This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.
FOR ABE, WHO I NEVER MET
BUT HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN.
AND FOR NATHAN, WHO I KNEW.
TWO PIECES OF THE ROOT.
WATCHING ME FROM SOMEPLACE
ABOVE THE JUNKYARD.
Spring comes hard down here.
The switchman was in the lotus position - serenely posed on an army blanket he had neatly folded into quarters before he assembled his tools and took up his post for the day. A black man with glowing bronze skin, hair falling straight and glossy down either side of his head like a helmet, framing a face that was mostly skull.
He held a thick pad of graph paper open on his lap, carefully filling a page with finely shaded symbols - a covert calligraphy all his own. He didn't bother to hide his work from passing citizens. His half-smile said it all - the simple slugs thought him insane; they could never understand the difference between the messenger and the message.
A pale-blue quilt covered his shoulders. He placed three identical blue china bowls on the blanket around him. To his right, the bowl sported a generous supply of fine-point felt-tip pens in different colors. The bowl on his left held a heavy Zippo cigarette lighter and some loose cigarettes - various brands. Directly in front was a bowl with some coins, encouraging the passing citizens to make a contribution to his mystical cause.
He had long tapering fingers, clean and smooth, the nails manicured and covered with clear polish. I got a good look at his hands yesterday when I stopped to look over his shoulder and watch him work. He filled a quarter of the page with symbols, never using the same one twice, working in five separate colors, not acknowledging my presence. I helped myself to one of his cigarettes, lit it with his lighter. He never moved. I tossed some coins into his china bowl and moved on, smoking his cigarette. It tasted like it was about my age.
I didn't need the polished nails to tell me he was the switchman. The neighborhood is full of halfway houses for discharged mental patient - they disgorge their cargo into the streets each morning, but this guy wasn't part of that herd. He wasn't talking to himself and he hadn't tried to tell me his story. And he didn't look afraid.
The little piece of winter chill still hanging around in April didn't seem to bother him. He worked the same post every day - starting around eleven in the morning and staying on the job until about three. The switchman had a choice spot, always setting up his shop at the edge of a tiny triangle of dirt on West Broadway, between Reade and Chambers. The slab of dirt had a couple of broken backless benches and a runty tree that had been bonsai’ed by years of attention from pigeons, dogs, squirrels and winos. An alley without walls. Down in this part of the city, they call it a park.
At eleven, he would still be in shadow, but the sun would make its move from the East River over to the Hudson past noon, and things would warm up. The switch-man never took the quilt from his shoulders.
His patch of dirt was a border town: Wall Street was expanding its way up from the tip of Manhattan, on a collision course with the loft-dwelling yuppies from SoHo. Every square inch of space was worth something to somebody - and more to somebody else a few months later. The small factories were all being converted into coops. Even the river was disappearing as land-greed took builders farther and farther offshore; Battery Park City was spreading its branches into the void left when they tore down the overpass for the West Side Highway. Riverfront joints surrendered to nouvelle-cuisine bistros. The electronics stores that would sell you what you needed to build your own ham radio or tap your neighbor's phone gave way to sushi bars. Antique shops and storefront-sized art galleries shouldered in next to places that would sell you some vitamins or rent you a videotape.
People have always lived down here. The neighborhood used to be a goddamned art colony – it produced more pottery than the whole Navajo nation. The hippies and the artists thought the winos added just the right touch of realism to their lives. But the new occupants are the kind who get preorgasmic when you whisper "investment banking," and they didn't much care for local color. Locksmiths were riding the crest of a growth industry.
The Superior Hotel entrance was around the corner on Chambers Street, with rooms extending all along West Broadway. Mine was on the top floor, facing out over the park. Seventy-five bucks a week bought me a swaybacked single bed on an iron frame, a ratty old easy chair worn down to the cotton padding on the arms, and a metal closet standing against the wall. The room was painted in some neutral-colored stuff that was about half disinfectant. A heavy length of vinyl-wrapped chain stood against the wall, anchored at one end to U-bolts driven into the floor. The other end stood open, padlocked to nothing, waiting patiently. I hadn't gone for the optional TV at only two bucks a day.
Someone who had never lived in one might say the room looked like a prison cell. It didn't come close.
Almost one in the afternoon. Into my third hour of watching, I shifted position in the chair, scanning the street with the wide-angle binoculars, watching the human traffic flow around the switchman. A young woman strolled by with her boyfriend. Her hair was dyed four different colors, standing up in stiff spikes, stabbing the air every time she moved her head. Her hand was in the back pocket of her boyfriend's jeans. He looked straight ahead, not saying a word. A biker rolled up to a tobacco-colored Mercedes parked at the corner. The car's window slid down and the biker put his head and hands inside. He wasn't there long. The Mercedes and the biker went their separate ways. A young woman about the same age as the one with the spiked hair tapped her business-length heel impatiently on the curb, holding a leather briefcase that doubled as a purse, wearing a pinstriped skirt and jacket over a white blouse with a dark-red bow for a tie. Winos stretched out in the sun, sprawled across the benches - passengers on a cruise ship in permanent drydock. A diesel dyke cruised into view, her arm braced around the neck of a slender, longhaired girl, her bicep flexed to display a bold tattoo. I was too far away to read it, but I knew what it said: hard to the core.
Still no sign of the target. I had followed him for three weeks straight, charting every step of his lunchtime route. The calligrapher on the blanket had to be the switchman - it was the only stop the target always made. I rotated my head gently on the column of my neck, working out the stiffness, keeping my eyes on the street. Invisible inside the shadows of my room, I lit another cigarette, cupping the wooden match to hide the flare, and went back to waiting. It's what I do best.
I was working in a dead-end hotel, but I'd gotten the job in the back seat of a limousine. The customer was a Wall Street lawyer. He dressed the part to perfection, but he didn't have enough mileage on his clock to make it seem like sitting in a hundred-thousand-dollar taxi was an everyday thing for him.
"It took quite a while for you to get back to me, Mr. Burke," he said, trying for a tone that would tell me he wasn't a man used to waiting for what he wanted. "I reached out for you yesterday morning."
