When 97-year-old William Flynn is accused of killing his neighbor, Angela Ramirez, he turns to private investigator Cecil Younger with an odd—and, frankly, rather incriminating—request. He wants Cecil to track down a man he believes witnessed Ramirez’s murder: her estranged husband, Simon Delaney. The only problem? Flynn doesn’t just want Cecil to find Delaney. He wants him to kill the man. Cecil knows that kind of thing would be bad for business, but he takes the job, hoping he can both convince Flynn to call off the manhunt and discover what really happened to his neighbor. But the old man isn’t making the job easy. He keeps confusing two different crimes: Angela Ramirez’s recent murder and an 80-year-old tragedy in which four American Legionnaires were killed during an Armistice Day Parade.
Cecil struggles to sort through the old man’s befuddled memories and dives into the search for Delaney, which takes him on a journey through Alaska history and all over the Pacific Northwest, from the Aleutian Islands to Centralia, Washington.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
William Flynn had been a fine gardener by Alaskan standards and some people maintained he had also been a terrorist. All I know for certain is he raised a garden in tough country and he loved flowers the way other men love beautiful women. This story is about how William Flynn both was, and was not, responsible for the murders of two young people almost eighty years apart.
Like most things in southeastern Alaska, the story begins in the rain. The drops were falling hard as coins on an aluminum travel trailer parked under the mountain ash tree. The red berries from the tree had long ago bled into black pulp on the thick mâché of matted leaves. New grass sprouted in the disturbed ground. There was an abandoned pickup truck sinking into the spring mud next to the trailer, and a raven on the handlebars of a spilled red bicycle.
I could put most of it together from the reports. She had walked from the trailer to the liquor store and there had asked to borrow cleaning buckets and brushes. She drank deeply from the plastic liter of vodka. Then she rented a room in the cheapest hotel and washed the tub.
She scrubbed the porcelain and the grout, the fixtures and the tile above the bath. She spent perhaps two hours doing it, as carefully as if she were trying to polish one white pearl out of the world dark as coal. Then she took off her clothes and laid them neatly on a plastic bag and put the .22 pistol on the closed toilet lid.
She let the water run a long time, clearing it of any trace of rust, then lowered herself into the tub slowly, her lean body creating and filling the hole in this tiny artificial lake. Her black hair floated like a kelp bed and her breasts lifted free, the redness of her brassiere still etched on her skin.
She scrubbed her bruised and calloused knuckles. She washed her hair. She gripped an orange stick in her shaking hands, pushing the cuticles back from the half-moons of her fingernails. She used cotton swabs and alcohol to clean the pink folds of her ears and around the creases near her eyes and nose.
When the young policeman knocked on the door he called out that her children had been badly beaten. But there was only the sound of running water on the other side of the door. When the policeman opened it with his weapon drawn he saw the young woman’s face pulled out of shape like a sagging rubber mask. The back of her skull had been blown out by the exit wound from a large-caliber slug. The bath water was running across the floor, the loaded and unfired .22 pistol was lying on the tile under the toilet.
The young cop vomited in the corner near the old radiator as the tub continued to overflow. The foamy water ran across the tile and over the doorjamb. Eventually the salesman in the room below called down to the desk, alarmed that blood was dripping from the light fixture in his ceiling.
Later the police found the gun used to kill the young woman in William Flynn’s room in the retirement home. They questioned Flynn about Angela Ramirez’s murder but didn’t hold him. I don’t suppose they were too worried about losing him, thinking, as most people would, that a ninety-seven-year-old man couldn’t run very fast, or far. The DAs would have time to poke around and make their charging decisions later.
I was organizing a birthday party for my roommate when both my lawyer and my psychiatrist called.
“Hey, Cecil, are you busy?” Dickie Stein’s voice echoed over the line as if he were in the bottom of a well.
“Take me off that goddamn speaker phone, will ya?” I yelled at him as I kept stretching a skinny blue balloon.
“Sorry, man, but this is business. I’m here with Dr. Trout. You know the good doctor, I believe?” Dickie had on his adult voice.
“The pill man,” I said and held the balloon to my lips.
“Cecil, how you doing?” I heard the doctor’s professionally calming voice above the rustling of paper.
I took the balloon out from between my lips. “Do you mean ‘How you doing?’ like am I witnessing alien abductions? Or do you mean ‘How am I doing?’”
“Start wherever you like. But don’t work too hard on your story. I won’t prescribe you any more drugs.”
“Damn the bad luck.” I stretched the blue balloon, trying to loosen its skin. My memory lingered on the comical little buzz I used to get by abusing the tranquilizers Dr. Trout prescribed. I cradled the receiver on my shoulder and kept talking. “Basically I’m fine. Other than the fact that I’m nearly indigent and I find sobriety to be a tedious bore.”
