Copyright © Giorgio Faletti, 2009
English language translation © Howard Curtis, 2011
To Mauro, for the rest of the journey
I feel like a hitchhiker caught in a hailstorm on a Texas highway.
I can’t run.
I can’t hide.
And I can’t make it stop.
Lyndon B. Johnson
President of the United States
I start walking.
I walk slowly because I don’t need to run. I walk slowly because I don’t want to run. Everything is planned, down to the time it’ll take me to walk that distance. According to my calculations, I only need eight minutes. I have a cheap watch on my wrist and a weight in the pocket of my jacket. It’s a green cotton jacket, and on the little pocket at the front, over the heart, there used to be a sewed-on strip bearing a name and a rank. The memory of the person it belonged to has faded, as if that memory was given to a senile old man for safekeeping. All that remains of that strip is a slightly lighter patch, like a small bruise on the material, which had already survived a thousand washes when someone
tore off that thin strip and transferred the name, first on to a gravestone and then into oblivion.
Now it’s a jacket and that’s it.
I’ve decided I’ll put it on every time I go out for my little eight-minute walk. My steps will be lost like whispers in the roar of millions of other steps walked every day in this city. The minutes will merge into one another.
I have to walk eight minutes at a regular pace to be sure that the radio signal is sufficiently strong to carry out its task.
I read somewhere that if the sun suddenly went out, its light would continue to reach the earth for another eight minutes before plunging everything into the dark and cold of farewell.
All at once, I remember that and start to laugh. Alone, in the middle of the people and the traffic, my head raised to the sky, my mouth wide open on a New York sidewalk as if surprised by a satellite in space, I start laughing. People move around me and look at this guy laughing like a crazy man.
Some may be thinking I really am crazy.
One joins in with my laughter for a few moments, then realizes he’s laughing without knowing why. I laugh until I weep at the incredible, contemptuous meanness of fate. Men have lived to think, and others haven’t been able to because they’ve been forced merely to survive.
And others to die.
An anxiety without remission, a breathless wheezing, a question mark to be carried on their backs like the weight of a cross, because that uphill climb is an illness that never ends. Nobody has found a remedy, for the simple reason that there is no remedy.
Mine is just a suggestion: eight minutes.
None of the human beings bustling around me has any idea when those last eight minutes will begin.
But I do.
I hold the sun in my hands, and I can blot it out whenever I want. I reach the point that, for my steps and my stopwatch, represents the word ‘here’. I put my hand in my pocket and my fingers close around a small, solid, familiar object.
My skin on the plastic is a reliable guide, a path to be travelled, an ever-watchful memory.
I find a button and press it gently.
And then one more.
A moment or a thousand years later, the explosion is like thunder without a storm, the earth greeting the sky, a moment of liberation.
Then the screams and the dust and the sound of cars crashing, and the sirens tell me that for many people behind me the eight minutes are over.
This is my power.
This is my duty.
This is my will.
I am God.
Too Many Years Earlier
The ceiling was white, but for the man lying on the couch it was full of images and mirrors. The images were the same ones that had been haunting him every night for months. The mirrors were those of reality and memory, in which he continued to see his face reflected.
The face he had now, the face he used to have.
Two different faces, the tragic spell of a transformation, two pawns that in their journey had marked the beginning and end of that long parlour game called war. Many people had played that one, too many. Some had had to stay out of the game for one turn, others for ever.
Nobody had won. Nobody, on either side.
But in spite of everything, he had made it back. He had kept his life and the ability to look, but had lost for ever the desire to be looked at. Now, for him, the world didn’t go beyond the limits of his own shadow.
Behind him, Colonel Lensky, the army psychiatrist, was seated in a leather armchair, a friendly presence in a defensive position. It had been months, maybe years, in fact centuries, that they had been meeting in this room that couldn’t erase from the air the slight smell of rust you always found on military premises. Even though this wasn’t a barracks, but a hospital.
The colonel was a man with sparse brown hair and a calm voice. At first sight, you’d think he was a chaplain rather than a soldier. Sometimes he was in uniform, but mostly he wore civilian clothes. Quiet clothes in neutral colours. A nondescript face, one of those people who you meet and immediately forget.
Who want to be immediately forgotten.
But in all that time, he had listened to his voice more than he had looked at his face.
‘So, tomorrow you’ll be leaving us.’
Those words meant many things: a final discharge, boundless relief, inescapable solitude.
‘Do you feel ready?’
No! he would have liked to scream. I’m not ready, anymore than I was ready when all this started. I’m not readynow and I’ll never be ready. Not after seeing what I saw andfeeling what I felt, not after my body and face …
His voice had been firm. Or at least it had seemed firm to him as he uttered that sentence that condemned him to the world. And even if it hadn’t been, Colonel Lensky clearly preferred to think that it was. As a man and as a doctor, he had chosen to believe that his job was over, rather than admit that he’d failed. That was why he was prepared to lie to him.
‘That’s good. I’ve already signed the papers.’
He heard the creak of the armchair and the rustle of cotton pants as the colonel stood up. Corporal Wendell Johnson sat up on the couch and for a moment did not move but looked out through the open window at the grounds, where green treetops framed a patch of blue sky. From that position, he could not see what he would certainly have seen if he had gone to the window. Sitting on benches or propped in the hostile relief of a wheelchair, standing under the trees or attempting those few faltering movements that some called self-sufficiency, were men just like him.
When they had left they were called soldiers.
Now they were veterans.
A word without glory, which attracted not attention but silence.
A word that meant that they had survived, that they had come out alive from the hellish pit of Vietnam, where nobody knew what sin he had to atone for even though everything around him showed him how to atone for it. They were veterans and each of them bore, more or less visibly, the burden of his personal redemption, which began and ended within the confines of a military hospital.
Colonel Lensky waited for him to stand and turn before he approached him. He held out his hand and looked him in the eye. Corporal Johnson sensed the effort the colonel was making to stop his gaze turning away from the scars that disfigured his face.
‘Good luck, Wendell.’
It was the first time he had ever addressed him by his first name.
A name doesn’t mean a person,he thought.
There were so many names around, carved on white crosses arranged in rows with military precision. That changed nothing. Nothing would help to bring those young men back to life, to remove from their lifeless chests the numbers they kept pinned to them like medals in honour of lost wars. He would always be merely one of the many. He had known lots like him, soldiers who moved and laughed and smoked joints and shot up with heroin to forget that they were constant targets. The only difference between them lay in the fact that he was still alive, even though, to all intents and purposes, he felt as if he was one of those crosses. He was still alive, but the price he had paid for this negligible difference had been a leap into the grotesque void of monstrousness.
‘Thank you, sir.’
He turned and walked to the door. He felt the doctor’s eyes on the back of his neck. It was some time since he had last been expected to give a military salute. It wasn’t required of those who were being reconstructed piece by piece in body and mind with the sole purpose of allowing them to remember for the rest of their lives. And the rest of the mission had been accomplished.
Good luck, Wendell.
Which actually meant: Fuck off, corporal.
He walked along the light green corridor. The dim light that filtered through the small skylight reminded him of rainy days in the forest, when the leaves were so shiny they were like mirrors and the hidden part seemed made of shadow. A shadow from which the barrel of a rifle could emerge at any moment.
He left the building.
Outside was the sun and the blue sky and different trees. Trees easy to accept and forget. They weren’t scrub pines or bamboo or mangrove or aquatic stretches of paddy fields.
This wasn’t Dat-nuoc.
The word echoed in his head, in its correct, slightly guttural pronunciation. In the spoken language of Vietnam it meant country, although the literal translation was land-water, an extremely realistic way to express the essence of the place. It was a happy image for some, provided you didn’t have to work there with your back stooped, or walk with a pack on your back and an M16 slung over your shoulder.
Now the vegetation he had around him meant home. Although he didn’t know exactly what place to call by that name.
The corporal smiled because he could find no other way to express his bitterness. He smiled because smiling didn’t hurt any more. The morphine and the needles under the skin were almost faded memories. Not the pain, no, that would remain a yellow stain in his memory every time he undressed in front of a mirror or tried in vain to pass a hand through his hair and found only the rough texture of burn scars.
He set off along the path, hearing the gravel crunch beneath his feet, leaving Colonel Lensky and everything he stood for behind him. He reached the strip of asphalt that was the main thoroughfare and turned left, heading unhurriedly towards one of the white buildings that stood out in the middle of the grounds.
There was all the irony of the beginning and the end, in this place.
The story was coming to an end where it had begun. A few dozen miles from here was Fort Polk, the camp for advanced training before shipping out for Vietnam. When they arrived, they’d been a group of boys that someone had dragged away from their normal lives and claimed to be able to turn into soldiers. Most of them had never left the state they lived in, some not even the county where they were born.
Ask not what your country can do for you …
None of them did ask that, but none of them were ready to confront what their country would ask of them.
In the southern part of the fort, a typical Vietnamese village had been reconstructed, down to the last detail. Straw roofs, wood, bamboo reeds, rattan. Strange tools and utensils, oriental-looking instructors who were in fact more American than he was. None of the materials and objects was familiar to them. And yet in these buildings, this idealized version of a place thousands of miles away, there was both a threat and something ordinary, everyday.
This is what Charlie’s house looks like,the sergeant had told them.
Charlie was the nickname thay gave the enemy. The training had begun and ended. They had learned everything there was to know. But they had done it in a hurry and without too much conviction, because there wasn’t much conviction around in those days. Everyone would have to fend for himself, especially when it came to figuring out, among the many identical faces they saw around them, who was Vietcong and who a friendly South Vietnamese citizen. The smiles on their faces were the same, but what they were carrying might be completely different. A hand grenade, for example.
The black man who was coming toward him, propelling his wheelchair forward with sturdy arms, was a good example of what could happen. Among the veterans admitted to the hospital for reconstruction, he was the only one Wendell had become friendly with.
Jeff B. Anderson, from Atlanta. He had been the victim of a bomb attack as he was leaving a Saigon brothel. Unlike his companions he had survived, but was paralysed from the waist down. No glory, no medal. Just medical care and embarrassment. But in Vietnam glory was a chance occurrence, and medals sometimes weren’t worth the metal they were made of.
Jeff brought the wheelchair to a halt by placing his hands flat on the wheels. ‘Hi, corporal,’ he said. ‘They’re saying some strange things about you.’
‘In this place, a lot of the things people say turn out to be true.’
‘So they’re right. You’re going home.’
‘Yup, I’m going home.’
The next question came after a fraction of a second, a brief but interminable pause: it was surely a question Jeff had asked himself many times.
‘Will you make it?’
‘How about you?’
They both preferred not to answer that, but to leave it to each other’s imagination.
‘I don’t know if I should envy you or not.’
‘For what it’s worth, neither do I.’
Jeff’s jaw contracted, and his voice emerged as if broken by a belated, pointless anger. ‘If only they’d bombed those fucking dikes…’
He left the sentence hanging. His words evoked ghosts that they had both tried many times to exorcize in vain.
Corporal Wendell Johnson shook his head.
Despite the massive bombardment to which North Vietnam had been subjected, despite the fact that three times the number of bombs had been dropped than in the Second World War, nobody had ever given the order to hit the dikes on the Red River. Many thought it would have been a decisive move. The water would have flooded the valleys, and the world would have branded as a war crime what in all probability would have been close to genocide. But maybe the conflict would have had a different outcome.
‘Hundreds of thousands of people would have died, Jeff.’
Jeff looked up. There was something indefinable in his eyes. Maybe it was an ultimate plea for mercy, a mixture of regret and remorse for what he was thinking. Then he turned his head and looked out at some point beyond the treetops.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘there are times when I get to thinking, and I put my hands on the armrests and try to stand. Then I remember the state I’m in and I curse myself.’
He took a deep breath, as if he needed a lot of air to say what he was about to say.
‘I curse myself because I’m like this, but most of all because I’d give the lives of millions of those people just to have my legs back.’
He looked him in the eyes again.
‘What happened, Wen? More than that, why did it happen?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think anyone will ever know, not really.’
Jeff placed his hands on the wheels and moved the chair back and forth a little, as if that gesture was enough to remind him that he was still alive. Or maybe it was just a moment of distraction, one of those moments when he thought he could stand up and walk away. He was pursuing his own thoughts and it took a while before they became words.
‘They used to say the Communists ate children.’
As he spoke, he looked at Wendell without seeing him, as if he was visualizing the image those words evoked.
‘We fought the Communists. Maybe that’s why they didn’t eat us.’
He paused, and when he spoke again his voice was a whisper.
‘Only chewed us up and spat us out.’
He pulled himself together and held out his hand. Wendell shook it: Jeff had a firm grip.
‘Good luck, Jeff.’
‘Now fuck off, Wen. And go quickly. I hate crying in front of a white man. On my skin, even the tears look black.’
Wendell walked away, with the distinct feeling that he was losing something. That both of them were losing something. He had only taken a few steps when Jeff’s voice forced him to stop.
He turned and saw him, the silhouette of a man and a machine against the sunset.
‘Get laid for me,’ Jeff said, making an unambiguous gesture with his hand.
Wendell smiled in reply. ‘OK. When I do, it’ll be in your name.’
Corporal Wendell Johnson walked away, his eyes fixed straight ahead, his walk still, in spite of himself, a soldier’s walk. He reached the accommodation block without greeting or talking to anyone else. He entered his quarters. The bathroom door was closed. He always kept it closed, because the mirror faced the main door and he preferred to avoid his face being the first image to greet him.
He forced himself to remember that from the next day onwards he would have to get used to it. There were no charitable mirrors, only surfaces that reflected exactly what they saw. Without pity, and with the involuntary cruelty of indifference.
He took off his shirt and threw it on a chair, away from the masochistic spell of the other mirror, the one inside the wall closet. He took off his shoes and lay down on the bed with his hands behind his head, rough skin against rough skin, a sensation he was used to.
Through the half-open windows, like an emanation of the darkening sky, came the rhythmic hammering of a woodpecker hidden somewhere in the trees.
tupa-tupa-tupa-tupa … tupa-tupa-tupa-tupa …
Memory turned in its vicious circle, and the sound became the muted splutter of an AK-47 and then a tangle of voices and images.
‘Matt, where the fuck are those bastards? Where are theyfiring from?’
‘I don’t know. I can’t see a thing.’
‘Hey, you with the M-79, throw a grenade into thosebushes on the right.’
‘What happened to Corsini?’
Farrell’s voice, stained with earth and fear, came fromsome point on their right. ‘Corsini’s gone. Mac, too
And Farrell’s voice, too, dissolved into the air.
‘Come on. Wen, let’s get our asses out of here. They’retearing us to pieces.’
tupa-tupa-tupa-tupa … tupa-tupa-tupa-tupa …
‘No, not that way. There’s no cover.’
‘Holy shit, they’re everywhere.’
* * *
He opened his eyes again and let the things around him return. The closet, the chair, the table, the bed, the windows with the unusually clean panes. And here, too, a smell of rust and disinfectant. This room had been his one landmark for months, after all the time spent in a ward, with doctors and nurses bustling around him trying to alleviate the pain of his burns. It was there that he had let his mind, almost intact, back into his ravaged body, and had made himself a promise.
The woodpecker conceded a truce to the tree it had been torturing. It seemed like a good omen, the end of hostilities, a part of the past that he could somehow leave behind him.
That he had to leave behind him.
The next day he would be leaving.
He didn’t know what kind of world he would find beyond the walls of the hospital, nor did he know how that world would greet him. In fact, neither of those two things mattered. All that mattered was the long journey he had ahead of him, because at the end of that journey an encounter with two men awaited him. They would look at him with eyes full of fear and astonishment. Then he would talk, to that fear and that astonishment.
And finally he would kill them.
A smile, again devoid of pain. Without realizing it, he drifted into sleep. That night, he slept without hearing voices, and for the first time didn’t dream about rubber trees.
What surprised him during the journey was the corn.
As he rode north, getting closer and closer to home, stretches of it started to appear at the sides of the road, meek in the shadow of the Greyhound bus. The ripples of the wind and the shadows of the clouds made it come alive. He remembered how resistant it felt when you ran your hand through it. An unexpected travelling companion, the colour of cold beer, the warm shelter of the hayloft.
He knew that sensation.
And he remembered how, with other hands, he had run his fingers through Karen’s hair and breathed in her scent, which smelled like nothing else in the world. He had felt it like a painful spasm when he had left after being at home on leave for a month, a fleeting illusion of invulnerability the army granted everyone before they shipped out. They had been offered thirty days of paradise and possible dreams, before the Army Terminal at Oakland became Hawaii and finally turned into Bien-Hoa, the troop selection centre twenty miles from Saigon.
And then Xuan-Loc, the place where everything had started, where he had found his own small plot of hell.
He took his eyes away from the road and lowered the peak of his baseball cap. He wore sunglasses held on with an elastic band because he had practically no ears left to rest the arms of the glasses on. He closed his eyes and hid himself in that tenuous semi-darkness. All he got in return were more images.
There was no corn in Vietnam.
There were no blondes. Just a few nurses at the hospital, but by then he had almost no feeling left in his fingers or any desire to touch their hair. Above all, he was sure no woman would ever again want to be touched by him.
A long-haired young man in a flowered shirt, who had been sleeping across the aisle from him, to his right, woke up. He rubbed his eyes and allowed himself a yawn that smelled of sweat and sleep and pot. He turned and started to look in a canvas bag he had placed on the free seat beside him. He took out a portable radio and switched it on. After some searching he found a station, and the strains of The Iron Maiden by Barclay James Harvest joined the noise of the wheels.
Instinctively, the corporal turned to look at him. When the young man, who must have been about his own age, noticed him and saw his face, the reaction was the usual one: the one he saw every time on other people’s faces. The young man dived back into his bag, pretending to look for something. Then he turned to sit with his back to him, listening to the music and looking out the window on his side.
The corporal put his head against the window pane.
They passed billboards, some of them advertising products he didn’t know. Speeding cars overtook the bus, and some were models he’d never seen. A 66 Ford Fairlane convertible coming in the opposite direction was the one image that was at all familiar. Time, short as it had been, had moved on. And so had life.
Two years had passed. The blinking of an eye, an indecipherable tick on the stopwatch of eternity. And yet they had sufficed to wipe out everything. Now, if he looked ahead of him, all he saw was a smooth wall, and only resentment was urging him to climb it. In all those months he had cultivated that resentment, fed it, let it grow until it was pure hate.
And now he was going home.
There would be no open arms, no speeches or fanfares, no hero’s welcome. Nobody would ever call him a hero, and anyway everyone thought the hero was dead.
He had left from Louisiana, where an army vehicle had dropped him off unceremoniously outside the bus station. He had found himself alone. Around him he no longer had the anonymous but reassuring walls of the hospital. As he waited in line to get his ticket, he had felt as if this was a casting call for the Tod Browning movie Freaks. This thought had made him smile, the only choice he had if he didn’t want to do what he had done for nights on end, and what he had sworn never to do again: cry.
Good luck, Wendell…
Suddenly Colonel Lensky’s words of farewell had become the voice of a clerk putting down the ticket for the first stretch of the journey. Hidden behind his window, the man had not looked at that part of his face that the corporal granted to the world, but instead had showed him the indifference due to any anonymous passenger – which was just what he wanted.
But when he had pushed the banknotes across the counter with a hand covered in a light cotton glove, the clerk, a slight man with not much hair and thin lips and lightless eyes, had looked up. He had lingered for a moment on his face and then lowered his head again.
The corporal had waited a moment before replying. ‘Yes.’
The ticket clerk had given him back his money.
He had ignored Wendell’s surprise. Maybe he had taken it for granted. He had simply said a few words to smooth things over. Words that, for both of them, said everything there was to say.
‘I lost my son there, two years ago tomorrow. You keep that. I think you need it more than the company.’
The corporal had walked away, feeling the same thing he’d felt when he’d turned his back on Jeff Anderson. Two men alone for ever, one in his wheelchair and the other in his ticket office, in a twilight that seemed destined to become endless.
He had stopped in third-class motels, sleeping little and badly, with his teeth clenched and his jaws tensed, dreaming recurring dreams. Post-traumatic stress syndrome, someone had called it. Science always found a way to turn the destruction of a flesh-and-blood person into a statistic. But the corporal had learned the hard way that the body never completely gets used to pain. Only the mind sometimes manages to accustom itself to horror. And soon there would be a way to show certain people exactly what he himself had been through.
Mile after mile, Mississippi had become Tennessee, which had then turned into Kentucky. Soon, he was promised the familiar landscape of Ohio. Around him, and in his mind, the different panoramas fell into place, a succession of strange locations, a line traced by a coloured pencil across the map of an unknown territory. Beside the road ran electricity and telephone wires, carrying energy and words above his head. There were houses and people, and the people were like puppets in a toy theatre, and the wires helped them to move, gave them the illusion of being alive.
From time to time, he had asked himself what energy and what words he needed right now. Maybe, while he was lying on Colonel Lensky’s couch, all the words had been said and all the forces evoked and invoked. It had been a surgical liturgy, which his reason had rejected the way a believer rejects a pagan practice. The doctor had celebrated that liturgy in vain, while he, the corporal, had hidden what little faith he had, his faith in nothingness, in a safe place in his mind, a place where nothing could hurt him or destroy him.
What had been couldn’t be changed or forgotten.
The slight lurch forward of the bus as it slowed down brought him back to where he was. The time was now, and there was no escaping it. The place, according to a sign, was called Florence. Judging by the outskirts, the town was like a lot of others, and laid no claim to being anything like its Italian namesake. One night, lying with Karen on the bed in his room, he had looked at a travel brochure.
France, Spain, Italy…
And it had been Florence, the one in Italy, that had most drawn their attention. Karen had told him things he didn’t know about the place and made him dream things he had never imagined he could dream. That was a time when he still believed that hope cost nothing, before he’d learned that it could cost a lot.
It could even cost you your life.
By the inexhaustible irony of existence, he had finally come to a place called Florence. But nothing was the way it should have been. He remembered words he’d heard spoken by Ben, the man who had been closest to a father figure for him.
Time is like a shipwreck and only what really matters staysafloat…
His own time had turned out to be a question of clinging to a raft, trying to find a desperate foothold in reality after being cast out of his own private utopia.
The driver drove obediently to the bus station. The bus jolted to a halt next to a rust-eaten shelter covered in faded signs.
He stayed in his seat, waiting for all the other passengers to get off first. Nobody moved to help a Mexican woman who was struggling with a sleeping little girl in her arms and a suitcase in her free hand. The young man across the aisle from the corporal couldn’t resist throwing him a last glance as he picked up his bag.
The corporal had decided he wanted to reach Chillicothe around sundown, so it was best to stop here before crossing the state line. Florence was a place like any other, which made it the right place. Any place was the right place, right now. From here, he would try to hitch-hike the rest of the way to his destination, in spite of the complications that choice was likely to involve. He didn’t think it was going to be easy to get a ride.
People usually thought physical disfigurement meant a nasty character. It never seemed to occur to them that evil, in order to flourish, had to be seductive. It had to attract the world with a winning smile and the promise of beauty. Whereas he felt like the last sticker needed to complete an album of monsters.
The driver glanced in the mirror to check the inside of the bus. Immediately, he turned his head. The corporal didn’t bother to ask himself if the man was urging him to get off or looking to see if the image in the mirror corresponded to the truth. Either way, he had to take the initiative. He stood up and took his bag down from the rack. He loaded it on his shoulder, taking care to hold the canvas strap with his gloved hand in order to avoid abrasions.
As he walked down the aisle, the driver, who bore a curious resemblance to Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers pitcher, seemed all of a sudden to be strangely fascinated by the dashboard.
The corporal descended those few interminable steps and found himself again alone in a small square.
He took a look around.
On the other side of the square, divided in two by the road, was a Gulf service station and a diner with a parking lot that it shared with the Open Inn, a shabby-looking motel promising vacant rooms and golden dreams.
He adjusted his bag on his shoulder and headed in that direction, prepared to buy himself a little hospitality without arguing about the price.
As long as it lasted, he would be a citizen of Florence, Kentucky.
The motel didn’t live up to the promise of its sign. It was just the usual cheap and nasty kind of place, where everything was strictly utilitarian and lacking in taste. The receptionist, a short, plump, prematurely bald man who made up for the little hair he had left with a big moustache and long sideburns, hadn’t had any visible reaction when asked for a room. Except that he wouldn’t hand over the key until the corporal had put the money down on the desk. He wasn’t sure if this was normal practice or treatment reserved exclusively for him. He didn’t care much, either way.
The room smelled damp, the furniture was nothing special, and the shoddy carpet was stained in several places. The shower he took, hidden from prying eyes behind a plastic curtain, alternated hot and cold unpredictably. The TV set worked intermittently, and he had finally decided to leave it tuned to the local channel, where the images and sound were clearer. They were showing an old episode of The Green Hornet.
Now he was lying naked on the bed with his eyes closed. The words of the two masked heroes, fighting crime with their clothes always immaculate, were a distant hum. He had removed the bedspread and put the sheet over him, so he wouldn’t have to endure the sight of his own body when he opened his eyes again.
He was always tempted to pull the sheet up all the way over his head, like they did with corpses. He had seen so many corpses lying on the ground like that, with bloodstained sheets thrown over them not out of pity, but to spare the survivors a clear vision of what could happen to any of them at any moment. He had seen so many dead people, and now he was one himself even though he was still alive. The war had taught him to kill, had given him permission to kill, and because he wore a uniform he knew nobody would blame him and he didn’t have to feel any guilt. Now all that remained of that uniform was a green cotton jacket at the bottom of a bag.
Without realizing it, the men who had sent him to face the war and its tribal rituals had given him something he’d previously only had the illusion of possessing: freedom.
Including the freedom to kill again.
He smiled at the idea, and lay there for a long time in that bed that had unceremoniously welcomed dozens of bodies. In those sleepless hours he went back in time to when, also at night…
… he had been sleeping soundly, as only young men do after a day’s work. A muffled noise had woken him suddenly, and immediately afterwards the door of the room had burst wide open, and he had felt a draught on his face and seen a light shining straight at him and, through the light, the burnished threat of a gun barrel hovering a few inches from his face. There were shadows behind that light.
One of the shadows had become a voice, harsh and clear.
‘Don’t move, punk, or it’ll be the last thing you do.’
Rough hands had turned him face down on the bed. His arms had been pulled unceremoniously behind his back, and he had heard the metallic click of the handcuffs. From that moment on, his movements and his life had stopped belonging to him.
‘You’ve been in reformatory. You know all that shit about your rights?’
He had breathed that monosyllable with difficulty, his mouth still furry.
‘Then just imagine we read them to you.’
The voice then addressed the other shadow in the room in a commanding tone. ‘Take a look around, Will.’
With his face still pressed to the pillow, he heard the sounds of a search. Drawers being opened and closed, objects falling, the rustle of clothes. The few things he had were being handled expertly, but far from gently.
Finally another voice, with a hint of excitement in it. ‘Well, well, chief, what do we have here?’
He heard footsteps approaching and the pressure on his back lessened. Then four rough hands pulled him up until he was in a sitting position on the bed. In front of his eyes, the light played over a transparent plastic bag full of grass.
‘So, we roll ourselves a little joint from time to time, huh? And maybe we sell this shit, too. Seems to me you’re in big trouble, boy.’
At that moment, the light in the room was switched on. There in front of him was Sheriff Duane Westlake. Behind him, gaunt and spindle legged, with a touch of beard on his pockmarked cheeks, was Will Farland, one of his deputies. The mocking smile on his lips was a joyless grimace that underlined the malicious gleam in his eyes.
He managed to stammer only a few perfunctory words, hating himself for it. ‘That isn’t my stuff.’
The sheriff raised an eyebrow. ‘Oh, it isn’t yours. Whose is it then? Is this place magic? Does the tooth fairy bring you marijuana?’
He raised his head and looked at them with a resolute air they both took to be defiance. ‘You put it there yourselves, you bastards.’
The backhander arrived quickly and violently. The sheriff was big and had a heavy hand. It seemed hardly possible that he could be so fast. He felt the sickly-sweet taste of blood in his mouth. And the corrosive taste of anger. Instinctively, he jerked forward, trying to headbutt the sheriff’s stomach. Maybe it was a predictable move, or maybe the sheriff was endowed with an agility unusual for a man of his bulk. He found himself lying on the floor, the frustration of having achieved nothing now adding to his anger.
He heard more words of mockery above him.
‘Our young friend here is hot blooded, Will. He wants to play the hero. Maybe he needs a sedative.’
The two pulled him unceremoniously to his feet. Then, while Farland held him still, the sheriff punched him in the stomach. He fell heavily on the dishevelled bed, feeling he’d never be able to breathe again.
The sheriff addressed his deputy in a patronising tone. ‘Will, are you sure you found everything there was to find?’
‘Maybe not, chief. I’d better take another look at this dump.’
Farland slipped his hand into his jacket and took out an object wrapped in transparent plastic. Not taking his eyes off him, he said to the sheriff, his mocking grin wider than ever, ‘Look what I found, chief. Don’t you think that looks suspicious?’
‘What is it?’
‘At first sight I’d say a knife.’
‘Let me see.’
The sheriff took a pair of leather gloves from his pocket and put them on. Then he took the object his deputy was holding out and started to unwrap it. The rustle of the plastic gradually revealed the gleam of a long knife with a black plastic handle.
‘That’s a fucking sword, Will. Reckon a blade like that could have been used on those two fucking hippies, the other night by the river.’
‘Yeah. Sure could.’
Lying on the bed, he had started to understand. And he had shivered, as if the temperature in the room had suddenly plunged. As far as his voice, still winded by the punch, would let him, he attempted a feeble protest.
He didn’t yet know how pointless that was.
‘It isn’t mine. I’ve never seen it.’
The sheriff looked at him with an expression of ostentatious surprise. ‘Is that so? Then how come it has your prints all over it?’
The two of them approached and turned him over on his stomach. Holding the knife by the blade, the sheriff forced him to grasp the handle. Duane Westlake’s voice was calm as he pronounced sentence.
‘I was wrong just now when I told you you’re in trouble. Fact is, you’re in shit up to your neck, boy.’
A minute or so later, as they dragged him away to their car, he had the distinct feeling that his life, as he had known it up until that moment, was over for good.
‘… of the Vietnam war. The storm continues over the publication by the New York Times of the Pentagon Papers. An appeal to the Supreme Court is planned, to uphold the injunction to cease publication…’
The imposing voice of news anchorman, Alfred Lindsay, shook him out of the restless lethargy into which he had slipped.
The corporal knew this story.
The Pentagon Papers were the outcome of a thorough investigation into the causes that had led the United States to become involved in Vietnam, an investigation set up by Defence Secretary McNamara and carried out by a group of thirty-six experts, both civilian and military, on the basis of government documents, some dating as far back as the Truman era. Like a rabbit caught in the journalists’ headlights, the Johnson administration had been shown to have consciously lied to the public about the handling of the conflict. A few days earlier the New York Times,which had somehow come into possession of the papers, had started publishing them. The consequences had been predictable.
In the end, as always happened, it would just be a battle of words. And words, whether written or spoken, never amounted to very much.
What did these people know about the war? How could they know what it meant to find yourself thousands of miles from home, fighting an invisible and incredibly determined enemy? An enemy nobody had thought would be ready to pay such a high price in return for so little. An enemy everyone in their heart of hearts respected, even though nobody would ever have the guts to admit it.
Even if there were thirty-six thousand experts, civilian or military or whatever, they still wouldn’t understand anything, or make their minds up about anything, because they’d never smelled napalm or Agent Orange. They’d never heard the tac-tac-tac-tac of machine gun fire, the muffled sound of a bullet piercing a helmet, the screams of pain of the wounded, which were so loud you ought to be able to hear them in Washington but in fact barely reached the stretcher bearers.
Good luck, Wendell…
He moved aside the sheet and sat up on the bed.
‘Go fuck yourself, Colonel Lensky. You and your fucking syndromes.’
All that was behind him now.
Chillicothe, Karen, the war, the hospital.
The river was following its course, and only its bank preserved the memory of the water that had passed.
He was twenty-four years old and he didn’t know if what was in store for him could still be called a future. But for some people that word would soon lose all meaning.
Barefoot, he walked to the TV and switched it off. The anchorman’s reassuring face was sucked into the darkness and became a little dot of light in the middle of the screen. Like all illusions, it lasted a few moments before disappearing completely.
‘Are you sure you don’t want me to take you all the way into town?’
‘No, this is fine. Thanks a lot, Mr Terrance.’
He opened the door. The man at the wheel looked at him with a smile on his tanned face. In the light from the dashboard, he suddenly reminded him of a Don Martin character.
‘I meant thanks a lot, Lukas.’
The man gave him a thumbs-up sign. ‘That’s OK.’
They shook hands. Then the corporal removed his bag from the space behind the seats, got out of the car and closed the door. The voice of the man at the wheel reached him through the open window.
‘Whatever you’re looking for, I hope you find it. Or that it finds you.’
These last words were almost lost in the rumble of the mufflers. In an instant the vehicle in which he had arrived was nothing more than the sound of an engine fading away.
He adjusted his bag on his shoulder and started walking. He felt neither nervousness nor euphoria at this homecoming.
A few hours earlier, in his motel room, he had found an empty shoe box in the closet. The lid bore the trademark of Famous Flag Shoes, a mail order company. The fact that the box was still there said a lot about the care taken by the motel’s cleaners. He had removed the flaps from the lid and written CHILLICOTHE on the white background in capital letters, going over the word several times with a black felt-tip he had in his bag. He had gone down to reception with the bag on his shoulder and the sign in his hand. Behind the desk, a nondescript girl with thin arms and long straight hair and a red headband had replaced the man with the moustache and sideburns. When he had approached her to give back the key, the spaced-out Flower Power look had drained from her face and she had stared at him with a hint of fear in her dark eyes. As if he was coming towards her with the intention of attacking her. He was starting to come to terms with this attitude. And he suspected it was a judgement that would never be challenged.
Here it is, colonel, here’s my luck …
For a moment, he’d been tempted to scare her to death, to pay her back for that revulsion, that instinctive suspicion she had felt for him. But this wasn’t the time or the place to go looking for trouble.
With ostentatious gentleness, he had put the key down on the glass desktop. ‘Here’s the key. The room was disgusting.’
His calm voice, combined with his words, had startled the girl. She had looked at him in alarm.
He had shaken his head imperceptibly and stared at her, letting her imagine his eyes behind his dark glasses. ‘Don’t say that. We both know you don’t give a shit.’
He had turned his back on her and left the motel.
Beyond the glass-fronted door was the little square. On his right was the service station with the orange and blue Gulf sign. A couple of cars were waiting to go into the car wash, and the pumps were busy enough to arouse hope that he’d get a ride before too long. He had walked towards the diner, over the door of which was a sign presenting it to the world as the Florence Bowl and offering home cooking and all-day breakfast.
He had slipped past the advertisements for Canada Dry and Tab and Bubble Up, and had taken up a position at the exit from the service area, so that he was clearly visible both by the cars leaving the parking lot and by those leaving the pumps after filling up.
He had thrown his bag on the ground, sat down on it, and held out his arm, trying to make sure that it was as conspicuous as possible.
And he had waited.
A few cars had slowed down. One had actually stopped, but when he had stood up to go and the driver had seen his face, he had set off again as if he had seen the devil.
He was still sitting on the bag, holding out his pathetic sign, when a man’s shadow fell on the asphalt in front of him. He had looked up to see a guy wearing black coveralls with red inserts. On his chest and his sleeves, he had a sponsor’s colourful trademark.
‘You think you’re going to get all the way to Chillicothe?’
He had attempted a smile. ‘If things carry on like this, I guess not.’
The man was tall, about forty, with a slender build and a ginger beard and hair. He had looked at him a moment, then lowered his voice, as if to downplay what he was about to say.
‘I don’t know who messed you up that way and it’s none of my business. I’m going to ask you one thing. And if you don’t tell me the truth, I’ll know it.’
He had allowed himself a pause. To weigh his words. Or maybe to give them more weight.
‘Are you in trouble with the law?’
He had taken off his cap and sunglasses and looked at him. ‘No, sir.’
In spite of himself, the tone of that ‘No, sir’ had identified him beyond any doubt.
‘Are you a soldier?’
His expression was confirmation enough. The word Vietnam wasn’t spoken, but hovered in the air.
He had shaken his head. ‘Volunteer.’
Instinctively, he had bowed his head as he uttered this word, almost as if it was something to feel guilty about. And he had immediately regretted it. He had looked up again and looked the other man full in the eyes.
‘What’s your name, boy?’
The question had caught him off guard.
Noticing his hesitation, the man had shrugged his shoulders. ‘One name’s as good as another. It’s only so I know what to call you. I’m Lukas Terrance.’
He had stood up and shook the hand the man held out to him. ‘Wendell Johnson.’
Lukas Terrance had not shown any surprise at the cotton gloves. He had nodded towards a large black and red pick-up. It was standing by a pump behind them, and a attendant was filling it up. Attached to the back of it was a tow-cart carrying a single-seater car for dirt track races. It was a strange vehicle, with open wheels and a driving compartment that looked as if it could barely contain even one man. He had once seen a similar one on the cover of Hot Rod magazine.
Terrance had explained his situation.
‘I’m going north, to the Mid-Ohio Speedway near Cleveland. Chillicothe isn’t really on my way, but I guess I can make a little detour. If you don’t mind travelling slowly and without air conditioning, I’d be happy to give you a ride.’
He had responded to the offer with a question. ‘Are you a racing driver, Mr Terrance?’
The man had started laughing. On his tanned face, a spider’s web of lines had formed at the sides of his eyes. ‘Oh, no. I’m only a kind of handyman. Jack of all trades. Mechanic, chauffeur, cook.’
He had made a gesture with his hands, a gesture that seemed to say: That’s life.
‘Jason Bridges, my driver, is travelling all nice and cosy on a plane right now. We mechanics do the work, the drivers get the glory. Though to be honest, there isn’t all that much glory. As a driver he’s crap. But he keeps going. That’s how it is, when you have a father with a fat wallet. Money can buy you cars; it can’t buy you balls.’
The attendant had finished filling up the pick-up and turned around to look for the driver. When he spotted him, he had gestured eloquently towards the line of waiting cars. Terrance had clapped his hands, as if to bring their conversation to a conclusion.
‘OK, shall we go? If the answer’s yes, from now on you can call me Lukas.’
The corporal had picked up the bag from the ground and followed him.
The driver’s cab was a chaos of road maps, crossword magazines and issues of Mad and Playboy. Terrance had made space for him on the passenger seat by shifting a packet of Oreos and an empty can of Wink.
‘Sorry about the mess. We don’t get many passengers in this old wreck.’
He had calmly left the service station behind him, and then Florence, and finally Kentucky. Soon, those days and those places would be only memories. The good ones, the real ones, the ones that would stay with him all his life, like cats to be taken on his lap and stroked, those he was about to create for himself.
It had been a pleasant journey.
He had listened to Terrance’s anecdotes about the racing world and especially about the driver he worked for. Terrance was a good man, a bachelor, practically without fixed abode, who had always been involved with races, though never the really important ones like NASCAR or the Indy. He mentioned the names of famous drivers, people like Richard Petty or Parnelli Jones or A. J. Foyt, as if he knew them personally. Maybe he did. Anyhow, he seemed to enjoy thinking he did, and they were both fine with that.
Not even once had he mentioned the war. Once over the state line, the pick-up with its racing pod in tow, had taken Route 50, which led straight to Chillicothe. Sitting on his seat with the window open, listening to Terrance’s stories, he had seen the sunset, with that tenacious, persistent luminosity typical of summer evenings. All at once, the places had become familiar, until at last a sign appeared saying Welcometo Ross County.
He was home.
Or rather, he was where he wanted to be.
A couple of miles after Slate Mills, he had asked his surprised companion to stop. He had left him to his bewilderment and the rest of his journey, and now he was walking like a ghost in open country. Only the lights of a group of houses in the distance, which on the maps went by the name of North Folk Village, showed him the way. And every step seemed much more tiring than any he had trodden in the mud of Nam.
He finally reached what had been his goal ever since he had left Louisiana. Just under a mile from the village, he turned left onto a dirt path and after a few hundred yards came to a building surrounded by a metal fence. In the back there was an open space lit by three lampposts where, between stacks of tubes for scaffolding, an eight-wheel tow truck, a Volkswagen van and a Mountaineer dump truck with a snow shovel were parked.
This was where he’d lived. And it would be his base for the last night he would ever spend there.
There was no light inside the building.
Before continuing, he made sure there was nobody around. Then he moved forward, following the fence on his right until he reached the side that was more shadowy. He came to a clump of bushes that hid him from view. He put his bag down and took out a pair of wirecutters he had bought in a general store. He cut the fence just enough to allow him to enter. He imagined the sturdy figure of Ben Shepard standing in front of that breach, heard the sibilant voice he remembered lambasting ‘those fucking sons of bitches who don’t respectother people’s property’.
As soon as he was inside, he headed straight for a small iron door, next to a blue-painted sliding door that allowed access to vehicles. Above it was a big white sign with blue lettering, telling anyone who was interested that these were the premises of Ben Shepard – Demolition RenovationConstruction. He didn’t have a key any more, but he knew where his former employer kept a spare one.
He opened the glass door that protected the fire extinguisher. Just behind the extinguisher itself was the key he was looking for. With a smile on his tortured lips, he took it out and went and opened the door. It slid inwards without squeaking.
One step and he was inside.
The small amount of light coming in from outside, through the high windows on all four sides, revealed a space full of tools and machinery. Hard hats, coveralls hanging on hooks, two cement mixers of differing capacities. On his left, a long counter filled with tools for use with wood and iron.
The damp heat and the semi-darkness were familiar to him, as were the smells. Iron, cement, wood, lime, plasterboard, lubricant. The vague odour of sweaty bodies from the hanging coveralls. But the taste he had in his mouth was completely new. It was the sour taste of enforced separation, a sudden awareness of all that had been taken away from him. Everyday life, affection, love. The little of it that he had known when Karen had taught him what truly deserved that name.
He advanced in the semi-darkness, taking care where he put his feet, towards the door on the right-hand side. Making an effort not to think about the fact that this place full of rough surfaces and sharp corners had meant everything to him.
Beyond that doorway, clinging to the wall of the building like a mollusc to a rock, there was one large room with a single window protected by an iron grille. A kitchen area and a bathroom on opposite sides completed the layout of his old home.
He reached the door and pushed it.
And stood there, open mouthed in surprise.
Here the shapes were more distinct. The light through the window from the lampposts in the parking lot sent almost all the shadows scuttling into the corners.
The room was perfectly tidy, as if he had left it hours rather than years before. No dust hung in the air, and it was obvious that it had been cleaned often and carefully. Only the bed was covered with a sheet of transparent plastic.
He was about to take another step into his old home when he suddenly felt something knock against him and slide quickly between his legs. Immediately afterwards, a dark shape jumped on the bed, making the plastic rustle.
He closed the door, went to the night table and lit the bedside lamp. In the dim light, the nose of a big black cat emerged, and two huge green eyes looking at him.
‘Waltz. Holy Christ, you’re still here.’
Without any fear the animal approached, walking slightly lopsidedly, and sniffed him. He reached out his hand to grab it and it let itself be picked up. He sat down on the bed and pulled it on to his knees. He started to scratch it gently under the chin, and the cat immediately started purring, as he knew it would.
‘You still like that, huh? You’re still as much of an old softie as ever.’
He stroked it with one hand, and with the other reached the place where the right back leg should have been.
‘I see it never grew back.’
There was a strange story behind the cat’s name. Ben had sent him to do some repairs at the clinic of Dr Peterson, the vet. A couple had showed up carrying a kitten wrapped in a bloodstained blanket. A large cat had come into their garden and bitten their kitten, maybe just to punish it for existing. The kitten had been examined and immediately operated on, but it had not been possible to save its leg. When the vet had come out of the operating room and told the owners, the man and the woman had looked at each other in embarrassment.
Then the woman, asked the vet in an uncertain voice, ‘Without a leg, you say?’ She had turned to the man beside her for confirmation. ‘What do you think, Sam?’
The man had made a vague gesture. ‘Well, of course, the poor little beast would suffer, with a leg missing. It would be maimed for life. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to…’ He had left the sentence hanging.
Dr Peterson had looked at him questioningly, then finished his sentence for him. ‘Put him to sleep?’
The two had looked at each other with eyes full of relief. They couldn’t believe they had found a way out: they could pass off as a suggestion from an authoritative source what they had in fact already decided.
‘I see you agree, doctor. Do it, then. He won’t suffer, will he?’
‘No, he won’t suffer,’ the vet replied. Her voice was icy, and so were her blue eyes. But the two were in too much of a hurry to leave to even notice.
They had paid, and gone out the door with more haste than might have been considered necessary in the circumstances. Then the sound of a car starting up outside had confirmed that the final verdict had been pronounced on the poor animal.
He had witnessed the whole scene. But when they had gone he put down the pail in which he was mixing plaster and approached Dr Peterson.
‘Don’t kill him, doctor. I’ll take him.’
She had looked at him without speaking. Her eyes searched his for a long time before replying. Then she had said just two words.
She had turned and gone back into her clinic, leaving him alone as the new owner of a cat with three legs. That was what had given rise to its name. Growing up, its way of walking had reminded him of waltz time: one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three…
And Waltz it had become.
He was about to move the cat, which was continuing to purr blissfully beside him on the bed, when suddenly the door was kicked open. Waltz took fright, jumped down nimbly on his three paws and hid under the bed. A commanding voice filled the room.
‘Whoever you are, you’d better come out with your hands up. Don’t make any sudden movements. I have a shotgun and I’m prepared to use it.’
For a moment, he did not move.
Then, without saying a word, he stood up and walked calmly towards the door. Just before placing himself in the doorway, he raised his arms in the air. That was the only movement that still caused him a little pain.
And a flood of memories.
Ben Shepard moved behind one of the cement mixers, trying to find the best position from which to keep the door in his sights. A bead of sweat running down the side of his face reminded him how hot and damp the building was. For a moment he was tempted to wipe it off, but he preferred not to take his hands off his Remington pump-action shotgun. Whoever was in that room, he didn’t know how he would react to the order to come out. Above all, he didn’t know if he was armed or not. Anyhow, the man had been warned. He was holding a shotgun, and he never said anything he didn’t mean. He had fought in Korea. If the guy or guys in there didn’t believe he was prepared to use it, they were making a big mistake.
He had preferred not to switch on any lights. In the semidarkness, time seemed like something personal between him and the beating of his heart. He waited for seconds that seemed an eternity.
It was pure chance that he was here at this hour.
He had been on his way back after an evening spent bowling with the team he played for. He was driving along Western Avenue and had just passed North Folk Village when the oil gauge had lit up on the dashboard of his old van. If he kept going, the engine might seize up. A few dozen yards up ahead was the track that led to the his construction company. Rather than be forced to brake, he had quickly done a wide turn onto the other lane and then onto the track, immediately afterwards switching off the engine and putting it in neutral to take advantage of the momentum and get as far as the gate.
As he approached the building, hearing the loose stones under the tyres roll with an ever deeper sound as he lost speed, he’d had the fleeting impression that there was a dim light visible through the windows.
He had immediately stopped the van, taken the Remington from behind the seats, and checked it was loaded. He had got out without slamming the door and had approached, walking on the grassy verge in order to avoid making a noise with his heavy shoes. When he had gone out, a couple of hours earlier, he might have forgotten to switch off the light.
That must have been it.
But in any case he had preferred to make sure by being at the right end of a shotgun barrel. As his father used to say, nobody had ever died from being too careful.
He had kept on, hugging the fence until he came to the point where it had been cut. Then he noticed that a light was on in the room in back, and saw a silhouette passing the window.
His hands on the grip of the Remington had started to get damper than they should. He had quickly looked around.
He hadn’t seen any cars parked in the vicinity, which he found puzzling. The building was full of materials and tools. They weren’t worth a great deal, but they might still tempt a thief. They were all quite heavy, though. It seemed strange that someone would come here on foot if they planned to clean him out.
He had gone through the hole in the fence, and reached the door next to the vehicle entrance. When he had pushed the door, he had found it open. Groping with his hands, he had felt the key in the keyhole, and in the dim light from the lampposts reflected off the clear wall he had seen that the little window in front of the fire extinguisher was half open.
