They say your memories march like a parade before your eyes in the moments just before you die. It’s not something I’d given much thought to. I’d always been more interested in the here and now. Not that it makes any difference, but it’s still nice to know I was at least partially right. Because now as I’m dying, I’m not recalling how I learned to ride a bike or the day my wife burned the pot roast. All I can think about are the things I’ve left unfinished.
Starsky is supporting my head, then makes a move to go for help. I clutch at his sleeve. “No, stay here.” Somebody’s shoved a hot poker in my gut and a fire is burning me from the inside out. Hutch crouches on my other side and takes my hand.
It’s funny. I don’t know Starsky and Hutch all that well. Just through working with them on a few assignments. I’m pretty sure they not too fond of me. On work related matters we haven’t always seen eye to eye. But having the two of them here now is somehow comforting. More so than I could have imagined. Sure, individually they’re smart and full of energy. Good cops. But when they’re together, it’s almost as if the atmosphere around them changes. Like the ionization of air when lightning strikes.
“Somebody call an ambulance.” Hutch calls out as he holds my arm, feeling for my pulse that grows weaker and weaker. I don’t even know if there’s anyone around who’ll listen to him.
“Look inside my back pocket.” The effort it takes to choke out the words is costly. Hutch reaches across me and pulls out a notebook.
“Back page.” I tell him. I don’t have much time left. The kids are grown, Sally left three years ago. The big promotion never came through. My whole life is tunneling down to just this.
“Call the number . . . don’t tell Dobey . . . I want your word.”
“Yeah . . . you got it.” Their voices echo from either side of me. In tune, always in tune.
I rest easy, knowing at last I have someone I can trust.
We all started out wanting to change the world. We bent our legs under well-worn desks and thumbed the pages of dog-eared text books when what we really wanted was hit the streets. Chase down the crook, the pusher, the pimp. I was no different in the beginning than they are now. Except back in the old days we wore suits and ties. Kept our hair cut short. Memorized codes and section numbers like scripture.
I earned my pay the hard way. Long nights spent shivering in my squad car, longing for a hot meal and waiting for a drug buy that never went down. Dozens of half-finished crossword puzzles littering the backseat. Then there were the mindless hours spent filling out tedious forms in triplicate, turning the pages of mug books until my eyes crossed. Bad haircuts and blank stares that all blended together like grains of sand on a Sunday beach.
I missed my baby girl’s first steps, my boy’s little league games. Hell yeah, I got burned out. I felt I was always a day late and a dollar short. But then I met Matt Coyle and suddenly tide turned.
I had responded to a report of a break-in at a warehouse near the train yard. A bunch of punk vandals had smashed dozens of crates of peaches, leaving a sticky mash drawing ants from one end of the place to the other. It was stupid and senseless.
Matt Coyle had arrived on the scene, his pseudo Irish temper in grand form. It seemed the peaches were part of his inventory and the loss would set him back hundreds. Good peaches were hard to come by that time of year and the Georgia Peach Growers Association had just raised their rates.
“How’s a man supposed to make a profit in this town?” Mattie had fumed. “Can’t you keep these penny-ante miscreants away from the decent businessmen like me?”
“We would if we could, Mr. Coyle. But it seems like they’re always one step ahead of us.” Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut. Been a little more diplomatic, the way they’d taught us at the academy. But I’d been up most of the previous night, hunched in a back booth at a dank pool hall watching for an informant who never showed. I could still hear the sharp clink of the billiard balls echoing in my head like Chinese water torture.
That wasn’t the way it was supposed to go.
Matt got a gleam in his eye, as they’d say in the Emerald Isle. He was perceptive. I’ll give him that. He could practically smell my frustration. Or maybe we just recognized each other. Two sharks treading water when there was a great big ocean to cross.
He invited me for lunch a week later at a little, out-of-the-way Chinese restaurant. He said he wanted to thank me for taking such a personal interest in his loss. He voiced his frustrations to me over the Peking duck. I nodded sympathetically as I swallowed my Kung Pau chicken. He refilled our tea cups.
