Ice Blues

an excerpt


The attendant at Faxon Towing and Storage looked surprised to see me back so soon, and a little wary.

"You all set?"

"I need to use your phone."

"There's a pay phone over to the station."

"I haven't got a dime."

"It's a quarter now.

"I haven't got a quarter, and the Albany police department doesn't accept collect calls from people they don't want to hear from. I know, I've tried it."

He had a broad fatigued face with heavily bagged eyes, one blue and white, one blue and red, not the result of patriotism but of a burst blood vessel in the corner of the right one. He smelled of grease and cold sweat, and this mixed with the stench of the kerosene heater and the Mr. Coffee machine, whose crud-stained pot contained two cups of a substance the EPA probably had on a list somewhere. Wet snow was starting to thud sloppily against the windowpane.

"You want the cops? Somethin' wrong with your car?"

"Somebody left something in it," I said.

"Oh yeah? Well, you could leave it here, case somebody calls."

"That wouldn't work. It's too hot in here."

He looked at me as if I might be one of the deinstitutionalized, a new social class that merchants and tradesmen feel compelled to gingerly indulge up to a point.

Shrugging, he said, "Phone's yours. Just make it quick. I got calls coming in." He lifted the filthy apparatus — no Trimline — off a pile of oil-smudged documents and set it on the counter. I dialed.

"Detective Lieutenant Bowman, please. This is Donald Strachey."

"Hang on, I think he's still here."

The snow was pounding down hard now in the last light of the January afternoon. I said, "This entire section of the North American continent should be declared unfit for human habitation."

"Huh?"

"It's snowing again."

The attendant shook his head. "That's Albany for ya. Winter gets some people down. Me, I don't mind."

"You must be half penguin.

"English, Irish, German, Norwegian — yeah, there might be some penguin in there somewhere."

There were squawking and banging sounds at the other end of the line, then a voice: "This is Bowman. Who's this?"

"Don Strachey. I'm calling about a police matter.

"Hey, it's my least favorite fruitcake — the wimp of Washington Park, the Georgie Boy of Crow Street. I was heading out the door, but I'm always happy to wait around and accept a call from the only man I know who went to Kentucky for an artificial-wrist transplant." He chortled inanely.

I said, "This is not a social call, it's police business. I'm at Faxon Towing. My car was hauled out here last night, and now there's a problem. You should drive out."

"What the hell are you talking about, Strachey? This is the homicide division, and you got a beef with traffic. You won't get me involved, oh no, I'll not act as an impediment to those officers. Anyway, it was plainly announced on the medias which streets were gonna get plowed last night, and if you're too dumb or too contrary to move your car out of the way, I've got no sympathy. The snow removal crews have a job to do, and–"

I cut him off. "There's a man in it. He's dead."

"There's what? In what? What's there a dead man in?"

"In the back seat of my car. Timothy Callahan — you know Timmy — he drove me out here to pick up my car. Timmy dropped me off, I paid the extortionate towing fee, and I located my car. When I opened the door it caught my notice that the rear backrest had been lowered, and a man was curled up back there. His eyes were open wide, but he didn't say ‘Cold enough for ya?' or ‘What do you think of all this snow?' or Ciao, baby' or anything else at all."

"What man? This man was dead, you say?"

"Under the dome light I could make out little icicles of blood extending down from his mouth and nose and ears. I did not check his vital signs, but when the human body temperature falls below thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit, death ensues. He's gone. I thought you ought to know."

"Is this some stunt of yours?"

"No."

"It better not be. I'm driving out there."

"No rush. I shut the heater off. But I'll need my car, or a ride downtown.

"Don't you touch anything 'til I get out there, you got that?"

I hung up and handed the phone back to the attendant, whose blue-and-red eye was twitching.

‘You shittin' me? There's a dead guy in your car?"

"Yep. Did you put him in there?"

‘No! Holy Christ, no!"

"When was my car brought in?"

With a jittery hand he leafed through a stack of forms, leaving a black thumbprint on each one. "This here one's yours, ain't it?"

