Authors: Stephen Solomita
‘Frankie, your mother told me that Angie never came home that afternoon. I don’t care if she lied because she loves you. I don’t care that you were always her favorite. Unless you tell me the truth, she’s fair game.’
‘So, you’re puttin’ the squeeze on me?’
‘I’m a cop. Squeezin’ criminals is what I get paid for.’
‘I know what you do for a livin’, but I can’t have my mother hassled.’
‘Then you gotta step up. You gotta tell me the truth.’
Drago’s immense torso quivered, the tension rippling through his body, from his shoulders to his knees. He wasn’t afraid of Boots Littlewood, not exactly, but there was something about Littlewood’s attitude as he watched Mariano throw a fastball that Shoppach fouled into the seats. Like Frankie Drago was no threat. Like Boots knew he’d already won.
‘All right, Boots, you want the truth,’ Drago said, ‘here it is. Like you figured, it happened on March thirteenth. Ma was sleepin’, so Angie came downstairs to watch
Law and Order
, which we both love, and which we been watchin’ together for years. Anyway, Angie went into the kitchen. I think she said she was gonna nuke some popcorn, but I can’t remember exactly. What I do remember is that I called to her just before the show started and she didn’t answer, so I put the DVR on pause and went to look. Boots, she was lyin’ at the bottom of the cellar steps, curled into a heap, and there was blood all around her head. I couldn’t believe it, couldn’t get my mind around it, that she could just be gone, that she . . .’
‘If you were standin’ at the top of the stairs,’ Littlewood interrupted, ‘how’d ya know she was dead?’
Boots waved off Drago’s reply as Rivera threw a cutter into the dirt. Instinctively, Youkilis took a few steps toward second, then quickly reversed field when Martin came up with the ball and fired to first. Again, ball and runner arrived at the same time, again the ump called the runner safe, again the replays proved the ump wrong, again Joe Girardi came flying out of the dugout. The only difference this time was that Girardi got himself tossed out of the game.
As the Yankee’s manager walked off the field, Boots finally rose to his feet. He watched the umpires resume their positions, watched Rivera lean in for a sign. ‘C’mon, Mariano,’ he whispered. ‘Just do this one thing for me. Never again will I say you choked in the playoffs. And if someone else says it, I promise I’ll defend you. Just do this one thing.’
Littlewood’s eyes snapped open. ‘What, Frankie? What the fuck do you want?’
‘I just told you.’
‘Told me what?’
‘I just told you I went down the stairs. I mean, her eyes were open and I knew she wasn’t seein’ anythin’, but I checked Angie’s pulse anyway.’
Rivera threw a knee-high fastball over the outside corner that Shoppach fouled off behind third base. A-Rod made a run for it, but the ball dropped several rows back in the stands.
‘So why didn’t you call nine-one-one?’
‘I thought about it, Boots. I swear. But I couldn’t seem to do anythin’. I kept tryin’ to figure out how I was gonna tell Ma. And I was afraid you’d accuse me the way you’re accusin’ me right now. I mean, I spent the whole night goin’ back and forth. What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do? It was like I went crazy. And then it was too late. It was the next morning and I knew if I called the cops, I’d never be able to explain why I waited.’
Boots considered this for a moment, then said, ‘Tell me something, Frankie. When you laid your sister out nude in the snow, did you think about how she’d look to the person who found her? How she’d look to the cops who came to investigate? This was Angie, who was never naked with a man in her entire life.’
‘Boots, please . . .’
‘And by the way, Frankie. I lied to you before. When I said that Angie didn’t have any bruises on her body. She had two bruises on her chest, parallel to each other. These bruises were almost identical, a pair of crescents about five inches across. The pathologist who did the autopsy says they were made with the heels of her killer’s hands and I agree with him. Now, ya wanna hear something funny? About how amateurs always fuck up, about how they hang themselves in the end? If she died right away, like you claim, those bruises would’ve been very faint. But they weren’t. They were deep purple and that means Angie was alive for at least two hours after you broke her head open.’
Drago’s teeth ground together as he made a feeble attempt to process the information, including the possibility that Boots was still lying, that every single word was a lie. The bookie felt as though he was opening doors in some gigantic house, looking for a way out, a complete waste of time because there was only one door left. Drago opened it as the ball left Mariano Rivera’s hand.
‘I want a lawyer, Boots,’ he said. ‘It’s my right.’
