Max Kulkeen was a killer, no two ways about it, but he made it, as he said on a few occasions, an art form. He thought of himself as a classicist, a most sophisticated designer of death; he could bring new ideas and new ways out of the ether. Pride of accomplishments was continually measured by this man who had not even graduated from high school. Philosophy on death casually came out of his mouth: All this is just a short cut to the end that’s coming down the road right at you whether you like it or not.
On a number of instances he had referred to himself as The Tempered Torpedo, punctuated with a smirk or a giggle, depending on the listener. Despite years of worry, of unbelievable concentration on targets, hundreds of hours on his own brand of stake-out, Max had kept his dark-eyed handsome looks, his Florida tan always highlighting a Florida golf shirt, and a face free of the work lines some jobs put in place for visage keepsakes and remnants. Some people said he looked like a just-retired professional ball player, hard-jawed, determined, ready to take on the world anew. Just a missing hunk of ear put a hole in his good looks, a jagged cut that a premature explosion had exercised, feeling himself noble and lucky for all the noise that had come at him that time, and the instant matter of shrapnel.
Looking down from his second floor window in his Charlestown townhouse, fifty-year old, athletically handsome, Max Kulkeen saw the old-time politician Georgie Bettencourt get out of a black car parked tightly against the curb. There were times when he knew Georgie Bettencourt would have to slip and shift sideways through spaces in life. This, he said to himself, is a new assignment, and chauffeured no less. A dim flash of a Boston Herald obituary page slid across the back of his mind. With it came a listing of towns that death in the past had come to visit, a regular daily feature of the Herald, days without end. There was a time, back in the linotype era, when he knew what the lead would say before the typesetters did. Now there were times he knew before the computer set-up jockeys went to work.
Now, for a change of pace and a kick for a hot Sunday afternoon, here’s the head of one of the state’s major political parties coming to stand in front of him, hat in hand, ready to kiss my ass if need be. Sometimes Kulkeen took a year to put into play his mortal standards; they were studied endlessly, programmed, projected. Nobody had ever been short-changed and nobody had ever been caught, neither him nor those who put him up to his art. His reputation was nation-wide, in the right circles of course, which meant, no doubt, that the cops knew about it all along but could never get him tied into anything. Yep, master of it all, he was, the clean killer, Rinso bright and all that white. It was a quick tune Max Kulkeen whistled whenever he was alone, which was most of the time. Early on he had learned Death has few acquaintances and fewer friends on this side of the grass.
“What brings you to my door, Georgie boy?” Max thought he best give it to Georgie right from the get-go. “Want me do your mother holding on to her three digs in Charlestown so you can’t get your hands on them?”
Kulkeen pored his eyes right through flabby George Bettencourt, enough so he could see the pimples on his ass or his limp frog. One man he’d never liked was fat ass Georgie Bettencourt all the way since way back when. He remembered Georgie in grade school, at the old Kent School in Charlestown, wiping down the blackboards every day, swapping great lunches for special favors just because his old man had some connections and had the dough coming in, oftentimes barrels of it.
Georgie’s wattle wiggled when he talked, his eyes changed colors between green-blue and a great summer sky blue, and Max thought he could make a pig sick by hardly trying, his little stubby fingers so sticky.
“Max,” Georgie said, shifting his weight, “we have a serious problem and I have been directed to you by the powers to be.” Like coming out of a long skinny pipe, this messenger’s voice was alto and then some and Max would bet it could make some people wince, like at the old blackboard with a hunk of chalk, just to get your hair up on end.
“You mean to tell me, Georgie boy, that you’re not one of them sitting at the top. All this time I thought you was one of the biggies and now I see you’re just an errand boy who’s gonna get his hands dirty if this thing you’re looking for is in my line of business and the boys up top, not including you, want my services. Give me a name and a location.” Hit ‘em like a gunshot. Make ‘em part of the forever package. Never let them be free of any of it. Murder One has wings and covers us all.
