Read Dancer in the Flames Online
Authors: Stephen Solomita
Henrietta finally lost her temper, an indiscretion she felt she could afford, given that she had something the cop wanted.
‘They call it consenting adults, detective, and the only illegal part is the exchange of money. So, if you don’t like what I do for a living, don’t come busting into my apartment without a warrant. Then you won’t know.’
Boots crossed his legs and sat back, affording Henrietta a moment to enjoy her little victory. Then he dropped the hammer. ‘No more johns in the apartment,’ he said. ‘Do out-calls, set up shop somewhere else, I don’t care. But if you continue to turn tricks in this building, I’m gonna have a series of hard conversations with a few of your customers. Eventually, I’ll bust you.’
‘Turn tricks? Is that what you said? Well, check this out – if you were as good a cop as I am a sexual artist, you would’ve come to me about Rajiv a long time ago.’
Unable to dispute this assertion, Boots decided to stay on message. ‘Listen close to what I’m tellin’ you, because I’m not making an empty threat. No more sexual artistry in this apartment. You don’t shut down, I’ll send you to prison.’
‘Look . . .’
‘Don’t waste your breath. I’m not askin’ for any promises. Now, tell me about Rajiv.’
Seemingly unfazed by this turn of fortune, Henrietta leaned forward. ‘I have a little problem,’ she announced. ‘My clients expect total confidentiality. Hardly surprising, right, considering what they ask me to do? So, it would definitely hurt my business if word got around that I had a big mouth.’
Boots laughed. ‘Are you askin’ me to protect your reputation?’
‘In return for my telling you what happened that night.’
‘Oh, I see. Like, a deal?’
Boots leaned forward, closed his eyes for a moment, then let them snap open. ‘I can visualize the scene pretty well, but I’m havin’ trouble with the motivation part. Since you’re gonna tell me everything that happened on March twentieth at one o’clock in the morning, and you’re gonna do it now, the deal seems a bit one-sided.’
Henrietta smiled for the first time. ‘Can’t blame a girl for trying.’ When Boots didn’t respond, she flicked at her lower lip with a two-inch fingernail. ‘Right, here goes. There’s not that much to tell, anyway. Me and Rajiv are lying on the bed, recovering you might say, when his car alarm goes off. Right away, he jumps out of bed and waddles across the room as fast as his pudgy legs will carry him. The alarm stops just as he gets to the window.
‘“My automobile,” he keeps saying, “they are stealing my automobile. This is infamy. This is infamy.” Then I hear the two gunshots, maybe three seconds apart. Boom! Boom! Real loud, right across the street. Rajiv puts his hands on his head. He spins back to face me, spins back to the window. Me, I have a live-and-let-live philosophy. I don’t want to know anything and I stay right where I am on the bed while Rajiv gets dressed and leaves.’
Boots searched the woman’s pale eyes. Was she lying? Many whores were pathological liars. They never told the truth about anything. ‘Rajiv didn’t describe what he saw?’
‘He didn’t say anything . . . No, wait, he did ask me a question. He asked me for directions to the precinct.’
‘And he left before the police responded to the gunshots?’
‘Right. I heard the sirens a couple of minutes after he ran out the door.’
Boots filled his mouth with Tic Tacs, chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed. ‘When the detectives originally canvassed the neighborhood, what did you tell them?’
Henrietta sighed. ‘I told them I didn’t see anything. Which is the truth. But I never mentioned Rajiv.’
‘Well, being as I’m a generous guy, I’m gonna give you chance to make up for that omission. I want to know everything there is to know about Rajiv Visnawana.’
‘Does that include his predilections?’
Boots grin flicked on, then off, but failed to register in his eyes. ‘Everything you did, Henrietta, and everything he asked you to do. And if there were props involved, I wanna see them, too.’
n Saturday morning, as Boots stood before the bathroom mirror, toothbrush in hand, he resolved to banish Vinnie Palermo for the remainder of the weekend. Easter was about family, about the food that would be shopped for today and cooked tomorrow, about taking Communion, about the guests Andy, Libby and Boots had invited to dinner. Vinnie Palermo would just have to tough it out for the next forty-eight hours, if not the next forty-eight years. Boots had yet to tell anyone of his conversation with Ms Henrietta. He could still walk away.
