Read Dancer in the Flames Online

Authors: Stephen Solomita

Tags: #Suspense

Dancer in the Flames (5 page)

Over the next twenty seconds, Palermo observed a white male exit this vehicle, then circle it to step on to the sidewalk and light a cigarette. At that point, a second male stepped out of a doorway and shot the first male twice, once in the back and once in the head.

‘Blew his fuckin’ brains out,’ was how Palermo had described it to Drago.

For the next few seconds, the shooter had remained motionless, staring down at his victim. Then he shoved his weapon into the pocket of his coat before taking off along South Fourth Street in the direction of the East River. Vinnie Booster, having finally started the Nissan, made his own getaway fifteen seconds later.


he rising sun was still below the eastern horizon when Boots entered the two-family home he shared with his father, Andy. Eager for bed, he climbed the stairs to his apartment. He was fishing for his keys, when the door opened ahead of him.

que passa
, man?’

‘I think I should be asking you that question, being as it’s so early,’ Boots said.

Joaquin Rivera looked into his father’s eyes and grinned. Boots was busting balls, as usual. ‘You up for coffee?’

‘Caffeine is the last thing I need.’

‘Then how ’bout a hit of Jim Beam?’


Boots followed his son into the kitchen. At age twenty, Joaquin had a round face, a small pursed mouth and incipient jowls that would inevitably lengthen as the years went by. People commonly took him for soft, which was a mistake. Joaquin’s early years were as hard as years can get for a child and he’d learned his lessons well.

Joaquin poured out Boots’s drink. ‘Here ya go, Boots,’ he said as he laid it on the kitchen table. Boots raised the glass to his mouth and sipped. The bourbon slid down into his stomach, then curled up, warm as a kitten. ‘You broke again?’ he asked.

‘I’m fucked,’ Joaquin said. ‘I can’t make the rent.’

Even with the Pell Grants and the loans and his part-time job and Boots paying most of his tuition, Joaquin’s struggle to meet the costs of an education at New York University was ongoing. The rat-trap studio apartment he shared with his girlfriend rented for fifteen hundred dollars a month.

Boots finished his drink, then went into his bedroom. When he returned, he had five hundred dollars in his hand. Joaquin took the money and put in his pocket.

‘You know I hate this,’ he said.

‘I do,’ Boots said. ‘That’s why I’m keepin’ track of every penny. Somewhere down the line, after you get rich, you can expect a bill.’

The joke fell flat. ‘By the time I graduate,’ Joaquin said, his expression grave, ‘I’ll owe thirty-five thousand dollars to various banks. If I go on to graduate school – which is the only way I can make enough money to pay off my debt – the bottom line could double. When I think about it hard, which I try not to do, I feel like a sucker. I feel like I stumbled into a con game.’ Joaquin shifted forward on his chair. ‘See, that first loan, the one you get before you understand the system, it locks you in. You think, if I quit, how the hell can I pay it off? That’s how long cons work, marks throwing good money after bad.’

Boots nodded as Joaquin went along. He was listening to an old story. ‘Not to change the subject,’ he said, ‘but are you still doin’ computer research for that private investigator?’

‘Galligan? Yeah, three afternoons a week.’

‘Does that mean you have access to Lexis/Nexis?’

‘And a dozen other data collection agencies.’ A smile, as suspicious as it was broad, spread across Joaquin’s face, revealing a pair of shadowy dimples. In Boots Littlewood’s universe, no favor was freely given.

‘Well, I want you to check someone out for me. A police captain named Christopher Parker. He was murdered a while back.’

Joaquin nodded once as he recognized the name. ‘What do you want to know about him?’

‘Whatever’s out there.’

‘That’s gonna cost.’


‘You’re talking about a hundred databases. Galligan would never agree to do it on the cuff. Now, if you’re willing to settle for a local media search, I could probably run it in my spare time. No harm, no foul.’

Boots nodded. ‘Just do the media, Jackie. If something turns up, we’ll go from there.’

Boots was fast asleep when his phone rang at nine thirty on the following morning. Nevertheless, as he’d been expecting a call, he rose to a sitting position and picked up.


‘Boots, did I wake you?’ The apologetic tone belonged to Littlewood’s commander, Lieutenant Carl Levine. ‘I was gonna call you earlier, but I figured you were asleep.’

‘It’s OK, boss. What’s up?’

‘I need you in my office at noon. You’re now working for the Parker task force.’

‘Oh, are you telling me that Vinnie wasn’t home when the task force raided Connie Palermo’s house?’

Levine sighed. There were times when Boots was a total prick and this was one of them. ‘Let’s hear it,’ he said.

