band. A zircon glistened on his hand, bloodshot from a faded red neon sign in the window of the bar.
"Hey, Porkpie!" I yelled at him, closing the distance between us, hands empty at my sides.
He stopped in his tracks, making up his mind. Before he finished, Max had him.
One good thing about Red Hook, you never have to go far to find some privacy. I docked the dark-green Volvo sedan next to one of the piers, backing in carefully so I could spot any visitors. I didn't expect cops--even when the weather is warm and the piers are crawling with longshoremen, the rollers working the pad know the money men only come out in daylight.
Porkpie was in the front bucket seat, Max right behind him, one hand on the weasel's neck. Max's hands are hard autobiographies: big leather-colored maps of seamed scar tissue with callused ridges of horn along the knife-edgesflesh-and-bone sledgehammers with bolt-cutters for fingers. Porkpie couldn't see the hand, but he could feel it, the fingers pressing his carotid artery, thumb hooked just under his Adam's apple. What he could see was the pistol in my gloved left hand, held at my waist, pointed at his crotch.
"Open the glove compartment," I told him softly.
"Burke, I . . ."
"Open it, Porkpie."
He pushed the button and the door came down. In the light from the tiny bulb he could see the coil of piano wire. And the barber's straight razor with its mother-of-pearl handle.
"We wrap your hands and your ankles in the wire," I told him. "We got a couple of car batteries in the trunk for the weight. Then I take the razor and open you up so you don't float, understand?"
"Jesus! Don't . . ."
"It's a hell of a way to die," I said. "But you tell us quick, I'll do you a solid, okay? I'll put a slug in your head first, so you don't feel nothing."
His stink filled the front seat.
"There's only one way out," I said, breathing through my mouth.
"Anything," he blubbered. "Just tell me, I'll"
"You got Hercules to do a job for you. The girl, the one this guy was threatening, she yours?"
"No. No, man. I don't know her. I ain't never even seen her."
"So somebody paid you, right?"
"Right. It was just"
"Shut up, punk. Just answer what I ask you. Who paid you? And what was the job?"
"I don't know her name. Honest to God, Burke! She found me in Rollo's. Said it was her sister, that girl. The one this guy was"
"Don't make me tell you again," I said. "I don't want to hear your stories. How much was the job?"
He hesitated. I nodded to Max. Porkpie spasmed in his seat, his spinal fluid turned to liquid pain. "I don't like this part," I told him. "I'd rather ice you right now than keep hurting you, understand?"
"Yesss . . ."
"How much was the job?"
"And you were supposed to do . . . what?"
"Just scare the guy. Like, spook him, you know? Run him off."
"Not total him?"
"You crazy? I ain't no hit man."
"That's right, punk: you ain't."
"Burke, listen to me. Please. If I was gonna have Herk do him, would I go along? I didn't know nothing until he comes charging back to the car. I . . ."
"That's enough," I told him. The smell of truth came right through the stench. Porkpie didn't have the cojones to be anywhere within a mile of a killing, even as the wheelman. "Describe her."
"I told youI never even seen her, not once."
"The woman who paid you, Porkpie. Her."
"Oh. She's some kinda Chink."
"I don't fucking know, man. Something like that. Small. She had a hat on, with one of them veil things, black, like they wear at funerals."
"What did she call herself?"
"She didn't say no name, man. Just asked me, could I get it done? I told her the price. She paid me. That's all. I never seen her again."
"But she gave you a phone number."
"No, I swear it! Nothing. I didn't need to talk to hershe paid me the whole thing up front."
"So how come you didn't stiff her? Just take the cash and walk?"
"She said she could find me again. I . . . believed her, like."
"You believe I can find you again, Porkpie?"
"Yeah. I know your rep."
"You know who's holding your neck? That's Max the Silent. You know his rep?" I asked him gently.
He shuddered a reply.
"I'm gonna trust you," I lied. "We're gonna let you slide on this. You take the car. Drive it anywhere you want and leave it there. But don't fuck around with itit's hot. Understand?"
"Sure. I mean"
"Ssssh," I said, holding my right finger to my lips. "You get popped dumping the car, that's your problem. I can find you in jail, Porkpie. You know I can. You'd be easy in there. This is your last chance. That woman calls you, you call me. And if you're holding anything back, you're landfill, understand?"
"I'm not! I"
I nodded to Max. He released his grip, slid out of the back seat, quiet as Ebola. I opened the car door and backed out, still pointing the pistol at Porkpie.
Max and I faded back into the shadow of the pier. In a minute, we heard the Volvo start up. We watched Porkpie pull away fast, the rear wheels spinning on the slick pavement.
Clarence pulled up at the wheel of my Plymouth and we all went back across the border.
I worked the relay over the pay phones, got the word to Hercules: Stay put.
And hoped the Prof wasn't right about him.
Days passed. I vacuumed the newspapers, listened to the radio, even watched some TV. Nothing about the homicide. There was no outcry, no pressure. It would probably disappear into the black hole the cops called Unsolved. It wouldn't be the first timenot all floaters go into the water.
There was a cop I could ask, a cop who owed me, but that would be the same thing as telling him I was connected in some way. Even if you trust a man not to play certain cards, there's no point in dealing them to him.
Time was on our side. But the statute of limitations wasn't. So I went to see a lawyer. Davidson's a hard-nosed criminal-defense guy, but he passed for honest in our world. He might jug you a little on the fee, but he wouldn't favor-trade with the DA, and he wouldn't sell a client for some favorable press ink, the way some of the others do.