“It’s Sparks Gregson. In Peabody, near the Liberty Tree Mall. He’s been collecting dirt for years and has a whole computer and all its attachments full of it. We think he’s holding it just in case he gets swung up by his heels and needs some ballast, his hands’ve been in so many tills. So we aren’t in any great hurry, but it’s got to be clean and his file system has got to be wiped out, too. Clean as the old whistle. That’s a specific directive from up top. He’s got data on the lottery we don’t want in anybody’s hands, and that’s all the way to Providence in case you want to know. They think he has hard copies along with PC stuff. They say you can go your own speed, but have to get one guarantee from you, that if he threatens action or starts to shake the crap out of the trees, you’ve got to do it pronto, within 24 hours.”
Max put a phony glare on George Bettencourt. “You mean you guys aren’t playing the lottery clean either? I should have known, bet a few bucks and it’s money down the damn drain. You telling me it’s all throwaway money, Georgie? Oh, well, I’ll tell you this, it’s gonna be double, Georgie. That’s two bodies you want from me. The price is doubled. And no room for argument.”
He paused, letting the 24-hour thing sink in, measuring response, thinking about his bad knee, thinking about being hindered, thinking about some innocent getting caught up in the mix if he had to do it fast. “That last clause makes it a triple play, Georgie, right out in Red Sox country. And I get paid two thirds, in my dukes, before I do the fast-food stuff. You know damn well MacDonald jobs are not on my menu, not even for lunch.”
“I’m prepared to go that much, Max, double your usual, or triple if need be.”
Shit, if he didn’t say Max like he was praying to me, Max was thinking.
“That’s the word they’ve given me. Half now, and half later, after it’s done. That’s double your usual ante, or triple, the way it figures.”
“You think I can’t friggin’ add, Georgie? Give me an outside date, if you’ve got one.”
“They think the County Stakes trial, maybe in six months, now forming for Grand Jury, might be some kind of cut off point, but not for sure. Sparks’ files would be a blockbuster if the jury got hold of them.”
“Why not just get his files?”
“He has back-ups, no doubt, beyond the hard copy crap, floppies or CDs or whatever, and we don’t have any trusty computer whiz to find that out. We want to knock a hole in all possibilities.”
“You friggin’ guys are way behind the times. Even the Spicks on the dope run have a computer, and a whiz kid to run it for them. Kid just bought a house out in Melrose on half a goddamn hill, gets paid so good. That’s why they are going to own Charlestown and Chelsea and Everett and Malden before you guys know it’s gone right out from under you. E plurubus siccum, if you know what I mean, Georgie boy, Boston Latin boy. Like the old doc had on the wall in his office, Doc Lindsay. Remember him, the old lead removal specialist before there even was the lead removal law? Illegitimus non carborundum, Georgie. Don’t let the bastards grind you down, Georgie.”
“How will you do it, Max?” Fat Georgie’s invisible hat was being twisted out of shape in his fat little hands. Max noted his little pointed nose that was too small for his body and too small for his face and thought about a terrier, a fat terrier, trying to get a rat, only he couldn’t get in the rat hole. The nose had a shine on it. One side of Georgie’s shirt collar was not buttoned and it had curled up, looking like a comma out of place, but pointing itself at the shiny nose. The shirt was blue and was another case against Georgie, definitely looking out of whack against his brown suit.
“Not that I want to know your business, Max. I was just wondering how you get started in something like this.” Georgie was standing mostly on one leg, teetering a little bit, off balance, not wanting to be right where he was at the moment, in the frigging firing pan and the line of fire now and forever, Amen.
Max thought Georgie might have hot coals under the souls of his feet; least, he can feel them, he thought. Life was changing all the time, and all the odds with it. He was willing to bet that Georgie was measuring his own chances in all of this, the old Rinso white theory at work.
