Authors: Richard Price
To my astonishing wife, Lorraine Adams
On my block we still play . . .
On my block we still pray . . .
To my sublime daughters, Annie and Genevieve
To my mother, Harriet, and my brother, Randolph Scott
To the memory of Carl Brandt (1935–2013)
And to the memory of my father, Milton Price (1924–2008)
Who ever thought they would not hear the dead?
Who ever thought that they could quarantine
Those who are not, who once had been?
—Stephan Edgar, “Nocturnal”
Death investigation constitutes a heavy responsibility, and as such, let no person deter you from the truth and your own personal commitment to see that justice is done. Not only for
the deceased, but for the surviving family as well.
Practical Homicide Investigation
As Billy Graves drove down Second Avenue to work, the crowds worried him: a quarter past one in the morning and there were still far more people piling into the bars than leaving them, everyone coming and going having to muscle their way through the swaying clumps of half-hammered smokers standing directly outside the entrances. He hated the no smoking laws. They created nothing but problems—late-night noise for the neighbors, elbow room enough for the bar-cramped beefers to finally start swinging, and a plague of off-duty limos and radio cabs all tapping their horns to hustle fares.
It was the night of St. Patrick’s, worst of the year for NYPD’s Night Watch, the handful of detectives under Billy’s command responsible for covering all of felony-weight Manhattan from Washington Heights to Wall Street between one a.m. and eight a.m., when there were no active squads in any of the local precincts. There were other worst nights, Halloween and New Year’s Eve for two, but St. Patrick’s was the ugliest, the violence the most spontaneous and low-tech. Stompings, blunt objects, fists—more stitches than surgeries but some very malicious acting out.
One-fifteen in the a.m.: tonight, as always, the calls could come in at any time, but experience had taught him that the most fraught hours, especially on a drinking holiday, were between three a.m., when the bars and clubs started shutting down, everyone pouring out into the streets at once, and five a.m., when even the most hard-core animals were out of fuel and lurching off to oblivion. On the other hand, the city being the city, Billy never knew exactly when he’d see his pillow again. Eight a.m. could find him at a local precinct writing up bullets on an agg assault for the incoming day squad while the actor was either still in the wind or snoring in a holding cell; it could find him hanging around the ER at Harlem Hospital or Beth Israel or St. Luke’s–Roosevelt interviewing family and/or witnesses while waiting for the victim to either go out of the picture or pull through; it could find him strolling around an outdoor crime scene, hands in pockets, toe-searching through detritus for shell casings; or, or, or, if the Prince of Peace was afoot and Yonkers-bound traffic was light, he could actually be home in time to take his kids to school.
There were gung ho detectives out there, even on the lobster shift, but Billy was not one of them. Mainly he hoped each night that most of Manhattan’s nocturnal mayhem was not worthy of his squad’s attention, just petty shit that could be kicked back to patrol.
“Seoul man, how you be,” he drawled, stepping into the 24/7 Korean’s across Third Avenue from the office. Joon, the night clerk with his gaffer-taped horn-rims, automatically began gathering up his regular customer’s nightly ration: three sixteen-ounce Rockstar energy drinks, two Shaolin power gel squibs, and a pack of Camel Lights.
Billy cracked a can of Go before it could be bagged.
“Too much of that shit make you even more tired,” the Korean delivering his standard lecture. “Like a boomerang.”
As he reached for his Visa card, the security monitor next to the register caught Billy in all his glory: football burly but slump-shouldered, his pale face with its exhaustion-starred eyes topped with half a pitchfork’s worth of prematurely graying hair. He was only forty-two, but that crushed-cellophane gaze of his combined with a world-class insomniac’s posture had once gotten him into a movie at a senior citizen’s discount. Man was not meant to start work after midnight—end of story, pay differential be damned.
The Night Watch office, on the second floor of the Fifteenth Precinct and time-shared with Manhattan South Homicide, which occupied it during the day, looked like a cross between a fun house and a morgue. It was a drear, fluorescently lit scrum of gun-metal-gray desks, separated by plastic partitions brightened with autographed eight-by-tens of Derek Jeter, Samuel L. Jackson, Rex Ryan, and Harvey Keitel, along with mug shots, family snaps, and garish crime scene photos. An eight-foot glass tank filled with miniature sharklike catfish dominated one cinder-block wall, an embassy-sized American flag fronting the other.
None of his regular squad were in: Emmett Butter, a part-time actor, so fresh to the unit that Billy had yet to allow him to spearhead a run; Gene Feeley, who, back in the late ’80s, was part of the team that broke up the Fat Cat Nichols crack empire, had thirty-two years on the Job, owned two bars in Queens, and was just there to max out his pension; Alice Stupak, who worked nights in order to be with her family during the day; and Roger Mayo, who worked nights in order to avoid being with his family during the day.