Strange. Very strange.
Only he knew of the existence of that spare key.
Curious and cautious in equal measure, he had gone inside, woven in and out of the equipment heaped up there, and kicked the door of the backroom wide open.
Now he was holding his shotgun aimed at the open door.
A man appeared in the doorway with his hands up. He took a couple of steps and stopped. Ben moved accordingly, so that he was still protected by the squat, ungainly mass of the cement mixer. From here, he could keep the man’s legs in his sights, and if he made even one abrupt movement he would shorten his height by ten inches.
‘Are you alone?’
The answer had come immediately. Calm, steady, apparently genuine. ‘Yes.’
‘OK, I’m coming out. If you or any friend you have with you are planning any nasty tricks, I’ll blow a hole in your stomach as big as a railroad tunnel.’
He waited a moment and then came cautiously out into the open. He held the shotgun at his side, firmly aimed at the man’s stomach. He took a couple of steps towards him, until he could see his face clearly.
And what he saw sent a shudder through him. The man’s face and head were completely disfigured by what looked like terrible burn scars. From his face, they continued down his neck and disappeared inside the open collar of his shirt. His right ear was completely missing while all that remained of the other was only a fragment, attached like a joke to the cranium, where coarse healed skin had replaced hair.
Only the area around the eyes was intact. And now those eyes were following him as he approached, more ironic than worried.
‘Who the hell are you?’
The man smiled. If what appeared on his face when he moved his mouth could be called a smile.
‘Thanks, Ben. At least you didn’t ask me what I am.’
Without asking permission, the man lowered his arm. It was only then that Ben realized he was wearing gloves of some light material.
‘I know I’m not easy to recognize. I was hoping at least my voice had stayed the same.’
Ben Shepard opened his eyes wide. Involuntarily, he lowered the barrel of his shotgun, as if his arms had suddenly become too flabby to hold it up. Then the words arrived, as if he hadn’t had the gift of speech before now.
‘Christ almighty, Little Boss. It’s you. We all thought you were…’
The sentence was left hanging.
The other man made a vague gesture with his hand. ‘Dead?’ The next sentence came from his lips like a thought spoken aloud and a long-buried hope. ‘What makes you think I’m not?’
Ben suddenly felt old. And he realized that the person in front of him felt much older than he. Still confused by this unexpected encounter, without really knowing what to do or say, he went to the wall and reached his hand out to a switch. A dim emergency light came on. When he made to switch on another light, Little Boss stopped him with a gesture.
‘Let it be. I guarantee I don’t look any better in the light.’
Ben realized his eyes were moist. He felt useless and stupid. Finally he did the one thing that instinct dictated. He put the Remington down on a pile of crates, approached this soldier and gently embraced him.
‘Hell, Little Boss, it’s good to know you’re alive.’
He felt the boy’s arms go around his shoulders.
‘There is no Little Boss any more, Ben. But it’s good to be here with you.’
They stood there for a moment, out of an affection that was like that between a father and a son. With the absurd hope that when they separated it would be some ordinary day in the past, with everything normal and Ben Shepard, staying late to give instructions to his worker for the next day.
They separated. Ben made a sign with his head. ‘Come this way. There should still be a few beers. If you want one.’
The young man smiled and replied, with some of the old familiarity, ‘Never refuse a beer from Ben Shepard. He might get mad. And that sure ain’t a pleasant sight.’
They moved into the back room. Little Boss went and sat down on the bed. He called out, and Waltz immediately came out from his hiding place and jumped onto his lap.
‘You left everything the way it was. Why?’
Ben walked to the refrigerator, pleased that Little Boss couldn’t see his face as he replied. ‘Call it a premonition, call it an old man’s stubborn hope. Call it what you like.’
He closed the door and turned with two beers in his hand. With the neck of one of the bottles he indicated the cat, which had accepted, with its usual feline sense of entitlement, to be stroked on the head and neck.
‘I had your room cleaned occasionally. And every day I fed that critter you have there.’
He handed the young man his beer. Then he went to a chair and sat down, and for a while they drank in silence. Both knew they were full of questions that were going to be difficult to answer.
Ben realized he had to be the first.
Forcing himself not to look away, he asked, ‘What happened? Who did that to you?’
The boy took his time before replying. ‘It’s a long story, Ben. And it’s an ugly story. Are you sure you want to hear it?’
Ben leaned back in his chair and tilted it until it rested against the wall.
‘I have time. All the time in the world…’
‘… and all the men we need, soldier. Until you and your comrades realize you’re going to be defeated in this country.’
He was sitting on the ground, up against a branchless tree stump whose roots clutched uselessly at the ground, hands tied behind his back. In front of him, dawn was rising. Behind him he felt the presence of his buddy, who was similarly immobilized. He hadn’t spoken or moved for a while now. Maybe he’d managed to fall asleep. Maybe he was dead. Both theories were plausible. They had been in this place for two days. Two days of not much food, of sleep broken by spasms in his wrists and cramps in his ass. Now he was thirsty and hungry and his clothes were stuck to his skin with sweat and dirt. The man in the red headband leaned over him and dangled their dogtags in front of his face, letting them sway from side to side with an almost hypnotic effect. Then he turned them towards himself, as if he wanted to check their names, even though he remembered them perfectly well.
‘Wendell Johnson and Matt Corey. What are two nice American boys doing here in the middle of these paddy fields? Didn’t you have anything better to do at home?’
Of course I did, you fucking piece of shit.
He screamed those words in his head. He had learned the hard way what these people did when you expressed what you felt.
The guerrilla was a skinny guy, of indefinable age, with deep-set small eyes. Slightly above average height. He spoke good English spoiled only by a guttural accent. Time had passed
how much time?
since his platoon had been wiped out by a sudden Vietcong attack. They had all died, except the two of them. And immediately afterwards, their calvary had started: constantly being moved from place to place, harried by mosquitoes, forced to keep marching, forcing themselves to keep going through sheer will, one more step, one more step, one more step…
And getting the crap beaten out of them.
Every now and again they had come across other groups of fighters. Men with identical faces who carried arms and supplies by bicycle along almost invisible paths amid the vegetation.
These had been their only moments of relief
Where are they taking us, Matt?
I don’t know.
Any idea where we are?
No, but we’ll make it, Wen, don’t worry.
Water, blessed water, was here a piece of paradise on earth, and their jailers seemed to dispense it with a sadistic pleasure.
His jailer didn’t wait for a reply. He knew it wouldn’t come. ‘I’m really sorry your other comrades died.’
‘I don’t believe you,’ he blurted out, and immediately tensed the muscles of his neck, expecting a slap by way of reply.
Instead of which, a smile appeared on the man’s face, a smile made cruel by the sardonic gleam in his eyes. Silently, he lit a cigarette, then replied in a neutral voice that sounded strangely sincere, ‘You’re wrong. I really would have liked to have you alive. All of you.’
The same tone of voice he’d used after the attack when he’d said
‘Don’t worry, corporal. We’re going to take care ofyou …’
and immediately afterwards had gone up to Sid Margolin, who was lying on the ground complaining of the wound in his shoulder, and blown his brains out.
From somewhere behind him came the caterwauling of a radio. Then another guerrilla, a much younger man, walked up to the commander. The two men exchanged a hasty dialogue, in the incomprehensible language of a country he would never understand.
Then the chief addressed him again.
‘This looks like it’s turning into quite an amusing day.’
He bent his knees and crouched in front of him, so that he could look at him straight in the face.
‘There’s going to be an air raid. There are raids every day. But the next one will be in this area.’
That was when he understood. There were men who went to war because they were forced to go. Others who felt they had to go. The man in the red headband was there because he liked it. When the war was over, he would probably invent another one, maybe just for himself, so he could continue to fight.
And to kill.
That thought put an expression on his face that the other man misunderstood. ‘What’s the matter, soldier? Are you surprised? Didn’t you think the yellow monkeys Charlie, as you call us, were capable of mounting intelligence operations?’
He gave him a pat on the cheek with the palm of his hand, all the more mocking in that it was as light as a caress.
‘Well, we are. And today you’ll get a chance to find out who you’re fighting for.’
He leaped to his feet and gave a signal. Immediately, four men armed with AK-47s and rifles came running and surrounded them, weapons aimed straight at them. A fifth man approached and untied their wrists. With an abrupt gesture he motioned them to stand up.
The commander pointed to the path in front of them. ‘That way. Quickly and silently, please.’
He pushed them unceremoniously in the direction indicated. After a few minutes’ quick march, they emerged onto a vast, sandy clearing, flanked on the right by what looked like a plantation of rubber trees, placed at such regular distances as to seem a perversity of nature amid so much chaotic vegetation.
They were separated and tied to two trunks almost at opposite ends of the clearing, with a line of trees between them. No sooner did he feel the ropes on his wrists than a gag was stretched over his mouth.
The same fate befell his buddy, whose show of resistance was rewarded with a blow with a rifle butt in the small of his back.
The man in the red headband approached with his usual sly air.
‘You people who use napalm so easily ought to know what effect it has. My people have known it for some time now…’
He indicated a vague point in the sky in front of him.
‘The planes will be coming from that direction, American soldier.’
He put the dogtags back around their necks. Then he turned his back on them and left, followed by his men. They were alone now, looking at each other from a distance. Then, from that point beyond the trees, in the sky in front of them, came the noise of an engine. The Cessna L-19 Bird Dog appeared as if by magic over the rim of the vegetation. It was on a reconnaissance mission and was flying low. It had almost passed them when suddenly the pilot made a turn, bringing the plane even lower. So low that they could clearly see the figures of the two men inside the cockpit. Soon afterwards the aircraft returned to the sky from which it had come. Time passed in silence. Then a whirr, and a pair of Phantoms arrived at a speed that in their fear they saw as a series of still images. With them came a roar like thunder. Only after that, by some strange quirk, the lightning flash. He saw that light grow and grow and become a line of fire that advanced on them, like some kind of dance, devouring everything in its path until it reached them and hit…
‘… my buddy full on, Ben. He was incinerated. I was a bit farther away, so I was just hit by a wave of heat that reduced me to this state. I don’t know how I survived. And I don’t know how long I was there before the rescue team arrived. My memories are very confused. I know I woke up in a hospital, covered in bandages and with needles stuck in my veins. And I think most men would take a lifetime to feel the pain I felt in those few months.’
The boy paused. Ben understood that it was to let him absorb what he had just told him. Or to prepare him for what he said next.
‘The Vietcong used us as human shields. And the men on the reconnaissance plane saw us. They knew we were there. And they attacked all the same.’
Ben looked at the tips of his shoes. Anything he said would have been pointless.
He decided to go back to the present, and the suspicion nagging at him. ‘What are you planning to do now?’
Little Boss shrugged nonchalantly. ‘All I need is somewhere to use as a base for a few hours. There’s a couple of people I have to see. Then I’ll come fetch Waltz and leave.’
The cat, as indifferent as all cats, got up from its owner’s knees and arranged its three legs in a more comfortable position on the bed.
Ben moved the chair away from the wall and let it drop to the floor. ‘I get the feeling you’re going to get in trouble.’
The boy shook his head, hiding behind his non-smile. ‘I can’t get in trouble.’
He took off his cotton gloves and held his hands out to Ben. They were covered in scars.
‘See? No fingerprints. Wiped out. Whatever I touch, I don’t leave any trace.’
He seemed to think for a moment, as if he’d finally found the right name for himself.
‘I don’t exist any more. I’m a ghost.’
He looked at him with eyes that asked a lot even though they were ready to concede little.
‘Ben, give me your word you won’t tell anyone I was here.’
He interrupted him curtly, before he’d even had time to finish the sentence. ‘I said nobody. Ever.’
A moment’s silence. Then from his tortured mouth there emerged words as cold as those of the dead.
‘I’ll kill you.’
Ben Shepard realized that the world didn’t exist any more for the young man. A shiver went down his spine. Little Boss had left to fight a war against other men he had been ordered to hate and kill. After what had happened, the roles had been reversed.
He had come home, and now he was the enemy.
He was sitting in the dark, waiting.
He had been waiting so long for this moment and now that it had come, he didn’t feel any nervousness, any sense of hurry. It seemed to him that his presence in this place was totally normal, planned, thought through.
Resting on his knees was a Colt M1911, the army’s regulation weapon. Good old Jeff Anderson, who might have lost his legs but hadn’t lost his talent for pulling strings, had got him that pistol, without asking any questions. And, perhaps for the first time in his life, he hadn’t asked him for anything in return. He had kept it in his bag, wrapped in a cloth, throughout the journey.
The only light thing he had with him.
The room he was in was a living room with a couch and two armchairs in the middle, arranged in a horseshoe around a TV set against the wall. Clearly a place where one man lived on his own. A few mediocre paintings on the walls, a carpet that didn’t look very clean, dirty plates in the sink. And the smell of cigarettes.
In front of him, on the right, the door to the kitchen. On the left, another door leading to a little lobby and then the door out to the garden. Behind him, hidden by part of the wall, the stairs that led to the upper floor. When he had arrived and realized that the house was empty, he had forced the back door and quickly searched the interior.
As he did so, he had the voice of the drill sergeant at Fort Polk in his ears.
Before anything else, reconnoitre the area.
After familiarizing himself with the layout of the rooms, he had chosen to wait in the living room because from there he could keep an eye on both the main door and the back door.
Choose a strategic position.
He had sat down on the couch and released the safety catch on his gun. The click sounded as dry as his throat.
Check the condition of your weapons.
And while he was waiting, his thoughts had returned to Ben.
He could still see his expression when he had threatened him. No trace of fear, only disappointment. He had tried in vain to wipe out the effect of those few words by changing the subject, asking what he actually would have liked to ask from the start.
‘Fine. She had the kid. She wrote you about it. Why didn’t you get in touch with her?’ Ben had paused, and then lowered his voice. ‘When they told her you were dead, she cried all the tears she had in her.’
There was a hint of reproach in the words and in the tone of voice.
He had got quickly to his feet, pointing at himself with both hands. ‘Do you see me, Ben? You see these scars on my face? They’re all over my body.’
‘She loved you,’ Ben had said, then immediately corrected himself. ‘She loves you.’
He had shaken his head, as if to brush away a troublesome thought. ‘She loves a man who doesn’t exist any more.’
‘I’m sure she-’
He had stopped him with a gesture of his hand. ‘Nothing’s sure in this world. The few things that are, are all bad.’
He had turned to the window, so that Ben couldn’t see his face. But above all so as not to see Ben’s face.
‘Oh yes, I know what’d happen if I went to see her. She’d throw her arms around me. But for how long?’
He turned again towards Ben. If his first instinct had been to hide, now he knew he had to look reality in the face – and make sure reality looked him in the face.
‘Even if all the other problems between us were solved, her father and all the rest, how long would it last? I’ve been asking myself that over and over since the first time they let me look at myself in a mirror and I saw what I’d become.’
Ben had seen tears welling in his eyes. Diamonds of little price, the only ones he could afford on a soldier’s pay. And he realized Little Boss must already have repeated these words in his head hundreds of times.
‘Can you imagine what it would be like for her to wake up in the morning and the first thing she sees is my face? How long would it last, Ben? How long?’
He hadn’t waited for a reply. Not because he didn’t want to know it, but because he already knew it.
They both knew it.
He had changed the subject again. ‘Do you know why I volunteered for Vietnam?’
‘No. I never figured that out.’
He had sat down again on the bed and stroked Waltz. Then he had told him everything that had happened. Ben had listened in silence. As he spoke, Ben had looked him in the face, letting his eyes move over his tortured skin.
When he had finished, Ben had covered his face with his hands, and his voice had filtered through the bars of his fingers. ‘But don’t you think Karen-’
Little Boss had stood up again quickly and approached the chair where his old employer was sitting. As if to emphasize his words.
‘I thought I made myself clear. She doesn’t know I’m alive and she mustn’t know.’
At that point Ben had stood up and in silence had hugged him again, more tightly this time. But Little Boss hadn’t been able to return the embrace, just stood there with his arms down by his sides.
‘There are things that nobody ought to feel in life, son,’ Ben had said, finally letting go of him. ‘I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. For you, for Karen, for the child. But as far as I’m concerned, I never saw you.’
He had left, and Ben had stood by the door, watching him go. He hadn’t asked him where he was going or what he was going to do. But in his eyes there was the bitter conviction that he would know soon enough. And the knowledge that he was his accomplice.
At that moment, there were only two things certain, for both of them.
The first was that Ben wouldn’t betray him.
The second was that they would never see each other again.
He had crossed the town on foot towards his destination: the house at the end of Mechanic Street. He preferred to walk a few miles rather than borrow a car from Ben. He wanted to avoid involving him in this nasty business any more than he had to. And he hadn’t the slightest intention of getting caught trying to steal a car.
As he walked, Chillicothe had unravelled around him, motionless and as unaware of him as it always had been. It was only an ordinary town, where he’d had to make do with a shred of hope when many young men had moved unconcernedly, surrounded by things they could be sure of.
He had walked down many streets, avoiding people, dodging lights, and every step had been a thought and every thought…
The sound of a car coming along the street jolted him out of his momentary distraction. He got up from the couch and went to the window. He moved aside a dusty curtain and looked out. A Plymouth Barracuda had parked, the front of it facing the shutter of the garage. The headlights died on the concrete, and Duane Westlake and Will Farland got out of the car.
They were both in uniform.
The sheriff was a little paunchier than the last time he’d seen him. Too much food and too much beer, maybe. Maybe even more full of shit than before. The deputy was just as thin and lanky and repulsive as he remembered him.
The two men walked to the front door.
He couldn’t believe his luck.
He had assumed he would have to pay two visits tonight. Now chance was offering him, on a silver platter, the possibility of avoiding one. And of making sure they both knew…
The door opened, and before light filled the room he was able to see the silhouettes of the two men framed in the rectangle of light cast on the floor from outside.
He moved towards the stairs and for a few moments leaned against the wall listening to their voices.
Westlake: ‘What did you do with those boys we picked up? Who are they?’
Farland: ‘Four vagrants. Usual type. Long hair and guitars. No priors, as far as we know, but we’re running checks. Meantime, they can spend tonight in the cooler.’
Farland again: ‘I told Rabowsky to put them in a cell with some hard guy, if you know what I mean.’
He heard a little laugh that sounded like the squeaking of a mouse, and had surely come from the deputy sheriff’s thin lips.
Farland again: ‘Tonight, they’ll make war, not love.’
Westlake: ‘Maybe they’ll decide to cut their hair and look for a job.’
In his hiding place, he smiled, though with a nasty taste in his mouth.
A leopard never changes its spots.
Except these guys weren’t leopards. They were vultures, of the worst kind.
He leaned out cautiously, protected by the wall. The sheriff went and switched on the TV, threw his hat on the table and sank into an armchair.
There was the sound of a baseball commentary.
‘Christ, it’s almost over. And we’re losing. I knew that playing in California wouldn’t work out for us.’ He turned to his deputy. ‘If you want a beer, there’s some in the fridge. Get me one, too, while you’re there.’
The sheriff was the boss and he made sure his deputy knew it, even when it came to hospitality. He wondered if he’d have behaved the same way if Judge Swanson had been in the room instead of Deputy Farland.
He decided that now was the moment. He emerged from his hiding place with his gun aimed at the two men.
‘The beer can wait. Put your hands up.’
At the sound of his voice Will Farland, gave a start. And when he saw him, he went white in the face.
Westlake had turned his head abruptly. Seeing him, he was stunned for a moment. ‘Who the fuck are you?’
Wrong question, sheriff. Are you sure you want to know?
‘That doesn’t matter right now. Get up and stand in the middle of the room. And you: go stand next to him.’
While the two men moved as he had ordered them, Farland tried to slide his hand down towards his holster.
All very predictable.
He took a couple of rapid steps to the side so as to have Farland completely in his sights and shook his head. ‘Don’t even think about it. I know how to use this gun. Want to take my word for that, or would you like a demonstration?’
The sheriff had raised his hands in a gesture that was meant to be placatory. ‘Listen, friend, let’s all try to keep calm. I don’t know who you are, but let me remind you, you’re committing an offence just being here. Apart from that, you’re threatening two law enforcement officers with a firearm. Don’t you think your situation is serious enough already? Before you do anything else stupid, I’d advise you-’
‘Your advice ain’t worth shit, Sheriff Westlake.’
Surprised at hearing his name spoken, the sheriff frowned and tilted his head slightly to the side. ‘Do we know each other?’
‘Let’s leave the introductions till later. Now, Will, sit down on the floor.’
Farland was too surprised to be curious. He turned to his chief, not sure what to do. The voice he heard coming at him wiped out any doubts.
‘He doesn’t give the orders now, asshole. I do. If you’d rather be lying on the floor dead, I can oblige.’
The deputy bent his long legs and eased himself down, with the help of one hand laid flat on the floor.
Once he was down, their visitor pointed to him with the barrel of his gun and said to the sheriff, ‘Now, slowly and without making any sudden movements, take your handcuffs from your belt and tie his hands behind his back.’
Westlake did as he was told, going red in the face with the effort of bending. The sharp click of the handcuffs closing marked the beginning of the Deputy Sheriff captivity.
‘Now take yours and put it on your right wrist. Then turn around holding your arms behind your back.’
There was anger in the sheriff’s eyes. But there was also a gun in front of his face, so again he did as he was told, and a moment later a confident hand locked the handcuffs on his free wrist.
‘Now sit down next to him.’
The sheriff couldn’t help himself down with his hands. He bent his knees and dropped clumsily to the floor, his bulk falling heavily against Farland’s shoulder. The two of them almost ended up sprawled on the floor.
‘Who are you?’
‘Names come and go, sheriff. All that’s left is memories.’
He disappeared for a moment behind the wall that hid the stairs. When he came back he was holding in his hand a jerrycan full of gasoline. During his inspection of the house he had found it in the garage, next to a lawnmower. This trivial discovery had given him an idea, one that made him very happy.
He slipped his gun in his belt and approached the two men. Calmly, he started pouring the contents of the jerrycan over them. Their clothes were soon covered in dark stains. The oily, acrid smell of the gasoline spread through the room.
Will Farland moved aside instinctively to avoid getting the liquid on his face and accidentally headbutted the sheriff in the temple. Westlake did not even react. The pain had been anaesthetized by the panic that was starting to appear in his eyes.
‘What do you want? Money? I don’t have a lot in the house, but in the bank-’
‘I have money, too,’ the deputy interrupted his chief, his voice shrill with fear. ‘Almost twenty thousand dollars. You can have it all.’
What are two nice American boys doing here in the middleof all these paddy fields?
As he continued pouring the liquid from the jerrycan over the two men, it pleased him to think that it wasn’t only the gasoline fumes that were bringing the tears to their eyes. He spoke in the reassuring tone he’d once been taught.
Don’t worry, corporal. We’re going to take care of you …
‘Yes. Maybe we can come to an arrangement.’
A flash of hope appeared on the sheriff’s face, and in his words. ‘Sure we can. Come with us to the bank tomorrow morning and take whatever you want.’
‘Yes, we could do that…’ His voice changed abruptly. ‘But we won’t.’
With what was left of the gasoline in the jerrycan, he marked a line on the floor as far as the door. Then he put his hand in his pocket and took out a Zippo. A nauseating odour joined the pungent smell that already filled the room. Farland had relieved himself in his pants.
‘No, I beg you, don’t do it, don’t do it, for-’
‘Shut your fucking mouth!’
It was Westlake who had interrupted his deputy’s pointless snivelling. The strength of his hate and curiosity had given him back a little pride.
‘Who are you, scumbag?’
The young man who had been a soldier looked at him for a moment in silence.
The planes will come from that direction …
Then he said his name.
The sheriff opened his eyes wide.
‘That isn’t possible. You’re dead.’
He clicked the Zippo. The two men stared at the flame in terror.
He smiled, and for once was pleased that his smile was a grimace. ‘No, you sons of bitches. You’re dead.’
He opened his hand more than necessary and let the Zippo fall to the floor. He didn’t know how long the fall of the lighter would last for the two men. But he knew from experience how long such a short journey could be.
No thunder, for them.
Only the metallic noise of the Zippo hitting the floor. Then a hot bright whoosh, followed by a tongue of flame that advanced on them.
He stood listening to them scream and watching them squirm and burn until the smell of roasting flesh spread through the room. He breathed it in, savouring the fact that this time the flesh wasn’t his.
Then he opened the door and went out on the street. He started walking, leaving the house behind him, the screams accompanying him like a blessing as he moved away.
Soon afterwards, when the screams stopped, he knew that the captivity of Sheriff Duane Westlake and his deputy Will Farland was over.
Too Many Years Later
Jeremy Cortese watched the dark-coloured BMW move away, and wished it would blow up. He was sure that, apart from the driver, none of the people inside would be much of a loss to the world.
‘Go fuck yourselves, assholes.’
Having got that off his chest, he went back into one of the two huts on the site. Actually, they weren’t so much huts as sheet-metal boxes mounted on wheels and put there as a barrier to mark off the work area.
He resisted the temptation to light a cigarette.
The technical meeting that had just ended had upset him, aggravating the bad mood that had been dogging him since the beginning of the day.
The previous evening, he had gone to Madison Square Garden to see the Knicks go belly-up, losing to the Dallas Mavericks. He had come out feeling bitter, as he always did – leading him to wonder why he still insisted on going to games.
That old feeling of being part of a crowd, celebrating a shared passion, just wasn’t there any more. Whether his team won or lost, he always returned home thinking the same thing.
Going in search of memories is never an easy matter. Whatever you dig up, it never really works. You can’t fully recapture the good memories, and you can’t kill the bad ones.
But he kept going back, feeding that instinct for self-harm that every human being, to a greater or lesser degree, carries within himself.
Several times during the game he had looked around at the bleachers until he gradually lost interest in what was happening in the game.
With a sad tub of popcorn in his hands, he had seen fathers and sons overjoyed at a slam dunk from Irons or a three-pointer by Jones and screaming in chorus with the rest of the fans, ‘Defence! Defence! Defence!’ when the other team attacked.
He had done exactly the same in the days when he went to games with his sons and felt that he meant something in their lives. But that had turned out to be an illusion. The truth was, they meant something in his.
When one of the Knicks had put in a three, he, too, had risen to his feet by sheer force of habit, rejoicing with a crowd of perfect strangers and using it as an opportunity to repress the tears rising to his eyes.
Then he had sat down again. On his right was an empty seat and on his left a boy and a girl with eyes for nobody but each other, clearly wondering why they were here instead of in bed, having a lot more fun.
When he’d come here with his sons, he’d always sat between them. John, the younger of the two, usually sat on his right and seemed equally interested in the game and the comings and goings of the people selling drinks, candy floss and all kinds of food. Jeremy had often compared him to a furnace that could burn hot dog and popcorn the way an old steam locomotive burned coal. More than once he had thought that the boy wasn’t really interested in basketball and the real reason he liked going to the stadium was his father’s generosity when they were there.
Sam, the older one, who was more like him, both physically and in character, and would soon be taller than him, was really fascinated by the game. Although they had never talked about it, he knew that his dream was to be a star of the NBA. Unfortunately, Jeremy was convinced it would remain a dream and nothing more. Sam had inherited his big bones and the kind of build that with time would tend to spread outwards rather than upwards, even though he was in the school team and regularly beat his father when they shot hoops behind the house.
Mortifying as that was, his pride as a parent always made Jeremy happy to be humiliated like that.
Then the things that had happened had happened. Actually, he didn’t feel any sense of guilt, and didn’t see why he should.
It had simply been a piece of demolition.
He and his wife Jenny had found themselves talking less and less and arguing more and more. Then the arguments had ended and only silence had remained. Without any real reason, they had become strangers. At that point, the demolition was over and they didn’t have the strength left to start rebuilding.
After the divorce, Jenny had moved closer to her parents and now lived in Queens with the boys. They had stayed on good terms, and in spite of what the judge had ruled, she allowed him to see his sons whenever he wanted. Except that Jeremy couldn’t always get away and before long the boys were seeing less and less of him and were less and less enthusiastic when they did. Their excursions had become less frequent, and going to games had stopped altogether.
It seemed that demolition had become his speciality, both at work and outside.
He shook himself free of these thoughts and tried to get back to the present.
Sonora Inc., the hugely successful construction company he worked for, had acquired two adjoining four-storey buildings on the corner of Third Avenue and 23rd Street, paying a considerable sum to the owners and decent compensation to the few families who still lived in those buildings. In their place there would be a forty-two-storey condominium, with a gym, a roof swimming pool and other facilities.
The new was elbowing aside the old.
They had almost finished the demolition. Jeremy found this part of the process necessary but extremely boring. After months of effort and noise, it was as if the work hadn’t even started. He had even felt a touch of sadness as he watched those two old redbrick buildings come down, as if a chunk of history was disappearing with them. But the excitement of construction would soon put paid to that feeling. Before too long, the excavators would carve out sufficient space to throw down foundations appropriate to a building of that kind. And then the creation would begin, the gradual climb upwards, the adding of piece to piece, until the joyful moment when they planted a Stars and Stripes on the roof.
Standing in the doorway of the hut, he saw the workers downing tools one by one and walking towards him.
He looked at his watch. The argument with those assholes had lasted so long, he hadn’t realized it was lunchtime. He wasn’t hungry, but more than that, he had no desire right now to join in the chatter that always accompanied lunch. He’d always been on cordial, even friendly terms with his men. They didn’t share anything outside work, but work did take up most of their time, after all. And on the sites that he supervised he liked people to work as harmoniously as possible. That was why he had earned the esteem of his bosses and the respect of the workforce, even though they all knew that, when necessary, he was ready to take the gloves off and show an iron fist.
The fact that in his case it wasn’t a velvet glove, but a work glove, didn’t change anything.
Ronald Freeman, his deputy, came into the hut, making the floor sway slightly as he did so. He was a tall, well-built black man with a passion for beer and spicy food. Both tendencies had left their mark on his face and body. Freeman had married an Indian woman – something spicy to get his teeth into, as he put it. Jeremy had been to dinner at their house once. No sooner had he put in his mouth the first piece of something that had a name like masala than he had felt himself burst into flame and had been forced to take an immediate swig of beer. Then he had laughed and asked his host if you needed a firearms licence to serve food like that.
Ron took off his hard hat and went to the corner where he had put the thermal container his wife prepared for him every day. He sat down on the bench that ran along one side of the hut and placed the container on his knees. He saw Jeremy’s face and realized it was one of those days.
Jeremy shrugged his shoulders, downplaying the situation. ‘The usual crap. When an architect and an engineer agree after arguing for hours, you can bet the next thing they’ll do is go off in search of a third pain in the ass, so they can put together a kind of Bermuda triangle.’
‘And did they find one?’
‘You know how it is. It isn’t hard to find a ballbuster.’
‘The Brokens woman?’
‘If that woman understood double what she understands now, she’d still understand shit. She must be a sensation in bed, if her husband lets her off the leash like that.’
‘Or else she’s a stiff in bed, and her husband hopes she’ll tire herself out during the day so she won’t make any demands on him at night. Imagine what it must be like to have that woman lying beside you and feel her reaching out her hand…’
Ron gave a grimace of horror. ‘If it was me, they’d have to stick a pack of dogs in my underpants to dig it out.’
At that moment, two men climbed the steps to join them. Ron took advantage of their arrival to open his container. A strong smell of garlic pervaded the hut.
James Ritter, a pleasant-looking young worker, took a step back towards the door he’d just come in through. ‘Holy shit, Ron. Does the CIA know you’re carrying a weapon of mass destruction around with you? Eat all that stuff, you’ll be able to solder metal with your breath.’
Freeman’s only response was to ostentatiously lift a forkful of food to his mouth. ‘You’re an asshole. You deserve that trash you usually eat. You know, Viagra, which by the way I’m sure you’re already taking, sure ain’t gonna work with that crap inside you.’
He liked this atmosphere of camaraderie. Experience had taught him that men were better able to do heavy work if things were kept light. That was why he usually prepared something at home and ate his lunch sitting in one of the two huts with his workers.
But when he was in a bad mood, he preferred to be alone. To think about his own business and not weigh things down for others.
He went to the door and stood there for a moment looking out.
‘Not eating, boss?’
He shook his head, without turning. ‘Nah, I’m going to the deli around the corner. When I get back, I’ll count how many victims Ron’s food has claimed.’
He descended the steps of the hut, and went back to being an ordinary citizen. He crossed at the crossing and set off along 23rd Street, leaving Third Avenue behind him. The traffic wasn’t too heavy at this hour and in this part of the city. The rhythms of New York were very regular, except from time to time when things went crazy.
It was like an endless conjuring trick. In this city everything appeared and disappeared constantly. Cars, people, houses.
He got to the deli at a steady pace, without stopping to look in any windows. Partly because he wasn’t interested in what was in those windows, but mainly because he didn’t want to see his own reflection. For fear of discovering that he, too, had vanished into thin air.
He pushed open the door of the crowded deli, and the smell of food hit his nostrils. Seeing him come in, the oriental girl behind the cash register found the time to smile at him before turning to the line of people waiting to weigh their food and pay for it.
He went slowly along the long display counter, looking for something that attracted him in the various containers. Assistants, also oriental, replaced them as they emptied. He took a plastic container, served himself a few pieces of stewed chicken that looked acceptable enough, and prepared himself a mixed salad.
In the meantime, the line at the cash desk had grown shorter and a minute or so later he found himself facing the girl who had smiled at him when he had entered. At a first distracted glance, he had judged her to be much younger than she was. Now that he saw her at close quarters, he realized she wasn’t young enough to be his daughter after all. She smiled at him as if she might be willing to become something different for him. She probably did that with everyone, Jeremy thought. He weighed his containers, paid the money he was asked to, and left the woman to smile at the next customer in the same way.
He went to the back of the deli and sat down alone at a table for two. The chicken kept its promise – in other words wasn’t very good. He almost immediately left it and devoted his attention to the salad, remembering how Jenny had insisted, when they were still together, that he eat more vegetables.
Everything always happens too late …
With his tongue, he pursued the fragments of salad that got stuck between his teeth and washed them away with sips of the beer.
His thoughts returned to the morning’s meeting with Val Courier, a famous architect of somewhat dubious sexuality, and Fred Wyring, an engineer with equally dubious calculations, who had been joined by the wife of the owner of the company. Mrs Elisabeth Brokens, who looked like a brochure for Botox, having tired of going from one analyst to another, had decided that the best cure for her neuroses would be work. Having no aptitude, no training, and no ideas, she had been forced to turn to her husband. Maybe she had freed herself from her neuroses, but only by passing them on to all the people she came in contact with.
Jeremy Cortese didn’t have any qualifications, but had graduated on the job. Day after day, working hard and learning from those who knew more than him. He found arguing with incompetents a waste of time, which he’d eventually have to account for to someone, in this case Mr Brokens in person. Mr Brokens knew his work well but evidently didn’t know his wife quite as well, if he let her stick her nose in things like that.
Every time he saw her show up, he was tempted to set the stopwatch, so that he could demonstrate to his boss how much a visit from his wife to the site had cost him. Maybe it would have been better for him to keep paying the analysts’ fees.
He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn’t see Ronald Freeman come in. It wasn’t until he was standing right in front of him that he became aware of his presence and looked up from his salad.
‘We have a problem.’
Ron paused, then put his hands down on the table and looked him straight in the eyes. The expression on Ron’s face was one he’d never seen there before. If such a thing was possible, Jeremy would have said he was pale.
‘A big problem.’
That started ringing alarm bells in Jeremy’s head. ‘What’s up?’
Ron made a gesture with his head towards the door. ‘It might be better if you came and saw for yourself.’
Without waiting for a reply, he turned and headed for the exit. Jeremy followed him, feeling a mixture of surprise and anxiety. It was quite rare to see his deputy fazed by an emergency of any kind.
They walked along the street side by side. As they approached the site, they saw that the men had left the fenced-off area, a homogenous mass of work jackets and hard hats.
Without realizing it, he had started walking faster.
When they reached the entrance, the workers silently stood aside for them. It was like a scene from an old movie, the kind where the camera tracks along a row of despairing faces standing at the top of a mine shaft where a sudden collapse has trapped some of the miners inside.
What the hell’s going on?
They lost no time in putting on their hard hats. Ronald turned right, and Jeremy followed. They walked along the fence, next to what was still standing of a wall, then found themselves descending a staircase that led to the old basement, which was now almost completely open to the sky. As soon as they were at the bottom, Ronald led him towards the opposite side of the excavation. The only wall still partially standing here was the solid one between the two buildings, which was currently being demolished.
They reached the left-hand corner, the furthest from the staircase. Ronald stopped and with an almost choreographed effect, as if raising a curtain, moved aside and left the way free.
Jeremy shuddered, and felt like retching. He was glad he’d only eaten salad.
The demolition work had exposed a cavity wall. Through a gap in it, made by a pneumatic hammer, an arm was visible, dirty with time and dust. Above it, a head, reduced almost to a skull, was resting on what remained of a shoulder and seemed to be looking towards the outside world with all the bitterness of someone who has waited too long to see light and air again.
Vivien Light parked her Volvo XC60, switched off the engine, and waited a moment for the world to catch up with her. All through the journey back from Cresskill, she had had the feeling of being out of sync, of moving in a parallel dimension of her own, where she was faster than everything else. As if leaving in her wake a trail composed of fragments of the past, rapid splinters of coloured time, as visible as the tail of a comet by the cars, houses and people that flashed on the screens of her car windows.
The same thing happened every time she went up to see her sister.
She always felt hope when she set out. There was no reason for it, which made it all the stronger – and made her disappointment all the stronger when she found her sister the same as ever. Still a beautiful woman, as if the months and years were absurdly compensating her by having no effect on her face, but with eyes like blue spots staring into an emptiness that grew more all-encompassing as her illness developed.
That was why the journey back was a kind of leap into hyperspace, from which she emerged somewhere in the middle of reality.
She turned the rear-view mirror so that she could see herself. It wasn’t vanity. She just wanted to recognize herself, to make sure she was normal again. She saw the face of a young woman some people had called beautiful and others had brushed past as if she didn’t exist. The approval, as always happens, was invariably in inverse proportion to her own interest in that person.
She had short brown hair, rarely smiled, never folded her arms, and only allowed physical contact when she couldn’t avoid it. In her clear eyes there seemed to be a constant hint of sternness. And in the glove compartment of her car there was a Glock 23 pistol.
If she had been a normal woman, her approach to life might have been different. So might her appearance. But her hair was short to prevent anyone from grabbing it during a fight, her stern expression told other people to keep their distance, folding her arms could denote insecurity, and touching someone helped to create a sense of safety and trust, useful if you wanted that person to come clean. And the reason she had a pistol was because she was Detective Vivien Light of the New York Police Department, working out of the 13th Precinct on 21st Street. The entrance to her place of work was just behind her, and she would only have to get out of the car and take those few steps to be transformed from a troubled woman into a police officer.
She leaned forward to take the pistol from the glove compartment, slipped it into her jacket pocket and came back to earth.
In the side mirror she saw two uniformed officers come out of the precinct house through the glass-fronted main door, descend the steps, get into a car and drive off at speed, lights flashing and siren wailing. They were answering a call, one of the many they received every day: an emergency, someone in need, a crime. Every day in this city, men, women and children walked in the midst of danger, unable to predict when it would strike, unable to fight it.
That was what they were there for.
That was written on the doors of the police cars. Unfortunately, courtesy, professionalism and respect weren’t always enough to protect all those people from the violence and madness of mankind. Sometimes, in order to fight it, police officers had to allow a little of that madness into themselves. The difficult part was that they had to be aware of it and keep it on a tight leash. That was the difference between them and the people whose violence they were sometimes obliged to meet with violence. And that was why she wore her hair short, rarely smiled, and had a shield in her pocket and a pistol on her belt.
For no particular reason, she thought of an old Indian fable she had once told Sundance, about an old Cherokee sitting watching the sunset with his grandson.
‘Grandfather, why do men fight?’
The old man, his eyes turned to the setting sun as the daylost its battle with night, spoke in a calm voice.
‘Every man, sooner or later, is called to do so. For everyman there’s always a battle waiting to be fought, to win orlose. Because the fiercest clash is the one between the twowolves.’
‘What wolves, grandfather?’
‘The wolves every man carries inside himself.’
The boy didn’t understand. He waited for his grandfatherto break the silence he had let fall between them, maybe toarouse his curiosity. Finally, the old man, who had thewisdom of time inside him, resumed in his calm tone, ‘Thereare two wolves in each of us. One is bad and lives a life ofhate, jealousy, envy, rancour, false pride, lies, andselfishness.’
The old man paused again, this time to allow him to absorbwhat he had just said.
‘And the other?’
‘The other is the good wolf. He lives a life of peace, love,hope, generosity, compassion, humility and faith.’
The child thought for a moment about what his grandfatherhad just told him. Then he expressed what was especially onhis mind.
‘And which wolf wins?’
The old Cherokee turned to look at him and replied, clear-eyed, ‘The one we feed more.’
Vivien opened the door and got out of the car. As soon as she turned on her cellphone, it started ringing.
She lifted it to her ear and instinctively replied as if she was sitting at her desk. ‘Detective Light.’
‘Bellew here. Where are you?’
‘Just outside. I’m coming in.’
‘I’ll go down. Let’s meet in the lobby.’
Vivien climbed the steps, opened the glass-fronted door, and was inside the building.
A black man with his hands cuffed behind his back stood in front of the desk, with a uniformed officer beside him holding him by one arm. One of the officers behind the desk was taking down the details of his arrest.
As Vivien entered, she returned the officer’s wave. She turned right and found herself in a large room, painted a nondescript colour, with rows of chairs in the middle and a whiteboard on the wall facing them. Another whiteboard stood on an easel next to a raised desk. This was the room where the officers on duty gathered for roll call, to be given the rundown on the current operations and assigned their tasks for the day.
Captain Alan Bellew, her immediate superior, came in through another door facing the entrance. Seeing her, he came towards her with that rapid walk of his that gave an impression of physical vigour. He was a tall, highly capable man who loved his work and was good at it.
He knew all about Vivien’s difficult love life. In spite of that, and her youth, her unquestionable qualities in the job had led him to hold her in high regard. A relationship of mutual respect had sprung up between them, and whenever they had worked together they’d always achieved excellent results. One of Vivien’s colleagues had once called her ‘the captain’s pet’, but when Bellew had found out about it he had taken the officer aside and given him a little talk. Nobody knew what he had said, but from that moment on all comments had ceased.
Coming level with her, he did what he always did: he came straight to the point.
‘A call just came in. We have a homicide. The body’s apparently years old. They found it on a construction site during demolition. It was inside a wall between two basements.’ He paused, just long enough to give her time to focus on the situation. ‘I’d like you to handle it.’
‘Where is it?’
Bellew made a vague gesture with his head. ‘Two blocks from here, on 23rd and Third. The crime scene team should be there by now. The ME’s on his way, too. I already sent Bowman and Salinas to keep an eye on things until you get there.’
‘Isn’t this something for Cold Case?’
Cold Case was the squad that dealt with long-unsolved homicides. From what the captain had said, this sounded completely like their thing.
‘We’re handling it for now. Later, we can consider if it’s appropriate to transfer it to them.’
Vivien knew Captain Alan Bellew regarded the 13th Precinct as his personal territory and didn’t like anyone who didn’t work directly for him muscling in.
Vivien nodded. ‘Okay. I’ll get right on it.’
Just then, two men came through a door to the right of the desk. One was older, with grey hair and a tanned face.
Sailing, maybe, or golf.
Or maybe both, Vivien thought.
His dark suit, leather briefcase and serious demeanour were like a sign around his neck, marked Lawyer.
The other man was younger, about thirty-five. He was wearing dark glasses, and there was several days’ growth of beard on his drawn face. His clothes, distinctly more casual than his companion’s, bore traces of the night he had spent in a cell. That wasn’t the only thing he bore traces of: he had a cut on his lip and the left shoulder seam of his jacket was torn.
The two men went out without looking around. Vivien and Bellew watched them until they disappeared beyond the swaying of the glass-fronted door.
The captain gave a half smile. ‘We had a celebrity guest in the Plaza last night.’
Vivien knew what that meant. Upstairs in the squad room, along with the detectives’ desks, which were so close together they made the place look like an office furniture showroom, there was a cell. This was where the arrested were kept, sometimes for a whole night, waiting to be either freed on bail or transferred to the jail in Chinatown. With a sense of irony, given how uncomfortable the long wooden bunks fixed to the walls were, they had dubbed it the Plaza.
‘Who is that guy?’
‘The Russell Wade? Who won the Pulitzer at the age of twenty-five? And had it taken away from him three months later?’
The captain nodded, the smile fading abruptly from his lips. ‘Yeah, that’s the guy.’
Vivien knew when there was a touch of bitterness in her chief’s voice. And few things made him more bitter than when people deliberately, almost complacently, destroyed themselves. For reasons of her own, it was a situation she was familiar with.
‘We picked him up last night in a raid on a gambling joint, blind drunk and resisting arrest. I think he caught a punch from Tyler.’
Bellew immediately filed that brief parenthesis away among the closed files and came back to the matter in hand.
‘No offence to the living, but I think you have a dead man to deal with. He’s been waiting a long time – best not to keep him waiting any longer.’
‘I think he has every right.’
Bellew left her. Vivien went outside again, into the mild air of that late spring afternoon. She descended the short flight of steps, and as she did so she had a fleeting vision of Russell Wade and his lawyer disappearing into a chauffeured limousine, over to her right. The car pulled away from the curb and glided past. The guest who had spent a night in the Plaza had now taken off his dark glasses, and their eyes met through the open window. For a moment, Vivien found herself looking into two intense dark eyes and was astonished by the immense sadness she saw in them. Then the car was past her and that face disappeared behind the screen of the electrically operated window.
The site where they had found the body was so close, it was easier to get there on foot. And in the meantime she was already processing the small amount of information she had in her possession. A construction site was often an ideal place to get rid of an unwanted person for ever. This wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last. A murder, a body buried in concrete, an old story of violence and madness.
Which wolf wins?
Those wolves had been battling it out since the dawn of time. Over the centuries, there had always been some who had fed the wrong wolf. Vivien walked on, feeling the unavoidable excitement she always felt on the verge of a new case. Along with the awareness that, whether she solved it or not, everyone would – as they always did – end up defeated.
To get to the construction site, she had walked up Third Avenue.
She had to emerge from that anonymity that had allowed her to merge into the humanity around her and assume a very specific role. The arrival of a detective on a crime scene was always a special moment, like a curtain rising on an actor. Nobody ever moved a finger before the person in charge of the investigation arrived. She knew the kind of things she was going to feel. And she knew that, as always, she’d have been happy to do without those feelings. The place where a murder had been committed, whether recently or some time in the past, had a certain grisly fascination. Some murder scenes even became tourist attractions. For her, a murder scene was a place where she had to put her emotions to one side and concentrate on her job. Whatever theories she might have constructed in her head during her brief walk were about to be put to the test.
Bowman and Salinas, the two officers sent by Bellew, were nowhere to be seen. They must be inside, putting yellow tape around the area where the body had been found.
The workers had gathered outside the door of one of the huts at one end of the site. Standing slightly apart from them were two other men, a large black man and a white man in a blue cotton work jacket. Everyone seemed extremely nervous. Vivien could understand how they felt. It isn’t every day you knock down a wall and find a corpse.
She approached the two men and flashed her shield. ‘Hi, I think you’re expecting me. I’m Detective Vivien Light.’
If they were surprised to see her arrive on foot, they didn’t show it. Their relief that she was here, that they finally had someone they could talk to, overcame any other consideration.
The white man spoke for both of them. ‘I’m Jeremy Cortese, the site supervisor. And this is my deputy, Ron Freeman.’
Vivien, sure that the two men couldn’t wait to get started, came straight to the point. ‘Who found the body?’
Cortese indicated the group of workers behind them. ‘Jeff Sefakias over there. He was knocking down a wall and-’
Vivien interrupted him. ‘OK. I’ll talk to him later. Right now I’d like to take a look at the scene.’
Cortese took a step towards the site entrance. ‘This way. I’ll take you.’
Freeman didn’t move. ‘If you don’t mind, I’d rather not see that… that thing again.’
