I never had the luck of Frankie Irish.
He isn’t so good looking, and I don’t know how much bread he’s got in the bank, but he’s always been the kinda slob who could turn a turd into gold without the stink rubbin’ off.
Here’s an example.
Back when we was growing up over by the dumps and we both wore the same kinda torn sardine stained clothes and couldn’t afford haircuts, Frankie’s dad used to make him haul out the night’s empty beer bottles.
You better believe Frankie did it too. His old man could lay in a beatin’ make Casius Clay look like a schoolgirl.
But rather than complain, Frankie held his breath and dug through the trash and collected out all the beer and soda bottles and caps. He used to sell the bottles for a penny or two a piece. Ten years later, them caps are worth a lot of dough too. Turns out that some of ‘em got collectible.
Me on the other hand, my old man drank more expensive brew but I got no caps to show for it. So my luck’s just the opposite of Frankie.
We’re opposite in other ways too.
Me, I’m a flatfoot detective, and Frankie, well, he’s, uh…
He’s something else.
I saw him duck into the john at JFK International airport around 5:15. Just before the lights went out at 5:27 p.m. November 9, nineteen hundred and sixty-five.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was down at one of the terminals on police business, and I’d just moved my coat and offered the seat next to me to a gorgeous blonde filly, well-built wearing a nice Gabardine sweater and straight from the sticks with her Hooterville accent when I see Frankie.
Well there’s worse places to be than sitting next to some nice trim on a cool evening when all of a sudden she starts boo-hooing on my shoulder.
Turns out she’s a couple months pregnant and supposed to meet her Marine Corps hubby who’s flying in from Europe.
She grabbed around at my lapel, and I thought what if the jarhead shows up now with her paws all over me? So I tried to untangle myself, which took quite a while and after about ten minutes, I saw Frankie again. This time carrying a book, making a bee-line for a Vendo Coke machine.
So I told mama where I was going, then wandered through a dozen pedestrians to say hello. I get there, Frankie’s trading Playboy party jokes with some bald stiff in gray flannel.
“Detective Tesh,” he said, after telling the guy the punch line.
“How you doing, Frankie?”
“I can’t complain. Fella was just telling me he thinks the Russians are infiltrating the book industry.” Frankie held up the hardback he was reading: Herzog by Saul Bellow.
Frankie was always reading something highbrow.
“Aw, I don’t think the Russians give a crap what we read. And if it’s all the same to you, I wouldn’t go spreading talk like that. People are nervous enough as it is.”
I put a little official weight into it and baldy sorta melted into himself.
“Nice visiting with you,” he told Frankie and disappeared into the shadows.
“Nice to see you, Tesh. Buy you a Coke?” He flipped open his Zippo and lit a cigarette and gave me his familiar crooked kid smile.
“No thanks,” I said.
Frankie was slender, looked five years younger than his thirty years and had a scar down one side of his face where he almost bought it back in a Jersey alley when we both worked for Ike’s shoe company. His hazel eyes were warm and caring. Not at all the eyes of a killer.
“What brings you to JFK?” he said.
“I could ask you the same thing,” I said. “I sorta figure we might be hanging around, waiting for the same plane.”
“Need to know,” said Frankie. “And you don’t old pal.”
“Olivetti sent you over, didn’t he?”
“Might be I drove over just to watch the girls. You too?” He nodded toward where the pregnant gal waited for her hubby on bench.
“You noticed, huh?”
“She seemed to take a liking to you.”
“I never had the luck you had, Frankie. Especially not with the gals.”
“You’re too hard on yourself. Looked like you were doing fine.”
“She’s a good kid. Waiting for her husband.”
He finished his cigarette. Then he added. “It might be I got orders to drive over.”
Frankie had been working for Tony Olivetti since Alan Shepherd flew in space, and here we were half way to the moon.
“You’re still a wheel man? You ought to ask for a promotion.”
“Look who’s talking. You buy Doris an automatic washer yet?”
“It’s always one day with you, Tesh. Any time you want to come over, Mr. Olivetti’d be glad to talk.”
“You got it made, don’t you pal?”
Frankie just gave me that old smirk. “Clean livin,’” he said.
That’s when I see my partner, Jerry Tubb, waving at me from across the room. But I didn’t want to lose Frankie, something being up.
“Can I ask you a favor, Frankie? Man to man?”
“Course.” Frankie saw Tubb waving too.
