On screen, a woman lounges on a rubber float, her face toward the sun, fingertips trailing in the water. The float is shaped like a doughnut. It turns in lazy circles. The beach is in frame, on the left. The woman is pregnant; the madras shirt over her bathing suit does not disguise her distended belly. She lifts her head and faces the camera, and her mouth forms the words ‘Stop it! Turn that thing off! Look at me!’ The camera shakes, apparently with laughter. The woman rolls her eyes and shakes her fist, the silent-movie gesture for frustration. Soundlessly she says to the camera, ‘Hi, Ben,’ then she joins in the laughter before laying her head down again to drift some more.
The woman is my mother, and the baby in her belly is me. It is early summer, 1971. I will be born a month later.
This little eight-millimeter film (it ran two or three minutes, tops) was among my mother’s prized possessions. She kept it in a yellow Kodak box tucked under the brassieres and stockings in the top drawer of her bureau where, she thought, thieves were not likely to look. There were not many thieves in our town, and the few we had were not interested in grainy old movies of pregnant women. But Mum was convinced of its value, and every now and then she could not resist burying her hand in that drawer to feel for the box, just to be sure. When it rained, she would lug out a twenty-pound Bell amp; Howell movie projector and show the movie on the living-room wall. She’d stand by the wall, point to her belly, and announce, with vestiges of a Boston accent, ‘There you ah, Ben! There you ah!’ Sometimes she got wistful and teary. Over the years, I guess we watched that clip a hundred times. It still runs in my head, familiar, my own Zapruder film. I don’t know exactly why my mother loved it so much. I suppose that to her it documented a transition, the moment of equipoise between girlhood and motherhood.
I’ve never liked the film, though. There is something unsettling about it. It shows the world before me, the world without me, and it is a world complete. There is as yet nothing necessary or inevitable about my creation. Nobody has met me, nobody knows me. I don’t exist. A woman — not my mother, but the woman who will become my mother — waves and calls me by name, but what is it she is calling to? She is expecting me, in every sense of the word. But it is a fragile expectation. Events branch and divide and multiply, and she and I may never meet. And what of her? Who is this extinct woman to me? Not my mother certainly, nothing as real as that. She is just an idea, a pictogram on the living-room wall. She is my conception.
It has been thirteen months since my mother died, and I have not bothered to check on that little reel in its yellow reliquary. Maybe someday I’ll find it and the movie projector, too, and I’ll watch the film again. And there she will be. Young and laughing, alive and whole.
I suppose that is as good a place as any to begin this story — with that pregnant, pretty young woman at the lake on a hot summer day. There is no absolute beginning to any story, after all. There is only the moment you begin watching.
Another moment, five and a half years later. 1:29 A.M., March 11, 1977.
A Boston police cruiser inches along Washington Avenue in a neighborhood called Mission Flats. Grit crunches under the tires: sand, ice. An elevated railway straddles the road. Phosphorous light. The cruiser stops in front of a bar called the Kilmarnock Pub, a shadow-hunching structure with neon signs in the windows.
Inside the cruiser, a policeman — his name is not important — uses the butt of his fist to clear condensation from the driver’s side window, then he studies the neon signs. GUINNESS, BASS, a generic one with the promise GOOD TIMES. Last call at the Kilmarnock was twenty-nine minutes ago. Those signs are usually turned off by this time.
Now, consider this policeman. If he does not chance upon the bar or if he does not notice those neon signs, none of what follows would ever take place. At this moment, any number of different courses — an alternate history, a hundred alternate histories — remain open to him. He can simply ignore the signs and continue his prowl along Washington Avenue. After all, is there really anything suspicious here? Is it all that unusual for a bartender to forget to switch off a few lights at closing time? Alternatively, the officer can call in a request for backup. A bar at closing time is a tempting target for stickup men. It is a cash business, all that money still in the register, the doors still unlocked. No guards, just bartenders and drunks. Yes, maybe he should do that, maybe he should wait for backup. This is Mission Flats, remember; around here it pays to be cautious. But then again, a cop working the midnight-to-eight shift could check on fifty businesses before he clocks out. He can’t very well call for backup every time. No, in this case there is no reason for our policeman to do any of those things. He will make the right decision and yet — how to explain what follows? Bad luck. Coincidence. Innumerable random branchings and sequences have brought him to this place at this time. It is the end of one story, or several, and the beginning of another story, or several.
Consider this, too. As the officer idles outside the Kilmarnock Pub — fidgeting with his radio, deciding what to do, deciding whether to bother — I am five years old, asleep in bed in western Maine, some three hundred miles away.
Back to our policeman. He decides he’ll go in, tell the bartender to close up, maybe even make some noise about writing him up to the ABC, the Alcoholic Beverages Commission. No big deal. He calls in his position to the turret: ‘Bravo-four-seven-three, take me off at the Kilmarnock on Mission Ave. Bravo-four-seven-three, charlie-robert.’ No concern in his voice. Routine.
Then the policeman walks into an armed robbery.
Inside the Kilmarnock, a wiry man, an addict named Darryl Sikes, puts a nine-millimeter Beretta to the policeman’s head. Sikes is coked up, and he has stoked the high with amphetamines, mellowed it with Jack Daniel’s.
The policeman raises his hands in submission.
The gesture sends Sikes reeling with laughter. Hahahahahahahaha. His mind is literally buzzing; there is a purr in his ears that, to Sikes, sounds like the electric hum of a guitar amplifier. Turn it up! Turn that motherfucker up! Hahahahaha!
Sikes’s partner is a man named Frank Fasulo. Fasulo is not as high as Sikes. Not nearly. Frank Fasulo is in control. He carries a sawed-off pump-action shotgun. He points the shotgun at the cop and orders him to strip. Fasulo cuffs the officer’s hands behind his back and orders him to his knees.
Naked, the cop shivers.
The two celebrate, Frank Fasulo and Darryl Sikes. Sikes plucks the police uniform shirt from the floor and puts it on over his sweatshirt. Hahahahaha! They do a little victory dance around the bar. They kick at the policeman’s clothes, sending them flying — tube socks, urine-dappled briefs, black shoes. Fasulo fires the shotgun into the ceiling, racks and fires, racks and fires.
The policeman is forced to perform fellatio on Fasulo. At the moment of orgasm, Fasulo fires the gun into the policeman’s head.
Now it is nine days after the Kilmarnock murder, four A.M., a bitterly cold winter night. The wind is whipping across the lower deck of the Tobin Bridge, where the temperature is five degrees with the windchill.
Frank Fasulo steps off the side of the bridge and turns slow cartwheels in the air, arms and legs extended. It will take three long seconds before he reaches the surface of the Mystic River about one hundred fifty feet below. He will hit the water at around seventy miles an hour. At that speed, there isn’t much difference between hitting water and hitting concrete.
What passes through Fasulo’s mind as he tumbles through the air? Does he glimpse the black wall of water rushing up at him? Does he think about his partner, Darryl Sikes, or the murdered cop? Does he think his suicide will end the story of the Kilmarnock case?
Frank Fasulo doesn’t know it, but in the last nine days he has learned the original meaning of the word outlaw. Today the word has come to refer to any criminal. In the ancient English law, it had a more specific definition. If a court declared you an outlaw, you were literally outside the law — that is, the law no longer protected you. An outlaw could be robbed or even killed without penalty. There was no sanctuary for him in all England. So it is for Frank Fasulo. The Boston Police Department has no interest in arresting and trying him. They want him dead. No sanctuary.
They caught up to Darryl Sikes just two days after the murder. Found him holed up in the old Madison Hotel, near the Boston Garden. Four BPD cops burst into the room and fired forty-one rounds into his body. To a man, the entire entry team swore Sikes was reaching for a gun; none was ever found.
Now it’s Fasulo’s turn. The police want him even worse than Sikes. It was Fasulo who had… well, most of them can’t even say it.
And where can Fasulo run? Every law-enforcement agency in the world will return him to the Boston police on a murder warrant.
So it has to end this way. That is all Frank Fasulo knows for sure. As he plummets, in those three seconds as he feels his body accelerate and the wind tugs his jacket off his shoulders like a helpful host, it is his only thought: There was no other ending — some cop was going to find him sooner or later.
Ten years later. August 17, 1987, 2:25 A.M.
Again we are in Mission Flats, in the sort of three-family wood-frame structure Bostonians call a triple decker. On the third-floor landing, eight policemen crouch. They stare at a door, listening intently as if the door might speak.
The door is lacquered in China red. There are two small holes in the door frame, just above eye level, where a mezuzah was once attached with little gold brads. Fifty years ago, this neighborhood was predominantly Jewish. The mezuzah is long gone now. Today the apartment is a stashpad for a crew called the Mission Posse.
No doubt the door has been reinforced somehow. Most likely, it is wedged shut with a makeshift police lock, a board jammed at a forty-five-degree angle between the door and the floor, anchored in place by wood blocks bolted to the floorboards. To get into the apartment, the police will have to reduce the door to splinters. That could take fifteen seconds or it could take several minutes — an eternity, long enough to flush cocaine, burn cuff lists, toss scales and baggies through holes in the walls. Too long. Now, a sheet-metal door you could judge, you could predict how it would hold up. The thin ones bend, become distorted, and quickly twist out of their frames. The thick ones just dent, and your only choice is to try to rupture the hinges, the lock, or the entire door frame. But these old wood doors? Hard to say. This one looks solid.
Julio Vega certainly doesn’t like the look of it. Vega glances at his partner, an Area A-3 Narcotics detective named Artie Trudell, and shakes his head. Vega’s message: They don’t make doors like this anymore.
Trudell, an enormous man with an orange-red beard, smiles back at Vega and flexes his biceps.
Vega and Trudell are excited, nervous. This is a first, a raid that is all theirs. The target is a major player: The Mission Posse moves more rock in this neighborhood than anyone else by far. The no-knock warrant is all theirs too, based on their own investigation — two weeks of surveillance, and a stream of information from a CI endorsed by Martin Gittens himself. The warrant is bulletproof.
Detective Julio Vega could be bulletproof, too, with a few more scores like this one. Vega has a plan. He’ll take the sergeant’s exam in the fall, work drug cases a couple more years, then try for an assignment in Special Investigations or even Homicide. Of course, Vega keeps his careerism to himself because his partner, the big redhead Artie Trudell, doesn’t get it.
Trudell does not dream of going to Homicide or anyplace else. He is happy just to work narcotics cases. Some guys are like that. They prefer cases that are victimless, with suspects as professional as their police adversaries. It’s neater that way. Vega has tried to instill a little ambition in Trudell. Told him he won’t climb the ladder without working victim crimes. He even hinted once that Trudell should take the sergeant’s exam, but Artie just laughed it off. ‘What?’ Artie said. ‘And give up all this?’ At the time, they were sitting in a battered Crown Vic looking at the moonscape of Mission Avenue in the Flats — block after block of ashy, broken tenements. How do you deal with a guy like that?
The hell with him, Vega figures. Let Artie chase crackheads around the Flats forever. Let him rot here. But not Julio Vega. Vega is a player. He’s moving up. Up and out. If, if… See, Detective Vega can dream about Homicide or SIU all day, but first he needs to make a little noise. He needs a few skins to show the Commissioner’s office. He needs this score.
Vega and Trudell stand beside the apartment door like sentinels.
The other men avoid the area directly in front of the door as best they can, but the landing is small, and they wind up arrayed along the stairs leading up to the next floor. There are four uniforms among them. The rest — the Narcotics guys — wear jeans, sneakers, and Kevlar vests. Casual. None of the commando-style gear other units use. This is the Flats; these guys have gone through doors before.
For several seconds the men listen for noise in the apartment and, hearing none, they turn to Vega for the signal.
Vega kneels against the wall, then nods toward Trudell.
The burly detective steps in front of the door. The temperature in the hallway is pushing ninety degrees. Trudell is sweating in his vest. His T-shirt is stained. His beard is damp; curly orange tendrils glisten under his chin. The big policeman smiles, maybe out of nervousness. He hoists a five-foot steel pipe into the crook of his right elbow. Later, the newspapers will describe the pipe as a battering ram, but in truth it is just a segment of water pipe filled with concrete and fitted with two L-shaped handles.
Vega holds up five fingers, then four, three, two — on one he points at Trudell.
Trudell smashes the door with the pipe. The stairwell echoes with a sound like a bass drum.
The door does not budge.
Trudell steps back, drives the pipe into the door again.
The door shakes but it holds.
The other cops watch, increasingly uneasy. ‘Come on, big man,’ Vega encourages.
A third strike. The bass-drum sound.
A fourth — this time with a different sound, a boom-crack.
One of the upper door panels bursts out from the inside blasted out — a shot fired from inside the apartment a spray of blood sneezes out of Trudell’s forehead red mist a scrap of scalp and Trudell is on his back, the crown of his head butterflied open.
The pipe falls to the floor with a thump.
Cops jump back, throw themselves flat against the stairs, against one another. ‘Artie!’ one yells. Another: ‘GunGunGunGunGun!’
Vega stares at Trudell’s body. Blood is everywhere. Red droplets spattered on the wall, a pool of it spreading thick under Trudell’s head. The pipe lies right in front of the door. Vega wants to pick it up but his legs won’t move.
‘The quality of a nation’s civilization can be largely measured by the methods it uses in the enforcement of its criminal law.’
Maurice Oulette tried to kill himself once but succeeded only in blowing off the right side of his jawbone. A doctor down in Boston was able to construct a prosthetic jaw, with imperfect results. The surgery left Maurice’s face with a melted appearance, and he went to great lengths to hide it. When he was younger (the accident happened when Maurice was nineteen), he wore a bandanna around his face like a bank robber in an old western. This gave Maurice, who was otherwise a mousy and unromantic sort of guy, a dashing appearance he seemed to enjoy for a while. Eventually he got tired of the bank-robber mask, though. He was always lifting it up to catch a breath of fresh air or to take a drink. So he simply discarded the thing one day, and since then Maurice has been about as unself-conscious as a jawless man can be.
Most people in town accept Maurice’s deformity as if it were no more unusual to be jawless than to be nearsighted or left-handed. They are even a little protective of him, taking care to look him in the eye, call him by name. If the summer people stare, as even the adults invariably do, you can bet they’ll catch an icy stare right back, from Red Caffrey or Ginny Thurler or anyone else who happens to be around, a look that says, Eyes front, mister. Versailles is a nice town that way. I used to think of this place as an enormous Venus’s-flytrap with glue-sticky streets and snapping wings that snared young people like me and held us here until it was too late to ever live anywhere else. But these people have stuck by Maurice Oulette and they’ve stuck by me too.
They appointed me chief of police when I was twenty-four. For a few months I, Benjamin Wilmot Truman, was the youngest police chief in the United States, or so it was assumed around here. My reign was brief; later that same year, there was a story in USA Today about a twenty-two-year-old who was elected sheriff in Oregon somewhere. Not that I ever enjoyed the distinction anyway. Truth be told, I never wanted to be a cop at all, let alone police chief in Versailles.
In any event, Maurice lived in his late father’s white clapboard house, subsisting on SSI checks and occasional free meals from the town’s two competing diners. He’d won a settlement from the Maine Department of Social Services for negligent monitoring of his case while he shot the jawbone off his head, so he was comfortable enough. But, for reasons no one understood, the last few years Maurice had ventured out of the house less and less. The consensus in town was that he was becoming a little reclusive and maybe even a little crazy. But he had never hurt anyone (except himself), so the general view was that whatever Maurice Oulette did out here was nobody’s business but his own.
I tended to agree with that position too, though I drew one exception. Every few months, with no warning, Maurice decided to use the streetlights on Route 2 for target practice, to the great distress of motorists traveling between Millers Falls, Mattaquisett township, and Versailles. (The name is pronounced Ver- sales, not Ver- sigh.) Maurice was usually lit on Wild Turkey on these occasions, which may account for his poor decision-making and poorer aim. On this night — it was October 10, 1997 — the call came in around ten, Peggy Butler complaining that ‘Mr Oulette is shooting at cars again.’ I assured her Maurice wasn’t shooting at cars, he was shooting at streetlights, and the odds of him hitting a car were actually very slim. ‘Ha ha, Mr Comedian,’ Peggy said.
Off I went. I began to hear the shots when I got within a mile or two of the house. These were sharp rifle cracks at irregular intervals, once every fifteen seconds or so. Unfortunately it was necessary for me to go up Route 2 to reach the house, which meant passing through Maurice’s crosshairs. I lit up the wigwags, the light bar, the alley lights, every bulb that truck had — it must have looked like a Mardi Gras float — with the hope that Maurice would hold his fire a minute. I wanted him to know it was only the police.
I parked the Bronco with two wheels on the lawn, lights flashing. At the rear corner of the house, I shouted, ‘Maurice, it’s Ben Truman.’ No response. ‘Hey, Rambo, would you stop shooting for a second?’ Again there was no response, but then, there was no shooting either, which I took to be a positive sign. ‘Alright, I’m coming out,’ I announced. ‘Now, Maurice, don’t shoot.’
The backyard was a small rectangle of scrub grass, sand, and pine needles. It was scattered with detritus of various kinds: a skeletal clothes-drying rack, a street-hockey goal, a milk crate. In the far corner an old Chevy Nova lay flat on its belly, the wheels having been transplanted to some other shitbox Chevy Nova years before. The car still had its Maine license plate, with the picture of a lobster and the motto VACATIONLAND.
Maurice stood at the edge of the yard with a rifle in the crook of his arm. The pose suggested a gentleman hunter on a break from shooting quail. He wore boots, oil-stained work pants, a red flannel jacket, and a baseball cap pulled low over the brow. His head was down, which was not unusual. You got used to addressing the button on his cap.
I shined my flashlight over him. ‘Evening, Maurice.’
‘Evenin’, Chief,’ the cap said.
‘What’s going on out here?’
‘Just shootin’ is all.’
‘I see that. You about scared Peggy Butler half to death. You want to tell me what the hell you’re shooting at?’
‘Them lights there.’ Maurice nodded toward Route 2 without looking up.
The two of us stood there for a moment nodding at each other.
‘You hit any?’
‘Something wrong with the gun?’
‘Well let’s have a look at it, Maurice.’
He handed me the rifle, an old Remington I’d confiscated at least a dozen times. I checked that there was a round in the chamber, then pinged one off a metal fence-pole at the edge of the field. ‘Gun’s okay,’ I informed him. ‘Must be you that’s off.’
Maurice gave a little murmuring laugh.
I patted down the outside of his coat, felt the box of shells in his pocket. Reaching inside, my fingers got snarled in the Kleenex balls Maurice collected there like chestnuts. ‘Jesus, Maurice, do you ever clean out these pockets?’ I pulled out the box of ammunition and stuck it in my own pocket. A box of Marlboro reds I opened and slipped back in Maurice’s coat. ‘Okay if I take a look around and see how you’re doing out here?’
He looked up at last. The skin grafts along his concave jawline shone silvery in the flashlight. ‘’M I under arrest?’
I went in the back door, leaving Maurice where I’d found him. He kept his arms by his sides like a scolded child.
The kitchen stank of boiled vegetables and body odor. A fifth of Jim Beam stood on the table, half empty. The refrigerator was empty save for an ancient box of baking soda. In the cabinets were a few cans (Spaghetti-Os, Green Giant corn), a few packets of powdered soup, and a tiny hole through which carpenter ants were entering and exiting.
‘Maurice,’ I called to him, ‘has your caseworker been out to see you?’
With the barrel of Maurice’s rifle, I nudged open the bathroom door and shined the flashlight about. The tub and toilet were stained yellow. Two cigarette butts floated in the toilet. Beneath the sink, a section of the wall had rotted, and a piece of particle board had been nailed there to patch the hole. At the edges of the board, the ground outside was visible.
I switched off the lights and closed up the house.
‘Maurice, you remember what protective custody is?’
‘What is it?’
‘It’s when you put me in the jail but I’m not under arrest.’
‘That’s right. And do you remember why I have to do that, put you in protective custody?’
‘To protect me, I guess. That’s why they call it that.’
‘Well, yeah. Exactly. So that’s what we’re going to do, Maurice, we’re going to put you in protective custody before you kill someone while you’re taking potshots at streetlights.’
‘I didn’t hit none.’
‘Well, Maurice, that doesn’t exactly make me feel better about it. See, if you hit what you were aiming at…’
He gave me a blank expression.
‘Look, the point is, you can’t shoot at them. They’re town property. Besides, what if you hit a car?’
‘I never shot no cars.’
These conversations with Maurice only go so far, and this one had about run its course. It wasn’t completely clear whether Maurice was just slow or a little crazy. Either way, he’d earned some leeway. He’d survived a maelstrom of emotions no outsider could fathom, and he had the scars to prove it.
He looked up at me. In the moonlight, with his right side in darkness, his face was restored nearly to normal. It was the sort of lean, dark-eyed face common around here. The face of a voyageur or a timberman in an old sepia photo.
‘You hungry, Maurice?’
‘Did you eat?’
‘Want to go to the Owl?’
‘Thought you were PC’ing me.’
‘Do I get my gun back?’
‘Nope. I’m going to have it forfeited before you shoot somebody. Like me.’
‘Chief Truman, I ain’t gonna shoot you.’
‘Well, I appreciate that. But I’m going to keep it just the same because — and this is no disrespect, Maurice — you’re not the greatest shot that ever was.’
‘The judge’ll make you give it back. I got my F.I.D.’
‘What, are you a lawyer now?’
Maurice made his little laugh, like a moan. ‘Ayuh, guess so.’
There were a few people at the Owl, all sitting at the bar, all drinking Bud long-necks, staring up at a hockey game on the TV. Phil Lamphier, who owned the place and in the off-season was the only bartender, was leaning on his elbows at the end of the bar, reading a newspaper. The little countertop was L-shaped, and Maurice and I slid onto stools on the short side, facing the others.
A murmur of ‘Hey, Ben’ came from the group, though Diane Harned waited a moment before greeting me as ‘Chief Truman.’ She shot me a little smirk, then returned her attention to the TV. Diane had been good-looking once, but the color had drained out of her. Her blond hair had faded from yellow to straw. Raccoon shadows had formed under her eyes. Still, she carried herself with a pretty girl’s arrogance, and there’s something to be said for that. Anyway, we’d had a few dates, Diane and I, and a few reunions after that. We had an understanding.
Maurice ordered a Jim Beam, which I immediately canceled. ‘We’ll have two Cokes,’ I told Phil, who made a face.
Jimmy Lownes asked, ‘You got Al Capone here under arrest?’
‘Nope. Heat’s out at Maurice’s house so he’s going to stay over at the station tonight till we get it turned on again. We just figured we’d get something to eat first.’
Diane gave me a skeptical look but said nothing.
‘My taxes paying for that dinner?’ Jimmy teased.
‘No, I’m treating.’
Bob Burke said, ‘Well, that’s taxes, Ben. Taxes is what pays your salary, technically’
‘Yours too,’ Diane shot back. ‘Technically’
Burke, who worked for the town doing maintenance in the public buildings, was sheepish. Still, I did not need Diane to defend me.
‘It doesn’t take a lot of taxes to pay my salary,’ I said. ‘Besides, as soon as they find a new chief, I’ll be off the dole. Get my ass out of this jerkwater place finally.’
Diane snorted. ‘And go where?’
‘I’ve been thinking maybe I’ll go do some traveling.’
‘Well, listen to you. Just where do you think you’re gonna go?’
‘Prague.’ She said the word as if she were trying it out for the first time. ‘I don’t even know what that is.’
‘It’s in Czechoslovakia.’
Diane sniffed again, disdainful.
Bobby Burke cut in, ‘It’s the Czech Republic now. That’s what they called it on the Olympics, the Czech Republic’ Burke was a master of this kind of trivia. The man eked out a living mopping floors at the grade school, but he could tell you the names of every first lady, all the presidential assassins, and the eight states that border Missouri. A man like that can throw off the rhythm of a conversation.
‘Ben,’ Diane persisted, ‘why in hell would you want to go to Prague?’ There was an edge in her voice. Jimmy Lownes gave her a little nudge and said, ‘Uh-oh,’ like Diane was jealous. But it wasn’t that.
‘Why would I want to go to Prague? Because it’s beautiful.’
‘And what are you going to do once you get there?’
‘Just look around, I guess. See the sights.’
‘You’re just going to… look around?’
‘That was my plan, yes.’
It wasn’t much of a plan, I admit. But it seemed to me I’d been planning too long already, waiting for The Opportunity. I have always been one of those long-thinking, slow-acting men, the type that smothers every idea with doubt and worry. It was time to shake free of all that. I figured I could at least get as far as Prague before my second-guessing caught up to me. I sure as hell wasn’t going to rot in Versailles, Maine.
Jimmy asked, ‘You taking Maurice here with you?’
‘You bet. Whattaya say, Maurice? Want to come to Prague?’
Maurice looked up and grinned his shy, close-mouthed smile.
‘Maybe I’ll go too,’ Jimmy announced.
Diane snorted again. ‘Right.’
‘Jeezum Crow,’ Jimmy said, ‘why not?’
‘Why not? Look at yourselves!’
We looked but none of us saw anything.
‘It’s just, you guys aren’t exactly Prague people.’
‘What the hell does that mean, “Prague people”?’ Jimmy Lownes could not have found Prague on a map if you gave him a week to look. But his indignation was genuine enough. ‘We’re people, aren’t we? All’s we have to do is go to Prague and we’ll be Prague people.’
‘Jimmy, really, what the hell are you going to do in Prague?’ Diane persisted.
‘Same as Ben: have a look around. I might even like it. Who knows, maybe I’ll stay over there. Show you what Prague people I am.’
‘They have good beer,’ Bob Burke chimed in. ‘Pilsner beer.’
‘See, I like it already.’ Jimmy raised his Bud bottle in salute, though it was not clear whether he was saluting Prague or Bobby Burke or just beer.
‘Diane, you could come along,’ I offered. ‘You might like it there too.’
‘I’ve got a better idea, Ben. Why don’t I just go home and set my money on fire.’
‘Alright,’ I said, ‘well I guess that’s it, then. Me, Maurice, and Jimmy. Prague or bust.’
Maurice and I clinked glasses, sealing the plan.
But Diane just could not let it go. Talk of getting out always hit a nerve with her. ‘Oh, Ben,’ she said, ‘you’re so totally full of shit. Always have been. You’re not going anywhere and you know it. One day it’s California, the next day it’s New York, now it’s Prague. Where’s it gonna be next? Timbuktu? Tell you what, I’ll make you a bet: In ten years you’ll still be sitting on that same stool spouting your same bullshit about Prague or who knows where.’
‘Let him alone, Diane,’ Phil Lamphier said. ‘If Ben wants to go to Prague or wherever, no reason he can’t.’
There must have been something in my expression, too, that told Diane she’d crossed the line because she looked away, preferring to fuss with a pack of cigarettes rather than look at my face. ‘Oh, come on, Ben,’ she said, ‘I’m just having fun.’ She lit her cigarette, trying to look like Barbara Stanwyck. The effect was more Mae West. ‘We still friends?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Maybe I should come over to the station tonight. Heat’s out at my house too.’
This prompted a chorus of howls from Lownes and Burke. Even Maurice hooted along from beneath the bill of his cap.
‘Diane, assaulting a police officer is a crime.’
‘Good. Arrest me.’ She held out her wrists to be handcuffed, and again the men whooped it up.
Maurice and I stuck around at the Owl for an hour or so. Phil heated up a couple of frozen potpies for us, and Maurice devoured his so fast I thought he might swallow the fork along with it. I offered him half of mine but he would not take it, so we brought the leftover pie back to the station and Maurice ate it there. He stayed in the lockup that night. There’s a mattress in there, and it couldn’t have been too much worse than his drafty house. I left the cell door open so he could go to the toilet in the hall, but I dragged a chair to the doorway and slept with my feet across it so Maurice could not walk out without waking me. The danger was not that Maurice would hurt anyone, of course; the danger was that he would hurt himself while he was drunk and nominally in protective custody. Shit happens.
I sat awake in that chair until well after three, listening to Maurice. The man made more noise asleep than most people do awake, murmuring, snoring, farting. But it wasn’t Maurice that kept me up so much as all the other things. I had to get out of Versailles, I had to shake off that big Venus’s-flytrap already clamped around my ankle. I had to get out, especially now.
At the Rufus King Elementary School the next morning, I watched the kids cross Route 2. I greeted them all by name, a point of pride with me. One by one they squeaked, ‘Hi, Chief Truman.’ One boy asked, ‘What happened to your hair?’ He dragged out the word, hey-yer. What happened to my hair, of course, was that I’d slept at the station with my head against the wall. I gave the kid a look and threatened to arrest him, at which he snorted and giggled.
On to the Acadia County District Court to check on arrests in the neighboring towns. The courthouse is in Millers Falls, a twenty-minute drive. I had no arrests of my own to report but I went anyway. There was the usual chatter among the clerks and the police prosecutors. A rumor had gotten around about some kid at the regional high school who was selling marijuana out of his locker. The chief in Mattaquisett, Gary Finbow, had even prepared a search warrant for the locker. Gary wanted to know, Would I read over the warrant application, make sure it looked alright? I skimmed it, circled a few misspellings, told him he ought to just talk with the kid’s parents and forget about it. ‘Why would you screw up a kid’s college application over a couple of joints?’ He gave me a look, and I let it drop. There’s no sense explaining with guys like Gary. It would be like trying to explain Hamlet to a Great Dane.
So, back to the station. The sense of ennui and fatigue — of unraveling — was a palpable thing by now. Dick Ginoux, my senior officer, was at the front desk reading a day-old copy of USA Today. He held the paper at arm’s length and peered at it over his eyeglasses. His eyes flickered away from the paper for only a moment when I came in. ‘Morning, Chief.’
‘What’s going on, Dick?’
‘Hmm? Demi Moore shaved her head. Must be for a picture.’
‘No, I mean here.’
‘Ah.’ Dick lowered the paper and looked around the empty office. ‘Nothing.’
Dick Ginoux was fifty-something, with a long, horsey face. His sole contribution to local law enforcement was to occupy the dispatcher’s desk with his newspaper. This made him about as useful as a potted plant.
He took off his glasses and stared at me in a creepy, paternal way. ‘Are you alright, Ben?’
‘A little tired, that’s all.’
‘Yeah.’ I scanned the office. Same three desks. Same file cabinet. Same dirty six-over-six windows. Suddenly but quite desperately I dreaded the prospect of spending the rest of the morning here. ‘You know what, Dick, I’m going out for a while.’
‘I’m not sure.’
Dick pouted his lower lip in a concerned expression but he said nothing.
‘Hey, Dick, can I ask you something? You ever thought about maybe being chief someday?’
‘Now why would I do that?’
‘Because you’d be a good chief.’
‘Well we’ve already got a chief, Ben. You’re the chief.’
‘Right, but if I wasn’t around.’
‘I don’t follow you. Why wouldn’t you be around? Where you going off to?’
‘Nowhere. I’m just saying. If.’
‘If — Never mind.’
‘Alrighty, Chief.’ Dick slipped his glasses back on and returned to the paper. ‘ Awwwl righty.’
I’d made up my mind to check the cabins by the lake, a job I’d been putting off for weeks, but I decided to stop at home first and clean up. I knew my father would be there. Maybe that was the true point of the visit, to let my father know what I was up to. Looking back, it’s hard to remember what I was thinking. Dad and I had been uneasy roommates lately. My mother had died eight weeks before, and in the chaos that followed her death we’d spoken very little. Mum had always been the link between us, the interpreter, explainer and clarifier. The broker of grudges. Now we needed her more than ever.
I found him in the kitchen, at the stove. Claude Truman had always been a husky, shouldery guy, and even at his age — he was sixty-seven — there was a sense of physicality about him. He stood with his feet spread, as if the stove might rush at him and he would be called upon to muscle the thing back into its place against the wall. He turned to see me come into the room but he did not say anything.
‘What are you making?’
I looked over his shoulder. ‘Eggs. Those are called eggs.’
Dad was a mess. He wore a filthy flannel work shirt, untucked. He hadn’t shaved for days.
He said, ‘What happened to you last night?’
‘Stayed at the station. I had to PC Maurice or he would have froze in that house of his.’
‘Station’s not a hotel,’ he grumbled. He pawed through the clutter in the sink for a relatively clean plate and slid his eggs onto it. ‘You should’ve called.’
Dad cleared a space for himself at the table, moving, among other things, a forty-ounce bottle of Miller.
I picked up the empty bottle. ‘What the hell is this?’
He shot me a baleful look.
‘Maybe I should’ve PC’ed you,’ I said.
‘Try it sometime.’
‘Where’d you get it?’
‘What’s the difference? Free country. No law against me having a beer.’
I shook my head at him, just as my mother used to, and tossed the bottle in the trash. ‘No. No law against it.’
He gave me a dark look to seal his little victory, then turned his attention to the eggs, splitting and smearing the yolks.
‘Dad, I’m going out to the lake to check the cabins.’
‘“So go”? That’s it? You don’t want to talk about anything before I leave?’
‘Like that bottle, maybe. Maybe today’s not a good day.’
‘Just go do what you have to do, Ben. I can take care of myself.’
He sat fiddling with the eggs, his complexion nearly as gray as his hair. He was, finally, just another old man trying to figure out what to do with himself, how to fill the rest of his days. The thought occurred to me, as it does to all sons contemplating their fathers: Was he me? Was this the man I was becoming? I had always considered myself a descendant of my mother’s line, not my father’s; a Wilmot, not a Truman. But I was his son too. I had his big hands if not his bullying temperament. What exactly did I owe this old man?
I went upstairs to wash up. The house — the same one I grew up in — was small, with just two little bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor. The air was a little funky; Dad had not been washing his clothes regularly. I splashed icy water on my face and slipped on a fresh uniform shirt. The fabric puckered around the VERSAILLES POLICE shoulder patch, which was impossible to flatten under an iron even after paralyzing the thing with spray starch. I stood in my parents’ bedroom, where there was a mirror, smoothing this imperfection.
Tucked in the lower right-hand corner of the mirror frame was an old photo of my father wearing this same uniform and a grim expression. This was the real Claude Truman. The Chief. Fists balled on his hips, barrel torso, flattop haircut, smile like a grimace. ‘A man and a half,’ that was how he used to describe himself. The snapshot must have been taken in the early eighties, around the time my mother banned alcohol from the house once and for all. I was nine the night it happened, and at the time I thought it was my fault, at least in part. I was the one who cost Dad his drinking privileges.
That night, he came home in one of his glowering moods and fell into his chair by the TV. For my father, drunkenness was a bad attitude. He got very quiet, radiating menace like the hum emitted by electric power lines. I knew enough to keep my distance. But I could not resist the gun he dropped on the table with his wallet and keys. A big. 38 usually glimpsed on top of his dresser or hidden under his coat. Here it was, in plain view. I inched toward it, mesmerized — my intention was just to touch it, to satisfy a craving for its oily steel surface, its textured grip — and I reached out one finger. My ear exploded. Excruciating pain burst inward from my eardrum: He’d smacked the earhole with the flat of his palm because he knew it would cause the most agony yet leave no visible mark. I heard myself screaming in the distance. Over the roar in my ear, there was his voice: ‘Quit the boohooing!’ and ‘You want to kill yourself?’ and ‘Let that be a lesson to you!’ — for there was always an exalted purpose to Dad’s violence.
Mum was livid. She poured out every bottle, warned him never to bring alcohol into ‘her house’ again, and never to come home with it on his breath. There was shouting, but he did not resist her. Instead, he vented his rage on the kitchen walls, punching holes right through the plaster and Sheetrock to the rough planks behind. Lying in bed upstairs, I could feel the tremors.
But Dad must have sensed it was time to quit too. His drinking and temper were no secret around here. To some extent, I’m sure, the exaggerated respect people paid him — the displays of esteem and friendship for the law-and-order police chief — were the false tributes paid to bullies.
For the next eighteen years — until my mother died — he stayed sober. His reputation for violence persisted, but gradually Versellians came to view his rages as Dad himself did: Most of the people he pounded on or bellowed at or otherwise abused probably had it coming to them.
I tucked the old snapshot of Dad back in the mirror frame. It was all ancient history now.
On my way out, I brought down a clean shirt for him and hung it in the kitchen. I left him there pushing scraps of egg around his plate.
Lake Mattaquisett is roughly the shape of an hourglass. It stretches about a mile from end to end along a north-south axis. The southern side is the smaller of the two, though it is what most people are referring to when they mention the lake by name. At the southern tip is the former ‘fishing lodge’ of the Whitney family of New York. It is a camp lodge in the rustic style preferred by nature-minded Manhattanites of a certain class before the Depression. Now owned by a family trust, the big house dominates this end of the lake. There is a sloping trail that leads from the house through the verdant gloom of the pine woods and emerges, a quarter mile later, into the bright reflecting light at the water’s edge. The place is generally occupied only in August, when the plague of mosquitoes has eased somewhat. Other, more modest homes dot the banks of the lake, but they do not compare to the Whitney lodge and so, as if conscious of their inferiority, they hide from the road and can only really be seen from the water. The northern side of the lake is far less developed and less fashionable. Here there are only box-frame cabins built on short concrete piles. They rent by the week from Memorial Day to Labor Day, to working folks from Portland or Boston. To people from away. Sports, we call them, flatlanders — tourists, the lifeblood of this place.
I made an effort to pay equal attention to the dwellings at both ends of the lake, not so much out of sympathy for the working stiffs, but because the little cabins were more likely to be broken into than the grander homes. The cabins attracted local kids looking for a place to party. A kid could get in with no more effort than it took to pop the hasp that held a padlock. A tire iron usually did the trick. So I checked them every few weeks, called the owner when there was a break-in, saw to it that broken hinges and window frames were repaired. I even picked up the beer bottles and marijuana roaches and condoms from cabin floors.
The cabin where I found the body was the fourth I checked that morning.
I might have driven right past it without getting out of the Bronco since it was plain from a distance that there was no damage to the exterior. The windows were covered with padlocked wooden shutters, the door was undamaged. But there was a smell, faint at first but overpowering as I got nearer — an acrid, ammoniac stench, the distinctive smell of decay. I’d smelled it before, usually on deer hit by cars on Route 2 or the Post Road. This might have been a large animal too, a deer or even a moose lying dead in the woods nearby. But this smell was unmistakably coming from the cabin, and I’d never known a moose to die in bed.
I got a pry bar from the truck and popped open the door.
The smell was overwhelming. The muscles in the wall of my throat clenched at the odor. I didn’t have a handkerchief to cover my nose as detectives do in movies, so I settled for burying my face in the crook of my elbow. Wheezing, I shined my flashlight about in the darkness.
A pile of clothing on the floor resolved itself into a body. A man curled on his side. He wore only khaki shorts and a T-shirt. The bare legs were eggshell white with rose-marble highlights where the skin met the floor. Above the swollen legs, the T-shirt was rucked up to reveal a bloated white belly. A frizz of red hair ran up to the navel. The left eye looked toward me; the right was obliterated, in its place a cake of dried blood. Above that, tissue blossomed out of a trench in his scalp. The wood floor was stained with dried blood in a wide crescent radiating out from the shattered head. The stain appeared black in the flashlight beam. Near the head lay the left half of a pair of eyeglasses.
The room began to turn. I breathed hard in the folds of my coat sleeve. The cabin was empty. Dresser drawers were ajar, the mattresses rolled up and tied with twine.
I stepped forward. Near the body, a wallet. A crumpled wad of bills, maybe fifty dollars total, lay on the floor. I knelt and, using a ballpoint pen, teased open the wallet. It contained a five-point gold star impressed with the
words ROBERT M. DANZIGER ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY • SUSSEX COUNTY.
The usual cant is that we are blase about violence, that movies and TV inure us to it. Real violence and injury are not supposed to shock us because we have seen the hyperreality of movie violence. The truth is precisely the opposite. Filmic violence — all those bursting blood bags and death poses, all those actors holding their breath, all that artful realism — only increases the shock value of an actual corpse. The primal weirdness of a dead body, it turns out, is in its very reality — in its lumpish, implausible nearness.
I was horrified by the body of Robert Danziger. It assaulted the senses. That glistening cleft in the scalp, the distended and discolored torso. The skin rubbery and taut over the swollen calves. The overpowering stink that hung like smoke in the sinuses. I made it to the woods a good ways off from the cabin before vomiting. Even that did not still the vertigo. I lay down on the pine needles and closed my eyes.
That afternoon was filled with state troopers, assistant AGs from Portland and even Augusta. The prosecutor in charge of the state’s investigation was a larval politician named Gregg Cravish (it rhymed with crayfish). He had the waxy, artificial look of a TV Game-Show Host. Even the crow’s-feet sprouting on his temples looked like they had been placed there intentionally to add a little gravitas to his too-handsome face. Cravish explained that the staties would handle the investigation. Under Maine law, the AG’s office has jurisdiction over all murders. ‘Standard procedure,’ the Game-Show Host assured me with a little squeeze on my shoulder. ‘We’ll sure be needing your help, though.’
So I stood aside and watched.
A team of state-police techs pored over the cabin and grounds like archaeologists on a dig. The Game-Show Host peered in the cabin door now and then but spent most of his time leaning against a car, looking bored.
After some time, I was asked to block the roads leading to the cabin. Beyond that, it was clear, my job was just to stay the hell out of the way. I put an officer about a mile up the access road to the north, and I covered the road from the opposite direction myself. Occasionally cars would pass — troopers, more Game-Show Hosts, the ME to collect the body. They waved as they drove by. I waved back, then returned to scrubbing little spatters of vomit off my shoes with spit and Kleenex. The nausea receded, replaced by a headache. And I realized that I could not simply wait. I had to act. For there were two choices at this point: either allow the investigation to proceed without me, as it had already begun to do, or inject myself into it somehow. The first — taking a pass on the whole thing — was not really an option. I was already involved, however unwillingly. I could not walk away from this case, a homicide in my own town.
It was past noon by the time I returned to the cabin, determined to take my rightful place in the investigation. Cravish and his team were already packing their gear into trunks and loading the trunks into the vans. They had gathered enough fibers, photos, and dead bodies to keep them busy for a while. The cabin was trussed up in yellow crime-scene tape like a big Christmas present, and a second cordon of tape had been strung along wooden stakes around the building to deter anyone from venturing near. I was able to walk through this scene unnoticed. To the Game-Show Hosts, I was invisible.
The corpse lay curled on a steel-top gurney, forgotten. In the open air the smell of it had dissipated a little, enough at least that the odor no longer made my head swim. I found myself wandering toward it, fascinated. There was a lurid appeal to the thing. The bare limbs, swollen and pallid and hairless. The face distorted by the fatal wound. It seemed inhuman, this creature. A snail shucked from its shell, left to wriggle about unprotected, to burn in the sun.
I was staring down at the corpse when Cravish and another man came up to the opposite side of the gurney. The new man was small but he had a stiff, combative look, like a rooster. Cravish introduced him as Edmund Kurth from Boston Homicide.
‘Boston?’ I asked.
The Bostonian Kurth stared at me. He seemed to be scrutinizing me for signs of rural stupidity. I should say right up front that there was something disconcerting about Ed Kurth, even on this first meeting. He was the sort of man one is anxious to get away from. He had a severe, angular face dominated by a narrow nose and two dark eyes. His skin was pitted with acne scars. Thick eyebrows imparted to his face a permanent scowl, as if he had just been shoved in the back.
‘The victim was a DA in Boston,’ Cravish explained to me. He gave Kurth a look: Do you see what I have to deal with?
‘Boston,’ I repeated, to no one in particular.
Kurth bent over the body, examining it with the same unblinking focus he had directed at me. The detective snapped on rubber surgical gloves and prodded the thing with his finger as if he were trying to wake it up. I watched his face as he came nose to nose with Bob Danziger’s remains. I expected a reaction, a flinch. But Kurth’s face remained impassive. To judge by his expression, it would be hard to tell if he was looking into a dead man’s ruptured eye socket or just poking through his glove compartment for a map.
‘Well, maybe that’s why he was killed,’ I ventured, eager to show my instinct for sleuthing. ‘Because he was a DA.’
Kurth did not respond.
I babbled on. ‘ If he was killed. I mean, it could be a suicide.’ Now, here was an insight. In crime-scene training, I vaguely recalled, we learned that gunshot suicides invariably shoot themselves in one of three places: the temple, the roof of the mouth, or between the eyes. That this man might have killed himself struck me as a profound observation, though I imparted it with calculated cool — in a tone that suggested, Yes, sir, I’m an old hand at the homicide game. ‘Maybe he went to kill himself and he flinched, wound up shooting himself in the eye.’
Kurth said, without looking up, ‘He didn’t kill himself, Officer.’
‘It’s Chief, actually. Chief Truman.’
‘Chief Truman. There’s no gun here.’
‘Ah, no gun, well.’ My ears went hot.
A little smile puckered the lips of the Game-Show Host.
‘Maybe he inserted the bullet manually.’
‘That would be unusual,’ Kurth informed me.
‘It was a joke.’
He glared another moment as if I were the back-wardest country clod imaginable, then returned to the creature on the gurney, which he seemed to find less repulsive.
The Game-Show Host asked me, gesturing toward the body, ‘Did he have any connection to this place?’
‘Not that I know of. I spoke to him a little bit while he was up here-’
‘You knew him?’
‘No, I didn’t know him. I just spoke to him. He seemed like a nice guy. Kind of… gentle. I certainly didn’t expect-’
‘What did you talk about?’
‘Nothing really,’ I said. ‘We just kind of talked for a while. We get a lot of tourists come through here. I don’t bother with them, most of the time.’ I nodded toward the hills around the lake. The trees were daubed with yellow and red. ‘They come to look at the leaves.’
‘So he was just here on vacation?’
‘I guess so. Some vacation…’
We stood shaking our heads over Danziger’s body. I did remember meeting this Bob Danziger. He had a shy little wave, a smile nearly hidden under the eaves of his mustache. We’d met on the sidewalk in front of the station. Hi, he’d said, you must be Chief Truman…
I began to say to the Game-Show Host, ‘I’d like to be involved-’
But a cell phone chirped on his belt. He held up one finger to silence me while he answered it. ‘Gregg Cravish.’ He kept that finger up as he uttered monosyllables into the phone. ‘Yes. Don’t know yet. Fine. Good.’
When he was done, I said again, ‘I’d like to be involved in the investigation.’
‘Of course. You found the body. You’re an important witness.’
‘Right, a witness, sure. I meant, I’d like to do more than just guard the road.’
‘Securing the scene is important, Chief. The last thing I need is to get OJ’ed in front of a jury. If the crime scene is contaminated…’ Cravish looked at me portentously, preassigning the blame for a contaminated crime scene.
‘Look, the guy died in my town,’ I told him. ‘And like I said, I met him once. I’m just saying, I’d like to be in the loop, that’s all. I’m supposed to be the chief here.’
The Game-Show Host nodded to signal he understood. ‘Okay, sure, we’ll keep you in the loop.’ But his expression said, I understand. You’re supposed to be the chief and it wouldn’t look good if all these flatlanders swooped in and chased you off your own case. So I’ll humor you, I’ll let you hang around awhile.
Kurth straightened up from examining the corpse. ‘Officer, does the press have the story?’
‘Yes, the press — newspapers, TV.’
‘No, I know what the press is. It’s just, we don’t really have a press here. There’s a newspaper, but it’s more of a community thing. David Cornwell puts it out by himself. It’s the schools and the weather mostly. The rest he just makes up.’
‘Don’t give him any information,’ Kurth ordered.
‘Well, I have to tell him something. In a town like this-’
‘Then withhold the details. Or get him to. Will he do that?’
‘I guess so. I’ve never asked.’
And that was as much conversation as Edmund Kurth cared to lavish on me. He snapped off the gloves, dropped them on the gurney, and stalked off without a word.
‘Mr Kurth,’ I called to him.
I stood there blinking at him. A sentence made its way to the back of my throat but no farther: It’s Chief Truman, not Officer. ‘Never mind,’ I said.
Kurth hesitated. I imagine he was weighing whether to ignore me completely or tear out my heart and show it to me still beating. In the end, he just gave a little nod and moved on.
‘Have a nice day,’ I murmured, once he was out of earshot.
In a few minutes the caravan of official vehicles — cruisers, late-model Tauruses, a modified camper marked CRIME SCENE SERVICES, a black van from the Medical Examiner’s office — started their engines and pulled away. The clearing around the cabin was quiet again. The loons were rhonking over the lake.
Dick Ginoux appeared out of the gloomy woods. It occurred to me he’d been hiding there until the strangers left. He came over and stood beside me as the parade rumbled away down the access road. He shuffled the pine needles with his feet. ‘What do we do now, Chief?’
‘I don’t know, Dick.’
Kurth was wrong about one thing: You could not keep the case quiet, not in a place like this. There are no secrets in Versailles, Maine. Information shoots around the town like tremors over a spider’s web. Details of the murder began to emerge the same day, and within twenty-four hours most Versellians had a pretty good idea what we’d found in that cabin. Thankfully, people around here don’t scare easily, and the case excited more curiosity than fear. It was the hot topic at the Owl and McCarron’s. The morning after the body was discovered, Jimmy Lownes sidled up to me at the Owl and confided that he ‘knew a little about guns,’ if I was interested. Bobby Burke pleaded for a look-see inside the cabin. No one was immune.
‘Tell me what it looked like,’ Diane prodded.