I didn't say anything. I'm not in the phone book. You have to have a phone of your own to qualify for that. The lawyer had called one of the pay phones in the back of Mama Wong's restaurant. Mama always answers the same way: "Mr. Burke not here, okay? You leave message, okay?" If the caller says anything else, asks more question - whatever - Mama just runs through the same cycle. She says it enough times, the caller gets the message: If it's not okay with you, it's too fucking bad.
The lawyer tried another ice-breaker. "My firm has a problem, Mr. Burke, and I was told you might be the ideal individual to assist us."
I shrugged my shoulders slightly, telling him to get on with it. He wasn't in a hurry -that's the problem with paying guys by the hour.
"Is there any particular reason why we had to meet out here?" he wanted to know, gesturing toward the Hudson River with an impatient sweep of his hand. He had a nice watch. Pretty cuff links.
"Who gave you my number?" I asked, stepping on his question.
The lawyer swallowed his annoyance, reminding himself he wasn't speaking with an equal. Time to put me in my place. "Do I have to say anything more than 'Mr. C.'?" he asked, smiling.
"Yes," I said.
He looked honestly puzzled. Since he was a lawyer, only part of that could be accurate. "I thought that would be enough. I was given to understand that a recommendation from Mr. C. would be all that you would require."
"Give the understanding back, pal. And tell me who gave you my number."
"I told you."
"You saying Mr. C. spoke to you?" I asked him, watching his face.
"The number came from him," he said, answering questions the way a lawyer does.
"Have a nice day," I said, reaching behind me for the door handle.
"Wait a minute!" he snapped, putting his hand on my sleeve.
"You don't want to do that," I told him.
He jerked his hand away, sliding into his speech. "I can explain whatever is necessary, Mr. Burke. Please don't be impatient." He shifted position on the soft gray leather seat, pushed a button, and watched proudly as the padded wall between us and the driver opened to reveal a well-stocked bar. "Can I get you a drinj?"
"No," I told him, taking a single cigarette from my jacket. I put it in my mouth, reached the same hand back inside for a match. I kept the other hand in my pocket, where it had been since I climbed in the limo. The gesture was wasted on him.
"Would you mind opening the window if you're going to smoke? . . . I’m allergic."
I pushed the switch and the window whispered down, letting in the traffic noise from the West Side Highway. We were parked in the pocket between Vestry Street and where the highway forks near 14th. Cars went by, but not people. The limo had picked me up on Wall Street; I told the lawyer where I wanted to go, and he told the driver.
I lit the cigarette, inhaled deeply, watching the lawyer.
"Those things will kill you," he said. A concerned citizen.
"No, they won't," I promised.
He shrugged, using the gesture to say that some people are beyond educating. He was right, but not about me. He tried one more time. "Mr. C. is a client of our firm. In the course of discussing . . . uh . . . other matters, he indicated that you might be better suited to our immediate purposes than a more . . . traditional private investigator." He glanced at my face, waiting for a reaction. When he realized he'd have a long time to wait, he shifted gears and rolled ahead. "Mr. C. gave us certain . . . uh . . . assurances concerning your sense of discretion, Mr. Burke." His tone of voice made it into a question.
I drew on my cigarette. The breeze from the open window at my back pushed the smoke toward his allergic face.
The lawyer slid a leather portfolio onto his lap, deftly opened it into a mini-desk, tapped a yellow legal pad with the tip of a gold ballpoint to get my attention. "Why don't I write a figure down, Mr. Burke. You take a quick look, tell me if you're interested." Without waiting for an answer, he slowly wrote "10,000" in large numbers. Reverently, like he was engraving a stone tablet. He raised his eyebrows in another question.
"For what?" I asked him.
"Our firm has a . . . uh . . . confidentiality problem, Mr. Burke. We occupy a rather unique position, interfacing, as we say, between the business, financial, and legal arenas. Necessarily, information crosses our desk, so to speak. Information that has a short but exceedingly valuable life. Are you following me?"
I nodded, but the lawyer wasn't going to take my word for it. "You're certain?"
"Yeah," I replied, bored with this. Yuppies didn't invent insider trading - information is always worth something to somebody. I was scamming along the tightrope between prison and the emergency ward while this guy was still kissing ass to get into law school.
The lawyer stroked his chin. Another gesture. Telling me he was making a decision. The decision never had been his to make, and we both knew it.
"Somebody in our firm has been . . . profiting from information. Information that has come to us in our fiduciary capacity. Are you following me?"
I just nodded, waiting.
"We know who this person is. And we've retained the very best professionals to look into the matter for us. Specialists in industrial espionage. People who are capable of checking things we wouldn't want to use a subpoena for. Still with me?"
"We know who it is, like I said. But we have been unable to establish a case against him. We don't know how he moves the information. And we don't know to whom he passes it."
"You checked his bank accounts, opened his mail, tapped his phones . . . all that, right?"
Now it was the lawyer's turn to nod, moving his head a reluctant two inches.
"Telegrams, visitors to the office, carrier pigeons . . . ?"
He nodded again, unsmiling.
"How much time would he have between getting the information and making use of it?"
"Ah, you do understand, Mr. Burke. That's exactly the problem. We deal with extremely sensitive issues. Nothing on paper. In a normal insider-trading situation, a profiteer would have a minimum of several days to make his move. But in our situation, he would have to act within a few hours - no longer than close of business on the same day the information comes in."
"And you've had him under surveillance every day for a while?"
"Drawing a blank?"
He nodded again.
"You call in the federales?"
"That wouldn't be our chosen scenario for this situation. The firm itself has its own interests, as well as the obligation to protect our clients. Perhaps you don't understand some of the complexities of our profession. . ."
I gave him the closest thing to a smile I ever give citizens. I'd never heard the laundry business called a profession before.
"Why doh't you just fire him?"
"We can't do that. He's a very well connected young man. Besides, our clients will demand some actual proof of his guilt before taking any action. They were very insistent on that, for some reason."
Sure. The "clients" wanted to make damn sure the problem was going to get solved for good. The only time humans like that are interested in the truth is when a mistake will cost them money.
"What do you want from me?"
"We want you to find out how this individual gets the information out. And we want proof. Something we can show our clients."