“Watch the pregnant lady ‘til I get back? Make sure she’s okay, nobody takes advantage of her?”
“Long as I can.”
So I jogged across the concourse to where Tubb was standing, beside a potted plant just outside the men’s room door. Same door I saw Frankie use earlier.
No matter what time of day, Tubb looked like he just crawled out of bed. Hair heavy with gel, going every which way. Shirt wrinkled and tie practically twisted into a noose around his neck.
“The plane’s in. Bobby Mark’s onboard, confirmed.” He told me the gate number, and it was only a few yards from where we were standing.
I blew air into my cheeks, then let it out slow, glad to feel the reassuring weight of my shoulder holster and the hardware stashed close to my heart. The little .38 wasn’t as big as Tubb’s .45 auto, but it packed enough punch to take out a skinny dago like Bobby Mark if need be.
Hopefully there wouldn’t be a need.
Me and Tubb were only supposed to detain Mr. Mark until the D.A. and his special prosecutors could arrive.
“Where’s the D.A. now?” I said.
“Midtown somewhere. Last I talked to anybody it would be at least a half hour until they get here.” We were fifteen miles out of midtown. Half hour on a Sunday morning maybe. I glanced at my watch: 5:19.
I figured we had a least an hour.
“You see who I was talking to?”
Tubb nodded, stuffed his hands in his pockets. “That’s another thing,” he said, kind of quiet like.
“What’s another thing?”
“Word is that Olivetti also wants to snatch up Mr. Bobby Mark.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. Frankie’s supposed to pick him up, right?”
Tubb chewed his bottom lip, seemed to be holding something back.
“You think Olivetti send Frank over to whack him? That doesn’t square. Frank ain’t the guy for that kinda job. I ain’t saying he’s a choirboy, but—”
“Look Tesh, you and Frank grew up together, I get that. So I gotta tell you….”
“What the hell, Tubb?”
Something was bothering the man.
“Here’s the thing. According to a snitch I got in the organization, it’s the other way ‘round from what you said.”
“Mark’s supposed to kill Frankie?”
Tubb nodded. “Your pal is a marked man. Contract came out this morning. Apparently Frank’s been sleeping with the old man’s daughter or something and….”
Turning fast, eyes straight back to the Coke machine, I tuned out the rest of Tubb’s explanation.
Frankie was gone.
My watch said 5:25. The plane would be letting its passengers out on the tarmac. Bobby Marko would be inside the terminal any minute.
I told Tubbs to hold tight and scanned the crowd. If Frankie didn’t know what was up, and his nonchalant attitude told me he didn’t, then I needed to find him fast. Before Bobby Marko got off the plane, before—
And then I saw him.
Frankie on the bench with the pregnant gal rubbing up against him, both hands on his lapel. She was crying, and Frankie seemed to be doing his best to reassure her, patting her arm, giving her that crooked kid smile.
He kissed her forehead.
She kissed him back.
Which didn’t seem right, her old man coming back from the service and all. Her old man probably on the same plane as Mark.
That’s when a funny idea hit me, just out of the blue, and it’s part of what saved Frankie’s life.
What if? What if just by chance, the pregnant lady lied? What if her old man wasn’t a Marine at all? What if Mark was her old man?
I took two steps forward, bumped into a teenage kid with a transistor radio cord stuffed in his ear, reached up to adjust my shoulder rig, and spotted the gun in the pregnant mama’s purse.
“Frankie!” I yelled.
He looked up, caught my eye, jumped away from the girl as she brought up the gun.
And that’s when the lights went out.
To her credit, the girl held her fire. She was a pro, all right. A street amateur would’ve fired into the dark, straight at the last place Frankie’d been.
Whoever this gal was, Olevetti had hired well.
In the sudden blackness everybody was yelling and crying and making all sorts of racket. About a dozen lighters went on and then a few flashlights, and when I finally stumbled to the bench, nobody was there.
Outside the terminal’s big glass windows, the skyline of Manhattan was pitch black.
The luck of Frankie Irish.
Seconds away from a little lead pill and the Almighty puts his would-be-assassin in the dark.
Tubbs was beside me then with a flashlight. “What do you think, Tesh?”
“I think the lights went out.”
“We need to help calm people down.”
A dozen or so airport security guys were shouting above the crowd, telling everyone to stay put, that everything was under control.
Not exactly true, but a glance into the outside blackness showed a score or more shadows just sort of milling around in front of airplane lights and automobile headlamps.