Vivien made an effort to suppress a sympathetic smile. She was afraid that it might be misunderstood, that the man might think she was making fun of him. There was no reason to humiliate someone she instinctively sensed was a good person. Not for the first time, Vivien reflected on how difficult it was to guess a person’s character from his body. The man’s huge frame would have struck fear into anyone, and yet he was the one upset by the sight of the corpse.
Just then, a large dark sedan pulled up close to the barriers. The driver quickly got out and opened the door for the passenger in the back seat. A woman emerged from the car. She was tall and blond and must once have been beautiful. Now she was only an advertisement for the futile battle some women waged against the indifference of time. Even though her clothes were casual, they all had designer labels. She reeked of Saks Fifth Avenue, massage sessions at exclusive spas, French perfume, and snobbery. Without so much as a glance at Vivien, she addressed Cortese directly.
‘Jeremy, what’s going on here?’
‘As I told you on the phone, we found a man’s body while we were digging.’
‘Well, I understand that, but we can’t stop work because of it. Do you have any idea how much this site is costing the company per day?’
Cortese shrugged and made an instinctive gesture with his hands in Vivien’s direction. ‘We were waiting for the police to get here.’
It was only then that the woman seemed to notice her presence. She looked her up and down, with an expression Vivien decided wasn’t worth the effort of deciphering. Whatever test she was subjecting her to – clothes, looks or age – she knew she hadn’t passed it.
‘Officer, I hope we can resolve this regrettable incident as soon as possible.’
Vivien tilted her head slightly to one side and smiled. ‘And who do I have the pleasure of…?’
‘Elisabeth Brokens,’ the woman said in a self-important tone. ‘My husband is Charles Brokens, the owner of the company.’
‘Well, Mrs Brokens, what I might define as a regrettable incident is the nose your plastic surgeon stuck on your face, for instance. What happened here is something the rest of the world insists on calling homicide. And as I’m sure you know, that’s something that tends to be of great interest to the law. Which, if you don’t mind my saying so, has priority over your company’s balance sheet.’ She stopped smiling and abruptly changed her tone. ‘And if you don’t get out of my way I’ll have you arrested for obstructing an investigation by the New York Police Department.’
‘How dare you? My husband is a personal friend of the commissioner and-’
‘Then I suggest you complain to him, Mrs Brokens. And let me get on with my job.’
She turned her back on the woman, and left her standing there like a block of marble, plotting some retaliation or other. She headed for the opening that she assumed to be the site entrance.
Jeremy Cortese fell into step beside her. There was an incredulous but blissful look on his face. ‘Lady, if you ever have a site that needs supervising, I’d be happy to offer my services for free. Mrs Brokens’ face after your little speech is going to be one of the happiest memories of my life.’
But Vivien barely heard him, her mind already elsewhere. As they crossed the threshold, she took in the situation at a single glance. Just beyond where they were now, marked out by a protection fence, was a hole in the ground that covered about three quarters of the area of the whole site and was as deep as a cellar. The bottom of the hole was the floor of the two different buildings, divided down the middle by a line. On the other side, part of the street level floor still had to be demolished, but most of the work had been done. At the bottom, the two officers were just finishing cordoning off an area in the left-hand corner. A worker was leaning against a wall behind them, waiting.
Cortese provided her with answers before she had even asked the questions. ‘Sonora acquired two old buildings next door to each other. We’re demolishing them to build a condominium. As you can see, we’re nearly finished.’
Vivien pointed to the floor divided in two. ‘What was here before?’
‘On this side, an apartment block with a restaurant at street level. Italian, I think. We moved a whole lot of old equipment. On the other side, there was a small garage. I think it was put there after the building was built, because we found signs of renovation.’
‘Do you know who the owners were?’
‘No. But the company probably has all the papers.’
Cortese moved on, and Vivien followed him. They reached the corner to their right, where a concrete staircase, left over from the old buildings, led down to the lower level. There was a desolate feeling to the deserted site, with pneumatic hammers lying on the ground and a big yellow vehicle with a log drilling tool standing to one side. Everywhere was the grey gloom of destruction, without the colourful promise of rebirth.
As they went down the stairs, two of the crime scene technicians appeared, carrying their instruments. Vivien signalled to them, and they approached.
Vivien and Cortese got to the bottom of the stairs. The two officers were waiting for them there. Cortese stopped a couple of paces from the yellow tape. Officer Victor Salinas, a tall, brown-haired young man who had a crush on Vivien and whose eyes made no secret of the fact, waited for her to reach him then raised the tape to let her through.
‘What’s the score?’ she asked.
‘At first sight, I’d say normal and complicated at the same time. Come and see.’
At the far end was a kind of square cavity wall. Vivien turned her head and saw that on the opposite side there was another exactly the same. Most likely, one or more columns, now demolished, had formed a line between them.
In front of her, through a gap in the concrete, she saw a forearm covered in what remained of a cotton jacket. A skull with traces of shrivelled skin and hair could also be glimpsed inside, grinning like a figure from the Day of the Dead. But this was no allegory – this was very real evidence of violent death.
Vivien walked up to the wall. She looked carefully at the arm, the body, the material of the sleeve. She tried to peer inside, seeing what details she could make out. She knew how important first impressions could turn out to be.
She turned and saw that the crime scene officers and a man of about forty in a sportcoat and a pair of jeans were standing just beyond the tape, waiting for instructions. Vivien had never seen the man before but from his vaguely bored air she guessed he was the medical examiner. Vivien walked over to them. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Let’s try getting him out of there.’
Jeremy Cortese stepped forward and pointed to the worker who had been standing to one side. ‘If you like, there’s one of my men here who has no problems with dead bodies. In his spare time, he helps his brother-in-law who’s an undertaker.’
‘Call him over.’
Cortese signalled to the worker, who came towards them. He was in his early thirties, with a boyish face and vaguely oriental features. Shiny dark hair peeped out from under his hard hat. Vivien thought there must be something Asian about him.
Without a word he walked past them, went to the wall and bent down to pick up the pneumatic hammer from the ground.
Vivien went up to him. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Tom. Tom Dickson.’
‘All right, Tom, listen. We have a delicate situation here. This has to be done with extreme care. Everything inside that hole could be important. If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather you used a hammer and chisel, even if it takes longer.’
‘Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing. You’ll find everything the way you want it.’
Vivien placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘I trust you, Tom. Carry on.’
She had to admit the man knew his business. He widened the gap in such a way as to make the inside accessible, making the rubble fall outwards but without moving the position of the body.
Vivien asked Salinas for a torch and went closer to take a look inside the hole. There was still a lot of daylight, but the semi-darkness inside made it difficult to see. She shone the torch at the walls and the dead man. The narrowness of the space had stopped the body from sliding to the ground. The dead man was resting on his left side, his head tilted at an unnatural angle. It was this that had given the impression, when seen from the outside, that his head was resting on his shoulder. The enclosed environment and the lack of humidity had partially mummified him, which was why he was much more intact than would normally have been the case – and which also made it much more difficult to calculate how long he had been hidden here.
Who are you? Who killed you?
Vivien knew that for the families of missing persons, the worst thing was the anguish of not knowing. Someone
one night‚ one day
left home and never came back. And in the absence of a body, his loved ones spent their whole lives wondering what, where and why. Never giving up a hope that only time could gradually extinguish.
She pulled herself together and resumed her inspection.
When she aimed her torch at the ground she discovered, next to the feet of the corpse, an object covered in dust that looked at first glance like a kind of large wallet. She asked for a pair of latex gloves, slid into the opening, and bent to pick it up. Then she straightened up and signalled to the crime scene team and the medical examiner.
‘OK, gentleman, it’s your turn.’
As the team got to work, she examined the object she had in her hand.
She blew on it gently to remove the layer of dust. The material was imitation leather, and must once have been black or brown. She could see now that it wasn’t in fact a wallet, but a document holder. She opened it carefully. There were two hard plastic sheets inside, stuck together, which made a slight tearing noise as she pulled then apart.
Inside were two photographs.
She parted the plastic and gently slipped her fingers in to extract them without ruining them. She examined them by the light of the torch. In the first, a young man in a helmet and combat uniform was leaning on a tank and looking gravely at the camera. Around him there was vegetation that suggested a tropical country. She turned the photograph over. There was something written on it, faded by time, with some of the letters almost erased, but not enough to make them illegible.
Cu Chi District 1971
The second photograph, which was much better preserved, surprised her. The subject was the same young man who had been looking thoughtfully at the camera in the previous photograph. Here, he was in civilian clothes, a psychedelic T-shirt and work pants. In this image he had long hair and was smiling and holding a big black cat out to the camera. She studied the man and the animal closely. At first she thought it was a deformation caused by the angle, but then she realized that her first impression had been correct.
The cat had only three legs.
There was nothing written on the back of this photograph.
She asked the other officer, Bowman, for two plastic bags, and slipped the document holder and the photographs inside them. She went up to Frank Ritter, the head of the crime-scene team and handed them over to him.
‘I’d like you to analyse this material. Look for fingerprints, if there are any. Examine the victim’s clothes. Plus, I’d like these photographs to be enlarged.’
‘We’ll see what we can do. But if I were you I wouldn’t hold out too much hope. Everything looks pretty old to me.’
The ME walked around the stretcher and came and joined Vivien. They limited the introductions to the absolute minimum.
They both knew who they were, where they were and what they were doing. Right now, any other consideration faded into the background.
‘Any idea yet of the cause of death?’
‘In layman’s terms, I’d hazard a guess, from the position of the head, that someone broke his collar bone. With what I don’t know. I’ll know more after the post mortem.’
‘How long do you think he’s been here?’
‘From the body’s state of preservation, I’d say around fifteen years. But the state of the hiding place also has to be taken into account. An analysis of the fibres should get us there. And I think forensic tests on the material of the clothes will come in useful, too.’
‘Don’t mention it.’
As the medical examiner walked away, Vivien realized that everything that could be done had been done. She gave the order to remove the body, said goodbye to the men, and left them to their tasks. At this point, she considered it pointless to talk to the worker who had found the body. She had given Bowman the job of taking down the details of all the people who might be useful to their investigation. She would talk to them later, including Mr Charles Brokens, who woke up every morning with that woman in his bed.
In a case of homicide like this, the most important leads usually came from the technical data rather than from witness statements. They’d have to wait for the test results before deciding on a plan of action.
She went back the way she had come, until she reached the site entrance. The workers watched her with a mixture of admiration and awe. She set off for the precinct house to pick up her car. She needed to think.
Bellew hadn’t assigned her to an easy case. He presumably considered her capable of solving it, but what he was asking her to do was equivalent to pulling chestnuts from the fire. And from the facts that had emerged so far, these chestnuts had been in the fire for at least fifteen years and had been burned to a cinder.
She passed a bar and instinctively looked through the window. Sitting at a table, talking to a girl with long blond hair, was Richard. The way they were looking at each other suggested they were more than just friends. She felt like a voyeur, and hurried away before he could see her, although he seemed to have eyes only for his companion. She was not surprised to find him there. He lived nearby and they’d been there together several times.
Maybe a few more times would have been better.
She’d had a relationship with Richard that had lasted a year, full of laughter, food and wine, and tender, gentle sex. A relationship that had been one step away from being love.
But, what with her work and the situation of Sundance and her sister, she had found it more and more difficult to devote herself to the two of them. In the end, the affair had ended.
As she walked, she realized that she had the same problem as all the people moving on that street and in that city. They all assumed they would live and knew they would die.
Ziggy Stardust was good at camouflage.
He was capable of being a perfect nobody among the millions of New York nobodies. He was a perfect example of neither-nor: neither tall nor short, neither fat nor thin, neither handsome nor ugly. He was the kind of person you didn’t notice, didn’t remember, didn’t love.
The king of nobodies.
But he had turned being a nobody into an art. In his own way he considered himself an artist. In the same way as he called himself a traveller. On average he rode more miles on the subway every day than most passengers in a week. In Ziggy’s opinion, the subway was a place for suckers. Which made it the ideal place for one of his many activities: bag snatching. Another of his activities, more of a fringe activity but no less important, was being the dealer of choice for those who loved white powder but didn’t like risks or problems.
With Ziggy, they never had any problems.
He wasn’t a big time dealer, but the income, though small, was regular. All these grand ladies and gentlemen had to do was call a safe number and they’d get a home delivery of whatever they needed for their parties or be given an address to go to for fun and games. They had the money – he had what they were willing to pay for. This meshing of supply and demand was so natural, it wiped out any possible scruples – not that Ziggy had ever had any.
Occasionally, when he was able to, he also sold information to anyone who needed it. Sometimes even to the police, who in return for a few useful tip-offs – strictly confidential, of course – turned a blind eye to Ziggy’s frequent subway trips.
Obviously, that wasn’t his real name. Nobody remembered what his real name was. Even he forgot it sometimes. The nickname had been given him, when someone had remarked on his resemblance to David Bowie at the time the record Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars had come out. He couldn’t remember who it had been, but the name had remained.
It was the only thing that removed him a little from the anonymity in which he had always tried to live. He never walked in the middle of the sidewalk, but always hugged the walls and kept to the most shadowy areas. If he could choose, he preferred to be forgotten, rather than remembered. In the evenings he went back to his hole in Brooklyn, watched TV, surfed the internet and only went out to make phone calls. All calls related to work he made from a public phone booth. At home, on a cabinet, he always kept a roll of quarters, for every eventuality. There were a lot of people who hadn’t realized there was a good reason cellphones were called cellphones. They were telephones but they were also what landed you in jail. And those who ended up in jail because their calls had been intercepted got what they deserved. Not because they were criminals, but because they were stupid.
Even now, as he descended the stairs to Bleecker Street station, he couldn’t help feeling justified in his conviction. Better to make everyone believe you were a nobody than have someone sooner or later decide that they’d prove it to you.
He reached the platform and got on the green express line going uptown. The opening and closing of the sliding doors, the constant getting on and off of weary passengers who wanted only to be somewhere else, meant a lot of pushing and shoving, the contact of bodies, the smell of sweat. But it also meant wallets and distraction, the two basic elements of his work. There was always a purse slightly open, a pocket not well closed, a bag next to someone immersed in a book so engrossing they forgot everything else.
Of course the good old days were long over. Credit cards were everywhere now, and there was less and less cash in circulation. That was why he had decided to branch out – to diversify his activities.
The door is closing, came the voice of the loudspeaker.
He moved towards the rear of the carriage, where it was more crowded, making his way between hanging elbows and whiffs of garlic. Sitting next to the door was a guy in a green military jacket. He found it hard to judge his age. From where he was standing, he couldn’t see him well because the blue hood of a coverall came up from under the jacket to partly hide his face. His head was slightly tilted to the side, and it looked as if the swaying of the carriage had made him doze off. Next to his feet was a dark canvas bag.
Ziggy felt a slight sense of pins and needles in his fingertips. There was part of him that displayed something close to extrasensory perception when he singled out a victim. It was a knack, a gift, which had sometimes given him the idea that he had been born to do this work. Of course, the clothes the man was wearing didn’t suggest there might be something of value in that bag. But the hands resting in his lap weren’t the hands of a man who did heavy work, and his watch looked like a good one.
In his opinion, there was something here that went beyond the guy’s appearance. His instinct had rarely let him down, and over time he had learned to trust it.
He had once removed a wallet from a guy in a jacket and tie only because, in brushing against him, he had felt, by touch alone, a cashmere overcoat that must have been worth more than four thousand dollars. Trusting to nothing but the texture of the material, he had made his move. A few minutes later, going through the guy’s wallet, he had found seven dollars, a fake credit card and a subway season ticket.
He went closer to the man in the green jacket, although staying on the other side of the door. He waited a couple of stops. The number of passengers was increasing. He moved into the middle and then, as if shifting to leave the door clear, he moved next to him.
The canvas bag was on the floor. It was on his left, close to his feet, the handle in the perfect position to be
grabbed at the right stop
getting out while the other passengers got on. He checked that the man still had his head in the same position. He hadn’t moved. Many people dozed off on the trains, especially those who had a long way to go. Ziggy was convinced that this guy belonged to that category of person. He waited until they got to Grand Central, where the number of people getting on and off was usually greater. As soon as the doors opened he grabbed the bag in an extremely rapid but natural movement, and got off. He immediately hid it with his body.
Out of the corner of his eye, as he was trying to melt into the crowd, he thought he saw a green jacket getting out of the carriage a moment before the train left.
Grand Central was always full of cops and if that guy had sussed him, there was the possibility there would be quite a scene. And maybe a few days in the cooler. He passed a couple of police officers, an older man and a black girl, who were chatting just outside the station. Nothing happened. Nobody came running, crying ‘Stop thief!’ to attract the attention of the two officers. He preferred not to turn around. Better to let the guy who was following him think he hadn’t noticed anything.
He came out onto 42nd and immediately turned right and then right again, onto Vanderbilt. There was a stretch where there wasn’t much traffic and that was the right place to check if the guy in the military jacket really was following him or not. He went back into the terminal through the side entrance, taking advantage of the opportunity to throw a casual glance to his right. He didn’t see anybody come around the corner who looked anything like him. But that still didn’t mean anything. If the guy was clever, he knew how to follow someone without being spotted. Just as he himself knew the best way to throw someone who was tailing him. He wondered again how come the guy hadn’t told the two cops. If he’d noticed the theft and had followed him to get the bag back personally, that could mean two things.
Firstly: he was running the risk that this was a dangerous guy. Secondly: there might be something valuable in the bag the guy wasn’t too eager for the police to clap eyes on. And if this second point turned out to be correct, then Ziggy’s interest in the contents grew considerably. But at the same time it made the guy very dangerous.
That feeling he’d had that he’d found the right target was turning sour. He went down to the lower level, which was packed with ethnic restaurants. The huge space was full of signs, colours, food smells and a sense of hurry. And it was the last of these things that was communicating itself to him, even though he was forcing himself to walk at a normal pace.
He got to the other side and as he was climbing the stairs again he turned to check out the street behind him. Nobody suspicious. He started to relax. Maybe it had only been an impression. Maybe he was starting to get too old for this work.
He followed the signs and went back into the subway, heading for the purple line, which went north into Queens. He waited until the train arrived and followed the stream of passengers getting on. A necessary precaution. If what he’d been thinking earlier was right, the man in the green jacket, assuming he really was following him, would never try anything against him in a crowded place. He waited nonchalantly until the usual voice announced that the doors were closing.
Only then did he rush out and go back to the bench, like a passenger who suddenly realizes he has got on the wrong carriage. He waited for the clatter of the departing train to fade, then changed back to the green line, which would take him downtown and then on to Brooklyn.
He did the journey in several stages, waiting at each stop for the next train, continuing to glance around him with a nonchalant air.
When he decided that everything was OK, he got on another train and found a place to sit. He made himself comfortable and waited, with the bag in his lap, overcoming the impulse to open it and find out what there was inside. Better to do that at home, where he’d be able to examine everything calmly and unhurriedly.
Ziggy was good at waiting.
He had done it all his life, ever since he was a boy and had started hustling every which way he could think of to make ends meet. He had carried on in the same way, never making the mistake of getting too greedy, contenting himself with what he had, but always with the unshakeable certainty that one day everything would suddenly change. His life, his home, his name.
Farewell Ziggy Stardust, welcome back Mister Zbigniew Malone.
He changed lines again before arriving at a station near home. He lived in Brooklyn, in a neighbourhood with the largest concentration of Haitians in New York, where even the signs on some of the restaurants were in French. A multiethnic world – women with huge asses and shrill voices and young guys who shuffled as they walked and wore their caps with the peak turned to the side. Bordering that area, the Jewish neighbourhood, houses with well-tended lawns and Mercedeses in the drives. Silent people, who moved like dark shadows, faces serious beneath their black hats.
But he liked things that way. In expectation of the day when he’d be able to say, That’s enough of that, and choose for himself.
On the wall of the building where he lived, the windowless wall facing the street, someone had painted a mural. The artist was nothing special, but the colours, in a place so faded, so washed out, had always cheered him up. He went in through the front door and descended the steps that led to the basement where he lived. A single room with a tiny bathroom, worn, second-rate furniture and the smell of exotic cooking wafting down from the upper floors. The unmade bed was against the wall opposite the door, beneath the high window that let in a dim light. Everything seemed to belong to a bygone time, even the few modern touches: the high-definition TV, the computer and the all-in-one printer/copier, which were covered with a layer of dust.
The only surprising thing was the bookcase against the left-hand wall, filled with volumes neatly arranged in alphabetical order. Others were strewn about the room. There was even a pile of books on the night table to the right of the bed.
Ziggy placed the bag on the table, which was cluttered with old magazines, took off his jacket, and threw it on an armchair. He took the bag and went and sat down on the bed. He opened the bag and started emptying it onto the sheet. There were two newspapers, the New York Times and USAToday, a blue and yellow plastic box that turned out to be a small toolkit, a roll of copper wire and one of grey adhesive tape, the kind electricians used. Then he pulled out the heaviest thing in the bag, the thing that really weighed it down: a photograph album with a brown leather cover and pages of rough paper of the same colour, full of black and white images of people he didn’t know in places he didn’t know. All the photographs were quite old. From the clothes, he guessed at the 1970s. He leafed through a few pages. An image caught his attention. He removed it from the adhesive tabs that held it to the page and looked at it closely for a few moments. A young man with long hair and a smile on his lips that didn’t quite reach his eyes, holding a big black cat. The snapshot, quite by chance, had managed to capture a strange resemblance, as if those two living beings, although of different species, were mirror images of each other.
He slipped the photograph into his shirt pocket and continued to explore the contents of the bag. He extracted a black plastic object, rectangular in shape, slightly longer and narrower than a cigarette pack, with adhesive tape around the middle to stop it from opening. At one end was a series of buttons of different colours.
Ziggy looked at it for a moment, bewildered. It was like a home-made remote control. Rudimentary maybe, but that seemed to be what it was. He put it down next to the other things and took the last object out of the bag. It was a large, slightly crumpled brown envelope with a name and address written on it, the words already partly faded. The size of it suggested it had been used to send the photograph album.
He opened it to look inside and there he found sheets of paper covered in rough but fairly legible handwriting. The handwriting of a man who was probably not very used to words, either spoken or written.
Ziggy started reading. The first pages were quite boring, filled with a life story expressed in a crude and sometimes disjointed way. He was a reader of books and knew when he was reading something by someone who had studied and could write. This wasn’t it.
But he became aware that the text was not without a certain fascination, even though the prose was certainly not a writer’s. It was what it said that mattered, not how it was written. He continued reading with increasing attention, and gradually the attention turned to interest and finally a kind of frenzy. By the time he reached the end of the letter, he couldn’t help leaping to his feet. He felt a slight shiver down his spine and the hair on his arms stood on end, as if he’d had an electric shock.
Ziggy couldn’t believe his eyes. He sat down again slowly, with his legs open and his eyes fixed on some undefined point. A point in time rather than in space.
The great opportunity had arrived.
What he had in his hands might be worth millions of dollars to the right people. He felt dizzy at the thought of it. The possible advantages for him made him forget the definite consequences for others.
He put the pages down on the bed with exaggerated care, as if they were fragile. Then he started thinking about how to take advantage of this unexpected piece of luck. What to do, how to distil this material in such a way as to arouse the greatest interest and get the greatest advantage.
And above all, who to contact.
All kinds of thoughts moved through his brain at speed.
He switched on the printer/copier and put the sheets of paper on the table next to the computer. The first thing to do was make photocopies. A copy would be enough to arouse someone’s interest and that someone would have to be willing to pay a tidy sum just to get hold of the original. Which had to remain in his possession until the deal was done. The original he would put in an envelope and send to an anonymous postal box he sometimes used. There it would stay until someone gave him a reason to go and get it out.
And that reason could only be a substantial sum of money.
He started the copying, placing the original of each page next to the copy as he did so. When it came to work, Ziggy was a meticulous person. And this was the most important work he had ever done in his life.
He placed one of the last sheets of paper on the glass of the scanner, lowered the lid and pressed the start button. The scanning light moved through the machine until it had the whole page in its memory. As it was about to print, the sensor warned that there was no more paper and an orange light started flashing on the left-hand side of the machine.
Ziggy went to get some sheets from a ream on a shelf of the bookcase and put it in the tray.
At that moment he heard a noise behind him, a slight metallic click, like a lock snapping. He turned in time to see the door open and a man in a green jacket come in.
No, not now, not now that everything was within reach …
But what he saw in front of him was a hand holding a knife.
It was clearly that knife that had been used to force the lousy lock. And from the look in the man’s eyes he realized that wouldn’t be the only use for it.
He felt his legs give way. He didn’t have the strength to say anything. As the man advanced on him, Ziggy Stardust started crying. He cried because he was afraid of pain, and afraid of death.
But more than anything, he cried with disappointment.
The Volvo moved smoothly through the traffic drawing it towards the Bronx. At that hour, going north could be a real journey. But once she left Manhattan, Vivien had found that the traffic was flowing smoothly. Since she had terrible the Triborough Bridge on her right, she had driven the length of the Bruckner Expressway in a relatively short time.
The sun was sinking behind her and the city was getting ready for sunset. The sky had a dark blue luminosity, so clear that it seemed to have been hand painted – the colour that only the New York breeze could offer, when it managed to blow clean that small stretch of infinity that everyone deluded themselves they had above them.
The car phone interrupted the music coming from the radio. She activated the speaker.
‘Hi, it’s Nathan.’
He hadn’t needed to say his name. She had recognized her brother-in-law’s voice. She would have recognized it even in the clamour of a battlefield.
What do you want, you son of a bitch? she thought.
‘What do you want, you son of a bitch?’ she said aloud.
There was a moment’s silence.
‘You’ll never forgive me, will you?’
‘Nathan, forgiveness is for people who repent. Forgiveness is for people who try to repair the harm they’ve done.’
The man at the other end waited a moment, in order to let those words vanish into the distance that separated them.
‘Have you seen Greta lately?’
‘And you?’ Vivien rounded on him, feeling the desire to hit him rise in her, that desire she felt every time she found herself in his presence or even just heard his voice. At that moment, if he had been sitting beside her, she would have smashed his nose with a dig from her elbow.
‘How long is it since you last saw your wife? How long is it since you last saw your daughter? How much longer do you think you can hide?’
‘Vivien, I’m not hiding. I-’
‘Spare me your crap, you son of a bitch!’
She had shouted those words. And she had been wrong to do so. The contempt she felt for the man should not be manifested with a roar. It should be expressed with the hiss of the snake.
And a snake was what she became.
‘Nathan, you’re a coward. You always have been and you always will be. And when things got too tough for you, you did the one thing you know how to do: you ran away.’
‘I’ve always provided for their needs. Sometimes, there are choices-’
‘You didn’t have choices,’ she interrupted him sharply. ‘You had responsibilities. And you should have assumed them. That lousy cheque you send every month isn’t enough to compensate for your absence. Or even to soothe your conscience. So don’t call me now to find out how your wife is. Don’t call me to find out how your daughter is. If you want to feel better, get off your fucking ass and go see for yourself.’
She pressed the button so angrily to end the call that for a moment she was afraid she had broken it. For a few moments she looked straight ahead of her, driving and listening to the furious beating of her heart. A few ragged tears of anger ran down her cheeks. She wiped them with the back of her hand and tried to calm down.
To forget the place she had been that morning and the place she was going now, she took shelter in the one safe place she had: her work.
She tried to leave every other thought behind her and ordered her mind to concentrate on the new case. She recalled that arm emerging from the gap in the wall, the desolation of that shrivelled head resting on a shoulder that was only a residue of skin and bone.
Even though experience had taught her that everything was possible, that same experience made her fear that it was going to be very difficult to establish the dead man’s identity. Construction sites were much favoured by the underworld as places to hide the victims of mob hits. When it was done by professionals, bodies were often buried naked or with all the labels torn off their clothes in case they were found. Sometimes the fingerprints were erased with acid. Examining the body today, she had noticed that this hadn’t been done and that the labels were in their places, even though fairly deteriorated. That meant that this probably wasn’t the work of a professional, but had been done by someone without the cool head or the experience to eliminate all traces.
But who could have hidden the body in a block of concrete? It wasn’t an easy thing to do, unless you had expert help. Or maybe the culprit was an expert himself. Someone who worked for a construction company. Whatever the motive, the crime could have been the isolated act of an ordinary man.
The only lead they had was those photographs, especially that strange black cat with three-
She had been so absorbed in her thoughts, she hadn’t noticed that the junction with the Hutchinson River Parkway was blocked by a line of cars. She braked abruptly, swerving left in order not to bump the car in front. The driver of a big pick-up behind her sounded his horn loudly. In her rear-view mirror Vivien saw him leaning forward and showing her his middle finger.
She usually hated resorting to certain things when she wasn’t on duty, but this evening she decided she was in a hurry. Her own distraction, more than the man’s gesture, had made her nervous. She took the flashing light from behind the seat, opened the window, lit it and placed it on the roof.
With a smile, she saw the man abruptly lower his hand and back down. The cars in front of her, in so far as they could, pulled over to make it easier for her to get through. She made her way toward Zerega Avenue, and a couple of blocks after turning onto Logan she reached the church of Saint Benedict.
She parked the Volvo in a free space on the other side of the street and sat for a moment looking at the light brick facade, the short flight of steps that led to the three entrance doors surmounted by pointed arches, the columns and the friezes with which they were decorated.
It was a recent building. Vivien would never have thought that a place like that could one day become so familiar to her.
She got out of the car and crossed the street.
The semi-darkness that makes it hard to tell the colour of cats was already in the air, but there was still enough light to recognize a person. She was about to head for the priory when she saw Father Angelo Cremonesi, one of the priests attached to the parish, come out through the central door with a man and a woman. Confessions were usually heard on Saturdays from four to five, but nobody stuck rigidly to the rules, which in practice were quite flexible.
Vivien climbed the few steps and joined him. The priest stood waiting for her and the couple with him moved away.
‘Good evening, Miss Light.’
‘Good evening, father.’
Vivien shook his hand. He was a man in his sixties with white hair, a vigorous appearance and gentle eyes. The first time she had met him he had reminded her of Spencer Tracy in an old movie.
‘Have you come for your niece?’
‘Yes. I spoke with Father McKean, and we both think it’s time to see if she can spend a couple of days at home. I’ll bring her back here on Monday morning.’
Uttering the name of Michael McKean reminded her of him. He had an expressive face and eyes that gave the impression he could look through people and walls. Maybe it was because of this ability of his to see beyond things that he was always there when he was needed.
Father Cremonesi, who was docile but somewhat fussy, insisted on explaining the situation. ‘Father McKean isn’t here today, and he asked me to apologize. The kids are still at the pier. A kind person whose name I can’t remember offered them a trip in a sailboat. John just called me. He knows about your agreement with Michael and told me to tell you that they were just getting their things together and that they’ll be here soon.’
‘That’s all right’
‘Would you like to wait in the priory?’
‘No thanks, father. I’ll wait for them in the church.’
‘I’ll see you later, then, Miss Light.’
Father Cremonesi walked away. Maybe he had taken her intention to wait in the church for devotion. All she wanted for the moment was to be alone.
She pushed open the door and walked through the lobby with its light wood panelling, past the statues of Saint Teresa and Saint Gerard that stood in a niche in the wall. Another door, a less heavy one, led into the interior of the church itself.
It was cool here, quite dark, and silent. The altar at the far end of the one nave held out a promise of welcome and refuge.
Whenever she entered a church, Vivien found it hard to feel the presence of God in it. Young she might be, but in the time she had spent on the streets she had already met too many devils, and had felt just a weak human being shaken by the confrontation. Here, in this place, with these images, this longing for the sacred built to satisfy the needs of man, in the light of the candles lit in faith and hope, she couldn’t share even a small part of that faith and that hope.
Life is rented accommodation. Sometimes God is anuncomfortable character to have around the house.
She sat down on a pew at the back. She realized one thing. In what for all believers was a place of peace and salvation, she had a gun hanging from her belt. And in spite of everything she felt defenceless.
She closed her eyes, replacing the dim light with darkness. While she waited for her niece Sundance to arrive, the memories arrived, too.
The day when she was sitting at her desk, just opposite the Plaza, in a chaos of papers and telephone calls and her colleagues joking and chattering. Then something happened that she would never forget. Detective Peter Curtin unexpectedly appeared in the doorway. He had been working at the 13th Precinct until quite recently. Then, in a Shootout during a police operation, he had been quite seriously wounded. He had recovered physically, but emotionally he had realized he wasn’t the same person any more. Under pressure from his wife, he had put in for a transfer. Right now he was with vice.
He came straight to her desk.
‘Hi, Peter. What are you doing here?’
‘I need to talk to you, Vivien.’
There was a hint of embarrassment in his voice, which made the smile on her face fade quickly.
‘Sure, go ahead.’
‘Not here. How about going for a walk?’
Surprised, Vivien left her desk, and soon they were outside. Curtin set off in the direction of Third Avenue and Vivien fell into step beside him. There was tension in the air and he attempted to lighten it. For whose sake she wasn’t sure.
‘How are things? Bellew still keeping you all on a tight leash?’
Vivien came to a halt. ‘Stop beating about the bush, Peter. What’s going on?’
He looked at her from another place. And it was a place that Vivien didn’t like at all.
‘You know what this city’s like. Escort services, crap like that. Asian Paradise, Ebony Companions, Transex Dates. Eighty per cent of the places that advertise massage, health treatments, that kind of thing, are covers for prostitution. It happens everywhere. But this is Manhattan. This is the centre of the world, where there’s more of everything…’
Peter came to a halt, and finally made up his mind to look her in the eyes.
‘We had a tip-off. A luxury apartment on the Upper East Side. Used by men who like very young girls. Boys, too, sometimes. All minors, anyway. We went in, rounded up the people we found. And…’
He made a pause that for Vivien was a premonition. In a thin voice, she uttered a supplication as long as a single word. ‘And?’
And the premonition became reality.
‘One of them was your niece.’
The whole world started whirling like a carousel out of control. Vivien would have preferred to die than feel what she was feeling just then.
‘I was the one who went into the room where…’
Peter didn’t have the strength to add anything else. But his silence let Vivien’s imagination run wild and that was worse.
‘Luckily I knew her and managed by a miracle to keep her out of things.’ Peter put his hands on her arms. ‘If the story gets out, then social services get involved. With a family situation like yours it’s possible she’d be put in an institution. She needs help.’
Vivien looked him in the eyes. ‘You’re not telling me everything, Peter.’
A moment’s pause. Followed by something he’d have preferred not to say and she’d have preferred not to hear.
‘Your niece is doing drugs. We found cocaine in her pocket.’
‘Not enough to suggest she’s dealing. But she must be doing quite a bit every day if she reached a point where…’
Where she prostituted herself to get money, Vivien completed the sentence mentally.
‘Where is she now?’
Peter gestured with his head towards a point somewhere along the street. ‘In my car. A female colleague is keeping an eye on her.’
Vivien shook his hand, to convey her gratitude and feel his warmth in return. ‘Thanks, Peter. You’re a friend. I owe you one. Hell, I owe you a lot.’
They walked to the car, Vivien going that short distance like a sleepwalker, with an urgency in her and at the same time a fear of seeing her niece and…
… the same anxiety with which she was waiting for her now.
A sound of footsteps behind her made her open her eyes again, bringing her back to a present that was only a little better than the past.
She rose and turned towards the entrance. Her niece was there, holding a gym bag. She was as pretty as her mother, and, like her mother, she had been broken in some way. But for her there was hope. There had to be.
John Kortighan had stayed back, in the doorway. Protective and vigilant, as always. But so discreet that he did not want to intrude on this private moment. He simply gave her a nod that was both a greeting and a confirmation. Vivien returned the greeting. John was the right-hand man of Father McKean, the priest who had founded Joy, the community that was taking care of Sundance and other kids who’d been through similar experiences.
Vivien lightly touched her niece’s cheek with her hand. She couldn’t help feeling guilty whenever they met. Guilty over all the things she hadn’t done. Guilty over being so busy dealing with people who meant nothing to her that she hadn’t realized that the person who most needed her was the one closest to her, who, in her way, had asked for help and nobody had listened.
‘Nice to see you again, Sunny. You’re looking very pretty today.’
The girl smiled, with a wicked but not provocative gleam in her eye. ‘You’re pretty, Vunny. I’m beautiful, you ought to know that.’
It was game they’d played since she was a little girl, when they’d given each other these nicknames as a kind of code. In those days, Vivien would brush her hair and tell her she’d be a great beauty one day. Maybe a model, maybe an actress. And together they would imagine all the things she could be.
All except what she’d actually turned out to be …
‘What do you say, shall we go?’
‘Sure. I’m ready.’
She picked up the bag, which contained a change of clothes for the days they would be spending together.
‘Did you bring your rock gear?’
Vivien had managed to get two tickets for the U2 concert at Madison Square Garden the next day. Sundance was a fan of the band. The concert had been one of the main reasons why she had been granted these two days away from Joy.
‘Let’s go, then.’
They walked back to where John was standing. He was a well-built man of medium height, simply dressed in sweatshirt and jeans. He had a frank, open face and a positive air. He looked like a man who thought more about the future than the past.
‘Bye, Sundance. See you on Monday.’
Vivien held out her hand, and he shook it. He had a firm grip.
‘Thank you. You both enjoy yourselves now. Go on – I’m staying here for a while longer.’
They went out, leaving him in the quiet of the church.
The evening had chased away all trace of natural light, clothing itself artfully in artificial lights. They got in the car and set off for Manhattan. Vivien drove calmly, listening to what her niece was saying, letting her talk about whatever she wanted to talk about.
Neither of them mentioned the girl’s mother, as if there was a tacit agreement between them that all dark thoughts were banned from now on. They weren’t trying to betray or ignore their memories. They both knew, without having to say it, that what they were trying to rebuild wasn’t only for the two of them.
As they drove on, Vivien had the feeling that with every turn of the wheel, every beat of their hearts, they were leaving behind the roles of aunt and niece and becoming more like friends. She felt something inside herself relaxing, as if the image of Greta that tormented her days was fading, along with the image of Sundance naked in the arms of a man older than her father that tormented her nights.
They had left Roosevelt Island behind them and were heading downtown along the East River when it happened. About half a mile ahead of them, on the right, a light suddenly appeared, wiping out all the others. For a moment it was like a distillation of all the lights in the world.
Then the road seemed to tremble under the wheels of the car and through the open windows they heard the hungry roar of an explosion.
Russell Wade had just arrived home when a bright light suddenly and unexpectedly appeared over on the Lower East Side. The big ceiling-to-floor living-room windows framed that light, a light so vivid it seemed like part of a game. But it didn’t go away, and continued to override all the other lights. Through the filter of the unbreakable window panes came the muted sound of a rumble that wasn’t thunder but a destructive human imitation of it. It was followed by a cacophony of alarm systems set off by the blast, hysterical but futile, like little dogs uselessly barking behind an iron fence.
The vibration made him instinctively take a step back. He knew what had happened. He had realized immediately. He had already seen and felt that kind of thing in another place. He knew that glare meant incredulity and surprise, pain and dust, screams, injuries, curses and prayers.
It meant death.
And, in an equally sudden glare, a flash of images and memories.
‘Robert, please …’
His brother was anxiously checking the cameras and thelenses and making sure he had enough rolls of film in thepockets of his jacket. He wouldn’t look him in the face. Maybehe felt ashamed. Or maybe he was already seeing in hismind’s eye the photographs he was going to take.
‘Nothing’s going to happen, Russell. You just have to stayand be quiet.’
‘And where will you go?’
Robert had smelled his fear. He was used to that smell. Thewhole city was imbued with it. You could breathe it in the air.Like an ugly premonition that comes true, like a nightmarethat doesn’t fade when you wake up, like the screams of thedying that don’t end once they’re dead.
He looked at him with eyes that might have been seeinghim for the first time since they had arrived in Pristina. Ascared boy who shouldn’t be there.
‘Ihave to go outside. I have to be there.’
Russell realized that this was the only way it could be. Andat the same time he realized that he could never be like hisbrother, not even if he lived a hundred lifetimes. He went backinto the cellar, through the trapdoor under the old carpet, andRobert went out the door. Into the sun and the dust and the war.
That was the last time he’d seen him alive.
As if reacting to these thoughts he ran into the bedroom, where one of his cameras was lying on the desk. He grabbed it and went back to the window. He switched off all the lights to avoid reflections and took a number of shots of that distant hypnotic glare with its sickly halo. He knew these photographs would never be used, but he did it to punish himself. To remember who he was, what he had done, what he hadn’t done.
Years had gone by since his brother had gone out through that sunstruck doorway and for a few moments the distant bursts of machine-gun fire had grown louder.
Nothing had changed.
Since that day, there hadn’t been a single morning when he hadn’t woken with that image in front of his eyes and that sound in his ears. Since that day, every pointless photograph of his had been merely a new image of his old fear. As he continued clicking the shutter, he started shaking. It was animal rage, silent and instinctual, as if his soul was shuddering inside him and making his body vibrate.
The clicking of the lens became neurotic
like a homicidal maniac firing into his victim
all the bullets he has, unable to stop pulling the trigger, continuing as a kind of nervous habit, until all he hears in return is the empty dry snap of the firing pin.
That’s enough, dammit!
Punctually, like a set answer to a set question, the shrill urgent sound of sirens came from outside.
Lights without anger.
Lights flashing, good lights, healthy lights, rapid lights. Police cars, fire engines, ambulances.
The city had been hit; the city was wounded; the city was asking for help. And everyone had come running, from all over, with all the speed that compassion and civic feeling gave them.
Russell stopped shooting and, in the light from outside, reached for the TV remote control. He switched it on, and found it automatically tuned to Channel One. The weather report should have been on about now. The broadcast was interrupted two seconds after the screen lit up. The weatherman and his maps of sun and rain were replaced without warning by Faber Andrews, one of the channel’s anchormen. His voice was deep and his face grave – appropriate to the situation.
‘News just in that a building on the Lower East Side of New York City has been rocked by a powerful explosion. We have no idea yet how many casualties there are, but first reports suggest the number could be high. That’s all we can tell you for now. At the moment we don’t know the causes of this terrible disaster. We should be able to get a better idea soon. What everyone is hoping is that this wasn’t a criminal act. The memory of other tragic events in the recent past is still fresh in our minds. Right now, the whole city, the whole of America, maybe the whole world is watching and waiting. Our reporters are already on their way to the scene, and we should soon be in a position to bring you more up-to-date news. That’s all for now.’
Russell switched to CNN. Here, too, they were announcing what had happened. The faces and words were different, the substance exactly the same. He turned down the sound, letting the images carry the report. He sat there on the couch in front of the TV set, with nothing but the luminous fuzz of the screen to keep him company. The lights of the city beyond the windows seemed to come from the cold and distance of outer space. And in the bottom left-hand corner of the frame was that murderous sunlight devouring all the other stars. When his family had given him the apartment, he had been happy to be on the 29th floor with a fantastic view over the whole of downtown: the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges on the left, the Flatiron on the right and the New York Life Insurance Building just in front of him.
Now that view was only another cause of distress.
It had all happened so quickly since he had been released after his night in the cell. And yet, if he thought about it again, the images in his head moved in slow motion. Every instant was clear, every detail, every colour, every sensation. Like being condemned to relive those moments ad infinitum.
As if it was again, and for ever, Pristina.
The journey home from the police station had begun in silence. And that was how he thought it should have stayed. The lawyer, Corneill Thornton, an old friend of the family, had understood that, and up to a point had complied.
Then the truce had ended and the attack had begun. ‘Your mother is very worried about you.’
Without looking at him, Russell replied with a shrug, ‘My mother’s always worried about something.’
He saw in his mind’s eye the faultless figure and smooth face of Margaret Taylor Wade, a member of the Boston upper classes. Margaret was one of the city’s most prominent citizens. Margaret moved with grace and elegance through that world, sweet faced, a woman who did not deserve what life had meted out to her: one son killed reporting on the war in former Yugoslavia and the other living a life that was, if possible, an even greater source of grief.
Maybe she had never got over either of those things. But she had continued her life of distinction and remembrance because it was inseparable from her. As for his father, Russell hadn’t spoken to him since the day after that damned business with the Pulitzer.
From the first, Russell had suspected something about their attitude to him: it was possible that both of them thought the wrong brother had died.
The lawyer continued, and Russell knew perfectly well where it was all leading.
‘I told her you were hurt. She thinks it would be opportune for you to be seen by a doctor.’
Russell felt like smiling.
‘My mother’s perfect. Not only does she always say the right thing at the right time, she always knows how to choose the most elegant word.’
Thornton leaned back in the leather seat. His shoulders relaxed, as if realizing he was dealing with a hopeless situation. ‘Russell, I’ve known you since you were a little boy. Don’t you think-’
‘Counsellor, you’re not here to condemn or absolve. There are judges for that. Or to preach to me. There are priests for that. You just have to get me out of trouble when you’re asked to.’ Russell turned to look at him, with a half-smile on his lips. ‘It seems to me that’s what you’re paid for. Very well paid, with an hourly fee that’s the equivalent of what a factory worker earns in a week.’
‘Get you out of trouble, did you say? That’s what I keep doing. Just lately, it seems to me I’ve had to do it more often than could reasonably be expected.’
The lawyer paused, as if to decide whether to say what he had to say or not.
‘Russell, everyone has the constitutional right to destroy himself as he sees fit. The only thing limiting him is his imagination. And you have an extremely creative imagination when it comes to such things.’ He looked Russell straight in the eyes, no longer a counsel for the defence but a gleeful executioner. ‘From now on, I’ll be happy to give up my fee. I’ll tell your mother to look elsewhere when necessary. And I’ll sit there with a cigar and a glass of good whisky and watch the spectacle of your ruin.’
Nothing else was said because there was nothing else to say. The limousine dropped him outside his building on 29th Street, between Park and Madison. He got out without saying goodbye and without waiting for the lawyer to say goodbye to him. Not that he would have: his attitude was one of barely concealed human contempt combined with professional indifference. Russell grabbed his keys in passing from the doorman and went up to his apartment. He had just opened the door when the telephone started ringing. Russell was sure he knew who it was. He lifted the receiver and said, ‘Hello?’ expecting to hear a particular voice. And that voice had come.
‘Hi, photographer. Things didn’t work out too well for you yesterday, I hear. The game, the cops.’
Russell had an image in his mind. A big black man with his dark glasses and a double chin that his goatee didn’t do much to conceal, sunk deep in the back seat of his Mercedes, his beringed hand holding a cellphone.
‘LaMarr, I’m not in the mood right now to listen to your bullshit. What do you want?’
‘You know what I want, boy. Money.’
‘Right now I don’t have any.’
‘Then you’d better get some as soon as possible.’
‘What do you plan to do? Shoot me?’
From the other end came a loud, contemptuous laugh. The threat in that laugh was particularly humiliating.
‘That’s very tempting. But I’m not so dumb I’ll put you in a box with the fifty thousand dollars you owe me in your pocket. I’ll just send over a couple of my boys to teach you some of the facts of life. Then I’ll give you time to get over it. And then I’ll send them over again and hope this time you’ll have my money ready for them. Which by the way will be sixty thousand by then, maybe more, who knows.’
‘You’re a piece of shit, LaMarr.’
‘Yes. And I can’t wait to show you how much of a shit I am. Bye now, asshole. Try going on the Wheel of Fortune – maybe you’ll have better luck.’
Jaws clenched, Russell put down the receiver, silencing the echo of LaMarr’s laughter. LaMarr Monroe was one of the biggest sons of bitches ever to prowl the streets of New York. Unfortunately, Russell knew he wasn’t talking for the sake of talking. He was a guy who kept his promises, and who’d do anything rather than lose face.
He went in the bedroom and undressed, throwing his clothes on the floor. The torn jacket ended up in the garbage. Next he went in the bathroom and forced himself to take a shower and a shave, avoiding the temptation to put the foam on the mirror instead of on his face. In order not to see his face. In order not to see his expression. After that, he found himself alone in the apartment. And by alone he meant having nothing to drink, not a single line of cocaine and not a cent in his pocket.
The apartment where he lived was unofficially his but in fact it was owned by one of his family’s companies. Even the furniture had been chosen – tastefully – by a designer paid by his mother from among the vast choice available at budget prices from Ikea and similar stores. The reason was simple. Everyone knew that Russell would have sold anything of value he had in his possession and the money would have gone on gambling.
That had happened often enough in the past.
Cars, watches, paintings, carpets.
