Read Dancer in the Flames Online
Authors: Stephen Solomita
or the first twenty-four hours following the assault, Boots moved freely through a universe where time had three dimensions, like a fish swimming through a sea as dark as it was vast. He felt no anxiety, no fear, not even a sense of mystery. He was just there, in the sea, swimming.
Though he saw nothing, Boots occasionally became aware of sounds, the somehow reassuring beep of a heart monitor, a television playing at a distance, the squeak of rubber-soled shoes, voices near and far, male and female. But he was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to place these sounds in sequence, much less in context. Once gone, they were instantly consigned to memory, a flat and slippery mirror that offered no purchase whatever.
At one point, a female voice announced, ‘I’m just going to flush your foley, Mr Littlewood.’
At another, a male voice confidently declared, ‘In the greater scheme of things, the cranial injuries he suffered are mild. He’ll come around as soon as the swelling inside his skull recedes, probably tomorrow.’
Boots didn’t know to whom these statements were made, or even if they were made at the same time, though he found it odd that he felt no discomfort, physical or psychological. But one phrase – ‘in the greater scheme of things’ – did fascinate him, and he eventually applied this idea to Father Gubetti, whose voice came to Boots midway through an Our Father.
‘. . . dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.’
A former altar boy, Boots easily translated the Latin: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. This was old news and Boots didn’t scrutinize the words, or ask himself why his old friend was praying in Latin. But he knew, in the greater scheme of things, there was to be no forgiveness. Of that he was certain.
Andy Littlewood was equally unforgiving. ‘You’re no listener, Irwin Littlewood, not as boy or man,’ he declared, his tone bitter. ‘Tell me, when you rammed your thick skull into the wall, were you hopin’ the stone would crack? Or were you expectin’ Joshua to bring the wall down with a blowin’ of horns?’
Perhaps, Boots thought, after his father drifted away, I did hope. Perhaps I did expect the wall to crumble. The admission didn’t trouble him. Nothing troubled him, not even visitations by each of the principal actors in the drama that had laid him low. Their voices swam up, crossed his path, continued on: Jill Kelly, Frankie Drago, Lieutenant Sorrowful, Vinnie Palermo, Inspector Corcoran, Flint Page. Boots noted their comings and goings without curiosity. There was no rush, not when he could move through time, side to side, up and down, backward and forward. No, there was always plenty of time when there was no time at all.
For the first ten seconds after Boots awakened, he simply continued on, unruffled, untroubled. But then his flesh turned on him, the pain seeming to rush into his consciousness from every cell in his body. He groaned as his left eye finally popped open, and for the first time he was confused. He tried to raise a hand to touch his right eye, unleashing another barrage of pain that left him nauseated.
Joaquin Rivera’s voice came from the right and Boots slowly turned his head to fix him with his left eye. He started to speak, only to realize that there was something in his throat, a tube that ran through his nose. Still, he managed a few words.
‘If I would’ve known it was gonna hurt this much,’ he whispered, ‘I woulda stayed in a coma.’
Joaquin laughed, then said, ‘I’ll get the doctor.’
Boots was unconscious before either returned, but this time, now that he knew the pain was out there, his mind was not untroubled. Nevertheless, he clung to a basic perception. There was no rush. He had all the time in the world.
An hour later, he opened his eyes again to discover a man next to his bed. The man wore a white lab coat and was young enough to be his son.
‘Doctor . . .’
‘Detective Littlewood? I’m Dr Chang. Are you finally with us?’
Boots ignored the upbeat tone. ‘My right eye. I can’t see.’
‘That’s because it’s swollen shut. Do you need anything for pain?’
‘Yeah. And this tube in my nose . . .’
‘The naso-gastric tube was inserted as a precaution. It’ll come out tomorrow morning.’ Dr Chang leaned forward to shine a light into his patient’s good eye. ‘Now, do you know where you are?’
‘In the hospital.’ Boots managed to raise a hand. ‘How long have I been here?’
‘You came in last night – Saturday, at eleven o’clock, a little less than twenty-four hours ago.’
‘And what’s the damage?’