“If I knew of a little gambling operation going down in the back of a bar on Washington Boulevard, would you be interested?” I tried not to stare at his hands as he gracefully maneuvered the chop sticks. I never could quite get the hang of those things. I guess my paws were just too big, more suited for handling a Sig Sauer.
Of course I was interested. Here was my chance to make my move. But there was a small price to pay for the information. More of a favor, really. I needed to stay away from a certain restaurant on Thursday next. Not that anything was actually going to happen there, mind you. Just perhaps a little noise that someone might report to the police. You know how jumpy people can be sometimes. But why should people like us waste our time on trivialities?
The gambling bust went down like a dream. I decided right then then there – I had to give a little to get a lot. I called it “Ferguson’s Law.”
Mike Ferguson was a find, alright. A fucking four-leaf clover in a field of weeds. One could say that he and I running into each other the way we did was the luck of the Irish. If I believed in luck. Which I don’t. I believe in working smarter than the other guy. Looking out for number one. I’d send just enough information “Iron Mike’s” way to keep him headed in one direction so my business had room to grow in the other. And grow it did. We both got what we wanted.
Sometimes when I didn’t have any suitable busts to tempt him, I’d set some up myself using my own people to do it. No one is irreplaceable. No loyalties; no entanglements. Over the years I’d become a master at diplomacy; that is, the ability to tell a man to go to hell so that he looks forward to making the trip. Lies have far more color than gray truth.
You shouldn’t put your faith in anyone, no matter how smooth he talks. No matter how much he tells you what you want to hear.
I’d learned that a long time ago growing up in Jersey City. When my Da told me he loved me as he swung at me with his belt. When my Ma kissed my cheek then ran off with that minor league baseball player. She said it was so much more exciting than being married to a car salesman and the mother to three snot-nosed brats.
Trust makes you weak. It’s money that makes you strong. Wealth earns you respect. Nobody walks out on that.
I left Jersey City behind and came out west to seek my fortune. I built up my business from a small, wholesale distributor to a major player in the local import industry. After a few short years, I had my finger on more than half the restaurants and bars in Greater Los Angeles and Mike Ferguson in my palm of my hand.
Of course I’d seen them in the narrow kitchen doorway of the Chinese restaurant. Starsky sprawled on the floor, Hutch pulling him back by his feet. Crawling over each other with the ease of lobsters in an overcrowded tank. I hadn’t been a cop for over twenty years to not notice details like that. And if I saw them, they mostly likely saw me, too. Having lunch with Matt Coyle the way I’ve had at least once a month for the past ten years. Taking the big envelope he handed me over the fried rice.
What did I think they thought? What would I have thought if I were them?
The information Mattie had delivered was about a planned hit at Darcy’s department store. Three hard-nosed hoods with long and ugly records. None of them would be wanting to take a return trip to prison – making them all the more high-strung and dangerous. It was tight operation but no place for rookies.
After that little scene at the restaurant, I wasn’t about to count on them to keep quiet. So I figured I’d give them another option. I’d let them in on this set up to show them how things could be, if they played their cards right. Not that I had wanted to bring anyone else in on my arrangement with Coyle, mind you. Up until then I had worked strictly solo. But at the time I thought I might not have a choice.
I asked Captain Dobey to borrow Starsky and Hutch to help with the stake out. I wanted to see for myself how they’d feel about getting in on a high-profile bust.
It had to beat late nights sharing cold hamburgers in that garish, red car. Didn’t it?
Their nearly matching blue eyes flickered back and forth between them and I sensed they were communicating on an entirely different level than Dobey and me.
“When do we start?” Starsky asked after their wordless exchange.
At Darcy’s they were practically like kids in a candy store. Almost unable to keep their hands off each other, let alone the merchandise. They looked like they were having fun, goddamn it, in an adrenalin- fueled way.
