Read Soul patch Online

Authors: Reed Farrel Coleman

Soul patch

Table of Contents PraiseTitle PageForewordDedicationAcknowledgementsPROLOGUE CHAPTER ONECHAPTER TWOCHAPTER THREECHAPTER FOURCHAPTER FIVECHAPTER SIXCHAPTER SEVENCHAPTER EIGHTCHAPTER NINECHAPTER TENCHAPTER ELEVENCHAPTER TWELVECHAPTER THIRTEENCHAPTER FOURTEENCHAPTER FIFTEENCHAPTER SIXTEENCHAPTER SEVENTEENCHAPTER EIGHTEENCHAPTER NINETEENCHAPTER TWENTYCHAPTER TWENTY-ONE EPILOGUEAUTHOR’S NOTEAFTERWORDGOBBLEABOUT THE AUTHORCopyright PagePraise for Reed Farrel Coleman,Soul Patch, and the Moe Prager series!Soul PatchWinner of the Shamus Award!Nominated for the Edgar, Barry, Macavity Awards! “Reed Farrel Coleman is a terrific writer. . . . a hard-boiled poet . . . If life were fair, Coleman would be as celebrated as [George] Pelecanos and [Michael] Connelly.”—Maureen Corrigan, NPR’sFresh Air “Reed Farrel Coleman is one of the more original voices to emerge from the crime fiction field in the last ten years. For the uninitiated,Walking the Perfect Squareis the place to start.”—George Pelecanos, best-selling author ofThe Way Home “Among the undying conventions of detective fiction is the one that requires every retired cop to have a case that still haunts him. Reed Farrel Coleman blows the dust off that cliché inWalking the Perfect Square. . . with a mystery that would get under anyone’s skin.”—Marilyn Stasio,The New York Times “The author makes us care about his characters and what happens to them, conveying a real sense of human absurdity and tragedy . . . a first-rate mystery. Moe is a fine sleuth. Coleman is an excellent writer.”—Publishers Weekly “Whenever our customers are looking for a new series to read, they often leave with a copy ofWalking the Perfect Square. It has easily been our best-selling backlist title. Thank you, Busted Flush, for bringing this classic ‘Moe’ back into print!”—Gary Shulze, Once Upon a Crime (Minneapolis, Minnesota) “The biggest mysteries in our genre are why Reed Coleman isn’t already huge, and why Moe Prager isn’t already an icon. Both are to me. Read this book and you’ll find you agree.”—Lee Child, best-selling author ofWorth Dying For “Originally published in 2001 . . .Walking the Perfect Squarehas been reissued by Busted Flush Press, good news for mystery lovers, since Reed Farrel Coleman is quite a writer, and this is only the first of five books about Moe Prager. The story and the characters will hook you, and Coleman’s lightly warped take on the world will make you laugh, dark as the tale is. As soon as I finishedWalking the Perfect Square, I started the next in the series,Redemption Street. The only problem with the following three (The James Deans,Soul Patch,Empty Ever After) will be to decide whether to read them immediately or savor them over a period of time.”—Marilyn Dahl,Shelf Awareness “Moe’s back—if you haven’t already discovered Reed Farrel Coleman’s wonderful, award-winning ex-cop-turned-P.I., Moe Prager, here’s your chance. He’s for real, and so is Coleman’s handling of cases that stay with you long after the book’s end.Walking the Perfect Square,Redemption Street, andThe James Deansbelong in every mystery fan’s personal library, because the writing is fine, the realization is believable, and the character is true to himself. This is the man to measure the rest by, a writer with a passionate belief in giving his best, and an eye for what makes the PI novel work at a level few can match.”—Charles Todd, best-selling author ofAn Impartial Witness “One of crime fiction’s finest voices, Edgar Award-finalist Reed Coleman combines the hard-fisted detective story with a modern novel’s pounding heart and produces pure gold. Moe Prager belongs with Travis McGee and Lew Archer in the private eye pantheon. Coleman’s series is a buried treasure—dig in and hit the jackpot!”—Julia Spencer-Fleming, best-selling author ofOnce Was a Soldier “Moe Prager is the thinking person’s P.I. And what he thinks about—love, loyalty, faith, betrayal—are complex and vital issues, and beautifully handled.”—S. J. Rozan, Edgar Award-winning author ofOn the Line“What a pleasure to have the first two Moe Prager novels back in print. In a field crowded with blowhards and phony tough guys, Reed Farrel Coleman’s hero stands out for his plainspoken honesty, his straight-no- chaser humor and his essential humanity. Without a doubt, he has a right to occupy the barstool Matt Scudder left behind years ago. In fact, in his quiet unassuming way, Moe is one of the most engaging private eyes around.”—Peter Blauner, Edgar Award-winning author ofCasino MoonandSlow Motion Riot “Reed Farrel Coleman makes claim to a unique corner of the private detective genre withRedemption Street. With great poignancy and passion he constructs a tale that fittingly underlines how we are all captives of the past.”—Michael Connelly, best-selling author ofThe Reversal “Moe Prager is a family man who can find the humanity in almost everyone he meets; he is a far from perfect hero, but an utterly appealing one. Let’s hope that his soft heart and lively mind continue to lure him out of his wine shop for many, many more cases.”—Laura Lippman, best-selling author ofLife Sentences “Reed Farrel Coleman is a hell of a writer. Poetic, stark, moving. And one of the most daring writers around, never afraid to go that extra mile. He freely admits his love of poetry, and it resonates in his novels like the best song you’ll ever hear. Plus, he has a thread of compassion that breaks your heart . . . to smithereens.”—Ken Bruen, two-time Edgar Award-nominated author ofLondon Boulevard “Coleman is a born writer. His books are among the best the detective genre has to offer at the moment; no, wait. Now that I think about it they’re in the top rank of any kind of fiction currently published. Pick up this book, damn it.”—Scott Phillips, award-winning author ofThe Ice HarvestandCottonwood “Reed Farrel Coleman goes right to the darkest corners of the human heart—to the obsessions, the tragedies, the buried secrets from the past. Through it all he maintains such a pure humanity in Moe Prager—the character is as alive to me as an old friend. I flat out loved the first Prager book, but somehow he’s made this one even better.”—Steve Hamilton, Edgar Award-winning author ofThe Lock Artist “Coleman may be one of the mystery genre’s best-kept secrets.”—Sun-Sentinel “Moe is a character to savor. And Coleman? He’s an author to watch. Make that watch and read. For this is only the beginning, folks, and I’m hitching my wagon to this ride.”—Ruth Jordan,Crimespree Magazineby Reed Farrel Coleman  Moe Prager novelsWalking the Perfect Square(2001)Redemption Street(2004)The James Deans(2005)Winner of the Anthony, Barry, and Shamus AwardsNominated for the Edgar, Gumshoe, and Macavity AwardsSoul Patch(2007)Winner of the Shamus AwardNominated for the Edgar, Barry, and Macavity AwardsEmpty Ever After(2008)Winner of the Shamus AwardInnocent Monster(2010) Writing with Ken BruenTower(2009)Nominated for the Anthony, Macavity, and Spinetingler Awards Writing as Tony SpinosaHose Monkey(2006)The Fourth Victim(2008) Dylan Klein novelsLife Goes Sleeping(1991)Little Easter(1993)They Don’t Play Stickball in Milwaukee(1997) Edited by Reed Farrel ColemanHardboiled Brooklyn(2006)FOREWORDby Craig Johnson UNLIKE MOST WRITERS, Reed Farrel Coleman isn’t looking for compliments, and what he has in common with the really good writers is a search for the truth. Truth means a lot to Coleman, like a compass that points to an unerring north. Like some Brooklyn street poet, he weaves honesty in and out of a story like a golden thread—a tarnished golden thread that’s seen better days, but is still gold.I heard about Reed from Scott Montgomery, an individual with impeccable taste in the genre. He said I had to read Reed Farrel Coleman. Generally, I don’t trust people with three names, but I’d met Reed and his wife at the Edgar Awards in New York where I complimented his wife on her dress. Coleman said he picked it out. I complimented him on his taste. He said the dress hadn’t looked as good on him. I agreed.When I think of Moe Prager, the protagonist of Coleman’s series, I think of Bogart’s line inCasablanca, “He’s just like any other man, only more so.” No hero here, just a guy who does a job, only more so—a guy who knows strong D with good footwork on the b-ball courts and who quotes Blaise Pascal in an unobtrusive way. If I’m going to be stuck in a guy’s first-person head for three hundred pages, he’d better be interesting and he’d better be funny.I’ve spent an awful lot of my life in locker rooms, squad rooms, and hunting camps, where a certain type of humor pervades, a dark humor that undercuts the hardness of the life. Reed’s got it down cold, and his pitch-perfect delivery is like the relish on a Coney Island hot dog.But I’d read him even if there wasn’t a humorous word in his books—I’d read him because there’s an energy to his characters that’s contagious, a grinding hurt for the individuals that’s honest to humanity. And, like my old buddy Tony Hillerman used to say, he tells a good story.Any one of Reed’s novels could’ve been pulled from the pages of theDaily News. But for me,Soul Patchis Reed Farrel Coleman at the top of his game: the political gambits of unbridled ambition, the personal angst of loss for things that might have been—or worse, neverwere. Moses Prager gets under your skin inSoul Patch, and I mean that in a good way—or maybe we are the ones who get under Moe’s skin, allowing us to see the world through his eyes, and, more importantly, through the pain of his wrecked knee. Prager is a fallen knight who reached for the brass ring in the form of a gold detective’s shield and came down to earth, hard. I carried a gun, lived in Harlem for a few years, and had the City of New York reconstruct my own left knee, and can vouch for the gritty realism of the world Reed Farrel Coleman shows us.That’s the thing about Reed’s writing—the human element that complicates everything. He pursues and defines the universal human condition. While displaying myriad characters and their motivations, he finds a way to pull us all together and show us where we’re alike, and sometimes that’s a scary place to be.He’s the guy who starts getting distracted when you flatter him. You might notice his fingers paradiddling a complex pattern on the surface of the bar as he looks out the windows at the street. It’s not that he’s ignoring you; it’s just that he’s hearing the music, picking up the rhythms—looking for the truth.Reed Farrel Coleman won’t like this intro because it’s too complimentary.Tough. Craig Allen JohnsonUcross, WyomingJanuary 2010 Craig Johnson is the best-selling author of six Walt Longmire crime novels, includingThe Dark HorseandJunkyard Dogs.This book is dedicated to the Brooklyn that was and never was.ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
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I would like to thank David Thompson and Busted Flush Press. I’d also like to thank Ellen Schare, Peter Spiegelman, and Megan Abbott for being first readers and first listeners, and for their editorial advice. I’d also like to thank Sara J. Henry for copyediting the new edition. None of this would have been possible without Rosanne, Kaitlin, and Dylan.THOU SHALL NOT GET CAUGHT—The 11th Commandment[soul patch] n. 1. a small strip of facial hair, often triangular in shape, grown between a man’s lower lip and the point of his chin. 2. euphemistic name given by local police (circa 1960-75) to the predominantly African-American section of Coney Island, Brooklyn.PROLOGUE1972NOTHING IS SO sad as an empty amusement park. And no amusement park is so sad as Coney Island. Once the world’s playground, it is no longer the world’s anything: not even important enough to be forgotten. Coney Island is the metal basket at the bottom of Brooklyn’s sink. So it is that when the County of Kings is stood on end, Coney Island will trap all the detritus, human and otherwise, before it pours into the Atlantic.Coney Island’s demise would be easy to blame on the urban planners, especially Robert Moses, who thought it best to warehouse the niggers, spics, and white trash far away from the crown jewel of Manhattan in distant outposts like Rockaway and Coney Island. If they could have built their ugly shoe-box housing projects on the moon, they would have. It is no accident that the subway rides from Coney Island and Rockaway to Manhattan are two of the longest in the system. But Coney Island’s decay is as much a product of its birth as anything else.Coney Island, the rusted remnants of its antiquated rides rising out of the ocean like the fossils of beached dinosaurs, clings to a comatose existence. Like the senile genius, Coney Island has lived just long enough to mock itself. And nothing epitomizes its ironic folly better than the Parachute Jump. A ploughman’s Eiffel Tower, its skeleton soars two hundred and fifty feet straight up off the grounds of what had once been Steeplechase Park. But the parachutes are long gone and now only the looming superstructure remains, the sea air feasting on its impotent bones.It was under the Parachute Jump’s moon shadow that the four men ambled across the boardwalk toward the beach. No one paid them any mind. No reason to. There was a flurry of activity along the boardwalk and in the woeful vestiges of the amusement park during the window between Easter Sunday and Memorial Day. False hope bloomed like weeds as city administration after city administration promised a return to the glory days of Coney Island. But by the advent of summer, hope would be gone, another silent funeral held for a still-born renaissance.At the steps that led down to the beach, one of the four men decided he was having second thoughts. Maybe he didn’t want to get sand in his shoes. No one likes sand in his shoes. The man standing to his immediate right waited for the rumble of the Cyclone—several girls screaming at the top of their lungs as the roller coaster cars plunged down its steep first drop—before slamming his leather-covered sap just above the balking man’s left knee. His scream was swallowed up by the roar of the ocean and the second plunge of the Cyclone. He crumpled, but was caught by the other men.Once their shoes hit the sand, they receded under cover of the boardwalk itself. Above their heads bicycles clickety-clacked along the splintering wooden planks, old Jewish men played chess, teenage boys proved their worth by hurdling wire garbage baskets. Out on the beach, couples sat in vacant lifeguard chairs. Some contemplated the vastness of the ocean or calculated their insignificance in relation to the stars. Some boys kissed their first girlfriends. Some girls placed their heads into their boyfriends’ laps.It was much cooler under the boardwalk, even at night. The sea air was different here somehow, smelling of pot smoke and urine. Ambient light leaking through the spaces between the planks imposed a shadowy grid upon the sand. The sand hid broken bottles, pop tops, used condoms, and horseshoe crab shells. Something snapped, and it wasn’t the sound of someone stepping on a shell.CHAPTER ONERED, WHITE AND You, that’s what Aaron and I called our third store. It was pretentious, but at the end of the ’80s pretentious was high art, ranking right up there with big hair bands and junk bonds.The ’80s, Christ!The decade when video killed the radio star and AIDS killed everybody else. Pretentious worked well on the North Shore of Long Island, especially in Old Brookville, where even the station cars were chauffeured.The attendees at the grand opening party were a volatile emulsion of relatives—even my sister Miriam and her family were in from Albuquerque—broken-down cops, queens, politicians, journalists, kids, clergy, and, oh yeah, the occasional customer. Throw ’em together, shake ’em up with a little alcohol, and they all seemed perfectly blended. Not so. The second the shaking stopped, the elements settled out. More like a time bomb than a party, really. Tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .The devil himself, my father-in-law, Francis Maloney Sr., had deigned to grace us with his presence. Several times during the course of the day, particularly during the toasts, I’d spot him raising his glass of Irish in my direction, smiling at me with the accumulated warmth of a tombstone. My tombstone. We’d kept the self-destruct secret between us now for nearly twelve years, neither of us reaching for the red button. There were times I actually forgot about his long-missing son and how I’d come to marry his only daughter, times when I thought he’d just leave it be. Then we’d see each other at some family function and he’d smile that smile to remind me—to remind me that it was just a drawn-out game of chicken we were playing, that someday one of us would flinch, that it would probably be me. I needed to breathe fresh air.Larry McDonald, my old pal from the Six-O Precinct and current NYPD chief of detectives, was already out front smoking a cigarette.So much for that fresh air!Something was up. Normally unflappable, Larry was sucking so hard on his cigarette I was afraid he’d inhale his index finger. He had smoked on and off for years, but it was never an addiction with him. Larry Mac’s only vice was ambition and, with a little assist from me, he’d nearly satisfied his craving. He was within sniffing distance of being the next commissioner.“Nice shindig,” he said.“Shindig! Christ, Larry, where’d you come up with that one? Did you already use hootenanny today?”If he was laughing, it was definitely on the inside.“Will you look at this fucking parking lot, Moe?” He flicked the filter away in disgust. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it was the used car lot of a Porsche dealership. More Jags, Beemers, and 911s here than in all a Brooklyn. You and me, we come a long way from Coney Island, huh?”“Notsolong. I still live in Sheepshead Bay, remember?”“That’s not what I—” He stopped himself, lit another cigarette. Sucked on it like Superman.“You trying to smoke that thing or swallow it, bro?”That bounced off him too. “Yeah,” he repeated, “we come a long way.”Larry was definitely off his game. He was a lot of things—preening and vain for sure, pragmatic to the point of cutthroat—but reflective and philosophical weren’t generally part of his repertoire. I took a good look at him. He seemed much older somehow. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.Wasn’t in his posture. Wasn’t how he fit in his clothes nor how they fit him. Tall, broad-shouldered, thin-waisted, Larry wore his clothes the way a smooth plaster wall wears wet paint. Today was no exception. His gray, light wool pinstripe hung on him perfectly. Even when we were in uniform, his blues looked tailor-made. And he was handsome as ever, maybe more so. He was the type of guy God had in mind when he created gray hair. No, the age was in his eyes, in his voice. Larry reached into his jacket pocket.“You believe in ghosts, Moe?”Shit! There it was, that fucking question. A sucker punch. Usually it was my father-in-law who asked it. He had asked it of me a hundred times over the last dozen years, and with each asking came a sick feeling in my belly. Most times Francis didn’t even need to mouth the words. It would come in the guise of a glance or, like today, a smile. He never explained the question, never once discussed it. Didn’t expect or want an answer. It was a pin pricked into the skin of a balloon, but not quite deep enough to pop it.“Ghosts?” I repeated. “Depends. There’s shit that can haunt a man worse than the walking dead. But do I believe in spirits and shit? Nah, I don’t believe in things that go boo or bump in the night.”“You sound pretty confident.”“I am.”“Don’t be so sure,” Larry said, his eyes looking through me and into the past. He smiled. Pulled a cassette tape out of his pocket. Put it in my palm and gently folded my fingers around it. “Don’t be so sure.”“What’s this?”“It goes bump in the night.”“Very funny, McDonald.”“You see me laughing?”I didn’t.He held his right hand out to me. I put the tape in my pocket.“Again, congratulations on the new store, Moe. Pass it on to your brother and kiss Katy for me. Listen to the tape and call me.”“Cryptic isn’t usually your style.”“This isn’t ‘usually.’ ”I thought about saying something to that. Thankfully, he’d gone before I could formulate a question. When I turned back around, Francis Maloney was smiling at me through the plate glass window of the store.CHAPTER TWOI COUNTED SLEEPLESS nights instead of sheep, staring up at the ceiling I knew was there but couldn’t see. Katy was next to me, but a million miles away. We had hit the inevitable impasse, that stage in marriage when each day is like a long drive through Nebraska. In the absence of passion, I wondered, what distinguished love from habit? The answer escaped me there in the dark.Once, many years back, when I was working the case that ultimately led to Larry Mac’s first big promotion, I thought Katy meant to leave me. Only time in my life I felt faint. Had to prop myself up against the furniture. God, I can feel the power of that moment surging through me even now. A few months before, Katy had miscarried. The convulsion of grief and guilt that followed in its wake had overwhelmed us. After the initial tears and blame, Katy fell into a kind of stupor. I thought she was coming out of it, but she was so unpredictable in those long weeks.The miscarriage and the months that followed caused the first subtle cracks in our marriage. They were hairline fractures, small, barely detectable. I suppose they’ve added up with time. But that day, the day I thought I would faint, my panic wasn’t about the miscarriage. No, the panic belonged to me. I owned it. I thought Katy had stumbled upon the secret, the one her father and I kept wedged between us like a bottle of liquid nitroglycerin.Back in December of 1977, Patrick Maloney, Katy’s younger brother, had gone into Manhattan and vanished. I had just been retired from the job due to a freak knee injury. Hobbling around on a cane and looking for a way to raise some money for our first wine shop, I was hired by the Maloneys to help find their missing boy. Accordingto the media, Patrick was never found and everyone but the Maloney family had long since moved on. The truth was both more and less than that.I had, in fact, found Patrick, a college sophomore who had collected a trunkful of his own dark secrets. By that time I’d already begun to fall in love with Katy. But when I found her brother, he begged me for a few more days. He wanted to come back to his family on his own terms. I agreed. Biggest mistake in my life. I should have dragged him out of his hiding spot by the ears and plopped him on his parents’ sofa.Of course, Patrick was full of shit. He hit the road running and never looked back. Can’t say that I blamed him. My problem was that my father-in-law knew I’d found his son. We both had our reasons for not telling Katy. Now our reasons were moot. The time for confession had come and gone. Compounded with each passing day, this was a sin Katy would never forgive.For years I had been able to keep the panic and guilt at bay. My sleepless nights were few. Only time it used to get to me was when I’d work the odd case, or see Francis and he’d ask me that fucking question about ghosts. Then I’d relive it all over again, the past churning inside me. These days, sleeplessness was the norm and I’m not sure if guilt or panic has a thing to do with it. I suppose I still loved Katy and that she loved me, but the love just wasn’t the glue it had once been. Sarah, our little girl, she was the glue now. These nights, when I stare up at a ceiling I cannot see, I wonder if I would still feel faint if Katy threatened to leave or if I would simply feel relief.Tired of the frustration, I got up and fished Larry McDonald’s cassette out of my jacket pocket. Still smelled his smoke on my suit. Went downstairs. Poured myself a few fingers of Dewars. Sitting on the floor, hunched against the wing of the sofa closest to the stereo, I sipped scotch and rolled the cassette in my hand. It was a prayer of sorts, a prayer without words—a prayer that the cassette meant trouble, that the trouble meant Larry Mac needed my help. It was a cruel prayer. It’s cruel to pray for troubles, but I was lost. Worse, I was bored.Some cops are action junkies. They crave stimulation. If it doesn’t come to them, they go looking for it. If they can’t find it, they create it. That wasn’t me, not who I used to be—not while I was on the job, anyway. Now I wasn’t so sure. The wine business had never been my dream. That was Aaron’s gig, not mine. I’d just hitched my ass to itand gone along for the ride. I don’t think I ever thought it through, really. But that’s what happens when you’re lost. You make stupid decisions. The wine business had taught me at least one important lesson, though—dust collects on many things other than just old bottles of red wine. Dust corrodes a man’s soul.
