Greetings, blogites. Got a new short for you — or maybe not so short. Anyway, once again delving into my fascination with old folks under-representation in the crime fiction genre. So have a read, let me know what you think.
Lou DeGatano weighed his options. He had to piss – or rather, felt like he had to piss. But the way things went these days, he’d get to the john, and maybe one time in twenty there’d be a nice steady stream, and then he’d waddle back to his chair and he’d feel what? Better? Wasn’t no better, not any more, not at eighty four. Not when he was a best maybe six months away from a box, the congestive heart failure working its magic, every day between now and then spent here in the Sunnybrook Assisted Living Facility, where there wasn’t no brook, and he usually had no idea whether it was sunny on account of the place was pretty much boxed in by some ugly-ass affordable housing project. Up at goddamn dawn ‘cause he couldn’t sleep any more, lay in the fuckin’ bed until Clarence came in maybe around seven, helped stuff him into his clothes ‘cause if he actually had to get up and dress himself, that’d shoot his wad for the day, seeing as how he was taking in about ten percent of his minimum daily adult requirement of oxygen at this point, or at least that was how much oxygen what was left of his heart was managing to pump around his system. So the piss thing. Yeah, he had an inside-straight shot at a steady stream, but probably what would happen is he’d haul his ass across the day room, equivalent of running a goddamn marathon for him, and he’d stand over the john, and he’d feel like he had to go, but nothing would happen except maybe a little dribble, most of which would end up down the front of his pants, and then he drag his sorry ass back across the day room, another fucking marathon, and he’d flop back down in his chair, and he’d still feel like he had to piss, except now the back of his shirt would be all sticky with sweat, and he’d be panting like a goddamn dog in August, and one of the gray haired bitches would get up and switch the Cubs game over to that fucking Price is Right show, and he’d be too tired to get up and flip it back, too winded to even say anything. So DeGatano figured he’d play the odds. Go ahead and stay in his chair, maybe even go ahead and relax his wiener muscle, let whatever was knocking at the door leak on out, probably just a dribble into the damn Depends, and if he full out wet himself, well fuck it. So they’d have to haul his ass upstairs and change him. He sat back, relaxed his pelvic girdle, nothing. A drop, maybe two. Still felt like he had to go, but at least he hadn’t busted his hump trying to, actually getting a little kick out of making the right call, little good feeling, like back in the old days when he’d double down and clean up on both hands.
And then the goddamn new guy wheeled himself right the fuck in front of him. Again.
New guy wasn’t that old, sixties maybe, one of the nut jobs, Alzheimer’s or whatever. He wasn’t a full-blown head-of-lettuce case yet, one of the guys over against the wall in the hallway, just staring, all their lights out. New guy was in and out, having his own private dialog half the time, more or less with it the other half. But DeGatano didn’t like him. The way Lou read it, these dementia guys, it was a little like drunks. The shit that came out when they lost control? That’s what they’d kept locked down in the basement their whole lives – that was the fire in their furnace. The smiley ones? Nodding at everybody? Probably been nice guys, the ones who’d sneak around shoveling off everybody’s walks after the snow, helping old ladies cross the street and such. The ass grabbers? Ones that couldn’t keep their mitts off the nurses? They were the letches. And the flat-out mean fucks like the new guy? DeGatano knew all about them. Thirty years on the force busting assholes, he knew all about fucks like them.
Ah shit. Tuesday. Visiting day for Gladys. The gray-hairs’ grandkids were running down the hall, her forty-something bag-of-cellulite daughter trudging along after them. Only nice thing about the place, usually was it was quiet. Now you got a couple of nine, ten year olds bouncing around the day room, grandma egging them on, girl going with that high-pitched squeal some of them have, goes through your head like a dentist drill, the boy ricocheting around like a goddamn pinball, like he was trying to see how many old people he could bounce off of. Must have come straight from school, the girl in one of those plaid Catholic school skirts and a white blouse, and the boy in his Cub Scout uniform. Little twist in DeGatano’s gut, some old business. Worst kind of old business. The Cub Scout bounced off the new guy, nudged his chair back a pinch, bumping it into DeGatano’s leg, the new guy glaring at the kid, but something else in the old fuck’s eyes, something DeGatano didn’t like.
“Sheepshank,” the new guy said, licking his lips a little. The word ripping through DeGatano like a .45 slug.
