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Still reeling from an unfathomable tragedy, Boston P.I. John Francis Cuddy agrees to help a former Vietnam-era comrade who is searching for his granddaughter's killer. The thirteen-year-old was found dead in Colonel Nicolas Helides' heavily guarded mansion on the Intracoastal Waterway. Used by her own father to revive his rock band, called Spiral, Veronica Helides had been molded into a sexually provacative rock starlet. By the time someone drowned her, murder was merely the last crime committed against her.
Now Cuddy is picking apart a cast of players in the life of Colonel Heilides and the girl everyone called "Very." From Helides' depressive son to former groupies, from a mysterious spiritual adviser to the woman who married the colonel for his money, Cuddy is seeing the worst of human nature at a time when his own heart is broken in two. As if that were not enough, the killing of Veronica Helides may not have been the isolated act it first appeared.
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Jeremiah Healy is a graduate of Harvard Law School. He won the Shamus Award for The Staked Goat, and has been nominated five additional times for Best Novel and five times for Best Short Story. Spiral is the thirteenth book in his acclaimed series featuring John Francis Cuddy.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
From the passenger's seat, Nancy Meagher said, "Ted Williams used to play some sport, right?"
Behind the wheel of the Honda Civic, I didn't glance at her or the white-on-green traffic sign as I turned us into the new tunnel to Boston's Logan Airport. "Sacrilege, Nance."
"Because I insulted a public-works project?"
Even without looking, I could feel the playful smile, like a model on a postcard from County Kerry, as she needled me oh-so-subtly about the difference in our ages.
Traffic in the Ted was light, the reason we'd taken Nancy's car instead of mine on that cold Wednesday evening in early January. A prosecutor in downtown, she lived in my old neighborhood of South Boston, and the political deal on the tunnel project was that Southie residents could get a windshield decal that let them use the new route when it was otherwise restricted to commercial vehicles. Which made driving to the airport -- usually an unpredictable nightmare -- into a milk-run of no more than ten minutes.
Nancy said, "John?," the playful smile still in her voice.
"It's not as much fun to needle you if I don't get timely responses."
"Ted Williams was the best outfielder the Red Sox ever had, and -- "
"Better even than that Bill Russell guy?"
The Hall-of-Fame basketball center for the Celtics. "I'm beginning to understand what teachers mean by 'not educable.'"
Nancy shifted in her seat, but didn't change her tone. "You're just jealous."
"My going to San Francisco."
An educational conference for prosecutors was being held there, and Nancy had been chosen by her boss to be the assistant district attorney attending from Suffolk County, a genuine feather in her professional cap. But I'd promised another private investigator named George-Ann Izzo that I'd help her with an industrial surveillance, and she was estimating a solid week for the job. Frankly, George-Ann would probably --
"John?," now a different tone in Nancy's voice.
This time I did turn my head toward her. "Only half right."
"About your going to San Francisco. The part that makes me jealous is I won't be there with you."
Nancy brought her left hand up to the back of my neck, very gently drawing her thumb and forefinger along the strands of hair at my collar. "Me, too."
"Of course," I said, "there's a good chance this 'El Niño' thing will wreck the weather out there for you."
"Funny, I heard the warm currents were actually reaching the beaches, almost like Los Angeles."
"The TV news said those same warm currents were also bringing sharks up from the south."
"The sharks won't get me lying in the sun on the sand."
"Then again," I said, "you'll more likely be spending your days taking copious notes in some conference room."
Nancy tugged a little on a couple of my neck hairs. "I was thinking more of how I'd like to be spending my nights."
"But I promised George-Ann, and -- "
" -- a promise is a promise."
"Always," I said.
Nancy started grazing my skin at the nape ever-so-lightly with her fingernails. "John Francis Cuddy, consistency is not always a virtue."
I leaned my head back against her hand. "You keep doing that, and the concept of virtue will probably fly off our agenda."
The nails dug a little deeper. "Imagine, making love in a tunnel named after a famous hockey player."
"You sure know how to kill a mood."
She slid her hand out from behind me, but she was laughing softly doing it.
"This is the final boarding call for Flight Number One-thirty-three to San Francisco."
In the brightly lit departure lounge, Nancy and I watched the airline's gate agent put down his microphone. The flight seemed only about half-full, so the boarding process had gone quickly.
A little too quickly for me.
Nancy said, "You'll call me about the decision on your apartment, right?"