“You want to know, but you really don’t, do you, Georgie? No track, no trace, that’s the way it goes, isn’t it? Well, I haven’t got the slightest, Georgie, and if I knew I wouldn’t tell you. Not that I don’t trust you guys, but that’d be the way to get rid of me, wouldn’t it? No track, no trace, but there’d be my fingers in the ink, and you guys could give me up without trying. I go about my work like a kid doing a science project. I study, take notes, get ideas, make plans, see what a dummy project looks like, pull the fucking trigger or drop the bomb or let cyanide get in the guy’s fridge. Piece a cake, Georgie boy.” Georgie, he knew from way back, had a thing for ice cream, for cake, for Jell-O with whipped cream on top.
Max could see Georgie having a hard time swallowing the last part, the cyanide in the ice cream or the bowl of Jell-O or in the tapioca pudding. The cake, even. The ice cream cake. The coals were too hot under the one foot, so Georgie shifted that whole frame of his to the other foot again. When he left Max’s place, almost a holy silence followed him down the hallway.
For thirteen days Max had watched Sparks Gregson, could mimic his walk, direct his taste selections, even pick out the kind of women he’d take a second look at. From inside his panel truck, solid sides, he could watch with ease, half a dozen field glasses at hand for special viewing. Sparks had an office/apartment where he worked, slept, brought an occasional woman and weekly groceries, most likely sat for hours in front of a computer. Now and then, as if determined by the space of days, a visitor came by, spent a few minutes, left as he came, unobtrusive, indistinct, near indistinguishable. Max could picture some kind of minor business transaction taking place: a pay-off, a special bet without benefit of phone, information being sold, green stuff swapping wallet compartments. Sparks lived where darkness abounded.
On two of those days, both of them Sundays, and from a distance, Max heard the high whining sound of small motors, a dizzying sound, sometimes high-pitched and sibilant, a whishing leaping through the air. The puzzle took him on the second Sunday back through a break in a tree line, through the swings and slides and jungle-gym bars of a small neighborhood park, and onto the parking area of a garden-type industrial complex. A four-story, red brick building, with many wide windows, fronted on one whole side of the lot and appeared clean and new, two wide doors shiny with aluminum. Its small lawn was trim and green. A small sign read Halverstrom Laboratories in plain letters.
Max’s approach was hailed by a swooping dive of a model plane that buzzed but feet over his head, then winged away, above the trees, the whine of its engine trailing out a small spitzing sound, like a sewing machine or a blender gone crazy, he thought. Thin and faint as whispers, a slight blue line of exhaust trailed out behind the aircraft.
Amazement came to him when the plane effortlessly glided in for a landing on the hot-top and halted at the feet of a group of men clustered in a corner of the lot, a variety of gear, tool boxes and containers in their background. A dozen other planes, of all models and shapes and colors, sat on the pavement as if they might be parked on some foreign tarmac out in the world.
He introduced himself as Craig Winslow, new to the area and brought to the area intrigued by the sounds and dexterity of the small planes, all controlled by radio and all gas-powered. A sole image came to Max, and that was a true whippet of a greyhound coming out of the box at Wonderland Dog Track looking for the rabbit, looking for Swifty.
“Name’s Syd Colpits, Craig,” one of the group said as he held out his hand. He spit off a few names of others in the group and they all nodded in their turn. Syd Colpit’s head swung around as he saw a big black limousine swing into the far end of the lot. “Oh, oh, here comes the target shooter.” He turned back to Max, “Wait until you see this guy do his tricks, Craig. We call him Wrecks Waco, originally from Texas and wrecks a model every week, he does. Must have a hundred of them backed up. Drops it like a Smart Bomb into one of those trash barrels over there, then leaves.” He pointed at a collection of trashcans at the opposite side of the lot. “Some honeys he’s wrecked; Spitfires, North Americans, Northrups, F-86s, Grummans that look like birds coming in for a landing. Sweet pieces, every damn one of them. Wish I had his kind of dough. If he makes them, he’s an artist.”
That final qualification got Max’s attention.
The limousine stopped, two men got out, one of them waved at the group and took a model out of the back of the limousine. Placing it on the ground, holding it firmly in place, as if it would take off on its own accord, he fired it up. The propeller spun smoothly after moments of the engine’s coughing small clouds of fumes. The second man held a radio-control device, with an antenna pointing upwards, in his hands and looked at the group of model makers. They nodded back. The plane ran down the pavement as quick as chipmunks move and took off.
