I FIND THE FIRST day of anything tough—first day of school, first day of camp, first day of the year. My tendency is to view the unknown future more with trepidation than joy. And now I could add to that list the first day of work.
As I walked toward New York’s 5th precinct, a hot, muggy wind off the East River sent trash scurrying down the gutters and wafted to me the scent of garbage rotting in black plastic sacks awaiting pickup. Abandoning me, the wind raced on to seize the American flag on the front of the station house, gripped it, and set it twisting and snapping like a maddened whip.
The four-story building that housed law enforcement for the part of New York City known as Jokertown was pale stone and it came right up to the edge of the sidewalk. There were a handful of parking spaces out front, but they were filled, and it made me glad I hadn’t bothered to bring down my car from Saratoga. To either side of the precinct rose two redbrick buildings that were both taller and wider; it left the cop shop looking like a short guy squeezed between burly longshoremen.
I held my hat against a particularly strong gust of wind and picked up the pace. Not just because I wanted out of the heat, but because I wanted to be early. I opened the door, then paused for one brief moment to savor the moment. My dad had worked here. Been captain of this precinct. Died at his desk on a particularly chaotic Wild Card Day that is now in the history books. I had never known John Francis Xavier Black. He died four months before I was born, but his picture is everywhere in my mother’s house upstate, and I’d heard the stories from one of his detectives, Sam Altobelli. And now I was about to walk in his footsteps.
Are you proud of me, Dad? I hope you’re wa—
I lost the rest of the thought and my hat when I was shoved violently from behind.
“Jesus fucking Christ, get out of the way.”
My hands and knees, rather than my face, met the stained linoleum floor, and I flinched as a pair of size thirteen, thick-soled, metal-toed shoes stepped over me. I tried to regain my feet, but was knocked down again by the long scaled tail that dragged behind my assailant.
Regaining my feet, I tapped the broad shoulder. The back of his head was weirdly misshapen and scaled like the tail. “Excuse me,” I said.
“This time,” a deep baritone grunted back.
This time I closed my hand on one beefy bicep. “No, you owe me the apology.”
The man turned. I braced myself for what I would see, but I didn’t brace enough. I ended up taking a step back. What faced me was a dragon.
He was also a cop. The tail and the head had sort of distracted me from noticing the blue uniform. Great, I was about to start my first day on the job in a fight (hopefully verbal) with a fellow officer.
It was shift change, so the room was bustling. The desk sergeant stood up, and was patting the air in a soothing gesture. Moving his arms caused his drooping and faded brown batwings to jerk too, but he wasn’t exactly leaping or flying to my aid. The night-shift cops, now in civvies, paused in their rush for the door. It might be the end to their “day,” but a fight was always worth a delay.
Day-shift cops were pushing in behind me. One of them—a man with a shock of orange-red hair, the red-veined nose of a drinker, and a missing ear—slapped the dragon man on the shoulder and said, “Kick the rook’s ass, Puff.”
So much for the verbal thing. Maybe I could take him if I fought dirty. I glanced from the grinning razorlike teeth to the clawed hands that were clenching and flexing in preparation, and I had the feeling that he knew more about dirty fighting than I could ever hope to learn.
“Guys, guys, what’s going on?” came a basso rumble from behind me.
I risked a glance and found myself staring at a horror. He had to be pushing seven feet tall, with a wolf’s snout, bear claws at the end of arms so long they dragged the ground, and bull horns thrusting out of the forehead. And fur.
I was starting to feel like a minnow in a shark pool.
“Dumb-ass was standing in the door blockin’ the way,” my nemesis growled. “I thought he needed a lesson in manners, and now he thinks I oughta apologize.”
I found myself gripped in a one-armed man-hug by the furry, horned, giant muppet-thing. “Hey, give the kid a break. He was probably just get-tin’ his bearings.” He gave me a little shake. “Right?”
I looked up and realized the brown eyes on either side of the snout and fangs were warm and very kind. I nodded; it was as good an explanation as any, and it might keep a bad situation from turning into complete shit.
“Aw, Beastie, ever the peacemaker,” said a redheaded woman. Her shoes were polished mirror bright, and her pants crease could have provided a shave. She patted the dragon on the shoulder. “Lu, it’s not the kid’s fault you’re hungover. Come on, we’re going to be late.”
Everyone started to move again. Dragon guy fell into step with the one-eared guy and the redhead and threw back over his shoulder, “Next time you see me, Rook, step aside.”
“Come on, kid, let’s get you to the briefing. Don’t wanna be late on your first day.”
“Thank you, Officer . . .” I let my voice trail away suggestively.
“Bester. Benjamin Bester, but everyone calls me Beastie. You can too. It’s great not to be the rookie anymore.”