Around the time we'd met, I started renting a condominium in Boston's neighborhood of Back Bay from a doctor leaving for a residency in Chicago. The doctor had called me the prior week, saying she was going to extend another year and asking if I wanted to stay on as a tenant. Nancy was the first woman I'd cared anything about since my wife, Beth, had died young from brain cancer. Nancy and I had been through a lot, and we'd finally begun talking about living together. She was renting the top floor of a three-decker from a Boston Police family named Lynch, several generations of whom lived on the first two floors. But Nancy wasn't sure the older Mrs. Lynch would swing for a "living-in-sin" arrangement in her house, and I wasn't sure the doctor's one-bedroom condo would be big enough for us and Nancy's cat. Her pet went by "Renfield," after the madman in Dracula who ate small mammals, but he'd --
"I really worry when you zone out on me like that."
"I'll call you about the condo."
Nancy slipped both her hands up under my arms, her palms firmly planted on my shoulder blades as we hugged each other. "The Lynches will feed Renfield, but he might like you to come play with him once or twice."
"I'll stop at the pet store first, pick up a couple of canaries."
The gate agent looked at us rather pointedly as he reached for his microphone again. "All passengers should now be..."
I put my lips close to Nancy's right ear. "I'm going to miss you, kid."
"What, you aren't already?"
Kissing the lobe above her earring, I got a whiff of her shampoo and perfume, but even more a scent that was so specifically, definably Nancy that I thought I could find her by sense of smell the way a momma dog can identify one of her puppies in the dark.
Turning to go, Nancy said over her shoulder, "Call me at my hotel."
"But don't forget about the time-zone difference."
A last smile just before the gate agent closed the jetway door behind her.
I turned and began walking back toward the main terminal, an emptiness welling up inside me. Nancy and I had been together most of the holiday season. Just before Christmas, we attended the Chorus Pro Musica concert at the Old South Church on Boylston Street. We celebrated New Year's Eve by going to three First Night events: medieval carols at the First Lutheran on Marlborough, a saxophone tribute to Duke Ellington at the First Baptist on Commonwealth, and a salsa show at the Church of the Covenant on Newbury.
Nancy had called it "a very yuppie-scum evening."
Reaching her Civic in the Logan parking garage, I realized there was another reason for my emptiness. Because of Nancy's trial duties as a prosecutor, usually she was the one staying in Boston while I traveled somewhere. It was a different feeling, her leaving me behind.
A feeling I'd had years ago, with someone else I loved.
Shaking that off, I turned the key in the ignition.
When I got home, the little window in my telephone tape machine was glowing a red "1," meaning I had a message. Playing it, I heard George-Ann Izzo's voice tell me that our job for the next day had been cancelled, but that the client had called her only "a few minutes ago." Then the machine's atonal voice recited the time George-Ann had called me. Four-ten, or a good fifteen minutes before Nancy and I had left her apartment for the airport.
In other words, if I'd just checked my messages by remote from Southie -- or even from the gate at Logan itself -- I could have gotten a ticket on that half-empty flight and spent the long weekend with Nancy in San Fran'.
Picking up the phone, I tried her hotel out there. The desk clerk I drew told me he indeed had a reservation for a "Ms. Meagher, assuming that's 'Nancy Eugenia,' sir." I laughed silently that she'd use her middle name for the hotel when she never did usually, then realized that probably the District Attorney's office would have made the reservation for her. The desk clerk also said Ms. Meagher hadn't checked in yet, which didn't surprise me, since I figured her flight would still be hours east of the city. I left a message for Nancy that I might be able to join her after all and would call back at a reasonable hour in the morning.
I remember going to bed that night feeling pretty good.
For the last time in a long time.
Nancy's boss had bought her plane ticket in addition to making her hotel reservation, so the airline contacted the D.A.'s office first. A secretary there who knew about us reached me at 6:50 A.M. Eastern Time on Thursday morning, just before I would have awakened to the clock radio.
And the frantic bulletins about Flight #133, en route from Boston to San Francisco.
Trying to look back on it with some objectivity, the people at the airline were pretty good about handling what had to be their worst nightmare, too. They made every effort to contact each passenger's family/friends/lovers and shepherd us to a ballroom in one of Boston's bigger hotels. They set up bottomless urns of coffee and laid out a buffet for every meal. And all the while, they marched a rotating cast of experts to the podium on a raised stage "for the purpose of providing information as it becomes available."
The exact sequence of the next twenty-four hours is still pretty hazy. And for someone who supposedly makes his living by being observant, I have almost no memory -- almost no inkling, in fact -- of the other stunned and grieving people sitting or standing with me in that ballroom. All I remember doing is watching the experts ascend the platform, each contributing one more piece to a puzzle that couldn't be solved.
