Read Dancer in the Flames Online
Authors: Stephen Solomita
Boots smiled. ‘Ya know, I heard there’s a Polish priest at Saint Stanislaus doesn’t speak a word of English.’
oots wrapped up his confession with an act of contrition while Father Gubetti formally absolved him of his sins. That done, the priest took off his stole and draped it over his knees.
‘Would you like a glass of wine?’ he asked.
‘No thanks, I have to get back to work soon.’
‘You’re on the clock?’
‘What if there’s a serious crime? What if there’s a murder?’
‘You been watchin’ too much television. There’s only been one homicide in the Six-Four this year – Chris Parker’s. Not only wasn’t that my case to begin with, but a task force had already been formed by the time I came on duty the next day. Plus, the lieutenant has my cellphone number. If he wants me, he’ll call.’
Boots scratched at his ear, thinking that he’d have to see a doctor, get the wax flushed out. If not, he’d soon be halfway to deaf. ‘About Vinnie. I need some help here. I need to know what my obligations are.’
Gubetti repressed a smile of intense satisfaction. ‘Go on, Boots. Bring me up to date.’
‘It’s hard to know where to begin. Remember, I didn’t drag Vinnie into this mess. Vinnie’s name was mentioned by . . . by a certain third party. Once that happened, it was just a matter of time.’
‘Leo, when a cop’s killed, every other cop takes it personally. That means the pressure on the task force would’ve been intense, even if the media ignored the whole incident.’
‘Which, of course, it didn’t.’
Boots nodded, then said, ‘I wasn’t assigned to the task force that investigated Parker’s murder until after a certain accused felon decided to save his ass by naming Vinnie Palermo.’
‘You’re saying you didn’t play any part here?’
‘No, I played a part. My job was to find Vinnie.’
‘Yeah, but I didn’t stop there. Being as I was a hundred percent sure Vinnie didn’t shoot Parker, I read him his rights, even though he was still a witness at that point. Then, when the schmuck didn’t take the hint, I made my opinion regarding his innocence clear to anybody who’d listen.’
Gubetti absorbed the following silence while he considered a response. First of all, he told himself, do no harm.
‘Tell me,’ he finally said, ‘from a practical standpoint, is there anything you can do to help Vinnie?’
‘I don’t know. Probably not, since I don’t have access to the case file. But I’ve got a hunch about something. If I recanvas the block . . .’ Boots rose to his feet. The nicotine demons had the pitchforks out and his first instinct was to begin pacing the room. But he held himself in check. Gubetti was staring up at him, a worried look in his eyes.
‘This morning, Leo,’ Boots said, ‘when they held the press conference announcing the arrest of Captain Parker’s murderer, the Mayor of New York and the Commissioner of Police were both standing at the podium. From what I heard, the pair of them looked very happy. Now what do you think those two egomaniacs are gonna do if they have to announce that a mistake was made? If they have to admit that the man they accused of murdering Chris Parker is innocent? Not on some technicality, but that he actually didn’t do it?’
This time, Gubetti responded immediately. ‘They’ll blame the messenger,’ he said, ‘which means you.’
‘The good news is that messengers aren’t killed any more. The bad news is that they can still be punished. And these are people who have the power to punish. My ex-partner on the task force is the Chief of Detectives’ niece.’
They went at it for another fifteen minutes, most of their conversation centering around a single question: What did Boots Littlewood owe to a thief like Vinnie Booster? Ordinarily, both quickly agreed, nothing. But this particular situation was far from ordinary. Not only was Palermo facing life without parole, but the real killer would go free if Vinnie was convicted. Plus, the Six-Four was Boots Littlewood’s turf. To a certain extent, as he understood it, all who lived within its boundaries came under his protection. Even mopes like Vinnie Palermo.
Nevertheless, Gubetti was insistent. ‘There’s no religious doctrine that requires you to intervene, not unless you’re angling for sainthood. On the other hand, you’ve got to live with yourself.’
Some five hours later, after finishing his tour, Boots walked into his father’s two-family home on Newell Street in Greenpoint. The frame house wasn’t much – a three-story, flat-roofed cube sided with blue vinyl – but it was Andy Littlewood’s pride and joy, as it had been Margie Littlewood’s when she was still alive. The tiny yards in front and back were immaculately tended, the path, steps and sidewalks had been recently swept, the trim around the door recently painted.