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I slipped my big old Koss headphones over my ears, clicked off the SPEAKER A button, and pressed PLAY on the tape deck. There were three voices, two men and a woman. All sounded far away, but I could make out what was being said clearly enough. The recording had the sound of a tape that was made surreptitiously, because no one was speaking into the mic. It became immediately apparent I was listening to an interrogation or, as cops euphemistically like to call it, an interview. The suspect’s name was Melvin. Melvin didn’t like being called Melvin.Even my moms don’t call me Melvin no more. It’s Malik!A strategic mistake, telling the detectives that. The woman detective—young, with the lilt of someone raised speaking English in school and Spanish at home—jumped all over him. She started and ended each question withMelvin, picking fiercely at his scabs. She was the bad cop and was either a great actress or born to the part. The male detective—older, white, Bronx Irish—was the sympathetic voice.Listen, Malik, I’m with you, man, but it’s her case.You could tell he was the more experienced detective, not because of his age, but because he spoke less. A good interviewer knows that silence can be your best weapon. The Latina’s youth was showing. She was a little too eager, too much of a shark, that one. She smelled blood in the water, Melvin’s blood. She’d learn.Funny thing is, I was a cop for ten years, but I wasn’t allowed in the box except for maybe once or twice, and then only to try and intimidate the suspect. Detectives guarded their turf jealously: uniforms need not apply. For detectives, the interview room was like the ark that held the Torah scrolls; only the rabbis got a free pass. The rest of us had to be invited to stand before the ark or stare from the pews in awe and wonder. It took me a minute to divine that Melvin, a.k.a. Malik, had been snagged with half a key of coke taped to the underside of the dash of his 1979 Buick Electra 225. Things quickly settled into a boring point-counterpoint:I’m keepin’ my mouf shut till y’all get me my lawyer.You do that, Melvin. You keep quiet while I extol the virtues of the Rockefeller Drug Laws to you. Okay, Melvin?The partner bitched about her using words like extol.What’s the problem? You afraid Melvin won’t understand?Fuck Melvin. I’m worried I won’t understand!I didn’t get what this chatty interrogation about a drug bust had to do with Larry, nor why it would worry him so, but it was great for insomnia. I found myself drifting off into that netherworld between consciousness and numb sleep. I was almost fully out when the female detective began a rant about just how much of his worthless lifeMelvinwould be spending in Attica thanks to the former governor of the Empire State.Shit! Get me my moufpiece and you best bring a D.A. too.Why’s that, Melvin?’Cause I got something to deal.Something like what, Malik?You ever heard a D Rex Mayweather?There was an uncomfortable silence. I could hear the hum of the ventilation system, shoes brushing along the linoleum floor of the interrogation room, bodies shifting in their chairs. I thought I might have heard whispering, but it was hard to know if I was just imagining it. The silence broke, and the older detective did the honors.Why should we give a shit about some dead, drug-dealing nigger, Malik?Man, y’all gimme that buddy-buddy Malik shit and then you gotta get all up in my face like that. S’not right, man. Y’all get my moufpiece and a D.A. We let them decide if they should give a shit about what this nigger got to say.That was it. End of tape. But not, I figured, the end of the story. It was too late to call Larry. It was too late to go back to bed. Maybe it was too late for a lot of things.Excerpted from theDaily News, June 5, 1972:  BOARDWALK BODY IDENTIFIEDTerry O’Loughlin, Staff Writer The partially decomposed body discovered last week in a shallow grave beneath the Coney Island boardwalk has been positively identified as that of reputed drug kingpin Dexter Mayweather. Mayweather, better known by his street name, D Rex, was alleged to have run the largest drug trafficking network in the five boroughs.Mayweather had been arrested on a host of charges over the last ten years, ranging from simple possession to assault and attempted murder. Yet at the time of his death, he had never been convicted of any crime. Detectives at the nearby 60th Precinct refused comment on either Mayweather’s homicide or on his previous run-ins with the NYPD.However, an unnamed source in the federal prosecutor’s office was more forthcoming. He spoke of Mayweather with a grudging respect. “D Rex was the real goods. He was shrewd, slippery as an eel, and ruthless,” the source said. “He was anything but run-of-the-mill and he had been the undisputed ruler of Coney Island. But no lion stays king forever.”Although the Medical Examiner’s office has listed the death as a homicide, it has refused to release the actual cause of death. Beyond stating that Mayweather’s body had been in the sandy grave for about two weeks and that it had been positively identified through the use of dental records, the M.E. has declined further comment.Dexter Mayweather, the youngest of seven children, began life in a coastal South Carolina town. When his father abandoned the family shortly after his son’s birth, his mother relocated to the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.(See Body Identified on page 28)CHAPTER THREEI WOULD HAVE caught the winning touchdown pass or floated down some lazy country stream or tasted a woman for the first time. When I woke, the world would take me to its breast and I’d be able to hear myself think for the first time in my life. Not only would that voice inside my head know the right questions, but it would supply the answers for my way ahead. Unfortunately, it had been my experience that focusing onifsandwouldsandshould haveswas a shortcut to hell.“Jesus Christ, Moe!”I woke up, the touchdown pass glancing off my fingertips.“Is this how you want Sarah to find you?”I took inventory:Shirtless and in my boxers.Headphone cord twisted through my arms.Tumbler between my legs.Bottle of Dewars dripping scotch onto the living room carpet.Drool on my shoulder.A stiff neck.A sore back.The stereo on.“I guess not,” I said.“Come on, clean yourself up. Sarah’s gonna be up in a little while and want her Sunday morning pancakes.”“Okay, just let me wipe this—”“Forget that mess. I’ll take care of it. What were you doing out here anyway?”“Time traveling.”“Can’t you give me a straight answer anymore?”I let it go. Katy and me, we were a million miles apart out of bed as well. Never mind that I wasn’t certain what Ihadbeen doing last night. Maybe Larry’s tape had been a way for me to escape from the bedroom, a ready excuse to deaden my senses with a few too many fingers of scotch.As to what was actually on the tape . . . Sure, I knew who Dexter Mayweather was. Every cop who worked the Six-O in the late ’60s and early ’70s knew about D Rex, King of the Soul Patch. Shit, they found his body under the boardwalk where I used to walk my beat. But D Rex had been murdered in the spring of 1972, and what possible connection this could have with Larry was escaping me at the moment. Besides, I had other reasons for remembering that spring.On Easter Sunday of 1972 a little girl went missing. Seven-year-old Marina Conseco was the youngest of five brothers and a sister. Her dad, a divorced city fireman, had left Marina in the charge of her older siblings while he went to get some hot dogs and fries at Nathan’s. When he returned, he noticed Marina was missing. Three days later, she was still missing. Coney Island was never hell on earth, not even in the bad old days when I worked it, but it wasn’t a good place for little girls lost.By the fourth day, we’d made the unspoken transition from searching for her to searching for her remains. No one had to say a word. You could see it on the faces and in the slumped shoulders of the off-duty cops and firemen who had volunteered to look for her. We were running out of places to search. They’d even had the divers in to plumb the muddy waters of Coney Island Creek. They found a capsized submarine, but not Marina’s body. My hand to God, there’s a submarine in Coney Island Creek. You can look it up, as my sister Miriam likes to say.Never underestimate exhaustion. As the years pass, I become more and more convinced that my exhaustion saved Marina’s life. Between regular shifts, overtime, and my off-duty volunteering, I had barely slept in ninety-six hours. In spite of my lack of sleep, I was out searching with a couple of firemen. We were driving toward Sea Gate along Mermaid Avenue. I could feel myself drifting off, so I blasted the air conditioner, turned the radio up full bore, began shaking my head violently. The guys in the car with me must have been just as tired, because they didn’t say a word. I began forcing my eyes open, wideopen, the way you do when you sense yourself falling asleep at the wheel. I kept looking up. You know when you stare at something long enough, it either becomes invisible or you begin noticing things.What I noticed were the old wooden water tanks on the rooftops of abandoned buildings. I slammed on the brakes and all three of us jumped out of the car. When I pointed up, they understood. We found Marina Conseco at the bottom of the fifth tank, in half a foot of filthy water, alive! She was in shock and suffering from hypothermia. She had a fractured skull and some broken bones. She’d been molested for two days before being thrown in the tank and left to die.That was my moment, myonemoment on the job. It earned me a few medals, a nice letter in my file. Papers wrote about the rescue. Even rated some face time on local TV. What rescuing Marina Conseco didn’t get me was a gold shield. Why not?The city was nearly bankrupt.Twenty-three-year-olds didn’t get gold shields back then.Jews, blacks, and Hispanics needed to walk on water to get one.All of the above.Answer: (D) All of the above.Took me a lot of years to come to terms with not getting a gold shield. Even now, I’m not quite sure I have. For some people, for the people who’ve hired me over the years to find their missing relatives, my not getting that shield was a godsend. It’s what has driven me to prove myself for the twelve years since the NYPD put me out to pasture. And proving myself has helped me keep my sanity while I sold wealthy schmucks bottles of wine that cost more than my first two cars combined. Funny thing is, I’ve twice come closer to getting that gold shield since my retirement than I ever did for saving a little girl’s life. Life’s fucked up that way, I guess.After breakfast, I listened to the tape once again to make sure I hadn’t missed anything obvious. The replay was no more enlightening than the first go-round. I called Larry McDonald at home. He picked up in the middle of the first ring, as if he’d been sitting at the edge of his bed by the nightstand, arm coiled. Alternately impatient and distant, he had the sound of a man who hadn’t slept much lately. I was well familiar with the symptoms.“You told me to listen and call. I listened, now I’m calling.”“You heard?” he asked.“I listened. I’m not sure what I heard, but I listened.”“What . . . What’d you say? You listened to the whole thing, right?”“Twice.”“And . . .”“Some desperate skell is trying to play let’s make a deal with a weak hand. Wouldn’t be the first time. D Rex is old news. It’s like trying to cut yourself a deal by saying you know who killed King Tut. Who gives a shit?”“Murder’s never old news, Moe.”“It is when the victim’s a fucking drug dealer.”“Not always. This is one of those ‘not always’ kind of situations. People can get hurt by this.”We were close, Larry Mac and me—as close as you can get to an ambitious bastard like Larry. It’s sort of like being friends with a mercenary; you’re only as good a friend as your market value can sustain. So when Larry said something about people getting hurt, I knew it was code for himself.“People, Larry, or you?”“People.”“You gonna explain this shit to me or what? This cryptic nonsense is pissing me off.”“Not on the phone.”“How then, by fax, or the Pony fucking Express?”“Can you meet me in an hour?”“Where?”“The boardwalk, by the Parachute Jump.”“See you in an hour.”It took him a lot longer to ring off than it had to answer.CHAPTER FOURMY DAD USED to take Aaron and me to Coney Island on spring Sundays. I don’t remember him taking Miriam. My dad was a good man in an old-school sort of way. He loved Miriam, maybe more than he loved his sons, but I’m not certain he knew how to handle a girl. He suffered from China Doll syndrome. Dad was always frightened that Miriam was somehow more breakable than his boys, that she needed to stay home and have tea parties with her stuffed animals. Sports, roller coasters, and the like weren’t for delicate little girls. Miriam, a mother lion in a previous life, needed very little protecting.Dad loved the Parachute Jump.“La Tour Eiffel du Brooklyn,” he’d say, in an accent less French than Flatbush.“What’s that mean, Dad?”“The Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn, you idiot!” Aaron would snap. “You ask that every time.”
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“Aaron!” my father would bark.“Sorry, Dad.”“Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to your little brother.”“That’s okay.”We did a variation of this exchange each time we came. Steeplechase Park was still open back then. They had this really cool ride with wooden horses on tracks, and you could fly around the park as if you were in a real steeplechase race like the kind they had in England. But by the time I took the oath and was assigned to the 60th Precinct, Steeplechase Park had been razed and the wooden horses sent to the scrap heap. They don’t make glue out of wooden horses, just splinters.In 1968, as today, the only thing that remained of Steeplechase Park was the rusting hulk of the Parachute Jump. I wasn’t like my dad. I hated the damned thing. It was an unfortunate vestige like the human appendix, its decay calling attention to a purpose no longer served. Sometimes I think they should have just taken a bulldozer to the whole amusement park area and put up a fucking plaque like they did at Ebbets Field. In this way, the romantic vision of the place would be all that remained. There are reasons beyond stench why we don’t let the dead rot above the ground.I watched Larry McDonald’s approach. He came up the Stillwell Avenue stairs onto the boardwalk. Where Surf and Stillwell avenues collided was where Nathan’s Famous had stood for about seventy-five years, but the wind was strong out of the west and blew the fragrant steam of Nathan’s griddles and fryers away from me, toward Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach beyond. The sudden aging I’d noticed in Larry’s eyes and voice the previous day had begun to affect his gait. He took the measured steps of an old man who had always been sure on his feet, but had suddenly lost confidence not only in his stride but in the solidity of the ground beneath his shoes.As usual, he was sharply dressed. Larry was the only person I’d ever met who could overdress for any occasion. He wore a finely tailored camel hair blazer over an ivory silk shirt and beige slacks with a crease so sharp it could cut diamonds. His brown alligator loafers probably cost more than my entire wardrobe.“Italian?” I wondered, pointing down.“What? Huh?”“The shoes, shithead.”“Oh, yeah, they’re Italian. What else would they be? And that’s Chief of Detectives Shithead to you.”“Sorry.” I made the sign of the cross and said, “Forgive me father for I have sinned.”“You heathen fucking Jew. You’re gonna rot in hell for that.”“Jews don’t believe in hell.”“Believing’s got nothing to do with it. It exists.” He lit up and smoked away.“So . . .”“You know they found him over there.”“Who?”“Mayweather.” Larry walked to the rail along the beach side of the boardwalk, and I followed. “He was half buried in the sand right under where we’re standing. Somealter kocker’sdog dug his hand up like a hidden bone. Did you know he was tortured before he was killed? They broke every single finger on both hands, snapped ’em one by one. And his knees! They were smashed to bits.”“That must’ve been unpleasant. Trust me, I know from knee pain, but what the fuck, Larry? This is all very fascinating, but I don’t really give a shit,” I said, putting my foot up on the bottom rung of the rail, resting my arms across the top, my chin on my arms. I watched the little waves roll ashore, stared at the container ships slowly moving toward the mouth of New York Harbor. “You gonna tell me what’s going on?”“There were rumors . . .”“What kind of rumors?”“Just rumors. Rumor rumors.”“Hey, that clears it all up, I guess.”“Ugly rumors.”“Yeah, well, the world is full of whispers and innuendo,” I said. “I don’t usually concern myself with that stuff and you never struck me as the kind of guy who paid them much mind.”“There’s a chance some of our old friends maybe can get hurt by this shit getting dredged up again.”“Then maybe you wanna tell me about those rumors, Larry.”“The word on the wind back then was that some of our guys were on D Rex’s pad. You remember what the Soul Patch was like. No one could touch Mayweather in the day. He was like Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. And we were clowns in blue, the Sheriff of Nottingham and his deputies, with our thumbs stuck up our asses. You understand what I’m saying?”“I can do the math. Maybe some ofourguys are at or near twenty years on. Maybe some of them would do a little gun eating if they lost their reputations and pensions now.”“It’s one of the things I always respected you for, Moe. You were quick on the uptake. Shit never had to be explained to you.”“Did anybody ever look into these rumors?” I wondered.“Of course. Those were the Buddy Boy days, the time of the Knapp Commission. They looked into every fucking thing. If somedick complained that a cop farted in his direction, they looked into it. But I.A. was bullshit back then. They assigned every eager schmo to the bureau, even the ones who couldn’t make a case with a road map.”“I was around, Larry, remember? I was the one who knew Serpico a little.”“Yeah, that’s right. Frank fucking Serpico, the only honest cop in all New York City. Fuck him! I think the guy was half a fag myself.”“Pity I don’t have his number anymore. We could call and ask.”“Doesn’t matter. Serpico really is a harmless piece of shit. He hurt whoever he was gonna hurt a long time ago. Only time people even remember him is when that bullshit movie is on cable. D Rex is something else. I don’t want him reaching out of the grave to hurt anyone.”“You really are worried, aren’t you?”“What makes you say that, Moe?”“You’re talking too much. You’re making speeches.” I stood straight up, took my foot off the railing, grabbed Larry by the sleeve, and made him face me. “So, how much were you cut in for?”“Huh?”“Don’t play dumb with me, McDonald. You forget, I know you. I know who you are and I know what you are. I think sometimes maybe that’s why you trust me, because I know. So please don’t insult me.”“I’m not gonna make excuses to you, Moe. A lot of us earned a little on the side from D Rex. You worked the street. You know we weren’t gonna make a fucking dent. It was big business even back then.”“I thought you weren’t gonna make excuses.”“You’re right, but I think you might be surprised to find out just whose pockets D Rex’s money found its way into.”“Right now we’re talking about your pockets, Larry, and being on a drug dealer’s pad wouldn’t look good on your résumé for beatification.”“I’m no saint!” He jerked his sleeve out of my grasp.“Doesn’t mean you don’t aspire to the job.”A broad, sad smile briefly forced its way onto Larry’s face. “Youdoknow me, you prick.”“Yeah, maybe, but what I don’t know is what I’m doing here.”“I wanna hire you.”“To do what?”“To save my career and the reps of the guys we served with.”“No.”“You haven’t even—”“No. The answer’s no, Larry. This is a dirty business.”“What, you’re quotingThe Godfatherto me now? Talk about being a martyr . . .”“The answer’s still no.”Killed me to say it. I think if he had asked me to do almost any other job, I would have jumped at it. I was desperate to escape the boredom of the stores and to occupy my mind with something other than the growing distance between Katy and me.He turned to the beach again, reached into his pocket much as he had the day before, and slapped something down atop the rail ledge. Although his hand obscured my view, I felt confident it wasn’t a cassette tape. Pretty sure it was metallic, as it had made a pinging sound when he hit it against the rail. And I was also pretty sure I knew what it was. He lifted his hand and proved me right. A gold and blue enamel detective’s shield glistened in the afternoon sun.“Do this for me and it’s yours. Detective first: no physical, no range qualifying, no questions asked.”Larry McDonald and I had done this dance once before. Six years earlier, in 1983, with Larry’s help, I’d discovered what had happened to Moira Heaton. Moira, an intern for an up-and-coming politician, had been missing since Thanksgiving Eve 1981. Though there was no physical or circumstantial evidence linking the politician to her disappearance, he had been tried and convicted in the press, his once promising career placed in limbo. After we found out the truth about Moira Heaton and the politician was cleared of any wrongdoing, Larry got his big bump to deputy chief. A few years ago, he got chief of detectives.All of us involved with that case made out. Politicians and their wealthy backers can be a generous bunch. But a few weeks later, when I began feeling uneasy about the facts of the Heaton case and started nosing around, Larry Mac called out of the blue to offer me the one thing I yearned for: a gold shield. I took it. It was both the perfect distraction and the ultimate bribe. And if it hadn’t been for a stupid fender bender with an out-of-state car, I’d still have that gold shield in my pocket.Later, when the original facts unraveled and Larry stood to lose his shiny new promotion, I questioned him about his motives in offering me the shield. He claimed it wasn’t his idea, that he had no idea I’d reopened the investigation. I chose to believe him, because with Larry, faith was always a choice. I knew he trusted me. I’d earned it, but like I said before, trusting Larry was transitory and involved the equation of self-interest.“You can get me a shield?” I asked. “Even now, even at my age? You can get all that shit waived?”“You’d be amazed.”“Sorry, Larry, no. I guess I don’t want the shield that bad anymore.”He didn’t argue. Instead, he scooped the shield up and placed it back in his pocket.“That’s a pity, Moe.”“Why’s that?”“Dirt’s a funny thing, pal. It rubs off all over the place, on lots of people too.”“You’re getting cryptic again.”“Maybe so. Let me tell you a story about my late Uncle Finn. Uncle Finn lived with the guineas near Arthur Avenue up in the Bronx, and he loved to sit out on his stoop at night, having a beer or three, watching the world pass by. One night there was a helluva car crash in the gutter out in front of Finn’s house. A bumper flew off one of the cars right up onto Uncle Finn’s stoop. Nearly decapitated him.”“Is there a moral to this story?”“I’m getting to it.”My sense of humor was at low ebb. “Get to it!”“In this world, the greatest injustices are done to the innocent. No?”“You’re threatening me now, Larry? That’s what we’ve come to?”“It’s not what we’ve come to. It’s where we’ve always been.”“I guess I didn’t know you as well as I thought.”“Yes, you did. Don’t act so surprised. We’ve both used each other over the years,” he said, lighting up another cigarette.“I never threatened you.”“That’s because you never had to. People who eat three squares a day don’t pick through the garbage, but take those three meals away for a week or two and . . .”I shook my head at him. “Jesus, and I thought boredom was rottingmysoul. Is this what ambition did to yours?”“This isn’t about ambition anymore. It’s about survival. Yours and mine.”“You’d hurt me, Katy, and Sarah just to save your own ass?”“It’s a start.”“You know what, Larry, go fuck yourself! You think you can hurt me, go ahead. There’s some stuff related to the Moira Heaton business you don’t know about that will make you look pretty fucking bad. I can spin it so that it looks like you got your bump on the strength of covering up a murder. So be my guest, start spreading the dirt. We’ll see who comes out looking cleaner.”“See how easy it is to make threats, old buddy. You’re a natural.”“Fuck you!”“Yeah, Moe, you said that already.”I took the cassette tape of the interrogation out of my pocket, thought about tossing it onto the sand below. “I don’t know how you got this tape and I don’t care. What’d you expect me to do, anyway, wave a magic wand and wash away your old sins? If I had that kinda power, I’d wash away my own.” I slid the tape back into my pocket.I turned to go.“Moe!”“What?”“You know I couldn’t hurt you or your family. I just didn’t know who else I could go to with this. For some reason, you’re the only person I’ve ever really trusted. And when you said no, I . . . I guess I panicked. I’m sorry, Moe. But please, can’t you do this thing for me, for old times’ sake?”“Our old times’ sake ran out about two minutes ago, right around the time you threatened my family.”I started walking along the boardwalk into the heart of Coney Island. I’m not sure whether I was more upset at him or at myself. He was right, after all. We had used each other over the years. Maybe I was just jealous that he had used me to better effect than I had him. And I had always known what Larry was at his core. But his threat—there was no getting over that for me. No amount of backpedalling, rationalizing, or apologizing was going to make that right. There are things said and done in this world from which there can be no retreat.When my legs stopped moving, I turned back to look. Either Larry had gone or I was just too far away to make him out. On the other hand, the Parachute Jump seemed just as big as if I were still standing directly beneath it. Fucking thing seemed to follow you like the full moon on a clear night—or your own guilt. I think maybe that’s why I hated it so.CHAPTER FIVEA RUINED MARRIAGE is a peculiar thing. After the dust settles, I think you can look back and see that both parties had a fair amount to do with the collapse. At first blush, it’s easy to point the finger at one party or the other, especially when there’s cheating involved. And even though that wasn’t the case with Katy and me, I’d have to confess to having known a few people who would have cheated regardless of what their spouses did or did not do. But a lot of the time, cheating is as much a reaction as an action. I guess it’s not only cheating that works that way.