‘We’ve taken multiple CAT scans of your brain and we don’t believe that you’ll suffer any long-term neurological deficit from your injuries. In addition, you have three broken ribs and extensive soft tissue damage, but these, too, will heal completely over time. Unfortunately, the damage to your right eye is more problematical. We’ll have to wait until the swelling recedes before we can evaluate your vision.’
Dr Chang glanced at his watch, then nodded to a nurse who entered the room. ‘We’ll talk again in the morning.’
Boots watched the nurse fit the point of a syringe into a port on his IV line, then depress the plunger. The wave of pleasure that swept through him was as brief as it was powerful. His good eye fluttered and he came close to achieving a genuine smile before he drifted away.
He smiled again, even while he slept, when he happened on a word that perfectly described the way he’d been gamed by Flint Page: elegant. The hang-up on the first call, as if Page had been interrupted by some villain who couldn’t know he was talking to a cop, allayed any suspicions Boots might have entertained. And the second phone call – the banter, the bargaining – was even more convincing. Flint had played his part well, right down to the orange basketball gear and the gold chains. There hadn’t been a single false note.
Nevertheless, elegant or not, the bad guys had made an error in judgment. They’d spared his life.
Boots woke up the following morning to find Lieutenant Sorrowful in a chair by the side of the bed. Levine skidded to the edge of the seat when Boots opened his eyes.
‘Boots, you OK?’
‘The doc says you’re gonna be all right.’
‘Fuck the docs. Is it Monday?’
‘Yeah, it’s Monday morning, eight o’clock.’
‘Did the Yankees win yesterday?’
Boots gathered himself. His throat was on fire, rubbed raw by the tube running down into his stomach. ‘The Yankees . . .’
‘Yes, the Yankees won.’ Levine’s small mouth worked itself into a tiny frown. ‘Do you remember what happened to you?’
Boots leaned back and made a show of it, letting his tongue work over his lips and his good eye jump to the ceiling before returning to Levine. Then he lied through his teeth. ‘The last thing I remember was entering an apartment on Richardson Street. That was about ten o’clock on Saturday night.’
‘Well, you got worked over real good. In fact, what the docs said, if you hadn’t crawled out of that apartment and knocked on a door, you might not be talking to me. Without treatment, you could’ve definitely died.’
‘The way I feel at this moment, I’d have been better off.’
Levine’s chuckle was strictly for the record. ‘Look, Boots, this is important. If you were injured in the line of duty, you’ll be on full pay until you heal up. You should take that into—’
‘I went to Richardson Street to meet Flint Page. Page claimed to know who pulled off the robberies last Wednesday.’
NYPD regulations demand that all confidential informants be registered with the Department. For any number of reasons, including the personal safety of the informant, the rule is largely ignored. But Flint Page was an exception. He’d ratted on so many of his pals, to so many cops, he had no more confidentiality to protect. Every detective in the Six-Four, including Lieutenant Sorrowful, knew his name.
‘Perfect,’ Levine said, ‘now you’re on easy street.’
‘Boots, with your injuries, you could stay home for the rest of the year.’
evine’s exit was shortly followed by the arrival of Andy and Joaquin. Boots looked into his father’s eyes, found regret, fear, reproach and relief. Without the energy to address any of these, he turned to Joaquin, who seemed angry.
‘Get me a mirror,’ he said.
‘Boots . . .’ Andy Littlewood thrust himself into his son’s line of sight. ‘I don’t think . . .’
‘Jackie,’ Boots repeated, making an effort to get the words past his swollen throat, ‘get me a mirror.’
Joaquin left the room, returning a few minutes later with a small mirror borrowed from one of the nurses. Boots peered through his one eye at the tiny image in the glass. For a moment, he began to drift, but then he refocused long enough to take an inventory. His right eye looked as if somebody had stuck an egg in the socket. The lids were barely visible, and both eyes were the malignant red of a disfiguring birthmark. In addition, a pair of serious wounds extended across his forehead and along the right side of his skull, lacerations that had been closed with too many stitches to count. One side of his head had been shaved as well.
Boots was still taking inventory when Dr Chang entered the room. ‘You weren’t all that beautiful to begin with,’ he observed.
‘You’re welcome.’ Chang began to draw the curtain around the bed. ‘Now, if you’ll excuse us,’ he told Andy and Joaquin, ‘I’m just going to remove this tube from Mr Littlewood’s nose.’