This was at our poker game, a quarter-ante affair that met at the station to help me pass the Sunday-night shift. Diane was usually the most serious player at the table. She chain-smoked Merits, played conservatively, and rarely lost when she did go after a big pot. But tonight even Diane was distracted, even she had the bug.
‘Tell you what what looked like?’
‘It musta been the gormiest thing,’ Jimmy Lownes snorted. He took off his ball cap to scratch his head in wonder.
‘I can’t talk about it.’
‘What do you mean, you can’t talk about it?’ Diane was offended. ‘The whole town is talking about it! You’re the only one who isn’t.’
‘I can’t. They told me to keep my mouth shut.’
‘Oh, Ben, you are such a wuss.’
‘Hey, are we playing poker or not?’ I scolded.
Of course, they did not give a rat’s ass about poker, but it would have been unseemly to abandon the game altogether, so they acquiesced, albeit with murmurs of reluctance.
‘Alright, that’s better. Seven-card stud, roll your own-’
‘I bet it was stiff as a board.’
‘Jesus, Jimmy, I just got through saying. We’re not talking about this.’
‘I’m not asking you anything, Ben. I’m just saying: I bet it was stiff as a board.’
‘Ai-yi-yi, how should I know if it was stiff? I didn’t feel the thing!’ I dealt the cards, sensing their eyes on me. ‘Jimmy, it’s your bet.’
‘Did it smell?’
Jimmy checked, and the rest of the table promptly did the same. They barely glanced at their cards.
‘Alright, dealer bets two bucks.’ I tossed in two blue chips.
‘What, you can’t even tell us if it smelled?’
‘Alright, yes, Diane, it smelled.’
‘No, but what did it smell like?’
‘You really want to know what it smelled like?’
She put her cards down, exasperated. ‘Yes. I really do.’
‘I tell you what,’ Dick said, apropos of nothing, ‘The Chief never had a murder case.’
My father had retired, reluctantly, in 1995, but even two years later when people referred to The Chief, they meant him, not me.
‘Dick,’ I explained, ‘The Chief never worked a murder because nobody ever got murdered. It doesn’t make me anything special.’
‘Well now, I didn’t say you were anything special, Ben. I just said The Chief never had a case like this one.’
‘Jimmy, it’s two bucks to stay in.’
‘What are you gonna do now?’ Diane pressed.
‘We’re waiting for the AG to sort out what they found in the cabin.’
‘You’re just gonna wait? That’s crazy.’
‘Most murders are solved in the first twenty-four hours, you know, Ben.’ This was Bobby Burke with one of his signature factoids.
‘Look, this isn’t the Hardy Boys. You can’t just run out and investigate a murder on your own, just because you want to. There’s laws. The AG has jurisdiction. It’s not my case.’
‘Well it happened here,’ Bobby retorted.
‘And you found the body, Ben.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Not my case.’
‘The Chief would have grabbed it,’ Dick tossed in. ‘You could ask him to help you out, like a — whaddaya call it? — a consultant.’
I rolled my eyes. ‘I don’t need help that bad. Besides, he wouldn’t work for me.’
‘Did you ever ask him?’
I answered with a non sequitur. ‘Hey, do any of you guys know where he might have got a beer?’
‘Claude had a beer?’
‘One of those big bottles. Where did he get it?’
‘Could have got it anywhere. It’s just beer.’
‘It’s not just beer. If you hear who sold it to him, you let me know.’
‘What are you going to do? Arrest somebody for selling your old man a beer?’
‘I’m going to have a talk with him is all.’
‘Well,’ Dick sighed, steering us back to an older, hardier image of my father, ‘The Chief wouldn’t have listened to some smartass yuppie lawyer. No, sir. I’d like to see that kid tell your old man, “It’s not your case.” The Chief would have given him what-for.’
‘Dick, he’d have listened because he had to listen, same as I am.’
‘Well,’ Diane retorted, ‘your mother wouldn’t have listened.’ She exhaled cigarette smoke. ‘Why would she listen to some lawyer? She never listened to anyone else.’
There was a pregnant moment while the four of them waited to see how I would react to that. There was some risk in mentioning my mother. In the ten weeks since she’d died, I had wrapped myself up in righteous Yankee stoicism. Never mind that my grief carried something extra, a tinge of guilt and shame — more than the usual dose. But to my own surprise, Diane’s comment did not trigger any of the old sadness. We were thinking the same thing: If the Game-Show Host had ever tried to put off Annie Truman with the high-handedness he’d shown me…
‘She’d have kicked his ass,’ I said.
Here is my mother: Around 1977 or so, on a raw morning in early spring. The weather was damp. In our kitchen that morning, you could sense the dankness outside, the smells of rain and mud. Mum was at the table, reading a hardcover book. She was already dressed, her hair gathered at the back of her neck exposing the empty dimple-holes in her pierced ears. I was at the table too. And before me, my preferred breakfast of the moment, Apple Jacks and a glass of milk. The glass was a concession from my mother, who’d recently given up trying to force me to drink the unpotable milk in the bowl, with its filmy emulsion of cereal scum. There was still a lingering self-consciousness between us over this tiff. I had the strongest urge to drink the soiled milk for her, but I couldn’t quite do it. (Those amoeboid globules of Apple Jacks oil…)
‘What are you reading?’
‘A grown-up book.’
‘What’s it called?’
She showed me the cover.
‘Do you like that book?’
‘Why do you like it?’
‘Because I’m learning.’
‘It’s a history book. I’m learning about the past.’
‘Why would you want to learn that?’
‘To be better.’
‘Better than what?’
She looked at me. Blue-gray eyes, laugh lines. ‘Just a better person.’
Dad pulled up in his truck. The overnight shift was supposed to go from midnight to eight, but Dad always seemed to get home earlier. I heard him hawk his throat before coming inside. He sat down at the table with little mute greetings for Mum and me.
Look! I shot a glance at Mum: Does he know? There was a white patch in Dad’s bushy brown hair! Right at the top of his forehead! It was white powder, like baby powder, I guessed. Mum, do you see it?
‘Ben.’ My mother gave me a stern look to shut me up.
Dad said, ‘What is it, Ben?’
Mum’s face had gone a little white too. Her lips compressed into a line.
Dad offered around a box of doughnuts from the Hunny Dip doughnut shop in town. On the box was a cartoon of a brown honey pot brimming with thick, golden ooze. A doughnut floated in midair above the jar, dripping with the stuff. Dad said, ‘Here. From Hunny Dip’s, like you like.’
‘No, thank you.’
‘Go on, Anne. It won’t kill you.’
‘No, Claude.’ You could tell from Mum’s voice she was angry about him bringing home those doughnuts.
I helped myself to a chocolate glazed, which pleased him. He cupped my jaw in his thick-fingered paw and shook it. His fingers had a weird, tangy chlorine smell. There was, I noticed, more white powder on his shirt cuff.
‘Attsaboy It’s just a doughnut, for Christ’s sake.’
‘Don’t touch him, Claude.’
‘Don’t touch him? Why not?’
Her blue eyes were squinched half-shut, as if she wanted to deny her husband the pleasure of looking into them. ‘Ben, take your doughnut and go in the other room.’
‘But I’m not done yet-’
‘What about my cereal?’
Dad said, meekly, ‘You better go, Ben.’
My mother was a small woman, maybe five-two and thin. But somehow she was able to dominate her husband. He seemed to enjoy submitting to her too. It was a game, a little joke of his: Of all the people to boss around big Claude Truman, this little spitfire…
When I was safely out of the room — and eavesdropping from the TV room next door — I heard her say, ‘- my house.’
‘I said, get out of my house now.’
‘Annie, what the hell’s wrong with you?’
‘Claude, there’s powdered sugar in your hair. This is a little town, Claude. Did you have to rub my face in it?’
‘Rub your face-’
‘Claude, don’t. Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid, like I’m the only one who doesn’t know. I am not stupid, Claude.’
I did not really understand what was going on that morning, but I knew — I think I always knew — their relationship was a precarious one. Dad’s temper, his rabbity sexual habits, his ego, and Mum’s own strong personality all made for a volatile marriage. Not a bad marriage, but an inconstant one. Sometimes they acted like lovers; they disappeared upstairs on Sunday afternoons for naps or kissed on the lips or laughed over obscure incidents in their secret history. Other times, the strain between them was obvious, like the creaking of a rope under a heavy load. As a kid I assumed this was what true love looked like — that love was inherently unstable above a certain temperature.
I pushed the door open a crack to spy and was immediately seen.
Dad spotted me — wide-eyed, the doughnut glutinizing in my fingers — and something, some small breath of shame, went out of him. To my astonishment, he surrendered to Mum immediately, asking only, ‘How long till I can come back?’
‘Until I’m ready’
‘Annie, come on. Just tell me how long.’
‘A week. Then we’ll see.’
‘Anne, where am I supposed to go? I’m exhausted.’
‘Go to the station. Go wherever you want, I don’t care. Except the doughnut shop.’
Later that morning, after Dad had gone, Mum took me into town to return the box of doughnuts. Dad’s friend Liz Lofgren was behind the counter that morning, and Mum waited until the store was empty to inform Liz that she’d better have nothing more to do with Chief Truman if she knew what was good for her. Liz pretended not to understand for a minute, but when Mum said, ‘You don’t want to be on my wrong side,’ Liz seemed to agree.
Anne Wilmot Truman was raised in Boston, and the imprint of that city stayed with her. It was in her voice, in the mangled r s and odd archaic colloquialisms (she always called soda tonic; the dry cleaner, the cleanser; milk shakes, frappes). But the deepest impression was left by her father, a striver named Joe Wilmot.
Joe had clawed his way up from a Dorchester tenement. In the 1930s and ’40s he built a small chain of grocery stores in Boston, a respectable success if not a spectacular one. It was enough to propel him out to the suburbs, anyway. But even after he’d made it, Joe could never quite shake the sense that his new neighbors — all those WASPy Juniors and The Thirds with their tennis games and rumpled clothes — possessed something he did not, something more than money. It was an attitude more than anything else, a sort of at-homeness among the big green lawns and tree-shaded streets. For lack of a better word Joe called it ‘class,’ and he knew it would always be out of his reach. Of course, this is the frustration of arrivistes everywhere. They cannot acquire ‘class’ because they cannot envision themselves having it. It is a failure of the imagination. They are anti-Gatsbys.
So Joe did what would-be Gatsbys have so often done: He tried to inculcate the elusive stuff in his only daughter. After all, this was Boston in the age of that real-life Gatsby, Joe Kennedy. And what had Old Man Kennedy learned if not that class is granted only to the second generation? So Joe Wilmot sent Annie to a private school, and when he deemed the education there inadequate, he made up the difference by paying her directly for educating herself: nickels and dimes for good posture, for reading Yeats or Joyce, for teaching herself a Mozart lied on the piano. The payola did not stop when she got older either. Right through the Winsor School and Radcliffe — between ballet recitals and voice lessons and a semester in Paris — Annie could always earn a buck or a fin by reciting a speech from Shakespeare or some other feat of cultivation. It was a game father and daughter played on the road to refinement.
Then the unthinkable happened. Its name was Claude Truman.
He was a thick-wristed policeman — a policeman! — from some godawful backwater in Maine. They were wildly mismatched. What Mum saw in him, nobody could understand. My guess is it was precisely his muscular rudeness that made Claude Truman appealing. He was cocksure and strong, a bull moose in springtime. He was different. Not dumb, far from it. But at the same time this was a man who thought John Cheever was a hockey player and Ionesco a corporation. It must have been a relief to Annie not to have to work so hard. Who knows? Maybe there was even an exotic appeal to Versailles, Maine. Of course, she’d never seen it, but the idea of Acadia County must have been romantic — the forest primeval and all that — especially to a young woman who had been literated to a fare-thee-well, educated beyond all reason. Her father forbade Annie to see Claude Truman, but she defied him, and the couple married three months after they met. He was thirty-seven, she was twenty-nine.
The price was high. Mum and her father had a ferocious argument, and the rift between them never healed. She called him every now and then; after she hung up the phone, she usually went to her bedroom to cry. When he died, Joe left his daughter enough to pay for my education and a little extra for herself, but not the lode she might have received if she’d stuck to the plan.
Mum did continue one Wilmot family tradition. When I was a kid, she’d pay me for various demonstrations of self-improvement. A dollar for learning the ‘we happy few’ speech from Henry V, and another buck for reciting it before dinner. Fifty cents for reading a novel (if it was not ‘crap’), a dollar for reading a biography. Five dollars for sitting with her through all of I, Claudius on PBS.
The day Mum kicked Dad out for getting doughnut powder in his hair, she cleared aside the kitchen furniture and asked me if I wanted to dance for a one-time payment of one dollar. She put on a Frank Sinatra record in the TV room and left the door open so we could hear it, then she instructed me on the proper placement of the man’s hands and the proper execution of the box step.
I laid my left hand on her hip and held my right hand up so she could rest hers in my palm.
‘Step with your outside foot.’
‘Any one, Ben. I’ll follow you.’
‘That’s how it works. The man leads. Just keep stepping with your outside foot. Make the box.’
We danced for a while, to ‘Summer Wind,’ then ‘Luck Be a Lady’
She asked, ‘Do you want to talk about what happened this morning?’
‘Do you have anything you want to ask me?’
I was preoccupied with the complexities of the box step — look up at your partner, never down at your feet; stand straight, as if there were a string coming out the top of your head pulling you up, up — and all the while I was con-cen-tra-ting-on-the-beat. So I said no, it was okay.
She clinched my head a little too tight to her tummy and said, ‘My Ben,’ which meant she was sad but didn’t want me to know it.
‘You can’t bet that. It’s your badge.’
‘Of course I can. It’s worth something, isn’t it? It’s gold.’
‘It’s not gold. Besides, what am I gonna do with it? Melt it down?’
‘No, you could wear it, Diane. It’s jewelry’
‘Ben, I’m not going to walk around wearing your damn badge.’
‘Why not? You can be the new chief.’
She rolled her eyes, unamused. ‘Come on, bet money or fold. That’s how it works. U.S. currency’
Bobby Burke added, ‘Legal tender for all debts public and private.’
The pot was somewhere just south of fifty bucks, which is about as high as it gets in this game. I was sitting on three queens, with just Diane to beat. It was no time to drop out. I appealed to Dick: ‘Is this badge worth fifteen bucks or not? Tell her, Dick. These things cost twenty-five, thirty bucks. I can show you the catalog.’
‘That’s if you buy it new,’ he demurred.
‘Dick, it’s not a Buick. It doesn’t matter how many miles are on it.’
‘It’s up to Diane. If she wants to take it, she can take it.’
‘Jesus, Dick, you have no backbone. You’re like a… a squid. What, are you afraid of Diane?’
‘Diane, just listen.’
‘Look, if you take it, you can wear it around town and make me look like an idiot. Now, how’s that?’
She shook her head no. ‘Throw in your pants. I’ll take those.’
‘I’m not betting my pants.’
‘Must not be a very good hand.’
‘It’s got nothing to do with that.’
‘Then throw ’em in.’
‘Diane, I’m not betting my pants.’
‘What else do you have?’
‘That’s it. It’s all I got.’
She picked up the badge and turned it over in her palm, frowning. I expected her to bite it to see if it was counterfeit. ‘I’ll take it. Maybe I’ll make an earring out of it or something. I’ll wear it around town so everyone will know what a loser you are.’ She tossed it in the pot.
‘Ben,’ Dick asked, ‘does this make Diane the new chief?’
‘She hasn’t won yet, Dick.’
‘Well, after. Will she be the new chief?’
‘I guess so.’
His mouth squeezed into a frown of deep concern.
Diane laid her cards on the table. Two pairs, kings and sevens.
The thought crossed my mind that all I had to do here was fold. Just put my cards down, let Diane have the pot and the badge with it. An ignominious end to my career in law enforcement, but what the hell, an end is an end. Then again, I don’t get the chance to beat Diane very often. I put down my three queens and swept the pot toward me, forty-five dollars or so plus a gold-colored badge.
‘You wouldn’t have let me keep it anyway,’ she grumbled.
I shrugged. Hey, you never know.
Later, I watched Diane get out of bed to stand by the window. She was a big, haunchy girl with an athletic way of moving. I liked to watch her. The soles of her feet scuffed along the floor. At the window she lit a cigarette and puffed it distractedly, arms folded across her belly. She seemed lost in thought, her nudity forgotten, irrelevant. Outside, the hills were silhouettes against the moonlit sky.
‘What’s wrong, Diane?’ I propped myself on an elbow.
She moved her head vaguely but did not answer. The tip of the cigarette glowed orange in the dark room. ‘Did you ever think that maybe this is all we’re going to have?’
‘What? You mean’ — I wiggled my finger between us — ’this?’
‘No! Don’t worry, Ben, I know what this is.’
‘I only meant-’
‘I know what you meant.’ She shook her head. ‘I mean, what if this whole thing is all there is for me? Shitty little apartment, shitty little town. This whole shitty life. So-called life.’
My neck began to stiffen and I sat up. ‘Well, you can change it. If this place isn’t for you, you can go anywhere you want.’
‘No, you can go anywhere you want. It’s different for you, Ben. Always has been. You could always go anywhere you want. I can’t.’
‘Of course you can.’
‘Ben, don’t. Just don’t. I’m not asking to be cheered up.’
I sneaked a glance at the clock. 2:17 A.M.
‘We’re not all like you, Ben. You’ve got choices. You’re smart, you went to a fancy college, fancy graduate school. You’ll be okay wherever you go. You’re not even as butthole-ugly as I say you are. You’re actually-’ She looked back at me, then returned her attention to the window. ‘You’re not that bad.’
‘You’re not bad either.’
‘I mean it, Diane.’
‘I used to be not bad. Now I’m not even not bad.’
‘That’s just not true.’
She dismissed this with a wave of her hand. ‘Ben, tell me what you’re going to do when you leave here.’
‘Go home, I guess. I have a meeting in Portland tomorrow.’
She shook her head again, the long-suffering Diane. ‘Not when you leave the room. When you leave this fucking town.’
‘Oh. I don’t know. Go back to school, I guess. Maybe just go have an adventure somewhere.’
‘You could come, you know. There’s nothing holding you here.’
‘I don’t know from Prague.’ She slid a hand over her hip, smoothing the clothes that were not there. A gesture to fill the space. When she was ready, she said, ‘I thought you were going to be a professor. Isn’t that what you were in school for? English or something?’
‘You’ve got a good name for a history professor. Professor Benjamin Truman. Very intellectual.’
‘It’s probably not going to happen, Diane.’
‘Yeah, it will.’
‘I only got through one year of grad school. It takes a lot more than that.’
‘You say it like you flunked out. You got called back here. That’s different. You came back to help your mother and now she’s dead, so — You don’t have to stay, you don’t have to be here anymore. You should go back to school. It’s where you belong. Join the chess club or the prom committee or whatever.’ She took a drag on the cigarette and looked out at the hills, then, as if she’d reached a decision, turned to me. ‘You should go to Prague. I have some money, if that’s what’s stopping you.’
‘No, Diane. It’s not about money.’
‘Well, you just make sure you get there. Go to Prague, then get back to school. You know, those guys — Bobby and Jimmy, even Phil, all them guys — they look up to you. They want you to do all that shit you talk about.’
I had no response.
‘It’ll make them happy to see you out there somewhere. Just to think of you out there, like, flying. It’s important.’
‘How about you, Diane? Would it make you happy if I left?’
‘I’d get over it. There’ll be a new chief after you. Maybe I’ll just use him for sex, same as I did you. Maybe he won’t even be a prude like you.’
‘They might hire a woman. They do that now.’
‘That’d be just my luck.’
Neither of us spoke for a while.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this anymore, Ben. It’s starting to feel like a bad idea.’ The tip of her cigarette hovered at the window like a firefly. ‘We both got places to go.’
Monday, October 13. 10:00 A.M.
We met at the Attorney General’s office in Portland, a two-hour drive from Versailles. There were twenty or twenty-five people there, a number that necessitated theater-style seating. At the front of the room — onstage, as it were — was the Boston Homicide detective Edmund Kurth. He stood off to the side, arms folded, watching people find their seats. There was still that luminous intensity about Kurth. He looked like he was itching to knock somebody’s hat off.
The audience consisted mainly of state troopers from Maine and Massachusetts, husky guys with buzz cuts and friendly smiles. There were prosecutors from the Maine AG’s office too. It had been a long weekend for the lawyers; they had a gray, haggard look. Cravish, the Game-Show Host, stood off to the side.
I slipped into the back row of metal folding chairs, feeling vaguely like an eavesdropper. My invitation to this meeting was a formality, a courtesy extended to the locals. There were no illusions about that. My job was to show up, have my ticket punched, and go home. I hadn’t even bothered to put on my uniform. I wore jeans and a sweatshirt. (The outfit was more than an expression of my outsider status, though. The truth is, the Versailles police uniform is pure hayseed and I try not to wear it any more than necessary. The uniform consists of a tan shirt, brown pants with a tan accent stripe, and a ridiculous Smokey the Bear hat, which my father insists on calling a ‘campaign hat.’ I dislike the whole getup, but it’s the hat especially — no citizen could respect a policeman wearing that hat.)
Kurth struggled to remain still as the troopers and prosecutors found seats. The muscles in his face played under the skin. After a while — but before his audience had completely settled — he’d had enough of waiting. He walked to a corkboard at stage left, tacked a mug shot to it, and announced, ‘This is the man we’re after: Harold Braxton.’
I craned my neck to see the photos, the traditional twin frames showing the suspect face-on and in profile. Braxton looked to be in his twenties, African-American. The sides of his scalp were shaved and the remaining hair was pulled back tightly and gathered in a little tuft at the back of his head. The hairstyle seemed more Tibetan than hip-hop. His skin was as smooth and dark as a seal’s.
Kurth added: ‘He’s an absolute fuckin’ animal and we’re going to hunt him down.’
The audience shifted uneasily. Kurth was from away, and the Maine troopers didn’t like being lectured by him, much less informed what they were going to do. His melodramatic tone caused some eye-rolling too, even among the Massachusetts guys.
‘Do you have some evidence?’ an older guy finally asked. ‘Or should we just take your word for it?’ He smirked, proud of the sarcasm.
Kurth tried to smile too, but the smile flickered and died on his lips. ‘Evidence,’ he said.
He went to his briefcase and fished out a bulging manila folder. He riffled the folder until he found a few photos, then returned to the corkboard. First a color eight-by-ten of Danziger’s mutilated face, the right eye and forehead obscured by a dry cookie of blood. ‘Our victim, Robert Danziger.’ Then he added two rows of similar photos. ‘Vincent Marzano. Kevin Epps.’ With each name, Kurth punched a pin through one of the photos. ‘Theo Harden. Keith Boyce. David Huang.’ The victims were all young, in their early twenties. Marzano was white, Huang Asian, the rest black. All bore the same dark stain on one half of their face. Harden’s features were a blur beneath the blood. ‘All shot in the eye with a high-caliber weapon, like a. 44,’ Kurth informed us. ‘That’s his signature.’ Kurth leaned against one of the tables. This was supposed to be a relaxed pose, but he managed to look like a two-by-four leaning against a barn. ‘Harold Braxton runs a crew called the Mission Posse. The Mission Posse moves a lot of rock, makes a lot of money, and they’re willing to do just about anything to defend their business. All these guys here’ — he gestured toward the photos — ’threatened Braxton’s business in some way. Some of them were cooperating with the police. Some tried to open up a corner in Braxton’s neighborhood.’
‘Why a bullet in the eye?’
‘It’s a message. In Mission Flats everybody understands. It means, Close your eyes, don’t see what we do.’ Kurth locked his gaze on the guy who’d needled him moments before. ‘That’s called evidence.’
‘And Braxton’s never been prosecuted for any of this?’
‘But why Danziger?’ one of the troopers asked.
‘Bob Danziger had a pending case against a member of Braxton’s crew, a carjacking case. No big deal except the defendant was Braxton’s second-in-command. The trial was scheduled to open a couple weeks ago, in early October, which is about the time Danziger was murdered. So that’s your motive — no DA, no trial for Braxton’s buddy. Braxton protects his own.’
One of the prosecutors asked, ‘Why kill him in Maine?’
‘That’s where Danziger happened to be when they reached him. On vacation, apparently’
‘It’s all circumstantial,’ someone argued.
Kurth shrugged. ‘Of course it’s circumstantial. It’s a homicide; the best witness is dead.’
Cravish stroked his chin and frowned. ‘I’m not convinced, Lieutenant Kurth. Why would a drug dealer murder an assistant DA? It doesn’t make sense. There will always be another prosecutor to take his place, and another and another. The government is the biggest gang around. Why declare war on it? Besides, I’ve prosecuted guys like this before. They don’t consider the prosecutor an enemy. It’s all professional, they know that.’ The Game-Show Host was proud to announce he’d prosecuted tough guys. A supercilious look crossed his face.
‘Mr Cravish,’ Kurth drawled, ‘I don’t think you’ve prosecuted anyone like Braxton.’
‘Oh, I’m quite certain I have.’
‘Are you, now?’
From his briefcase, Kurth plucked two more eight-by-tens, which he stuck to the board with the others. The first showed a jolly-looking man with an orange beard. The second image was harder to identify. It was a dark-colored object dangling from a rope over a crumbling driveway. It might have been a laundry bag.
‘What the hell is that?’ a trooper asked.
Kurth, thinking the question referred to the man with the beard — or pretending to — pointed to the first photo and said, ‘This is Artie Trudell. He was a cop. About ten years ago Trudell was on a drug raid in the Flats. Braxton was cornered inside an apartment. He was trapped, so he blew Trudell’s head apart. Fired one shot through the front door, killing Trudell, then took off through a back door.’
There was a moment of silence. Out of respect for the fallen cop, everyone hesitated to ask about the second photo. Finally someone said, ‘What about that thing? What is it?’
‘It’s a dog,’ Kurth said.
The image came clear — the carcass of an animal suspended by its hind legs. The dog’s head was hidden behind a flap of skin that hung from the back of its neck like Superman’s cape. For some reason this photo seemed more gruesome than the others, whose subjects were merely human.
‘Braxton and his crew had a pit bull. They wanted to see how mean he could be. So they tied up this dog and turned the pit bull loose on him. This is what was left.’
‘Why?’ Kurth shook his head. ‘Because Braxton’s a fucking animal, that’s why’
A rustle went through the room. The audience was visibly uneasy, but it took a few moments before anyone screwed up the courage to murmur, under his breath, ‘Come on.’
Kurth fixed us with one of his reptile stares. ‘Listen to me, you can roll your eyes all you want, but this is what guys like Braxton do. Why? There is no why. It’s like asking, Why do sharks eat swimmers? or, Why do bears eat hikers? That’s what predators do. This guy is a predator.’
Kurth removed the photos one by one and returned them to his briefcase. Then he paused to share a philosophical thought, or at least as nearly philosophical a thought as he ever voiced: ‘The system isn’t built to handle a guy like this, who kills without even thinking about it. The system presumes that crime is logical, that people do it by choice. So we build prisons to deter them, or we offer programs to rehabilitate them. Carrots and sticks, all so these people will make the right choice. That whole model does not contemplate a Harold Braxton, because Braxton doesn’t weigh the consequences in the first place. He doesn’t choose to kill, he just kills. He doesn’t think. He doesn’t care. So there’s only one thing to do with him: Take him out of circulation. We all know it, everyone in this room.’
The audience, cops and lawyers alike, squirmed at Kurth’s directness — the police because there was no ironic distance here, none of the cool cynicism that cops swaddle themselves in when confronted with the real danger of their job, the lawyers because Kurth did not share their genteel uneasiness with calling for Braxton’s ‘removal from circulation.’ Kurth was too frank. Still, no one objected. None of us had wanted to be intimidated by Edmund Kurth, the flatlander, but we were.
After the meeting Kurth approached me and handed me a few mug shots, Braxton’s among them. He asked me to show the photos around in Versailles, to find a witness who could place Braxton in the area. Someone must have seen Braxton or one of his crew. The request was delivered in Kurth’s usual clenched manner. His body leaned forward, the little muscles of his face wriggling perceptibly. Most unnerving, he had a habit of locking his eyes on yours without glancing away or even blinking. My own eyes would sweep around the room just to avoid his, only to find upon returning that Kurth was still staring dead into my pupils.
So it may come as a surprise, given his overwound manner, that there was a strange attraction about Kurth too. He had a gorgeous purposefulness. In hindsight I see it was nothing more than the clarity of a man who is convinced his cause is righteous — Get Braxton! — but at the time he seemed to have been let in on some very profound secret. For Kurth, all the moral equivocation that underlies police work — that criminality is not the same as evil; that the criminal-justice system may be worse than the crime it is meant to cure; and therefore that policing itself is a morally ambiguous enterprise — all of it was washed away by Harold Braxton’s overwhelming malignance. Braxton was evil, therefore Kurth must be good. Simple as that. It was this great moral reduction that allowed Kurth to speak in absolutes. Braxton was not merely troubled or desperate or suffering from some behavior disorder; he was an animal, a menace to be destroyed. I doubt that Kurth ever understood it was Braxton who gave him this gift of simplicity. In fact, I doubt Kurth ever fretted over the moral complexities in the first place. But without Braxton, Kurth would not have had that sense of crusade. He would have been an Ahab with no Moby Dick, no monster to hunt.
I did as Kurth asked. I showed the mug shots around Versailles for the next couple of days. I had mixed feelings about finding a neighbor to testify against Braxton, and it came as a relief when nobody in Versailles recognized his photo. I also did a check on the victim, with limited success. A few people remembered speaking with Bob Danziger, a few more recognized his photo. But none of the September renters in the lakeside cabins, now returned to their homes in New York and Massachusetts, remembered anything specific about Danziger. And no one had any idea how long the body had been baking in that locked cabin, although the ME later put it at two or three weeks. In the end, my investigation went nowhere. To all appearances, Robert Danziger had no connection with Versailles. It looked as if he’d come with the sole purpose of dying here.
But I was hooked just the same. Hooked on Kurth’s narrative as well as the one I was composing in my own head, my own version of Harold Braxton the urban superpredator. I kept Braxton’s mug shot in the case file, and over the next days I found myself studying it, trying to find hints of the lethal predatory stuff Kurth had described. I never did see it. In the photo, Braxton seemed harmless enough. He had not struck a pose for the camera. On the contrary, he looked passive, even sleepy. In a word, his appearance was ordinary, which only added to my fascination: How could Harold Braxton — Kurth’s ‘animal’ to be ‘hunted down’ — look so unexceptional? Maybe that is always the case. Our villains always disappoint us. They never look the part. Remember the old news photos of Eichmann sitting in that Tel Aviv courtroom, blinking out from behind thick eyeglasses like some half-blind watchmaker? What a letdown, the world said. How ‘banal.’ We expect our monsters to make a better show of it.
During those first anxious days, the cabin on Lake Mattaquisett was guarded round the clock. Dick and I, with a couple of other officers, split the guard duty, rotating shifts so no one pulled two overnight watches in a row. There was not much to do out there, to be honest, especially at night. Once, some kids came driving down the access road, only to turn around the moment they saw the police Bronco parked out front. That was about it. There was no rush to contaminate this crime scene — Cravish would not be OJ’ed this time. I wasn’t much of a watchman anyway. I tended to spend most of my time at the water’s edge, listening to the plash and gurgle at my feet or gazing at the bare spots in the trees on the opposite side.
There are only a few months when we Versellians really get to see our lake. In summer, we are too busy making twelve months’ worth of income in just twelve weeks. In winter, the lake freezes and is covered with snow. There are only these few precious weeks in between when the lake is there just for us. It is a magical time of year, late October, early November. Leaf season is over. The flashburst of red and yellow foliage has faded, and the leaf-gazers have moved on to southern Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts chasing the ‘high color.’ The air begins to take on the feel of winter. The water is a flinty blue. The lake is ours alone, briefly.
During these long quiet watches, my thoughts inevitably turned to my mother. I could envision her swimming here, arms turning in languid windmill strokes, far out into the lake where the white buoy of her bathing cap would vanish in the lambent cloud-shadows that slid across the water and up over the trees.
She used to swim in this lake nearly every day from May through September. That is no mean feat, mind you. In early spring Lake Mattaquisett is cold enough to shock your lungs into seizures. Joking about the water temperature (and, among men, about its effect on the genitalia) is a rite of spring around here. But Mum was fearless. She plunged in like an otter. She was a slippery swimmer too, the kind you stopped to watch. Her body glided along the surface, frictionless, back and forth, crisscrossing the lake at the pinch-point of its hourglass shape. You could tell she was proud of her swimming, all that naturalness achieved by hours of hard labor in the lap pool as a teenager. She would emerge from the water beaming and, between heavy breaths, challenge all comers: ‘Who wants to race me?’
It was for her that I came back to Versailles. I have said that I was trapped here, but that’s not true, really. I chose to come back, and even in hindsight, even knowing where the decision led, I would do it again. It was a Hobson’s choice, but all the same it was an easy choice.
In December 1994 — not quite three years before the Danziger murder — I was a graduate student in history at Boston University. I was only in my second year, but already the academic world seemed everywhere and everything. I’d quickly joined in the death struggle with grad students nationwide over the usual desiderata: fellowships and grants and publications. The ultimate grail, a tenure-track faculty position, was an obsession — a measure of just how far I’d come from Versailles, Maine. Nothing else seemed to matter. I had a basement apartment in Allston, a horrible apartment even by grad-student standards — grungy, cold, damp. It had only one window, at sidewalk level with a view of legs scissoring past. A water stain ran along the bottom half of the wall like wainscoting, left by a flood who-knew-how-long ago. I had a girlfriend too, a fellow PhD candidate named Sandra Lowenstein. She was sallow and thin as a bird in December. Sandra talked a lot about Gramsci and Marx, and wore heavy black-framed eyeglasses to show her commitment to the cause. Maybe she dated me to show her commitment to the cause too: a bodily self-sacrifice to the lumpen-proletariat of backwoods Maine. Which was hunky-dory with me because I’d put my prole past behind me. I was out. The big Venus’s-flytrap had not got me after all. Versailles was a memory, a quaint story I would tell my friends over cocktails in Cambridge or New Haven or wherever I was headed.
By this time I already suspected my mother had Alzheimer’s. The disease can be difficult to diagnose, especially in early-onset cases like Mum’s. The symptoms precisely mimic the ordinary prosaic effects of aging — forgetfulness, trivial sorts of confusion. Eventually, however, the signs become too obvious to ignore. In the fall of ‘94, Dad was calling every week to complain about her. She left the lights or the oven on overnight, he’d say. Once, she left the car engine running until it was out of gas and he had to go out to the station with a can to refill it. Exasperated, he told me, ‘Your mother’s just not there anymore.’
All of which I understood, and yet I was able to minimize it somehow. Or at least to compartmentalize it, as the euphemism goes. (We say compartmentalize when we mean ignore or blow off.) Maybe it was just the selfishness of a twenty-something; I could not bear to rouse myself from the hermetic life of a student. More likely, I could not accept that Mum was ‘not there anymore.’ The reports from Dad just did not fit. In my mind’s eye, Annie Truman was always and very much all there.
But when I came home for Christmas break that year — after an absence of six months — I was brought up short by the reality of it. The slippage.
At first the changes were not startling. If you’d seen her, you would not have noticed anything obviously wrong. My mother was still an elegant-looking woman, effortlessly slim and ‘put together’ (her phrase, not mine). She had a new pair of designer eyeglasses, for which she’d made the long trip to Portland twice, to order them and to pick them up. Those vivid blue eyes had not faded. Her face had aged a little. The skin had shrunk over the facial bones and you could just make out the longitudinal curve of the eyeballs. Still she was extraordinarily lovely.
To me, though, there were subtle but noticeable changes. She spoke less and resisted being drawn into conversation. She seemed to have determined that there was a risk of embarrassment in speaking and decided the safer course was to say as little as possible. There were occasional memory lapses, nothing shocking but unlike her. (Every morning she greeted me with the vague exclamation ‘Ben!’ as if she were surprised to find me home.) What I saw at first was not a sudden, violent transformation in my mother, but a shift in mood. A sense of dullness and withdrawal about her, remarkable only because Anne Truman had never been remotely dull or withdrawn in her life.
Because the university virtually shuts down over the holidays, I was at home for several weeks that December. Family custom dictated that I work as a temporary at the department, but my real job was to look after Mum. By this point, Claude Truman had had just about enough of his wife. From the start, he was spectacularly unfit for the task of caring for an Alzheimer’s patient. He was still The Chief, nearing the end of his glorious reign, floating along on an argosy of self-satisfaction. Is that too unkind? Maybe. Alzheimer’s imposes a burden on the spouse, and maybe it is unreasonable to demand that every spouse be equal to the challenge. Better to say, Claude had always been able to nourish himself from within, and now he simply could not understand how his wife, who’d once had the same knack, had mysteriously become so ravenous.
So for a few weeks I put on a uniform and worked a detail as Anne Truman’s bodyguard, a happy enough arrangement. I learned the various strategies Mum and Dad had improvised for protecting her. There were yellow stick-on notes posted throughout the house — CHECK OVEN, they said, or TURN OFF LIGHTS or KEYS ON PHONE TABLE — and I began to add my own notes rather than nag her, which wounded her leonine pride. To prevent her from wandering, I took her on long walks every morning and afternoon to tire her out. For good measure, I was told, I should install a second lock on each of the house doors, keyed from the inside. This I refused to do. It smacked too much of imprisonment. I did hide the car keys, though, just in case.
The hardest moments were in simple conversation.
‘Do you have…?’
‘Do I have what, Mum?’
‘Never mind. It’s not important.’
‘No, what is it?’
‘I don’t know — I can’t-’
‘Go ahead, Mum, it’s alright. Do I have what?’
‘What do you…?’
‘I’m in school, Mum.’
‘Of course. Of course, I knew that.’
Word-finding troubles were particularly infuriating for her. Over and over, she would pause in mid-sentence, suspended, unable to grasp the word she needed. If we were walking, she would stop and stare at her feet, fists pressed to her forehead, while she racked her brain for the missing tools. I learned not to guess at the next word, which frustrated her even more. ‘Shh! Shh!’ she would hiss, and swing a stop-sign hand at me.
For all that, I still intended to go back to Boston when my break ended. I convinced myself that the Forgetting Disease was no more than an inconvenience. It was still in an early stage (she was only fifty-six), and Annie Truman would outwork it the way she’d outworked every other damn thing.
It took a calamity to open my eyes.
December 24, 1994, was absolute cold. At eight A.M., the temperature was five degrees above zero, fifteen below with the windchill. Gray, sunless, with a stabbing wind. The snow encasing us — on the roof, in the yard, in tree branches — made creaking sounds.
Mum and I did not walk that morning. Around eleven, Dick Ginoux called to say there was an impromptu Christmas party at the station. Sandwiches and beer (diet orange soda for The Chief). I declined, but Mum urged me to go. ‘It’s Christmas Eve, Ben. Go have a good time for once.’ The kitchen thermometer had risen to ten degrees or so. Still, it was a forbidding day, and I hated like hell to leave her alone in that house. But it was only for an hour or two. ‘I’m not a child,’ she insisted.
When I got back around two, the house was quiet. An empty ticking sound in the halls. I called out and got no answer. Mum’s bedroom was empty too, the bed made up neatly.
To ward off panic, I indulged the notion that she must be lost inside the house. I’d once found her standing in the hallway, confused about which doorway led to her room; maybe she’d fallen into a similar confusion now. But racing around the house was just a waste of time. Her coat, hat, and knit mittens were gone.
In the front yard I shouted her name.
No answer. The wind loud in my ears.
Anxiety thickening into dread.
How could I have left her? Stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid.
I shouted her name. The cold swallowed my calls. There were no tracks. It was possible she’d walked off down the road, which had been plowed clear.
Or into the forest. On our little street the forest crowds right up to the road’s edge. The curtain of trees is pushed back as if by an invisible arm to reveal the house in its shadow. She might have wandered anywhere in these woods.
I phoned the station. No one in town knew where she was. Within minutes there were twenty guys out looking for her, then fifty.
‘She’ll be fine, Ben,’ Dad said.
‘The sun sets at five,’ I reminded him.
Why didn’t I insist we walk that morning, cold or no cold? We should have walked till we were both exhausted.
I set out along the unmarked trails in the thick woods around our house where we often walked and where my mother had been hiking for as long as I could remember. It was gloomy among the trees but warmer since the wind was somewhat subdued here. My undershirt was soon clammy with sweat as I ran along shouting for her.
No answer. Just the crunch of my boots in the snow.
I had a radio on my belt. Now and then a searcher would call in to report he’d seen no sign of her.
I receded into the forest along familiar trails until each ran out, then doubled back until I reached a new spur to follow. Others were searching near me. I could hear their shouts — ’Anne!’ — and my own, more frantic — ’Mum!’
The light became shadowy and dull as afternoon began to dim.
How ridiculous that she might die this way. That an entire remarkable life could arrive at such an abrupt and stupid terminus.
I scrambled through the forest for two hours, through the bare pines growing thick like hairs on a vast scalp. Dusk was coming. It was foolish to run around this way, calling crazily into the trees. The search needed better planning, better organization. Who the hell was in charge here? Didn’t they realize? These woods stretched for miles in all directions, thickening into impenetrable old growth. We would never find her by trial and error. We would run out of light and time long before we ran out of trees.
I stopped to think. Where did we walk? Where would she go?
An idea crowded in: This was what Alzheimer’s disease meant. This was the lethal danger behind that austere Teutonic name. She had wandered, in the clinical parlance; she’d had a catastrophic event.
Control your emotions. Where would she go?
A blackbird flitted in the trees, unsettling the branches.
She would go to the lake. I knew it with a crashing certainty. She would follow the road to Lake Mattaquisett, lured by some memory of a vanished summer — an engram not quite expunged, a nano-thought surviving as a skittery arc of electrical current jumping across a damaged synapse somewhere. The lake, her lake. Had the weather not been so extremely cold, or had it not been Christmas Eve, maybe the roads would not have been empty and someone would have seen her walking. She’d have been picked up on small-town radar and her whereabouts would never have been a mystery. But she’d chosen a bad day for wandering.
I ran up the trail, scrabbling past the fingers of the trees.
To the house, the car.
Driving, I felt this adrenalized sense of certainty grow. She was there, I knew it. I raced along the Post Road. I was a policeman, a real one this time, rushing to an emergency.
At dusk I found her curled on the dirt road that rings the lake. The sports use this road to reach their summer rentals. In winter it is abandoned, and far enough from the house that no one had thought to search there. No one thought she could walk that far.
I knelt and put my arms around her. Her body trembled. She pulled her arms against her chest so I could hold her. I squeezed tight to stop the shivering. Her lips were blue, her eyes frightened.
In the gloom, the water beside us looked black. This lake had been the scene of so many blithe sunny afternoons. Now it was transformed into a forbidding place. Deep, glacial, primal.
I carried her to the car to warm her up. Her cheek against mine was cold rubber.
‘I… I got lost.’ Her jaw chattered, her lips and tongue were thick.
‘Mum, you’ve been on this road ten thousand times.’
‘I got lost.’
I understood she meant more than she’d said. It was not simply that she’d got lost or even that she’d had such a dangerous close call. She’d glimpsed the horrifying course of her disease. The illness was no longer theoretical. It was the inescapable future: erasure of everything she had ever learned — even near-instinctive ideas like how to chew and swallow food, how to speak, how to control bowel movements — and the inevitable end when the brain would lose its ability to regulate essential bodily functions, when she would become bedridden and at last perish from diseases common to the bedridden, heart failure, infections, malnutrition, pneumonia. Mercifully — and it was merciful — my mother died before experiencing the full devastation of Alzheimer’s. But what she did experience — starting that Christmas Eve, I think, as she lay shivering on the frozen dirt road — was almost worse: the foreknowledge that this would be her end, the awareness that her brain had begun to clot with plaque and fibrous tangles, that neurons had begun to shut down by the tens of thousands, winking out like lights on a sinking ship. She would be stripped. Her body, unbrained, would continue to operate for years, maybe decades. Babbling, demented, incontinent. A fool.
‘What will… I do?’
‘I don’t know, Mum.’
When Dad arrived a few minutes later, he opened the passenger door of the car as if he meant to tear it off the hinges. He buried his head in her neck and kissed her and muttered, ‘Jesus, Annie. Jesus.’
The next morning I withdrew from school and joined the Versailles Police Department.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that I would look inside the cabin. It was a constant temptation, wrapped in that cheerful yellow crime-scene tape like a big gift just waiting to be opened. The Game-Show Hosts had already swarmed over it and taken anything that was remotely relevant. What harm could there be in having a little peek? I gave in, finally, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, October 15.
Of course, I had broken the door lock myself when I found the body, so it was easy to pull off the tape and swing the door open. The sour stench scratched in the nostrils but did not send me reeling into the woods to vomit, as it had four days earlier. The techs had done a job on the interior. There were gaps in the floor where floorboards had been sawed out and removed for testing. An outline had been marked where the body fell, not in chalk but with little cones, presumably to preserve the surface underneath. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, I saw the blood spatters. Blood was everywhere, an incomprehensible amount, a flood of it, too much to have been contained in one body. There were smudges on the walls too, from the powders used to illuminate fingerprints and hidden speckles of blood. Somewhere in the shadows an insect buzzed intermittently, like a small plane with engine trouble.
I walked around the cabin, being extremely careful not to disturb any of the cones or markings. Until you have seen something like this, you cannot appreciate how much fluid a human head contains. Danziger’s had burst like a water balloon. Near the body, the floor was painted thick with it in an immense dark oval. At the edges this stain gave way to heavy splats, which in turn gave way to shapely teardrops. Furthest from the body, the blood was no more than a mist on the wall. Delicate microdroplets with an irresistible needle-fine texture. I lifted a finger to touch them, to feel the tiny Braille bumps they’d formed.
‘Unh-unh-unh.’ This was a voice behind me. ‘I wouldn’t do that.’
An inch from the blood-spattered wall, my hand froze.
I turned to see a very tall, lanky man in the doorway. Backlit, his features were difficult to make out. He wore a flannel jacket and a scally cap, which made him look like a longshoreman, one of the tough guys who beat up Brando in On the Waterfront.
‘It’s okay. I’m a cop.’
‘I don’t care if you’re J. Edgar Hoover. You touch that blood, you’ll be tampering with a crime scene.’
‘J. Edgar Hoo — I didn’t touch anything.’
‘Didn’t touch anything? Son, you’re marching around in there like it’s a parade ground. You have no blessed idea what you’ve touched.’
I exited, retracing my steps with the same exquisite care I’d used in entering the cabin.
‘Don’t knock anything over,’ the tall man advised, unimpressed.
In the pine-needle yard, I told him, ‘I’m Ben Truman. I’m the chief here.’
‘Well, Ben Truman, you won’t be chief for long if you keep this up. Didn’t they teach you anything in school?’
Neither of us spoke for a moment while we considered the irrelevance of my education.
‘Did you want something here?’ I asked him.
‘Just to have a look.’
‘It’s alright. I’m a cop too.’
‘Are you working this case?’
‘No, no. Just came to scratch an itch.’
‘Alright. Just don’t go inside. It’s not a parade ground, you know.’
He stepped to the threshold of the cabin, where he stood stiffly, scanning the one-room interior. His hands never emerged from the pockets of his coat. The inspection took only a minute or two and when it was concluded the tall man abruptly turned, thanked me, and walked off.
‘Wait a minute,’ I called after him, ‘wait a minute, that’s it? I thought you wanted to look at it?’
He turned back. ‘I just did.’
‘But you can’t see anything from there.’
‘Of course you can, Ben Truman.’ He gave me a little wink and turned to go.
‘Hold on a second. You came all the way out here just to-Who are you, anyway?’
‘I told you, I’m a policeman. Well, a retired policeman. But as they say, a retired policeman is like a retired whore — she can stop working but she’ll always be a whore. We’ll always be policemen, you and I. It’s the nature of the job, Ben Truman.’
He stood there, hands in pockets, waiting for another question.
I was distracted, though, first by the joke — the wisdom of which eluded me, as did the humor — and then by the archaic term policeman. When had policeman been laundered out of the language, replaced by the antiseptic but gender-neutral police officer or the slangy, vaguely disrespectful cop? Policeman belongs to a more prosaic past — Officer Friendly in a brass-buttoned tunic, that was a policeman. But this man had used the term without self-consciousness. He was an older guy, maybe sixty-five or seventy, and I had the feeling he used other anachronisms as well, girl to refer to a grown woman, or tennis shoes for sneakers.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘Good luck with it.’
Evidently he thought this was my case. It was a welcome misapprehension at first. Flattering. But I knew I had only the faintest idea what a homicide detective actually does. And if this guy was a detective… well, what harm in asking?
‘What did you see in there?’
His face registered the realization that I was no homicide detective, nor any other species of detective. He frowned. Whoever he was, he had not come out here to hand-hold a novice. ‘The same things you did. I just didn’t step on them.’
‘I told you, I didn’t step on anything. Anyway, there was nothing to see.’
‘Nothing to see? So tell me, what happened in there?’
‘A guy got shot.’
‘Well, of course. But what then?’
‘A guy got shot — then the body was moved. You’ll have to figure out why.’
‘How do you know the body was moved?’
‘I know because I looked. Keep looking, Ben Truman. Figure it out.’