The just-married Littlewoods had come to New York from Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1958. Penniless Catholic refugees, they’d scrimped for years to buy their house, accumulating the down payment dollar by dollar, paying off the mortgage check by check for thirty years. Andy Littlewood had made the last payment only two months before his wife’s death, an achievement they’d celebrated with a small party.
As Boots later realized, the Littlewoods’ party wasn’t about the mortgage. Andy Littlewood had finally vanquished a hunger that had driven him for most of his life. Between Social Security, his pension check and his tidy nest egg, Andy would never want for anything he actually desired, not for the rest of his life. He appeared content these days, a man without serious regrets, a man who’d lived up to his own expectations. Andy had his poker buddies on Monday nights, his bowling buddies on Thursday nights and a Jewish girlfriend named Libby Greenspan.
‘Irwin, is that you, laddie?’ While Andy Littlewood’s Belfast accent had been sharpened by many years of living in a neighborhood dominated by Polish-Americans, his national origin was still obvious.
‘Yeah, it’s me, Dad.’ Boots draped his overcoat and suit jacket over a chair, then walked into the kitchen. He took a beer from the refrigerator and carried it into the living room. There he found Andy Littlewood sitting in an overstuffed chair. A few yards away, a biography of Lou Gherig played on a flat-screen television.
Boots didn’t waste any time. It was late and he was tired. He explained his predicament in detail, then shut his mouth without bothering to ask his father’s opinion. Andy Littlewood loved to give advice. The problem would be slowing him down.
But Andy surprised his son this time. ‘You’re not after owin’ Vinnie Palermo a fuckin’ thing,’ he said after a moment.
‘And Chris Parker?’
‘What about him?’
‘Do I owe anything to Chris Parker? Like justice, for instance?’
‘Wake up and smell the roses, Irwin. Chairman Mao killed millions of people and he died in his bed, like Josef Stalin before him.’ Andy Littlewood settled back in his chair for a moment, then again turned to his son. ‘Whatever you decide to do, please don’t throw it in their faces.’
‘You talkin’ about the bosses?’
‘That I am, lad. Find a way to go around them, to defeat them without their ever knowin’ they’ve been to battle.’
Early the next morning, much earlier than Boots would have liked, he retrieved his car, an ancient Chevy Impala, and headed out to the Six-Four. He made two stops on his way, the first at a candy store where he restocked his Tic Tac supply, the second at a bakery on Bedford Avenue where he purchased a box of doughnuts. He passed one of the doughnuts to the desk officer, Sergeant Gantier, when he got to the house, then carried the rest into the squad room. It was nine thirty by that time and the day-shift detectives were going about their business. They stopped momentarily when Boots showed his face, to greet him and snatch up a doughnut, then quickly returned to work.
Left to himself, Boots approached a civilian clerk, requesting that he use the squad’s computer to pull up, then print a copy of Rajiv Visnawana’s driver’s license. Rajiv was the owner of the car Vinnie had stolen. That done, Boots stared down at the man’s unsmiling face for just a moment. With his pudgy cheeks, liquid brown eyes and soft chin, Rajiv looked weak. But appearances could be deceiving, especially when it came to the immigrants now dominating many of the city’s neighborhoods. They’d brought their cultures with them, very different cultures to be sure, and it was mistake to judge them by appearance alone.
Boots carefully folded the copy, then slid it into an envelope before heading back to his apartment where he showered and shaved. As he loaded the coffee maker, he tried to reconcile the different impulses pulling at him. Despite the expensive suits and ties, Boots had never been so vain as to believe himself important, not in the greater scheme of things. He was not a mover of mountains or a shaker of worlds. Only in this obscure, outer-borough precinct, seemingly as far removed from Manhattan’s glitz as the plains of Kansas, did he have any noticeable effect on his surroundings. And maybe not even here.
The scratch of a key turning in the apartment’s outer door distracted Boots. ‘That you, Jackie?’ he called.
‘Yeah.’ Carrying a manila envelope beneath his arm, Joaquin Rivera strode into the kitchen a moment later. He opened the envelope and removed a dozen sheets of paper joined by a red paperclip.
