The Devil Knows You're Dead Page 13

 “Oh, I’m too old for that,” I said.

 He cackled happily. “You younger’n I am, and I ain’t too old for it. The girls on Eleventh Avenue, though, they got an eye for the dollar. An’ a lot of ’em sick nowadays, you go with ’em and you catch your death. No, when I get the old feeling, I’m better off with my schoolteacher.”

 “Who’s that?”

 “Lady I know, lives up near Lincoln Center. Teaches the fourth grade up in Washington Heights. Likes that white wine, whatchacall Chardonnay. I believe that’s how you say it. Always has beer in the icebox for me, though. And I can always have a hot bath there, and while I’m soaking in the tub she’ll be down in the basement running my clothes through the washing machine. I can stay there on a cold night, an’ she’ll cook me breakfast in the morning, if she don’t have too bad of a wine hangover.” He uncapped the OE bottle and looked down into it. “She’ll gen’ly come up with five or ten dollars, too, but I don’t like to take money from her.” He looked at me. “But sometimes I do,” he said.

 Chapter 10

 Dewitt Clinton Park covers two city blocks, extending from Fifty-second Street to Fifty-fourth Street and from Eleventh Avenue to Twelfth Avenue. A baseball field ringed by a twelve-foot cyclone fence takes up more than half the space, and most of what remains is given over to a playground for children, also fenced. The baseball field was deserted when I got there, but the playground was in use, with kids playing on the swings and slides and monkey bars, and clambering with abandon on the great outcropping of rock that had been allowed to remain for that purpose.

 At the southeast corner of the park stood a World War I memorial, a larger-than-life statue of a Doughboy green with verdigris, a rifle on his shoulder. These six lines were engraved upon the small plinth on which he stood:

from “flanders fields”

if ye break faith

with those who died

we shall not sleep

though poppies grow

on flanders fields

 I remembered the poem from high school English. The author was one of the War Poets, but I couldn’t recall which one, Rupert Brooke or Wilfred Owen or someone else. The plinth offered no clues; as far as it was concerned, the lines might have been the work of the Unknown Soldier.

 To the Doughboy’s right, two men many years younger than I stood close together, deep in conversation. One was black and wore a Chicago Bulls warm-up jacket, the other an Hispanic in acid-washed denim. Perhaps they were de-bating the authorship of the poem, but somehow I didn’t think so. The poppies that interested them didn’t grow on Flanders fields.

 On my earlier visits to Eleventh Avenue I hadn’t noticed any drug dealers, but then I’d barely taken notice of the park, deserted at that hour. Now, in the late afternoon, it was still a long way from being a drug supermarket like Bryant Park or Washington Square. There were young men scattered about, singly or in pairs, sitting on benches or leaning against the fence, perhaps eight of them in all. Two more sat behind home plate in the otherwise empty grandstand. Most of them eyed me, warily or in entrepreneurial anticipation, as I made my rounds. A few whispered enticements: “Smoke, good smoke.”

 At the park’s western edge I looked across Twelfth Av-enue and viewed the traffic, already beginning to thicken with commuters heading for the bridge and the northern suburbs. Beyond the stream of cars stood the Hudson piers. I tried to picture George Sadecki in his ratty army coat, dodg-ing traffic so that he could heave his gun off one of those piers. But of course he’d have run that particular fool’s er-rand in the middle of the night. There would have been less traffic to dodge.

 I turned to watch a couple of fellows my age giving each other a workout on the handball court. They had piled their jackets and sweatpants at courtside and were down to shorts and shoes and terrycloth sweatbands, and they powered the ball as if determined to drive it through the wall, playing with the singleminded devotion of the middle-aged male. A few years ago Jan Keane and I had come upon a similar dis-play, a pickup basketball game in the Village, and she had made a show of sniffing the air. “Testosterone,” she an-nounced. “I can smell the testosterone.”

 Bring me a gun, she’d said. I pictured her holding it in her hands, sniffing the oiled steel. I imagined the shot, heard her disembodied voice over its reverberation. Cordite, she’d be saying. I can smell the cordite.