Boots took his own advice, immersing himself in the holiday. Most of Saturday was spent in his father’s company, on a shopping expedition that took them from Veniero’s bakery in Manhattan to a butcher in College Point. On Sunday morning, he and his father walked to church, along with hundreds of their neighbors. Mount Carmel was packed, every seat in every pew taken. The Dragos were there – not only Frankie and his mother, but a small army of cousins, nieces and nephews. Vinnie Palermo’s Aunt Connie made an appearance, too. Boots tried to avoid her and her notorious temper, but he did make eye contact once, as he approached the altar rail to receive Holy Communion.
was what he discovered in Connie’s gaze. The evil eye, carried from Sicily and preserved through the generations. Boots absorbed the blast without reacting.
Dinner began at three o’clock in the afternoon and stretched into the evening. Joaquin attended, accompanied by his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Polly Boll. Father Gubetti also brought a guest, Sister Mary Dennis who’d once caught Boots stealing a Snickers bar from the Mount Carmel cafeteria. The outraged nun had dragged Boots off to the confessional and Father Edward Cano, who was equally outraged. Stealing from church was stealing from God. Did Boots think he could cheat the Lord? If so, he should leave the church now, become an atheist. Omniscience was one of God’s three great powers. Nothing escaped Him.
If the lecture was tough to take, the penance meted out by the priest shook Boots to the core.
‘The Fifth Commandment demands that we honor our fathers and mothers. You have dishonored yours today, a sin you somehow overlooked in your confession. It’s best they should know and your sin will not be forgiven until you tell them.’
Eleven years old? Telling your mom that you’re a thief? Your dad? Revealing the fact at the dinner table? The surprising part was that Boots wasn’t reformed by the experience. Though he never again stole anything from Our Lady of Mount Carmel, he didn’t exactly become honest.
But Sister Dennis was an old woman now, her back humped, her eyes filmy. She contributed little to a conversation dominated by Andy and Father Leo, her thoughts as veiled as her eyes.
Boots let the talk wash over him. He’d dreamed of Jill Kelly on the night before and he was thinking of her now. As erotic as it was brief, the dream had occurred in the early stages of sleep. Boots stood against a concrete wall, nude, an apple balanced on his head. Thirty feet away, peering through the sights of a .40 caliber Browning automatic, Jill Kelly was decked out in full SWAT-team regalia.
Boots had awakened to find himself fully erect and desperately in need of a cigarette. No surprise in either case. Yet, in the moments before he drifted back to sleep, his thoughts had turned to the slaying of Patrick Kelly. Jill had witnessed her father’s murder, had watched him die. Boots imagined his own father murdered. What would he do? No, the better question, the shorter list, was what he wouldn’t do.
Coffee was just being poured when Boots’s cellphone went off. He let the call jump to his voicemail, but the phone rang for a second time a moment later. Resigned, he walked into the kitchen. His boss, Lieutenant Levine, had this number. Maybe something had come up that needed Detective Littlewood’s attention. Maybe Vinnie Palermo had been miraculously released. It was Easter Sunday, after all – a day for miracles.
‘Hey, Boots, it’s Craig O’Malley. We got your boy.’
‘Say that again, sarge?’
‘Mark Dupont. A couple of hours ago. He tried to shoot the Bulgarian.’
‘The gun misfired somehow. An H&K nine millimeter. The lab has it now.’
Boots looked over his shoulder, at the swinging door between himself and his family. It was five o’clock in the afternoon on Easter Sunday, but O’Malley and Velikov were out on the street, looking for trouble. Boots didn’t have to ask why. The job was their family, the only family they had or wanted.
‘Did you kill him?’ Boots asked.
‘Nah, but the Bulgarian was mighty pissed off, especially when Dupont made like a rabbit. Boris, it takes him a while to get goin’, but he’s pretty fast once he throws fourth gear. After about a block, he rolls over Dupont like a tank over a mouse. Boots, you shoulda been there.’
That night, with all their guests gone, Andy and Boots settled down to watch a Yankee game recorded on the DVR that afternoon. Since neither knew the outcome, their expectations were high and they were not disappointed. The Yankee bats came alive in the first inning, all of them, from Brett Gardner who led off to Russell Martin who batted ninth. It took three spectacular fielding plays to get the Orioles out of the inning with a six-run deficit. For all intents and purposes, the game was over.
