The dead don’t look like people. I don’t think so, anyway.
People ask me how I do what I do- homicide detective, not undertaker, in case you were confused- and stay sane, and the answer is really that simple. Maybe it makes me a latent sociopath, but when I see something so devoid of warmth or breath or movement I just can’t fathom the idea of it ever having had any.
That might change at some point, of course; maybe in five, ten, twenty years an avalanche of realization will reduce me to a twitchy clump of neuroses suitable only for desk work. But I think more likely it’s just a small-scale version of what we feel when we’re in mourning. When you’re told someone you love is dead, whether you wail and rend your clothes or just put your hand over your mouth and sit down, you don’t really understand, in that moment, that the person is never coming back, and all that that implies. Not really. Why, then, should I feel that way when I see the body of a stranger?
The guy in Seward Park with the slit throat was far from the worst I’d seen, but he caught my attention because his eyes were wide open. I know I just made with the big song and dance about how the dead don’t bother me, but this is less to do with their being dead than it is to do with the feeling of being watched.
It was 7 a.m.; it was far too cold and too early to be without coffee, but the coffee we had was too hot to chug. Frustrating, but we were having a better morning than the vic, at least. I dug his license out of his wallet. “Hey, Donnie,” I called to my partner. “Get this. Martin Vick-ner.”
Donnie bark-laughed. “Maybe we should find Jimmy Perpington and haul him in.”
Donnie Klein is a skinny Jewish guy from Flatbush Avenue who’s tough in the way you can only get from a lifetime of people assuming you’re weak. He’s on edge a lot, which can be a problem in our line of work. He’s not dumb by any stretch of the imagination, but he moves too quickly to consider all the angles. That said, he’s great for banter.
I leaned in over the body. “Cause of death appears to be severed jugular; shape and cleanness of the cut strongly suggests it was done with a knife. Head wound, blunt force trauma; wound is scabbed over everywhere but the bottom. Vic was likely dealt a subsequent, softer blow in the same general area.” I slowly lifted the body’s arm by the sleeve of its jacket. “Bruising on wrists is consistent with handcuffs; right index finger has been forcibly removed, powder burns indicate by firearm.”
Donnie broke into my trance, even though he fucking knows I hate that. “We looking for a bullet?” he asked. I shook my head and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck. “None of this was done here. To cut his throat this thoroughly without putting him on his knees, you’d have to be about seven feet tall, but there’s no dirt or grass stains on his pants.”
I stepped back and took a deep breath. This is the part I call BTO- Besides the Obvious. I used to always explain that it didn’t stand for Bachmann-Turner Overdrive, until I realized that nobody under 50 got the reference. I feel old enough at 32 already, so I dropped it. “Okay, so the finger thing, first off; I’m not sure what the purpose was, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t torture.”
“Why not?” from Donnie.
“We know they had a knife, right? If you’re gonna take somebody’s finger just to inflict pain, you go with the knife. Much more intimate, takes longer, shows you’re not squeamish, way more so than shooting off a finger.”
“Gang thing? Kill a stranger, bring back his finger to prove it?”
“But why blow it off if you need it intact and you’ve got a knife with you? Especially if it’s just some guy off the street; gunshot is going to bring the cops. And beyond that, if they’re not out simply to inflict pain, why not shoot him rather than cut his throat? But on the other hand, if they’re out to inflict pain, why not cut the finger off rather than shooting it off?” I stood there with my eyes closed for a second. “So I’d say what we’ve got here is, the killing was personal- hence the knife- but their time was limited, so whatever purpose the thing with the finger served, it had to be done with the gun.” I cautiously tilted my coffee toward the tip of my tongue. Finally suitable for drinking. “Let’s head back, see what we’ve got on the guy. Let’s hope there’s something on the books that jibes with a slit throat, because otherwise we’re starting from scratch.”
Any police department, particularly a big-city police department, is still very much a boys’ club, whatever they might tell you. I’m good at what I do- I’m not going to pretend otherwise- but these aren’t circumstances a single person is going to change. I’m sure it would be worse if I were some skinny blonde with huge tits. I’m about five-eight, black hair, blue eyes, with an ass and a belly. When you see a lady-cop on TV, she doesn’t look like me. It’s much more subtle these days- I’m not getting my ass grabbed or porn stuck in my desk, but I’ve felt it every time I’ve allowed myself to get angry or passionate about anything on the job, I can just see the shared mental groan go up among all the lads- Bitches be emotionally compromised, am I right? That’s why I would never be able to work Domestic or Sex Crimes- hell yes, I’m emotionally compromised when it comes to that.