“That’s a P-51 Mustang,” Syd Colpits said. “Aint she a sweet son of a bitch.” The engine spun out its Mixmaster-cry as it leaped into the air, the pale blue flume of smoke out behind it like the wake of a sleek river ship or an oil-powered freighter. It flew like a demon, doing loops and dives and wide swoops about the air, its engine throwing off those high-pitched sounds across the wide sky. Then, minutes later, looking at his watch and as if bidden by a weird desire, by some malevolent calling out of nowhere, the man at the radio controls turned the plane over in one sweet arc, and dove it, unerringly, into the mouth of a trash barrel fifty yards down the parking lot. There was a small explosion, as if a kitchen canister had emptied its powder.
Max Kulkeen, standing stock still, breath deeply locked in place for long moments, was enraptured.
Next day, out of town, Max bought himself six model plane kits, complete with engines, and the latest in radio-control devices. He listened to the men of the Sunday gatherings, taking in all ideas, suggestions, hints. Two months later when he brought out his first craft at another Sunday gathering, a British Spitfire, camouflaged as of old, the other model builders almost held a celebration. The Spitfire was authentic, right down to the supercharger exhaust Max had designed using spent .22 caliber shells, the casings at a hard-angled shine on both sides of the sleek craft’s nose.
“Hell, man. That rig looks like it could take on a Messerschmitt ME-109 right now. Marvelous job, Craig. One marvelous job.” He shook Max’s hand vigorously and turned and smiled at the others. “We got ourselves one helluva convert, gents! One helluva convert!”
“I have to admit,” Max said, “I snuck in a little practice on you guys. Got it off the ground during last week, at a hockey rink parking lot over in Bedford. Had it up for a while, but still learning.”
The half dozen model makers stood by when Max’s turn came. His Spitfire hurtled down the hot top and rose quick as a bug to a height of 100 feet, and veered in a wide curve around the parking lot. A vague stream of exhaust was visible behind the small craft.
Colpits said, “My god, it goes like Paddy Finucane was flying it! The great ace, he was. You got a pretty good fuel mix too, Craig. Running like a damn pocket watch.”
He watched as the plane in ethereal elegance straightened out its curve, and went into a hurtling run across the top of the parking lot at a mere sixty feet off the ground.” He twisted around to warn the new flyer. “Watch it, Craig!” he yelled as the plane crashed into the limb of a tall and stately but old elm tree and fell in pieces to the ground. It had crashed right where Max wanted it to crash.
“Ah, shit, man,” Colpits said, “Sorry about that, Craig. You gotta admit, that was one helluva maiden flight.”
Max said, “I’m still learning. Got another one almost done. Be here in a few weeks, I’d guess. He retrieved all the broken parts and departed. That night, under cover of darkness, with a large Bowie knife sharpened right to the hilt, Max cleared off a six-inch ring of bark around the tree. It was another death move. A month later the tree warden took down the old elm, certain to die on its own hook. A small sign warning off vandals and those who would destroy trees soon appeared in the small park.
Sparks Gregson’s patterns in the meantime were so firm that Max could say without doubt when he’d be in his rooms, for the next three months continuing his watchdog look at the target. Sunday was one day that Gregson remained somewhat fluid in his habits. But Saturday, not Sunday, was as sure as the bible; Sparks would be at home every Saturday, until late noon.
Just after noontime on a Friday, Sparks off to his sister’s place in Saugus where he’d spent most Friday afternoons, Max saw the black limousine touch at the curbstone below his window and fat Georgie Bettencourt slide out of the back and look up at his window. Max waved him on.
Georgie’s invisible hat was still in his hands, being wrenched and twisted. Max thought that the possibilities of connection were gathering in force in Georgie and making their demands, politically, spiritually and morally, and probably in that order.
“What’s got you out on the weekend starter, Georgie? You not going over to Mom’s place to keep the claim open? Sister and the kids gonna be there ahead of you?”
