An excerpt from
"Somebody down here, boss. Asking for you." Gateman's voice, prison-whispering to me up the intercom, all the way to the top floor of a decrepit flophouse.
This dump has been scheduled for a foundation-up rehab for years. In the meantime, the housing inspectors turn a money-blinded eye, and any derelict with a five-dollar bill can buy himself twenty-four hours off the streets.
But not on the top floor. That one is permanently closed. Unfit for Human Occupancy.
That's where I live—unregistered and invisible. The only name anyone ever had for me was last seen attached to a body part in the morgue, before the City did whatever it does with unclaimed remains.
"Somebody" was Gateman's way of saying that whoever was downstairs had come alone ... and he'd seen them before. If it had been a stranger, he would have reached under the raw wood plank that holds a register nobody ever signs. A concealed button would set off the flashers behind the dinner-plate size red plastic disks I have on the walls in every room of my place. That's only one of its custom features. Another is a private exit.
Anytime someone comes looking for me, it's Gateman's call. Even confined to his wheelchair, he's got options. Instead of the button, he could reach for the handgun he always keeps right next to his colostomy bag.
"You get a name?" I asked.
"Pepper, right?" I heard him say to the visitor.
"Short girl, pretty, dark hair, kilowatt smile?" I asked.
"All but the last, boss," Gateman said. "And she's got company."
"It's a dog, boss. Big-ass Rottweiler."
That's when I knew the wheels had come off.
Negotiating the narrow flights up to where I live is no job for anyone with an anxiety disorder. You have to make your way past crumbling walls covered with signs screaming "DANGER! ASBESTOS REMOVAL IN PROGRESS," dangling, exposed wires, and puddles of bio-filth on the unlit stairwells.
It's a nasty trip, but Pepper made it in record time. She quick-stepped across the threshold, half-dragged behind a barrel-chested Rottweiler she was barely restraining on a short heavy lead.
The beast recognized me at once; treated me to his "Back the fuck up!" growl, as he thrust his way into the room.
"Bruiser!" Pepper said, sharply. "Behave!"
The beast gave her a "Yeah, right!" look, but allowed her to walk him over to the futon couch.
She sat down, gave me a searching look.
I didn't say anything, waiting like I always do. Usually, Pepper dresses like a sunburst, to match a personality that could cheer up an AIDS ward. But this time, it was a plain dark blue business suit over a white blouse with a red string tie, and her famous smile was buried deeper than Jimmy Hoffa.
"Wolfe's been arrested," she said, no preamble.
"Last night. They picked her up at her house, in Queens. She's supposed to be arraigned—"
"Arrested for what?"
"Attempted murder, assault, criminal possession of—"
"Slow down," I told her, breathing shallow through my nose to drop my heart rate. "Start at the beginning."
Wolfe had been a career sex crimes prosecutor, a veteran of no-holds-barred combat with the bottom-dwellers in the crime chain—rapists, child molesters, wife-beaters. And, sometimes, with certain judges—the ones she called "collaborators" to their faces. A few years ago, she had gotten fired for refusing to soft-hand a "sensitive" case.
Wolfe wouldn't cross the street and represent the same freaks she used to put away. So she'd gone outlaw, and now she runs the best info-trafficking cell in the City.
I had wanted Wolfe for my own since the first time I saw her in battle. I'd had—I thought I had—a chance with her, once. But I had done some things....
"You and me, it's not going to be," she told me, then. And I believed her.
All that changed was what I did, not how I felt. My love for Wolfe was a dead star. Lightless, invisible in the night sky. But always, always there.
Pepper's big dark eyes told me she knew some of that. Enough to count on, anyway.
That's the way it is down here. If you can't be counted on, you can't be counted in.
"Here's all she could tell me on the phone," Pepper said. "Some man was shot, more than once. He's in a coma, and they don't expect him to live."
"So what connects Wolfe—?"
"He named her," Pepper interrupted. "He told the police she was the one who shot him."
"When was this supposed to have gone down?"
"I don't know. I don't know anything more about it, not even the man's name. All I know is they're holding her at the precinct, and they expect to arraign her tonight."
"She's got an alibi," I said, holding Pepper's eyes.
"She's got plenty of those," Pepper snapped back, telling me I was standing at the end of a long line. And those ahead of me would come across a lot better in court than a two-time felony loser who had been declared dead years ago. "That's not what she needs, right this minute. She needs to—"
"You got a lawyer for her yet?"
"No. I thought you might—"
"Did she tell you to come to me, Pepper?"
As if to answer my stupid question, the Rottweiler made a gear-grinding noise deep in his chest.
"No! All she said was to pick up Bruiser and make sure he was all right until they set bail."
"And you can make—?"
"I ... guess so," Pepper said. "But I don't know a bondsman, either, except for that crook we used the time Mick was—"
"Never mind," I told her. "Do you know where the arraignment's going to be?"
