Authors: Gabriel Cohen
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural
“I told you this wasn’t going to be easy,” said Richie, later in the day.
The two detectives had just walked out of a little Pakistani café on Coney Island Avenue, half a block from the deli crime scene. Outside, the weather was pleasant, but the agreeable aromas of spring were damped down by the avenue’s usual odors of motor oil and car exhaust.
The café owner, a mournful little man with a bushy mustache, had not offered a single remotely useful piece of information. “Please, sirs, I saw nothing,” he’d said, eyes wide. “I will do everything possible to cooperate, but I saw nothing.”
The man wiped down the counter with what seemed like a suspicious amount of nervous energy. In front of him lay steam table vats of mysterious entrées, orangey-red, pale yellow, muddy brown. The food looked oily, Jack thought; his digestion was already not the greatest. The place was tiny and narrow, with just a few humble tables and fluorescent lighting that reminded him of the Kings County morgue. The only decoration was some garish film posters of brown-skinned he-men with impressive pompadours and veiled women with sultry eyes.
Jack pulled out a Polaroid of the victim in the deli. “Do you recognize this man?”
The owner took a nervous peek. “No, sir.”
“Have you ever seen him?”
“Never,” the man replied, too firmly, in Jack’s opinion. If the victim lived just a few blocks away, he had probably walked past here any number of times.
The owner wrung his hands. “I am sorry I cannot assist you.”
Jack noted a layer of sweat on the man’s upper lip, despite the moderate temperature inside the café.
Richie handed over a business card. “Thanks a lot. Please call if you hear anything about what happened yesterday.”
The owner nodded vigorously. “Yes, sir. Of course. Anything I can do to help.”
Now the two detectives were out on the avenue again, empty-handed. Jack took out a pack of gum and offered it to his partner. Then he unwrapped a stick, popped it into his mouth, and squinted off down the avenue. “I think that guy seemed kinda hinky.”
Richie scuffed something off the bottom of his shoe. “He was just scared.”
“That’s what I mean. Why would he be scared if he doesn’t know anything?”
Across the street, a yellow cab emerged from the open front of a car wash and a little crew of Mexicans rushed forward to dry and buff it. Richie walked to the curb and leaned against his car, an unmarked Crown Vic. Jack followed.
“You ever work a case around here before?” the local detective said.
“A couple. You don’t get many murders around here, what with all the devoutness.” The neighborhood, thick with East Asian Muslims, butted right up against Midwood, thick with Hasidic Jews.
Richie scratched at a little food stain on his tie. “I been workin’ this beat for eleven years, most of that on patrol. You know they call this Little Pakistan, right?”
Jack nodded. Brooklyn was dotted with all sorts of intensely ethnic enclaves: former Russians in Brighton Beach, Chinese in Sunset Park, Poles in Greenpoint …
“When was the last big case you worked here?”
Jack thought about it. “I don’t know, maybe five years? We had a nasty triple homicide over on Avenue C.”
Richie nodded. “I remember. A guy killed his wife and his stepkids.” He glanced around. “The thing is, the neighborhood has changed a hell of a lot since then. From the Pakistani point of view, it really hit the skids. Lots of stores and restaurants have closed down. The biggest mosque, not far from here”—he gestured south down Coney Island Avenue—“used to be so full that they’d have people praying on rugs right out on the sidewalks. Now they can’t even come close to a full house.”
“Two words: Nine-eleven. Before that, you couldn’t find a parking space because there were so many Pakistani people here shopping, eating, praying …”
“Almost half of them are gone.”
“After the World Trade Center went down, the feds ordered the community here to do ‘special registration.’ There were lots of Immigration raids. Tons of people got deported, and others skipped to Canada or other places because they were afraid of getting deported. Or arrested.”
“For any kind of suspicion. It was a lousy time to have brown skin. It still is. That’s why our friend in there”—he nodded back at the café—“wasn’t eager to take a look at the photo of our vic. The people around here are petrified of getting caught up in something that has nothing to do with them. They just wanna keep their heads down and go on with their lives. Nine-eleven totally screwed them over.”
Jack frowned. “I know most of the hijackers were Saudis, but weren’t some of these people involved in the bombing of the Trade Center in ninety-three?”