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I’d been thinking about this shit a lot lately. Maybe a few of our troubles can be traced back to the miscarriage, maybe most of them. Sometimes, though, I think the fatigue was structural, a flaw in the design. It’s like when there’s an undetected crack in the airframe of a jet as it first rolls out of the factory, but it takes thousands of flight hours before the aluminum fails and the plane disintegrates. Were we like that, I wondered, Katy and me? Were the cracks there even before we took our vows?I mean, it’s not like Katy and me got together under the best of circumstances. Her big brother had been killed in Nam. She’d been recently divorced and Patrick was missing. Me, I was lost without my job and so drugged up from the pain medication for my knee that I could barely see straight. Jesus Christ, the first time I met Katy we were standing over a body—the cops thought it might’ve been Patrick—that had washed up in the Gowanus Canal. Now how many people have aGuess How I Met My Wifestory like that one? Pretty fucking romantic, huh?Then Katy went and converted to Judaism. Don’t look at me! Wasn’t my idea. Worst of all were the secrets. Yeah,secrets, plural. There was the big one between her dad and me, but there were others—things I’d uncovered about Francis Sr. and Patrick, about myself even, that I kept locked away where no one else but me could see them. All the ingredients except the miscarriage were there from the very beginning. What more proof do you need for the blinding power of love?But for the two days since I’d told Larry McDonald to go fuck off, the shaky legs of my marriage were all I could think about. Paradoxically, his threats had made me ponder what I’d be losing if Katy and I stopped pushing the boulder up the hill and let gravity have its way with us. In one sense or another, people had been threatening me my whole life and I hadn’t gotten any more comfortable with the process. Nothing like being pushed to make a man push back.Red, White and You was my baby for the time being, so on Monday and Tuesday I’d schlepped out to the new store and settled into the same boring routine that had, for the preceding dozen years, passed for my life’s work. “Same shit, different venue,” that’s what Ferguson May, the late philosopher of the 60th Precinct, used to say. He would have laughed his big black ass off at the thought of me explaining the differences between Australian and South African Chardonnays. Too bad he got a shiv shoved through his eye and into his brain while trying to break up a domestic dispute. There were days I wondered if he wasn’t the lucky one.As it was, I was fiercely regretting Larry having threatened me. If he had only had a little patience and given me a few days back in the stupefying world of wine sales to come around. Don’t think I hadn’t been tempted to call him and tell him as much. I’d played the scenario out in my head during the few moments’ break between the boredom and my contemplations on marriage. I never got the chance.“Moe, line one.” A voice woke me from my torpor.“This is Moe, how can I help you?”“Moe, how are you?”It was a woman’s voice, a vaguely familiar one, and the words it spoke belied its tone. This voice was worried, and not about howIwas doing.“Margaret! Margaret McDonald, is that you?”“It’s Margaret Spinelli now.”The woman on the phone was Larry Mac’s ex-wife. They’d split up about four years back and we’d lost touch.“I guess congratulations are in order then.”“Thanks, Moe.”“But this isn’t a wedding announcement, is it?”“It’s about Larry. I’m worried about him.”“Why?”“I hadn’t heard from him for a few years. Then about two weeks ago he started calling out of the clear blue. He just kept apologizing for the way things had turned out between us and how if he could only take it back . . . things like that. And last week, there was this one call when he just broke down. He asked me to come out to dinner with him, just so we could talk. He said he needed to tell me some stuff in person.”“What happened?”“At first I told him to stick it up his ass. He really hurt me, Moe. The man turned his back on twenty years of marriage. One day, what, he decides he’s had enough? Do you know what that felt like? After I got done throwing up, I thought they’d have to sweep me off the floor in pieces.”“I’m sorry. Did you tell him this?”“Every word and more.”“And . . .”“He took it. Then he did something I never thought I would ever hear Lawrence McDonald do.”“What was that?”“He begged me.”“Hebeggedyou?”“See, you can’t quite believe it either, can you?” She sounded relieved, like someone being told they weren’t crazy after all. “I was stunned, because as ambitious as my ex-husband is, regardless of the things he’s done to get ahead, the one thing I was always sure he would never stoop to do was beg.”“Did you agree to see him?”“Yeah. Frank, he’s my husband, he’s down visiting his mom in Florida. So I agreed to meet Larry this once, at the Blind Steer in the city.”“I know it. He took me and Katy there once.”“How are you guys?”Don’t ask!“We’re great. Sarah’s getting big. But what about last night?”“He didn’t show. I checked with the maître d’ and Larry had made reservations, but he just never came. I waited at the bar drinking red wine for hours. I used their phone to call every number I knew, but . . .”“Did you—”“I tried every number, Moe, even the police special contact numbers. Nothing. No one’s seen him. They tell me he’s taken some vacation time and he won’t be back for a week.”“Maybe he just forgot about dinner, or thought better of it and flew down to the islands,” I said, not quite believing it. “You know how he loves the islands.”“You trying to convince me or you? He would never do that, not after begging to see me.”“I guess you’re right, Marge, but I’m not sure what I—”“Moe, check around for me, please. He really sounded awful. Something’s wrong, very wrong. I can feel it.”“Maybe something is wrong, but why should you care?” I asked, the vapor from the chill in my voice almost visible.“He leftme, Moe, not the other way around. He stopped loving me, but I never stopped loving him. That’s why it hurts so much.” Her use of the present tense wasn’t lost on me.“Okay, I’ll ask around and see what’s what.”She gave me her numbers and address, then hung up. Her worry hung in the air around the phone like ground fog. Margaret was right about there being something wrong, only I don’t think she had a clue that her chief-of-detectives ex-husband had started his storied police career in someone’s pocket. There’s a lot of shit a cop’s wife doesn’t know, and even more she doesn’t want to know.No one had any idea of Larry Mac’s whereabouts. Margaret was right about that. I called everyone I knew who knew him. Well, almost. Told them I was hunting him down because I was thinking of having a Six-O reunion party and wanted his input. Cops are wary of anything but a party, especially when the guy throwing it owns liquor stores. They’re always up for that. Even put in a call to a black chick I knew he used to visit down in Atlantic City. She hadn’t heard fromhim in a year or so, and she seemed far more interested in Larry fucking himself than her.Then there was that last call, the one I’d avoided making. I picked up the phone, dialed, put the phone down. There are just some things a man has to do in person. This was one of those.“Jeff,” I called to my assistant, “I’ll be gone for the rest of the day.”Rico Tripoli had once been closer to me than my own brother. We had been through the war years in Coney Island. We’d patrolled the boardwalk, done drug raids in the Soul Patch. And as my dad had once schooled, nothing bonds men together like combat. Along with Larry McDonald we were known as the Three Stooges: Moe, Larry, and Curly. Rico’s hair had actually been thick, black, and wavy, but wavy was close enough for our precinct brethren. Cops are like newspaper reporters in that way. They shape the facts until they fit.Rico Tripoli had shaped the facts of his life into a chronic disaster. He’d gotten his gold shield on the pretense of a huge case. The truth, as always, was far more complicated. The Grinding Machine Mob were a bunch of wiseguys who had become the modern equivalent of Murder, Incorporated. They not only killed their own targets, but became the subcontractors for most of the five New York families. After luring their victims to a convenient spot and executing them, they’d destroy the bodies by running them through industrial meat grinding machines. But as was always an occupational hazard, they began enjoying their work a little too much. They started murdering for the sake of murder and dispensed with bullets. Word on the street was they’d developed a taste for throwing their victims into the grinders while they were still alive. Rico played a major role on the task force that finally brought these sick fucks to justice.Unfortunately for Rico, he often chose his friends and lovers unwisely. When he got me involved with the search for Katy’s brother, Rico already had one divorce under his belt and was well on his way to another. He’d also gotten mixed up with a crooked politician who had plotted to ruin Francis Maloney’s political career and who used me to do it. He tried buying me off with a gold shield and a pat on the back. Apparently this pol figured all cops were like Rico and would sell their souls at discount prices. I told him and Rico to drop dead. The pol obliged, dying in a plane crash upstate. I’d barely uttered a word to Rico in the last decade.Some of that was my doing, but Rico was mostly responsible. For the past five years, he’d been at the state correctional facility in Batavia. In the early ’80s he’d been assigned to Midtown South Narcotics. He’d started drinking heavily and once again sold himself cheaply, this time to the Colombians. Rico alerted them to drug raids on their big stashes and shipments. In return, they threw him some midlevel busts, spare change, and all the hookers he could handle. When one of the Colombians got collared, it took him about fifteen seconds to give Rico up in exchange for a reduced sentence. Prison is hell for a cop. And for his own protection, Rico did his stretch in isolation.I’d heard through sources, mainly Larry Mac, that the time in stir had really taken a toll on Rico. It was the isolation mostly. Rico was a social animal. I think sometimes that’s why he sold himself so cheaply. His payoff wasn’t the power or the pussy, but the hypnotic blend of danger and newfound alliances. He got off on meeting new people, making new buddies. I know it sounds crazy, but there it is. I mean, I knew the guy better than anyone; at least I used to.In NYC, S.R.O. has two meanings. On Broadway or at Shea, it means standing room only. On the street it means single room occupancy. If you’re more familiar with the latter, it also means you’re fucked, big time. New York City may not be a factory town, but we are a city of warehouses. And the commodity we warehouse least effectively are the homeless and poor. S.R.O. hotels are a landlord’s ultimate wet dream. Dilapidated, shitbag buildings on the verge of collapse are miraculously transformed into money machines. Between city, state, and federal agencies, landlords are paid thousands of dollars per month per room for filthy, crime-ridden cesspits that couldn’t be given away for free. See, in New York, it’s the buildings, not the streets, that are paved with gold.Rico Tripoli lived, if you were generous enough to call it living, in the Mistral Arms. You gotta love that name, a holdover from a time when romance and whimsy had a place in American life. I tried picturing it as it might have looked new, with Gatsby and Nick driving quickly past in a flashy yellow Rolls-Royce on the way to lunch with Meyer Wolfsheim. See what a few years of knocking around the city university system will do for a broken-down cop? It gives him pretentions. Shit, maybe Iwascut out for the wine business, after all.All pretense had been beaten out of the Mistral Arms long ago. You needed a sharp eye to see that its plywood and graffiti entrance had once been a grand work of wrought iron and thick green glass. Inside, an ill wind was indeed blowing as whiffs of crack smoke that had leaked out the sides of careless mouths rode into oblivion. In the lobby, the white marble floor and decorative pilasters were chipped and broken and defeated. A chubby Hispanic girl sat in a chair, ignoring me and rubbing the belly of a one-eyed cat. The chair wobbled on legs as sturdy as a junkie’s veins.“Whaddaya want?” A man’s voice bounced around the marble and landed on my ear.I didn’t look at the front desk, just held up my old badge. “Tripoli!” I barked.“Three F.” I took a step. “Elevator don’t work,” he said.What a fucking surprise!“Thanks.”Cops may look back on their careers with a rose filter, but no cop misses places like the Mistral Arms. It’s hard to muster up fond memories of stepping in shit. I knocked on Rico’s door.“Yeah, what the fuck?”I saw an eye in the peephole, listened to locks clicking, a chain unlatch. The door pulled back. Framed by the empty jamb, a virtual stranger stood before me in a haze of blue smoke. If I had passed him on the street or stood next to him on a subway platform, I wouldn’t have recognized him as the man I had once loved above all others. Back when we first started on the job, Rico was sort of a better looking, more solidly built version of Tony Bennett. Rico could sing, too, but his heart hadn’t gotten as far as San Francisco. He had ridden the first wave of “white flight” upstate to Dutchess County. He’d lost that house to his second wife.Thisman, the man in the blue smoke with a wasted skeletal physique and loose, yellowy skin, his hair thin and gray and lifeless, looked nothing like Tony Bennett. He barely looked human, more a twisted root grown vaguely into human form. He tried not to smile. I didn’t have to try.
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“Moe! Jesus, come in.” He offered me his hand. I took it, if not out of friendship, then out of pity. He scrambled about, tossing dirty laundry onto his cot and chucking empty beer bottles into a D’Agastino’s bag. “Can I get you a beer or something?”“No, thanks.”He lit another cigarette, but didn’t smoke it with quite the same gusto as Larry. I surveyed the room. Old cop habits die hard. It was what you’d expect, only more so: peeling paint, splintered floorboards, junkyard furniture, a coffin-sized bathroom. Above his cot was his only memento, a picture of the Three Stooges in our dress blues. Choked me up, that. In the next room, a headboard was being pounded against the wall.“Ay, conjo!” a woman screamed.The pounding stopped.“Twenty bucks or four vials of crack and she’ll do just about anything you want,” Rico said, tilting his head at the now silent wall. “Marisa’s still pretty new at the game. She tries to enjoy it. I let her suck my cock once in a while. You see the little fat girl downstairs? That’s her kid.”I needed a shower.“So to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?” he asked, the inevitable bitterness leaking into his voice. “Wanna talk old times, buddy?”“In a way, I guess, maybe I do.”He wasn’t ready for that, seemed to stumble reaching for an empty bottle to use as an ashtray.“Don’t fuck with me, Moe. You don’t have that much credit with me to fuck with my head.”“So I’ve gotsome? That’s good to know.”“Was you who gave up on me, brother. Not the other way around. You were a big part of my life and the next day . . .pfffft!I was cut out like a tumor.”“Your metaphor, Rico, not mine. And it’s not like you had no part in that. You tried playing me. You—”“Yeah, I used you. Blah, blah, blah. You’re like a broken fucking record, man. What’s it been, like ten years since you seen me? In the hospital, right, when your father-in-law had that stroke?”“Eight years. 1981, I think.”“Eight fucking years and you still can’t let it go. Well, you can stop playing that tune. I’m bored with it. I played it over and over again in my head when I was inside. We’re not friends anymore. Okay, I get that. So what is it you’re doing here?”“Larry Mac.”“What about him?”“No one can find him.”He burst out laughing. It was wild, manic laughter. His sluggish brown eyes came to life, darting madly. His lips curled back, exposing his stained teeth and thick, grayish tongue. The laughter took its toll and he launched into a coughing fit that seemed to last for hours. These were coughs from down deep, coughs so raw and raspy they hurt my throat. When the coughing finally died down, Rico made smooching sounds.“Mmmhhhh! Mmmhhhh!Larry, where are you?” he looked under the dirty laundry on his bed. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”“Very funny.”“He ain’t here.”“I didn’t think he was.”“So what do you want from me?”“I gave up wanting that in 1978.”He winced. I knew the tough guy shit was an act. He missed me as much as I missed him. Only difference was I’d had a life to fall back on. He’d pissed his away.“I thought you might know where he is,” I said, not interested in inflicting any more pain. “I know you two are still close and that you keep in touch.”He was thinking that one over. It was an opening he chose not to take. I guess he’d had enough hard feelings, too.“Haven’t heard from him since last week. He did tell me you and that asshole brother of yours opened another store.”I let it go. He never liked Aaron much, especially because my big brother refused to let Rico invest in the business when we were first starting out. Aaron was smart that way.“Yeah,” I said, “out in Brookville.”“Congratulations.”“Thanks. So did Larry sound okay? Did he seem like the ambitious prick we both know him to be?”Rico thought about that, dragging his fingers and palm across a week’s worth of beard. I could read the answer in his expression, but I let him say it anyway.“Nah, something was up with him. He was quiet-like, you know, sorta thoughtful and philosophical almost. That ain’t Larry. Ferguson May, maybe, but not Larry Mac.”“Anything else? Did he actually say anything out of the ordinary? Do anything out of the ordinary?”Rico hesitated, a veil of genuine concern on his face. “Yeah, well . . . he . . . he threw me an extra hundred bucks. But he did that sometimes.”“This time was different, right? I can see it in your face.”“Different, yeah, but I can’t say how. An extra C-note is an extra C-note is an extra C-note. I can’t afford to be too . . . You know how it is.”I didn’t, but I could guess. He noticed the pity on my face as I stared at the appalling condition of his room.“Better to live in a shitbag room like this than in a fucking cell, Moe. A cell’s no place for a man. Once you go in, you never really get out.”The conversation was going in a direction I wasn’t willing to follow.“Can I use the head?”“Sure,” he said.I closed the door behind me. After I pissed, I ran the water a little and took five twenties out of my wallet. I slipped them under Rico’s disposable razor and closed the medicine cabinet. When I came out, I handed him a business card and asked if he needed a few bucks to hold him over.“No thanks, Moe.”“Okay. You hear anything from Larry, you call me.”“I’ll call.”This time I put my hand out to him. He took it, but not too eagerly. Ten years of hard feelings and hurt weren’t going to disappear in ten minutes.“I didn’t ask about Katy and Sarah because Larry tells me about them,” he said, embarrassed.“That’s okay, Rico. Let’s just worry about Larry for now.”As I walked down the hall I heard the locks clicking shut. When I reached the stairs I nearly ran into the chubby girl who had since shed the one-eyed cat. Her impassive expression had been replaced by one of loathing and disgust. Her near-black eyes cut deep. I thought she might spit at me, but she moved on. I understood. She had mistakenme for one of her mother’s johns. I wondered if that little girl would ever see men as anything more than twenty-dollar bills or four vials of crack. In the lobby, the one-eyed cat brushed against my pant leg.CHAPTER SIXIT WAS NOTHING, a small piece in theDaily Newsthat only a few days before would have meant less to me than the death of a moth. At first, the words didn’t quite register. I read past the article and accompanying photo, and went back to it. Two hikers in the wildlife preserve area of Gateway National Park had stumbled over a body. The unidentified man had some holes in his head besides the ones God included in the original design. It’s not like dead bodies never turned up in the preserve.Once, decades ago, before the coastal area that stretched from Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to the Rockaways to the approaches around Kennedy Airport had been turned into a national park, the reeds, marshes, and murky inlets along Jamaica Bay had been a favorite dumping ground for the prematurely dead. But since the area was now federally protected and the nearby Fountain Avenue landfill closed, murderers had had to find alternative, less conspicuous places in which to discard their trash. I didn’t give the subject much thought.I was too busy staring at the black-and-white photo of what was described as a gold and diamond-encrusted ID bracelet. The bold block letters spelled out the name MALIK. Malik was described as a light-skinned black male, five-foot-seven inches tall, weighing one hundred and fifty-five pounds, approximately thirty years of age. He had light brown eyes, no facial hair, and a close-cropped haircut. Although these days Malik wasn’t exactly an uncommon name, I suddenly felt very uneasy. I sensed the fan blades spinning faster and that the shit was moving in their general direction.Another round of calls to all the people Larry and I had in common netted me nothing. I had avoided getting back to Margaret untilnow, but no news plus time equals panic. She took my lack of results well enough, though she couldn’t quite stop the fear and worry from leaking into her voice. I promised to keep looking, and got off the phone before she had time to think out loud. Once she gave full voice to the worst of her fears, they would be hard to shove back down.Those calls, the ones to Margaret and my old acquaintances, were easy compared to the one I was about to make. The single condition of my partnership with my brother was that I be allowed to work cases whenever I wished. The reality of it was that I averaged about one case every two years, and even then I used vacation days to account for my time away from the business. In my heart I knew that Aaron had agreed because he believed my passion for the job would fade like the taste of a first kiss. He was a smart man, my brother Aaron. Money in a man’s pocket, a nice house, a new car, and a comfortable life can kill passion as effectively as a thousand different poisons. But what Aaron forgot is that the taste of some first kisses never fade.Originally, I’d gotten my P.I. license as a way to salve my wounds, a way to lie to myself that I wouldn’t let myself be swallowed up by the wine business. It was a conceit, a hedge against the “ifs” in life. Now, as I dug my license out of my sock drawer and stared at it, it felt like a lifesaver. I blew the light covering of dust off its black vinyl case and slipped it into my back pocket.“City On The Vine,” Aaron answered on the second ring.“Hey, big brother.”“What is it? Is something wrong? Something’s wrong! I can hear it in your voice.”“The Amazing Aaron, four syllables and he predicts all.”“What’s wrong?”“You always think something’s wrong.”“So,” he said, “am I usually right?”“Yes, you’re usually right about something being wrong. In this world, that’s an easy guess. But, this time, you’re wrong about something being wrong. I’m taking a few days to work on a—”“What? Are you completelymeshugge? We opened a new store less than a—”“It’s a case. It’s our deal. No going back on the deal.”“For chrissakes, Moe, grow up already! You’re off the cops twelve years and your chances have come and gone. This is your business now.Thisis your life.”Ouch!That landed solid as a chopping right hook over a pawing jab.“The deal’s the deal, Aaron. Kosta’s in town and he’ll cover for me.”“But we—”“I’ll be in the store for my shift later today and I’ll arrange everything with Kosta,” I promised. “Don’t worry about it.”“Don’t worry, he tells me. Am I allowed to ask what this is all about?”“I’m not sure what it’s all about. Maybe nothing.”“WhydoI ask?”“Good question. Why do you ask?”The truth was, I didn’t know whether there really was something here or whether I just wanted there to be. I think maybe it was a little bit of both. If Larry Mac turned up tomorrow morning sporting a new tan and this stiff in the paper with the gaudy jewelry was a different Malik than the one I heard being interrogated by the cops, it was back to the sock drawer for my P.I. license and back to my exile in the French reds aisle. Katy, a graphic designer, was down working in her basement studio. It was my turn to drop Sarah off at school. As I sipped my coffee, waiting for her to come down the stairs, something else occurred to me, something ugly that refused to be ignored. If those two hikers had in fact stumbled overtheMalik, a.k.a. Melvin, then his death stood to do a lot more for Larry Mac’s constitution than a week in the Caribbean. Dead men don’t hold up well under cross-examination. ROBERT HIRAM FISHBEIN bore an unfortunate resemblance to the late Groucho Marx, but in spite of his looks, he’d once been a political highflyer. The District Attorney of Queens County was an even more ambitious man than Larry McDonald. And that is really saying something. Fishbein, perhaps beyond any of us connected with the Moira Heaton investigation, had benefitted from its conclusion. Of course, if the real facts were ever made public, it would have done very few of us proud.That said, D.A. Fishbein had parlayed the good press that followed in the wake of the Heaton case into a lot of goodwill, political capital, and, most importantly, into a nice fat campaign chest. Unfortunately, he’d ignored his handlers’ sage advice to run for state attorney general and overplayed his hand. Instead, he mounted a feeble campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and got squashed like a bug. His message played about as well upstate as a minstrel show in Brownsville. That was the difference between him and Larry Mac. Fishbein had let his ambition control him. Larry had the knack for modulating his ambition so that he could keep his eye on the individual steps on the way to the penthouse.Fishbein, having squandered his big chance, had settled into a kind of comfortable purgatory. He could be Queens D.A. forever, and never anything more. But I understood ambitious men and knew he would not,couldnot accept his fate. For years, no doubt, he had tormented himself with false hope that there must be some way for him to crawl out of his dungeon and regain the spotlight. That’s why I knew he would take my call. I was a good luck charm. I’d gotten him to the main stage once before. Why not again?The Queens D.A.’s office might seem like an odd place for me to start, but frankly, Fishbein was about my best option. A cop may be a cop for life in his own head. The rest of the world, however, stops seeing him that way the second he takes off his uniform. As time passes, his old buddies barter their badges for golf bags and he’s left with no connections on the force. Of course I knew lots of cops, but unlike guys who moved around a lot, I had spent my entire abbreviated career in one precinct. The only guys I’d ever been really tight with had served with me in the Six-O. With Larry missing, Rico disgraced, Ferguson May dead, and the rest of my ex-precinct-mates possibly under suspicion for taking bribe money from a murdered drug lord, I didn’t have a lot of places to go.