‘No, show me. What did you see in there? Show me.’
‘Show you, why?’
‘Because I’m curious. I’m just — I’m curious about things.’
‘I thought you said you were a policeman.’ He regarded me a moment before saying, ‘Come here.’ We moved to the doorway, where he stood behind me. ‘Tell me what you see.’
‘I see a cabin with a lot of blood all around. Some cones where the body was. Little signs to show where things were found.’
‘Yes, those are the obvious things. But what’s wrong here? What’s out of place?’
‘Look at the blood. The spatters.’
I stared obediently at the whole baroque pattern of blots and curlicues.
‘Do you know anything about blood-spatter patterns?’
‘No. I’ve never-’
‘Well, there’s nothing mysterious about it. When blood or any other fluid falls straight down, it spatters evenly. You get a stain that’s a round circle with splashes of blood around it, the same in all directions. But when it strikes a surface at an angle, the blood’s own momentum makes it spread across the surface. So, instead of a round stain, it leaves a stain the shape of a teardrop. The fat end of the teardrop is where it hits first, then it tapers off, thinner and thinner as it moves away from the point of origin. You can tell all kinds of things from stains. If you get a round stain on the floor, you know the blood probably just fell with gravity rather than being projected by force. That’s called passive bleeding. A wounded victim will leave a lot of stains like that as he moves around and blood drips from his wounds. There’s not much of that here, of course, because your victim died instantly. But look at these stains, the ones like little comet trails. The blood was spattering out’ — he gestured — ’this way. You see, those cones are behind the blood spatters. The body couldn’t have fallen there. The way those cones are placed, it looks like the blood came flying toward the victim, and of course that’s impossible. So this body was moved after it hit the ground.’
‘Maybe he didn’t fall straight down,’ I argued. ‘Maybe the bullet pushed him in that direction after the blood sprayed out, so he just landed on the wrong side of the spatters.’
‘No, no.’ He shook his head — but patiently, even respectfully, with no suggestion that I was some hayseed sheriff from Acadia County. He seemed to take me for what I was, a young cop with a lot to learn. He seemed to enjoy playing the professor too, for a while at least. ‘You’ve been watching too many movies, Ben Truman. In movies, you see a man standing stock-still, and when he is shot the bullet sends him flying against the wall. Pure bullshit. It doesn’t work that way. A bullet can’t do that. Shooting into a human body is like shooting into a bag of sand. The bullet pierces the surface, and the sandbag, which is much heavier than the bullet, just absorbs the impact. Same with a person. The bullet is too small and too penetrating to shove him in any direction. So in real life, if a person is standing still and he’s shot, he falls straight to the ground. Now, if a man is moving — if he’s running, say — and he gets shot in the back, then yes, he’ll fall forward. But that’s not because the bullet knocked him forward; it’s because his own momentum carried him in that direction. Even allowing for Danziger’s height, he could not have landed that far on the wrong side of the spatters. So this body was moved, we presume by the shooter.’
He punctuated all this with a modest little shrug. Obvious.
‘Who are you?’
‘My name is John Kelly.’
‘No, I mean who are you? You were a policeman — okay, where? How long?’
‘Boston. Thirty-seven years.’
‘You were a homicide detective.’
‘Among other things.’
‘And you knew this guy Danziger? Is that why you’re here?’
‘We met. May he rest in peace.’
‘What do you do now?’
‘I told you, I’m retired. I watch baseball on my satellite dish. I call my daughter on the phone. At five o’clock I have a whiskey.’
‘Tell me more.’ I waved my thumb toward the bloodstained cabin.
‘What is it you want to know?’
‘Everything. I want to know everything.’
‘Everything. Hmm. Well, usually if you see a body moved this way, it means your scene was staged. The killer tried to make it look like something other than murder: accident, suicide, anything that will throw the investigator off. They always get it wrong, of course, because very few people have actually seen what it looks like when someone dies by suicide or by accident. They’ve seen movies so they think they know, just like you thought you knew, but they don’t know. That’s how you catch ’em, see. You look for the detail they got wrong — in this case, the blood spatters.’
How to explain the quickening I felt, the tremor? Kelly seemed to be able to read the environment in a way that no one — not Kurth, not the Game-Show Host, and certainly not I — had done. The resolution of this murder, with all its evident danger, seemed suddenly closer. Listening to him analyze the killer’s mistakes, I felt certain the truth would come out quickly, that the whole thing must look clumsy to an expert. Amazingly, given the circumstances, I enjoyed it.
‘Well, you know someone jimmied the scene; he moved the body. So the next question is why? He didn’t try to stage it as something other than a murder. There’s no phony suicide note or anything like that. That’s why I say he must have been looking for something — it’s the only reason he’d have risked moving the body. Was there any sign of a motive?’
‘Anything obviously missing?’
‘No. In fact, the wallet was left on the floor, in plain sight.’
‘Well, he was after something. Otherwise he would have run. From the looks of this place, the guy must have used an elephant gun. It was loud. You ever hear a gun go off in a small space like this? Deafening, blows your ears out. The blood sprays, too, remember. So picture him: His ears are ringing, he’s covered with blood, he’s agitated. He ought to be thinking one thing — run. But he doesn’t run, this guy. He sticks around, he even touches the body. He moved it so he could search the thing without standing in all that blood. That’s an awfully big risk. Whatever Danziger had, your shooter wanted it bad. Prints?’
‘Well then I’d guess your man knew what he was doing. This wasn’t his first time. He may have planned the whole thing too. No other way to account for his bringing gloves in September. It hasn’t been that cold yet.’
I’d been standing with my back to Kelly, looking into the cabin, and now I turned toward him.
Kelly immediately stepped back. I later realized this was a habit of his. He stood well back from whomever he spoke to, presumably to muffle the effect of his height. Big men usually do just the opposite. They crowd you, they loom. They stand close enough that you — and they — are always aware of their superior size. It is an obvious advantage in conversation literally to look down on someone, and tall men tend to exploit it. But Kelly purposely renounced the tall man’s advantage by standing back, by burying his big hands in his pockets. At the time, all I can say is that I sensed a gentleness about him but could not explain why. Now, in hindsight, I realize that John Kelly wore his height modestly, as if that lanky body were two sizes too big for the man inside. Also, let me confess here, right at the start, that my image of Kelly is probably not an accurate one. To me, he is the hero of this story — though you might disagree — so I have to remind myself that there was nothing heroic about his appearance.
‘Well, you figure out what your man was looking for — why he moved that body — and you’ll find him.’
I shook my head. I felt at a loss, unnerved by the whole thing. The reality of it, the nearness.
‘Don’t look so hopeless, Ben Truman. It’s not rocket science. You’ll figure it out.’
‘Doesn’t matter anyway, it’s not my case. It’s just, you have to wonder how anybody could do this. Not how — I guess we know how. I mean why?’
‘Why indeed.’ Kelly gazed at the cabin. ‘Well, here’s your first lesson. There are only six motives for murder: anger, fear, greed, jealousy, desire, revenge. Your first job is just to figure out which one fits your case. There’s no such thing as a murder without a motive. Even psychopaths have a motive that makes sense to them. Every murder has a motive,’ Kelly said. ‘That’s the golden rule.’
‘I thought the golden rule was “Do unto others.”
‘For priests, not policemen.’ He winked. ‘We have our own golden rules.’
He turned and headed for a tiny Toyota Corolla, a car so small it was hard to imagine Kelly folding himself small enough to fit into it. But he fit.
My father was at the stationhouse when I got back that afternoon. He was massaging the back of his neck as his head tilted left and right like a slow metronome. He didn’t greet me when I came in, just said, ‘What did you do with my chair?’
The chair in question was a leatherette, brass-riveted swivel chair of monumental proportions. The Chief had ordered it from someplace in New York and over the next twenty years or so had literally left his impression on it.
‘I sent it back to the Lincoln Monument. Mr Lincoln said he was tired, he wanted to sit down again.’
‘I’m being serious.’ His tone was don’t-fuck-with-me belligerent. ‘Where’s my chair?’
‘I gave it to Bobby Burke. He’ll find a taker for it.’
‘That was my chair.’
‘No, that was the department’s chair.’
He shook his head, disappointed. His son just didn’t get it.
I had not seen much of Dad since the body had been discovered. He hardly left the house, as far as I could tell. He busied himself with chopping cords of wood — enough to heat Manhattan through several winters — and staring at the TV. I had not found any more bottles, nor had I ever gotten the impression he was truly drunk. That said, these days The Chief never seemed quite sober either. Of course I can’t rule out the possibility he was sneaking more 40s of Miller (or worse), but I suspect that Mum’s death had more to do with it. I think he was just shocked. Shocked not by her dying — we’d both known all too well her death was coming — but by the continuing reality of her absence. It is a recognition that strikes the bravest mourners sooner or later: The dead are truly vanished. I’d been feeling it too, and I can attest the mood was a little like drunkenness.
I sat down at the desk. For years this had been my father’s desk and, other than the chair, I’d made few changes since taking his place as chief of police. I’d removed the plaque he’d posted, which read
PLEASE INSERT COMPLAINTS IN SLOT AT REAR — Dad’s idea of humor — otherwise the desk was essentially as he’d left it.
‘So,’ I said, ‘did you come down here to visit your chair? Or was there something else you wanted to talk about?’
‘You know what I came to talk about.’
But the next moment he seemed to forget what that urgent errand was. He wandered around the perimeter of the station’s one dismal room. ‘A lot of years I busted my ass in this place.’
I rolled my eyes. Self-pity did not suit Claude Truman, even in his ravaged state. Besides, in all those years it was generally other people’s asses he’d busted, not his own.
He shuffled around some more before coming to the point. ‘What’s going on with that case?’
‘The AGs have it. They think it’s some gang kid.’
I said, ‘This guy Danziger was getting ready to prosecute him.’
‘What about you? They give you anything to do yet?’
‘No. They have jurisdiction.’
‘Well, you’ve got to stay involved, Ben, you have no choice. You can’t just do nothing.’
‘You’re the goddamn chief of police. Some flatlander comes up here and gets his head blown off-’
‘Alright, Dad, I got it.’
‘What else do they know?’
‘Dad, this has got nothing to do with you. Stay away from it.’
‘I’m just asking. Can’t I take an interest in my son’s work?’
‘I’m not sure what they know. They don’t report to me; they tell me what to do.’
‘Don’t start with me, Dad.’
‘Who’s the suspect?’
‘His name is Harold Braxton. Here, they gave me a mug shot.’
He glanced at the photo. ‘Who is he?’
‘All I know is he’s a gangster down in Boston. Deals drugs, I guess. One of the detectives from away said this looks like his’ — I was about to say ‘M.O.’ but the term would have sounded cop-show phony coming out of my mouth — ’it looks like his style.’
‘Because I want to know.’
‘Dad, why don’t you just let me do my job.’
‘Because you don’t know how.’
His arms stiffened as a little flume of adrenaline released somewhere. There was no Anne Truman anymore to soothe him, to coo ‘Claude’ in a way that both reassured and warned.
‘Alright, Dad, look: There’s another cop I just met; he thinks the crime scene has been set up somehow, that the body was moved, like maybe the killer was looking for something. That’s really all I know.’
‘You’ve got to stay on top of this.’
I gave a little salute.
‘Don’t let ’em walk on you, Ben.’
‘I know, Dad. “Nobody’s getting through us”’
‘That’s right,’ he said, ‘nobody’s getting through us.’
‘Okay, Dad, don’t worry, I’m on it.’
I watched him move toward the door. From behind, his clothes looked too big. The seams of his work shirt sagged over his triceps, the seat of his pants drooped. He was shrinking, contracting in the airless atmosphere of his wife’s absence.
‘Hey, how you holding up, Claude?’
It was the first time I’d ever addressed him by his first name. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe there was a thought that I’d detected some movement, a low seismic groan in that Yankee limestone. It was a thought he quickly quashed.
‘Don’t you worry about me, Ben. Just do your job.’
I waited till he was gone before shaking my head at the old man. Unnerved as he was — and who wouldn’t be, in his shoes? — deep down he was Claude Truman right to the end.
Nobody gets to you without going through me — and nobody’s getting through me. It was one of my dad’s favorite expressions. And mine too, because I understood it was Yankee code, I understood it was his big-fisted way of saying I love you. After I returned to Versailles, as my mother’s illness worsened, it became the family ethic. We would circle the wagons. Dad and I would protect her together. Nobody gets to her without going through us. And nobody’s getting through us.
Why did we have this sense of siege? Most people in town were eager to help take care of Mrs Truman. They called the station to update us. ‘Annie’s out sitting in the gazebo,’ they’d say, or ‘I just seen your mother out walking toward the lake.’ We could track her movements without leaving the stationhouse. To be frank, until she got sick, Mum had never been especially beloved in Versailles. She’d lived there some twenty-odd years, yet most Versellians were still skeptical of her Massachusetts roots and her Massachusetts attitude. With her illness, though, all suspicions and grudges were swept away, and the town showed its quiet, prickly brand of kindness — true kindness. If we found a supper in tinfoil left at our front door, there wouldn’t be a card to identify who’d put it there, as if claiming credit would be showoffy and uncharitable.
Of course, there is a limit to what others can do. Illness imposes on a family in ways no outsider, however well-intentioned, can truly understand. The family is isolated until it is over, one way or the other. In the solitude of our little house, Dad and I were forced to work together for the first time. This meant, predictably, that The Chief assigned me 90 percent of the household chores. With Mum, I folded the laundry and cooked the dinners and lugged the groceries, all activities she seemed to enjoy because they prolonged the illusion of ordinary life. But as her condition deteriorated — as her thinking became more chaotic, a devolution that occurred much faster than I thought possible — Dad showed a side of himself I’d never seen. I don’t want to make too much of this. People are what they are, after all. But here was Claude Truman holding his wife’s hand in public. And carrying her upstairs if she fell asleep on the couch. And driving her all the way to Portland to get those damn designer eyeglasses.
One afternoon — this was a couple of years after I came home — I found Mum in the TV room. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked.
‘He was just here.’
‘Kennedy was just here?’
She shook her head in little circles that seemed to mean yes.
‘Bobby.’ (Bobby was always her favorite Kennedy.)
‘Bobby Kennedy was just here?’
‘Meaning he was on the TV, right? You saw him on TV.’
‘No, Mum, you mean on the TV
I should have let it go. Who knows what was really in her head? It was just as likely she’d meant to say something else, or not meant to say anything at all. But I didn’t. I laughed at her and made an obvious smartass joke about seeing him drive off with Marilyn Monroe.
Her face fell. With an exasperated flounce, she twisted away from me.
‘Oh, come on, Mum, it’s a little funny, isn’t it?’
‘Come on, I didn’t mean anything.’
‘Shush!’ She stared at the TV. (It was tuned to CNN, the twenty-four-hour newsathon. Some talking head bloviating about some crisis or other. Had he mentioned Kennedy? I don’t know.)
Dad must have heard her shushing me. He stormed in and demanded to know what I’d done. When he got no answer, he knelt beside her and whispered into the swirl of her ear. She made a coy little smile and hunched her ear down against his face, as if his breath was tickling her. They looked like teenagers.
That he was capable of such tenderness was a revelation to me, though I think Mum knew it all along. Once, during one of our daily walks around the circumference of the lake, I asked her what she’d first seen in Claude Truman — his strength? his looks? his aggressiveness? ‘No, Ben, his heart. I saw it right off. That man didn’t fool me for a second.’ I snorted. You might as well say you liked the Venus de Milo for her lovely arms. ‘Don’t talk like that,’ she said. ‘He’d die for you, Ben. You should know that. Your father would absolutely lay down in traffic for you.’
Twenty-four hours after John Kelly’s visit, I was sitting in the Bronco trying to tune in WBLM, The Blimp, 102.9 in Portland. The signal was staticky, blocked by the hills around the lake. It came and went. Mick Jagger doing his white-boy rap about rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown. While my fingers toyed with the dial, my eyes took in the view from the windshield: the shore access road that sloped downhill and disappeared into the water. This was a boat launch where, in summer, the sports put in their Sunfishes and Whalers. But it looked like an entrance ramp to an underwater road, a shortcut along the lake bed that would reemerge on the opposite shore. My attention wandered down this road and out to the water. The surface rippled when the wind kicked up, then, when the wind died, it fell smooth again, like a tablecloth skimmed by the palm of an invisible hand. It was in one of these windless moments that a pale yellow patch appeared. I tried to fix on the spot, but the wind riffled the surface again and the yellow object disappeared. I switched off the radio and stared, chin resting on the steering wheel. But it was no good. The lake surface would not come clear.
I walked down to the edge. The water sploshed against the shore. In the shallows, a fish basked in the sun. He was eighteen inches long, dark, with black leopard spots on his back. He lolled, all fat and lazy, waiting for winter. I could have reached in and grabbed him if I’d wanted to. A few yards beyond the fish, a white rock jutted from the sand like a bone. Then the water went black.
I stood there for some time, trying to see the hidden picture. It was important to be careful here, to get it right. I had to be sure I could see the object clearly before I went any further. The yellow spot appeared occasionally, opaque and formless. A rock maybe? It was some time before the lake decided to open up and show it to me clearly — the back end of a Honda, dull yellow, with a Massachusetts plate, ten or fifteen feet from shore.
Dick Ginoux managed to drift above the submerged car in a little rowboat and hook it with a thick, frayed rope. We hitched the rope to the rear tow ball of the Bronco, but, filled with water, the Honda was heavy as cement. The two vehicles pulled against each other in a tug of war. The Bronco strained. Its wheels spun on the sand and pine needles before it finally gained purchase and the two began to move in tandem away from the lake. The Honda surfaced about eight or ten feet from the bank and rolled backward. Water cascaded from the open windows. At the Bronco’s wheel, I dragged the car all the way out until it sat on the access road, then hurried around to block the wheels before gravity pulled it back into the lake.
The Honda continued to shed water. The surface level in the passenger compartment dropped to the windowsills, then the water sought out leaks in the door seals and in the floor. Rivulets squirted through the bottoms of the doors and from the undercarriage. The draining slowed, however, so that the steering wheel remained half submerged. Black mud and lake grass clotted the exterior.
Dick studied the pool of water still trapped in the car and remarked, ‘Look at that seal. These Japanese cars are something.’
‘Dick, they make these in Ohio,’ I informed him.
Dick pulled open the driver’s door, releasing a wave of water over his shoes. He stamped around, angry.
Inside the car, a lawyer’s boxy trial case was wedged in the foot well behind the driver’s seat. I pulled it out and held it sideways so the water could run out of it, then set it down on the back gate of the Bronco. The case was filled with manila folders.
Dick looked over my shoulder. ‘You better pull them out yourself, Chief,’ he told me. With Dick, it was always Chief when he wanted me to do something, Ben when he wanted to do it himself.
I peeled the fattest folder away from the others and extracted it. The beige cardboard was sopped. I laid it on the carpeted back gate, gently, like a relic. On the front cover, a form was printed with blanks for Defendant, DOB, SSN, Address, Charge(s), Bail, Next Date, and Comments. It was rubber-stamped SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT. The handwriting on the file was barely legible, since much of the ink had dissolved.
Dick squinted to read the defendant’s name out loud: ‘Gerald McNeese, a.k.a. ‘G,’ a.k.a. G-Money, a.k.a. G-Mac. That’s a lot of names. He ought to pick one and stick with it.’ In a section marked Codefendants, Dick read out more names: ‘Harold Braxton. June Veris.’ He added, ‘You figure that’s a man or a woman, June Veris?’ Next to each name were the handwritten initials MP, circled. In large print at the top of the file someone had written, Trial Date: 10-6.
The papers inside the folder were mostly illegible. These included Boston Police incident-report forms, which were printed on pink paper, and a few yellow legal sheets. In a subfile marked Opening were several soaked yellow pages. Most of the ink on these pages had rinsed off, but you could make out a few faint words: Echo Park, heroin. The signature on court pleadings was legible too; it looked like Danzig. The notes Robert Danziger left on the cardboard file folder had held up better. One read clearly, Call Gittens re. Where is Ray Rat? On the inside cover was a handwritten organizational chart:
A series of arrows pointed from G-Mac to Veris to Braxton. That was apparently the route Danziger intended to follow: straight to the top.
The keys to the Honda were still in the ignition, still attached to a two-inch ring holding ten or fifteen other keys. Driver’s seat pushed as far back as it would go, although Danziger could not have been more than five-ten. Other flotsam in the car: a pair of running shoes, an oversize road atlas, a suitcase.
Dick ran the plate. It came back to Robert M. Danziger of West Roxbury, Massachusetts. He ran the names on Danziger’s folder through the NCIC computer too. The computer reported a substantial record for Harold Braxton, including a conviction for assault with intent to murder (five to seven years at MCI–Cedar Junction) and a dismissal on a charge of first-degree murder. Nothing on the other names. Of course, the NCIC computer was notoriously unreliable; submit the same suspect’s name ten times and you could get ten different results. I would have to call Boston to confirm the criminal records.
My eye was drawn to two stickers on Danziger’s back bumper. One was for a political campaign. Its message was simple enough: ANDREW LOWERY, DISTRICT ATTORNEY. The other featured the crest of the Boston
Police Patrolmen’s Association and the motto I SUPPORT THE BOSTON POLICE.
Of course, I ought to have turned all this over to the Game-Show Hosts. The car, the files, everything. It was their case, not mine. But I decided to keep them to myself for a little while. In the last twenty-four hours, my father’s command had taken root. Or perhaps it was my idea — in a sense, this was my case. I could not simply do nothing. I had a duty. Like it or not, I would have to see this through.
By a little pond near Sebago, John Kelly’s cottage hid in the selvage of the forest, with unpainted cedar shingles that mimicked the brown setting, tree bark and a bristly carpet of pine needles. The structure might have disappeared altogether into the piney gloom, camouflaged like a green toad on a green leaf, if not for Kelly’s white Toyota and a satellite dish — the state flower of Maine — out front. I drove past the house twice before I found it, and when I did finally track it down, it occurred to me that this hermit’s cave was not a fit home for Kelly, to whom I’d already ascribed any number of heroic characteristics. It seemed to represent a sort of failure on his part — a fatigue of the spirit, a retreat from the world.
I hauled Danziger’s briefcase, still heavy with lake water, to the front door. A window at my right was bearded with pollen and dust. I tried to peek in and still had not got around to knocking when Kelly came around the side of the cottage. He held a newspaper rolled into a tube.
‘Chief Truman,’ he said.
‘Can I show you something, Mr Kelly?’
‘Depends what it is.’
I held up the ruined bag. ‘Danziger’s briefcase.’
‘Want to have a look?’
‘Why do I have this feeling you’re about to convert me into a witness, Ben Truman? I’d rather not be.’
‘Where did you get that bag, anyway?’
‘We found Danziger’s car. It was sunk in the lake. The bag was inside.’
‘And now you’re just carrying it around? Please tell me you didn’t go rummaging around inside it.’
I did not answer.
Kelly kneaded the hollows of his cheeks then his jaw with one long-fingered hand, a gesture of checked frustration. He looked like a father whose son has just cracked up the family car.
‘I know where the case is going. I have a lead.’
‘A lead. May I make a suggestion, Ben Truman? Go back to Ver-sigh — ’
‘Go back to Ver-sales, call the AG, tell him you found Danziger’s briefcase and car and he should send somebody over to pick them up.’
‘Don’t you want to know what we found?’
‘No. I’ll read about it in the newspaper, thank you.’
‘I’ve already handled the thing. Whatever damage I might’ve done is already done.’
He shook his head no. ‘I thought this wasn’t your case.’
‘So you’re playing detective.’
‘No, just an interested observer.’
‘And what do you intend to do now, as an interested observer?’
‘I’m going to Boston.’
‘To stay informed, yes. I have to. The murder happened in my town. I have a responsibility’
Kelly gave me an indulgent paternal smile. He swung the door open. ‘Perhaps we’d better have a chat, Ben Truman.’
Inside, the rooms were furnished with delicate pieces, all spindle legs and needlework pillows and flowery chintz. I assumed his wife had picked them out many years before. There were no signs of a wife now, though. Kelly appeared to live here alone, still sitting on his wife’s furniture. I tried, as guests invariably do, to gain some glimpse of my host’s inner life from the belongings on display, but Kelly wasn’t giving much away. There were very few pictures and no books at all in the living room where we settled. Kelly did have a collection of old vinyl LPs. His tastes ran toward big bands and mainstream jazz: Bing Crosby, lots of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, Louis Prima, Louis Armstrong, with a few Aretha Franklins thrown in. There were two photos on a low chest. An older, faded picture showed a little girl, one of those grade-school portraits with a marbled blue sheet for a backdrop. The girl in the picture was strikingly pale. Her dark hair draped around her face like a cowl. She stared out with a grave expression. The newer photo showed a woman in her early thirties, pretty in a stern, dark-browed way.
‘Is this your daughter?’ I gestured to the photos.
‘Daughters. That’s Caroline on the right. And this’ — he picked up the older photo, dragged the top of the frame across his shirt to dust it, then replaced it — ’this is Theresa Rose. She passed away’
‘Jesus, I’m sorry.’
‘It was a long time ago.’
Kelly poured himself a tumbler of brown whiskey. He offered me one, which I refused. He gave it to me anyway. ‘Take it,’ he said. ‘It sounds like you need it.’ I sipped, and struggled to keep a poker face while the whiskey scalded its way down my throat.
‘Now, what are you talking about, Ben?’
From the briefcase I pulled out the file on Gerald McNeese and laid it on the coffee table. The file was corrugated from soaking in the lake. It looked like a napoleon.
‘Danziger was getting ready to prosecute this guy Gerald McNeese, or G-Mac, whatever his name is. But that was just the start. Really Danziger was going after Braxton. He was starting with one of the low-level guys in Braxton’s gang, then he was going to work his way up the ladder to Braxton. He drew this chart here. Look.’
Kelly made a skeptical grimace, as if I were a kook insisting that the end of the world was nigh. ‘Chief Truman, am I correct in assuming you’ve never handled a case like this before?’
‘Yes. Well — yes.’
‘What is the most serious case you’ve had?’
‘I had a mayhem once.’
‘It was a fight. Joe Beaulieu bit off Lenny Kennett’s pinky finger. They were drunk. It never got to trial. Lenny refused to testify. Joe was a friend, and there was a rumor he paid Lenny a fair price for the finger-’
Kelly held up his hand. He got the picture.
‘Look, I know I’m a little green. But I do have this job. In my town I’m the chief, for better or worse. I’m the only one they’ve got. I didn’t choose this.’
‘You’re green as grass,’ he said, as much to himself as to me.
‘Okay, well, thank you, I guess.’
‘There are hundreds of cops already working this case. You do know that, don’t you?’
He glanced at the newspaper he’d been carrying, the Boston Herald, then went to the breakfast table for the other morning papers, which he tossed one by one on the coffee table in front of me. The Boston Globe led with the story on page one. A two-column headline read, SEARCH FOR PROSECUTOR’S SLAYER CONTINUES. A color photo showed Danziger smiling behind his red mustache and owlish glasses. The caption identified him as Robert Danziger, led anti-gang unit. The Herald, Boston’s bad-boy tabloid, was more histrionic. It had a one-word banner headline, DRAGNET! over a photo of detectives in BPD windbreakers questioning a group of black teenagers on a street corner. A local paper, the Portland Press Herald, and even The New York Times had picked up the story.
But the notion of following the case to Boston seemed logical, even inevitable. My response to the newspapers was a mute shrug and a manful sip of whiskey.
‘So what do you want from me?’ Kelly asked.
‘I thought maybe you’d like to come along.’
‘I told you, I’m retired.’
‘Yes, but you knew Danziger. Besides, you said yourself, a retired cop is still a cop. You said you never stop being a cop.’
‘Yes, but even cops get old.’
‘You could teach me. You could help me.’
‘Help you what?’
‘Help me follow the case. Stay informed. Maybe get involved somehow if we can.’
Kelly shook his head and paced with his drink. He wandered over to the chest, where the photo of the dark-haired girl stared back at him with a somber expression. ‘Ben, look at me. I’m sixty-six years old. I came up here just to get away from this bullshit.’ He turned for assistance to the little girl in the photo, the late Theresa Rose Kelly. She seemed to shake her head at me too. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said finally.
‘You’ll be alright, Ben Truman. You’re a good cop, deep down.’
‘I’m not really a cop at all. It’s just a job.’
‘That’s how it always starts.’
The next morning, Kelly knocked and opened the stationhouse door, tentative and polite, wearing his ever-present flannel jacket and scally cap. ‘Can I have a word with you, Chief Truman?’ He glanced at Dick, who was working a crossword puzzle at the dispatcher’s desk. ‘Alone?’
I slipped on my jacket, and Kelly and I walked down Central Street. He produced a wooden billy club, which he had tucked in his belt. It was coffee brown with a leather wrist strap. Every inch of the wood was nicked and scratched. As we walked, Kelly twirled the thing absent-mindedly. There seemed to be two ways to do this: a propeller sort of motion directly in front of the belt buckle; or at the hip, like a floozy spinning her feather boa. Kelly executed both maneuvers with incredible dexterity. Who knows how many years of practice he’d had, how many beats he’d walked with that truncheon. Our steps fell in with the rhythm of it — spin, slap! spin, slap! — and I understood why they call it ‘walking a beat.’
‘Did they give you that thing at Central Casting?’
‘Standard issue, Ben Truman. Every good policeman carries one.’ He gave me a once-over, ascertained that I was not carrying one, and made a face.
‘Well, you can put it away. I don’t think you’ll need to whack anyone with a billy club in this town.’
‘It’s called a nightstick. And the point is not to whack anyone. It’s part of the show.’ Spin, slap. ‘People have certain expectations. That’s why doctors wear white coats.’
‘So you’ve never whacked anyone with that thing?’
‘I didn’t say that. I said the point of carrying a nightstick is to not use it. If you carry it right, you’ll never have to.’
‘Then how did all those dents get there?’
‘Okay, almost never. Still, it’s best not to.’ He inspected the truncheon briefly, as if he’d never noticed all the dents and dings in it. ‘If you are going to be a cop, Ben Truman, you can either be a fighter or a talker. I have always been a talker.’
We strolled along. From the window of the Owl, Phil Lamphier stared out at us. He was holding a coffeepot, swirling the coffee in the glass bulb. Hard to know what Phil made of the sight — a very tall stranger spinning a cop’s nightstick, walking a beat in a town that had never seen a beat cop; and me, hands in pockets, listening intently. I could imagine Phil passing along the intelligence over the lunch counter: ‘Ayuh, saw Ben walking with a tall fella this morning, ’round nine-thirty twas…’ In the hothouse atmosphere of those days, any rumor that concerned the body in the cabin was snapped up and analyzed ad nauseam. I waved to Phil, and he lifted the coffeepot toward me in a sort of salute.
‘What does a cop do,’ Kelly asked, ‘in a place like this?’
‘Wait for what?’
‘For something to happen. Something different, I mean.’
‘So how long have you been waiting?’
‘Three years, give or take.’
‘You’ve only been a cop three years and already you’re the chief?’
‘They weren’t exactly standing in line for the job.’
Kelly stooped to pick up a stray piece of paper, slipped it into his back pocket, then resumed his twirling, spin, slap! ‘You know, when I started out, there was a sergeant in my precinct named Leo Stapleton. Leo was my first watch commander. He introduced me around, kept me out of trouble, showed me how things worked. Do you have anyone like that, a guy like Leo Stapleton?’
‘No.’ It occurred to me that I did have Dick Ginoux and my father. ‘Definitely not.’
‘So this idea about going down to Boston, you came up with that on your own. You haven’t discussed it with anyone.’
‘Boy-o, do you have any idea what you’re getting into?’
‘I’m not sure what you’re asking.’
He stopped and poked me in the sternum with the nightstick. ‘What I’m asking is, do you know what it means to tangle with a guy like Braxton? Do you know what’s involved? Chief Truman, have you ever put physical pressure on a suspect?’
‘Yes. Have you used physical pressure to obtain information?’
‘No! Of course not.’
‘Of course not? What if it were the only way to protect innocent life? Let’s say there was a bomb, and the suspect knew where the bomb was planted. Would you use force to make him talk, knowing it would save thousands of innocent people?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe.’
‘Maybe. Well, would you endanger an innocent person in order to get a conviction?’
‘Would you force a witness to testify, knowing his life would be in danger if he did so, but also knowing that a conviction might save many lives?’
‘I don’t know. I never-’
‘Well, you’d better start thinking about it, Chief Truman, if you want to get a guy like Braxton. You’d better think about what you’re willing to do.’ Kelly gave me a long look.
He withdrew the nightstick from my chest. ‘Because there’s no other way. You can’t be a good cop and obey all the rules. That’s the dirty little secret.’
We started walking again.
‘Good cops do bad things for good reasons. Bad cops do bad things for bad reasons. Most cops want to be good, that’s the truth. But it takes experience to know how. Do you see what I’m getting at?’
‘You’re saying I don’t have the experience to work this case. But all I want to do is observe-’
‘I’m saying, if you get mixed up in it, you’ll probably get hurt. Or worse.’
‘When you say worse — ’ Another of Kelly’s looks. ‘Ah.’
We went on walking.
‘Chief Truman, I came here to tell you what Leo Stapleton would have told me: Don’t be in such a hurry to meet the Harold Braxtons of the world. They’ll come to you when the time is right.’
‘In a town like this, I’m more likely to meet a woolly mammoth than a Harold Braxton. I need to do this. I need to. You’ll have to trust me on that.’
Kelly stopped to look up at the sky. It was a clear-blue fall day. He puffed out his cheeks, then released a long sigh. ‘Well,’ he concluded, ‘two dead boys is enough.’
He was referring to Braxton’s police victims, Danziger and the narcotics officer Artie Trudell. At the time, they were the only two we knew about.
There is no official oath for police officers in Versailles, Maine, so I had to make up some malarkey about ‘faithfully protecting and serving the people’ of the town ‘so help you God.’ It fell somewhere between the presidential oath of office and the Boy Scouts oath, but it did the trick. John Kelly, age sixty-six, was now the junior officer in the Versailles Police Department.
We decided to leave first thing Monday morning. That gave me a couple of days to make arrangements and pack my car, an old Saab 900 with a crack in the steering rack and a number of cancerous rust stains. I told everyone where I was going, although I described the journey in the sunniest possible way. I did not mention the Mission Posse or the gunshots to the eye. I was just going down to the city to observe, to keep tabs on the case. No danger ‘t’all. Diane and Phil and the rest all pretended to understand and believe me, and in the shadow conversation of things unsaid — the habitual language of Maine Yankees — I understood that they knew enough about Harold Braxton anyway and were worried for me.
I left Dick Ginoux in charge of the station while I was gone. It was not an ideal choice. Dick was the kind of guy who would prop his eyeglasses on his forehead then spend the better part of an afternoon looking for them. But he was the senior man in the department, and besides, there were no Eliot Nesses among the other candidates.
The morning of my departure, my father got up early to see me off. ‘I know why you’re doing this,’ he told me. ‘I’m not so old I don’t understand what you’re doing. Just you be careful.’ His beard was growing in. It was almost pure white. ‘Well, you’d best get going, Ben. It’s a long ride.’ I hugged him. His body was almost exactly the size of my own now, even a little smaller. It came as a surprise. I still thought he was a giant. He endured the hug as long as could be expected. ‘Look at us,’ he said, pulling away, ‘couple of fruitcakes.’
As for me, I had an inchoate sense that my life was veering, that from now on events — my personal history — would move along a different vector. For the second time in my life, I was getting out. I was leaving Versailles behind.
In a way, I’d already left — the moment I first learned of that dead man by the lake.
‘What have we better than a blind guess to show that the criminal law in its present form does more good than harm?… Do we deal with criminals on proper principles?’
In the year and a half I lived in Boston as a graduate student, I never went to Mission Flats, not once. The neighborhood was mentioned often enough around BU. The savvier students, native Bostonians especially, referred to it in a smirky, knowing way, but always with fearful reverence. The name Mission Flats was shorthand for them. It meant all the things dreaded by city dwellers: a place where one would not want to get lost on a dark night, a place where stolen cars turned up abandoned, where stray bullets passed through kitchen windows, a place to score drugs (if you were so inclined). But for all the talk, few of them had actually seen it. I suppose every city has its isolated, run-down districts. Still, it was surprising how few Bostonians — white Bostonians especially — had ever been to Mission Flats. To them, it was as remote as the Gobi Desert. To be fair, there is no real reason to visit the Flats unless you live or work there. The neighborhood is small. There are no shops or sights. The only institution of any distinction is the New England Presbyterian Hospital, which found itself marooned in the Flats when the tide of wealth receded in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Even the picturesque features for which Mission Flats is named have been erased; there is no longer a mission or a flat there. The mission, where John Eliot preached Christianity to the Indians in the seventeenth century, vanished long ago. And the flats — a marshy, pestilential fen surrounding the Little Muddy River — had already been drained and filled by 1900. The district is adjacent to nowhere and on the way to nowhere, dangling beneath Franklin Park like a rotten pear. It exists in near-perfect isolation from the rest of the city, a sort of blighted Brigadoon. But it had taken up a spot in the ether of the imagination, especially among white suburbanites who knew nothing about Mission Flats except that they did not ever want to be there.
Kelly and I reached the eastern edge of the Flats shortly before noon. ‘You want to look around a little?’ he offered, and as I drove, he directed me down a broad avenue called Franklin Street. Here the sidewalk was lined with the same red-brick row houses that fill the Back Bay and the South End. Proceeding north, though, the street wall began to falter. Burned-out and abandoned buildings cropped up between the occupied ones. Here and there a tenement would simply have vanished, leaving a gap between the rough interior walls of the adjacent buildings. These vacant lots were strewn with stones and bricks. Eventually the row houses gave way to larger apartment buildings, then the desolate Grove Park housing project, then a commercial strip: auto-body shops, check-cashing services, convenience stores, tow lots.
‘The tour buses don’t get out here much,’ Kelly remarked dryly.
We turned off Franklin Street into a maze of side streets with tranquil names, Orchard Street, Amherst Street, Willow Street. The apartment buildings fell away and one-, two-, and three-family homes lined the sidewalks. Cracked driveways, sagging porches, peeled paint, even a few broken windows. The well-kept houses served only to highlight the decay of the surrounding ones. Yet for all that decay, on a sunny autumn day the neighborhood did not look especially threatening. Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be cheery details: a milk crate nailed to a phone pole as a makeshift basketball hoop, flower boxes, little girls skipping rope. This was no underworld, just poor. I had seen poverty before. There is no shortage of dirt-poor swamp Yankees and Quebecois in Acadia County. I imagined people here felt the same sense of diffident yearning. Poor is poor.
We emerged from the winding side streets and Kelly announced, ‘This is Mission Ave.’
(Bostonians reflexively shorten the word avenue to ave. A New Yorker sees the abbreviation 5th Ave. and says ‘Fifth Avenue’; a Bostonian sees Massachusetts Avenue and says ‘Mass Ave.’ I don’t know why. In any event, in Boston the road is generally referred to as Mission Ave.)
The main artery through the Flats was a wasteland. Looking north, Mission Avenue was a corridor of empty lots strewn with rubble and garbage. Tenements stood here and there, listing like punch-drunk boxers. The pediments above each door had been stripped away along with any brass or metal trim, drainpipes, mail slots, street numbers — anything that could plausibly be carried off and sold. Someone had erected a chainlink fence around one of these buildings to define a sort of yard; scumbles of garbage were caught in it like fish in a drift net.
‘These row houses used to stretch for miles,’ Kelly said. ‘Used to be a nice place. Italians lived here, Irish, Jews. They all got out.’
We passed the Winthrop Village housing project, a cluster of concrete bunkers set in a landscaped park. A Boston Housing Authority Police cruiser sat idling near the entrance, and the cop, an enormous black guy with a badass goatee and wraparound shades, watched us drive past.
Kelly pointed to graffiti, the same insignia recurring over and over: two interlocking letters, MP, artlessly spray-painted in childish lettering. ‘Braxton’s crew,’ Kelly said. ‘Mission Posse.’ The Posse had tagged everything: MP on telephone poles, MP on sidewalks, they’d even painted over street signs with it.
‘Pull in here, Ben Truman.’ Kelly was pointing at a little market called Mal’s. ‘I want to use the phone.’
Kelly disappeared into the store, and after flipping through the radio stations for a minute, I decided to get out of the car, take in the sunshine and the view. There was not much to look at. The oatmeal shade of the sidewalk nearly matched Mal’s storefront. Even the signs in the window had been bleached by the sun. I stood on the sidewalk, crossing and uncrossing my arms, leaning and unleaning against a parking meter.
People stared. A kid hanging in a doorway, sagging against the doorjamb like an empty set of clothes. An overweight woman in Adidas shower sandals. Were they staring? What were they staring at? Mine was the only white face on the street — was that enough to draw attention?
The kid draped in the doorway roused himself to approach me. His face was the color of caramel, almost as fair as my own. He wore new-out-of-the-box white sneakers and a loose hockey-style shirt that hung off his bony shoulders.
A second kid joined him. A huge, plump kid I had not noticed before.
There was a cretinous quality about him. He had narrow eyes incised into a bloated, doughy face.
‘What are you waiting for?’ the first kid said.
‘Just waiting on a friend. He’s inside.’
The kid studied me, as if my answer were suspicious.
‘This is a nice car,’ the slit-eyed guy said.
The first kid was still staring at me. ‘You got any money?’
‘We need some money to go to the store.’
‘No. I told you, my friend is in the store.’
‘All we need is like a dollar,’ said Slit Eyes.
‘I told you-’
‘Come on, a dollar?’
I gave them a one-dollar bill.
‘Thought you didn’t have any money’
‘I didn’t say that. I said I wasn’t giving you any’
‘Only now you did. You gave us some.’
‘So, a dollar? That’s like, why don’t you just give us a fuckin’ penny?’ The skinny kid watched me for a reaction. ‘Come on, you got a whole walletful. I just seen it. We need it to go to the store.’
‘We need to get something to eat.’
‘Yeah,’ agreed Slit Eyes, ‘something to eat.’
‘I’m not giving you any more.’
‘Why not? I told you, we need it.’
I shook my head. Maybe it was time to announce that I was a cop. But these were just kids, it was under control. Besides, I was not a cop here. I was outside my jurisdiction, I had no police powers. Just another tourist. ‘I gave you a buck, fellas. That’s all you’re gonna get.’
Slit Eyes edged beside me. ‘But I just seen your wallet.’ He was taller and heavier than me. His eyelids squeezed tight as clams.
‘Come on,’ the first kid wheedled, ‘just help us out.’
He stepped toward me, not aggressively — or maybe it was aggressively, I’m still not sure. I raised my hand to hold him away. My five fingertips pressed lightly on his breastbone.
‘Hey, don’t touch me!’ the skinny kid said softly. ‘You don’t want to get physical.’
‘I’m not getting phys-’
Slit Eyes cut me off: ‘Hey, yo, don’t go getting physical. There’s no need.’
‘Look, you asked for a buck, I gave it to you.’
‘Yeah,’ the skinny kid said, ‘but now you went and started getting physical. What’s up with that?’
‘I didn’t get physical.’
‘Have I disrespected you?’
‘No, we’re just talking here. I just asked you for some help. How come you’re all mad?’
‘I’m not mad.’ I pulled my hand back down. ‘I’m asking you nicely now, respectfully: Step back.’
‘It’s a public sidewalk. You think you can tell me where to go just ’cause I asked you for help? It’s like that? I got to step back because you gave me a whole dollar?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘You thought it. I can see.’
‘I didn’t think anything.’
‘Yes, you did.’ The skinny kid reached out and tapped my front pants pocket with his knuckles, apparently to feel my wallet.
I brushed his hand away, gently. ‘Don’t touch me.’
‘Hey! I told you, you don’t have to push. I’m just talking to you.’
Kelly emerged from the little market. He glanced at the three of us, then said, in a peremptory way, ‘Come on, Ben, we don’t have time to fool around. I want to see my daughter.’ He brushed between us and climbed into the passenger seat. ‘Well? Let’s go.’
I stepped around the two kids without a word, and they offered not a word to me.
‘It’s like another country,’ I said in the car, but Kelly did not respond, and saying it did not dispel my uneasiness.
Mission Flats District Court, First Session.
By 12:45, Judge Hilton Bell was no longer sitting at the judge’s bench but pacing behind it, his black robe unzipped to the navel. The judge had been processing arraignments since nine o’clock sharp, and still his courtroom was packed. There were occasional shouts of protest from the holding cells in the basement; they, too, were still crowded.
I sat on a front bench, wedged between an armrest and a young woman who smelled, not unpleasantly, of Dune perfume and armpit. For reasons I can’t begin to explain, this woman clutched a plastic baggie containing dark curls of what appeared to be human hair.
(John Kelly had the good sense to avoid the courtroom. He waited outside on the street, where it was cooler.)
Judge Bell looked out over the audience, apparently considering his plight. The judge was quite literally overheating. Somewhere in the intestines of the courthouse, an ancient furnace was huffing hot air into the first-session courtroom, where the temperature was already near eighty oxygenless degrees, and the goddamn Boston police had placed the entire population of the city under arrest, and here they all were, these huddled masses, turning Judge Bell’s courtroom into a great sweating steerage compartment, exhaling more and more of their steamy vapor toward the judge’s bench, a sirocco of unminty breath. The judge fiddled with his bow tie. He looked up at the ceiling for heavenly assistance. The audience looked up along with him, but all we saw were water stains.
Then the pensive moment was over and it was back to work.
‘Next case!’ Judge Bell bellowed.
‘Number ninety-seven dash seven-seven-eight-eight,’ the clerk read out. ‘Commonwealth v. Gerald McNeese the Third, also known as G also known as G-Mac also known as G-Money also known as Trey McNeese.’
‘Custody!’ the clerk sang.
‘Custody!’ echoed one of the court officers.
By now the audience had learned the drill, so like spectators at a tennis match we right-faced in unison toward a rectangular cutout in the wall. On the other side of this glassless window were the arrests from the previous weekend who had not posted bail. They crowded together, visible from the waist up like puppets in a shadow box. The men shuffled about until one was able to squeeze to the front and wordlessly identify himself as Gerald McNeese.
‘Commonwealth!’ the judge said.
A young assistant DA riffled through his files. The kid’s face was sweat-shiny from the heat. Two round coins of red flushed his cheeks. At length, he pulled out an empty file folder and held it open for the judge to see. ‘Your Honor, I don’t have anything on this one. It’s Ms Kelly’s case.’
The clerk rolled his eyes.
Judge Bell shook his head. It was hopeless. ‘So where is she?’
The kid made a face. Beats me.
‘I don’t know, Your Honor.’
‘Why don’t you know?’
‘Um, I don’t know… why… I don’t know.’
The kid could not have been more than a year or two out of law school. Now here he was, reddening in the heat of Mission Flats District Court, buried in files, no doubt counting the days till his tour of duty was up and he would be transferred somewhere — anywhere — else.
‘You don’t know why you don’t know?’
‘I don’t — I don’t know. Your Honor.’
There followed a few desultory arraignments on charges that, even to me, seemed petty: possession of marijuana, disorderly, simple A amp;B. With each arraignment, the audience gave a little respiratory heave of relief as the defendant and his supporters were exhaled from the courtroom. Each time, though, the void was filled by others. They pushed in from the hallway, and the benches were squeezed tight, the room repressurized.
‘Call the McNeese case again.’ The judge was smoldering.
‘Your Honor, I still have not heard from Ms Kelly.’
‘Then turn around and tell them.’
‘Turn around and explain to all these people why you’re unprepared, why you’re wasting everyone’s time.’
‘Turn around, Mr Prosecutor.’ The judge swept his arm toward us, the groundlings in our damp shirts. ‘Tell it to them, not me.’
The kid turned slowly, penitently. The red stains on his cheeks seeped over his ears and down his neck. He stood with a self-effacing turtle-backed slouch, scanning the crowd. But when his eyes reached the doorway, he managed a wan smile. He’d found an ally.
A woman entered the courtroom and pushed and excuse-me’d her way forward. She was dressed in a sleek black skirt suit. The jacket had a band collar with an open tab at the hollow of her neck. It looked a little like a priest’s collar.
‘Ms Kelly!’ the clerk blurted, and the entire court staff repeated ‘Ms Kelly!’ as if they’d all been trying to think of a forgotten name and it had just come back to them.
Caroline Kelly stood at the prosecutor’s table next to the young ADA. Unseen by the judge, she put her hand on the kid’s shoulder blade. The point was not so much to reassure him, I think, but to get him to stand up straight. She stretched her thumb to touch his spine just as a stern mother would press on the backbone of a slouching child. And it worked; the kid did stand a little straighter. Kelly left her thumb on his weakest vertebra for good measure, to prevent a relapse. She leaned over and whispered in the kid’s ear, but loud enough for us in the front row to hear quite clearly, ‘Fuck him.’
Those were the first words I ever heard Caroline Kelly say, fuck him, and she loaded a little extra sauce on the fuck to show she meant it.
From my seat in the front row, I studied the details of her posterior side. Her hair was dark brown, clipped loosely at the back of her neck with a gold clasp. The twill fabric of her skirt was slightly but discernibly taut around her hips, which were not thin. She stood with her anklebones nearly touching, so that a flame-shaped gap was formed between the inner curves of her calves. A soft leather briefcase slumped against her ankle when she set it down.