DeGatano grabbed the new guy’s chair and spun him around, sharp pain in his chest all of a sudden like somebody’d wrapped him across the tits with barbed wire and given it a good hard yank. “What the fuck did you say?” DeGatano breathed out, trying to get his old cop voice back, getting almost nothing.
But the new guys eyes were all blank again, lights out.
“Sheep stank sheep stank sheep stank sheep stank.” Hank, from his chair. All Hank did anymore, repeat what he heard, and he always heard wrong.
But DeGatano heard right. Sheepshank.
The kid had gone missing right after school, just before 3:00 pm. Last week of school, first week of June, so it got dark late, and it was damn near dark now. It didn’t look like any runaway shit or some kid who’d gone off to a friend’s house and forgot to check in. No family crap that anybody’d heard, and a girl who was a class behind the kid had seen him talking to some guy in the parking lot at Schaefer’s Drugs, hippie looking dude, maybe twenty or thereabouts. Schaefer’s had a soda fountain, kids from the school hanging out there sometimes. Girl said she seen and the guy heading across the lot, like they were headed somewhere together. Couple minutes later, she looks back, the kid was gone, the guy was gone, some black car that had been there was gone. You can show ‘em all the stranger danger movies you want, but you get one of these slick kiddy fuckers, they got their ways.
So they were working the grid. Everybody with a copy of the kid’s school photo from the year before. It was Wednesday, so the kid was in his Cub Scout uniform the mom said. The Sisters down at St. Anthony’s, if a kid was in scouts, they let ‘em wear the uniform on days they had meetings. DeGatano was a detective, but it was all hands on deck, so he was marching a grid in Lincoln Park with a mess of uniforms. Still lots of undergrowth back then, before they’d put in the pool and the ball diamonds and the tennis courts. They’d get some hobos down along the east end of the park sometimes, where the park butted up against the Burlington tracks. Nobody there when DeGatano worked his way down the right of way, just thinking it was time to get the flashlight out, when he caught the silhouette.
The kid still had the Cub Scout shirt on, still had the kerchief thing on. But that was all he had on. Pants were gone, socks gone, shoes gone. The kid was hanging from a low branch, rope around his neck. DeGatano came at the body from the side, his flashlight out now, going around behind the kid. The kid’s hands were tied behind his back in some complex looking knot, a thin gruel of blood and shit and something else drying along the back of the kid’s legs and the inside of his thighs. DeGatano was pretty sure he knew what the something else was.
DeGatano started yelling for the other cops who were strung out through the park.
“Somebody get back to a car and call it in. We got a body down here.”
“Sheepshank,” the ME said. “Man-o’ war sheepshank, actually.” He was looking at the knot holding the kid’s hands. Full dark now, the kid finally down out of the tree, lying on his stomach on a tarp on the ground. Fire Department had brought some lights in, the light bouncing off the kid’s buttocks, DeGatano taking in the sight of that, the kid laying there, hands tied behind him, that crap on his legs dried to a paste now, all of that burning a hole into him. He’d pour a lot of shit into the hole over the next forty years – booze, a couple of marriages, his relationship with his son, a lot of skin off his knuckles – but the hole just got bigger and bigger.
“What’s this sheepshank shit?” DeGatano asked.
“Sailing knot,” the ME said. “Old man used to take us out when I was a kid back on Long Island. That’s a sheepshank.”
“Long way from the ocean,” DeGatano said. “But it’s something.”
Something, but not enough. Three more kids that summer, all boys, all left hanging from trees up and down the rail line, all raped, all with the fucking sheepshanks, papers calling the guy The Hangman. Last kid was in August, the week before school started. And then it stopped. And they never caught anybody. Never even got close.
DeGatano rolled over, looked at the clock again. 4:17 am. Hadn’t sleep at all, hadn’t even bothered to close his eyes, that whole scene from the day room running on a continuous loop in his head, the kid bumping the new guy, the look in the new guy’s eyes, the way the tongue ran along his lips, sheep stank sheep stank sheep stank . . .
His insides were boiling. Used to be, nights like this, he get out of bed, tell his wife he was taking a walk. Or that’s what he called it. What that meant was he’d walk downtown, stop into one of the shit-ass bars on New York Street, maybe over on River – the Chatterbox, the Spider Web – and he’d put on a drunk, and he’d hope that some asshole would get loud, and then he’d get in the fucker’s face, give the guy no room, no out, and the guy’s either have to show his ass or take it outside, and then DeGatano would bust the fucker’s head. If he was lucky, the guy’d put up a little fight, and DeGatano’d end up hurt enough to take his mind off shit.
