Jeanmarie Doyle, my ex-mother-in-law, loathed me in a biblical way, had poisoned my marriage, and now sat at my kitchen table smiling sweetly, coiled to strike again.
In the years since Ginny divorced me, Jeanmarie’s black hair had turned white, her body had thickened, and deep lines crosshatched her cheeks. But if you looked closely, the same feral madness still bubbled in her eyes.
For the better part of a half hour she sipped coffee from an NYPD mug with a crack in its handle and rattled on about people I didn’t remember and deaths I didn’t mourn. Even though the snakes in my head screamed that she was about to screw up my life, I didn’t interrupt. Jeanmarie got to things in her own time.
After the second refill, the well of small talk had run dry, and Jeanmarie got down to business.
“Steeg,” she said, “I need your help.”
My mother, Norah, used to say that the fairies give each of us a measure of cheek at birth. And as the years pile up on each other, all we’re left with is humility. It was fair to say Jeanmarie’s measure had a long way to go before the larder was empty.
The sheer chutzpah of the woman was astounding.
The snakes had had enough. I got up from the table, walked to the door, and held it open.
“Have a nice day, Jeanmarie.”
“It’s not for me I’m asking, it’s for Ginny.”
That got my attention.
“Ginny and her husband are getting death threats,” she said. “I’m not surprised. It was a match I didn’t approve of.”
She wrinkled her nose and glanced out the window at a pale and listless day.
“But she’s my child,” Jeanmarie continued, “and I only want for her happiness.”
I had heard Ginny had married a fireman, a Lower East Side guy named Gerhardt. But, as I recall, there wasn’t much Jeanmarie, or her husband Ollie, did approve of, so I didn’t pursue it.
I walked back to the kitchen.
“Did she go to the police?” I asked.
She looked at me as if I were an idiot child.
Jeanmarie Doyle was about three things: family, the Church, and hatred for the British avocation of fucking the Irish over every chance they got. Strongbow, Cromwell, the plantations, the Rising, the Troubles weren’t history. They were festering, real-time events that she took with tea at night and with oatmeal in the morning. She even kept a kitchen canister for loose change and the spare dollar, periodically collected by the Hell’s Kitchen IRA man.
But above all, Jeanmarie hated and distrusted the police, a fact that had never boded well for my relationship with her daughter. When Ginny announced that she planned to marry a cop?—?me?—?it caused a shit storm of epic proportions. Cops, especially if they were Irish, were the enemy. Jeanmarie had fought our marriage every step of the way, but Ginny was resolute. So Jeanmarie bit her lip and pasted on a smile, but she never got past it.
Yet here she was, in my kitchen.
“I didn’t raise my child to go to the cops for justice,” she said.
“I’m a cop and you’re here,” I said.
A little smile, faintly cruel, I thought, played on her lips, and I knew exactly what she was thinking. The nine that tore through my chest courtesy of Frankie One-Eye, a meth-stoked pimp, had been God’s punishment for the way I earned my living. A kind of balancing of the scales.
“Not anymore,” she said.
Neither of us spoke for a few minutes as the obvious question hung uncomfortably in the air. In the distance, a ship’s horn sounded. Loud. Not from a tug. Something much bigger.
“Why are you here instead of Ginny?”
She splayed her fingers on the table and gazed at them.
“It wouldn’t be seemly,” she said.
“Aye. You being her ex and all.”
Suddenly, I was back in Lace Curtain Hell with its bullshit traditions and circumscriptions. I could have pointed out that her son, Liam, a petty thief with a lengthy rap sheet, hardly fit the description of seemly. Neither did her daughter Colleen, a stone drunk who hooked whenever the unemployment insurance ran out. And then there was her husband, Ollie, who by reason of laziness, inadequacy, or happenstance occupied a premier spot on the wrong side of society’s bell curve.
“Does Ginny know you’re here?”
Jeanmarie shook her head.
“All I want is to help my little girl.” She leaned forward and gripped my hands. “No matter what has gone on before, you’re still family. And that counts for something.” Her grip tightened and her voice grew cold. “I want you to find the bastards and kill them.”
The real Jeanmarie had finally made an appearance. Her mad eyes fastened on mine and refused to let go.
The muscles in my neck bunched up.
When I was on the job, I spent my time awash in the truly terrible things people were capable of. Ever since the shooting, I’d tried to balance things a bit by hitting the museums and galleries and whatever else piqued my interest. Jeanmarie sparked a memory of an exhibition of Spanish painting I’d seen at the Guggenheim a few weeks ago. There was one work that kept pulling me back. The background was a dense black. In the foreground a gray-robed monk held a saint’s skull. And beneath the cowl, wreathed in shadows, the mere suggestion of a face. The scene struck me as a place of preternatural madness, somewhere on the doorstep of hell. I still wondered about the effect the painting had on me. The only thing I could come up with is that the artist and I saw the same demons, shared the same snakes. Wallowed in their muck.
And now I was in danger of getting lost in the muck again. But this time it was Jeanmarie’s head. A place of dark, swirling Celtic mists, of vendetta and retribution, a place of blood for blood.
I owed her nothing. The local cops could handle it, and Ginny was smart enough to bring them in when things started going downhill. Besides, whatever Jeanmarie said about “family,” thanks to my love affair with Johnny Black, I didn’t even remember large chunks of my marriage?—?except for the sex. And that was very good. Funny how some things stand out, while others kind of recede into the fog.
I was about to tell Jeanmarie to piss off when the phone rang.
“Gotta talk to Jeanmarie,” Ollie said, the words colliding into each other.
I handed her the phone. “It’s your husband.”
“Ollie?” she said.
Other than a slight tightening around her eyes, Jeanmarie’s face showed nothing. “Where?” she whispered into the receiver. “Tell her I’m on my way.”
She handed me the phone. “It’s happened,” she said. “They murdered Ginny’s husband.”
Excerpted from Old Flame by Ira Berkowitz. Copyright © 2008 by Ira Berkowitz. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.