Read Dancer in the Flames Online
Authors: Stephen Solomita
‘What about Vinnie?’ Karakovich finally asked. ‘What’d he do?’
Boots shook his head. ‘Don’t bust my balls.’
At a loss, Karakovich turned to Jill Kelly, perhaps in search of a little feminine compassion. Though Boots couldn’t be sure exactly what Pete discovered in Jill’s flat stare, it could not have been compassion because the man shuddered before looking away.
‘Goddamn it,’ he said.
‘Don’t go there,’ Boots instantly replied.
‘Don’t take God’s name in vain. Not in front of me.’
Having markedly increased the number of variables at play, Boots wasn’t tempted to interrupt the long silence that followed. He waited patiently until Karakovich said, ‘Is this about the cop who got killed?’
Boots answered the thief’s question with one of his own. ‘You and Vinnie, you’re workin’ together, right?’
‘Yeah, but not around here. I swear. Vinnie was on his own that night.’
‘I believe you, Pete,’ Boots said, ‘but I need to find Vinnie and I think you can understand why.’
Pete shook his head and his gaze dropped to his hands. ‘I ain’t no snitch,’ he said.
‘I know that. I know you’re a stand-up guy. I really do. But there are three things you need to think about very carefully. First, I’m not askin’ you to testify against Vinnie, so there’s no reason why your name should ever come up. Second, your Uncle Ted already explained the facts of life, so I won’t bother to repeat ’em. Third, if this is all you have to tell me, you should’ve stayed inside Gergan’s. Because I’ve got hold of you now and I’m not lettin’ go until I find your partner.’
Pete surprised Boots at that point by changing the subject. ‘Vinnie’s scared,’ he said. ‘He thinks the cops’re gonna try to put the shooting on him.’
Boots decided to keep the message simple. ‘Where is he, Pete?’
Karakovich’s mouth went into virtual spasm as he sought an escape hatch that didn’t exist, until he finally admitted there was no way out, for him or Vinnie. Then he let his head rock from side to side for a moment, before saying, his voice almost a moan, ‘He’s shacked up with a crack whore on Maujer Street.’
They drove south into Williamsburg, then west, past the elevated Brooklyn–Queens Expressway, to within a hundred yards of the English Kills, an especially foul canal that wandered through the Brooklyn Union Gas works. Like much of Williamsburg, Maujer Street was a mix of low-rise factories and small residential buildings set cheek by jowl, as though competing for space. On this particular block, in this most undesirable corner of the community, industry had won out. Only a single tenement rose above the surrounding warehouses.
‘Check it out,’ Pete said as Jill cruised past. ‘On the third floor.’
Boots looked up in time to glimpse a silhouette behind a tattered sheet covering a side window. The silhouette belonged to a man – that much was obvious – but it wasn’t enough. Boots waited until Jill turned the corner and pulled to a stop before tossing his cellphone into Pete’s lap.
‘Get Vinnie on the phone, make some kind of excuse for callin’. I wanna be sure he’s in the apartment.’
Pete thought it over for a moment, then said, ‘If you go bustin’ in there right after I call, Vinnie’s gonna figure I set him up.’
‘True enough,’ Boots countered, ‘but you gotta look at the big picture. If I’m holdin’ your hand when I knock on Vinnie’s door, he’ll
you set him up.’
‘A couple of things we need to work out,’ Boots told Jill Kelly. By then, Petr Karakovich had completed his performance and was headed off to parts unknown. ‘Vinnie Palermo, the minute he knows there’s a cop at his door, he’ll climb out the fire escape, no hesitation. This is an asshole who runs first and thinks later. That means somebody has to be around back, waitin’ for him.’
Though her expression didn’t change, Kelly eyes grew noticeably colder. ‘You think I can’t handle him?’ she asked.
‘Not at all. I’m just askin’ you not to kill him.’
Again, Jill’s laughter, as genuine as a child’s, caught Boots off guard. ‘OK,’ she said, ‘I get the picture. I’ll only wound him.’
‘You won’t have to because he’s a non-violent type and he’s not gonna resist. You should keep in mind, the guy’s six inches shorter than you and skinny as a rail.’
Boots popped the trunk, got out of the car and went around to the back. Though it was extremely cold for April, with the temperature hovering at the freezing mark, he took off his overcoat and folded it carefully before laying it down. Jill Kelly was less fastidious. She stripped out of her leather coat, tossed it on top of her partner’s, finally closed the trunk.
