“Vealshank” Tani’s life ends in an abandoned train station. The killers don’t just torture Tani, they skin him and hang him from a steal beam as a treat for the carrion eaters. This grisly scene wouldn’t matter to Gilrein, a cabbie who knows to mind his own business, except that he spent the evening as Tani’s chauffeur. Whether he knows anything or not, his life is now a liability to August Kroger, kingpin and rare-book addict—and enemies of Kroger do not live long. Before he drove a Checker, Gilrein was a cop, with a life built around the force. His wife wore a badge as well, serving valiantly until the day an explosion took her life and forced Gilrein to abandon their profession. Sensing a connection between Tani’s death and his wife’s, Gilrein reopens the case, hoping to expose the conspiracy that ended her life—before it claims his too.
About the Author
Jack O’Connell (b. 1959) is the author of five critically acclaimed, New York Times bestselling crime novels. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, O’Connell’s earliest reading was the dime novel paperbacks and pulp fiction sold in his corner drug store, whose hard-boiled attitude he carried over to his own writing. He has cited his hometown’s bleak, crumbling infrastructure as an influence on Quinsigamond, the fictional city where his first four novels were set, and whose decaying industrial landscape served as a backdrop for strange thrillers which earned O’Connell the nickname of a “cyberpunk Dashiell Hammett.”
O’Connell’s most recent novel was The Resurrectionist (2008). A former student at Worcester’s College of the Holy Cross, he now teaches there, not far from where he and his family live just outside of his hometown.
Read an Excerpt
Word Made Flesh
By Jack O'Connell
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1999 Jack O'Connell
All rights reserved.
Someone must have been telling lies about me is all Gilrein can think as they squeeze open his mouth and lay the barrel of the Glock on his tongue. Softly, as if it were a communion wafer.
The tall one with the ludicrous overbite asks again, "Where is the package?" the voice accented and a little phlegmy.
The one with the face made of burn scars and the eye that won't close drives a fist into Gilrein's stomach and they all lurch away from the wall for a second, then they push Gilrein back against the bricks, drive the gun farther back toward the tonsils until the choking starts.
"Where is the package?"
Gilrein tries to shake his head, to indicate a lack of understanding, but they won't let him. He forces his eyes to stay open and sees the two men look at each other. The tall one tightens his grip on Gilrein's throat and the other nods and steps away.
A blast comes from the mouth of the alley, and all three look and in the lights from the Checker they see a silhouetted figure extending a shotgun in their direction.
A voice yells, "Blumfeld, Raban, let him go now."
Blumfeld and Raban glance at each other as Gilrein tries to suppress a gagging sound. Then the Glock is pulled out of the mouth and the tall one backhands him across the cheek and says, "This is not over."
The two of them walk out of the alley as Gilrein lets himself slide down the wall onto his ass and begin to vomit. His eyes are pressed closed and he's seeing bright flashes of light and there's an awful pain flowing through his temples, a building pressure that feels like it may never stop increasing. He makes himself hunch onto all fours and when his stomach empties, he tries to calm his breathing.
Finally, he's aware of the hand on his shoulder and he lets it guide him back to the wall. He wipes at his mouth with his forearm, takes some deep breaths. The intensity of the pain begins to diminish slightly. He lets his head come up and opens his eyes.
There's a face half hidden in shadow and when the voice comes—"C'mon now, Gilly, you're okay"—he realizes it's Bobby Oster.
He tries to speak and Oster shakes him off. The savior is down on one knee with the Ithaca pump resting on his shoulder as if he'd just completed some kind of urban cattle drive.
Oster moves into a sitting position next to Gilrein, his back against the alley wall. Pockets of steam gust around them and in the distance a stew of sounds becomes audible—sirens, horns, the bleak purr of machinery.
"Blumfeld was the one with the Glock," Oster says. "Raban's his creature. They're both meatboys for August Kroger."
Gilrein tries to focus on his breathing, but he knows that as the shock dies out, the reality of the beating is going to arrive. In the kidneys and the stomach and in the groin.
"How bad did it get," Oster asks, "before I got here?"