With destructive rage and maniacal precision.
Russell sat down on one of the couches. He could have phoned Miriam or one of the other models he’d been seeing lately, but having them around meant that after a while he’d have to put a little white powder on the table. And he’d also have to have the money to take them out.
Or rather, a name.
He’d met that colourless little man a few years earlier. He’d been one of his brother’s informants, someone who sometimes gave him tips about interesting things happening in the city, the kind of things he defined as ‘over the edge’, which were good to know about because they might turn out to be stories. Since Robert’s death they’d kept in touch, though for very different reasons. One of these was that, in his brother’s memory, Ziggy supplied him with what he needed and gave him credit. He even helped him out with a few small loans when, as was the case now, he was in a tight corner. Russell didn’t know why Ziggy was so fond of him and trusted him like that. But it was a given, and when necessary he took advantage of it.
Unfortunately Ziggy didn’t use a cellphone, and getting in touch with him usually took a while. After a bit of nervous pacing around the living room and bedroom, he came to a decision. He went down to the garage and took out the car, which he drove rarely and reluctantly. Maybe because it was a cheap Nissan that wasn’t even registered in his name. He checked there was enough gas in the tank to get there and back. He knew where Ziggy lived, and he set off for Brooklyn. The journey was a kind of blur. He saw the city speed past without seeing it, paying it back for the fact that it didn’t see him.
His lip hurt and his eyes smarted, in spite of his sunglasses.
He crossed the bridge, ignoring the skylines of Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights, and plunged into neighbourhoods where ordinary people lived ordinary lives. Places that had no illusions any more, places where nothing ever worked out. Places roughly drawn in the faded colours of reality, where he often came because it was here that he found the secret gambling joints he liked to visit – it was here that anyone could find what they needed.
You just needed to have few scruples and a lot of money.
He reached Ziggy’s place almost without realizing it. He parked just past the building, and after taking a few steps found himself pushing open the entrance door and descending the stairs that led to the basement. There were no doormen here, and the entryphone was a formality nobody bothered with any more. At the foot of the stairs he turned left. The walls were industrial brick, hurriedly painted in a colour that must once have been beige, and was now covered in stains. There was a smell of boiled cabbage and damp in the air. He turned the corner, and saw a line of faded brown doors in front of him. Someone was coming out of the one he was heading for, on the right-hand side towards the end of the corridor. A man in a green military jacket with a blue hood pulled down over his head, who moved quickly and resolutely to the end of the corridor and disappeared around the opposite corner.
Russell didn’t pay much attention to him, thinking only that he was one of the people Ziggy came into contact with every day in his line of business. When he reached Ziggy’s door, he found it ajar. He pushed the handle and his eyes took in the room and then everything happened as if he was seeing things frame by frame on a Moviola.
An image of Ziggy on his knees on the floor with his shirt all stained with blood, clutching at a chair and trying to pull himself to his feet
an image of himself approaching him and Ziggy’s bonyhand reaching out and clutching his arm
Ziggy supporting himself on the edge of the table and reaching out his hand towards the printer
himself not understanding
Ziggypressing a button with his finger and leaving a red mark on it
himself listening without hearing as the printed sheetrustled onto the tray
Ziggywith a photograph in his hand
and finally Ziggy convulsing and drawing his last breath and blood spurting from his open mouth. He fell to the floor with a dull thud and Russell found himself standing in the middle of the room, holding a black and white photograph and a printed sheet of paper, both stained red.
And in his eyes the image of his brother lying in the dustcovered in blood.
Moving like a puppet, hardly aware of what he was doing, he stuffed the sheet of paper and the photograph into his pocket. Then, with the logic and instinct of an animal, he fled, leaving reason behind him, in that place that smelled of boiled cabbage and damp. He reached his car without seeing anybody. He set off, forcing himself not to drive too quickly in order not to attract attention. He drove as if in a trance until his breathing and heartbeat returned to normal. At that point he stopped the car in a side street and started thinking. He told himself that, in running away, he had clearly made an instinctive choice, but at the same time he was certain it was the wrong choice. He should have called the police. But that would have meant having to explain why he was there and how he happened to know Ziggy. And God alone knew what kind of trouble Ziggy had got himself into. In addition, it was quite possible that the man in the green jacket was the person who had knifed the poor bastard. The thought that he might, for whatever reason, decide to come back was pretty scary. Russell had no desire to join Ziggy lying dead on the floor.
No. Better to pretend that nothing had happened. Nobody had seen him, he hadn’t left any traces, and the neighbourhood was full of people who minded their own business and certainly weren’t crazy about talking to the police.
As he was thinking and trying to decide what line to follow, he realized that the right sleeve of his jacket was stained with blood. He emptied his pockets onto the passenger seat, checked that nobody was about, then got out of the car and threw the garment in a dumpster. With a touch of self-deprecation that surprised him, given the situation, he told himself that, at the rate of two jackets thrown away per day, he would soon have serious problems with his wardrobe.
He got back in the car and returned home. From the garage, he took the elevator direct to his floor. That would save the doorman the effort of remembering that he had gone out wearing a jacket and come back in his shirtsleeves.
He had just put his things on the table when the explosion happened.
He got up from the couch and went and switched the light back on, his eyes turned to the glare in the east but his mind on the fact that he couldn’t get away from what had happened in the afternoon. Now that he was thinking clearly, something occurred to him. Why had Ziggy used his last remaining strength, and the last moments of his life, to copy that sheet of paper and put it in his hands together with the photograph? What was so important about those things?
He went to the table, picked up the photograph, and stared at it for a few moments. He had no idea who that brown-haired young man with the black cat was, no idea what the photograph had meant to Ziggy. The sheet of paper, on the other hand, was a photocopy of a handwritten letter. The handwriting was clearly a man’s. He started to read, trying to decipher the rough, imprecise writing.
And as he read the words and grasped their meaning, he kept telling himself that it couldn’t be true. He had to read the paper three times to convince himself. Then, barely able to breathe, he put the letter and the photograph down on the table, with only Ziggy’s bloodstains to confirm that in fact it was all real, that it wasn’t a dream.
He looked back at the fire still burning in the distance.
His head was all mixed up. A thousand thoughts crossed his mind and he couldn’t get a fix on any of them. The anchorman on Channel One hadn’t mentioned the exact address of the building that had blown up. They were sure to report it on a subsequent news broadcast.
He absolutely had to know.
He went back to the couch and turned up the volume on the TV. He didn’t know if what he wanted most was a denial or a confirmation.
He sat there, wondering if the void into which he could feel himself falling was death. Wondering if his brother had felt the same every time he tackled a new story or got ready to take one of his photographs. He hid his face in his hands and in the darkness of his closed eyelids turned to the one person who had really mattered to him. As a last resort, he tried to imagine what Robert Wade would have done if he had found himself in this situation.
Father Michael McKean was sitting in an armchair in front of an old TV set in his room at Joy, the community he had founded in Pelham Bay. It was a top-floor room, an attic with a partly sloping ceiling, white walls and a pine floor. In the air there still lingered the smell of the preservative with which the wood had been treated a week earlier. The cheap furniture that comprised the spartan decor had been collected wherever they could find it. All the books in the bookcase and on the desk and the night table had arrived here by the same route. Many were gifts from the parishioners, some made specifically to him. But Father McKean had always chosen the most worn and damaged things for himself. Partly that was his character, but mostly it was because, if it was possible to improve the everyday life of the community, he preferred the kids to be the ones to benefit. The walls were bare, apart from the crucifix over the bed and one splash of colour: a poster of the Van Gogh painting in which the artist had depicted, the poverty of his bedroom in the Yellow House in Aries. Although they were quite dissimilar, you had the impression, on entering, that those two rooms complemented each other, that there was some kind of communication between them, and that the poster on the white wall was an opening into a distant place and a different time.
Beyond the curtainless window you could glimpse the sea reflecting the blue, windswept late April sky. When he was a child, his mother would tell him on bright days like this that the sun turned the air the colour of the eyes of angels and that the wind didn’t let them cry.
But today there were bitter lines at the corners of his mouth and the expression on his face was grim. Those words of his mother, so full of imagination and colour, had stayed in his memory for ever. But the news on CNN today had other words and other images, scenes that from time immemorial had been associated exclusively with war.
And, like all epidemics, sooner or later war reached into every corner.
There, in close-up, was the face of Mark Lassiter, a reporter with a sharp, alert face, who looked as if he could hardly believe what he was seeing and saying, whose eyes and hair and shirt collar bore the marks of a sleepless night. Behind him lay the rubble of a shattered building, from which pathetic spirals of grey smoke still rose, the dying residue of the flames that for hours had illumined the darkness. The firefighters had fought all night to bring them under control and even now, on one side of the building, long jets of water indicated that the job wasn’t completely over.
‘What you can see behind me is the building that was partly destroyed by a powerful explosion last night. The experts are still at work trying to establish the cause. So far nobody has claimed responsibility, so we still don’t know if we’re dealing with a terrorist attack or a tragic accident. The only thing we know for sure is that the toll of the dead and missing is quite high. The rescuers are working around the clock to get the bodies of the dead out from under the rubble, although they haven’t given up hope of finding survivors. Here are the images taken from our helicopter, which show better than any words could the extent of this tragedy that’s shaken the city and the whole country and reminded us of other images and other victims that’ll never be forgotten.’
A series of aerial shots now followed, with Lassiter heard as a voice-over. Seen from above, the scene was even more harrowing. The building, a twenty-two-storey redbrick construction, had been cut in half straight down the middle. The right side had collapsed but, instead of the building imploding, it had slid to the side, leaving the other half still standing like a finger pointing to the sky. The fracture was so sharp that on the standing side you could still see the rooms without their outer walls, and in them the remains of furniture and other relics of everyday life.
On the top floor, a white sheet had got caught on a trellis and was flapping in the wind caused by the displacement of air from the blades of the helicopter, like a flag of surrender and mourning. Fortunately, the part of the building that had come away had fallen on a wooded area, a small park with a children’s playground, a basketball field and two tennis courts, missing other buildings. If it had hit them, the death toll would certainly have been greater. The explosion, occurring over toward the East River, had spared the buildings on the other side even though all the panes of glass within a significant radius had been knocked out by the blast. Around the shattered building and in among its debris was the highly coloured frenzy of rescue vehicles and men, bustling about full of energy and hope in a race against time.
The TV cut away from these images of desolation and death and back to a close-up of the reporter.
‘Mayor Wilson Gollemberg declared a state of emergency and rushed to the scene of the disaster. He took an active part in the rescue operations all through the night. We have his first statement, recorded last night soon after he arrived on the scene.’
They cut again, with that slight loss of quality that a recording made in those conditions involved. The mayor, a tall man with an open face who gave the impression of throbbing with anguish and at the same time conveying self-confidence and strength, was illumined by the motionless white lights of the TV cameras fighting against the background of unchecked flames behind him. At that moment of confusion and panic, his comments were few and to the point.
‘It’s impossible right now to draw any conclusion from this tragedy. The only thing I can promise as a mayor to all my fellow New Yorkers and as an American to all Americans is this. If any person or persons are responsible for this atrocity, I want them to know that there will be no escape for them. Their cowardice and savagery will receive the punishment they deserve.’
Back again to Mark Lassiter, reporting live from a place that for many people would never be the same again.
‘For the moment, that’s all from the Lower East Side of New York. A press conference is due to be held shortly. We’ll let you know if there are further developments. I’m Mark Lassiter, returning you to the studio.’
Just as the anchorman reappeared on the screen, the cellphone on the small table next to the armchair rang. The priest turned down the volume on the TV and answered. From the other end came the voice of Paul Smith, the parish priest of Saint Benedict, slightly blurred with emotion.
‘Michael, are you watching television?’
‘Terrible, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘All those people dead. All that despair. I can’t come to terms with it. What goes through the mind of a person who could do something like that?’
Father McKean suddenly found himself overwhelmed by a strange, desolate tiredness, the kind that strikes the humanity of a man when he is forced to confront the total absence of humanity in other men.
‘There’s something we have to realize, Paul,’ he said. ‘Hate isn’t an emotion any more. It’s becoming a virus. When it infects the soul, the mind is lost. And people’s defences against it are increasingly weak.’
At the other end there was a moment’s silence, as if the elderly priest was thinking over the words he had just heard. Then he came to what was probably the true reason for his call.
‘Given what’s happened, do you think it’s right to celebrate solemn mass? Don’t you think something more modest would be better in the circumstances?’
McKean thought about it for a moment and shook his head, as if the parish priest at the other end could see him.
‘I don’t think so, Paul. I think that solemn mass, especially today, is both a statement of opposition and a specific response to this atrocity. Whatever its source. We won’t stop praying to God in the way we consider most dignified. And in the same way, we’ll pay tribute to the innocent victims of this tragedy.’
He paused briefly before continuing.
‘The one thing I think we could do is change the reading. The planned reading for today was a passage from St John’s Gospel. I’d replace it with the Sermon on the Mount. It’s part of everyone’s experience, even non-believers. I think it’s very significant on a day like this, when mercy mustn’t be overwhelmed by an instinctive desire for revenge. Revenge is the imperfect justice of this world. The justice we must speak of isn’t worldly and is therefore uncontaminated by error.’
At the other end there was a moment’s silence.
‘Luke or Matthew?’
‘Matthew. The passage from Luke includes an element of retribution that isn’t in line with what our feelings should be. And for the hymns I’d suggest The whole world is waitingfor love and Let the valley be raised. But I think we should consult Mr Bennett the choirmaster about that.’
Another pause, before Father Smith replied with relief in his voice, as if all his doubts had faded away. ‘Yes, I think you’re right. There’s just one thing I’d ask you. And I’m sure everyone would agree with me.’
‘I’d like it to be you giving the sermon.’
Instinctively, Father McKean’s heart went out to Father Smith. Paul was a highly sensitive man, and easily moved. His voice often broke when he had to deal with delicate subjects.
‘All right, Paul.’
‘See you later, then.’
‘I’ll leave in a few minutes.’
He put the cellphone down on the little table, got up and went to the window. He stood there with his hands in his pockets, looking at the familiar view without seeing it. The same shapes and colours as always, sea and wind and trees, which today seemed like alien spectators, images without meaning, incomprehensible. The news he had just watched on TV continued to superimpose itself on what he had in front of his eyes. He remembered the terrible period around September 11, the day that had changed the world for ever.
He thought again of how many crimes had been committed in the name of God, when God had nothing to do with them. Whichever God was being evoked. Instinctively Michael McKean felt like asking one question. Some time earlier, John Paul II had apologized to the world for the behaviour of the Catholic Church of some four hundred years earlier, at the time of the Inquisition. What was being done now that the then Pope would have to apologize for in four hundred years’ time? What would all men in the world who professed a faith need to ask forgiveness for?
Faith was a gift, like love and friendship and trust. It was not born out of reason. Reason could only, in some cases, help to keep it alive. It was like a railroad track running parallel to reason, in a direction it was not given to men to know. But if faith made people lose their reason, then love, friendship, trust and goodness were also lost.
And so was hope.
In the time that Joy had been in existence, he had had kids around him who had never known hope, or who had lost it in the course of their brief, unhappy journeys through life. What they had had, instead of hope, had been a terrible certainty. That life was made up of dead ends, making do, dark shadows, unrealized wishes, blows, affection denied, beautiful things reserved for others. That in going against life and against themselves, they had nothing to lose, because there was nothing in their lives.
And in doing so, many had become lost.
There was a knock at the door. Father McKean walked away from the window and went to open it. In the doorway he saw the figure of John Kortighan, Joy’s lay director. Positive thinking personified. And God knew how much positive thinking was needed every day in a place like this.
John dealt with all the practical aspects of a structure that was, from a technical point of view, fairly easy to run but at the same time, for different reasons, quite complex. He was the organizer, administrator and financial director. When he had agreed to take on the running of Joy for a fairly modest – and not always very punctual – salary, Father McKean had at first been incredulous and then euphoric, as if he had been given a wonderful, unexpected gift. He hadn’t been wrong in his judgement and had never had any reason to regret his choice.
‘The boys are ready, Michael.’
‘Good. Let’s go.’
He took his jacket from the rack, left the room and shut the door. He never bothered to lock it. There were no bolts or locks at Joy. What he always tried to convey to his kids was that they weren’t in a prison but in a place where everyone’s actions and movements involved freedom of choice. Each of them was autonomous and could leave the community at any moment, if he or she saw fit. Many of them had ended up in Joy for the very reason that in the places they had lived earlier they had felt imprisoned.
Father McKean was well aware that the battle against drugs was long and hard. He knew that each one of these kids was struggling with a physical need that could turn into a genuine disease. At the same time each of them had to deal with all those things, inside and around him, that had driven him into the worst kind of darkness. With the certainty that the physical torture could cease and all the rest could be hidden or forgotten with a simple gesture: taking a pill, sniffing white powder, sticking a needle in your veins.
Unfortunately, some didn’t make it. Some mornings they woke up and found themselves confronted with an empty bed. Every defeat of that kind was difficult to take. At such moments, the other kids would huddle around him. That display of affection and trust gave meaning to everything, and gave him the strength to continue, with all his bitterness absorbed as experience.
As they walked downstairs, John couldn’t help commenting on what had happened the previous evening in Manhattan.
‘Did you watch the news?’
‘Not all of it, but quite a lot.’
‘I had work to do this morning. Have there been any new developments?’
‘No. Or at least no developments the media know about.’
‘Who do you think it was? Islamic terrorists?’
‘I really don’t know. I haven’t got any clear ideas yet. I don’t think anyone has. The other time, the claim of responsibility was immediate.’
There was no need to specify. Both of them knew what theother time referred to.
‘I have a cousin in the police, actually in a precinct on the Lower East Side. I spoke to him this morning. He was on the scene. He couldn’t be specific but he told me it was really nasty.’
John stopped for a moment on the last landing, as if what he was about to say needed clarification.
‘I mean, much nastier than it seems.’
They resumed walking and reached the bottom of the stairs in silence, both wondering what on earth could possibly make an atrocity like that even worse. They crossed the kitchen. Three of the kids, who were on work duty, and Mrs Carraro, the cook, were preparing Sunday lunch.
Father McKean walked to one of the stoves. Mrs Carraro had her back to him, and did not realize he was there. He lifted the lid of a saucepan. A whirl of steam rose toward the extractor fan, carrying with it the aroma of sauce.
‘Good day to you, Mrs Carraro. What are you poisoning us with today?’
Janet Carraro, a middle-aged woman of ample dimensions – by her own definition, two pounds away from being fat – gave a start. She wiped her hands on her apron, took the lid from Father McKean’s hands and put it back on the saucepan.
‘Father McKean, for your information, this is a sauce that could be considered a sin of the throat.’
‘So we don’t have to fear only for our bodies, we have to fear for our souls, too?’
The kids who were cleaning and slicing vegetables on a cutting board on the other side of the room smiled. This kind of skirmish was common between the two of them, a little bit of play-acting born of mutual affection and offered for everyone’s amusement. Mrs Carraro picked up the wooden spoon, dipped it in the sauce, and held it out to the priest with a defiant gesture.
‘Here, try it for yourself, ye man of little faith. And remember St Thomas.’
McKean lifted the spoon to his lips, blowing on it to cool it down. His initially dubious expression changed to one of ecstasy. He immediately recognized the robust taste of Mrs Carraro’s amatriciana sauce.
‘I beg your pardon, Mrs Carraro. This is the best ragù I’ve ever tasted.’
‘Then you’ll have to do it again, or it’ll keep tasting like ragù.’
The cook pretended to be indignant. ‘If you weren’t who you are, just for that I’d put a huge dose of chilli in your plate when the time comes. And who’s to say I won’t anyway?’
But the tone of her voice and her smiling face belied her words. She gestured towards the door with her spoon.
‘Now go and leave people to work, if you want to eat when you get back. Ragù or amatriciana or whatever.’
Father McKean rejoined John Kortighan, who was standing by the door to the forecourt, smiling at the little show he had just witnessed. As he held the door open for the priest, he gave his considered opinion.
‘Very entertaining. You and Mrs Carraro should do it for a living.’
‘Shakespeare already did it. Ragù or not ragù, that is the question, don’t you remember?’
His colleague’s sonorous laughter followed him into the open until it faded in the cool air. Once out in the forecourt, they walked towards the right-hand side of the building, where a rundown bus was waiting with the kids on board.
Father McKean stopped and raised his eyes for a moment towards the clear sky. In spite of the brief exchange of jokes, he had been overcome with a sudden feeling of unease. When he got on the bus and greeted the kids, the tenderness he felt for them and the pleasure of being together briefly dispelled the feeling that had just come over him like a bad omen. But as the old bus trundled down the unpaved drive towards the entrance to the property, leaving the house to dissolve in a cloud of dust behind it, that sense of impending threat once again took possession of his thoughts. He remembered the images he had seen on television, and had the impression that the wind that stopped angels and men from weeping had suddenly stopped blowing.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom ofheaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be calledchildren of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake ofrighteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you andfalsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward inheaven.
Father McKean was standing at the lectern to the left of the altar, raised slightly above the floor of the church. When his deep voice reached the end of the reading, he remained silent for a moment, his eyes fixed on the page, and let his voice travel around the building. It wasn’t a long journey, but it certainly wasn’t an easy journey either, not today. Finally he raised his head and looked around the church, which was full.
Then he began speaking.
‘The words you’ve just heard are from one of Jesus’ most famous sermons. It’s become famous not only because of the beauty of the language, or its power of evocation, but because of its importance in the centuries to come. In this short passage we find the essence of the doctrine he preached for the last three years of his life. In making himself a man, he brought to earth a new pact between men and the Father. With his message he gave us hope but did not ask us to surrender. It doesn’t mean that we have to passively accept all the unjust, painful, tragic things that happen in a world made by God but ruled by men. But it does remind us that our strength and our sustenance in our everyday struggles lie in faith. And it asks us to have faith. It doesn’t impose faith on us, but like a friend it simply asks us to have faith.’
He paused and again lowered his eyes to the lectern in front of him. When he raised his head again he allowed everyone present, without embarrassment, to see the tears running down his cheeks.
‘You all know what happened in our city last night. The terrible images we all have before our eyes are not new, any more than the distress, the pain, the pity we feel when confronted with trials like these we have been called to overcome are new.’
He paused for a moment, giving everyone a moment to remember and understand.
‘Which we are all called to overcome, every last one of us, because the pain that strikes one of us strikes the whole human race. Being made of flesh and blood, with our weaknesses and our frailties, when a tragic and unexpected event happens, an incomprehensible event that implicates our very existence and challenges our tolerance, the first instinct is to wonder why God has abandoned us. To wonder why, if we are His children, He allows such things to happen. Jesus did that, too, when on the cross he felt his human part demand the tribute of pain that the will of the father had required of him. But note this: at that moment, Jesus did not have faith…’
He paused. There was a new silence in the church, this Sunday.
‘At that moment Jesus was faith.’
The priest had emphasized that sentence in a very particular way.
‘If that happened to a man who came into the world with the desire to bring us redemption, it is understandable that it can happen also to us, who are the beneficiaries of that desire and that sacrifice, a sacrifice for which we give thanks every time we approach an altar.’
Another pause, and when he spoke again it was in the tone of a confidant rather than a preacher.
‘You see, a friend is accepted for what he is. Sometimes we must do so even when we don’t understand, because in some cases trust must go beyond understanding. So if we act in this way for a friend, who is and remains a human being, all the more reason we must do it for God, who is our father and at the same time our best friend. When we don’t understand, we must offer in return that faith that is asked of us even when we are poor and afflicted, even when we are hungry and thirsty, even when we are persecuted, insulted, wrongly accused. Because Jesus taught us that it comes from our own goodness, from the purity of our hearts, from our mercy, from our desire for peace. And, remembering Jesus’ words on the Mount, we will have that faith. Because what he promised is that if what we live in is an imperfect world, if what we grow old in is an imperfect time, what we will have one day in return will be a wonderful place, which is all ours. And it won’t be constrained by time, because it will be for ever.’
With admirable synchronicity, as soon as he ended his sermon the evocative sound of the organ spread through the church, and the choir launched into a hymn that spoke of the world and its need for love. Every time Father McKean listened to the voices joined in the perfect fusion of harmony, he could not help feeling goose bumps in his arms. He considered music one of the greatest gifts given to men, one of the few that managed to involve the spirit in such a way that it affected the body. He moved away from the lectern and went back to his place next to the altar boys. He stood there, following the ritual of the mass and at the same time continuing to observe the faithful who had crowded into the church.
His kids, apart from those who were on work duty at Joy, were sitting in the front rows. As with everything else, he had left them a free choice over prayers and their presence at services. Joy was a place for human conversions rather than religious ones. The fact that the community was led by a Catholic priest was irrelevant to the choices the kids made. But he was conscious of the fact that almost all of them came to church because he was there and because they understood that he liked to know they were participating in a moment of togetherness.
And that was enough for him, at least for now.
The church of Saint Benedict was in the middle of a residential neighbourhood in the Bronx called Country Club, largely populated by people of Italian and Hispanic origin. At the entrance to the church, fixed to the wall around the statue of the Blessed Virgin, were brass plaques placed there in memory of the dead of the parish. Most of the surnames were Italian or Spanish. In fact, in the course of Sunday, to please the two ethnic groups, mass was celebrated in both languages.
When the time came for Holy Communion, Father McKean approached the altar and received the host directly from the hands of Father Paul Smith, who did not hesitate to give him a look of gratitude for his sermon. As the music swelled, and the worshippers turned to each other to exchange the sign of peace, and the smell of incense spread through the air, the voice of Father Smith led the mass to its conclusion.
Later, as was their custom, the priests stood at the entrance of the church to bid farewell to the faithful, exchanging impressions, listening to their stories, discussing the latest parish initiatives. During the winter months this farewell took place in the lobby, but on that fine late April day the doors had been flung wide open, and they stood spread out on the steps.
Father McKean was complimented on his sermon. Ellen Carraro, their cook’s elder sister, came to him with watery eyes to express her emotion and remind him of her arthritis. Roger Brodie, a retired carpenter who sometimes gave his services free to the parish, promised he’d swing by Joy the next day to repair the roof. Gradually, the groups broke up and they all went back to their cars and their houses. Many had come on foot, as they lived very close to the church.
Father Smith and Father McKean found themselves alone again.
‘You were very moving today, Michael. You’re a great man. For what you say and how you say it. For what you do and how you do it.’
‘Thank you, Paul.’
Father Smith turned his head and cast a glance at John Kortighan and the kids waiting at the bottom of the steps to return to Joy. When he turned his head back to him, McKean saw embarrassment in his eyes.
‘I must ask a sacrifice of you, if it’s not too much of a burden.’
‘Angelo isn’t well. I know Sunday is an important day for you and your kids but do you think you could possibly replace him at the twelve-thirty mass?’
The kids would feel his absence, but with the day being so unusual he knew he wasn’t in the right mood to share their company at lunch. That sense of oppression had not left him, and he thought it best not to spoil the mood at table.
He descended the steps and joined the waiting kids.
‘I’m really sorry, but I’m afraid you’ll have to have lunch without me. I have something to do here in the parish. I’ll join you later. Tell Mrs Carraro to keep me something hot, if you don’t wolf it all down.’
He saw the disappointment on some of their faces. Jerry Romero, the oldest of the group, who had been at Joy the longest and was looked up to by many of his companions, made himself the spokesman for the general discontent.
‘Seems to me if you want to be forgiven, you have to let us have a Fastflyx session.’
Fastflyx was a mail order DVD rental service that the community received free, thanks to John’s diplomatic skills. In a place like Joy, where there was so much effort and so much abstinence, even watching a movie together was something of a small luxury.
McKean wagged a finger at the young man. ‘That’s blackmail, Jerry. And I say that to you and your accomplices. However, given the common will, I feel forced to give in. In addition I think a surprise arrived only yesterday. In fact, a double surprise.’
He made a gesture to stop the kids asking questions.
‘We’ll talk about it later. Now go, the others are waiting for you.’
Arguing among themselves, the kids moved towards the Batmobile, the nickname they had given the bus. Father McKean watched them as they walked away. They were a colourful mass of clothes and a tangle of problems too great for their ages. Some were difficult to relate to. But they were his family and for part of their lives Joy would be their family.
John lingered a moment before joining them. ‘Shall I come back to pick you up?’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll get a ride from someone.’
‘Okay. See you later, then.’
He stayed on the street while the vehicle disappeared around the corner. Then he climbed the steps and went back into the church, which was now deserted apart from a couple of women sitting in one of the rows near the altar, continuing on a personal level that contact with God that had been collective during the mass.
On the right, just past the entrance, was the confessional. It was made of clear shiny wood, with the two doors covered in burgundy velvet drapes. A red light indicated whether or not the priest was inside. The side reserved for the confessor was a narrow space containing a wicker chair beneath a screened wall lamp that cast a dim light from above on the blue wallpaper. The penitent’s side was much more Spartan, with a prie-dieu and a grille allowing a privacy that many needed at such an intimate moment.
Here Father McKean sometimes took refuge, without switching on the light or indicating in any way that he was inside. He would stay there for a while thinking about the financial necessities of his work, collecting his thoughts when they threatened to fly away from him like migrating birds, concentrating on the case of a particularly difficult young person. Usually arriving at the conclusion that they were all difficult and all deserved the same attention, that with the money he had at his disposal they were performing genuine miracles and would continue to perform them.
Today, like many other days, he moved aside the drapes, entered and sat down, without turning on the little light above his head. The chair was old but comfortable and the semi-darkness an ally. He stretched his legs and rested his head against the wall. Those distressing television images took their toll on everyone, even those who had not been touched directly by the tragedy. Simply because everyone was human. There were days like today when he weighed his life in the balance and found that the greatest difficulty was to understand. In spite of what he had said in his sermon. Not only to understand men but also the will of the God he served. From time to time, he wondered what his life would have been like if he had not answered the call of God. If he’d had a wife, children, a job, a normal life. He was thirty-eight years old and many years earlier, when he had come to make that choice, he had been told what he was renouncing. But it was a warning – it wasn’t based on experience. Now he sometimes felt an emptiness to which he could not give a name. At the same time, he was certain that a similar emptiness was part of the experience of every human being. He had his revenge on that emptiness every day by living in contact with his kids and helping them to escape it. Ultimately, he told himself, the most difficult thing was not to understand but, once you had understood, to keep going, in spite of the difficulty, to keep travelling along the road. Right now, that was the closest thing to faith he could offer himself and others.
‘Here I am, Father McKean.’
The voice entered suddenly and without warning. It arrived from the semi-darkness and from a world without peace that he had forgotten for a few moments. Supporting himself on the armrest, he leaned towards the grille. On the other side, in the dim light, a barely glimpsed figure, a shoulder covered in a green fabric.
‘Good day to you. What can I do for you?’
‘Nothing. I think you’re waiting for me.’
These words made him feel uneasy. The voice was hollow but calm, the voice of someone who wasn’t afraid of the abyss he was staring into.
‘Do we know each other?’
‘Very well. Or not at all, if you prefer.’
The unease became a slight sense of dread. The priest found refuge in the only words he could offer him.
‘You’ve entered a confessional. I assume you wish to make confession?’
The monosyllable was resolute but nonchalant.
‘Then tell me your sins.’
‘I don’t have any. I’m not looking for absolution because I don’t need it. And anyway I know you wouldn’t give it to me.’
On his side, the priest was stunned by this declaration of futility. From the tone of voice he sensed that it wasn’t mere presumption but came from something much bigger and more devastating. At any other time, Father Michael McKean might have reacted differently. Now he still had his eyes and ears full of images and sounds of death and the sense of defeat that takes hold after an almost sleepless night.
‘If that’s what you think, then what can I do for you?’
‘Nothing. I just wanted to leave you a message.’
‘What kind of message?’
A moment’s silence. But it wasn’t hesitation. He was simply giving him time to clear his mind of any other thoughts.
‘It was me.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean I blew up the building on the Lower East Side.’
That took Father McKean’s breath away.
The images piled up in his mind. Dust, ambulances, the screams of the wounded, the blood, corpses taken away in sheets, the moans of the survivors, the anguish of those who had lost everything. The statements on television. A whole city, a whole country again transfixed with the fear that was, as someone had said, the only true horseman of the apocalypse. And the indistinct shadow on the other side of that thin barrier claimed to be responsible for all that.
Reason dictated that he take his time and think clearly. There were sick people in the world who liked to assume the guilt for murders and disasters they couldn’t possibly be responsible for.
‘I know what you’re thinking.’
‘That I’m a fantasist, that there’s nothing to prove what I’m saying is true.’
Michael McKean, a man of reason and a priest by belief, was nothing at that moment but an animal with all its senses on the alert. And every shred of his ancestral instinct screamed at him that the man on the other side of the confessional was telling the truth.
He needed to breathe for a few moments, before continuing. The other man understood that and respected his silence. When he found his voice again, he appealed to a piety he already knew he wouldn’t find.
‘What do all those deaths, all that pain, mean to you?’
‘Justice. And justice should never create pain. So much of it has been dispensed in the past that it has become an object of worship. Why should this time be different?’
‘What do you mean by justice?’
‘The Red Sea opening and closing. Sodom. Gomorrah. I have many other examples, if you want them.’
The voice was silent for a moment. On his side of the confessional, which at that moment felt like the coldest place in the world, Father McKean would have liked to shout out that these were just stories, that they shouldn’t be taken literally, that…
He held back and missed the opportunity to retaliate. The other man took this as an invitation to continue.
‘Men have had two gospels, one for their souls and one for their lives. One religious and one secular. Both have taught men more or less the same things. Brotherhood, justice, equality. There have been people who have spread them through the world and through time.’
The voice appeared to come from a place much further than the tiny distance separating them. Now it had become a mere breath, sour with disappointment. The kind of disappointment that gives rise not to tears but to anger.
‘But almost nobody has had the strength to live according to these teachings.’
‘All men are imperfect,’ Father McKean replied. ‘That’s part of nature. How can you not feel compassion? Haven’t you repented what you did?’
‘No. Because I will do it again. And you will be the first to know.’
Father McKean hid his face in his hands. What was happening to him was too much for one man. If this person’s words corresponded to the truth, then this was a test beyond his strength. Or the strength of anyone who wore a priest’s cassock. The voice pressed on. Not fierce now, but soft and persuasive. Full of understanding.
‘In your words during the mass, there was pain. There was compassion. But there was no faith.’
He tried in vain to rebel, not against those words, but against his fear. ‘How can you say that?’
‘I’ll help you regain it, Michael McKean,’ the man continued, as if he hadn’t heard the question. ‘I can do that.’
There was another pause. Then the three words that set eternity in motion.
‘I am God.’
In many ways, Joy was the kingdom of almost.
Everything almost worked, was almost shiny, almost new. The roof was almost fine and the paint on the outside walls almost didn’t need retouching. The few permanent employees received their salary almost regularly, the outside helpers almost always forewent theirs. Everything was second-hand, and in that display of the old and worn anything new stood out like the light of a beacon in the distance. But it was also a place where every day, with great difficulty, a new piece of the life raft was built.
As he drove the Batmobile along the unpaved drive towards the house, John Kortighan knew that in the bus with him he had a group of kids to whom life had been a terrible counsellor. Little by little it had devoured their trust, and they had been alone for so long they took solitude for the norm. Each one, with that originality typical of adverse fate, had found his or her own destructive way to go astray, and the indifference of the world had covered their traces.
Now in this place, together, they could try to find themselves, realizing that, logically and not by chance, they had a right to an alternative. And he felt fortunate and grateful to have been chosen to be part of that enterprise.
However hard and desperate it was.
John drove in through the gate and a minute or so later the van crossed the forecourt and pulled up under a canopy. The kids got out and headed for the back door of the kitchen, arguing and joking among themselves. For all of them Sunday was a special day, a day without ghosts.
Jerry Romero expressed everyone’s opinion. ‘Boy, we’re hungry.’
Hendymion Lee, a young man of oriental descent, shrugged his shoulders in reply. ‘So what’s new? You’re always hungry. I’m sure if you were the Pope, they’d have to give communion with slices of salami instead of the host.’
Jerry went up to Hendymion and grabbed his head in an arm lock. ‘If it was up to you, gook, they’d do it with chopsticks.’
They both laughed.
Shalimar Bennett, a black girl with funny spiked hair and the body of a gazelle, joined in the joke. ‘Jerry become Pope? He couldn’t even become a priest. He can’t stand wine. At his first mass he’d get so smashed they’d throw him out.’
John smiled. He lingered in the middle of the forecourt, watching them disappear inside the house. He was not fooled by that relaxed atmosphere. He knew how delicate the balance was, how in each of them memory and temptation were one and the same, until they could be transformed into just a memory. But what he witnessed every day was beautiful – the attempt at rebirth, the construction of a possible future.
Alone, standing in the middle of the forecourt, the sun directly overhead, John Kortighan lifted his eyes to the blue sky and looked at the house.
Joy had been built on the edge of that part of Pelham Bay Park that adjoined the Bronx, on a six-acre property facing the stretch of sea that wove its way northward like a finger poking into the land. The main building was a two-storey construction in the shape of a square C, built according to the architectural dictates that characterized houses in New England, using mainly wood and dark brick. The free side was open towards the channel and the green coast beyond it, which, by contrast, descended southward like a hand holding back the sea.
There was the entrance, facing the garden, which you reached via a porch in the shape of a half-octagon, lit by large glass doors. On the ground floor were the kitchen and pantry, the dining room, a small infirmary, a library, and the games and TV room. On one of the short sides, two bedrooms with a shared bathroom for those members of staff who, like him, lived permanently at Joy. On the upper floor, the kids’ bedrooms, and in the attic Father McKean’s room.
The long side faced the forecourt, where a second building had been built to house a laboratory for those who opted for more manual activities instead of studying. In back of the laboratory was the vegetable garden, which stretched as far as the western edge of the property, where there was an orchard. Originally the vegetable garden and orchard had been developed as an experiment, with the idea of supplying a distraction for the kids at Joy, allowing them to experience something physical, and at the same time rewarding. In a short time, to everyone’s surprise, the production of fruit and vegetables had grown until the community was almost self-sufficient. In fact, when the harvest was particularly good, a group of the kids went down to the market in Union Square to sell their products.
Mrs Carraro appeared in the kitchen doorway, wiping her hands on her apron. ‘What’s this about eating without Father Michael?’
‘He’s been delayed. He has to say the 12.30 mass.’
‘Well, no one will die if we wait a bit. We can’t have Sunday lunch without that man.’
‘All right, colonel.’ John pointed to the inside of the kitchen, from which came the high-pitched echo of the kids’ conversation. ‘But you tell the alligators.’
‘They won’t say a word. I’d like to see them try.’
‘I’m sure you’re right.’
John watched as she disappeared from the doorway, her face set for battle. Even though Mrs Carraro was greatly outnumbered by the kids, he had no doubt who would prevail. John left the kids to work it out with their cook. She was an apparently gentle and submissive woman but on several occasions had demonstrated how determined she could be. He knew that when she made a decision it was difficult to get her to change her mind, especially if the decision favoured Father McKean.
He turned left and walked slowly along the side of the house, breathing in the air, which had a slight salty taste.
The sun was already hot and the vegetation was starting to explode with that silent green clamour that always surprised the heart and the eyes and knocked down the cold gray walls of winter. He reached the front of the house and set off along the garden path. He walked until all he had in front of him was the shiny tabletop of the sea and the green of the park on the other side of the channel. He stopped with his hands in his pockets and his face lifted to the breeze.
He turned again to look at the house.
Bricks and wood.
Glass and concrete.
Technique and manual work.
All human things.
What was inside those walls, whether of brick or wood, went beyond that. It meant something. And, for the first time in his life, he felt part of that something, regardless of the point of departure and arrival and the unavoidable accidents along the way.
John Kortighan wasn’t a believer. He had never managed to summon up any faith either in man or in God. And consequently not even in himself. But Michael McKean had somehow managed to open a breach in the wall that people had apparently built to keep him out, the wall that he had strengthened on his side in retaliation. God was still a distant, nebulous concept, hidden behind the obvious humanity of His representative. But in a way, even though John had never said this to him, Father McKean wasn’t just saving the kids’ lives, he was also saving his.
On the upper floor, behind the windows that reflected the sky, he glimpsed figures moving. Kids moving around in their rooms. Each had his experience, his fragment of life. Put all together by chance, like pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope, they made a vivid fragile image. Like all unstable things, it wasn’t easy to decipher but was surprisingly colourful.
He walked back the way he had come, entered the house by the main door and started upstairs. As he climbed, step after step, he let his thoughts wander.
The story of Joy was both very simple and very complicated. And as was often the case, its foundation derived from a tragic event, as if some plans needed to be born out of pain in order to find the strength to become reality.
John wasn’t living in the neighbourhood at that time, but he had heard about it from Michael, whose concise account had been corroborated by a couple of longer conversations with the parish priest of Saint Benedict.
It was …
a Friday and they were holding a funeral.
A boy of seventeen, Robin Wheaters, had been found deadof an overdose in a corner of the park on the other side of thebridge, at the junction of Shore Road and City Island Road. A couple who were jogging had spotted a body lying on the ground, half hidden in the bushes. They had approached and found that he was unconscious but still breathing. The ambulance had rushed him to hospital, but to no avail. Robin had died soon afterwards in the arms of his mother, who had been taken there in a police car, after she had contacted the police to inform them that for some unknown reason her son had been out all night. Nobody in the family had ever had the slightest suspicion that he had been involved with drugs. The cause of death made his appalling end all the more horrifying. The post mortem and the absence of marks on his skin had revealed that in all probability it had been his first time. Fate had decided that there wouldn’t be a second time.
His mother was the widowed sister of Barry Lovito, a lawyer of Italian extraction who practised in Manhattan but had chosen to continue living in Country Club. He was a rich man, unmarried and a workaholic, who had fought hard all his life to reach his position at the top of the heap. And had been so successful that the heap was now almost entirely his.
When his brother-in-law had died, his typically Italian sense of family had led him to take his sister and nephew into his house. The woman wasn’t in good health, suffering from all kinds of psychosomatic symptoms, and the loss of her husband certainly hadn’t improved her physical or mental condition. As for Robin, he was a sensitive, melancholy, suggestible boy. Left very much to his own devices, he had fallen into bad company, as often happens when solitude is forced on a person.
In church they were both there, the uncle and the mother. Counsellor Lovito was wearing an impeccably cut dark suit that marked him out in the middle of everyone as a wealthy person. His jaws were clenched and he kept his eyes fixed in front of him, out of grief and maybe also a sense of guilt. For him, the boy had been the son he had never had and, after a life spent chasing after success, was starting to miss. When his brother-in-law had died, he had deluded himself into thinking that he might be able to take his place, not realizing that the first duty of a parent is to be there.
The woman’s face was gaunt with grief. It was clear from her hollow red eyes that she had no more tears in her, and from her expression that she was not only burying her son but also any desire to carry on living. She followed the coffin out of the church, leaning on her brother for support, her thin body in a black pant suit that suddenly seemed to have become a couple of sizes too big.
Father McKean was at the back of the church, surrounded by a group of teenagers, many of whom had been friends of Robin. He had followed the service with that sense of
As Barry Lovito came out of the church, he turned his head and saw him in the middle of all those kids. His glance had lingered longer than might have been expected on the figure of Father Michael McKean. Then he had turned away and, still supporting his sister, had continued his sad progress to the car.
Three days later, Father McKean saw him again, accompanied by the parish priest. After the ritual introductions, Paul left them alone. It was obvious the lawyer had come to talk to him, although he had no idea why. McKean had been at Saint Benedict for just under a year and had exchanged only greetings with him up until that moment. As if reading his mind, the lawyer hastened to satisfy his curiosity.
‘I know you’re wondering why I’m here. And especially what I’ve come to say. I’ll only take a moment.’
He started walking slowly towards the priests’ house.
‘I’ve just acquired a property, up near the park. It’s a big house, with a decent plot of land. Six acres, more or less. The kind of place that can house up to thirty people. With a view of the sea and the coast.’
Father McKean must have looked bewildered, because a half-smile appeared on Lovito’s face. He made a reassuring gesture with his hand.
‘Don’t worry. I’m not trying to sell it to you.’
Lovito reflected for a moment, uncertain whether to continue with this preamble. Then he decided it wasn’t necessary.
‘I’d like that house to become the base for a community where kids with the same problems as my nephew can find help and comfort. It isn’t easy, but I’d like at least to try. I know it won’t bring Robin back, but maybe it’ll give me a few hours of sleep without nightmares.’
Lovito turned his head away. They both knew perfectly well that both things were impossible.
‘Anyway that’s my problem.’
The lawyer paused, took off his dark glasses, and turned to face Father McKean full on, with the resolute air of a man who is not afraid to say or do anything.
Or to admit his own guilt.
‘Father McKean, I’m a practical man and, whatever my motive, the result is the only thing that counts, the only thing that lasts. It’s my wish that this community shouldn’t be just a dream but become reality. And I want you to take charge of it.’
‘Me? Why me?’
‘I’ve been checking you out. And what I’ve learned has confirmed what I’d already guessed as soon as I saw you in the middle of those kids. Apart from all your other qualifications, I know you have a great influence on the young, and a great ability to communicate with them.’
The priest looked at him as if he was looking into the future. The lawyer, a man who had learned to know men, understood. And, being a lawyer, he hastened to forestall any possible objection.
‘I’ll provide most of the money. I can also get you a non-returnable loan from the state.’
He paused to let that sink in.
‘You may be interested to know that I’ve already talked to people at the archdiocese. There wouldn’t be any kind of objection. You can call the archbishop if you don’t believe me.’
After a long conversation with Cardinal Logan he accepted, and the adventure began. The house was refurbished and a fund set up to guarantee Joy a monthly sum that could meet most of the expenses. Thanks to the influence of Counsellor Lovito word had got out and the first kids had arrived. And Father Michael McKean had been there waiting for them.
Robin’s mother had been snuffed out like a fire abandoned on the shore a few months after the inauguration, eaten up by her own grief. The lawyer had gone the following year, cut down by a heart attack while working fourteen hours a day to. As often happens, he had left behind a lot of money and a lot of greed. Some distant relatives had emerged from the mists of indifference to contest his will, which had left the whole of his estate to Joy. The motives behind the action were many and varied, but they all had the same intention: to allow the plaintiffs to get their hands on the money. And while the verdict was still awaited, any further emolument to the community had been frozen. Right now, Joy’s survival hung in the balance. But, bitter as the struggle was, it was worth fighting.
And they would fight it together, he and Michael.
Almost without realizing it, he found himself outside the priest’s room on the top floor. He checked that nobody was coming up the stairs. Slightly anxious, knowing he was breaking a taboo, John opened the door and went in. He had done this before, feeling only a strange excitement, and no guilt at this violation of another person’s privacy. He closed the door behind him and took a few faltering steps inside the room. His eyes were a camera, recording every detail. He let his fingers play over a bible lying on the desk, picked up a sweater thrown over a chair, and finally went and opened the closet. All Michael’s meagre wardrobe was there in front of his eyes, on hangers. He stood there looking at the clothes and breathing in the smell of the man who, from the first, had fascinated and attracted him. Attracted him so much, there were times he had to walk away, for fear of what his face might reveal. He closed the closet and approached the bed. He ran his fingers over the blanket and then lay down on his stomach and put his head on the part of the pillow where Michael McKean’s head had been. He took a deep breath. When he was alone and thought about Michael, there were times when he wanted to be with him. And there were other times, like now, when he wanted to be him. He was convinced that, if he stayed here, sooner or later he would succeed…
The cellphone started ringing from somewhere in his pockets. He got up quickly from the bed with his heart in his mouth, as if that sound was the signal that the world had discovered him. He groped for the phone and answered.
‘John, it’s Michael. I’m on my way. Paul’s saying mass instead of me.’
He was still agitated, as if the man at the other end could see him, could see where he was. But in spite of the fact that the voice on the phone came to him filtered through his own embarrassment, it wasn’t the one John usually associated with Michael’s face. It sounded broken or distressed, or both.
‘What is it, Mike? Are you all right? Did something happen?’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll be there soon. Nothing happened.’
‘Okay. See you later.’
John hung up, and stood there looking at the phone as if it could help him decipher the words he had just heard. He knew Michael McKean well enough to know when something had affected him so strongly that he was no longer the person everyone was used to.