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“Prager, how the hell are you?” Fishbein, normally cool and shrewd, couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. “What can I do for you?”“Maybe I can do something for you, Mr. D.A.”There was a profound silence on the other end of the phone. His prayers had been answered.Praise the lord!“Like what?” he wondered, more composed.“I can’t really say now, but it could be big. I’ll need your help.”“You’ve gotta give me more than that, Prager.” He was anxious, not a fool.“Drugs and cops,” I said.More silence. Then, “What do you need?”“For now, I need to know everything about the body that was found in Gateway National Park last night. I mean everything.”“That’s federal.”“C’mon, Mr. D.A., let’s not dance that dance, okay?”“Do you have a fax machine?”I gave him the number.“You’ll have it within the hour,” he promised. “Anything else?”“Just one thing.”“And that is?”“If this amounts to anything, you might have some jurisdictional issues. In the end, you might be stepping on some very sensitive toes.”“You let me worry about that,” he said. “I can step very softly when I have to, or step down really hard when it suits the purpose. If you catch my meaning.”I caught it all right. The flip side of his desperation was fury. I was being warned about playing with fire—hellfire. If I was involving him now in something that resulted in a second public embarrassment, he wasn’t going to suffer it alone. I was going down with him and I was going down hard.“I was a good gloveman in baseball,” I said. “Caught almost everything hit my way.”“I’m glad that we understand one another, Mr. Prager. Because to extend your baseball analogy, I’m the manager of a team on the wrong side of a one-run game in the bottom of the ninth, and we’re down to the last strike. We lose the game and—”“—you’re looking for a new managerial position,” I said, regretting I had started us along this metaphorical road.“Yes, we’ll both be out of the game for good.”Time to put an end to this. “I’ll be waiting for your fax.”I rang off before he could give me the bunt sign. I SAT AT my desk in the office of Red, White and You, watching the fax machine. As a way to pass time, it ranked right up there with reading James Joyce. At least I didn’t have to pretend to enjoy it. Fishbeinwas prompt. The machine began chittering away less than twenty minutes after we’d gotten off the phone. I resisted the urge to read the fax sheet by sheet. I had already gotten too far ahead of myself and didn’t see the point of drawing and redrawing conclusions with each page received.The unease I felt at the breakfast table proved well-founded. The body discovered in the reeds between Rockaway Boulevard in Brooklyn and Crossbay Boulevard in Queens had been positively identified as Melvin Broadbent, a.k.a. Malik Jabbar, born May 26, 1959, in the maternity ward of Coney Island Hospital. By the look of his rap sheet, Malik’s favorite pastime seemed to be getting arrested. Most of his arrests were for petty crap and he’d done the bulk of his penal tour at local venues: first Spofford as a kid, then the Brooklyn Tombs, then Rikers. Many of his arrests were for minor drug offenses, but he walked on almost all of those. He had done a short bid in Sing Sing or, as it was referred to these days, Ossining. Funny thing was, there seemed to be no record of his recent arrest for that coke taped to his dashboard.I moved on to a less amusing section of the fax: his autopsy photos and report. No wallet or other ID had been found on the body, but the bracelet was discovered in the wet sand beneath him when the cops rolled him over. Good thing the fax had included a photo of Malik from one of his myriad arrests, because homicide had taken a toll on his boyish good looks. The two hollow-point loads put into the back of his head had removed large swaths of his face on the way out. And what the bullets had started, sand crabs and insects had finished. The autopsy photos were hard to look at, even for me. I decided to have a seat and to keep my lunch where it belonged. I’d gotten the gist of the report. I took down Malik’s address, phone numbers, etc., and placed the fax in a folder.“You all right?” a customer asked me as I stepped out of the office. “You’re pale as can be.”Nauseous. “Fine,” I answered.“Good, then can you please explain to me exactly why you charge a full three dollars more for Moët White Star than Crates and Carafes in Roslyn?”“I would be happy to.”And for the first time in years, I was.CHAPTER SEVEN2951 WEST EIGHTH Street, that’s the address of the 60th Precinct. It’s one of those hideous prefab buildings that lacks looks, character, and just about every other aesthetic quality you might think of. Its only saving grace is that it is located directly across West Eighth Street from Luna Park, one of the ugliest housing projects known to human-kind. The precinct house is also right next door to a firehouse. Now there’s some sharp thinking, huh? It’s like putting the hyenas and the lions next door to each other at the fucking Bronx Zoo. There were times during my service I thought lions and hyenas were more congenial.A civilian employee—a heavyset black woman with lacquered hair—greeted me as I entered. She was so impressed by having an ex-member of the Six-O show up at her desk that she nearly fell asleep mid-sentence. Not that I blamed her, mind you.“Can I help you?”“This used to be my precinct,” I said, feeling immediately like an idiot.“Y’all want it back?”Then I compounded my stupidity by showing her my badge. Oh, man, that really impressed her.“You wanna see mine?” she said, showing me the laminated credentials she had clipped to the overburdened waistband of her slacks. “Not as pretty, I know, but it don’t set off metal detectors or nothing. Now is there something I can help you with?”I thought about it. My showing up here wasn’t exactly part of some master plan. It’s not the way I worked. Like I had any idea about that. Unconventional was a polite term for how I went about my business.Fact is, I’m a stumbler, a lucky stumbler at that. Everyone who ever hired me mentioned that I’d been lucky and that they turned to me only after they had tried competent detectives. As Thomas Geary, the rich man who had hired me to look into Moira Heaton’s disappearances had said, “We’ve had two years of good with no success. Now it’s time to try lucky.” At least, that’s what I remember him saying.Didn’t matter. Whenever they came to me, it was always with theGotham Magazinearticle in hand or in mind. After my future brother-in-law went missing in 1977, some hotshot investigative reporter did a cover piece on the mystery surrounding Patrick’s disappearance. It was a natural. Francis Maloney Sr. was a bigmacha, a mover and shaker in the state Democratic party and one of its biggest fund-raisers. His eldest son had been shot down over Hanoi and his youngest son had vanished off the face of the earth. But what it always came down to was Marina Conseco. Within the body of the article about Patrick’s mysterious disappearance was an inset with my picture, Marina Conseco’s, and a brief description of how I’d saved her life back in ’72.“Hey, mister!” She snapped her fingers. “Y’all want me to call the control tower for landing instructions or what?”“Sorry.”“No offense, but I am kinda busy here,” she explained.Well, that was bullshit, but I couldn’t blame her for wanting to get rid of me. I had come here only because I knew I would eventually have to.“So is there somebody you wanna see?”“Yeah, is Rodriguez around?” I asked.“Retired last year,” she said. I knew that.“Lieutenant Crane?”“Captain Crane now. He’s at One Police Plaza.”“Stroby?”“Never heard a him. Listen, Dancer and Blitzen, Doc and Dopey, they ain’t here neither. So—”Just when she was getting going, the door opened at my back and the room filled with noise. I turned to look over my left shoulder. There, cursing up a storm in both English and Spanish, was a stunning woman in her mid-twenties with coffee-and-cream skin. She had thick pouty lips, straight jet-black hair, and brown eyes that were at once both fiery and cold. She was busy waving a rolled upNew York Postatan older, pencil-thin man in his forties. He dressed old-school Sears. She was Macy’s, but One Day Sales only. Her voice was familiar. I’d heard it before. Once. On tape.“Jesus, enough already,” he said out of desperation. “Whaddaya want from me, I didn’t kill the schmuck.”Another familiar voice, definitely Bronx Irish.“Fucking Melvin! My big case down the crapper and this is how I find out, through the fuckingPost!”Fishbein’s help hadn’t gotten me much of a head start. Though I had more details than the papers about the life and demise of the late Mr. Jabbar, a.k.a. Broadbent, the daily rags had the essentials. I knew because I read about it myself this morning over coffee. The news of his identification and the scant details of his very small life weren’t exactly the stuff of banner headlines. The networks weren’t going to preempt their afternoon soaps and the world would continue turning on its axis. But some people would notice. Some already had. His was the kind of death that would cause a ripple on the surface of a silent sea. The ripple might quickly weaken and fade, forgotten like a fallen leaf. Or the ripple might plow the water into a wave, a wave to crash onto our heads, to sweep its victims into the sea without regard to their relative guilt or innocence.“Yo! You got a problem?”It took me a few seconds to get that the Latina detective was talking to me. I also realized I had been staring at her. Well, I’m not sure staring is the right word, precisely. I was more than staring. It was like the rest of my visual field went blurry at the edges while her image was hyper-sharp, almost painfully so. And my hearing took on that muted, head-under-water quality. Yes, she was very pretty but something else about her commanded my attention. Even after she barked at me, I could not turn away.“Do I know you?” she asked impatiently.“I’m sorry, no, I don’t think so,” I heard myself say, and finally looked away.She and her partner walked by, the partner shaking his head but relieved for a few seconds of distraction. Then, before they got all the way down the hall, she started up again.“I got enough shit on my plate without some middle-aged shithead stalking my ass.”That hurt. No one enjoys being called middle-aged. It’s like when you turn forty you begin the long process of being dismissed. You’re no longer your own person, but just another ant in the colony. Fergie May used to say that a man knew he was middle-aged when he became invisible to hippie chicks. Well, hippie chicks might have gone the way of the Edsel and moon landings, but there was no arguing the essential truth of his philosophy. I was invisible, and if I hadn’t exactly been dismissed, I was being handed my coat and gloves.“Who was that?” I asked the woman at the desk.“Her? That’s Detective Melendez. Bitch!” she whispered, loud enough for me to hear.We both smiled at that. I DROVE TO Bordeaux In Brooklyn, our store in Brooklyn Heights. Situated on the lower floors of a lovely old brownstone on Montague Street, it was my favorite of our three locations. With its gilt lettered signs on green pane glass, globe fixtures, and intricate woodwork, the place had a distinct nostalgic feel reminiscent of the Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlors that used to dot the borough. There were many reasons to love that store: the weird customers it seemed to attract, its proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge, the breathtaking views of lower Manhattan from the Promenade. I can remember a hundred spring days when I felt as if I could simply reach across the East River and rake my fingers along the ridges of the Twin Towers, or take a running jump and land on the South Street Seaport.In my heart of hearts, I know I loved that store best because of Klaus. Klaus, the store manager, had been with us for years. He knew more about music and fashion and popular culture than anyone I had ever met. Born out west somewhere, Wyoming or Utah, I think, Klaus came to New York to escape his family, or maybe it was to let them escape him. The two thousand or so miles between son and family served both parties well. The distance made it easier for his folks to deny his gayness, and he could love his folks back without constantly chafing against their beliefs.When he started with us he was a total punk. He was all ripped clothes, piercings, weird haircuts, and attitude, but he made it work. Klaus spent more time at Dirt Lounge, CBGBs, and Mudd Club than at work. Yet he was never late, never called in sick, and learned howto peddle wine a lot quicker than at least one of his employers. I hired him as a sort of petulant “fuck you!” to my brother. I’d show him for getting me involved in a business I always knew I’d come to hate. In the end, Klaus was the best hire either of us had ever made. Not even Aaron could deny that. Klaus had long since forsaken his Dead Kennedys t-shirts for silk shirts with French cuffs and power ties.“Excuse me, mister, you got any Ripple?”“Hey, boss!”Klaus came around the counter and hugged me.“Please, I’m a married man.”“Oh, yes, and how’s that working out for you?”He knew what he was asking; Klaus had become one of my closest friends. He was familiar with the rough spots in my life. It’s odd, but it seemed that I had spent the last dozen years shedding most every old friend I’d ever had. That’s what aging is, I think, shedding your old lives like snake skins. And what represents a man’s life better than the friends he’s made and lost along the way? Along with Klaus, there was Kosta, Pete Parson, Yancy Whittle Fenn, and Israel Roth: a gay, a Greek, an old cop, a drunk journalist, and a concentration camp survivor. Not exactly the A-Team, I know, but men who I could trust more than Larry McDonald.
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“How’s it working out?” I repeated. “We’re still married. That’s how.”“That bad.”“Worse.”“If you want my opinion, it’s not Katy.”“No?”“No, it’s you.”“Can we go back to that part about wanting your opinion?”“You’re bored,” he said.“Thank you, Dr. Freud, but that’s not exactly breaking news.”“Alan, he’s my lover, he—”“I know who Alan is, for chrissakes! You don’t need to tell me that every time you mention his name.”“Okay, boss, put your claws back in. He’s a psychologist and he’s about five years your senior.”“Yes, I know. We’ve met. Is there like a point to this or are you gonna make me wish I had gone to the Manhattan store and let Aaron aggravate me instead?”Klaus ignored that. “Well, before me, Alan had been in a ten-year relationship, and he said when he hit forty and he’d been with his partner for a long time . . . he just lost it. He felt bored and lost and wanted to jump out of his own skin.”“Did he buy a red 911 and start sleeping with cheerleaders?”“In a manner of speaking, yes. Why, don’t you think a gay man can have a midlife crisis?”“I wouldn’t know. I figured you’d tell me when the time came. So, that’s what you think this is, a midlife crisis?”“Why, did you think you were immune? Being aware of the phenomenon is no protection against it.”“I suppose.”“Okay,” he said, “I can see it’s time for a change of subject.”“Nice segue.”“If you prefer, we can go back to—”“No, that’s fine.”“So what are you doing here? There’s a rumor that we have a new store and that you’re supposed to be there now.”“Christ, you’re starting to sound like my brother.”“Bite your tongue!”Aaron thought the world of Klaus in a business sense, but they weren’t the same kind of people. It wasn’t Klaus’ being gay that bothered Aaron so much, though I don’t think he was completely comfortable with it either. It was that Klaus was obsessively plugged in, so much an animal of fashion and music, of what was coming next. Without really trying, he tended to make you feel out of it, passé. And Aaron was very much his father’s son, a traditionalist. My big brother was old when he was young. He felt way more comfortable with Elvis Presley than Elvis Costello and couldn’t have imagined any set of circumstances that would have allowed for the words sex and pistols to be in close proximity in the same phrase. As Klaus had once said of Aaron, he was more a fugue than a frug kind of guy.“Sorry,” I said. “But I took a few days off.”His face lit up. “You’re working a case! But what are you doinghere?”“Kenny Burton.”“Sorry, you’ve lost me.”“We used to work together when I started out as a cop. Now he works for a private security firm that has a contract with the Marshal Service over at the Federal Courthouse on Centre Street. I’m going over there to talk to him in a little while.”“So, you’re killing time.”“Couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather kill it with.”“Yet another sad commentary on your life.”“Fuck you, Klaus!”“Ah,” he said. “There’s the Moe I know and love.” TEN YEARS MY elder, Kenny Burton had the old-cop look, somehow grizzled and clean-shaven all at once. Except for my recent phone call, we hadn’t spoken or seen each other in many years, but I was unlikely to miss him. Everything about him, from his get-the-fuck-outta-my-way strut to the you-don’t-want-a-piece-of-me manner with which he blew cigarette smoke into the faces of oncoming pedestrians, screamed asshole. Or maybe I saw that in him because I knew him a little bit from when I had started on the job in the late ’60s.Priding himself on things most other cops would hide like a crazy aunt, Kenny Burton was a brutal, thick-skulled prick who was trained in the ways of pre-Knapp Commission, pre-Miranda Rights policing. He never paid for a meal, a cup of coffee, or a blow job until word came down from on high. He never arrested anyone who wasn’t guilty or didn’t deserve to have the crap beat out of them. His motto might well have been:Why use your head when you can use your fists instead?“Caveman Kenny Burton, is that you?” I said, walking up to him outside the courthouse. He flicked a still-burning cigarette at the open window of a waiting cab. The cigarette barely missed, bouncing harmlessly off the cab’s door.“Who wants to know?”“Moe Prager wants to know.”Burton grunted, one corner of his mouth turning up. From him this was a hug and a kiss on the lips. “What you doing around here?”“Waiting for you. Can I buy you a drink?”“Sure. There’s O’Hearn’s on Church.”O’Hearn’s was your basic New York version of an Irish pub. What did that mean? It meant it was just like any other shithole bar in the city, only with cardboard shamrocks on the walls in mid-March and the occasional barman who understood that hurling had meaning beyond vomit.Burton’s malicious blue eyes pinned me to my chair as we sipped at our drinks. We were boxers staring across the ring before the bell for round one. He was doing the silent calculations. I could hear the gears churning nonetheless. The mistake people make about judging brutes is to assume they’re fools. Kenny Burton was no fool. We had never been close, even during the few years we served together. Larry Mac, on the other hand, always considered Kenny a pal. Only after I’d come to know Larry well did I figure out that odd coupling. Kenny Burton appealed to Larry’s ambition, not his heart. Ambitious men are like baseball scouts—they can spot everyone’s special talent and how that talent can serve them. Frankly, I didn’t want to know how Caveman had served Larry’s ambition.“This about that party thing we spoke about on the phone?” Kenny asked, knowing it wasn’t.“Nope.” I waved to the waitress for a second round. “That was bullshit.”“I figured. We ain’t exactly blood brothers, you and me. What it’s about then?”“Larry’s missing.”He didn’t react, but I didn’t read much into his deadpan. The gears continued churning. Then, “Missing? Missing how?”I ignored the question. The waitress came, plopped our drinks down. When she tried clearing Kenny’s first glass, he stared at her so coldly I thought she might freeze in place. “Leave it!” She did.“He was acting weird the last time I saw him,” I said.“Weird?”“Nervous. Jumpy. Not like Larry at all. Then . . .”“Then what?”“I don’t know. We got together back in Coney on the boardwalk and he started talking crazy about the good old days.”“Good old days, my ass. Fucking job!”“I know what you mean,” I said, just trying to see if he’d say something on his own. He didn’t disappoint.“You do, huh? I remember you being a cunt, Prager.”“Nice.”“Ah, you was like all them new cops, more worried about the skells and scumbags than the victims.”“For every corner guys like you cut, you create two more. I was worried about following the law.”“Fuck the law! The only law is the law of the jungle. You pussies never understood that.”“Was Larry Mac a cunt?”Kenny actually laughed, an icy breeze blowing through O’Hearn’s. “Larry was a lot of things.”“Was?”“Don’t be such a fucking asshole, Prager. You know what I mean.”“I do?”“What, you want me to throw you a beating? With that bum leg a yours, it’d take me like ten seconds to kick your ass twice around the block.”“Now there’s something to be proud of.”“Get to the point, asshole.”“Larry missing is the point.”“That’s what you say, but even if he is, I don’t know shit about it. I owe Larry Mac,” he said, taking his eyes off me for the second time since we sat down. “He kept me on the job till I made my twenty. It was a fucking miracle that he pulled it off. I was like a poster boy for I.A.B. for the last half of my career. Then after a few years, he got me this gig with the Marshal Service. Job’s a fucking tit.”I had made the acquaintance of two retired U.S. marshals during the Moira Heaton investigation. One killed himself. The other tried to kill me. Only time in my life I exchanged gunfire with anyone. I think I hit him, but I didn’t stick around to check. Got the hell out of there and didn’t bother looking back.“Okay. You hear anything, let me know.” I threw my card and a twenty on the table. I made to go.He grabbed my forearm. “You really think something’s wrong?”“I don’t know.”He let go of my arm and studied my card in earnest. “I hear anything, I’ll call.” He slipped the card into his wallet.I took a few steps and turned back around.“What?” he growled. “You gonna annoy me some more?”“You remember D Rex Mayweather?”If I thought I was going to catch him off guard with that, I was wrong.“That dead nigger? Yeah, what about him?”“Nothing.”I became acutely aware of the few black faces seated around O’Hearn’s. Burton had been purposely loud. It served the dual purpose of embarrassing me and of challenging anyone in hearing distance. Kenny Burton hadn’t changed. He was the same asshole I had known twenty years before. You could set your watch by him.That night as I stared up at the ceiling, it wasn’t Kenny Burton’s face I was seeing in the dark. It wasn’t Larry’s. Not Katy’s. Not what was left of Malik’s either. What I saw was a pair of almond-shaped brown eyes burning with a cold fire set against dark, creamy skin. I saw an angular jaw, a perfect, straight nose with slightly flaring nostrils above plush, angry lips. All of it framed in hair blacker than the darkness itself.CHAPTER EIGHTCOPS IN CARS can’t follow suspects worth a shit. Even if they were to possess the requisite skills, the damned unmarked cars would give them away. Unmarked cars are about as inconspicuous as the Good-year blimp. So it didn’t take more than a glance in my rearview mirror to spot the unadorned blue Chevy as it pulled away from the curb. The whole way to Sarah’s school, the car trailed half a block behind, the driver trying to keep other traffic between us.I kissed Sarah, watched her walk into the schoolyard and up the front steps. When she had disappeared behind the heavy metal doors, I rolled slowly into traffic, making certain to get caught at the first red light. My tail was four cars back in the right hand lane, the same lane as me. I scanned the cross street for oncoming cars and, seeing it was clear, put my foot to the floor. With tires smoking, I swerved across the left lane, through the red light, and onto the cross street.With my foot still hard on the pedal, I drove a further three blocks before making a sharp left down a dead end street that ran perpendicular to the Belt Parkway. About a hundred feet from the dead end, I backed up an empty driveway until the houses on either side obscured my car from view. I waited. Either they would give up before cruising this street or, as I hoped, they would roll down the street, distracted, annoyed, simply going through the motions rather than searching for me under every stone.Neither hearing it nor seeing it, I sort of sensed their car coming. Then I caught a glimpse of its nose as it rolled down the block. Went right past me. As it passed, I pulled out of the driveway, slammed on the brakes and put it in park. In a moot display, the cop at the wheel of the Chevy threw it in reverse. Too little too late. My car was widthwiseacross the street, making it impossible for the cops to turn around or back up past me. I hopped out and strolled up to the driver’s side window of the unmarked car, rapping my knuckles against the glass. The sun was strong and the refraction off the glass made it difficult for me to make out the face of the person at the wheel.When the window disappeared halfway into the door, I recognized the driver. I had seen her face on the backs of my eyelids and suspended in the dark air above my bed only a few hours ago. But before I could react, Detective Melendez threw her door open, smacking it hard into my bad knee. Reflexively, I backed up and bent down to rub it. Big mistake. Melendez and her partner were out of the car and on me like wolves on a crippled lamb.“All right, dickweed, you know the drill,” said Bronx Irish as he threw me into the side of their car.Still favoring my bad leg, I hit the car awkwardly, the right side of my rib cage taking the full force of impact. Hurt like a son of a bitch and it didn’t do much for my respiration.“Assume the position,” she barked.Still trying to catch my breath, I was slow to follow her instructions. Big mistake number two. My arms were being yanked up and thrust forward, palms slapped down on the hood of the Chevy. Bronx Irish kicked my legs apart and back. He frisked me, removing my wallet and .38.“So, Mr. Prager,” Detective Melendez said, “you always speed like that in a school zone?” It was a question for which she wanted no answer. “That was quite a display of stupidity you put on back there.”“I noticed I was being followed. How was I supposed to know you were cops?”“Don’t be such an asshole, Prager,” said Bronx Irish. “What should I do with him, Carmella?”“Cuff him and throw him in the back.”“Hey, I—”“Shut the fuck up!” she cut me off. “Keys in the car?”“What?”“Are your fucking keys in the car, Prager?”“Yes, Detective.”“John, you take care of him. I’ll park his car right.”Bronx Irish cuffed me and slid me into the rear of the unmarked Chevy. He got into the passenger seat. As we waited for Melendez to reposition my car, I tried striking up a conversation.