“Glad to hear it,” my shrink chirped.
“Hey, I need the services of a private investigator, Cecil.” Dickie’s voice cut in out of nowhere. “Are you free?”
“Just let me look at my calendar,” I said and tried unsuccessfully to blow up the party balloon. My face turned red, my eyes hurt, and the balloon was still a rigid blue spike. I spoke back into the phone. “I’m completely yours. What do you have?”
“It’s going to be a murder case.” He paused and I could hear a sheaf of papers fall off his desk. Dickie generally believed in a composting style of office management. “You know William Flynn. Right?”
My stomach tightened. I knew William Flynn. I was in my forties but William Flynn had always been an old man, as far as I knew. He had lived with his brother in a remote anchorage to the southwest of Glacier Bay. William and his brother Tommy were fishermen and hunters who rarely made it to town. They were eccentrics of the cranky and opinionated sort you run into all over the North. I didn’t know the Flynn brothers well, but had anchored in their cove one entire commercial fishing season the year I was trying to earn my college tuition. They were strange seditionists, as I remember. William would lure me to shore with hot meals and books from eastern Europe and Asia while Tommy would blister me with his opinions about the abuses of the ruling class. Tommy was gone now. I didn’t remember when he had died, only that William turned up on the streets of Sitka sometime in the eighties and I would run into him walking through the gardens of the Pioneers’ Retirement Home nodding and inspecting the flowers as if he were a collector at a rare art sale.
“Yeah. I know William Flynn,” I told my lawyer.
Dickie’s voice faded in and out. I imagined him picking up the file from the floor where I could also imagine the pizza box and the moldy cartons from Chinese take-out.
“Okay,” Dickie blurted and his voice settled back into focus. “You probably know this stuff, Cecil, but I’ll cover it all so we will all be reading off the same sheet of music.” Dickie was at his most irritating when he tried acting like a real lawyer. It was just one of the ways that Harvard Law School had scarred him.
“Angela Ramirez is shot to death by a thirty-eight-caliber handgun while in the hotel bathtub. The police respond. Witnesses see William Flynn walking unsteadily across the street back toward the Pioneers’ Home where he lives. The police find an antique thirty-eight-caliber revolver that appears to have been recently fired. The gun’s been sent out for tests. The old man makes statements. Garbled stuff. He says Angela was going to leave him and he couldn’t stand it. He says something about castration. I can’t make much sense of it but he acts like he is covering for his brother Tommy, but as you know Tommy’s been dead some eight years now. It’s real nutty stuff, Cecil. But that’s okay because Flynn’s statement is suppressible.”
“That’s the good news? What do you need from me?”
“Well, Cecil. . .” my psychiatrist’s voice came cutting through, “Dickie has asked me to evaluate Mr. Flynn’s competency to stand trial. And I’ve been doing just that. . .” There was a pause in the line; no papers rattled.
“So, is he nuts or not?” I asked as I reached for a pink balloon.
“Let me get back to that. . .” My doctor was almost whispering now. “William is ninety-seven years old. He can walk short distances, but uses a wheelchair in the home. It’s my understanding the DAs won’t go to the trouble of charging him if he is not competent. It’s a complex case so I’m going to keep my opinion to myself as long as the investigation continues, and as long as William Flynn remains a suspect.”
“Okay . . . Again, what do you need from me?” I asked, beginning to feel a little jacked around by the professionals.
“Well . . .” he drawled out, “Mr. Flynn wants you to kill someone.” The doctor’s voice said it calmly.
“Really?” I stopped stretching the pink balloon.
“Actually, yes.” He was speaking softly now so I could barely make out his words. “And the funny thing . . . Oh, not funny really . . . but the interesting thing is I think it could possibly help his legal situation. I know that sounds absurd—”
“What do you think, Dickie?” I cut Dr. Trout off before he sank deeper into his moral qualms. There would be enough time for those once we both started billing hours on the case.
“It’s wacky stuff, Cecil,” Dickie said. “But old Flynn seems to be talking about a possible witness to Angela Ramirez’s killing.”
“And the fact that he wants me to murder a witness to this woman’s killing is good news? Isn’t that a little optimistic?”
“Just go down and talk to Flynn, Cecil. Get a line on this guy. You have personal experience with this stuff.” Dickie sounded happy.
“Which—insanity or tampering with a witness?” I tried the balloon again and my sinuses felt as if they were tearing.
“Both,” Dickie said. “Just meet the doc down at the home and talk to Mr. Flynn, okay?”
“Give me a couple of minutes to blow up this balloon,” I said cheerfully.
“Fine . . . fine,” my lawyer muttered and the line went dead.