‘Ms Kelly,’ Judge Bell said. ‘The prodigal daughter.’
She held out her free hand, palm up. The gesture said, Here I am.
‘Was there something you’d like to share with the court?’
The judge regarded her. ‘Perhaps you can help us, Ms Kelly. We have a little mystery. Last weekend there were — Mr Clerk, how many arrests?’
‘Two hundred and five arrests. All for this one humble court. I believe that must be a new record.’
‘Congratulations, Your Honor.’
‘Enlighten me, Ms Kelly. How do you explain such a burst of zealous law enforcement? Was there a sudden spike in the crime rate? These must be serious cases, I’m sure. Let’s see’ — he thumbed through the case files — ’one marijuana cigarette; trespassing; ooh look here, defacing public property.’
‘Defacing public property is a crime, Your Honor.’
‘He urinated on the sidewalk!’
‘Well, if it left a mark, then technically-’
The facial muscles around Judge Bell’s jaw and temples tightened visibly. Evidently you just did not bother with these sorts of offenses in Mission Flats. They were clogging the docket; they were sand in the gears. It wasn’t funny, dammit. ‘Ms Kelly, is it the District Attorney’s intention to punish a whole neighborhood for a single homicide?’
‘I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.’
The judge told the young ADA to sit down. Before the kid moved, Kelly patted him twice on the shoulder blade, once again unseen by the judge.
‘Call the case,’ the judge said.
‘Number ninety-seven dash seven-seven-eight-eight,’ the clerk announced a second time. ‘Commonwealth v. Gerald McNeese the Third, also known as G also known as G-Mac also known as… whatever. Intimidation of a witness. Assault and battery. Assault with intent to maim. Assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, to wit, a sidewalk.’
Beside me, the perfumed girl confided, ‘He hit somebody with a friggin’ sidewalk? I don’t think so.’
‘Assistant District Attorney Caroline Kelly for the Commonwealth. And Mr Beck.’
The players all stepped forward, forming a triangle before the judge.
Along with Kelly, there was Attorney Max Beck, who marched over to the hole in the wall. Beck had the look of a True Believer. His hair was a snarl of salt-and-pepper curls that tumbled over his collar. Plastic pens poked out of various pockets. His necktie was wrenched loose. The message in all this anti-fashion seemed to be: Citizens, fighting Government Oppression is hard work! I have no time to worry about clothes! It was pretty effective, actually.
The anchor of the triangle, however, was the defendant. Gerald McNeese radiated a sinewy, menacing aura. He leaned his forearms on the sill of the prisoners’ dock and laced his fingers. The pose was so perfectly casual, so lazy-cool, you almost forgot there were handcuffs on his wrists. Tall and very thin, the points of McNeese’s clavicles protruded under his shirt. His head was shaved, revealing a lumpy cranium.
At the prisoners’ dock, Max Beck laid his hand on McNeese’s forearm — Fight the power! — but McNeese pulled his arm away.
‘Commonwealth,’ the judge said.
‘Your Honor, this is the man Assistant DA Bob Danziger was preparing to prosecute when he was murdered.’
‘Overruled. I want to hear this.’
‘But my client is not charged with killing Bob Danziger! This has nothing to do with Bob Danziger!’
The judge flippered his hands, brushing Beck off. ‘I said I’ll hear it.’ Suddenly we were no longer talking about a garden-variety A amp;B. The mention of Danziger’s name changed everything.
The prosecutor continued: ‘The defendant’s gang-’
‘But my client is not a member of any gang!’
‘Yes, he is,’ Caroline Kelly assured. ‘And it goes to motive.’
‘Overruled,’ the judge said again.
‘The defendant’s gang, the Mission Posse,’ Kelly said, ‘was anxious that Danziger’s case against this defendant not come to trial. Gerald McNeese is believed to be a close associate of Harold Braxton, the gang’s leader. In the case Mr Danziger was prosecuting, the key witness had gone into hiding, and the Posse could not locate him to… dissuade this witness from testifying.’
‘Objection! Pure speculation.’
‘Overruled. I’ll hear it.’
‘Over the weekend,’ Caroline Kelly said, ‘Mr McNeese — who is known as G-Mac on the street — finally did locate the informant, a man named Raymond Ratleff. The defendant was eager to convince Mr Ratleff not to testify in Mr Danziger’s case. Around midnight on Saturday, the defendant was seen beating Mr Ratleff on Stanwood Street in the Flats, smashing his face against the curbstone at least a half dozen times. According to one observer, it looked like the defendant was driving a nail into the sidewalk with Mr Ratleff’s head. Mr Ratleff suffered broken bones in his face, including a fractured eye socket. He may lose the use of his right eye.’
Gerald McNeese pursed his lips and sniffed disdainfully.
‘Your Honor, with all due respect to Ms Kelly, the police have been sweeping through this neighborhood, rousting young African-American men for weeks because of the Danziger case.’
Kelly glared as Beck dropped the firebombs of race and police misconduct, and her stare only darkened as Beck went on.
‘-young black men in this neighborhood have been targeted-’
The prosecutor’s eyes narrowed to a high-noon stare. She seemed to be trying to vaporize poor Max Beck with those lasers.
‘Mr McNeese in particular has been targeted,’ Beck persisted. ‘He certainly has no link to the Danziger murder. That is just a smear against my client. The police have nothing, so they’re conducting a witch hunt.’
The judge groaned. ‘Not the witches, not today’
‘My point is, this is just the kind of hysteria-’
‘Mr Beck, I have a crowded courtroom. We’re not going to do the thing with the witches.’
Beck made a face to show there was a valid point to be made about witch hunts, if only the judge would let him. ‘Judge, then I’ll simply say there is no evidence against my client, there is no witness, therefore there’s no possibility of a conviction. Under the circumstances, he must be released on personal recognizance.’
‘What about it, Ms Kelly? Do you have a witness?’
‘Can this witness make the I.D.?’
‘And he’s willing to go forward?’
Kelly hesitated. She tilted her head left and right, a gesture of uncertainty. ‘Your Honor, we believe the witness will go forward. We’re requesting the defendant be held without bail.’
Judge Bell frowned. The prosecutor was pushing a case with a reluctant witness — more likely, no witness at all — and putting the judge on the spot by tying the case to a more sensational one, the murder of ADA Bob Danziger. He studied a fanfolded printout of McNeese’s record while his fingers worked the bow tie. At last he announced his decision: ‘Fifty thousand cash, five hundred thousand surety.’
The clerk repeated this information to the defendant, but G-Mac did not seem to be listening. He was glaring at Caroline Kelly.
The judge had a message for the prosecutor too. ‘Ms Kelly,’ he said, ‘find your victim and indict this case, or I’ll cut him loose.’
When the McNeese arraignment had been wrapped up — with the droning incantation ‘Gerald McNeese, this honorable court has established bail in the amount of fifty thousand dollars cash or five hundred thousand dollars surety…’ — the judge looked at his watch and announced, ‘Two o’clock,’ which signaled the lunch break. The atmosphere in the room instantly relaxed, in large part because Judge Bell himself departed. In the lawyers’ area, ADAs and defense attorneys chatted like weary comrades-in-arms. Among the spectators, there was a riotous push toward the door.
Caroline Kelly lingered at the prosecutors’ table for a few moments, arms folded, greeting some of the lawyers. It was interesting to watch her after seeing her photo in Kelly’s cabin in Maine. I realized immediately that I had misimagined Caroline — that she was both more formidable and much, much prettier than I’d presumed. Which is not to say she was conventionally beautiful, because she was not, quite. She had not inherited her father’s lanky frame or his narrow face. Caroline’s features were more generous: broad, prominent cheekbones, dark brows separated by a twice-creased spandrel, a slightly too-soft chin. Her nose was prominent too, with an aristocratic little Bourbon bump at the bridge. Caroline’s mouth was her only delicate feature. She had thin, expressive lips and small teeth, which she seemed reluctant to reveal. All of it fit somehow, and anyway the alchemy of attractiveness is more mysterious by far than a simple accounting of facial features; there are many more ways to be attractive than to be beautiful. What Caroline Kelly had that her photo did not and could not capture was presence. She had a worldly manner. She met events and people with a sidelong glance, with the left corner of her mouth curling upward like a cat’s tail. That smirk suggested not the usual acid cynicism of young people, but a gentler and healthier sort of knowing-ness — a comfortable skepticism from which, one suspected, she did not exempt herself.
When I reached her, Caroline was chatting with Max Beck. Or, to be accurate, Beck was attempting to sustain a chat with her.
‘How is your father?’
‘Oh, he’s unchanged, Max.’
Caroline gave him one of those wiseguy smirks, then turned to me. She was not as tall as I am, but she managed to convey the impression of looking me level in the eye. ‘Ben Truman. What did you think of this place?’
‘Have we met?’
I glanced down to see if I was wearing one of my uniform shirts, which identify me variously as Officer Truman and Chief Truman. I was not. ‘How did you…?’
‘My father called to say you’d be here. Weren’t you with him?’
‘Sorry I’m an idiot.’
Her lips unfastened into a lopsided Elvis-like smile. ‘So what did you make of all this?’
‘It was interesting.’
‘Interesting!’ Beck said, delighted again. ‘It is that!’
Caroline still had not unfolded her arms. ‘Max Beck, this is Benjamin Truman. Mr Truman is the chief in Versailles, Maine.’
Beck pumped my hand up and down. ‘We’re all so upset about what happened.’
I offered my hand to Caroline, and she gave it a dry, businesslike shake.
‘Max, I should warn you, Mr Truman came down to look into the Danziger case. You’d better hope he strikes out, otherwise you’ll lose a few clients.’
‘Oh, I’m not too concerned.’ Beck gave me a look, rolling his eyes up toward that inverted bird’s nest of hair: Typical Caroline. Having imparted that mute warning, he drifted off.
‘I don’t think he thought that was funny.’
‘That’s because it wasn’t a joke.’
Caroline gathered her papers into her briefcase. Up close, I could see there were undyed gray strands whipstitched through her dark hair. I wondered if she’d missed these while removing the other grays or if she’d decided to leave them. The latter seemed more likely. Caroline obviously paid too much attention to her appearance — she wore very light makeup, artfully applied, and her suit and shoes looked stylish and expensive — to have overlooked them.
‘Interesting is a pretty noncommittal word, Chief Truman. Is that all you have to say about this place?’
‘There was one thing. When you said… what you said to that DA, we could all hear you.’
‘Well if we could hear you, the judge could probably hear you too.’
‘Good. He needed to hear it. You didn’t expect that kid to say fuck you to a judge, did you?’
‘Actually it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone was going to say it.’
‘Maybe not out loud,’ she sighed.
‘And the bit about the witch hunt?’
‘Oh, that’s just Beck. He tends to be dramatic’
‘Is he right?’
‘About the witches? No, we’ve got a pretty good handle on the witch problem.’ Another Elvis smile.
‘I mean about the hysteria. Are the cops panicking, making crazy arrests?’
‘Maybe. Probably. But in G-Mac’s case, they got the right guy. We’ve got a victim who knows him personally and can make the I.D. There’s no issue. McNeese is guilty and Beck knows it.’
‘He also seems to know McNeese is going to get off.’
‘Right. Well, there is one issue: whether the victim will show up to testify.’
‘What are the odds?’
She shrugged. ‘This case is less important than the Danziger investigation. I won’t push the witness on this case; I may need him later. Besides, if McNeese gets off, we’ll get him next time. Guys like him always come back. The statistics say 5 percent of the criminals commit 95 percent of the crimes. G-Mac’s a five-percenter.’
‘Sounds like a witch to me.’
‘I think so too.’
Outside the courthouse, a four-story cube at the southern end of Mission Ave, Caroline stood on the second step so she could look her father, John Kelly, in the eye. She kissed him, then wiped his cheek with her thumb to be sure she had not left a lipstick mark. It was a motherly, muscular gesture, but John Kelly seemed to enjoy it.
‘Thanks for helping us, sweetheart.’
‘Don’t thank me, Dad, thank Andrew Lowery He’s the DA. It was his call.’
‘But you gave him a nudge, I’m sure.’
‘Actually I told Lowery to send you right back where you came from.’
‘Now, why would you do a thing like that?’
‘Because I don’t want you screwing up my case.’
‘I thought it was Maine’s case,’ I said.
‘It is, but I’m coordinating the investigation here. Frankly, I don’t understand why you can’t just monitor the case from Maine, Chief Truman. But if you feel it’s important to be part of it…’ She shrugged. ‘Well, it’s none of my business. I suppose you have your reasons. Anyway, DA Lowery says I should extend our full support, as a courtesy’
‘Imagine,’ Kelly grumbled, ‘my own daughter needing to be told-’
‘Dad, spare me. You’re supposed to be retired.’
‘I’m too young to retire.’
‘You’re sixty-seven years old.’
‘It’s old enough.’
‘Don’t ask.’ She scribbled something on a scrap of paper and handed it to her father.
‘Martin Gittens,’ he read. ‘Who’s this?’
‘A cop. He’s been detailed to help you out, courtesy of Mr Lowery’
‘Very courteous, our Mr Lowery. What do you know about this Gittens?’
‘He’s a detective. He’s supposed to be wired up in Mission Flats. And he’s been calling me begging for a piece of this case. Other than that, not much.’
‘Do you trust him?’
‘Dad, it’s like you always say: Trust everyone-’
‘Trust everyone but cut the cards. Good girl.’
‘Thank you,’ I interjected, ‘for helping.’
Caroline leveled an index finger at me. ‘Chief Truman, so help me, if anything happens to my father…’ She didn’t feel constrained to fill me in as to the precise consequences.
‘Um, what if anything happens to me?’
She ignored me. ‘One more thing. You two have to promise to share whatever you find with me. If you hold anything back, and I mean even the smallest detail, the arrangement is off. You’ll be on your own. That’s straight from Lowery.’
‘Of course,’ Kelly pere assured.
‘Alright then.’ She kissed her father again and wiped his cheek again with the pad of her thumb. ‘You two make some team.’
‘Like Batman and Robin,’ John Kelly suggested.
She sniffed and made that sardonic Elvis-smile. ‘Yah, right.’
The Grove Park housing project was a collection of six ugly, yellow-brick apartment buildings. They were arranged asymmetrically, like blocks dropped here and there by a careless giant.
We caught up to Martin Gittens on a rooftop. He was bending forward with his hands on his knees like a running back before the ball is snapped. At Gittens’s feet, an African-American man in his mid-twenties sat splay-legged, his back slumped against the concrete parapet. He had a forlorn look on his face. ‘You can stop this any time, Michael,’ Gittens was telling him. ‘Just say the word. I’m not gonna make you do anything you don’t want to do.’ The man just sat there, in a daze. Gittens hunched over him, waiting for a response, then straightened and said, ‘Your call.’
Nearby, a couple of plainclothes cops monitored the conversation. They seemed anxious to just get on with it already.
But Gittens was in no hurry. He came over and shook our hands. Martin Gittens was not an imposing guy. His face was unlined and pleasant, even bland. The forgettable face in the crowd. A receding hairline and prominent forehead — which together formed a headland, a tall forehead shaped like a sperm whale’s brow — were Gittens’s only irregular features. He wore khaki pants and sneakers. If not for the small nylon holster and badge on his belt, you might have taken him for an accountant or a high-school teacher, if you remarked him at all.
‘This kid is getting ready to make a buy for us,’ Gittens said. ‘He’s almost there.’
‘Should we come back?’
‘Nah. This isn’t a bad kid. He’s just having a little crisis. He’ll figure it out. Then we can talk.’ He gave us a knowing look, letting us in on the game. You know how it works; you know the score.
A few feet away, the kid let out a sigh. It seemed to take all his strength to look up at Gittens and say, ‘I can’t do it.’
Gittens went back to him. ‘Alright, Michael, no problem. If that’s what you want.’
‘So what happens now?’
‘Well, I’ll file my report with the DA, see how they want to handle it. When they get around to it, they’ll indict you. Couple of weeks maybe. They’re busy. It’s just a drug thing.’
‘I can’t believe this shit.’
Gittens nodded sympathetically.
‘What would you do, Detective?’
‘It doesn’t matter what I would do. It’s your life, Michael. I can’t tell you what to do. I’m not your lawyer.’
‘Well guess what: My lawyer isn’t here at this particular moment. Just tell me, what am I supposed to do?’
Gittens knelt beside him. ‘Look, I gave you this opportunity because I thought you deserved it. I don’t see you in state prison, Michael, I really don’t. But what am I gonna do? I’ve got a job to do, right? I can’t just shit-can the thing without a reason. I need you to give me something in return. Tit for tat.’
‘Where will I do the time? Walpole?’
‘No, Concord probably’
‘What’s Concord like?’
‘What do you think, Michael? It’s state time, it’s bad.’
The kid sagged against the wall, disconsolate. ‘I don’t know how I got here. I really don’t.’
‘You don’t know how you got here?’
‘No, I mean I know. But it was a fucking dime bag. What the fuck! Three years for a dime bag? Mother fucker!’
‘It wasn’t a dime bag, Michael. It was sixteen grams.’
‘I didn’t weigh the shit! I told you, it wasn’t mine.’
‘Michael, you put yourself here. You should learn to take responsibility.’
‘I told you, I was just holding it.’
‘Holding it, selling it, putting it on a hot dog, whatever — if you have sixteen grams, that’s trafficking, end of story. You have to own that.’
The guy made a face. He wasn’t up for the lecture.
‘Look, Michael, you want to try and beat it? Go for it, take a chance. I’ll be rooting for you. Hey, you never know, right? Maybe you’ll walk.’
‘And if I don’t?’
‘It’s a three-year minimum, and that’s day-for-day — no parole, no good time, no work release, no nothing. You sit there. There’s a war on drugs, maybe you haven’t heard.’
‘I got two kids, Gittens, you know that. I can’t go away for three years. I can’t go away for three days. You got kids, Gittens?’
‘Yeah, I’ve got kids.’
‘Then you know how it is.’
‘I’m offering you a way out, Michael.’
‘A way out with a fuckin’ cap in my head.’
‘I told you, they’ll never know who you are.’
‘No. You won’t be named in any of the reports; no one will ever name you in court. You have my word on that. What’s between you and me stays between you and me. Have I ever broken my word to you?’
‘Not if everybody does their job.’
The man breathed deep, considering his options. ‘This is the last one. I can’t take no more of this shit.’
‘Last one, Michael.’
‘After this, I’m out.’
‘After this, you’re out.’
‘What about the DA? What’s he gonna do with my case?’
‘There won’t be any case. The DA doesn’t have a case until I bring it to him. Until then, it’s my case. This is between you and me, Michael. I’ll take care of you. You know you can count on me.’
‘Truth. The DA will never hear your name.’
‘Last time,’ Michael warned, relenting.
Gittens nodded. ‘Last time. Alright, you know the drill. Stand up, empty your pockets. Detective,’ he called to one of the plainclothes guys, ‘will you come witness this?’
The kid emptied his pockets and turned them inside out for good measure. He left his things in a tidy pile on the rubbery surface of the roof, then raised his hands and allowed Gittens to frisk him. Boredom registered on both their faces. The procedure had become routine for them. Gittens carefully copied down the serial numbers from two twenty-dollar bills and handed them to the kid with the advice, ‘Knockout, Michael, nothing else. Tell him it’s got to be Knockout. And make sure the money goes to Veris himself. Big guy in the red FUBU shirt.’
‘I know who the motherfucker is.’
‘Alright, Michael. We’ll be watching.’
‘That makes me feel much better,’ the kid sniffed, and he disappeared down the stairs.
Gittens invited us to watch. ‘Step right up, men. Showtime at the Apollo.’
We moved to the edge of the roof, which overlooked Echo Park five stories below. Like so many things in Mission Flats, Echo Park was not what its name suggested, a rolling green meadow where sounds echoed off trees and hills. Instead, it was a crooked pie piece wedged into the joint where North Tremont Street branched off from Franklin Street. Gittens said the locals called it Hypo Park for the hypodermic needles found there. Inside were a few stringy trees and some park benches — the unfancy kind, green slats in concrete bases. A Y-shaped walkway connected the three corners of the park. Graffiti on the walkway read, Fuck the PoPo, DeeZee, the ubiquitous MP, and some markings I could not interpret.
Gittens looked down at this scene, rapt. He held a pair of binoculars, which he passed to me occasionally.
I mimicked his posture, craning slightly, forehead creased with concentration.
I tried to detect something more than a few kids hanging out in a ratty park. There wasn’t much going on, though. A half dozen young guys — kids, all of them black, wearing baggy hip-hop styles — were draped over the benches. A few people came and went, loitering, talking, moving on. From all appearances, the Echo Park drug trade had shut down for the day.
‘What’s Knockout?’ I asked Gittens.
‘Heroin with some other garbage in it. It’s been turning up the last few weeks. We had a kid die from it.’
One of the cops with us muttered, ‘Come on, shithead.’
‘Give him a minute to get down the stairs,’ Gittens soothed. ‘Be patient.’
Echo Park struck me as an indiscreet place for a drug market. There was nothing to hide behind, no privacy from the heavy traffic on Franklin Street. ‘Isn’t this place a little… exposed? You can see everything.’
Gittens shrugged. ‘It’s not enough to see. We have to get the stuff, we have to catch them with the dope in their pockets, otherwise there’s no case. And we can’t get close enough for that. There are lookouts all up and down the block. You go down there, you’ll hear them whistling signals to each other. It sounds like a birdcage.’
A woman was entering the park now, at the corner closest to us, the narrow tip of the pie wedge. She was black, rail thin, with a knock-kneed walk and a rainbow-colored knit hat. A kid greeted her just inside the park. He seemed glad to see her, greeting her as an old friend, laughing, clasping her hand, pulling her close for a hug.
‘That kid’s a sweeper. His job is to steer the buyers to the right place. He’ll hang out near the entrance to the park, ask you what you’re looking for, figure out if you’re a player or a cop or just someone walking through the park. If you’re a buyer, he’ll tell you to go sit on one of those benches and he’ll give one of those whistle signals.’ Gittens whistled a little bird call, soft, under his breath, low-high-high-high.
The woman moved on. She sat on one of the benches next to a guy in a red FUBU baseball shirt.
‘ FUBU,’ Gittens said, ‘For Us, By Us. Those FUBU clothes went big-time and they started telling white kids it meant For U, By U.’ He shrugged. ‘That’s June Veris in the red shirt. He’s original MP. Used to run with Braxton when they were kids. Now Braxton just uses him as muscle.’
June Veris had muscle to spare. Big guy with massive shoulders that tapered down to a narrow waist. Veris sat a level higher than the buyer, his butt on the backrest, feet on the seat of the green bench. He chatted with the woman for some time before she reached into her pocket and slapped her hand down into his. The gesture was a sort of exuberant handshake. From our position, you could not see any cash being passed. Then Veris disappeared and a kid walked toward the woman.
‘That’s the slider,’ Gittens narrated.
The slider sauntered right past the woman. There was a little seesaw in his walk, a flourish. It was a walk the kid probably practiced, checking himself out as he passed store windows. He dropped something in a garbage can and kept walking. When the woman retrieved it, the three guys who’d been so friendly with her a moment before were nowhere to be seen. They’d melted away to the edges of the park. She hurried out of the park with anxious, bird-like glances.
‘The slider has the most dangerous job,’ Gittens said. ‘Nobody touches the dope but him. That way the risk to everyone else is minimized. Even if we catch the others, there’s no case because there’s no dope on them. Without an informant or an undercover buy, there’s no way to tie the sweepers or anyone else to the drugs. But the slider has to carry the drugs on him, so if he’s caught…’
There was a lull in the sliders’ business.
‘There’s a stashpad around here somewhere,’ Gittens lectured to fill the downtime, ‘to replenish the sliders. The kitchen will be somewhere else. It moves around. We close one down, another one opens somewhere else. It’s like Whack-a-Mole, you know that game? It’ll never end.’
‘What about Braxton? What does he do?’
‘Braxton designed all this. He runs this whole thing. If things were different, he’d have gone to Harvard Business School. As it is, he runs a damn good business. He doesn’t need Harvard Business School. Harold’s a player. He’s a damn smart guy’
‘And a murderer.’
‘Yeah, but it’s not like that,’ Gittens said.
Our man Michael finally emerged. He moved casually between the buildings, entering at the near corner of the park.
This time I did not need Gittens’s narration to follow the process. Michael was met by the same sweeper, who approached him tentatively. There were no smiles, no hugs. Presumably the sweeper did not know him, maybe even suspected he was a snitch. Whatever the reason, their chat took a little longer than the previous one. But the informant bluffed his way by the sweeper and made his way to a bench. Veris sat down next to him, easy to pick out in his cherry-red shirt, and it was Veris who actually took the cash. Gittens’s two twenties, the serial numbers recorded, disappeared into his pocket. After the money was passed, less gracefully this time, Veris moved off. A slider walked past to drop a plastic envelope in a trash can for Michael to retrieve.
‘Another satisfied customer,’ Gittens drawled as the informant quick-stepped out of the park.
Echo Park was quiet again. June Veris sat alone on his bench and soon was joined by another guy, who talked to him in an animated way. The sweeper loafed near the entrance awhile, then drifted back to his friends on the benches. Kids hanging out, nothing to do but yack with one another. If Gittens had not explained what I’d just seen, I wouldn’t have recognized it as a drug sale at all.
Michael emerged on the roof again and the search procedure was repeated. He emptied his pockets to reveal no money and a little plastic envelope that had not been there when he left. The ‘controlled buy’ was complete.
Gittens displayed the little opaque plastic square to me. There was a red boxing glove rubber-stamped on the package — Knockout.
‘Send them,’ one of the cops urged Gittens. He was watching the park, apparently anxious that June Veris — the target of this whole operation — would leave or simply pass the marked twenties to someone else. If that happened, there would be no way to tie him to the drugs. It was essential the cops arrest Veris while he had the sting money in his pocket. ‘Let’s go, Martin,’ the cop urged.
‘Not yet,’ Gittens said.
‘Let’s go! Send them now!’
‘I said, not yet.’
We waited through several more purchases, maybe twenty or twenty-five minutes in all. At one point a white kid in a Volvo pulled up to the park. He had shaggy red hair and a goatee. The Volvo had a Yale sticker in the rear window. ‘Hello there, Skippy,’ Gittens muttered. Only after a handful of others had scored their drugs — that is, when it was no longer obvious that our informant was Michael — Gittens murmured into his walkie-talkie, ‘Okay, go.’
Within seconds, four unmarked black cruisers converged on the park, pulling right up onto the curb to block the three gates. The kids in the park scattered. Cops ran after them, caught and tackled a few, disappeared down side streets chasing others. It was a joyful chaos.
As it turned out, Veris escaped. The operation failed. But as I think back on that day — even knowing, as I do, that Gittens probably expected Veris would escape, maybe even warned him of the raid — what I remember is that Gittens kept his word. He protected his informant. I remember, too, how it felt to watch that wonderful anarchy in the park, the riot of police and sliders all running, all shouting. From above, through binoculars. How I smiled. It was exhilarating. It was fun.
‘Listen,’ Gittens told Kelly and me afterward, ‘the question isn’t Who killed Danziger? Everybody knows who killed Danziger. The problem is What do you do about it? Nobody in this neighborhood will even talk about Harold Braxton, let alone testify against him.
‘To tell you the truth, I don’t know what Danziger thought he was doing. That case he brought against Gerald McNeese was an old beef, just stupid crackhead stuff. Ray Ratleff was a slider who came up short on a bundle the Posse gave him to sell, so McNeese tried to collect the debt. That’s all there was to it. Ray probably did the coke himself, then he told McNeese he got robbed. Ray Rat’s a pipehead. He’s not a bad kid. I mean, I like Ray. But he’s been on the pipe a long time, he just can’t help himself. Harold shouldn’t have trusted him with the stuff in the first place. It was his mistake, really.’
We were in Echo Park, where the drug market was closed until all these cops decided to go home. The three of us sat on a bench as Gittens illuminated the secret history of Mission Flats. There was none of the wiseguy Boston accent in the detective’s voice. He spoke in an adenoidal, Midwestern tone that matched his white sneakers and home-ironed khakis. The story he told was a different thing.
‘Ray gets into a hole and the debt piles up. So now Braxton has to respond. He can’t allow that kind of thing to go on, he’s got a business to run. He can’t just get ripped off and do nothing about it.
‘So Harold sends out McNeese to square the thing away. But G-Mac was a bad choice. McNeese has killed guys for way less than what Ray Rat did, and Ray’s basically harmless. It was like dropping a bomb on a mosquito. Maybe Braxton figured G-Mac would scare Ray Rat into paying, but Ray just didn’t have the cash because, like I said, any money Ray gets goes straight into the pipe.
‘Anyway, the only thing Ray has is this piece-of-crap Volkswagen Jetta. So one day G-Mac sees Ray driving the Jetta. Ray comes to a light, G-Mac walks up, sticks a gun in his ear — this is right on Mission Ave — and he tells Ray he’s taking the car on account of the money Ray owes the Posse. Just like that. So that’s the carjacking — boom, life felony, right there.
‘Now, Ray’s not a bad kid, like I said. But let’s be honest: Ray did owe the money. Plus, he was lucky McNeese didn’t cap him right there, being the way he is. So the whole thing should have been over and done with — Ray Rat screwed up, so G-Mac took the Jetta, case closed. Ray should have walked away.
‘Okay, so at this point somehow Danziger got Ray Rat to agree to testify about the whole thing — which is unheard of. These DAs can never find a witness in a gang case. I don’t know what the heck Danziger promised him. I don’t even know why Danziger was pushing the case in the first place — and I liked Bobby Danziger, believe me; we were in SIU together a long time — but no jury in this city was going to send anyone to jail over a drug beef, not when the only witness was a crackhead like Ray Ratleff. Even if Danziger could get Ray into the courtroom, he’d have to strap him to the chair to keep him from falling off. I mean, you could have tried this case in Beijing, it still would have come back not-guilty.
‘Anyway, predictably Ray Rat boogies, and now things get really crazy. Braxton can’t find Ray Rat; and G-Mac’s all hot and bothered because Danziger is pushing this thing about Ray Rat’s Jetta. And if it gets to trial, who knows? There’s always a chance a jury will believe Ray because, crackhead or not, you know Ray is telling the truth. So, long story short, everybody’s looking for Ray Rat — cops, gangsters, everybody — and nobody can find him.
‘So what happens is, the trial is coming up and Braxton’s crew can’t reach the witness. Well naturally something has to be done to stop that trial. So Braxton goes up to Maine and caps Danziger. I mean, maybe he didn’t actually pull the trigger, but he sure as hell gave the order.’
I asked, ‘How do you know all that?’
‘Chief Truman, everybody knows all that. There’s no great mystery here, fellas. Half the people in this neighborhood could tell you what happened. But go prove it.’
Kelly frowned at this version of events. It was all hearsay, of course. Rumor, not evidence. Or maybe it was Gittens himself that Kelly did not approve of. But to me, this was all good news. Gittens represented something more important than evidence: an insider, a skeleton key.
‘Where is this Ray Rat now?’ Kelly asked.
‘Who knows? The whole department’s out looking for Braxton. Nobody’s thinking about Ray right now, because Ray didn’t shoot Danziger.’
‘But you could find him?’
Gittens shrugged. ‘I’ve got some friends around here who might know something.’
Friends? What to make of this guy? If Kelly was right that there are two kinds of cops, talkers and fighters, then here was the beau ideal of the talkers. But there was no way to know how much of Gittens’s talk was just that — talk.
Kelly and I exchanged a glance. Why not?
‘You can really find Ray Rat?’ I asked.
‘Chief Truman, I found you, didn’t I?’
The radio is the soundtrack of every cop’s working life. Bravo six-five-seven, adam-robert… Acknowledge, bravo six-five-seven
… It is a constant presence in police cars, the voices almost indecipherable, a blizzard of information. Gittens and Kelly had acquired the ability to filter out the white noise, to hear selectively. But my ear constantly sought out the pidgin messages. One-five, could you swing by 75 Leinengen Road. We have a report of a stripped car… One-five, we have it, sir… Bravo K-one, I’m ocean-frank…
‘Where are we going?’ I asked Gittens.
‘This place Ray hangs out. Kind of a social club.’
We drove south on Mission Ave, past a series of parking facilities. On the sidewalk, people eyed us. Suspicion naturally attached to three white guys in a Crown Victoria — as suspicion always seemed to attach to racial difference in the Flats. It was in the air here. You were conscious of your race, you wore it like new clothes.
Bravo four-three-one. Tremont and Vannover with a hot box, Mass. two-six-oh-paul-victor-john, beige VW, two Hispanics.
Gittens parked in front of a massive industrial plant just off the avenue, one of the only thriving businesses I’d seen in the area. A sign read,
ZIP-A-WAY WASTE DISPOSAL SERVICES, INC. BOSTON CENTRAL RECYCLING CENTER
Bound by high fences topped with cyclone wire, the plant consisted of three enormous warehouses. A conveyor rose out of the roof of the largest, hauling plastic bottles and containers up and dumping them into a shredder. There was no activity outside the building, though. You got the impression the plant was empty, operating on its own, robotically
‘This is the place,’ Gittens announced.
He led Kelly and me through a gate at the front of the complex, and once inside we walked along the fence to a back lot. Here great driftpiles of garbage were sorted by type, newspaper, metals, plastic. Gittens guided us through the garbage dunes to a forty-foot industrial Dumpster. The enormous container sat in a corner, seemingly abandoned. Nearby were piles of old bricks, all sorted and mounded up. I presumed that the Dumpster contained more of the same: construction materials or other junk. It was impossible to imagine why Gittens had led us here. There was a narrow corridor between the Dumpster and the heavy-gauge chain-link fence, and we had to edge in sideways to reach the rear corner of the Dumpster.
‘Let me go first,’ Gittens whispered.
Gittens winked and promptly disappeared through the wall of the Dumpster. More precisely, he pulled back a rough cloth curtain that was hanging against the steel sidewall, and he stepped through a gap in the wall. There were voices inside, and after a moment Gittens poked his head back out. ‘Come on,’ he encouraged us, ‘it’s not as bad as it looks.’
Kelly and I looked at each other. ‘You first,’ I said.
Inside the Dumpster was perfect darkness. Blind, I was acutely aware of the smell — rotting garbage, urine, the musky smell of sweat, and a more acrid odor, burned plastic maybe. After a few seconds, I was able to make out a little sitting area. A wooden cable spool had been turned on end to make a table. It was flanked by two battered chairs, one of them missing a leg. Sunlight filtered through the curtain and dimly illuminated the table and chairs. The tabletop was cluttered with needles, a lighter, scraps of blackened tinfoil, discarded containers of heroin and cocaine. The drug packages — plastic envelopes about one inch square — were ink-stamped with two different symbols. One showed the black silhouette of a dog, the other a red boxing glove — Knockout. From the looks of the table, Knockout and Black Dog seemed to be the Coke and Pepsi of the local heroin world. The table was also littered with tie-offs, cheap packages of cocaine formed by placing the rocks or powder in a corner of a plastic sandwich bag then twisting the corner off to form a little sachet. The drug packets were all empty. The party was over, for the moment.
In Versailles there is a lot of pot, misuse of prescription drugs, and a tsunami of alcohol. Occasionally a few bags of cocaine will turn up at the high school and I go over to Mattaquisett if the kid is from Versailles. There is a rumor that Joe Grasso, who drives an eighteen-wheeler between Montreal and the Florida Keys, keeps a stash at his house out on the Post Road, but there’s never been any evidence to support a search there. Freebasing, speedballing, these things I’d never seen.
Gittens poked through the empty packets on the table. He pocketed one with the Knockout label on it, but it was obvious he had no intention of making any arrests or even searching for more drugs. The drugs were beside the point.
Something shifted in the dark interior of the Dumpster. Then a groan.
I jumped back from the table, startled. Squinting into the gloom, I could just make out the contours of three or four men — impossible to see exactly how many — lying on the floor. Their movements were languid, heads and shoes lolling, shadows, no more.
‘Jesus,’ I hissed, feigning anger to mask my embarrassment.
‘Hey, that’s my works, brother,’ a voice said.
Gittens pointed to a needle and syringe on the table: a works. ‘No one’s touching your works, brother. Everything’s okay’
Kelly, who had to stoop to avoid bumping his head, poked at the things on the table with his nightstick, careful not to touch anything barehanded.
Meanwhile Gittens moved into the darkness at the other end of the trailer. ‘Everything’s fine,’ he cooed to the men who lay on the floor side by side, ‘everything’s peachy’ He snapped rubber gloves onto his hands and straddled the first of the sleepers, bending over and laying a latex hand on the man’s side. ‘How you doing down there, my friend?’ There was no response. ‘Who do we have here? Come on, Sleeping Beauty, show me that pretty face. Any of you fellas seen Ray Ratleff? Huh?’ He stepped across the bodies as if they were fallen logs. ‘Who do we have here? Bobo! Hey, pal. Come on, Bobo, wake up a minute, I need to talk to you.’ The figure groaned and tried to push Gittens away. ‘Come on, Bobo, nap time’s over.’ He reached under the guy’s armpits and pulled him up to a sitting position. While Gittens steadied Bobo with one hand, he reached into his coat pocket and fished out a pair of rubber gloves for me. When I’d stretched the gloves over my hands, Gittens and I walked Bobo over to the table.
Bobo turned out to be a frail, bone-thin man in his late twenties. Lifting him was like lifting an old woman. Bobo wore filthy work pants and a Lakers sweatshirt. On his head was a Greek fisherman’s cap, though Bobo’s cap was made of black leather, a design modification no Greek fisherman would approve. He was suffused in body odor.
We deposited Bobo in the good chair, and Gittens perched on the three-legged one, bracing himself to keep from toppling forward. He slid the empty drug packets to one side, careful not to drag the sleeve of his sweater on the tabletop.
‘Bobo, we need to find Ray.’
Bobo groaned sleepily. His head slumped. I held his shoulders so he wouldn’t slide right off the chair.
‘Bobo, come on, I know you can hear me. Have you seen Ray Rat?’
Bobo managed to force an eye open a crack. ‘Gittens,’ he moaned.
‘Bobo, have… you… seen… Ray… Ratleff?’
‘Gittens.’ Bobo laughed at a joke that only he’d heard. ‘Gittens, what are you doing here?’
‘I don’t know no Ray.’
‘Come on, don’t fuck around. You know who Ray is.’
Bobo thought it over. ‘Oh, Ra-a-ay. With like a big ‘fro? Doctor-J-lookin’ motherfucker?’
‘Yeah, Bobo, that’s the one. You seen him?’
‘No, man, he gone away. Ray’s away.’ He laughed. ‘Ray zway’
‘Where’s he away to?’
‘I think he’s in that — whaddaya call it? — witness p’tection program.’
‘Yeah. They made him, like, a farmer.’
‘Bobo, we don’t have a witness protection program. That’s the feds.’
‘No, it’s true. He lives in Connecticut someplace.’
‘Bobo, Ray can’t even spell Connecticut.’
‘Enough of this bullshit,’ Kelly cut in. ‘Detective, may I?’
Gittens gestured with his arm, Be my guest.
Bobo sensed what was about to happen. He struggled to his feet, ready to defend himself.
‘Sit down,’ Kelly ordered.
Bobo did not sit down — unwisely, as it turned out.
Kelly’s baton whirled squarely into Bobo’s crotch. There was a liquid thwop! and Bobo dropped to the floor.
‘There,’ Kelly announced, ‘I think we have his attention now. Ben, put him back in the chair. Detective Gittens, you can ask your questions now.’
‘My balls!’ Bobo gasped. I said, ‘I know. Your balls.’ I stole a glance at Kelly, who was wiping the nightstick on the leg of his pants. He saw me looking but avoided my eyes.
Softly, Gittens asked, ‘Bobo, have you seen Ray?’
‘Yeah. I seen him.’ Bobo was still bent over, wheezing, cupping his genitals.
‘When was that?’
‘I don’t know, like a couple nights ago. He come here looking for a package. He was all like, can I help him out?’
‘Did you sell him the package?’
‘You want to read me my rights, Steve McGarrett?’
‘What time did he show up?’
‘I don’t know. Late. I was occupied.’
‘Did he say where he was staying?’
‘How did he get here? Did he walk, drive?’
‘Some Japanese thing. Shitsu, something like that.’
‘What the hell’s a Shitsu?’
‘It’s a car.’
‘There’s no car called a Shitsu.’
‘What can I tell you? That’s what the man had.’
Gittens frowned. ‘What color?’
‘I don’t know. Brown, orange maybe. I couldn’t see.’
‘A brown Shitsu. That’s very helpful. Was anyone with him?’
‘I don’t know, Gittens. It’s getting hard to remember.’
Gittens pulled out a roll of cash in a money clip. He peeled off two twenties and dropped them on the table. ‘It’s important, Bobo.’
Gittens threw another twenty on the table. ‘Bobo, I need to find Ray Rat before Braxton does.’
‘This is me and you, right? ‘Cause me and Ray, we go back, alright? Back in the day we was-’ Bobo held up two fingers together to indicate how tight he once was with Ray Ratleff.
Gittens nodded but gave no assurance he would keep the tip confidential. ‘Ray’s dead, Bobo. Braxton’s looking for him. Unless I find him first, Ray’s dead.’
Bobo studied the three bills on the table. ‘Ray’s got a sister lives in Lowell. The cops already talked to her, only she told them Ray wasn’t there. I don’t know her name. She stays with this guy Davy Diaz. He drives a Harley. Ray might be there.’
Gittens nodded again to signal he understood.
‘I said he might be there, right, Gittens? You remember that.’
‘I’ll remember, Bobo. It’s alright.’ Gittens dropped another twenty on the table, like an afterthought.
‘Gittens, you find Ray, you’ll help him out, right? Ray didn’t do nothing. It was that DA put him in the middle of all this. The DA was the one put all these ideas in Ray’s head.’
‘I know, Bobo.’
‘You can see what’s happening here, right? You can stop this, I know you can. You help him.’
‘Gittens, you just gave that guy eighty bucks.’
‘Not a bad five minutes’ work for Bobo.’
‘Where did you get the cash?’
‘It’s drug money. We forfeit it from dealers. Let the bad guys finance our investigations. It’s only fair. Hey, if there were no bad guys, we wouldn’t need cops in the first place, right?’
‘How do you get it, though?’
‘Oh, Ben, if you work narcotics, money’s everywhere. You raid a place, there might be five, ten, twenty thousand dollars sitting on a table, all cash, all banded up like a bank. You make a pinch on a street corner, some slider will have a pocketful of tens and twenties. So we take it.’
‘Nobody ever fights it?’
‘Of course not. What are they gonna say? If a dealer shows up in court and says, “That’s my money,” then he’s got to explain why he has so much cash, or why he keeps his money in a stash-pad full of coke, or why he only carries tens and twenties. The cash is evidence of the crime, see. If they claim the cash, they’re admitting the crime. So they never say boo about it.’
We were speeding along I-93 on the way to Lowell, the decayed mill city forty-five minutes north of Boston. Gittens had the wigwags on but no siren, and we glided past miles of stalled commuter traffic.
‘We don’t do many forfeitures in Versailles,’ I offered. ‘It’s never worth the effort.’
‘Well, Ben, I’m talking about a more informal procedure here.’ He looked at me to see if I understood. ‘We don’t always actually report it.’
There was an awkward pause.
‘I’ve got to pay these guys somehow,’ Gittens said in his uninflected tone. ‘That’s just the way it is.’
Lowell seemed a good place for Ratleff to hide, just far enough from Boston that word of his location would not filter back, yet not so far away that he had no one to support him. It was a grim place, though. Downtown, the old mills had been converted into shopping malls and museums as the city tried to Disneyfy its industrial past. Whatever effect these cheerful renovations may have had on the downtown area — and even downtown the act was not completely convincing — the cheer quickly evaporated as we worked our way toward the city’s grimier precincts. On Shaughnessy Garden, the street where Ray Ratleff had holed up, the earth’s natural color was utterly smeared away. The neighborhood was one long smudge — the world through a dirty windshield. Davy Diaz’s place was in one of these monochrome buildings, a two-family built on a crumbling concrete foundation. There was a Harley and an old Mitsubishi — a Shitsu — parked out front. A dog’s chain lay in the front courtyard. It looked heavy enough to hold a destroyer at anchor; I was not sorry the dog it belonged to was absent.
A woman answered the door. She was a very tall, very dignified black woman. ‘Can I help you, officers?’ she said, though we wore plain clothes.
We could hear the dog barking inside.
Gittens asked for Ray Ratleff, and the woman politely told him he was not there. ‘I haven’t seen Ray in years,’ she demurred.
Gittens looked at her a moment, taking her measure. ‘I tell you what,’ he said, ‘tell Ray it’s Martin Gittens. I just want to talk to him. Tell him “Martin Gittens,” and if he’s still not here, we’ll be on our way, alright?’
The woman studied Gittens, taking his measure now, then disappeared behind the door.
A moment later, Ray Ratleff came to the door. He was tall, nearly as tall as Kelly, and his head was haloed by a great airy Afro. It floated over him like an atomic cloud. He wore a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, accentuating his long, muscle-less arms. The right arm had a horrible scar just below the elbow where the forearm muscle was simply missing, torn away. It looked like something had taken a bite out of his arm. Tracks scored the underside of his forearms, the stigmata of needle use. A bandage covered his forehead and right eye. I recalled that Danziger’s file listed Ratleff’s date of birth as July 25, 1965, but it was impossible to believe this man was only thirty-two. He looked fifty.
‘Gittens,’ Ratleff sighed in a deep bass.
‘Hey, Ray’ Gittens’s tone was not threatening. ‘You got a lot of people looking for you.’
‘Looks like they found me.’
‘Well, someone was going to find you eventually. Lucky for you, it was me.’
‘Yeah, lucky me. Am I under arrest?’
‘No. You haven’t done anything wrong.’
Ratleff nodded, slowly.
‘If you want, I can take you in, charge you with something or other. It’d keep you off the street for a while, away from Braxton.’
‘Nah, that’s okay’
‘You need anything up here, Ray?’
Ratleff crossed his arms. He looked like a cigar-store Indian. ‘I’m alright.’
Gittens stood beside him, staring out at the swaybacked buildings on Shaughnessy Garden. ‘This is some shit-storm, Ray’
‘You going to tell them where I am?’
‘I guess I’ll have to,’ Gittens said. ‘How’s your head?’
‘I’m alright.’ Ratleff patted the bandage on his eye as if he’d forgotten it was there. There must have been panic and confusion behind that bandage, but he managed to mask it all. ‘I didn’t do nothing wrong.’
‘I know, Ray’
‘I didn’t do nothing wrong,’ Ray repeated.
Gittens nodded his understanding.
Ratleff continued to stare, and you could practically hear him repeating the phrase like a mantra: I didn’t do nothing wrong, I didn’t do nothing wrong.
‘Ray,’ Gittens said gently, ‘these guys want to ask you some questions. They’re working the Danziger case, the DA that got shot.’
‘Mr Ratleff,’ Kelly said, ‘did Gerald McNeese or anyone from Braxton’s crew ever talk to you about the carjacking case? About dropping it?’
‘They didn’t have to talk to me. I knew what they wanted. They wanted me to drop the case.’
‘How did you know that?’
‘It’s MP. That’s just how it is.’
‘But you decided to go ahead and testify anyway?’
‘DA told me just go and tell the truth.’
‘But you knew about Braxton, about what he might do?’
‘Everybody knew. The DA knew too.’
‘You mean Danziger?’
‘Danziger knew you were in danger?’
‘Course he did.’
‘So what did Danziger say to you? How did he convince you to go forward?’
‘He had a case on me. I sold a bag to a cop.’
Gittens snorted. ‘One bag? Ray, that’s just distribution! It’s a few months of house time. You could do that standing on your head. You did all this just to avoid a six-month ride in the house?’
‘It wasn’t like that.’
I put my foot up on the bottom step, which left me looking straight up at Ratleff. ‘What was it like, Ray? What was going on?’
He looked down on me.
‘What was going on?’ I repeated.
‘I couldn’t go to the house. I didn’t have the time. Besides, the DA, Danziger, said it wasn’t going to happen anyway.’
‘What wasn’t going to happen?’
‘There wasn’t going to be no trial. The DA had some kind of deal. He said all I had to do was say I was going forward, let it keep going till we got to the trial, then the whole thing was gonna go away.’
Again Gittens was surprised. ‘G-Mac was going to plead?’
Ratleff shrugged. ‘That’s what the DA said.’
‘I don’t believe that, Ray,’ Gittens said. ‘Those guys don’t plead. You know that.’
Ratleff just shrugged again. I don’t know, I don’t care.
I coaxed him, ‘Ray, what was going on, do you know?’
‘All I know is Danziger told me if I just stuck with the program, let him work on G-Mac awhile, he could get G-Mac to do what he wanted. I told him McNeese wouldn’t give anybody up or nothing like that, but Danziger kept saying it wasn’t like that. He said he had something G-Mac would want.’
‘And what was that, Ray? What was Danziger doing?’
‘I told you, I don’t know.’
‘Ray,’ Gittens said, ‘what are you gonna do when Braxton comes after you?’
‘Let him come. I didn’t do nothing wrong.’