‘Vinnie wasn’t at his aunt’s because Vinnie doesn’t live there. Connie provides her nephew with an address for his parole officer, takes his phone calls and warns him if there’s trouble. Myself—’

‘Wait a second, Boots. Are you sayin’ that you knew Vinnie wasn’t living with Connie Palermo?’


‘But you didn’t tell anyone – also right?’

‘Nobody asked me, boss. They kicked me right to the curb.’

Levine could barely contain his anger. ‘Ya know, Boots, the way you strut around, you’re a fuckin’ peacock.’

‘Sue me.’

‘In my office, Boots, at noon.’

Boots shook his head as the smell of the proverbial rat finally reached his nostrils. ‘Wait a second. If I’m being assigned to the task force, why am I reporting to your office?’

‘To meet your new partner, son. Her name’s Jill Kelly. You’ll like her.’

When Boots arrived at the precinct ninety minutes before his appointment with Carl Levine, he was wearing sweats beneath his pearl-gray overcoat. His suit, also pearl gray, was draped over a padded wooden hanger, along with a jet-black shirt, a silver tie and his vest.

Boots headed down the stairs to the weight room in the basement after greeting the desk officer. As he entered the poorly ventilated room, he drew in the familiar odor of human sweat, sharp and salty, then announced, ‘Yo, Boots is in the house.’

There were only two men present when Boots made his appearance, both members of an Anti-Crime unit attached to the Six-Four. Though the older of the pair, John Rimple, was a decade younger than Boots, he apparently had no respect for his elders.

‘Who gives a shit,’ he replied evenly.

Littlewood’s gaze rested momentarily on a scraggly beard that failed to cover the ravages of Rimple’s teenage acne. Like all Anti-Crime cops, Rimple worked the streets in plain clothes, mingling with the demons who haunted those streets in an effort to prevent crime before it happened.

‘I don’t get no respect,’ Boots finally said as he hung his working clothes on a hook and began to loosen up. ‘It must be a charisma thing.’

‘Yeah, that’s right,’ Antoine Crudup interjected. ‘Without the suit, you’re just another chubby, middle-aged white man.’

A year on the wrong side of forty, Boots was coming to accept his middle-aged status. But the chubby part hurt. At six-three, two-twenty, he was proud of the body he’d worked so hard to maintain. Maybe his belly was somewhat rounded, but there was barely enough fat around his middle to pinch.

Though Boots worked non-stop for the next thirty minutes, he was only a third of the way through his usual routine when he called it quits. Rimple and Crudup were coming out of the shower room. Time to go to work.

‘Guys,’ Boots said, ‘hang out a second.’

Crudup sat on one of several weight benches spread across the center of the room. ‘What’s up, Boots?’

‘Vinnie Booster. I need to find him in a hurry.’

‘That man is a complete asshole,’ Crudup observed. ‘He ain’t two months outta the joint and he’s back to stealin’ cars. Swear to God, Boots, if I had a dog that couldn’t learn from his mistakes, no matter how many times he got punished, I’d take him out in the backyard and shoot him.’

‘Much as I respect the sentiment, Antoine, I need Vinnie alive and talkin’. Now if I remember right, he was partnered up with a thief named Pete Karakovich before he went away last time. I was wonderin’ if they got back together since Vinnie made parole?’

Crudup and Rimple exchanged glances as they searched their memories. That Boots was requesting their assistance came as no surprise to either.

‘Didn’t we see Vinnie with Peter Polack at Gentleman Johnny’s last Friday night?’ Rimple asked Crudup, naming a topless club on Kent Avenue.

‘That’s right. Vinnie was tryin’ to slip a dollar bill into Candy Heart’s G-string, but she wasn’t havin’ it. She shook her ass at him and went off to hustle somebody more generous.’ Crudup rose to his feet. He was wearing a Fubu hoodie beneath an Avirex bomber jacket. ‘I gotta get home,’ he announced. ‘Mama’s waitin’.’

‘One more thing,’ Boots said. ‘You ever hear of a cop named Jill Kelly? She’s gonna be my new partner.’

Crudup’s mouth opened in amazement. ‘Bro,’ he said, ‘I’m not disrespectin’ you here, but you really need to get out more often.’

‘How long you been workin’ the Six-Four, Boots?’ Rimple winked at his partner. ‘What I heard is that your mama gave birth in the muster room.’

Boots stood up. Rimple and Crudup had a valid point. To a large extent, the Sixty-Fourth Precinct defined the limits of his working life. He had little interest in the wider cop world outside its boundaries.

‘The fuckin’ duel?’ Crudup said, his small eyes narrowing. ‘The one that took place on the rooftop?’