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“What part of the Bronx you from, Detective?”“Pelham.”“Am I allowed to ask your last name?”“Murphy.”“John Murphy, now there’s a rare name on the NYPD.”I could see him smile.“What were you guys tailing me for?” I wondered.“You’ll see,” he said. “We didn’t wanna discuss it in front a your little girl. We were waiting for you to come out, and then you come out with your kid. So we figured—”Just then, Detective Melendez opened the driver’s side door. She put the Chevy in reverse and tore down the street, tossing my car keys out the window as she went. I hoped I got back to my car before dark. Finding those keys wasn’t going to be easy. She hit the siren, pulled into traffic, and up onto the Belt Parkway heading east. When she shut the siren off, I tried to get back to my chat with her partner.“So, Murphy, when you saw me come out of my house with Sarah, you—”“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” Melendez stared at me in the rearview. “We ask the questions.”I ignored that. “You’re a real hothead, huh?”“Shut up and enjoy the drive.”“You’re kinda young to be a detective, aren’t you?” I pressed on. “Christ, when I was on the job—”“Don’t gimme any of that old timers’ bullshit. It’s all you old guys do, talk about how it was back in the day. What you got to worry about is that Iama detective, not how I got to be one.”Murphy’s head was turned sideways, away from her. I could see he was rolling his eyes. Wanted to ask him how he’d ended up with the young hotshot, but I didn’t figure she’d much enjoy that line of questioning.“Back in the day or today, people don’t usually make detective at your age.”She bit the bait hard. “If I was a man, you wouldn’t even be asking me this shit about my age. It’s not about my age! I got to put up withthis crap all the time ’cause dinosaurs like you think it’s about whether you stand or squat to pee. I’ll tell you what it’s about, it’s about if you’re a good cop.”Murphy, making sure his head blocked her view, pointed his right hand at me and motioned like a quacking duck. He’d heard this speech before. I egged her on.“So it’s not about your being Hispanic either, then? Not even a little bit?”Taking her eyes off the road, she turned to give me the cold stare. Murphy crossed himself. I’d done it now.“Listen,viejo, I was waiting for that. See, you assholes are all the same. In your eyes, my gold shield is about my pussy or Puerto Rico, not about if I’m a good cop.”“Did I say that?”“You didn’t have to. I was always a big reader, but I read best between the lines, grandpa. Besides, you ever make detective?”“Nope.”“So, you’re just a resentful old fuck, huh?”“I had my shot,” I said.“What happened?”“In ’72, I rescued this missing little girl from the roof of an old factory building. Everyone had given her up for dead. It was a big story. These days, they’d throw me a ticker tape parade. Back then—”“This is it!” Murphy barked.Melendez hit the siren and lights and yanked the wheel hard right, cutting the Chevy across two lanes of traffic. Several cars smoked their tires as they braked and swerved trying to avoid smacking into the flank of the unmarked cruiser. We pulled up around the Pennsylvania Avenue exit of the Belt Parkway.The Fountain Avenue dump had been a working landfill for about the first twenty years of my life. I don’t know how long before that. When we were kids, Aaron and I used to call it Stinky Mountain. You didn’t have to see it to know it was coming up. Depending on wind direction, you could tell you were in the vicinity from several miles away. And even when the wind blew the stench of rotting garbage and methane in the other direction, you could always spot the swirling clouds of thousands of gulls and other birds that feasted at the banquet of our moldering debris. Freaked me out more than a little, thoseswooping, spinning, wheeling clouds of feather and flesh, of bills and bony feet. Used to like to watch the tractors and bulldozers, though, perched atop Stinky Mountain, blending the newly dumped piles of garbage into the compost.Then, a decade or so back, the city just shut it down. I think someone got the brilliant idea that maybe it wasn’t such a good thing to have a huge dump in the wetlands around Jamaica Bay. Across the way from the dump, some developers had built a maze of apartment buildings, called Starrett City. Like everything else in Brooklyn and the city itself, Starrett City blended in with the surrounding landscape like a pile of pus in a vanilla milk shake. Even I had to remind myself that in New York, it’s always about the money and never the beauty. Beauty was a commodity affordable only to people who foisted eyesores like Starrett City upon the rest of us.But just because the dump had been closed, its mounds of fetid garbage tarped over, its methane vented and burned, its clouds of birds relocated to Staten Island, it didn’t mean people had forgotten what it once had been. As Rico’s task force had proved many years ago, there were plenty of bodies beneath the tarpaulins. Now, apparently, there was one outside its gates. As soon as I saw the other “official” vehicles lining the road, I knew this wasn’t going to be pretty. This wasn’t a drug bust or a speeding ticket or a Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association barbecue. There were no flames or aircraft debris strewn about. No plane had gone down on its approach to Kennedy. This scene had homicide written all over it. Disquiet wrapped me in its arms and squeezed tight.As we rolled along, Melendez navigating us through the throng of uniforms and suits, I got that sick feeling in my belly. I know that’s something people just say, but I meant it. This wasn’t any old crime scene either. There was a lot of brass in attendance, a lot of suits, a lot of worried white faces. We veered off the road and into a patch of tall blond reeds and cattails. A blue and white NYPD chopper flew tight circles overhead, the downwash from its rotors toying with the reeds like a fickle plain’s wind blowing Kansas wheat to and fro. We came to a full stop. Detective Melendez threw the Chevy in park.“Okay, get him out,” she groused at her partner. Murphy’s clenched jaw indicated just how much he loved being ordered around.I slid over to the rear passenger door and Murphy helped me out, making sure I didn’t crack my head on the car frame. He looped hisleft hand around my right bicep and marched me through the tangle of tall weeds and cops. Melendez walked ahead of us, never looking back. The ground was muddy, black, and slick. Murphy and I fought not to slip down. About fifty feet ahead of us, over Melendez’s right shoulder, I saw a line of yellow tape strung across a clearing in the cattails. The chopper wash blew the stink of the dump into our faces as we approached. A row of men in dark suits stood just inside the tape. Closer now, I recognized the profiles of several of the suits: Police Commissioner Cleary, Deputy Mayor Brown, Brooklyn D.A. Starr, and—shit!—Queens D.A. Fishbein. He’d already dealt himself in.Almost to the yellow perimeter, Melendez ducking under the tape in front of us, I turned away from the line of princes and to my left. There, in the midst of the reeds, hundreds of feet away from the closest paved road, was an incongruous blue Chevy, not dissimilar to the one I’d just gotten out of. A swarm of men and women moved around it like worker bees attending to the queen. When one of the worker bees moved away from the driver’s side window, I noticed a figure slumped against the wheel. I couldn’t make out his face, but I knew in my heart it was Larry McDonald.They say energy can neither be created nor destroyed, and I guess I’ll have to take their word for it. But when a man with that much ambition dies, there has to be fallout somewhere—an earthquake, a tsunami, an erupting volcano, something. Or did Larry have ambition in place of a soul? Did it pass into the body of the first cop on the scene or the person who found him? Did it inhabit the first ant that crawled by or the first gull to swoop over? If so, the other gulls had better watch out.“What are you smiling at?” Murphy wanted to know.“Seagulls.”“Whatever.”He guided me under the tape. It took a few seconds for the assembled minions to notice me, my police escort, and my NYPD issue jewelry. When they did, Fishbein scowled.“Detective, what is Mr. Prager doing in cuffs?” he asked Murphy in a less than cordial tone. “You were ordered to bring him to the scene, not arrest him.”Melendez started to answer. “I told him to cuff—”“Get them off. Now!” Fishbein ordered.“Hey, Hy,” D.A. Starr said, “this is my borough. Don’t be ordering my cops around.”“They’remycops!” corrected Police Commissioner Cleary. Ah, the world of New York politics and fiefdoms. “Well, Melendez, why the cuffs?”“I—he—When we went to get him, he, uh—he,” she stuttered, flushing slightly.“Spit it out, Detective. Sometime this week.”“He ran a red light.”Fishbein, Starr, Cleary, and Brown sneered disapprovingly, shaking their noggins like four bobblehead dolls on the back deck of the same car.“If you’re so desperate for traffic enforcement, Melendez, we can put you on Highway Patrol,” Cleary said. “You’d cut a fine figure in those tall black boots and riding pants.”By the look on the men’s faces, the image of Melendez so dressed had universal appeal. Christ, it appealed to me. But I saw that some of what Melendez had said to me on the ride over was true. She might carry the shield, but she was always one misstep away from being dismissed as portable pussy and nothing more.“I did worse than blow through a red, Commissioner Cleary. I cut across a crosswalk and sped in a school zone. I saw I was being followed and overdid it, I guess.”But instead of being pleased or impressed by my jumping to her defense, Detective Melendez shot me a look that would scare the numbers off a clock.I don’t need rescuing. She was tough to figure, and now wasn’t the time to try.“Cut him loose,” said Cleary.Murphy let me go. I wanted so hard not to rub my wrists, to show everybody, especially Melendez, how tough and cool I was. I immediately rubbed my wrists.“You know who that is in that car over there?” Fishbein asked, ignoring the icy stare of his Brooklyn counterpart.“I can guess.”“Guess.”“Larry McDonald.”“Give Mr. Prager a cigar!” Fishbein joked. “Commissioner, you smoke cigars, don’t you?”“How’d you know?” D.A. Starr got a question in before Fishbein could breathe.“I didn’t know. It was a guess.”“Why guess Chief of Detectives McDonald?”“If it was a 1930 DeSoto or something instead of an ’89 Chevy, I would have guessed Judge Crater.”“That’s not an answer,” Starr growled. Fishbein didn’t do a good job of hiding his delight at the displeasure of his Brooklyn counterpart.“Because I knew Larry was missing.”“You did, huh?” said Cleary.Decision time. I had to choose my words very carefully. There’s lying, and then there’s the truth. Lies are lies, but you can filet the truth all sorts of ways depending on the dish you’re cooking. For much of my life, I’d been a bad liar and an unskilled butcher of the truth. Patrick Michael Maloney’s disappearance had changed all that. I’d since learned s-e-c-r-e-t-s was just an alternative spelling of l-i-e-s. And, God help me, I could parse the truth like a Catholic school nun with a run-on sentence.“I did. I knew he was missing.”“How’d you know?” Cleary kept on. “The chief was taking vacation time, so there’d be no reason to believe he was missing.”Time to start parsing. “His ex-wife called me up.”“And . . .” Starr said.“And she told me she was worried about Larry. That he had called her recently to apologize about their divorce. They had made a date to talk it over, but Larry never showed up.”“It’s a big leap from standing up your ex to going missing, Prager,” Fishbein piled on.“I guess,” I agreed. “But he never got back in touch with her. That wasn’t Larry’s style. He could be a selfish, ambitious prick, but never an impolite one. Not to Margaret, not after what he’d done to her.”They nodded again in unison.“Is that all, Mr. Prager?”“Is that all what?” I turned the question back on Fishbein.“Let’s not be coy. Was there anything besides his ex-wife’s call that might have led you to believe something was up with Chief of Detectives McDonald? It’s no secret that you and Larry were close friends.”“Close?” I asked. “Was anybody really close to Larry Mac?”For the first time, I saw something in Detective Melendez’s eyes that looked like admiration. She enjoyed how I kept deflecting their questions with questions of my own.“Well, then, closer than most,” Fishbein said.“Okay, yeah, Larry and me, we were closer than Larry and most other people, but he had a lot more layers than an old onion, so I’m not really sure there’s much I can tell you.”Fishbein screwed up his face as if he were working hard to think of a follow-up, but it was all an act. He was questioning me for appearance’s sake. I guess he was also trying to give me cover. Because, whether I liked it or not, whether I had intended to or not, I was now Fishbein’s boy. By going to him the way I had, he had the inside track. I’d got almost nothing out of the relationship so far except an autopsy report and yellow sheet on Malik, but with me he might knock one out of the park.“You know, Mr. Prager,” Starr picked up, “you don’t seem awfully broken up about your friend’s suicide.”“The ground ain’t wet from your tears either, Mr. D.A.,” I said, trying to hide the shock.Suicide! Larry McDonald?“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll grieve on my own terms.”
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“Of course,” said Cleary.“You sure there’s nothing else?” Starr said.“Nothing else like what? Sometimes Larry played his cards so close to the vest, they were inside his shirt. Maybe there’s something you guys know that you’re not telling me. Is that it?”Silence. Kind of enjoyed watching four grown men paw at the wet earth with their expensive shoes.Now there was no mistaking it. There was full-blown admiration in Carmella Melendez’s eyes and fuck me if my heart didn’t race at the sight of it. I had done magic before her. But like all magic, it was an illusion. I had heard the tape. I had spoken to Larry. I knew probably more than any one of them about Larry’s past sins.“Do you mind if I go over and pay my respects?” I asked.“It ain’t pretty, son,” Deputy Mayor Brown spoke up.“Nothing ever is, beneath the surface,” I said.“Just stay out of the way. It’s still considered a crime scene, remember that,” Cleary warned.“How about if Detective Melendez comes with me to make sure I keep my nose clean?”Cleary nodded. Melendez wasn’t stupid. She didn’t jump at the chance. She sneered as if Cleary had told her to carry me over to Larry’s Chevy on her back.“You were good back there,” she said.“Thanks. And you were right about what you said in the car on the way over. Maybe we could sort of start over.”She hesitated. “Where should we start over from, Mr. Prager? From your stunt driving this morning or your unexplained presence at the precinct yesterday? I’m thinking it’s kinda odd that you turned up over there outta the blue and then the chief kills himself, no? The suits and the brass back there might buy your line a shit, but I’m not a big believer in coincidences.”“That makes two of us.”“So where does that leave us? You gonna tell me why you were at the Six-O?”We had reached the car. The driver’s side door was open. Larry’s head rested on the steering wheel; his lifeless eyes looked past me into an unfathomable distance. Even in death, he didn’t look quite peaceful. His ambition had left a residue on his corpse as real as gunpowder. As the chopper moved further away, I caught the stink of his death. In spite of being surrounded by several million tons of decay, the ripeness of it was unmistakable. It was like hearing one particularly sour note from a tone-deaf orchestra.“How’d he do it?” I asked.“Look at the tailpipe,” one of the busy bees said. Sure enough, a flexible black hose ran from the mouth of the tailpipe, beneath the car, around the passenger side, up into a slit in the rear window. Neat strips of duct tape covered the opening in the window left to accommodate the exhaust tube. “My guess is he swallowed some sleeping pills, washed ’em down with some bourbon, and went to sleep. There’s a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels on the floor.”“Any note?”“We haven’t found one yet.”“Thanks,” I said.I felt Melendez’s eyes on me, studying me.“You don’t like it,” she said, “do you?”“He was my friend. Nobody likes it when a friend kills himself.”“Don’t be that way. You know what I mean. You have doubts.”“There’s shit you never want to accept at first. I was never at a shooting scene where the dead guy’s mom thought he was a bad kid. No one wants to believe bad stuff about the people they lo—about their friends. I think they think it reflects badly on them somehow, like it’s their fault when bad things happen, liketheyfailed. You know what I mean?”I turned to look at her. Her expression went blank, her eyes nearly as distant as Larry’s. “I don’t think anyone knows better than me.”“What’s that supposed to mean?”Melendez ignored the question. “Come on, we’ll take you back to your car.”“Gimme a minute.”“I’ll wait over there.”I kept staring at Larry. It wasn’t denial, but I was having trouble with his being dead. When a parent dies, you pretty much know how you’re supposed to feel. Even if the feelings are mixed and confused, you’ve decided; or at least your heart has. With Larry, it was different. I realized that for the twenty-plus years I’d known him, I had never quite decided how to feel about him. I’d always waited for some sign, some gesture on his part that would let me know it was really okay to love him, to hold him close. I took a long last look into his vacant, unfocused eyes, hoping that in death he could give me the thing he seemed incapable of giving in life. Of course, like most wishes, it went unfulfilled. As far as my heart was concerned, I thought, the jury would always be out—the verdict never in.D.A. Fishbein was the only one of the princes still standing inside the yellow tape when I was done with Larry. Melendez stood a few feet to his left, paying very little attention to either one of us. Fishbein shooed her away.“Can you excuse us for a second, Detective?”“I’ll be by the car,” she said.The Groucho Marx smile vanished from the D.A.’s face when Melendez had strolled far enough away. “Did it end here?”“What?”“Don’t play stupid with me, Mr. Prager. You came to me, remember?”“I remember.”“Then answer the question. Is the chief’s suicide the end or the beginning?”“Don’t look now, Mr. D.A., but your hard-on is showing.”Fishbein actually looked down. “Asshole!”“The truth is, I don’t know whether this is the end or the beginning. I’m not thinking too clearly right now. That’s my friend lying dead in that car over there, not the ass end of a cow.”“You can sitshivalater,totaleh. I’ve got no time for your tears right now. I need to know if this case has some legs. Besides, I don’t for a second believe a man like Larry McDonald would have killed himself. You knew him better than anyone.”“That’s not saying much.”“Stop fencing with me, Prager. Your Puerto Rican girlfriend’s not around to be impressed.”Because of his clownish looks and buffoonish overstepping, Robert Hiram Fishbein was an easy man to underestimate. But what he had just said reminded me that he was neither a clown nor a buffoon. He was sharp and cunning and hungry. Very little escaped his notice, not even the subtleties of early attraction.“No, Larry never struck me as the kinda man to kill himself.”“That’s better. Then let’s see if we can’t find out what really happened here and if this case’s got any legs.”“What case is that? I don’t know that there is a case. And,” I felt compelled to remind him, “if there is one, it takes place deep in the heart of Brooklyn.”“You let me worry about that. In the meantime, you’re working for me.”“Officially?”“Unofficially officially.”“Yeah, what’s that pay?”“What it’s worth.”“Now who’s fencing, Mr. D.A.?”“En garde!”“Sorry, my only interest in this was Larry. Whether he committed suicide or not, he’s dead. My interest ends there.”“How about if I could give you some incentive to come work for me?”“Incentive. Incentive like what, a gold shield? Money? The shield doesn’t interest me anymore. That ship sailed years ago. Money? Between my pension, my wife’s income, and my business, I already make more money than I need.”“Money, yes, Mr. Prager, but maybe something else, something you might not have more of than you need.”“That would be?”“Information.”“Information. What kind of information?”“The kind you want, but don’t have.”“You’re fencing with me again, Mr. D.A.”He whispered, making me draw near. “How about your brother-in-law?”“Patrick!”“What if I could tell you what’s become of him? Would that be worth—”“You know where he is?”“Did I say that, Mr. Prager? I asked would your involvement be worth itifI could tell you what’s become of him. Well, would it?”Fishbein had pushed the right button. I was dizzy. The thought of Patrick reappearing out of the blue was one of the things that kept me up nights. Yeah, sure, he had been gone for a dozen years now. Did I think he’d ever come back? Probably not, but there was always a chance. And if he did return and he told Katy about what had really gone on, about how I had found him and let him go, about the things I knew about Francis . . . That would be it, the end of our marriage, and the end for Katy and her dad. With our marriage at low ebb, maybe it wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. But what about Sarah? She was eleven years old. She would never understand. Christ, I still didn’t understand why I hadn’t just brought Patrick in when I found him.“Okay, Fishbein, you’ve got my attention.”“Good.” He patted my shoulder like we were old buddies. “Go home. Get some rest. Go to the wake. We’ll talk.”The ride back to my car was decidedly quieter than the ride to the dump and, given that my wrists were uncuffed, decidedly more comfortable. Murphy was less than his chatty self. Detective Melendez seemed completely distracted, lost in a world of her own thoughts, a world with no visas, visitors, or border crossings. I was pretty lost myself.For so long, Patrick Michael Maloney’s disappearance had been the persistent buzzing in the background of my life. Now I didn’t know how to feel about what Fishbein had said. Was it cause for utter joy or utter panic? That old question rang in my head, this time spoken by the late Larry McDonald.“Do you believe in ghosts?”CHAPTER NINEFOR SOME INEXPLICABLE reason, I’d slept well. Neither Larry’s question nor his ghost kept me from sleep. I was vaguely aware of Katy tossing and turning. Her relationship with Larry Mac was less complicated than mine. Because my wife offered Larry no usable career commodity, they were free to enjoy each other’s company without holding bits of themselves back for purposes of negotiation. And for this reason, Katy felt Larry’s loss in a way I was incapable of. I envied her that.The morning was not quite so peaceful for me. Larry McDonald’s name and face were splashed all over the TV, news radio, and papers like green on St. Patrick’s Day. A regular cop’s suicide is big news, never mind a chief’s. When a chief does himself in, it’s a cross between the first day of hunting season and a shark feeding frenzy. Every aspect of his life becomes fodder for speculation. And the fact that the police had yet to turn up a suicide note only added to the smell of raw meat in the air.I had called Margaret as soon as I got into the house yesterday afternoon to tell her the bad news, to warn her before the pit bulls could latch on and pull. I was too late. Police Commissioner Cleary had laid the word upon her. Between her tears, all Margaret could do was ask me the same simple question over and over again.Why?Questions are often simple, I thought. Answers seldom are. It was just so weird, but a line from a Beatles’ tune rang in my head:And though I thought I knew the answer, I knew what I could not say.Funny, in that same song they sing about leaving the police department to find a steady job. Moe Prager, my life in imitation of song.Then there was the earlier exchange between Melendez and me as we both searched along the curb for the car keys she had earlier tossed out her window.“You still haven’t told me why you were at the Six-O yesterday.”“I didn’t, did I?”“Don’t be smug, Mr. Prager.”“This isn’t smug, it’s silence.”“Yeah, well, before this thing is through, we’re gonna need each other.”Detective Melendez didn’t seem interested in explaining herself any further. I found my keys. We left it at that. I DID WHAT any self-respecting detective would have done when investigating the suicide of his friend—I ignored it. With the press so busy crawling over Larry’s corpse, I figured there was little to gain and a lot to lose by my nosing around. The press tended to use cleavers when scalpels were called for, but they could be pretty effective. The problem was that they, too, often left huge scars on the lives of people they mowed down as they struck out blindly in pursuit of the story. Time was a luxury not afforded the press, so they sacrificed innocence for expediency. Other people’s innocence, their expediency.I was also worried about being noticed. It was one thing for me to show up at Larry Mac’s wake, at the cemetery at the memorial, if there was to be one. But if some stringer or crime beat reporter caught wind of me nosing around in Larry McDonald’s past, the red flags would fly and it would only serve to confirm any suspicions about dirty dealings in my dead friend’s closet. Instead, I called in a favor.There was noise on the other end of the phone, but not human speech.“Wit? Wit, for chrissakes, is that you?”“God’s day may launch come dawn, but mine does not get into swing till well after morn.” You had to admire an angry man who woke with poetry on his lips. “This had better be of consequence.”Yancy Whittle Fenn, Wit to his friends, was like Truman Capote pulled back from the abyss. Well, that’s an inexact description if you knew the man, but it served those unacquainted with him. When I met Y.W. Fenn in 1983, he was just as famous for his brand of celebrity pseudo-journalism as his taste for Wild Turkey. That’s the kind youhad shots of, not shot at. A Yale-educated society brat, Wit had once been a top-notch journalist, but addiction and tragedy had nearly pushed him over the edge.Never quite as beautiful or wealthy as the company he kept, Wit had invested unwisely, married badly, and began drinking. He became a hanger-on instead of one of the crowd, but as I was once told by a crony of his, “He used to be fun back in the day, a life of the party sort—funny, biting, and bitchy.” Then his grandson had been kidnapped and brutally murdered. Wit had always done crime reportage, but dealt with his grief by becoming vindictive and focusing on the rich and infamous. He’d write exposés for the big magazines whenever crime—murder in particular—money, and celebrity aligned.