Now he had to just lie there, play that day room scene over and over again. Got up once to piss, even knowing how that was going to end up, hoping maybe he’d wear himself out. And he did, so then he had to lie there, sweaty as hell, barbwire thing going again, still feeling like he had to piss. Looked at the clock again. 4:23.
Finally dozed off somewhere, next thing he knew Clarence is shaking him awake. Some dream scurrying off like a room full of roaches when you turn the lights on, something about ropes and trees and shiny little white buttocks glowing up in the sky like moons.
“Don’t usually have to wake your ass up old man,” Clarence giving him a little shove.
“Yeah. So how am I looking?”
“Like you’ve been dipped in piss and rolled in shit.”
“So same as always. Speaking of which, you probably got some clean up to do.”
“Always do my man, that’s my job.”
Clarence was a bald black man, pushing fifty, running to fat, had been an aide at the home the whole time DeGatano had been there. But it wasn’t the first time they’d met. Twenty-five years back, when the crack thing was just getting going, Clarence had been one of the dumb fuck kids moving rock around town, ended up being one of DeGatano’s snitches.
Clarence got DeGatano out of bed, into the bathroom, wiped the shit and urine off of him, got him back into the room got him into his clothes.
“We ready to roll, Lou?’
“In a sec. Whattaya know about the new guy?”
Clarence gave a little snort, shook his head.
“You know how it is with all that HIPPA shit, my man. I can’t tell you nothin’ ‘bout nobody, less I wanna lose my damn job.”
“Yeah, and I bet you put all that shit from back in ’83 or so down on your application when you signed on, too, huh? How long you think you’re gonna have a job if I decide to have a chat with somebody?”
“Fuck’s with you man? Just ‘cause that sour old fucker likes to park his chair in front of you?”
“What’s with me is my damn business. Just give me what you got.”
Clarence gave a shrug. “Guy’s name is Novak. Stan Novak. Short for Stanislaus. Got a kid sister in town somewhere, she’s the one brung him in.”
“He private pay? Insured? What?”
“Man, I clean shit off people and dress your sorry asses up. What I know about that shit?”
“Fucker. One other thing I can tell you. That sister, she brung him in, but she ain’t been back since. Man’s a dump and run.”
Clarence got DeGatano in his chair, rolled him down to the dining room, parked him at a table with Hank. Oatmeal and toast. Fuckin’ hated oatmeal, not that he could really taste anything anymore, and not that he really needed to eat much.
“Sheep stank, sheep stank, sheep stank.” Hank muttering to himself while he ate, a gluey line of oatmeal and drool hanging from his chin.
“Do me a favor Hank,” DeGatano said.
Hank looked up at him, the spoon stopping halfway to his mouth, the line of shit on his chin snapping, dropping back into his bowl.
“Shut the fuck up.”
Hank blinked a couple of times, like a reset button, the spoon going into his mouth, back to his bowl.
“Shove a duck cup shove a duck cup shove a duck cup . . .”
DeGatano sucked in a couple deep breaths, bracing his hands on the arms of his chair to push himself up, head over to the day room. Nineteen steps. All he needed. Clarence caught him at the door to the dining room, got him up under the arm. When they were out in the hallway, Clarence talked low.
“Novak’s date of birth is September 6, 1947. He gets some kind of VA money. Guess he was in the service. And that’s all you get from me you old bastard.”
DeGatano nodded. That’d make him twenty-four back in 1971. Draft eligible. Viet Nam going full bore. Fucker gets drafted maybe? Packed off to the land of bad things? And that’s why he stopped leaving ornaments in the trees around town? Easy enough to find out.
DeGatano had one chair in his room, recliner his kid had bought him. It’s what the kid did instead of visit, bought him shit. Had a flat screen in his room, DVD player, fancy-ass little bookshelf system, all of it run off some universal remote the kid had programmed up, thing with about a hundred tiny little buttons on it that DeGatano couldn’t read. So he spent his time down in the day room where he understood the TV.
Matt MacBride was in the recliner. DeGatano sitting on the edge of his bed.
“I feel weird taking your only chair,” McBride said.
“You don’t want to sit on the bed. I’ve pissed it like a thousand times.”
McBride nodded. MacBride was Chief of D’s on the force now, probably a year or two out from retirement unless the chief slot opened and he wanted to goose his pension. DeGatano had been his training officer when McBride was a probie. They went back, and McBride was one of maybe three people who kept in touch with him.
“So,” DeGatano said, “can you run this Novak fuck for me?”