So I shuddered when I put Vickner’s name into the system and found the forcible rape and sexual battery charges from 2005. I’m not the kind of person who thinks every man accused of rape should be presumed to be guilty, but the evidence and facts of the case were very much against Vickner. Well, except for the fact that he was willing to snitch for them. Loath as I was to admit it, Vickner’s priors meant I was going to have to talk to Octavia Tuck. You ask a cop why they became a cop and you’ll get all sorts of answers of various levels of sincerity, but I doubt a lot of them will say “to shake down rape victims”. Some of them might think it, though.
Forensics had determined that Vickner’s time of death was around 3:00 a.m., indicating that he was either dropped in the park by someone who had to travel at least an hour to get there or who wanted to wait until the rain stopped. Unfortunately, this also meant Octavia’s alibi would likely be that she was at home in bed, with no one to corroborate. I put it off for as long as I could, looking around for known associates of Rashard Powell, the dealer Vickner had rolled over on, but none of them were credible enough as killers to bear further investigation; the ugly truth was, Powell had been a small-timer who was mostly just selling nickel-bags to his friends and didn’t even appear to own a gun, but he was black and a Threat to the Community, which automatically made him a bigger fish than a rapist. I drove to Octavia’s apartment in Bed-Stuy around 11:00, girding myself to feel like shit.
Octavia answered on the second knock. She was a gorgeous woman in her late twenties with huge, liquid eyes who wore her hair short and unstraightened. She looked tired, but she was fully dressed. I tugged the bottom of my jacket aside to show her my shield. “Hi, are you Octavia? I’m Detective Kinneavy, homicide. Can I come in?” She looked genuinely surprised, which was good news for my conscience. “Yeah, yes, of course. Come on in.”
I crossed her threshold; her apartment was small but well-decorated and felt like somebody’s home. She’d done a lot with a little. I looked around with the sincerest nice-place-ya-got-hyurr face I could manage and tried to make what I had to say sound conversational. “When’s the last time you spoke to Martin Vickner?”
She gave a small start at the mention of his name. That’s something most survivors do, in my experience; it doesn’t matter how young or old, how recent or distant the experience, how they’re dealing with it. There’s always something about hearing that one name that shakes you on a primal level. Some women- some people, I should say- have learned to suppress it, but her reaction was impossible to miss. If I had to guess (and I’m a cop, so of course I have to guess), I’d say she hadn’t thought about him in a while before I brought him up. The not-feeling-like-shit train had left without me.
Octavia fixed her eyes on the wall opposite her. “I haven’t spoken to him since he raped me, Detective. Why, is he dead?”
Bullshit time was over, apparently. “Yeah, he is, Ms. Tuck.”
“That’s not something I can go into.”
She closed her eyes for a second, then opened them. “Wow,” she said. “I don’t feel any better at all.”
“Did you think you would?”
“I don’t know. I never seriously thought it’d happen any time soon. He likes to feel stronger than people. Someone like that, I figured he’d steer clear of anyone who might hit back.”
“Lot of people have brothers or fathers.”
She shrugged. “I wouldn’t know nothing about that. I do know he waited until he was sure I didn’t have anybody before he went for me. But let’s just cut the bullshit and you ask me where I was when it happened, and I tell you I was on a plane.”
This I hadn’t seen coming. Bad detective, no donut. “A plane? From where?”
“Milwaukee. Just got back about a couple hours ago, matter of fact.”
I tried not to let my relief show. “Who’s in Milwaukee?”
“My cousin Jessica.” I must have looked confused, because she said “They got sisters in Milwaukee,” kind of defensively. She got up and picked up her purse from the counter, fishing out a boarding pass. Redeye from General Mitchell International Airport, ETA 9:50 a.m. She was clean, thank God.
“Guess my work here is done,” I said, getting to my feet. “Sorry to bother you, Ms. Tuck.”
“Detective,” she asked, “you gonna find whoever killed him?”
“That’s what they pay me for.”
She stared at me a little too long. “I hope it wasn’t one of the girls he hurt that did it.” She shook her head. “I don’t like the idea of him driving someone to kill on top of everything else.”
I truly had no answer for that, so it was a relief when I felt the purr of a text against my thigh. It was from the captain, a link to a news article, with the added message “The fuck is this?” I headed for the door and turned to Octavia. “Thanks for your time, ma’am. Have a nice day.”