"At 100 Centre. She said the ... whatever the cops say happened, it happened in Manhattan, so...."
"Yeah." I glanced at my watch. Three thirty-seven. With the usual backlog from the Tombs and the tour bus from Rikers, they probably wouldn't get to Wolfe until the lobster shift, but I didn't want to chance it. "Give me a minute," I told Pepper.
I went into one of the back rooms and pulled a cloned-code cell phone out of its charging unit. I punched in the private number I have for the only criminal lawyer in the City I trust.
"What?" Davidson answered.
"You recognize my voice?" I asked. I hadn't spoken to him in years. Not since NYPD found a severed skeletal hand in a Dumpster, right next to a pistol with my thumbprint on the stock.
"I believe so." He spoke in the pompous voice he uses to distance himself from potential danger in conversations. "Help me out a little bit."
"It's not my ghost," I said. "I've done some jobs for you, and you've done some for me."
"Do you have some, uh, distinguishing characteristic I might recognize?"
"Yeah. I always pay. And that cigar I just heard you light, it's probably from the batch I brought you, a few years back."
"Very good," he said, chuckling. "You should have been a detective."
"I need a lawyer. Not for me. For a friend. Being arraigned tonight. Can you handle it?"
"Can I...? Ah, you mean, will I? Are we talking just for tonight, or...?"
"To the end of the road," I said. "First round TKO, or a decision on points. Any way it plays."
"Would I know this 'friend' of yours?"
"Yeah. Her name is Wolfe."
"Wolfe from City-Wide? Are you—?"
"I'm cancer-serious," I said. "I'm also short on facts. It's either an attempt murder or, by now, a homicide."
"Wolfe? Are they floridly insane?" he said. "Unless you're talking a DV?"
"Domestic violence? Wolfe? Come on, pal. Sure, she's not the kind of woman who'd take a beating from a boyfriend. But with that dog of hers, what kind of psycho would even try. No, the vic was a stranger. But he supposedly made a statement."
"What I'm told."
"Do they have forensics?"
"You know all I know."
"And we both know she didn't make a statement."
"Right. Can you get right over there? I don't know when they're going to arraign her, and—"
"I'll make some calls, see if I can find out," Davidson said. "But don't worry; I'll be there when they bring her over. I should be able to speak to her in the pens before they—"
"Listen. She doesn't know about this. Me hiring you, I mean. Just tell her Pepper set it up," I said, looking over at Pepper, catching her nod of agreement, "okay?"
"Done. My fee will be—"
"Paid," I said, cutting the connection.
"Do you know if they tossed her place?" I asked Pepper.
"They didn't have a no-knock warrant," she said. "When they pounded on the door, Bruiser went ballistic. She told them she had to lock the dog up before she could let them in—that kept them out there for a few more minutes."
"How do you know?"
"That's how I found out about it. She dialed the office, and left the connection open while she talked to the police. And, when she finally let them in, she kept the phone going. I have the whole thing on tape, what they said to her, everything."
"Did she sound—?"
"She sounded strong," Pepper said. "One of the cops, he didn't want to cuff her. Another one said it was procedure. Wolfe told him—the cop who wanted to cuff her—if they tried to perp-walk her, she'd make someone pay for it."
That was Wolfe. "She drinks blood for breakfast," the Daily News once said of her, in an article about New York prosecutors.
"The cops were scared of Bruiser; but he wasn't even barking, once she told him to stop. The one who wanted to cuff her said, if Bruiser made a move, he was going to blow him away. Wolfe told them, if they wanted to arrest her, she was ready to go. And if they didn't, she was leaving, so they better shut up about shooting her dog.
"I heard the door close. Then I heard Bruiser making little noises, like he was ... in mourning. But he stayed, right where she told him. So I ran over there and got him."
"You did the right thing, Pepper. They'll be back to vacuum her place. If you hadn't gotten him out of there, it would have been a bloodbath."
"Yes. She called me later, from the lockup. That's when she told me about the man who—"
"But not his name, right?"
"Okay, don't worry. We'll get that tonight, at the arraignment."
"Go back to the office, Pepper. Put your crew on alert. I'm sure Mick is—"
"Mick is crazy from this," she said. "I've never seen him be so ... I don't know what."
"Keep him close, then. If Wolfe wanted you to get anything out of her place, she would have found a way to tell you, right?"
"Sure. We have a code for—"
"Okay. I'm going to be carrying a cell phone twenty-four/seven until we know what's going on. Write down the number...."
Pepper gave me a withering look. Held it until I lamely recited the number. She nodded her head sharply, letting me know she had it ... and it wouldn't ever be on a piece of paper.
"Don't show up at arraignment tonight," I told her. "Mick, either. You two, you're her hole card, now."
© 2003 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
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