They say blood is thicker than water, but some friendships are made of thicker stuff still.
There is no surer sign of damnation than the need to pay a priest for a eulogy.
He whispered the prayers.
His hand was trembling and his eyes were black hollows burrowed into his skull. A three-day growth filled the hollows of his cheeks.
Johnny’s corpse had looked healthier before they closed the lid.
The priest finished and folded a once-purple stole into the pocket of his coat and turned away without saying a word.
There wasn’t much more to say. Johnny wasn’t a good man, but he was my mate.
My name is Ignatius Kelly, though nobody but my mother ever calls me that. She had a thing for popes.
Everyone else calls me Mick.
I was a cop, now I’m not.
Johnny wasn’t much of anything. But for one thing, he would have been nothing at all.
In 1971, in a southeast asian paddy field, Johnny had picked me up like a rag doll and carried me, unconscious and bleeding, 300 metres to a medic and salvation. He was shot twice in that 300 metres but he never dropped me and it wasn’t until he placed me softly on the ground next to the medic that he collapsed to the ground himself.
The war changed both of us, Johnny most of all. He picked up a bottle as soon as he came home and never put it down. He survived on charity and petty crime until the day he died.
There are some things you never forget and some debts you can never repay. He carried a card in his wallet with my name and number on it. Never went anywhere without it. I had lost count the times I had answered early morning phone calls to drive him home from a hospital or drunk tank, sweating bullets and smelling of cheap booze and self destruction.
I knew what he was and I loved him, despite himself.
They found the card in an otherwise empty wallet. A police officer woke me early on a Tuesday morning and told me he was dead.
They had found Johnny in his car at Point Erin. The police report read suicide. There was a 9 mm handgun in his right hand, the barrel in his mouth and a hole the size of a tennis ball in the back of his head. There was no sign of a struggle and he had a gut full of booze and benzos.
I didn’t believe it. Johnny was terrified of death. He’d no more eat a gun than I’d walk on water.
Johnny had a brother, long since lost to him. A victim, like so many others, of Johnny’s excesses. He was a corporate lawyer with more money than Croesus. He sounded like a creep to me, but family is family. It only seemed fair to drop in and let him know of his brother’s resting place. And since I had forked out for the plot and fifty bucks for the priest, maybe I could make good some of my losses.
His brother’s place was a two-story glass palace. It was flanked by hundred-year-old villas that could have been covers from House & Garden. It looked like a hooker at a tea party.
The door was a solid slab of black laminate that looked as inviting as the gates of hades. There was a doorbell, but this was definitely a door that needed to be pounded.
A blonde woman opened the door. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. She was thirty, maybe a well tended forty, and definitely built for speed. She had live wire eyes and a drink in her right hand. She didn’t speak, just tilted her head slightly and smiled.
It was a full beam, high wattage, punch you in the groin, sort of smile.
“I’m looking for Tony,” I said.
She turned from the door and yelled. “Tony.”
Face like a goddess, voice like a banshee.
Tony looked like a Devonport lawyer. He would have been a few years younger than me. Maybe fifty, but without the scars. He wore a pink shirt, open at the neck. He was tanned to a dull leather and had spent as much time on the treadmill as he had on a sun bed. He was holding a drink so cold he was at risk of frostbite.
I guess I looked like I was going to make a sales pitch for Jesus. He looked at me and wrinkled his nose.
“Can I help you?” he said, with no indication that he had any intent to.
“My name’s Mick, I was a friend of your brothers.” I held out my hand.
He looked at it for a moment before reaching out and shaking it.
“I haven’t seen my brother in a long time.”
“How did he die?” He leaned against the doorframe.
“He was shot. The cops seem to think it was suicide.”
“He was always troubled.”
“He had his off days.” I looked past him, down the marble floor of the entryway. I took a step across the threshold. It was rude, but I was getting sick of the great outdoors. He thought about closing the door, but in the end his manners got the better of him and he allowed me in.
The place was no better inside than out. The entry way was a grey marble, and opened up into a living room that looked like a designers revenge. The woman was sitting on a white leather couch. She was wearing a silk skirt, the colour of fresh cream, that made her almost blend into the furniture. The skirt rode up her thighs as she crossed her legs and she made a production number out of smoothing it back to a PG rating.
I sat down in one of the armchairs opposite. The air hissed out of the cushions as the chair moulded around me. It was the ugliest piece off furniture I had seen in a long time, but damn it was comfortable. All I needed was the remote and a good view of the telly and I could have moved in.