 I left the park at its northwest corner, and the first pay phone I came to was right there at Twelfth Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street. I listened to the dial tone but held on to my quarter because someone had removed the label that gave the phone’s number. You could call out from the unit but no one could call you back.

 There was a phone with its number intact at Fifty-fourth and Eleventh, but it wouldn’t take a quarter from me. I tried four different coins and it found something unacceptable about each of them, spewing them all back to me. I retrieved them in turn and walked a block north, and the phone I wound up calling from was the one Glenn Holtzmann used for the last call he ever made. It had its number posted, it provided a dial tone, and it took my quarter. As long as no-body shot me I was in good shape.

 I dialed a number, and when a tone sounded I punched in the number of the phone I was calling from. Then I hung up and held the mute receiver to my ear while surreptitiously holding down the hook with my other hand, so that it would appear to passersby that I was actually using the phone, not simply waiting for it to ring.

 I didn’t have long to wait. I picked up and a voice said, “Who wants TJ?”

 “The police of three continents,” I said. “Among others.”

 “Hey, my man! Where’s it at, Matt? You got something for TJ?”

 “I might,” I said. “Are you free this afternoon?”

 “No, but I be reasonable. What you got?”

 “I’m a block from DeWitt Clinton Park,” I said. “I don’t know if you know it.”

 “ ’Course I know it. That’s the park and not the school? Say I meet you by the statue of the captain.”

 “You mean the soldier.”

 “I know he’s a soldier. I don’t know his name, so I call him Captain Flanders.”

 “I think you’ve got the rank wrong,” I said. “He’s dressed like an enlisted man.”

 “Oh yeah? He white, so I figure he be an officer. Meet you there in twenty minutes?”

 “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

 “Then why’d you call, Paul? What you said—”

 “I don’t think we should meet in the park, that’s all.” I looked around for a place to meet but didn’t see anything suitable on the avenue. “Tenth Avenue and Fifty-seventh,” I said. “There’s a coffee shop on the corner. Armstrong’s is on one corner and there’s a high-rise apartment building diago-nally across from it, and on one of the other corners there’s a coffee shop, a Greek place.”

 “That’s three corners,” he said. “What’s on the fourth one?”

 “I don’t know offhand. What difference does it make?”

 “Don’t make none to me, man, but you already told me about two other places that don’t make no difference either. You want to meet me at a coffee shop, all you got to tell me about is the coffee shop. I guess I find it all right. No need to give me landmarks.”

 “Twenty minutes?”

 “Twenty minutes.”

 I took my time getting there, doing a little window shopping along Fifty-seventh Street. It took me fifteen minutes to get to the coffee shop, and TJ was already there, sitting in one of the front booths and working his way through a pair of cheeseburgers and a plate of well-done french fries. TJ is a black street kid, visually indistinguishable from all the oth-ers who hang out on West Forty-second Street between Bryant Park and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. A while back a case had led me to that blighted stretch of pavement, and that’s where I met TJ.

 By now we were old friends and business associates, but I still knew remarkably little about him. TJ was the only name I knew for him, and I had no idea what the letters stood for, or if indeed they stood for anything at all. I didn’t know how old he was—sixteen, if I had to guess—or anything about his family. From his accent and speech pattern I’d have to guess he was Harlem born and bred, but he turned accents on and off, and I had heard him sound convincingly Brooks Brothers more than once.

 He spent most of his waking hours in and around Times Square, practicing the survival skills you need to get over on the Deuce. I don’t know where he slept. He insisted he wasn’t homeless, that he had a place to live, but he was very secretive about the subject.

 At first I’d had no way to reach him, and when he called me I was unable to return his calls. Then he took the money I paid him for a good night’s work and bought himself a beeper, claiming it was an investment. He was very proud of the beeper and always managed to pay the monthly charge to keep it on-line. He thought I should have one, too, and couldn’t understand why I didn’t.

