Read Dancer in the Flames Online

Authors: Stephen Solomita

Tags: #Suspense

Dancer in the Flames (8 page)

‘To the bosses,’ he said, forgetting, for the moment, that he himself was a boss.

‘May they live long and prosper.’ Boots downed his shot. ‘So, that’s it? I’m done?’

‘Corcoran will be here in an hour. You’ll want to have your fives ready. That way, the task force won’t have an excuse to revisit the Six-Four.’

Levine was right and Boots knew it. The task force would be certain to reserve all credit to itself, so the smart move was to feed the beast, then move on.

Boots went to his desk and started writing. He included every detail of his confrontations with Frankie Drago, Pete Karakovich and Vinnie Palermo in a series of DD-5s. Ordinarily, this was a task he enjoyed, this imaginary war of wits he played with defense lawyers as he tried to give them as little help as possible. Not this time. Each sentence, as far as he could tell, was another handful of dirt bouncing off the lid of Palermo’s coffin. To anybody who didn’t know him, the man looked guilty as hell. He had motive, opportunity and almost three weeks to dispose of the means.

Just as Boots finished up, Corcoran entered the squad room, shortly followed by his running dogs from Homicide, Artie Farrahan and Thelonius Tolliver. Corcoran wore a black overcoat, probably cashmere, which he’d thrown over his broad shoulders in a manner usually associated with dead Italian gangsters. When Boots approached, he turned away, leaving Boots to hand his paperwork to Detective Farrahan.

‘You gonna try to put this on Palermo?’ Boots asked.

In his mid-forties, Artie Farrahan had a full head of jet-black hair that he combed across his forehead, leaving only a couple of inches of skin showing above his eyebrows. ‘Why? Did Palermo do it?’

‘No, he didn’t, Artie, but in this particular case, I don’t think his innocence will protect him.’

From inside Levine’s office, Corcoran’s voice rang out. ‘Detective Farrahan, we’re waiting.’

Farrahan smiled before turning away with a shrug. Homicide or not, he was a bit player.

Still, Boots was unsatisfied. Instead of leaving, he waited for Jill Kelly to emerge from the bathroom. ‘I have a couple of questions before you join the party,’ he announced, blocking her path.


‘First thing, if there was a confrontation before Vinnie shot Chris Parker, how did Parker get shot in the back?’

Kelly’s full mouth expanded slightly. ‘Maybe Palermo got the drop on Parker, but didn’t have the balls to look into his eyes when he pulled the trigger. So he made Parker turn around.’

Undeterred, Boots responded with a second question, and a third, and a fourth. He wasn’t going to get another chance at this. ‘Think about it, Jill. If Parker suspected that Vinnie was stealing a car, why was his weapon still in his holster, his badge in his pocket and his overcoat buttoned? And if Parker wasn’t displaying a weapon, why didn’t Vinnie just run away? What was his motive for murdering a cop?’

‘Boots, you should’ve been a defense lawyer. You’ve got the knack.’

The remark was obviously designed to end the conversation, only Boots didn’t take the hint, not even when Kelly walked away.

‘You’ve seen the case file,’ he called to her retreating back, ‘which makes you one up on me. So, what’s the official reason why Parker, who lives thirty miles away on Long Island, was in Williamsburg at one o’clock in the morning on his day off?’

As Boots watched his ex-partner retreat, an anomaly he hadn’t considered popped into his mind. The Altima that Vinnie stole on the night Parker died was registered to a man named Rajiv Visnawana, who resided in Jackson Heights, a Queens neighborhood ten miles away. So, what was Rajiv doing in Williamsburg at one in the morning? Especially as there were no immigrants from the Indian subcontinent living in the area.


oots entered the Sixty-Fourth Precinct at two o’clock on the following afternoon, two hours before the start of his tour. He greeted the desk officer, then headed for the weight room to complete the workout he’d begun on the prior morning. There he found Sergeant Craig O’Malley and his long-time driver, Boris Velikov, known to one and all as the Bulgarian. Both these men augmented their weightlifting with injected steroids. Boots knew this because they’d offered to juice him up. Perhaps, if he was fifteen years younger, he would have been tempted. But these days the weight room was more about slowing the rate of attrition.

‘Yo, Boots, you’re the best, man,’ O’Malley cried out when Boots made his appearance. Craig was seated on a workout bench, his right elbow on his thigh, doing curls with a forty-pound dumbbell. ‘Come down to Sally’s tonight. The drinks are on me.’