“So, what is it we can do for you? Mr?”
“Mick. Just Mick.” I stroked the leather of the armchair. “You see, the cops called me when they found him. Since he had fuck all, I paid for the service and the plot. I thought you might, you know, like to know where to pay your respects.”
Tony smirked, and I swear to god and all his angels, he winked at me.
“Kylie, would you get me my cheque book? It’s on the …”
“I know where it is,” she said.
I bet she did.
“ I was just wondering, when was the last time you saw Johnny?” I said.
“It would have been Christmas. He came over looking for money.”
“You didn’t invest?”
“Mick,” he sat in the armchair nearest mine, all of a sudden familiar. “One reason I have money is by not giving it away to alcoholic criminals. I gave him a piece of turkey and a Christmas cracker.”
Kylie returned with the cheque book. It was in a leather case that looked like it cost more than my car. He took a fountain pen from his shirt.
“How much was it you said you were out of pocket?’
“I hadn’t.” I stood and held out my hand. “If you were looking to pay your respects, he’s in the cemetery off Karangahake road. Shouldn’t be hard to find.”
Turns out I didn’t need the money that much after all.
He didn’t stand.
“Kylie can show you to the door.” He unfolded the newspaper on his lap and began to read.
Kylie took her time walking the few feet to the door. I didn’t complain. The view was worth it.
She opened the door and I stepped through. Her hand brushed my shoulder. I turned and she reached into her blouse, pulling a small scrap of paper from the strap of her bra. She pressed it into my hand and closed the door before I could speak.
I didn’t open it until I sat behind the wheel of my car..
The note was written in purple ink and full of girlish curves. It had a phone number. Hers, I hoped.
I rang the number later that night. She picked up after one ring. Her voice was muffled.
“Meet me at Melodies, in Takapuna. Give me twenty minutes. Ok?”
“Make it thirty.”
She hung up.
Even with thirty minutes the drive from my place to Takapuna was going to be tight. Given more time I would have dressed for the occasion, but she would have to take me as I was, rough edges and all.
I was late.
She beat me there, sitting in a booth at the back, already sipping from a tall glass. The glass was filled with ice and frosted with condensation. It was pretty quiet for a Thursday night. Another couple were whispering to each other in a dark corner and a well-dressed man sat at the bar nursing a bottle of beer and a paper.
I sat in the booth, opposite her.
She just looked up and smiled, before sipping from her drink.
“Would you like a drink?”
I shook my head.
“Suit yourself.” She waved to the waiter. He nodded and dropped off another drink, beside the one she had only half finished.
I watched her sip the drink for a while. It could have been the booze, but she seemed at ease. If she was afraid of being caught out on the town, she wasn’t showing it. After a while, impatience got the better of me.
“So, you wanted to chat?”
She stopped sipping for a moment. Dabbed at her lips with a napkin.
“I thought you might like to talk about Johnny”
I didn’t say anything.
“You were friends?” She said. I nodded. “I liked Johnny. He seemed nice.”
“He was a good mate.”
There was a pause as she sipped from her drink again.
“Tony is full of shit,” she said, finally.
“I liked him. I was thinking of inviting him to my book club. Do you reckon he’d be keen?”
She laughed. It was like a cool breeze on a hot day.
“Tony and Johnny were together three weeks ago. They came in late. Tony thought I was asleep. I don’t sleep much. I hadn’t taken my pills yet.” She hunched down close to the table, whispering. I had to bend down in order to hear her, bringing me even closer to her lips. “They were arguing. Tony was shouting.”
“What were they fighting about?”
“I don’t know, they were arguing about red pills.”
It didn’t sound like Johnny. He never had much to do with drugs.
“How did it end?”
“They were both angry. I heard Tony yelling at Johnny, ‘Just fucking do it’ and slamming the door. Next time I heard Johnny’s name it was from you.”
I waved at the waiter and ordered a black coffee. I wasn’t sure I could afford it, but there was always the hope she would pick up the tab.
“I didn’t even know Tony had a brother. The first time I met him was about two months ago.”
“I don’t suppose he was that keen on people finding out his family history.”
She canted her head to one side, and looked at me.
“You don’t know much about your husband, do you love? How long have you been married?”
“Two years,” she sipped from her drink, her eyes hard above the glass. “And don’t call me love.”
