Read Dancer in the Flames Online

Authors: Stephen Solomita

Tags: #Suspense

Dancer in the Flames (4 page)

‘Don’t test my patience, Detective.’

‘If you want the name of the witness,’ Boots finally said, ‘I can get it for you. No problem. And while I’m at it, I’ll have Frankie confess to whatever he actually did to his sister.’

Corcoran glanced at his two Homicide detectives, but they remained impassive. Both were acquainted with Boots Littlewood, having made use of him from time to time when searching for a witness or a suspect in the Six-Four. Boots knew everybody, had enough snitches to fill a high school gym and was generally cooperative. Alienating his affections was not on their agenda.

Halfway up the flight of stairs separating the apartments of Frankie Drago and his mother, Assistant District Attorney Thelma Blount abruptly sat down, turning to face Boots Littlewood in the process. She rummaged in her bag for a moment, then removed a thin silver flask and unscrewed the top before taking a quick chug. Finally, she thrust the flask at Boots.

‘You have a bet on the game?’ she asked.

‘Don’t remind me. The last thing I need is to get aggravated again.’

‘Boots, I’m trying to be sympathetic.’

‘I don’t want sympathy. I want the umpires to get the calls right. I won that game twice over.’

Boots took the tiniest of sips, barely enough to wet his tongue. Shortly after Blount’s divorce became final two years before, he and Thelma had passed a frenzied weekend at a honeymoon resort in the Pocono Mountains, virtually all of it on a heart-shaped water bed. They’d emerged from their tryst good friends, though neither had expressed a desire to repeat the experience.

‘So what do you think?’ Blount finally asked.

‘About Frankie or about the witness?’

‘Start with the witness.’

Boots squatted down until he was face to face with the ADA. ‘Frankie’s tellin’ the truth. Somebody he knows claimed to witness Parker’s murder. But was that individual also tellin’ the truth? Frankie Drago’s a bookmaker. His deadbeat customers have lied to him so many times that he’s developed a cop’s nose for horseshit. On the other hand, Frankie has every reason to exaggerate. We’ll just have to see.’


oots positioned himself with his back to the sink, leaving the arena of the kitchen table to Drago and Blount. By mutual agreement, Littlewood’s role in the proceedings would be limited to that of honest broker.

‘Mr Drago, are we ready now?’

‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ When Frankie Drago swallowed, his bobbing Adam’s apple created a series of ripples that flowed through his jowls to finally meet at the back of his neck. Game time, he told himself. Do or die.

‘You claim that you have personal knowledge of a witness to the murder of Captain Christopher Parker,’ Blount continued. ‘Is that correct?’

‘Yeah, personal knowledge. As in the witness described the circumstances under which he did his witnessin’ in great detail. My guess, he was coked up that night because he usually keeps his lip buttoned.’

‘Did he recognize the shooter?’

‘I asked him, but he wouldn’t say.’ Drago looked over at Boots. ‘You know this guy, Boots. You and him have crossed paths many times.’

Boots nodded. ‘Any chance he pulled off the hit?’

‘None. And when I say his name, you’re gonna know why.’ Drago turned back to Thelma Blount. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘it’s your turn. What’s in it for me?’

Thelma stared at him for a moment. She was a small woman, in her late thirties, with a thick head of extremely curly hair that tended to pull away from her scalp as the day progressed. It was very late, well past midnight, and her dark red hair now surrounded her face like a halo.

‘Given the totality of the circumstances,’ she said, ‘I’m not willing to make any deal with you until I know exactly what happened on the night your sister died. It’s that simple.’ Thelma paused long enough to let the message sink in. According to Boots, Drago wanted nothing more than to unburden his guilty conscience. ‘If you wish, Mr Drago, we’ll keep it off the record for the present. But I won’t go in blind, not with the media already alerted.’

Frankie again looked over at Boots, and again Boots nodded once. For just a moment, Drago was puzzled, but then he recalled the detective’s parting advice: Show remorse.

‘With Angie, it was always the weight,’ Drago said, ‘the weight and my health. I got high blood pressure to the point where I get chest pain, adult-onset diabetes, and my ankles and knees hurt so bad on rainy days I need a cane to get around. This is my fault, accordin’ to Angie, because I’m a fat slob, because I don’t have any self-discipline, because I’m weak. All through dinner she went at me – the soup, the salad, the pasta, the dessert – I was talkin’ too much, eatin’ too fast, chewin’ with my mouth open. Finally, I told her, “If I wanted a wife, I woulda married one. Leave me the fuck alone.”’