And this was one of those times.
When he had asked him if something had happened, he had replied that nothing had. But, in spite of his reassurances, his voice had the tone of a person to whom everything has happened. He left the room and closed the door behind him. As he walked back downstairs, he felt like a lonely, useless man.
The fork went in and took two strands of spaghetti from the boiling saucepan.
Taking care not to scald herself, Vivien lifted them to her mouth. They were half cooked. She drained the pasta and placed it in the sauce that was waiting in the frying pan. She sautéed it for a few minutes on a high flame until the excess water had evaporated and everything was the right consistency, just as her grandmother had taught her when she was little. Her grandmother had been the only person in the family who’d never resigned herself to the fact that their surname had changed over the course of time from Luce to Light. She placed the frying pan on the worktop and with the tongs started to separate the spaghetti onto the two plates.
She didn’t think it was necessary to sit down at table and had laid two places with bamboo mats on the counter.
‘It’s ready!’ she called to her niece.
A few moments later Sundance appeared in the living room of Vivien’s small apartment. She had just taken a shower and her long hair was still damp. The light coming from the window struck her full on. She had put on a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, and yet she looked like a queen. There were a few traces of her father, but mostly she was the image of her mother.
Beautiful, thin, fragile.
Hard to understand and easily hurt.
Vivien felt a pang in her heart. There were moments when the pain she carried inside her, congealed like a blood clot, suddenly broke free and overwhelmed her. It was pain at what had been, it was regret for all she could have been and fate hadn’t wanted her to be.
In spite of this, she smiled at her niece.
She mustn’t allow a sense of all the things they’d lost to spoil those that could still be recovered. Or to jeopardize those new, lasting things that could be built in what remained to her of the future. Time didn’t always heal every wound. For Vivien it was enough that it didn’t cause any more. The rest, as far as it was in her power to do so, she would provide. Not to silence the sense of guilt she carried inside her. Only to stop Sundance giving voice to hers.
The girl sat down on the stool and bent her head over the plate to breathe in the smell of the pasta. Her hair fell over the table like the branches of a willow tree.
‘What is it?’
‘Nothing special. Just spaghetti with tomato and basil.’
‘Mmmh. It’s good.’
‘Are you taking that on trust?’
Sundance looked up at her with her clear blue eyes as if nothing had happened. ‘Your spaghetti’s always good.’
Vivien smiled and made an exaggeratedly self-satisfied gesture. ‘That’s quite a compliment! I think I’ll put it in my personal ad.’
She sat down next to Sundance. They started eating in silence, each conscious of the other’s presence.
After what had happened, Vivien had never talked directly to her niece about the things she had been involved in. There had been a psychologist for that, and a long, difficult and tortuous process that was far from over. Sometimes Vivien wondered if it ever would be. But she was the only stable point in Sundance’s life now, since her sister Greta had fallen victim to early onset Alzheimer’s and was moving closer to oblivion day by day. Sundance’s father, Nathan, who’d been a shit all his life, though he’d been skilful at hiding it, had revealed his true colours and run away, trying to forget something that would never abandon him. If nothing else, he had left behind enough money to provide for his wife and daughter. Vivien had often thought, knowing him well, that this was the most they could expect from him. And that in any case anything else that came from him would be more of a hindrance than a help.
They finished the pasta almost simultaneously.
‘Are you still hungry? I can make you a hamburger, if you like.’
‘No. I’m fine. Thanks, Vunny.’
Sundance stood up and went to the TV set. She saw her take the remote control from the armrest of the couch and aim it at the set. The images and voices of Eyewitness Channel entered the room.
And a spectacle of desolation and death appeared on the screen.
Vivien took the plates from the counter and went and put them in the sink. The images the channel was broadcasting were a dramatic corollary of what they had seen for themselves at close quarters.
The previous evening, when the explosion had blocked the traffic in the city and made the world catch its breath, Vivien had immediately switched on the car radio, sure that in a few moments they would find out what had happened. Both had sat there in silence, listening to the presenter’s words and at the same time seeing the glare of the flames in front of them, so vivid and violent it was as if they were burning souls as well as things. The fire had continued to blaze somewhere to the side of the car as they passed Alphabet City at 10th Street. Vivien was certain that the traffic in that area would be stopped very soon, which was why she had chosen to make a long detour to get to her home near Battery Park. She had crossed the Williamsburg Bridge and driven the length of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, emerging downtown through the tunnel. In all that time she’d hardly said a word, continuing to hop from station to station in order to get updates.
Once they got home they had rushed to switch on the TV. And the images of urban nightmare that had appeared confirmed what they had witnessed. They had followed the broadcasts until late at night, commenting on what they were seeing. They had listened to the words of the mayor and the brief statement from the White House, until tiredness had won out over despair.
They had fallen asleep side by side in Vivien’s bed, the thunder of the explosion still in their ears, feeling that vibration of the ground that had followed the blast as if, in memory, it would never end.
Vivien opened the faucet and let the water run over the plates dirty with sauce. She added a few drops of detergent, and watched the foam bubble up. Behind her, she could hear the voices of the reporters, who were adding nothing to what they already knew, apart from an update on the death toll, which continued to grow.
The ringing of the telephone was a sign of life among all these tales of death. Vivien wiped her hands and picked up the cordless. She heard Captain Alan Bellew’s voice, as strong and incisive as always, but with a slight hint of underlying tiredness.
‘Hi, Vivien. Bellew here.’
He had never before called her at home, certainly never on her day off. She immediately knew what was coming next.
‘What is it?’
There wasn’t any need to specify the subject. Both of them knew only too well.
‘It’s a mess. I’ve just come out of a long meeting at One Police Plaza with the commissioner and all the precinct chiefs. I’m recalling all my men. I need to see you all tonight to bring you up to date with the situation.’
‘Is it that bad?’
‘Yes. What the press knows is nothing yet. Though I have to say we don’t know much more than they do right now. There’s a distinct possibility the city may be under attack. But I’ll explain all that in person. Nine o’clock at the precinct.’
‘OK. I’ll be there.’
The captain lowered his voice. He was a friend now, not just a superior officer dealing with an emergency.
‘I’m sorry, Vivien. I know how hard you’ve been working lately and I know all the things you’ve got on your plate. I know you were supposed to be going to the U2 concert with your niece. But all public gatherings have been suspended until further notice anyway.’
‘I know. They just said that on TV.’
The captain paused. Out of sympathy, not embarrassment.
‘How is Sundance?’
Bellew had two daughters not much older than her niece. Vivien thought he was probably seeing their faces as he asked that question.
She said it softly, the way you cling to an illusion rather than a certainty. The captain understood and left it at that.
‘See you tonight, then.’
‘Bye, Alan. Thanks.’
Vivien hung up and put the phone down next to the sink. For a moment she looked at the two plates as if they were immersed in the depths of the ocean instead of a few inches of water.
When she turned, Sundance was standing on the other side of the counter. She was an adult at that moment, with old eyes in a girl’s body. Everything around her was telling her that whatever we possess can be taken away without warning. More than ever, Vivien felt that she wanted to teach her, to show her that many beautiful things can happen just as unexpectedly.
How, she didn’t yet know. But she would learn. And she would save both of them.
Her niece smiled at her, as if she had read her thoughts. ‘We have to go back to Joy, don’t we?’
Vivien nodded. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘I’ll go pack my bag.’
She walked away down the corridor, towards the bedroom. Vivien went to the little safe, rather unimaginatively concealed behind a painting. She punched in the combination, opened it, and took out her pistol and shield.
Sundance was at the end of the corridor, waiting for her with her bag in her hand. There was no trace of disappointment on her face. Vivien would have preferred that, rather than this premature resignation.
They had planned to go running together along the Hudson in the afternoon, before enjoying an evening of fun, lost amid the concert crowd and carried on a wave of euphoria, the kind only music can give you.
Instead of which…
They went down onto the street and walked to the car. It was a gorgeous day, but right now the sun, the slight breeze and the intense blue of the sky seemed somehow mocking, as if nature was showing off rather than offering a gift to human beings.
Vivien pressed the remote control and opened the car doors. Sundance threw her bag on the back seat and then came and sat down next to her. As Vivien was starting the engine, the girl’s thin voice caught her off guard.
‘Have you been to see Mother lately?’
Vivien wasn’t sure what to say in reply. They hadn’t broached the subject in months. She turned to her niece, who was looking out the window as if ashamed of her question or afraid of the answer.
‘Yes. I went yesterday.’
‘How is she?’
Where is she? would have been a more accurate question.
That was the thought that came to her instinctively, but she didn’t say it out loud. She tried to keep her voice as normal as possible as she told the truth, which was what she had decided to do.
‘She isn’t well.’
‘Do you think I could see her?’
For a moment Vivien found it hard to breathe, as if the air inside the car had suddenly become rarefied. ‘I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. I don’t think she’d recognize you.’
Sundance looked at her, her face streaked with tears. ‘I’d recognize her. That’d be enough.’
Vivien was suddenly overwhelmed with tenderness. It was the first time she had seen her niece cry since that terrible business. She didn’t know if the girl ever succumbed to the illusory solace of tears when she was alone. With her aunt and all the other people she came in contact with she was always self-possessed, as if she had built a wall between herself and her own humanity to keep pain out.
All at once she saw the girl Sundance used to be, relived all the wonderful times they had spent together. She leaned forward in her seat and embraced her, trying to wipe out the terrible things both of them needed to forget. Sundance took refuge in that embrace, and they were motionless for a long time, leaving all the space they had inside for that wave of emotion.
Vivien heard her niece’s voice, broken by sobs, coming from somewhere beneath her hair. ‘Oh, Vunny, I’m sorry for what I did. I’m so sorry. It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me, it wasn’t me…’
She kept repeating these words until Vivien hugged her harder and placed a hand on her head. She knew that this was an important moment in their lives and she prayed to whatever being was responsible for human existence to help her find the right words.
‘Shhhhhh. That’s all over now. It’s all over.’
She said that phrase twice, to convince her and to convince herself.
Vivien held her like that until Sundance’s sobs subsided. When they moved apart, Vivien leaned towards the glove compartment, opened it, and took out a box of Kleenex.
She handed it to Sundance. ‘Here. If we carry on like this, this car will soon be an aquarium.’
She said that to lighten the tension and seal this new-found bond between them. Sundance gave a little smile. She took one of the tissues and wiped her eyes.
Vivien did the same.
The girl’s resolute voice surprised her as she wiped her eyes. ‘There was a man.’
Vivien waited. The worst thing to do now would be to express impatience, to insist on the girl coming clean. But Sundance didn’t need any prompting. Now that the wall had come down, it seemed that all the dark things hidden on the other side needed urgently to find daylight.
‘It was someone I met, who gave me things. Someone who organized-’
Her voice cracked. Vivien understood it was still difficult for her to utter certain words and use certain expressions.
‘Do you remember his name?’
‘I don’t know his real name. Everybody called him Ziggy Stardust. I think it was a nickname.’
‘Do you know where he lives? Do you have his telephone number?’
‘No. I only saw him once. And he was always the one who called me.’
Vivien took a deep breath to calm the beating of her heart. She knew what she would have to fight against in the next few days. Her anger and her instincts. The desire to track down that bastard and empty a full round of bullets in his head.
She looked at her niece. For the first time the look she got in return was direct and unclouded. Now she knew she could talk to her in a new way, a way she would understand.
‘There’s something happening in this city. Something very ugly that may cost the lives of many people. That’s why the whole of the New York Police Department is on a state of alert, and that’s why I have to be at the precinct tonight. To try to prevent what just happened from happening again.’
She gave her time to absorb what she had said. And to prepare her for what she was about to say.
‘But I promise you one thing. I won’t rest until I’ve made sure that man won’t do anyone any harm ever again.’
Sundance simply nodded. For the moment, that was all that was needed between them. Vivien started the engine and set off towards Joy, which would be her niece’s home for a little while longer. She was anxious to tell Father McKean about the progress they’d made, but as she joined the traffic, she couldn’t help thinking about the new mission. Whoever this elusive Ziggy Stardust was, his life was about to become a living hell.
Vivien opened the glass-fronted door and walked into the precinct house.
She left outside a bright sunny morning that showed not the slightest inclination to follow her in. This was usually a familiar place to her. A frontier outpost bang in the middle of civilization, which still gave her a sense of home she didn’t find anywhere else.
Today was different. Today there was something abnormal in the air and inside her, a sense of anxiety and electric tension she couldn’t define. She had read somewhere that, in times of peace, the warrior fights himself. She wondered what kind of war she would have to fight in the days to come. And how much space each of them would still have for his or her own inner conflict.
In a precinct house, peace wasn’t a state of waiting. It was a dream.
She waved to the officers on duty behind the desk and went through the door leading to the upper floor. She started climbing the stairs, leaving behind her the roll-call room where, the night before, leaning on the desk, Captain Alan Bellew had updated all the off-duty officers on the situation.
He’d begun, ‘As I guess you’ve all realized by now, this is a really nasty business. It’s now been established that the building on 10th Street was blown up deliberately. The experts have found traces of explosive. The worst you could think of. TNT combined with napalm. That’s one detail the media don’t yet have, though you can bet they soon will. Whoever did this was aiming to cause the maximum damage, combining the incendiary effect of napalm and the explosive power of TNT. The building was mined with surgical precision. How the perpetrators managed to set the charges so carefully without attracting attention is still a mystery. You don’t need me to tell you that everyone’s working on this: FBI, NSA, CIA, you name it. And us, of course.’
Bellew had paused.
‘This morning there was a meeting at the commissioner’s office with the mayor and a couple of bigwigs from Washington. The Defcon level is on maximum readiness. That means all military bases and airfields are on a war footing. I’m telling you this so you can see how seriously everyone’s taking this.’
Vincent Narrow, a tall, well-built detective sitting in the front row, had raised a hand. The captain gestured to him to speak.
‘Has anyone claimed responsibility?’
They were all wondering the same thing. In spite of all the time that had passed, the ghosts of 9/11 were far from being exorcized.
Bellew had shaken his head. ‘Nobody at all. For the moment we don’t know any more about that than the TV channels. Al-Qaeda has put out a communiqué on the Internet disclaiming responsibility. The computer experts are checking if it’s genuine. There’s always a possibility some other group of fanatics is behind this, but these guys are usually very eager to take the credit.’
Another question came from the back of the room. ‘Do we have any leads?’
‘Not even the ghost of a lead. Apart from the unusual combination of explosives.’
Finally Vivien asked the question they were all afraid to hear the answer to. ‘How many dead?’
The captain sighed. ‘For the moment, more than ninety. The reason the number wasn’t higher is that this was Saturday night, and a lot of people were out or away for the weekend. But it’s bound to rise. Some were horribly burned. There won’t be many wounded.’
The captain had left them all a moment to absorb the figure. And to join it in their minds to the images that TV channels were broadcasting all over the world.
‘This isn’t a massacre on the scale of 9/11, but when you take the expertise of the bombers into account, it may only be the beginning of something bigger. So what I ask all of you is this: keep your eyes and ears wide open. Pursue the investigations you’ve already been assigned, but in the meantime don’t rule out anything, even the smallest detail. Spread the word among your informers. We have authorization to promise anything we like, from money to cutting deals on charges, to anyone who provides useful information.’
He took some photographs from his desk and showed them to his men.
‘These were taken around the scene of the attack. They’ll be displayed on the noticeboard upstairs. Maniacs often get a kick from going back to the scene of their crimes. They may not be any use, but who knows? Anyhow, take a look at them. You never know where a lead might come from. That’s all for now.’
The meeting broke up and everyone left the room, commenting on the events. Some went back home, others hit the city to enjoy what was left of their Sunday. They all looked a lot more worried than when they’d come in.
Vivien, who had come directly from the Bronx to the precinct house, recovered her car from the parking lot and reluctantly joined the slow-moving traffic home. The next day, the city would wake up and resume its usual frenzied race towards some unknown goal. But for the moment there was calm and time to think. And that was what Vivien needed. As soon as she got home, she took a shower and went straight to bed, where she tried in vain to read a book. For what remained of the night she slept little and badly. The captain’s words, combined with what she and Sundance had witnessed, preyed on her mind. In addition, she had been disoriented by Father McKean’s behaviour when they had met at Joy. She had spoken with him of the progress she had made in her relationship with her niece, and how open Sundance had been. His response hadn’t been what she had expected. He had greeted this news with a lukewarm smile and words that seemed more polite than enthusiastic. He hadn’t seemed the person she’d come to know, the person she’d admired ever since she first met him. Several times, he’d turned the conversation around to the bombing, asking about the means used, the number of victims, how the investigation was going. Vivien had come away with a sense that something was eating Father McKean and she didn’t know what it was.
Now, Vivien walked into the detectives’ squadroom. Only a couple of her colleagues were at their desks. The Plaza was empty.
She gave a wave that took in everybody and nobody. The camaraderie which usually pervaded the room had disappeared. Everyone was silent, absorbed in their own thoughts.
She sat down at her desk, switched on the computer, and linked to the police database. She entered her user ID and password and, as soon as she had access, typed in the name Ziggy Stardust. After a few moments a photograph appeared, along with his record. She was surprised to find herself looking at a nondescript, bland face. He looked like the kind of person you meet and immediately forget. A complete nonentity.
‘Here you are, you son of a bitch.’
She quickly read through all the things Zbigniew Malone alias Ziggy Stardust had been involved with. He was a type that Vivien knew well. A small-time crook, the kind who spends all his life on the edges of crime without ever really getting his feet wet. Someone who didn’t enjoy a scrap of respect even among his own kind. He had been arrested several times for various offences. Bag snatching, drug dealing, pimping, crap like that. He had also done a little time, but less than Vivien would have expected, given his résumé.
She looked for his address, and saw that it was in Brooklyn. She knew a detective who worked out of the 67th Precinct, a bright, easy-going guy she’d once worked a case with. She picked up the phone and asked to speak with Detective Star. After a few moments, she heard his voice, slightly guttural, just as she remembered it.
‘Hi, Robert. It’s Vivien Light, from the 13th.’
‘Vivien, light of the human race. To what do I owe the honour?’
‘I’m flattered by your description, though I’m not sure the human race agrees.’
She heard Star’s laughter. ‘I see you haven’t changed. What do you need?’
‘What do you know about a guy who goes by the name Ziggy Stardust?’
‘I know a whole lot of things about him, but the first one that comes to mind is that he’s dead.’
‘That’s right. Murdered. Stabbed to death, to be precise. They found him yesterday in his apartment, lying on the floor in a pool of blood. According to the post mortem, the death occurred on Saturday. He was small fry, but someone decided he didn’t deserve to live. We sometimes used him as an informer.’
Vivien added informer to the list of Ziggy Stardust’s activities she already had in her possession. That would explain why he’d got off so lightly in his dealings with the law. Usually, in return for some reliable tip-offs, they turned a blind eye to illegal enterprises of lesser importance.
‘Do you have the killer?’
She’d have liked to add that, if they did, she’d have gladly gone to the jail and given that person a medal, but she held back.
‘No, and with all the crap that scumbag was into, I don’t think it’ll be easy. And let’s be honest about this, no one’s weeping tears over him. We’re handling the case, but with all that’s going down right now, finding whoever whacked this guy isn’t exactly top priority.’
‘I can believe that. Keep me informed. I may even tell you why, if I have to.’
Vivien hung up and sat there for a moment mulling over the information she had just received. Then she decided to print the file she had on the screen. She intended to show the photograph to Sundance, to confirm that he really was the man she had told him about. She couldn’t summon up any shame over the small, mean sense of euphoria she felt inside her. Ziggy Stardust’s ugly end showed that revenge and justice sometimes went hand in hand. What she had promised her niece had come to pass earlier than she had foreseen. Vivien’s one regret was that she couldn’t take any credit for it.
At that moment Brett Tyler, one of her colleagues, came out of the bathroom next to the Plaza. He was a dark, well-built guy, more stubborn than brilliant. And he could be rough with those who didn’t deserve any other treatment. Vivien had seen him in action and she had to admit that, when he wanted, he could be extremely effective.
Tyler approached her desk. ‘Hi, Vivien. Everything okay?’
He spread his arms in a resigned gesture. ‘Russell Wade is coming in to give me the lowdown on that gambling joint. I can hardly wait. It’s going to be a truly thrilling morning.’
Vivien saw again the rumpled figure of Wade leaving the precinct house accompanied by his lawyer, and remembered Captain Bellew’s comment on his chaotic, self-destructive lifestyle.
‘Was it you who smashed his lip?’
‘Yes. And strictly between the two of us, I quite enjoyed it. I just don’t like the guy.’
Vivien didn’t have time to reply, because just then the guy in question appeared at the door, accompanied by a uniformed officer. Vivien saw that he had got back on his feet compared with the first time she had seen him, even though his lip still bore the mark of Brett Tyler’s tender loving care.
‘Speak of the devil,’ Tyler said softly.
The uniformed officer went back the way he had come, and Wade came towards them. Tyler made no attempt at cordiality, apart from a nod that was so formal as to appear vaguely sarcastic.
‘Good morning, Mr Wade.’
‘Any reason why it should be?’
‘As a matter of fact, no. For either of us.’
The man turned his head for a moment to look at Vivien. He said nothing to her, and turned away again. As he did so, his glance fell briefly on the photograph lying on her desk. He immediately turned his attention back to Tyler.
‘So, shall we get this whole thing over and done with?’ The tone of the question was vaguely provocative.
Tyler accepted the challenge. ‘Haven’t you brought your lawyer?’
‘Why, are you planning to hit me again?’
Vivien could have sworn she saw an amused gleam in Russell Wade’s eyes. Maybe Tyler had seen it, too, because he darkened suddenly. Moving aside, he indicated a point to his right.
‘This way, please.’
As they walked towards Tyler’s desk, Vivien continued smiling for a few moments at the verbal skirmish between the two men. Then she opened the folder lying on her desk, which contained the file on the corpse found in the wall on 23rd. The medical examiner’s report was there, along with a copy of the photographs she had found in the document holder on the ground next to the body. In spite of the captain’s desire to handle all crimes committed in his patch, it was reasonably certain that the case would be transferred to the Cold Case Squad, which was why she went through the report quickly and without a great deal of interest. It confirmed, with a bit more technical jargon, the cause of death the ME had suggested at the scene. The date of death went back some fifteen years, although there was a small margin of error due to the conditions of the place in which the body had been preserved. Results of tests on the clothes hadn’t come through yet, while tests on the teeth were still in progress. The body presented no unusual marks, except for a consolidated fracture of the humerus and the right tibia and a tattoo on one shoulder, still visible after all this time. Attached to the file was a photograph of this tattoo. It was a Jolly Roger, at the pirate flag. There was nothing exceptional about the design, but beneath it were the words
THE ONLY FLAG
written in characters appropriate to the image. Ironic, really, Vivien thought. Carrying the only flag hadn’t saved the man from a nasty end. But the tattoo could be a useful lead in the identification of the body, if it turned out to be the symbol of some particular group or association.
That was all the documentation.
So far, this case was shaping up to be a fairly boring one. They’d have to contact the Department of Buildings for information on the two demolished buildings.
Take statements from the former owners and tenants.
Check missing persons reports from around that date.
She put down the file and picked up the two photographs. For a long time she stared at the young man in uniform in front of a tank, a protagonist in a war that had brought more shame than glory. Then she went on to the image of the same young man holding up that strange three-legged cat. She wondered about that. Was it a freak of nature or had someone mutilated the animal? She’d probably never know. She put everything back inside the folder, and sat back in her chair. She would have to write a report, but she didn’t feel like it right now.
She stood up, crossed the room and went out on the landing where the coffee machine was. When the hot liquid had almost filled the paper cup, Russell Wade appeared by her side. He didn’t look like someone who wanted a coffee.
Vivien took out the cup and turned to him. ‘Finished with your tormentor?’
‘With him, yes. Now I need to talk to you.’
‘Me? About what?’
‘The man whose photograph you have on your desk.’
Vivien’s senses were immediately alert. There were times like that, when her experience – but above all her skill – told her something important was about to happen. And she had seldom been wrong.
‘What about him?’
‘I knew him.’
Vivien noticed the past tense. ‘Did you know he was murdered?’
‘Yes, I did.’
‘If you have any information, I can put you in touch with the people handling the case.’
Wade looked puzzled. ‘I saw the photograph on your desk. I thought you were handling it.’
‘No. Brooklyn caught the case. It’s pure chance that photograph was on my desk.’
Wade decided to get more specific. ‘Actually, it’s not Ziggy’s death that’s the important thing. At least not entirely. There’s something else much more important. But right now I’d like to talk in private with you and the head of this precinct.’
‘Captain Bellew is very busy at the moment. Believe me, I’m not just saying that.’
He paused, looking her in the eyes. Vivien remembered that moment when he had passed her in the car, the day he had been released. That sense of sadness and solitude he had conveyed to her. She had no reason to feel any respect for the man, but once again she found it hard to remain insensitive when faced with the depth in those eyes.
‘If I told you I have information that could lead to the arrest of the person who blew up the building on the Lower East Side,’ Russell Wade said calmly, ‘do you think Captain Bellew might find a minute to hear me out?’
He was sitting on a plastic chair in a small waiting room on the second floor of the 13th Precinct. A nondescript room, with faded walls that bore witness to stories that had also faded with time. But his time was now, and his story belonged to the present.
He got up and went to the window that looked out on the street. He put his hands in his pockets and, for better or worse, felt part of the world.
After the discovery he had made in Ziggy’s apartment, after reading the paper he had passed on to him before dying, and realizing with dismay what it was about, Saturday and Sunday had been spent in long and tormented reflection, interspersed with watching the TV news, reading the newspapers and seeing images of the bloodstained man who had died in his arms.
At last, he had come to a decision.
He didn’t know if it was the right one, but at least it was his.
In this uncertain situation, one thing was now clear to him. That something in his life had ended and something else was about to start. And he would do everything he could to make it something good, something important. By a strange twist of fate, at the very moment he had found himself alone, burdened with a huge responsibility, the knot he had carried inside him for years had loosened. As if the ship had needed a real storm to demonstrate that it was seaworthy.
At first, overwhelmed by doubt, he had wondered what Robert Wade would have done if he had been in his shoes. Then he had realized it was the wrong question to ask. What mattered was what he ought to do. And he had finally turned his back on the mirror in which, however hard he had looked for his own face, he had continued for years to see the image of his brother.
For the whole of Sunday night, he had lain on the bed, looking up at the ceiling, which was like a clear roof in the semi-darkness.
All you had to do was search. The most difficult thing to understand was not who, or how. It was where. And that was always somewhere closer than you thought. In the morning, when the signs and the street lamps had gone out and the sun had come up again, he had got out of bed and taken a shower that had completely wiped out any lingering trace of tiredness due to his sleepless night.
He had found himself in the bathroom, naked in front of the mirror. There, on the shiny surface, was his body and his face. He knew now who he was – he knew that, if there was something he had to prove, then he had to prove it to himself and no one else.
But above all, he wasn’t afraid any more.
The door opened behind him. In the doorway appeared the young woman who had introduced herself as Detective Vivien Light. When some time ago
when was that?
he had been released and had gone out onto the street with the lawyer, Thornton, and got into the car, he had seen her there on the steps, motionless, as if unsure whether or not to descend. The car had passed her and their eyes had met. A fleeting moment, a brief glance in which there had been no judgement and no condemnation. Only a curious sense of understanding that Russell hadn’t forgotten. At that time he hadn’t known she was a police officer but, when he had found her sitting at a desk with Ziggy’s photograph next to her, he had realized she might be the right person to talk to.
He would know very soon if he had been right.
The detective stepped aside and indicated the corridor. ‘Come with me.’
Russell followed her until they reached the door with a frosted-glass pane and the words
Captain Alan Bellew
painted in cursive lettering by a steady hand. It reminded Russell of images from black and white crime movies of the Forties. The detective opened the door without knocking and they found themselves in an office with furnishings that were anything but austere.
Filing cabinets against the wall to the left, a closet on the right, a small table with two armchairs and a coffee machine on its wooden surface. Walls of an indefinable colour. A couple of questionable paintings and a few plants in a vase fixed to the wall with a wrought-iron ring.
A man was sitting behind a desk facing the door. Russell couldn’t see him very well because he was silhouetted against the light from the window, made only slightly less bright by the Venetian blinds.
The man pointed to a chair in front of the desk. ‘I’m Captain Bellew. Take a seat, Mr Wade.’
Russell sat down and the young woman detective came and stood a couple of feet from him. She was observing him curiously, whereas the captain, if he was curious about him at all, didn’t show it.
Russell decided he was a man who knew his job. He was a cop, not a politician, someone who had earned his rank by results, not through public relations.
Bellew sat back in his chair. ‘Detective Light tells me you claim to have some important information for us.’
‘It’s not just a claim. I do have it.’
‘We’ll see. For the moment, let’s take it from the beginning. Tell me about your relationship with this Ziggy Stardust.’
‘First I’d like to talk about my relationship with you.’
‘I know that in cases like these, you have considerable discretionary powers over concessions to anyone who provides useful evidence. You can offer money, you can even offer immunity from prosecution, if necessary.’
The captain’s face darkened. ‘Do you want money?’
Russell Wade shook his head, a half-smile on his lips. ‘Up until two days ago, an offer like that would have tempted me. It might even have persuaded me…’
He lowered his head, leaving the sentence unfinished, as if suddenly pursuing a thought, or a memory. Then he looked up again.
‘Today’s different. There’s only one thing I want.’
‘And are we allowed to know what that is?’
‘I want exclusive rights to this story. In return for what I’m going to give you, I want the chance to follow this investigation at close quarters.’
The captain thought about this for a moment. When he spoke, he spoke clearly and emphatically, as if determined to make himself understood. ‘Mr Wade, I’d have to say you don’t come with the best references.’
Russell made a vague gesture with his hand. ‘Captain Bellew,’ he said, adapting his tone to the captain’s, ‘my story is common knowledge. Everyone knows I won a Pulitzer I didn’t deserve and that it was quite rightly taken away from me. I don’t deny that – in fact I know it better than anyone. I’m not going to excuse what I did in the past. At best, I might be able to explain it. But this doesn’t seem to me the right time to do that. I beg you to believe that I have some very important things to say even though, as you said, I don’t have the best of credentials.’
‘Why do you want this?’
Russell was aware that the answer he gave was a crucial one.
‘I could give you a whole list of reasons. But what I really want is to stop being a coward.’
Silence fell in the room.
The captain looked him in the eyes for a long time. Russell held his gaze without any difficulty.
‘We could hold you as a suspect in the homicide of Ziggy Stardust.’
‘Of course you could, but I don’t think you will.’
To make these words seem less presumptuous, he decided to be a little more specific.
‘Captain, I’m not a vulture. If I’d wanted a scoop I’d have gone to the New York Times, however difficult that might have been for me. But, believe me, that would have thrown the whole city into total panic. And I haven’t the slightest intention of playing with the lives of thousands of people. Because that’s what’s at stake here…’
He paused briefly, looking from one to the other.
‘The lives of thousands of people.’
He had repeated that last phrase to make sure the idea was as clear to them as it was to him. Then he reinforced it with a statement that was as difficult to say as it was to accept.
‘If what I’m thinking is correct, Saturday’s explosion is only the first in a long series.’
He got to his feet and took a few steps around the room.
‘For a whole series of reasons, one of which is pure chance, I’ve chosen Detective Light and you to tell this to. But it’s not my intention to keep any information to myself that could save the lives of so many people. I could go to the FBI, but I think it’s best if everything starts here, in this room.’
He came back to the desk, put his hands on the desktop and leaned slightly towards the captain.
It was his turn now to look the other man in the eyes.
‘All I want is your word that you’ll let me follow the investigation at close quarters.’
Russell knew there was a long-standing rivalry between the various investigating bodies. And he knew the biggest was between the NYPD and the FBI. Captain Bellew seemed like a good cop and a good man. But he was still a human being. The idea that his precinct could solve this case and get the credit for it had to weigh heavily with him.
The captain pointed to the chair. ‘Sit down.’
Russell did as he was told. Captain Bellew waited until he was seated before speaking.
‘All right. You have my word of honour that, if what you have to say is of interest to us, I’ll let you follow the investigation. But if I find you’ve made us waste our time, I’ll personally kick you down the stairs.’
A pause. They looked at each other to seal their pact – and accept its possible consequences.
The captain motioned to Vivien, who had been silent so far, listening to the conversation from her position next to the desk. Russell realized that from now on she would be leading the way.
Which was what she did.
‘What’s your connection with Ziggy Stardust?’
‘For reasons of my own, I was at his place on Saturday afternoon.’
‘What kind of reasons?’
Russell Wade shrugged. ‘You know me. And I think you know Ziggy and what he did. For now, can I just say the reason doesn’t matter?’
‘Ziggy lived in a basement apartment. When I got to his place and turned the corner at the bottom of the stairs, I saw a man in a military jacket start up the stairs at the other end of the corridor. He seemed to be in a hurry. I thought he was a customer of Ziggy’s who couldn’t wait to get out of there.’
‘Would you be able to recognize him?’
Russell was favourably impressed by the young woman’s transformation. She had gone from being a mere spectator to being the person who asked the questions, and it was clear she knew her business.
‘I don’t think so. I didn’t see his face. He was of average build, I’d say. He could have been anyone.’
‘What did you do then?’
‘Ziggy’s door was open, and I went in. He was still alive, but there was blood all over him. On his pants, on the front of his shirt. It was even coming out of his mouth. He was trying to stand up and get to the printer.’
The captain interrupted at this point. ‘The printer?’
Russell nodded. ‘That’s what he did. I also wondered why. He grabbed hold of me and pressed a button on the printer. There was this orange light flashing, like when there’s no paper and the machine goes on stand by.’
‘With his last strength he took the sheet of paper that had just been printed and put it in my hand. Then he slid to the floor and died.’
Russell paused a moment. Neither of the two police officers said or did anything to make him continue.
‘When that happened, I panicked. I stuffed the paper in my jacket pocket and ran out. I know I should have called the police, but I was scared. I thought the killer might come back. When I got home, I saw the explosion on the Lower East Side from the windows of my apartment and everything else went out of my mind. Once I’d calmed down a bit, I remembered the paper in my pocket and took a look at it. It was a photocopy, clearly part of a longer letter, because it begins and ends in mid-sentence. It’s handwritten, and quite difficult to read with all the bloodstains on it.’
Once more, Russell paused. When he spoke again, his tone was that of a man who couldn’t, in spite of everything, quite believe what had happened.
‘I had to read it twice before I realized what it meant. And when I did realize, I felt as if the whole world had come crashing down on my head.’
‘What on earth was in it?’
Russell Wade put his hand in the inside pocket of his jacket, took out a sheet of paper folded in four, and held it out to Vivien. ‘Here it is. This is a photocopy of the original. Read it for yourself.’
Vivien took it, opened it and started reading. By the time she got to the end, her face was white and her lips drawn. Without a word, she passed the paper to the captain.
and that’s why I left. So now you know who I am andwhere I’m from, just as you know who you are. As yousee, my story didn’t take long to tell, because after awhile not much happened to me. But it was difficult totell, because it was difficult to live through. During mylife, I couldn’t pass anything on to anyone. I preferred tokeep my resentment and hate to myself. Now that thecancer has done its work and I’m on the other side, I canpass something on to you, the way every father should doto his son and I should have done a long time ago butcouldn’t. I never had much money. All I had, minus thefuneral expenses, is here in the envelope, in thousand-dollar bills. I’m sure you’ll make good use of it. All mylife, before and after the war, I worked in the construction industry. When I was young and working for a manwho was like a father to me, I learned to use explosivesfor demolition. The army taught me the rest. All the timeI was working in New York, I hid bombs in many of theplaces I helped to build. TNT and napalm. I learnedabout napalm the hard way. I’d have liked to be the oneto blow them up, but seeing as how you’re reading thesewords it means life, and my lack of courage, decidedotherwise. In this letter I’ve put the addresses of thebuildings that have been mined and instructions on howto blow them up in my place. If you do that, you’ll beavenging me. Otherwise I’ll just be one of the manyvictims of the war who never had the consolation ofjustice. I recommend you learn the addresses and thetechnical details by heart and then destroy this letter.The first building is on the Lower East Side, on 10thStreet at the corner of Avenue D. The second
That was where the letter ended. The captain, too, was white by the time he had finished reading. He put the sheet of paper down, put his elbows on the desk, and hid his face in his hands. His voice was muffled as he made one last attempt to convince himself that what he had just read wasn’t true.
‘Mr Wade, you could have written this yourself. How do I know this isn’t another of your hoaxes?’
‘The TNT and the napalm. I checked. Nobody mentioned it, either on TV or in the newspapers. I assume they don’t yet know about it. If you can confirm that was the cause of the explosion, I think that’s sufficient proof.’
Russell had said this to Vivien, who was pale and didn’t seem able to speak. All three of them were thinking the same thing. If what was written in the letter was true, it meant they were at war. And the man who had started this war had, on his own, the power of a small army.
‘And there’s another thing. I don’t know how useful it might be.’
Again Russell Wade put his hand in the inside pocket of his jacket. This time he took out a bloodstained photograph. He held it out to the detective.
‘Along with the paper, Ziggy gave me this.’
Vivien took the photograph and stared at it for a moment or two. A kind of electric shock seemed to go through her.
‘Wait a moment. I’ll be right back.’
She disappeared into the corridor, barely leaving Russell and Captain Bellew time to wonder what she was up to. There was only one flight of stairs between the captain’s office and her desk, so it didn’t take her long to pick up the yellow folder and get back. She closed the door and approached the desk.
‘A couple of days ago, during demolition work at a site on 23rd Street, a body was found inside a cavity wall. According to the ME, it had been there for about fifteen years. We didn’t find any significant clues, apart from one thing.’
Assuming that the captain already knew most of this, Russell realized that Detective Vivien Light’s presentation was for his benefit. That meant she was respecting their pact.
‘On the ground next to the body,’ she continued, ‘we found a document holder containing two photographs. Here they are.’
She gave the captain the black and white enlargements that were in the folder. Bellew examined them for a few moments. When Vivien was certain he had digested them, she passed him the photograph Russell had shown her.
‘And this is what Ziggy gave Mr Wade.’
As soon as he saw it, the captain couldn’t stop himself crying out, ‘Holy fucking shit!’
He continued looking from one photograph to the other for what seemed like for ever. Then he leaned across the desk and held them out to Russell. In one, there was a young man in uniform standing in front of a tank: an image that looked as if it dated from the Vietnam war. In the other, the same young man, in civilian clothes, was holding a big black cat up to the camera, a cat that seemed to have one leg missing.
Now Russell knew why Detective Light had behaved the way she had, and why the captain was so surprised. The young man and the cat in the photograph found next to a body that had been dead for fifteen years were the same as those in the photograph Ziggy Stardust had put in his hands before dying.
Ever since Father Michael McKean had opened his eyes, those three words had been echoing in his head as if they were on some kind of endless tape loop. Up until last night there had still been, somewhere inside him, a small hope that it was all the ramblings of a madman, ramblings that hurt no one but the madman himself. But reason and instinct, which were usually in conflict, told him it was all true.
And in the sunlight everything seemed clearer and more final.
He remembered the end of that strange conversation in the confessional, when the man, after making that terrible declaration, had changed his tone and become soft spoken, conspiratorial, uttering words of menace in a voice that artfully combined guilt and innocence.
‘Now I’m going to stand up and leave. And you won’t follow me, or try to stop me. If you did, the consequences would be very unpleasant. For you and the people who are dear to you. You can trust me on that, just as you can trust everything I’ve said.’
‘Wait. Don’t go. At least tell me why-’
The voice interrupted him, once again firm and precise. ‘I thought I’d made myself clear. I have nothing to explain. Only announcements to make. And you’ll get them before anyone else.’
The man continued with his ravings as if they were the most natural thing in the world.
‘This time I reunited darkness and light. Next time, I will bring together earth and water.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘You’ll understand, in time.’
The voice was full of a calm, inexorable menace. Terrified that he would disappear at any moment, Father McKean asked him a last desperate question.
‘Why have you come to me? Why me?’
‘Because you need me more than anyone else. I know that.’
There followed a silence that, coming from a man who claimed to be the master of eternity, seemed infinite. Then he uttered his final words. His farewell to a world that was doomed.
‘Ego sum Alpha et Omega.’
The man stood up and left, almost noiselessly, a rustle of green beyond the grille, a glimpse of a face in the semi-darkness. Father McKean sat there alone, breathing with difficulty but devoid of fear, because what he was feeling was so big and so nameless it left no room for anything else.
He left the confessional white faced, and when Paul came to find him he was startled by his pained look.
‘What’s the matter, Michael, aren’t you feeling well?’
He didn’t see any point in lying. In any case, after what had happened he really didn’t have the strength to celebrate the noon mass. Mass was a moment of joy and togetherness, and the thoughts he had inside him could only contaminate it.
‘No. To tell the truth, I don’t feel well at all.’
‘Okay. Go home. I’ll take the service.’
Paul had had some visitors from outside the parish, and he found him a ride back to Joy. A man Father McKean didn’t know introduced himself as Willy Del Carmine and pointed to a large car. He could barely remember the colour. For the whole of the brief journey he was silent, looking out the window, emerging from his thoughts only to give directions to the driver. He didn’t even recognize the road he had travelled along a thousand times.
When he was in the forecourt, hearing the noise of the car as it drove away, he realized he had not even thanked or said goodbye to the man who had been so kind as to give him a ride.
John had been in the garden when he saw the car pull up, and now he joined Father McKean. He was a man of uncommon sensitivity and a keen ability to read people’s moods.
Father McKean knew he would realize something was wrong. He had already sensed it in the tone of his voice when he had phoned from Saint Benedict to say he was on his way back. As if to confirm the opinion he had of him, John approached him now as if afraid he was being intrusive.
‘Everything all right?’
‘Everything’s fine, John. Thank you.’
His colleague did not insist, confirming another of his qualities, discretion. They knew each other too well by now. He knew John was confident that, when the time was right, his friend Michael McKean would open up to him. He wasn’t to know how different things were this time.
The problem was insoluble.
And it was the source of an anguish he had never felt before. In the past he had talked with other priests who had been told about crimes in the confessional. Now he understood their turmoil, their sense, as human beings, that they were in conflict with their roles as ministers of the church they had chosen to serve.
The seal of the confessional was inviolable. That was why it was forbidden to betray anyone who unburdened himself there.
Such a violation was not permitted even where the confessor’s life or other people’s lives had been threatened. The priest who violated the secrecy of the confessional would be automatically subject to the excommunication known as latae sententiae, which could be lifted only by the Pope. And that was something the Holy Father had rarely done over the course of the centuries.
If the sin confessed was a criminal act, the confessor could suggest or demand of the penitent, as an indispensable condition for absolution, that he hand himself in to the authorities. That was all he could do, though: he certainly couldn’t inform the police himself, not even indirectly.
There were cases where part of the confession could be revealed to others, but always with the permission of the person involved and always without revealing his identity. This was valid for some sins that could not be forgiven without the authorization of the Bishop or the Pope. All this, however, supposed one crucial thing. The request for absolution was dependent on repentance, or the desire to free the soul from an unbearable weight. In this particular case, Father McKean was dealing with neither.
A man had declared war on society.
Destroying buildings, claiming victims, sowing grief and despair. With all the determination of the God who, in his madness, he claimed to be, the God who had destroyed cities and wiped out armies in the days when the law was still based on an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
After that tentative conversation in the forecourt with John, he headed for the kitchen to avoid having to explain himself further. As far as he could, he put on his best mask and went in the house to have lunch with the kids, who were pleased to have him with them for their little Sunday feast.
Not everyone was fooled. Mrs Carraro for one. And in the hubbub of laughter and comments and jokes around the table, a couple of the kids realized something was up. Katy Grande, a seventeen-year-old girl with a funny freckled nose, and Hugo Sael, a boy who was particularly sensitive to the world around him, looked at him every now and again with a questioning air, as if wondering where the Father McKean they knew was hiding.
In the afternoon, while most of them were in the garden enjoying the sunshine, Vivien and Sundance joined them. If Sundance was unhappy at the turn of events that had forced the authorities to postpone the concert, she didn’t show it. She was quite calm, and seemed happy to be back at Joy.
She and her young aunt appeared much more united than the day before when Vivien had come to fetch her. All the embarrassment there had been between them seemed to have vanished. It looked as if their uneasy relationship had taken a completely new direction.
This impression was confirmed when Vivien, in words that were close to euphoric, told Father McKean what had happened with her niece, and about their new-found, hard-won intimacy and togetherness.
Now, in the light of a new day, he realized how unresponsive he had been to that enthusiasm. He hadn’t been able to stop himself asking the detective about the tragedy on 10th Street and its consequences and implications, trying almost obsessively to find out if the police had a lead, an angle, any idea about who might have committed that atrocity. He had barely been able to suppress the temptation to take her aside and tell her what had happened, what he knew.
Now he realized that he’d had all the answers he was going to get, given that this was still an ongoing situation and that whatever information Vivien might have, as a police officer, was strictly confidential.
They both had their secrets. And both were duty bound to keep them. They had both taken vows to that effect, one secular, the other religious.
Ego sum Alpha et Omega …
Father McKean looked out the window at that green and blue spring landscape that usually filled him with a sense of peace. Now he found it almost hostile, as if winter had returned, not because of anything external, but because of the eyes with which he was now looking at it. After he had got up from his bed like a sleepwalker, he had taken a shower, dressed and said his prayers with a new fervour. Then he had walked up and down the room, barely able to recognize the objects around him. Poor, familiar things, everyday objects that, even though they represented the everyday difficulties of his life, seemed all at once to belong to a happy time that was now lost for ever.
There was a knock at the door.
‘Michael, it’s John.’
Father McKean had been expecting him. They usually met on Monday mornings to discuss the week’s activities and objectives. Whatever the difficulties, it was a gratifying time, which confirmed them in their commitment to achieve the aims the small community of Joy had set itself. But today John entered with the air of someone who would have liked to be in another place and time.
‘Sorry to bother you, but there’s something I absolutely have to discuss with you.’
‘No bother. What’s going on?’
Given their familiarity and mutual respect, John decided to start with a little preamble. ‘Mike,’ he said, ‘I don’t know what’s happened to you, but I’m sure you’ll tell me in due course. And I’m sorry to be troubling you now.’
Yet again, Father McKean was made aware of John Kortighan’s great tact and how lucky he was to have a man of his calibre on the staff.
‘It’s nothing, John. Nothing important. It’ll pass, trust me. But tell me what’s on your mind.’
‘We have a problem.’
At Joy there were always problems. With the kids, with the money, with members of staff, with the temptations of the outside world. But judging by John’s face, this was a particularly tricky one.
‘I had a word with Rosaria this morning.’
Rosaria Carnevale was a parishioner at Saint Benedict, of Italian extraction, who lived in Country Club but ran a branch of the M &T; Bank in Manhattan, which handled the community’s financial interests and administered Barry Lovito’s estate.
‘What does she say?’
What John said next was something he had hoped never to have to say. ‘She says that while this case has been going on, she’s bent over backwards to keep sending us the monthly allowance, as laid down in our charter. But now, after a petition by Mr Lovito’s presumptive heirs, she’s received another court order. All payments are suspended until the dispute has been resolved.’
This meant that until the judge had pronounced, apart from the contribution by the state of New York, the community would lose its main source of income. From now on, Joy would have to rely for its general needs on its own resources and on spontaneous offers from people of goodwill.
Father McKean again looked out the window, silent and pensive. When he spoke, John Kortighan heard the unease in his voice.
‘How much do we have in reserve?’
‘Little or nothing. If we were a company, we’d be bankrupt.’
The priest turned with a small, colourless smile on his lips. ‘Don’t worry, John. We’ll manage. As we always have done. We’ll manage this time, too.’
But although his words might be full of confidence, there was little trace of it in his tone of voice. It was as if he had said these words more to delude himself than to convince the person he was talking to.
John felt the cold wind of reality gradually take possession of the air in the room.
‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll leave you now. We’ll talk about the other things later. They’re minor in comparison with what I’ve just said.’
‘Yes, John, you can go. I’ll be with you soon.’
‘Okay, then. I’ll wait for you downstairs.’
