Read Dancer in the Flames Online

Authors: Stephen Solomita

Tags: #Suspense

Dancer in the Flames (6 page)

‘You know where to find him?’

‘Not for sure, not right this minute. But I do know where he’ll be at six o’clock.’

Kelly glanced at her watch. ‘That’s five hours from now.’

‘Well, we could try Pete at his mother’s house where he lives from time to time. Only, if he’s not there, his mom’ll definitely give him a heads up, in which case we’ll lose him like the task force lost Vinnie. But it’s your call.’

Jill smiled. It was nice the way he’d backed her into a corner. King Kong with a brain. ‘Drive,’ she said. ‘Maybe we’ll get lucky.’

They spent the remainder of the afternoon meandering through the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, hoping to come upon Vinnie Palermo or Pete Karakovich as either went about his daily business. This was the longest of longshots, as Boots knew well. Both men were car thieves who plied their trade in the wee hours of the morning. They were as allergic to daylight as vampires.

But Detective Littlewood was far from upset. First, because in the course of his career he’d put in many thousands of hours behind the wheel and he liked to drive, especially while listening to the New York Yankees pound the shit out of the Boston Red Sox. Second, because Detective Kelly filled the Crown Vic’s interior with smoke and kept it that way throughout the afternoon. Between the second-hand smoke and the Tic Tacs he shoved into his mouth every half hour, his cravings remained under control. His skin didn’t crawl, his eyes didn’t bulge, his fingers didn’t tremble.

On the other hand, Boots just knew the Yankees were starting one of those streaks where they won twenty out of twenty-five games. That he wouldn’t be able to bet on the games left him in a mood that equated nicely with the onset of major depression. He could almost feel the heavy hand of fate drop on to his shoulder.

By three o’clock, when his partner headed into a coffee shop for a bathroom break, Boots could stand it no more. He retrieved his cellphone and dialed a number from memory.


‘Frankie, it’s Boots. I see you made bail, just like I said you would.’

‘It wasn’t anything you did. It was what’s her name, the prosecutor.’

‘Thelma Blount. Anyway, I was wonderin’ what you’re gonna do now?’

‘What I’m gonna do?’

‘If you’re still . . . you know, in business.’

For a long moment, Frankie Drago couldn’t speak, the words sticking in his throat before he could force them beyond his vocal cords. Finally, he drew a deep breath and blasted a succinct message past the point of constriction.

‘Fuck you, Boots, right in the ass.’

‘C’mon Frankie, you can’t blame me for what happened.’

‘You hunted me down like an animal.’

‘All I did was follow a trail of evidence. The reason it ended at your door was because you did the crime. Besides, there’s something else you need to think about. The position you’re in, it really doesn’t pay to burn your bridges behind you.’

Drago took a moment as he tried to unravel the threads. Was Boots threatening to make things worse? Promising to help in the future? Or just lying through his teeth?

‘OK,’ Boots finally added, ‘I’m sorry for how I went about makin’ the arrest. I was really pissed off because you’d been lyin’ to me and because of the way the Yankees lost. But that’s no excuse. I shoulda definitely conducted myself in a more professional manner.’

Boots glanced through the window, saw Jill Kelly standing by the counter while the counterman filled a pair of Styrofoam containers with hot coffee. Already wrapped, two jelly doughnuts lay at her fingertips. ‘I gotta make this quick, Frankie. You need to give me a yes or no before my new partner comes back.’

‘You got a new partner?’

‘Yes or no, Frankie?’

‘All right, Boots, I’ll take your bets. But I don’t see what the rush is about. The Yankees are off tomorrow.’

‘I know, it’s just . . .’ Boots watched the door to the coffee shop open, watched Jill Kelly display a careless physical confidence with each stride as she came toward him. ‘The next four games against Baltimore, two bills a game,’ Boots said. ‘I got a feelin’ the Yanks are gonna go crazy.’

At seven o’clock, as planned, Boots pulled to the curb on a mostly residential block of Meserole Street just off Manhattan Avenue. ‘OK, first thing,’ he told his partner, ‘we’re in Greenpoint now.’

‘Not Williamsburg?’

‘No, and not in the Six-Four. But it doesn’t matter because I grew up in Greenpoint. Everybody knows me here.’ Boots paused as Jill Kelly rolled her eyes. Maybe, he decided, he was overplaying his familiarity with the terrain.