McBride sighed. “Don’t do this to yourself, Lou. You got some old fart, you think you hear one goddamn word, and you’re gonna go all Don Quioxtie on this thing again?”
“Whattaya mean I think? I heard the fucker. He’s licking his chops over some little Cub Scout and he says ‘sheepshank.’”
McBride said something, too low for DeGatano to hear.
“What? Speak the fuck up.”
“I said sometimes you hear what you want to. And I wasn’t talking that quiet, Lou. You’ve always had a bug up your ass over this hangman thing. And I don’t blame you. I mean I was in Junior High at the time, and still remember it all pretty good. Being the first guy on scene, seeing that kid, yeah, that’s gonna stick with you.”
“Simple enough favor I’m asking. Take this Stanislaus Novak, and run his ass. Turns out he was around the whole time, he’s been living in town here except for maybe a few years turning wrenches on tanks or some shit over in Germany, then I let it go. But if it turns out this fuck got drafted up in 1971 and left town in September or so, then I’m gonna run this out. Give me some credit here. I ain’t one of the mental cases – it’s my ticker that’s fucked up, not my brain. When is the last time you heard anybody say the word “sheepshank.”
McBride shrugged. “Watching Jaws the other night. Quint tosses the other guy a rope, what’s his name, the one that Dreyfuss played? Anyway, Quint tosses him a rope tells him to tie him a sheepshank. And there’s that other movie, the one with Morgan Freeman and what’s his face, Robbins?”
“That was Shawshank.”
“Yeah, OK, that one was Shawshank. Thing is, people say shit that sounds like shit all the time. And it’s not like you haven’t gone a little nuts on the hangman thing before. That BDSM killing back in 1976? Just ‘cause the guy used some fancy-ass knots, you’re all up in everybody’s grill pushing to bounce everything off the hold hangman files looking for a fit. And then you strong-armed Peterson into letting you fly down to Phoenix back in what, ’87? Just ‘cause some Cub Scout got strangled? You ended up with internal affairs up your ass thinking you were just angling for a free trip. ‘Course it didn’t help you busting up some guy outside a strip joint while you were there. You don’t think straight about this hangman shit, Lou. You never have.”
“So I’m on my own is what you’re telling me.”
McBride leaned forward, elbows on his knees, squeezing his hands together, shaking his head at the floor.
“Goddamn it, Lou. I was hoping I could come down here, be reasonable. But that is exactly not what I’m telling you. What I am telling you is to leave this Novak alone. You got no police powers. You got no probable cause. Jesus Lou, people think well of you. I mean cop-wise anyway. Off duty you were kind of a famous asshole, but cop-wise? You’re on a short clock now. Way it stands, they’ll bring out the flags, the bag pipes, honor guard, whole nine yards. You got my word on that. But you get out of bounds, start playing Nancy Drew on this thing, then you’re just an embarrassment. You’re gonna go into a hole alone, people laughing up their sleeves at you.”
DeGatano hawked up a wad of phlegm, grabbed a glass of the nightstand, spit into it.
“You think I give a shit? I’ll be dead. Best case, I’ll just be dead. Worst case, if the sisters were right about all that Satan shit, that forked-tailed son of a bitch will be roasting my wienie. I ever strike you as the type of guy who tried to duck a shot he had coming? My kid lives like a mile from here and I see him maybe four, five times a year. Cause you’re right, I was a famous asshole. So I ain’t whining about it. I made my bed. I may piss in it, but I don’t whine in it. You think I’m worried about how many uniforms are gonna show up at my grave, pretend they ever really gave a shit?”
McBride shook his head, got up. “OK, Lou. I had my say. You made the call, and the department has responded. We got zero interest in this Novak, OK? Cold case doesn’t want to touch it – they got no DNA, no prints, so no real way to tie this guy in even if you get anything that starts making sense, which right now you don’t. Chief doesn’t want to touch it because it will look like he decided to turn some poor old fuck’s life inside out just on account of some old cop friend called in a marker. DA doesn’t want to touch it ‘cause this Novak couldn’t stand trial even if they had a case, which they don’t. Which you don’t. So you get no rhythm on this. And if you get out of line, then we are gonna slap your ass down hard. Nobody wants that, Lou.”
McBride got up, headed for the door.
“Nice suit, by the way,” said DeGatano.
McBride turned. “What?”
“Your suit. It’s nice. I mean I always went with that off the rack shit from Sears, navy blue every time, on account of I ripped the knees out of the pants or get some blood on anything, it was all mix and match. But what you got there, that’s nice.”