As his story progressed, Drago’s eyes gradually dropped to the tablecloth, until he was finally staring at a crude representation of the Roman Colosseum that included a leaping leopard and a fallen gladiator. ‘The point I’m makin’ here is that Angie had these times when she just got mean. Myself, I think her hormones were outta whack, and I told her so, too, but she never got tested. That’s because she liked being nasty. I swear to God. The way some guys like to hurt people with their fists, Angie liked to hurt people with her words. And I wasn’t the only target. When Angie was in one of her moods, Ma took a beatin’, too, along with the grocer, the butcher and the girls at the beauty parlor. Even Father Ryan got his share and everybody knows he’s a fuckin’ saint.’

Boots tuned out when Drago began a detailed account of the two hours before Angie came downstairs to watch
Law and Order
. Turning toward the sink, he found his box of Tic Tacs and shoved a few into his mouth. For the past month, he’d been hoping for a grace period, even five minutes, without wanting a smoke. Meanwhile, he couldn’t find ten seconds of peace in an entire day.

Boots refocused as Drago wound up for the big finale. By then, tears were flowing in intermittent drops from the inside corners of both eyes.

‘Angie came down at ten o’clock and right away she went off on me,’ he said. ‘Only this time she started in about my business. I was too soft, too weak. My customers didn’t pay when they lost. This guy owes me this much. That guy owes me that much. Meanwhile, Ma’s dishwasher leaks and her apartment needs paintin’ and the toilet don’t flush right and the stair railing’s been loose for the last fuckin’ year. After a while, I couldn’t stand it no more. I felt like I was on fire, like if I didn’t do somethin’ I’d burst into flames. So, I jumped up and ran into the kitchen.’

Drago’s head rose slightly, though his eyes never left the table. His tears were coming faster now.

‘Angie followed me. It’s unbelievable, right? I’m tryin’ to get away, to create a little space, but she won’t let me go. Boots, then and there, I knew she’d follow me even if I left the house, even if I got on a rocket ship and flew to the moon. There was no gettin’ away, no place to hide. And her words were like bullets, the way they came out of her mouth – she was spittin’ razor blades at me. I remember spinnin’ around, tryin’ to keep my back to her, but she just kept followin’ me until I finally stopped. Then she said, “What, ya wanna hit me? Huh? Well, go ahead, ya fat slob. I dare ya.”’

By the time Drago raised his head to look at Boots, he’d turned the jets up to full. Tears streamed from his eyes, a thin trail of snot ran from his nose to his quivering upper lip, sobs erupted from deep in his chest.

‘I pushed her, Boots. I did it. Just like you said. I slammed her chest with the palms of my hands and she went flyin’ backwards. But I swear on my soul that I never even thought about the basement stairs. I never thought for one second that she was gonna die.’

Boots rummaged in the cabinets until he found a roll of paper towels. He stripped away the plastic sheeting, then tossed the roll to Drago. The bookie tore off several sheets and wiped his face before continuing.

‘What you said, Boots, about Angie bein’ alive for two hours? That can’t be right. It just can’t be. She didn’t have any pulse and her eyes . . . I’m tellin’ you that Angie was gone before I got down the stairs. If I thought for one second she was alive, I would’ve definitely called nine-one-one. This was Angie, my sister. I don’t care how pissed off I was, I loved her, too. You know that Boots. You know I loved her.’

In fact, the forensic evidence Boots reviewed before coming to Drago’s home revealed Angie’s cause of death to be a cerebral hemorrhage that killed her within seconds. And while a pair of contusions had been found on her chest, they were extremely faint.

‘Mr Drago,’ Thelma said after a moment, ‘you need to finish.’

Though Frankie continued to stare at the tabletop, he felt his mind slowly rotate, felt every emotion, felt even the possibility of emotion spill out. All along, he’d believed that confession would be good for his soul, that he’d be somehow restored. Now he was left as shriveled and empty as a punctured balloon. He wondered how many times Boots had done this over the years, and to how many people.

‘When I ran down the stairs and saw that she was dead, it was like I went crazy, like all my thoughts were crazy thoughts and I couldn’t do a fuckin’ thing about it. I kept tryin’ to imagine myself explainin’ to Ma, explainin’ to the cops, but I couldn’t get it straight in my mind. All I knew was that it was my fault Angie was dead and I had to make sure nobody found out. So when I heard about the snowstorm, I just figured . . .’