"And the only time he could possibly pass this along is during business hours?"
"Yes. Without question. After that . . . it wouldn't be of value to him or anyone else."
I lit another cigarette, thinking it through. It sounded like they had the wrong guy. Maybe the "clients" were setting them up. Maybe this lawyer was the one doing the stealing. It wasn't my problem. Money was. Always is.
"The only time I could watch him would be when he leaves the building, right?"
"Yes. Inside the building, he's completely covered."
"A grand a day. Until I find out how he does it or you call me off. Another ten if I get the proof for you."
"Mr. Burke, with all due respect, that's triple the rate charged by the finest security firms. And you'll only be working a couple of hours each day."
"In cash. In front. Nothing bigger than fifties. No consecutive serial numbers. No new bills," I told him. "You know how it's done."
The lawyer looked at me, watching my face for the first time since I'd climbed into the limo. "What makes you worth so much?"
"Ask Mr. C.," I suggested.
He dropped his eyes. "We won't need you every day. Just those days when something comes in. We'll call as soon as . . ."
"I don't understand."
"I need to work this guy every day, okay? I need to know him. I need to know when he's changed his pattern. You don't need to call me when the information comes in. I watch this guy long enough, I'll know."
"That could take weeks . . ."
I nodded agreement. "Maybe longer. Who knows? I probably won't get him the first time he moves anyway. Depends on when you get something for him to trade."
"And you may not get him at all?"
"And I may not get him at all."
The lawyer pretended to think it over. Maybe he was better at pretending to be honest. "We need to get started on this. This is Friday; could you be on the job Monday?"
"All right, Mr. Burke. I am prepared to pay you one thousand dollars in cash right now. For Monday's work. In advance, as you requested. We will meet each evening - you'll give me your report and we will decide if you are to continue."
I just shook my head. Why they sent this fool to do business with me was a mystery: he was a pin-striped shark, but he couldn't bite people who never went near the water.
"You have another suggestion?"
"Yeah, pal. Here's my suggestion. You hand me twenty thousand dollars, like we agreed. Okay? That buys you twenty days, unless I pull it off quicker. I pull it off before ten days, you get a refund. Nothing jumps off in twenty days, we meet and see what you want to do. Got it?"
"That's outrageous," the lawyer said, his face a halfstep out of sync with his words. "You expect me to just . . ."
"I'm tired of this. I'm tired of you. If Mr. C. really sent you out here to do business, you've got at least twenty large in that pretty briefcase of yours. And if you're a fucking little errand boy, go back and tell your boss that he sent the wrong messenger."
He sat there, staring. I lit another cigarette. "When this smoke is finished, so am I," I told him, waiting.
The lawyer tried to smile. "I'm no errand boy," he said, holding his head stiff. He opened another compartment in the briefcase. The money was neatly stacked, a paper baid around the fifty-dollar bills. He counted off twenty little 'tacks, tossing them contemptuously on the broad seat between us, making sure I could see there was plenty left in the briefcase.
Telling me they would have paid more. That he had the last laugh.
"Can I drop you someplace?" he smirked.
I threw an empty pack of cigarettes back over my shoulder, out the window. "Thanks anyway," I told the lawyer, shoving the cash into different pockets of my coat, "I'll call a cab."
A battered gypsy cab rolled up next to the limo. The rusty old hulk was so filthy you couldn't even see through the windows. The lawyer's mouth dropped open. I nodded to him, backed out of the limo and into the gypsy. The driver dropped the hammer, and we moved out in a cloud of black smoke.
I spotted the insider when he was still a half-block away.
Watching him for days tuned me in - l could pick him up in a crowd just by the way he moved. Heading for the switchman, like always. I zoomed the binoculars in on the switchman's hands. He was still working on his charts, face bent over in concentration. When the insider got close, I focused in on the three bowls, flicking past the one that held the pens to the second one - the one with the cigarettes. I locked into the last bowl in the triangle - the one with the coins. There was nothing else in my vision. I breathed gently through my nose, my elbows pressed into my chest.
Silver dropped into the switchman's bowl. Some coins. And a flat-folded piece of aluminum foil. I reached one hand up to the window shade and pulled it straight down. I dropped to the floor and raised the shade an inch at the bottom, so I could peek out without the binoculars.
A kid in a striped T-shirt shot around the corner on a skateboard. He lost control and spun out; the skateboard took off by itself and crashed into a parked car. The kid was ready for the crash: gloves on his hands, thick pads covering his elbows and knees. His head was hidden under a white plastic mask - the kind hockey goalies wear. He shook himself off, dazed.
Then he charged right at the switchman, snatched the coin bowl in both hands, and flew up the block, the bowl tight against his chest. The switchman started to come off his blanket when one of the winos stumbled into him from behind. The wino's long floppy raincoat blocked most of my view, but I could see the switchman whip an elbow into his chest, knocking him backward. The wino grabbed at the switchman to break his fall; they fell to the ground together. The switchman wrenched himself loose, stopping for a second to kick the helpless wino in the chest.
When he turned around, the kid was gone. I saw the gypsy cab pull away, heading for the river.
The switchman did a full circle, knowing he was too late. The wino crawled away, his hands wrapped around his ribs. The switchman pulled the corners of his blanket together, held it in two hands, and spun it around a couple of times to form a sack. Re threw the sack over his shoulder and ducked into the subway.
It took me less than a minute to throw everything I had with me into the battered suitcase and head out the door.
I went out the side door on Chambers, and walked back through the park. The street was the way it was before the crash. Even the kid's skateboard was gone.
My Plymouth was parked on West Street, near one of the construction sites. The guy who built it years ago was trying to create the ultimate New York taxicab, but he died before he got it done. I threw my suitcase in the trunk and started the engine. The two-and-a-half-ton dull gray machine started right up, the way it always does. I hit the switch and my window slid down. Lit a cigarette and pulled away, heading for the pier.
I was there tirst. I backed in until the bumper tapped the base of the pier, shoved a Judy Henske tape into the slot, listened to "If That Isn't Love" for the thousandth time. Waiting again. If Linda Ronstadt is a torch singer, Henske's a flame thrower.