Gilrein attempts the first words and stops before the tongue can deliver.
Oster stands up and says, "Can you walk?"
Gilrein nods without looking at him.
"We'll take your car," Oster says, reaching down, softly grabbing a forearm and pulling Gilrein up to standing. "You're going to be okay, Gilly."
Oster wheels the Checker up onto the interstate. Gilrein lets his head lean against the passenger window and in the reflection cast by the passing halogen lamps, he can see both eyes already starting to swell up. The inside of his mouth is cut and his tongue pokes at the pulp and initiates a flow of blood and a burning like a bee sting.
"You still keep a bottle in the glove box?"
Gilrein shifts to face the driver and says, "What were you doing there?"
"Looks like I was saving your ass."
Gilrein pops the glove box, pulls out a new pint of Buber Gold, and cracks the seal.
Oster says, "Just rinse and spit."
Gilrein cranks the window with one hand, takes a small draw from the bottle, and braces for the pain. It's a goddamn inferno and he holds it for a second, then gets his head out the window and swallows and tears come to his eyes.
"You lose any teeth?"
Gilrein takes a breath and wipes a hand over his face.
The highway is deserted. It's still four or five hours until dawn. The air feels winter-cold for mid-April. A few drops of rain pock the windshield and then stop.
Oster runs a hand around the steering wheel and says, "I'd forgotten how sweet these babies are to drive."
They pass a chrome-strangled low rider pulled into the breakdown lane, a couple of kids sitting on its roof. There's half a moon showing in the west. Gilrein puts the cap back on the pint and stows it.
"What were you doing there, Bobby?"
Oster gives a smile, shakes his head just a bit.
"You always were a grateful little mother, weren't you, Gilly?"
"Where are we going?"
"Promise you one thing, Gilly," as he takes an offramp. "My boys will find those bastards. And you'll get first chance to stomp some Maisel ass. How's that sound?"
Gilrein looks out the window and sits up in the seat, his heart punching.
"Where the hell are we going, Oster?" even though he knows.
The Checker slows, cruises toward the end of Bigelow Street, past the long-empty industrial park. They swing right onto Rome Avenue and the road narrows and after about a quarter mile the vacant lots on either side turn into a scraggly wood, nothing clean nor remotely majestic about it, just a lot of scrub and weed and gnarled, petrifying trees killed off by a century of toxic waste.
Gilrein turns and stares at Oster and says, "You should've just let them shoot me, you son of a bitch."
Oster bears left when the road forks and turns to gravel.
"It's just a place," he says. "It's just a goddamned building. It can't hurt you, all right? We're safe here."
The Checker rolls to a stop in a makeshift parking lot filled with a selection of perfectly restored muscle cars. Beyond the lot is a miniature trailer park, a couple aisles of shabby, dented-up RVs and campers on cinder blocks. And beyond the trailers is the place Gilrein never thought he'd see again. Kapernaum Printing & Binding.
It's an enormous three-story mill, a classic old-time factory out of the heart of the industrial age, all worn-down red brick and age-darkened mortar, smokestacks and concrete loading aprons and double steel doors. The front face of the mill runs about a hundred yards and is fitted with boxy windows lined with black wrought-iron bars and sealed with gray wire mesh. The entry is an expansive granite archway with the name KAPERNAUM carved into the stonework in huge, fat block lettering.
"I won't make you go in," Oster says.
"Like hell you won't," Gilrein answers.
Oster kills the engine and they sit quiet and stare past the trailers at the factory. And though Gilrein knows there is no way to stop it from happening, he actually tries to think of something else for a minute, to focus on his wounds or the taste of the steel of the Glock in his mouth or the voice that phoned in tonight's call. But within seconds, staring at the printworks, staring at the section to the left where the bricks degenerate into unrecognizable shards and continue, after all this time, to lie in a sloping pile of rubble, all he can see is Ceil's prone body being pulled from the wreckage by the EMTs, the whole thing lit by the dozens of revolving lights from the cruisers and fire teams and ambulances, the way her bloodied arm dropped off the stretcher and Lacazze stepped forward and tucked it back under the blanket. The way the stink of the smoke and chemicals billowed out of the factory a full hour later and everyone—Petrashevski from bomb squad and Chief Bendix and Inspector Lacazze and even Oster—kept wiping at their eyes as they walked. And the lines that kept forming at the ambulances for hits off the oxygen tanks. But most of all, Gilrein remembers Ceil's face when they finally let him look. Just Ceil's beautiful face, somehow, impossibly, untouched by the concussion of the blast that lacerated her body, stroked red and blue by cruiser light.