I’m not a crime reporter. I’m a political reporter.
Ha ha, you just repeated yourself, you say, because you think you’re the first person to come up with that even though you’re not. Jay Leno-level canned bullshit aside, the main difference between the two (and the reason I thank God I’m the latter) is that political reporters mostly have to talk to politicians, whereas crime reporters mostly have to talk to cops. I don’t know why journalists and cops hate each other so much, but I think it’s to do with what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences”. We’re both- in theory- out for answers, and we both have to get those answers both by talking to official sources and, oftentimes, by hitting the streets, where the people we need to talk to might be suspicious or openly hostile towards us. We both have to live with the reputation our institution has gotten due to the presence of some real pieces of shit in the ranks. Hell, we even both have bars that cater to our profession.
As to where the hostility comes from, that’s where you get to the key differences. Cops are looking for answers, but once they find them, they’re not to be shared; they’re to be acted upon and then tucked away. I imagine it must frustrate them that there are people out to do something similar, only after they’re done they let the public know about it. By the same token, I can tell you it can be frustrating as shit that when cops find the bad guys, they grab them and shove them in cages, whereas when we dapper ladies and gents of the Fourth Estate do the same, we write about how they’re mean and then hope somebody cares enough to write their congressman.
I’ve covered City Council and the mayor’s office since I started at the Septima eight years ago; we’re a small but bothersome alternative weekly that operates out of Midtown on a floor that’s not tall enough for a majestic view of the skyline but probably tall enough to kill yourself. If you think that’s a morbid way of looking at things, you don’t have enough newsroom experience.
Our name derives from the Latin for a period of 7 days, which doesn’t quite mean “week” because the Romans didn’t have weeks, but it sounds smart. The cops and, from what I hear, the mayor call us “The Septic Tank”, which whoever came up with the name probably should have seen coming. I’ve had at least one article a week in here for the past seven years, with particular emphasis on women’s rights and governmental transparency; one of the only fully apolitical bits of reporting I’ve done was a multi-part series on a day-to-day life of a sex worker in the city, with particular emphasis on how the mayor’s crackdowns on the industry were doing way more to increase the pimps’ leverage and keep the women from reporting abuse than they were to keep anyone from hooking. It won several local awards and came close to being nominated for a Pulitzer, from what I hear. Just to almost be nominated is an honor, et cetera (more Latin).
All of this is a roundabout way of saying I have no idea why whoever it was chose to send the envelope to my desk on Tuesday morning. Like a lot of industries, pretty much all of our communication is done through email nowadays, so whenever I get actual mail, I figure it’s an old person, a crazy person or some combination of the two. In December 2001, back when I was doing briefs for The Chief, the NYPD confiscated a lumpy envelope from an unfamiliar address that was sent to me before it turned out to just be a rambling letter by an elderly fireman’s widow telling me how much she appreciated my profiles on first responders. It was kind of heartwarming until the part about how inspiring it was that a “good-looking mulatto boy” had done so well for himself.
The envelope today contained a folded, typed letter and a CD-R. I shoved the disc into my laptop; after 3 minutes, my antivirus software, which is so overenthusiastic that to this day it insists ecards from my aunt are malware, pronounced it clean. The only thing on the disc was a .WAV file. The footage was pretty grainy; I couldn’t tell if their issue was lighting quality or camera quality. I could distinctly see a tall guy on his knees, with someone wearing what looked like black jeans, a red jacket and combat boots standing slightly to his right. The overall effect reminded me of things like the murder of Daniel Pearl, and I’m pretty sure that was the effect whoever had filmed it was going for as well. Combat Boots was making hand motions, so I was guessing he (?) was saying something (I keep my computer on mute at work as a rule), which was seemingly confirmed when the man on his knees opened his mouth as well. After a few more wordless pronouncements, I saw a muzzle flash behind his back, unmistakable even in the shitty lighting, and his face contorted with pain. I could make out blood behind his back as well. I lurched forward, paused the video and decided maybe I should check out the letter first.
