"You're in pretty good shape yourself."

"For a guy on the verge of wasting away. Right now they resent you some, but right now they resent everybody. When the time comes, they'll stand up."

"That'll be a comfort."

"Incidentally," I said, "just for the record, when the time comes I want a closed casket."

"I'll take care of it," she said. "Unless I go first."

"Don't you dare," I said.

We went to bed around eleven-thirty, and it didn't take long for me to realize I wasn't going to be able to sleep. I tried to slip out of bed without waking her but she sat up and asked me where I was going.

"I'm wired," I said. "I can catch the midnight meeting, most of it, anyway."

"That's probably not a bad idea."

I got dressed. At the doorway I paused and said, "I might be late."

"Say hello to Mick for me."

Advertisement..

"I'll do that," I said.

When I first got sober there was a midnight meeting every night at the Moravian church on Lexington Avenue. They lost the meeting place years ago, but AA meetings are like hydra's heads, and two sprang up in its place, one downtown on Houston Street in what used to be a fairly notorious after-hours, and the other, my destination tonight, at Alanon House, an AA clubhouse on West Forty-eighth. Ordinarily I'd have walked, but I was late as it was; a cab pulled up just as I hit the sidewalk, and I held out a hand and flagged it.

They were reading the Preamble when I got there. I took one of the few empty seats and realized this was my second meeting in as many days. I had the thought that I might go every day for a while, and my next thought was that I probably wouldn't go to another meeting for a week. I didn't know what the hell I was going to do, and that, when you came right down to it, was why I was in that room listening to a skinny little girl with sharp features and blotchy skin tell how she'd started raiding her parents' liquor cabinet at eleven, how she was a crack whore at seventeen, and how now, at the ripe old age of twenty-three, she had high hopes, eight months of sobriety, and HIV.

You get a slightly different crowd at the midnight meetings. In the old days at the Moravian church it wasn't all that rare for an active drunk to start throwing chairs until a couple of members teamed up to throw him out. You see a lot of tattoos at the midnight meetings, a lot of leather, a lot of body piercings. On average, the people who show up at that hour are younger and more newly sober, squeezing in one last meeting to keep from picking up a drink. By the time it's over, all the liquor stores will have closed. Of course the bars can stay open until four, and delis sell beer around the clock, but by one in the morning there's a chance you can go to bed sober and actually get to sleep.

Along with the new and the desperate, the late meetings draw the people whom temperament or circumstance has made creatures of the night. And there are those, some long sober, who prefer a meeting with more of an edge to it, one where you might see someone pull a knife, or throw a chair, or have a petit mal seizure.

I sat there with all my years, sixty-two of them, eighteen of them sober, feeling different from the younger, newer, wilder people around me.

But not that different.

When the meeting ended I thanked the speaker, helped with the chairs, and went out into the night. The air was thick and heavy as wet wool. I walked through it, west and then north, and wound up at the southeast corner of Fiftieth and Tenth and went into Grogan's Open House.

Mick Ballou owns Grogan's, although his name can't be found on the lease or the ownership papers. In the same unofficial way he owns some other businesses around town. He used to own a farm in the Catskills, where he fattened a few pigs and kept chickens for eggs, but when the farmhouse burned down he walked away from it. The owner of record died that night, along with his wife and a lot of other people, and I suppose the nominal owner's son wound up with what was left of the farm. Mick, I know, hasn't been back to see. He won't go anywhere near the place.

The farm was never designed to turn a profit, but he probably makes money at Grogan's, and with his other businesses. They could lose money, though, and it wouldn't matter much, as his real money comes from criminal activity of one sort or another. He robs drug dealers, and hijacks legal and illegal shipments, and lends money to people whose arms and legs are their only collateral. I'm an ex-cop, a once-licensed private detective, and this career criminal is my closest friend, and I have long since given up trying to explain it.

Past lives, Elaine says. We were brothers once. And that's a better explanation than any I can offer.

The bartender gave me a nod. I knew his name was Leeky, but I didn't know how he spelled it, two e's or e-a, for the vegetable or a plumbing problem or some Gaelic word unknown to me. He was fairly new, one of those close-mouthed lads who turn up at Grogan's fresh off the plane from Belfast. Ireland has more people entering than leaving these days, the result of the economic turnaround they like to call the Celtic Tiger. But Mick's visitors don't get to ride the tiger. They've got jail sentences hanging over them, or men looking to kill them, so they get the hell out and wind up dodging the INS, living in the Bronx or Woodside, and working, behind the stick or on the street, for Mick Ballou.

Who was at his usual table with a pitcher of water and a bottle of the twelve-year-old Jameson he favors. His face lit up at the sight of me, which put him very much in the minority that day. I stopped at the bar for a cup of coffee, then went over to where he was sitting and took the chair opposite his.