Suddenly, Drago leaned back in his chair. He laid his hands on the back of his knees and drew out his lower lip. Though his eyes were red and swollen, they were now dry.

‘I’m done,’ he declared. ‘I gave you what you wanted. I told you the truth.’

Boots watched Thelma’s full lips compress and her eyes narrow. Time for the bad news, time to put the squeeze on Frankie Drago. The sad part was that what Drago did to his sister, assuming his confession was truthful, amounted to no more than second-degree manslaughter, and maybe not even that. Meanwhile, Blount was set to lower the hammer.

‘We’re going to charge you with first-degree manslaughter,’ she said, ‘with a recommendation for bail. That’s if you cooperate on the cop killing. If you don’t, the charge will be second-degree murder and you’ll be remanded without bail until the time of your trial.’ Blount straightened in the chair. She was staring directly into Drago’s eyes. ‘You understand, Mr Drago, that you’re going to get the fifteen minutes of fame that naturally follows dumping your sister’s naked body in a public park. And you might also want to consider that every judge is a hanging judge when the media’s looking over her shoulder. The maximum sentence for second-degree murder is twenty-five to life and that’s exactly what you’ll get if you’re convicted.’

Drago shook his head as though trying to rid himself of an insect that had crawled into his ear canal. ‘I didn’t mean to kill her. I didn’t even mean to hurt her. I just wanted to get her away from me.’ He looked over at Boots. ‘This ain’t right, what you’re doin’ here. You know it happened the way I said. You know that—’

‘Mr Drago,’ Blount interrupted, ‘the statement you just gave is off the record. If you refuse my offer, it ceases to exist. That leaves the prosecution with the series of lies you told Detective Littlewood, with the forty-eight hours between when your sister died and when you disposed of her body, and with the way you chose to display her. Trust me on this, when a jury sees the photos taken at the crime scene, they’ll want to tear the flesh from your bones.’

Drago let his eyes drop to his hands as he dealt with Blount’s threat. I should wait, he told himself. I should get a lawyer and let the lawyer bargain with the DA.

But he would have to find that lawyer first, then sit in jail until the deal was cut, all the while hoping the payoff would be more generous than the deal he’d already been offered. Drago finally raised his head to look at Boots.

‘Don’t be a jerk, Frankie,’ Boots said. ‘Nobody’s askin’ you to plead guilty. You can fight the manslaughter charge, just like you can fight the murder charge. The only difference is that if you take the state’s offer, you’ll be fightin’ from the comfort of your own home, instead of Rikers Island.’

Drago stared into Littlewood’s eyes for a moment, then broke into the first genuine smile he’d displayed since Boots turned up at his door. The recommendation for bail was an offer that could not be refused.

‘Vinnie Booster,’ he said. ‘Vinnie Booster saw the whole thing.’

Some two hours later, Boots made his way to the Six-Four’s squad room. There he accessed the squad’s single computer, blundering through several databases before uncovering a borough-wide list of vehicles stolen during the month of March. He ran his finger down this list until he reached March 20th, the night of Christopher Parker’s murder. Sure enough, a 2005 Nissan Altima had been reported stolen by its owner, a man named Rajiv Visnawana, at one thirty a.m. At the time, the vehicle was parked opposite 411 Berry Street, less than a block from where Parker was killed. Boots signed off, then crossed the room to pull the case file. He noted a few additional details, including the odd fact that Visnawana, rather than call 911, had filed his complaint at the precinct. Then he replaced the file and closed the drawer.

Boots crossed the room to his desk. Frankie Drago had been right when he predicted that Boots would recognize the name of the witness. Boots had known Vinnie Palermo, aka Vinnie Booster, almost as long as he’d known Frankie Drago, long enough to be certain that Vinnie’s monicker aptly described the entirety of his adult life. Vinnie Booster was a car thief. As far as Boots knew, he’d never been anything else, his dedication to the craft undiminished by overlapping cycles of probation, prison and parole. Executing cops was not his bag.

Boots wrote out Frankie Drago’s story, his intention to record the details while they were still fresh in his mind. According to Drago, Vinnie had been inside the Altima, jimmying the car’s steering column, when a vehicle entered Berry Street, traveling away from the Williamsburg Bridge. As interruptions of this sort were commonplace in his world, Palermo simply hunkered down on the front seat and waited. But then the car remained stopped for an extended period of time and he cautiously lifted his head to peer through the Nissan’s windshield.

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