Rivera’s cutter was ankle-high over the outer half of the plate when the batter’s upper-cut swing interrupted its downward arc. The fly ball that resulted would have been a routine out in almost any other stadium. But this was Fenway Park and the foul pole in right field was only 302 feet away. Boots felt his heart jump as Nick Swisher raced toward the warning track.
‘Gimme a break here,’ Boots said, pumping his fist. ‘Gimme a fuckin’ break.’
But there was no break to be had. The ball traced a gentle, rainbow arc that finally dropped it into the seats one row beyond Swisher’s outstretched glove. The game was over.
Initially, Boots froze, his body rigid, his mouth open, staring straight ahead. Then a gurgling sound issued from the back of his throat, as though he were choking on his own phlegm. He watched Shoppach circle the bases, watched him leap into the arms of his jubilant teammates while the Yankee players walked off the field. A close-up of Mariano Rivera revealed an anguish that bordered on despair. He could not have pitched better and he knew it.
Suddenly, Boots whirled in a half-circle and kicked Drago’s legs out from under him. Frankie threw out his hands as he crashed to the floor, but he wasn’t strong enough to break his fall. His face slammed into the carpet hard enough to bounce. An instant later, Boots Littlewood dropped on to his back.
‘Gimme your hand,’ Boots shouted. ‘Gimme your hand.’
Boots jerked Drago’s right arm behind his back and fastened one end of a pair of cuffs to his wrist. Then he reached for Drago’s other hand, still shouting, ‘Gimme your hand. Gimme your hand.’ But Drago’s back was very broad and he was carrying an extra hundred pounds as well. Though he didn’t resist, his hands wouldn’t come together, no matter how hard Boots yanked. Still Boots persisted, until finally he grew tired, until finally he heard Frankie Drago’s plea.
‘Boots, it was an accident. I swear. An accident.’
‘Shut up, Frankie.’ Boots had zero interest in hearing another version of the same event, a version guaranteed to be as self-serving as all the others. He jumped to his feet, yanked out a roll of bills, counted off two hundred dollars in tens and twenties, finally dropped to his knees and shoved the money into Drago’s pocket.
‘There, ya fuck,’ he said. ‘Now we’re even.’
n hour later, Boots Littlewood entered Angie Drago’s kitchen to find Officer Enrique Torres seated across from Frankie Drago at a table in the center of the room. The table was covered with a plastic tablecloth depicting scenes from Ancient Rome, the eruption of Vesuvius being the most prominent. Drago’s coffee mug sat dead center over the rim of the volcano and Boots had to wonder if he’d placed it there deliberately, perhaps to contain the explosion that threatened to engulf him.
‘Hank,’ Boots said, ‘you mind givin’ us a little privacy?’
Boots waited for the door to close behind the uniformed cop, then crossed to the sink. He found a mug in the drain basket, filled it with coffee from a gleaming percolator, added milk and sugar, finally took Torres’s seat at the table. Drago watched Boots carefully, knowing that his own future was on the line. Make a mistake here and a series of very bad things would happen to him. Drago had spent four years upstate in the 1990s following a conviction for armed robbery and assault. In fact, prison was where he’d finally wised up, where he’d stopped dreaming those crime-czar dreams. Neighborhood bookie, he’d admitted to himself, far better suited his talents and his nerve.
‘You asked for a lawyer,’ Boots said. ‘Are you takin’ that back, Frankie?’
‘Yeah, I am.’
‘So, what do ya want?’
Drago took a deep breath as he sucked up every molecule of courage from his small reservoir. ‘Ya know, Boots,’ he finally said, ‘you been placin’ bets with me for a long time. If that should come out . . .’
Disappointed, Boots glanced around the kitchen, at what he knew to be Angie Drago’s creation: the yellow walls and counter tops, the pale red curtains over the windows, the dark green cabinets, an off-white linoleum floor speckled with mica. Behind Drago’s head, a religious calendar displayed the risen Christ. No more than a yard away, a wall clock bore the portrait of a smiling Minnie Mouse.
‘You sealed your own fate,’ Boots told Drago, ‘when you arranged your sister’s body the way you did. You can’t fix something like that, not after the media gets wind of it. In addition to the Crime Scene Unit, there’s an inspector from Borough Command and a prosecutor downstairs. They’re gonna hold a press conference later on, after you’ve been arrested.’
Boots sipped at his coffee, trying to cool it down even as he took it into his mouth. Still, it was too hot and he burned his tongue. ‘Shit,’ he said.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘It means,’ Boots explained as he set down the mug, ‘that I wouldn’t save your ass even if I could. It means you have to pay for what you did to Angie, before and after her death.’ Boots flashed his here-and-gone smile as he pushed the chair away and stood up. ‘That’s just the way it is,’ he said. ‘No hard feelings.’
