Read Dancer in the Flames Online
Authors: Stephen Solomita
Boots got back into his car and took up the paperwork he’d rescued from the garbage pail after his failed attempt to catch a nap. That attempt had been thwarted by Vinnie Palermo, whose clueless features jumped into Detective Littlewood’s consciousness every time he closed his eyes.
‘No,’ Vinnie had said after Boots spelled out his constitutional rights, ‘I trust you, detective. You always played it straight with me in the past.’
And what Boots Littlewood should have said was, ‘Vinnie, if you trust me, then take this advice to heart. Keep your big mouth shut.’ But he hadn’t. He’d let Vinnie confess.
Boots took out his cellphone and called the Six-Four’s general information number. The duty officer, Sergeant Gilbert Gantier, answered on the third ring.
‘Sixty-Fourth Precinct,’ he growled. ‘How can I help you?’
‘Sarge, it’s Boots.’
Gantier’s tone softened upon learning that his caller was not some asshole civilian out to bust balls. ‘Hey, Boots, thanks for the doughnut.’
‘No problem.’ Boots cleared his throat. ‘Lemme pick your brain for a minute. What do you know about a cop named Patrick Kelly? He served on the Lipstick Killer task force.’
‘What about him?’
‘I want to know if he’s the same Patrick Kelly who was murdered a year later.’
‘That’s him. He was killed in Sunnyside, in his own home with his daughter watchin’. Nobody went down for it, either.’
‘You remember anything else?’
‘Anything else? Boots, where’ve you been all your life? The Chief of Detectives was Pat Kelly’s brother-in-law.’
‘And Pat Kelly was Jill Kelly’s father?’
‘Yeah, Crazy Jill Kelly.’ Gantier hesitated before adding a final comment, his tone clearly admiring. ‘The bitch is a fuckin’ psycho. What I heard, the SWAT team dumped her because she capped a perp without getting permission.’
Boots closed his eyes for a minute, then said, ‘Thanks for the help, Gil. I owe you one.’
‘In that case, the next time you buy doughnuts for the house, put in a couple of crullers. I got a thing about crullers. You could buy me for life with a fresh-baked cruller and a hot cup of coffee.’
Boots flicked through the newspaper articles he’d retrieved from his garbage pail, articles covering the short-lived career of the Lipstick Killer, then tossed them on to the back seat without reading a word. What happened to Patrick Kelly was none of his business.
He looked out through the windshield, letting his eyes run up and down the street. Despite the architecture – a mix of warehouses and apartment buildings – the short block was entirely residential, the businesses long ago converted into lofts. That was good news because every window on the other side of the road offered a clear view of this corner.
Ten years before, when the surrounding blocks were almost entirely Hispanic, Boots would have known at least a few of the residents. Not today. This little section of Williamsburg had been overrun by two waves of refugees from Manhattan. The first was an assortment of artists, hippies, punks and anarchists made homeless when Giuliani emptied the Lower East Side squats. The second, once the freaks made the neighborhood safe for Caucasians, was a plague of yuppies who quickly drove up the prevailing rents until most of the bohemians packed their bags and moved on.
But if Boots didn’t know a soul, he did have one advantage. The young professionals who now lived in this section of Williamsburg were sons and daughters of the middle class, raised to support their local police. The hippies and anarchists, by contrast, had refused to give him the time of day. He was as much their enemy as Mr Tobacco, the middle-aged white man in the mural.
Boots glanced at his watch, then took out a set of glass rosary beads once owned by his mother. According to Catholic tradition, Christ’s earthly body perished at three o’clock in the afternoon. Observing this moment on Good Friday had been drummed into Boots by the nuns at Mount Carmel and he had vivid memories of his mother kneeling in the kitchen, rosary in hand.
As for Boots Littlewood – who had the background and temerity to wonder how those gathered around the cross knew it was three o’clock, since they presumably didn’t have watches – he felt that praying a rosary was the least he could do, half-assed Catholic that he was.
Boots looked down for a moment at the crucifix dangling from the end of the rosary, at the tiny figure, neck bent, slumped as far down as the nails that held Him would allow, then started to pray. He didn’t pray for anything in particular, didn’t ask for any special favors. Boots didn’t believe in a God who granted favors. For Boots, it was more like
Ask not what your God can do for you; ask what you can do for your God
. It was His show, after all.