Boots let his chair recline. It would be so easy, he thought, to fall into a routine he’d chosen for himself a long time ago. The baseball season was just starting and he had the whole summer and much of the fall ahead of him. Listening to the games as he made his appointed rounds, collecting from Frankie Drago when he won, paying off when he lost, busting mutts like Mark Dupont – this is where the profoundly unambitious Detective Littlewood found his comfort zone.
Plus, there was Rose Orlac. Rose was the widow of a life-long Yankee fan. She owned a pair of reserved seats to all the weekend games. The same Rose Orlac who threw him unmistakable signals whenever their paths crossed at Mount Carmel.
‘We had a grand time this afternoon, did we not?’
‘We did at that.’
‘I only wish your mother was here to see it.’
Apprehensive, Boots looked at his father. At one point, following Marge Littlewood’s funeral, Boots had feared that Andy wouldn’t survive. But Andy Littlewood was smiling.
‘Do you think of her often?’ he asked his son.
‘Yeah, I do.’ Boots jerked his chair upright. ‘Especially on the holidays.’
Andy nodded once. ‘Libby wants us to marry. She’s a good woman. Not like your mother, but . . . Irwin, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life alone, but I can’t help feeling that I’m betraying Margie in some way.’
Was his father asking for his approval? Boots didn’t know, but he wasn’t about to venture an unrequested opinion.
‘Does that mean you think Mom’s sitting on a cloud, watching everything you do? That she’s holding you to some standard?’
‘No, not exactly. But the Church tells us that families will reunite eventually. That’s all well and fine, lad, but having two wives presents a bit of a difficulty.’
Boots laughed. ‘If that’s the case, you have to feel sorry for old Genghis Khan. He had a thousand wives.’
n Monday morning, a few minutes before noon, Boots parked his Chevy in front of the Calcutta Palace, an Indian restaurant on Seventy-Fourth Street in the Queens community of Jackson Heights. It was raining hard, the roiling gray sky seeming low enough to scrape the car’s roof. Boots slid his restricted parking permit on to the dashboard, but remained behind the wheel as he reviewed the tactics he intended to use against Rajiv Visnawana.
One of three partners, Rajiv was day manager of the Calcutta Palace and would be inside the restaurant until at least six o’clock. Boots knew this because he’d been to Rajiv’s home and spoken to Indira Visnawana, Rajiv’s wife. Indira was eager to offer assistance when Boots flashed his shield and told her that he had a line on her husband’s stolen Nissan.
Boots watched the windshield fog over, listened to the steady pounding of the rain, the hiss of tires, the blare of horns as an endless procession of cars and commercial vehicles negotiated the two-way street. Running north from a pair of the busiest subway stations in Queens, the block was lined on either side by Indian-owned businesses. Sari shops, bakeries, restaurants, jewelry stores with hundreds of gold chains massed in their showroom windows, chains as thick as the detective’s thumb, chains as thin as a hair.
Finally, Boots slid the door open, stepped out and raised an umbrella before retrieving his briefcase. Always a step behind, he’d been overdressed on Friday and he was underdressed now. Winter was making a comeback. Given the slightest encouragement, the rain would change to sleet by noon.
As he came through the front door of the Calcutta Palace, Boots folded the umbrella, shoved a handful of Tic Tacs into his mouth and took a look around. The restaurant’s decor was strictly industrial, exposed duct work on the walls and ceiling, pipes criss-crossing at right angles, a fan large enough to exhaust the air inside the Midtown Tunnel. There were no multi-armed gods and goddesses in little niches, no tablas, no sitar, no beaded lamps. The Indian population of Jackson Heights, large enough to support the local restaurants and shops, wasn’t into kitsch.
The woman who approached Boots was tall and slender, with thick black hair that fell to her shoulders. Her eyes were large, her mouth generous, her nose long and proud, her cheeks smooth as satin. She held her chin high, and her smile, though obviously professional, was nonetheless enticing. In place of the traditional embroidered sari, she wore a white suit over a lavender blouse.
‘I’m looking for Mr Visnawana.’ Dutifully, Boots opened his billfold to expose his shield. ‘I need a few minutes of his time.’
‘And what did my father do now?’
Boots reacted to the seductive quality in her tone with an involuntary smile. ‘It’s about his car,’ he said. ‘The one that was stolen.’
‘Well, I hope you found it. He’s been going on about that car for weeks.’ Her smile widened briefly as she pointed to a corridor on the other side of the restaurant. ‘Across the room, down the hall, the door marked “office”. Right now, he’s paying bills, so he won’t mind being interrupted.’