Many of us have read your writing, and the publication you represent, over the years; it is for that reason that we have decided you- and it- are the best option to spread our message. Please print this letter in full. The man in this video is Martin Vickner, age 54; he is guilty of the rape and battery of a woman he previously employed as a waitress. Mr. Vickner made a deal with the District Attorney, which resulted in all charges being dropped despite his factual guilt being acknowledged upon by the police, the prosecution and the defense. Mr. Vickner is the first such person to come under our scrutiny, but he will not be the last. We are uninterested in taking action against anyone pretrial; however, after someone we know to be guilty is exonerated or freed, we see no reason to continue working for justice within a system that has proven itself predisposed towards them. Our decisions will not be made lightly; our eyes are well-placed and diverse within the court system, the police and on the streets and if someone is targeted by us, it will be with good reason and ample justification. We have a substantial backlog to work through, but any cases which occur from this point on will be prioritized. Neither men in general nor society as a whole should fear us, but if the police and the courts wish us to stop our work, they can do so by getting to these people before we do. Rest assured, they will not have much luck stopping us any other way.
Tony, my editor, didn’t want to run it. Tony’s a skinny guy in his late forties with a face that’s got far more nose than chin, and there’s nothing he fears more than being perceived as sensationalist. He didn’t even advertise my sex worker story on the cover, not because he didn’t think it was a good story, but because a cover tease about hookers is “Daily News shit”. I liked working for him and I admired him a lot, but at the same time, I always thought it was easier to decide you’re not going to be sensationalist when you already have a reputation to sell you instead. It’s a principled stand with all the inherent risk of a rich guy’s kid deciding to “live off the grid for a while”.
“Tony, come on,” I said. “They want us to run it, specifically.”
“Oh, we negotiate with terrorists now?” he snapped back. “Buncha fuckin’ psychos climb to the housetops, it’s not our job to be their megaphone.”
(That dichotomy with cops I was talking about also makes a lot of editors feel compelled to talk like police captains.)
“It’s news, Ton’,” I said. “It’s news, and we’re the only ones in a position to publish it.”
“Oh, you think so? You believe everything crazy people tell you? How do you know they didn’t send this to the Times and the Post and every other fuckin’ paper?”
The more frustrated I get, the more condescending my voice sounds, so I knew I was walking a razor’s edge. “Tony, if the Post got a snuff film in the mail, do you really think it wouldn’t be all over the Internet by now?”
He put the tips of his fingers to what was probably his hairline at some point.
“Wendell, you get that if we run this, your job gets a lot harder, right?”
“How do you figure?”
“We get the exclusive on a serial killer or whatever the fuck, we’re not just the paper for the cool kids out of Williamsburg or the poor people who just take 3 copies of everything that’s free. We are in for some major scrutiny.”
“All eyes on us,” I responded, doing my best not to get that goddamn Britney Spears song stuck in my head.
“Exactly. You ready for that?”
I popped two pieces of gum into my mouth (I take them two at a time- with just one, I feel like there’s too much unused mouth space). “I’ve been in this business since I was striking out with hot broadcast majors in J-school. I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”
If this were a movie, this would be followed by a cut to something that proved I was completely wrong. It’s not, so I’ll just tell you: I was completely wrong. I wrote up my preface to the letter for the new issue of the weekly, which was hitting stands in two days, but I uploaded the video and an Instagram photo of the letter immediately. Within the hour I got an email from someone claiming the killers were obviously Jews, a second saying they were obviously Muslims (they both used the word “obviously”, with different, incorrect spellings) and a third claiming credit for the murder but maintaining that he had only done it because Governor Paterson had his bichon frise, and to please let him know so that he could give it back.
It was at this point that I received a call from one Detective Kinneavy, who had apparently been introduced to my writing very recently. She immediately proved that point I was making earlier about the Sharks-Jets thing we in the press have going on with New York’s finest.
“What the MERCIFUL FUCK is the matter with you?” she screamed, loudly enough that I nearly dropped my phone, swept it into a dustpan and humanely took it outside rather than stomping on it. “You have VIDEO OF A GODDAMN MURDER and your immediate response is to fucking POST IT ONLINE?”
“Detective, calm down--”
“FUCK YOU, ‘calm down’, I am about to calm-down my sensible flats so far up your ass you’ll be coughing up arch supports.”
“What? Look, there’s also a letter…”
“YOU GOT A LETTER FROM THEM AND YOUR FUCKING HANDS GOT ALL OVER IT?”
“Oh, come on, how the hell was I supposed to know it was evidence without reading it?”
Either I had here there or she was pausing to think of more shoe-related threats. “Mr. Roane,” she said, “I want that letter as soon as humanly possible if you want to write anything besides cover letters to 7-11’s corporate headquarters ever again.”