‘Anyway,’ he continued, ‘Pete Karakovich’s Uncle Ted owns that bar over there, Gergan’s, and Pete shows up almost every night for a burger and a brew. Now even goin’ back twenty years to when Seamus Gergan owned the place, the bar had a certain reputation. I’m not sayin’ it’s a mob joint, but you should figure that anyone in there could be dirty, and that there might be a negative reaction if we try to drag Peter out.’

‘Then why don’t we take him on the way in? Or if he’s already there, when he leaves?’

‘What do we do if he runs?’

‘Chase him down and beat the shit out of him. What else?’

Boots acknowledged the common wisdom with a nod. ‘Yeah, well, that’s the thing, Jill. I got plantar fasciitis. You know what that is?’

‘Something with the foot?’

‘Exactly. The tissues under the arches of my feet have these microscopic tears, which is OK as long as I take it easy. On the other hand, if I have to run a couple of blocks, I’ll be limpin’ for a week.’

Jill Kelly smiled, revealing a pair of fetching dimples that contrasted sharply with the expression in her eyes. ‘Why don’t you just tell me what the plan is, Boots,’ she declared. ‘So we’ll both know.’

As he began to speak, Boots remembered Frankie Drago making the same point on the night before. ‘Pete’s too stupid to listen to reason. I’m going to approach his uncle. Maybe Ted Brochenek’s been a crook all his life, but he’s smart enough to know there are times when we all have to get along, like it or not.’

‘And Pete will do what his uncle tells him to do?’

‘Pete idolizes his uncle. They’re like father and son.’ Boots pushed the door open before adding, ‘I’ve known them both for years. Me and Ted, we confess to the same priest.’

Everything about Gergan’s Tavern spoke of age and neglect. The booths along the west wall, the bar along the east and the tables down the center had been gouged so many times, by so many pointed objects, that every name or message had been obliterated. At the far end of the room, a pool table with a pronounced tilt was covered with worn blue felt. Winning or losing on this table depended not on a steady hand but on a precise knowledge of the many dead spots on the rails.

The dozen patrons inside the bar on the night Boots and Jill Kelly showed up were a mix of workers on their way home and disorganized, wannabe gangsters like Pete Karakovich, who sat in a booth with three other mutts. One and all, their suspicious eyes followed the two cops as they strolled to the end of the bar nearest the door. Several men offered nods, including the bartender, Ted Brochenek, but these greetings were as solemn as they were tentative. Boots and his sexy partner had come for something – that much was obvious – and they could only hope it wasn’t them.

Boots watched Teddy pour shots of cheap whiskey into a pair of glasses on the bar. The glasses were set before two men wearing blue, paint-spattered uniforms. Brochenek took their five-dollar bills, said something in Polish, then fed their money into a cash register as old as the building. Finally, he sauntered over to the cops at the end the bar.

‘Boots, what I can get for you?’

‘How about a couple of cokes?’ Boots said. ‘For me and my partner.’

Teddy’s eyes raked Kelly’s features, but his grave expression didn’t change. He drew the cokes, then returned to lay them on the bar. Boots reached for his wallet, but Teddy shook his head.

‘On the house.’

Boots nodded acceptance, then let his voice drop to a near-whisper. ‘Teddy, I need you to listen carefully to what I’m gonna tell you now, because it’s really simple and I don’t want to repeat myself. I’ve got to speak to your nephew. There’s no maybe about it, no wiggle room, no escapin’ the fact. Me and Pete, we gotta talk. You with me so far?’

Teddy’s sharp cheekbones and prominent brow might have been carved from stone. ‘What Peter has done?’ he asked.

‘Nothing. He’s not wanted for anythin’ I know about and he’s not gonna be arrested, or even detained. But I gotta talk to him.’ Boots leaned closer. Already soothing, his voice became nearly hypnotic. ‘You know me, Teddy. Greenpoint’s not my beat and I usually don’t get involved. But this thing I wanna talk to Pete about, it’s too big. I can’t keep it in the family, much as I’d like to. What Pete knows, he’s gotta tell me.’

‘My nephew, he is not a rat,’ Brochenek said.

‘This doesn’t come as news to me, but nobody’s got a choice here. Pete has to talk to me.’

‘What you are saying, Boots?’

‘I’m saying that if we don’t come to an understanding, right this very minute, I’m gonna drag your nephew out of that booth, take him to the precinct and sweat him until he talks. And if he resists my invitation, I’ll beat him down as well. In fact, I’ll beat him until he cries.’

Brochenek didn’t doubt, for a second, that Boots would carry out the threat. Still, he resisted. ‘How I am asking Peter to wear a jacket? Better he should take beating.’