A couple of guys walked by, hand in hand, talking just to each other. An overmuscled beach boy posed against a burned-out abandoned car. A black man was adding a few touches to an oil painting of the riverfront. A man with a teenager's body cruised the scene on roller skates, wearing mirror sunglasses to hide the truth. The whores don't work this pier. Some zoning regulation the City Council would never understand reserved it for gays.
Nobody came near the Plymouth. I was into my third smoke, and Henske was breaking chops with both hands on "Good Old Wagon" by the time the gypsy cab pulled in at an angle next to me, its nose aimed at the Plymouth's trunk. The kid jumped out first, the goalie's mask gone, his baby face glowing with pride.
"Keep it down," I told him, climbing out of the car.
"Did you see it? It went perfect!" He was bouncing up and down like he just hit a home run in Little League. Snatching money off the street was as close as Terry would ever get.
The Mole slowly emerged from the darkness of the gypsy cab. He was wearing a greasy pair of coveralls, a heavy tool belt around his waist, with another strap running over his shoulder. Something glinted off his Coke-bottle lenses - I couldn't tell if it was the sun. He walked into the shadow where our two cars touched and squatted on the ground, fumbling in his leather satchel. Terry hunkered down beside him, his hand on the Mole's shoulder, trying to peer inside the satchel. The Mole's pasty-white hands with their stubby fingers looked too awkward to open the clasp, but he had a touch like a brain surgeon. He pulled out the foil disk and dropped it in my palm, looking up at me with a question.
"Let's see," I told him, unwrapping it carefully.
In a neat, almost prim hanchriting were the words "Maltrom, Ltd." Nothing else. I didn't need anything else.
"Nice work, Mole," I told him.
The Mole grunted.
"You drop Max off?"
He grunted again. Max the Silent didn't get his name because he moved so quietly. A Mongolian free-lance warrior who never spoke, Max made his living as a courier, moving things around the city for a price. His collateral was his life. He was as reliable as cancer, and not nearly as safe to play with. The wino who stumbled into the switchman had been Max. He'd taken the kicks to the ribs, even though he could have snapped the switchman like a matchstick. A professional.
The Mole was still hunkered down in the shadows. The kid was next to him. Waiting quietly now, like he'd been taught.
"I got about an hour," I told the Mole.
His face moved - the Mole's idea of a smile. "You don't want to call your broker first?"
I don't have a broker. I don't get mail and I don't have a phone. Maybe it's true that you can't beat them - you don't have to join them either.
"I have to see Michelle," the kid piped up.
I caught the Mole's eye, nodded okay.
"Give her my share," he said.
I wheeled the Plymouth across the highway and started to work my way through the back streets of SoHo. Carefully, like I do everything.
Lily runs a special joint that works with abused kids. They do individual and group therapy, and they teach self-defense. Maybe it's all the same thing.
Max's woman works there. Immaculata. It wasn't so long ago that she tried to stop three punks from attacking what she thought was an old man on the subway. The old man was Max. He went through the punks like a chain saw through Kleenex, left them broken and bleeding on the subway floor, and held out his hand to the woman who stood up for him. Their baby was born a few months ago - two warriors' blood in her veins.
Terry watched me without turning his head, working on what we'd been teaching him. But he was doing it for practice - he wasn't scared anymore. The first time I took him away in a car, he was a rental from a pimp. We were working a deep con, looking for a picture of another kid. We picked up Michelle on the street so she could watch Terry while we got ready to deal with his pimp.
I lit a cigarette, thinking back to that night. "Want one?" I asked him.
"Michelle doesn't want me to smoke."
"I won't tell her."
The kid knew better than to use the dashboard lighter in the Plymouth. I snapped a wooden match into life, held it across to him. He took a deep drag. We had a deal.
I watched him scan the passing streets with his eyes, not moving his head.
I was in Biafra during the war. It got bad near the end. Staying alive was all there was. No food, landlocked, soldiers pinching all four corners, planes spitting death - low enough in the sky to hit with a rifle. If you had a rifle. Too many ways to die. Some screamed, some ran. Nohody won. I saw kids lying like litter all through the jungle, their faces already dead, waiting. I had a 9mm pistol with three bullets left in the clip, half a pack of cigarettes, a pocketful of diamonds, and almost a hundred grand in Swiss francs. I left a sack of Biafran pounds back in the jungle. About a million face value, if Biafra won the war. It wasn't going to; and carrying a sack of money from a defeated country while you're running for your life is what they mean by "dead weight." I didn't even bury it - I wasn't coming back. Another big score gone to dirt. The gunfire stopped, and the jungle got dead quiet. Waiting. A young woman ran past me on my right, wearing only a pair of tattered men's shorts way too big for her, every breath a moan. I heard a grunting sound and hit the ground, the pistol up in front of me. A wounded soldier? If he had a rifle, maybe I could trade up. It was a little boy, about three years old, a tiny head on a stick body, his belly swollen, naked. Alone. Past being scared. The woman never broke stride; she scooped the baby up on the run, shoving him up toward her slender neck, holding him with one hand. If she made it, the baby would have a new mother.
That's what Michelle did with Terry.
I parked a couple of blocks away. Terry and I walked over to Lily's, not talking. The black guy at the front desk was reading a thick book through horn-rimmed glasses.
"Hey. Sidney!" the kid greeted him. "Sidney's going to law school," he told me.
Somehow I didn't think Sidney would end up making deals with guys like me in the back of limos. "Is this your father?" he asked Terry. "The one who teaches you all that electronic stuff?"
That cracked the kid up. "Burke?" It was the Mole's thought, but the laugh was Michelle's. It's not just chromosomes that make blood.
Sidney waved us past. We walked down a long corridor to the back offices. The right-hand wall was all glass. On the other side, groups of kids were running, jumping, screaming their lungs out. Everything from disciplined martial-arts classes in one corner to some crazy game with kids taking turns trying to dive over a mound of pillows. Business as usual.
Immaculata burst out of one of the back offices, her long glossy hair flying behind her, a clipboard in one hand.
"Lily!" she yelled out.
"We're all back here," echoed a voice.
Immaculata saw us and spun in a graceful arc, her long nails flowing together as she pyramided her hands at the waist. She bowed gently to us.