"Would it make any difference," Oster asks, his voice odd and soft now, "if I told you the boys would all like to see you again?"
They both know it's a lie.
"Old times' sake," Oster says. "Brother officers."
Gilrein pulls in a trembling breath and manages to say, "You miserable bastard."
"This miserable bastard just saved your lousy ass, Gilly," almost yelling, then getting hold of himself, bringing it back down to friendly and quiet. "It's just a building, all right? It's been empty for ten years and it's been ruined for the past three. We just took it over, okay? Christ's sake, it's just a building." A pause and then, voice even lower, "You ever think it might do you some good to—"
"Don't even say it."
Oster nods, holds up both hands, lets some time pass.
"We've got to talk, Gilrein. There's some things I've got to ask you and there's some things you've got to ask me. So let's just do it."
"And if I refuse?"
Oster smiles, pats his shoulder.
"Then I put you out of your misery."
Gilrein stares at him, pushes open the door, and says, "Could've been anyplace else."
Oster shrugs and says, "No, Gilly. It just couldn't."CHAPTER 2
Oster presses a bell and in a minute there's the sound of dead bolts sliding out of the loading apron and into the hollow of the door. Then the panel rolls up on its tracks and they step into a dim concrete foyer filled with stale beer smell, cigar smoke, dim lights, and a faint trace of country and western music.
Just inside the foyer, set up like a reception desk, is a short section of industrial conveyor belt. Behind the desk, perched on a fold-out aluminum step stool, is a young cop named Danny Walden. He's dressed in jeans and a red corduroy shirt and he sports a sparser version of Oster's mustache.
Walden nods to Oster, smiles at Gilrein and says, "Been a hell of a long time."
Oster hands over the Ithaca, which Danny mounts on a wall rack. Then Oster takes his department .38 from a hip holster and puts it on the desk, followed by a Heritage .25 that he pulls from an ankle rig. He straightens up, puts a hand on Gilrein's shoulder and says, "A brother officer just got the shit kicked out of him by a couple of Kroger's assholes. What do you think about that, Danno?"
Walden puts the handguns into a file cabinet behind him, shakes his head and says, "I think that's something we're going to have to look into."
Oster extends his hand to Gilrein's far shoulder and starts to pull him down a short, fat corridor and deeper into the factory. Walden calls from behind, "It's good to see you, Gilrein."
Oster is wearing steel-toe engineer's boots and there's an echo as the heels slap the floor. They take a left down a longer but narrower corridor and the sound of the music gets louder.
"Wait till you see what we've done to this place," Oster says. "I mean the damage was unbelievable. The rear of the building is still demolished. Looks like a quarry back there. But, you know, who needs it? There's still plenty of room."
They come to a set of swinging double doors painted pumpkin orange. From his coat pocket, Oster pulls a thumb breaker that he's modified into a key chain. He unlocks the doors and opens them, steps through into the main work loft of the printing mill.
He says, "Welcome to the Houdini Lounge."
The place is lit by a few dozen fluorescent fixtures hidden behind an enormous American flag suspended from the ceiling. The oil-scarred concrete floor is squared by high brick walls. One wall houses a bank of small windows, but the majority of them have been boarded over, giving the whole room a sickly, claustrophobic air. The loft is part frat house, part pool hall, and part old-time garage all rolled into one gritty, sweaty package. There's a makeshift plywood stage at the close end of the room and a chunky stripper is trying to perform to a Waylon Jennings tune off a flashing Wurlitzer juke. There are folding felt-topped card tables clustered beyond the stage, and a half-dozen poker sessions are in progress inside blue clouds of smoke. One full wall is blocked off by an endless bar made of cherry-stained plywood. The front face of the bar is bedecked with aluminum beer cans. There are no stools; everyone stands or leans. Spray-painted across the length of the wall behind the bar, in a loopy kind of child's attempt at a cursive scrawl, are the words PEOPLE DISAPPEAR.