“Some were, yeah, some newly arrived radical types, but most of these people were not at all happy with them, even before the bombing. The newcomers took over some of the mosques and forced the more moderate imams out.”
“You seem to know a lot about this stuff.”
Richie shrugged. “Like I told you, I’ve been working this turf for a long time.”
Jack sighed and stretched. “Let’s keep going.”
And so they did, walking in and out of Laundromats, gas stations, auto parts stores, seeking anyone who might have any information related to their case. No matter how many times they assured people that they were not feds, that they had absolutely nothing to do with Immigration, every time they interviewed a Pakistani-American, the result was the same: a look of barely suppressed panic, a clamping down.
Two hours later, they stopped to take a break and sit in a coffee shop for a few minutes.
“Well, whaddaya wanna do?” Powker said as they settled onto a couple of counter stools. “I guess we can go back and keep working on the Brasciak end of things.”
Jack frowned. They had already discovered that their victim was unmarried, didn’t seem to have any wives or kids in his past, had a decent credit rating and no criminal record.
“This is ridiculous,” he said. “What a waste of time!”
“I told you,” Richie said. “You can’t hold it against them. They’re just afraid of getting deported.”
Jack shook his head. “I’m not talking about the Pakistanis; I’m talking about that fed. I think maybe he already knows who our perp is, while we’re wandering around here like a couple of mopes. It burns me up—it’s disrespectful of the NYPD, and it’s totally pointless. Aren’t we all on the same team?”
“Nothing new from your boss?”
Jack snorted. In typical fashion, Sergeant Tanney had been told what to do, and then had meekly gone ahead and done it. “He says he called again today, but the feds didn’t call back.”
Richie sighed, then picked up a menu. “You gonna get something to eat or just coffee?”
Jack rested his elbows on the counter, thinking of a little boost of sweetness to counter the futility of the day. Statistically speaking, after the first forty-eight hours the chance of solving any homicide case dropped like a stone.
FTER THE DAY’S TOUR
of duty was over, Jack drove back to Cosenza’s funeral home. A wake was about to begin and the deceased’s family and friends were filing in, squat old women packed into tight black dresses, gangly teenagers squirming under the pressure of unfamiliar suit collars, and big beefy men with mullet haircuts demonstrating their manly handshakes and slapping each other on the shoulder. A couple of professionally grave men, employees of the home, stood at attention at the sides of the front door, hands folded over their crotches, doing their best not to look bored.
Across the street, Jack saw Larry Cosenza step outside for a moment, and he pushed himself away from the hood of his car and called out.
Cosenza looked up, startled. A little too startled, perhaps … He glanced up and down the street, then gestured at Jack.
“How about putting up some nice track lighting?” Jack teased as they walked back into his old friend’s somber office. “Or some pictures of the beach?”
The funeral director pretended to be irked. “Hey—I don’t come over where
work, tell you how to use your goddamn sheriff’s badge.”
Jack chuckled. “The place looks great. Really.” He settled into an armchair.
Cosenza picked up a tray of Italian pastries from his desk. “Want a
? They’re left over from a wake, but still nice and fresh.”
Jack picked out one of the shell-shaped pastries and bit into it, savoring the ricotta filling, with its hint of orange peel; he held his hand under it, but a few flaky crumbs still ended up on the rug. The taste was like an instant time machine back to his childhood. Which, of course, reminded him of the reason for his visit. “I don’t mean to bug you, but have you had a chance to think over what we talked about? You got any leads for me?”
Cosenza sat deep in his chair, dug a finger in his ear, then turned and looked out the window. “
. Christ.” He turned back to Jack with an embarrassed look. “I’m sorry, but nobody around here wants to rehash ancient history.”
Jack felt all his own amiability ice over. “I told you: there’s nothing ancient about this for me. I’ve been living with it every day since I was a fucking kid.”
Cosenza grimaced. “I’m sorry for that, Jack. Really I am. But you asked for my help, and I’m helping you. I’m telling you the best course of action here: you need to let sleeping—”
Jack nearly launched himself out of his chair. “Don’t say it, Larry. Don’t ever say that. We’re talking about my brother.”