Father McKean watched as his right-hand man left the room and gently closed the door behind him. He didn’t like the fact that John felt so bad about the situation, but what really hurt him was the feeling that he, Michel McKean, had disappointed him.
Iam God …
He wasn’t God. He had no wish to be. He was only a man conscious of his earthly limits. Up until now he had been content to serve God as best he could, accepting everything that was offered him and everything that was asked of him.
He picked up the cellphone from the desk and after a brief search in the address book dialled the number of the archdiocese of New York. He waited impatiently as the phone at the other end rang a few times. When at last a voice answered, he identified himself to the switchboard operator.
‘I’m Father Michael McKean from the parish of Saint Benedict in the Bronx. I’m also the director of Joy, a community that takes in teenagers with drug problems. I’d like to talk to the archbishop’s office.’
Usually his introductions were much more concise, but he had preferred to emphasize his status to make sure his call was put through immediately.
‘One moment, Father McKean.’
The switchboard operator put him on hold. A few moments later another voice came on. A young, polite voice.
‘Hello, Father. I’m Samuel Bellamy, one of Cardinal Logan’s colleagues. How can I help you?’
‘I need to speak to His Eminence as soon as possible. In person. It’s a matter of life and death.’
He must have conveyed his own distress very effectively, because there was genuine regret in the tone of the answer, as well as a hint of anxiety.
‘Unfortunately, the cardinal left this morning for a short stay in Rome. He’ll be meeting with the Holy Father, and won’t be back before Sunday.’
All at once, Michael McKean felt lost. A week. He’d hoped to be able to share his burden with the archbishop, to get some advice or instruction. A dispensation was far too much of a miracle to even think about, but the consolation of a superior’s opinion was vital to him right now.
‘Can I do anything, Father?’
‘Unfortunately not. The one thing I can ask is that you make sure I get an appointment with His Eminence as soon as possible.’
‘As far as it’s in my power to do so, I guarantee I will. And I’ll contact you personally at your parish to let you know.’
‘I’m very grateful.’
Father McKean hung up and sat down on the edge of the bed, feeling the mattress yield under the weight of his body. For the first time since he had decided to take his vows, he felt alone. And as someone who had always taught love and forgiveness, for the first time he felt like asking God, the only true one, why He had abandoned him.
Vivien left the precinct house and walked towards her car. The temperature had dipped. The sun, which had seemed unassailable in the morning, was now battling it out with a west wind that had appeared without warning. Clouds and shadows struggled for possession of the sky and the earth. That seemed to be the preordained fate of this city.
She found Russell Wade exactly where they had arranged to meet.
Vivien still didn’t have a clear idea of the man. Every time she had him pinned down, some new, unexpected aspect of him surfaced to muddy the picture she was building in her mind.
And that bothered her.
As she approached him, she went over the whole crazy story in her mind.
When, at the end of the meeting in the captain’s office, the three of them had realized that there was nothing more to say, Vivien had turned to Wade and said, ‘Could you wait for me a moment outside, please?’
The unfortunate winner of an undeserved Pulitzer Prize had stood up and walked to the door.
‘No problem. Goodbye, captain, and thank you.’
There was a formal politeness in Bellew’s reply belied by the tone in which the words were said.
‘Don’t mention it. If this thing leads to what we’re hoping for, there’ll be many people who’ll want to say thank you to you.’
Including the editor of some newspaper …
The man went out, gently closing the door behind him, and leaving her alone with her chief. Her first impulse was to ask him if he’d gone crazy, promising what he’d just promised to a guy like Russell Wade.
‘What do you think, Alan? This story of the bombs, I mean.’
‘I think it sounds crazy. I think it sounds impossible. But since 9/11 I’ve realized that the limits of what’s crazy and what’s possible have gotten a whole lot wider.’
Tacitly agreeing with him, Vivien tackled another subject. The one that worried her the most. The weak link in the chain.
‘And what do you think of Wade?’
The captain shrugged. Which could mean everything or nothing.
‘For the moment he’s given us the only lead we have. And we’re lucky to have one, whatever the source. In normal circumstances I’d have kicked that daddy’s boy out of here. But these aren’t normal circumstances. Nearly a hundred people have died, and there are other people out there who don’t know the risk they’re running right now of meeting the same fate. As I said during the meeting, we have a duty to explore every avenue. Besides, that business of the photograph is strange. It turns what looked like a routine case is something of vital importance. And it seems genuine. Only reality could be fantastic enough to create a coincidence like that.’
Vivien had often thought the same thing. A thought her experience seemed to endorse a little more every day.
‘Do we keep this information to ourselves?’
Bellew scratched his ear, as he often did when he was thinking. ‘For now, yes. I don’t want to run the risk of spreading panic or having every local politician and every police department in the country laughing behind my back. It’s always possible the whole thing could burst like a soap bubble, though I don’t think it will.’
‘Do you trust Wade on that? It’s as clear as daylight that he’s looking for a scoop.’
‘He already has one. And that’s why he won’t talk. Because it’s not in his interest. We won’t either, for the same reason.’
Vivien asked for a confirmation of what she already knew. ‘Does that mean I have to take him with me from now on?’
The captain spread his arms as if acknowledging the inevitable. ‘I gave him my word. And I usually keep it.’
As if everything had been said on that matter, it was the captain who changed the subject this time.
‘I’m phoning the 67th immediately to have them send you the file on the investigation into this Ziggy. If you think it’s worth it, you can also search his apartment. How about the guy in the wall, who seems to be a major player in this all of a sudden? Do you have any ideas?’
‘Yes. I have a lead. Not a big one, but it’s a start anyway.’
‘Good. Let’s get down to work. And whatever you need, you only have to let me know. For the moment, I should be able to give you what you want without having to spill the beans to anyone else.’
Vivien didn’t find that hard to believe. She knew that Captain Alan Bellew boasted an old friendship with the Police Commissioner, and unlike Elisabeth Brokens wife of Charles Brokens, he wasn’t just boasting.
‘Okay. I’m going.’
Vivien turned to leave the office. When she was at the door, about to leave, Bellew called her back.
‘Vivien, one last thing.’
With a sly smile, he had looked her in the eyes.
‘As far as Russell Wade is concerned, remember this, if you need to. I gave him my word of honour.’
A pause for emphasis.
Vivien left the room with the same smile on her lips. She found Russell Wade standing with his hands in his pockets in the little room where he had waited some time earlier.
‘Here I am.’
‘Tell me what to do, detective.’
‘If we have to spend a little time together, you can call me Vivien.’
‘Okay, Vivien. What happens now?’
‘Give me your cellphone.’
Russell took his phone from his pocket. Vivien was surprised it wasn’t an iPhone. In New York, every VIP had one. Maybe Wade didn’t consider himself a VIP or maybe he’d used his as a chip in a poker game.
Vivien took the phone and dialled her own number. When she heard it ring, down below on her desk, she hung up and gave the phone back to its owner.
‘There. My number’s in the memory. Just outside this building, on your left, is a silver grey Volvo. That’s my car. Go to it and wait for me.’ She loaded the following sentence with sarcasm. ‘I have things to do and I don’t know how long I’ll take. I’m sorry, you’ll just have to be patient.’
Russell looked at her. A film of sadness passed over his eyes, the same sadness Vivien had caught in them a few days earlier.
‘I’ve been waiting more than ten years. I can wait a little while longer.’
He turned his back on her and left. Standing at the top of the stairs for a few moments, feeling slightly perplexed by him, Vivien watched him descend and disappear on the floor below. Then she descended the stairs in her turn and went back to her desk. Along with her excitement at the importance of the task that had fallen into her hands, the impact of the words she had read in that letter had not gone away. Crazy words carried on the wind like poisonous seeds, which had somehow found the right soil in which to grow. Vivien wondered what kind of suffering the man who had left that message had endured and what kind of sickness afflicted the man who had received it, if he had decided to accept his inheritance and carry out his father’s posthumous revenge.
The limits of what’s crazy have grown wider …
Maybe in a case like this, it would have been more correct to say that the limits had been completely abolished.
She sat down at her desk and connected to the police database. She typed in the words ‘the only flag’ and waited for the results. Almost immediately, a photograph of a man’s bare back appeared on the screen, bearing a tattoo exactly like the one found on the dead body. It was the emblem of a group of bikers based in Coney Island who called themselves the Skullbusters. There were other photographs: members of the group who had been in trouble with the law. Next to the name of each one, their offences were listed, large and small. The photographs seemed quite old and Vivien wondered if any of them was the person who had rested for years in the foundations of a building on 23rd Street. It would be the greatest of ironies. But she wouldn’t have been too surprised. As the captain had pointed out earlier, their work relied a lot on coincidence. The fact that photographs of the same young man and the same cat had been found in two places so distant in time and space was tangible proof of that.
As she was noting down the address of the bikers’ meeting place, the file on the Ziggy Stardust case arrived by email from the 67th precinct. Bellew had wasted no time. Vivien now had all the available material on her computer: the ME’s initial findings, the report drawn up by the detective in charge of the case, and the photographs taken at the scene of the crime. She zoomed all the way in on one photograph taken from the angle that interested her. There, clearly visible, was a red mark on one of the buttons of the printer, a red mark, as if someone had pressed the button with a bloodstained finger. Something else to support Russell Wade’s story.
The other photographs showed the body of a slightly built man lying on the floor covered in blood. Vivien looked at them for a long time without feeling the slightest pity: the bastard had got what he deserved. For what he had done to her niece and God knew how many other kids. Not for the first time, she was forced to realize how much personal involvement changed your perspective on things.
Vivien took the remote control from her pocket and opened the car doors automatically. By the time Vivien got in, Russell Wade was busy putting on his seatbelt. As she observed him, she caught herself thinking that he was a handsome man. She immediately called herself a fool. None of this was putting her in a good mood.
He looked at her expectantly. ‘Where are we going?’
‘To do what?’
‘Wait and see.’
As the car slipped into the flow of traffic, Russell sat back in his seat and stared at the street in front of him. ‘Are you in some kind of state of grace today,’ he asked, ‘or are you always this talkative?’
‘Only with important guests.’
Russell Wade turned to her. ‘You don’t like me, do you?’
The words sounded more like a statement of fact than a genuine question. Vivien was pleased with such a direct approach. For the sake of their present and future relations, she expressed her opinion without beating about the bush.
‘In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t give a damn about you. People can do whatever they like with their own lives. Even throw them away, as long as they don’t harm anybody. There are a lot of people around who need help because they’ve got into trouble through no fault of their own. Anyone who’s adult and conscious and goes looking for trouble, as far as I’m concerned, can look after themselves. That isn’t apathy, it’s common sense.’
Russell Wade nodded eloquently. ‘OK. At least we know where we stand.’
Vivien swerved and pulled up at the kerb, provoking a reaction from the motorists behind her. She let go of the wheel and turned to Russell.
‘Let’s get one thing straight,’ she said. ‘You may have charmed the captain with that story about your redemption, but I’m not such a pushover.’
Russell sat looking at her in silence. His dark, apparently defenceless eyes made her think she was being made fun of. When she next spoke, it was with a harshness that was uncharacteristic of her.
‘People don’t change, Wade. We are what we are, and we all have our own place. However much we stray, we always come back to it in the end. And I don’t think you’re any exception.’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘You came to the precinct with a photocopy in your pocket of the sheet of paper Ziggy gave you. That means you still have the original, the one that’s stained with his blood. And in case we didn’t believe you and threw you out, you’d have used it to show to the FBI or the NSA or whoever.’
Vivien continued the onslaught.
‘If for any reason we’d asked you to empty your pockets we’d have found only the photocopy of a page you could have passed off as something you’d dreamed up. Passing off one thing for another seems like a speciality of yours.’
Her words did not seem to have fazed Russell. This was a sign either that he had amazing self-control or that he was used to it. In spite of her anger, Vivien leaned more towards the second of these hypotheses.
She grabbed the wheel, pulled away from the kerb, and resumed her journey to Coney Island. Russell’s next question took her by surprise. Maybe he, too, was trying to form an opinion of his travelling companion.
‘Detectives usually have partners. How come you don’t have one?’
‘Right now, I have you. And your being here reminds me why I usually work alone.’
After that curt reply, silence fell in the car. During the conversation, Vivien had driven the car downtown and was now crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. When they had left Manhattan behind them, Vivien tuned the radio to Kiss 98.7, a black music station. She drove the Volvo along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and then onto Gowanus.
Russell was looking out the window on his side. When a particularly rhythmical song came on, he started, perhaps without realizing it, to beat time with his foot. Vivien realized that this whole thing had fallen on her shoulders at a particularly difficult time. Sundance’s situation and Father McKean’s curious behaviour had affected her ability to think clearly and calmly. Or at least made her too harsh in her judgement.
As she parked the car on Surf Avenue in Coney Island she felt a slight pang of guilt.
‘Russell, I’m sorry for what I said earlier. Whatever your motives, you’re helping us a lot and we’re grateful to you for that. The other stuff, it’s not for me to judge. It’s no excuse, but I have a few personal problems right now, and I guess I’m not acting normally.’
Russell smiled, apparently impressed by her sudden openness. ‘It’s OK. I should understand better than anyone the way personal problems can influence our choices.’
They got out of the car and walked to the address that Vivien had pulled out of the file on the Skullbusters. It turned out to be a large Harley Davidson dealership, with a workshop for repairing and personalizing motorbikes. The place looked clean, efficient and businesslike, a long way from Vivien’s experience of bikers’ hangouts in the Bronx or Queens.
They went in. To their left was a long line of bikes, different models but all Harleys. To the right, a display of gear and accessories, from helmets to coveralls to mufflers. Facing them was a counter, from behind which a tall, sturdy man in a pair of jeans and a black sleeveless T-shirt emerged and came towards them. He had a black bandana, sideburns and a drooping moustache. As he approached, she realized the moustache was dyed, the bandana was probably there to cover a bald patch, and beneath his tan he must be well over seventy. On his right shoulder he had a tattoo of a Jolly Roger with the same words they’d found on the body walled up fifteen years earlier.
‘Hello. My name’s Vivien Light.’
The man smiled, amused. ‘Like in the movie?’
‘No, like in the police,’ she replied curtly and took out her shield. The fact that her name was similar to Vivien Leigh had bugged her all her life.
The man didn’t skip a beat.
A thick skin or an easy conscience,Vivien thought.
‘I’m Justin Chowsky, the owner. Is there something wrong?’
‘I believe this used to be the headquarters of a group of bikers called the Skullbusters.’
‘It still is.’ Chowsky smiled at Vivien’s look of surprise. ‘Things have changed a bit since the old days. We used to be a pretty wild bunch of guys. Some of us even had problems with the law. Me too, to be honest. Nothing big, you can check. A few joints, a few fights, a few benders too many.’
For a moment, he stared at one of the windows as if scenes from his youth were projected on it.
‘We were hotheads but we weren’t delinquents. The really heavy guys left of their own accord.’
He made a circular gesture with his hand, taking in both the space around them and his visible sense of pride.
‘Then one day, I decided to open this place. Before too long, we were one of the biggest centres for sales and personalization in the state. And the Skullbusters became a quiet group of nostalgic old men who still go around on bikes like they were kids.’
Vivien looked at Russell, who so far had kept back and hadn’t introduced himself. She liked that. He knew his place.
She turned her attention back to the man in front of her. ‘Mr Chowsky, I need some information.’
She took the man’s silence as consent.
‘About fifteen years ago, did a member of your group suddenly disappear without a trace?’
The reply came without a moment’s hesitation, and Vivien felt her heart swell with hope.
‘Mitch Sparrow?’ Vivien repeated the name, as if afraid it would immediately vanish from their memories.
‘That’s the one. Now let me see, it happened…’
Chowsky removed his bandana. Vivien had been wrong: he still had a full head of hair in spite of his age, although it was clearly dyed. He passed his hand through it, as if that would help him to remember.
‘It happened exactly eighteen years ago.’
Vivien noted that the date fitted the margin of error in the ME’s report. ‘Are you sure?’ she asked.
‘One hundred per cent. My youngest son was born a few days later.’
From the inside pocket of her jacket, Vivien took one of the two photographs she had brought with her, the one with the cat, and held it out to Chowsky.
‘Is this Mitch Sparrow?’
He did not even need to take it from her. ‘No. Mitch had fair hair and this guy’s dark. And anyway he was allergic to cats.’
‘Have you ever seen this person before?’
‘Never saw him in my life.’
For a moment, Vivien considered the implications of that statement. Then she did what her job required and continued with her questions. ‘What kind of a man was Mitch?’
Chowsky smiled. ‘When he first joined us, he was a fanatical biker. Took better care of his bike than his mother. He was a good-looking guy, too, but he treated women like Kleenex. You know, used them, then threw them away.’
Chowsky seemed to be the kind of person who loves the sound of his own voice. Vivien pressed him. ‘And then?’
Chowsky shrugged, as if to say: That’s life. ‘One day he met a girl who wasn’t like the others, and he fell for her. He spent less time with his bike and more time in bed. The girl ended up pregnant. So Mitch found a job and got married. We all went to the wedding. We were drunk for two whole days.’
Vivien didn’t have time for an old biker’s memories of drinking sprees. She tried to stick to the point. ‘Tell me about his disappearance. What happened?’
‘There’s not much to tell. One fine day he vanished. Just like that. His wife told the police. They even came and asked me questions. From the 70th Precinct, I think. But they never got anywhere. You know what the French say. Cherchez la femme.’
He seemed very pleased with himself for saying something in a foreign language.
‘Are you still in touch with his wife?’
‘No. For a while, when she still lived around here, she and my wife used to see each other from time to time. But a couple of years after Mitch disappeared, she found someone else and moved away.’ Chowsky anticipated the next question. ‘I don’t know where.’
‘Do you remember her name?’
‘Carmen. Montaldo, Montero, something like that. She was Hispanic. A tall woman, quite a looker. If Mitch did run off with another woman, then that was one of the dumbest things he ever did in his life.’
Vivien couldn’t tell Chowsky that this was one dumb thing Mitch probably hadn’t done. Though maybe he had done something even dumber, to end up inside a concrete wall.
She didn’t think she would get any more information from Chowsky for the moment. She had a name, she had a time period, she had a missing persons report filed by a woman called Carmen, Montaldo or Montero or something like that. Now she had to find that report and trace the woman.
‘Thank you, Mr Chowsky – you’ve been a great help.’
‘Don’t mention it, Miss Light.’
They left the man to his bikes and headed for the door. Just as they were about to leave, Russell stopped. He looked at her for a moment, unsure of his next step. Then he turned to Chowsky, who was now back behind the counter.
‘One last thing,’ he said, ‘if you don’t mind.’
‘What kind of work did Mitch Sparrow do?’
‘He worked in the construction industry. He was really good. He’d have become a site supervisor, if he hadn’t vanished like that.’
As soon as they were some distance from the shop, Vivien took out her BlackBerry and dialled the captain’s direct number. After a couple of rings, he replied.
‘Alan, it’s Vivien. I have something.’
‘I need you to run a really quick check.’
The captain could hear the thrill of the chase in Vivien’s voice, and it infected him. ‘Quicker than that, if I can. Go on.’
They were both experienced police officers. They both knew that a case like this was, more than anything, a race against time. And the man they were after had time on his side.
‘Write this down.’
Vivien gave the captain a couple of seconds to find pen and paper.
‘In all probability, the name of the guy in the wall is Mitch Sparrow. A witness has confirmed that he belonged to a group of bikers called the Skullbusters. They were based in Coney Island, on Surf Avenue. There should be a missing persons report filed with the 70th Precinct eighteen years ago by a woman named Carmen Montaldo or Montero. A couple of years later she found a new partner and moved to an unknown address. I need to trace her.’
‘OK. Give me half an hour and I’ll get back to you.’
‘One last thing. This Mitch Sparrow was a construction worker.’
That made the captain understandably excited. ‘Holy shit.’
‘Precisely. We’ll need to take a look at the union registers. Can you get someone on that?’
For a whole lot of reasons, most construction companies only used people supplied by the union. If Sparrow had been a construction worker, he had to have been a union member.
‘Consider it done.’
Vivien hung up.
Russell had been walking in silence beside her, listening to her end of the conversation. ‘I must apologize,’ he said.
‘For earlier, I mean. The way I butted in. It was instinctive.’
Vivien had in fact been taken by surprise by the question Wade had asked Chowsky, and had regretted the fact that she hadn’t thought of it first. But she was honest enough always to give credit where credit was due.
‘It was a good question, a really good question.’
Russell went on to explain his motivation, as if surprised by his own intuition. ‘It occurred to me that the reason this Sparrow guy ended up in a block of concrete must have been because he found out something he wasn’t supposed to know, or saw something he wasn’t supposed to see.’ He paused for reflection. ‘So I thought again about the letter I gave you.’
A shadow passed over his face, and Vivien was sure he was reliving the circumstances in which he had obtained that letter. She, too, remembered the words clearly, and could see the rough masculine handwriting.
All my life, before and after the war, I worked in theconstruction industry.
She finished Russell’s line of thought for him. ‘And you concluded there’s a strong likelihood the man who killed Sparrow and the man who wrote the letter are one and the same.’
By now they had reached the parking lot. On the other side of it, beyond a small row of trees, they could see the big tents of the amusement park and the skeletal outlines of the rollercoaster and the Parachute Tower. There weren’t many cars parked here, and it occurred to Vivien that Monday probably wasn’t the busiest day of the week for an amusement park, even on a beautiful if strange day like today.
She looked at her watch. ‘With all that’s going down I forgot about food, but now I’m starting to feel hungry. We have to wait for the captain to call back. How about a burger?’
Russell gave a vague, doubtful smile. ‘I’m not eating. But I can keep you company, if you like.’
‘Are you on a diet?’
The smile turned into an expression of unconditional surrender. ‘The truth is, I don’t have a cent on me. And my cards have been pretty much worthless for a while now. In the city there are places that’d give me credit, but here I’m in Comanche territory. Not sure how I’m going to survive.’
In spite of all she knew about Russell Wade’s erratic lifestyle, Vivien couldn’t help feeling sorry for him, a feeling that immediately relegated him to a place where he couldn’t cause trouble.
‘You’ve had it bad lately, I guess?’
‘Everyone’s feeling the pinch right now. You’re a police officer, you must know about that forger they arrested in New Jersey.’
‘He’s been making twenty-five-dollar bills, because these days he can’t make his costs back with just twenty-dollar bills.’
In spite of herself, Vivien burst out laughing. A couple of young black men dressed in strict hip-hop style who were crossing the parking lot turned to stare at them.
She looked Russell Wade in the eyes as if seeing him for the first time. Behind the look of amusement, she saw him as someone who was used to being on the margins, and she wondered if, after a certain point in his life, it hadn’t been something he’d chosen for himself rather than having it imposed on him by the world.
‘How about if it’s on me?’
Russell made a desolate gesture with his head. ‘I’m in no position to refuse. I admit I’m so hungry, you just need to give me a jar of mayonnaise and I could eat the tyres of this car.’
‘Come on, then. We still need those tyres. And standing you for lunch will cost me less than replacing them.’
They crossed the parking lot to the seashore. There was nobody on the beach, apart from a few people walking their dogs and a few indomitable joggers. The reflection of the sun and clouds on the water made for a magical interplay of air, light and shade. Vivien stopped to look at it, her face to the wind, the same wind that moved the waves and flecked them with foam. There were occasional moments in her life like this. Moments when, faced with the indifferent splendour of the world, she would have liked to sit down, close her eyes and forget everything.
And hope that everyone would forget her.
They continued along the boardwalk until they came to a stand selling hot dogs, souvlaki and hamburgers. The smell of the grilled meat, carried on the wind, had preceded and guided them. Next to it was a canopy with a wooden table and chairs under it, allowing customers to eat in the shade when the weather was hot and look out at the sea.
‘What would you like?’
‘Maybe a cheeseburger.’
‘One or two?’
Russell gave her a sheepish look. ‘Two would be great.’
Again, Vivien found herself smiling. There was no reason to, but this man seemed to have the ability at times to bring out her lighter side, in a way that could triumph over any mood.
‘Okay, little orphan boy. Sit down and wait for me.’
She went up to the counter and gave the order, while Russell sat down in the shade of the canopy. Vivien soon joined him, holding a tray with the food containers and two bottles of mineral water. She pushed the cheeseburgers towards Russell and ostentatiously placed one of the bottles in front of him.
‘I got this to drink. I assume you would have preferred a beer. But seeing as how you’re with me, we can both consider ourselves on duty, so no alcohol.’
Russell smiled. ‘A period on the wagon won’t do me any harm. I think I may have overdone it a bit lately…’ He left the sentence hanging, with all that it implied. Suddenly his expression and tone of voice changed. ‘I’m sorry about all this.’
‘Forcing you to pay.’
Vivien replied with a nonchalant gesture. ‘You’ll be able to pay me back with dinner. My choice. If this thing works out the way we hope, you’ll have a great story to tell. And great stories usually bring fame and money.’
‘I’m not doing this for the money.’
He had uttered these words in a low voice, almost casually. Vivien was sure he hadn’t spoken them only for her. In his mind, he was talking to someone else. Or maybe lots of people.
For a while they ate in silence, lost in their own thoughts.
‘Would you like to know the truth about The SecondPassion?’
Russell’s words had come suddenly, out of nowhere. Vivien raised her head to look at him. His face was turned towards the sea, his dark hair blowing in the wind. From the tone of his voice, she realized that this was an important moment for him. It was the end of a long journey, like coming home and at last seeing a face in the mirror you’re happy to call your own.
Russell did not wait for her to reply. He launched straight into his story, following the thread of a memory.
‘My brother Robert was ten years older than me. He was a very special person, the kind of person who makes everything he comes in contact with his own.’
Vivien decided that the best thing to do at a moment like this was to listen.
‘He was my idol. He was everyone’s idol: the school, girls, his family. He didn’t try to be, it was just the way he was. I don’t think I’ve often heard in anyone the kind of pride my father had in his voice whenever he talked about Robert.’
He paused, and in that pause was the fate of the world and the meaning of his life.
‘Even when I was around.’
Indirectly, words and images started to crowd into Vivien’s mind. As Russell continued with his story, voices and faces from her own life slotted right in beside his.
… and of course Greta has been made head cheerleader.Not because she’s my daughter, but really I don’t see whoelse, apart from her, could have …
‘I tried to copy everything he did, but he was inimitable. And he was crazy. He loved taking risks, putting himself to the test. He was very competitive. Looking back now, I think I know why. It’s because he was competing against himself.’
… Nathan Green? Greta, you mean that Nathan Green iscoming to pick you up tonight? I can’t believe it. Of all theboys at school, he’s the most …
‘Robert was unstoppable. He always seemed to be looking for something. And I think he found it when he became interested in photography. At first, it seemed to be just another of the thousand things he’d tried out, but it wasn’t long before he showed that he had a real talent. He had this innate ability to get to the heart of things and people with his camera. Looking at his photographs, you had the feeling he saw beyond the surface, that his eyes went further than most people’s.’
… you’re beautiful, Greta. And I don’t think there’s everbeen a more beautiful bride around here. In the whole world, I think. I’m so proud of you, my dear…
‘The rest is well known. His love of extreme situations led gradually to his becoming one of the best-known war reporters. Wherever there was a conflict, he was there. Anyone who questioned why the heir to one of the richest families in Boston was risking his life going around the world with a Nikon in his hand just had to look at the results. His photographs were published by newspapers all over America and around the world.’
… Police academy, you say? Are you sure? Apart from thefact that it’s a dangerous job, I don’t think…
With an effort, Vivien wiped the images from her mind, before Greta’s beautiful face appeared out of the past to remind her of the pain of the present.
She had interrupted Russell’s story with that simple question, although she couldn’t explain to him that she was asking it of both of them.
Russell said this as if only now remembering that he, too, had a place in the story he was telling. A place of his own, which he had sought for a long time to no avail. A shy smile appeared on his face, and Vivien realized that he was smiling at his own past naivety.
‘To copy him, I also started messing around with cameras. When I told my father I’d bought a few cameras, he looked like someone who sees his own money being thrown out the window. Robert, on the other hand, was really supportive. He helped and encouraged me in every way he could. And he taught me everything I know.’
Vivien noticed that, even though he had said he was hungry, he hadn’t finished even one of his two cheeseburgers. She knew from personal experience how easily powerful memories could take away your appetite.
As Russell continued, Vivien had the impression that this was the first time he had talked about these things to anyone. She wondered why he had chosen her.
‘I wanted to be like him. I wanted to show my father and mother and all their friends that I amounted to something, too. So when he left for Kosovo, I asked him to take me with him.’
So far, he had been looking away, but now he turned to her, with a new familiarity.
‘Do you remember the war in the Balkans?’
Vivien didn’t know that much about it. For a moment she felt embarrassed by her own ignorance. ‘More or less.’
‘At the end of the Nineties, Kosovo was an autonomous province of former Yugoslavia, with an Albanian Muslim majority, ruled with a rod of iron by a Serb minority that suppressed the separatists who wanted to join Albania.’
Vivien was fascinated by Russell’s voice, his ability to tell a story in such a way that he made the person listening part of it. It struck her that this might be his true talent. She was certain that, when this was all over, he would be able to tell a great story.
His great story.
‘It all started a long time ago. Hundreds of years ago, in fact. To the north of Pristina, the capital, there’s a place called Kosovo Polje. The name means ‘the plain of blackbirds’. At the end of the third century, there was a battle there between a Christian army composed of a Serbian and Bosnian coalition led by a man named Lazar Hrebeljanovic and an army of the Ottoman Empire. The Christians were wiped out. The Serbs in particular suffered enormous losses. After that defeat, a monument was built on the site that I think is unique in the world. It has a curse inscribed on it, wishing any Serb who doesn’t take up arms against the enemies of the Serbian people the loss of everything they possess, now and for ever. I’ve been there. Standing in front of that monument I realized one thing.’
He paused briefly, as if searching for the right words to sum up his idea.
‘Wars end. Hate lasts for ever.’
Vivien wondered if he was again thinking of the words of the letter and all they implied.
All my life, before and after the war, I worked in theconstruction industry …
‘Robert told me that in 1987 Slobodan Miloševic swore that no one would ever again lift a hand to a Serb. That declaration of intent turned him overnight into the leading light of the Serbian nationalist movement, and he became president. In 1989, exactly six hundred years after the battle of Kosovo Polje, he stood in front of that monument and made a warlike speech to more than five hundred thousand Serbs. That day, all the Albanians stayed home.’
Russell made a gesture, as if to hold time in his hand.
‘We arrived at the beginning of 1999 when the repression, and the fighting between the government and the Kosovo Liberation Army, had persuaded the international community to intervene. I saw things I’ll never forget. Things that Robert was so used to, he was quite impervious.’
Vivien wondered if Russell would ever be free of the ghost of Robert Wade.
‘One night, just before the NATO bombardment began, all the journalists and photographers were expelled. The reasons weren’t openly stated, but it was widely believed that they planned to carry out ethnic cleansing on a grand scale. The prefect of Pristina had summed it up by saying that he wished those who left a safe journey, but couldn’t guarantee anything to those who stayed. Some didn’t make that journey. And we were among them.’
Vivien ventured a question. ‘Are you sure Robert was really a brave man?’
‘I used to think so. Now I’m not so sure.’
Russell continued with his story, and there was both relief and strain in his voice.
‘Robert had a friend, Tahir Bajraktari, if I remember correctly, a schoolteacher who lived on the outskirts of Pristina with his wife Lindita. Robert gave him money and before leaving the city he hid us in his house, in a cellar that you reached through a trapdoor under a carpet, at the back of the building. We could hear the sounds of fighting outside. The Kosovo Liberation Army would attack, strike, and then vanish into thin air.’
Vivien had the impression that if she had looked deep in his eyes she would have seen the images he was reliving.
‘I was terrified. Robert did everything he could to calm me. He stayed with me for a while, but the call of what was happening outside was too strong to resist. A couple of days later, with machine-gun fire still echoing on the streets, he left our hiding place with his pockets full of rolls of film. That was the last time I saw him alive.’
Russell picked up the bottle of water and drank deeply from it.
‘When he didn’t come back I went out to look for him. Even now I don’t know how I summoned up the courage. I walked through the deserted streets. Pristina was a ghost town. The people had run away, leaving some of the houses with their doors open and the lights on. I reached the centre, and after a while found him. Robert was lying on the sidewalk, in a little tree-lined square, surrounded by other bodies. He had been hit in the chest by machine-gun fire, still clutching his camera in his hand. I grabbed the camera and ran back quickly to hide. I wept for Robert and I wept for myself, until I didn’t even have the strength to do that. Then the NATO bombardment began. I don’t know how long I hid there, listening to the bombs fall, without washing, rationing the food I had, until I realized that the voices coming from outside were speaking English. That was when I realized I was safe and came out.’
He drank again, greedily, as if the memory of his tears had dried every trace of liquid from his body.
‘When I managed to develop the photographs in Robert’s camera and took a look at them, I was struck by one shot in particular. I immediately realized that it was an exceptional photograph, the kind a photographer spends his whole life chasing after.’
Vivien remembered the image well. Everyone knew it. It had become one of the most famous photographs in the world.
It showed a man being hit by a bullet in the heart. He was wearing dark pants, but his chest and feet were bare. The impact of the bullets had made the blood spray out from him and at the same time had raised him off the ground. By some weird chance – the kind that could make a war reporter’s fortune – he had been caught by the camera with his arms outspread and one foot in front of the other, the body hanging in a position that recalled the figure of Christ on the cross. Even the man’s gaunt face, long hair and small beard fitted the traditional Christian iconography. The title of the photograph, The Second Passion,had come almost as a matter of course.
‘I got swept up in something I can’t explain. Envy, anger at Robert’s ability to capture the moment, ambition. Greed, maybe. I showed the photograph to the New York Times and told them I’d taken it. The rest you know. I won a Pulitzer Prize with that photograph. Unfortunately, the brother of the dead man had seen Robert taking it and told the newspapers. That’s how everyone found out the photograph wasn’t mine.’
He paused, before coming to a conclusion that had cost him ten years of his life.
‘And if I have to be honest, I’m not at all sure I was sorry.’
Vivien had instinctively placed a hand on Russell’s arm. When she realized, she pulled it away, hoping he hadn’t noticed.
‘What did you do after that?’
‘I survived by accepting any work I could find. Fashion articles, technical photographs, even weddings. Mostly I drew on my family’s money a few too many times.’
Vivien was searching for the right words to lift the burden of that confession from his shoulders, but just then her cellphone rang. She saw the name on the display: Bellew.
She took the call. ‘Hello, Alan.’
‘A real stroke of luck. I called the head of the 70th and asked him to run a check. When I asked him if he could put every man available on it, he thought I was crazy.’
‘I can imagine. Did they find anything?’
‘The woman’s name is Carmen Montesa. When she moved, she wisely went to the police and told them she was moving. We checked out the address. It’s in Queens, and we also have an active phone number registered to her.’
‘Alan, you’re quite a man.’
‘The first woman who told me that was the midwife who brought me into the world. Join the line. Keep up the good work, and stay in touch.’
Vivien stood up and Russell did the same. He had realized that the break was over and it was time to move.
‘Let’s hope so. For now we have the woman. Let’s take it from there.’
She wiped her mouth, threw the paper napkin on the table and headed for the car. Russell cast a melancholy glance at the food he had barely touched. Then he followed Vivien, leaving behind him a story that, however hard he tried, he suspected would never end.
Carmen Montesa loved numbers.
She had always loved them, since she was a little girl. At elementary school she was the best in her class. Working with numbers gave her a feeling of order, of peace. She liked putting them in little squares on the paper, each little graphic sign representing a quantity, placed side by side or in a column, all in her childish but precise handwriting. And, unlike many of her school friends, she found it a very creative subject. In her little girl’s mind, she had even assigned colours to numbers. Four was yellow and five was blue. Three was green and nine was brown. Zero was a clear, immaculate white.
Even now, sitting in her old leather armchair, she had a Sudoku magazine lying on her lap. Unfortunately not much had remained of those girlish fantasies. Numbers had become black marks on white paper in a periodical, nothing more. Over time, the colours had disappeared and she had discovered that, applied to the lives of people, zero wasn’t a nice shade.
She would have liked a different life. She would have liked to study, go to college, choose a subject connected with numbers that she could then make her career. Circumstances had decided otherwise.
In a movie she had seen once, one of the characters had said that life is very difficult in New York if you’re Mexican and poor. When she had heard that, she had agreed inside. Compared with most girls in her situation, she’d had one advantage: her beauty. And that had helped her a lot. She hadn’t had to compromise herself, although over the years she’d had to tolerate a few too many straying hands, a few too many bodies rubbing up against hers. There was just the one occasion when, to make sure of a place at nursing school, she had given the director a blow job. When she had seen her fellow students and noticed how many of them were pretty, she’d realized she hadn’t been the only one to take that particular entrance test.
Then Mitch had come on the scene.
She moved aside the magazine when she realized that a tear had fallen onto the Sudoku diagram. The number she had just written, the five, was now surrounded by a bluish halo, making it too round and too similar to zero.
It isn’t possible – after all these years I’m still crying …
Calling herself a fool, she put the magazine down on the low table beside her. But she let the tears come, and with them the memories. They were all she had left of a happy time, maybe the one true bright spot in her existence. From the moment she’d met him, Mitch had changed her life in every way.
There was before, and there was after.
With him she had found true love, discovered what love could be and do. He had given her the greatest gift in the world: he had made her feel loved and desired and a woman and a mother. All the things he had taken back from her when, from one day to the next, he had vanished into thin air, leaving her alone with a small son to raise. Carmen’s mother had always hated him. When it was clear that her son-in-law wouldn’t be coming back, she hadn’t made any overt comment, but the words Itold you so were written all over her face. Carmen had tolerated her veiled allusions because she needed her mother to look after the child when she was at work, but she had never agreed to go back to her parents’ home. She would spend her evenings in her – their – apartment with Nick, who was the spitting image of his father, reading stories and watching cartoons and leafing through biker magazines.
Then, one day, she had met Elias. He was a Chicano like her, an OK guy, who worked as a cook in a restaurant in the East Village. They had gone out together for a while, just as friends. Elias knew her situation – he was a gentle, respectful man, and it was obvious from a mile away that he was in love with her. But he had never asked her for anything, had never even tried to touch her.
She felt comfortable with him and they talked a lot. Nick liked him. She didn’t love him, but when he had suggested they live together, after much hesitation she had agreed. They had obtained a mortgage and bought a little house in a working-class area of Queens that Elias had insisted on putting in her name.
Carmen smiled through her tears at the memory of that tender, innocent man.
Poor Elias. They had made love for the first time in their house. He was gentle and shy and inexperienced, and she’d had to take him by the hand like a child and show him, step by step, how to please her. A month later she had discovered she was pregnant, and exactly nine months after their first night together Allison was born.
So then she had a family. A son, a daughter and a partner who loved her, all sitting together at the same table. She wasn’t with the man she secretly wished was still there, and this wasn’t the wildly happy life she’d known with Mitch. A quiet life was what it was, the kind that, when you had it and were content with it, made you realize you were starting to get old.
Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be her destiny to keep hold of a man.
Elias had gone, too, carried away by an acute form of leukaemia that had consumed him in a short time. She still remembered the grim expression on the face of Dr Myra Collins, an internist at the hospital where she was working then, who had taken her aside and explained what the results of the first tests meant. To Carmen’s ears, those clear, courteous words had already sounded like words of condolence.
And once again, she had been left alone. She had decided that was how she was going to live her life from now on. Alone with her children, just the three of them. Nick was a gentle, lovable boy and Allison a girl with a very strong character. Then one day Nick had confessed to her that he was gay. Carmen had already guessed that, but had been waiting for him to bring up the subject. As far as she was concerned, it changed nothing. Nick was and would always be her son. She considered herself a fairly intelligent woman and too much of a loving mother to allow a sexual preference to jeopardize the respect she had for him as a person. He had spent one whole afternoon talking about the humiliations he had suffered and the torments he had gone through before coming to terms with what he was, in a community where machismo was a way of life for most young men. Then he had told her that he and his companion would be going to live in the West Village.
Carmen stood up, went to the kitchen, took a sheet of paper from the roll on the worktop, and wiped her eyes. Now that she came to think of it, the full line spoken by the boy in that movie was that it isn’t easy to live in New York if you’re poor, Mexican, and gay.
She opened the refrigerator and poured herself a glass of apple juice.
Enough crying, she told herself.
She had shed sufficient tears in her life. Although Nick’s life hadn’t been easy at first, he was an assistant in a boutique in SoHo now, he was in love and he was happy. She, too, had a good job, she didn’t have too many money worries and for years she’d had a discreet relationship – no strings attached – with her boss, Dr Bronson. It could have been thought an acceptable life. True, Allison had turned from a lively child into a difficult teenager. Every now and again, without warning, she would stay out all night. Carmen knew she was with her boyfriend when he had his parents’ house to himself. Still, she would have preferred to be told when that happened. She was sure that, once they’d got past the inevitable generational conflicts, their relationship would get better with time. Over the years, Carmen had learned to understand people but, like everyone, she’d never really learned to understand herself or those she was emotionally involved with. Sometimes, she suspected that all her certainties about Allison were just self-delusion.
She was about to go back to her armchair and her Sudoku when the doorbell rang. She wondered who it could be. Her few friends rarely visited her without phoning first. And anyway, at this hour of the day they were all at work. She left the kitchen and walked down the corridor to the front door.
Framed in the glass-fronted door, visible through the blind, were the silhouettes of two people.
When she opened the door she found herself facing a determined-looking young woman, the kind who are always too busy to remember they’re also beautiful, and a tall man of about thirty-five, with dark hair, intense black eyes and two days’ growth of beard that gave him an engagingly bohemian look. If she were still young, Carmen thought, she’d have found the girl attractive enough to be considered a rival and the man sexy enough to be considered a quarry. But these were the foolish illusions of memory, a game she played with herself every time she met new people, whether young or old, but would never follow through on. At her age, she had no desire to play the game, because life had taught her how it was going to end in most cases. All things considered, it boiled down to numbers, yet again.
‘Mrs Carmen Montesa?’
The young woman held up her shield. ‘My name’s Vivien Light. I’m a detective with the 13th Precinct in Manhattan.’ She gave her time to check her photograph, then indicated the man beside her. ‘This is Russell Wade, my partner.’
Carmen felt a pang of anxiety. Her heart started beating faster, as always happened to her when she felt emotional. ‘What’s the matter? Is it Allison? Has something happened to my daughter?’
‘No, don’t worry. I just need to have a word with you.’
The relief was like balm to the soul. She was too excitable, she knew. She couldn’t help it – it was her nature. At work she was admirably cool and efficient, but when she went back to being a woman and mother she became vulnerable again.
‘All right,’ she said, relaxed now.
The young woman smiled and pointed inside the house. ‘I’m afraid this is going to take a while. Can we come in?’
Carmen stood aside, an apologetic expression on her face. ‘I’m sorry. I was so relieved, I forgot my manners. Of course you can come in.’
She held the door open. As the man passed her, it struck Carmen that he smelled nice. The woman, on the other hand, smelled of vanilla and leather. As she closed the door, she wondered what they would have thought of her if they could have heard what had passed through her mind.
She went past them and led them into the living room. She heard the young woman’s voice behind her.
‘I hope we’re not bothering you.’
Carmen was surprised that a police officer would apologize. Usually they were quite rude. Especially when they were gringos like these two and you were Hispanic. That was when she knew they hadn’t come to her house bearing good news.
They were all in the living room now. Carmen turned to look at the young woman so that she could see the words she was about to say weren’t simply said out of politeness.
‘No bother. Today’s my day off. I was enjoying a lazy afternoon.’
‘What kind of work do you do?’
As she was about to reply, she wondered why a half-smile had appeared fleetingly on the man’s face when he heard the young woman ask that question.
‘I’m a nurse. For a long time I worked at the Bellevue, in Manhattan. Now I’m the OR assistant to a plastic surgeon named Dr Bronson.’ She pointed to the couch behind the two visitors. ‘Please, make yourselves at home. Would you like anything? Coffee?’
She sat down in the armchair only after the other two had settled on the couch.
‘No thanks, we’re fine,’ the young woman said with a smile.
Carmen had the impression she was dealing with a person who, when she wanted, knew how to put other people at their ease. Maybe because she was usually that way herself. The man, on the other hand, seemed a bit more fidgety. He didn’t look like a police officer. He didn’t have that no-nonsense air they usually carried around with them as an emblem of their power.
She saw Vivien looking around, letting her gaze wander over the walls, the wallpaper, the kitchen counter glimpsed through the door to the right, the little dining room at the other end of the corridor. It was a quick but keen visual tour.
‘It’s very nice here.’
Carmen smiled. ‘You’re very kind and very diplomatic. It’s the house of a woman who lives on her salary. Really nice houses are different. But I’m fine here.’
She stopped and waited, looking intently at the young woman. Vivien realized that the pleasantries were over and she had to get to the reason for her visit.
‘Eighteen years ago you reported your husband, Mitch Sparrow, missing.’
It wasn’t a question – it was a statement. Carmen was caught off guard. Especially as she’d only just been thinking about Mitch. In addition to which she would never have imagined that the story was still of any interest to anyone else but her.
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘Can you tell us what happened?’
‘There isn’t much to tell. One day he left home and never came back. I waited until it was dark, and then late at night I called the police.’
‘And what did they find out?’
‘He’d been at work, as always. He’d left the site where he was working at the usual hour, but never came home. My husband was a construction worker.’
Carmen had the impression that the two of them already knew that last detail.
‘What kind of man was your husband?’
‘A very special person. When I met him all he thought about was his bike. And girls. But when we met it was love at first sight.’
‘No problems, no quarrels, nothing that might have made you think of-’
Carmen interrupted her. ‘Another woman, you mean?’
She had understood where the young detective was going with her question. Looking at her, she also had the impression she already knew the answer, that she had only asked the question because it was part of her job.
But Carmen thought it was important to tell her how things had really been between her and her husband. Especially after what she had been thinking before these two people arrived and dredged up the story.
‘Believe me, Mitch and I and were in love, and he was crazy about his son. I’m a woman and I know when a man is distracted by other thoughts. Desire is the first thing that goes. Mitch thought about no one but me, day and night, especially night. And I felt the same about him.’
As another woman, Carmen knew Vivien would understand what she was talking about. Indeed, the detective seemed satisfied with what she’d said and changed the subject.
‘Can you confirm that your husband had a tattoo on his right shoulder?’
‘Yes. It was a pirate flag. You know, with the skull and crossbones. There were words underneath it, but I can’t for the moment remember what they were.’
‘The only flag,maybe?’
‘That’s it. It was the symbol of those weird biker friends of his. We used to live in Coney Island and Mitch-’
‘Yes, we know about the Skullbusters,’ Vivien interrupted her, gently but firmly.
Carmen remembered that she had reported her husband missing to the 70th Precinct. She wondered what could have happened for the police to come here from a precinct in Manhattan.
‘Did your husband have any broken bones?’ the detective continued, in the same professional tone, forceful but at the same time reassuring.
‘Yes. He fell off his bike once. Broke his humerus and tibia, I seem to remember. That was how we met. He was admitted to the hospital where I worked. When he was discharged, he made me write my phone number on the plaster. We spoke often on the phone and when he came back to take off the armour, as he called it, he asked me out.’
‘One last thing. Where was your husband working when he disappeared?’
Carmen made an effort to call up long-buried memories. ‘His company was renovating a building in Manhattan, around Third Avenue, I think.’
Vivien was silent for a moment, as if searching for the right words. There are words people say, it occurred to Carmen, which are like mathematical equations. However you change the order of the words, the result remains the same. What Vivien said next confirmed that fleeting thought.
‘Mrs Sparrow, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. We’ve found a body hidden in a cavity wall of a building on the corner of 23rd Street and Third Avenue. In the light of what you’ve just told us, we have reason to believe that it’s your husband.’
Carmen felt something come and go simultaneously, like a long-awaited wave that only makes the boat sway before sinking back into the open sea. In spite of what she’d said earlier, after so much time spent speculating, now that there was certainty tears started to run down her cheeks. She bowed her head and hid her face in her hands. When she looked up again, straight at Vivien, Carmen had the feeling they would be her last tears.