A couple cars crossed the parking lot and drove straight up to the terminal windows, shining their lamps into the building.
“Those guys have the right idea,” said Tubbs.
“I gotta find Frankie,” I said, giving his arm a pat.
“What about Bobby Marko?”
“Do your best,” I said, grabbing his flashlight.
I went straight down the terminal about thirty feet, then turned hard to the left.
Frankie and me were both pretty familiar with the layout of the airport. More than a decade before, when it was still called Idlewild and the drive from Midtown was a lot more casual, we’d sometimes come out to watch the planes and hustle the tourists.
We got so we knew the people who worked there pretty well. I mean the janitors, the maintenance guys, the vendors.
Frankie made friends with this old guy named Sonny who ran a newsstand. Sonny would hold back new paperbacks for Frankie when they came in. Just behind his nook, Sonny kept a stash of cigarettes and girly magazines in a cold air return vent.
Frankie always liked that vent. He didn’t care about what was in it. Instead he used to talk about how you could hide out in it if need be. How you could sneak all over the airport.
But it turns out things have changed at JFK since those days. And moving through the dark with dozens of chattering strangers didn’t help me find my way.
I took a couple wrong turns.
When I got to the old newsstand, I shined my light around the counter to see Frankie and the girl rolling around on the ground, each of them struggling to get control of the popgun she held in her fist.
“Stop! Police!” I said, flashlight in my left hand, .38 in my right.
I had no intention of shooting anybody.
The girl had her leg up and kneed Frankie in the balls. He curled up and rolled over and she was on her feet.
And my flashlight went out.
Just like that. Weak batteries, bad switch, I don’t know which.
One second I could see, the next everything went black.
I expected a shot, but just like before, the woman wasn’t going to waste it.
“Drop the gun,” I said into darkness.
I could hear both of them breathing.
The gal’s air coming and going at a fast clip. She was standing now. Frankie sort of groaning up from the linoleum floor.
Maybe three seven feet separated us. About half that between them.
There was a rustle of movement, and then Frankie’s voice. “You need a light, Detective?”
A spark, and Frankie’s Zippo flamed to life.
The gal wasn’t pointing her gun at Frankie.
In fact, since Frankie now held the gun, she wasn’t pointing it at anybody.
Within seconds of my appearance, Frankie had turned the tables. All I could do was stare at the girl’s crumpled body and hope beyond hope that she had lied about being pregnant.
- •• • •
We sat on a bench sharing a Coke while we waited for Tubbs and the D.A., the petulant girl smoking a cigarette in the light of half a dozen car headlamps. I wasn’t quite sure what he’d done, a nerve pinch or something, but somehow Frankie had dispatched her without hurting her overmuch.
When she came to, her sweater was rumbled and she had a run in her stocking. And she lost a shoe.
That was about all.
Just like old times.
Yeah, except this girl wasn’t interested in any of our fresh remarks.
In the glare of the car lights she looked like a femme fatale in one of those old movies.
Word was that the entire eastern seaboard lost power when the grid went down. Nobody knew when the lights would come back on.
“Illayna Petrochev,” said Frankie.
He nodded, took a swig from his bottle. “Soviet Grey Book. Didn’t realize I was so important they’d come after me.”
“Me neither,” I said. “I thought you were here for Bobby Mark. Thought Mr. Olevetti sent you.”
“I said I was here on orders, Detective. I didn’t say who sent me.”
“Who sent her?”
“Not Olivetti. Somebody a little more official. Somebody watching out for Russians.”
I held his gaze. Then said, “Frankie Irish. Secret agent. Doesn’t seem likely.”
“A man can work for more than one organization.” He shrugged, handed me a business card. “Keep it in mind.”
I took a drink, took my time swallowing while I stared at the girl.
“You want a Coke?” I said.
Her answer was in Russian. Wasn’t hard to translate.
“I’ll take that as a no.”
When I looked up, Tubbs was there.
“Ready to clear this up, Tesh? Security’s got everybody on their way.”
“You get Bobby Marko?” I asked.
My partner shook his head. “False alarm. Turns out he wasn’t on the plane after all.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said, killing the soda. I handed him Frankie’s business card. “Call the number on there. Tell ‘em what happened.”
“Who’s this then?” he asked about the girl..
“That’s the luck of Frankie Irish.” I tipped my empty bottle. “Here’s to clean livin,’” I said.
“Clean livin,’” said Frankie.