"Mac." I bowed back.
Terry tried to bow too, but he was too excited to get it right. "Is Max here?"
"Max is working, honey."
"But is he coming? Maybe later?"
Immaculata's smile ignited the highlights in her eyes. "Who knows?"
"Max is the strongest man in the world!" the kid said, not inviting a dispute.
Immaculata bowed again. "Is strength so important? Do you remember what you have been taught?"
"Yes. Strength of character. Strength of spirit."
"Very good," the beautiful woman proclaimed, bending at the waist to give Terry a kiss. "And so . . . is Michelle strong?"
"She's so brave."
"And the Mole?"
"Michelle says he's the smartest man on the earth. That's what she says."
The kid looked doubtful, waiting. "Burke is not strong like Max?" The kid shook his head.
"Or brave like Michelle? Smart like the Mole?"
"No . . ." Terry said, reaching for it.
"So how does he survive?"
The kid knew all about survival. "He has strength too, right?"
"Right!" said Immaculata, giving him another kiss.
The kid was in heaven. Maybe he'd never see the inside of a prep school unless he went along on a burglary, but how many kids get to work a major-league scam, hang out with a lunatic, and get kissed by a lovely lady all on the same day?
"Come on," said Immaculata, reaching out her hand. I followed them down the hall to Lily's office.
Lily was seated at the screen of her so-called computer, playing some electronic game with the keyboard, a baby on her lap, balanced between her elbows. She was wearmg a painter's smock over pink jeans; her hair was tied back. Her scrubbed face looked like a teenager's, animated with attention as she bounced the baby on her lap in time with a man running through a maze on the screen Michelle sat on the desk, her flashy legs crossed, smoking a cigarette in a red lacquer holder. Her outfit was all black-and-white triangles. Even her nail polish was black. On a straight lady, it would have looked
Whorish. On Michelle, it was fashion.
"Mom!" Terry yelled, charging over to her.
"Michelle pulled him close, hugging him, looking over his shoulder. "You spend a few minutes with Burke and you leave your manners in the street?"
Terry gave her a kiss, smiling, knowing she wasn't mad at him. "I greeted Immaculata," he said.
''And . . ."
The kid turned to Lily. "Hello, Lily."
"Hello, baby," he said to the infant on her lap. "Baby has a name," Immaculata reminded him gently. "Hello, Flower," the kid said, taking her tiny hand and kissing it.
Immaculata clapped. "See! He learns his good manners from Burke."
Michelle laughed. "He'd be the first."
"Can I hold Flower?" Terry asked Mac.
"As I showed you," she warned him. Every female eye in the room was riveted on the kid, but he tucked the baby into the crook of his arm, sat down next to Michelle, and started cooing to Flower like he'd been doing it all his life. Like nobody ever did to him.
I gave Miclielle the high sign. She tousled Terry's hair and slid off the desk. We left them in the office and walked down the hall, looking for an empty room.
We ducked into a cubicle a few doors down. I didn't have much time.
The Mole and I just did some work. He said for you to hold his share."
I handed her the cash. She snapped open her purse, divided the money into two piles, stowed it away.
"A little closer to Denmark, baby - to the real me," she said, blowing a soft kiss at the cash. Michelle had been talking about the operation ever since I'd known her. She'd been through the full-body electrolysis, the hormone injections, even the silicone implants in her breasts. But she had balked at the psychological counseling American hospitals required before they'd do a full sex-change operation.
'You'll take Terry back to the Mole?"
I nodded, checking my watch. "You go get him," I told her.
I dialed a number while I was waiting for her. The lawyer with the limo answered on the first ring.
'It's done," I told him. He started to babble. I cut him off. "You know Vesey Street, where it runs past the World Trade Center? Take it all the way west, right to the river. I'll meet you there in forty-five minutes." I hung up on him.
Michelle came down the hall, holding Terry's hand, calling goodbye to Lily and Immaculata over her shoulder.
Terry sat between us on the front seat. I lit a cigarette. "Want one?" I asked him.
"Michelle doesn't want me to smoke," the kid said, his angelic face giving nothing away. Michelle gave him a kiss. The Mole was teaching him science; I was teaching him art.
"I got to meet a guy, Terry," I told him. "You'll have to ride the trunk, okay?"
"And when I'm finished, I'll take you back to the Mole."
"I can't go right back," he said.
I looked over at Michelle. "Why not?" I asked him, watching her eyes.
"Mole says he has work to do. Someplace else. He says for you not to bring me back until after six."
"How about if I bring you back to Lily's? I'll roll by in a few hours."
"Why can't I hang out with you?"
Michelle patted him. "Burke has work to do, baby." The kid was hurt. "I do work too. I help Mole. Lots of times."
"I know you do, baby," she said. I shot the kid a warning glance. If Michelle wanted to think the kid helped out by holding the Mole's soldering iron, that was fine with me.
We rolled into the Wall Street canyon, following Michelle's directions. She had customers down there too. I pulled over to the curb.
She gave Terry another kiss and flowed from the car. We watched her make her way into the building. Watched men turn to look at her, thinking they had never seen a woman with so much stile. I used to wonder what men would think if they knew the truth, but I don’t anymore. The man waiting for her knew the truth.
I wheeled the Plymouth around the corner and slid along until I found an empty spot, just past the little park where they assemble crowds who want to visit the Statue of Liberty. A lot of people bring their cars down to the river to work on them. Guys were changing the oil, draining radiators, doing tune-ups. I pulled over and popped the trunk. The inside was lined with the padding that furniture movers use. A steel box in one corner covered the battery; a fifty-gallon fuel cell took about half the storage space, but there was plenty of room for a man to wait comfortably. A neat row of quarter-inch holes was punched through the tip of the trunk. I pulled the piece of duct tape away so air would circulate. "You know where everything is?" I asked the kid.
He looked at me the way the Mole does sometimes, his eyes shifting to the cable that would open the trunk from the inside and let him out. He knew he could also get out through the back seat if he had to. Two plastic quart bottles were bolted to the side of the trunk, one full of a water-and-glucose solution, the other empty. A man could stay there for a couple of days if he had to.