The jacket Teddy referred to was a snitch jacket. If Pete left with Boots, Gergan’s clientele would conclude that he was cooperating with the police and spread the word to his criminal associates, thus ruining his reputation.

‘I don’t deny what you’re sayin’, Teddy. Pete’s a stand-up guy, and destroyin’ his credibility wouldn’t be fair. So, here’s what I suggest. If you promise me that you’ll convince Pete to cooperate, my partner and I will return to the Crown Vic we’re drivin’ and wait for Pete to join us. That way, nobody knows nothin’.’

Boots paused for a moment, waiting for Brochenek to make up his mind, but then decided that the bartender needed another push. ‘Teddy, you ever watch those
Lord of the Rings

‘My little boy loves these films.’ Brochenek twisted his mouth into a circle. ‘Precious. My precious. Bring to me my precious.’

‘That’s it.’ Boots remembered to smile. ‘Now, you recall the giant eye that came out whenever Frodo put on the ring?’

‘Yes, Eye of Mordor.’

‘Exactly, the Eye of Mordor.’ Boots straightened up. ‘Well, that eye, Teddy, that evil fuckin’ eye, right now it’s fixed on Boots Littlewood. You hear what I’m sayin’? It’s fixed on Boots Littlewood and it’s not gonna turn away until he tells it what it wants to know. I’m mentionin’ this so you’ll appreciate the gravity of my situation. Just like Pete, I got no way out.’


hat was great,’ Jill Kelly observed as she and Boots waited in the Crown Vic. Kelly was seated behind the wheel, with Boots in the back, huddled against the door furthest from the curb. ‘The Eye of Mordor?’ She shook her head in wonder. ‘And to think the jerk swallowed it.’

Boots said nothing for a moment, content to stare through the back window at Christine’s, a Polish diner on Manhattan Avenue. A small group of men had gathered in front of the restaurant to smoke cigarettes as they quietly conversed. Only one of them was known to Boots, Mark Dupont, a violent felon newly released from prison. Boots made a note to mention Dupont’s name to his snitches, maybe get a line on the man’s current activities. A pure psychopath, Dupont was driven by an inner rage over which he had little control.

‘Jill,’ he finally said, turning back to his partner, ‘with all due respect, I gotta disagree with you.’

‘About what?’

‘About the Eye of Mordor. Right now, lookin’ at you and knowin’ your uncle is the Chief of D, I feel like I’m under a microscope. I feel like my performance is gonna be weighed and measured.’

Kelly’s laugh was richer than Boots would have predicted, and more disconcerting. ‘Trust me on this. Nobody pulls my strings. But seeing as how you checked me out, I can understand why you’d want to be rid of me.’

‘You and the task force both.’

Gergan’s front door opened at that moment and Pete Karakovich stepped through. Tall and rangy, Karakovich wore a short beard that rapidly thinned as it climbed toward his sideburns. He scratched that beard as he first looked to his right, away from the Crown Vic, then slowly to his left. Finally, he jammed his hands into the pockets of his navy pea coat and walked toward Manhattan Avenue, coming to a stop next to the car. Ever cautious, he glanced back at Gergan’s before opening the door and throwing himself across the seat, his clear aim to render himself invisible to passers-by. Unfortunately, his head landed, face down, in Detective Littlewood’s rather generous lap.

‘Pete,’ Boots said, ‘I didn’t know how much you cared.’

Karakovich leaped up, cracking the top of his head into the roof liner. He looked at Boots through glassy eyes for a moment, then scrunched down until his head was again below the window. As if responding to a signal, Jill Kelly started the car and headed down the block.

Boots maintained a careful silence as Jill piloted the Ford through several intersections, continuing on until the street dead-ended at the East River. As always, this industrial section of Greenpoint was deserted at night. Boots watched Karakovich straighten when Jill shut off the headlights and cut the engine, watched the man’s head swivel from side to side as he resigned himself to the facts on the ground. Whatever transpired in his immediate future would be neither observed nor interrupted.

‘Whatta we doin’?’ he asked without looking directly at Boots or his partner.

‘We’re havin’ a conversation, Pete,’ Boots said.

‘About what?’

‘About your associate in crime, Vinnie Booster.’

At the sound of his buddy’s name, Pete’s left leg began to dance and he wiped his tongue across his front teeth several times, emphasizing a small overbite. That Vinnie had confided in him, as he’d confided in Frankie Drago, was obvious at a glance. Still, Boots didn’t prompt the man. Being a relatively successful car thief didn’t change the fact that Pete was borderline retarded. Leaning on him before he worked through the variables would only slow him down.

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