I’m not the client,” the ferret seated across from me said. He was as thin as a garrote, with a library-paste complexion, the facial skin surrounding his veined-quartz eyes as papery as dried flowers. He was always room temperature. “You know me, Burke. I only work the middle.”
“I don’t know you,” I lied. “You knew—you say you knew—my brother. But if you did—”
“Yeah, I know he’s gone,” the ferret said, meeting my eyes, the way you do when you’ve got nothing to hide. With him, it was an invitation to search an empty room. “But you’ve got the same name, right? He never had any first name that I knew; so what would I call you, I meet you for the first time?”
It’s impossible to actually look into my eyes, because you have to do it one at a time. One eye is a lot lighter than the other, and they don’t track together anymore.
A few years ago, I was tricked into an ambush. The crossfire cost me my looks, and my partner her life. I mourn her every day—the hollow blue heart tattooed between the last two knuckles of my right hand is Pansy’s tombstone—but I don’t miss my face. True, it was a lot more anonymous than the one I’ve got now. Back then, I was a walking John Doe: average height, average weight . . . generic lineup filler. But a lot of different people had seen that face in a lot of different places. And the State had a lot of photographs of it, too—they don’t throw out old mug shots.
I’d come into the ER without a trace of ID, dropped at the door by the Prof and Clarence—they knew I was way past risking the do-it-yourself kit we kept around for gunshot wounds.
Since the government doesn’t pay the freight for cosmetic surgery on derelicts, the hospital went into financial triage, no extras. So the neat, round keloid scar on my right cheek is still there, and the top of my left ear is still as flat as if it had been snipped off. And when the student surgeons repaired the cheekbone on the right side of my face, they pulled the skin so tight that it looked like one of the bullets I took had been loaded with Botox. My once-black hair is steel-gray now—it turned that shade while I was in a coma from the slugs, and never went back.
The night man sitting across from me calls himself Charlie Jones—the kind of motel-register name you hear a lot down where I live. A long time ago, I’d done a few jobs he’d brought to me. The way Charlie works it; he makes his living from finder’s fees. Kind of a felonious matchmaker—you tell him the problem you need solved, he finds you a pro that specializes in it.
Charlie pointedly looked down at my hands. I kept them flat on the chipped blue Formica tabletop, palms down. He placed his own hands in the same position, showing me his ID.
The backs of his frail-looking hands were incongruously cabled with thick veins. The skin around his fingernails was beta-carotene orange. The tip of the little finger on his right hand was missing. I nodded my confirmation. Yeah, he was the man I remembered.
Charlie looked at my own hands for a minute, then up at me. The Burke he knew never had a tattoo, but he nodded, just as I had. Charlie was a tightrope dancer—perfect balance was his survival tool. His nod told me not to worry about whether he believed the story that I was Burke’s brother. By him, it was true enough. Where we live, that’s the same as good enough.
“It’s a nice story,” I said, watching as he lit his third cigarette of the meet. Burke was a heavy smoker. Me, I don’t smoke . . . except when I need to convince someone out of my past that I’m still me.
“It’s not my story,” Charlie reminded me. “Your brother, he was an ace at finding people. Best tracker in the city. I figure he must have taught you some things.”
Charlie never invested himself emotionally in any matches he made. He was way past indifferent, as colorless as the ice storm that grayed the window of the no-name diner where we were meeting. But Charlie had something besides balance going for him. He was a pure specialist, a middleman who never got middled. What that means is, Charlie wouldn’t do anything except make his matches.
Everyone in our world knows this. And for extra insurance, Charlie made sure he never knew the whole story. So, if he got swept up in a net, he wouldn’t have anything to trade, even if he wanted to make a deal. Sure, he could say a man told him about a problem. And he might have given the man a number to call. He had liked the guy, even if he’d only met him that one time. Felt sorry for him. In Charlie’s vast experience, drunks who babbled about hiring a hit man were just blowing off steam. You give them a number to call—any number at all, even one you remembered from a bathroom wall—it helps them play out the fantasy, that’s all. “What!? You mean, his wife’s really dead? Damn! I guess you just never know, huh, officer?”
“This guy, he must not be in a hurry,” I said.
“I wouldn’t know,” Charlie replied. His mantra.
“It’s been three weeks since you reached out.”
“Yeah, it took you a long time to get back to me. I figured, with the phone number being the same and all . . .”
“Most of those calls are people looking for my brother. I can’t do a lot of the things he used to do.”
“Yeah,” he said, an unspoken I don’t want to know woven through his voice like the anchor thread in a tapestry.
“But, still, three weeks,” I reminded him. “I mean, how do you know the guy still wants . . . whatever he wants?”
“You get paid whether I ever call him or not?”
Charlie lit another cigarette. “He knows these things take time. You don’t call, someone else will.”
I waited a few seconds. Then said, “You want to write down his number for me?”
“I’ll say the number,” the ferret told me. “You want it on paper, you do the writing.”
City people call winter the Hawk. Not because of the way it swoops down, but because it hunts. Gets cold enough in this town, people die. Some freeze to death waiting for the landlord to get heat back into their building. Some use their ovens for warmth, and wake up in flames. Some don’t have buildings to die in.
I pulled out a prepaid cell phone, bought in a South Bronx bodega from a guy who had a dozen of them in a gym bag, and punched in the number Charlie had given me. A 718 area code—could be anywhere in the city except Manhattan, but a landline, for sure.
“Hello?” White male, somewhere in his forties.
“You were expecting my call,” I said.
“Who are—? Oh, okay, yeah.”
“I might be able to help you. But I can’t know unless we talk.”
“Just tell me—”
“You know the city?”
“If you mean Manhattan, sure.”
“You got transportation?”
“That’ll do,” I said. I gave him the information I wanted him to have, walked to the end of the alley I’d been using as an office, and put the cell phone on top of a garbage can. Whoever found it would see there were plenty of minutes left. Probably use it to call his parole officer.
I pulled the glove off my left hand, fished a Metrocard out of my side pocket, and dropped below the sidewalk.
Charlie,” said the little black man with the ageless, aristocratic face. “That boy’s one diesel of a weasel. He might slouch, but he’d never vouch.”
“I know, Prof. But no matter who this guys turns out to be, there’s no way that it’s me he’s looking for. If anyone asked Charlie to put him in touch with a specific guy, it would have spooked him right out of the play.”
The only father I’d ever known closed his eyes, looking into the past. The ambush that had almost taken me off the count years ago had been set up by a middleman, too. Only, that time, I was told the client wanted me for the job. Me and only me.
“How much green just to make the scene?” he asked.
“Two to meet. For me to listen. That’s as far as it’s gone.”
“It’s a good number,” the little man mused. “That’s serious money, not crazy money.”
“The job is finding someone, Prof.”
“Charlie don’t find people,” the little man said. “He finds even one, he’s all done.”
“I did meet him, though.”
“Yeah. And I called the spot.”
“So, if he was fingering you . . .”
“Right. That diner, it’s down by the waterfront. All kinds of bums hanging around. And, in this weather, you could put a dozen men on the street in body armor, and nobody’d even look twice.”
“There’s something else about Charlie,” the Prof said, nodding to himself.
“Maybe he’s going along with you being your own brother, maybe he’s not.” The little man’s voice dropped and hardened at the same time. “But he knows what number he called to get you to show up. You be Burke, you be his brother, don’t make no difference. Because Charlie, he knows you not by yourself. You got family. He can’t snap no trap on all of us. He double-crosses you, he’s out of the middle. For as long as he lives. No way our boy bets that number.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Mask Market by Andrew Vachss. Copyright © 2006 by Andrew Vachss. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.