Her voice suddenly as grey as steel.
“Apology accepted. I really must be going.”
We stood together. I stepped out from the booth to help her put on her coat.
She turned and shrugged her shoulders into the coat.
“I really did like Johnny,” she said. She leaned closer and kissed me. I could taste the gin on her lips. “Call me again.”
She turned in a swirl of hair and perfume.
I sat back down at the booth. The coffee had gone cold.
The waiter came and asked if I wanted a refill. I said no. He stood silently beside me for a moment. It took me that long to realise she hadn’t paid.
I couldn’t sleep.
Assuming Kylie wasn’t full of shit. It made no sense.
Red pills. Johnny was a thief, admittedly not a very good one, but he was no drug dealer. I didn’t think he had the guts for it.
And why would Tony make contact with Johnny when they had been estranged for so long? He didn’t seem the type to become suddenly sentimental.
The light of the new day had started to leak around the edges of my blinds when it dawned on me.
It was in the paper. A week or so before a hiker had found a decomposing body in dense bush on the Coromandel.
I thought I still had the story in one of the stacks of old papers that littered my floor. It took me twenty minutes of searching before I found it. The article was buried on the inside front page. There it was, Red Hills. The body belonged to a drug dealer, Mark Tuki. He was small time but had some big time gang connections. His big brother was Colin ‘Horse’ Tuki, and there was nothing small about him. The Disciples Motorcycle Club owned the drug trade in the upper North Island and Colin Tuki owned the Disciples.
Police had identified Mark through fingerprints. He had been struck once from behind before having his face battered by a rock ’til it resembled a pudding. Police hadn’t found much in the way of forensics, but given the victim I suspected they weren’t looking that hard either.
All it took was a phone call.
I called Colin Tuki.
We moved in different social circles.
I called a friend, he called someone else, who called someone else, and I got a call just after lunch.
The voice over the phone didn’t give a name. If I wanted to talk to ‘Horse,’ I would have to be at a construction site in Mangere Bridge, at midnight. He hung up before I could ask any more questions.
Meeting a gang member, still grieving for the untimely death of his brother, in a deserted building site, after dark, sounded like a pretty good way of getting killed to me, but I needed to know if there was some connection.
I kept telling myself, if it was a dead trail, there was no harm done. I would walk away. Forget Tony, forget Kylie and leave Johnny’s memory dead and buried.
I still didn’t know what I was going to do if his brother was connected to his death.
The rest of the day went slowly. It was too hot and humid to sleep and my guts were doing lazy somersaults every time I thought about heading into Mangere.
It would take me half an hour to drive to the spot. I set off early, getting there about half an hour early. I drove down the gravel access road to the site. The road opened out onto a roughly rectangular vehicle park. It was ringed with front end loaders and graders. A white truck was parked in front of a dusty white portacom. A single light shone above its door. I sat at the entrance to the yard for a while before gently edging my car towards the portacom. I made it halfway across before I was pinned in headlights. There were four of them, one in each corner of the yard. Their lights, burning on high beam, blinded me. I stopped the car, opened the door and took a step into the open, shielding my eyes, straining to see anything against the glare.
The only way out of the yard was the way I had driven in. I turned and saw a fifth vehicle pull in behind me, blocking my exit. It had its lights off. Its engine idled. The driver tweaked the gas and the engine roared. I flinched, stumbling back into my car. Satisfied that he had scared seven shades of shit out of me, he turned off the engine and it sat softly ticking as it cooled in the night air. I could hear the laughter before they had even opened the door.
The passenger door opened. A massive figure unfolded itself from the front seat. I had met Colin Tuki a few times. He was hard man to forget. I’m 187cm and 99kg, plus or minus a pie, but he was a good head taller and could have used me as a toothpick. If he was trying to intimidate, it was working. He shrugged on a leather vest and walked towards me.
“Detective Kelly,” he nodded. “You’re early.”
“Wasn’t sure I had the right place.”
“You sure now?”
“Nope, must have taken a wrong turn.”
“Depends on whether funny gets me killed or not.”
“Making no promises Detective.” He stopped about 10 feet from me. “Put your hands in the air and step out from the car. One of the boys’ll pat you down.”
I took a step out from the car. Two guys stepped out from the light. I heard the unforgettable sound of a round being racked into the chamber of a pump action. One walked behind me, pushed my arms in the air and expertly felt me up. He stepped away and nodded to Horse. The other guy kept the pump on me the whole time.