McBride shrugged. “Wife pick’s ‘em out. Brooks Brothers mostly. You’re gonna be a player, you gotta where the uniform.”
“So I guess when you got off the street and joined the suits, you joined all the way.”
McBride stood there, looking at DeGatano.
“You’re still an asshole, Lou. You might be a fucked up old man wasting his last days chasing ghosts, but you haven’t lost a step in the asshole department.”
Tuesday again. Visiting day for Gladys. Kid was in his Cub Scout uniform again, but Novak wasn’t having a good day. Still, he seemed to be kind of tracking the kid, always seemed to be facing him. But his eyes were vacant, his face slack.
DeGatano reached into his pocket and pulled out a length of cord maybe three feet long. He’d cut it off the blinds in his room the night before. When Novak turned his chair toward him, DeGatano tossed the cord in his lap. Novak didn’t seem to notice, just kept tracking the kid around the room.
The girl was playing checkers with Gladys. Hank wandered over, stood watching. The girl kept looking up at him, like she expected him to bite her or something.
“We’re playing checkers, Hank,” Gladys said.
“Paying peckers paying peckers paying peckers . . .”
DeGatano caught Novak’s hands moving out of the corner of his eye. He looked up. The cord lay across Novak’s lap, a perfect sheepshank.
T-Bone sat in DeGatano’s recliner, had the Sox game on, giving DeGatano shit about the Cubs.
“It’s a spiritual discipline, kid. You don’t get it.”
T-Bone was his grandson, Tony Jr. Called himself T-Bone, dressed in those baggy-ass hip-hop clothes, did pretty much anything to get a rise out of his old man. Kid was kind of an asshole too, so him and DeGatano, they hit it off. Well, not really. Mostly, the kid came by ‘cause he could sit in Lou’s room, watch a game without his Dad getting on his ass about anything. And also he could hit Lou up for some cash now and then, Lou always coughing it up ‘cause it felt nice to have the kid hanging around some. Fuckin’ kid even calling him Lou, DeGatano trying to imagine what kind of beat down he’d of got, he ever went and called his grandpa Lou.
“So it’s May, you got prom and stuff comin’ up?” DeGatano asked.
Kid gave one of his lame half-shrugs. “I dunno. Dad, he still thinks it’s like the 80s, you know? I mean these guys and I, we were gonna get a limo, all that shit, and I try to hit Dad up for a little cash, make that work, and he’s like ‘You don’t need a limo. You can borrow the Buick.’ And I’m supposed to what, pick up some chic in the damn Buick , everybody else in that stretch Hummer party wagon?”
“Hey, Lou, I didn’t ask for nothin’.”
“I’m offering, How much?”
“I dunno. Couple hundred?”
“I tell you what, you do me a favor, I’ll front you the two hundred.”
T-Bone looking a little suspicious now on account of Lou usually gave him a little shit about the money.
“What do I gotta do?”
“Just bring me some stuff I need from the house.” DeGatano had signed the house over to his kid when he moved into this dump.
“What kind of stuff?”
“You know the attic? You go up that trap-door in the closet in that third bedroom?”
“There’s some old carpet remnants up there, off to the right. Under those, between some of the floor joists, there’s a metal lock box. Bring me the box, you get the two hundred. And don’t say nothin’ to your old man about it.”
“Jesus, Lou DeGatano. I would have bet dead by now.” Nancy Johnson hadn’t heard from DeGatano since he retired, and that was coming up on twenty years.
“And I’m a little shocked you’re still at the paper, all the layoffs and everything. I heard journalism was toast.”
“It’s dying. But what the hell, it’ll last until I retire, so what do I care.”
“So, you wanna buy me lunch?”
“We don’t buy people lunch any more Lou. I haven’t had an expense account since 1989.”
“You got a credit card though, right?”
“Yeah, but that would make it a date. At your age, I doubt you can make that worth my while.”
“It’s about the Hangman.”
A long pause on the other end. “You got kind of a rep on that, you know that, right?”
“And you still gotta sell papers.”
“OK, a cheap lunch. Where do you want to meet?”
“You’re gonna have to pick me up. I ain’t driving no more.”
“Pick you up where?”
Another pause. “Ah geeze, really? OK. It’ll be about twenty minutes.”
“Take me that long to walk to the door,” DeGatano said.