I pulled a thick roll of neon-red tape from the trunk, peeled off a precut piece, and handed the end to Terry. He pulled it taut, and we walked it over to the hood. It fit perfectly. Another piece went over the roof. One more for the trunk, and we had a distinctive racing stripe from front to back. Terry took the rubber block I handed him and smoothed out the little bubbles under the tape while I attached a foxtail to the antenna and snapped some blue plastic covers over the parking lights in the grille. I pulled another set of license plates out of the trunk and screwed them on over the ones I'd been using. In ten minutes we had a different car. With untraceable plates.
Terry patted himself down, making sure he had his butane cigarette lighter. Michelle didn't mind him carrying the lighter. It was a gift from the Mole. Loaded with napalm. The tiny Jewish star the kid wore on a chain around his neck gleamed dull against his pale skin. It was made of steel. "They took gold from our people's mouths to make their evil ornaments," the Mole once said, explaining it to me.
The kid made himself comfortable. I closed the lid and climbed back inside. On schedule.
The limo was already there when I pulled up. I left the Plymouth a half-block away and walked toward the blacked-out passenger windows, hands in my pockets. He must have been watching my approach. The door swung open.
I handed him the foil-wrapped disk. Watched as he carefully opened it, smearing any fingerprints that would have been on it if I had left any. He held the paper away from me so I wouldn't get a look at the magic name. His hands shook. His tongue ran around his lips. He was looking at his ticket up the ladder.
"This is it," he said. Reverent.
"Good. Give me the money."
"Sure. Sure . . ." he said, almost absently, reaching in his briefcase, counting it out, not making a ceremony of it this time. Handing it over to me, not even watching as I buried it in my coat pocket.
I reached for the door handle. "Wait a minute," he said.
I waited, my hand wrapped around a roll of quarters in my pocket, measuring the distance to the spot just below his sternum, breathing through my nose, calm.
"How did you get this?"
"That wasn't our deal."
"I'm just curious."
I looked at his face until his eyes came up to mine.
"Ask Mr. C.," I advised him.
The limo was pulling away before I took three steps back to the Plymouth.
I didn't know if the lawyer had other eyes around, so I drove away slow, sliding through the maze of streets parallel to the river until we got back to the open piers a few blocks uptown. I stripped the tape off the car, pulled the foxtail, and popped off the parking-light covers. I tossed everything inside the trunk, reaching inside to get a screwdriver for the plates. Terry never moved, lost inside the darkness. "Want to get something to eat at Mama's?" I asked softly. His little fist tapped against the fuel cell once. Yes.
The Plymouth pushed its anonymous nose past the entrance to Mama's restaurant, giving me a chance to read the messages. Mama used three identical dragon tapestries for a window display: one red, one white, one blue. Tourists thought it was patriotic. Only the white dragon stood in the window. No cops inside - no other trouble either.
I pulled around to the alley in the back. The alley walls were whitewashed, garbage cans neatly stacked, tightly capped. A calico cat the size of a beagle sat on top of one of the cans, marking his territory. A short set of Chinese characters in foot-high black letters stood stark against the white wall. Max's message to anyone who might have stupid ideas about asking Mama for a contribution to their favorite charity.
I popped the trunk and Terry climbed out, shaking himself like a dog coming out of water. The back door was steel, painted the same color as the building. You had to look close to see it. There was no doorknob. I pushed against it, and Terry followed me inside. We were in the kitchen. Half a dozen young Oriental men were scattered around. Two of them were tossing handfuls of meat and vegetables into a set of giant woks while a third man stirred, a flat wooden tool in each hand. He rapped sharply on the rim of one of the woks. Another man came forward, his hands wrapped in rags. He grabbed the wok by the rim, dumped the into a metal pot, and dropped the wok onto another burner. He tossed in a glassful of water, swirled it around, dumped out the water, and put the clean wok back in front of the cook. Handfuls of pea pods, water chestnuts, and some red stuff I didn't recognize flew into the empty wok. A vat of rice steamed against one wall. None of the workers gave us a glance. A fat man sat at the door connecting the kitchen to the restaurant, a tapestry the size of a table-cloth covering his lap. The tapestry rested on a wood frame, like a small table, the cloth reaching almost to the floor. The fat man's eyes were lost in folds of flesh, no more visible than his hands. I stopped in front of him, one hand on Terry's shoulder to show he was with me. The fat man's head held solid, drawing a bead. I didn't rush him. I knew what he was holding under the tapestry frame. Finally, he tilted his head a fraction of an inch. Okay. We went into the restaurant.
Terry and I took my table at the back. The place was empty except for a young woman and her date. She was wearing tinted aviator glasses, a string of pearls over a black silk T-shirt. A skinny, mean-faced woman with capped teeth. Her date had a neat, short haircut. The kind of tan you can buy without getting near the beach. He looked like a sheep that worked out a lot - taut lines, stupid eyes. She was asking the waiter a series of intricate questions about how the food was prepared. He answered every question with the same Cantonese phrase, reading her like a menu with only one dish on it. This went on for a couple of minutes, until Mama climbed off her stool by the cash register at the front and came over to them. She wore a bottle-green silk dress cut tight all the way up to the high mandarin collar and flowing loose from the waist down. Her hair was pulled back in a glossy bun, her broad face unlined. Only a fool would try to guess her age; only a fool with a death wish would ask her.
The waiter stood aside as she approached. She bowed gently to the woman and her companion.
"You have questions?"
"I certainly do. I have been asking this gentleman if you use MSG in the preparation of your food. Our diet doesn't permit . . ."
Mama stepped on the rest of the sentence. "Oh, yes. Plenty MSG. No problem."
"You don't understand. We don't want any flavor enhancers in our food. MSG causes . . ."
"MSG in everything here. Soup, vegetables, meat. Special stuff. Plenty MSG."
The woman gave an exasperated sigh. "Don't you have provision for preparing meals without MSG?"
"Why you want that? MSG in everything. Good for you. Make blood nice and thin."
The woman looked over at her date, a pained expression on her pinched face. I lit a cigarette, blowing the smoke in her direction.
"You have a No Smoking section, I presume?"
"You want cigarettes?" Mama asked, innocently.