‘That doesn’t matter, Ray. You know what he’s gonna do.’
‘Let him come. Doesn’t matter what he does to me. I got the bug.’
We looked at him, uncomprehending.
‘I got the bug.’ He injected his arm with an imaginary needle, presumably to signal needle-borne AIDS. ‘I’ve got no time to go to the house or noplace else, and I got no time to waste on Braxton and his foolishness. There’s nothing Braxton can do to me now.’
If there is a heaven for cops, it looks like the J. J. Connaughton Cafe. The interior consists of a wood-paneled room, a long, plain bar running the length of it. The bartenders wear white short-sleeve shirts and solid black clip-on neckties. On the wall behind them hang a large American flag and a much larger Irish tricolor. There are no stools, just a rail along the base of the bar to rest one foot on, and when Gittens, Kelly, and I got there — around seven-thirty that evening, after we returned from Lowell — men were lined up along the bar with one foot up like pelicans.
We settled in at a table in the back with three sweating bottles of Rolling Rock.
‘A lot of cops hang out at this place,’ Gittens said. In fact, nearly everyone in the place seemed to be a cop. There were cops in blue uniform pants, plain-clothes cops in nylon windbreakers, cops with potbellies and cops with handlebar mustaches, short cops with Popeye forearms and lanky cops with John Wayne walks.
Before long, cops began to drift up to greet Gittens. They shook his hand and said, howahya Mahtin. Several knew Kelly too, and most of those that didn’t at least had heard his name and seemed happy to see him. They seemed happy to meet me too. They brayed howahya to me and shook my hand vigorously. They sat down with their beers, and soon we were one big group of six or eight or ten or twelve, depending on who was standing and who was off milling around at any given moment. There was an infectious, pleasant sense of testosterone in low idle with these guys. It didn’t take long before I was telling people howahya just like the rest of them.
After we’d been there awhile, one of the younger guys — he had an open, pink face — asked, ‘Any word on the Danziger thing?’
Silence. Danziger’s murder was a close cousin to a cop killing, and it was treated accordingly, with reverence.
‘Nothing,’ declared Gittens, flatly lying. ‘Nobody’s talking.’
‘I’ve never heard anything like it. Nevah.’
‘It’s like Colombia, y’know? Some fuckin’ banana republic? I mean, killing the lawyers? It’s crazy.’
‘-or Sicily. That’s how they do it-’
‘-they’ll kill that kid Braxton too. You watch.’
‘Up in the Flats, those people’ll kill him.’
There was a low growl — ’he-e-ey’ — emitted by the only black cop at the table.
‘Oh, come on, he didn’t mean that,’ one of the white cops said. He held out his beer bottle and grinned. ‘Come on. To Al Sharpton.’
They clinked bottles.
‘To Rodney King,’ the black cop said. He managed a fractional smile.
‘Whoo! Rodney King!’
The crisis seemed to have passed. The monster’s head sank back under the surface of the loch, and the banter resumed as before.
‘Remember Braxton threw that kid Jameel Suggs off the roof?’
‘That was a long time ago.’
‘I remember that. Like ’92 maybe? ’93, something like that?’
I asked, ‘Who’s Jameel Suggs?’
One of the cops clued me in. ‘Suggs raped a little girl in the Grove Park project there. Hey, what was her name? Something Wells?’
‘It was like some African name, I think.’
‘Nikisha Wells, that’s it. This little girl, she was like seven years old. Suggs raped her then he threw her off the roof so she wouldn’t tell nobody. So a few days later somebody went and threw Suggs off the roof too. They say it was Braxton.’
‘Hey, Maine, that’s called a misdemeanor murder.’
‘That’s the story anyway. Nobody knows if it was really Braxton.’
‘Hey, I say if Braxton really killed Suggs, let’s give him a fuckin’ medal.’
‘-Did he really do that?-’
Gittens broke in. ‘Yes, he did.’
The table got quiet again.
‘Harold threw Jameel Suggs off the roof.’ With his storyteller’s instinct, Gittens took a moment to wipe the condensation off his beer bottle with a napkin. ‘He told me so himself.’
‘-get the fuck out!-’
‘-what is this with “Harold”?-’
‘-what, you know him?’
‘Course I know him.’ Gittens shrugged. ‘I’ve known him since he was a kid. I was up in A-3 a long time chasing those kids around.’
‘Get the fuck out. Why don’t you go find him then?’
‘He doesn’t want to be found. No one’s going to find Harold till he’s ready to be found.’
The cops all studied Gittens. Some found the association with Braxton suspicious, others were impressed, others simply didn’t believe it. But all were curious. Martin Gittens had a way of making people curious.
‘Stop calling him Harold,’ said one. ‘You’re weirding me out with that shit.’
‘Hey, Gittens, if you do know him, you better tell Maine here what Braxton’s like so he knows what he’s getting into.’
Gittens smirked at me. ‘Well, he’s smart, I’ll tell you that. Smarter than any of these guys. Harold put together that whole Hot Box Boys thing in high school. You go up to the Flats now, half the guys there will claim they were in Hot Box Boys. But there were really only six or seven of them, and Harold ran the whole show.’
I asked, ‘What does that mean, “Hot Box Boys”?’
‘A hot box is a stolen cah,’ one of the cops informed me.
‘Ah,’ I said, ‘a stolen cah.’
Gittens continued: ‘They were grabbing cars left and right. Fifty in one night off the lot at Hub Nissan in Dorchester. Fifty! They never did any time for anything. They’d get sent to DYS and they’d be out the same night. It was ridiculous.’
‘It’s a revolving door-’
‘-see, that’s what happens,’ one of the others scoffed. ‘You’ve got to nip this stuff in the ass. This juvenile shit-’
‘What, are you gonna lock up every kid who steals a car?’
‘Yes! Every one! That’s what you do — you hit ’em hard right away so they learn. They’ve got to know this shit isn’t gonna flush.’
‘Doesn’t matter. These kids have brass balls, they don’t care.’
‘You know what I don’t get?’ said another, in a puzzled tone.
‘We all know what you don’t get.’
Guffaws and high fives all around.
‘No, listen. The thing… the thing I don’t get is, Gittens, you said Braxton told you he threw Jameel Suggs off the roof. So if he admitted it to you, why didn’t you do anything about it? I mean, he confessed. You had him on a murder.’
‘Yeah, Jesus, Gittens, what are you, protecting this piece of shit?’
Gittens allowed the question to hang there a moment. ‘I did report it. The DA said it wasn’t enough to indict. They didn’t have anything else, and they said a confession alone wouldn’t support a conviction. They didn’t want the case.’
Another pause. We waited, uneasily, for the next gust of conversation.
‘I heard a rumor Braxton was a rat,’ said one.
‘-Who would he give up? Himself?’
‘-How do you turn a guy like that anyway? Braxton’s a murderer. Even if he wanted to flip, you couldn’t give him a deal. No DA would go for it.’
‘Hey, the feds flipped Whitey Bulger. He was a murderer.’
‘That’s different, it was a Mafia thing. Whitey was a mobster.’
‘Yeah, and Whitey fucked them anyway. He didn’t give them jack shit. These feds are complete shitheads.’
‘Tell you what, if anybody ever did flip Braxton, he’d be a great rat. Imagine the shit Harold Braxton could tell you.’
‘Lowery’d never give him a deal. He’d never get elected again.’
‘Hey, you never know. It’s like the man said: Whitey Bulger got his deal.’
‘That’s because he’s white.’ This was the black cop. He delivered the statement in an even tone. It was a fact, take it or leave it.
‘Oh, Jesus, here we go-’
‘-Why are you always starting with that shit?-’
The black cop shrugged. ‘You all know if Whitey Bulger was black, the feds never would have let him flip, Mafia or no Mafia.’
‘What do you mean? Lowery’s black and he’s the DA.’
‘Yeah, what’s he, a black racist?’
This last comment was pushing. The monster’s eyes appeared on the surface of the loch and lingered there a moment before submerging again.
‘Andrew Lowery wants to be the first black mayor,’ the black cop said. ‘He can’t afford to be associated with a thug like Braxton. An African-American DA protecting an African-American gangster? No way. Braxton scares white people, and white people vote.’
Gittens said, ‘Yeah, well, just the same, I’d try and flip Braxton if I could. That’s the job.’
‘It’ll never happen. Braxton’ll never rat out anyone.’
Gittens inclined his head as if to say, Hey, you never know.
Much later, I learned that Gittens kept a photo in his office of Nikisha Wells, the little girl who had been raped and thrown off the roof in the Grove Park project. In the photo, she wore a red dress and white blouse. Her frizzly hair was arranged in two pigtails, which stuck out from her head at ten o’clock and two o’clock like antennae. There was a red ribbon at the end of each pigtail to match her dress. The photo showed Nikisha leaning forward and laughing as if she’d just heard something very funny. What time is it when an elephant sits on your fence? Typical third-grader. I asked Gittens why he kept the photo. He said he’d known Nikisha from his years in the Flats and he kept it ‘to remind me — this is who we work for.’ At the time it seemed like a full enough explanation. In hindsight, though, I wish I’d probed further. I wish I’d asked what he thought of Braxton throwing Nikisha’s murderer off that same roof. It would have been interesting to know Gittens’s answer.
The next morning, a little the worse for wear after a night at Connaughton’s Cafe, I showed up at the DA’s Special Investigations Unit. John Kelly did not accompany me, pleading a personal errand of some mysterious and unexplained kind. I did not ask him about it. It was plain that he did not want to discuss what he was doing.
The Special Investigations Unit was in a nondescript seventies-modern office building, separate from the main District Attorney’s office, which was housed in the Sussex County Courthouse. And lest you imagine the SIU office as one of those movie-ish gritty urban police stations — phones ringing, typewriters clacking, ‘perps’ handcuffed to chair legs — let me tell you up front that the SIU looked more like an accountant’s office. In fact, several accountants and even a dentist shared the same third-floor hallway. The office was furnished with cloth-walled dividers and industrial carpeting, all in shades of tan. The only concession to law-enforcement gung ho was a
poster pinned to one of the cubicle walls: A SOCIETY THAT DOES NOT SUPPORT ITS POLICE SUPPORTS ITS CRIMINALS.
With Bob Danziger’s murder, Caroline Kelly had ascended to the head of this unit. Caroline greeted me at the reception area and ushered me around the place, introducing me to several state troopers and to one lawyer, a bowling ball of a man named Franny Boyle.
Boyle came out from around his desk and gave my hand a bone-crushing squeeze. He said, with a Boston accent so thick it sounded like a put-on, ‘So yaw the guy from Maine.’ I admitted I was, then stretched my fingers to peel them apart. Boyle looked like he’d been a football player once, a linebacker maybe, though now, at age forty-five or so, he was going soft. The skin of his face sagged. His belly ballooned over his belt buckle. He was nearly bald, with even the sides of his head shaved virtually to the scalp. Still, he was formidable enough. It was difficult to tell where that hairless head ended and his thick neck began. ‘Anything you need, Mistah Truman, I mean any fuckin’ thing…’ Boyle didn’t finish the sentence, but stood there nodding to signify Just ask. He pointed a meaty finger at me: ‘Remembuh.’ I told him I would.
Caroline asked Boyle if he was feeling alright. The smell of alcohol hung about him — it was ten A.M. — and his face was mottled with a drinker’s flush. A fine mesh of red, threadlike veinules netted the skin of his nose.
‘I’m okay, Lynnie. Just upset, is all. The funeral’s coming up, you know. Autopsy took forever.’
‘Franny, maybe you’d better go home. You don’t look so great. It’s alright, we’re all upset.’
After a moment’s hesitation, Boyle grabbed his coat, gave me another knuckle-cruncher, and shuffled down the hall. With his overcoat on, the man’s neck all but disappeared; his head seemed to be attached directly to his back like a bullfrog’s.
When he was out of earshot I said, ‘“Lynnie”?’
Caroline shook her head with an expression that said, Don’t even think about calling me Lynnie. ‘Franny’s a long story,’ she said, and left it at that.
She brought me to Danziger’s office, where two strips of yellow crimescene tape were strung in an X across the door frame. A glossy peel-and-stick label on the door predicted dire consequences for anyone who entered (… under Massachusetts law it is a felony to enter, tamper with, or otherwise disturb a crime scene unless explicitly authorized…). Caroline paused to run her fingertips over the plastic name-plate with its impressed letters, ROBERT M. DANZIGER, CHIEF, then she pulled off the tape as if she were clearing away cobwebs. Inside, the office was neat and organized. A half dozen files stood at attention in a rack on the desk, their edges aligned. The phone, Rolodex, stapler, everything was arranged just so. You half expected Bob Danziger to walk in through a side door and take his seat at the desk.
‘I don’t think you’ll find much in here,’ Caroline cautioned. ‘We took out the files on all Bobby’s open cases.’
I stopped at a small photo on the wall. It showed a group of men posing on the steps in front of a courthouse. ‘That’s the original SIU crew,’ she explained. ‘It was just an anti-narcotics unit then. DAs and cops working together, that was the idea. That must be ’85 or so. Your tour guide, Martin Gittens, is in there somewhere.’ The photo conveyed a feeling of jock comradeship. It reminded me of one of those old photos of a B-52 crew, a bunch of cocky young guys grinning and hanging on one another. Gittens was in the front row. He had a cheesy mustache and thick hair, both gone now. I had to look closer to find Danziger. He was in the back, smiling. A burly redheaded cop with a full beard had his arm over Danziger’s shoulder, and together the two redheads looked like brothers — Danziger the studious firstborn son, this big cop his mischievous younger brother.
‘Who’s this guy?’ I asked.
Caroline stood next to me. (She smelled faintly of soap and powder, and my eyes pulled toward her.) She followed my pointing finger to the big guy with the beard. ‘That’s Artie Trudell. He was killed a long time ago. Harold Braxton was charged but he got off.’ She continued to scrutinize the photo. ‘Look how young Bobby was.’
Robert Danziger must have been in his late twenties, early thirties when the picture was snapped. Not more than a year or two out of law school, with no idea what lay ahead. He probably felt bulletproof with the weight of Artie Trudell’s arm on his own bony shoulder. There was no way to predict the countless branchings that would lead to his own death. Was Danziger already moving inexorably toward that cabin in the Maine woods? Or was there still time to pursue an alternate fate? To leave the DA’s office, say, or stop practicing law altogether. Or simply to leave Boston — to remove himself from Harold Braxton’s murderous path. Every life carries an allotment of what-ifs, but the questions become more fraught when a life ends badly. Of course, no one predicts a bloody death for himself. We all expect to die in bed. But a percentage of us will not; a percentage of us will die violently or too soon. Those people are traveling along their own chain of incident right now, ignorant, free to alter their fate if only they knew it. We are all blithe and unaware, as Danziger had been when he posed for this picture twelve years earlier, and some of us will die just as he did.
‘So what does SIU do now if it’s not an anti-narcotics unit anymore?’
‘Complex investigations. We still do narcotics stuff, but we handle other things too. White collar, public corruption, gang cases, cold cases. We also handle cases where BPD has a conflict of interest.’
‘I thought cops were supposed to have a conflict of interest with bad guys.’
‘I mean where the cops are the bad guys.’
Caroline straightened the photo on the wall.
‘What about Danziger?’ I said. ‘What kind of cases did he do?’
‘A little bit of everything. When you’re in a unit this small, that’s how it works; everybody does everything. Bobby coordinated all the anti-gang stuff, but he took other cases too.’
She led me to a conference room next door to Danziger’s office. Manila folders and cardboard boxes were stacked along a wall. The waist-high pile of papers stretched six or eight feet across. ‘These are Bobby’s files, everything he was working on when he died. If Braxton had a reason to kill him, there ought to be something relevant in here… somewhere. It’s kind of a needle in a haystack.’
‘That’s not a haystack,’ I sighed, ‘it’s a farm.’
‘Well then, you should feel right at home.’ She smirked.
‘I’m from Maine, not Kansas.’
I spent the rest of the afternoon in that conference room, sifting through Danziger’s case files. It made lurid reading. There were a dozen or so files involving police corruption of one kind or another — a cop charged with extorting blow jobs from prostitutes in the Combat Zone (the report quoted him, Don’t you say no, don’t you say no to me); a half dozen narcotics detectives who helped themselves to $30,000 from a stashpad in Mattapan; an evidence officer who got hooked on the cocaine that passed under his nose every day on its way to the evidence locker; another group of narcotics detectives who beat up an African-American drug dealer, only to find the dealer was actually an undercover Boston police officer (I’m a cop! I’m a cop! Look at my badge!). Among the crooked-cop files, there was one that stood out, not because it was so serious but because it was so trivial. Commonwealth v. Julio Vega was a perjury case in which the defendant pleaded guilty and accepted a year probation. The case had been closed five years earlier, in 1992, and the file jacket was empty. Why would Danziger still be monitoring a case so petty, years after it had been closed? I set the empty file folder aside.
The bulk of Danziger’s case load was in anti-gang prosecutions. So I began looking for defendants I recognized as members of Braxton’s gang: Gerald McNeese, June Veris, Braxton himself. The cases ranged from ordinary drug pinches to more chilling crimes. June Veris, the guy I’d seen dealing in Echo Park the day before, emerged as a particularly sinister character. In one incident, Veris had used a chunk of concrete to crush the hands of a member of the Mara Trucha, a Salvadoran gang. Both hands were reduced to a mash; all the tiny bones were shattered. The attack was payback for Mara Trucha’s selling rock in Echo Park, clearly Mission Posse territory. Veris was never prosecuted, because there were no witnesses, including, miraculously, the man whose hands were flattened. That pattern — an outrageous crime followed by an acquittal or even an outright dismissal of charges — was repeated over and over again. Whatever mayhem the Posse was responsible for, so long as they confined their activities to Mission Flats, charges were rarely filed. Witnesses who lived there simply refused to testify.
As the hours passed, my sense of outrage over the goings-on in Mission Flats began to wane. It became easier to blame the victims who would not come forward to testify. How could Danziger or anyone else help them if they would not help themselves? To judge by these documents, Braxton’s name rarely appeared in the files. Danziger had no open cases pending against him and none in the offing.
By two o’clock, my eyes were fogged over. Caroline came by to check on me and deliver a can of Coke.
‘You read enough police reports yet, Ben?’
‘Let me ask you something: Where do cops learn to talk this way? I alighted from my vehicle. Who the hell alights from a vehicle? Why can’t they just say they got out of the car?’
‘It’s cop-speak. All police reports sound like that.’
‘Mine don’t. My reports are beautiful.’
‘Chief Truman, you sound like a crotchety old Down-easter.’
‘I’m no Down-easter. Just crotchety’
She smiled, though it appeared to be against her better judgment.
‘Who’s this Julio Vega? There’s a file here with nothing in it.’
‘Julio Vega? Come here, I’ll show you.’
I narrated in cop-speak: ‘The law-enforcement personnel alighted from their chairs and initiated foot traffic to the office of the victim.’
‘Enough,’ Caroline called over her shoulder.
‘Sorry. It’s catchy once you get started.’
In Danziger’s office, she stood before the photo of the Special Investigations Unit circa 1985 and pointed to a handsome Hispanic man sitting in the front row, right next to Gittens. ‘That’s Julio Vega.’
‘He was a cop?’
‘He was in Narcotics in Area A-3, which is basically the Flats.’
‘Why did Danziger have a file on him?’
Her finger moved from Vega to Trudell, the red-bearded giant who had his arm draped over Danziger’s shoulder. ‘Vega and Artie Trudell were partners. Vega was standing right next to Trudell when Trudell got shot.’
‘Shot by Braxton.’
‘Right. Vega saw his partner get killed. It was a terrible case.’
‘What does that have to do with a perjury file on Vega?’
‘It’s a very long story.’
‘I’ve got time.’
‘It’s a big file, I’m warning you.’
‘How big could it be?’
Caroline’s mouth turned up in a smile. She looked like a cat who has just noticed the canary’s cage is open. She went to a cabinet and began unloading boxes, folders, transcripts, notebooks. We lugged the papers to the conference room, where they swamped the surface of the table.
‘I thought you said it was big,’ I cracked.
She left me there with the file on Artie Trudell’s murder, a case that had been closed nearly a decade. Why Danziger had kept all these materials — other than his friendship with the victim — I did not know. But I quickly fell to the task of sifting them and, out of old habit, trying to see the events in real time. To be there. I’d done similar reconstructions before, as a would-be historian, before my life was interrupted — before my mother’s illness mooted all my own plans for the future. This was the essence of historiography, piecing together a moment in time from primary sources. I had done it a hundred times. When I was in school, it had all seemed like a very romantic adventure: I was a time traveler, riding the matrix of time and place. Poring over the ten-year-old file on Artie Trudell’s murder, that adolescent, almost physical sense of transport did not return, but some of the old pleasure did. For the next few hours I was lost in the events of a decade earlier. There was even a little flush of confidence about my abilities as a policeman, for what is a detective but a species of historian?
From the prosecutor’s file in the case of Commonwealth v. Harold Braxton (1987).
Transcription of Turret Tape, Area A-3 Station, August 17, 1987, 0230 hrs. Unit 657 (Det. Julio Vega): I need an ambulance! Turret: Identify yourself. Vega: Bravo six-five-seven! Get an ambulance up here! It’s Artie! I need an ambulance right now! An ambulance! Turret: Five-seven, I need your location. Vega: Jesus, he’s dying! Artie! Turret: Bravo six-five-seven, I need your location. Clear the air, please. Five-seven? Vega: Fifty-two Vienna Road, five-two Vienna, third floor. Turret: Acknowledge, five-seven. I need an ambulance, code seven, at five-two Vienna Road. All units, there is an officer down. Unit 106: One-oh-six, adam-robert. Turret: Alright, one-six. No ID: We’re heading in there. Unit 104: Four’s on the way. Turret: One-oh-seven and one-oh-one, where are they? Acknowledge. Unit 107: Bravo one-oh-seven. We’re on Mission Ave. We’re on the way. Adam-robert. Turret: One-oh-seven, adam-robert. All units, five-two Vienna, third floor. Officer down. Hang on, Julio, the cavalry’s coming. Unit YC8 (Det. Sgt. Martin Gittens): Yankee C-eight. Take me off at five-two Vienna. Charlie-robert. Turret: Yankee C-eight, repeat, sir. Did you say you’re there? Gittens: I’m here. I have the five car here with me too. I’m going in. Turret: Detective Gittens, wait for arriving units, sir. Gittens: [unintelligible shouting] Turret: C-eight, I said wait for arriving units. Acknowledge, C-eight? Gittens: No time. Tell Julio we’re coming up. Turret: Gittens, wait. Gittens, go to channel seven, please. Vega: Where’s that fucking ambulance! Turret: Hang on, five-seven.
Memorandum Dated August 17, 1987. To: Andrew Lowery District Attorney From: Francis X. Boyle, Assistant District Attorney, Chief of Homicide Division Re: Homicide of Arthur M. Trudell, #101, Preliminary Report At 3:00 A.M. this date I was notified by the turret of a shooting at 52 Vienna Road in Mission Flats. I responded to the scene, arriving at approx. 3:30… Numerous officers report shooter escaped through back stairway and has not been found. No I.D. or description of shooter available. Shooter was not seen because door remained closed… Det. Julio Vega of A-3 Narcotics stated he cradled victim’s head ‘to hold it together.’ Vega’s arms were covered in blood. He appeared to have dipped his arms up to the elbows in red paint. Vega was distraught and refused to clean his arms… Det. M. Gittens states he found a Mossberg 500 12-gauge shotgun in back stairwell of 52 Vienna Rd and no other guns in building after thorough search of all hallways, stairwells, and apartments. Gun sent for I.D. and ballistics.
Transcript of Probable-Cause Hearing in Mission Flats District Court, September 3, 1987. Cross-Examination of Det. Julio Vega by Attorney Maxwell Beck. Mr Beck: Detective Vega, what was your purpose in raiding the apartment at 52 Vienna Road, the so-called ‘red door’ apartment? Det. Vega: My purpose? It was known to be part of a drug operation. Mr Beck: Known by whom? Det. Vega: It was common knowledge on the street. Mr Beck: Yes, but how did you confirm it? Det. Vega: I investigated, with Detective Trudell. We personally made two undercover buys there. Plus we had received information from a confidential and reliable informant. Mr Beck: A tip. Det. Vega: Yes. Mr Beck: Now, this ‘confidential and reliable informant’ — when you applied for the search warrant, you did not identify this person for the judge. Det. Vega: As I have the right to do. If I’d named him, your client would have killed him. Judge: Detective Vega, please just answer the question. Det. Vega: Sorry. Mr Beck: Detective, in your affidavit, you did not reveal your informant’s name, did you? Det. Vega: For the witness’s protection, I did not use his real name, no. Mr Beck: Instead, you referred to him by a pseudonym, ‘Raul,’ is that right? Det. Vega: Yes. Mr Beck: And of course you know who ‘Raul’ is? Det. Vega: Of course. Mr Beck: So if you had to find him again, you could. Det. Vega: Yes. Mr Beck: And ‘Raul’ — whoever that is — gave you this case, didn’t he? He handed it to you on a silver platter. Det. Vega: I don’t know about a silver platter. He gave us a heads-up about the apartment; he said Braxton was dealing out of there. Mr Beck: And the judge took you at your word. The judge believed what ‘Raul’ told you, and he gave you the warrant, isn’t that right? Det. Vega: That’s right. Mr Beck: Now, after Detective Trudell was shot, you went in and searched the apartment, didn’t you? Det. Vega: Yes. Mr Beck: But you didn’t get a new warrant for that search, did you? Det. Vega: We already had a warrant. Mr Beck: The one that relied on the tip from ‘Raul.’ Det. Vega: Exactly. Mr Beck: So if that warrant is thrown out, then everything you found in the apartment — the gun, a sweatshirt — has to be thrown out too? Det. Vega: That’s for you lawyers to decide, not me. Mr Beck: Well, then, let me put it in terms a non-lawyer can understand. If ‘Raul’ doesn’t exist- Det. Vega: What do you mean ‘if he doesn’t exist’? Mr Beck: If ‘Raul’ doesn’t exist, then the entire case against Mr Braxton has to be thrown out. Doesn’t that sound right? Det. Vega: [No response.] Mr Beck: Detective, do you want to tell us who ‘Raul’ was? DA: Objection! The informant’s identity is privileged information necessary to protect the safety of the witness and other police-informant relation- Mr Beck: Detective, who was ‘Raul’? DA: Objection! Judge: Yes, that’s enough, Mr Beck.
Grand Jury Minutes, September 21, 1987. Direct Examination of Detective Sergeant Martin Gittens by Assistant DA Francis X. Boyle. ADA Boyle: Detective, are you familiar with an apartment on the third floor of the Vienna Road address? Det. Gittens: Yes, I am. It is a stashpad used by a gang called the Mission Posse. ADA Boyle: Would you explain to the grand jury what a ‘stashpad’ is? Det. Gittens: A stashpad is an apartment where drugs and money are kept to be used for restocking the street-corner dealers. To minimize risk, the managers only give the sliders — that’s the dealers — a little bit at a time, usually one bundle. A bundle is one hundred vials. They come wrapped in a long piece of tape, and the sliders peel off the vials one by one as they sell them. In this case, they were selling drugs directly from the apartment as well. ADA Boyle: What else can you tell the grand jury about that apartment? Det. Gittens: The apartment is known on the street by its bright red door. Junkies sometimes refer to the crack sold there as ‘red door’ cocaine. The color is significant for two reasons. First, in this neighborhood red is recognized as the color of the Mission Posse. Only Posse members wear it, often with a red bandanna hanging from a pocket or worn as a belt. The use of red on the door is also significant because the crack sold by the Posse comes in vials with a red plastic top. That brand has the street name ‘red top.’ You hear kids talk about a ‘bottle of red top.’ ADA Boyle: And the red-top vial is recognized as the Mission Posse’s packaging for crack? Det. Gittens: In this area of the city, yes. ADA Boyle: Now, Detective Gittens, you personally responded to the scene on the night of the shooting, correct? Det. Gittens: Correct. ADA Boyle: Did you find any weapons there? Det. Gittens: Yes, in the back stairwell I found a Mossberg shotgun. I submitted the gun for forensic analysis. Ballistics was able to confirm that the shotgun was the murder weapon. I.D. also was able to identify Harold Braxton’s fingerprints on the gun in four different places. I also found a hooded sweatshirt of Harold Braxton’s in the apartment. I recognized it as his by a distinctive rip and a logo for St John’s University. ADA Boyle: Was the shotgun tied to Harold Braxton in any other way? Det. Gittens: Yes, we later spoke to a witness who admitted selling it to Braxton several months before. The witness claimed he’d brought the gun up from Virginia. ADA Boyle: Detective, based on all this evidence, do you have an opinion as to what happened at 52 Vienna Road last August 17? Det. Gittens: Yes. In my opinion, Braxton was at the apartment alone that night managing the Mission Posse’s cocaine operation. The Narcotics team surprised him when they showed up at the red door. He was trapped inside. Braxton panicked, grabbed the gun, and fired through the door, then he fled down a back staircase, dropping the gun as he ran. ADA Boyle: And how certain are you of this opinion? Det. Gittens: Very, very certain.
Transcript of Hearing on Defendant’s Motion for Court Order Requiring Prosecution to Disclose the Identity of the Confidential Informant ‘Raul.’
Sussex Superior Court, March 7, 1988. Cross-Examination of Det. Julio Vega by Attorney Maxwell Beck. Mr Beck: Detective, can you describe ‘Raul’ for us? What does he look like? Det. Vega: Medium-build Hispanic male, medium complexion, brown hair, brown eyes. Mr Beck: Oh, come on, you can do better than that. You’ve met with him many times, right? Can’t you tell us anything particular about him? Does he have a scar? A tattoo, a lisp, a wooden leg? ADA Boyle: Objection. Judge: Sustained. Mr Beck: Do you even know ‘Raul’s’ name? Det. Vega: His street name is ‘OG,’ for ‘Old Gangster.’ Mr Beck: But what’s his real name? Det. Vega: I don’t have that information. Mr Beck: You’ve known him for years and you don’t even know his name? Det. Vega: On the street, that’s not unusual. Mr Beck: Detective Vega, do you know what a buy log is? Det. Vega: It’s a log at the Narcotics unit where we keep a record of any drug buys we do. Mr Beck: So every controlled buy is recorded in the log, correct? Det. Vega: Every drug buy, yeah. It doesn’t matter if it’s a controlled buy or an undercover buy. Mr Beck: And what’s the difference? Det. Vega: Well, an undercover buy is just a drug purchase made by an undercover police officer. But we can’t do all our own buys, because the dealers get to know our faces. So we do controlled buys, which is where you get somebody to make the buy for you. Mr Beck: I see. So if you ever did an undercover buy yourself, you would have recorded it in the buy log, correct? Det. Vega: Correct. Mr Beck: And when you applied for the search warrant in this case, you stated that you made a buy at the red-door apartment that very afternoon, did you not? Det. Vega: I did. Mr Beck: And was that statement true? Det. Vega: Yes, it was. Mr Beck: But you did not record that buy in the log, did you? Det. Vega: I don’t recall. Mr Beck: Would you like to look at the buy log for August 17, 1987? Det. Vega: Yes. [Mr Beck shows the witness a log book marked Exhibit 14.] Det. Vega: I guess I did not put it in. Mr Beck: But you’re sure you made the buy? Det. Vega: I’m sure. Mr Beck: Well, if you made the buy, then you must have come away with some drugs, right? Det. Vega: Of course. Mr Beck: And this was…? Det. Vega: Crack cocaine. We bought one bottle. Mr Beck: By a ‘bottle’ you mean a little plastic vial? Det. Vega: Yes. Mr Beck: And by department regulation, evidence like that has to be turned over to the evidence officer and logged in as well, right? Det. Vega: [No response.] Mr Beck: But you did not log this vial of cocaine into the evidence room, did you? Would you like to see the evidence log? Det. Vega: SometimesMr Beck: Detective Vega, if you really made a buy from the red door that afternoon, why wasn’t the evidence recorded in the evidence log? Det. Vega: [No response.] Mr Beck: Detective? Det. Vega: Sometimes when we seize drugs we just throw it out so no one can use it. We didn’t have a defendant at that point. We needed the search to have a case. There was no case yet, so the drugs weren’t evidence against anyone. So I must have just tossed them. Mr Beck: You just tossed them. How often do you just toss evidence? Det. Vega: All the time. I mean, not evidence. We seize stuff — if there’s no case to tie it to, what else should we do with it? Leave it sitting there for some kid to find? Mr Beck: Detective Vega, let me pose a hypothetical to you. Let’s assume, just out of curiosity, just for fun, let’s assume there really is no ‘Raul.’ ‘Raul’ doesn’t exist. ADA Boyle: Objection. Judge: Overruled. Mr Beck, you’re on very thin ice. Mr Beck: I understand, Your Honor. Detective Vega, let’s assume there is no ‘Raul,’ just hypothetically. A couple of young Narcotics detectives hear a rumor on the street that somebody is selling crack from a certain apartment. It’s just a rumor, though. Maybe it comes from a junkie. Do you understand that premise? Det. Vega: Yes. Mr Beck: And does that sort of thing happen? You hear a rumor about drug dealing here or there? Det. Vega: Every day. Mr Beck: Every day, excellent. Now, these two young detectives know the information is true, the tip is correct. But the source is shaky. They know a judge won’t issue a warrant based on a tip from a junkie. But these two young detectives want to raid this place and shut it down, they want to get that warrant and get into that apartment, they want it so bad- Det. Vega: That’s not what happened. Mr Beck: I understand. It’s a hypothetical. Det. Vega: That’s not what happened. Mr Beck: Yes, I understand. We’re just assuming for a moment. These two young cops with the shaky tip, they need to dress it up a little in order to convince a judge to give them the warrant, right? So instead of saying, ‘This tip came from a junkie,’ they say, ‘This tip came from a guy named Raul, who is one hundred percent reliable.’ Maybe they even go the extra mile and they invent an undercover buy, just to be sure they get the warrant. Who’ll question it, right? It’s just another drug raid. How many drug raids do you make in a year, Detective? Det. Vega: Dozens, hundreds maybe. Mr Beck: So these officers, they lie to get the warrant. Not a big lie. After all, their hearts are in the right place. They know there really is a drug dealer behind that red door, right? It’s just a white lie. Do you know what a white lie is, Detective? Det. Vega: [No response.] Mr Beck: Detective, do you know what a white lie is? Det. Vega: It’s when you tell a lie for the right reasons. Mr Beck: Precisely. It’s a lie you tell for the right reasons. But then it all blows up. One of the cops gets murdered and suddenly everybody wants to know, Who is Raul? And where is the evidence from that undercover buy? ADA Boyle: Objection. If there is a question here, I wish Mr Beck would ask it. Judge: Sustained. Pose a question, Mr. Beck. Mr Beck: Detective Vega, my question is this: Wouldn’t that scenario account for all the irregularities in this case? ADA Boyle: Objection! Mr Beck: Detective, wouldn’t that explain why no one can find ‘Raul’ and no one can even tell us what he looks like? ADA Boyle: Objection! Mr Beck: Detective, wouldn’t that explain why the controlled buy never got logged in? ADA Boyle: Objection! Judge: Sustained! Mr Beck- Mr Beck: Detective, there is no ‘Raul,’ is there? Judge: The objection is sustained, Mr. Beck! Mr Beck: Detective, if there really is a ‘Raul,’ why won’t you produce him? Where is he? Judge: Mr Beck, I said that’s enough!
Court Order Dated April 4, 1988… It is hereby ORDERED that the prosecution locate and produce the witness referred to in court papers as ‘Raul’ within seven (7) business days. The prosecution will satisfy this order by the production of ‘Raul’s’ full name, date of birth, current address, Social Security number…
Police Report Dated April 5, 1988. Reporting Officer: Det. J. Vega (badge 78760) Spent double shift (1600–2400, 2400–0800) searching for CRI ‘Raul’ but have been unable to locate him. Have informed ADA Boyle of this fact. It is my belief that ‘Raul’ has purposely removed himself from the area out of reluctance to become involved in the prosecution of Harold Braxton for the murder of my partner, Det. Arthur Trudell. This officer will continue the search.
Court’s Memorandum and Decision Dated June 1, 1988… Whether ‘Raul’ actually exists or, as now seems likely, he does not, the Commonwealth has committed deliberate and egregious misconduct depriving the defense of an essential witness and resulting in irreparable harm to the defense… It is therefore with a heavy heart that the Court reaches its decision. The indictment alleging that the defendant Harold Braxton did commit murder in the first degree against Arthur M. Trudell is hereby DISMISSED.
News clipping: ‘Officer in Murder Controversy Retires,’
The Boston Globe, January 17, 1992, page B7. Detective Julio Vega, the partner of slain Narcotics detective Arthur Trudell and a central figure in the controversial trial of a Boston gang leader for that crime, has quietly retired from the Boston Police Department. Vega was removed from active field duty following the dismissal of the Trudell case in 1988. According to a police spokesperson, Vega retired one day after reaching his fifteenth year on the force, a critical date for purposes of his retirement pension. The department provided no information as to Vega’s future plans or whereabouts. Vega, 41, could not be reached for comment.
A key scraping in the lock startled me, breaking the spell. A glance at the clock: nearly seven at night. Was that possible? Had I been sitting there for five hours? Lately I had begun to wear reading glasses, little wire-rimmed jobs with round lenses, and I twisted them off to rub-rub-rub my eyes like a kid. My muscles and spine and eyes all ached, but there was more than just exhaustion. Something in the Trudell file had spooked me. Something I could not quite name.
More clumsy scratching at the front door lock. Then it was quiet again. Background noises sounded clearly — the buzz of fluorescent lights, the clicks and creaks of the building, a car horn.
At the reception area, I coughed to test my vocal chords, then announced, ‘Who is it?’
‘Who is it? Who the fuck ah you?’
‘Ben Truman? Who?’
‘Franny, is that you?’
‘Yeah. Open the daw, would’ja?’
I opened the door and there was Franny Boyle, the SIU prosecutor, a foggy-drunk look on his face. He clutched his keys in his left hand. His right hand shook visibly. Franny’s tie was stuffed in his coat pocket, and his shirt was open, revealing a frayed T-shirt collar. ‘You scared the piss outa me, pal,’ he grumbled. Booze had thickened his Boston accent, which I would not have thought possible. ‘Just gonna grab a little snooze here, a’right? I’m not payin’ for a cab and I can’t deal with the fuckin’ T.’ He brushed past me.
‘Sure. Whatever, Franny.’
He shuffled down the hall. His thick torso rolled with each step so that he rocked like a little tugboat. ‘It’s alright, Opie, I do it all the time.’
‘You sure you’re alright, Franny?’
‘How the fuck should I know?’
‘I was just… She didn’t say good-bye.’
He stopped, then turned to face me. ‘Are you porkin’ her?’
‘You sure, Opie?’
‘Pretty sure, yeah.’
‘Why aren’t you? You don’t like her?’
‘Do you always cross-examine people this way?’
‘She’s divorced. Did ya know that?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘Well it’s true.’
Boyle nodded as if we’d just cleared up a misunderstanding, then he moved off again. At the conference-room door he stopped and stared. The file boxes — shit! Boyle regarded the conference table, piled with papers and boxes. Comm. v. Braxton was written on each box in thick Magic Marker. He puffed his cheeks with a sort of sigh. ‘What are you doing, reading that shit?’
‘Reading about Braxton, that’s all.’
‘You want to hear the truth someday, you come ask me.’
Boyle gave me an exhausted look and continued down to his office, where he promptly tumbled onto the couch. ‘Hey, don’t tell Caroline I said she was fuckin’ you, alright? She might take it the wrong way’
‘Oh, I don’t think she’d take it the wrong way, Franny.’
‘She’s not wild about me anyway. She thinks I’m crooked.’
‘That’s not true.’ I dragged an old wool blanket over him.
‘She hates me. She wants to get rid of me but Lowery won’t let her.’
‘Just sleep it off, Franny. I’m sure she doesn’t hate you.’
‘She told some people once, “Franny’s so crooked he has to screw his hat on.” Like it was a joke. She doesn’t think I know that, but I heard about it. She said, “Franny’s so crooked he has to screw a rubber on.”’
‘She said that?’
‘Yeah. Charming, isn’t she? It’s not true anyway’
‘About the hat or the rubber?’
‘You know what I mean. I’m not crooked. I’m not crooked…’
I was prepared to reassure him again, but Boyle was asleep before I could get the words out.
Back in the conference room, I gathered up the papers, put them back in the boxes, and moved the whole mess into Danziger’s office. Boyle’s snuffling snores carried from the next room.
And then I had it. I saw the importance of the Trudell case.
Now, when you’re exhausted, it’s easy to mistake ordinary thoughts for profound ones. This trick of the tired mind explains why our deepest insights always seem to arrive at three A.M. and why there is such exquisite, tantalizing pleasure in trying to recover those threeA.M. thoughts the next morning. It is a pleasant misperception to think yourself profound, and tired as I was that evening, well… I thought I understood the situation.
The Trudell case — all the hidden acts and secret motives became clear. I knew that Raul did not exist — not the Raul described in the warrant, anyway. Detective Julio Vega had invented Raul as a well-intentioned scam to trick judges into issuing search warrants. The courts had insisted that Vega do better than the junkies and rats who fed him information on the street, so Vega invented the informant to end all informants, a street-corner oracle so reliable he could exist only in a judge’s fantasy. And then it all blew up. With one shot, Harold Braxton not only murdered Vega’s partner, he exposed the whole fraud. He converted a routine bogus search warrant into a cause. And he converted Julio Vega from an obscure and unexceptional cop to a bumbling, lying villain with his face on the front page of USA Today. That’s how Harold Braxton got away with murdering Artie Trudell.
In Danziger’s office I stood in front of the photo of the original SIU team, the photo showing Artie Trudell with that big rump roast of an arm on Bobby Danziger’s shoulder.
And I knew.
With three-A.M. certainty, I knew how it galled Danziger to see Braxton on the street after he’d killed Trudell. I knew that was why Danziger had kept the file — he wanted to reopen the case. And I knew whom Danziger must have contacted. Not Franny Boyle or Martin Gittens, neither of whom seemed to be aware that Danziger had revived the old case. No, it had to be the only other member of the old guard who knew what really happened that night: Julio Vega.
It was not Caroline but a little boy who answered the door. He was nine or ten, and his manner suggested that the doorbell had interrupted some very important activity in the life of a nine — or ten-year-old. Before I could open my mouth, the kid moaned, ‘Mom, there’s a cop here for you.’
‘What makes you think I’m a cop?’
‘You’re here to see my mom, aren’t you?’
‘Your mom?’ It occurred to me I might be at the wrong apartment. I actually checked the number on the door to be sure.
Caroline came around the corner, wiping her hands on her jeans and pushing the hair off her forehead with the back of her wrist. ‘Ben! What are you doing here?’
‘I need to talk to you about something. I was looking through Danziger’s files-’
‘This is Charlie,’ Caroline interrupted, with a pointed look. ‘Charlie, this is Ben Truman. Ben is a friend of your Grandpa’s, and that’s why Grandpa’s in trouble.’
The kid mustered a little wave.
‘Charlie, you know better than that. What do you do when you meet a new person? Go on.’
Charlie rolled his eyes, then extended his hand. ‘It’s very nice to meet you, Mr Truman.’ He gave my hand a firm squeeze, just as Caroline had instructed him, I’m sure.
‘Ow, ow.’ I fell to my knees and grabbed my hand as if the kid had broken every bone from wrist to fingertip.
Charlie’s eyes widened, then he smiled. Boys are nothing but very small men (and vice versa); the surest way to their hearts is through their egos. He stepped back and leaned against Caroline, who crossed her hands over his chest.
‘Go do your homework,’ she said, with a pat on his chest.
‘I don’t have any homework.’
‘Then go do tomorrow’s homework.’
‘How can I do tomorrow’s homework if I don’t have it yet?’ He twisted his neck to look up at her, but she would not listen to reason. Charlie emitted a world-weary groan, then padded off.
‘You can get up now, Ben. Male-bonding time is over.’
‘Male-bonding time is never over. It’s just suspended if there happen to be females in the area.’
‘That’s a terrifying thought.’
I stole a glance around the room in which we stood. A stack of magazines threatened to slide off the coffee table — The New Yorker, Cosmo, People. Beside them were three copies of The New York Times, still in their blue plastic bags — where they would stay until the Danziger case was resolved, no doubt. An open can of Diet Coke. A Nintendo game. A Miro poster above the nonworking fireplace. In the corner were Charlie’s hockey bag and two sticks. A comfortable, familial clutter.
‘I don’t usually talk about work here,’ Caroline informed me. ‘This is Charlie’s time and his place.’
‘Sorry. I had a thought. I didn’t know who else to ask.’
She eyed the folder in my hand. ‘Have you had supper, Ben?’ When I hesitated, she said, ‘Come on,’ and led me to the kitchen. As I followed, her hand sought out the tail of her shirt and selfconsciously adjusted it over her rump.
There was a small round table in the kitchen with places set for two. Caroline called to Charlie to set another place.
‘Are you sure there’s enough, Caroline? I didn’t mean to impose.’
She showed me a baking dish lined with eight chicken breasts.
‘All for you two?’
Charlie shuffled into the room in stocking feet to explain. ‘She makes too much so we can keep eating it all week.’
Caroline waved the spatula at him in a menacing way and turned back to her cooking.
The kid shared a little smirk with me. He liked Caroline’s cooking even if it meant a week’s worth of chicken. I smirked back to let him know I understood that.
‘Sit down, boys,’ Caroline ordered.
I sat opposite Charlie while Caroline filled the plates over the stove. ‘Rice?’ she asked, ‘salad?’ There was something oddly moving about the whole exercise. A suggestion of intimacy, of caregiving. ‘What will you drink? I have milk, apple juice, Cran-apple, orange juice, water, beer — no, sorry, I don’t have beer. I have some wine. Do you drink wine?’ I told her I did, and Caroline searched around for the bottle. She gave it to me to open.
‘I’ll have wine,’ Charlie said.
‘You’ll have milk.’
Dinner passed quickly. I complimented Caroline on the chicken, which gave her an opportunity to needle Charlie. ‘See? Some people like my chicken.’ For the most part, though, Charlie and I spoke while Caroline listened. An amused smile — a sort of half Elvis — played at the corners of her mouth as her son held forth on a variety of topics. She spoke only to correct his manners. (’The Bruins suck!’ ‘Don’t say suck, Charlie.’) Hockey and movies seemed to be the twin passions of Charlie’s life. Without much prodding he would recite the latest comedy film verbatim from start to finish, mimicking all the voices. He was going to spend Thanksgiving with his father, and Christmas and New Year’s with his mother. He hated everything about school, and the sum of his knowledge about the Great State of Maine was that it was located somewhere between Greenland and the polar ice cap. Or so he told me, with an Elvis smile of his own. Throughout the conversation, my eyes sneaked over to Caroline. The simple fact of Charlie’s presence seemed to soften her. Not her manner so much; she could still be stern with Charlie and prickly with me. No, the change was more physical. It was a relaxation around the eyes and mouth — the slightest, barely perceptible gentling of her features — which transformed a merely attractive woman into one who was very nearly beautiful. No doubt it is a sign of advancing age when a man finds that motherhood flatters a woman, but there it was.
After supper, Charlie dutifully cleared his plate and put it by the sink, then he disappeared to watch TV — tactfully, I thought. Caroline moved to the sink to do the dishes, which I placed in the dishwasher or dried.
‘So,’ she said as she washed, ‘what was it that was so important?’
‘I think Danziger was reopening the Trudell case.’
To my disappointment, Caroline did not seem impressed. She did not even look up from the dishes. ‘Why? Because he had the file? I have files that are older than Charlie. It doesn’t mean anything, except maybe that it’s a case you don’t want to let go.’
‘Exactly Maybe Danziger couldn’t let it go.’
‘Too late. That case was dismissed — what, ten years ago?’
‘About. But jeopardy never attached. The judge threw the case out before it got to trial. So there was no legal reason why Danziger couldn’t reopen it.’
‘My, my, “jeopardy never attached.”’
‘Isn’t that how you say it?’
‘That’s how you say it. Have you been moonlighting as a lawyer?’
‘No, but we can read up in Maine, you know.’
‘Shoor, if they ain’t too long.’
She smiled carefully and handed me the baking dish to dry.
‘I’m right, aren’t I? Jeopardy never attached.’
‘Yes. But even if you’re right, even if Danziger did want to reopen the Trudell case, there’s still no evidence. There’s no proof that Braxton shot Trudell. None. All the evidence got thrown out along with the warrant. Some cop made up an informant, wasn’t that it? What was his name, Ragu?’
‘Raul. So why would Danziger reopen the case?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe he’d found some new evidence.’
‘Doubtful. Look, Ben, cases go wrong all the time. Guilty guys walk. It happens, it’s part of the system. Bob Danziger knew that.’
‘Yeah, but this was different. Trudell was his friend. You can see it in that photo. Artie Trudell wasn’t just another victim to Danziger.’
‘There’s still no evidence. It’s an unprovable case.’
‘What if Danziger didn’t think so? What if he thought the case could be saved?’
‘I don’t know. What if Danziger thought Raul was real? If he could prove that Raul really did exist — that Vega hadn’t lied on the search warrant — then the warrant would be good and all the evidence would come back in. Braxton would finally get nailed for killing Trudell.’
