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Authors: Reed Farrel Coleman

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General

Empty Ever After (3 page)

BOOK: Empty Ever After
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Blaney, who’d baptized all the Maloney children and had performed Katy’s first wedding ceremony, took inventory. “A shame,” he said.
Fallon took the bait. “A shame?”
“Such a big plot of land and it will never hold the family but for Francis Sr. and Angela. With Francis Jr. in Arlington and Katy … Well, never mind about Katy.” He crossed himself again.
“What about Patrick?” I asked.
“The boy, please God, will never rest for his sins. His spirit is destined to roam.”
“Resurrection, Father?”
“Don’t be an ass, Fallon. Pushed out like a splinter more likely. His kind are a blight on holy ground.”
I was far away from laughing now and stepped out from under his umbrella to stand in the rain with the young deputy. At that point the rain was preferable to inhaling the fumes that malicious old bastard breathed out. It was more a matter of principle than kinship with Patrick. The truth was that Patrick and I spoke only once, very briefly. That was on February 15, 1978. I stood on one side of his boyfriend’s bedroom door and Patrick on the other.
“Do I have your word?” I asked.
“Yes.”
That was it, the entire conversation, and for twenty years I thought his one word was a lie. The irony is that his lie became my lie and my lie became my secret. He had promised to turn himself in that coming Saturday, to stop hiding, and to finally face his family. God, I was so full of myself that day. I found Patrick.
I
found him! Not the NYPD, not the daily busloads of volunteers, not the newspapers, not the fortune hunters, not the passels of PIs his family had hired before me, but me. That day I proved I was worthy of the gold detective’s shield I was never to get. Whether I deserved it or not was moot. I’d already been off the job for months by then.
But that Saturday came and went. Nearly twenty years of Saturdays came and went without word of Patrick. Oh, there were a thousand false leads and sightings that amounted to nothing. Offer a reward for anything and the roaches will crawl out from under the floorboards, the hyenas will come out of the bush. Only once, in 1989, when I was looking into the suicide of my old pal and NYPD Chief of Detectives Larry “Mac” McDonald, did I ever truly believe I was close to getting a handle on what had become of Patrick. But that lead was crushed beneath the wheels of a city bus when the Queens District Attorney Robert Fishbein was run down on a Forest Hills street. None of it mattered now, not any of it.
The rain was letting up some. Katy had just gotten out of her car. She seemed composed, but it was hard to disguise the distress deepening
the lines around her eyes. There was a time when I believed it could never hurt me to look at her. Even after the miscarriage, when she took her guilt, fury, and indignation out on me, it was grace to look upon her. And when we hit that inevitable dead spot in our marriage, when the sameness of our days made me feel light years away from her, the sight of her face was always reassuring. Now it stung. What we had was gone. I broke it. Francis broke it. There was far more breakage out here than a headstone and a coffin.
I looked away.
Over Katy’s right shoulder, I could see a Janus Village sheriff’s car pulling into the cemetery followed by a dark blue and yellow State Police SUV. My cell phone buzzed in my pocket.
“Excuse me,” I said to no one in particular, pulling the phone out of my soaked jacket. I ducked under the tape and hurried along the path toward the stream below the Maloney family plot. “Hello.”
“Mr. Prager?” It was an older woman’s voice, but a familiar one somehow.
“Yes, this is Moe Prager.”
“I don’t know if you’ll remember me, it’s been a few years. I’m Mary White, Jack’s—”
“—sister. Of course. How are you, Mary?”
There was silence at the other end of the phone, an unsettling silence.
Jack White had been an actor, a painter, and a bartender at Pooty’s in Tribeca. Pooty’s was the bar Patrick Maloney disappeared from in December of ’77. Beside Jack’s other interests, he was Patrick’s lover. It was behind Jack’s bedroom door that Patrick stood and uttered the only word he ever spoke to me. Jack was the man who sat across from me, hand clamped around my wrist, promising me Patrick would return to his family. When Patrick broke that promise and vanished again, Jack went back home to Ohio. He taught drama to troubled teens until he died of AIDS in 1986. After we discovered the truth about Patrick, I’d flown Mary in for Patrick’s funeral.
