Mick's Story

A Blackbird Sisters Mystery Prequil

By Nancy Martin


“There’s a guy,” said Aldo, “who wants somebody whacked.  So I thought of you.”

Mick waited as the waitress came back to put a heart attack breakfast on the table, then poured coffee refills into both their mugs.

“You sure you don’t want anything, Mick?” Aldo asked for the third time, doing the Mary Poppins routine like he was still a kid.  “Some eggs, maybe? Some of that fresh-squeezed orange juice? The whipped cream crepes are real good here. Right, Ashley?”

The waitress gave a reflexive smile and avoided glancing down at Mick. In her ponytail and white sneakers, she looked like a college student, part of the upgrade. A new guy in town, a Bosnian, had bought the old diner and fixed it up with a cappuccino machine and replaced the pancakes with crepes. The new coffee shop attracted a mob of tourists on the weekends. On a Tuesday morning, though, Aldo and Mick were the only customers.

“No, thanks,” Mick said.

The waitress turned and hurried back to the kitchen.

Mick pushed his coffee cup away and sat back against the vinyl cushions of the booth. He had listened to Aldo, his father’s emissary, complain about his prostate, expecting more, but not this. “Why me?”

Aldo poured catsup on his home fries. “The boss and me,” he said. “We was talking the other day after we heard about that kid, that friend of yours in the motorcycle accident.  I mean, we’re sorry to hear he’s dead.  But it’s maybe better he didn’t end up in a wheelchair, you know?”

Mick nodded.

“So we got to talking and the boss started wondering if you decided on a career yet. I mean, you’re what? Thirty-four or so? And you’ve been off the cell block for ten years?”

Nine years and four months, but it wasn’t worth correcting Aldo or anyone else. Bobby Malone had been out for only six, and it had looked like he was going to stay out. Look where it got him.

“So you’ve had time to put those youthful mistakes behind you,” Aldo said. “And to make people think you’re a straight arrow or whatever. Now maybe you’re ready to take whichever fork in the road you’re really gonna take.”

Mick realized he almost felt a fondness for the former fighter, now a wheezing fat man who busted knees for a living. “Aldo, you’re a poet.”

Aldo stopped salting his eggs to give Mick a disappointed stare across the table.  “Son, you didn’t spend your time reading a bunch of books while you were inside, did you?  Those guys who hung out in the library, they always made me wonder.  I mean, you get some free time, you oughta spend it out in the sunshine, not reading in the dark, right?”

“Right,” Mick said.

Aldo dropped the salt shaker and snapped his fingers.  “I bet you played a lotta basketball in the yard. Tall kid like you, maybe you give those black players some grief under the net, is that it? You get good with your elbows?” Grinning, he feigned a jab with his left arm.

Gently, Mick said, “Who’s the guy, Aldo?  Who does my father want dead?”

“Hey, no.” Aldo shook his head and reached for his fork.  “No, no, it’s not like that at all. Big Frankie’s not asking you to come back to work for him.  I mean, the boss wouldn’t turn you down if you did. He wants you to decide for yourself. So I said I’d ask if you wanted to do this job, that’s all. See if you have a taste for it.”

Mick looked out the window of the diner at the highway.  Three minivans in a row went by, maybe on their way to do some Christmas shopping or whatever the hell normal people did on a wet morning in November. A taste for it.

Aldo said, “We thought maybe you decided which way you want to go, Mick.”

While his father’s man ate, Mick counted minivans.  Yes, it was time to decide, all right. Meals alone, or just a waitress who avoided conversation—it was no life.  Even going to work at his own garage felt like playing it safe.  Nothing that lit his fuse. Nothing that was going to keep him interested until a minivan broad-sided his bike and sent him to the hereafter.

Aldo reached inside the fleece jacket of his running suit with his left hand and pulled out a folded photograph. He dropped it on the table and took another monster bite of his breakfast.

Mick couldn’t stop himself from reaching for the photo.  He opened it and looked at a fair-skinned, dark-haired woman walking into a grocery store. The crease of the fold bisected her throat

“It’s a woman,” Mick said. “She the buyer or the target?”

“Target,” Aldo replied, mouth full.

“Jesus.” Mick dropped the photo. “No wonder you came to me.  I’m the last man left, right?  Everybody else turned you down.”

“Hey, a guy comes to us requesting a service, we don’t make any judgments.”

“The hell you don’t.”

Mick made his voice sound annoyed, but inside he felt very little. No stirring of sympathy, no offense taken at what was being asked of him. It had come to this—feeling nothing but the spark of interest. Could it be done?  A clean hit? No questions afterwards?

Mick knew Aldo had been in the family business long enough to know when to keep his mouth shut.  He let Mick think, saying nothing.