There's a clutter of rec room games—Ping-Pong, air hockey, pinball—seemingly plunked down with little thought given to traffic patterns or the necessity of unrestricted arm movement. An extensive Universal weight-lifting system is parked beside two large-screen televisions that sit side by side. One screen is showing dim images of a boxing match to a group of men crammed onto a green Naugahyde couch. The other is beaming a grainy black-and-white skin flick to a group of men crammed onto a matching red couch. Both couches are spilling a coarse, gray-colored stuffing from split seams.
Gilrein can put a name to half the faces in the room. The other half are familiar, like younger siblings of people he might have known at one time. The stripper is the only woman in the place. Everyone else is a cop.
Oster stands with his hands on his hips surveying the scene. He turns to Gilrein and says, "Bet it makes you miss it."
"The camaraderie. You know, being on the job."
Gilrein says, "I'm really starting to stiffen up here."
Oster nods, concerned and brotherly. "C'mon upstairs. We'll get you fixed up. You're going to be okay, Gilly."
They make their way through the room, Gilrein's name being called out over and over, long-neck beer bottles lifted toward him, hands clapping down on his bruised back. At the far end of the hall he follows Oster up a set of stairs to a large office lit by candles and smelling of harsh incense. The room is outfitted with a wooden desk, a leather couch, and what looks like a padded hospital gurney. Hanging in a corner is a heavy bag for boxing workouts. And reclining on the couch is a small, elderly woman dressed in what, at first, looks like an old nun's habit.
Oster snaps on a wall light and says in a loud voice, "Wake up, Mrs. Bloch."
He closes the office door and adds, "Couple of Light White Sparks for my friend and me, if it isn't too much trouble."
Mrs. Bloch goes to the desk, opens a drawer, and removes a label-less bottle and two clear plastic tumblers.
"Da ist nein eis," she says in a thick, dry accent, maybe Eastern European. "Der ma'jine brook e'gein."
And that's when Gilrein notices her face. Mrs. Bloch has no eyes. Or rather, where her eyes should be are two flaps of skin bulging from below the forehead to above the cheekbones. It's as if two smooth tumors have grown over the eyes like fat pancakes. It's possible the skin was grafted onto the face for some unknown but horrible medical reason. The skin is just slightly darker than the rest of the face, but there's no evidence of any stitching or scarring where it melds into the original tissue.
Gilrein stares down at the floor and Mrs. Bloch comes to him and hands him his drink, then goes back to the desk, opens a new drawer and takes out a small case, about the size and shape of a cigar box, but covered in deep blue felt. She opens the top of the box back on its hinges, puts her hands inside and fiddles with something.
There are two large plate glass windows cut into the long walls of the office and facing each other. The inner window looks down over the club below. Oster moves in front of it, sheds his leather jacket and drops it on the couch, then starts to unbutton his shirt.
He turns to Gilrein suddenly and says, "I'm sorry, have a seat."
Gilrein walks to the opposite end of the couch and sits down slowly. He takes a sip from the tumbler and tastes something like rum but with an additional medicine flavor.
Oster puts a foot up on the couch cushion and begins to unlace his boot.
"You were driving for Leonardo Tani tonight, weren't you, Gilly?"
Gilrein's stomach churns. He lets out some air, wonders if there's a bathroom anywhere nearby. He says, "You're the only one who ever called me Gilly."
Oster kicks free the boot and goes to work on its mate.
"Not the first time you were Tani's hack-boy. Breaks my goddamn heart, Gilly."
Gilrein sits up, hunches over his knees even though it seems to hurt more.
"I'm a cabdriver," he says. "I got a livery medallion. I pay the city a fortune for the privilege of driving its citizens around town. That's what I do for a living."
Excerpted from Word Made Flesh by Jack O'Connell. Copyright © 1999 Jack O'Connell. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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