It wasn’t unusual for the room to be deserted thirty minutes into the tour, given that Billy didn’t care where his detectives spent the shift as long as they answered their phones when he needed them. He didn’t see the point of making everyone sit at their desks all night like they were in detention. But in exchange for this freedom, if any one of them—with the exception of Feeley, who was so old-boy-wired into One PP that he could do or not do anything he wanted—if any one of them failed to pick up when he called, even once, they were gone from the squad, dead batteries, toilet drops, drop kicks, theft, Armageddon, the Rapture, or no.
Depositing the grocery bag in his minute windowless office, Billy walked out of the squad room and down a short hall to the dispatcher’s desk, manned by Rollie Towers, a.k.a. the Wheel, a big Buddha boy in track pants and a John Jay college sweatshirt, ass ballooning off either side of his webbed Aeron chair as he fielded the incoming calls, taking all requests for Night Watch from the various crime sites and fending them off like a goalie.
“Well look, Sarge, my boss isn’t in yet,” Rollie nodding to Billy, “but my guess is here’s what he’s going to say. Nobody got hurt, guy can’t even say for sure it was a gun. I’d just throw a good interview at him, wait for the Fifth Squad to come in tomorrow morning, see if it fits any kind of pattern they’re working, all right? There’s really not that much for us to do on this one. No problem . . . no problem . . . no problem.”
Hanging up and swiveling to Billy: “No problem.”
“Anything happening?” Billy reached for one of Rollie’s Doritos, then changed his mind.
“Throwdown in the Three-two, both shooters female, one on the sidewalk, the other in the rear seat of a ghetto cab. They’re like maybe a couple yards apart, six shots fired back and forth and get this: neither of them gets hit. How’s that for sharpshootin’?”
“Was the cab moving?”
“It started out, one of the broads was chasing the other through the Eisenhowers, she jumps in the car, screams for the driver to haul ass, but the minute he sees the guns he jumps out and starts hoofing it back to Senegal, probably halfway there as we speak.”
“Feets do yo’ stuff.”
“Butter and Mayo are up at the Three-two watching Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane sleep it off.”
“And the driver? For real.”
“They found him eight blocks away trying to climb a tree. They took him in for an interview, but he only speaks Wolof and French, so they’re waiting on a translator.”
“And who do I got.” Billy dreaded the voluntary sign-ups, the ever-changing collection of overtime-hungry day-tour detectives who nightly padded out his paltry crew, the majority of them no good for anything after two a.m.
“There’s three, supposedly, but one guy’s kid got sick, another was last seen at a retirement racket down in the Ninth, so maybe you should find out if he’s in any shape to come in at all, and you better check out what Central Park sent us.”
“He’s in? I didn’t see anybody.”
“Check under the rug.”
Back in the squad room, the sign-up, Theodore Moretti, was hiding in plain sight, hunched over, elbows on knees, at the desk farthest from the door.
“I’m in the air,” he hissed into his cell, “you’re breathing me in right now, Jesse. I’m all around you . . .”
Short and squat, Moretti had straight black hair parted precisely down the middle of his skull and raccooned eyes that made Billy’s seem limpid and tight.
“How you doing?” Billy stood over him, his hands in his pockets. But before he could introduce himself as the boss, Moretti just up and walked out of the office, coming back a moment later, still on the phone.
“You really think you can get rid of me that easy?” Moretti said to the lucky-in-love Jesse, Billy right then recognizing him for what he was and writing him off accordingly. Although money was the prime motivation for those signing up for a one-off tour with Night Watch, occasionally a detective volunteered not so much for the overtime but simply because it facilitated his stalking.
One forty-five a.m. . . . the sound of tires rolling over a side street full of shattered light bulbs was like the sound of Jiffy Pop achieving climax, the aftermath of a set test between the Skrilla Hill Killaz from the Coolidge Houses and the Stack Money Goons from the Madisons, four kids sent to St. Luke’s for stitches, one with a glass shard protruding from his cornea like a miniature sail. Where they got all the light bulbs was anyone’s guess.
By the time Billy and Moretti stepped out of their sedan, the 2-9 Gang Unit, six young men in windbreakers and high tops, were already harvesting collars, plasti-cuffing belly-down bangers like bundling wheat. The battleground itself was lined with two layers of rubberneckers: on the sidewalk, dozens of locals, a few, despite the hour, with kids in tow; overhead, an equal number of people hanging out the windows of the exhausted-looking SROs that ran along both sides of the narrow street.