‘Ben, if there really was a Raul, the cops would have produced him in the first place. They wouldn’t have let a cop killer walk just to protect an informant.’
‘Julio Vega said he looked for Raul but he couldn’t find him because Raul took off.’
‘Yeah, well, Julio Vega is a liar.’
‘Maybe Danziger didn’t think so.’
‘Maybe, but with these cases the simplest explanation is usually the right one.’
I grunted. ‘Ockham’s razor.’
She looked at me as if I’d belched.
‘It’s the rule in logic that the simplest explanation is the right one.’
She turned off the water and stared.
‘What? Hey, this isn’t a golden retriever you’re talking to. I told you, we read books in Versailles. I was even going to be a professor once.’
‘Yeah? In what?’
‘So what happened?’
‘My mother got sick.’
‘Sorry. Is she okay?’
‘No. She passed away. It’s a long story.’
‘No, really, it’s okay. She died the right way, if that’s possible.’
‘Alright. If you say so.’ She laid a wet, sympathetic hand on my arm. ‘Well, in any event, you’re not a history professor now; there’s no sense in digging up a ten-year-old case.’
‘Except that Danziger was digging it up.’
She shrugged, reluctant to concede the point. ‘So what is it you want to do?’
‘I want to talk to Julio Vega.’
‘I wouldn’t even know where to find him.’
‘Boston PD would know. Vega hung on long enough to draw a pension. They must have an address to send the checks to. You could ask them.’
‘You can find him for me, Caroline. As a favor.’
She rolled her eyes a little. ‘Yeah, sure. What can it hurt?’
After Charlie was in bed, Caroline and I sat on her sofa drinking the rest of the wine. Caroline did not drink much, maybe two glasses, but a boozy flush came over her. She apologized for the mess and made a halfhearted attempt to straighten up.
‘Franny told me you’re divorced.’
‘Of course, he was half in the bag at the time.’
‘That sounds like Franny’
‘And your husband, was that how Charlie…?’
‘Yes, Ben, that’s where babies come from.’
‘So what happened?’
She sighed. ‘We were very young and very stupid. We were in law school together. I got pregnant. We thought that meant we were in love.’
‘There must have been more to it than that.’
‘We only lasted eighteen months, so I guess there wasn’t much more to it, was there?’
‘Do you see him anymore?’
‘When he picks up Charlie or drops him off. It’s not hostile or anything. It’s just, we have nothing in common anymore except Charlie. We’re like strangers shackled together.’
‘What was he like?’
‘He’s… he’s very ambitious.’
‘Do you ever see him in court?’
‘No, he gave up on law ages ago. You can only make so much money charging by the hour. You only have twenty-four to sell every day.’ She caught herself sliding into cynicism and she shook it away. ‘I shouldn’t — I don’t mean to sound like that. He’s not a bad guy.’
‘Maybe you’ll do it again someday.’
‘What, get married? Absolutely not. I did my eighteen months.’
‘What if Mister Right comes along?’
‘I mean it.’
‘Oh Ben, that’s sweet. Look, I hate to burst your bubble here but you might as well know: Mister Right is like the Easter bunny or Santa Claus. It’s something you grow out of.’
‘It’d be a shame if you were wrong, if your Mister Right was still out there somewhere.’
‘Ben, think about it: if there was a Mister Right for everybody… Well, I didn’t meet Mister Right, put it that way. Maybe I would have if I’d waited. I guess I’ll never know. You can’t look back.’
‘I think that’s right. You can’t look back.’
‘I thought you were a historian.’
I waved off the remark — waved off my whole former life. I didn’t care to think about it. In my mind the thought was germinating, very quietly, that all this retrospection was a waste — an irresistible waste, but a waste just the same. We move through time like a man in a rowboat, looking back even as we move forward.
‘Sometimes,’ I said, ‘even historians shouldn’t look back.’
She raised her glass for a toast, and I had the strongest urge to kiss her then. To put my hand behind her head and lean forward for a de luxe, don’t-look-back, CinemaScope sort of kiss. It was what she seemed to want.
But Caroline said, ‘It’s just a shame we can’t have little boys without men.’
‘Yes, it’s unfortunate,’ I said, emotions in full retreat.
‘Anyway… I already have my baby, so I guess I’m through with all that.’
‘Men are good for other things too, Caroline.’
She did not seem convinced.
The next morning, John Kelly and I were back together. I needled him for skipping out on the tedious chore of sorting Danziger’s files, but I did not ask him where he’d been.
The address Caroline provided, the last known residence of Detective Julio Vega, was a bungalow in Dorchester, a misplaced beach house dropped on a tiny lot in a run-down block. The front yard was sand with pimples of crabgrass sprouting here and there.
‘You speak to him, Ben Truman. I’ll have a look around back.’ Kelly held the nightstick behind his back and strolled around the side of the house.
I knocked on the door, then stepped down off the stoop to wait. Stiff shafts of crabgrass scratched my ankles. I knocked again, louder.
A man finally opened the door and stood there, behind the screen door. Heavyset Hispanic guy in a T-shirt and sweatpants. Bloated stomach. Pale skin, the color of concrete. This could not be the same guy I’d seen in the photo, the handsome Latino with the mustache. The guy looked me up and down but said nothing.
‘I’m looking for Julio Vega.’
‘What are you? A reporter?’
‘No, I’m a cop.’
‘You’re a cop? You don’t look like a cop.’
I raised my badge holder. The man opened the screen door, took it, and retreated back inside to examine it.
‘Are you Julio Vega?’
‘Lot of Julio Vegas, man.’
He was scrutinizing the badge, holding it close to his nose, his body swaying a little. ‘What’s this?’ he said. ‘Ver- sales, Maine?’
It took everything I had to resist congratulating him on the correct pronunciation. Instead, I asked him again whether he was Julio Vega.
‘Who sent you here?’
‘Nobody sent me. I found your name in Robert Danziger’s files.’
He glanced around the yard, then opened the door and tossed the badge back to me. ‘I got nothing to say, Chief.’
‘Would it help if I came back with a subpoena?’ That sounded cool, I thought. A little stagy, maybe, but cool. ‘There’s a grand jury being empaneled. They might like to hear from y-’
He snorted and disappeared into the house. The door closed with a click.
I looked around the scrofulous little yard feeling foolish and self-conscious. It didn’t matter that there was no one there to see it — embarrassment is a reflex, evolved, encoded. It no longer requires an audience.
I knocked again.
This time the man opened the door with a clear drink in his hand. He scowled and rattled the ice cubes. ‘Now what are you gonna do, Joe Friday, break down the door?’ It was dawning on me — belatedly — the man was drunk.
‘Don’t close the door on me again.’
‘You got that subpoena?’
‘I’ll get it if I have to.’
‘Good. Bring it to me. I’ll wipe my ass with it.’
He closed the door again, leaving me to wonder where exactly this interview had gone off the rails.
Kelly came around the corner, spinning the nightstick. ‘So?’
‘I don’t think he wants to talk to us.’
‘No? Did he say that?’
‘Well, those weren’t his exact words.’
Kelly stepped onto the little concrete stoop and knocked on the door with the truncheon. When the door reopened, Kelly looked down at Vega and said politely, ‘We need to ask you a few questions, Detective Vega. It won’t take a minute.’
Vega thought it over, shrugged, and said, ‘Come on,’ then he shuffled back into the house.
Kelly gave me a look. What was so hard about that?
We followed Vega to a dim room cluttered with trash and yellowed newspapers. There were a few pictures around, all of which seemed to have been sitting undisturbed for years — grinning nieces, old Kodachrome grandparents. Vega gestured toward an ancient armchair, the seat cushion cupped out, the upholstery worn slick and dark. A stained antimacassar hung over the chair back. I was careful not to let my head touch it when I sat. Vega dropped into the chair next to mine, facing the TV. Without the screen door between us, I got my first good look at him. The man was a ruin. He was barefoot, and his toenails had sprouted into angular points. The enamel had a scaly, mineral appearance like yellow mica. I felt myself gawking at those toe-nails, then at a spongy-looking pink scar on Vega’s left wrist, then at his tangled, overgrown hair. The former detective topped off his glass from a fifth of Cossack vodka. There was a heavy glass ashtray on Vega’s armrest. He picked up a cigarette from the ashtray’s edge, saw it was out, relit it.
‘Chief,’ he said, ‘let me give you a word. You’re a cop, I’m a cop. There’s a way you treat people. With respect. You don’t treat a cop like he’s some shitbird you find in the street. That ragtime about subpoenas and grand juries, you save that for the bad guys. You talk to a cop, that’s your brother you’re talking to. You give respect. I earned that. Go ask your friend here.’ He gestured toward Kelly with the cigarette.
I said, ‘You’re right.’
‘Fourteen years, I earned that. I don’t care what you heard.’
‘You’re right. I’m sorry.’
‘You’re a cop, I’m a cop. That’s the only reason you’re sitting here. Respect.’
He shook the ice in his glass, sipped again. Vodka in his right hand, cigarette in his left. He breathed through his nostrils as he drank, working quietly, concentrating. ‘There’s a way you treat people. You ask the old man here.’
Kelly ignored him. He was ambling around the room in his longlegged way, looking over the accumulated mess. He held the nightstick behind his back as if it were a rolled-up guidebook to the items on exhibit.
Vega and I watched the TV. Football highlights, a running back skittering away from tacklers.
‘You like football, Detective Vega?’
‘I like Barry Sanders, man. Look at him.’
‘He’s too fast, Barry’s just too fast.’
‘Detective, I need to ask you about Bob Danziger.’ This brought a glance before Vega returned his attention to the TV and held it there. ‘What I need to know is, why did Danziger have a file on you in his office? A Probation file.’
‘There’s lots of files on me.’
‘Lots of files, but Danziger only had one, your Probation file. I figure maybe it’s nothing, he was just watching your case for personal reasons, because you know him. Is that it?’
‘Don’t ask it like that. Good detective doesn’t ask yes-or-no questions like that. You keep it open, keep it open. Let ’em talk. Look for inconsis’cies.’ He was still staring at the TV, or pretending to. He was drunk and yet not drunk — or just drunk enough. ‘If you’re talking, you’re not listening, you’re not learning shit. You get him talking, that’s the way. Isn’t that right?’
‘That’s right,’ Kelly seconded. ‘Ask again, Ben. Do it the right way’
‘Okay Tell me about Raul.’
‘I don’t know from Raul.’
‘Tell me what you do know.’
‘There is no Raul, that’s all I know, period.’
His attention stayed on the TV, highlights from the previous Sunday’s football games. ‘Look at that. You can’t hit him, he’s too fast. I always bet the Lions. Give the points, whatever, I just go with Sanders. Fuckin’ Lions never cover, but I can’t bet against my man Barry, you know?’
‘Julio, why was Danziger looking at the Trudell case?’
‘How would I know why Danziger was doing anything? You read my file, right? Everything I had to say about it is right there in the file.’
Sanders, in silver pants and powder-blue shirt, danced and spun away from tacklers.
‘You know why I like football, Chief? I like the field, all those lines. A line every yard, a hundred lines, all nice and straight. It’s a grid. Everything happens right out there on that grid. Everybody tries to trick each other, fake each other, beat the shit out of each other, whatever, but it’s all out on that grid for everybody to see. Look at Barry, man. He fakes and does all his wiggly shit and everything gets all crazy. But then it’s over and they set the whole thing up again, all square and neat. That’s why it’s exciting when he messes everything up. Because it’s only those in-between times, then everything’s all put together again, everything’s okay again. It’s, like, the tension, you know what I mean, Chief?’ He sipped again. ‘That’s why people love football.’
‘Julio, why did Danziger get killed?’
‘He went after a Mission Posse kid, Gerald McNeese. G-Mac took it personal. G-Mac broke the code: He capped a DA. So he’s got to pay. That’s the rules.’
‘That’s all there is to it? You believe that?’
‘Why shouldn’t I?’
‘Because Danziger was asking you about Raul.’
‘Julio, Danziger was your friend. Artie Trudell too. You owe them something.’
‘You leave that alone, junior. Don’t tell me what I owe. I know what I owe and what I don’t owe. I know what some people owe me too.’
‘What did Danziger ask you about Raul?’
‘You’ve got it all wrong, Chief. This whole thing with Danziger’s got nothing to do with Raul. Artie didn’t get killed because of Raul. It’s all bullshit. It’s always been bullshit.’
‘All bullshit,’ I repeated, frustrated, confused. I leaned forward, elbows on knees. ‘But Raul wasn’t bullshit, was he?’
‘The judge said there was no Raul. I made him up. That’s how it went in the books. I did my time for it, it’s over. That’s all I got to say.’
‘Look, Julio, I’m asking you — as a cop — where did you and Artie get the tip about drug dealing at the red door? If it wasn’t Raul who tipped you, then who was it? The information had to come from somewhere.’
Vega stubbed out his cigarette and lit another.
‘There was a Raul wasn’t there? The judge got it wrong.’
‘You don’t understand.’
‘No, I don’t. Help me understand.’
‘A lot of cops have been using Raul a long time now.’
‘So he is real?’
‘I didn’t say that. It doesn’t matter, the whole thing doesn’t matter.’
Vega looked down into his glass. Was he picturing Artie Trudell, dead but still standing, still holding that pipe? How many times did he see it, that endless loop? How many times had he watched Artie Trudell die?
‘Artie put himself in front of that door,’ he said with a crypto-cooperative look. ‘I did too. We were stupid. The whole thing was unnecessary.’
If there was a sign there, I missed it.
‘Julio, was Danziger-’
‘Ben,’ Kelly interrupted, ‘that’s enough, it’s time to go. Detective Vega, thank you for your time.’
Vega kept his eyes on the football highlights, on the grid where everything was refereed and constantly reordered.
In the car, Kelly consoled me. ‘That was fine, Ben Truman. He gave you a little; he’s not ready to give you more. Don’t worry, we’ll come back. Sometimes it takes time.’
‘He’s still lying.’
‘Yes, he is. But I’m sure he has his reasons.’
Vega’s lying that day was quickly forgotten. In fact, the whole mess was forgotten — Vega, Trudell, ‘Raul,’ the red door, all of it. When Kelly called Caroline to check in, we were informed by SIU that Ray Ratleff was dead, his head blown apart just as Danziger’s had been. There was no longer a case against Gerald McNeese; the only witness against him was dead. And it was going to be tough to blame ‘Raul’ for this one.
The body was in Franklin Park, sprawled in the wet leaves under a stone-masonry footbridge. It was covered with a vinyl blanket, but Ray Rat was too tall and his lower legs protruded — pant legs pushed up, skinny shins, Nike high-tops.
A crowd had gathered at the edge of the yellow-taped perimeter. News photographers among them circled around for good angles, pointing their long-lensed cameras at the corpse.
A cluster of detectives stood around the body, chatting, oblivious to the thing at their feet. One was explaining that the secret to a true marinara sauce was to make it with a little bit of sugar in addition to all the other things, the tomatoes, the basil, the oregano, the olive oil; and he ought to know because, though he himself was German-Irish and at one point wouldn’t have known marinara sauce from Heinz ketchup, his wife was off-the-boat Italian and he’d been watching her make marinara sauce a good fifteen, sixteen years… I half expected the guy to prop his foot on the corpse as if it were a log.
Kelly introduced himself and asked what was going on.
‘Somebody juiced this guy,’ one of the detectives replied. Older guy with an enormous square slab of a face. ‘It’s a jungle out here. Know what I mean?’ He made a big vaudeville wink, directed it at me.
Kelly kneeled and flipped back the blanket to see Ratleff’s face, or what was left of it. The right eye and eye socket had burst, but the skull and scalp were otherwise intact. Black fluid gleamed in the eye socket and clotted in Ratleff’s glorious Afro. Kelly threw the blanket back over the face, but the image lingered there like the shadowy features on the shroud of Turin.
‘Monkey business.’ The slab-faced cop smirked.
Kelly ignored the comment. ‘When did it happen?’ he asked.
‘Couple hours ago maybe. Rigor is still just in the face and the eyelids.’ He corrected himself: ‘Eyelid.’
‘Any witnesses? Anything?’
‘Nothing. Footprints, but this is a public park, there’s thousands of footprints.’ The cop looked down at Ratleff’s body with a wistful expression. ‘No witnesses. Nobody sees anything around here.’
Twenty yards away, Caroline was enmeshed in an animated discussion with Kurth and Gittens. Kurth’s severe, pitted face was clenched. He seemed to glow like one of those luminous monks by El Greco.
‘How did this happen?’ he was asking, agitated and intense, as we approached.
‘I’m not sure what you mean, Ed,’ Gittens replied.
‘You find the guy and forty-eight hours later he’s dead? How does that happen?’
‘I have no idea, Ed.’
‘How did you find him?’
‘I told you, Ed, I got a tip. Ask these guys.’ Gittens nodded toward Kelly and me. ‘You’re just pissed because you didn’t find him. That’s your problem, Ed, not mine. What can I tell you? You couldn’t find the asshole on an elephant. Is that my fault, Ed?’
Gittens took an insolent delight in tweaking Kurth by calling him Ed. Nobody seemed to call Kurth by his first name. Either that was Kurth’s preference or just the effect of his over-torqued personality. But now Gittens leaned into the word, Ed, until it sounded vaguely ridiculous, as any word begins to sound ridiculous when it is repeated over and over.
Caroline intervened. ‘Alright, Martin, that’s enough.’
‘Look,’ Gittens insisted, ‘if Braxton found Ray Rat, it was because Ray fucked up. He came home. Ray knew he shouldn’t have done that but he did it anyway. If you’re suggesting someone in Area A-3 tipped Braxton off-’
‘I’m not talking about anyone else in A-3.’ Kurth glared.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Gittens affected puzzlement rather than anger, to signal that he did not consider Kurth a threat. ‘Come on, Ed. If you’ve got something to say, have the balls to come out and say it.’
Ed Kurth began to move forward, but John Kelly stepped between them. He was a head taller than either, and he looked down at them like a disapproving father. ‘That’s enough, both of you. You’ve said your piece.’
But Kurth was unwilling — or unable — to relent. There was a volatile quality to his anger that separated it from Gittens’s. He simply could not shut it off. He continued to stare until Kelly laid his nightstick across Kurth’s chest and ordered him to ‘step… back.’
Caroline said, ‘Ed, Martin’s right, you’re out of line. Take a walk, settle down, come back when you’re ready to work.’
It seemed for a moment that Kurth might lose it then and there, and I’m not sure what would have happened if he had. Just how much coiled, violent strength Kurth possessed, I did not know. But surely if he’d gone after Gittens, Kurth would have broken him in two — in front of a crowd that included newspaper photographers. Fortunately, Kurth did not explode. He turned and stalked off toward the green meadows of Franklin Park. It was, frankly, a relief to have him gone.
‘I think he’s going to beat up a tree,’ I said.
‘Ben,’ Caroline warned, shaking her head. Not now.
At times Caroline could sound uncannily like my mother. This is a troubling, not to mention de-eroticizing, thought for any man, and usually I swatted it out of my mind the moment it landed. But that one-word warning, Ben, could have come directly from Annie Truman’s mouth. It stopped me cold.
‘It’s Braxton,’ Gittens said matter-of-factly, eyes on Ray Ratleff’s corpse.
Caroline nodded yes.
‘We have motive, opportunity, a signature crime.’
‘I agree, there’s enough,’ Caroline said. ‘Pick him up.’
Picking up Braxton was easier said than done. He’d found himself a hidey-hole, and no one — not the cops, not the sliders in Echo Park, not even Gittens’s Red Army of snitches — had any idea where to find him. There was nothing to do but wait. And wait. Eventually Braxton or one of his crew would make a mistake that would expose him. In all, the waiting would last four days.
The delay grated on everyone’s nerves, including mine. Since my arrival in the city, I had been carried along on a current. Events streamed past, stations along the river, and it seemed I would be borne right through to the end. Now the tide slacked and things took on a stanched, dissolute feel. Afternoons, I went with Gittens to the Flats trying to scare up tips. Evenings, I spent at the SIU office or dining with the Kellys or exploring the city, walking the neighborhoods the way my mother used to walk Versailles.
Maybe it was the strange mood of those days, but I decided all at once that I did not like Boston. Something about the place — introverted, parochial, self-doubting — a fit capital for New Englanders, or so I told myself. I could not even appreciate the city’s obvious physical beauty. Of course, in hindsight I see the flaw was not in Boston. I’d been happy there once, even considered it a second home. But now everything was different, and I could never see the city the same way. I just could not put my bags down, not there. I was waiting, for what I did not know.
On Thursday night — day one of this idle, interstitial period — I could not sleep, and around midnight I found myself standing in my underwear before the window of my hotel room, thinking of home. Streetlights in the South End winked below. (I was staying at the Back Bay Sheraton, one of those modern concrete cubes dropped into the nineteenth-century Back Bay like spaceships that crash-landed.) Hungry for a familiar voice, I called the station in Versailles on the pretense of checking up on things.
‘Maurice, what are you doing there?’
‘I’m talking on the phone.’
‘Well, I see that, but — They have you answering the phone now?’
I thought it over for a second. ‘That’s a good idea, Maurice. Whose idea was that?’
Dick Ginoux picked up the extension, and he caught me up on the news. Maurice had taken to hanging around the station, and it turned out he was a useful addition, answering phones, sweeping up, and so on. Diane Harned had stopped by that very afternoon to ask how I was doing. ‘I told her you were going to stay down there,’ Dick said. ‘Just about broke her heart.’ As for Dick himself, he had actually made an arrest on a DWI, which doesn’t happen often, since drunk drivers rarely crash into the stationhouse and Dick rarely leaves it.
I missed them all, more than I had expected to.
‘Dick, tell everyone I said hi and I’m doing fine, alright?’
‘Alrighty, Ben. You keep your head down. I’m sure The Chief is proud of you.’
‘Dick, I’m the chief.’
‘I know that, Ben. You know what I mean.’
‘Any word from the AG?’
‘Yessir. They identified Harold Braxton’s fingerprints all over the cabin. Eight different places, something like. I guess he’s your man. And one other thing. Red Caffrey called. Said he figured he ought to let us know, a couple weeks before the body turned up in that cabin, a black kid with a funny haircut pulled into Red’s Gulf station in a white Lexus with Massachusetts plates. The kid bought a map and a tank of gas. Red says he didn’t think nothing of it, except the kid didn’t seem to go with the car, you know? Black kid pulls up in a fifty-thousand-dollar car and… well, the kid didn’t even know what side of the car the tank was on. Red says he just got a bad feeling, figured maybe the car was stolen. But the ignition wasn’t popped. The kid had a whole key chain in there. Anyway, Red took down the plate: I dock.’
‘Yes, sir. I-D-O-C.’
‘Did you run the plate?’
‘Well, we can’t get Massachusetts registry records, but there’s no report that it’s stolen.’
‘That’s good, Dick. Do me a favor, go see Red Caffrey again and show him those mug shots. And ask around, see if anyone else saw that kid. And Dick, have you seen my dad?’
‘Haven’t seen him.’
‘Well, swing by the house, would you? He’s in a state, I think.’
It was also during this hiatus that I first met Andrew Lowery, Boston’s District Attorney. This was a command performance. Lowery sent word through Caroline that John Kelly and I were to appear at his office on Friday at nine A.M. Such meetings rarely come to any good, and this one was no exception.
We found Lowery at his desk in the Sussex County Courthouse. When we first glimpsed him, the District Attorney was leaning back in his desk chair, feet propped on an open drawer, absorbed in a television news report.
… police officers continue to comb the Dorchester, Mattapan, Mission Flats, and Roxbury neighborhoods today in search of the slayer of Assistant District Attorney…
Andrew Lowery was a slight but handsome African-American man with round wire-frame spectacles, in which at the moment the TV picture was reflected. He wore a blue candy-striped shirt with contrasting white cuffs and collar.
At the door, Kelly cleared his throat.
Lowery waved us in but continued to watch the screen. We waited two or three minutes more while the District Attorney monitored the New England Cable News channel for updates on his own case. (There were actually three televisions mounted in a console opposite Lowery’s desk, but only one of the sets was on.)
When the report was over, Lowery slipped on his suit coat for our meeting. It was, I think, the best-fitting suit I had ever seen, and while I am no expert on such things, I assumed it was custom-made.
‘Thank you for coming,’ he said when we’d sat down at a conference table. ‘I trust you’re getting all the support you need?’
The question was directed at Kelly, but Kelly deferred to me.
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘we’re fine.’
‘Do you want coffee? Anything?’
‘No, thank you. We’re fine.’
The office was spare and formal, furnished with an expensive-looking Oriental carpet and Bauhaus furniture. Three Harvard diplomas hung on the wall, from the college, the law school, and the Kennedy School of Government. The only hint of the usual Government Office aesthetic was a framed seal of Sussex County, which showed the three mounds on which Boston was originally built by literal-minded pilgrims proclaiming a city on a hill.
‘I know you gentlemen are quite busy’ Lowery steepled his fingers. ‘So I won’t take much of your time. I have a friend I’m quite concerned about. I think you’ve met him: Julio Vega.’
Kelly and I exchanged a glance.
‘I’m told you’ve questioned Detective Vega.’
‘Told by who?’ Kelly asked.
‘A little bird.’
‘And what did your little bird tell you about our discussion?’
His expression unchanged, Lowery turned away from Kelly. Just ignored him. ‘Chief Truman, I hope you’ll understand. I’m going to ask you two to leave Vega alone. He’s not a well man.’
‘Not well in what sense?’
‘In every sense. His mental state — I don’t know what will happen if you two go out and stir up ghosts. I don’t want Vega to make things worse for himself.’
‘Forgive me for saying so,’ I remarked, ‘but it’s hard to imagine things getting much worse for Julio Vega.’
‘Not hard for me. I’m concerned Julio might hurt himself someday. He’s unstable. And anyway, I don’t see the point in all this. Do you mind if I ask what your interest is in the Arthur Trudell case?’
I informed Lowery that Danziger had been looking into it.
‘Bob Danziger must have had a hundred open cases. The question is, do you have anything to tie the two cases together? Is there a link?’
‘No, sir. Not yet.’
‘Well look, I’m simply asking you to treat Vega carefully. If you want to speak with him, we can arrange it. Otherwise, why don’t we let sleeping dogs lie.’
‘That seems to be a popular approach.’
‘Chief Truman — Benjamin — I have a wider responsibility than you do.’
‘You do, sir?’
He leaned forward, folded his hands on the table. ‘Yes. My job is not merely to enforce the law; it’s to keep the peace. You understand the distinction.’
‘The Trudell case is a hot button in this city. With respect to race.’
At that, Kelly folded his hands on the table, mimicking Lowery’s prayerful posture. ‘I’m sure the Trudell case is a hot button for Trudell’s family too. As the Danziger case must be for his family’
Lowery did not react. He regarded Kelly a moment before responding. ‘Why don’t we see if we can treat both cases with discretion, Lieutenant Kelly? For both families.’
We shook hands and got up to leave, but as Kelly and I reached the door, Lowery added, ‘Lieutenant Kelly, I realize you have a long history here, but remember you’re a guest in this city now.’
Kelly: ‘A guest?’
‘Yes. And we’ve tried to be good hosts. We’ve extended every courtesy, including the cooperation of the police department. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to be good hosts. I hope you’ll continue to be a good guest.’
The first time Caroline kissed me:
John Kelly had taken Charlie for the day on Sunday. Kelly was on a mission that day, as far as I could tell, to do whatever the hell his grandson wanted, an excess of generosity offered up to Charlie as a sort of atonement for the old man’s having moved away to Maine. This left Caroline to entertain me, an arrangement that seemed quite natural by then. I’d spent the last few evenings with the Kellys, and already there had developed a homey routine at Caroline’s apartment. After dinner, I would play video hockey on the PlayStation with Charlie and sip Bushmills with the old man, then return to my hotel alone.
That Sunday afternoon, Caroline and I arranged to meet at the Avenue Victor Hugo bookshop on Newbury Street. It was a brilliant autumn day. The sunlight had a focusing, clarifying quality. You seemed to see the Newbury Street scene in high definition — grungers slinking like cats outside Tower Records; couples promenading; expensive European cars inching along in traffic.
The bookshop was a maze of aisles and rooms stuffed tight with dusty, time-faded books. The books lined the staircase and the walls, they were stacked on the creaky floors, they overflowed the shelves in every room. It was heaven. Waiting for Caroline, I drifted through the small rooms upstairs. I was happily skimming a travel book when I was brought up short by a woman’s voice: ‘Ben?’ I knew the voice without looking up, and I tried to keep my nose in the book until the speaker went away. But the voice was persistent. It inflected my one-syllable name into a sickening little glissando: en? e Be It was Sandra, my grad-school girlfriend, the flower of Boston University Communism. She was thinner than ever, but at least she had traded the heavy black-frame glasses of those days for a more chic model. She folded her arms and grinned. Then, craning her head forward like some predatory bird, she asked, ‘Are you here alone?’
‘Me neither.’ She laid her hand beside her mouth vertically, like a bad actress playing to the back row, and confided, ‘I’m seeing someone.’
I heard myself say ‘Me too’ before I could think it through. It seemed important to match Sandra mate for mate. ‘She’ll be here soon.’
‘I thought you were in Maine?’
‘And your mother?’
‘She passed away this summer.’
‘Oh, Ben, I’m so sorry’
‘It’s good to see you,’ she lied. ‘What are you doing now? Are you back in school somewhere?’
I shook my head no.
‘I’m — I’m sort of a policeman.’
‘A policeman! Still? In your little town? What was it called?’
‘Versailles, yes. How precious.’
‘I’m the chief there now.’
I tried to parse the phrase for complimentary intentions, but they were hard to find. That oh, my meant I had just become fodder for cafeteria gossip. Do you remember Ben Truman? You’ll never guess what he’s doing now…
‘What about your work?’
‘That is my work. For the time being, at least.’
Her cheeks flushed a little. She seemed to be floundering for a new topic.
‘So who’s your new boyfriend?’ I said.
‘His name is Paul. He’s downstairs. He’s brilliant! He has a chair at this foundation Across The River.’ She confided, ‘Everyone says he’s up for the MacArthur.’
‘And your girlfriend? Is she here?’
I paused, fatally.
‘Well, she’s not really — I’m not sure when she’s getting here.’
‘Is this her?’
Caroline appeared beside us. She wore jeans and a black baseball jacket, and at the moment she seemed like a higher life-form than Sandra — strapping and confident, radiant at the prospect of a weekend afternoon all her own, with neither child care nor work to consume her.
‘Is this her what?’ Caroline asked, curious.
Caroline gave me a bemused look.
‘I was just telling Sandra…’ My tongue swelled into a grapefruit.
Sandra’s face registered a moment’s confusion, then I saw her put it all together. Another morsel for the cafeteria crowd: And then — oh, this is rich — he said this woman was his girlfriend but she clearly had no idea…
The next moment I felt Caroline’s hands on my neck and her lips on mine, and warm breath from her nostrils on my cheek, and she pressed a kiss onto my mouth. ‘Sorry I’m late,’ she said. ‘Traffic’
Sandra looked stricken, as if she’d just walked in on her parents in flagrante delicto. She made an excuse and scurried off.
‘Thank you,’ I told Caroline.
‘Don’t mention it, Chief Truman.’
The way Caroline remembered Bob Danziger:
‘Bobby wasn’t one of these avenging-angel types. He didn’t open every file and see the Boston Strangler. He was always like, ‘This kid’s not so bad’ or ‘Look at his record. There’s no violence. It’s all just drug stuff.’ He was always so damn reasonable.’ She squeezed the word like a lemon. ‘I mean, he used to carry spiders outside rather than kill them! Is that the kind of guy you’d think this would happen to?’
We were at a bar called Small Planet, in Copley Square.
As she remembered Danziger, Caroline plowed little furrows in her napkin with a fork. ‘Something changed for Bobby, though. At the end, he seemed to lose that courage, that equanimity. I used to watch him sometimes when his verdicts came in. He’d never look at the defendant. It was like he was ashamed. He’d look at the floor, he’d look off into space, anywhere but at the defendant.’
‘Why would he do that?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe he was worried. There’s always that kernel of doubt, the possibility you got it wrong. You have to be able to live with that. You have to be a little callous to do this job.’
‘And Danziger wasn’t callous?’
‘Not at the end, no. You know, just before he died, Bobby got a conviction on a big gang case. I mean, this was a big hook. So I went in to congratulate him. I thought he’d be elated. But he was really down. He seemed sort of hollow, I don’t know how else to put it. I didn’t know what to tell him, so I said, “Bobby, what are you feeling right now?” You know what he said? He said, “Revulsion.”’
‘Revulsion?’ I echoed. ‘At what?’
‘At the whole system. At the jury for pretending to know the truth, at the judge for pretending to know what to do about it, at the state for locking up an eighteen-year-old in a place like Walpole. Revulsion at the defendant too, not because he committed the crime, but because he’d set the whole thing in motion, this whole irresistible machine. He’d made Bobby do it. Bobby told me, “It feels like I’m guilty of something.” He was feeling all this revulsion at himself, for participating.’
‘Sounds like he was just burned out.’
‘No,’ she said firmly. ‘Not burned out — shaken. Burnout is a gradual thing. What happened to Bobby happened fast. Something really rattled him.’
‘What was it?’
‘I honestly have no idea.’
‘So how about you, Caroline? Do you look away when the verdict comes in?’
‘Me? No, I couldn’t possibly! I look right at the defendant. I have to. I have to see that little flinch when he hears the word guilty. I want to see those eyes blink when he understands he didn’t get away with it, there’s a price to be paid after all. And I want him to know I’m the agent of all that.’
A smile played on her lips, a bad-girl smile that made me think of a lepidopterist pinning a rare specimen to her butterfly board. I wondered what unfortunate defendant she was remembering.
‘Does that make me a bad person?’ she asked.
For no good reason, Caroline and I decided to stop at every bar we saw on Newbury Street that Sunday, from the tastefully honky-tonk corner of Mass Ave. all the way to the Ritz with its blue awnings and blue-coated doormen. At the end of this steeplechase, she tried to pull me into the Ritz Bar too, but I nixed it. ‘I don’t think I’d be comfortable at the Ritz,’ I said.
Instead we went into the Public Garden, where even at dusk there were a few tourists staring up at the statue of George Washington on horseback. Washington looked serenely down at them, clutching the remains of a sword. (The blade has been wrenched out of the general’s sword so many times, the city no longer replaces it. But General Washington stubbornly clings to the empty hilt.)
‘Dude, take my picture?’ a guy said to me.
I asked him, Didn’t he think it was too dark for the picture to come out?
‘It’s okay,’ he explained, ‘I’ll be able to see it.’
‘You better have her take it,’ I said, handing the task to Caroline. ‘I’ve been drinking.’
So he stood beneath Washington’s statue and Caroline took the camera.
Pleasantly drunk, I watched her from behind as she lined up the shot and directed the tourists on how to pose. And in my thoughts the actual Caroline was displaced by images of her in court a few days before. Not the whole of her, just glimpses: the soft briefcase slouched against her ankle, the gestalt flame formed by the curves of her calves, the arch of her back as she pulled her jacket tight around her. I tried to displace these imaginings with other, less charged ones, but it wasn’t much use.
We moved to a dessert restaurant called Finale. It was an oval room with small tables and deco fixtures, dimly lit.
‘Caroline, why does Lowery want to keep us away from Julio Vega?’
‘I imagine Andrew doesn’t want anyone mucking around in the Trudell case. He was the DA when the case went south, and it still haunts him. Voters don’t like to see cop killers get off. It leaves a bad impression. And Andrew starts a new campaign soon. Did my dad give him a hard time?’
‘He bit his tongue, for the most part.’
‘That’s unlike him.’
‘What’s Lowery running for, anyway?’
‘The rumor is he wants to be mayor. First black mayor of Boston, and a Republican to boot. But who knows.’
‘Well, it still doesn’t make sense to me. Election or not, Artie Trudell was a cop.’
‘It’s not that simple, Ben. Cases get closed for lots of reasons.’ She looked at me for signs of understanding but got none. ‘Look, some cases stay unsolved because somebody wants them to stay unsolved. Like the DeSalvo case, the Boston Strangler. For thirty-five years around here, the worst-kept secret among cops and DAs has been that Albert DeSalvo was not the Strangler. They stuck him in a lockup with a serial rapist who told DeSalvo all about the murders, and DeSalvo was an unstable guy himself, so he took all these stories and he went out and confessed to things he never did. He got all kinds of details wrong, but nobody cared. It was just easier to let people believe the case was solved. It was what they needed to believe so they could sleep at night. The trouble is, if anybody ever did prove that DeSalvo wasn’t the Strangler, then a lot of people would have to account for their actions. See what I mean? It’s not always about the truth.’
‘So who is it that wants the Trudell case buried?’
‘Lowery, for one. Julio Vega and Franny, too, I’m sure. None of them covered themselves in glory.’
‘Franny says you think he’s crooked. Is it because of this?’
She shook her head. ‘Look, I have no idea what Franny really did in the Trudell thing. I have my suspicions. It’s hard to believe Vega made up all that crap about ‘Raul’ by himself. But my issue with Franny isn’t that he’s crooked. It’s that he’s a drunk, which would be his business except he’s not a very good lawyer anymore.’
‘So why does Lowery protect him?’
‘Because Franny knows more than he’s said, and Lowery wants to keep it that way. So Lowery keeps Franny on the payroll, and Franny keeps his mouth shut.’
The first time I kissed Caroline:
She stepped back, smiled, and said my name. Then, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’
‘I’m really, really sure, yeah.’
A car drove past and we watched it selfconsciously. We were standing outside my hotel. The doorman was watching us. The night air was chilly.
‘Ben, you don’t have to charm me, you know. It’s not necessary’
‘What if I want to?’
‘Don’t waste it.’
In the hotel room we kissed, awkwardly, and Caroline suggested we get in bed. I said that was fine, and we undressed and lay side by side, facing each other. She leaned forward to kiss me again. Our knees bumped. There was the predictable prod as we slid close, but Caroline did not acknowledge it. She held my face in her hands and studied it. She said, ‘Why do I have this feeling I’ve met you before?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I think I’d remember you.’
Later, Caroline gathered her things and went into the bathroom to wash and get dressed. I turned on the TV and, when she came out, I was staring at an old movie.
Caroline asked, ‘What’s that?’
‘Rio Bravo. You want to watch?’
‘Is that a John Wayne thing?’
‘Right now it’s an Angie Dickinson thing.’
‘From Police Woman?’
‘I liked Police Woman.’
‘I never knew what was going on with her and Earl Holliman on that show.’
Caroline shrugged her jacket on. ‘He liked Angie Dickinson but he couldn’t say so because of their jobs.’
‘Ben, I have to get home to Charlie.’
On the TV, Angie Dickinson was telling John Wayne, That’s what I’d do if I were the kind of girl you think I am.
‘That’s alright. I know how it ends anyway’
She grimaced. ‘How does it end?’
‘Everybody was wrong about everybody else, basically’
‘Doesn’t sound like much of an ending.’
‘Well there’s a gunfight too. But it’s not really the point.’
After four days of searching for Harold Braxton — since Caroline had given the go-ahead to pick him up after Ray Rat’s murder — the Boston police had nothing to show. Braxton had vanished.
Gittens and I trolled the Flats daily, questioning anyone who had ever passed him a tip. It was fascinating to watch Gittens, a supple man who was able to connect with all sorts of people. This he accomplished with an arsenal of small talents. He spoke passable Spanish. He had a politician’s knack for remembering names, not just the names of informants but their relatives and associates too. And most important, Gittens used good judgment. He had no desire to pile up the arrests, and he was perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to petty offenses where other cops might not. It is too much to say that all this skill was appreciated by a grateful populace. Gittens was still a cop and people were leery of him. But he handled his role gracefully, he was respectful, he spotted nuances and complexities that others missed. He was a great cop — and he knew it.
In this case it wasn’t enough. Braxton had vanished, and by this point the police were no longer searching for him so much as they were waiting for Braxton to reveal himself. Officers were posted in likely locations and left to wait there like hunters behind duck blinds. Convinced he knew Braxton better than anyone, Gittens positioned a few officers from Area A-3 at various locations in the Flats. Kelly and I drew assignments from Gittens too. I was stationed, alone, outside the apartment building where June Veris’s girlfriend lived — an unpromising site, I thought, although Gittens assured otherwise.
I arrived at my post early Monday morning, around seven. Under a dreary gray sky, I leaned in a doorway and sipped from a paper cup of coffee. My assignment was to eyeball the building opposite, on the off chance that Braxton might have stayed there the night before. In movies they call this a ‘stakeout,’ though I’ve never heard a cop use that term. Call it what you will, it is a phenomenally boring task. And to a worrier like me, it is an invitation to trouble. An idle mind and all that.
My thoughts turned to Caroline and our encounter the night before. What had it meant to her? And to me? It is all very well and good to take someone to bed with blithe intentions, but there is always the danger that things will seem more complicated in the morning — particularly when it is unclear who took whom to bed. It was not that I had fallen in love with Caroline. Nothing so dramatic or unambiguous had happened. I am too cautious a person to be struck by those thunderbolts anyway. But something had happened. I could not stop thinking about her — or, more accurately, about my idea of her, for it must be said that Caroline Kelly was a difficult person to know. She could be warm and mettlesome one moment, chilly and remote the next. You got the sense she simply did not want to be known, not until she was good and ready. Not until she’d decided. When she’d said the night before ‘You don’t have to charm me, Ben,’ her voice seemed to carry a warning: Don’t think you can charm me. Was that streak of circumspection the result of her divorce? Impossible to know.
In hindsight, I see that Caroline’s contradictions were precisely why I could not let go of the subject. The more she puzzled me, the more I thought about her; the more I thought about her, the more puzzled I became. Was she beautiful or just vivid? Was she warm, as she’d been with Charlie (and me), or irascible, as she sometimes delighted in being? I wanted to understand her in my academic way, I wanted to flatten all that wonderful complexity and elusiveness into a few bald adjectives. No, I had not fallen in love. After a certain age you do not fall in love. Falling, with its implications of delirium and loss of control, is no longer the right metaphor. What you do is study your lover. You consider her. You turn her over in your hand like a coin from a foreign country. But then, that is a kind of love too.
All of this I was considering — Caroline, the taste-memory of her mouth, the feel of her strong back — the complicating factor of Charlie — the possibility of love — all these considerations swarmed in my mind, and I was in the process of sorting them out — categorizing them — because you have to be prudent with these things — emotion, I mean — you have to consider it, not rush in like Annie Wilmot did with Claude Truman — when Bobo showed up.
Bobo looked different than he had a week before, when Gittens rousted him from the Dumpster-cum-shooting gallery at the garbage collection plant. Gone were the Lakers sweatshirt and the stained work pants. Gone too was the druggy stupor. Now Bobo was flashing a definite sense of style. He wore his Greek fisherman’s cap down over one eye. And he walked with a rhythmic strut, limping slightly on his left leg so that he moved down the street like a bird with a broken wing.
Bobo was still half a block away when he recognized me, or at least recognized trouble. A white guy in this neighborhood — a white guy with a bad haircut standing around drinking coffee, a white guy looking at him in a familiar way — all things considered, to Bobo it meant trouble. Trouble of the law-enforcement variety. He immediately crossed the street, looking both ways, to put a little distance between us as he passed.
Even law-abiding people often become anxious when cops are around. But Bobo did not seem unnerved in the least. Bobo was cool. As he reached the parked cars on the opposite side of the street, he looked across at me and that was all. No sign of recognition, let alone fear. Then Bobo disappeared around the corner.
I hesitated, then, with a last forlorn look at 442 Hewson Street — the building I was supposed to be watching — I decided instead to follow Bobo. It was an impetuous decision. I did not know whether I would try to talk to him or whether I was just curious to see what he was up to. Mostly, I think I was fed up with staring at June Veris’s girlfriend’s apartment building — staring, sipping coffee, pissing at the convenience store on the corner, staring some more. Four straight days of that was enough. So I followed Bobo.
There was not much of a crowd on Hosmer Street, a fairly busy road that runs east-west through Mission Flats, so I kept a good block or two behind him. He strutted his way down Hosmer a few blocks, then hooked a left onto a side street with the winsome name Blue Moon Lane. By the time I reached the corner, Bobo was already slipping through the doorless entry to a brownstone.
The brownstone was one of eight or ten that lined the street. All but one were well-kept, Bobo’s being the exception. I have seen pictures of Berlin after World War II, and the best way I can think to describe this building is to say that it looked like something out of Berlin in 1945. There was no front door and no glass in any of the windows. Every delicate piece of the structure — glass, window frames, gutters — had been blown away. What remained was the beautiful stone facade, a chain-link fence sliced open with wire cutters, and an ominously worded NO TRESPASSING sign.
I guessed (incorrectly, it turned out) that Bobo had gone inside to score drugs. What other reason was there to hang out in such a building? So I decided to wait until he came out again. Five, ten minutes — how long could it take?
But Bobo did not emerge after fifteen minutes, or thirty, or sixty.
So I decided to go in for the simple, all-explaining reason That’s What Gittens Would Do. After watching and admiring Gittens’s mastery of Mission Flats police-work for the last few days, I had begun to ape him consciously. I drew my gun for the same reason, though in three years as a cop I had never done so before. That’s What Gittens Would Do, or so I hoped.
Inside, there was a central staircase. The apartment doors were missing, and sunlight poured in from the empty windows to light the empty rooms. The floors were silted over with dirt and rot. But the seaminess was offset by poignant vestiges: scraps of wallpaper adhering to the walls; a fireplace where a family had once warmed themselves; old newspapers; a stained mattress. I worked my way up the staircase to the second floor, where there were more empty rooms, then to the third, where at last I found Bobo.
He was on the floor, alone, in a room at the front of the building. A piece of cardboard was propped in the window, leaving this room gloomier than the rest. Maybe Bobo had blocked the window himself, looking for privacy or a place to sleep. He lay against the wall, apparently sleeping. There was a needle by his side with a little yellowish fluid remaining in the syringe. It was unlikely that Bobo had shot up only half a syringe. He had probably passed out while preparing a second one.
‘Bobo!’ I knelt beside him and felt his neck for a pulse. I shook him. ‘Bobo!’
He groaned. His eyes opened, fixed on me with milky pupils, closed again.
‘Bobo! Wake up. Are you alright?’
‘Jesus, Bobo, I’m going to get you an ambulance.’ I took out my radio, which I’d been given in case I spotted Braxton over on Hewson Street.
‘No am-uh-lance, no am-uh-lance.’ Bobo pushed himself up to a sitting position. Drowsily, he covered his face with his hands, rubbed, then opened his hands like a child playing peekaboo. ‘I seen you before?’
‘I’m a friend of Martin Gittens. We saw you at that garbage place the other day.’
‘Yeah yeah yeah,’ he murmured. ‘You hit me in the balls.’
‘Those were my balls, man. You think I forgot?’
‘They were your balls but it wasn’t me that hit them.’
He closed his eyes again. ‘’At’s alright, ’at’s alright. I’m not mad at you. Just balls, right?’
‘That’s right, Bobo.’
I wondered what he’d been shooting. Heroin, presumably.
‘Give me my works, man.’
‘I can’t do that. I’m a cop.’
‘You gonna arrest me?’
‘Then give me my works.’ He stretched out his hand toward the needle but seemed incapable of moving further to get it.
‘Can’t help you, Bobo. Sorry’
He closed his eyes and drifted off. After a while he said, ‘What you come here for?’
‘I’m looking for Braxton.’
‘Thought you were looking for Ray. You heard about Ray?’
‘Yeah, I heard. That’s why we’re looking for Braxton.’
‘You guys fucked Ray good.’
‘We did not fuck Ray, Bobo. Braxton did that.’
‘Whatever you say, boss.’ His head lolled. ‘You come in here looking for Braxton? Ain’t going to find him here.’
‘I came in here to talk to you.’
‘Yeah? What we going to talk about?’
‘Braxton. You know where he is?’
‘Maybe I do.’ The sound of this answer pleased him, and he repeated it with a crooked smirk. ‘Maybe I do.’
‘Bobo, I could still take you in if I had to.’
‘You already said you weren’t going to.’ He opened one eye. ‘Besides, Gittens won’t let you. He helps me out.’
‘Is that how it works?’
‘That’s how it works. Come on, boss, you help me out too.’ He pointed with his chin toward the syringe on the floor.
‘Bobo, I can’t do that.’
‘What’s your name, anyway?’
‘It’s Ben Truman.’
‘Well, Officer Truman, let me tell you how it is. You want to get, see, you got to give. That’s what it’s all about. Capitalism.’
‘Bobo, do you know where Braxton is?’
‘See, that’s it. You want to get, but you don’t want to give.’
I took out a twenty and tossed it on his lap. This was no small thing. Twenty dollars was a lot to me. I didn’t have Gittens’s Robin Hood instinct for robbing the dealers to pay the snitches.
He glanced down at it but did not move. Struggling to lift his eyes from his lap, he mused, ‘Just give me my works, will you.’
‘Go find Braxton yourself then.’
‘Bobo, I could give you another whack in the balls. That seems to help you open up.’
‘You could but you won’t.’
‘Yeah? Why not?’
‘Because you don’t want to.’
‘You don’t know me.’