Bad for Vinnie Booster. Bad and getting worse. By the time Boots reached a four-story tenement at the end of the block, some three hours later, he’d been treated to only two stories. The majority of the citizens he interviewed were awakened by the army of cops and paramedics who responded to the scene, not by the gunshots. Only four individuals rushed to their windows in time to bear witness. They told identical stories: two gunshots, a double-parked car, a body on the sidewalk, a car driving away. They knew nothing about a third party, a shooter on foot.
Worst of all, each of them had been interviewed by Corcoran’s task force, and each was prepared to testify against Vinnie Palermo.
Boots was tempted to call it quits. The reeds on which his hopes now hung were as slender as hairs, relying as they did on his belief that men recognize the sound of their own car alarms, and the hope that Rajiv Visnawana was in an apartment with a view of the unfolding homicide. Visnawana’s after-the-fact behavior had been odd enough to merit attention. In the ordinary course of events, he should have reported the loss of his car to the army of cops who showed up ten minutes later, or maybe called 911. Instead, he’d walked nearly a mile, entering the Six-Four to file his complaint at one thirty. That meant he’d left Berry Street only minutes before the first officers responded at one fifteen, while the body was still lying on the sidewalk.
Boots stood in front of the tenement, his back to the street, and looked through the small window in the outer door. The layout was common to most New York tenements. A tiny foyer led to a narrow hallway that curved around a steep flight of stairs. Once upon a time, this building had housed the very poor, if not the destitute. Now, condominium apartments in this walk-up sold for a quarter of a million dollars. The corridor’s stone floor gleamed, the stairs were carpeted and the locks on the inner and outer doors were state of the art.
Boots pushed the intercom button for apartment 1A. A moment later, a woman’s voice, accompanied by a wave of static, said, ‘Yes?’
‘You’ll never take me alive.’ A brief silence was followed by a guffaw. ‘Hey, are you really a cop?’
‘Detective Littlewood. Now, if you’ll just buzz me in . . .’
Another laugh. ‘My momma taught me better than that. I think I’ll come out and take a look at you.’
A figure appeared in the lobby a moment later, a woman carrying a wine glass. Boots raised his shield and smiled. When the woman opened the door, he stepped inside.
‘Aggie Dowd.’ She sipped at her wine. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘I’m here about the homicide that occurred on March twentieth.’
‘You’re wasting your time.’ Dowd raised a hand. ‘I took a sleeping pill at eleven that night, and I left a fan running to block out the street noise. I didn’t know there was a murder until the next day.’
Boots nodded agreeably. He was inside now and he might as well do the building. ‘Tell me,’ he said as he reached into his pocket, ‘do you know this man?’
Dowd glanced at the photo, then up at Boots, the malicious smile she displayed for his benefit so nasty that he couldn’t help but return it.
‘I think you’d better come inside, detective. This is a long story and I need a refill.’
hen Aggie Dowd lit a cigarette from a burning stub lying in a glass ashtray, Boots thought he’d died and gone to heaven. The small living room fairly reeked of nicotine, as did the fabric of the upholstered chair on which he sat. He watched Aggie pour herself a glass of wine, then hold up the bottle.
‘You on duty?’
‘Not so you’d notice.’
The glass Dowd passed Boots was smudged around the rim, but he didn’t object. ‘Are you celebrating?’ he asked.
‘May I ask what?’
‘After eighteen months of trying, I managed to get my ex-boyfriend canned.’ Aggie Dowd stared at Boots for a minute, then took a long drag on her cigarette. ‘OK,’ she said, ‘you ready for the one-million-dollar question?’
‘Say you have a neighbor named Henrietta Penn, who takes out ads in the
, ads in which she proclaims herself Ms Henrietta, Hoyden of Humiliation. Say she doesn’t go to work in the morning, but has men over to her apartment, usually two a day, one in the afternoon and one at night. Now, for the million dollars, what do you think Ms Henrietta does for a living?’
‘You’re alleging that your upstairs neighbor is a prostitute?’
‘Me and the other residents, we’ve been trying to get her out for a year.’
All along, Boots had been wondering exactly what Rajiv Visnawana was doing in Williamsburg at one o’clock in the morning. Now he knew. He took a business card from his billfold and laid it on the coffee table. ‘Cutting red tape is my specialty. Don’t hesitate to call. As for Henrietta, I can’t throw her into the street, but I promise to slow her down. Now, tell me about the man in the photograph.’