Johnson pulled up in a year-old Lexus, DeGatano waiting on the bench just inside the main door, the oxygen tank he needed for any kind of road trip strapped into its wheeled aluminum carrier, the clear tube looped around his ears, DeGatano snorting the O2 like it was coke.
Johnson walked up to the door. It had been twenty years. Hair was full gray now, cut short. Hell, for all DeGatano knew it had been gray then, but she’d stopped dying it at any rate. Johnson had always been skinny, just a shade over five feet, and she was still thin, but it was trending toward that old-lady, bones-like-rebar-in-a-paper bag thin now, not that pixie look like she used to have. DeGatano had been a sucker for that pixie look. Big enough sucker that he and Johnson had had a little thing thirty years back, right around the tail end of his first marriage. But who was he to talk. She was walking across the parking lot on her own power, making good time, wasn’t towing any oxygen with her.
She opened the door, pulled up when she saw him on the bench.
“God, Lou. You sure you’re up to this?”
“I ain’t up to shit anymore, truth be told. Just pull the car up closer to the door, OK?”
She walked back to the Lexus, wheeled it right up to the doorway, Lou taking that minute or so to shove himself up to his feet, walk out to the curb. Only half as far as it was from his day-room chair to the can, and he had the O2 on, so he wasn’t panting too bad when she stepped around and opened the door for him, helped him into the seat, got his oxygen rig between hi s legs so he wouldn’t drop dead on the way to lunch.
“Nice ride,” Lou said as they wheeled out of the lot out onto Lake Street. “You win the lottery or something?”
“Kind of,” she said. “Harrison? The publisher?”
“He and I got hitched back in ’95.”
“Thought I heard he died.”
“He did, in ’96.”
DeGatano quiet for a second. “Am I supposed to say congratulations or I’m sorry?”
Jonson barked out a short laugh. “You haven’t changed, Lou. I mean aside from you got real old. I dunno, both I guess. It wasn’t some sort of soul-match thing. His first wife died, he wasn’t good at being alone, we were comfortable together. Just how it played out.”
“Well, it’s still a nice ride. And you’re looking good.”
“Save the shit, Lou. I look about average for 65. You look like shit. Where you want to eat?”
“I want a goddamn cheese burger with bacon on it and onion rings and a fuckin’ beer. The Manor still open?” Manor was a crappy bar across Lincoln from the big-ass cemetery down on the southeast side, had a big wooden deck in the back where you could eat outside when it was nice. And today it was 75 and sunny, little breeze. “I got a plot in the boneyard across the street. We can dine al fresco and eyeball my new digs.”
Johnson nodded. “Still open. You should feel right at home. Same dirt on the tables as last time you were there, probably.”
They got a table back in a corner of the deck, DeGatano blowing pretty good by the time they sat down, still catching his breath when some young guy in a black t-shirt came out to take their order. Johnson ordered a turkey club and a glass of their best Pinot Grigio.
“Not sure what Pinot Grigio is, but I’m sure we don’t have it,” the kid said.
“It’s a white wine. You have white wine?”
“We got white, red and pink.”
“I’ll have a glass of your best white.”
“Only have one.”
“That should make it easy on you then, shouldn’t it?”
The kid nodded. “Okay. What would your father like?”
DeGatano, reached up, grabbed the kid’s forearm. “I ain’t her father . . .” pause for breath, “and I may not be able to kick your ass anymore . . .” pause for breath, “but talk like I ain’t here again and I’ll put a match to this oxygen tank and blow us both to hell.”
The kid pulled his arm away. “Sorry, man. Okay, so what would you like?”
“Bacon cheeseburger, onion rings, beer.”
The kid turned and looked at Johnson.
“I don’t need her fuckin’ permission kid.”
“Okay,” the kid said. “What kind of beer? On draft we have Miller, Miller Lite . . .”
“Your best yellow. Surprise me. Now beat it.”
The kid left for the kitchen.
“Back in the day, all they hired for waitresses here was hot chicks. I was kinda looking forward to that,” DeGatano said.
“Not getting much action down at Sunnybrook?”
DeGatano shook his head. “We got one semi-looker on the head case floor, isn’t always real good about keeping her robe tied up. I been known to sneak a peek. And then I feel like I gotta rinse my eyes out with Listerine. Besides, pretty much all my pecker’s good for any more is taking a leak, and it ain’t much good for that.”
DeGatano got through maybe three bites of the burger, a couple onion rings and half the beer. He felt bloated, light headed, maybe a little sick. Johnson finished her sandwich, ordered another wine.