“So what do you want?”
“I want to talk to you about your brother”
“What about him, he’s dead”
“About your brother,” I tried to shrug some life back into my shoulders and arms. “Do you know what happened?”
He looked hard at me.
“If I did there’d be at least one dead honky, probably two, because you are really starting to piss me off.”
“How do you know it’s a honky?”
“No nigga is that stupid.”
Hard to argue with that logic.
“What was he doing in Red Hills?”
“He was on business.”
“My fucking business,” he clenched his fists. I could hear the knuckles crack. He took a long breath, considered his options. “He was burying some cash. There was about half a million buried up there.”
“Gone,” he smiled. “You wouldn’t know anything about that?”
I shook my head.
“We could make sure. How does that sound?”
“Uncomfortable.” He smiled again. “Who else knew about the money?”
“A few of the bros. It wasn’t anyone I know. They’d be dead already.”
“Did you know Johnny Murphy?” I said.
He shook his head. “Should I?”
“How about Tony Murphy?”
Horse tried hard to hide his expression.
“The lawyer, what’s that motherfucker got to do with anything?”
“You know him?”
“He’s a slimy prick. Bought coke from us a couple of times, thought it made him a gangster.”
“Did he know about the money?”
“How dumb do you think I am?”
That didn’t seem like a safe question to answer.
I had an idea.
“Give me a day and I’ll tell you who killed your brother.”
“Why should I give you a day? Why don’t I just fucking beat the answer out of you now?”
“Because I don’t know the answer yet, and if you beat me up I’ll just get blood on your boots.”
“A day,” he said. “And if I don’t get an answer, the first white boy I kill will be you.”
I heard the guy behind me take a step. I tried to turn, but not quick enough. I heard the crack of something hard and metallic strike the back of my head. And then there was darkness.
I woke, my mouth full of dust from the yard and my head throbbing. A blank business card lay on the ground, a handwritten cell number written on the back.
The sun was turning the horizon crimson by the time I picked myself up. I poked the card into my pocket and staggered to my car, driving out of the yard and onto the motorway before anyone decided to turn up to work early.
I got home and lay on the couch for a while, an ice pack pressed to my head and a cold flannel over my eyes.
I thought about everything I’d learned. It took a bit of putting together. Most of the day was gone before I thought I had it figured out.
It was time to pay another visit to Tony Murphy.
I arrived at the same time as Kylie was leaving. She slammed the door and stormed down the path to the yellow convertible parked in the driveway. I stopped and leant down to the open driver side window. Streaks of mascara smudged her cheeks. There was some fresh bruising beneath her eye that would become a pretty good shiner by tomorrow morning.
She slammed the car into reverse and stepped on the gas, reversing in a shriek of tyres on concrete. I had to jump to preserve my toes and almost fell on my arse.
I dusted myself off and walked up the driveway to the door. Tony opened it before my fist had hit the door.
“What do you want?” he said. He had scratch marks on his face and one of his eyes was bloodshot.
“You should find yourself a new cat, that one doesn’t seem to like you much,” I said, pointing to the scratches.
His knuckles were white on the doorframe, his face the colour of a ripe plum.
“Thought we should chat,” I said, elbowing my way past him into the house.
For a second he was stunned but then he spun, reaching out to grab me.
My head still hurt from the previous evening and I was in no mood to be manhandled twice in twenty four hours. I caught the palm of his hand and turned it back against itself, straightening his arm, and twisting the shoulder. He struggled, and I put a little more torque on the elbow, ’til I felt the tendons in his shoulder stretch.
“Calm down Tony,” I said. “Stress will kill you.”
I pushed him away and he stumbled a few steps.
He turned and I saw him weighing his options. He wasn’t going to fight, but there was no way he was going to be beat up in his own house without a show.
“Get the fuck out of my house.” The cords in his neck stretched against the skin, his voice a bellow of rage. “I’ll call the cops.”
“Suit yourself,” I said. “I can’t wait to talk to them about a half million dollars of lost drug money and dead drug dealers.”
The colour left his face and he balled his hands into fists. He took a step forward, forgetting himself for a moment.
“That’s right. I figured it out. How long do you think it will take for his big brother to figure it out?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Get out of my house.” The power in his voice had gone.
“I don’t think so.”
“What do you want, money?” he said.