“Mary, what is it? What’s the matter?”
“It’s Jack’s grave.”
My heart stopped.
“What about Jack’s grave?”
“I’ve visited him there every Sunday since the week I buried him. No one but me and a few of his old students has ever left flowers at the grave. Then last Sunday …” She trailed off. I could hear her fighting back tears.
“What about last Sunday?”
“Roses.”
“Roses?”
“Almost six dozen red roses were laid on Jack’s grave.”
“Maybe one of his students hit the lottery,” I said without an ounce of conviction.
“No, I checked. We keep in touch. They are very loyal to Jack even after all these years.”
“Wait, Mary, let’s back up a second. What did you mean there were
almost
six dozen roses?”
“There were seventy-one roses. Five bouquets of twelve were propped up against his headstone,” she said. “But on his grave itself, there were eleven individual roses—”
“—arranged in a circle, the tips of the stems meeting in the middle.”
There was that ominous silence again.
“There’s more, isn’t there?” I asked.
“My God, Mr. Prager, how did you know?”
“In a minute, Mary. First tell me the rest.”
“This afternoon, when I went to his grave …” Now she could no longer fight back the tears. I waited. “I’m sorry.”
“No, that’s fine. I know this is hard for you.”
“On the back of Jack’s headstone someone had painted that Chinese symbol with the rose, the one Jack had tattooed on his forearm. Do you remember it?”
“I do.” I’d seen something just like it on my welcome mat a few hours ago.
“And at the corner of the painting were the block letters PMM. Why would somebody be so cruel, Mr. Prager? Jack never hurt anyone in his life.”
Now the silence belonged to me.
“Mr. Prager …”
“Sorry. I’m here. It’s just that someone’s disturbed Patrick’s grave as well.”
“Oh, my God!”
“Mary, would it be all right if I called you later? It’s too complicated to talk about now.”
“That’s fine. You have my number. Please know that my prayers are with you and your family.”
“Thank you, Mary.”
When I wheeled around, Katy was coming down the path toward me. The sight of her stung a little less this time. Maybe it was repeated exposure. Or maybe it was that the thickest clouds moved east and what was left of the sun shone like an orange halo behind her head.
CHAPTER THREE
MR. FALLON’S QUARTERS
were small and tidy, not unlike the man himself. His house—a bungalow, really—was way on the other side of the cemetery, close to the tool shed and equipment barn. All three—shed, house, and barn—were of similar rustic construction and painted a thoroughly depressing shade of brown, but everything looked neat and well-maintained. Fallon himself was less than thrilled at the prospect of our company, but the sheriff thought the bungalow was the best available option given that the station house was on the opposite side of the hamlet. So we formed an odd cortege, my car behind Katy’s behind the priest’s behind the sheriff’s behind the caretaker’s backhoe, and snailed across the fields of stone in the dying light. The youngest, wettest deputy and the crime scene investigator from the state troopers stayed behind.
Sheriff Vandervoort was a gruff, cinder block of a man who, in the space of a very few minutes, had twice boasted that his ancestors had lived in these parts since New York was New Amsterdam. He wore his insecurities like a rainbow. He was well aware of who the Maloneys were—everyone around here was. They knew about the hero son shot down over ’Nam and his big wheel father. Although nearly three years dead, the mention of Francis Sr.’s name still turned heads in Janus. Vandervoort knew, all right, and if he’d forgotten, there was little doubt Father Blaney would take the time to refresh his memory.
Vandervoort was just the sort to do things his way, like interviewing us as a group. It was a dumb move, but I wasn’t going to moan about it. In the end, it would probably save me some leg work. Small town policing, even in the new millennium, was different than any policing I understood. I’d gotten my first taste of that when I saw how the deputies mishandled
the crime scene. As far as I could tell, they’d done nothing to preserve the scene beyond stringing the yellow tape. For a while there, I thought they might invite any passersby to add their footprints to the increasingly muddy mess that was the Maloney family plot.
The deputy who’d accompanied Vandervoort sat at Fallon’s small kitchen table taking notes as the sheriff asked his questions. Katy sat at the table too, as did the priest. Fallon had dried off a spot on the counter near the sink where the two of us sat. Most of the early questions were for Fallon and they were pro forma, the kinds of things you’d expect to be asked.