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He had been assigned to the Moira Heaton investigation. ByEsquire, as I recall. Of course, neither Wit nor his editor gave a flying fuck about Moira. It was the wealthy and handsome State Senator Steven Brightman who had their eye. Until Moira Heaton went missing, Brightman had been the up-and-comer, the next Jack Kennedy. Talk about a curse. Somehow they all begin as the next Jack and end up as the next Teddy. But during the investigation, Wit found something to grab onto, something to stop his slide into an early grave and snickering obits. I think maybe he remembered his grief and forgot about his rage.“Not only is it of consequence,” I said, “there might even be a book in it for you.”“Enlightened self-interest is what makes the world go ’round, my friend. Maybe you should begin speaking now.”“Anyone ever tell you you were more fun when you drank?” I teased.“I tell it to myself every day when I gaze into the mirror. Then I’m reminded that I would not be here at all had I continued my lifelong quest for the perfect gallon of bourbon. Or maybe, sir, you are looking for me to thank you once again for saving my life.”“You know better than that, Wit.”“Yes, I do. How are the lovely Sarah and Katy? Well, I hope.”I didn’t answer. “Go get your morning paper. I’ll wait.”He put the phone down. I listened to the retreating slaps of Wit’s slippers against his hardwood floor. A minute later, the sound of his slippers returned.“Oh, I am so sorry, Moe. I rather liked Larry, though I wouldn’t have trusted him as far as I could drop-kick a polo pony.”“I know a lot of people who might say the same thing about you.”“And they’d be right. But you and I needn’t worry about that. I owe you more than I can say.”“Save it for my eulogy.”“Let us not discuss such things,” he chided. “Is this call about the late Chief McDonald?”“Yes and no. Yes, in that he’s part of it. No, in that he’s not nearly all of it.”“We’re being rather cryptic, are we not?”I could only laugh.“Do I have a career in stand-up, do you think?” he asked.“Maybe, but it’s just that I said the same thing about being cryptic to Larry the last two times I saw him.”There was an uncomfortable silence on the line. Then, “You know, Moe, I don’t think I can recall the last thing I said to my grand-son.”“Probably, I love you.”“Yes, probably.”“I think I told Larry to go fuck himself.”“Well, I don’t mean to be insensitive, but he seems to have taken your advice quite literally.”I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but I wasn’t exactly consumed with guilt.“I think that’s what I’m getting at, Wit. I’m not sure he did the fucking himself, if you get my point. And there’s too many of yourmishpochaaround for me to—”“Say no more. I’ll handle it. Give me a day or two.”“Thanks.”“None required, my friend. I’ll get back to you.”He was off the line.As soon as I placed the phone down, it rang. It rang until I left the house. First, it was Aaron calling, then Klaus, then Robert Gloria, the detective who originally caught the Moira Heaton case, then Pete Parson, then . . . They were all calling to say they were sorry and all wanted to know what had happened. Popular question, that. I tookthe phone off the hook and went about finding the answer, ass backwards of course. NO ONE ON Surf Avenue had hung black bunting out their windows or off the railings of their terraces for the late chief of detectives. I made sure not to crane my neck as I passed West Eighth Street to see if the old precinct had so honored him. My soul, at least, was at half staff. Grief is a harder hurdle when it’s for someone you’re unsure of.How much of it was I supposed to feel? How much would he have felt for me? For how long? Why?There were those easy questions again, the ones with the complex answers.The block was once right in the heart of what we used to call the Soul Patch, but the drugs of choice back then—pot, ludes, black beauties, acid, mesc, a little heroin and even less coke—seem almost innocent by today’s standard. Crack—coke’s ugly little brother—and junkies sharing needles in the time of AIDS had ravaged much of the area. The row houses all looked on the verge of collapse. But all was not lost. On some of the surrounding streets, signs of rebirth were taking root and, if the sea breeze blew just right, you could detect the chemical scents of vinyl siding and construction adhesive.I pressed the three bells at the row house that Malik Jabbar had listed as his last worldly address. None of them worked.Such was the nature of poor neighborhoods—lots of bells, none of ’em work. So I pounded the door. Black faces stared suspiciously out dirty windows and through frayed curtains. I could feel their eyes branding the word COP on the back of my neck. Hell, I was white and pounding on a door like I owned the place. Old habits die hard. So much of what you do as a cop is a matter of training and practice. I stopped pounding.I heard light footsteps coming down the hallway toward the door.“Who is it?” a muffled and unexpectedly polite woman’s voice wanted to know.“I came to talk about Malik.”A lock clicked open, but the door didn’t immediately pull back. I heard the telltale scraping of a wedge pole being removed from its place. To most folks outside big cities or high crime areas, the thought of gating your own windows in steel and keeping a metal rod wedgedbetween your hallway floor and the back of your front door must seem barbaric. Those folks don’t have a crack den two doors down.Finally, the door opened. A slender black woman of sixty dressed in a tidy flowered house frock and incongruous white socks stood before me. She was all of five feet tall and wore half-rim spectacles tied earpiece to earpiece around her neck with a cheap silver chain.“My name is Moe Prager.”“Are you from the police?” she asked, her eyes wary.“No, ma’am. I retired years ago.”“Then I don’t understand.”“I’m not sure I do either, Mrs. . . .”“Mable Louise Broadbent. I am—I was Melvin’s mother.” That shook her some. “I don’t know how to say that yet. How is a mother supposed to talk about her own dead child? He is alive to me. I have gotten used to a lot of hateful things in my lifetime, but this . . .”“May I come in, Mable? I only want to talk.”She didn’t answer. She stood aside and made a weak gesture pointing down her hallway to the parlor. The apartment was a reflection of the woman who lived within its walls: tidy, small, incongruous. The furniture had survived more presidents than I had, but it was clean, the upholstery worn shiny in spots, the wood polished, and the air ripe with the tang of artificial lemon. The wall art was of sailboats and Caribbean fishermen. The rug, however, was a Day-Glo orange shag that matched very little I’d seen in my lifetime, other than a hunter’s vest. Mable noticed me taking stock.“This is my apartment. We let the basement apartment sometimes. Melvin lived upstairs with that whor—with his girl.” She soured with that last word. “Can I offer you something to drink, Mr. Prager?”“No, thanks. You call him Melvin, but he changed his name to Malik Jabbar.”“I’ll never get used to—” She caught herself. “For his sake, I called him Malik, but now . . . He’s my Melvin. Melvin got involved with some ungodly people who put bad ideas into my child’s head. He was weak that way.”“He was easily swayed?”“Like a blade of grass.”“But you continued living with him.”“Where was I supposed to go? This is my home. I own it. I let Melvin stay, even with that sassy whore he calls—called a girlfriend. When I’m done mourning, she’ll be on the street where she belongs. Girl’s got no more morals than an alley cat.”I pointed up. “What’s her name?”“Kalisha.”“Is she home?”“No, thank the lord. She’s out doing who knows what with God knows who. Good riddance!”“Melvin had trouble with the law.”“Son, every young black man on these streets has trouble with the law. Some of it deserving. Some not.”“Okay, Mable, you got a point. But Melvin had a lot of drug arrests and petty thievery and all.”“Like I say, Mr. Prager, he was easily swayed. He hungered to be accepted, so he did stupid things.”“Did you know he was arrested a few weeks back for half a kilo of cocaine?”“When was this?” She screwed up her face and twisted her head to one side as if trying to avoid a punch and failing.“I’m not sure exactly. Two, three weeks ago, maybe.”“He never said word one about it, but it does explain some things.”“Like what, if you don’t mind me asking?”“That other police.”“No offense, Mable, but when a family member is murdered, the cops have to come ask about—”“Not those police!” she cut me off. “I know they had to come. I’m talking about that pretty chiquita.”“Detective Melendez?”Mable twisted her head to one side again. This time to stare at me, cold and hard, to see if she had been right to trust me.“I thought you said you weren’t from the police.”“I’m not. I swear.”“Then how would you know about this woman, this Detective Melendez?”“We’ve met. Was she with a skinny, older, white guy?”“She came alone. Why? Who is she?” Mable’s voice trembled slightly.“She was the detective who arrested Mal—Melvin for the cocaine.”“I keep telling you, he didn’t say anything about such an arrest to me. And besides, where would Melvin get the kind of money it would take to buy a half kilogram of cocaine? I may be just an frumpy old church lady, but I am not a naive nor ignorant soul, Mr. Prager. I know that drugs cost lots of money and I know money was something that my son never had much of.”She had a point. “Did Melvin know a man named Dexter Mayweather? He used to be called D Rex around this area.”“There’s not a person over the age of twenty-one who lived on these streets who didn’t know of Dexter Mayweather. To hear the fools talk about him, you’d think he was Robin Hood.”“Yes, but did Melvin know him, not justofhim?”“I doubt it.”“Why’s that? I know there would have been a big age difference, but your son would have been thirteen or fourteen years old when D Rex was killed in the spring of ’72.”“Because after he got into his first serious trouble as a boy of eleven, when he got out of Spofford, we sent him down to Georgia to live with his aunt, my sister, Fiona. He didn’t come back home till the fall of 1972 to go back to school.”“You’re sure?”“A mother remembers when her child comes back to her.”“I suppose it’s still possible they knew each other, but I guess you’re right.”“Of course, I’m right.”“Do you have any idea who would have wanted to kill Melvin?”“I’m no policeman, Mr. Prager, sir, but I would think maybe I would start with the people who had the money for half a kilo of cocaine.”“Could be.”“And like I say, Melvin knew some ungodly people.”“As you say.”She stood to signal her time and patience had run out. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have to get back to my house chores.”“Not at all, Mable. Thank you for your time. I’m sorry for your loss.”“Do you have children, Mr. Prager?”“A little girl. She’s eleven.”“Same age as Melvin when . . . You hold on tight to that little girl.”“I promise.”“No parent should outlive her child.”I agreed. “Just one last thing before I go. Do you have a ballpark figure of when Kalisha will get back home?”“When the alley cats are finished screeching in heat is usually when she crawls back in.”“Thanks again.”Therewas a grieving woman, but a woman with dignity. You needed a lot of that in order to survive in such a hard place, with a son in trouble with the law. In a way, she reminded me of my old friend Israel Roth. Mr. Roth was a camp survivor who had made a meaningful life for himself, a man who had literally breathed in the ashes of his dead family and come out the other side mostly intact. I’d met him in the Catskills in 1981 when I was working an old arson case. He had pretty much adopted my family as his own and had tried, with some success, to have me meet God halfway. I’d have to call him. I pulled away from the house and decided that I’d come back and talk to Malik’s girl, Kalisha. Maybe not tonight, maybe not tomorrow, but sooner rather than later. In the meanwhile, I decided to kill some time at the local park. I knew there’d be some games to watch and information to be had. There’s always information floating around the park—you just have to know how to listen. THE COURTS IN the shadows of the big housing project built at the west end of Coney Island were the best kept outdoor courts I’d ever seen anywhere. We’re talking glass backboards, padded support poles, unblemished court lines, and not a piece of litter on the playing surface and surrounding area that wasn’t windblown. There were two full-court runs in progress, but it was a little quieter than I expected. Only a few guys waiting “winners,” spying their likely competition and contemplating who they could pick up from the losers to give them the best shot at staying on. Some of the guys on the sidelines were noolder than Sarah, some were older than me. Mine was the only white face inside the Cyclone fencing that lined the perimeter of the park.My appearance caused about as much commotion as a passing cloud. Mostly, the players just shook their heads. My guess was their assessment of me fell into one of three categories:
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I was a cop come to bust their balls.I was an old, washed-up white guy come to tell war stories about how I had played against Lew Alcindor, Connie “The Hawk” Hawkins, and Preacher “The Creature” Simmons when I was younger.I was some recruiter or street agent come to spot and exploit young talent.I just sat down on one of the benches and watched. If there was information to be had, my announcing my interest in it was not the way to go. Curiosity would eventually take hold, and then I might have a shot at learning something.The games were typical Brooklyn street fare—a lot of tough, one-on-one defense and hardass rebounding. Shit, even the guys I grew up playing with believed in theNo Autopsy, No Foulrules of the street. But there was a whole lot of trash talk, too. Way too much dribbling, very few picks, not enough distribution or movement without the ball. Almost every trip down court featured a hesitation move, a crossover dribble, a drive to the rack, and a dish. Now and then there’d be a steal in the backcourt and someone would fly down the other end for a showy jam.There was a big range in talent level and size, but the best player on either court was a fifteen-year-old kid with a close-cropped do on a too-big head atop a stumpy body. Everyone called him Nugget—for the size of his head, I guess. Nugget didn’t have the body, but he had game. He saw the whole court, could handle the ball, had range on his shot, fast hands, and was deceptively quick to the hole. His defensive footwork left a lot to be desired, but a good coach and an ounce of desire could fix that. Nugget had the gift. What Nugget didn’t have was the best squad. He sat down next to me after his team got their asses handed to them.“Whatchu want, grandpa?” Nugget asked, slapping the bench in frustration.Good, he was curious. “You ain’t no coach. I seen every white high school, AAU, and church coach in the five boroughs.”“Maybe I’m not from the five boroughs.”“Nah, man, you all Brooklyn. I seen how you carry yourself, how you come in here. You police?”“A long time ago.”“So, whatchu think a my game?”I told him. He was less than thrilled with my assessment of his defensive liabilities.“Man, you seen how many balls I steal? Shit! You ain’t no coach is right.”“Keep playing defense with your hands and not your feet, you’ll never get a full scholarship at a big-time school. You’ll score a million points at some NAIA school and never get drafted. You’ll wind up like the rest of these guys, playing ball when you should be out earning some money. You want that for yourself?”“Das bullshit, old man. You don’t know the game.”“Nugget,” I said, looking at him fiercely so that it made him uncomfortable, “I know a whole shitload about this game that you may never know. On the other hand, I never had one quarter your skills. You have what can’t be taught, but you don’t have what can be.”He waved at me dismissively, “Later for dis!” And walked away.I’d blown it. Whoever said the truth shall set you free didn’t gather information for a living. If I had kissed up to Nugget a bit, stroked his ego just a little, I might have gotten somewhere. But once I alienated him, I’d alienated the park. I was dead in the water. No one was going to talk to me now, but I had a way to remedy that. Maybe I’d be seeing Nugget sometime soon.When I got back to my car, Carmella Melendez was sitting on the hood. She was in her off-duty duds: tight jeans and a silky black halter covered by a loose denim jacket with exaggerated shoulders and silver studs. Her hair was pulled back tightly and corralled into a pony tail with a red band. Expensive sunglasses with opaque lenses covered her eyes. She wore running shoes, but it didn’t kill the effect. Even if she were wearing my dad’s brown vinyl slippers, it wouldn’t have detracted from her raw beauty.“Detective Melendez.” I nodded. “You working undercover?”“I’m not working.”“Maybe not officially, but you’re working.”“So you gonna tell me what you were doing at the precinct the other day, or what?”“Or what. Maybe it’s like you said, I was stalking you.”“You didn’t even know I existed.”“You’re wrong about that. I knew. I just didn’t know what you looked like.”“You know, Mr. Prager, you talk in riddles a lot,” she said, sliding down off the hood. “That’s not polite.”“I thought you were good at reading between the lines, Detective.”“I said I was good at it. I didn’t say I enjoyed it.”“If you’re really not working, then let’s call each other by our first names, okay? Mine’s Moe.”“Carmella,” she said, offering me her hand.It was all I could do not to bow and kiss it. My heart was actually racing as I grasped her hand, but I managed to shake it, not too firmly, and give it back.“Come on, Carmella, you like walking on the boardwalk?”“Sounds good.”We walked east along the boardwalk toward Nathan’s. Maybe she was finally learning her lesson about the effectiveness of silence. I’d learned it a long time ago, but I spoke first.“Where you from?”“I grew up in Flatbush on Lennox Avenue till I was about eight. Then my mother took me back to Puerto Rico to live with my grandmother. When I turned eighteen, I came back with myabuelaand we lived with my pops. You?”“From right around here. Ocean Parkway.”We stopped and stared out at the Atlantic, much like I had with Larry the last time we were together.“So why become a cop?” I asked.“Always wanted to be a cop and do good.”“Is that what you’re doing, good? I thought you were just following me around because you were bored.”“Look, Moe,” she said, taking off her sunglasses and catching my eyes. “I had a case, a big fat, juicy fucking case and then it disappeared. Everyone, I think, is too happy about that.”“Everyone except you.”“Except me, that’s right.”“Is that why you went and talked to Melvin’s mom on your own?”If I thought I was going to get her off balance with that, I was wrong. “You blame me?”“Not really, but I don’t know what detectives should or shouldn’t do. I don’t even play one on TV.”“That’s almost funny. You mentioned something about making detective in the car. What really happened?”“It’s not worth talking about anymore. That’s all in my past.”“Suit yourself,” she said. “So how’s it you even know about Melvin?”“The same way I knew about you.”“Riddles again. Come on, Moe. We’re gonna need each other before this is done.”“That’s the second time you’ve said that, but I don’t see why.”“All right, be like that.” Her sunglasses went back on and she turned to go.“First Melvin gets whacked. Then Chief McDonald does himself in and everyone seems more relieved than sad. Makes you wonder,” I said. That stopped her in her tracks. “And you don’t like it, do you?”“Hell no, I don’t.”“Come on, walk me back to my car.”As I started back across the street to where my car was parked, Melendez lagged behind to retie her sneaker. Suddenly, I was conscious of screeching tires, but I was distracted, turning back to see after Carmella. Instinct and engine noise made me stop and look to my right. A blur was coming at me and I froze. A split second is enough time to think of a thousand things. All I could picture were my knees being crushed beneath the weight of the car. All the long forgotten pain came rushing back in like an insistent sea.Bang!My head snapped back and my body tumbled forward, arms flailing. I tucked them in time and hit the pavement with a shoulder roll. Something fell on top of me.Melendez!I came up with my wits and reached around my back for my .38. Detective Melendez had already assumed firing position and had her off-duty piece aimed at the rear end of the fishtailing Camaro. I slapped her arms down as the car sped away.“Conjo!What was that for?” she growled.“Ricochet. It’s not worth the risk. Did you get the plate number?”“No rear plate.”“Fuck!” I slipped my .38 into its holster. “You saved my life, Carmella.”“I couldn’t afford to let you get killed. Not yet.”“That’s a real comfort.”“You seem to be the only fucking person who gives a shit about what’s going on, but maybe now you’ll share with me a little.”“If I was a cynical bastard, I’d say you staged this. I mean that untied lace was pretty convenient.”“Fuck you, Moe! Just go fuck yourself!”“Did I say I was a cynical bastard?”“Are you?”“Yeah, but I don’t believe for a second you had anything to do with that.”“Then why say it?” she asked, dabbing blood off her scraped knees with the sleeve of her jacket.“Because you make me a little nervous.”“I make you nervous. Why?”“I may be invisible to you, Carmella, but you’re not to me.”“Am I supposed to understand that?”“Yeah, you are.”She just shook her head. “So we’re just gonna forget about this little incident, right?”“Why bring any more attention to what we seem to be doing than we have to?” I said.“Okay, I’ll be in touch.”“You okay?”“It’s a scraped knee,” she said. “I’ll live. Watch your back.”By the time I was fully across the street and to my car, she had moved to the boardwalk side of the street. When I looked again, she was gone. I was none the worse for wear, not even a ripped jacket or pant leg. Maybe a little dusty, but basically intact.Why then, I wondered, did my hands shake so when I clamped them around the steering wheel? This time the answer was as easy as the question. Someone had just tried to kill me. That’s why.Only once before had anyone tried to kill me, and that was six years ago in Miami Beach. After the night of the shooting I’d barely given it a second thought. And now it seemed so unreal to me that I found myself questioning whether it had actually happened. It had, ofcourse. Those bullets slamming into the body of the dead man I’d taken cover behind were meant for me. The shooter told me so. But this was different. It had happened on my home turf. It was more personal somehow.CHAPTER TENTHE FUNERAL WAS a muted affair, a coward’s burial. No one said it or even implied it, but to claim otherwise was to lie. Lawrence McDonald was afforded all the honors, pomp, and circumstance—the flag-draped coffin, the Emerald Society pipes and drums, the white-gloved pallbearers, the dignitaries, the strained faces and tears—that came with the death of a man in his position. All, that is, but respect and a church burial.Without a suicide note to explain his actions, the church had no way to make the case for special dispensation. And it’s not like Larry was a beloved figure within the department. No one at City Hall or One Police Plaza was putting in the call to Cardinal O’Connor. Oddly, when a regular cop does himself in because his wife’s divorced his cheating ass and moved the family to Ohio or because he mistakenly shot an innocent bystander, the department will do what it can to intercede on his behalf. But when a man like Larry, a man with looks and style and power—things all men want—kills himself, he earns only disrespect.An Army vet, Larry Mac was buried in the military graveyard out on Long Island along Cemetery Row in Pine Lawn. Strangely, most of the dignitaries, it seemed, had lost their way on the trip out to exit 49 for this part of the day’s proceedings. Funny how that happened. If he had died a hero, the brass and every politician from the Tri-State area would have made sure to show up and shove their way into any photo opportunity. No one elbows the crowd to be associated with a coward.It wasn’t a lonely burial. The bugler’s “Taps” fell on many ears, most of them civilian. Margaret was there, of course. She received the flag from his coffin, stained it with her tears. Wit had come. DetectiveGloria too. Pete Parson had flown up and sat with his son. John Heaton, Moira’s father, was there. Drunk so that he was barely able to stand, his face a garden of gin blossoms. The only two guys from the old Six-O in attendance were Caveman Kenny Burton and Rico—the storm trooper and the felon. Nice tribute, that. I was happy to see them nonetheless. Melendez was there, flitting around the fringes of the ceremonies, hanging back. It was bizarre, but I felt vaguely ill at ease with her presence. I didn’t like the idea of her watching me hold Katy.When things broke up, Katy went over to be with Margaret. Wit nodded to me and pointed to a row of low stone crosses about fifty feet east of Larry’s gravesite. I made my way over, shaking a hand here and there as I went.“Hey, Wit.”“Moses.”We hugged, not something he was usually comfortable with. Stepping back, he held onto my arms. I was being inspected.“What’s wrong, Moe?”“What’s wrong? That’s Larry McDonald back there in that box. He allegedly killed himself, remember?”“That’s not what I mean and you know it. You seemed awfully distracted during the burial.”“There’s a detective here that is a little too interested in my business.”“The dark-haired beauty?” he asked.“How’d you—”“Moe, please, give me my due. I have been reporting on crime for longer than you wore a badge. I can smell a cop from the adjoining county.”“Yeah, her. Name’s Melendez.”“I can see why she would be a distraction to any man. Do you think she would appreciate the charms of a former society hack?”“And Pulitzer Prize winner.”“Yes, there is that.”“I wouldn’t know, why don’t you ask her yourself, Wit?”