"No. We don't want cigarettes. And we don't want MSO. Is that so hard to understand?"
Her date looked uncomfortable, but he kept quiet.
"Everybody smoke here. Even cooks smoke, okay? Plenty MSG. No American Express." Mama looked at her, smiling. "Not for you, right?"
"It certainly is not," said the woman, pushing her chair back. "Come on, Robbie," she said to the sheep.
"Have a nice day," Mama told her. She watched the woman and the sheep walk out the front door, giving their table a quick wipe. She looked around her empty restaurant and smiled. Business was good.
I slid out of the booth, bowed to Mama as she approached. Terry bounded over to her, his arms open. Mama clasped her hands at her waist, bowed to the kid. It stopped him like he ran into a wall, confusion overflowing his face.
"Easy. Move slow, okay?" She smiled down at him.
"I was just going to . . ."
"You going to kiss Mama?"
"You see Burke kiss Mama?"
''No . . ."
Mama's face was calm. Set. "Mama kiss babies, Okay? Not kiss man."
Terry stared at her face, figuring it out. Knowing by her tone not to be afraid. "I'm not a man," he said.
He looked at me for help. I blew smoke out my nose. I didn't know the answer. He took a shot on his own. "A kid?"
"Only two pieces," Mama said. "Baby or man. No more baby, time to be a man."
"I won't be a man until I'm thirteen."
"Who says this?"
Mama glanced over at me. "Bar Mitzvah," I told her. "Jewish ceremony."
"Good. Not official man until thirteen, right?"
"Right," Terry told her.
"Start now," Mama said, bowing to him again. Case closed.
Mama sat down across from me. Terry waited, saw there wasn't going to be any more instruction, sat down too. Mama said something to the waiter. He disappeared.
"Soup first, okay?"
"Can I have fried rice?" the kid wanted to know.
"Soup first," Mama said.
The waiter brought a steaming tureen of Mama's hot-and-sour soup. Three small porcelain bowls. Mama served Terry first, then me. Then herself. I pressed my spoon against the vegetables floating in the dark broth, taking the liquid in first, holding it above the bowl, letting it cool. I took a sip. "Perfect," I said. It was the minimal acceptable response.
Terry pushed his spoon in too deeply, covering it with vegetables. He carefully turned the spoon over, emptying it back into the bowl. Tried it again. Got it right. He swallowed the spoonful, tears shooting into his eyes. His little face turned a bright red. "It's good," he said, his voice a squeak.
Mama smiled. "Special soup. Not for babies."
I took another spoonful, swallowed it slowly. Let it slide down, breathing through my nose. Terry watched me. Tried it again. Smaller sips this time.
I threw a handful of hard noodles into my bowl. Terry did the same. He watched as I spooned off the top layer of liquid, mixing the last spoonfuls with the vegetables, not chewing any of it, gently breathing through my nose. The kid went right along.
When my bowl was empty, Mama spooned it full again. Terry was right behind me. Mama called for the waiter. He took the tureen away. Came back with a heaping plate of fried rice for Terry. The plate was beautiful - big chunks of roast pork, egg yolk, scallions - each grain of rice floating on top of another into a perfect pyramid. The kid's eyes lit up. He dug in without another word. I helped myself to a few forkfuls, bowing my acknowledgment of perfection to Mama.
Terry was halfway through the giant mountain when he looked up at Mama.
"What's MSG?" he wanted to know.
"Bad stuff. Special salt. Make weak food taste strong, okay? Chemical. Fake. No good for you."
Terry smiled at her, putting it together. "No MSG here, right?"
Mama smiled back at him. "Right."
I lit another cigarette. "How's business?" I asked her.
I put the money from the lawyer on the table. Split it into two piles. "For Max," I told Mama, touching one pile. "For the bank," I said, touching the other. Mama would hold the money for me. Her bank didn't pay interest. In fact, she took a piece for a storage fee. But her bank was open twenty-four hours a day and it didn't file federal paper every time you made a deposit.
Mama's long fingers flashed over the money, faster than a blackjack dealer's. The two piles became four. She pointed at each in turn. "For Max. For the bank. For Mama. For baby."
I nodded agreement. I knew the pile marked for Flower had some of my money and some of Mama's. Max knew nothing about it - it wasn't his business. Whenever Mama saw Immaculata, she would have a pink silk purse in her hand. "For baby," is all she ever said.
Down where we live, every day is a rainy day.
We were in the back room, the one between the restaurant and the kitchen, waiting for the cook to finish chopping up a pile of thick marrow bones, putting together a food package for me. Terry was in the kitchen, watching everything. Staying out of the way.
Three pay phones stood in a bank against the wall. The one at the end rang. Mama looked at me. I nodded. She picked up the receiver.
"Mr. Burke not here. You leave message, okay?"
I couldn't hear the other end of the conversation. It didn't matter what they said - Mama never went past the script.
"Not here, okay? Don't know. Maybe today. Maybe next week. You leave message?"
Mama listened. Wrote something on a scrap of paper. Hung up.
She handed me the paper. A phone number I didn't recognize.
"Woman. Young woman. Say you call this number before nine tonight."
"She say what she wanted?"
"A job for you."
"Anybody we know?"
"I never hear the voice before. Woman say her name is Belle."
"I don't know her."
Mama shrugged. Bowed goodbye to me and Terry. The steel door closed behind us. I turned the Plymouth north to the Bronx.
Terry was quiet on the ride back. I let him have his silence - it's something a man has to learn. As he got older, I'd teach him not to give things away with his face.
I didn't fill the silence with the radio or my tapes. The radio works, but the faceplate is really just to disguise the police-band scanner built into the dash.
And all my tapes are the blues.
Kids can't sing the blues; when they try, it sounds wrong. They have the pain, but not the range.
We rolled over the Triboro to the Bronx. The kid watched as I tossed a token into the basket in the Exact Change lane. Learning. Don't call attention to yourself. When we pulled up to the junkyard, Terry made a circle with his finger. Go around to the back.
The back fence was heavy-gauge cyclone mesh, with three twisted bands of razor wire running across the top. Everything was two-tone: pollution-gray and rust.