Did you hear anything?
“Not me own self, no.”
Did you notice anything suspicious last night or this morning?
“No.”
When did you first notice the damage?
“Near noon. Was a slow day with the wet. Not one visitor I can recall. A disgrace to be sure. It took me that long to work me way over to that part of the cemetery.”
Has anything like this happened before?
“Like this? Jesus and his blessed mother, no! In thirty years as caretaker, I’ve had but two incidents and then only a few stones were toppled.”
When?
“Years ago.”
Who did you call first?
“The father there.”
Other than revealing that he had been the one to alert Katy to the desecrations, Blaney’s answers shed less light on the matter than Fallon’s. I could tell by the tone of the old priest’s answers that he held the sheriff in even lower esteem than me. That was really saying something. I didn’t know whether to feel sorry for Vandervoort or relieved for myself. The first part of Katy’s interview was about the same. She had asked Blaney to meet her at the family plot. Afterwards she called the sheriff and Sarah. And no, she couldn’t think of anyone who might want to do this sort of thing. I was glad he hadn’t asked me that question in front of Katy. Then things turned ugly.
“Your brother Patrick was murdered. Is that correct?” Vandervoort asked.
“Yes, but what does that have to—”
“Can you describe the circumstances surrounding his death?”
Katy went white. She bowed her head and stared at the linoleum floor.
“I can answer that,” I said, jumping off the counter.
“I’ll get to you in a minute, Mr. Prager. Right now I’m asking your wife—”
“Ex-wife,” Blaney corrected.
“I’m asking your ex-wife what happened to—”
“Okay, that’s it! Interview’s over.” I grabbed Katy by the elbow and we started for the door. “You want to ask her anything else, you go through
her lawyer. My
wife
,” I said, glaring at Blaney, “is going home. She’s had a terrible day. I’ll be back in a few minutes to answer any questions you have for me.”
I could see Sheriff Vandervoort doing the calculations. He might’ve been a bit of a bully, but he wasn’t a total schmuck. There was little for him to gain by jumping ugly with the sole surviving Maloney. Town sheriff was an elective office and although the late Francis Sr. wasn’t exactly a beloved figure, a lot of people around this town owed their livelihoods to him. Ill will has lost a lot of elections over the years and my guess was Vandervoort understood as much.
“All right.” The sheriff stood aside. “I’m very sorry, Miss Maloney.”
“Prager!” she snapped.
“I was just trying to do my job. If I need anything from you, I’ll call. Rest up. I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Outside, I saw Katy to her car and told her to go back to her house and get some rest, that I’d call on my way home to Brooklyn to let her know how things turned out. She asked me to stop back at the house. I told her no. We had twice suffered the fallout from horizontal despair. Divorce creates new history, but it doesn’t blot out the past. It was just too easy for people who’d once loved each other as much as we had to succumb. Yet, the thing that drove us apart was never far away and fresh regret makes the next time that much harder. Neither of us needed to compound the hurt, especially not after the grief of the day. I had skillfully avoided mentioning the rose on my doormat and my talk with Mary White. But I could see in her face what she must’ve seen in mine: it was happening all over again. I didn’t watch her leave. I’d already seen that once too often.
“Sheriff,” I said, stepping back into the kitchen, “I believe there’s some things you want to know about Patrick’s death.”
“That’s right.”
“Short or long version?”
“Short,” he said. “If I need any details, I’ll ask.”
“Patrick was a student at Hofstra University on Long Island in December of ’77. He’d gone into Manhattan for a college fundraiser at a bar in Tribeca called Pooty’s. Sometime during the night, he vanished. Eventually his parents got worried and contacted the cops. After the investigation turned up nothing, his folks started organizing twice-daily bus trips of volunteers to go down into the city to put up posters and look for the kid.”
“I remember that. My folks went a couple of times. I think they just wanted the free ride to Chinatown.” The sheriff amused himself.
Father Blaney gave Vandervoort a category five scowl. Christ, with
this guy around I might rise to sainthood in the old priest’s eyes. The sheriff got the message.
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