I examined the form, in the boxed spaces of which were handwritten my license number, the make and model of my car, and the notation that it had arrived at Faxon's at 3:20 a.m. and had been checked in by "Fert" or "Pert."

"This is it. Who's Fert, the truck operator? Or is there somebody here who checks them in?"

"That'd be Ferd. He was driving last night, I know."

"What's Ferd's last name?"

"Plumber. Frederick Plumber's his right name. Hey, you're not the cops. Maybe I shouldn't be telling you this. Are the cops really on their way out?"

The door opened and a woman wearing a coat crafted from six endangered species strode in brushing snow from two of them. Atop the grimy counter she dropped a receipt from the traffic division showing that she had paid her fine, along with two fifties. In a voice as icy as the evening, she said, "I — want — my — car."

"No problem," the attendant said, and started messing with some papers.

As I went out the door, the woman said to the attendant, "Don't you ever wash your hands?" If there was a reply, it was not immediate.

Maybe he'd placate her by offering her some coffee.

I walked back to the car through the gobs of blowing snow. With a gloved hand I lifted the hatch where it had been jimmied. The body was frozen in a fetal position, and I reached up under its peacoat and pulled a wallet out of the back pocket of the man's faded Levi's. The driver's license belonged to John C. Lenihan, Swan Street, Albany. The other two cards showed that Lenihan had been a member of the Albany Public Library and was eligible for discounted admissions to the Third Street Cinema in Rensselaer. Otherwise he had not been a joiner. The portion of Lenihan's estate left in his wallet amounted to six one-dollar bills.

The wallet contained one photograph of a middle-aged woman. Also stuffed in a small slot in the wallet were three scraps of paper with names and phone numbers, each in a different script, presumably but not necessarily that of the person whose name, appeared. The names were those of men prominent in Albany community affairs.

I got out my notebook and copied all this down and replaced the wallet in the pocket of the cold Levi's. I had thought the man's face looked familiar, and the name was one I'd heard before too, but I couldn't connect either of them to a time or place. I checked the front pocket of the man's Levi's and found some small change but no keys. Nor were there keys hung from his belt.

From the glove compartment I took out the flashlight, banged it against my palm, and shined the half-watt beam around John C. Lenihan's face and head. He had been a more-or-less young man — thirty-six, according to his driver's license — but prematurely bald, and the downy brown hair at the back of his head was caked with frozen black blood where the blows had been struck, repeatedly and with force. His face was unmarked except for the red-and-black stalactites and the wide-eyed grimace. There were two tiny mild abrasions on either side of the upper bridge of his nose. He'd worn glasses, but I didn't see them anywhere.

Back inside the office shed I asked to use the telephone again.

"Ain't the cops here yet?"

A CB radio on a shelf crackled and a voice came out of it. "What'd you say, Roy? Guy's got body damage? I was outta the truck and couldn't make out what you said."

Roy ignored this, and I said, "They're not here yet, but I have to get in touch with a friend."

"A lawyer?"

Crackle, crackle. "Hey, Roy, you in there yankin' yer wanger, or what? Roy, you there?"

"He's a lawyer, but kind of a cute one. Not a criminal lawyer. I won't need that."

"Cute?"

"The phone, please. If there's a charge for the call, Lieutenant Bowman will take care of it."

"You work with the cops?" he said, and hoisted the reeking appliance onto the counter.

Snap, crackle. "Hey, Roy, I'm comin' in after I get this Caddy out to Conklin's. There's Pat, up to Route Seven? Roy? Hey, Roy?"

"No, I don't work with the cops. I don't work against them either, except a couple of times a year, but you don't want to hear about that."

He backed off, and I dialed.

"It's me. I'll be late."

"I just got home. The roads are a freezing mess again. Where are you?"

"Still out at Faxon's. There's a dead man in my car."

"Right. I'm heating up some chili and I picked up some George's bread at Lemme's. How long will you be?"

"I don't know. Ned Bowman's on his way out here now. He'll want to fling some insults, twirl his truncheon around, maybe ask a few pertinent questions. Forty-five minutes to an hour, I'd guess."