That’d get Georgie to really start thinking about his part in all this, Max thought. He’s in it up to his peckerwood. And he knows I got a live line on him. Make the fat son of a bitch do some of the sweating too. I’ve never been alone in any of this, except in the doing, except in the drop of the Guillotine, the hammer, the awl driven home.
“Max,” Georgie said, a twisting gone to fidgeting, legs at imbalance, his collar still loose and awry, sweat maps moving glacially on his suit coat, “some things are starting to fall apart, plummeting. Sparks is getting in the soup, really in the soup, in a couple of days. Now he’s marked more ways than one. It’s got to be this weekend. That’s what they say, this weekend.”
Little balls of sweat poured off Georgie’s red brow and were dripping on a light blue shirt stretched over his gut. The underarms of his gray suit coat were darker yet with the spreading sweat maps, and the legs of his trousers looked like he was wearing shin pads under them. From one foot to the other he keeps moving, as if he’s still trying to get out of the line of fire, thought Max, the personification of cringe.
“It will be this weekend, Georgie, per the contract.” He stared at Georgie Bettencourt, seeing the pimples again, the limp frog tucked away forever.
The invisible hat was seriously being wrenched out of shape. “How will you do it, Max? How will you do it without being traced? How do you always get away so clean? I can’t begin to imagine whatever you’ll come up with. I couldn’t come up with any kind of plan other than just plain shooting him in the dark and walking away. They say you’re so good at this you’ve never even been questioned. They tell me you’re an artist, Max. I sure hope it goes that way this time. Sparky’s done a twist on things and it has to be done. I sure as hell hope it’s clean and quick. He’s not a bad guy, Sparky, just got his nose in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Max understood Georgie had removed himself somewhat from the line of fire with his take on Sparky Gregson.
“Oh, Georgie boy, remind me never to play the lottery again. It sure ain’t worth it from where I sit. It’ll be clean, and quick, guaranteed. I got nothing against Sparky either. Me and you are together on that.” He whistled the Rinso tune and saw the recognition in Georgie Bettencourt’s eyes. “You go back and tell them your part in this is done, Georgie. It’s almost all over for you.” The double entendre was a stroke of the needle for Max Kulkeen, and it went right down through the total fabric of fat Georgie Bettencourt.
Just after dawn, Max Kulkeen, in the area where he was known as Craig Winslow, convert to the model flyers club, slipped out of his car on the deserted parking lot and set a clumsy-looking USAF Fairchild PT-19 Cornell on the pavement that he had taken carefully from a special cradle in the trunk of his rental car. The four story building had a few maintenance lights glowing in the depths of hallways beyond windows, yet the neighborhood beyond the small park was generally without lights on a Saturday morning sleep-in.
A lone bright light showed through a break in the trees from the rooms occupied by Sparky Gregson.
With minor prompting the PT-19 Primary Trainer slid down the runway of the empty parking lot and went airborne. The engine purred in its loud morning chatter and Max Kulkeen swung the craft out over the parking lot in a swift arc. Then, as if he were playing a game at the computer, the joy sticks in his hand, he circled the bulky-looking Trainer in a last pass over his head and aimed it for the light in Sparky Gregson’s place. The model arrowed through the air loaded with its deadly little cargo and smashed right through Sparky’s picture window, and ten feet inside exploded in a great ball of fire, the sound racing back to Max Kulkeen getting into his car and slipping away in the dawn of a new day.
Georgie Bettencourt came with the final payment. “Don’t know how you did it, Max. No witnesses, no traces, and Sparky and his files all gone. Poof! You’re an artist, Max. A real artist. Nobody will ever track anything back to you on this.”
Or to you and the mucky-mucks, thought Max, the money heavy and solid in his hand.
It was early Monday morning, near the end of his shift, when the third shift security guard at the Halverstrom Laboratories began to examine the weekend film from the motion-activated TV security cameras.
When one film rolled out in front of him, he jumped off the seat in amazement. Even as he played the film back again for another look at the parking lot, Saturday at 4:45 A.M., he reached for the telephone.