Somebody told us that bizarre wind and rain conditions caused by El Niño made the San Francisco control tower ask incoming flights to stay aloft a while longer, finally forcing many to circle over the ocean off the peninsula. Somebody else said the problem for Nancy's plane was almost certainly caused by El Niño as well, perhaps in a parallel way to the incredible turbulence that had rocked a Japanese airliner only weeks before, even killing one person on board.
However, nobody was sure just what the problem for Flight #133 actually had been.
The tower tapes of radio transmissions from the aircraft held the voice of a man (identified to us as the copilot), screaming, "We're tumbling!" A woman (the pilot) then gave half an order to "Kill the -- ." After that came an earsplitting noise, like a car shredder ripping an old wreck apart for scrap.
Probably the sound of the starboard wing shearing off.
Somebody in a uniform explained why weather conditions kept rescue planes and helicopters on the ground out there until almost twelve hours later. A different somebody in a similar uniform described how the boats that could brave the wind and rain got bounced around "like so many apples in a punchbowl." A genuinely empathetic somebody related how hard it was on the crews to find the floating, often mutilated bodies of eighty-six passengers, and -- to his credit -- he nearly cried when he let slip an acronym for the other seventeen people who'd been on board Flight #133.
"BNR" was the acronym, by the way. Standing for, "Body Not Recovered."
A nerdlike somebody at the podium said the reason so many bodies weren't found is that they might have been carried away by the crazy currents churning off the coast. A pompous somebody else felt more strongly that given the likely magnitude and uncertain angle of the aircraft's impact on the water, some of the bodies ("...and believe me, I know how hard it is for all of you out there to hear this...") were probably dismembered to the point of being...pulverized. Finally one somebody had the guts to climb the ballroom's platform and say that, in her opinion, the warm waters brought in by El Niño probably contained roving schools of sharks.
All I really cared about, though, was that "Meagher, Nancy Eugenia" had been listed among the BNRs.
The following days were, if possible, even worse. After I'd lost Beth to her cancer, I'd "adjusted" with alcohol, to the point of nearly creaming a kid on a bike with my car. This time around, I was a lot smarter.
No establishments beyond walking distance.
Bellied up to one bar or another, I'd stare raptly at the screens of their television sets, usually with the audio muted so that sporting events or CNN became pantomime experiences. Only a few news stories not about Flight #133 registered on me, and even they had to be somehow related to each other. I watched reporters in California cover the funeral for then-congressman Sonny Bono, who had joined one of our own Commonwealth's premier political clan in dying on a ski slope. I watched different reporters in Florida cover the homicide-by-drowning of the young daughter of another former rock star, still-shots of the JonBenet Ramsey tragedy from Colorado apparently being used for comparison. Broadening my horizons, I watched footage of massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda. Graphs of the Hong Kong stock market starting to rise while the South Korean one continued to slide. Even a nearly incomprehensible piece on the renaming of countries over the last twenty-five years.
I sobered up -- briefly -- for Nancy's memorial service, arranged by the D.A.'s office. Collectively, we who had known her nearly filled Gate of Heaven church in Southie. There were classmates of hers from New England School of Law and coworkers from the courtroom, even a number of opposing attorneys from Nancy's trials. I sat in a pew near her landlords, the Lynch family, as good and accurate things were recounted by a priest I'd never met. He then asked if anyone wished to come forward and offer their thoughts as well. Everybody waited for me to go first. When I didn't, others went up to the altar rail, and then everybody waited for me to go last. When I didn't do that, either, there was a final, short hymn, and the service was over.
Walking out, I saw people who'd come more for me than because they'd known Nancy well. Robert Murphy, a black lieutenant commanding the Homicide Unit; Mo Katzen, a crotchety reporter for the Boston Herald; Elie Honein, a Nautilus club manager; and even Primo Zuppone, a mob enforcer. Each tried to talk with me or get me to agree on a date to talk. I fended off all of them.
I'd gone through all this before, you see. I "knew" how to grieve. Or at least how I grieved.
Once I'd driven myself home, I went back to hitting the watering holes. On bitterly cold nights, understanding bartenders poured me into cabs if they were concerned their self-absorbed patron might die from exposure.
And, frankly, that's probably a little bit of what I was doing. Trying to die in a way that wasn't exactly suicide, because I wasn't putting a gun to my head or diving off a bridge. But I would have been deliriously happy if something beyond my control had conveniently, mercifully taken me off the board.
For what it's worth, ...
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