‘Ya got the mother-fucker,’ Velikov added with a grin that would have made Dracula tremble. After years of juicing, Boris tended to speak in threat-like grunts.

‘Could you repeat that?’

‘Godda mother-fucker,’ the Bulgarian repeated.

‘I guess you didn’t see the press conference,’ O’Malley added.

‘What press conference?’

O’Malley’s right arm pivoted at the elbow, from full contraction, to full extension, to full contraction. ‘The one the bosses threw at noon. Where they announced the arrest of a cop killer named Vinnie Palermo.’

Boots reached into the pocket of his trousers for his Tic Tacs. He filled his mouth, then lay down on the mat and hooked his legs beneath a bench. Boots hated doing sit-ups. Not only did they leave him panting, but his waist never seemed to get any smaller.

‘Everybody knows it was you,’ O’Malley added. ‘You’re the one who found Palermo.’

All three worked out for the next half-hour, exchanging little more than grunts, until O’Malley and Velikov decided to call it an afternoon. Boots stopped them as they headed for the showers.

‘You ever hear of a mutt named Mark Dupont?’ he asked. When both men shook their heads, he continued. ‘Dupont’s been upstate for six years on a rape charge, but he’s back now. I saw him last night. Guys, Dupont’s the real deal, a genuine bad boy, and I’m lookin’ for an excuse to violate his parole.’

‘You got a mug shot?’ O’Malley asked.

‘I’m gonna print some up after I finish my workout. But I gotta warn ya, just in case you should run into him, Dupont’s a born cop fighter. He won’t go down easy.’

Boots watched Velikov and O’Malley exchange a look of keen anticipation, thinking that not only did their shoulders begin at the tops of their ears, but the veins in their necks were as thick and juicy as night crawlers.

After a shower, Boots went directly to the squad room where he endured the congratulations of his fellow detectives while he pulled up Dupont’s mug shot and printed two dozen copies. Although more than a hundred uniformed officers were assigned to the Six-Four, in Littlewood’s experience only a select few had more than a passing attachment to the craft of policing. The rest confined their ambitions to the magic pension and the lifetime medical benefits that came with it.

His task completed, Boots carried the photos to the first floor and distributed twenty copies to various cops as they emerged from the muster room, including O’Malley and Velikov. He made the same pitch to each. Dupont was a violent criminal; his entire life was about mayhem of one kind or another. If they could please mention him to their snitches, maybe get a line on his current activities, Boots would be ever so grateful.

Boots followed the last of the cops he briefed out to the sidewalk in front of the precinct. It was just after four o’clock and the sun was headed for the horizon. Still, the day was warm enough for Boots to shrug out of his coat and store it in the trunk of an unmarked car before heading off.

From the Six-Four, Boots drove to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Roman Catholic church on Havemeyer Street in a mostly Italian section of Williamsburg called the Northside. Mount Carmel was familiar ground. Boots had attended the primary school, served as an altar boy, been baptized and confirmed at Mount Carmel. He knew most of the priests by their first names and only confessed to a Franciscan monk named Leonzo Gubetti. It was Father Gubetti he went in search of, trying him first in the rectory before tracking him down in the church’s vestry. Boots was hoping to get in and out in a hurry, but when he finally came face to face with the priest, he found the monk’s gaze sharp and accusing.

‘Who have you been speaking to?’ Boots asked.

‘Connie Palermo,’ the priest replied.

Boots stepped into the room. ‘Vinnie’s the reason I showed up this afternoon. That and I want to confess. What with Easter coming on Sunday, I figure I’ll get it over with.’

Father Gubetti liked to play the jolly friar, and he was perfect for the part, with his bald dome, broad belly and florid complexion. But not this time. This time he was pissed and no mistake about it.

‘Ah, yes, Boots Littlewood’s annual confession. Everything should come to a stop – ba-boom – because Detective Littlewood is finally ready to confess.’

‘Leo, if you don’t stop busting my chops,’ Boots threatened, ‘I’m gonna walk out the door. In which case, you’ll never know what happened to Vinnie.’

The priest slid a purple stole off a hangar, kissed it, then settled it on his shoulders. ‘Threatening a priest? A heinous sin requiring immediate atonement lest you perish unexpectedly and be consigned to the bowels of hell. Follow me, child.’

Boots sighed. ‘I can’t wait to hear the penance.’