‘I did hear something about that,’ Boots admitted, ‘but I don’t recall the details.’

Crudup glanced at his watch, then at the door. He was late, but the story was too good to resist. Finally he grinned. ‘What I’m gonna tell you, it comes from the co-pilot of a police chopper, a sergeant named Jimmy Dermott. He claims that he was about a mile away, comin’ up on a rooftop in Brownsville, when the confrontation went down.’

‘Did you say a mile?’ Boots asked.

‘Yeah, and even though he was lookin’ through binoculars, he still can’t say for certain that what he thought he saw really happened.’ Crudup hesitated for a moment, then asked. ‘You know what they call Jill Kelly?’

‘No idea.’

‘Crazy Jill. And the word is that she earned her rep long before the situation I’m tellin’ you about.’ Crudup again looked at his watch. ‘OK, down to business. Dermott claims that the perp, a Russian named Alex Luchinski, was kneeling down when Dermott first saw him. Dermott also claims that Luchinski’s hands were not cuffed and that a pistol was lying on the roof a few inches from his fingertips. Kelly was standin’ about ten feet away, in uniform, with her weapon holstered and her hand by her side. Accordin’ to Dermott, nobody did anything for the next five seconds, then Luchinski and Kelly both grabbed for their guns. Boots, this fight was fixed from the beginning. Jill Kelly is the best shooter on the job, only a notch or two below Olympic caliber. Luchinski was dead, shot three times, center of mass, before he got his hands on his gun.’

A respectful moment of silence followed as all three cops tacitly awarded the story legendary status, true or not.

‘So,’ Rimple finally said as Boots walked off toward the showers, ‘what do ya think of your new partner?’

‘What I think is that I like her already.’

But Rimple was not about to let the matter go, not with the punchline undelivered. ‘In that case, you might wanna consider that she’s got uncles, cousins and an aunt on the job. In fact, one of her uncles, Mike Shaw, is Chief of Detectives.’

Maybe Boots was expecting a super-hero, Batgirl or Wonder Woman, or perhaps a Russian shotputter whose shoulders began at her ears. Whichever, he was unprepared for the auburn-haired beauty sitting in a chair to the left of Carl Levine’s desk. Jill Kelly’s body was slender, her manner relaxed. Though her face was noticeably broad, her features were large enough to compensate. Her dark blue eyes were truly enormous. As unapologetic as they were penetrating, they raked Detective Littlewood from his scalp to the tip of his ankle boots.

Yo, Jill Kelly’s in the house.

‘What’s up, boss?’ Boots asked.

Levine’s features sagged as he recalled the one-sided conversation he’d had with Inspector Corcoran, a conversation in which his contribution was limited to a single response: Yes, sir. But then Levine’s gaze happened to fall on Jill Kelly and he was immediately cheered. If Boots couldn’t take a joke, fuck him.

‘As of this moment,’ Levine announced, ‘you’re on temporary assignment to the Chris Parker task force. Your job is to locate Vincent Palermo.’

Boots looked over at Jill Kelly and winked. ‘You mean they didn’t find him on Metropolitan Avenue?’

‘No, Boots, they didn’t.’ Levine gestured in Kelly’s general direction. ‘This is Detective Kelly. She’ll be your partner for the duration.’

‘And who do I report to?’ Boots asked.

‘We don’t report to anyone until we find Palermo.’

Jill Kelly’s voice was low-pitched and husky, a smoker’s voice if Boots had ever heard one. Boots rubbed his hands together and smiled. ‘In that case,’ he said, ‘we’d best get on the road.’


ou mind if I smoke?’ Jill Kelly asked as Boots pulled an unmarked Crown Vic away from the curb.

‘Knock yourself out.’ Though Boots managed to keep his tone neutral, his heart skipped a beat when Kelly rolled down the window, then thrust her mouth into the opening as she exhaled. ‘Please,’ he said, ‘if ya don’t mind. I’m just gettin’ over a cold.’

Kelly brought up the window almost to the top. ‘You’re sure the smoke won’t bother you?’

‘Better than pneumonia,’ Boots replied as he drew a deep breath.

They drove in silence for the next few minutes, until Jill Kelly tossed her cigarette butt into the road. ‘Do we have a plan?’

‘As a matter of fact, we do. See, there’s no point in looking for Vinnie Palermo. He’s like a woodchuck. The first sign of danger, he goes underground.’ Boots glanced at his new partner. She was leaning against the seat, her hands resting in her lap. ‘What we have to do is find a pal of Vinnie’s, a car thief named Pete Karakovich. They call him Peter Polack on the street.’

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