I remembered the old rush I used to get and started to envy them. I hadn’t worked with a partner in years. I reminded myself how I never liked it when I did. A partner always made me feel tied down. I liked the freedom of moving how I wanted, when I wanted. I didn’t believe in relying on anyone else.
When shots rang out, rattling the racks of pantyhose and causing me to dive for cover in sporting goods, I got the strangest feeling. We were unexpectedly outnumbered, but I knew those two had one up on all of us.
What did Ferguson think anyway? That he could trust me? The way Johnny Lonigan trusted me? The good police captain had started making more demands. Acting like he was the one in charge. Then he made me give up Momo in trade for my biggest score yet – some ripe new additions from Mexico. Not that I had any soft spots for that gorilla, but he had been a valuable asset to the operation. He had a way of making my clients pay up properly without a lot of fuss.
As I said, no one is irreplaceable. When Momo got arrested, I fell back on Johnny. Johnny was loyal as puppy but not as efficient as Momo. Although he did have some other redeeming qualities. A lovely wife and a blind eye. Both remarkably eager and willing to please.
So my information had been slightly off. There were five hitmen at Darcy’s, not three. I couldn’t be expected to get it right all the time, could I? And if the bust went badly for Iron Mike, it was no skin off my nose. He’d been wearing out his usefulness, anyway.
It would have been so much simpler if Ferguson had just wanted money. Unfortunately, he never understood the value of cold hard cash. It was arrest warrants that got him off. I figured it was time to cut him loose. There’d always be another flatfoot willing to look the other way now and again in order to hear his name announced at the annual Peace Officers’ banquet.
When my dedicated phone line rang, I wasn’t all that surprised to hear someone other than Iron Mike on the other end. He had come to the end of his career, with the help of one of the goons who had escaped from the department store set up. Pity I didn’t get to attend his wake.
Starsky and Hutch came to me as cops, alright. With too much bravado, too much fire. They weren’t as interested in making names for themselves as Iron Mike and his self-righteous “Ferguson’s Law.” They caught me at my own game.
There’s nothing more boring than watching millionaires chew their cottage cheese. Unless it’s looking at brown gravy dibble down the front of a prison uniform. At least they call it gravy, but I wouldn’t swear that’s what it is. Just a pathetic cover-up for mystery meat, to my way of thinking. Monday’s meat loaf will no doubt turn up in Wednesday’s spaghetti. While right about now luscious Laura is probably licking her lips over Oysters Rockefeller. But I’m betting it’s not Smilin’ Johnny who’s picking up the tab.
Oh well. The lascivious Mrs. Lonigan is no longer my concern. Women have their place. Mostly it’s flat on their backs. Johnny, though, is another matter. He’s one of the reasons I’m sitting in here on this too thin mattress instead of out there, directing my empire from an Italian leather executive chair.
It only goes to prove what I’ve said all along. Only fools place their faith in others.
So, I’ll do my time. It won’t be long. I have too many fingers in too many pies. When I get out we’ll all be a little older and more weary. More like Iron Mike was. And then, me buckos . . . why, then, we’ll see who’ll be calling me.
It’s not that I’m defending him, I just don’t like to speak ill of the dead. I never much cared for Captain Ferguson. Maybe it was the way he liked to boss everyone around. A little too loud. A little too tough. Too much like my father.
He’d always held himself apart, like he was afraid if he let anyone in they might find out more about him than he was willing to share. Even at his funeral there were a lot of empty seats. Dobey may have called him his friend, but they weren’t all that close that I could see.
He’d made a deal with the devil all those years ago. Matt Coyle was no Huggy Bear. Not by a long shot. Too bad, like Starsky said, Mike couldn’t tell the forest from the trees.
Death is the great equalizer. It comes to paupers and kings alike. It’ll come to Starsky and me one of these days, too. But not bleeding out alone in the street. And not with a pocket full of secrets. It won’t happen to us. We have something Ferguson never did – each other.