"How did a dead man get into your car?"

Flashing blue lights appeared through the volleys of blowing snow. Beneath them a blue Dodge materialized and halted outside the shed's window, on whose surface a finger had written city hall sucks in the steam that came up from a pot of water on the kerosene heater.

"I don't know yet how he got there. I assume he was placed there by whoever killed him — he died violently, I think. Though he might have crawled in there on his own because the evidence suggests that he drew his last breath while curled up in the back of the car. If he did that though, first he would have had to jimmy the hatch lock and disengage and lower the backrest, and the man's wounds look as if he was in no condition to manage that. So far, it's all speculation on my part."

A pause. "Are you making this up? I wouldn't put it past you on a night like this. Or any night."

Roy the attendant had gone outside to meet Bowman, and I could see Roy shrugging and shaking his head through the C in sucks.

"Bowman's here and I should go. It's his problem now, not mine. My only pressing problems are cabin fever alternating with cold feet. I'm sick of this snow. Let's get out of here — fly to Puerto Rico or the Dutch Antilles. Tonight."

"You've been whining about winter since the first leaf dropped on Labor Day. But you'll have to suffer ignobly for another month. You know I can't leave now. The people of the State of New York need me."

"We can take out a second mortgage on the house and lease a beach cottage at Luquillo for a month. Just you and me and a houseboy named Fernando who's lackadaisical but has fifty-eight great teeth and the immune system of a steam locomotive."

A familiar silence — he was the only man I knew who could roll his eyes over the telephone. "You're at the Watering Hole, aren't you? Happy hour at Gloomy Gulch. Should I put on my WCTU sweatshirt and walk over and rescue you?"

Bowman was moving toward the door, followed by Roy and a uniformed cop.

"Gotta go now. Who's John C. Lenihan?"

"You mean Jack Lenihan? You know Jack Lenihan. He's Warren Slonski's lover — a friend of Herb's. They were at Herb's pool party last Summer. Is he over there with you? I haven't seen Jack since —"

"Gotta go."

I hung up as Bowman shoved at the hinged side of the glass door. He remarked on this error in his terse, unequivocal way, then pushed at the unhinged side, which yielded him up into the stinking hut. Bowman was unchanged since I'd last seen him except that he was suffering from what appeared to be a severe case of athlete's foot of the nose.

"Ned, what's wrong with your face? I don't think you've been drying thoroughly between the folds and interstices."

He looked as if he would have liked to beat me severely about the face and head, and snapped, "Where's your car? You lead the way. Now. I was just on my way home for supper."

I led the way. The phone rang and Roy stayed behind. Flapping sheets of snow swooshed around under the floodlights as we moved up the rows of cars. We came to mine and I lifted the hatch.

"Do you know him?" Bowman said.

"No."

"Probably a wino or mental case. Crawled in to sleep one off, and died. Poor slob."

"Look closer, at his head."

The uniformed cop shined his Rayovac at the dead man's face and head.

"Jimminy Christmas!"

"I'd say a lead pipe or maybe a tire iron did that."

"That will be up to the medical examiner to decide, not you or I. Holy Mother! So, where's your tire iron, Strachey?"

"Unless it was removed by the killer, it's under the rug beneath the body, with my spare."

"Well, I intend to have it examined and retained as possible evidence. You know I have to do that."

"What am I supposed to do if I have a flat, use my teeth?"

"It wouldn't be the first time you put something filthy in your mouth. In fact, I'm confiscating your entire car. You'll get it back when I say so. Now I have to make a couple of calls and get a crew out here to ID this guy, and then I'm going to interrogate you. I think you're in trouble, Strachey. Real bad trouble."

"No, you don't. But you'd like to think so."

"Well, you've got one hell of a lot of explaining .to do, that's for damn sure."

"Let's make it quick. I've had enough of winter in this godforsaken outpost, and I'm leaving tonight for the Dutch Antilles."

"No, you're not. You're staying right here in Albany, Strachey. You're not going anywhere at all until I say you can."

"People I'm fond of keep telling me that."