Home > Hard as Nails (Joe Kurtz #3)

Hard as Nails (Joe Kurtz #3)
Dan Simmons


On the day he was shot in the head, things were going strangely well for Joe Kurtz. In fact, things had been going strangely well for weeks. Later, he told himself that he should have known that the universe was getting ready to readjust its balance of pain at his expense.

And at much greater expense to the woman who was standing next to him when the shots were fired.

He had a two P.M. appointment with his parole officer and he was there at the Civic Center on time. Because curb parking around the courthouse was almost impossible at that time of day, Kurtz used the parking garage under the combined civic, justice, and family court complex. The best thing about his parole officer was that she validated.

Actually, Kurtz realized, that wasn't the best thing about her at all. Probation Officer Margaret "Peg" O'Toole, formerly of the Buffalo P.D. narcotics and vice squad, had treated him decently, knew and liked his secretary—Arlene DeMarco—and had once helped Kurtz out of a deep hole when an overzealous detective had tried to send him back to County lock-up on a trumped-up weapons charge. Joe Kurtz had made more than a few enemies during his eleven and a half years serving time for manslaughter in Attica, and odds were poor that he'd last long in general population, even in County. In addition to validating his parking stubs, Peg O'Toole had probably saved his life.

She was waiting for him when he knocked on the door and entered her second-floor office. Come to think of it, O'Toole had never kept him waiting. While many parole officers worked out of cubicles, O'Toole had earned herself a real office with windows overlooking the Erie County Holding Center on Church Street. Kurtz figured that on a clear day she could watch the winos being dragged into the drunk tank.

"Mr. Kurtz." She gestured him to his usual chair.

"Agent O'Toole." He took his usual chair.

"We have an important date coming up, Mr. Kurtz," said O'Toole, looking at him and then down at his folder.

Kurtz nodded. In a few weeks it would be one year since he left Attica and reported to his parole officer. Since there had been no real problems—or at least none she or the cops had heard about—he should be visiting her once a month soon, rather than weekly. Now she asked her usual questions and Kurtz gave his usual answers.

Peg O'Toole was an attractive woman in her late thirties—overweight by current standards of perfection but all the more attractive in Kurtz's eyes for that, with long, auburn hair, green eyes, a taste for expensive but conservative clothing, and a Sig Pro 9mm semiautomatic pistol in her purse. Kurtz knew the make because he'd seen the weapon.

He liked O'Toole—and not just for helping him out of the frame-up a year ago this coming November—but also because she was as no-nonsense and non-condescending as a parole officer can be with a "client." He'd never had an erotic thought about her, but that wasn't her fault. There was just something about the act of imagining an ex-police officer with her clothes off that worked on Kurtz like a 1,000-cc dose of anti-Viagra.

"Are you still working with Mrs. DeMarco on the SweetheartSearch-dot-com business?" asked O'Toole. As a felon, Kurtz couldn't be licensed by the state of New York for his former job—P.I.—but he could operate this business of finding old high school flames, first via the Internet—that was his secretary Arlene's part of it—then by a bit of elementary skip-tracing. That was Kurtz's part of it.

"I tracked down a former high school football captain this morning in North Tonawanda," said Kurtz, "to hand him a handwritten letter from his former cheerleader girlfriend."

O'Toole looked up from her notes and removed her tortoiseshell glasses. "Did the football hero still look like a football hero?" she asked, showing only the faintest trace of a smile.

"They were both from Kenmore West's Class of '61," said Kurtz. "The guy was fat, bald, and lived in a trailer that's seen better days. It had a Confederate flag hung on the side of it and a clapped-out '72 Camaro parked outside."

O'Toole winced. "How about the cheerleader?"

Kurtz shrugged. "If there was a photo, it was in the sealed letter. But I can guess."

"Let's not," said O'Toole. She put her glasses back on and glanced back at her form. "How is the WeddingBells-dot-com business going?"

"Slowly," said Kurtz. "Arlene has the whole Internet thing set up—all the contacts and contracts with dressmakers, cardmakers, cakemakers, musicians, churches and reception halls set in place—and money's coming in, but I'm not sure how much. I really don't have much to do with that side of the business."

"But you're an investor and co-owner?" said the parole officer. There was no hint of sarcasm in her voice.