“Sad fucking thing,” DeGatano said. “Out with some elf-sized chick and she’s out eating me.”
“Out drinking you, too.” She finished the second wine, wiggled her glass at the waiter for a refill. “So, the Hangman?”
DeGatano ran through what he had.
“Kinda thin, Lou,” she said.
“I know. I’m not saying name the guy, I’m just saying dig a little. Service records would be nice. It’s always gnawed at me, the guy just stopping like that. Those sick fucks don’t just quit, and I ran everybody that got busted anywhere near here for a month or two after that last killing all the way out, in case the guy got picked up on something else. I know this Novak is ex-military. The one witness we had, that kid from the school, she put the guy in his early twenties, so he woulda been draft eligible.”
“Seems like maybe you should be calling McBride or somebody instead of me.”
Lou looked across the street at the cemetery, picked up the mug, thinking about another sip of the beer, then set it down. Wasn’t gonna help anything.
“And he told me I was a sorry old fuck chasing ghosts. I’m down to the wire, Johnson, I know that. I don’t want to leave this world and leave that sick fuck in it, not if I got a chance.”
“You’re not talking about some kind of vigilante bullshit here, are you Lou?”
He shook his head. “Just need enough to make McBride take it seriously.”
“Not much in this for me, not if it doesn’t pan out,” Johnson said.
“It’s the end of May right now, Johnson. Twelve days, it’s gonna be forty years exactly since the first kid. You can do some kind of Hangman retrospective, city relives its summer of fear thing.”
“OK, yeah. I can sell that. If I can promise an interview from the lead detective on the case.”
“Getting your pound of flesh, Johnson?”
“You gotta work off you lunch, big boy, and with your pecker out of service and all . . . ”
“Fine. I flap my gums, you run Novak for me.”
DeGatano sat up on his bed, gut rumbling. Had to take a dump, and it wasn’t gonna wait. His dumps these days, it wasn’t like his piss trouble. He didn’t get his ass to the can, he’d have a slurry of shit running down his legs. Fucking cheeseburger, barely put a dent in the thing, couldn’t even finish one beer. Sorry goddamn state of affairs.
He spent a good ten minutes on the can. Nice thing at least about a decent dump, usually he squeezed a little piss out with it, maybe he go an hour or two without his bladder playing the will-she-or-won’t-she game with him. Thought about heading down to the day room, but after his lunch trip, he was tired as hell. Decided to lay down, see if he could take a nap.
Knock on the door.
“Hey Lou, it’s T-Bone. Got your box.”
DeGatano opened the door, let the kid in. Kid handed him the lock box.
“Kinda heavy,” the kid said.
“So nothing, just saying.”
DeGatano put the box of the end table, opened the door in the dresser where he kept his cash, counted out $200 for the kid.
“Thanks, Lou,” the kid said. “Listen, I’d hang, visit for a bit, but I gotta run.”
“It’s OK. I was just gonna take a nap anyway.”
The kid left. DeGatano locked the door, sat down on the recliner, picked up the box, worked the combination and opened the lid. He lifted out a folded up old kitchen towel, set it in his lap and opened it up. The Model 36 Smith & Wesson .38 Chief’s Special looked good. He thumbed the release lever and flipped the cylinder out, eyeballed the chambers. Lockbox had a rubber gasket, good seal, so everything still looked clean. He locked his piece in the box and hid it in the attic before he moved into Sunnybrook. Couldn’t have a weapon here, and if his son had known the gun was in the house, he’d would have got rid of it. Would’ve been some pretty good temperature swing up there, though, so he closed the cylinder again, dry fired a few times, feeling the action, watching it, listening to it. Everything felt good.
He pulled a Ziploc bag out of the lock box, opened that up, took out the box of Federal soft points – the ones they used to call Chicago loads. Even out of a short-barreled .38, they’d put a hurting on you. And if he had to use them, he wouldn’t be using them from more than a foot or two. He loaded the rounds into the five chambers, closed the weapon, wrapped it back in its towel, put the ammo back in the Ziploc, locked everything in the box and stuck it under the winter sweaters in his bottom drawer. If he had to use the gun, it would be soon. Clarence wouldn’t need anything out of the sweater drawer for at least four or five months. DeGatano figured he’d be dead by then.
The doctor shoved the stethoscope back in his pocket, told Lou he could put his shirt back on.
“You’re blood pressure is up, edema’s worse. You been misbehaving?”
DeGatano nodded. “Had like three bites of a bacon cheeseburger yesterday, couple onion rings, maybe half a beer.”