‘There’s one other thing that needs sayin’ and I’m gonna say it now.’ Boots turned to his partner. ‘Vinnie Palermo didn’t kill Chris Parker. I know that’s true because Vinnie doesn’t have the balls to stomp a cockroach. In fact, I’d be willin’ to bet my life savings that he’s never carried a gun in his life.’
‘No. Vinnie’s a professional car thief and we both know that professional car thieves don’t carry guns because they don’t wanna do the extra time if they get caught.’
‘Done now?’ Kelly was no longer smiling.
Boots shook his head. ‘Once we have Vinnie safely detained, Inspector Corcoran’s gonna dump my ass in a hurry. I don’t mind, bein’ as I never wanted any part of him from the beginning. But then Corcoran and his task force are gonna have to deal with a big temptation.’ Boots ticked the items off on his fingers. ‘Vinnie was at the scene. He was in the process of stealin’ a car. He’s a career criminal. He’s got a long-standing cocaine habit. Stir those four ingredients into the pressure cooker and it’s fifty-fifty that Corcoran takes the easy way out. This kind of case – a cop killing – it makes careers and it breaks careers.’
‘Not my career,’ Kelly replied, ‘but I’ll keep what you said in mind. Now, we agreed that Vinnie will go out the fire escape the minute a cop knocks on his door?’
‘Without doubt. One of us will have to be waiting in back.’
‘And that has to be me, right? Being as your feet aren’t up to a chase?’
Boots nodded sadly. ‘Just do me a favor, OK? Once you put your hands on Vinnie, he’ll give up. So, let me repeat myself: Please don’t kill him.’
‘And why would I do that, Boots?’
Though Jill’s tone was so cold that Boots shivered, he made his point. ‘Because if Vinnie Booster were to die tonight, given all those factors I pointed out, the case’ll be closed by tomorrow morning.’
Kelly’s breath hissed between her teeth. For just a moment, Boots was sure she’d take a swing at him. But then she spun smartly on her right heel and headed off down the block.
oots watched Jill Kelly thread her way between piles of debris as she negotiated a narrow alley that separated the tenement from a chain link fence topped with razor wire. Nothing in her body language, in the set of her shoulders, the swing of her hips or her stride, indicated the presence of fear, or even apprehension. If anything, she seemed eager. Boots smiled as a stray notion rippled through his mind. While he could easily imagine himself in bed with Jill Kelly, imagine a hard, take-no-prisoners fuck that left the bedclothes in tatters, he couldn’t imagine them exchanging a tender kiss afterward.
Boots continued to watch until Jill passed the far end of the building and disappeared into the darkness. Then he clipped his shield to the lapel of his jacket, withdrew his weapon and went to work.
The crime drop in New York over the past three decades is the stuff of legend, with homicide rates now hovering at levels associated with the golden era of the early 1960s. Even neighborhoods long associated with mindless violence – Harlem in Manhattan, Fort Greene in Brooklyn, the South Bronx – have become safe enough to attract yuppie enclaves. Nevertheless, there are still pockets in this city, sometimes only blocks long, sometimes limited to a single block, even a single building, where the bad old days are well preserved, like exhibits in a museum. That this particular tenement, the one Boots faced, had failed to get with the new program was obvious at a glance. The vinyl siding had peeled away along the seams and now projected outward like the half-erect quills of a porcupine. The window frames, crusted over by a century of intermittent repainting, appeared to be covered with bubbling mold. An elaborate cornice, heavy enough to crush a tank, had come loose at the building’s western edge and threatened to crash into the street.
Inside the narrow lobby, Boots headed for the rear of the building, then started up the stairs. The soles of his boots crunched over debris with every step. Crack vials? Broken glass? Cockroaches thick enough to form a carpet? Detective Littlewood didn’t pause to speculate – for him, this was familiar terrain. Still, he was careful not to brush against the walls or the banister as he climbed to the third floor. The pitter-pat of cockroach legs scurrying beneath his shirtsleeve was an aspect of the terrain with which he was also familiar.
Boots finally positioned himself beside the door of an apartment running along the eastern side of the building. Curling his hand into a fist, he hammered on the door three times, putting some effort into it.
‘Vinnie,’ he shouted, ‘it’s Boots Littlewood. Get your ass out here and do it now. Don’t make me say it again, Vinnie. Get your ass out in this hall.’