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“Perhaps I shall. But there’s something else, something you are keeping from me.”“Someone tried to kill me. I was in Coney Island and a car came straight for me. And no, Wit, it wasn’t an accident.”“Would you like to inform me or shall I be forced to play twenty questions?”Thought about playing coy. For as much as I had grown to love and respect Yancy Whittle Fenn, it was not lost on me that he had press credentials in his chest cavity where most people have beating hearts. I didn’t think he’d screw me, but the pull of a good story was as strong as the pull of bourbon. It would only take one slip.“First tell me what’s the buzz and then we’ll discuss it,” I said.“That’s just it. There isn’t any buzz.”“Get the fuck outta here! The chief of detectives gasses himself, leaves no note, and everyone is happy with that?”“The silence is quite astounding, Moe. I have good sources, the best sources, and none of them has anything to say.”“Okay, let’s forget the cops for now. You can’t tell me that the media isn’t all over this thing. I mean, it’s got ‘big story’ with a neon sign and fireworks on it.”He removed his tortoiseshell glasses and rubbed his eyes. “That’s just it. The press is all over it, but no matter how they shake it, squeeze it, kick or bribe it, nothing is coming out. Usually, there is someone in the department, some disaffected fool who has been passed over for a promotion or assigned to the rubber gun squad, who is simply clamoring to gripe and talk off the record.”“Not this time?”“It would seem not. Not a soul is talking and that is most peculiar. Cops love to gab. It is how I used to gather half my stories. A seat at the bar and bottle of Jameson can go a long way with a pub full of cops.”“Cops and booze! Who’d’a thunk it? So, you think it’s a dead issue?” I said, knowing he’d take it as a challenge.“No need to insult me. Just because no one is talking today, doesn’t mean the same will be true tomorrow or the next day. Someone always talks.”“So you’re intrigued?”“For the moment, yes,” he said. “Now, would you like to tell me the entire story that I might do my part in this more effectively?”I told Wit about the tape Larry had given me at the opening of Red, White and You. I described the interrogation, the meeting with Larry on the boardwalk, his threats. I detailed Malik Jabbar’s assassination, my meeting with his mother, my dealings with Carmella Melendez.“Well, Moe, this does get curiouser and curiouser, but it does explain the tight lips, does it not?”“Yeah, well, no one likes a cop scandal except the press. This isn’t just some old cop who took a few free cups of coffee and spare change.”“Drugs and murder, nice tandem. Juicy headlines.”I agreed, sort of. “Maybe, but it’s not that simple.”“Never is. I am certain that if the department felt they could simply sacrifice Chief McDonald’s memory and limit the damage to his reputation—”“—lips would be flapping all over town. After all, the best kind of scapegoat is a dead one.”“Indeed. Moe, have you any idea who this Malik character gave up to the D.A.?”“Not a clue. All I know is that it shook Larry to his core. But I don’t even think there’s a record of Malik’s arrest. That’s why I need to figure out a way to deal with Melendez about what I know without giving too much away.”“An interesting challenge.”“Thanks.”“You go do whatever it is you have to on your end, and I will do my share,” he said. “Not to worry.”“I never do, not about you,” I lied.I shook Wit’s hand and had walked a few paces when he called after me.“Moe, watch out for the black-haired beauty. Don’t repeat a mistake so many men, including yours truly, have made.”“What mistake is that?”“Looking somewhere else for what you already possess.”I thought to question him, but reconsidered. Wit was possibly the most intelligent man I’d ever met. Sage advice or not, I’d always been better at learning from my own mistakes.When I rejoined the crowd, I noticed Kenny Burton and Rico Tripoli milling about. I asked them to wait for me while I arranged for Pete Parson and his son to drive Katy home. Pete, Katy, Sarah, and I had plans for dinner in a few hours, but what I had to discuss with my former precinct mates needed to be said out of earshot of any of the other funeral attendees.When everyone was gone, the three of us stood around watching the backhoe driver unceremoniously dumping bucketfuls of dirt on Larry’s coffin. Got me thinking about how disconnected we were from death. It was easy to blame drugs, movies, TV, and video games for violence and the devaluation of human life. Bullshit! The real culprit was our lack of intimacy with death. When you’re unfamiliar with death, you’re disrespectful of life. No one dies in his or her bed anymore. People die in hospitals now, or in hospices or nursing homes or alone in cars along the side of the Belt Parkway. Kids don’t go to funerals. Strangers clean our bodies, dress and groom us. Machines dig our graves. Why should any of us respect death when we make it as remote as the mountains of the moon?I have often wondered if it would be a little harder for a killer to pull the trigger or shove the blade in a second time if he had washed his dead brother’s body or dug his mother’s grave. What if he had watched his dad die an inch at a time from cancer and sat by the deathbed day after day after day? What if there were no church, no funeral home, no hospital, no way to pass the responsibilities of death off to strangers? How much harder would murder be?“Fucking machine!” Burton growled. “I thought cemeteries was supposed to be quiet.”“Larry don’t hear a thing,” said Rico.“Yeah,” I said, “he’s too busy angling for a bump to archangel.”We all laughed at that. The backhoe went silent and suddenly our laughter was the loudest thing in the universe.“So, you guys think he killed himself?”Rico frowned. Burton grunted.“Yeah, well I don’t like it either,” I continued, “but there’s no evidence to say different. What they say is he drove over to Fountain Avenue, swallowed some pills, drank some Jack, and gassed himself.”“The only part I buy is the Jack Daniels,” Rico said. “Why would Larry kill himself anyways?”“That’s what I was hoping you or Kenny here could tell me.”“What’s that s’posed to mean?” Burton wondered.“What do you think it means?”“Just like I said at O’Hearn’s, you’re a cunt, Prager. You know something, say it. Don’t dance around like a fag in a forest fire.”Rico was confused. “A fag in a forest fire? What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”“Okay, Kenny. Here’s what I know. Larry came to me and told me that when Rico and me started out, some of the guys in the Six-O were on Dexter Mayweather’s pad. He was worried that this was all gonna get dragged up again.”“Shit, the day D Rex bought it was a sad fucking day for me,” the Caveman said. “Did you think I got that house in Breezy Point on my cop salary? You kiddin’ me? We made . . . what’s that Jew word, Prager?”“Bubkis?”“That’s the one. We madebubkisback then. Maybe I shoulda sent flowers to the funeral home or something, you think?”Rico’s eyes got big, but he said nothing. A guy who took money, drugs, and hookers from the Colombians in exchange for protection was in no position to throw grains of sand, let alone stones. But Burton noticed Rico’s expression.“Don’t even say nothin’!”“What the fuck did I say? Moe, did I say anything?”“No, but you wanted to, you low-life skell motherfucker. Me, I took a little ’scarole on the side to look the other way so a few niggers could deal some weed and ludes to their own. You gave fucking cover to the goddamned Colombians! Asshole spics near ruined the city. Hey, Moe, good thing the Nazis weren’t dealing coke or your best bud here woulda sold you and—”Smack!Rico, as shabby and gray as he looked, still had quick hands. His right was already down at his side by the time Caveman reacted to the backhanded slap. At first, Kenny just rubbed his face, licked the blood off his bottom lip, and smiled. It was the kind of smile that wilted flowers.“I hope you hit harder than that when it was shower time in Batavia.”“Fuck you, Burton!”Rico’s right shot out again, but I caught it.“Cut this shit out. Larry’s fucking dead and I need to know if either of you believe he killed himself.”“He’s dead either way,” Burton said. “Leave it be.”“You would say that,” offered Rico.Caveman positioned himself so that he held both Rico and me in his stare.“Some cops the pair of you made—the bar mitzvah boy and the skell. Think, the both of ya! How could any of us get hurt by Mayweather’s murder getting dragged up now? Where’s the paper trail? You think old D Rex kept neat little ledgers, for fuck’s sake? If Larry McDonald suicided, it wasn’t over a few thousand bucks that a drug-dealing nigger threw his way or my way twenty years ago.”He was right, of course. I hadn’t really thought it through before and I decided I wasn’t going to hash it out. Not here, not now, not with these two. I kept playing the suicide card.“What do you think, Rico?”“I don’t know. Maybe Burton’s right. Maybe Larry had other shit on his mind. I don’t know. I can’t think right now.”Rico couldn’t think because he was in full thirst and needed a drink, bad. He had that whole body hunger thing going on that you see in drunks and junkies. He was swaying, twisting, bouncing slightly on his knees, caressing himself.“Okay, I gotta get home. I’ll give Rico a lift,” I said.“Well, you didn’t think I was gonna drive the cunt, did you?”No one shook hands. Caveman lit a cigarette and blew some smoke in our faces. He flicked his unfinished cigarette onto Larry Mac’s grave as he passed. A fitting farewell from a man like Burton.I didn’t talk to Rico in the car. That seemed to suit him just fine, consumed as he was by his aching thirst. I found a bar on Route 110, pulled over, and handed him all the cash I had in my wallet. He didn’t hesitate, not for a second. Neither did I, pulling away from the curb without glancing into my rearview mirror.When I did finally look back, I noticed Melendez’s blue Impala on my bumper, waving for me to pull over. Like Rico, I didn’t hesitate. We both got out of our cars.“Thanks for not making trouble today,” I said. “Larry was a good guy in his way and his ex didn’t need any extra aggravation.”“Hey, the chief helped make my career. You think he didn’t take shit for putting that shield in my hand? I wasn’t going to show him any disrespect, not today.”“So what were you doing there? Don’t you have any real cases to make?”“Murphy’s out today,” she said, as if that explained it.“And . . .”“And I need you to talk to me or no justice is gonna get done here.”Man, shewasyoung. Justice is a word that gets beaten out of most cops before they make detective. I searched my memory trying to recall when I’d lost my “justice cherry.” The moment was lost with a million other forgotten milestones.“Justice! Christ, Carmella. It takes more faith to believe in justice than in God.”“I believe.”“Why?”“I have my reasons.”“Wanna tell me why this case, if there even is a case, means so much to you?”She showed me her shield. “This is why.”Argue that. I couldn’t.“Okay,” I said. “This is important to me too. What are you doing tonight?”She blushed slightly, looking suddenly like a shy little girl. “Nothing.”“Eleven o’clock. You tell me where.”“Drinks?”“Drinks would be good.”“Crispo’s, do you know it?”“You mean Rip’s in Red Hook?”Her smile was my answer. I turned to go.“Moe!”“Yeah.”“You’re not invisible to me either.”CHAPTER ELEVENTHE RED NEON sign—RI P ’S—was like a bright smile with missing teeth. Crispo’s or Rip’s, on Visitation Place, was a dive.Name me fifteen bars in Brooklyn that weren’t.But there’s a kind of comfort in a dive, comfort like in a pair of ugly old shoes or a messy room. Rip’s was all of that. Inside was perpetual sepia. Neither the bar nor the plank floor had been refinished since the ’40s. The wobbly barstools were held together with white adhesive tape and glue, which, since the floor pitched and fell from foot to foot, was probably a good thing. Only place in Brooklyn you could get seasick sitting at a bar. Rip’s was the kind of place where old lipstick on your bar glass passed as garnish.Red Hook, once the toughest neighborhood in the city—and that’s really saying something when you’re talking about New York—was a place in transition. Isolated from the rest of Brooklyn by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, its lack of a subway line, and spotty bus service, Red Hook had once been the thriving center of the borough’s waterfront. These days, the docks were inert and the memories of the tough guys who had once unloaded ships with hooks and ropes had receded into the cracks between the cobblestones that still lined its dead-end streets. As its fortunes fell, low-income housing projects rose up. For the majority of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, Red Hook, with its Civil War Era infrastructure and faceless factory buildings, was left to rot. It was as if the city hoped it would simply detach itself from the western tip of Long Island and sink into the East River.Just lately, the yuppies—with their nose for cheap real estate, rustic charm, and loft space—had taken notice. It would probably be another ten or fifteen years before the last black, Puerto Rican, and artist was driven out by gentrification, but as sure as the sun would risetomorrow, it was coming. Inevitability comes in all manner of forms. One was waiting for me at the bar. Inevitability had an intoxicating smile.
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“Over here!” she called above the din of the crowd and Johnny Maestro’s sour ruminations on the prospects of marriage.That was the thing about the jukebox at Rip’s. With the solitary exception of Sinatra, every selection on the box was written or performed by a Brooklynite. Either that or the song title or the band name featured the word Brooklyn.“Dewars rocks,” I shouted at the barman after working my way through the tangle of bodies.Melendez held up her bottle of Heineken to show me she was fine. We clinked bottle to rocks glass.“This is weird,” she said.“What’s weird?”“Us.”“Us?” I repeated. “What about—”Everything!“Nothing,” she lied. “Forget it.”I would have lied, too, had she pursued it. All through dinner with Pete Parson and Katy, this moment was all I could think about. Now that it had come, I felt about fifteen years old. There was no denying she made my heart beat faster, that since she had shoved me out of the path of that car my appreciation for her had taken a decidedly more personal bent than simple recognition of her charms.“Look at this place,” I said, just to say something. “If the city mixed like the crowd in here, we’d have a lot less trouble.”“Yeah, I guess,” she agreed, looking out at the jumble of black, brown, and white faces. “Not many places in the city like this.”“Not many places like Red Hook.”“None.”I guzzled my scotch. “C’mon, let’s get outta here for a little while so we can talk.”“Okay.”We walked to the corner, turned left on Van Brunt, and strolled toward Conover. In stark contrast to Rip’s, the streets were eerily silent and a thick veil of fog obscured the normally brilliant lights of lower Manhattan. We, too, were silent. Now we stood at the end of Conover Street, where moot trolley tracks curved directly into oblivion.On most nights you could look right out into the harbor from here and behold the Statue of Liberty standing up before you. Not tonight. Tonight, nature had conspired to soften the usual distractions.“My brother Aaron and me, we own wine shops,” I said, smooth talker that I was. “And we just opened up a new place on Long Island. Larry—Chief McDonald—was there for the grand opening party. We were outside talking and he handed me a cassette tape. He told me to take it home and listen.” I pulled that same cassette out of my jacket.“What is it, a mix tape of ELP, Jethro Tull, and Pink Floyd?”“A sense of humor, huh? You forgot Yes and the Moody Blues. How do you know from those bands?”“You think I dance around my house with fruit on my head to Tito Puente and Menudo records? Some kids like dinosaurs. I liked dinosaur rock.”“No, Carmella, it isn’t a mix tape.” I handed it to her. “It’s a recording of two detectives interviewing a drug suspect.”“Detectives?”“You and Murphy, specifically. The suspect was Malik Jabbar or Melvin, as you seemed to like to call him.”Her face went blank, any hint of playfulness vanished.“I don’t know how he got it, but there’s definitely a hidden mic somewhere in that interview room. You’ll hear for yourself.”“Fuck!”I might just as well have smacked her with a two-by-four. She stared at the cassette like it was radioactive.“I know, Carmella. It raises a lot of questions.”“We need to talk and I need a drink.”“Come on, let’s get back to Crispo’s.”“No!”“Where then?”“Walk me back to my car.” I LOVED FOG. I always found a drowsy calm in it, a comforting embrace. Tonight the calm was lost on me. Following Melendez’s car through the twisty womb of silent streets, I could not quiet my thoughts or the heart thumping in my chest. I turned the radio up to where it might have drowned out a subway collision on the el above my head, but it could not drown out my guilt. I couldn’t think of anybody,not even Rico Tripoli, who would have approved of where I was going or the road I was about to travel. Well, that’s not exactly true. Of all the people I knew, there was one; only Francis Maloney, my father-in-law, would have understood. How exquisitely perverse, I thought. It was to laugh, no? I felt the devil throw his cold arm around my shoulder and whisper, “Go for it, lad.”Melendez lived on Ashford Street just off Atlantic Avenue: still in Brooklyn, but barely. With the wind at your back, you could smack a golf ball and hit the horses turning for the finish line at Aqueduct Raceway, just across the nearby Queens border. Here the fog smelled of the sea tinged with the scent of spent kerosene as jets followed the shoreline of Jamaica Bay, swooping low toward Kennedy.Carmella turned back to me, placing a finger across her lips.“My grandmother lives downstairs.”I preferred her whisper to the devil’s.We climbed a steep flight of unlit stairs. Cranky with age, the steps complained at each footfall. Carmella seemed not to notice. I think maybe my guilt had given me rabbit ears, that what I heard in the creaks and moans in the old wood were admonitions. I heard, but did not listen.With laundry strewn on the living room floor, open Chinese food containers on the coffee table, Melendez’s apartment was sloppy and disorganized and not so very different from any other single, lonely cop’s. Though I had difficulty imagining Carmella Melendez ever being lonely.Then again, I was probably confusing loneliness and solitude. She would have had all the company she ever wanted; but I understood better than most about loneliness in the heart of the crowd. It’s what’s inside that keeps us apart. Over the years, the secrets I kept had isolated me. And it dawned on me that the secrets I kept had pushed Katy away. Build a fortress well enough and it even keeps love out.Sometimes, like at the grand opening party, the only other person I could see in the crowd was my father-in-law. We were alone together. I wondered if Carmella Melendez had secrets, too. For her sake, I hoped not.“Drink?” she asked.“Scotch.”“I’d try the beer.”“Yeah, why’s that?”“It’s all I’ve got,” she said. “Come on in the kitchen. It’s neater in there.”She was right. The kitchen was immaculate. More likely from lack of use than anything else. She noticed me notice.“I can cook, but . . .”“No one to cook for. I know.”“My grandmother brings stuff up for me sometimes and we eat together a few times a week. She’s getting old and is beginning to forget things sometimes. This way I can keep an eye on her.”I sat down at the little round-top table as she fished two Coronas out of the fridge.She handed me a bottle. “No limes, sorry.”“I’m not a lime sort of guy.” I took a pull on my beer and waited. I’m not sure why or what for, but I hadn’t felt this awkward in a very long time. Melendez stood her ground, leaning against the refrigerator. Things were rapidly progressing from awkward to downright uncomfortable, when Carmella threw me the sharpest breaking curveball I’d ever seen.“I want you to like me.” There was that whisper again.“What do you think I’m doing here?”“No. I want you tolikeme, Moe, not just want me. I know how to make men want me. That’s something I could do even before I knew how.”“What’s that supposed to mean?”“Nothing. Forget it. Just that I know I’m pretty.”I got up and stood close to her, softly brushing her cheek with the back of my hand, tucking a wayward strand of silk black hair behind her ear. “You’re more than pretty, Carmella.”Leaning forward, I rested my lips gently on hers. It was more a caress than a kiss, really, neither of us willing to take it further. Still, it was electric. Carmella slid her lips along mine and nestled her head in the crook of my arm and against my chest. She threaded herself through and around me, holding me desperately tight. I can’t explain it, but there was an old yearning in her touch, something way beyond simple attraction. When she finally relaxed her hold and looked back into my eyes, it was one of the most disquieting moments in my life.Guilt?No, not this time. I don’t think so. I recognized something almost frightening in the depths of her stare.“What’s wrong?”“I’m going to ruin it,” she said.“Ruin what?”“This . . .Us, if I tell you . . .”“If you tell me what?”Now she completely freed herself, ducking under my arms, and walked away. Gazing out into the darkness through the little window above the kitchen sink, her back still to me, she said, “Remember the other day in the car on the way to Fountain Avenue when I was saying that getting my shield had nothing to do with my being Puerto Rican or my—”“I remember. You were giving me a song and dance about being a good cop.”“Iama good cop.”“I believe you, but what’s this got to do with—”“I am a good cop,” she repeated, trying to convince the both of us. “But maybe I did make a compromise I shouldn’t have. I just wanted that shield so bad.”Yeah, tell me about it.“What kinda compromise? Who’d ya—”“—fuck?” She turned toward me. “That’s what you were gonna ask, right? It always comes down to that—who I fucked to get ahead. I didn’t fuck anybody! This ain’t about pussy or passports.”“Okay, I’m sorry. You’re right. So if that wasn’t it, what was it?”“I knew about the wire in the interview room,” she said, looking anywhere but at me.“How?”“I put it there.”“Youwhat?”“I put it there,” she repeated, head hanging low.Now I understood her reaction when I told her about what was on the tape. She was worried about being found out.“Whose idea was it?”“Not mine.”“That’s not what I asked.”“Chief McDonald. He put me up to it.”“You’re shitting me, right?” I seethed. “The chief of detectives has a bug planted in his old precinct house and he winds up an apparent suicide, and you don’t think to say anything!”“I knew this would ruin it.”I was at her in a flash, my hands grabbing her shoulders and spinning her around.“You’ve got a lot more to worry about than us, Carmella.”“Don’t you think I know that?” she growled, pulling out of my grasp. “I just wanted my shield. You can’t understand.”I ignored that last part. “Okay, okay, let’s start from the beginning. When did Larry first come to you?”“Technically, I went to him.” She took a long sip of her beer. “About eighteen months ago I got called into my C.O.’s office at the Seven-Seven and he told me to report to One Police Plaza.”“And Larry Mac was waiting.”“He said he’d been keeping his eye on me since I got outta the academy. Had my personnel jacket right in front of him. I thought he was going to put the moves on me, you know? I mean, it’s not like every dick with stripes or brass buttons hadn’t used a variation of that ‘keeping my eye on you’ line since the day I got on the job. What’s that look for?” she asked, noticing the smile spreading across my face.“Believe me, Larry loved women, but you had to understand him. He was an ambitious bastard. If he saw a way you’d be of use to him, your looks would have become beside the point. That was just who he was. And if he saw you were hungry . . . watch out! That was his talent, spotting people’s hungers. So what happened?”“So he asked me if I thought I’d make a good detective.”“What’d you say?”“I said no, that I’d make a great detective.”“Let me guess. He put a small box in front of you on the table and told you to go ahead and open it up. Inside, you found the thing you were desperate for, a shield, and Larry said something like, ‘Congratulations, Detective Melendez.’” I could see by her expression I’d gotten it about right.“He said he might have special assignments for me from time to time.”“But not right away. No, he would want to see if you could handle the job and the abuse you were bound to take for getting the bump so early in your career.”“That’s some spooky shit, Moe, the way you knew him. You even say the words he said.”“It was hard-learned, what I know about Larry. We came up together. So when did he come back to you with the special assignment?”“About six months later, when I was in the One-Eleven, he asked me to do some minor crap. He had me check up on someone, another detective. I wasn’t supposed to say anything to anybody, no matter what. Then like a week later, two guys from—”“—I.A. showed up and wanted to speak to you about this other detective. You didn’t say a word, did you?”“No.”“Larry was—”“—testing me. Yeah, I knew that. It was bullshit. After that, he didn’t call for a long time.”“How long?”“I got transferred to the Six-O almost eight months ago. I guess it was four or five months after that.”“And . . .”“And he met me at some Cuban-Chinese dive in Hell’s Kitchen. Gave me some equipment, told me how to install it.”“Did he say why he wanted a wire in—”“I didn’t ask. I didn’t wanna know. I’m not sure I woulda believed him anyway, no matter what he told me.”“Clever. Believing Larry was about percentages. But what happened next?”“Nothing. Chief McDonald and I never spoke again. Most of the time, I even forgot that the wire was there. I never even saw the chief again until . . . you know.”“Fountain Avenue.”“Yeah.”“Okay, is that all of it?”“That’s it! Tomorrow, I’ll pull the wire.”“No you won’t. Leave it there,” I barked. “Right now it’s all we got. Maybe we can use it. Does anybody else know?”
