Authors: Lorenzo Carcaterra
This one is for Mary Jane Miller Toepfer
April 22, 1920–February 3, 2006
Revenge is an act of passion. Vengeance of justice.
It took her less than a minute to die.
Two bullets, both close-contact hits, sent her slumping to the black-and-white tiled floor, crystal-blue eyes glazed and watery, staring up at a blue ceiling dotted with red stars. Her long brown hair was heavy with sweat and blood and was forced to one side of what had been a face pretty enough to always earn a smile. During those last few seconds, she lay there whispering a silent prayer, the two plates of hot food she had been holding scattered, white cream sauce from the grilled Dover sole running down the right leg of her black slacks. Her left arm twitched and one of her shoes had somehow landed near her neck, a low-heeled pump resting on its side, black strap snapped off. She had bought the shoes with the money from her last paycheck, paying more than she could afford for a pair of Ferragamos she had always dreamed of owning. She closed her eyes and wondered if she would be buried wearing those shoes.
The main dining room of the large midtown restaurant was now a crime scene.
Men and women, police shields hanging on chain collars around their necks, walked and took notes of all that they saw. The forensics unit was busy snapping photos and bagging biologicals, moving with practiced ease from one body to the next. A medical examiner knelt over one of the dead, a middle-aged man in a designer suit, ensconced in a leather booth, head back, hands flat on a blood-splattered table, tailored white shirt now crimson but dry. Uniformed officers took statements from nerve-shattered waiters, waitresses, patrons, managers, and owners. Thick strips of police tape blocked off a large portion of the area. Outside, lights twirled and TV news crews set up position posts.
It was 2:35
a clear and warm Thursday afternoon in New York City.
The kind of spring day when the city felt clean, crisp. When couples rode bikes in the park or walked to work and office employees chose to eat their lunch outside.
A day when no one deserved to die.
“Get a chance to grab me some coffee?” the detective asked. He was young, neatly dressed: a light brown suit, tan loafers.
“Been pretty busy in here,” the uniformed officer said. He was older, his blues begging for starch and a hot iron, his body a few years removed from giving up the ghost. “Haven’t had a chance to take a run outside yet.”
The detective turned away from the body and stared with dark eyes at the uniform. “You don’t need to run or walk outside,” he said. “Seeing as how we’re in a restaurant, I’d put odds on better than good there’s a hot pot of coffee in here somewhere. All you need to do is look.”
The uniform nodded and headed toward a small workstation tucked in behind one of the back booths, silver pots at rest beside warm burners, his dream of one day ditching the uniform for a detective’s shield doing a slow fade. Nine years on the job and here he was still reduced to running errands, a civil servant in every sense. He reached under the counter for a white cup, and it was then that he noticed the man standing there, his eyes locked onto the crime scene. The man wasn’t flashing a shield and he wasn’t dressed in a suit, but he smelled of it all the same: cop.
“I help you with anything?” the uniform asked, his voice trying to stay casual but also to establish authority.
“Don’t see how,” the man said, not taking his eyes off the scene, his words sounding like the street. “Unless you pulled in early enough to eyeball the doers.”
“You working this?” the uniform asked, resting the cup on the counter and easing in closer to the man.
“Guy in the blue jacket, gray slacks,” the man said, ignoring the question. “One who sent you on the coffee run. He the primary?”
“Jenkins,” the uniform said, turning away from the man to glare across the room at the detective. “If he isn’t yet, he will be by the time the bodies are zippered and tagged. He makes it his business to catch all the multiples in the sector.”
The man reached under the counter and pulled out a cup. He grabbed a silver dispenser and filled the cup halfway with lukewarm coffee. He turned away from the uniform and stepped deeper into the crime scene, the fingers of his right hand wrapped around the cup.
“You didn’t answer my question,” the uniform said as the man brushed past.
“And you didn’t get Detective Jenkins his coffee,” the man said.