Boots pounded on the door three more times, repeated the verbal message, then retraced his steps. Given the near-darkness and his fragile feet, he took the stairs as quickly as possible, hustling down the alley only to discover that his partner had the situation well in hand. Jill was sitting astride Vinnie Booster, whacking away at his shoulders with a spring-steel sap.
At that point, as he holstered his weapon, Boots had a vision of himself undercutting Kelly’s authority, say by yanking her off the unresisting Palermo. But she stood as he approached.
‘How’s the feet?’ she asked.
‘So far so good.’ Boots grabbed Vinnie by the shoulder, pulled him up, then slammed his fist into the man’s abdomen. Palermo stumbled backwards before crashing to the ground.
‘What was that about?’ Jill asked.
‘You show me yours, I’ll show you mine.’
‘You wanna know why I smacked Vinnie?’
‘You don’t run from cops, Boots, especially this one. It shows contempt and we can’t have that. Plus, I fell in the slime and tore my pants. I’m gonna have to toss the whole outfit.’ Kelly folded her arms across her chest, the sap still dangling from her fingers. ‘Your turn,’ she said. ‘Why’d you hit him?’
‘Simple, Jill. Vinnie’s my snitch and he held out on me. We can’t have that, either.’
‘I didn’t do it,’ Vinnie said for the fourth time. ‘I swear I didn’t do it. I never shot nobody in my life.’
Jill Kelly raised a hand to slow him down. ‘All right, Vinnie, we get the message. You didn’t shoot anybody. Now, can we please move on?’
They were sitting in the Crown Vic, Boots behind the wheel, his partner alongside, Palermo in the back. Palermo’s hands weren’t cuffed because he was a witness and not a suspect, at least officially. Nevertheless, Boots spelled out the man’s constitutional rights.
‘Listen to me close, Vinnie,’ he announced. ‘You don’t have to talk to us if you don’t want to, and you can have a lawyer. But if you do talk to us, whatever you say is strictly on the record. You’re not gonna be able to change your story later on.’
Boots expected Kelly’s quick glance to be malice-filled. Instead, he found her merely curious.
‘No,’ Vinnie said, ‘I trust you, Boots. You always played it straight with me in the past. If I gotta talk to someone, I figure it should be you.’ He paused long enough to fill his lungs. ‘I mean, you don’t have to tell me that I fucked up. I know I shoulda come to you right away. And I swear that was exactly what I was gonna do. But when I found out the hit was on a cop, I got scared.’
‘Scared that you’d be blamed?’
‘Yeah, and I was scared of the shooter, too. That was some cold shit, man. One in the back, one in the head.’
Vinnie’s eyes drifted up and to the left as he searched his memory banks. Then he was off and running. The story he told confirmed Frankie Drago’s, but there were a number of additional details: Vinnie had entered the Nissan shortly before one o’clock; the Nissan’s alarm had briefly sounded when Vinnie unlatched the door with a slim jim; Chris Parker had driven to the meeting in a Grand Cherokee; the shooter’s back was to Vinnie at all times.
The only description he could offer was of an average-sized man wearing a navy pea coat and a watch cap that covered most of his head, face and neck.
As Boots drove to the Six-Four, he used the rear-view mirror to keep an eye on Vinnie Booster. Palermo seemed almost cheerful now that he’d come clean, as if he no longer had a care in the world. Unfortunately, in terms of his penal interests, his story could only have been more disastrous if he’d confessed to the murder. Vinnie knew the make and model of Chris Parker’s car, a detail that had never been released to the press – beyond any doubt, he’d been there. The car alarm also hurt him. Wasn’t it possible that the alarm had attracted Parker (who was, after all, a cop) and that a deadly confrontation had followed? And wasn’t it convenient that Palermo hadn’t seen the shooter’s face? That the only alternative to himself was a silhouette?
It was ten o’clock when the trio walked into the Six-Four. The first order of business was to place Vinnie Palermo in an interview room and instruct him not to leave. Then Kelly used her cellphone to report the successful completion of her mission.
‘Inspector, we’ve got him in custody.’ She listened closely for a moment, then said, ‘Got it,’ before hanging up. Finally, she turned to Boots and offered her hand. ‘Boots, it’s been great working with you.’
‘Are you telling me that my expertise is no longer required?’
A few minutes later, Lieutenant Carl Levine summoned Boots to his office. ‘You did good work, Boots. Not that Corcoran will ever give you credit.’ He waved Boots to a seat, took a pint of Wild Turkey bourbon and a pair of plastic cups from the drawer of his desk, poured each of them a short jolt.