“Do we need to go over what sodium restricted means again? And maybe point out those no alcohol stickers on the back of all your prescription bottles?”
“Look, doc, you tell me we’re pretty much on the home stretch with this heart thing. If you can’t cure it, then I guess I’ll eat what I want. If I only make it to eighty four and a half instead of eighty five, so what?”
The doc shrugged. “It’s up to you. Although as run down as your system is, I’m betting you felt like shit after the burger. But yeah, might as well enjoy yourself to the extent you can. A month ago I told you six months, but now I’m thinking that’s probably optimistic. If you’ve got anything you need to tend to, I’d tend to it. I’m pretty much at the end of my rope here. Can’t up the doses on anything without killing you. “
“OK doc. Thanks. I’ll see you next month or I won’t.”
Novak was up in his room, just after 8:00 pm when the phone in his room rang. It was Johnson.
“A couple things on Novak. You’re right on the draft thing. He was inducted in September of 1971. Also, his home address at the time was Rathbone, down south of Prairie.”
“Which puts him right on the Burlington tracks, pretty much.”
“Two doors away.”
DeGatano didn’t say anything.
“That’s not proof.”
“It ain’t nothing, either.”
“I just, I mean I don’t want you doing anything.”
“What am I gonna do? Sick old fuck like me? I can’t even piss on the guy.”
This time a pause on Johnson’s end.
“I mean it Lou.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Anyway, I sold the Hangman thing to my editor. He wants to do a two-parter. First, a recap, sort of a boogie man tale for all the young folk that haven’t heard of the guy, then the interview. So when are we going to talk? I can expense lunch this time, so if you really want to grow a wild hair, go to Olive Garden or something, I can make that work.”
“Truth is, the burger damn near killed me. Stop by tomorrow, we’ll do it in the day room. Maybe you could rub my thigh a little, give me a peck on the cheek, give the old biddies here something to fan themselves over.”
DeGatano called McBride, left him a message with the date on Novak’s induction and his old address. Fucker’d have to listen now, at least take a peek.
DeGatano woke up to pain in his chest, the barbed-wire thing again, but there was this pressure behind it this time. Cold sweat all over, too. This time was different. This time was it.
DeGatano swung his legs over the bed, looked at the clock. Quarter to five. Two doors down to the new guy’s room. DeGatano staggered to the recliner, plopped down, pulled open the bottom dresser drawer, grabbed the lock box, and took out the .38. He was glad he’d loaded it already. Way his hands were shaking now, he’d be lucky to chamber a round. His O2 canister was still in its carrier. He’d left it by the door after lunch. He turned the crank full open, slipped the hose over his ears and shoved the nozzles up his nose. Breathing the oxygen in, he felt a little burst of strength, also felt the barbed-wire in his chest tighten another notch. No time. No time. He had the gun in one hand, the handle to the O2 carrier in the other. He headed for Novak’s room.
DeGatano lost the light from the hall when he let Novak’s door close behind him, but it was the same layout as his room, a little light leaking in the window. He could see what he needed to see. Fucker was sleeping like a log, light snore coming out of him. DeGatano crossed the room, clicked a light on next to the bed and sat down.
Novak’s eyes opened, focused on DeGatano, seemed lucid.
“Know who I am, you fuck?”
“Guy from down the hall.”
“Know who I used to be?”
Novak shook his head.
“Used to be a cop. Used to be a detective. Forty years ago, I cut four little boys out of trees.”
Novak’s eyes fluttered a little.
“I know you lived down on Rathbone. I know you got drafted in ’71. I know the killings stopped when you left town. I know little Cub Scouts make you lick your lips. And I know you can tie a fucking sheepshank.”
Novak’s eyes lost focus a little, weird smile on his face. “Sheepshank,” he said.
DeGatano grunted. Christ. The barb-wire was biting all the way in now, like it was pinning his heart to his spinal column. No time. No time. He raised the .38, pressed the end of it to the middle of Novak’s chest, tried to squeeze the trigger, his hand shaking, the hammer only coming back a fraction of an inch, his vision going all gray now, the wire finally biting all the way through, a feeling like his heart snapped in half. The pain stopped. DeGatano fell off the bed, onto the floor, the .38 falling away from his hands, his brain going blank. Tried to sit back up, something he was still supposed to do. Couldn’t remember, couldn’t move. He felt his bladder let go, a long, steady stream flowing out. Jesus, that felt good.
“Sheepshank,” Novak said.