 Whatever else he did for money, he seemed willing to drop it in a second if I called him with an offer of a day’s work. When I failed to call he would call me, insisting I must have something for him, proclaiming that he was energetic and resourceful. God knows I didn’t throw a whole lot of money his way, and I’m sure he got a better financial return on his time scamming on the Deuce, running errands for the players and shilling for the monte men. But he persisted in regarding the detective business as his chosen career, and looked forward to the day when the two of us would be part-ners. Meanwhile he seemed perfectly content to play Tonto.

 While he ate I told him about Glenn Holtzmann and George Sadecki. He’d heard about the incident—it would have been hard for anyone in the tri-state area to miss it— but it had had less impact on the Deuce than in less volatile neighborhoods. I could understand this. A dude shot a dude is how the street kids would sum it up, and what after all was so remarkable about that? It happened all the time.

 Now, though, he had a reason to pay attention to the fate of these particular dudes, and he listened closely while I laid it out for him. When I was done I motioned for the waiter and ordered more coffee for myself and a chocolate egg cream for TJ.

 When his egg cream came he took a sip and nodded like a gourmet indicating that the Pommard was acceptable. Not outstanding, mind you, but perfectly acceptable. He said, “They’s people in the park an’ on the street. Be buyin’ this an’ sellin’ that.”

 “Not so much in the daytime,” I said, “but especially at night.”

 “An’ it was nighttime when it went down, an’ you think maybe somebody seen something. An’ they take one look at you an’ right away they make you for the Man, so you don’t be gettin’ no place with ’em.”

 “I didn’t even try.”

 “Nobody be thinkin’ I the Man.”

 “My thought exactly.”

 “They see me an’ you together, they be puttin’ two an’ two. So that’s why we here ’stead of meetin’ in the park.”

 “Good thinking.”

 “Well, it don’t take no rocket scientist.” He lowered his head, worked on the egg cream. He came up for air and said, “I’d fit in better’n you would. No question. Might even bump into some dude I already know. Might not, though. Clinton Park be off of my usual turf.”

 “Just by a few blocks, and you must have made the trip before. You remembered Captain Flanders.”

 “Oh, Cappy an’ I be old friends, but this here’s my city, Kitty. I be plannin’ to know it all, time I’m through. That don’t mean I know the dudes on the pavement everywhere I go. Most of your players, they don’t move around too much. Somebody new comes on the scene, he be looked over pretty good. Maybe he competition, maybe he runnin’ a game of his own. Maybe he the Man, or maybe he workin’ for the Man. More he ask questions, more he start lookin’ like trouble.”

 “If there’s a risk involved,” I said, “let’s forget it.”

 “Be a risk in crossin’ the street,” he said. “Risk in not crossin’ the street, too. Can’t spend your life standin’ on the corner. What you do, you look both ways an’ then you cross.”


 “Just that it might could take a few days. Can’t be walkin’ up to people an’ askin’ questions right off. Got to take your time, build up to it.”

 “Take all the time you want,” I said. “The only thing is that there’s not much money in the case. Tom Sadecki didn’t give me a great deal of it in advance, and I doubt there’ll be more coming. As a matter of fact, I have a feeling I’ll wind up giving all or part of his money back to him.”

 “Hate to hear you talk like that. Givin’ money back.”

 “It goes against the grain,” I said, “but sometimes I don’t seem to have any choice.”

 “That case,” he said, pushing the check across the table at me, “I guess I best let you pay for lunch. Might as well get the money out of you while you still got some.”

 After he’d headed off toward the park, I stood on the side-walk in front of the coffee shop and looked at Glenn Holtz-mann’s building. I told myself I should have picked another coffee shop for my meeting with TJ. It’s not as if my choices had been limited. There are almost as many coffee shops in Manhattan as there are Greeks in Astoria, all with essentially the same menu and about the same ambience, or lack thereof. Why did I have to pick one that would put me on this particular street corner, face-to-face with the task I least wanted to perform?

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