So Mick picked up the photo again. “What’d she do?”

“Some drug business.  Who cares?”

She didn’t look like a drug user, which wasn’t as hard to pinpoint as people were led to believe. If you can’t spot a user, Mick thought, you had some denial going on.  This one had a healthy sort of look, only tense.  The camera had not caught her eyes, but there was the way she held her head, averted, that communicated in the universal body language so carefully studied in prisons everywhere how much she wanted to be left

She was good-looking, though. Slim, but curvy in some kind of ladylike suit with a skirt that nipped her knees together. Soft hair, a long neck. But solitary. Her whole body said it

Mick asked, “Who wants her gone?”

“Guy called Jamie Scaithe, lives in Gladwyne.”

The name of so affluent a Philadelphia suburb surprised Mick. “Since when is my father doing business with the blue bloods?”

“Scaithe came looking for us,” Aldo said.  “Through an intermediary, but we followed the bread crumbs and figured Scaithe’s the buyer.”

“What do you know about him?”

Aldo shook his head. “You don’t want to learn a bunch of stuff, Mick. It only makes things complicated.”

As if Aldo had not spoken, Mick asked again, “What do you know about Scaithe?”

Aldo sighed. “He’s one of those stock exchange bastards. Doesn’t work, unless you count playing handball at a health club that’s got valet parking. He had a friend who died last winter, shot by a small time street pusher. Friend’s name was Todd Vanderbine.  The girl’s Vanderbine’s widow.”

 “That’s her name?”

“She doesn’t go by Vanderbine. She’s Nora Blackbird.”

None of the names meant anything to Mick. “And Scaithe wants her dead? What’s his beef? That she had something to do with the Vanderbine’s shooting?”

Aldo swirled greasy potatoes in catsup.  “Dunno. All I know for sure is he’s paying fifty grand. You’d get sixty percent. That is, if you’re ready to get your hands dirty again.”

Mick looked out the window again at the highway.  It was a minivan road rally out there.

“Look, son.” Aldo pointed his knife at the photograph.  “You don’t have to do this. But the boss isn’t getting any younger, you know what I mean? And your brothers, no offense, I don’t have to tell you what a bunch of morons they can be. You, though.  You’ve got what it takes, Mick. And we figured now maybe was the time.”

“Is this supposed to be some kind of audition?”

Aldo shook his head. “You don’t have to prove nothing to us. Boss thought you could maybe use the cash, that’s all. He wants the best for you. Of all his boys, you’re the one he’s proud of.”

Mick couldn’t help but laugh.

“Seriously,” Aldo insisted. “The boss wishes you could come home now and then. To see your step-mother. Get to know your brothers a little more.  Maybe be some kind of influence on them. Forget about the dead kid.  Who was he, anyway? You’re brothers, they’re your family.”

The only members of his family Mick cared to spend any time with were his half-sister Vanessa and her two little girls, Angela and Natalie.

But the rest of the Abruzzo clan he could leave alone.

He realized Aldo had been looking at him. Mick shrugged.

“You belong with us,” Aldo said. “And whether you admit it or not, Mick, you’re an Abruzzo through and through. Just smarter than the rest.”

When they left, Mick took the photo with him, aware that the waitress watched them go out the door. Not with regret.

It was easy enough to look up Jamie Scaithe. He wasn’t in the phone book, but it only took a couple of phone calls before a florist in Gladwyne, unfamiliar with the usual scam, finally obliged him.

Figuring he had nothing to lose, Mick drove over to get a look at Scaithe’s house, maybe see what else turned up. The place was some kind of mis-placed southern plantation with six white columns in front and a lawn big enough for a football game.  A mailbox shaped like a schooner stood at the top of the driveway.

Mick thought about what kind of man could live in such a house and still want to have a woman killed.

After ten minutes, Mick thought of someone he could ask.

Rory Pendergast’s estate stood at the end of a street where the houses looked like hotels, and nobody walked outside except to reach their expensive foreign cars.

The Pendergast mansion was the biggest on the Main Line.  There was an old polo field in the back. Mick went to the front door and rang the bell, which echoed inside the house like it was calling a whole town to church on Sunday morning. A woman answered the door and asked him to wait.

Rory came downstairs, all smiles. He was a short, elderly man, who always wore a tie, even in the middle of a trout stream. His shoes were small and immaculately polished, and his bald head reflected a similar sheen. His face was thin, with delicate skin, pink cheeks and a discerning gaze made less sharp by the warmth of his smile.

“Michael,” he said. “How nice of you to call. Come up to my study.  I’ll have some drinks sent up.  What would you like? A beer?  I’m having tea.”