She got up and went into the kitchen. When she came back she had a pack of paper handkerchiefs in her hand. As she sat down, she asked the question that had suddenly occurred to her.
‘Do you have any idea who…’
Vivien shook her head. ‘I’m afraid not. That’s why we’re here, to see if we can get a clearer idea. Even identification is very difficult after all this time. We’ll only know for sure after the DNA tests.’
‘I have his pony tail.’
Carmen got up from the armchair. ‘I won’t be a minute.’
She walked across the room and out into the corridor, where there was a door beneath the stairs. She knew where what she was looking for was kept. She remembered everything to do with her only husband.
Her only man.
And there it was, when she opened the door, a trunk full of things low in price but big in value. She snapped open the lock and lifted the lid. What she was looking for was on top of everything else, wrapped in a light cloth. She took out the package, removed the cloth, and looked at the object for a moment. There was a bitter taste in her mouth, the taste of the tenderness this strange relic aroused in her. She also took out an old photograph, from around the period when Mitch had disappeared.
Then she went back to the living room and showed her two visitors what she had brought with her. It was a dark wooden frame inside which, lying on a green cloth under glass, was a braid of fair hair.
Carmen smiled at the memory.
‘When Mitch started work,’ she said, speaking with the same clarity with which she was reliving the episode, ‘he cut his hair, which he used to wear in a pony tail. Before he did that, I gathered it into a braid and had it framed as a souvenir. You can take this. If you can find any of the bulbs, you can get DNA from hair.’ Then she handed Vivien the photograph. ‘And this is a photograph of my husband. One of the last.’
Carmen saw a hint of self-satisfaction on Vivien’s face. She had noticed that, all this time, the man had remained silent, looking at her intensely with those dark eyes that seemed to dig deep inside her. She had told herself that, of the two, the woman was the one who called the shots.
Vivien took the photograph and placed it beside her on the couch. ‘A couple more things, if you don’t mind.’
She took an object from the inside pocket of her jacket. She held it out and Carmen saw that it was a document holder.
‘Did this belong to your husband?’
Carmen took it in her hands and examined it carefully. ‘No, I really don’t think so. It isn’t his style. He only had things with the Harley brand name on them.’
‘Have you ever seen this person?’
Carmen looked at the photograph Vivien handed her, a photograph of a dark-haired young man and a big black cat posing for the camera.
As Vivien put the objects back in her pocket, Carmen had the impression that what she had just said had disappointed the detective but not surprised her.
‘As far as you know, did anything strange, anything out of the ordinary ever happen in your husband’s work? Anything he may have told you about, maybe not thinking it was that important.’ She gave Carmen time to think, then said to encourage her, ‘For obvious reasons I can’t tell you anything, but I want you to know that it’s extremely important.’
There was a hint of sadness in her tone, which conveyed a sense of anxiety to Carmen.
She thought it over for a while, then made a resigned gesture with her hands. ‘No. Mitch may have been wild in the past, but we led a quiet life. Every now and again he saw his old friends, the Skullbusters I mean, but apart from a couple of nights when he came back home with a few too many beers under his belt, he was a hard worker, always did what he was told. At home he didn’t talk much about his work. He played with Nick all the time.’
Vivien was about to reply when they were interrupted by the noise of a key in the lock and the front door opening. They stopped talking and listened to footsteps in the corridor that seemed more eloquent than words. Carmen’s daughter appeared in the doorway of the living room.
She had short hair made spiky with gel, heavily made-up eyes, purple lipstick and black half-gloves on her hands. Her jeans seemed a couple of sizes too big for her and she had on a short T-shirt that left her pierced navel exposed.
She didn’t seem surprised to find her mother in the company of two strangers. She looked smugly at the strangers, then at her mother.
‘You didn’t have to call the cops. You know I always come back.’
‘They have cop written all over their faces,’ the girl said, more bored than upset, and looking away as she put her key in her bag. ‘You think I was born yesterday?’ Then she looked at her mother again. ‘Anyway, the bad girl’s come home again, so your two bloodhounds can go back where they came from. And tell them if they don’t have a search warrant, they can’t take anything from this house, not even a tablecloth.’
Carmen saw a shadow descend over Vivien’s eyes. As if she already knew this situation, as if she had already lived through it before.
‘We aren’t here for you,’ Vivien said to Allison, forcing herself to be patient. ‘We’re here because we had some news for your mother.’
But Allison had already turned her back on them, as if the conversation didn’t interest her. She disappeared round the corner, leaving only the sound of her voice.
‘Who the hell cares?’ she said, as she climbed the stairs to her room. Before too long, cutting through their silence and embarrassment, the noise of a door being slammed came from upstairs.
Carmen didn’t know what to say. It was Vivien who spoke first. The scene she had just witnessed seemed to inspire a new familiarity in her.
‘Carmen, can I go up and say a few words to your daughter?’
Carmen was startled for a moment. ‘Yes, I suppose so.’
‘I’m afraid they may be rather rough words,’ Vivien added.
‘I see. Well, I don’t think they’ll do her any harm.’
Vivien stood up.
Carmen gave her a small, knowing smile. ‘First room on the right, at the top of the stairs.’
Vivien disappeared behind a corner, knowing that what she was about to say was something it was right to say to that person at that moment.
The man who had introduced himself as Russell assumed an expression of slightly forced irony. Up until now he had remained silent but when he spoke, his voice was exactly as Carmen had expected it to be.
‘Vivien is a very determined woman.’
‘So I see.’
‘And also very direct, when she wants to be.’
With a touch of self-satisfaction, Carmen agreed. ‘I’m sure she is.’
They sat there in silence until Vivien returned. She had not been gone for long. Calmly, she sat down again on the couch.
‘It’s done. She’ll have slightly red cheeks for the next few hours, but she ought to have understood the way things are.’
She took out her business card and placed it on top of the Sudoku magazine. Carmen saw her pick up the felt-tip that was next to it and write something on the back. Then she leaned towards her and held out the card.
‘This is my number. On the back is my cell number. If you remember anything connected with your husband, or have any more problems with your daughter, call me.’
Vivien took the frame and stood up, and Russell immediately did the same, a sign that their visit was over. Carmen walked them to the door. As they were about to leave, she placed a hand on Vivien’s arm.
‘Thank you. It’s something I should have done myself a long time ago, but thanks all the same.’
Vivien smiled and shrugged, downplaying what had happened. But at the same time there was a tiny gleam in her eyes. ‘Don’t mention it. Goodbye, Carmen.’
Carmen waited until they were at the foot of the steps and then closed the door. She walked back to the living room, thinking over the whole story.
Mitch, damn you, for however long it lasted I hope I madeyou realize how much I loved you …
She knew that the difficult part would come that night, when she had turned out the lights and found herself alone with her ghosts. For the moment she decided to switch on the TV and ask the world to keep her company.
When the screen lit up, there was a news item about Saturday’s explosion on 10th Street in Manhattan. The images of destruction reminded her of something. She leaped to her feet, ran to the door and opened it. Russell and Vivien were still outside on the sidewalk opposite, standing by a car, as if they had stopped to discuss the outcome of the visit.
She waved at them to attract their attention, and called out, ‘Vivien!’
The detective and her partner turned their heads in her direction.
‘What is it, Carmen?’
‘I just remembered something. It was a long time ago, and my memory-’
An excitable Vivien interrupted her with a touch of impatience in her voice. ‘Go on.’
Carmen was embarrassed. For the first time in her life she was playing a role in a police investigation, and she was afraid of looking foolish or saying something they would think was stupid.
‘I don’t know if this is important at all, but I just remembered that a long time ago the company Mitch worked for, Newborn Brothers, renovated a house on North Shore, Long Island. The house of an ex-soldier, I seem to remember. A major or a colonel, something like that.’
Vivien pressed her. ‘And?’
Carmen paused again, then at last came out with what she had to say. ‘About a year after the end of the work, the house blew up.’
Even though it was dusk and the light was dimming, Carmen saw, as clear as if it was day, the young detective’s face turn pale.
Through the car window Russell and Vivien saw Carmen Montesa slowly close the house door, a lonely desolate figure trying in vain to keep outside the door something that would surely get in through the window. At night and with teeth bared. A moment later Vivien had already picked up the car phone and was punching in the captain’s number. Sitting beside her, Russell counted three rings before the answer came.
Vivien came straight to the point. ‘Alan, we have something.’
The question that followed took Vivien by surprise. ‘Is Wade there with you?’
Vivien instinctively turned to look at Russell. ‘Sure.’
‘Can you put me on speakerphone?’
‘Good. Both of you need to hear what I have to say.’
Vivien was bewildered. She found this procedure highly unusual. Though of course this whole business was unusual. Even crazy. Then she told herself that, in line with the promise he had made, the captain must have decided to include Russell in their conversations. Or maybe he had something to say that particularly concerned him. Vivien pressed a button.
The captain’s voice came through the car speakers, loud and clear. ‘Tell me what you have first.’
Vivien updated the captain on their progress. ‘I’m almost sure the guy in the wall is this Mitch Sparrow I told you about. I may even have something that can be used as the basis for a DNA test. But we have to move quickly.’
‘Let me have what you’ve got, and consider it done. Anything else?’
Russell was fascinated by the laconic but clear way the two police officers communicated. They spoke the same language, which they’d learned by experience.
‘Years ago,’ Vivien continued, excited, ‘Sparrow worked for a small construction company called Newborn Brothers. His wife just told me. They did renovation work on a house at North Shore, Long Island. And listen to this: apparently the house belonged to an ex-soldier and one year after the end of the work it blew up. According to the experts it wasn’t an accident, but a bomb. What do you think?’
‘I think you found yourself a good lead.’
Vivien continued, certain that her chief was taking notes at the other end. ‘We have to check out Newborn Brothers and the company that did the building on the Lower East Side, and look through the personnel records, if they still exist. See if there was anyone who worked on both buildings. And find out the names of the heads of the company.’
‘I’ll get the men on it straight away.’
The captain changed tone. Now it was his turn to update them.
‘I’ve been moving in the meantime. I had a talk with Commissioner Willard. A private talk, if you know what I mean.’
‘When I showed him the letter, he almost jumped out of his chair. But, as I expected, he distanced himself and started to stall. He said he thought it was a pretty slim lead, though of course we can’t rule out anything. He wants to have the letter examined by a criminologist or a psychologist, but someone outside the police or the FBI. Someone who’ll keep it hush-hush, obviously. He’s looking at a list of names. He agreed that for the moment we should proceed with caution, keeping it strictly between ourselves, as agreed. It’s a tricky situation for everyone. People have died. Others may be in danger. As far as we’re concerned, we may end up praised to the skies, or we may be out on our ears. I’m talking about us, Vivien.’
Russell had the impression that Vivien had expected these words. Her only reaction was to say, ‘Received.’
‘Wade, can you hear me?’
Russell instinctively moved his head into the area he supposed the microphone to be. ‘Yes, captain.’
‘I didn’t tell the commissioner about our arrangement. If anything gets out before this thing is over, your life will be worse than your worst nightmares. Do I make myself clear?’
‘Very clear, captain.’
This meant that from now on their lives were inextricably linked, for better or worse. When Vivien next spoke, it was in a calm, detached voice. Russell admired her self-control, something he himself was quite lacking in.
‘Good. We’ve established that. Any other news?’
The captain’s tone retuned to being the professional tone of a police officer examining the elements of an investigation. The emotional break was over. They were getting back to work.
‘The good news is that, if we need it, we have the whole of the NYPD at our disposal. And the power to drag anyone from their beds at any time of the night, starting with the commissioner.’
There was a noise of papers being leafed through.
‘I have here in front of me the results of the first tests. The experts think they’ve identified the kind of primer used. It’s a simple but very ingenious device, which emits a series of radio impulses at different frequencies and in a specific sequence. Given all the radio waves in this city, this stops the mines from exploding at a chance signal.’
Russell had a question that had been nagging at him since this crazy story had started. He again intervened in the conversation.
‘The building that blew up was built some years ago. How come the bombs were still working after all this time?’
That question was one that the captain must also have asked himself, because he let out a sigh before answering. In spite of his experience, it was a small mark of his incredulity at the genius of madness.
‘No batteries. The son of a bitch connected the primer to the building’s current. It may be that in the course of years some deteriorated and are no longer active, but God knows how many places the man put that shit.’
There was a strange sound, and for a moment Russell was afraid that they had been cut off. Then Bellew’s voice again spread through the car.
‘You’re doing great work, guys. I wanted to tell you that. Great work.’
Vivien took over again and ended the conversation. ‘I’ll wait to hear from you, then. Call me as soon as you have anything.’
‘As fast as I can.’
Vivien hung up and for a few moments only the muted noise of the traffic competed with their thoughts in the silence of the car. Russell looked out at the street and the lights shining through the dark. On this day without memory, time had preceded them and the darkness had caught them almost by surprise.
It was Russell who spoke first, with words that reciprocated the trust Bellew had placed in him. ‘Do you want the original?’
Distracted by her thoughts, Vivien didn’t immediately grasp what he was saying. ‘What original?’
‘You were right when you accused me of coming to you with a photocopy of the paper I got from Ziggy. The real one I put in an envelope and sent to my home address. It’s a system he taught me. I think it’s in my mailbox right now.’
‘Where do you live?’
Russell was pleased that Vivien had made no other comment. ‘Twenty-ninth Street, between Park and Madison.’
Vivien drove in silence along Queens Boulevard and across the Queensboro Bridge. They emerged onto Manhattan at 60th Street, turned left onto Park Avenue and drove south, at the mercy of the traffic.
‘Here we are.’
Vivien’s voice reached his ears like a memory and Russell realised that he had dozed off. The car was now parked on 29th at the corner of Park, just across from his building.
Vivien saw him rubbing his eyes. ‘Are you tired?’
‘You’ll have time to sleep when this is all over.’
Without saying that what he was hoping for was not sleep, Russell took advantage of the green light and crossed to the other side of the street. When he got to the entrance to his building, he pushed open the glass door into the lobby. The building, like all those of a certain standing in New York, had the services of a doorman twenty-four hours a day. He approached the doorman behind his desk and was surprised, at this hour, to find Zef, the building manager, with him. Zef was a friendly man of Albanian origin, who had worked hard to get to his current position. Russell had always been on good terms with him. He was convinced that Zef, for all the dubious activities he’d been a witness to, was secretly his only fan.
‘Good evening, Mr Wade.’
Russell not only led a wild life, but was also a tad absent-minded. That was why, after losing several bunches, he always left his keys with the doorman. Usually whichever of them was on duty would hand them over as soon as he arrived, without even needing to be asked. The fact that this didn’t happen now told him that something unusual was going on. His suspicions aroused, Russell turned to his friend.
‘Hi, Zef. Have you lost the keys this time?’
‘I’m afraid there’s a problem, Mr Wade.’
The man’s words, not to mention his expression, made him even more suspicious. The thought that now crossed his mind wasn’t so much a conjecture as a certainty, but he asked the question anyway. ‘What problem?’
The man’s embarrassment was obvious on his face, in spite of which he had the decency to look him in the eyes. ‘A representative of Philmore Inc. came here today. With him was a lawyer bearing a letter from the executive director addressed to me. And one for you.’
‘And what was in them?’
‘The one addressed to you I didn’t open, obviously. I put it with the rest of your mail.’
‘And the other?’
‘The one addressed to me says that the company apartment in this building is no longer at your disposal. With immediate effect. So I can’t give you the keys.’
‘What about my things?’
Zef shrugged his shoulders in a gesture that meant: Don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player. Russell felt like laughing.
‘The person in question went up to the apartment and put all your personal effects into suitcases. They’re over there, in the storage closet.’
He seemed really upset by what had happened, and, given their relations in the past, Russell had no reason to doubt that he was genuine. In the meantime, the doorman had fetched the mail and placed it on the marble desktop. Russell recognized the logo of Philmore Inc. on an unstamped yellow envelope. He took it and opened it. When he unfolded the sheet of paper, he immediately recognized his father’s handwriting.
Any rope, however resistant‚ finally snaps if you pull on it too hard. Mine snapped some time ago. It was only your mother’s gentle soul that grabbed the ends and kept them joined, providing you – without my knowledge – with money and the apartment you’ve been living in until today. After your last stunt, I fear that even her strength is exhausted. She has found herself faced with a choice: whether to maintain relations with a man she married some decades ago and who in the course of time has given her a thousand proofs of his love, or with a son who is beyond redemption, a son who has never, even at the best of times, been anything but a severe embarrassment to this family.
The choice, although painful, was freely made.
To use language you can understand: From now on, kid, you’re on your own.
P.S. If you had the good taste to change the name you bear, it would be a gesture greatly appreciated by us.
As Russell put it, when he finished reading, ‘So my bastard of a father has kicked me out.’
Zef assumed a fitting expression, which even included an embarrassed half-smile. ‘Well, I would have phrased it differently, but that’s more or less the idea.’
For a moment, Russell was lost in thought. In spite of everything, he didn’t feel like blaming his father for his decision. On the contrary, he was surprised it had been so long in coming. He wouldn’t have given himself all that time.
‘It’s all right, Zef, it doesn’t matter.’
He took the envelopes from the desk and put them in the inside pocket of his jacket.
‘Can I leave the bags here for now?’
‘As you wish, Mr Wade.’
‘Good. I’ll pick them up later. And I’ll swing by every now and again to see if there’s any mail.’
‘You know I’m always pleased to see you.’
‘OK, then. Goodbye my friend.’
Russell turned and headed for the door.
Zef’s voice held him back. ‘One last thing, Mr Wade.’
Russell turned and saw Zef leave his post and cross the lobby. He placed himself between Russell and the doorman and said in a low, conspiratorial voice, ‘I assume your situation is a little precarious right now.’
Russell had always been amused by the man’s decorous language. This time was no exception.
‘I think that pretty much sums it up.’
‘Well, Mr Wade, if you’ll allow me…’
Zef held out his hand as if in farewell, and when Russell shook it he felt the thickness of a few banknotes in the palm of his hand.
‘Zef, look, I can’t-’
‘It’s only five hundred dollars, Mr Wade,’ Zef interrupted him, with a knowing look. ‘It’ll help you to keep going. Don’t repay me until you’re back on your feet.’
Russell withdrew his hand and put the money in his jacket pocket. He accepted it for what it meant. To him and to the person who had offered it to him so generously and so discreetly. At this major turning point in his life, the only tangible help he had received came from a near-stranger. He put a hand on Zef’s shoulder.
‘You’re a good man, my friend. I promise you’ll get it back. With interest.’
‘I’m sure I will, Mr Wade.’
Russell looked Zef in the eyes, seeing in them a sincerity and trust that he, for one, was very far from possessing. He turned his back on Zef and walked out onto the street. Here, he stopped for a moment to think again about what had just happened. He put his hand in his pocket to make sure it was all true, that people like that still existed.
At that moment, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a movement behind him. A hand reached out of the semi-darkness and grabbed his arm. He turned his head to the right and found himself confronted with a tall, solidly built black man, dressed all in black. On the other side of the street, a large dark car switched on its lights and pulled away from the kerb. It stopped in front of them and, at the same time, as if the two things had been synchronized, the back door opened. Instinctively Russell looked around, trying to figure out what was happening. His guardian angel thought he was looking to escape, and saw fit to underline the reality of the situation.
‘Get in the car. Don’t do anything stupid. It’ll be better for you, believe me.’
Through the open door, Russell saw the thick legs of a man sitting in the back seat. With a sigh he got in the car and sat down, while the big guy who had so politely invited him to get in took his place in the front.
Russell greeted the man who was sitting next to him in the tone of an Egyptian greeting a plague. ‘Hello, LaMarr.’
The usual sardonic smile played over the fat man’s lips. His well-cut suit couldn’t compensate for his graceless figure, nor did his dark glasses provide any kind of protection against his coarse-grained features.
‘Hello, photographer. You don’t seem yourself. Anything bothering you?’
As the car pulled away from the kerb, Russell turned to look through the rear window. If Vivien had seen what had happened, she hadn’t had time to intervene. She might be following them. But he hadn’t seen any other car move out from the kerb on the other side of Park Avenue.
He turned to LaMarr again. ‘What’s bothering me is that you’re still using the wrong deodorant. Sitting next to you would make anybody’s eyes water.’
‘Good joke. Give the man a great big hand.’
LaMarr was still smiling. He signalled to the man in the front, who leaned over and punched Russell in the face. For a moment, the noise of flesh on flesh was the only sound inside the car.
Russell felt a thousand hot little needles puncture his cheek. A yellow bulb danced in front of his eyes.
Nonchalantly, LaMarr put a hand on his shoulder. ‘As you can see, my boys have kind of a strange way of showing their appreciation of humour. Got any more jokes like that?’
Russell sank resignedly into his seat. In the meantime, the car had turned onto Madison and was now heading uptown. At the wheel was a guy with a bald head and the same build, Russell estimated, as the man who had just given him such tender loving care.
‘What do you want, LaMarr?’
‘I told you. Money. I’m not usually involved in collecting, but with you I want to make an exception. It’s not every day I get to rub shoulders with a celebrity, which is what you are. Not to mention the fact that you’re really pissing me off.’
With a nod of the head, he indicated the man who had just hit Russell.
‘It’d be a pleasure for me to sit in the front row and see you go a few rounds with Jimbo.’
‘There’s no point. Right now I don’t have your fifty thousand dollars.’
LaMarr shook his large head. His double chin wobbled slightly, shiny with sweat in the light from outside. ‘Wrong. You don’t seem any better at math than poker. It’s sixty thousand, remember?’
Russell was about to reply but held back. He preferred to avoid another encounter with Jimbo’s hand. His first experience of that hadn’t been one that left him feeling nostalgic.
‘Where are we going?’
‘You’ll see. Somewhere quiet, where we can have a man-to-man talk.’
Silence fell in the car. LaMarr didn’t seem inclined to give any further explanation. Russell didn’t need any. He knew perfectly well what was going to happen when they got to their destination, wherever that destination was.
In a short time, carried on the stream of lights and automobiles, the car reached an area of Harlem that Russell knew well. There were a couple of places here that he visited when he wanted to hear great jazz, and another couple of places, much less well publicized, that he visited when he had a bit of money in his pocket and felt like shooting craps.
The car stopped in a dimly lit street, in front of a closed shutter. Jimbo got out, opened the padlock and pulled the handle up. Lit by the car’s headlights, the metal wall rose to reveal a large, bare space, an L-shaped warehouse with a line of concrete pillars in the middle.
The car glided in through the entrance and the shutter came down again behind them. The car turned left round the corner and stopped at a slanting angle. A few moments later, a couple of bare dirt-encrusted bulbs hanging from the ceiling came on, spreading a dim light.
Jimbo opened the door on Russell’s side. ‘Get out.’
He took Russell’s arm in his iron grip and made him walk around to the other side. Russell had the pleasure of seeing LaMarr struggling to get out through the door. He avoided making any comment that would simply have earned him more of Jimbo’s brand of applause.
To their left was a desk with a chair. In front of it, another chair, a wooden one with a straw bottom. Despite the precariousness of the situation, Russell found the setting quite traditional. Clearly, LaMarr was a nostalgic.
Jimbo pushed him towards the desk and pointed at the top of it. ‘Empty your pockets. All of them. Don’t force me to do it myself.’
With a sigh, Russell put everything he had in his pockets on the desk. A wallet with the documents and letters, the five hundred dollars Zef had just given him, and a pack of cinnamon-flavoured chewing-gum.
The fat man walked to the chair behind the desk. He smoothed the collar of his jacket, took off his hat, sat down, and placed his fat forearms on the table. The rings on his fingers glittered as he moved. It struck Russell that he looked like a version of Jabba the Hutt.
‘All right, Mr Russell Wade. Let’s see what we have here.’
He pulled Russell’s things towards him. He opened the wallet, and threw it straight back down again as soon as he saw it was empty. Ignoring the envelopes, he picked up the banknotes and counted them.
‘Just look at that. Five hundred dollars.’
He leaned back in his chair, as if trying to recall something he remembered perfectly well.
‘So now you owe me sixty-five thousand.’
Russell didn’t think it wise to point out that only a little while earlier LaMarr had been demanding sixty thousand. In the meantime, his guardian angel had made him sit down on the chair in front of the desk and had taken up a standing position next to him. Seen from below, he looked even bigger and more threatening. The driver had got out of the car as soon as they had arrived and vanished through a door behind them, into what was probably a bathroom.
LaMarr ran his thick fingers through his short curly hair. ‘Now how do we go about paying the rest?’ He pretended to think.
It was clear to Russell that LaMarr was playing with him like a cat with a mouse, and savouring yet another demonstration of his own power.
‘I’m going to be generous. Seeing as how I’ve just collected, I’ll let you off another five hundred.’
He nodded toward Jimbo. The punch in the stomach arrived with impressive speed and a force that knocked the air out of Russell’s lungs, maybe out of the entire atmosphere. He felt acid rising in his throat, and bent forward, retching. A thread of saliva dropped from his mouth onto the dusty floor. LaMarr looked at him with a self-satisfied expression, the way you look at a child who’s done his homework properly.
‘So now there’s sixty-four thousand left.’
‘Right now, I’d say that should be enough.’
These words of Vivien’s, firm and confident, came from somewhere behind Russell. Three heads turned simultaneously in that direction, only to see a young woman emerge from the shadows into the pool of light cast by the bulbs. As if some spell had been broken, Russell started breathing again.
The fat man turned incredulously to Jimbo. ‘Who’s this fucking whore?’
Vivien raised her hand and aimed her gun at LaMarr’s head. ‘This whore is armed, and if the two of you don’t go stand against the wall with your legs wide apart, she might decide to show you how offended she is by your insinuations.’
The rest happened before Russell had time to warn Vivien. The door to the bathroom burst open and the man who’d been in there ran out and flung his arms around her chest, immobilizing her. Vivien’s reaction was instant.
Instead of trying to wriggle free, Vivien pressed her body against his, raised her legs and brought the heels of her heavy boots down on the tips of her attacker’s shoes. Russell distinctly heard the sound of his toes cracking. A strangulated cry, and the arms surrounding Vivien loosened their grip as if by magic. The man collapsed to the floor and lay on his side, cursing, his legs pulled up to his chest.
Vivien aimed the gun at him and looked defiantly at the other two men. ‘OK. Now who else wants to try?’ She gestured to Jimbo. ‘Are you armed?’
‘OK. Take out your gun with two fingers, lay it on the ground, and kick it towards me. Nice and slowly. I’m a little edgy right now.’
Keeping her eyes on Jimbo, Vivien bent over the man on the floor, frisked him with her left hand and took a big revolver from his jacket. She straightened up. A moment later, the other man’s automatic came sliding across the floor to her feet. She slipped the revolver into her belt and bent down to collect the new trophy from the floor. Then she turned and Russell saw her use the barrel of the gun to indicate the man lying on the floor to Jimbo.
‘Good. Now move slowly and lie down next to him.’
When she was sure she had the two men under control, she approached the chair where Russell was sitting.
‘Are you armed?’ she asked LaMarr.
‘I hope for your sake I don’t find out you’re lying.’
‘I’m not armed.’
Given that he was looking down the barrel of a gun, he might be telling the truth.
‘Can you stand?’ Vivien asked Russell.
His legs didn’t seem to want to obey him, and his stomach was tight with cramps. But somehow he managed to get to his feet and walk to Vivien. She handed him a big dark pistol and nodded at the two men on the ground.
‘Keep an eye on these two. If they move, shoot.’
‘I’d be glad to.’
Russell had never used a firearm in his life but the punch he’d had from Jimbo was a good incentive to start. And from that distance it was impossible to miss.
Vivien relaxed and turned to LaMarr, who had followed the scene with a certain apprehension from behind the desk.
‘What’s your name?’
The man hesitated, licking his dry lips before replying. ‘LaMarr.’
‘OK. This fucking whore is called Vivien Light and she’s a detective with the 13th Precinct. And she’s just been an eyewitness to a kidnapping. Which, as you know, is a federal offence. Now how much do you think it’s worth for me not to call the FBI and drop your name to them?’
LaMarr had realized where she was going with this. ‘I don’t know. How about sixty-four thousand dollars?’
Vivien leaned over and took from his fat, sweaty hand the dollars he was still clutching. ‘Let’s say sixty-four thousand five hundred and the deal’s done. And that’s the end of it. Do I make myself clear?’ She straightened up and put the money in the pocket of her jeans. ‘I’ll take your silence for consent. Let’s go, Russell. There’s nothing more to do here.’
Russell took the envelopes and the wallet from the desk and put them in his pocket. He took the pack of chewing-gum, looked at it for a moment and then put it down with exaggerated grace in front of LaMarr. ‘I’ll leave you this. In case you want to sweeten your breath.’ He smiled seraphically. ‘Use it wisely. It’s worth sixty-four thousand dollars.’
There was anger in the fat man’s eyes, and there was death. He joined Vivien, and they retreated in silence, shoulder to shoulder, keeping their eyes on the little group. They reached the shutter and Russell saw that Jimbo, when they had arrived, had not lowered it completely. That was how Vivien had managed to get in without making any noise.
This time she bent down and raised it.
Within a minute they were sitting in her car. Russell noticed that her hands were trembling with the drop in adrenaline. He wasn’t feeling much better. He consoled himself with the observation that not even someone trained in this kind of thing ever really got in the habit.
Russell tried to relax and find his voice again. ‘Thanks,’ he said.
The reply was a curt one. ‘Thanks my ass.’
He turned abruptly and saw that Vivien was smiling. She put her hand in her pocket, took out the five hundred dollars and gave it to him.
‘Part of this will go to pay the laundry. And I hope for your finances I haven’t ruined my jacket, rolling on the floor like that.’
Russell accepted this clear invitation to relieve the tension. ‘As soon as I can, I’ll buy you a whole shop full of jackets.’
‘Added to the dinner.’
Russell looked at her profile as she drove. She was young, strong and beautiful. A dangerous woman, seen from the wrong end of a gun barrel.
‘There’s something I have to say to you.’
Russell tightened his seat belt to stop the buzzer from sounding. ‘When I saw you coming around that corner…’
Russell closed his eyes and sank back in his seat. ‘It was like an apparition, like the Virgin Mary appearing to the faithful. From now on I’ll worship at your shrine.’
In the semi-darkness of his closed eyelids, he heard the sound of Vivien’s cool laughter. Then Russell felt things fading away and he, too, smiled.
The key turned in the lock, opened the door and disappeared again into Vivien’s pocket. She entered and switched on the light.
‘Come in, sit down.’
Russell entered, carrying a bag in each hand, and looked around. ‘It’s nice here.’
Vivien looked at him with a touch of self-satisfaction. ‘Do you want me to say what Carmen Montesa said when you made the same comment about her apartment?’
‘No, I mean it.’
He had expected to find an untidy apartment. Vivien struck him as a tough cookie, not at all the type you’d expect to be houseproud: not patient or meticulous enough. Instead of which the small apartment was a model of good taste in its furnishings, and full of an unusual attention to detail. There was something here he had never experienced before. Not the insane chaos of his own apartment, nor the antiseptic splendour of his parents’ house, but real love on the part of the occupant for the things she had around her.
He put the bags down, while continuing to examine the apartment. ‘Do you have a cleaning woman?’
Vivien was at the refrigerator, getting a bottle of mineral water. ‘I assume you’re kidding,’ she replied, with her back to him.
‘What do you mean?’
‘There aren’t many people in the NYPD who could afford a cleaning woman. Cleaners in New York are as expensive as plastic surgeons, and their work needs going over, too, though usually a whole lot earlier.’
As she poured herself a glass of water, Vivien indicated the two-seater couch facing the television. ‘Sit down. Would you like a beer?’
‘A beer would be good.’
He walked to the counter and took the bottle that Vivien had opened and pushed towards him. It wasn’t until he felt the cold liquid going down his throat that he realized how thirsty he was. He would carry the after-effects of Jimbo’s punch with him for several days. He walked towards the comfortable-looking couch, and as he did so noticed a picture frame of unusual design on top of a cabinet. In it there was a photograph of a woman with a girl of about fifteen. It was obvious at first glance that they were mother and daughter, so alike did they look. They were both very beautiful.
‘Who are they?’
‘My sister and my niece,’ Vivien replied, in a tone that suggested she had said all she had to say on the matter.
It seemed clear to Russell that there was some unhappy episode connected with these two people and that she didn’t want to talk about it. Rather than ask any more questions, he sat down on the couch and moved his hand over the bright leather upholstery.
‘Comfortable. And pretty, too.’
‘My ex-boyfriend was an architect. He gave me a hand choosing the furniture and decorating the apartment.’
‘And where is he now?’
Vivien gave a self-deprecating half smile. ‘He’s a good architect – let’s say he went on to other projects.’
‘How about you?’
Vivien spread her arms. ‘My personal ad goes something like this: Young woman, interesting job, single, not lookingfor anybody.’
Once again, Russell didn’t ask any more questions. All the same, he couldn’t help feeling pleased to hear that Vivien didn’t have anyone in her life right now.
She finished her glass of water and put it in the sink. ‘I think I’ll take a shower. Make yourself comfortable, watch television, finish your beer. You can have the bathroom after me, if you want to take a shower.’
Russell could feel the dust of centuries on him. The idea of warm water running over his body, washing away all trace of that day, made him quiver with pleasure. ‘OK. I’ll wait here.’
Vivien disappeared into the bedroom and came out a couple of minutes later wearing a bathrobe. She slipped into the bathroom and almost immediately Russell heard the water running. He couldn’t help imagining Vivien’s strong, agile body naked under the shower. The beer suddenly didn’t seem cold enough to reduce the heat he could feel rising inside him.
He got up and went to the window with its view of part of the Hudson. The evening was clear but there were no stars.
On the way back from Harlem, he and Vivien had exchanged their impressions of the events they had just been involved in. When she had seen him disappear inside the big sedan, Vivien had immediately realized that something was wrong. And when the car had headed out she had started to follow it, discreetly, always keeping two other cars between them but managing not to lose sight of it. When she saw the car turn onto a dead-end street, she pulled up to the kerb and quickly got out, in time to see the sedan disappear through the entrance to the warehouse. She went closer and saw that the shutter hadn’t been pulled all the way down. There was enough of a gap between the shutter and the ground to let her enter without attracting attention. Following the direction of the voices, she cautiously peered around the corner. She saw LaMarr sitting at his desk and the gorilla standing next to Russell. From her vantage point on Park, she had lost visual contact a couple of times because of the passing cars, and had assumed the gorilla was also the driver, which was why she hadn’t suspected that there might be a third man.
Then Russell told her what had happened in the lobby when he’d arrived home. He didn’t mind her smiling over his disinherited state. In fact, he smiled, too. And then he told her about Zef’s kindness in lending him five hundred dollars.
‘What will you do now?’
‘Find a hotel.’
‘Is the money I gave you back all you have?’
‘Right now I’m afraid it is.’
‘If you want somewhere decent, that money’s only going to last you a couple of days, and that’s being optimistic. I don’t want to be in the same car as a guy who sleeps in the kind of place you can afford.’
Deep down, Russell could only agree with her disconcertingly clear summary of his situation. He was forced to come clean. ‘I don’t have any choice.’
Vivien made a vague gesture. ‘There’s a sofa bed in the living room of my apartment. I don’t think we’re going to get much sleep in the next few days. If you really want to follow this story, it’s best you stay with me. I don’t want to be forced to look all over town to find you. If you can live with it, it’s yours.’
Russell did not hesitate. ‘It’ll be like staying at the Plaza.’
Vivien burst out laughing, and Russell wasn’t sure why. She hastened to explain. ‘Do you know what we call the cell at the precinct house where they put you when they arrested you?’
‘Don’t tell me. Let me guess. The Plaza, right?’
Russell accepted the joke. ‘Seems I can’t help being indebted to you right now. Mind you, being in debt to other people is something I’ve always been good at.’
Now, thinking back on it, Russell found the memory of that conversation quite comforting.
It was as if a kind of bond had been formed between them in the car. A reaction of the heart, a brief refuge from the knowledge that they were pursuing a killer who had already killed a hundred people and was getting ready to do it again.
He left the window and opened one of the bags he had brought with him. In it were his laptop and his cameras, the only things he considered sacred. Before coming to Vivien’s apartment, they had swung by the precinct house to leave the captain the frame containing Mitch Sparrow’s hair, and then gone on to 29th Street, where Russell had packed his bag from the things abandoned in the storage closet of what was no longer his home.
He took out the laptop checked his mail. There wasn’t much, and all of it predictable. Time Warner Cable explaining why they were cutting off his service, an agency explaining why he would soon be getting a letter from its lawyer and Ivan Genasi, a very good photographer friend of his – and the only person he didn’t owe money to – asking what had become of him. The other messages were all about missed payments or loans that hadn’t been repaid. Russell felt ill at ease. He had the feeling, as he read these emails, that he was violating the privacy of someone he didn’t know, so distant did he feel right now from the man who had inspired these messages.
He closed down his email and opened a new Word document. He thought about it for a moment, then decided to call the file Vivien, He started by noting down some of the thoughts that had occurred to him since this whole thing had started. In the absence of a notebook, he had been making mental notes every time something significant had emerged. Before too long, the words started to flow uninterruptedly, as if there was a direct connection between his thoughts and his fingers on the keyboard. He didn’t know, and didn’t really care, whether it was the story taking him over or him taking over the story. All that mattered was that sense of total possession he had while writing. By the time Vivien’s voice surprised him, he had already written two pages.
‘Your turn, if you want it.’
He turned and saw her. She had put on a light sweatsuit and flip-flops. She looked the picture of freshness and innocence. Russell had seen her react to an attack by a man three times her size and render him harmless. He had seen her hold other men at bay with a gun. He had seen her treat a slimeball like LaMarr as the dirt he was.
He had thought of her as a dangerous woman. And it was only now, when she looked completely defenceless, that he realized how dangerous. He turned and glanced at the picture frame on the cabinet, the photograph of the smiling woman and girl. Vivien’s natural place was with them, he thought. She was as beautiful as they were.
He turned his eyes away from the photograph and stared at her in such a way that she asked, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’
‘One day, when this is all over, you must allow me to photograph you.’
‘Me? You’re kidding, right?’ Vivien pointed to the photograph in the picture frame. ‘My sister’s the model of the family. I’m the police officer, the one who’s almost a man, remember? I wouldn’t even know what to do in front of a camera.’
What you’re doing now would be more than enough, Russell thought.
He realized that, much as she might protest, she had been pleased by his request. And what he saw on her face was not only surprise but an unexpected shyness, which it was possible she hid at other times by holding a badge in front of her.
‘I mean it. Promise me.’
‘Don’t talk crap. And get out of my kitchen. I left clean towels for you in the bathroom.’
Russell saved what he had written and went to get clean clothes from his bag. He slipped into the bathroom, where he found a pile of towels placed on a cabinet next to the washbasin.
It was only a detail, a trifle. But it made him feel at home all the same.
He stepped into the shower and let the water and foam wash away all the fatigue. After the business with Ziggy and then the explosion, he had felt truly alone for the first time in his life, totally inadequate to the burden that had been placed on him.
When he came out of the bathroom, Vivien was sitting in front of the laptop. She had opened the document named for her and was reading what Russell had written.
‘What are you doing?’
Vivien continued reading, without even turning her head, as if it was quite natural for her to open someone else’s computer. ‘What I should be doing as a police officer. Investigating.’
Russell protested, without a great deal of conviction. ‘This is a flagrant violation of privacy and press freedom.’
‘If you don’t want me to stick my nose in, then don’t give my name to a file.’
When she finished reading, she stood up and, without making any comment, walked to the kitchen counter. Russell noticed there was a saucepan on the boil, and a frying pan of red sauce next to it. Vivien increased the volume of the extractor fan, then pointed to the water, which was starting to boil.
‘Penne all’arrabbiata. Or spaghetti, whichever you prefer.’
Russell looked surprised.
‘I’m Italian,’ she said. ‘I know how to make it. You can trust me.’
‘Of course I trust you. I just wonder how you managed to rustle together a sauce in such a short time.’
Vivien threw the pasta in the saucepan and put the lid over it, to keep the steam in. ‘Is this your first visit to earth? Aren’t there freezers and microwaves on your planet?’
‘On my planet we never eat at home.’
Russell approached Vivien, who was on the other side of the counter. He sat down on a stool and looked curiously at the frying pan.
‘Actually, I’ve always been fascinated by people who can cook. I once tried boiling some eggs and managed to burn them.’
Vivien was still concentrating on the pasta and the sauce, undistracted by Russell’s little joke. ‘I keep asking myself who you really are,’ she said.
Russell shrugged. ‘An ordinary guy. I don’t have any particular qualities. I’ve had to make do with particular defects.’
‘You do have one quality. I read what you wrote. It’s beautiful. Convincing. It reaches out to the reader.’
This time it was Russell’s turn to be pleased with the compliment and not let it show. ‘Really? It’s the first time I’ve done it.
‘Really. And if you want to know what I think, then I’d add one thing.’
‘If you hadn’t spent your life trying to be Robert Wade, you might have discovered that his brother could be just as interesting.’
Russell felt something stir inside him, something he couldn’t give a name.
All he knew was that there was one thing he wanted to do. And he did it.
He walked around to the other side of the counter, took Vivien’s face in his hands and gently kissed her on the lips. For a moment she returned the kiss but then immediately put a hand on his chest and pushed him back.
Russell noticed that her breath was coming faster.
‘Hey, calm down,’ she said. ‘This wasn’t what I intended when I invited you here.’
She turned, as if to erase what had just happened. For a few moments she occupied herself with the pasta, leaving Russell a view of her back and the smell of her hair. Then she murmured a few words, under her breath.
‘Or maybe it was. I don’t even know myself. The one thing I know is that I don’t want complications.’
‘Neither do I. But if they’re the price to pay to have you, I accept them gladly.’
After a moment, Vivien turned off the hob and put her arms around his neck. ‘Then to hell with the pasta.’
She raised her head and this time the kiss wasn’t accompanied by hands pushing him away. Her body against his was exactly the way Russell had imagined it would be. Strong and soft, immature and ripe. As he moved his hand under her sweater and found her skin, he asked himself why here, why now, why her, why not before. Vivien continued kissing him as, with eyes closed, she drew him to the bedroom. The semi-darkness welcomed them, convincing them that this was the right place for them.
As he lost himself inside her, as he forgot names and people, Russell wasn’t sure if Vivien was the light before the dawn or a glow after sundown.
He knew only that she was like her name. Light, period.
Afterwards, they lay clinging together as if the skin of one was the natural clothing of the other. Russell felt himself slipping into the warmth of sleep and immediately shook himself, for fear of losing her. He realized that he must have fallen asleep for a few minutes. He reached out his hand and found the bed empty.
Vivien had gone to the window. He saw her against the light that filtered through the curtains, accepting the glow that came from outside in return for the prospect that her body offered him.
He got up and went to her. He embraced her from behind, feeling her lean body against his. She moved closer in to him, naturally, as if this was meant to be.
Russell put his lips on her neck and breathed in the scent of her skin, the skin of a woman after making love. ‘Where are you?’
‘Here. There. Everywhere.’ With a vague gesture, Vivien indicated the river beyond the window and the whole world.
‘And am I with you?’
‘I think you always have been.’
She added nothing, because there was nothing to add.
Beyond the window, the river flowed calmly. They were still standing there, looking out, exchanging the consolation of presence and fragments of regret, when all at once a blinding light appeared on the horizon and filled the spaces between the buildings opposite, imprinting them in the frame of the window like a photographic negative.
A few moments later, they heard the obscene, arrogant roar of an explosion.
‘We’re in deep shit.’
Captain Alan Bellew threw down the New York Times, adding it to the other dailies that already lay strewn over the desk. After the previous night’s explosion, all the newspapers had produced special editions. They were full of theories, conjectures, suggestions. All of them were asking what the police were doing to ensure the safety of the citizens. The television channels could talk about nothing else, pushing all other world events into the background. All eyes were on New York. Correspondents were arriving from all over the world, as if America was in a state of war.
The latest explosion had occurred after nightfall on the banks of the Hudson, in Hell’s Kitchen in a warehouse on Twelfth Avenue, near the corner with 46th Street, right next to the Sea-Air-Space Museum, where the aircraft carrier Intrepid was on display. The building had disintegrated. Fragments had hit the moored ship and damaged the planes and helicopters displayed on the bridge, like a tragic echo of the wars they had fought. The window panes in the neighbouring buildings had been shattered by the blast. An elderly man had died of a heart attack. The street had partly slid into the Hudson. For a long time, burning fragments had floated on the water. It had been a desolate scene. Only the late hour had prevented another major massacre. The death toll amounted to no more than twenty, plus an unspecified number of wounded, none of them seriously. A group of night birds, whose only fault was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, had been blown apart and their remains strewn over the asphalt. No trace had been found of the warehouse’s night watchman. Some passing cars had been struck by the explosion and flung away as tangles of crumpled metal. Others had not braked in time and had ended up in the river together with the detritus of the street. The passengers had all died. The firefighters had fought for a long time to bring the blaze under control and the crime scene team had started their investigations as soon as the place had become accessible.
They were expecting the results at any moment.
After a sleepless night, Russell and Vivien were in the captain’s office, sharing his feelings of frustration, his inability to defeat the man who was defying them in this way.
One invisible man.
Bellew finally stopped pacing about the room and sat down, although that didn’t make him any less restless.
‘There’s been a lot of phoning going on. The president, the governor, the mayor. Anyone with any authority in this country has grabbed the phone and called someone else. Who then called the commissioner. Who of course called me straight afterwards.’
Russell and Vivien waited in silence for him to finish.
‘Willard feels as if he’s sinking, and he’s dragging me down with him. He feels guilty for being too cautious.’
‘What did you say to him?’
Bellew made a gesture that seemed to say that the answer was obvious and at the same time far from obvious. ‘I told him two things. One, that we don’t know for certain that we’re pursuing the right lead. Two, that the more people who know about this the more likely it is that the news will get out. If it reached the ears of Al-Qaeda, we’d have a real disaster on our hands. We’d have a ruthless competitor searching for that list. Think what a field day they’d have if they found it. The city already mined, just waiting to be blown up. If it was common knowledge, New York would be a desert in the space of three hours. You can just imagine it. Clogged highways, fighting, people dispersed all over the fucking map.’
Vivien could well imagine the picture the captain had conjured up. ‘What are the FBI and NSA saying?’ she asked.
The captain rested his elbows on the table. ‘Not much. You know how close to their chests those people like to keep things. Apparently they’re still pursuing the terrorism angle. Which means there’s not too much pressure coming from over there. Not for the moment, anyway. That’s one good thing, I guess.’
Russell had been lost in thought throughout the conversation between Vivien and Bellew. Now he intervened.
‘The only thing linking us to the person who set the bombs is Mitch Sparrow. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no doubt he was the guy in the wall. Nor is there any doubt that the document holder with the photographs isn’t his, which makes it likely that it was accidentally left behind by whoever stuck the poor guy in the concrete. So the two photographs, the one with the cat and the one taken in Vietnam, have to show his killer. What I think happened is that Sparrow discovered what he was doing, and the man killed him to stop him talking.’
The captain thought this over. ‘So they were co-workers.’
‘Whether continuously or occasionally, I don’t know. One thing’s for sure. That they were working in the same place when Sparrow disappeared.’
Russell took another moment to think, as if putting his ideas in order. Vivien was fascinated by his degree of concentration.
‘The person we’re looking for is clearly the son of the man who planted the bombs. The father was a Vietnam veteran, who came back with huge psychological wounds. Many soldiers were transformed by the war. Some never lost the taste for killing, even when they got back to civilian life. My brother saw this many times.’
Vivien heard the ghost of Robert Wade in Russell’s voice, but without any sense of anxiety. She looked at him and saw a face she knew looking out at the world with different eyes. She felt her heart swell for a moment before thoughts of the immediate problems facing them gained the upper hand.
Russell had not noticed a thing. Clearly and rationally, he continued, ‘Unfortunately, if whoever wrote the letter and planted the bombs had mental problems, his son seems to have inherited them tenfold. I get the impression from that letter that he never knew his father, and only found out about him after his death. I wonder why.’
Russell paused, leaving that crucial question hanging.
As if granting them a pause for thought, the telephone on the desk started ringing. The captain reached out his hand and lifted the receiver to his ear.