‘How about the one in my dick?’
‘That’s called a foley catheter. I’ll remove it when you can sit up on your own, with your legs draped over the edge of the bed. Would you like to try that now?’
Boots made a valiant attempt to rise to a sitting position. He tried first with his abdominal muscles, but the pain in his ribs and back stopped him cold. He tried next to roll on to his side, then to use his hands and arms, but it wasn’t happening. Finally, he dropped his head to the pillow, his face and hair slick with sweat.
Dr Chang pointed to the chair currently occupied by Joaquin. ‘A couple of hours from now, the nurses will put you in that chair. It’s going to hurt, Mr Littlewood, so I’d advise you to take your pain medication. The less pain you have, the more you’ll move around. The more you move around, the faster your recovery.’ Chan closed the curtain, then rubbed his hands together. ‘Now, let’s get to work.’
The naso-gastric tube running through Detective Littlewood’s nose and down into his stomach was held in place by a single piece of adhesive twisted into the shape of a butterfly. When Dr Chang deftly tore this adhesive away from the bruised and swollen tissue beneath it, Boots felt as though his skin had caught fire. Despite his best intentions (and his carefully nurtured self-image), he howled like a baby. Apparently unsympathetic, Chang next drew the NG tube from his patient’s stomach, up through his esophagus and out through his nose. By the time he finished, Boots was whimpering.
‘You ready for those pain meds?’ Chang asked.
Boots was, in fact, eager for his pain meds, and he continued to be eager as the day wore on. Nevertheless, when an orderly transferred him from the bed to a gurney prior to a CAT scan, and when a pair of nurses got him out of bed, walked him around the room, then sat him in a chair, his body shrieked in protest. He would be a long time healing.
The remainder of the afternoon passed in a blur. Boots was visited by a neurologist who restated Chan’s prognosis, and by an ophthalmologist who took no more than a step into the small ICU cubicle, but was nevertheless optimistic.
‘Try not to worry,’ she advised before heading back the way she’d come.
Already worried, he rang the nurse for his pain meds, then, once they were delivered, promptly fell into an image-saturated trance. He drifted for a time, again in a parallel universe devoid of apprehension. But he was more active now, and he skillfully manipulated these images, placing them in various relationships, one to the other, as he probed for a hidden treasure.
‘Detective, are you awake?’
In the time it took Boots to realize that he’d been spoken to, the question was repeated: ‘Detective, are you awake?’
Ah, yes, perfect, Boots thought. When the man gave you a job, you did it, the condition of a beat-to-shit detective somebody else’s problem. Boots knew he was dealing with another cop even before he opened his good eye.
‘Lenny Olmeda,’ the cop said, flashing a detective’s shield. ‘You remember me.’
‘Of course, you’re Inspector Corcoran’s secretary.’
‘Attaché,’ Olmeda corrected.
‘We’re gonna have to make this quick, Lenny. I feel like I was run over by a truck.’
‘Yeah, check it out. My job’s to find the truck.’ Short and stocky, Olmeda’s full cheeks were pitted with acne scars and he sported a
mustache that curled around his mouth in a manner likely to draw a reprimand if he was still on the street. ‘Can I call you Irwin?’ he asked.
‘Boots,’ Boots replied affably, though he was certain that Olmeda was fully aware of his nickname. ‘Everybody calls me Boots.’
Olmeda took out a little notebook and balanced it on his knee. ‘All right, Boots, why don’t you tell me what happened?’
Boots repeated the story he told Levine that morning. The robberies early in the week, Flint Page’s two phone calls, walking into the apartment. Then nothing.
‘Well, you’re a big help.’ Olmeda’s smile lifted his mustache until it splayed out along his cheeks. ‘Being as you’re on the job, I thought you’d have a little more consideration, maybe throw me a grounder.’
A silence followed, one Boots was not tempted to break. Finally, Olmeda said, ‘Can you think of anyone who’d want to do this to you?’
‘I been workin’ on that, sarge, and the only name that pops up is Mark Dupont.’
‘Mark Dupont. He’s a knucklehead I spotted in Greenpoint a couple of weeks ago. I encouraged the uniforms at the Six-Four to find an excuse to violate his parole. I wanted him off the street.’
‘Did they succeed?’