‘Yes, I do,’ Bobo assured me. ‘Yes, I do.’
He made a lethargic grab at the syringe, but I snatched it away. Bobo fell on his side and lay there, laughing. I took the syringe to the window to look at it in the light. It was a cheap plastic thing but surprisingly clean. It weighed almost nothing. I shook the little bit of fluid in the cartridge.
‘Just give that here.’
‘Bobo, I told you, I can’t do it. You don’t need it now, anyway’
‘Suppose you let me decide that.’
‘Suppose you tell me where Braxton is.’
‘Suppose I do? Then you help me out?’
I shook my head no.
‘Then we’ll see who he kills next.’
I walked over and handed the needle down to him.
‘I need that too.’ He nodded toward a belt on his own lap.
‘Just take it,’ I said.
‘I can’t, man, I’m fucked up. You help.’
I handed him the belt.
Bobo prepared the syringe with a few flicks of his finger, then he wrapped the belt around his upper arm, pulled it tight into a tourniquet, and clasped the free end in his teeth. He held the needle out to me.
I walked away, refusing it.
Bobo laid the needle down and took the belt out of his mouth. ‘You want me to tell you about Braxton or not?’
‘Well I can’t talk with this in my mouth. I only got two hands.’
I knelt beside him.
I held the belt tight.
Bobo searched a long time for a vein. The needle pierced his arm four times. When he’d found one, he sighed and asked, ‘You want to do it?’
‘Bobo, just tell me where Braxton is. I gave you the dope.’
‘You want to do it?’
‘Where is he?’
‘You do it.’
He took the thumb of my free hand and placed it on the plunger, then put his own thumb over mine. ‘We’ll do it together. You want to be a cop, you should know how this works.’
I did not resist.
‘Let’s do it together.’ A lunatic smile.
‘Bobo, where’s Braxton?’
‘There’s a church on Mission Ave, Calvary Pentecostal. This priest there, Reverend Walker, he puts Braxton up sometimes when he’s in trouble. The Reverend’s known Braxton since Harold was in diapers. He helps him out. Maybe you’ll find Harold there.’
With that, Bobo’s thumb pressed down on my thumbnail, and the plunger, after a brief, virginal resistance, slid down the syringe. I allowed the belt to go slack. Bobo’s eyes squeezed shut as the heroin orgasm washed over him in a warm rush.
I told myself, He would have done it anyway, whether I’d helped or not. I didn’t really do anything. Nothing Gittens wouldn’t have done.
I did not find Braxton at the Calvary Pentecostal Church that day. But I made it part of my routine to stop by the church when I wasn’t staring at the apartment building on Hewson Street. Soon enough, I conceived a hero fantasy in which I would capture Braxton single-handed at this church, effectively ending the case.
What I did not realize was that the Boston PD had already identified a new suspect — me.
‘Your name was in Danziger’s files.’
It was a startling moment, though the statement itself was not surprising. I was not shocked to hear that my name was in Danziger’s files: Danziger and I had spoken the day he arrived in Versailles. No, the startling thing was how suddenly and irrefutably this fact made me a pariah. How easy it was for Lowery and Gittens, based on this single datum, to imagine me rifle-blasting Bob Danziger’s head. You could hear it in their voices. I was out. It was the day before Halloween. Gittens, Andrew Lowery, and I had gathered in a windowless interrogation room inside the Area A-3 station.
Lowery, in a soigne double-breasted suit with peaked lapels, seemed comically out of place here. He stood at the furthest corner from me, looking small and doll-like.
Gittens’s fingers worked the skin on that elongated forehead, a gesture of benign puzzlement. ‘Mr Truman,’ he said, ‘do you want to explain what’s going on?’
‘‘‘Mr Truman”? Explain what exactly?’
‘Why you lied to us.’
‘I didn’t lie to you. I just did not think it was relevant.’
Lowery burst out, ‘Oh come on! You didn’t think it was relevant?’
‘What does it have to do with Danziger’s getting killed?’
‘Motive!’ Lowery said.
‘Ben,’ Gittens soothed, ‘do you want a lawyer in here with you?’
‘No! Jesus, Martin! Where’s Kelly? Why didn’t you call him in here too?’
‘We don’t think he belongs here right now. We don’t think either of the Kellys should be present for this, frankly. Do you need me to read you your rights?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Then you understand your rights and you waive them?’
‘Martin, what are you talking about?’
‘Do you understand your rights and waive them?’
‘No! Yes! What the hell are you talking about?’
Lowery quick-stepped in from the corner on little dancer’s feet. ‘What are we talking about? Why didn’t you tell us your mother killed herself? Why didn’t you tell us Danziger was investigating you?’
‘I didn’t tell you my mother killed herself because it’s none of your damn business. And I didn’t tell you Danziger was investigating me because there’s nothing to investigate.’
‘Nothing to investigate?’ Lowery snapped open a file. ‘August 16, 1997, Anne Wilmot Truman found dead in Room 412 of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston. Cause of death: suicide by barbiturate overdose.’
‘My mother committed suicide. So what?’
‘Ben,’ Gittens explained, ‘assisted suicide is illegal in Massachusetts. It’s murder.’
‘I didn’t say it was assisted. I said my mother committed suicide.’
‘Danziger apparently thought differently.’
I leaned back in my chair and stared at the ceiling tiles with an incredulous grin. I said, ‘Danziger came up to speak to me, to check it out. In his shoes, I’d probably do the same. We talked, he asked what happened, I explained the whole thing to him. He was satisfied. That was the last we ever heard of Robert Danziger until the body turned up.’
‘ We? ’
‘What did you explain to him?’
‘You must already know.’
‘Tell me again.’
‘I told him my mother had an incurable disease. I told him she knew the Alzheimer’s was eating her up and she did not want to ride it out to the bitter end. I told him she made a horribly painful decision and I supported her. But she made the decision. She did what she had to do and that was all. There was no case, certainly not a murder.’
‘Then why did you lie about it?’ Lowery insisted.
‘I told you, I did not lie about it.’
‘You just didn’t volunteer that you had a motive to kill Danziger.’
‘I did not have a motive to — Jesus! Are you listening to me?’
Lowery cross-examined me for the benefit of an imaginary jury. ‘Chief Truman, your mother’s illness trapped you in Maine. It disrupted your life, all your grand plans for the future. Wasn’t it enormously convenient for you when she died?’
‘Her death set you free, didn’t it?’
‘That’s not how it was.’
‘Why did she do it in Boston? Why not at home?’
‘This was home. She wanted to die here. She was never really at home in Versailles.’
‘And when Danziger showed up?’
‘I told you. We spoke very briefly. I told him it was a suicide. He said he was sorry for my mother’s death. I thanked him for his condolences. End of story. My bad luck that Braxton found him while he was still in Maine.’
‘Your fingerprints are all over the murder scene.’
‘Of course my fingerprints are all over the murder scene: I discovered it. That’s why I submitted my prints — so they could be excluded as evidence, same as any cop’s would be. Braxton’s prints were all over the murder scene too.’
Lowery paced, arms folded. His cuff pulled back to reveal an elegant gold watch the size and thickness of a quarter. ‘Is this why you insisted on coming here? Because it never quite made sense to me until now. I mean, why come so far to stay informed about a case when you could just as easily keep tabs with a few phone calls? But now I see. Your interest wasn’t professional at all, was it? You had a personal reason for coming. What did you hope to accomplish here? Were you going to steer us toward someone else? Braxton maybe? Or was it that you just couldn’t stand to be kept in the dark, knowing the trail would inevitably lead back to you?’
‘That’s ridiculous. Every word of it. Martin, are you going along with this? Do you really believe I could have done this?’
‘You should have told us up front, Ben.’ Gittens seemed at a loss.
I shook my head. ‘This is surreal.’
‘Oh, it’s very real,’ Lowery intoned, ‘I assure you. Let me give you a word of advice. Go back home. Hire a lawyer. There’s more evidence against you than you know.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Ben, did you think Danziger was just guessing when he went all the way to Maine to talk to you? Did you think there was no evidence?’
‘You’re setting me up.’
‘Nobody is setting you up,’ Lowery said.
‘I’m being set up.’
‘Just stay away from this investigation. Better yet, stay away from this city, for your own sake. If it comes out that you’re a cop killer-’
‘Mr Lowery, are you threatening me?’
‘I’m just telling you, this is how it is.’
My first instinct was to reject the whole thing as a mistake, a Kafkaesque fantasy of opaque charges, hidden evidence, a false trial. Of course I was no murderer. Martin Gittens at least must have known that. There was also an absurd reaction: It crossed my mind that I was miscast in the role of the homicidal baddie, that I could never make a convincing show of it. Who would believe it? But before long the reality of the situation won out. On the street outside the stationhouse, I looked about with the smeary, frantic paranoia of a fugitive — quickened to the environment yet removed from it somehow.
I tried without success to reach John Kelly, then rushed downtown to the SIU office to see Caroline — to explain. Or, perhaps, to get an explanation.
Caroline at first refused to see me. Franny Boyle made several thick-necked attempts to move me out of the lobby, and when I refused to leave he threatened to call the cops himself. It was not until I began to push my way past Franny with a lineman’s swim move that Caroline finally appeared in the waiting area and agreed to hear me out, albeit with the condition that a cop be present too, to witness the conversation.
‘Caroline, you need a witness just to talk to me?’
‘What do you want me to say?’
‘How about that you believe me.’
‘Ben, I don’t even know you.’
She called Edmund Kurth, and for the next twenty minutes or so we waited in silence while he rushed over. Caroline was being careful. Kurth’s eyes and ears would save her from being called to the stand as an essential witness, lest I blurt out a confession. In theory, his presence would preserve the possibility that Caroline might someday prosecute me personally for Danziger’s murder.
When he arrived, Kurth stood scowling at me, his coiled presence more ominous now that I was the object of his attention.
‘Alright,’ Caroline said, ‘what is it you want to say?’
‘Do you know what’s going on?’
‘Yes, of course I do.’
‘Then tell me.’
‘To me, to my father, to everyone.’
‘No. I don’t accept that.’
‘Did your mother kill herself?’
‘And did Danziger question you about it?’
Caroline shrugged. There it is. QED.
‘Don’t you want to hear my side?’
‘Not really. If you want to give a statement to Detective Kurth, I’ll wait outside.’
‘No. I want you to hear it. Caroline — just listen for one minute.’
She sat down at the conference table, her face blank. She seemed to have receded entirely. I got the sense the real Caroline — her essential self — was observing me from some hidden place, while this other Caroline — the mediate Caroline, the stand-in — sat at the table in this room.
‘I can’t do it like this.’
‘Does he have to be here?’
‘I don’t know where to start.’
‘Tell me why she did it.’
‘She had Alzheimer’s disease.’
‘You can’t die of that.’
‘You can! Not directly, but you can — you do. You didn’t know my mother. She was not going to let it happen to her. She was a smart, sophisticated woman, and then this thing just came along and — you can’t imagine.’
‘It began to chew through her mind bit by bit, like a caterpillar on a leaf. She couldn’t just watch herself be erased. She made the decision while she still could.’
‘The decision to kill herself.’
‘The decision to die in a way that was acceptable to her.’
‘And you helped?’
‘I listened, I talked to her, yes.’
‘How did she do it?’
‘Seconal. Her doctor prescribed them to help her sleep. She hoarded them until she had ninety of these little red capsules. She’d researched it. She knew precisely how much she needed for a fatal dose.’
‘Why the Ritz-Carlton?’
‘She loved it there. She remembered going there for afternoon tea when she was a kid. Her father used to take her. They had a falling-out later on, when she got married. After that they barely spoke. She could tell you just where they’d sit, she and her dad, always by a window looking over the Public Garden. She could describe the blue drapes, the cobalt-blue glasses, the whole room. It was their special place.’
‘And where were you when she did it?’
‘Where should I be, Caroline?’
‘Why didn’t you tell anyone Danziger spoke to you about it?’
‘Because I was afraid of this. I was afraid of exactly this.’
‘So you lied and made it worse.’
‘Yes, I lied. I made it worse. For that I’m sorry.’
‘I’m sure you are.’
A shadow crossed her face, and for a moment I thought I’d glimpsed the true Caroline — the invisible one standing by the window with crossed arms, the Caroline who’d been with me just a few days before, kissing me. But the moment passed. The connection vanished.
‘Is that all you want to say?’ she said.
‘I guess so.’ It was impossible to hide the hurt in my voice, pathetic as that sounds.
‘Alright then. I listened. I did what you asked.’
‘Where’s your father? I tried to call him.’
‘Ben, I don’t want you calling him. Or me.’
With a glance at Kurth, I said, ‘Caroline, can we talk for a minute, alone?’
‘No. Absolutely not.’ She got up to leave but hesitated. ‘I’m so disappointed in you, Ben. I thought you might actually be someone.’
The Calvary Pentecostal Church of God in Christ had begun its life as the Temple Beth Adonai. That name was still visible, impressed in the architrave above the main entrance. Other vestiges remained. Six-point stars woven into the wrought-iron fence. Stained-glass windows, now protected by steel grates, depicting Old Testament stories: Adam and Eve leaving the garden; the sacrifice of Isaac; Moses receiving the tablets on Mount Sinai. The overlay of Christian symbols was relatively impermanent. You had the sense that, if the lost Jews of Mission Flats ever decided to return from the suburbs, their temple could be restored in just a few hours.
I came here directly from my meeting with Caroline. The last few days, I had made this church part of my rounds, part of the hunt for Harold Braxton. But now I came here for a different reason. I had nowhere else to go, no place to think. It was hard not to think of the church as a sanctuary in the archaic legal sense, a sacred place where fugitives like me were immune from arrest.
I entered the building through a mammoth wooden door. Inside was a lobby and then the worship space, which soared to an onion-shaped dome — a bit of eastern European exotica that again recalled the building’s original tenants. Water-stained and veined with cracks, the dome had the power to stop you cold.
My hand touched each of the benches as I moved down the aisle. I went through the habitual motions of looking for Braxton. I tried doors — offices, storage rooms, vestry, anyplace that could serve as a hideout. As usual, the building appeared deserted. All the rooms had a stale, dusty smell, suggesting they had not been used, or even aired out, in quite a while.
I sat down in a pew. There was an urge to let go and cry, and an equally powerful urge to fight back, to prove my innocence. I slumped and let my head loll back against the bench. On Sunday mornings, no doubt, bored little kids studied the cracks in the dome, traced them as they threaded upward, only to end abruptly or merge into other, deeper cracks.
I became aware that I was no longer alone.
At the back of the church, a kid stared at me. He was thickset and tall, very dark-skinned, with a showy red bandanna tied around his head like a skullcap. Not Braxton. This was a kid I’d never seen before. He stood with arms crossed, watching me.
His eyes flickered up to the dome.
‘Who are you?’ I said. ‘What are you doing here?’
I came out of the pew and down the red-carpeted aisle. The kid was already gone. I raced out to the church steps. He had disappeared.
Back inside, I stood in the spot vacated by this visitor and retraced his glance up into the dome. There was, I saw, a ring around the base of it, a feature I’d never noticed before. It dawned on me that there must be a way up there. There must be a way to reach the dome to clean or paint it or to replace a bulb. It was the only place I hadn’t looked.
In an office off the hallway, I found a secretary stuffing envelopes. She asked, ‘May I help you?’
I identified myself as a cop, even flipped open my badge holder to make it official. ‘Is there a way up to that dome?’
‘Why would you want to go up there?’ she asked, bewildered.
I told her, honestly enough, ‘I’m not sure.’ She led me to a staircase behind a locked door.
In better circumstances, I would have called in my position, just in case. That was obviously impossible now. Yet confronting Braxton alone, if indeed he was up there, was foolish. Where was John Kelly? Where was he constantly disappearing to? I wrote down Gittens’s name and told the secretary, ‘If I’m not back in ten minutes, call this number and tell him Ben Truman is here, alright?’ It was up to Gittens. He could leave me here or come, as he saw fit. At this point, it was all the precaution I could muster.
Up and up. Up a staircase that switchbacked six times. At the top, a narrow door, so narrow you had to turn your shoulders to avoid the door frame.
Out onto a catwalk that circled the base of the dome.
Very high, with a handrail set at thigh level — too low to be seen from the seats below — and too low to put your hand on when you looked over the edge. The church floor was far below — two, three stories at least. A red carpet ran up the center aisle and spread out over the altar.
Nearby on the catwalk, a pile of bedding — no, just clothes bundled on the floor.
And on the opposite side of the dome was Harold Braxton, wide-eyed, gaping at me.
I pulled my gun. Two times in one week. Cops on TV always draw their guns. I racked the slide. The gun felt heavy, foreign. I’m on TV. My own TV show.
I looked down at the gun in my hand. Then across at Braxton.
There was a hollow flump.
The sound echoed. It was inside my head and outside my head. Flump. A sound but no pain. No sensation at all.
I was down on the catwalk. Dusty brown linoleum. My cheek was pressed against it. I had not fallen. The film had skipped a frame somehow — I was standing, then I was on the floor.
I looked up at June Veris — enormous in a red T-shirt — a great leonine head, pale, sleepy-eyed. He was holding some sort of truncheon that reminded me of Kelly’s nightstick. ‘Don’t you look at me, motherfucka. Don’t you fuckin’ look at me!’
I kept looking at him.
‘What’d I just tell you? Look the fuck down!’
I looked down. Rolling my head started a dull, pressurized pain. The brain sloshing in its shell like an egg yolk, quivering, threatening to split the delicate membrane. I touched the back of my head. My hair was damp.
Veris said, ‘What do we do now, cousin?’
I looked up.
Another sound — not pain, but sound — whoom — reverberating in and around my skull.
There was a strange calm. Dreamy. I analyzed the sound. It was recognizably the truncheon striking my skull. I wanted to remember that sound.
This time the blow drove my head forward. Drove my chin into my chest.
My body coiled, reflexed — my face burned along the floor until it loomed out over the edge of the catwalk and the red church floor stretched three stories below. I jerked my head back.
Veris again: ‘I tol’ you, look the fuck down!’
I looked down at the floor. The egg yolk trembled. Not pain but something more remote — the objective awareness of injury — a rumor of pain.
Veris’s hand rifled through my pockets, extracted my wallet and badge holder. ‘What you want to do now, cousin?’
A voice said: ‘Leave him. It’s okay, you go.’
I turned my head to see Veris trundle off, squeeze through the door and disappear. His footsteps echoed on the staircase.
Harold Braxton was holding my gun. ‘Serious piece,’ he mused. It was a nine-millimeter Beretta. He dropped the magazine out of the handle, then racked the gun to clear the chamber. The cartridge fell over the edge and landed on the carpet far below us with a soft sound.
There was a brief gap — like sleep — then I awoke to Braxton asking, ‘Why’d you come here?’
‘The DA wants you picked up.’
‘You all there is?’
I nodded. The egg yolk rolled, shivered, but held together, although now the pain was very real. I decided to keep my head perfectly still. ‘Yeah, just me.’
‘You really from Maine?’
Braxton closed my badge holder and tossed it on the floor beside me.
‘I didn’t cap that DA.’
‘Listen to me! I didn’t shoot him.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘It doesn’t matter?’
‘The DA just wants to question you. You can tell her-’
He snorted. ‘Tell her what? That I’m innocent? Gee, you think she’ll believe me? They think I killed cops. I never killed no cops.’
‘Actually they think I killed one too.’ I pushed myself up on all fours.
‘Stay down,’ he ordered. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘They think I killed that DA.’
‘You’re a cop, right? And they think you killed a DA?’
‘Man, that is fucked up. That is…’ His voice trailed off. He could not think of another way to describe it. ‘That’s fucked up.’
I struggled to my feet. Above me — very close now — was the navel of the dome, that shadowy little dimple. To my left, only space — air — and below, the carpet spilling red down from the altar and into the aisle.
Braxton stepped away from me. He tossed my empty gun on the floor and pulled one of his own, a little snub-nose thing.
I said, ‘You can help me.’
‘They’re going to put it on me, the Danziger thing. I can feel it.’
‘It’s Gittens, idn’t it?’
‘Gittens. Up to his old tricks.’
‘What do you-’
There was a sound at the front of the church.
Standing now, dizzy, I twisted to look over the edge of the catwalk — down — who was here? — the fluid in my skull shifted — it pulled me — I reached for the railing but it was too low and I missed it — momentum began to carry me over — the egg yolk, bleeding — and I fell.
My arm hooked the steel railing, jolting my elbow. But the bar slipped down my sleeve and past my fingers. I had time to realize, I’m falling.
Braxton punched my back as he grabbed my sweatshirt — then slapped his other hand down on my arm.
We looked at each other. He was breathing heavily, frightened now, and straining against the weight of my body. ‘Pull!’ he snarled.
I flailed for the railing or the ledge of the catwalk, but I was clumsy, scared, disoriented.
Braxton leaned precariously over the rail, his breath rasping. Before long my weight would carry us both over.
‘Don’t let go!’ I pleaded.
There was a clatter below. Gittens burst in. He looked up at Braxton and me, swore under his breath, and sprinted for the stairs.
‘Gittens,’ I said.
Braxton tugged me up high enough that I could grab the railing again, and together we were able to pull my body back over. I fell onto the catwalk like a sailor toppling into a lifeboat.
Gittens’s steps on the staircase grew louder.
Braxton hustled over toward his pile of clothes, shuffling, moving as quickly as he dared go on the narrow catwalk.
I staggered up again. The weight of that swirling yolk made me unsteady, threatened to carry me over again. I lurched toward Braxton, around the narrow ring.
Braxton, who had been gathering his clothes, straightened up to watch me. He had an incredulous expression. He shook his head and returned to his clothes, tying off knots in the pile. Teetering toward him, I must have looked like Frankenstein. Why would he give me any thought?
When I reached him, though, I clapped my hand around his upper arm and squeezed. He tried to pull his arm away, but I had decided that nothing — nothing — would force me to open my fingers. Braxton was a strong kid, but it turned out I was pretty strong too. Those were Claude Truman’s hands he was pulling against.
‘There’s nowhere to run, Harold. There’s no way out. Don’t fight them.’
‘I didn’t do it,’ he implored. ‘I didn’t do it.’
‘Harold, what are you going to do? Fly away?’
Gittens appeared at the door. He was panting. He stepped onto the catwalk, holding one hand on the doorpost to steady himself.
‘Let me go,’ Braxton growled. ‘I didn’t do this.’
Gittens held a pistol, a blue-black Beretta like mine. ‘Ben. Get down.’
Braxton’s eyes were on the gun, then on me.
‘Ben, if Braxton did it, then you didn’t. Get down.’
Gittens racked the Beretta, and at that instant — when I heard the metallic movement of the slide I saw Gittens Why should I get down? and I understood. I knew what was about to happen.
‘Ben,’ Gittens repeated. ‘Get down.’
Gittens meant to kill him. It wasn’t in his face or in his voice. But I knew. There was not going to be an arrest. It was an execution, pure and simple. And he was offering a bargain: Braxton instead of me.
I decided that was not going to happen.
Even if it was all true and Braxton was a murderer and a cop killer — even if he owed an eye for an eye, a life for a life — and even if it would get me off on this absurd charge of killing Bob Danziger, a man I’d met all of one time — I couldn’t allow it, much less take part. I’d gone far enough.
I released Braxton’s arm. ‘Go,’ I said.
He looked at me, not sure whether to trust me. Then he grabbed the clothes and tossed them over the ledge. The bundle unfurled into a crude rope, shirts and towels and whatnot, each item tied to the end of the next one. He’d secured the rope to the railing. It was too short, though. The end dangled ten feet from the church floor.
‘Ben, get out of the way!’ Gittens ordered.
I looked at him.
Braxton went over the railing.
Dizzy, I slumped to my knees.
Braxton clung to the rope for a moment, swinging, legs scissoring.
Gittens fired at him but missed.
The gunshot boomed through the empty church.
Braxton dropped onto the red rug below. He splayed on his knees but quickly scrambled to his feet and sprinted under the catwalk, where Gittens did not have a shot at him.
Gittens scurried around the platform to find him, but there was no chance. He had no line of fire until Braxton bolted through the door, and at that point he did not even take the shot. Instead Gittens put up his gun and, across the shadowy dome, glared at me.
‘Let no one, unwise and unlearned, presume to ascend the seat of judgment, which is like unto the throne of God, lest for light he bring darkness and for darkness light, and, with unskilful hand, even as a madman, he put the innocent to the sword and set free the guilty, and lest he fall from on high, as from the throne of God, in attempting to fly before he has wings.’
Failure is a fixed point, a mooring in the current that keeps hauling you back. Back to this place, to this time. Back to the moment of error, when all the branchings of the stream radiated out in front of you and the choice was still yours. You return as a spectator, melancholy, reproachful, to say, This is what I should have done or This is what I should have said.
Twelve hours after my encounter with Braxton, I awoke in a hospital bed, plagued by reproaches. Should I have told the Bostonians about my mother from the start? Was I ridiculous to then go after Braxton alone? Or was I just desperate to prove that Braxton — or anyone other than me — was guilty of Danziger’s murder?
Outside, there was quiet bustling in the hall. Smells blended in the air, the distinct hospital potpourri: ammonia, bleach, alcohol, urine. I lay still, pretended to sleep. A bubble of respect surrounds sick people as they sleep, and I was anxious to preserve that privacy while I sorted through the events of the afternoon.
The church with its nippled dome. Teetering toward Braxton, clasping his arm, then letting him go so he could slip down that makeshift rope and dash out of the church. I recalled: When it was over, cops swarmed the building. Skittish, on high alert. Afraid to move me, they took turns kneeling and looking into my eyes. They parroted doctorly advice, much of it contradictory, ‘Don’t move’ then ‘Can you move?’ Two EMTs arrived and, after a bewildering quiz to establish my brain was still essentially intact (’What day is today? Who is the president?’), they helped me to my feet and escorted me out. On the sidewalk, someone handed me a towel. I caught my reflection in a car’s side mirror. My ear, neck, and shoulders were smeared with blood. There was no sign of Braxton.
In my hospital bed, I walked through these events over and over, shuffled and reordered them.
A man cleared his throat to announce his presence. I struggled upright to find John Kelly sitting by the foot of the bed. There was a pen in his long fingers, The Boston Globe Sunday crossword on his lap. He wore little half-glasses that made him look rather old and distinguished.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Visiting a friend in the hospital.’
‘Right, but… haven’t you heard? I killed Danziger. That’s what everybody thinks.’
‘Yes, I did hear that.’
‘You don’t believe it?’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t believe or disbelieve it. I don’t have enough information.’
‘So you think I might have?’
‘There’s that possibility.’
‘That I’m a homicidal lunatic’
‘I don’t think you could be. I don’t believe you could do it, Ben Truman. But I may be wrong. We’ll see how it goes.’
I grunted, hunh. Kelly returned to his crossword puzzle.
I slipped in and out of sleep. When I awoke again I asked, ‘What time is it?’
‘What hospital is this?’
‘Boston City. They kept you here overnight for observation. You’ll be out in the morning. How do you feel?’
‘Like in a cartoon. You know, when someone gets hit with a frying pan and his head vibrates and he gets those shaky lines around him?’
Kelly squinted. What? ‘They gave you something for the pain. It’ll make you drowsy’
I sank back into the pillow. ‘Braxton helped me.’
‘He decided not to kill you. It’s not the same as helping you.’
‘No. I fell over the rail. I was going to fall. He pulled me back.’
‘I’m sure he did what he thought he had to do. Let’s not go give him any medals.’
‘Right. Mr Kelly, why did you…?’
‘Why did I what?’
‘You keep disappearing. I needed you. Where do you go?’
‘To my daughter’s grave.’
I remembered the pale little girl with the cowl of black hair in the photo in Kelly’s living room. ‘Theresa?’
‘Caroline’s little sister, yes. She was not like Caroline, though. She was more delicate. More gentle.’ He smiled. ‘Not that Caroline isn’t delicate and gentle.’
‘She won’t talk to me, you know.’
‘Can you blame her?’
‘No. Well, at least you’re here. You don’t think I did it, do you?’
‘I just told you.’
‘Tell me again.’
He slipped off his glasses, wiped his eyes with his thumb and index finger, then put the glasses back on with a soft sigh. ‘I don’t think you could have done it.’
‘Good. Because I didn’t do it.’
My eyes closed.
When I woke, I said, ‘How did Theresa Rose die?’
‘How old was — Do you mind talking about it?’
‘No, it’s alright. She was eight when she got sick, ten when she died.’
‘Cancer devours you, did you know that? It’s a living thing. It feeds on you so it can grow.’ For a moment Kelly seemed lost and ineffably sad. ‘Well, it’s not an excuse. You’re right. You were my partner, I should have been with you. It’s the First Commandment. I’m sorry.’
‘How often do you go to her grave?’
‘I try to stop by every day, if I can.’
‘What do you do there?’
‘Because it makes me feel she’s closer.’
Since the funeral, I’d never gone back to my mother’s grave. ‘Doesn’t it just make things worse?’
‘It gets better with time, Ben Truman. It never quite goes away, but it gets better.’
It was not clear what part Theresa Rose Kelly played in her father’s decision to come to my bedside that night. But I thought she was part of it. An impotent father’s urge to protect. To defend me, his ward, against the latest arbitrary supervening danger.
By this point Kelly and I were both getting uncomfortable with the topic of dead relations, and an awkward moment passed between us. To fill it, I asked how he was doing on the crossword puzzle.
‘Oh, this. I found it in the waiting room. I’m awful at these. You know a four-letter word for kiln, begins with O?’
He gave me a skeptical look uncannily like one of Caroline’s. ‘Go back to sleep, Ben Truman.’
‘O-A-S-T Just fill it in, trust me.’
I lay back down in a sleepy fugue, and at once doubts began to swarm. Maybe I had dreamed the whole incident in the church, or at least mis-perceived it. Was Gittens really going to kill Braxton? What proof did I have of his intentions? That’s the core problem with history: Events can only be seen through a cracked prism, the faulty perceptions of witnesses. Historical truth, if it exists in the first place, is immediately lost in a fog of bad eyesight, bad memory, bad reporting. Great topic for a dissertation, if I ever do write one.
I shook the doubts away. I’d seen it alright. I knew what Gittens had planned, and I’d released Braxton rather than abandon him to Gittens. I’d saved Harold Braxton.
‘Can I tell you something, Mr Kelly? I thought Gittens was going to…’ But in that moment I reconsidered it. My head ached. I must have been wrong about Gittens. It was impossible. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Try to sleep, Ben. I’m going to sit here awhile.’
I wanted to thank Kelly for coming. He was the only one. I wanted to tell him how much I appreciated his being there. But the words stuck in my throat and I gaped at him stupidly, like a boated fish gasping for air.
‘It’s alright, Ben, I know. Just get some sleep.’
In the dream, I floated on Lake Mattaquisett. Above me was a cloudy sky. At the periphery of my view, the green hillsides around the lake, all mossed over with pines. At some point I could no longer feel the water under me. It must still be there, I assumed; I was still floating on something. But I couldn’t feel it. I rolled onto my stomach. The lake surface pillowed under me as it would under the feet of a water bug — a film of surface tension just strong enough to support my weight. But beneath me, the lake water had disappeared. I could see all the way down to the sunlit lake bed, where crabs and bottom fish scuttled about on dry stones. Fish fluttered past, their tiny fins flapping audibly in air. I knew if I moved, the soap-bubble surface that held me up would burst. So I concentrated on lying still. Hanging there, breathless. My arms and legs began to ache. Soon I would have to move. The floor of the lake became dark and weedy, a treacherous place of sea insects and eely, chomping creatures, and my ability to hold still was sifting away.
Now, let me say right off the top that I don’t much believe in reading Freudish significance into dreams. I write them off to biochemistry — enzymes react with brain meat; random images are unintended by-products. So interpreting dreams seems to me an act of faith, like seeing the face of Jesus in your meatloaf. The interpretation reveals more about the perceiver than the thing perceived. But the raw emotions triggered by dreams are no less real. Enzyme hits brain meat, sizzles — and dreamer feels fear or sadness or vertigo or any number of things.
When I woke up, the anxiety of the dream lingered. I felt threatened.
I leaned up on one elbow. My head throbbed. The room was dark.
There was a shape at the door. A man I did not recognize. Short, neither thin nor fat. He moved into the room with arms half extended, like a lobster’s claws.
‘Who are you?’ I said.
I groped for the light. ‘Who are you?’
It was a cop, in uniform. ‘My name’s Pete Odorico.’ The name rhymed with Oh for Rico.
‘What are you doing here?’
He took another step toward me. The equipment on his belt rattled.
‘Just stay where you are.’
‘I’m a cop.’
‘Everyone’s a cop around here. Do me a favor, stay put. What are you doing in here?’
‘Watching me? Who told you to watch me?’
John Kelly came into the room. ‘Ah, I see you’ve met Peter.’
‘Who the hell is he?’
‘He’s a friend.’
‘Well, I don’t know him.’
‘He’s alright, Ben. I worked with his dad. I’ve known Peter since the day he was born. I asked him to stand guard tonight.’
Pete Odorico shot me a sour look. ‘Hey, pal, I’ve been off duty since midnight. You don’t want me here, I’m happy to go home to bed.’
Kelly patted his shoulder. ‘You’ll stay till sunup,’ Kelly informed him.
The officer studied me for a moment, then said, ‘What was the dream?’
‘Never mind the dream.’
‘Maybe I can help.’
With that, Kelly snaked his long arm around the policeman’s shoulder and ushered him back to his post in the hall. When he’d shut the door, Kelly said of the forty-year-old cop, ‘He’s a good kid.’
‘You posted a guard? Why?’
Kelly considered it a moment. ‘Because something doesn’t feel right.’
Friday morning. At seven-thirty there was a polite, brushy knock at the door, and Caroline came in, carrying a shopping bag. ‘Good morning,’ she said. Surprised to see her father, she made a face. ‘Sorry to wake you.’
‘No, no,’ I said.
‘How’s the cabeza?’ She made a shampooing motion at the back of her head.
I scrunched the blanket in my lap to cover a daybreak hard-on, which threatened to poke its head out of the sheets like a squirrel. The tumescence was less a matter of sexual excitement than simple hydraulics, the usual wind-sock action of sleeping men. But it triggered memories of Caroline’s body, which only made things worse. I studied her outfit, tried to see through it. She was wearing another vaguely bohemian skirt suit, this one with a five-button jacket open at the throat. There was nothing provocative or revealing about it. The skirt was hemmed an inch below the knees. The jacket revealed just a narrow V of skin with tiny, lovely freckles.
Caroline started unpacking some new clothes from the shopping bag. There was a halting quality in her movements, as if she did not want to be here, as if the whole errand was distasteful to her.
‘I didn’t expect to see you here,’ I said.
‘I didn’t expect to be here.’
‘But you had a change of heart?’
‘No,’ she sniffed. ‘It seems you have a new friend.’
‘Harold Braxton is asking for you.’
‘We picked him up last night. He won’t talk. He says he wants you, and if you won’t come, he wants Max Beck.’
‘But Lowery told me I was off the case.’
‘You are off the case.’ She crossed her arms, tipped her head forward, and eyed me from beneath her brow, the stern-mother look. ‘Are you saying you don’t want to do it?’
‘No, it’s just… I’m surprised you’re asking.’
‘Look, Ben, this isn’t exactly the way we’d want to do it. But we don’t have enough to hold him, so we don’t have much choice. If bringing you in to do the interrogation gets Braxton to talk, then that’s what we have to do.’
‘Even though I’m a suspect too.’
‘We’ll be listening. To both of you.’
‘Why should I help you?’
‘If you get anything out of him, it could only be to your benefit.’
‘And if I don’t?’
She did not answer.
I asked John Kelly what he thought.
‘It has to be your decision, Ben. If you decided to stay out of it, no one could blame you.’
‘I guess it’s already too late for that, isn’t it?’
‘Good,’ Caroline said decisively. ‘Kurth is waiting outside to drive us.’ She tossed me a shirt from the little pile she’d made. It was a conservative white button-down oxford. ‘Your shirt was all bloody. I got this for you.’
‘Thank you. What do I owe you?’
‘You get Braxton to talk, we’ll call it even.’
Her tone was mechanical, unfamiliar, cool.
‘Caroline, can we talk for a minute?’
‘We have nothing to talk about.’
John Kelly began to excuse himself, but his daughter told him to stay put.
‘Alright then,’ I said. ‘Okay Thank you for the shirt.’
She pinched out a little half smile that was pained and sardonic in equal measure. ‘Usually,’ she observed, ‘it’s the defense lawyer who puts the murderer in a clean shirt.’
In those last few days of its existence, there was a sense of fatigue about the old Boston Police headquarters on Berkeley Street. The building seemed ready to heave a sigh of exhaustion before expiring. (A month or so later, the Boston police moved to a glass box further up Tremont Street, a sleek modern building for a sleek modern department. That was the idea, anyway.)
Kurth and Caroline led John Kelly and me to an interview room down the hall from the Homicide office. It was a gloriously run-down little room with cracked paint and cloudy windows. The only concessions to modernity were a drip coffeepot and a toxic-looking air conditioner that blocked half of one window. Otherwise the flatfoots who’d worked here during Prohibition would have recognized the room straightaway.
We met the remainder of our team, such as it was. District Attorney Lowery was turned out in a maize bow tie and stylish cap-toed shoes. I could see my distorted reflection in the convex lenses of his spectacles. He greeted me with a grim nod. Martin Gittens shook my hand with extra care, a soulful two-hander, and asked about my injuries. His sudden concern for my well-being was a relief after the high drama of the day before. I took it as a sign that his suspicions of me had abated for some reason. Perhaps I’d earned a measure of trust now that I’d been blooded in combat. That was what I wanted to believe, anyway. Probably it was what Gittens wanted me to believe too; he used the momentum of my own panic — my neediness — against me in a kind of emotional judo.
We moved to a cramped room behind a one-way mirror. From this room, Lowery warned, my conversation with Braxton would be watched and recorded. ‘You’ll be on that tape too, Chief Truman,’ he said, ‘not just Braxton.’ I told him, ‘Well, that should help me relax.’ Kelly, looming over the group like a protective daddy, gave me a reproachful look. It said, Ben, just shut up.
Braxton was brought into the interview room, two uniform cops at his sides. He wore drooping jeans, flannel shirt, and a Brooklyn Dodgers cap embroidered with Jackie Robinson’s number 42. Cuffed at the ankles, he inched his way to the chair in geisha steps. After Braxton sat down, one of the cops cuffed his right foot to the chair leg and left him alone in the room. He stared into the mirror as if he could see through it, as if he were watching us.
And for a minute or so we watched him too. I’d seen Braxton only the day before, but this was my first chance to look at him for any length of time. I searched for some manifestation of his famous lethality. From the overheated descriptions of Braxton, I half expected him to glow like a hot coal. But his physical appearance was disappointing, just as his mug shot had been. He was quite small, maybe five-nine or so, and wiry hard. His manner was all street-corner badass. He manufactured a sneer; he folded his arms (or as nearly folded them as the handcuffs would allow). But there was a sense of disingenuousness about all the posing. It was theater. Braxton was acting out the role of a gangster, but it was someone else’s vision of a gangster, not his. Maybe it was all for our benefit. We demanded a certain style from him — a style that may have owed more to Hollywood than to Mission Flats, but we wanted it just the same — so he gave it to us. His eyes moved around the room, and he seemed to calculate and recalculate his position.
‘Let’s go,’ Braxton said to the mirror.
Kurth escorted me into the hall. ‘Give him his rights, make sure he signs the card,’ he instructed. He handed me an orange Miranda card. His eyes drilled into me: ‘Remember, we’re listening.’
And a moment later I was sitting opposite Harold Braxton.
‘Hi,’ I said.
Braxton’s nearness came as a surprise. In the observation room, the one-way glass and tinny speakers had exaggerated the distance between us. He had been a figure on a TV screen, glassed in, mediated, broadcast from a studio who-knew-where. But now, separated by just a few feet of photo-wood tabletop, Harold Braxton was undeniably present.
‘I need to inform you of your rights,’ I said, and I recited the Miranda catechism. When it was done, I slid the card toward him. ‘You have to sign it.’
He flexed the card between his thumb and index finger, then slid it back as if unsatisfied with its tensile strength.
‘I can’t talk to you without that signature.’
I slid the card back. ‘Just sign it. Otherwise I’m out of here.’
A smile played around his mouth. He signed the card — almost as a favor to me, I thought, to reassure me.
‘Do you know a guy named Ray Ratleff?’
‘Knew him, yeah.’
‘What do you mean, “knew”?’
‘He’s dead. Didn’t you hear?’
‘Do you know anything about it?’
‘Just what I seen on TV.’
‘Why would anyone want to kill him?’
‘You tell me.’
‘I’m asking you, Harold.’
‘Ray was a junkie. Probably had something to do with it.’
‘Meaning, you hang out with pipeheads and sliders and shit, you usually end up dead. I seen lots of guys like Ratleff. You come to my neighborhood sometime, I’ll show you some.’
‘Have you ever been a slider?’
‘What’s that got to do with Ray Ratleff?’
‘You said yourself, sliders might have done it.’
He smiled. ‘You got my bop. You know what I done.’
‘My record, my Board of Probation record. Those guys have it, I’m sure.’ He nodded toward the mirror. ‘It’s alright, dog, I’ll tell you what’s on it. There’s some juvenile stuff, hot boxing mostly. Then I got two distributions, class B, all powder. Straight probation on both. Some other small shit. Otherwise I’m clean.’
‘Clean? What about Artie Trudell?’
Braxton’s eyebrows crushed downward.
‘The cop who got shot through the door, Harold.’
‘I didn’t have nothing to do with that. That case got dismissed.’
‘Why’d you get charged? Did they just pick your name out of the phone book?’
‘Ask your friend Raul.’
‘Who’s Raul?’ I said.
‘Maybe you’re Raul. That’s the rumor, isn’t it?’
This was pointless. ‘Look, are you gonna answer any questions or not? You haven’t told me anything.’
Shrug. ‘Don’t know anything.’
‘Then what are you doing here, Harold?’
‘I got arrested.’
‘You went to the trouble of getting me down here just to tell me you don’t know anything?’
‘Do they really think you capped that DA?’ he asked.
‘I don’t think they know.’
‘On your mother’s grave?’
‘On my mother’s grave.’
‘Well I didn’t do it neither.’
‘So that’s it? You’re innocent?’
‘Why tell it to me?’
‘This is Boston, dog. B-town. Alabama of the North.’
‘You’re saying it’s a race thing?’
‘It’s always a race thing.’
‘I don’t think so, Harold, not this time. There’s plenty of proof.’
Another caustic smile. He leaned forward, dragging the handcuffs across the table, and rested on his forearms. ‘Let me tell you something,’ he confided. ‘These cops don’t need proof. They can always find proof after they solve the case.’ He stared at me a moment. A dusting of blackheads marred his nose. Otherwise he was handsome, with his brown eyes and monkish ponytail. ‘Go on, finish asking your questions.’
‘Have you ever been to Maine?’
‘Why would I go to some backward-ass-’
‘Is that a no?’
‘Did you know Robert Danziger?’
‘Course I did.’
‘How did you know him?’
‘He prosecuted me like fifty times.’
‘How did you feel about that?’
‘Oh, I was real thrilled about it.’
‘Answer the question. How did you feel about Danziger prosecuting you over and over?’
‘How would you feel?’
‘It would depend on the circumstances.’
‘That’s right. The man had a job to do. I had no problem with that. There wasn’t nothing between me and him.’
The questions were obtuse and Braxton knew it. There was something approaching friendliness in his tone, in the patronizing way he answered. Criminals often show a false bonhomie toward cops, a desire to connect, an appeal to their goodwill. But this was something worse — he was condescending to me.
‘Where were you Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, when Ray Ratleff was killed?’
‘Party in Grove Park. There were twenty or thirty people there. You want names?’
I got a yellow legal pad from a side table, and Braxton wrote out some names in neat block letters.
‘That all you got?’ he asked.
‘Is there anything else you want to tell me?’
‘I want to talk to you, Chief True-Man.’
‘It’s Ben. Why me?’
‘Because you and me need each other.’
‘Yeah? Why do I need you?’
‘You need to prove you didn’t do it, same as me. They’re going to put it on one of us, right? You can see that, can’t you? So if you figure it out, that helps us both. Now, do you want to go figure it out, for both of us?’
Braxton looked over my shoulder at the mirror, then his eyes tripped from one corner of the room to another. At the time I thought he was looking for cameras; in fact what he was looking for was a microphone. He leaned forward, rested his chest on the edge of the table and whispered, ‘Come here.’
‘I ain’t gonna hurt you.’
I shook my head.
‘You think I’m gonna beat down some cop in a police station? With these on?’ He held up his handcuffed wrists. ‘You think I’m that stupid?’
‘Anything you tell me, Harold, I’m just going to tell them anyway’
‘That’s on you. I figure you’ll do the right thing.’
I leaned forward to listen, warily, like a lion tamer putting his head in the lion’s mouth.
The speed of what happened next shocked me.
Braxton’s hands snapped up over my head. He trapped my neck in the handcuffs and yanked me down against the table. I could not move. The handcuff chain cinched into the back of my neck.
There was shouting behind the mirror, muffled, ‘Hey hey!’
The plastic-wood tabletop was immediately in front of my eye. It was scratched, oily.
I felt Braxton’s mouth inches from my ear. It crossed my mind that he might bite it, gnaw it right off my head.
‘You helped me yesterday in the church. Why?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t want-’
‘They’re playing you.’ His breath was warm and humid in my ear.
‘They’re playing you, they’re setting you up. And me. Both of us.’
‘Alright, you’re innocent. I get it.’
‘No!’ He thumped me against the tabletop. I felt his frustration. Everybody claims to be innocent; he was telling me something more. ‘I need to tell you-’
A door slammed and feet clattered in the hallway.
Braxton pressed his face close so I could actually feel his lips brush my ear. ‘Find Raul.’
‘Find Raul. It’s got nothing to do with Ratleff. Follow Raul’
‘Follow Raul. From Danziger to Trudell, maybe back further. To Fazulo. Watch-’
He never got to finish.
Kelly crossed the room in two long strides and cracked Braxton in the small of the back with the club. The blow made a hollow sound. Braxton arched back. Kelly lifted him bodily away from the table and suspended him against the wall. The chair, still handcuffed to Braxton’s leg, dangled between them.
Once pinned to the wall, Braxton hung there like a doll, offering no resistance. But his face was transformed. He was all sneering badass again. He broadcast disdain — and the pain of the blow to his back — to anyone who cared to register it.
Kelly pulled him away from the wall and slammed him back against it. He pressed the nightstick against Braxton’s throat.
‘That’s enough!’ Max Beck shouted. I had not even seen the lawyer enter. His face was red and already, at ten in the morning, his tie was pulled down to his sternum. ‘Put that man down!’
‘Yes,’ Lowery said, coolly. ‘Put him down, Lieutenant Kelly.’
Kelly complied. He straightened his sport coat and asked me if I was okay.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I’m fine, it wasn’t like that.’
‘It’s an A.B.P.O.,’ Kurth said. ‘Good. Now we can hold him.’
It would surely have gone that way, of course — a swift arrest, an arraignment that morning at the B.M.C., a prohibitive bail. It would have gone that way but for one thing: The District Attorney was there and he had a broader agenda.
‘What do you say, Chief Truman?’ Lowery asked. ‘You’re the victim here.’
Before I could answer, Gittens blurted, ‘Harold, if you ever lay a hand on a cop again-’
‘Detective Gittens,’ Lowery soothed. He gestured with his hands, palms down: Calm down. ‘Chief Truman, what do you want to do about this?’
Braxton was staring at me.
Kelly watched too, with an attentive frown.
Lowery said, ‘Chief Truman?’
‘Let him go.’
Kelly agreed to reinterview Julio Vega with me. I told Kelly the fact that Danziger had reopened the Trudell investigation still nagged at me. So did Vega’s evasiveness when we’d asked him about it earlier. Kelly accepted these explanations, or seemed to.
At Vega’s shabby little house in Dorchester, there was no answer when we knocked at the front door.
‘We’ll wait,’ the old man announced.
‘But we have no idea where he is.’
‘Precisely why we’ll wait, Ben Truman. No sense chasing him all over creation.’
In his thirty-odd years as a policeman, John Kelly had probably spent ten just waiting. It was part of the job. Movie cops never wait around much. They dart from clue to clue like hummingbirds because they only have two hours to solve each crime. In reality, policemen wait for radio calls and they wait for speeders and they wait for breaks. In courthouses, on street corners, in parked cruisers. Walking around in circles, driving around in circles. They are bored. They stamp their feet on cold nights.
‘How long do we wait?’
‘Till he turns up.’
‘What if he doesn’t?’
‘Oh, he’ll turn up soon,’ Kelly said. He glanced up at the sky as if Julio Vega might drop from above. ‘Let’s take a walk.’
‘Good idea. Why don’t we play a round of golf while we’re at it?’
‘There’s time, Ben. We’ll have a little walk.’
We strolled toward Dorchester Avenue, Kelly looking blithe, me anxious. He pulled out his nightstick, which he kept tucked in his belt at the small of his back. Holding it by the leather strap, he twirled the truncheon absently, as he had in Versailles, with that repetitive rhythm of whirring and palm-slapping. Two revolutions clockwise, slap! Two counterclockwise, slap! The rhythm matched our steps. Whir, slap! Whir, slap!