Father Gubetti led Boots to a small office where he set a pair of straight-back chairs face to face. Boots wasn’t crazy about this arrangement, having grown up with the anonymity implied by the deeply shadowed confessional and the screen separating priest from penitent. But it was a different church now, growing more informal every day, a process that had begun with the end of the Latin mass. Brooklyn Catholics had yet to forgive the Vatican for that foray into the vernacular. If they’d wanted to be Protestants, their reasoning went, they’d have backed Martin Luther during the Reformation.

Boots kicked it off with the easy part: his temper, with which he’d been struggling for many years. Although Frankie Drago figured prominently in the list of offenses he presented, the bookmaker was far from alone.

Father Gubetti listened carefully until Boots finished, then asked the obvious question: ‘Have you been trying to control yourself? Have you made an effort?’

‘Well, that’s just the point. It’s easy to say you won’t lose your temper when you’re calm. But then . . .’ Boots looked down at his hands, then up at Gubetti. ‘Some of these assholes, Leo, they’re lucky I don’t kill ’em. And I think you know what I mean.’

The priest managed a weak smile. He’d been pistol-whipped by a mugger in 2004. A day later, when he regained consciousness, his first thoughts were of personal revenge. He still couldn’t recall the incident without becoming angry.

‘Go ahead, Boots,’ he said.

This time, when Boots looked down at his hands, he didn’t raise his eyes. ‘What I’m gonna tell you next, about a drug dealer named Carlos Malaguez, happened about three months ago. Malaguez was wanted for second-degree assault and he’d done a disappearing act. I’d been tryin’ to run him down for several weeks, with no luck, until I finally got a call from the victim’s sister, who was also Malaguez’s cousin. She told me that Carlos was stayin’ at an apartment on India Street. What I should have done at that point was notify the lieutenant and request back-up. But I didn’t. Instead, I found the patrol car assigned to that sector and drafted the two uniforms inside.’

As he organized his thoughts, Boots ran a finger beneath his tie, from his throat to the top of his vest, then touched each of the vest’s pearl-gray buttons. Finally, he began to speak, his voice distant, as if he was witnessing his own story.

‘Malaguez was dead. Of a drug overdose, the way it turned out. Even standing in the hall, you could smell him. One of the uniforms wanted to kick the door in, but there was no point. I sent down for the super and a set of keys. Leo, the stench when I opened that door was enough to knock you on your ass. And you can trust me on this, those two patrolmen were pathetically grateful when I told them to wait outside while I secured the residence.

‘Carlos was lying on the couch when I walked into the apartment. He was swollen up double, his skin almost black. I figured he’d been dead for at least three days, but I could’ve been wrong. The apartment was very hot. Anyway, I didn’t bother with him. There was a scale and a set of works on a coffee table, along with several grams of what looked like heroin. When I saw the dope, I knew Carlos hadn’t been robbed, knew it right away. That’s how come I decided to search the apartment instead of waitin’ for a warrant. You hear what I’m sayin’, right? I knew what I was gonna do, assuming I got lucky, and I didn’t stop myself.’

Leo Gubetti regarded Boots for a moment: the gray suit, the vest, the ankle-boots. Unlike Frankie Drago, Father Leo believed that he understood the man beneath the suit. ‘And did you get lucky, Boots?’ he asked.

‘Yeah, in a drawer in the bedroom dresser. I found a couple of ounces of dope and a roll of money. I didn’t count the money. I just put it in my pocket.’

‘And the heroin?’

Boots sniffed. ‘I left it where it was. What’d you think?’

‘All right, don’t get on your high horse. How much money are we talking about?’

‘Forty-five hundred.’

‘Was this the only time since your last confession?’

‘The only time, and the only opportunity.’

Gubetti ran his fingers through the gold fringes at the bottom of his stole. He liked Boots Littlewood, as did almost everybody who knew him, and he believed Boots to be a good man, though flawed and oftentimes weak. The temptation was to forgive him because you knew that he was trying. But enough was enough.

‘You know, Boots, my forgiveness is not God’s forgiveness.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘In order to be forgiven, you have to resolve not to sin again. This is not something I can judge. I’m talking about your sincerity. God, on the other hand, is not likely to be fooled. As you said about your temper, it’s easy to avoid sin when there’s no temptation at hand.’ Father Gubetti paused long enough to let the message penetrate. ‘Next time you confess, Boots, I want to hear that you fought the good fight, that you made a serious effort to resist temptation. If not, I can’t offer you absolution.’

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