“Tea’s good,” Mick said, shaking his hand.

Used to be, Mick felt like a giant around Rory.  The old man was smaller than a flyweight. But after a few years of acquaintance, Rory had started to seem a lot larger and Mick no longer felt awkward in his presence.

“How’s business?” Rory asked, putting his hand on Mick’s arm as they headed up the staircase together. It was meant to be a friendly gesture, but Mick realized at once that Rory needed to steady his balance. He had aged.

The stairs were big enough for a movie, the kind where Clark Gable carried a woman who pounded on his back with her fists. At the top of the stairs was a round mirror that distorted his reflection, with a gold eagle perched on the top with its wings spread. In the hall there was a lot of furniture that looked like it would break if anyone actually sat on it. Rory did not notice his surroundings, of course, and made conversation. “Are you selling a lot of motorcycles these days?”

“A fair number,” Mick said.

“And the fly fishing company?  I must admit, I never thought you’d make a go of either business, but I was wrong, wasn’t I?  You have a gift. Have you come up with another idea for me to invest in?  Is that why you’re here?”

Mick grinned. “I only show up when I want to borrow money? Is that what you think of me?”

“Of course not!” Rory laughed. “I’m delighted to see you.  Come in.”

He led the way into his study, a small, paneled room with low leather chairs, some fishing equipment displayed on the walls along with a couple of little paintings with brass lights fastened to their frames.  Mick relaxed into one of the low-slung chairs while Rory made a phone call to someone in the kitchen about the tea.

Rory replaced the phone’s receiver and sat back in his chair to smile at Mick.  “Well, now, young man, is this truly a social call?”

Mick first met Roderick Pendergast the week he’d been released from jail.  His parole officer introduced them, saying Rory wanted Mick to be a test case, a guinea pig, in a do-gooder program meant to keep young ex-cons out of trouble.  Mick had wanted no part of it, but the perks turned out to be too sweet to pass up, and pretty soon he was spending a lot of time with an old tycoon who everybody said had a heart of gold. Mick remained suspicious for a long time, but they’d bonded during a fishing excursion when Rory stepped wrong and his waders caught an eddy.  The waders quickly filled with water and swept Rory off his feet. As the river pulled him under, Rory did not reach for help. Mick saw the real fear in the old codger’s face, though, and at that moment had recognized Rory was a man who asked for nothing. Mick had plucked him from the water as easily as he might snag a beer can floating by, and later they laughed about the incident, making it seem insignificant.

They’d kept in touch long after Mick graduated from the program. In fact, Rory had done him favors when Mick decided to try going into a legitimate business. Mick took considerable care to make sure his repayment plan remained on schedule. Rory didn’t need to know the rest. That Mick wasn’t quite ready to be a civilian yet.

Rory said, “I heard a friend of yours was killed.”

“How’d you hear that?”

Rory smiled and shrugged. “I still have my contacts I’m sorry for your loss.”

“He wasn’t my loss. Just a guy I knew.”

“A friend?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Sitting there in his comfortable study, waiting for tea, Mick suddenly wondered if information was the only reason he’d come to see Rory. But he pushed that thought down inside and said instead, “There’s a guy I need to know about.”

“Someone of my acquaintance?”


Rory acknowledged Mick wasn’t giving up any names yet, and he said, “Is he a customer? Someone buying a motorcycle from you?”

“I need to find out about a guy named Scaithe. Jamie Scaithe.”

Rory’s expression tightened, and he made a steeple with his fingertips.

“Ah.” “You know him?”

“I’ve met him.” Slowly, Rory said, “I socialize with his family, who are good people. But he’s not a young man I care to spend much time with.”

“Why don’t you like him?”

“I never said—well, he has habits I don’t care for.”

“Habits,” Mick said.

Rory was frowning by that time. “Michael, are you…?  You haven’t…? Forgive me, but I know you have a devious mind when it comes to figuring out the angles, if I may use that phrase. And you are happiest when you are engaged in solving a problem. I would---well, I’d be disappointed if you turned your natural affinity for plotting to the acquisition of easy money.”

Drugs, Mick knew at once. Without requiring Rory to elaborate, Mick said, “I hear a friend of his died last winter.”

“Yes. Todd Vanderbine. That was a very sad thing. A nice young man, Todd.” Rory warmed to this subject. “Bright, always laughing. He was a doctor, did research in organ transplants. His grandfather was a dear friend of mine who—well. I was sorry to hear Todd had been killed. He had promise.” Rory shook his head. “He married a delightful young woman of whom I’m very fond.”

“Nora,” said Mick.  “Nora Blackbird.”