I should say here, again, that I do not pretend to be objective in my description of John Kelly. I tend to form bonds of loyalty quickly or never, and I’d decided long before that Kelly was a man I liked and admired. Maudlin as it sounds, I felt closer to him than the scant few days we’d spent together would seem to justify. So admittedly my view of Kelly that morning was clouded by affection. That said, as we walked along Dorchester Avenue, he seemed to me the distilled essence of a policeman. You could have dressed him in a gray flannel suit or surgical scrubs — hell, you could have dressed him in clown makeup — and still people would say, ‘There goes a cop.’ Until I met him, I’d never thought that was a quality to be admired.
‘There’s something I don’t understand, Ben. This morning Braxton asked for you — you specifically — just so he could proclaim his innocence and then attack you? It doesn’t make sense.’
I ambled along in silence.
‘Then you told Lowery you had no idea what Braxton was up to.’
‘I may have told a little white lie there.’
‘Ah. Lot of that going around.’
‘When he jumped me, Braxton whispered in my ear. He said, “Find Raul.” He said this all has something to do with Artie Trudell. And he mentioned another name — Fazulo?’
‘Fasulo. You know who that is?’
Kelly ignored the question. ‘Why did you hold that back?’
‘Because Braxton told me I was being set up.’
‘Did you believe him?’
‘I don’t know. Kind of, yeah. Like you said, he went to a lot of trouble to get the message to me.’
Kelly grunted, hmm.
‘I should have told. I shouldn’t be keeping things from other cops.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. We don’t work for the Boston police. We’re conducting our own investigation. You tell them just as much as you want to tell them. They have information they’re not giving us. That’s how it works. Welcome to the brotherhood of law enforcement.’
‘I meant, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.’
‘Well. You’ve told me now.’
We walked a little ways in silence.
‘Do you know who Fasulo is?’
‘Who Fasulo was,’ Kelly corrected. ‘The only Fasulo I ever heard of died a long time ago, in ’77 or ’78. He killed a cop. Frank Fasulo and another guy — what was his name? Sikes, something Sikes. The two of them were juiced out of their minds. They tried to stick up a bar in the Flats called the Kilmarnock Pub. It’s gone now, the Kilmarnock, and not missed. Bucket of blood, that place was. Fasulo and Sikes went in just after closing, they stuck a gun in the bartender’s face, told him to empty the register. Only they took too long and a cop in a patrol car wandered in. They jumped him and-’ Kelly took a few steps before continuing. ‘Well, Fasulo was a hard case. He’d been in and out of Walpole, Bridgewater… Rapes, armed robberies. There are guys like that, just… vicious, animals, psychopaths. Not many, but they’re out there. There’s nothing for it except to kill them.’
The comment surprised me. I didn’t see Kelly as the hang-’em-high type.
‘Sounds bad, huh? Well the truth is, our system is built to punish crimes after the fact. We’re helpless to prevent a crime before it’s committed, even if everyone sees it coming. Everybody who ever ran into Frank Fasulo knew he’d kill someone someday. He was a homicide waiting to happen. But all we could do was wait for it to happen, then go in and clean up the mess. It shouldn’t be that way.’
‘So he killed the cop who interrupted the stickup?’
‘He raped him. Then he killed him. Then he danced around the bar and celebrated.’ Kelly stopped spinning the nightstick. ‘Well, this is all a long time ago, Ben Truman.’
The spinning and walking resumed.
‘So what happened?’
‘We — the police — tracked down Sikes in a hotel a day or two later. We had this military sort of unit then. “Tactical Patrol Force,” they were called, TPF. Helmets, black outfits, the whole shebang. It was big in those days. Every city had one. They stormed the hotel room and shot Sikes dead. Fasulo jumped off the Tobin Bridge a few days later, which was probably the only sane thing he ever did.’
We were coming into a charmless intersection anchored by a scruffy used-car dealership, which consisted of a portable office, a half dozen compact cars, and hundreds of little triangular vinyl pennants. Beside us was the euphonious Pleasant Spa. (In the old Boston dialect, a convenience store was referred to as a spa, and you still see the word in store windows around town.)
Kelly stopped to survey. The nightstick twirled. Spin, slap!
‘How do you do that?’
‘This?’ Spin, slap!
‘Yeah, how do you make it…?’
Kelly regarded the stick as if he hadn’t noticed it was spinning until that very moment. ‘I don’t know. You just…’ Spin, slap.
‘Show me. Do it slow.’
‘You just kind of let it fall away from your wrist a little, then yank it by the strap here.’
‘Let me try.’
‘Do you know how long I’ve had this thing?’
‘Come on, it’s not the crown jewels. It’s a stick. Let me try.’
He passed it to me and I slipped the leather strap over my hand. I tried to imitate him, letting the baton fall forward then snapping it back toward my chest. The free end flashed up in my face. I ducked.
‘Nice and easy, Ben Truman. Don’t knock yourself out.’
‘Do me a favor. If I do knock myself out, just in case — shoot me.’
‘Nice and easy’
The club wobbled through a complete revolution and I grabbed it. The trick seemed to be that it did not turn in an even circle. The weight was unbalanced (the free end was thicker and heavier), and the strap introduced enough play that the axis of rotation shifted constantly. Plus, the thing was barely shorter than your arm, so it threatened to whack you in the head every time it passed.
‘Harder than it looks,’ I said.
‘Here, you better give that thing back before you hurt yourself.’
Julio Vega leaned his shoulder against the door frame. The ex-cop tried to fix his filmy eyes on me but they were sluggish; he let them wander to a spot on my chest somewhere.
‘What is it now, Maine? Gittens send you back for more?’
‘No, sir. Gittens doesn’t even know I’m here.’
‘Of course he does.’ Vega snorted, then padded off barefoot.
Kelly and I followed him to the same room where we’d spoken ten days before. Vega fell into one of the sweat-slicked wing chairs and returned to his television show, ESPN SportsCenter.
There was something disquieting about Vega’s appearance. It wasn’t simply that he was drunk or exhausted — though he was obviously both drunk and exhausted. Something was missing, something had gone out of him. Whatever it is that hangs behind the curtain, behind the gristle and bone of the face, whatever it is that animates the eyes and nose and mouth, it had simply left. I could imagine Vega removing that pouchy, unhandsome face and laying it down like one of Dali’s liquid clock faces.
‘Have you been drinking, Julio?’ I asked.
‘Course I been drinking.’ He blew a scornful little sniff. Stupid question.
‘I need to talk to you about Raul.’
‘I said we need to talk.’ My voice was too loud, as if I could reach him by shouting.
‘Hey, Maine, I’m drunk, not deaf.’
Kelly and I exchanged glances. What was wrong with this guy?
‘Julio, what did Frank Fasulo have to do with the raid on the red-door crackhouse?’
‘Frank Fasulo? What the fuck you talking about?’
‘That night you raided the apartment with the red door, the tip from Raul had something to do with Frank Fasulo, didn’t it?’
‘Man, I don’t even know who Frank Fasulo is.’ He watched basketball highlights on the screen.
‘Tell me about the night you and Artie Trudell did that raid.’
‘I told you already, I got nothing to say about that.’
‘Julio, that isn’t gonna fly anymore. We’re going to talk about it.’
He shook his head. ‘Nothing to say, homes.’ The words were defiant, but Vega’s tone was not. He was reciting lines he’d rehearsed over and over, an actor walking through a part he’d played for too many performances.
‘Julio, I need to know who Raul was.’
Vega ignored me.
Kelly said, ‘Alright, that’s enough of this bullshit.’ He switched off the TV with a slap. ‘You’re going to cut this shit out and answer the man’s questions.’
‘Who the fuck you think you are?’
‘Shut up.’ Kelly turned to me. ‘Ask him again.’
Vega started to rise from his chair, presumably to turn the TV on again.
With the tip of the nightstick, Kelly nudged him back into the chair. ‘Sit down.’
‘Who the fuck are you? Turn the TV back on, man.’
‘You want me to turn it off for good?’ He raised the nightstick as if to smash the screen.
‘Hey HEY HEY!’ Vega appealed to me: ‘What is this? Like good cop, bad cop?’
‘I said shut up. Ben, ask.’
‘Hey, didn’t your boy here tell you?’ Vega’s voice was soft, aggrieved. ‘I’m a cop.’
‘A cop? Is that what you think you are? A cop?’ Kelly wagged the nightstick at him. ‘You’re not a cop, you’re a disgrace. Don’t you ever call yourself a cop.’
‘What are you talkin’ about?’
‘You broke the code, Julio.’
‘You sold out your partner.’
‘I didn’t sell out no one. Artie got shot.’
‘Yes, he got shot, and then you sold him out. You let his killer walk. You sinned.’
‘What are you talking about, “sinned”? I loved Artie.’
‘Then why did you let Harold Braxton get off?’
‘Me and Artie, we were like brothers, man-’
‘Who put Artie in front of that door?’
‘I don’t know. It was…’
‘It was what, Julio?’
‘We had a tip.’
Exasperated, Kelly stepped in front of the chair and leaned over Vega. The old man looked like some Grim Reaper come to collect Vega’s mortal soul. ‘That’s right, you keep it to yourself. Protect Raul, whatever you do. I don’t know if you’re a coward or if you’re crooked or just stupid, but I never thought I’d see a cop protect a cop killer.’
‘What is it, Julio? Raul was your snitch, is that it? Your snitch killed your partner, is that what you’re afraid everybody is going to find out?’
‘No, I, I-’
Kelly loomed over him. ‘Don’t ever call yourself a cop. I’m a cop. This man is a cop.’ He pointed at me. ‘Artie Trudell was a cop. You’re nothing. Understand? You’re nothing.’
‘I loved Artie.’ Vega’s voice was disappearing.
‘I can’t listen to this bullshit anymore,’ Kelly sighed. He went to the window.
For a time nobody spoke. We heard the sounds of kids nearby, teens maybe, needling each other, laughing.
Vega’s soft voice: ‘I never knew who Raul was.’
More young shouts from outside, a radio, a distant siren.
‘I never met him.’
I shot Kelly a glance. He was staring out the window, shaking his head.
Vega again: ‘It was just a tip.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I sputtered. ‘This whole thing — Braxton skated because you wouldn’t give up Raul. The whole point was to protect Raul from getting killed. Wasn’t it?’
Vega stared at the blank television screen.
‘You couldn’t find him, you said. You testified — You said you drove around looking for Raul but you couldn’t find him.’
‘Maybe there never was a Raul.’
‘I never met him.’
I knelt down in front of Vega so I could look into his eyes.
‘Julio, it’s real important you tell the truth. No more lies. Everything that’s happened up to this point — none of it matters now. You can’t go back and do anything any different. You see what I’m saying? But you can do the right thing now.’
‘Julio, if Braxton killed Artie Trudell, we’ll get him. But we need to know what really went on that night. If the tip about the red-door coke did not come from Raul, where did it come from?’
Nothing. I had the sense the real Julio Vega was retreating like a boat on the horizon.
I prodded, ‘Listen to me, Julio, it’s not too late. You can still make this come out right. You can go back and make it right for Artie.’
Then, unexpectedly, Vega’s reserve simply collapsed. Maybe he gagged, finally, on the acid he’d been forced to swallow. Remorse and guilt and longing over Artie Trudell’s death. The thumbs-down of policemen, the loathing of the city, the finger-pointing — the community wheeling on one of its members, the many encircling the one. Of course all of this is my own supposition. Vega gave no outward signal, no movement in his face, no tears, no melodrama. The only motion he made was an involuntary tremor in his hand. But all at once, the truth poured out and out.
‘Everybody knew about it,’ he said evenly. ‘It was like, that summer everybody in the Flats was scoring coke from that place. Everybody had this red-door coke. And everybody knew it was MP dealing out of there. We all knew it. We had to close the place. The whole neighborhood was terrified, with all the sliders and the drugs and the gangs. But nobody would say anything. We tried to do a few buys but nobody would help us. They didn’t want to get mixed up with it. So we couldn’t get a snitch in there, and without a snitch we couldn’t get a warrant.’
‘So you just made up Raul?’
He shook his head no.
‘Where did the tip come from?’
My jaw literally dropped.
‘Gittens always had snitches, man. When he was in Narcotics, it was like he knew more than anyone else. He was like the king of Mission Flats. Me and Artie, when we come along and we got to Narcotics, sometimes he’d help us out, like he’d give us some tip one of his snitches gave him. He was just helping us out so we could get a few pinches, right? You got to understand, nobody talks in the Flats. No-body It’s like the Code of Silence, like the Mafia or whatever. So we went to Gittens and asked if he could help us out. We told him, we got to close down this red-door place but we can’t get a CI — a confidential informant, you know? You need a snitch for the warrant. So Gittens tells us he’ll ask around. A few days later he comes back and he says this guy Raul told him all this stuff about the red door and Braxton. Gave up the whole thing. So we used it. We just wrote it all down and we used it. It was a good tip. The warrant was good.’
‘How do you know he was a good snitch? Maybe Gittens made him up.’
‘Gittens didn’t have to. He had guys would just talk. Everybody talks to Gittens. He’s just got a way. Besides, I’d heard about Raul before. Gittens used him in other cases. I don’t think that was his real name, Raul, but I know Gittens used him in other cases, called him Raul.’ Vega’s voice was flat, his tone did not waver.
‘You waited ten years to say this? Why?’ Kelly was incensed. ‘Why didn’t you just tell the truth and then let Gittens find Raul? Jesus, you let a cop killer walk!’
Vega shook his head. His pupils moved with his head like the buttoneyes in a stuffed animal. He was not seeing anything. ‘We had to,’ he said. ‘We had to stick with what we said in the search-warrant application. If it came out that we lied in the warrant, they’d have thrown out the whole case. My partner got killed, man. This was my brother. How could I let them throw out the case? We had to stick to the story. We needed that warrant to stand up.’
He pleaded, ‘What did it matter where the tip came from? What difference did it make? The tip was true. Every word of it was true! What was I supposed to do? Admit we cleaned up the warrant a little? Braxton would have walked right then and there!’
But Kelly wasn’t mollified. ‘Why didn’t you just ask Gittens to give you Raul? All you had to say was, We need to give up the snitch because this is a cop killing and all promises are off. Gittens would have understood that.’
‘I told him that. He said he did not know Raul’s real name, he only knew his street name.’
‘OG,’ I prodded, remembering the file in Danziger’s office.
‘That’s right. Old Gangster, some bullshit like that. Gittens and me, we looked for that guy, Raul, OG, whatever. He took off. He didn’t want to get caught between the cops and the Posse. I’d have done the same thing. Raul was dead no matter which side found him. Even if the cops had found him, he knew we couldn’t protect him, especially after the trial. So he took off. We were locked in,’ Vega said.
‘Me and Gittens. Well just me, really. Gittens didn’t have nothing to do with it.’
Kelly sighed wearily.
‘I don’t suppose there’s no way we could just keep this between us?’ Vega asked.
‘No chance,’ I said.
‘No. Didn’t think so.’ One of Vega’s hands sought out his forehead and began to knead the slack skin there. He said, ‘It wasn’t like you said, you know. It was all for Artie. I was trying to save the case. I’d do anything…’
I nodded. There was nothing to tell him, no comfort to offer.
‘I’d do anything.’
‘Julio,’ I said finally, ‘maybe there is something. You can take us back to that night.’
The triple-decker at 52 Vienna Road in the Flats had been vehemently rehabilitated. What had once been a fortress with a crack dealership on the top floor was now a trig little three-family home with October-colored mums out front.
On the third-floor landing — where crackheads had stood and passed rolled-up bills through a slit in the red door — there was a bristly mat so visitors could wipe their shoes. The red door was not even red. It was beige. The beautiful battered-down, rifle-blasted, wood-pane red door of my imagination had been replaced by a hollow-core steel job. The landing was tiny, about four by four — much smaller than I’d pictured it — and the two of us cha-cha’d around each other as different details caught our attention. When we were through, Kelly and I climbed up the next few steps, vaguely relieved to be out of the killing zone in front of the door.
Vega, who had been obliged to wait below on the staircase, stepped up onto the little stage. ‘Man, they really cleaned this place up,’ he said apprehensively, as if we would not believe him. ‘It didn’t look like this.’
‘It’s alright, Julio,’ I reassured. ‘Just tell us what happened, start to finish.’
Vega recounted the raid in detail. He named the cops on the entry team, where they were positioned, he described the dripping heat of that summer night, even the apparent strength of the door itself. Yet he did it all in the same hollow manner I’d noticed when he’d met me at the door an hour earlier. It was like listening to a dead man.
‘When Artie got shot, at first I didn’t see nothing. Just the sound. Like boom. People always say guns sound like firecrackers, like pop pop. This was no firecracker, this was BOOM! I was looking at the door, and the top of it just kind of blew out, like from the inside. I remember I’m thinking, That’s weird, the way the top of that door exploded like that. The things you think about, you know? I was kneeling beside the door, down here like this. I looked up and Artie had kind of turned around, like his back was to me. And then he just dropped, man. There was a lot of blood. I mean a lot of blood.’ Vega rubbed his eyes, which were dull and world-tired. ‘I figure the guy must have been standing right behind the door, right up close so he could aim at Artie’s head. He must have waited to figure out where Artie was hitting the door so he could line him up. Then he just shot through the door where he figured Artie’s head was at. Only it doesn’t make sense, because if he wanted to kill him and be sure of it, he’d have aimed at Artie’s chest, where the target was biggest. It’s like he knew Artie was wearing a vest… Sometimes I think, Artie was just such a big dude. I’m talking maybe six-two, six-three, two-sixty, two-seventy-five — big. And the shooter, he aimed so high, like maybe he did not want to hit him, just scare him. Only he did not know Artie was gonna be so damn big…’
‘Just tell us what happened next.’ My voice was cool, ministering.
‘Nothing happened. I, like, tried to reach out to Artie and see if he was okay. At the beginning I didn’t realize he was dead. I mean, I knew he was dead but part of me did not know for sure, you know? Then I had my radio and I called in and told them we were in trouble. I did not know what to do. The others were all up those stairs where you are now and down here, on the stairs down to the second floor. None of us knew what to do.’
‘Did you hear anything inside the apartment? Footsteps? Voices?’
‘It was all, like, crazy time in here. People were shouting and the radio was going and my ears were ringing and all this blood was coming toward me on the floor. I didn’t hear nothing.’
‘Did anybody look through the hole in the door to see who was in the apartment?’
‘No, man! Nobody was going to get in front of that door.’
I remeasured the little square of wood flooring in front of the door. Barely big enough to hold Trudell’s oversized body. No wonder Vega could not escape the spreading blood. He’d been paralyzed there, not brave enough to go forward, not cowardly enough to go back. How ordinary was his reaction, how like the way I would have reacted.
Vega stood up, sliding his back up the wall. ‘You know what I was thinking? I was thinking, “Artie, you stupid shit, you did this to yourself.”’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know what I mean. I just had this feeling the couple weeks before this all happened, like something was wrong. It doesn’t make sense. I know this wasn’t Artie’s fault, but it felt like it was. I felt like, Why did you do this? Why did you let this happen?’
Kelly, who had not uttered a word since we’d entered the building, said, ‘Why do you say Trudell did it to himself?’
‘Just the way he was acting: real quiet, like he was upset, nervous. I knew something was bothering him. I even asked him about it. Me and him used to talk all the time. But he swore it was nothing. I told him if he was in a beef with someone, did he need any help? Cuz Artie was my boy. I’d’a never let anything happen to him. Only he didn’t want any help. Maybe when you’re that big like Artie was, you figure you can do it all yourself because you’re untouchable. Like elephants, you know? They’re so big nothing can kill them, in the jungle. Then they get shot and it’s like, they must be surprised because they thought nothing could kill them and then there’s this little human with a little stick and, bang, they’re dying. They must be surprised. Because they’re so strong.’
I didn’t quite follow the point about elephants, but I did not blink at it. I did not want anything to interrupt the momentum of Vega’s narration. He’d held all this in for ten years.
‘I figured maybe it was something at home,’ Vega continued, ‘like it was none of my business. Artie had a wife and a couple of kids. Now I don’t know. Maybe he knew something he shouldn’t have known. There are things you don’t talk about. Anyway, I figured if he wanted to tell me what was up, he would. Artie always told you everything sooner or later. He wasn’t one of these guys that keeps shit secret. So I figured, just let it go. We were both so busy putting together this warrant for the red-door coke and there wasn’t time. This was it for us, man. This was it. I figured whatever it was, we’d talk about it later.’
Kelly shot me a glance to underline the importance of the point. Remember that!
‘Go on, Julio,’ I coaxed. ‘Artie goes down. What happens next?’
‘Well, like I said, we were there, just like ten guys, no backup-’
‘Why wasn’t there any backup?’ Kelly interrupted.
‘That’s how we always did it. We had to get in here quiet. If they seen us coming with cruisers and all that, there’d be nothing left by the time we got inside. We had to surprise them. Plus, in the A-3 you didn’t tell anybody anything, not in that station. It was the Hotel No-tell. We had guys there that were tighter with Braxton than with you. Some of them were on the take, some of them just knew a kid from the neighborhood or whatever. If they heard about the warrant, they would have made a phone call. So we didn’t tell nobody about that raid till the night we did it, and we picked those guys by hand because we trusted them. You know what I mean.’ This last was directed at Kelly.
‘Alright,’ I prodded, ‘we get it. No backup. Keep going.’
But before Vega could reply, a man’s voice behind the apartment door announced, ‘I don’t know who you all are, but I’m getting ready to call the police.’
None of us said anything.
The man opened the door partway and spied us. A seventyish African-American man with a formal bearing. A gentleman retiree maybe, the sort who puts on a tie every day to read his newspaper at the kitchen table. ‘This isn’t a place to hang out. What are you fellas doing out here?’
I stepped forward (I was technically the senior officer), flipped my badge, apologized for disturbing the man.
‘Nobody called the police to come here.’ He took up a guard post at the threshold.
‘Well it’s an old case. It’s nothing to worry about.’
The man did not react.
‘There was an accident here a long time ago,’ I said. ‘A policeman was killed.’
‘I know all about it. They set up that boy for it.’
Vega’s eyes swelled, a bubble of sadness.
‘That’s not necessarily what happened,’ I offered without conviction.
‘Mmm-hmm. You mind if I stay here?’
‘Yes,’ Vega blurted.
‘No,’ I overruled him. ‘No, I think it would be helpful if you stayed, Mr…?’
‘Mr Kenison. Ben Truman.’ We shook hands. ‘John Kelly, Julio Vega.’
The old man hesitated before taking Vega’s hand — did he remember the pariah’s name? — but he shook it, then returned to his post at the door like a Beefeater.
The presence of this interloper seemed to inhibit Vega. He studied the floor as if he’d dropped a coin there. ‘Anyway, like I said, I had the radio and there’s blood all over and I can hear Gittens calling the turret. I knew Gittens was going to be around because it was kind of his warrant. You know, in the sense it was his snitch’ — a glance at Mr Kenison — ‘I mean informant. Plus, he was our friend, he watched out for Artie and me. So I hear him call in and he says he’s coming up. Next thing I know, here comes Gittens up the stairs. Out of nowhere, he’s just here. It was like some cartoon, like “Super Friends” or something. So Gittens comes up behind me and he says, “What the fuck happened?” And I tell him, “Artie got shot through the door.” So Gittens is all pissed. He stands up and he grabs the pipe and he starts breaking down the door himself. No vest. He just jumps in front of the door and starts banging away. He kept slipping because of the blood on the floor, and he had Artie lying there around his feet. But he was going in that door no matter what. It took a while, but Gittens got through and we followed him in.’
Vega moved to enter the apartment, but Mr Kenison was blocking the door.
The old man stepped aside. His eyes never strayed from Vega’s face.
Vega led us into the apartment just as Gittens had led the search-warrant team a decade before.
‘We get in and it’s empty. Nothing. No shooter, no gun, no coke. Not even furniture. Just some little stuff in the cabinets, cereal, shit like that. Paper and shit all over the floor. It was dark too. The only light was from the street outside.’
Vega’s description jarred with the bright, well-scrubbed apartment we stood in. The walls were freshly painted in a creamy yellow, there were new appliances in the kitchen, even the windows had been replaced with up-to-date vinyl-sash models.
‘Did you do all this?’ I asked Mr Kenison.
‘Yes, I did.’ His tone carried the hint of a challenge.
‘It’s really nice.’
Vega went on: ‘Like I said, we’d never been inside this place. We didn’t know what the fuck it was going to look like in here.’ To Mr Kenison: ‘Excuse me, we didn’t know anything about what it was going to look like. Sorry. We come in, we secure it, next thing I know Gittens is running down a back staircase and everyone is running after him. We did not even know there was a back staircase. After that I’m kinda unclear. I didn’t go with them. I went back to stay with Artie.’
‘But do you know what happened?’
‘Yeah. Gittens found the weapon in the back of the apartment near the door. Big pump-action shotgun. Ballistics made it the murder weapon, fingerprints made it Braxton’s. We tore the place up, found all kinds of other evidence Braxton had been here. There was a back stairway and a back door, which was how the shooter got out. Simple case. It was Braxton, no doubt about it.’
Mr Kenison said, ‘That boy admitted he’d been here other times. So you found his fingerprints or whatever; doesn’t mean he was here that night.’ His tone was neither angry nor deferential. He was simply stating a fact, unabashed by the fact that we were police officers.
‘His fingerprints,’ Vega exclaimed, ‘were on the gun!’
‘They could have taken that gun from the boy anytime and dropped it in the yard.’
‘Oh come on!’ Vega said.
‘You really believe that?’
‘I believe it happens, yes.’
‘But do you believe that’s what happened here? We planted the gun? I mean, you live here, you see what goes on. Do you really believe that’s what happened?’
‘I don’t know who of you-all to believe. I don’t believe that boy and I don’t believe the police. That makes him not guilty.’
‘You think he’s innocent.’
‘I didn’t say innocent. I said not guilty. Could be he did it. But you police officers should have done a better job.’
Vega’s chest and shoulders drooped perceptibly. After all, this was the common wisdom on the Trudell case. Braxton’s guilt or innocence was almost beside the point. It had become a case about civil rights and police lying — Vega’s lying — not murder. A morality play for the masses, with Braxton the incidental beneficiary.
Vega looked around the apartment, searching for something familiar, a portal back to that night. In the kitchen, he ran his palm over the Formica counters. It was as if the refurbished apartment disoriented him. It mediated between himself and his own history. Vega had replicated the coordinates along the Y-axis of place only to find the X-axis, time, completely blocked, the grid itself inaccessible. The moment of fracture — August 17, 1987, 2:25 A.M. — was lost.
He murmured, ‘That kid killed Artie.’
No one responded.
‘That kid killed Artie.’
Vega was drenched in remorse, and it occurred to me that he’d reached a terrible decision: He intended to kill Braxton. But it was a fleeting suspicion, crowded out almost immediately by a more pressing concern.
Framed by the apartment windows, the strobe of a cruiser’s lights glinted from the street below. I looked down to see Martin Gittens and a backup car, three cops in all. They had come for me.
‘Ben, we need to talk again.’
‘Am I under arrest?’
Gittens hesitated when he heard the question, and I felt compelled to make an explanatory little wave toward the two uniform cops and the strobe flashes from the cruisers’ light bars.
‘Then why the backup?’
‘People tend to get emotional,’ Gittens replied, ‘when things start to look bad.’
‘Is it starting to look bad?’
He gave a pained shrug. ‘I’m sure you can explain.’
The Area A-3 station was just a few blocks away. We returned to the same painted-cinder-block interrogation room where Lowery and Gittens had confronted me twenty-four long hours earlier. This time, Lowery was not there. Kurth had taken his place.
‘I want Kelly in the room.’
‘No,’ Gittens said. ‘Sorry.’
‘Then I have nothing to say’
‘However you want to play it, Chief Truman. You can just listen, if you want. Or talk. Your call.’
‘And if I just leave? Invoke my right to remain silent?’
‘Then we’ll have to wonder. Which is our right, Chief Truman.’
‘And what about-’ I was thinking of the fact that I was a cop and was owed a measure of professional courtesy. But something in Gittens’s demeanor warned me it was too late for that. Something behind all that elaborate courtesy, all those respectful Chief Trumans.
‘What if Kelly watches from the glass?’ I nodded toward the one-way mirror.
Gittens considered a moment before deciding to allow it.
Kelly urged me not to participate in the questioning at all. There was nothing to be gained by it. But I felt — foolishly — there was nothing to gain by lawyerly dithering. I wanted to show my innocence; I wanted to walk the walk. More important, I had a fatal curiosity about Gittens’s continuing suspicion of me. Why me? What did he have? The whole thing was inexplicable. I had to see the evidence against me, even took morbid pleasure in it. Freud once described pleasure as the release of tension; at least now the tension caused by being kept in the dark might be released.
But when Kelly had left the room, it was Kurth, not Gittens, who took over the interrogation. The switch was disconcerting. It moved the case from a local A-3 detective to a Homicide detective. It signaled that the ball had been passed. Kurth exhibited none of Gittens’s false friendliness. ‘We just got this back.’ Kurth put a heat-sealed plastic bag on the table. It contained a drinking glass, which had been fumed and powdered for prints. The gold-leaf shield of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel was smudged with black powder.
I tried consciously to slow down my body, to master the subsystems — respiration, metabolism, heartbeat. Do not blink, do not blush, do not hyperventilate, do not react in any way.
‘It’s from the room where your mother’s body was found. Those are your prints. The fluid inside tested positive for barbiturate residue.’
‘Do you want to explain how your prints got there?’
‘Not at the moment.’
‘It’s a murder weapon.’
‘No, it’s not, and you know it.’
‘Did she drink it? I thought they were pills.’
‘Danziger had this glass. Come on, you must have known that. Did he ask you about it?’ Kurth waited a beat. Then, ‘There’s more too. Video of you in the hotel with your mother, checking in and out. Video, Chief Truman. We haven’t done a handwriting analysis on the hotel’s paperwork yet, but it doesn’t really seem necessary at this point. You were there with her.’
I wore a cast-iron poker face, the one valuable thing I inherited as Annie Truman’s son.
‘You helped her do it, didn’t you?’ A beat. ‘You murdered her.’
‘It’s not murder,’ I said.
‘It is in this state. Did Danziger tell you that? He was going to indict you, wasn’t he? Of course he was. Why else would he go all the way up to Maine except to talk to you about it? He was going to take it to the grand jury. A cop involved in a murder — excuse me, a suicide. How could Danziger look the other way? Not on this one, not this time.’
‘I didn’t murder anyone,’ I said.
‘Why wasn’t Danziger’s file on the case with the rest of his things?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘His case file on your mother’s death, the folder, it’s missing. He must have brought the file with him when he went to Maine, since he intended to work on the case there. We had to reconstruct it from duplicates and from files he kept on his computer. So where’s the original file?’
‘I have no idea.’
He laid a piece of paper on the table.
‘Is that your signature?’
I glanced at the document with stagy blitheness, the way you might look over a day-old newspaper or a dessert menu.
‘Versailles Police Department,’ Kurth read,’ missing firearm. Nine-millimeter Glock 17 pistol. Firearm reported missing from evidence locker by Officer Dick Ginoux. Dick to follow up. Signed Chief Benjamin W. Truman. September 29, 1997. Let me guess, Chief Truman: The Glock was never found.’
‘Any idea where it might have gone?’
‘Would you be surprised to hear that a nine-millimeter Glock 17 is consistent with the weapon that murdered Bob Danziger?’
‘Oh, come on, Kurth, I saw the body. There must be a hundred guns that would be consistent with that scene.’
‘Strange coincidence, though, wouldn’t you say? Big gun like that just disappearing from the evidence locker in a little Podunk police station like yours?’
‘Shit happens,’ he repeated. ‘So what did you do to follow up? Or weren’t you concerned about a nine-millimeter semiautomatic lying by the side of the road?’
‘Of course I was concerned. We searched, we investigated. We couldn’t track it down.’
‘You had access to that locker, didn’t you? You could have taken that gun.’
I didn’t answer.
‘Chief Truman, can you tell me why you went out to the cabin that morning? When you found the body, I mean. What were you doing there?’
‘It’s routine. We check all the cabins as part of our rounds.’
‘Even in winter?’
‘Especially in winter.’
Gittens broke in at this point. He sat down opposite me, rested his hands on the table and interlaced his fingers. It was a thoughtful pose. ‘Ben, why don’t you help yourself out here. Get ahead of this a little, before it goes too far down the track. All these things, you see what it adds up to, don’t you? Motive, means, opportunity. Danziger told you he was going to indict the assisted-suicide case, so you shot him, then you ditched the gun somewhere, probably in the lake. Then you took Danziger’s file.’
‘That’s your theory?’ I said.
‘That’s our theory, yeah.’
‘It’s not true. Martin, I’m not a murderer. What else can I tell you?’
Gittens shook his head mournfully. He’d wanted to hear more.
‘Gittens, are you going forward with this?’
‘That’s up to the DA.’
‘Then I’m free to go?’
‘You’re free to go. Unless there’s something else you want to say’
‘I didn’t do it,’ I told them. And again, ‘I did not do it.’
And again to myself — to remind myself of the truth: I did not do it. Braxton’s message played in my head, too, with renewed urgency: Find Raul.
Danziger’s house was a miniature colonial with green shutters, one of four identical homes built side by side on a leafy crescent in West Roxbury. This was no bachelor’s flophouse. An apron of flower beds circled the house — finicky arrangements with evergreens in back, mums and marigolds in front. The tiered ranks reminded me of a class picture, bright smiling girls seated in front, awkward blank-faced boys standing in back.
I had come here, frantic, looking for Raul — for any hint that Robert Danziger had located the informant responsible for putting Artie Trudell in front of that red door ten years ago. Solving the riddle of Raul was now a more desperate proposition. I was now the prime suspect. I could feel the weight of the evidence enfolding me. I looked guilty, even to myself. Panic was seeping through me.
Danziger’s backyard was an orderly space. A pair of brightly painted Adirondack chairs, a birdhouse crafted to resemble the actual house.
On the upper half of the back door were a dead bolt and four panes of glass, an arrangement that could deter only those few burglars too squeamish to break a window. I punched an elbow through the glass. No alarm, no barking dog, nothing. My first B amp;E, and nobody cared.
The door opened into a kitchen. Expensive-looking pots hung from a brass rack, cookbooks and cooking magazines lined two shelves. ‘Oh my God,’ I mumbled out loud, ‘it’s Martha Stewart’s house.’
In the living room, framed photos crowded the mantel above a fireplace. Danziger himself was in most of them, smiling behind his tortoiseshell glasses and walrus mustache. Another man appeared in these photos — handsome, younger than Danziger — and it occurred to me that Danziger was gay. The idea brought me up short. It was the first human detail I’d learned about him.
Until now Danziger had been little more than an abstraction. Occasionally in my thoughts I’d dignified him with the title victim, but it is a peculiarity of murder cases that the victim is unknowable and therefore unreal. The detective has only the body, and even that must be objectified as evidence for professional and psychological reasons, for how else could the detective handle the constant reminder of his own mortality, of the ease with which flesh is ruptured and life ended? Children who are murdered seem to evoke a more visceral, emotional response, but in general the homicide investigator keeps his distance. In his own home, though, for the first time, Bob Danziger was no abstraction. He was a living presence. You felt him. I remembered Danziger as he’d been when he first approached me in Versailles. He seemed about to ask for directions or some other routine business. Chief Benjamin Truman? I was wondering if I could have a word.
I studied the family photos. In one snapshot, Danziger and his partner stood side by side at a party of some kind, both wearing tuxedos. Another photo showed them at the beach, standing with arms draped over each other’s shoulders like old pals. In this picture, Danziger wore a gold Star of David around his neck; a Claddagh ring was discernible on his partner’s finger. Such pregnant images, so suggestive of the infinite complexity of Danziger’s life, of any life.
I wandered through the empty house, opening drawers and cabinets. I looked inside the medicine chest in the master bathroom. (A partial inventory: green plastic toothbrush and a full tube of Crest Extra Whitening toothpaste, a Panasonic beard trimmer, tweezers, Edge shaving cream, a Gillette disposable razor, a stiff brush with red hairs caught in the bristles, a fine-tooth comb for the mustache, moisturizer with SPF 15 sunblock for Danziger’s fair skin, two prescription bottles containing codeine pills prescribed in 1995 for back pain.)
In the den, I sat down in the flattened chair facing the TV. A hardcover edition of Updike’s Rabbit at Rest lay beside the chair where, I presume, Danziger had put it down. He had used the flap of the dust jacket to hold his page, and I opened the book to read a few lines there. The book was signed on the inside cover in blue ink, Robt Danziger, 1/17/92. Practiced, Palmer Method letters.
I imagined him then, on January 17, 1992, inscribing his book for posterity. He couldn’t have known, could he? When Bobby Danziger bent over this page and signed his name, when he decided after some hesitation to abbreviate his first name to Robt — an artifice calculated to mask the attention he was lavishing on the signature — he could not have known that the fatal trajectory of his life was already set, the string of coincidences already in motion, bearing him toward that cabin in Maine five and a half years later. In fact, the chain of causation had begun even earlier, in 1977 with the cop killing at the Kilmarnock Pub — an event I’d already linked with the first murderous cells dividing and metastasizing in my mother’s brain. Maybe, I imagined, Fasulo fired the death shot into that policeman’s head at the precise moment the first malignant cell pinched itself in two. There ought to be a pattern in these things, a system, otherwise it is all just chance and absurdity, isn’t it? Otherwise it is just stupidity — trucks skipping over guardrails, plaque encrusting the arteries of men’s hearts, hydraulic systems failing over the North Atlantic. Each of us marching ignorantly toward his own random, pointless finish. And yet on a day like today — rustling with dry leaves and the smell of winter coming on, alive with the sense of degeneration and regeneration; the sort of day that is New England’s special gift — who would want to know? Who would reverse the flight of the arrow? Why would Danziger ever want to preview his own perishing, the when, where and how? Why would he want to foresee his own body on that cabin floor, the slurry of blood and bone chips sprayed on the walls? So he could choose a different path? If he had seen the end, would he have left Artie Trudell’s murder unsolved? Run off to a monastery somewhere and hidden from his fate? Maybe. But he did not know. He followed the branchings until he reached that cabin, and, stupid or not, that is the way it has to be. None of us knows.
In a small office on the second floor, I sorted through papers and files looking for anything connected to the Trudell case. I searched Danziger’s personal papers, through files tabbed Auto and Taxes and House. There was nothing about Raul or Trudell or anything else. The air in the room was warm and close. Dust motes hung in the sunlight.
Behind me a hoarse, grinding voice — a voice out of a gangster movie — said, ‘What are you doing here?’
Edmund Kurth stood at the office door.
‘Jesus, Ed! Do you always sneak up like that?’
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’m — I’m doing a search.’
‘A search? You have a warrant?’
‘I don’t need a warrant to search a dead guy’s house.’
‘You don’t need a warrant if you’re a cop. You’re not a cop, so it’s trespassing. I could arrest you.’
‘Do you need to see my badge, Ed?’
‘Your badge doesn’t mean shit here. You’ve been told to leave.’
‘So you’re going to arrest me for trespassing.’
Kurth lingered in the doorway. He glowered with the flamboyant ferocity of a boxer in the prefight staredown. The evil eye. There was such feral, unaffected menace in it — the sense of energy held just barely in check — that his mere presence implied a threat.
‘This won’t help you, you know, being found here. You’re only making it worse.’
I pressed my temples between my two fists, looking, I’m sure, like the very model of a guilty man.
‘What is it you’re looking for?’
‘I don’t know exactly’
‘We already searched this place.’ He drifted into the room. ‘There’s nothing left for you to find.’
From Danziger’s desk, Kurth plucked a crude-looking shiv, a souvenir of an old trial, no doubt. The weapon was little more than a five — or six-inch strip of metal with cloth tape wound around one end as a grip. ‘Ever seen one of these, Chief Truman?’
‘They make them in the prisons. They take the leg of a bed or a table and sharpen it into a knife like this.’
‘Interesting, Ed. Thanks for the information.’
He ignored the sarcasm. ‘It’s not a very good knife, it’s not that sharp. But it gets the job done.’
He held the blade about a foot from my nose. He let it rest in his open palm, presumably to demonstrate that he did not actually intend to stab me. Small comfort. He stood pondering the thing a moment longer, then flipped it around and offered it to me handle-first. When I didn’t take it, he laid the odd-looking dagger carefully on the desk.
‘One more time, Chief Truman. What are you doing here?’
‘You wouldn’t believe me.’
‘You’d be surprised.’
What was left at this point but to trust him? ‘I know why Danziger was killed.’
‘He was looking into the Arthur Trudell case, from ’87. I think he found Trudell’s killer.’
‘So who did it? Braxton?’
‘I don’t know. Yet.’
‘Well, where did your information come from?’
I winced. ‘Braxton.’
Kurth actually smiled. He looked down at me and grinned, and sunlight illuminated the pits in his cheeks where birds seemed to have pecked him with their beaks. ‘That’s just too perfect,’ he said.
‘Kurth, you have to look into this. You have to!’
‘Because it’s the truth.’ I groped for a more compelling reason. ‘And because it’s your job.’
‘I’ll look into anything. On one condition: You tell me everything you know about it. No Fifth Amendment bullshit, no lawyers. You tell the truth for once, Mr Country Bumpkin.’
‘Of course. I’ll tell you everything I know. Just please look into it. Please.’
‘Alright,’ he said, ‘so tell.’
The inflection points in history are rarely apparent to the players, who experience events in real time. The meta-patterns show up only in hindsight. I see now that that day, when Gittens and Kurth presented the case against me, was just such a pivotal moment. After that, the investigation seemed to turn away from me, temporarily at least. It is a common enough pattern in criminal investigations. Detectives swarm after a likely target, then a new suspect emerges and the detectives are pulled toward him, changing direction like schooling fish. For all the talk about ‘following the trail of evidence,’ usually there is no such thing; there are many possible trails, and the preconceptions of the investigators influence which they will see and follow. That I was soon to be dropped from the list of suspects in Robert Danziger’s murder was not apparent to me at the time, and I spent an agonizing weekend in limbo, smothering my inner hysteria, fantasizing scenarios in which I would be arrested, tried, imprisoned. By Monday morning — November 3 — I was hollow-eyed with exhaustion and worry.
That morning John Kelly and I returned to Mission Flats District Court, where, no longer part of the police team, we would follow the investigation from the cheap seats.
At 9:01 there was a rustle in the First Session courtroom as the audience stood and stragglers rushed in from the hallway to grab a seat on the crowded benches.
‘Can I get an amen,’ one of the lawyers sighed. In front of the judge’s bench, prosecutors and defense lawyers whispered and smiled. The daily chitchat.
Judge Bell emerged from a side door at stage right and swept up onto the bench, his robe unzipped and billowing behind him.
‘Commonwealth versus Gerald McNeese the Third!’ the clerk rushed to announce, as if he’d been waiting all weekend to do so. ‘Number ninety-seven dash seven-seven-eight-eight. Case brought forward on a motion by Mr Beck.’
McNeese appeared in the little glassless window at the side of the courtroom, the prisoners’ dock. His shaved head now had a shadow of hair. He smirked. Apparently he knew what was coming.
On the opposite side of the courtroom, Kurth and Gittens watched him.
‘I’ll hear you, Mr Beck,’ the judge said. There was a fatalistic note in his voice. Judge Bell knew what had happened, he knew what Beck was about to say. But there was a protocol to be followed. We had to go through the motions.
Beck marched across the courtroom to the prisoners’ dock, to the cymbal-beat of jingling coins in his pockets. ‘Your Honor, I’ve brought this case forward on a motion to dismiss based on a tragic change in circumstances. Since the arraignment, a man named Raymond Ratleff was found dead in Franklin Park, apparently murdered.’
Kurth shifted visibly.
‘Mr Ratleff was an essential witness in this case,’ Beck went on, ‘the only witness — the only evidence of any kind — that placed my client at the scene of this crime. If you recall, my client is alleged to have assaulted Mr Ratleff by striking his head against the sidewalk, a charge he vehemently denies. It would appear that, without Mr Ratleff, there is no evidence to support the charge. Therefore, I would inquire of Ms Kelly whether she has a good-faith expectation-’
‘Mr Beck,’ the judge snapped, ‘this is my courtroom. If anyone is going to inquire of Ms Kelly, it will be me.’
‘Alright, then I would ask the court to inquire of Ms Kelly whether there is any real chance this case will ever be indicted. If not, the charge should be dismissed and my client should be released forthwith.’
‘Forthwith,’ the judge repeated to himself. ‘What about it, Ms Kelly? You still have a case?’
Caroline stood. ‘There is some blood,’ she answered halfheartedly. ‘It was on the defendant’s shoes. It’s at the crime lab now.’
‘Just blood? Nothing else? No way to determine when or how the blood got there, even assuming it is the victim’s?’
‘Do you want to be heard on the motion?’
Caroline shook her head. ‘No.’ It was the only time I ever saw her give up.
Judge Bell massaged his chin in a pantomime of deep thought. In truth, the decision was a no-brainer. With Ray Rat dead, G-Mac was entitled to a free pass. But it was all so distasteful, such a ham-handed sort of treason. The judge fancied himself a gentleman jurist, a Holmes born out of his time. This was all well beneath him. So he turned his nose up at G-Mac’s manipulations and hesitated. But in the end there was nothing to be done about it. ‘The motion is allowed,’ he sniffed.
McNeese whooped loudly. A woman seated near us in the back of the courtroom did too.
‘Mr Beck!’ the judge reprimanded. ‘Instruct your client-’ He didn’t bother to finish. What difference did it make if G-Mac whooped it up a little? The damage was done.
A court officer unlocked the handcuffs and leg irons, and Beck led G-Mac past us out of the courtroom.
The woman, a very beautiful Hispanic woman who appeared to be in her early twenties, jumped up and down with girlish excitement then followed G-Mac into the hall where she whooped again.
At that moment, something in Kurth snapped. He stalked out after them. At the courtroom door, Kelly put out a hand to stop him — ’Ed, don’t’ — but Kurth brushed it aside. He pushed through the two sets of swinging doors out to the lobby, where McNeese was standing by the elevators.
Kelly followed behind Kurth. I was right behind Kelly.
Beck, who had been instructing McNeese on something or other, and McNeese’s girlfriend, who had been stroking his shoulder, both looked up with puzzled expressions. Who’s that? A cop? The scary-looking one with the bad skin? He’s coming toward us. Does he want to tell us something? Did we forget something?
Kurth kept moving, disregarding Kelly’s plea to ‘slow down, slow down.’
Beck, probably forgetting that he was holding a yellow legal pad, raised his hand to stop Kurth.
Kurth slapped the pad out of the lawyer’s hand. He stood inches from McNeese, who was a good deal taller but leaned backward anyway, turning his face to the side. Kurth poked McNeese’s chest with his finger. ‘You think this is over? You think this is over?’
Kelly attempted to calm him: ‘Ed, not here, son, this isn’t the time.’
I put a hand on Kurth’s back, hoping to quiet him the way you would a coughing child. There was an animal hardness to his back, a suggestion of strength that I had no wish to test.
‘Answer me. You think this is a fuckin’ game?’
‘Yo, get this crazy motherfucker away from me.’
People began to drift out of the courtroom, following the noise.
Caroline squeezed to the front of the gathering crowd. ‘Oh, Jesus, Ed.’
At this moment, right beside us the elevator door opened. Inside was a lovely old woman in a red overcoat. Kurth glared at her, G-Mac glared at her. The lady’s eyes bulged. The elevator door closed again.
John Kelly stepped in front of Kurth, squeezing between the two men, and ordered him to ‘back off.’
Kurth pointed his finger at the old man, then he caught himself and stepped back.
‘That’s right,’ McNeese threw in, ‘back off, crazy motherfucker.’
‘Shut up,’ Kelly told him.
McNeese fell silent.
‘Ben,’ Kelly said, ‘take Mr Beck and his client out of here.’
Kurth hissed, ‘Hey, shithead, tell Braxton this was a big mistake. Tell him this isn’t over.’
‘You can’t touch him.’ McNeese smirked.
‘Ben!’ Kelly said. ‘I said get them out of here.’
The elevator door opened again and the silver-haired lady peered out. ‘Excuse me,’ she said tentatively, ‘where would I find the Probate Court Clerk’s office?’
Caroline held up four fingers.
‘Four,’ I informed her.
‘Thank you, Officer.’
On the windswept plaza in front of the courthouse, I pulled Max Beck aside. ‘I need you to give a message to Braxton.’ Leaves and candy wrappers eddied around us. ‘Tell him I want to see him. I need more information.’
‘Are you joking? I’m not going to tell Harold any such thing. Have you even heard of the Constitution?’
‘Counselor, just give him the message.’ I squeezed his arm at the biceps.
McNeese objected on his lawyer’s behalf: ‘Hey.’
‘Shut up,’ I said, as Kelly had just a few minutes earlier. And again McNeese did shut up, which surprised me as much as anyone.
I told Beck, ‘I need Harold’s help.’
‘You want to tell me what this is all about?’
‘I can’t. Sorry. If I told you, you’d have to use it.’
The lawyer regarded me a moment. ‘Are you alright, Officer Truman?’