Cosenza raised his hands in apology. “I’m sorry. But I’m looking out for you.”
Jack stood up. “Did somebody tell you something, Larry? Did somebody ask you to warn me off?”
Cosenza sat back and raised his hands. “Just let it go. There’s no good going to come of this, not for you, not for anybody.”
Jack stood silent for a minute. “All right. I get it. You still live here. You’ve got a wife and kids, a business.” He shrugged. “Don’t worry about it.”
Cosenza stood too, a pained expression on his face. “Hell. Don’t go away mad.”
Jack just gave him a disappointed look, then turned and walked out.
HE DIDN’T GO FAR.
He got back in his car and drove a short distance west through Carroll Gardens. On Court Street, he passed the old hiring hall, once presided over by the Longshoremen’s Union in close conjunction with a string of Mafia capos; the big boxy building had even featured a stained-glass portrait of Albert Anastasia, chief executioner of Murder, Inc.
The place was now a medical center for elderly dock-workers. The rest of the area had not changed much, though: old Italian bakeries remained, a butcher’s, a coffee shop, the St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church. Jack continued on toward Red Hook, toward the waterfront, toward his childhood.
As soon as he crossed the elevated Gowanus Expressway, the rows of small but dignified brownstones, homes to generations of Italian families, gave way to the rough and tumble world of the Red Hook Houses, big redbrick hives, booming with gangsta rap. Deeper in, nearer the harbor, he passed vacant lots full of weeds; parking lots full of yellow school buses; small factories and machine shops. To the south, the old Todd Shipyards lay fallow, a wasteland of crumbling brick.
Jack dug down in his memory, trying to dredge up names of neighbors from long ago, or people his father had worked with. There was Pat MacEgan, pipefitter, one of his old man’s drinking buddies—Jack remembered coming across him one night on Van Brunt Street, rooting around in the backseat of his car. Jack asked what he was doing; the man answered, “I can’t find the goddamn ignition.” And there was Al Garbarino, shipyard purchasing agent. (Al’s big story, repeated way too many times over shots of Seagram’s: how he had bet the same number for six years in a row, then given up in disgust—only to have that number hit big the very next day.)
Other names eluded Jack, like minnows in murky water, partly due to his middle-aged memory but mostly because he had gone to such lengths to dissociate himself from Red Hook after Petey’s death.
He soon discovered just how well he had succeeded in losing touch. At what had been Pat MacEgan’s house, a tousled hipster girl with black-rimmed eyes and a nose ring answered the bell. Another stranger—an old woman—answered the door at Al Garbarino’s house: she informed Jack that the unlucky gambler had died back in ’87.
He drove north. The neighborhood changed, became more residential, though still quiet. Back in the day, this had been such a bustling area! He passed Union Street, which had been jammed with pushcarts selling fruit and vegetables, except in winter, when they’d sell hot chestnuts. The area had hopped with bars, and movie houses, and social establishments, like the Impala Club, which had been a block east, above Nino’s Pizzeria.
Old landmarks caused memories to bloom. There was the corner where Bobby Salesi lost three fingers when a zip gun blew up in his hand. There was the home base of the Kane Street Stoppers (a teen gang who sometimes rumbled with the Black Chaplains) and their younger cohorts the Kane Street Midgets. It had been a tough neighborhood all right; Jack recalled hearing some punk refer to his switchblade as a “Red Hook boxing glove.” Jack passed various churches—Brooklyn had once been known as the City of Churches—and remembered how the local mobsters had run gambling games there, “collecting for the saint.”
The neighborhood had been full of them. He would see them on the corners or in front of their social clubs, resplendent in their two-tone shirts and camel hair coats and fedoras with wide brims. These days, it was hard to imagine how intense their control over the neighborhood had been. Sure there’d been patrol cops walking around, wielding their nightsticks if a kid got out of line, but many of them had been in the pockets of the Mob. And if two neighbors had a beef with each other, they wouldn’t take it to the police or to the courts; they’d go to a “table,” a sit-down with the local capos, who would tell them what to do, like neighborhood kings. You needed their permission to get work on the docks, but also to open any kind of business, and then you had to offer up tribute, including a regular cut of the profits, as well as a few bottles of booze or a turkey at Christmastime.