“Are you threatening me, Detective?”
“You bet your ass I am.”
“And what if I say I’ll tell your superior officer what you said?”
That got a laugh. “My superior officer is a 6-foot-4 ginger who wears a necklace made from her ex-husbands’ TONGUES, you little shit. You’ll be begging for me back if you talk to her.”
The more I thought about it, the more I thought an obviously insane cop having my literal and figurative number wasn’t a great way for things to be. “Detective, maybe we can make a deal of some kind.”
“I just told you the deal, motherfucker, you give me the evidence you’re withholding and I generously don’t book your ass for withholding it.”
“Look, there is a real story here. Please try to understand this from my perspective.” I tried to sound as sincere as I write, which is harder than you might think. “I know you think I’m just some vulture who’s gonna fuck everything up for you, but please, listen to me. It’s really important to me that this be written about. I can’t explain it, I just feel… I feel called. I know that’s stupid. But do you… have you read any Joseph Campbell?” If your big gambit is asking a cop if she’s read Joseph Campbell, it’s probably not going to turn out great. There was a pause that dragged long enough that I thought she might have hung up, and then she said, in a softer, much less ass-threatening voice “Can’t refuse the call, can you?”
I tried to mask my surprise that she knew what I was talking about and apparently did a shitty job of it. “Don’t act so shocked,” she replied. “I just looked him up on my phone. Why do you think I paused for so long?”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so I plunged ahead with my proposition now that she’d stopped yelling. “Detective Kinneavy, here’s what I’d like to make happen: I give you this letter, and not in return, but just so we can make up for having gotten off on the wrong foot, you’re my source as this case unfolds. I know our publication has a reputation for not giving the department’s side of things, so here’s your chance. I’m your ridealong on this case, and no matter how many anti-stop-and-frisk editorials we run, you get your say.”
She was either considering it or Googling more curse words. “And anything else you get, you’ll bring straight to the police?”
“I’ll bring it straight to the police AFTER I’ve taken pictures and submitted them to my editor.”
I heard her sigh and I figured she was doing the same thing as Tony, only with more hair, probably. “You sure you want this arrangement, Mr. Roane? It’s gonna be way worse for you if you can’t keep to it than for me if I can’t.”
I leaned back in the swivel chair. “I had a relationship like that with another source too,” I said. “By which I mean, every reporter-source relationship I’ve ever had. I managed.”
That got a chuckle. “I’ll see you and that infinitely more interesting letter at McSorley’s at 7, Mr. Roane.” She hung up and I punched the air a couple times.
Tony stuck his head into my cubicle and said “Wendell, if you get me sued by the NYPD I promise you, I’m going to find some way to register you as a sex offender,” before going back to his office.
Around 6 o’clock that evening I noticed I had a new email. It was from Will D’Annunzio, one of my sources. We don’t really live in an age where the mob regularly makes the news, but it was nice to have a source inside regardless. Will was a gopher for Joe Cataldo’s crew on the Lower East Side, which has never been particularly violent but moves a hell of a lot of cocaine. Will isn’t going to help me break any major exposes, but he was a goldmine in terms of water-cooler buzz about who was getting made, who was getting promoted or who was getting frozen out. His email read as follows:
HEY W- SOMEBODY DID RUSSELL MILAZZO. COPS TRYING TO KEEP IT QUIET BUT OUR GUY IN THE DEPARTMINT [sic] SAID HIS THROTE [sic] WAS CUT. CALL ME ON BURNER TONIGHT.- WD
I’m getting too old for this shit.
I wish that movie hadn’t used that line, because it’s something I need to express all the time, but now it just sounds like I’m referencing that fuckin’ movie.
I’m 45; that’s old enough to be getting too old for this shit but not old enough to have been around for the glory days, or what the old-timers call the glory days, before Gotti ruined the nice suits and the pinkie rings and all the cartoony shit for everyone. I still wear a pretty nice fuckin’ suit, but if it weren’t double-breasted you could mistake me for a Wall Street type with a tan. Pretty much my entire career has been in this more muted, nondescript era. That’s how I know there’s nothing noble about Our Thing.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; it’s not. I don’t think there’s anything noble about laying bricks or selling bicycles or doing consultancy neither. It’s just work. And this thing of ours, this thing that was supposedly what kept us together when we stepped off the boat, kept all the thugs out of our faces and our pockets, connected us to the homeland while it helped make a better life for us here- that’s bullshit now, and I’m not sure if it was ever anything else.