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“Not from me, but I can’t say if Chief McDonald told anyone.”“I doubt it. Not Larry’s style to share. Besides, whatever his reasoning, this was way beyond kosher, even for a chief.”“So what’s the plan?”“The plan? The plan is you dig up what you can on the Dexter Mayweather murder while I try and figure out what Larry Mac was up to with this wire.”“You think they’re related, the wire, the Mayweather thing, and the chief’s suicide?” she asked.“If it was suicide.”“Right, if it was suicide,” she agreed. “But do you think it’s all related?”“Maybe, maybe not. Depends what Larry was fishing for.”“Huh?”“Sometimes trawlers catch sharks in their nets. Even if you go to throw the shark back in, it doesn’t mean it won’t bite you.” HER NAME WAS Nancy Lustig, a forlorn little rich girl whose looks bordered on the ugly side of nondescript. I’d met her in 1978 when I was looking for mynow-you-see-him-now-you-don’tbrother-in-law, Patrick. They’d dated long enough for him to knock her up and abandon her after the abortion. I hadn’t thought about Nancy Lustig in years, but as I drove home along the Belt Parkway in the suddenly un-welcoming fog, she was on my mind.I guess maybe there was something in Melendez tonight that brought Nancy to mind. Not her looks, certainly, but there was something in Carmella’s eyes, a sadness, a yearning, an old wound that struck the same chord Nancy had struck a dozen years ago.I don’t know, maybe it was my guilt again, screaming at me like the cranky old steps. It wasn’t lost on me that in the midst of Melendez’s revelations about Larry Mac and her planting the wire, I had kissed a woman in a way married men are not supposed to kiss women who are not their wives. Sure, from the outside it probably didn’t look like much of a kiss, but it was on the inside, and on the inside there was fire.In a way, I think I was grateful for the bomb Carmella had dropped on me about her dealings with Larry Mac. It put the fire on hold, at least for now. There was only so much I could handle all atonce, only so many hands to juggle so many balls. Tonight, I’d run out of hands.CHAPTER TWELVEFISHBEIN MET ME at a coffee shop in Elmont, just over the Queens border with Nassau County. The D.A. didn’t like being summoned. He was careful not to say so, though his expression spoke all too clearly. Fishbein may have been good at keeping his yap shut when the situation called for it, but he wore his heart on his face. It was forever getting him in trouble, especially during his ill-fated run for governor. His media-savvy handlers spotted the problem right away, making certain Fishbein never appeared on camera in his own commercials. His ads were always full of testimonials, newspaper clippings, and still photos.The bigger problem was that his handlers couldn’t control the TV news, and whenever they showed tape of Fishbein making a stump speech, the D.A.’s boredom and condescension showed through. It was especially evident when he’d be in some upstate county speaking to a bunch of dairy farmers. Bad enough that he looked so out of place to begin with—Groucho Marx in a Dickies shirt, stiff Levis, and Wolverine boots—but when he started talking about price supports . . . Jesus, you could just see the man wanted to be any place else.“So, what can I do for you, Mr. Prager?” Fishbein asked, pulling a face as bitter as the coffee. He put his cup down.“That’s the right question, Mr. D.A., but first I wanna talk about my brother-in-law a little bit. You said—”“I know what I said, but you might as well not ask. Results. Results. Results. They’re the only things that’ll get you answers, so I suggest you get to work.”“Can you find out if there was any monkey business going on in the Six-O?”“Monkey business?”“Was anyone in the precinct a target of an I.A., local, or federal investigation? Do I really have to spell it out for you?”“Not really, but can you be a little more specific? Even with good hearing, it helps to know what you’re listening for.”Clever man. I knew we’d eventually get to where we now were. I just hadn’t counted on it being so soon. I’d spent the better part of my sleepless last night trying to sort through everything I had on my plate, never mind the kiss.The kiss. It was all I could do not to let it consume me. But looking across the table at Fishbein’s snide expression made the task that much easier. I went with the truth. An edited version of it, at least.“Chief McDonald had a wire installed in an interview room at the Six-O.”Fishbein’s eyes got big and greedy. It was all he could do not to salivate. “A wire, huh? And you know this how?”“I heard a tape.”“Of what?”“For now, that’s my business and it’s beside the point. What I need to know is why.”“You’re presupposing this wasn’t authorized,” said the D.A., taking a second sip of his coffee. He didn’t like this one any better than the first.“I’m not presupposing anything. I’m eliminating possibilities. So, can you find out?”“I can.” Fishbein stood over me. He liked that. Suited his personality much better than speaking to dairy farmers. “I’ll be in touch.”I didn’t bother shaking his hand, nor did I wish him well. The better I got to know the D.A., the more I hoped he’d get hit by a bus someday. I stayed and finished my coffee. It was bitter, but not so much as Fishbein’s. His lips hadn’t touched my cup. LIKE A LOT of towns on Long Island, Massapequa, or Matzohpizza, as the locals jokingly called it, was a popular destination on the white flight express. So many city cops, firemen, and school teachers fled there in the ’60s and ’70s that people said Massapequa was Algonquin for civil servant. If you screamed “Help, police!” at midnight, half the porch lights in town went on. One of those porch lights had once belonged to Larry McDonald—Larry having made the move to the BurgerKing landscape of the Long Island suburb years ago. Margaret had gotten the house in the divorce settlement.Long Island gave me the chills to begin with, and the thought of visiting Larry’s old house wasn’t making me feel any better. I parked in front of the tidy colonial on Harmony Drive in Massapequa Park and took a slow walk to the door. Yeah, even out here the stratification of neighborhoods had taken hold. The collars were bluer in North Massapequa than in plain old Massapequa, and the houses were a little nicer and the lawns a bit more trim in Massapequa Park than in Massapequa proper. But if you had somegelt, some ’scarole, you lived down by the water in Nassau Shores.The first thing I did was look at the numbers on the front of the house when a squat man of sixty pulled back the door. Who did I expect, Larry McDonald’s fucking ghost? It’s weird how humans are so good at denying reality. I suppose I thought Margaret would answer. Maybe hoped is the better word.“Is Margaret home?”“She’s not around. Who are you?” he asked, but without guile.“Moe Prager. I’m—”“Sure, sure, Moe. I heard all about you. You were friends with Marge’s first husband. Come in. Come in.” I stepped inside. The interior of the house was as clean and tidy as the outside. “Frank Spinelli,” he said, offering me a thick hand. I took it. Had the grip of a working man, but the skin of a retiree. His accent was Bronx Italian, maybe with a taste of the old country mixed in.“Pleasure to meet you, Frank.”“Same here. Glad for the company. Gave up the pizzeria a few years back, but I can’t get used to this leisure thing. I tried golf a little bit, but I figured if I wanted to suffer so much, I’d just stick pins in my eyes. I’m home so much, sometimes I think I make Marge a littleubotz, crazy, you know?”I liked this guy. “Yeah, I can see that.”“For almost forty years I’m working twelve-hour days, and then this beautiful young woman walks into my shop and she takes my heart. She come in for calzone and winds up with a husband. Life is crazy, no? Hey, I’m being rude. You wanna drink? A little homemade red?”“Sure, but only with some ice and lemon slices.”That stopped Frank Spinelli in his tracks. “Hey, who taught you how to drink homemade like a guinea?”Rico Tripoli. “Another ex-cop. A friend of Larry and me.”“Come on in the kitchen.”Frank Spinelli stood at the island with two jam jars filled with ice cubes and lemon wedges. He poured the red wine into the jars from a big jug. He corked the jug and slid a jar my way.“Salude!”“Salude!”“So, Moe, you know your friend Larry, he really hurt Marge.”“I know, Frank.”“Why did he do that? Marge is a beautiful woman, a good woman.”“The best. But Larry’s loss was your gain, right?”For the first time since I stepped inside the house, Frank stopped smiling.“Marge, she loves me, but she never loves me like Larry. I knew that when I married her. That is a once in your life thing, the way she loved Larry. Me, I’m a chubby old wop from the Bronx who respects a woman, who knows how to treat her right, but I never fool myself. My poppa,” Frank said, crossing himself, “he always said the only real fools were people who tricked themselves. I’m no fool, Moe.”“No, Frank, I don’t suppose you are.”“So why you wanna talk to Marge, you don’t mind me asking?”“About Larry. Something was going on there. I knew Larry was an ambitious bastard, and he could do some incredibly cold and calculating things, but suicide . . .”“Marge, too. She don’t understand.”“That’s why I wanted to talk to her. Maybe she knows something she isn’t aware of. You know, something that happened a long time ago.”“Sure. Sure. Makes sense.”We went out to their back deck and stood in silence, drinking our wine and watching the cardinals and robins darting from branch to branch. Before I left, Frank promised he would have Margaret call me. We shook hands and said our goodbyes, but Frank wasn’t quite finished. With the front door nearly closed behind me, I could hear Frank mutter, “Why did he hurt her like that?”It was a good question. Larry seemed to have left a lot of those behind. I MADE ONE more stop on my way back to Brooklyn. I pulled off the L.I.E. at Queens Boulevard and drove into Rego Park. Mandrake Towers was a ten-unit apartment building complex. The buildings were red brick boxes that were as homey as an off-ramp and as cozy as a prison cell, but I wasn’t apartment shopping, thank God!The security office was in the basement of Building 5. Although the incinerator had been replaced years ago by a garbage compactor, the stink of the fire and ash remained. Didn’t matter how many coats of fresh paint were laid over the cinder block walls, it seemed the odor was there to stay. Maybe it was in my head. My friend Israel Roth, forty-five years removed from the nightmare of Auschwitz, says he can still smell burning flesh in pure mountain air. He told me once, “There’s no forgetting some things. Some things, Mr. Moe, demand to be remembered.”Who was I to disagree?The security office was unchanged since the first time I’d seen it in 1983, but the man behind the desk had grown a little grayer, a little thicker around the gut. He no longer wore a trooper’s hat and there were now shiny captain’s bars on the collar of his khaki shirt.“Shit!” he said looking up from his book. “Security sure do suck in this place they let broken-down old white people like you in here.”“Security’s fine, but their leadership’s a little shaky.”“Y’all don’t want me to come around this desk and kick your scrawny little Jewish ass up and down the block.”“You’d have to catch me first.”“Good point. Come over here and let me give y’all a hug, man.”Preacher Simmons stood up in pieces. When you’re six-foot-eight and close to three hundred pounds, you’re allowed to unfold yourself one part at a time. In the mid-’60s, Preacher “the Creature” Simmons was an all-city, all-world forward from Boys High in Brooklyn. These days, he would have been drafted directly into the NBA and given a few million dollars to sit on the bench and learn the pro game. But back in ’64 he wound up at a basketball factory down South and in the midst of a point-shaving scandal. Unlike Connie Hawkins, Preacher didn’t have the resources to resurrect his career. He was a power playerand lacked the soaring grace of Hawkins. Instead, he fell on hard times and was rescued by a cop named John Heaton. Heaton was the father of the political intern who had gone missing in 1981. It was two years later, when I’d been hired to do a last-ditch investigation of Moira Heaton’s disappearance, that I met Preacher. We’d been friends since. We even played ball together sometimes in local two-on-two tournaments. We were quite the odd couple: me with one knee and Preacher lumbering in the paint, carrying forty extra pounds around his gut and the occasional defender on his back. But between my outside shot and his power game we made it work. Katy liked to bring Sarah to watch us play. Today, thinking about that stung.“What brings you down to the bowels of hell today, Moe?”“You busy tonight?”“Busy? Nah, man, why?”“Feel like helping me with something?”“A case?”“Yeah.”“Help how?”“Meet me in front of Nathan’s at nine tonight.”“Coney Island Nathan’s or Oceanside?”“Coney Island.”“We investigating hot dogs and beer?”“Maybe after.”“After what?” he asked.“After you teach someone a lesson in basketball.”“Y’all talk some shit, Moe. You know that?”“Can you meet me?”“See you there.”“I’ll explain later,” I said, waving my goodbye.
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“Why later?”“Because I hope to figure out what the hell we’re supposed to be doing by then.”CHAPTER THIRTEENI CAME UP with something, but like the rest of my ideas about being a detective, it was half-baked and spur of the moment. You make do with what you have, I guess. As scheduled, Preacher Simmons met me out in front of Nathan’s at nine. I always liked playing ball on an empty stomach. Preacher had different ideas on the subject. He had four hot dogs, two large fries, and two enormous lemonades before I dropped him off at the courts. They didn’t call him “the Creature” for nothing.“I guess sitting on your ass all day in that security office makes for hungry work.”“Man, you know me going on seven years, Moe. For me, breathing makes for hungry work.”Argue that.When I picked him up at the entrance to the courts about an hour and a half later, Preacher had toweled off and changed into some fresh clothing. Even after a full day’s work, the drive in from Queens, and ninety minutes of ball, his eyes were on fire. He’d once told me that the only place he ever felt truly alive was on the court. That was never going to change. He was forty-three now and I wondered where the fire would go when his hips and knees started to break down. You can’t carry as much weight as he did and pound your legs on concrete and asphalt courts for as long as he had without paying a big price.There was a burning in me, too, but mine was envy. At least Preacher had a place in the world where he felt alive. All I had now were French Cabernets and California Chardonnays. A stupid piece of carbon paper—did they even have carbon paper anymore?—had taken that place away from me forever. Being a cop, putting on that blueuniform every day, knowing every inch of the pavement I patrolled, that was being alive. The rest of it was sleepwalking.“So?” I said, trying not to let my envy show.He thought my scouting report on the Nugget kid was right on. “For such a big head, he don’t seem to have nothing in it. You can’t tell that boy nothing.”Preacher said he’d caught a lucky break, that another old-timer had recognized him from his Boys High years. Reggie Philbis was his name and they’d played against one another back in the day—Reggie for Thomas Jefferson. Currently, Reggie worked as a drug treatment counselor for the city, having come upon his education the hard way. Knowing Reggie paid off in two ways: it helped open up lines of communication with the guys waiting winners, and it got Nugget’s grudging attention.“Anybody have anything to say about Malik?”“You mean Melvin? Shit, yeah, but none of it kindly. He was like the neighborhood joke, you know what I’m saying?”“Every neighborhood’s got ’em, guys that fancy themselves something they’re never gonna be. Guys that think they’re cool, but can’t get outta their own way with a tour guide.”“That’s the boy.”“But what did they say about him?”“Strictly small-time, you know, a loser—”“A loser that could afford half a key of coke.”“You didn’t let me finish, Moe. My man Reggie say Melvin not only got a new name, but he got hisself some new friends in recent years.”“New friends?”“Wiseguy types.”“Wiseguytypes, not wiseguys?” I asked.“Well, shit, ain’t like old Melvin been introducing his new white brothers around, if you know what I’m saying. The boys at the court seem to think they was sorta like Melvin in their own way.”“Wannabes.”“Sounds about right.”“And Nugget?”“Boy’s got some severe offensive game, but on D he moves his feet like a statue.”“Did you talk to him?”“Some. He ain’t ready to hear me.”“He’ll learn the hard way.”“Nah, man, some go the hard way, but they don’t never learn a thing.”It was getting close to midnight. Preacher wanted to treat for a nightcap, but I took a rain check and dropped the man back at his car. He asked me what was wrong. I lied and told him nothing. He left it at that. Preacher was good that way—he knew when to push and when not to push. I HAD IN mind to pay a visit on Malik Jabbar’s girlfriend, Kalisha. Given Mable Broadbent’s less than glowing commentary on her late son’s taste in women, I didn’t figure on asking her to make formal introductions. So I just sat in my car across from Rancho Broadbent and waited, hoping Kalisha would appear. I hadn’t a clue as to what Kalisha might look like, but somehow I just felt I would know her.It was getting late and I was beginning to worry that Mable had exaggerated about the hours Kalisha kept. Another few minutes and I’d have to head back home or risk passing out in my car. When I looked up from my watch, a streetlight flickered and I noticed Mable Broadbent’s backlit silhouette in the front window of her flat. She, too, was waiting. I wondered if this was how she dealt with her grief, keeping tabs on a woman she despised, a woman who had somehow replaced her in her lost son’s life. It’s hard getting inside other people’s emotions, but grief is, I think, the hardest to slip into. Grief is a dark place, the darkest place.The stoop light popped on, the front door swinging open. A woman came out onto the concrete landing and closed the door behind her. She hesitated at the top of the short stairs, turning to her left to stare directly at Mable Broadbent. Mable did not move. It was a test of wills. After an endless ten seconds, the woman on the stoop shouted, “Fuck you, bitch.” By any standard, Mable had won that round. The woman I took to be Kalisha made a left and moved toward Surf Avenue. I got out of my car. As I did so, I looked to where Mable had sat in her front window. She was gone.I stood in the shadows across the street from Kalisha. She checked her watch and paced as if she were waiting for someone to pick her up.The smell of the ocean and sewerage was strong in the air. Calling Coney Island the ass end of Brooklyn was both a figurative and literal expression because around the bend of Sea Gate toward Bay Ridge, sewerage was dumped out into the Atlantic. When I was a kid, swimming with my buddies at Coney, Brighton, and Manhattan beaches, I never gave it much thought. I did now. I walked across the street.“Kalisha?”“Whatchu want?” she barked, her pride still hurting from losing her stare-down with Mable Broadbent.She had a svelte, angular body. Up close, she was a pretty woman with almost yellow-brown skin and green eyes, but she exuded a kind of hardness that argued against her looks. She wore an expensive, grassy perfume, and way too much of it, so much that it dominated the scent of the sea and sewerage. Kalisha’s clothes cost some bucks, but cheapened her somehow. She stared at me as if I were a lone roach caught out in the light. I realized I had crossed the street fully prepared to dislike her, and nothing about her was changing my mind.“You want some company, baby, you a long way from Mermaid and Stillwell. Twenty bucks’ll get you all the black pussy you can handle down there.” My silence made her uncomfortable, and she reached a hand into her bag. “I ain’t in that life no more.”I showed her my old badge, bluffing to the max.“That supposed to get y’all a discount?”“No, just your attention.”“Now you got it, whatchu want with it?”“To talk about Malik.”“He dead.”“No shit. That’s why I wanna talk.”“Fuck y’all.”“Sorry,” I said, “not interested. Now it looks to me like you’re waiting on somebody. I bet he won’t be thrilled if he has to come collect you over at the 60th Precinct. You think?”“Whatchu wanna know ’bout Malik?”“Where’d he get the money for half a key of coke?”The belligerence in her face was replaced by blankness. The question scared her and she didn’t like being scared. She liked showing it even less.“I don’t know whatchu talkin’ ’bout. Malik didn’t—”“Bullshit, Kalisha. Malik was a loser, a guy that didn’t have two nickels to rub together his whole life. Then he scores a fine-looking woman like you and he’s dealing weight. Something changed. Maybe he got some new friends, some white boys, maybe. You wanna talk to me about that?”“Fuck y’all. Ain’t met a cop had a dick bigga than my pinky.” She demonstrated, waving a ringed little finger my way. It was false bravado. She’d grown shrill and any sense of composure was gone from her voice.“That may be, but it doesn’t answer the question. Listen, Kalisha, you don’t talk to me now, okay. But there’s gonna be some detectives coming around on a regular basis starting tomorrow. So even if you aren’t talking, maybe Malik’s buddies will think you are. You know, maybe I should just wait here with you till your ride shows up. Maybe I should chat with him. What do you think?”“Oh, fuck, man! Why you gotta fuck with a girl’s life like that?”“It doesn’t have to be this way if you just talk to me.”“Ask your damned questions, man.”“Malik ever talk about a cop named McDonald?”“E-I-E-I-O. He the guy owns that farm, right?” She smiled, and for just a second, I saw there were still remnants of a little girl inside the hard woman in front of me.“No, Kalisha, Larry McDonald bought the farm. He didn’t own it.” Took her a second to process that. “Oh, he dead too. Well, Malik didn’t never talk about no cops, not by name, anyway.”“Okay, how about Dexter Mayweather, Malik ever mention him?”“You crazy? D Rex been dead almost as long as I been alive. Malik was just a boy when that man was killed. How he gonna know anything about that?”“I don’t know. Maybe one of Malik’s new friends mentioned something. Just a question.”Something flashed across her face—unease, maybe. If I had blinked, I would have missed it.“Whatchu talking ’bout, Malik’s new friends? He didn’t have no friends but me. And why’s all the questions you ask ’bout dead men? Dontchu know nobody but dead men?”“I know lots of people, Kalisha, but I’m most interested in Malik’s friends.”“Look, I told y’all, I don’t know nothing ’bout friends.”“Then where’d he get the money for the coke?”She checked her watch again. “Look, my john—I mean my new man gonna be here any second. Won’t look good, me standing here talking with you. Can’t we talk another time?”“Tomorrow.”“Not tomorrow.”“When I say tomorrow, it’s not a question. I’ll meet you at this corner at two.”“Okay, then, just get outta here now.”I did as she asked, retreating into the shadows across the street. I turned to look back at the hard girl. Yet, as hard as she was, Kalisha just seemed a sad, bitter woman from the darkness in which I now stood. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years old and life had already beaten all the good out of her. I couldn’t help but wonder what another twenty-five years would do to her. What small percentage of her soul would remain? I needn’t have worried.I heard the rumble of a loud engine coming down Surf Avenue. Even before its brakes squealed and the car pulled over, I knew something was wrong. But what? I couldn’t seem to think fast enough. My head was foggy, my mouth dry, my heart racing.What’s wrong? What’s wrong? What’s wrong?It rang in my head like church bells. Kalisha took a step toward the passenger door and stopped. Her face went from falsely happy to blank to genuinely panicked.The car!I recognized the car. It was the same Camaro that had tried to make me its new hood ornament.“Look—”Before I got the second syllable out of my mouth or taken a full step, the barrel of a shotgun stuck through the open window of the passenger door. There were two flashes and roars. Kalisha’s head fairly exploded and her lifeless torso sat down, one rubber leg under her, the other kicked out toward Sea Gate. The Camaro gunned its engine and fishtailed, smoking its back tires as it went.I was swimming in quicksand as I came back across the street. The acrid cloud of burned rubber swallowed up the twin puffs of gun smoke like finger food, and its stink overwhelmed the cordite, the sea, the stench of human waste. Strangely, I could still smell grace notes of Kalisha’s grassy perfume, although the neck and ears on which she’ddabbed it had been chewed to shit by the close-range barrage of pellets. I looked down at what was left of her and didn’t need to touch her to know it wouldn’t take twenty-five more years to find out what she’d become. All she was fifteen seconds ago was all she was ever going to be.I ran to my car and took off. No lights had come on since the shooting. No new faces had appeared in second floor windows, at least none I could see. They were there all right. When the cops showed, no one would have heard or seen a thing. When I was on the job, I used to think the lack of cooperation was just pure hatred of the cops. Not anymore. Some of it was hatred and resentment, sure, but mostly it was resignation. This is how life worked. This is how it was in the Soul Patch. What was another dead nigger? What was another murdered prostitute to the cops?As I tore down the street, I once again found myself thinking of Israel Roth and Auschwitz. “You can get used to anything,” he’d say. “The very essence of humanity is adaptability. Some people think it’s what makes us great. Me, I think it’s a curse. There are things we shouldn’t be able to live with.”I also thought of Mable Broadbent. What would she do with her grief now that Kalisha was dead?I found the Camaro down by Coney Island Creek. As I turned the corner it was already in flames. And when I saw the long, wet rag sticking out of where the gas cap should have been, I knew it was only a matter of seconds until the whole thing blew apart. It didn’t disappoint. For decades, the city used to have free firework displays along the boardwalk on summer Tuesday evenings. Those displays were fun, but nothing compared to an exploding Chevrolet. I split before New York’s Bravest and Finest appeared.
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