Fifteen minutes later, Boots climbed to the second floor, his heart happy, thinking that maybe God does answer prayers after all. He knocked on the door to the front apartment, using the heel of his hand. According to Aggie Dowd, Ms Henrietta’s first client of the evening was present in the apartment.
Boots knocked again, harder this time, pounding with the side of his fist. ‘Police, open the door.’
‘I’m coming,’ a woman’s voice responded. ‘I’m coming.’
Still on its safety chain, the door fell back a few inches and a face appeared in the gap. Free of make-up, the face had blond hair and blond eyebrows, a broad jaw beneath extremely narrow lips, and small eyes the color of summer haze.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’
‘Unlatch the chain.’ Boots flashed his tin. ‘Right now.’
‘You have no right . . .’
‘Ms Henrietta, you don’t open this door, I’m gonna kick it down your throat.’
Henrietta Penn scrutinized Boots for a moment, her eyes so probing that Boots knew, at once, that she was familiar with the criminal justice system. That would make it easier, there being no annoyance more extreme, in his experience, than the blather emitted by civilians who knew their rights.
Henrietta unhooked the chain and stepped back. Pushing forty, she wore a leather thong and a black bustier trimmed with stainless-steel rings that jingled when she folded her arms beneath her enhanced breasts.
‘Where’s the john?’ he said.
Boots was standing in a tidy, middle-class living room: slip covers on the couch and the chairs, silver drapes in the windows, bookcases against the walls.
‘You’ll have to excuse me,’ Henrietta said, ‘because I don’t know the rules here. Am I allowed to ask you what you want with me before you search my apartment? Or do I have to wait until you’re finished?’
‘March twentieth, Rajiv Visnawana.’
Boots crossed the living room, walked the length of a short hallway and threw open the door. Directly ahead of him, a naked man was clamped to a cross. Though his jaw twitched repeatedly, the man could do no more than moan. Somewhere along the line, the Hoyden had jammed a rubber ball into his mouth, then secured it with a latex gag tight enough to produce welts.
Boots stopped dead in his tracks. It was Good Friday, the day Jesus died to save the souls of the world’s unrepentant scumbags, and here were two of the most unrepentant having a grand old time transforming Christ’s Passion into a sexual charade. Boots felt the tectonic plates of his equilibrium slide, one over the other, felt the magma well up through the resulting cracks and fissures to invade every nerve in his body. His hands curled into fists and his hair rose on end as he considered how long it would take him to rip the john free of the cross without opening the clamps beforehand.
Behind him, Boots was vaguely aware of Henrietta Penn’s voice: ‘Don’t, don’t, don’t.’ Before him, the john’s eyes were bulging out of his head, assuming a bullet-like shape that echoed the shape of Ms Henrietta’s breasts. As Boots watched, the man began to cry.
Boots recoiled for a second time, hesitating just long enough to remember his promise to struggle against the demon of anger, the promise he’d made to God when he confessed his sins. If he bloodied this jerk, he wouldn’t be able to take Communion on Easter Sunday.
Boots turned on his heel and brushed past the Hoyden. ‘Get him the fuck out of here.’ He continued on into the living room where he threw himself down on a chair. Boots was hoping his anger would dissipate by the time he and Henrietta were alone in the apartment. Instead, following a logic of its own, his anger morphed into an overwhelming desire for a cigarette. He looked around the room for an ashtray, but was apparently in a no-smoking zone.
‘Shit,’ he said. ‘Shit, shit, shit.’
Boots didn’t raise his head until Henrietta Penn closed the door behind the rapidly departing john and turned the locks. Henrietta was now wearing a plain, terry-cloth robe over the Hoyden of Humiliation outfit. The robe fell to her heels, emphasizing her broadening beam.
‘Why’d you do that?’ Boots asked.
‘I’m talkin’ about the cross. It’s Good Friday.’
Henrietta took a seat across from Boots and laid her hands in her lap. ‘First thing, it’s not my fantasy. It’s the client’s. Second thing, I’m putting my daughter through law school. Making my clients’ perverted dreams come true is how I do it.’
‘But it’s your cross, Henrietta. Nobody forced you to have it here. And you definitely didn’t have to use it on Good Friday.’