Rory’s face broke into a genuine smile. “You know Nora?  She’s one of my favorite people in the world. A girl with a good heart, but alas, I hear she’s in some trouble now, and I should find a way to help her.”

Rory was the kind of person who could use the word alas without sounding like he kept a monocle in his pocket.  “What kind of trouble?”

Rory waved his hand. “Oh, the Blackbird family always has a few bad apples among the sweet ones.  Her parents ran off with all the money—poof!  They absconded, you could say, and left Nora and her sisters on their own.”

“On their own?”

“Without their trust funds.  You may laugh, young man, but if you’d been brought up to a certain life, you’d be devastated when it was all taken away from you.  And that’s what happened to the Blackbird girls. It was very poor timing by the parents, I’ll have you know. The girls are widows, all three of them. A terrible calamity to begin with. But just months after their husbands passed away, Nora’s parents handed her the deed to a large piece of Bucks County property that ought to be condemned, which compounded the tragedy. How she’s going to manage, I have no idea. Her sisters are impulsive girls, but Nora’s the gem.”

Another woman arrived carrying a tray.  She was tall and always treated Rory like a wayward little brother, although Mick knew from past visits that she was some kind of employee or servant or whatever. She made chilly eye contact with Mick that said she had his number.

She set the tray down on the coffee table. It held a silver pot, two cups and an assortment of plates and silverware and a little stand shaped like the Eiffel tower with tiny sandwiches and cookies on each level. She poured tea into one of the cups, then turned to Mick, eyebrows raised and her hand hovering over the sugar and cream.  In that one look, she managed to convey that she expected him to ask for a shot of Wild Turkey instead of sugar.

He shook his head and reached for the cup, which she passed to him with an embroidered napkin tucked beneath the saucer so their hands never touched. 

“Thanks,” he said.

She responded with a hum and a nod, then tipped a dollop of cream into Rory’s teacup. She poured the tea and tucked a tiny spoon against the cup before handing it over to him.  When he took it, she flipped a napkin directly onto his knee. Rory made conversation with her as she tended to him—asking if somebody named Julian had hung the Christmas swags.

While they bantered, Mick sniffed the tea.  There were black crumbs in the bottom of the cup.

When the woman went away, Mick said, “What’s Nora Blackbird’s relationship with Jamie Scaithe?”

“I don’t know.” Rory reached for a cookie, which he popped whole into his mouth and savored. “Friends, I presume,” he said once he’d swallowed.  “If friends take advantage of each other’s weaknesses instead of helping them. Scaithe was Todd Vanderbine’s roommate at school.”

Rory washed down the cookie with a sip of tea, then set his cup down and reached for a fat leather photo album that lay in a prominent space on the table between them.  He flipped through some of the pages and finally shoved the book across the table at Mick.  “I have no children of my own, so I like to borrow other people’s. There’s a picture of Nora. A lovely girl, don’t you think?”

For the second time that day, Mick looked at a photograph of Todd Vanderbine’s widow. This time, however, instead of the resistant set of her shoulder and the averted face, she laughed straight into the camera. She stood windblown in an open field, one arm flung around Rory’s shoulders as he held the collar of an Irish setter.  The dog’s fur was nearly the same shade of dark mahogany as the woman’s hair, which was tousled by a breeze. She looked younger in this picture, happy and beautiful.  Even a little sexy. In the photo, Rory had turned to look up at her, clearly enjoying her company.

“Nice,” Mick said without thinking. Without squelching the sensation that stirred inside himself. No, he did not want to think of this woman as a person with a name or a life. She was a thing, he reminded himself.  A goal. The target.

“She’s even nicer on the inside,” Rory said fondly. “She deserves more happiness than most people, but instead . . .” Rory turned the pages of the photo album until he found another picture he liked, then pushed it across the table to Mick.

Obediently, Mick took a look and saw the photograph was one of himself.  It was several years old, he realized, snapped a day when he’d taken Rory fishing for shad on the Delaware. His own face hadn’t changed since then.  It wasn’t much to look at to begin with—a broken nose, crooked jaw, the distance in his eyes. The camera had caught his wariness, too. He needed to work on that.

“I’ve worried about you over the years, Michael,” Rory said as Mick looked at himself.  “You keep to yourself so much. It’s not natural.  I’m glad you’re finally— what’s the euphemism?  I’m glad you’re taking an interest in other people.”

It was better to be solitary, Mick thought. The face that looked up from the photo album—his face, only younger--understood that.

“You need friends,” Rory said. “Although why you’ve chosen Jamie Scaithe, of all people, I can’t imagine.”

Mick did not respond.

“Michael,” Rory said after a moment.

“It’s okay.” Mick abruptly closed the photo album. “I’m not looking to be his friend.”

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