"Sort of," said Kurtz. He knew that O'Toole had seen the articles of incorporation during a visit the parole officer had made to their new office in June. "I roll over some of my income from SweetheartSearch back into WeddingBells and get a cut in return." Kurtz paused. He wondered how the felons and shankmeisters and Aryan Brotherhood boys in the exercise yard at Attica would react if they heard him say that. The D-Block Mosque guys would probably drop the price on his head from $15,000 to $10,000 out of sheer contempt.

O'Toole took off her glasses again. "I've been thinking of using Mrs. DeMarco's services."

Kurtz had to blink at that. "For WeddingBells? To set up all the details of a wedding online?"


"Ten percent discount to personal acquaintances," said Kurtz. "I mean, you've met Arlene."

"I know what you meant, Mr. Kurtz." O'Toole put her glasses back on. "You still have a room at… what is the hotel's name? Harbor Inn?"

"Yes." Kurtz's old flophouse hotel, the Royal Delaware Arms near downtown, had been shut down in July by the city inspectors. Only the bar of the huge old building remained open and the word was that the only customers there were the rats. Kurtz needed an address for the parole board, and the Harbor Inn served as one. He hadn't gotten around to telling O'Toole that the little hotel on the south side was actually boarded up and abandoned or that he'd leased the entire building for less than the price of his room at the old Delaware Arms.

"It's at the intersection of Ohio and Chicago Streets?"


"I'd like to drop by and just look at it next week if you don't mind," said the parole officer. "Just to verify your address."

Shit, he thought. "Sure," he said.

O'Toole sat back and Kurtz thought that the short interview was over. The meetings had been getting more and more pro forma in recent months. He wondered if Officer O'Toole was becoming more laid back after the hot summer just past and with the pleasant autumn just winding down—the leaves on the only tree visible outside her window were a brilliant orange but ready to blow off.

"You seem to have recovered completely from your automobile accident last winter," said the parole officer. "I haven't seen even a hint of a limp the last few visits."

"Yeah, pretty much full recovery," said Kurtz. His "automobile accident" the previous February had included being knifed, thrown out of a third story window, and crashing through a plaster portico at the old Buffalo train station, but he hadn't seen any pressing need for the probation office to know the details. The cover story had been a pain for Kurtz, since he'd had to sell his perfectly good twelve-year-old Volvo—he could hardly be seen driving around in the car he was supposed to have wrecked up on a lonely stretch of winter highway—and now he was driving a much older red Pinto. He missed the Volvo.

"You grew up around Buffalo, didn't you, Mr. Kurtz?"

He didn't react, but he felt the skin tighten on his face. O'Toole knew his personal history from the dossier on her desktop, and she'd never ventured into his pre-Attica history before. What'd I do?

He nodded.

"I'm not asking professionally," said Peg O'Toole. "I just have a minor mystery—very minor—that I need solved, and I think I need someone who grew up here."

"You didn't grow up here?" asked Kurtz. Most people who still lived in Buffalo had.

"I was born here, but we moved away when I was three," she said, opening the bottom right drawer of her desk and moving some things aside. "I moved back eleven years ago when I joined the Buffalo P.D." She brought out a white envelope. "Now I need the advice of a native and a private investigator."

Kurtz stared flatly at her. "I'm not a private investigator," he said, his voice flatter than his gaze.

"Not licensed," agreed O'Toole, evidently not intimidated by his cold stare or tone. "Not after serving time for manslaughter. But everything I've read or been told suggests you were an excellent P.I."

Kurtz almost reacted to this. What the hell is she after?

She removed three photographs from the envelope and slid them across the desk. "I wondered if you might know where this is—or was?"

Kurtz looked at the photos. They were color, standard snapshot size, no borders, no date on the back, so they'd been taken sometime in the last couple of decades. The first photograph showed a broken and battered Ferris wheel, some cars missing, rising above bare trees on a wooded hilltop. Beyond the abandoned Ferris wheel was a distant valley and the hint of what might be a river. The sky was low and gray. The second photo showed a dilapidated bumper-car pavilion in an overgrown meadow. The pavilion's roof had partially collapsed and there were overturned and rusted bumper cars on the pavilion floor and scattered outside among the brittle winter or late-autumn weeds. One of the cars—Number 9 emblazoned on its side in fading gold script—lay upside down in an icy puddle. The final photograph was a close-up of a merry-go-round or carousel horse's head, paint faded, its muzzle and mouth smashed away and showing rotted wood.