Boots poured himself a cup of coffee, poured another for Joaquin, carried them to the table, finally sat down. As he filled his mouth with Tic Tacs, he struggled to repress an argument beginning to form in his mind. Quitting cigarettes, this argument went, is hard enough, even under the best of conditions. That’s why most people, including Boots Littlewood, make a number of unsuccessful attempts before they get the job done. What the quitter needs, even more than a strong will, is good timing. Would even the most heartless Puritan demand that a soldier in a war zone stop smoking? Or a woman in the midst of a bitter divorce? How about when a child’s gravely ill? Or when you’re threatened with the loss of your economic life?
Joaquin stared at the man on the other side of the table. Unlikely as it seemed, Boots looked bigger in a t-shirt and jeans than he did in his fancy suits with their padded shoulders. His upper arms were as thick as footballs.
‘Your suits,’ Joaquin finally said, ‘they’re really costumes.’
‘One more cryptic remark, Jackie, and you’re goin’ out the window. You’ve been warned.’
Joaquin laughed, then took a sip of his coffee. ‘What’s the matter, Boots, you don’t wanna give up any trade secrets?’ He waited for his father to smile before continuing. ‘Anyway, you asked me to check out a cop named Chris Parker?’
‘One mention in the years before he was murdered. In a
New York Times
profile of the detectives in the Lipstick Killer investigation.’
That got Littlewood’s attention. In the summer of 2001, the Lipstick Killer had murdered four women, igniting a media frenzy that ended abruptly when Jules Cosyn confessed to the crimes. If Boots remembered right, Cosyn had been declared unfit to stand trial after a week of intense examination by the state’s psychiatrists.
Boots pointed to the stack of papers. ‘All that for one article?’
‘The story about Parker’s on top. The rest of it’s about the investigation and the trial.’
Joaquin pushed the sheets of paper across the table and Boots glanced down at a photograph on the top sheet, a line of detectives posed before the wall of a brick building. Among the five faces, all male, Boots recognized four: Artie Farrahan, Mack Corcoran, Chris Parker and Lenny Olmeda, currently Inspector Corcoran’s personal assistant. Boots ran his finger across the photo’s caption until he found the name of the fifth cop: Patrick Kelly.
‘Is there a problem?’ Joaquin finally asked.
Boots took the stack of papers, carried them to the trash can on the other side of the room, raised the lid, dropped them inside.
‘Not any more,’ he said.
t two thirty that afternoon, after his vaunted ability to nap at will failed him entirely, Boots stood at the corner of Berry and South Fourth Streets. Before him, a mural covered the side of a single-story warehouse. Sponsored by the New York State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, the mural depicted the evils of tobacco. Smoking infants, smoking children and smoking adults were on display, along with a collection of phantasmagoric figures, including a skeleton, a devil and a smoking rat. At the bottom, a row of open graves revealed sickly green coffins.
Sponsored or not, this was graffiti art, the figures crudely drawn, the message simple. Still, Boots couldn’t help but wonder if the mural was counter-productive. The sight of all those suffering smokers only fueled his desire for a cigarette. Plus, his eyes were drawn to a figure at the center of the mural. While every other adult, male or female, was recognizably black, Latino or Asian, this man was definitely white. Multi-armed and middle-aged, his blue eyes were swollen by thick, horn-rimmed glasses. A heading painted across his forehead in capital letters made his role clear: TOBACCO INDUSTRY.
The sound of a tapped horn caught Boots’s attention and he turned to find Sergeant Craig O’Malley staring at him through the rolled-down window of a patrol car.
‘Hey, Boots, whatta ya doin’?’
‘Protecting and serving,’ Boots replied. ‘In my own unique way.’
‘Fuckin’ right,’ Boris Velikov said. He was seated behind the wheel, the top of his head brushing the car’s roof liner.
‘We ran into your boy,’ O’Malley continued.
‘Did he put up a struggle?’
That brought laughs from both cops. ‘We tossed him, but he came up clean.’
‘What’d he say?’
‘He demanded to know why we violated his constitutional rights. Could ya believe that?’ O’Malley tapped the steering wheel with his fingertips. ‘Anyway, I gave him your regards.’
‘Did he know who I was?’
‘Yeah,’ Velikov interjected, ‘and if he said what he said about
mother, I woulda killed him.’
Boots watched the cruiser drive off, then turned back to the job at hand. He was standing on the corner where Chris Parker had been gunned down, perhaps on the exact spot. He tried to visualize the unfolding events Vinnie had described, beginning with Parker’s Jeep as it turned on to the block. But he couldn’t get the images right. There’d still been a foot of snow on the ground then.