“I’ll make this really simple for you, mate. All I want is some answers.”
I could almost hear the clockwork ticking in his head. Calculating an angle.
“What’s in it for me?”
“If you don’t piss me off too much, I can lose Colin Tuki’s phone number.” I rubbed my chin. “He isn’t sure yet, but you might be able to get out of dodge before he decides to kill you on general principles. Fair deal?”
He didn’t say anything.
“I’ll keep an eye out for your obituary.” I stepped backwards towards the door.
He held up his hands. “Stop.”
“All right. I’ll tell you what, you won’t even have to speak. I’ll tell you what happened and you just nod?”
He glared at me.
“You found out about the money buried in the hills.” His face never changed. “My guess is Mark Tuki was on the scam. He was going to take the cash and use you as a cut out. What did he suggest, steal the cash, beat him up a bit, make it look like he’d been ambushed and then split the money between you?”
“You don’t know shit,” he said.
“I don’t know. I think I’m getting warm.” I looked at my watch. “Time’s ticking, my bet is Horse is already asking himself some questions about you. So what happened, you get greedy, you wait ’til he turned his back and tap the back of his head with that rock?”
“You’re thinking like a lawyer, Tony. I don’t need to prove it. I just need to share this story with Colin Tuki and he’ll kill you just to make sure.” I smiled.
“Ok, fine, you’re right, now get out.”
“I haven’t finished yet. I bet you didn’t think about how much five hundred thousand dollars in 10’s and 20’s was going to weigh. And I guarantee you have no idea how to get rid of a body. You decided to get Johnny to do the heavy work for you, eh?”
He folded his arms over his chest, trying to look hard.
“What happened? Johnny refused?” I said. “How did he die?”
“Didn’t you hear, he shot himself.”
I took a quick half step forwards and slapped him, hard. He stumbled, his hand on his injured face. He looked up at me, unsure what to do next. He was used to being the bully, not the victim. I could see fear and confusion in his eyes. I swear, I am not a bad guy, but that look made me happy.
“So, how’d it happen?”
He straightened himself up.
“The dumb fuck said he’d do it,” he said. “I gave him $300 as a kicker, and he went out and got drunk. He called me from his car, crying, bawling like a little girl. By the time I got down to the marina he was asleep in a pool of his own piss. I shook him around a bit to wake him up but he was fucked up. I left him there, he was alive when I left.”
A trickle of blood leaked from his lip. He pulled a handkerchief from his trouser pocket and dabbed at it. Wincing.
“So, how’d he die?”
“How should I know?” He shrugged.
“He was your brother?”
“He was a two-bit drunk with mummy issues.”
I took another step forward. I hadn’t been paying enough attention, he’d backed up to a coffee table. He swung a brass lamp at my head. He was quick. I leant backwards, felt the shade graze my chin. The weight of the lamp dragged his arm around, almost turning him. I stepped to the outside and jabbed a fist into his kidney. He gasped with pain and tried to turn towards me, using his momentum to swing the lamp in a backhand. It was slow. I bent away at the waist, let it pass me in slow motion before coming up and driving my fist into his gut. He went down hard, retching.
I kicked him once, but my heart wasn’t in it.
I left him on the floor and walked out.
I called Colin Tuki later that day. I told him about my suspicions. He didn’t seem surprised. I sent a text message to Kylie, told her to make herself scarce for a bit. I didn’t get a reply.
I thought about visiting the grave, but there didn’t seem to be much point. I tried to push the whole mess out of my mind. There are some questions to which you never find answers and some debts you can never repay.
I tried not to think too much more about any of them until I saw a newspaper article about a month later.
Body of Auckland Lawyer Found
The body of prominent Auckland lawyer Anthony Murphy was found yesterday in a disused quarry near Waihi Beach. He appeared to have been the victim of a gangland style execution.
I bet he was. I didn’t want to think too hard about what happened to Tony Murphy when Colin Tuki caught up with him. I doubted it would have been quick or painless.
A couple of days later I got a postcard from Kylie. It was blank, but postmarked Rarotonga.
I guess she got the message.
Mike O’Reilly spends his working hours as an emergency medicine doctor in Christchurch Hospital, New Zealand. He writes crime and horror fiction for light relief. Between bouts of darwinian observation and criminal exploration he is a husband, and father to a little boy. He has previously published stories in Criminal Class Press, Dark River Press and Night to Dawn. He also hates writing in the third person.