Kurtz looked at each of the photographs again and said, "No idea."

O'Toole nodded as if she expected that answer. "Did you used to go to any amusement parks around here when you were a kid?"

Kurtz had to smile at that His childhood hadn't included any amusement park visits.

O'Toole actually blushed. "I mean, where did people go to amusement parks in Western New York in those days, Mr. Kurtz? I know that Six Flags at Darien Lake wasn't here then."

"How do you know this place is from way back then?" asked Kurtz. "It could have been abandoned a year ago. Vandals work fast."

O'Toole nodded. "But the rust and… it just seems old. From the seventies at least Maybe the sixties."

Kurtz shrugged and handed the photos back. "People used to go up to Crystal Beach, on the Canadian side."

O'Toole nodded again. "But that was right on the lake, right? No hills, no woods?"

"Right," said Kurtz. "And it wasn't abandoned like that. When the time came, they tore it down and sold the rides and concessions."

The parole officer took off her glasses and stood. "Thank you, Mr. Kurtz. I appreciate your help." She held out her hand as she always did. It had startled Kurtz the first time she'd done it. They shook hands as they always did at the end of their weekly interviews. She had a good, strong grip. Then she validated his parking ticket. That was the other half of the weekly ritual.

He was opening the door to leave when she said, "And I may really give Mrs. DeMarco a call about the other thing."

Kurtz assumed that "the other thing" was the parole officer's wedding. "Yeah," he said. "You've got our office number and website address."

Later, he would think that if he hadn't stopped to take a leak in the first-floor restroom, everything would have been different But what the hell—he had to take a leak, so he did. It didn't take reading Marcus Aurelius to know that everything you did made everything different, and if you dwelt on it, you'd go nuts.

He came down the stairway into the parking garage corridor and there was Peg O'Toole, green dress, high heels, purse and all, just out of the elevator and opening the heavy door to the garage. She paused when she saw Kurtz. He paused. There was no way that a probation officer wanted to walk into an underground parking garage with one of her clients, and Kurtz wasn't keen on the idea either. But there was also no way out of it unless he went back up the stairs or—even more absurdly—stepped into the elevator. Damn.

O'Toole broke the frozen minute by smiling and holding the door open for him.

Kurtz nodded and walked past her into the cool semidarkness. She could let him get a dozen paces in front of her if she wanted. He wouldn't look back. Hell, he'd been in for manslaughter, not rape.

She didn't wait long. He heard the clack of her heels a few paces behind him, heading to his right.

"Wait!" cried Kurtz, turning toward her and raising his right hand.

O'Toole froze, looked startled, and lifted her purse where, he knew, she usually carried the Sig Pro.

The goddamned lights had been broken. When he'd come in less than half an hour earlier, there had been fluorescent lights every twenty-five feet or so, but half of those were out The pools of darkness between the remaining lights were wide and black.

"Back!" shouted Kurtz, pointing toward the door from which they'd just emerged.

Looking at him as if he were crazy, but not visibly afraid, Peg O'Toole put her hand in her purse and started to pull the Sig Pro.

The shooting started.


When Kurtz awoke in the hospital, he knew at once that he'd been shot, but he couldn't remember when or where it happened, or who did it He had the feeling that someone had been with him but he couldn't bring back any details and any attempt to do so hammered barbed spikes through his brain.

Kurtz knew the varieties and vintages of pain the way some men knew wines, but this pain in his head was already beyond the judging stage and well into the realm where screaming was the only sane response. But he didn't scream. It would hurt too much.

The hospital room was mostly dark but even the dim light from the bedside table hurt his eyes. Everything had a nimbus around it and when he attempted to focus his eyes, nausea rose up through the pain like a shark fin cutting through oily water. He solved that by closing his eyes. Now there were only the inevitable, ambient hospital sounds from beyond the closed door—intercom announcements, the squeak of rubber soles on tile, inaudible conversations in that muffled tone heard only in hospitals and betting parlors—but each and every one of these sounds, including the rasp of his own breathing, was too loud for Joe Kurtz.

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