His office is in midtown, just one good-sized room with a secretary's station outside. At one time, he had a big joint with a bunch of associates, but he went lean-and-mean a few years ago. His office is furnished in early Salvation Armyall the money's in technology. And in the heavy cork paneling. In Davidson's business, traveling sound can get you killed.
"Feels like a decent justification defense to me," he said, puffing appreciatively on one of the mondo-expensive Expatriados cigars I'd brought him. "Where'd you get these?" he asked.
"An old pal of mine makes them down in Honduras. Cuban seeds, Cuban artisans, but he says Cuban soil is all played out. These are better."
"Sure are," Davidson said, holding the dark cylinder at arm's length to admire the shape. Then he got back to work. "One guy pulls a gun, the other one pulls a knife. One gets a jury trial, the other gets an autopsy. Self-defense. It happened in a bar, we walk. But your guy, his story's shaky. He was just strolling through the alley at that hour, minding his own business . . . ? I don't think so."
"And we don't know if the other guy's pistol was still there when the EMS crew arrived," I told him.
"Yeah," he agreed, nodding his head. "We'd get that on discovery, but if it comes up blank . . ."
"Anyone could have picked up the piece and walked off with it," I told him. Thinking of the dead man's wallet and watch.
"Forensics?" Davidson asked. Meaning: fingerprints, blood splatters . . . anything the police-lab vultures could vacuum from a corpse.
I flashed on what the Prof had said about that same question: "Blood don't tell no more, Schoolboy. We ain't gotta worry about that. A good shyster can always O.J. the DNA." I scratched my temple, like I was thinking about it. "Nothing," I told him.
"It's still dicey," Davidson said.
"So you advisewhat?" I asked.
"Your guy got a sheet?"
"Long one." "For this kind of thing?"
"He a predicate?"
"So he couldn't take even a Man Two," Davidson mused.
"No way to bring him in and make a deal."
I didn't say anything. Manslaughter Second Degree is a Class C Felony in New York. Even if Davidson could sweet-plea his way past the life sentence a habitual Offender tag would bring, Herk was looking at seven and a half to fifteen.
"You got any more cards?" Davidson asked.
"A witness," I told him. "He's not a hitter, but he's no citizen either."
"Would he roll?" Would Porkpie turn informant? It wasn't even a question. The Prof had dismissed any other possibility with a contemptuous snort: "That punk ain't no real thief, chief. You know the way he playdon't do the crime if you can't drop a dime." He was right: give Porkpie a pass on one of his own cases, he'd sell his mother.
Then again, so would I.
But I'd never sell my family.
"Sure," I replied.
"Well," Davidson said, switching to self-protective legalese, "given the facts of the hypothetical with which you've presented me, I would advise absolute discretion."
Meaning: Herk couldn't come in.
Only two ways to tap Porkpie's home phonetake a major risk or use up a major favor. And even if he had a phone in that pesthole he lived in, he probably wouldn't use it for business. He was a weasel, but not a stupid one. "Got to send Clarence in," I told the Prof.
"No way, Schoolboy. I told you truemy boy don't work for Herk."
"Look, Prof. The only place we know we can possibly get to this girl Porkpie told us about is at Rollo's, right? If Porkpie's there, he spots me in a second. You too. Max can't negotiate. Who's that leave us?"
"I don't feature no undercover crap," the little man said, giving ground grudgingly.
"Clarence goes in, he hangs around, okay?" I said, pleading my case. "He spots Porkpie talking to the girl . . . spots any girl who matches the description . . . he steps back, makes a call. The rest is ours."
"The whole motherfucking thing should be ours."
"What's the problem?" I pressed him.
"Bad juju, youngblood. We ain't fucking detectives," he said, jeering the last word. "We don't solve crimeswe do 'em. Maybe Herk should just relocate his dumb ass to some fresh green grass."
"What good's that gonna do? He tries to make a connect on strange turf, he's just gonna end up back in jail."
"But no fear if he stays here?" the little man challenged.
"Okay," I said, throwing up my hands in surrender.
"Fuck him. Let him fall."
The Prof looked at me a long quiet minute. Then he said: "Guess I taught you even better than I thought, son. Two weeks, all right? We put it together by then, good. If not, Herk's gotta walk his own way."
I bowed my head in agreement.
SAFE HOUSE written by Andrew Vachss. © 1999 Andrew Vachss
Used with permission. All rights reserved.
|"Safe House comes at you with the speed of a bullet train, a style as spare and stripped down as origami, and Andrew Vachss' usual black-as-pitch themethe abuse of innocence. Yet for all of their dark modernity, Vachss's novels are inheritors of the 19th century social criticism, as much as Dickens and Defoe as Hammett and Chandler."
|"Andrew Vachss is that refreshingly rarest of all creaturesan honest lawyer. His clientsthe abused children of the worldare always 100% innocent. May he keep writing and keep fighting."
|"Andrew Vachss is one of my favorite writers and I never miss one of his books. He brings incredible passion and flair to the mystery genre. SAFE HOUSE is one of Vachss' very best, and that's saying a mouthful. Burke is back!"
Night Flight always stocks all Andrew Vachss' novels and available comics.
Main Menu | Andrew Vachss | Vachss Novels | Hard Looks | Vachss Profile | Buy Stuff