A big dog the same color as the fence was basking in a patch of late-afternoon sunlight. His lupine face was impassive as we approached, but his ears stood straight up. Yellow eyes tracked the car, locking onto the target like a heat-seeking missile. An American Junkyard Dog. Best of a breed the American Kennel Club never imagined. City wolf.
I pulled the car parallel to the fence, Terry's door closest to the dog. The beast growled deep in his chest. Dark shapes moved behind the fence. Dots of light and flashes of white. Eyes and teeth, both ready.
"Tell the Mole Michelle has his money."
Terry climbed out of the Plymouth, flipped the door closed behind him. Walked over to the dog, talking in a low voice. The beast walked over to meet him. Terry scratched the dog behind his ear, standing next to him. I knew the dog wouldn't move until I did, so I wheeled the car in a tight circle, heading back the way I came. When I looked back, Terry was down on all fours, following the dog through a cutout section of the fence. He had to twist sideways to get in.
It was dark by the time I turned into the narrow street behind the old paper-tube factory where I have my office. The garage is set into the building just past the sidewalk. When the landlord converted the joint into living lofts, he bricked up the old loading bay, where the trucks used to pull in, to make room for storefronts. The garage only has room for one car, right at the end of a row of little shops. I pulled in, hit the switch; the door rattled down, leaving me in darkness. I locked the car, took the steel steps up four flights, walking quietly past the entrance to each hallway. The doors lock from the outside and I keep them that way. There's another flight of stairs at the far end of each floor. If there's a fire, the tenants know which way to go.
When I got to the top floor, I let myself into the hall. I closed the door behind me. It looked like a blank wall.
There's no sign on my door. My name's not on the directory downstairs. As far as the tenants know, the fifth floor is sealed off. Most of it is.
I don't have a lease. I don't pay rent. The landlord's son did something very stupid a few years ago. The landlord is a rich man, and he spent the right money in the right places. The kid has a new name, a new face, and a new life. Home free. Until I found him. I wasn't looking for the little weasel, but I knew who was. They still are.
It's not a home, it's where I live for now. When the time comes I have to leave, I won't look back. I'll take everything I need with me.
And when I walk away, there won't even be a fingerprint left for them to play with.
I turned the key, listening to the bolts snap back. Three dead bolts: one into the steel frame on the side, another at the top, the final one directly into the floor. The hall's too narrow for a battering ram. By the time anyone broke in, I'd have long enough to do anything I needed to do.
Another key for the doorknob. I turned it twice to the right and once to the left, and stepped inside.
"It's me, Pansy," I said to the monster sitting in the middle of the dark room.
The monster made a noise somewhere between a snarl and a growl. A Neapolitan mastiff, maybe 140 pounds of muscle and bone, topped with a head the size of a cannonball and just about as thick. So dark she was almost black, Pansy blended into the room like a malevolent shadow, teeth shielded, cold-water eyes unflickering. Pansy can't handle complex thoughts. She wasn't sure if she was glad to see me or sorry she wasn't going to get to tear some flesh. Then she smelled the Chinese food and the issue was settled. The snarl changed to a whine, and slobber poured from her jaws. I threw her the hand signal for "Stay!" and hit the light switch.
The office is one small room. Desk facing the door, one chair behind, one in front. No windows. Couch against one wall. To the left, there's another door, leading to the office where my secretary works. The door's a fake. So's the secretary. The other wall is covered with a Persian rug that never got closer to Iran than 14th Street. The floor is covered with Astroturf. I told my decorator I wanted low-maintenance modern.
I pulled the rug aside and stepped into another room, even smaller than the office. Tiny stand-up shower I installed myself, sink and toilet in one corner. Hot plate and refrigerator in another. A cot between them. The back door opens out to a landing. The fire escape rusted off years ago.
I opened the back door, calling for Pansy, and stepped out to the landing. Watched the Hudson River slime-flow to the west, patting my dog's head as she stood next to me. Three rooms, with view.
Pansy ambled past me, taking the stairs to the roof. She's been dumping her loads up there for years. There's stuff growing on the roof I don't even want to think about.
Pansy came back downstairs as I was putting away the food Mama packed for me. I pulled a big slab of roast pork from a container, held it in front of her. Every fiber of her dim brain focused on that pork. An icicle of drool formed in one corner of her gaping mouth, but she didn't move. She wouldn't take the food until she heard the magic word. It's called poison-proofing.
"Speak!" I yelled at her, tossing the slab of pork in a gentle arc toward her face. It didn't last as long as a politician's promise. I tried a big fat egg roll. One chomp, and Pansy was swallowing in ecstasy, pieces of egg roll all over the floor. "You're a slob," I told her. She nodded happily.
Pansy's food-supply system is against the wall. A pair of hollowed-out cement cinder blocks with a forty-pound sack of dry dog food suspended above one and a tube connected to the sink above the other. When either bowl is empty, she pushes against the tube with her snout and it fills again.
I filled a big ceramic bowl with three quarts of Mama's cooking and told her to make a pig of herself. She buried her face up to the eyes in the steaming mess making noises Stephen King never dreamed of. I threw some of the marrow bones into a pot and put them on the hot plate to boil.
I went inside to my desk. It was almost seven-thirty, and the woman Mama had spoken to said to call before nine. There was a phone on my desk. It never rang, and I never got a bill from Ma Bell - the Mole had it connected to the trust-fund hippies who lived downstairs. I could use it early in the morning, when the sensitive artists were still recovering from trying to find the light at the end of the marijuana tunnel they'd explored the night before, but not otherwise.
I'd had the phone for years. No problems. I never used it for long-distance calls. That's why God made other people's credit cards.
The office looked the same way it always does. I don't get clients coming here much. The last one was Flood. The day I let her in, she came in too deep. I lit a cigarette, not wanting to think about the chubby little blonde head-hunter. She came into my life, got what she came for, and left me empty.
I didn't want to think about Flood. She came too often in my sleep. "I'm for you, Burke," I can still hear her saying. The way only a woman can say. And only say it once, if it's the truth.
Part of the full bloom I was still waiting for.
I went out to make my phone call.
All rights belong to the author: Andrew Vachss.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.