"A fine night," he said, "and thank God for air conditioning. Have you been out? But of course you have or you wouldn't be here. Is it any better?"

"It's cooled off some," I said, "but the air's pretty bad."

"You don't know whether to breathe it or eat it with a spoon. But you've things on your mind heavier than the air."

"You never met my first wife, did you?"

"I never knew you then."

"I buried her this afternoon," I said, but that sounded wrong. It never sounds entirely right, unless the speaker wielded the shovel himself, but in this case it struck me as particularly inappropriate. "Other people buried her," I said. "I sat in my car and watched them do it."

"Ah, Jaysus," he said, and took a drink, and I sipped my coffee, and we talked.

We talked for a couple of hours, and I don't remember what we said, but it was easy conversation, with long speeches and long silences. I know we talked about the Hollanders, and of the two men who'd murdered them, and who'd outlived them by mere days.

"Good job they're dead," he said of the killers.

Sometimes we make a full night of it, staying on after closing hour, with all the lights out but the one shaded bulb over our table. Sometimes we're still at it when the sun comes up, and Mick puts on the butcher's apron that's all he has left of his father, and we go down to Fourteenth Street for the butchers' mass at St. Bernard's. Sometimes we have breakfast afterward in a diner on West Street, or at Florent on Gansevoort.

But this time either we didn't need to do all that or we lacked the energy for it. The last customer staggered out around three-thirty, and Leeky locked the door and shut down the bar. He was half through with putting the chairs up on the tables, prepping for the man who would sweep it out first thing in the morning, when I got him to let me out.

I walked home. The air seemed clearer now, but that may have been my imagination.

FIVE

Late Saturday morning I was drinking a second cup of coffee and looking at the TV listings, planning my day, trying to decide between the third round of a golf tournament on ESPN or the Mets game on Fox. The evening was set, there was a welterweight bout scheduled on HBO, but I still had the afternoon to take care of.

The phone rang, and it was T J. "Time you get off the phone and out the door," he said. "I be at the Morning Star, waiting to have breakfast with you."

"I already had breakfast," I said.

"That case, come sit across the table an' keep me company. It be good for your heart."

"How's that?"

"Elaine always says it does her heart good to watch me eat. Don't figure it can hurt you none."

"You're probably right," I said, and poured the rest of my coffee in the sink. Ten minutes later I was across the street at the Morning Star with a fresh cup of coffee that wasn't half as good as the one I'd discarded. Although I'd talked to him a couple of times on the phone, it had been a week since I'd seen T J, and I hadn't realized how much I missed him.

"Sorry 'bout your wife," he said. "Ex-wife, I mean."

"Elaine told you?"

He nodded. "Said you went out to the funeral. I ain't been to many."

"The longer you live," I said, "the more you get to go to."

"Something to look forward to," he said. He had a plate of eggs and sausages and home fries in front of him, and he ate as he talked. I don't know that it did my heart good to watch him, but I can't say it did it any harm.

He put down his fork, took a long drink of orange juice, and wiped his mouth with his napkin. "Girl I'd like you to meet," he said. "Real nice, real pretty, real smart."

"She sounds terrific," I said, "but what would Elaine say?"

He rolled his eyes. "Might be a little young for you," he said. "Goes to Columbia."

"That's where you know her from."

"Uh-huh. Been going to this history class she's taking, but that's not her major. She be majoring in English."

"That case, she probably be speaking well."

"Wants to be a writer," he said. "Like her aunt."

"Who was her aunt, Virginia Woolf?"

He shook his head. "One more guess," he said, "and don't be wasting it on Jane Austen."

Something clicked. I looked at him and he looked back and I said, "Susan Hollander."

"Figured one more guess was all you'd need."

"Susan Hollander was her aunt? What's the girl's name?"

"Lia Parkman. Her mama and Susan Hollander was sisters. That makes Susan her aunt, and Kristin her cousin."

"And you'd like me to meet her."

"Be good if you did."

"Why?"

"She thinks somebody murdered her aunt and uncle."

"Well, I wouldn't be surprised if she's right," I said, "seeing that everybody else on the planet shares her opinion. A pair of punks named Bierman and Ivanov murdered the Hollanders, and- "

"Ivanko, Carl Ivanko."

"What did I say?"

"Said Ivanov."

"Close enough," I said, "since it's a name we can all forget, and the sooner the better. He's dead, along with his partner, so it's too late for him to hire Johnnie Cochran and wriggle off the hook. It's not emotionally satisfying this way, with the bad guys dead and gone before anybody can catch up with them, but at least it's wrapped up, over and done with." My coffee cup was empty, and I looked around for the waiter. "If your friend Lisa thinks those two clowns didn't do it- "

"Lia."

"How's that?"

"Name's Lia," he said. "Spelled like Lisa, but without the S."