One of the good things about this is it keeps down the violence. We haven’t had anything like a war in about a decade. Violence gets you noticed by the wrong people, and in a worst-case stereo, it makes the cops and prosecutors decide that the best way to cover their asses is to convince people that the kinds of gangsters they’ve seen in movies still exist and then hang a bunch of them out to dry. I’ve only killed 7 people, which is probably more than you but would put me way the fuck below average in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Again, it’s a business. Love it or hate it, this is the way it’s supposed to be.
So when I went down to the docks to make a collection early one evening and happened to run across my captains with his throat opened from ear to ear, I really hoped it could be resolved with a minimum of fuss.
Russell Milazzo wasn’t someone I was sorry to see go; he enjoyed using his position to be an asshole, which is really, really bad for business. I’d also been hearing stories about him trying to move into running girls, illegals from Asia and Eastern Europe, which was strictly the territory of the Russians in Brighton Beach, who were crazy fucks that I didn’t feel like offending. The Russkies are big into knives, so when I saw the wound, I figured it was them, or if not them, one of the kids in the moulinyan or spic gangs. Someone who didn’t know or care how we do things. The cop on scene was a guy named Mikey Kolchak; I didn’t own him but we were friendly. He gave me a nod.
“The fuck is this?” I said as I strode over to the crime scene.
“Not sure yet,” Kolchak replied. “I’m just keeping him warm ‘til Homicide gets here.”
A green Corolla rolled up and a pale, dark-haired broad in Heineken-green sunglasses got out and made her way over to the body. Nice ass on her. She shook Kolchak’s hand. “Kinneavy, homicide. Pretty sure this guy’s connected to my case. Thanks for saving a spot while I got here.” She turned as if she was just noticing me. “You need something, sir?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m his employer.” I tried not to sound threatening.
She tilted her coffee and poured a bit of it on the dock. “Sorry for your loss. Run along now.”
I had several calls to make, and I really wanted the Russians to be the last one. They are not pleasant people.
First I texted Flaco, the rep from the Latin Kings. (Yes, everybody has reps now. I told you it’s a business.) I explained the situation and asked him to make sure none of his people were involved in it. I hoped he understood I didn’t mean “his people” like THAT, because that’s hard to convey over a text.
Next, I called the boss, which you’re pretty much only supposed to do if someone’s dead; anything else can, in theory, wait long enough to set up an appointment. “Contain this, Giuseppe,” was all he said. My Christian name is not actually Giuseppe, but I’ve never corrected him, because a) if I ever get caught on a wiretap, it’ll be helpful to be able to say “Who, me? That’s not me, he’s talkin’ to some fuckin’ guy named ‘Giuseppe’” and 2) the only people who would ever think to correct an elderly Italian man are people who have never tried.
Then I called Brickman, my guy in Homicide, and asked if he knew anything. He said Det. Kinneavy- I assumed that was the chubby cunt from the docks- was being cagey about the whole thing, but had told the captain that she thought it was connected to a rape-o who’d been done the same way the night before. He promised to keep me posted, and I gave him the name of the guy he’d be dialoging with in place of Russell.
Then I called said guy and offered him Russell’s territory, and then it was time for a fuckin’ drink.
In hindsight, I was kind of asking for trouble going all the way to Brooklyn for a drink, but I was cranky and worn out and I didn’t want to run into anyone I knew who could ask me for a favor. I found a place that the younger members of my organization tell me is for “hipsters”. I’m not entirely clear on what a hipster is, but as far as I can tell they’re really concerned about appearances at the expense of every other fuckin’ thing, and I know from experience that people like that aren’t worth the trouble. I sat down and asked for a fifth of Jack, not because I’m particularly fond of Jack but because this didn’t look like the kind of place that would have what I like. A few minutes after I got my drink, a guy got up from a table in the corner and sat down next to me. He was a little, skinny guy with sandy hair fading into silver wearing a fuckin’ beautiful charcoal Armani pinstripe and a lavender tie. He looked familiar but I was pretty sure we’d never spoken extensively; I might have been introduced to him at some christening or something, but you meet a lot of people that way.
“You are Mr. Cataldo,” he said. He made it sound more like an announcement than a question. He sounded like Boris Badenov.
“Yeah,” I said, trying not to sound rattled. I wasn’t in my own territory and a name means way less than it used to.