Coffee in hand, Giovanni “Boomer” Frontieri stared down at the body of the young girl, his eyes hard, his mind racing back through the photo album of her years. He saw her behind thick hospital glass, less than a day old, a six-pound seven-ounce bundle, her skin the color of Sunday sauce. Even back then, Boomer knew this would be as close as he’d ever get to a child of his own—a niece he could dote on and help raise from a distance. He flipped forward to her Holy Communion, thin legs shaky as she made her way down the center aisle of Blessed Sacrament Church, smiling when she caught his eye, finding comfort and confidence in his presence. He remembered sitting at his sister’s kitchen table, sipping a hot espresso, when she walked down the hall steps wearing a flowered dress he had bought her at a J. C. Penney half-price sale, ready to embark on her first formal date. Boomer closed his eyes, felt her head on his shoulder, tears running down her face and onto his leather jacket, minutes after he had told her of her father’s death. Boomer opened his eyes again and this time heard her laughter, the little-girl giggle mixed in with the full-throated chuckle of a young woman, and he swallowed hard, not looking just now to share his own tears.
“You got business here?” Jenkins was next to him now.
here,” Boomer said, handing Jenkins the now cold cup of coffee. “The waitress is my sister’s kid. Only the start of her third week working here. She liked it enough. Gave her a chance to meet new people, and she was always eager to do that.”
Jenkins rested the coffee on a table to his left. “You should be waiting down at the precinct,” he said. “At some point, a uniform will find you and tell you all you need to know.”
“The target was the one in the booth,” Boomer said. “The three on the ground, my niece included, are collateral. The hit team couldn’t have numbered more than four: two shooters, a lookout, and a driver. They’re pros, but fudged it to make it look like they weren’t. They used high-caliber bullets and cleared the casings. Picked a visible place at a crowded time. The vic was at the table alone, means his crew was in on the hit, cleared out soon as they spotted the gunners. They wanted this hit to be known, noticed.”
Boomer turned and looked at Jenkins. “But why the hell am I telling you any of this? You must have figured all that soon as you walked in.”
“How long you been off the job?” Jenkins asked.
“Five years, give or take,” Boomer said. He gave a quick scan to the activity around them, nodding at several familiar faces, watching the scene develop. There’s never a need to rush a sealed homicide crime scene. The evidence spread across the room as if on a buffet table, and everyone waits for a detective with a sharp eye to mull his choices before making any final selections. “You narrow your players down yet?”
“We really shouldn’t be talking about this,” Jenkins said.
“We’re not,” Boomer said. “And if anybody asks, we weren’t.”
Jenkins did a slow nod, hands thrust inside his Dockers, and dropped his voice two levels. “The Italians look to me to be clean on this,” he said. “Not their play to do a hit in front of enough witnesses to fill a small theater. And the vic scans way too rich and too connected to be running into any gang-bang action. Besides which, this is not a part of town the brothers be allowed to play in.”
“Which leaves your eyes where?”
“Off the top, at either the Russians or the Colombians,” Jenkins said. “They both may still be toddlers in this town, but they’re hands down the most dangerous. And they eat this kind of shit up with a knife and fork. They love nothing more than to leave behind a room filled with bodies, and us with nothing but theory to prove it was them that did the work.”
“You connect the vic to any one crew?” Boomer asked, tossing a look at the man in the booth, surrounded by three members from the forensics unit.
“My guess is we will soon as we get a name from his prints and dentals,” Jenkins said. “The doers walked out with his ID, including a watch, a ring, and an earring.”
“Any families been notified yet?” Boomer asked.
“Way early for that, still,” Jenkins said. “Then again, you just about beat me to the scene. How’d that come to happen?”
“I was looking for a cup of coffee,” Boomer said, gazing at his niece one final time. “Same as you.”
“The guys did this, they’re not going to be on the loose for very long,” Jenkins said, his manner confident. “Pros or not, they get sloppy, take a slip and tumble. More often than not, a gun and a badge will be right there, ready to lay down a cuff and convict.”
Boomer took the young detective in. “That’s no help to the dead,” he said.
He walked outside the roped-off parameters, leaving behind the lab techs, uniforms, detectives, photo unit, medical-examiner personnel, and potential witnesses, each in the early stages of processing those who were killed for reasons to be determined. He walked with a slight limp, favoring his right leg, shredded years earlier in a gunfight with a drug dealer. He had his hands balled into tight fists and his upper body was tense and coiled, eyes looking toward the congested traffic outside. He never once glanced back. He didn’t need to see her corpse as it was casually laid inside an open body bag, waiting for two attendants to ease her into the morgue van for the slow ride downtown. He didn’t need any further reason to remember what he could never forget.
He eased past two detectives and stepped out onto a sidewalk crowded with the curious, determined to put his own brand on the justice that needed to be served.