He listened in silence to whatever the person at the other end was telling him. Vivien and Russell saw his jaw gradually clench. When he hung up, it was clear from the expression on his face that he would have liked to smash the telephone.
‘It was the head of the explosives team that’s been examining the debris on the Hudson.’
He paused, then said what they were all expecting to hear.
‘It’s him again. Same explosive, same kind of primer.’
Russell stood up, as if he needed to move after that confirmation.
‘Something just occurred to me. I’m no expert, but for this man to have decided to carry out what his father had planned, he has to be a sociopath or something like that, with all that that implies.’
He turned to look at Vivien and Bellew.
‘I’ve read that people like that usually develop compulsive patterns of behaviour. The first blast took place on Saturday evening. The second between Monday and Tuesday. Nearly two days later. If that madman has fixed that in his mind as the interval between one explosion and the other, we should have two more days to catch him before he decides to act again. I don’t even want to think…’
He left the sentence hanging. Then he concluded it, expressing in his tone all the gravity of the situation.
‘I don’t even want to think about what would happen if another explosion took place. Maybe in a building where thousands of men and women work.’
He had saved the worst hypothesis until last.
‘Not to mention that he might even decide to blow up all the buildings on the same day.’
Vivien saw the captain looking at Russell as if, in spite of everything, he was still wondering who this guy was and what he was doing in his office. A civilian discussing with them facts that according to the rules should have been confined to the police. The situation that had been created was absurd but had its own warped logic. The three of them were linked by a secret that must not be divulged at any cost, that it was in nobody’s interest to divulge.
Bellew stood up and leaned with his clenched fists on the desk. ‘We urgently need a name to put with those photographs. We can’t publish them with the words Who knows thisman? If he saw that, the son might realize we’re on to him, panic and start to blow up the buildings one after the other.’
Vivien realized that they were referring to these two unknown people as the father and the son. Absurdly, memories of her childhood welled up to underline the tragic irony of the situation.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the HolySpirit…
The image of herself, still a child, in a church with the scent of incense around her was erased by other images: buildings in flames and bodies being put in ambulances.
There was a knock at the door. Detective Tyler entered the office holding a file. His stubbled chin and generally dishevelled appearance indicated a sleepless night. When he saw Russell, a grimace of disapproval crossed his face for a moment.
Ignoring Russell and Vivien, he said, ‘Captain, I have the results you wanted.’
His tone was that of someone who had done hard, boring work and knew that it wouldn’t be recognized. The captain reached out his hand, took the file and looked through it quickly.
He spoke without raising his eyes from the paper. ‘OK, Tyler. You can go.’
The detective went out, leaving a trace of stale cigarettes and surliness in the room. Bellew waited for him to move away from the door, before informing Vivien and Russell of what he had just read.
‘I put a couple of three-man teams on it. Telling them as little as I could. This is what he have.’
He turned his attention back to the papers in his hands.
‘The house that blew up on Long Island belonged to an ex-soldier, a Major Mistnick. Apparently he served in Vietnam. That may not mean anything, but it’s curious all the same. The firm that built it was indeed a small company in Brooklyn, Newborn Brothers. The company responsible for the building on the Lower East Side on the other hand is called Pike’s Peak Buildings. And here we’ve had a real stroke of luck. Some time ago, the management hired an IT company to put all its data on computer. That means we can look at everything, even from years ago.’
‘That’s good news,’ Vivien said.
‘There’s more.’ There was no joy in the captain’s voice. ‘We need to look at the company that fixed up Twelfth Avenue and built the warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen, the one that blew up last night. It was a municipal contract, so the company must have used union labour, which means the data should still be available. We’ll proceed in the same way with the company that renovated the building on 23rd Street, where the body was found. If we can get hold of the names of the people who worked on those four sites, we can compare them and see if any coincide.’
Bellew passed his hand through his hair, maybe thinking that he was too old for his professional expertise to be put to the test like this.
‘It’s not much of a lead but it’s all we’ve got. I’ll ask the commissioner for backup, and put as many men to work on this as I can. I’ll tell them it’s a Code RFL.’
Russell frowned. ‘Code RFL?’
Vivien intervened with an explanation. ‘It’s a code that doesn’t exist but every police officer in New York knows. RFL stands for Run for Life. In police jargon it means those cases where speed is of the essence.’
She looked back at her chief.
‘I want you to talk to Newborn Brothers. If it was a small company, with not many workers, the direct contact may be more productive. Someone may remember something. While you’re on your way down, I’ll ask the switchboard to get the number. You can pick it up from the desk officers.’
Vivien stood up, glad to do so. As they left the office they heard Bellew’s voice: he was already on the phone, getting them what he had promised.
They walked downstairs. Russell was in front of her, and Vivien could smell his eau de cologne. She remembered his lips in the hollow of her elbow and his hand in her hair. Then she remembered the blinding flash and the thunderous sound that had abruptly pulled them out of the time and space they had carved out for themselves.
After the blast they had dressed quickly, saying nothing. They had gone into the living room and switched on the TV. After a few minutes’ wait, Channel One had interrupted its broadcasts with news of the attack. They had continued hopping from one channel to another as the news was updated minute to minute. The magic there had been between them had vanished, lost in the flames now leaping on the TV screen.
Bellew had sent them a text. A few words only: 7.30tomorrow in my office.
There wasn’t much more to say. Both she and the captain knew there was nothing they could do right now, except wait a few hours. The night had ended and the light through the windows had surprised her and Russell sitting on the couch, concerned and incredulous, close without touching, as if what they were seeing could come out of the screen and contaminate them.
As she descended the stairs, responsibility gripped her chest. The lives of so many people depended on her, on what she would do in the next few hours. It made her a little dizzy, and she was happy to reach the bottom of the stairs.
As soon as he saw her come through the door, a uniformed officer held a sheet of paper out to her.
‘Here it is, detective. It’s a cell number, if that’s OK. The man’s name is Chuck Newborn and he’s working on a big site in Madison Square Park.’
Vivien was grateful to code RFL, which was making everything move at a speed she wasn’t accustomed to.
They left the precinct house and walked to Vivien’s car. Silently they climbed in, both lost in their thoughts. After switching on the engine but before heading out, Vivien gave voice to hers.
‘Russell, about last night…’
‘I just wanted to say that I…’
‘I know. That you don’t want complications.’
That wasn’t what Vivien had meant to say. But Russell’s words and detached tone brought her up short, on the threshold of a place she could enter only if she was invited in.
‘That’s fine by me,’ he went on.
She turned to look at him but saw only the back of his head. Russell was looking intently out the window on his side. By the time he turned back to look at her, he was back in the present.
‘Traffic’s pretty heavy.’
Vivien put off any response to what he had said earlier in favour of more urgent priorities. ‘Now you’ll see how useful is to be a police officer.’
She took the flashing lamp and put it on the roof. The Volvo pulled away from the kerb and set off at speed.
They reached Madison Square Park after going west along 23rd street at a speed that had left Russell stunned.
‘You’ll have to lend me that gadget sometime.’
He had gone back to being the way Vivien had known him at the beginning. Ironic and detached, friendly and at the same time distant. She had to admit, with a touch of resentment towards herself, that the previous night had been a mistake, never to be repeated.
‘When this is all over, I’ll buy you a police car.’
They immediately saw the place they were looking for. To their left, facing the park, was a building under construction, not so high as to be called a true skyscraper, but with enough storeys to be imposing. There was all the activity of an anthill, in the swinging of cranes and the bustle of men with their coloured hard hats on the scaffolding.
Russell looked around. ‘It’s a recurring number. Everything seems to be happening on this street.’
‘What do you mean?’
He gestured to a point behind her. ‘We’re on 23rd street. Sparrow’s body was found on this street, only further east.’
Vivien would have liked to reply that in her work that kind of synchronicity was much more common than in the plots of movies. Most investigations stood or fell by the whims of fate and the thoughtlessness of human beings.
They parked the Volvo in front of the site. A worker wearing a yellow hard hat turned to them and protested, ‘Hey, you can’t park here.’
Vivien approached and flashed her shield. ‘I’m looking for Mr Newborn. Chuck Newborn.’
The worker pointed to a sheet-metal hut on the left-hand side of the building, near a large embossed terrace on the third floor. ‘You’ll find him in his office.’
Vivien led Russell towards the temporary white-painted construction. The door was open. They climbed the steps and found themselves in a room that was bare except for a desk and a chair. Two men were bent over the desk, studying a plan.
One of the two looked up. ‘Can I do something for you?’
Vivien approached the desk. ‘Mr Chuck Newborn?’
‘Yes, that’s me.’
He was a tall, bulky man in his early thirties, with sparse hair and clear eyes and the hands of someone who never shirks away from heavy work. He was wearing a worker’s reflecting jacket over a denim jacket.
Vivien flashed her shield again. ‘I’m Detective Light, 13th Precinct. This is Russell Wade. Can we talk to you for a moment?’
The man looked both puzzled and slightly alarmed. ‘Sure.’
Vivien decided to underline the nature of the interview. ‘Alone.’
Chuck Newborn turned to his companion, a thin, indolent-looking man. ‘Tom, go check that concrete.’
Aware of being superfluous, the man called Tom picked up his hard hat and left without a word. Vivien was sure he considered her and Russell only a glitch in his day’s work. Newborn folded the plan and stood waiting on the other side of the desk.
Vivien came straight to the point. ‘Have you been working for Newborn Brothers for a long time?’
‘Since I was a boy. My father and my uncle started the business, and I started working here when I was eighteen. My cousin arrived straight after college. He’s in charge of administration. Now the old guys have retired and the two of us run the business.’
‘Were you around when Major Mistnick’s house on Long Island was built?’
In Chuck Newborn’s mind alarm bells must have gone off. He didn’t have to search long and hard in his memory to know what the detective was talking about. ‘Yes. A weird business. A year later-’
‘-the house blew up.’
The man raised his hands. ‘There was an investigation. The police questioned us. We were cleared of any wrongdoing.’
‘I know, Mr Newborn. I’m not accusing you of anything. I’d just like to ask you a few questions concerning that period.’
She gave Newborn a few moments to calm down before continuing with her questioning. ‘Do you remember if a man named Mitch Sparrow worked on that site?’
‘The name sounds familiar, but I can’t put a face to it.’
Vivien showed him the photograph she had been given by Carmen Montesa. Even before the man spoke, the expression on his face made it clear that his memory had been jogged.
‘Oh, him. Of course. He was a good guy. Crazy about bikes, but a good worker.’
‘You’re sure about that?’
He shrugged. ‘In those days, Newborn Brothers wasn’t how it is now. We dealt mostly with renovations and small buildings. We didn’t have so many workers. They were great days, and I remember them well.’
The man made no mention of his former worker’s disappearance. Vivien suspected he didn’t know about it. She preferred not to add a new element to the interview for the moment.
‘As far as you were aware, did Sparrow have any particular friends, anyone he spent a lot of time with?’
‘No. He was a quiet guy. He’d finish work and go straight home to his wife and son. They were all he ever talked about.’
‘Did anything strange happen on the site? As far as you can remember, any particular episodes, any people that attracted your attention?’
‘No, not that I recall.’ Then he gave a half-smile. ‘Apart from the Phantom of the Site.’
‘There was this one guy with scars all over his face and hands. A real monster. Everyone thought they were burns.’
At these words, others words appeared in the minds of Russell and Vivien.
Newborn lowered his head and looked at his hands, embarrassed perhaps by what he was about to say. ‘You know how cruel you can be when you’re young. My cousin and I used to call him the Phantom of the Site, like the Phantom of the Opera.’
‘Do you remember his name?’
‘I’m afraid not.’
‘Do you have copies of the pay slips?’
‘This was almost twenty years ago. We aren’t required to keep records all that time.’
Vivien assumed the most reassuring tone she could muster. ‘Mr Newborn, I’m not with the IRS. I’m here for an extremely important reason. Any detail can be crucial, even the most insignificant.’
Chuck Newborn decided to come clean. ‘In those days, to keep costs down, we used to hire workers off the books. It wouldn’t be possible now – the company’s too big for that kind of thing. But in those days we were forced to do it to survive. These guys I’m talking about were paid in cash, no questions asked, no paperwork.’
‘Do you remember any other details about this man?’
‘My father talked about him one evening at dinner. He’d just showed up and offered his services, for a price my father and uncle liked a lot. Plus, he was really good. As they were standing there talking the guy calculated, just by looking, how much iron and concrete was needed for the foundations.’
‘And did he ever work for you again?’
‘No. Immediately after we finished the Mistnick house he left.’
Vivien was worried she was going too fast. She granted Newborn, who had been getting increasingly nervous as the conversation proceeded, a moment’s pause.
‘And what can you tell me about the accident?’ she next asked.
‘One night the house just exploded, killing the major and all his family. Or to be more precise, it imploded. Just crumpled in on itself. There was hardly any damage to the surrounding houses.’
Vivien looked at Russell. Both of them had thought the same thing. The man had shown the same fiendish skill in calculating the quantity of explosives to plant and how to set them off as he had earlier shown in calculating the amount of iron and concrete for the foundations.
‘Did you mention him to the police at the time?’
Guilt fell like a shadow over Chuck Newborn’s face. ‘I’m afraid not.’
The reason was obvious from what he’d said earlier. Mentioning the man would have been the equivalent of handing himself in to the IRS, with the inevitable consequences. Vivien felt anger come over her like a gust of hot air.
‘Didn’t it occur to you there was something suspicious about the man’s behaviour, given the circumstances?’
Newborn bowed his head, unable to find a plausible excuse for what he was being accused of.
Vivien sighed. As she had done with Carmen Montesa, she took a business card from her bag, wrote her cellphone number on the back and held it out to the man.
‘We’re through for now. Here are my numbers. If you remember anything, let me know, any time.’
The man took the card and looked at it for a moment, as if afraid it was an arrest warrant. ‘I will, don’t worry.’
‘Goodbye, Mr Newborn.’
He said something in reply, but in such a low voice they barely heard him. Vivien and Russell walked to the door and went out. Neither of them could prove it, but deep down they were both sure that the man with the burned face who had been called the Phantom of the Site as a joke was the person they were looking for. They walked down the steps and headed for the car, leaving Chuck Newborn alone with the feeling that he’d done something terribly wrong, even though he didn’t know what it was. It would have been easy enough to tell him, if they had been able to. It might not have been so easy for him to accept.
If Newborn Brothers hadn’t been so determined to cut costs, the man would have been arrested, and years later hundreds of human lives might have been saved.
Russell and Vivien were back on the street.
The sky had turned blue again and the city had absorbed the latest outrage. Madison Square Park looked the way it usually did on a fine spring day. Senior citizens in search of sun, and dogs in search of trees. Mothers with children still too young to go to school and adolescents too lazy to want to. In the middle, a mime dressed up as the Statue of Liberty waited motionlessly for someone to throw coins in the can on the ground in front of him, at which point he would respond with a couple of movements. As she looked at the familiar scene, Vivien had the feeling that one of these people would suddenly turn to her and reveal a face ravaged with scars.
She stopped Russell, who was already walking towards the car. ‘Are you hungry?’
‘We ought to eat something. We have time now, while we’re waiting for results, but there probably won’t be time later. I know from experience that a rumbling stomach isn’t good for concentration.’
At the corner of the park, on the other side of the street, was a grey-painted stand serving hot dogs and hamburgers. In its very simplicity it had a certain elegance and did not jar with the natural setting. Vivien indicated a line of people.
‘The guides say it’s the best in New York. At lunchtime the line stretches all the way to Union Square.’
‘OK. A hamburger would be fine.’
They crossed the street and joined the line. As they waited, Vivien expressed in words what they had surely both been asking themselves.
‘What do you think about what Newborn said? The man with the scars, I mean.’
Russell took a moment before coming out with his conclusion. ‘I think he’s our man.’
‘So do I.’
Those words sealed their fate. From that moment on, this was the lead to follow, with all the means they had at their disposal. If it turned out to be the wrong one, then, rightly or wrongly, they would have the deaths of many people on their consciences.
In the name of the Father …
Almost without realizing it, Vivien found herself at the window where the orders had to be placed. She ordered two cheeseburgers and two bottles of water and paid for them. In return she received a small electronic receiver that would inform her when the food was ready to be collected.
They moved away from the stand to a nearby bench. As they sat down, Russell had a slightly downcast expression. ‘I promise you this is the last time.’
‘The last time for what?’
‘The last time you pay for me.’
Vivien looked at him. He was genuinely sorry. She knew how humiliated he felt, and that was a remarkable thing in itself. The last trace seemed to have gone of the man that Russell Wade had been until a few days earlier.
It had happened abruptly, like an evil spell taken away at the utterance of a magic word. Unfortunately, the other person who seemed to have vanished without a trace was the man she had spent the night with.
She told herself it was stupid to regret something that had never really existed. She lowered her eyes to the object she had in her hands, which was the size of an old TV remote control.
‘It must be something like this he uses.’
‘Who does, and to do what?’
‘The man who set off those bombs. It must be a gadget like this that he used to send the impulses that set off the explosions.’
As she was looking at that innocuous device of plastic and Plexiglas, which in another situation might become a lethal weapon, the receiver buzzed, almost making them jump.
Russell stood up and took the receiver from her hands. ‘I’ll go. Let me do that at least.’
Vivien watched as he presented himself at the window, handed over the receiver and got a tray with the food in return. He came back and placed the tray on the bench between them.
They unwrapped the hamburgers and started eating in silence. The food was the same, but the atmosphere was very different than when they had eaten together in Coney Island, facing the sea. When Russell had confided in her and she had been sure she understood him.
Now it occurred to her that she had only understood what she wanted to understand.
It depends on which wolf you feed more …
The ringing of her cellphone jolted her out of these thoughts. She looked at the number on the display without recognizing it.
She took the call. ‘Detective Light.’
She heard a familiar voice. ‘Hello, Miss Light. This is Dr Savine, one of the doctors treating your sister.’
The voice and the words brought images flooding into Vivien’s mind. The Mariposa Clinic in Cresskill, Greta gazing into the distance with sightless eyes, white coats that meant both safety and anguish.
‘What is it, doctor?’
‘Unfortunately it isn’t good news.’
Vivien waited in silence for him to continue, instinctively clenching her fist.
‘Your sister’s condition has suddenly worsened. We don’t know exactly what to expect and so I don’t know exactly what to tell you. But it isn’t looking good. I’m being honest with you. You told me that was what you wanted, right from the start.’
Vivien bowed her head, and let the tears run down her cheeks. ‘Of course, doctor, and I’m grateful. Unfortunately I can’t be there right now.’
‘I quite understand. I’ll keep you informed, Miss Light. I’m very sorry.’
‘I know. Thanks again.’
She hung up, and rose abruptly from the bench, turning her back on Russell and wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. Her first impulse was to drop everyone and everything, take the car to see her sister. But she couldn’t. For the first time in her life she cursed her work, the duty that confined her like a cage, the significance of her shield. She cursed the man who, in his madness, was keeping her away from the person she most loved and making that person seem ever more distant.
Russell understood that she had received some upsetting news. Anyone would have understood that. Obeying her curt voice, he got up from the bench, threw the tray in the garbage and followed her in silence to the car.
Vivien was grateful to him for that.
They went back to the precinct house the same way they had come, using the flashing light and the siren to get through the traffic.
They reached their destination without exchanging a word. The whole time, Vivien had driven as if the fate of the world depended on the speed with which they returned to base. She had barely seen the cars they passed – she had seen only her sister’s face.
As she loosened her belt, Vivian wondered if her sister was still alive right now. She raised her face and looked at Russell. She realized that for the whole of the journey she had forgotten he was even there.
‘I’m sorry. Today’s not a very good day for me.’
‘No problem. Tell me if I can help in any way.’
Of course you can help me. You could take me in your armsand let me be an ordinary girl crying on someone’s shouldersand…
She erased the thought. ‘Thanks. It’s over now.’
They got out of the car, entered the precinct house and went straight upstairs to the captain’s office. By now, the presence of Russell was taken as an established fact, even though it might not have been accepted by everyone. Without supplying too many details, the captain had told his men that he was someone who had information about a particular investigation and was collaborating with Vivien on it. Vivien knew her colleagues weren’t stupid and that sooner or later one or other of them would suspect something. But for the moment, whatever surliness they encountered, they just had to pretend everything was all right until the case was solved.
When he saw them come in, the captain looked up from the papers he was signing. ‘Well?’
‘We may have a lead.’
Bellew immediately closed the file he had in front of him. Russell and Vivien sat down in front of his desk. Briefly, Vivien told him about Mr Newborn and the Phantom of the Site, a man with a disfigured face who’d been suspiciously eager to work on Major Mistnick’s house. She told him how perfectly the house had imploded and how carefully the charges must have been positioned to obtain such a result.
The captain leaned back in his chair. ‘Thinking about the letter, and how precise these recent explosions were, then yes, it could be the right person.’
‘That’s what we think, too.’
‘Now we just have to check if he worked on other sites, and find out his name. How we do that, and how long it’ll take, I don’t know. One useful thing we could do in the meantime is find out more about this major. We need to contact the army. Bowman and Salinas have just called me from Pike’s Peak. They have the material we’re looking for. I think they’ll be here soon. Nothing yet from the other men I sent out.’
The telephone on the desk starting ringing. Vivien saw from the light on the front of the apparatus that the call came from the lobby. The captain reached out his hand and lifted the receiver to his ear. ‘What is it?’
He listened for a moment, then allowed himself an angry outburst. ‘Christ almighty, I told them to come to me as soon as they got back. Now they’re suddenly concerned with etiquette and don’t ask for me? Send them up, and fast.’
The telephone returned to its natural home with a little more force than necessary. The light went off.
Vivien was surprised by this flare-up. Bellew was usually a restrained person, who tended to stay deadpan under pressure. Everyone in the precinct had had at least once to bear the brunt of his calm, cold voice, which made the dressing down they were receiving all the more effective. An outburst such as this wasn’t like him. Then she told herself that in these circumstances, with the burden of all those deaths and the prospect of other deaths to come, it would become increasingly difficult to say what was like him or anyone else.
Preceded by footsteps on the stairs, the outlines of two officers appeared on the frosted glass of the door. In a loud voice, and not without a touch of sarcasm, Bellew said, ‘Come in!’ before either of them had had time to knock.
Officers Bowman and Salinas entered, looking grim faced, each carrying a large, heavy cardboard box. The desk sergeant had clearly conveyed the captain’s words to them.
Bellew pointed to the floor next to the desk. ‘Put them down over here.’
As soon as the boxes were on the ground and Vivien was able to look inside, she felt a distinct sense of discouragement. They were full of printouts. If the employee lists from the other companies were as voluminous as these, it would take a very long time to look through them. She glanced up at Russell and realized that he was thinking the same thing.
The captain, still bent over and looking inside the boxes, expressed everybody’s thoughts. ‘This is like the fucking Encyclopaedia Britannica.’
Officer Bowman tried to rehabilitate himself and his colleague in his chief’s eyes by placing a thin square of black plastic on the desk. ‘We also had a CD made with all the data.’
‘Great work, boys. You can go.’
Freed by the captain’s words, the two officers headed for the door. Vivien could sense how curious they were about all this research they’d been asked to do without knowing the reason why. In fact, there was a general curiosity in the air. She was sure that by now everyone had figured out that it was connected with the two explosions that had taken place in the space of three days.
Russell was the first to express his anxieties. ‘If we want to be quick, we’re going to need a lot of men for this.’
If the captain had been overwhelmed with the same discouragement for a moment, he had already got over it. His voice was positive and determined as he came out with the only possible reply.
‘I know. But we can’t afford to fail. I can’t do anything for now, until the other data gets here. But we’ll have to get it done, even if it means putting every police officer in New York on the job.’
Vivien went to one of the boxes, and took out a file. She sat down again and placed it on her lap. There was a long list of names, in alphabetical order, on the white and blue lines of the pages. To get rid of the sense of stagnation that everyone was feeling she started running through the names.
The endless series of letters became almost hypnotic as her eye slid down the page.
and then all the rest down to the next page
and then more names and another page
Vivien stopped abruptly. The name had jumped out at her, reminding her of a face smiling with contentment after she had treated poor Elisabeth Brokens like dirt. She leaped to her feet, dropping the papers on the floor.
Russell and Bellew looked on in surprise as she rushed to the door, crying out just two words.
She descended the stairs as fast as she could without breaking her neck. There was a rush of adrenaline inside her. After so many ifsand maybes,so many Ican’t remembers,at last a small stroke of luck. By the time she reached the lobby, she was praying that this didn’t turn out to be another illusion.
On the steps she stopped and looked around her for a moment.
A car with two officers was reversing out of the parking lot next to the entrance. Vivien waved to them and ran down the short flight of steps. She reached the car, and saw the reflection of the sky disappear from the side window as the officer lowered it.
‘I need a ride to 23rd and Third.’
She opened the back door and sat down in a seat usually reserved for arrested people. But she was in too much of a hurry to register that.
‘Use the siren.’
Without asking for explanations, the driver switched on the flashing light and pulled out quickly, with a slight screech of tyres. She was so impatient to arrive that the journey seemed very long, even though it was only three blocks. When she saw the orange plastic barriers around the site, she relived the discovery of the body of Mitch Sparrow, which at first had seemed to be yet another case to be filed away in the records, but which had in fact given a whole new direction to this crazy business, and might even help to bring it to a conclusion. The madness of chance, as well as of human beings, was turning out to be the one thing connecting all the threads of this case.
The car had not yet come to a compete halt when Vivien opened the door and jumped out.
‘Thanks, boys. I owe you one.’
She didn’t hear the reply, didn’t hear the car drive off. She had already approached a worker who had just come out of the gap in the perimeter fence and took him aback with the urgency of her request.
‘Where can I find Mr Cortese?’
The man indicated a point beyond the fence. ‘He’s right behind me.’
After a moment, the figure of Jeremy Cortese appeared. He was wearing the same jacket as on the day they had first met. When he saw her coming towards him, he recognized her immediately. Difficult to forget someone who reminds you of the discovery of a corpse!
‘Hello, Miss Light.’
‘Mr Cortese, I need to ask you a few questions.’
Surprised, but realizing there was no way out, he said, ‘Go ahead.’
Vivien drew Cortese aside. The place where they were standing, between the fence and the barriers, was used by the workers and she didn’t want them to be disturbed, or for them to disturb her. She took up a position facing Cortese and spoke as clearly as possible, as if she and the man were speaking two different languages.
‘I need you to dig deep into your memory. I know it’s been a long time, but your answer’s important. Very important.’
He nodded to confirm that he had understood, and waited in silence for the question.
‘I know you worked for the company that constructed the building on the Lower East Side, the one that was blown up last Saturday.’
A hint of fear and alarm appeared in his eyes, as if she had just told him that the police were investigating him personally. His shoulders drooped a little and when he spoke, there was a distinct unease in his voice. ‘Before we go on, I’d like to ask you a question. Do I need a lawyer?’
Vivien tried to put him at his ease. ‘No, Mr Cortese,’ she said, as reassuringly as possible, ‘you don’t need a lawyer. I know perfectly well you had nothing to do with that. There are just a few things I need to know about.’
‘Among the men who worked with you on that building, do you remember if there was one with a heavily scarred face?’
The answer came without hesitation. ‘Yes.’
Vivien’s heart skipped a beat. ‘Are you sure?’
Now that his fears had been calmed, Cortese seemed reassured by the turn taken by the interview, and was eager to reply. ‘He wasn’t in my team but I do remember seeing the guy a few times. With a face like that, you couldn’t exactly miss him.’
Vivien’s heart was standing still in her chest. ‘Do you remember his name?’
‘No. I never even spoke to him.’
The disappointment Vivien felt at this lasted only a brief moment before it was wiped out by a new thought that suddenly occurred to her.
‘God bless you, Mr Cortese. God bless you a thousand times. You have no idea how helpful you’ve been. You can go back to work now, and don’t worry.’
The briefest of handshakes, and Vivien had already turned her back on him, leaving him standing there on the sidewalk, surprised and relieved. She took out her cellphone and dialled the captain’s number.
She didn’t even give him time to say his name. ‘Alan, it’s Vivien.’
‘What’s going on? Where the hell are you?’
‘You can call off the men. We won’t need to search through those names any more.’
She waited a moment, to give Bellew time to prepare for what she was about to ask him.
‘You need to send officers to the oncology departments of every hospital in New York to check if they had any patient with a strongly disfigured face who died in the last year and a half.’
Now that the cancer has done its work and I’m on the otherside …
Bellew, like the others, knew that letter by heart by now. Vivien’s excitement immediately became his.
‘Great work, Vivien. I’ll put the men on it right away. We’re waiting for you here.’
Vivien folded the cellphone and put it back in her pocket. As she walked briskly back to the precinct, surrounded by the crowd, she would have given anything to be just a normal person. Instead of which, every person she passed aroused the anxious question of whether this was one she would lose or one she would save. For them, too, there was still hope. Maybe the man who had left a trail of bombs behind him, like a trail of stones in a tragic fairy tale, had, at the time of death, also left behind him a name and an address.
Father McKean reluctantly made his way through the crowd thronging the Boathouse Café. His face bore clear traces of his sleepless night, spent in front of the television absorbing the images on the screen with all the avidity of a thirsty man and at the same time dismissing them from his mind as too horrible to contemplate.
I am God …
Those words continued to echo in his head, like a ghastly soundtrack to the visions his memory continued to play back to him. The destroyed cars, the damaged buildings, the fires, the wounded and bloodstained people. An arm, torn from a body by the violence of the blast, lying on the sidewalk, pitilessly framed by the TV cameras.
He took a deep breath.
He had prayed for a long time, asking for comfort and enlightenment where he usually found it. Faith had always been his consolation, his point of departure and point of arrival, whatever the nature of the journey. It was because of faith that his adventure with the community had begun, and thanks to the results he had achieved with many kids he had allowed himself to dream. Other Joys, other houses spread all over the state, in which young people attracted by drugs would be able to stop feeling like moths drawn to a flame. After a certain point, the kids themselves had been his strength.
But this morning he had wandered among them trying to hide his pain, smiling when he was asked to smile and replying when he was asked to reply. But as soon as he was alone it all crashed down on top of him, like objects falling out after being crammed into a closet.
For the first time in his life as a priest, he didn’t know what to do.
He had found himself in that situation before, when he still lived in the world, before realizing that what he wanted to do in his life was to serve God and his fellow man, and he had resolved his doubts and anxieties then by entering the peace of the seminary. This time it was different. He had called Cardinal Logan without a great deal of hope. If he had been in New York, he would have met with him more for moral support than to obtain an authorization he knew would never come. Not in the time or the circumstances that would be needed. He knew perfectly well the iron rules that governed that aspect of the relationship with the faithful. It was one of the fixed points of their creed, guaranteeing as it did that anyone could approach the sacrament of confession with a free heart and without fear and receive absolution in return for repentance. In his capacity as a minister, the Church condemned him to silence – and simultaneously condemned hundreds more people to death, if those attacks continued.
‘So you’re the famous Father McKean, the founder of Joy.’
He turned in the direction of the voice and found himself facing a tall woman in her forties, with dark, impeccably groomed hair. She was too heavily made-up, too elegant, probably too rich. She was holding two glasses full of what must have been champagne.
The woman did not wait for his answer. Anyway, it hadn’t been a question, but a statement of fact.
‘They told me what a charismatic and fascinating man you are. And they were right.’
She held out one of the two glasses. Taken aback by these words, Father McKean took it instinctively. He had had the impression that, if he hadn’t, the woman would have let go and it would have fallen on the ground.
‘My name’s Sandhal Bones and I’m one of the organizers of the exhibition.’
The woman shook the hand he held out and kept it in hers a moment longer than necessary. Father McKean added embarrassment to all the emotions already churning inside him. He looked away from her and saw little bubbles rising vivaciously to the surface of the flute.
‘So you’re one of our benefactors.’
Mrs Bones tried, without too much success, to downplay her role. ‘Benefactor is pitching it a little high. Let’s say I like to give a hand where it’s needed.’
Father McKean, although with no desire to drink, lifted the glass to his lips and took a small sip. ‘It’s thanks to people like you that Joy continues to thrive.’
‘It’s thanks to people like you that it exists at all,’ she replied, taking him by the arm.
He smelled a delicate and doubtless highly expensive perfume, and heard the swish of her dress.
‘And now let’s go and see the work of your protégés. I’ve heard great things about them.’
Making her way nonchalantly through the crowd, Mrs Bones moved to the other side of the balcony overlooking the little lake.
The Boathouse Café was an elegant venue in the middle of Central Park, joined to the rest of the city by East Drive. A single-storey building, its facade consisted of wide windows that allowed the customers a view of the water and the greenery as they dined. When the weather was fine, tables were put out on the terrace that ran all the way alongside it, and visitors could eat in the open air.
It was here that an exhibition of paintings, sculptures and crafts involving kids in the care of institutions similar to Joy had been organized by a committee whose name Father McKean could never remember. It was a way of allowing them to communicate with people, both personally and through their artworks. When the idea had been suggested, Father McKean had approached Jubilee Manson and Shalimar Bennett. The two of them were still in the middle of a difficult journey, but eventually he had become convinced, as had John, that this experience could only do them good.
Shalimar was a white girl from a normal middle-class family. They had managed to get her off heroin, as well as the self-harming that had covered her arms with scars. Father McKean wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, not even the Inquisition, but she was his favourite. She had a face that inspired tenderness and a wish to protect her. And light seemed to radiate from her eyes whenever anyone complimented her on her work, which was halfway between sculpture and jewellery. Original and colourful bracelets, necklaces, earrings were all made from materials that were not so much random as rudimentary.
Jubilee, a seventeen-year-old black boy, came from a very different kind of family, one where there were no rules and where in order to survive you had to fight. His mother was a prostitute and his father had been stabbed to death in a fight. His brother Jonas claimed to be a rapper, under the stage name Iron7. In reality, he was the head of a gang mainly involved in drugs and prostitution. When his mother had found crack in Jubilee’s room, she had realized that her younger son was about to follow in his brother’s footsteps. In one of her rare lucid moments, by some lucky intuition, she had taken him to see Father McKean at Joy. The same afternoon she had killed herself.
Once past his initial difficulties, Jubilee had adapted well to the life of the community and soon after his arrival had shown marked artistic gifts, which had been encouraged and cultivated. Now some of his most interesting works – although quite immature and needing allowances to be made – formed part of this exhibition in Central Park.
Father McKean and Mrs Bones reached the area where three of Jubilee’s paintings were displayed on easels. The influence of pop-art, and particularly Basquiat, was obvious but the bright colours, and the originality with which they were juxtaposed, showed great promise for the future.
The young painter was standing next to his works. Mrs Bones stopped in front of the pictures, in order to cast an eye over them.
‘And this is our young artist.’
She examined the works with great attention, not devoid of a certain bewilderment. ‘Well, I’m no critic and this certainly isn’t Norman Rockwell. But I have to say they are… they are…’
Having suggested this definition Father McKean winked at Jubilee, who was trying hard not to laugh.
Mrs Bones turned to the priest as if she had seen the light. ‘Of course. That’s exactly what they are. Explosive.’
‘That’s what we all think.’
Having gratified both the artist’s ego and Mrs Bones’ obsession with patronage, Father McKean started to find her presence annoying. A short distance away, he saw John Kortighan talking to a group of people and threw him a glance that contained a desperate plea for help.
John immediately grasped the situation. He freed himself from the people he had been talking with and came towards them.
Father McKean made as if to get away. ‘Mrs Bones…’
In return, she gave him a look in which there was a little too much fluttering of the eyelashes. ‘You can call me Sandhal, if you prefer.’
Just then, John reached them and released him from his ordeal.
‘Mrs Bones, this is John Kortighan, who works with me. He’s the principal architect of the smooth running…’
As he introduced him, Father McKean turned his head to look at him. John was standing with his back to the water, and the priest’s eyes were drawn past him, past the crowded balcony, all the way to the cycle track that ran alongside the little lake on the left.
Standing there with his hands in the pockets of his jeans was a man in a green military jacket. Father McKean felt as though the breath had been knocked out of him. A wave of heat rose to his face. He somehow managed to finish the introduction.
‘… of our little community.’
John held out his hand, diplomatic as always. ‘Pleased to meet you, Mrs Bones. I know you’re one of the principal architects of this event.’
The woman’s little laugh came to him as if in a trance. ‘As I was saying to Father McKean, I’ve always been ready to do something for my fellow human beings.’
The words seemed to come from a great distance, as if muffled by space and fog. He couldn’t take his eyes off that man standing alone, looking in his direction, while bicycles passed close by him. He told himself jackets like that were very common and that an event like this was bound to attract the attention of outsiders. It was perfectly normal for a person to stop and look to see what was going on.
It was a reasonable attempt to reassure himself, but he knew that wasn’t the case. He knew this was no ordinary person but the man who had whispered those sacrilegious words to him inside the confessional along with his murderous intentions.
Iam God …
The faces and the noise and the people around him had vanished. Only that disquieting figure drew his attention, his thoughts, his eyes. His longing for mercy. Somehow he was certain that the man had seen him and that, of all the people there, he, Father McKean, was the one he was staring at.
‘Excuse me a moment.’
He didn’t even hear what John and Mrs Bones said in reply.
He had moved away from them and was making his way through the crowd, straight to the other end of the balcony. Losing and finding again the sombre eyes of that stranger who had taken up residence inside him like a harbinger of doom. He wanted to reach him and try to talk to him, try to make him see reason, even though he knew it was a desperate enterprise. On his side, the man continued to watch him as he walked, waiting, as if he had come to the Boathouse Café with the same intention.
Father McKean suddenly found two black men barring his way.
One was just a little shorter than him and was wearing a hooded down jacket that was much too big for him and much too heavy for the season, a black cap with the peak at the side, jeans, and a pair of heavy sneakers. On his chest, a glittering gold chain.
The man who loomed behind him was huge. It didn’t seem possible that a man that size could actually move. He was dressed all in black, and his head was covered in a kind of bandana that looked like one of those hairnets men used to wear at night to straighten their hair.
The thinner of the two men put his hand on Father McKean’s chest and stopped him. ‘Where are you going, priest man?’
Annoyed by this hitch, Father McKean instinctively turned to look to his right. The man in the green jacket was still there, observing the scene without expression. Reluctantly, he turned his attention back to the person in front of him.
‘What do you want, Jonas? I didn’t think you’d been invited.’
‘Iron7 doesn’t need an invitation if these assholes can get in. Right, Dude?’
The big man merely nodded impassively.
‘Well,’ Father McKean said, ‘now that you’ve demonstrated how strong you are, I think you can leave.’
Jonas Manson smiled, revealing a small diamond encrusted in one of his incisors. ‘Hey, hold on a minute, priest. What’s the hurry? I’m the brother of one of the artists. Can’t I admire his work like everyone else?’
He looked around and, beyond Father McKean, glimpsed Jubilee still standing next to his paintings and commenting on them to other people.
‘There he is. There’s my boy.’
The man who called himself Iron7 pushed Father McKean aside and headed towards his brother, followed by the impressive hulk of Dude. People instinctively stepped aside for them. Father McKean walked behind them, trying to keep the situation under control.
Jonas reached the paintings and, without even greeting his brother, assumed a dramatic studio pose in front of them. On seeing him coming, Jubilee had fallen silent, taken a step backwards and started shaking.
‘Hey, great stuff. Really great stuff. What do you think, Dude?’
Again the fat man, without speaking, confirmed his chief’s words with a movement of his head. John, who had grasped the tricky nature of the situation, approached, trying to put his body between Jonas and his brother.
‘You can’t stay here.’
‘Oh yes? Who says so? You, runt?’ The rapper turned to the giant and smiled. ‘Dude, get this asshole out of the way.’
The man reached out his huge hand, grabbed John by his shirt collar, pulled him towards him as if he were weightless and then pushed him back again so that he hit the balustrade. Father McKean intervened to stop John trying to react. If a fight broke out, others might get involved.
‘Let it be, John. I’ll deal with this.’
Jonas let out a vulgar laugh. ‘Oh, great. You’ll deal with this.’
In the meantime a void had formed around them. All the people who had been standing nearby, while not quite sure exactly what was happening, had decided that it was better to move away from these two gaudy characters with their rude behaviour and unappetizing faces.
‘You and I have to talk business, priest.’
‘We don’t have any business with each other, Jonas.’
‘Get off your high horse. I know things aren’t going too well in that place of yours. I’d like to give you a hand. I thought twenty grand might come in useful.’
Father McKean wondered how this delinquent had found out about Joy’s financial difficulties. Certainly not from his brother, who was terrified of him and avoided him like the plague. It was clear that right now, given how empty the community’s coffers were, twenty thousand dollars would be like manna from heaven. But they couldn’t take it from a man like that, with the kind of things he was involved in.
‘You can keep your money. We’ll manage.’
Jonas put his index finger on the priest’s chest and started to prod him as if trying to perforate his sternum. ‘Are you refusing my money? Do you think it’s dirty?’
He paused, as if reflecting on the implications of what he had just heard. He again looked at Father McKean.
‘So my money is no good…’
Then he pointed to the people around him and his anger exploded.
‘But these assholes’ money is all right, is that it? These men in their jackets and ties who look so respectable and buy the whores and the other shit that I sell. And all these women who act like little plaster saints but go around grabbing as much black dick as they can get hold of.’
A rustle and a moan behind him. Without turning, Father McKean realized that one of the women present had fainted. The rapper continued spreading his venom.
‘I only wanted to do some good. Help my brother and that fucking place where you live.’
Jonas Manson put his hand in his pocket and when he took it out he was clutching a knife. Father McKean heard it open with a dry snap and saw the blade glitter in the light. The noise around them increased, becoming the shuffle of feet on the wooden terrace. A couple of women screamed hysterically.
With the knife in his hand, Jonas turned towards Jubilee, who was watching him in terror.
‘Did you hear that, little brother? Did you hear how high and mighty this priest thinks he is?’
Jubilee took another step back, while Jonas approached the paintings. Father McKean moved to try to intercept him, but Dude moved with an agility that was impressive for someone of his size. He put his arms around the priest’s chest to immobilize him, and squeezed, knocking the air out of his lungs and sending a sharp pain shooting through his muscles.
‘Hold still, priest,’ Jonas said, ‘this is a family affair.’ He turned to Jubilee, who seemed to be about to faint. ‘And you don’t even say a word. You just let this piece of shit insult your brother.’
He made a quick movement, there was a tearing sound, and a long diagonal cut appeared on the painting in front of him. He was about to do the same thing to the next painting when from somewhere on their right came a voice.
‘All right, guys, you’ve had your fun. Now put the knife down and lie on the ground.’
Father McKean turned his head and saw a uniformed officer, standing on the lawn holding a gun aimed at Jonas. The rapper looked at him nonchalantly, as if having a gun pointed at him was a normal occurrence.
The officer made an impatient gesture with his weapon. ‘Did you hear what I said? Lie down on the ground with your hands behind your head. And you, gorilla, drop that man.’
Father McKean felt the pressure lessen, and air started returning to his lungs. Dude let go of him and joined his boss. Slowly, as if it was their own thoughtful concession rather than something imposed by a third party, they lay down on the floor and put their hands over their heads.
While the officer kept his eye on them and radioed for backup, Father McKean, free at last, turned towards the lake. He peered anxiously around the shore and the cycle track, searching for someone he couldn’t find.
His nightmare, the man in the green jacket, had vanished.
Vivien listened anxiously to the variations in the noise of the engine as the helicopter descended.
She didn’t like flying. She didn’t like being at the mercy of a vehicle she couldn’t control, in which every patch of turbulence made her jump and every change in the turning of the blades got her nervous. She looked out the window at the ground coming closer. Hanging in a black mass of darkness that seemed to have invaded the earth, the lights of the world lay beneath them. The triumphal light of a great city and the more isolated lights of the smaller towns surrounding it like satellites. The helicopter tilted and made an agile turn to the right. Below, directly in line with the front of the vehicle, signal lights marked the runway of a small airport.
The voice of the pilot over her headphones took her by surprise. Not a word had been spoken since the start of the flight.
‘We’ll be landing shortly.’
Vivien was glad to hear it. She hoped that by the time she started on the return journey she’d have a result that would allow her to face that interlude of emptiness and darkness in a different mood.
Darkness had overtaken them halfway through the journey, and Vivien had understood why it had been necessary to use a helicopter equipped with blind flight, even though she couldn’t figure out how the pilot could possibly make anything of that mass of screens he had in front of him.
Beside her, leaning towards the window on his side, his head tilted slightly back, Russell had taken off his headphones and was sleeping, even snoring a little. Vivien sat looking at him for a few moments in the reflected light from the control panel and remembered his head resting on the pillow, his regular breathing in the semi-darkness, on the night she had got out of bed and gone to the window.
The night when the world had exploded, in every meaning of the word.
As if that image had been thrust forcefully into his sleep, Russell opened his eyes. ‘I must have dozed off.’
‘Unless you snore while you’re awake, I’d say you’re right.’
He yawned and turned to look out the window. ‘Where are we?’
‘Almost there. We’re descending.’
Vivien went back to studying the terrain beneath them which, after that brief absence, was preparing to receive them again, although many miles away from the place they had started. She felt the urgency of the situation sucking her down like a vortex, and the responsibility weigh on her more than the pressure of the air above her.
After her conversation with Jeremy Cortese, it had taken most of the rest of the day to get a result. Bellew had contacted Commissioner Willard, who had immediately arranged the backup needed for that kind of research. An unspecified number of officers had dispersed to the hospitals, large and small, of Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn.
They had extended the search to hospitals in New Jersey, calling on the support of the local police. Bellew, Vivien and Russell had waited in the second-floor office.
Vivien divided her time between longing for the captain’s telephone to ring and fear that her own cellphone would ring, bringing bad news from the clinic where Greta was being treated. Russell sat down in an armchair, and had put his legs up on the little table in front of him and stared into space, demonstrating a power of abstraction she wouldn’t have thought him capable of. The captain continued reading reports, but Vivien was prepared to bet that he had not absorbed a single word on those pages. The silence became like a spider’s web none of them wanted to escape. Words would only have led to other conjectures and other hopes, whereas what they needed now was something concrete, a message from reality.
By the time the phone on the desk rang, the light beyond the windows was stamping the approach of dusk on the walls. The captain lifted the receiver to his ear.
The captain’s impassive expression didn’t give anything away to Russell and Vivien.
He had taken a pen and paper and Vivien saw him quickly write something.
‘Terrific work, boys. Congratulations.’
The receiver was not yet back in its place when the captain raised his head and held out what he had just written. Vivien took it gingerly, like an object that had just been pulled out of a fire.
‘We have a name. From Samaritan Faith Hospital in Brooklyn. A couple of nurses remember the guy well. They say he really was a monster, disfigured all over his body. He died just over six months ago.’
Vivien lowered her eyes to the piece of paper. On it were the words
Wendell Johnson – Hornell NY 7 June 1948.
140 Broadway Brooklyn
in the captain’s rapid, sloping handwriting.
Vivien found it incredible that a shadow they had been chasing in vain had suddenly become a human being with a name and address and date of birth. But what was equally incredible was the number of victims linked to that name and how many others would eventually have to be added to the list.
As she read, Bellew was already going into action. He was already talking to the switchboard.
‘Get me the police in Hornell, New York State.’
As he waited to be put through, he put the call on speakerphone, so that they could all listen. A professional voice came out of the small speaker.
‘Hornell police headquarters. How can I help you?’
‘This is Captain Alan Bellew of the 13th Precinct in Manhattan. Who am I speaking to?’
‘Officer Drew, sir.’
‘I need to speak with your chief. As soon as possible.’
‘One moment, sir.’
Bellew was put on hold. A jingle played briefly, followed after a few moments by a deep voice sounding much more mature than the previous one.
‘I’m Captain Alan Bellew of the NYPD.’
At the other end there was a brief silence.
‘Good evening, captain. What can I do for you?’
‘I need information on a man named Wendell Johnson. All I know is that he was born in Hornell on 7 June 1948. Do have anything on him in your files?’
‘Just a moment.’
Only the noise of fingers moving rapidly over a keyboard. Then Captain Caldwell’s voice returned.
‘Here he is. Wendell Bruce Johnson. The only prior I have is an arrest for driving while intoxicated, in May 1968. There’s nothing else on him.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Give me another moment, please.’