Drago motioned for Boots to sit back down. ‘Awright, forget about the threat, which I didn’t mean anyway. I’m not gonna rat you out. I got somethin’ much bigger to trade.’ The bookie welcomed Littlewood’s scrutiny. He’d finally gotten the bastard’s attention. ‘I’m not gonna beat around the bush. I have information – which I am willin’ to share under the right conditions – regardin’ Christopher Parker, the cop who got killed down by the bridge three weeks ago.’
Drago lit a cigarette, then blew a stream of smoke over the cop’s head. Boots inhaled as it went by, sucking the air down into his lungs. ‘Are you tellin’ me,’ he asked, ‘that you know the identity of the shooter? And think twice before you answer. You lie about somethin’ like this, you’re gonna think you were sightseein’ in Hiroshima on the day they dropped the bomb.’
‘Boots, do I look like a schmuck?’ Drago scrutinized the detective’s features, one by one, finally deciding that the guy was such a hard read because he was so ordinary. The nose just a little too short, the mouth a little too pinched, the blue eyes a little too narrow, the chin a little too prominent – Boots was neither ugly nor handsome, nor remarkable in any way.
‘I don’t know who pulled the trigger,’ Drago finally admitted. ‘I’m not makin’ that claim. But I do know somebody who watched the hit go down. And that’s what it was, Boots. A hit.’
Boots nodded once, then rose to his feet. ‘OK,’ he said, ‘I’ll relay the message. But I’ve got one piece of advice, which you should really take to heart.’
‘When the time comes, show remorse.’
Boots set the wheels in motion by reporting Drago’s gambit to his immediate superior, Lieutenant Carl Levine, commander of the Sixty-Fourth Precinct’s detective squad. Levine took the offer to Inspector Mack Corcoran, who commanded all of Brooklyn’s detectives. Corcoran huddled briefly with a pair of Homicide detectives, Artie Farrahan and Thelonius Tolliver, before approaching Assistant District Attorney Thelma Blount. Another discussion followed, after which Blount, Corcoran, Farrahan and Tolliver went upstairs to interview Frankie Drago.
Boots watched the posse mount the stairs before wandering into the living room where he found his boss sitting on the couch. Lieutenant Carl Levine was a short man with a thick neck that ran straight up into his round skull. His bony jaw was large and his broad nose short, leaving his mouth an isolated slash of pink midway between these two landmarks. In his mid-fifties, Levine was fast coming to the end of a long career. Under ordinary circumstances, he might have been proud of that career – the Detective Bureau was a prestige assignment for any lieutenant. But Levine’s wife had deserted him more than a decade before and his two children were grown and gone. With no replacements in sight and no significant hobbies, retirement was little more than a black hole into which he would pour the remainder of his days. Levine’s wistful eyes reflected this truth. Among the detectives at the Six-Four, his nickname was Lieutenant Sorrowful.
‘Don’t worry,’ Boots said after a moment. ‘I’ll have a confession out of Frankie Drago within an hour.’
‘Frankie will never talk to Corcoran.’
‘And why is that?’
‘Because Frankie’s been around the block. It’d be different, of course, if he knew the name of the shooter. Then he’d have to testify and the state would have to be nice to him. But the way it is, once he reveals the name of this witness, the criminal justice system will no longer need his services. That’s why Frankie’s gonna want somebody in the room he can trust.’
For once, Levine’s eyes grew merry as a deep chuckle rumbled up from somewhere in his gut. He and Boots had been working together for many years.
‘And that somebody he can trust would be you?’
‘What can I say, boss? By now, the poor jerk’s gotta be desperate.’
Fifteen minutes later, Boots heard the posse’s footsteps on the stairs. He turned in time to watch Inspector Mack Corcoran, with Blount and the two detectives bringing up the rear, march into the living room.
‘He’ll only talk to you,’ Corcoran announced. ‘He thinks you’re his friend.’
Corcoran was in his mid-forties, a rising star who’d jumped from captain to inspector as if the rank of deputy inspector didn’t exist. Boots let his gaze travel past Corcoran’s slash of a mouth, past the cold, suspicious eyes behind the wire-rimmed glasses, to the full head of brown hair that crowned his scalp. Dye job or a top-of-the-line rug? Boots couldn’t decide.