“My name is Valery Degtiarenko, and we have business to discuss. You will come to our table, please?”
I followed him, probably against my better judgment, and sat down at his table. Degtiarenko was the only one there in a suit and the only one under six feet. All the other guys were Hagrid-looking motherfuckers in three-quarter length leather jackets or track suits. There were 4 of them, which seemed like a bit much.
“Mr. Cataldo,” Degtiarenko said, “your friend, someone just recently kill him, yeah?”
I took a small sip of my Jack. If the only way I could fuck with him was to make him wait a few seconds for an answer, that was what I was gonna do. “Who wants to know?”
“He want to know, that’s why he fucking ask you,” rumbled one of the giants, leaning forward slightly and rattling everyone’s glass. Degtiarenko held up a hand. “You not been down to Brooklyn in a while, has you, Mr. Cataldo?” he said. “I Ron Burgundy here these days. Kind of big deal, you know?”
I wasn’t particularly intimidated, and I didn’t see any reason to pretend to be. “So I guess you called me over to tell me you did it?”
Degtiarenko’s expression darkened. “No, Mr. Cataldo. So I take it you don’t know neither?”
“Well, this is problem. You know how your guy had been make his money lately?”
“You referring to the hookers?”
“Yes, the girls. This was very big problem. That is my business. Your man, he has connections in shipping and Coast Guard and port authority I don’t, so he bring them in with much less hassle than I does, make bigger profit, even though I was doing it first. This is fair?”
I shrugged. “It’s capitalism, Mr. D. Thought youse guys were into that now.”
That got me a pretty nasty look from his guys. He ignored me and kept talking. “Matter of fact, plan was to take care of your friend tomorrow before this third party take care of it for us.”
Now he had my attention. “I gotta tell you, that’s not how it works here. You remember what you were saying about having more connections? Nobody gets killed unless everyone’s okay with it, and definitely none of mine get killed.”
He wasn’t smiling anymore. “Well, someone didn’t get memorandum, yes?”
“Obviously. That’s why I need to find out who it was.”
He leaned in. “Here is what I think, my friend. I think, your man, only thing that set him apart from your other men is that he got into whores. So I think anyone else who want to kill him, they don’t appreciate him stepping on that business neither. And that mean I still have a problem with threats to my business.”
“And what’s this got to do with me?”
“What it got to do with you is, here is how you can make it up to me for not taking care of this problem. Whoever did this, they’re trying to move on my territory, just like Mr. Russell, and that’s why you find him and kill him for me.”
I was not a fan of the direction this conversation had taken. “Listen, Drago,” I said, pointing with my empty glass, “I feel like you been off the boat or out of the shipping container or whatever-the-fuck long enough to know this isn’t how it works. Okay? You don’t fuckin’ tell me what to do. I tell you what to do. You don’t fuckin’ threaten me or my people, unless you want a war, and believe me, you don’t. Because if the gloves come off, you might think you’re hard because you got a bunch of big, hairy retards who can’t get any work now that they can’t break fingers for the KGB no more, but I have you in firepower, politics, numbers… if shit gets real, I’m Superman and you’re the dumb fuck who tries to stick him with a knife. So think real hard about where you go next with this.”
He just smiled at me for a second. Then he grabbed my wrist and dug his nails into it. “I tell you what I think, you soft guinea faggot,” he hissed. “I think you been practicing that speech for years and you think if it sounds good enough, you never have to back it up. I think you think everyone so scared to hit you, you don’t need to learn how to hit back. But especially I think that you want to keep things quiet more than you want to look like a tough guy. I think you want everyone to get along because you know if things get ugly, we do things much, MUCH nastier than you do. And if I’m wrong, why do I even have you in this position in first place? How have I laid hands on you?” He let go of my wrist. “Mr. Cataldo, I want this business rival by the end of the month. I don’t want anything else from you; you can go about all your other business. But if you don’t bring me someone…” He pulled a butterfly knife out of his sock. “…you going to see, in detail, what I did for KGB. You fucking WISH I broke their fingers.”
I met his eyes. “You all done, Mr. D?” He nodded. I stood up and smoothed my tie. “I’ll do what I can. I don’t need this fuck running around any more than you do.” I gave him my card. “And just so you know, Boris, if you come to my neighborhood with this shit, I’m not gonna invite you over to my table.” I left and made for the Williamsburg Bridge, trying not to be obvious about how often I was looking over my shoulder.