“Glad I could oblige.” I followed after him, past the winged desk sergeant and up the stairs. “Who’s my other rescuer?” I asked, with a nod toward the redhead.
“Angel Grady, Puff’s . . . sorry, Lu Long‘s partner. She’ll be captain before she’s forty. She’s awesome. The other guy is Thomas Driscoll . . . Tabby. He works undercover.”
“That can’t last long. He’s pretty distinctive-looking.”
“No, no, he doesn’t go undercover like that. He turns into a cat.”
“Oh,” I said, faintly, as we topped the stairs and entered the squad room.
More chaos there. Phones were ringing, people were talking. Depressed- looking suspects in handcuffs were seated at a few desks while uniformed cops and plainclothes detectives pecked at the dirty keyboards of ancient computers. One old guy had ram’s horns growing out of his skull. At the back of the room were two glassed-in offices for the precinct brass. I wondered if things had been remodeled since 1986. They must have been. Somebody would have noticed if my dad had died at his desk in a glass office.
Clashing odors swirled through the room. In addition to gun oil, sweat, and vomit there was the distinctive burnt-nuts smell of very old coffee and very fresh donuts in the air. My stomach gave a growl. I had been too nervous to eat breakfast. Maybe this is how cops become a cliché, I thought. I longed to go in search of the donuts, but instead followed Beastie into the briefing room.
Beat cops were settling into chairs. Behind the podium was a middle- aged Asian woman with an oval face and worried dark eyes. Her name tag said CHOY. Behind her was a large and detailed map of Jokertown and a bit of Chinatown where the two intersected. There were wanted posters and updates from the FBI, SCARE, and other law enforcement agencies.
I took a chair in the back. I’d drawn enough attention for one day. The sergeant began the briefing. I took out my iPhone and began taking notes.
“Mr. Lee reports that somebody’s been entering his fish market and eating just the mussels and the clams. He comes in every morning to find empty shells. Tabby, maybe you could offer some insight?” The Asian woman looked over at him.
“Love to,” Driscoll drawled.
“Just don’t get distracted banging the alley cats, Tabby,” a short, skinny Asian man called. Laughter sputtered through the crowd.
A middle finger flipped up, and Tabby shot back, “Unlike you, Dildo, I can do more than two things at once.”
More laughter, quickly extinguished when Choy said, “Okay, okay, moving on. The turf war between the Werewolves and the Demon Princes is heating up. Some of those guys are better armed than us, so be careful. And we’ve got a purse snatcher operating between Elizabeth and Orchard. Keep an eye out, and for God’s sake kick your lazy asses into gear and run him down. The store owners are complaining that it’s hurting the tourist trade.”
“Are we ever gonna get those Segways?” asked a cop who was busy brushing powdered sugar off the shelf of his belly. I could see why he wanted one of the two-wheeled personal transports.
“In a word . . . no,” said the sergeant.
“Ah, damn. Then can I get a car?”
The new mayor had taken many of New York’s Finest out of patrol cars and put them back on foot or on bicycles. He thought it improved community outreach when the police had to walk among the citizens they were supposed to be protecting. I thought he had a point, which is why I had decided to take an apartment in Jokertown. My mother hadn’t liked it, and I admit some of my neighbors left me queasy, but all the research indicated that when cops lived where they worked conditions in a neighborhood improved. And when I had been in law school there’d been a lot of discussion about breaking the cycle of gang membership leading to jail, returning to the gang—
“. . . Black? Is Black here?”
I have this tendency to become fascinated with some thought, and miss what was going on around me. Hence I missed my name being called. I scrambled awkwardly to my feet while thrusting my hand into the air. “Here. Here. I’m here.”
“Okay, Bill, he’s all yours,” said Choy, addressing an absolutely enormous Asian man in the front row.
He stood and peered back at me. I gaped. He looked like an Easter Island statue. He shook his head with its thick mop of jet-black hair and said, “How did I get so lucky?”
I choked on a laugh. The voice that emerged from that massive body was a ridiculous high-pitched squeak.
“You think his voice is funny, wait till you get a load of his power,” the woman next to me whispered. Her name tag read QUATTORE. Curling black hair brushed her shoulders, and I couldn’t help but notice her impressive rack.
At the same time Tabby grunted, ” ‘Cause you’re such a fucking sterling example to us all.” My new partner glared at Tabby.
There appeared to be a story there. I just didn’t want to become part of it.
“Okay,” Choy broke in again. “Go out there and catch bad guys.”
There was much scraping of chairs, coughs, and conversations as the cops headed for the door. Bill walked to me. I craned my neck to look up at him, and I’m five feet ten.
“Bill Chen,” he said, and thrust out his hand.
I watched mine disappear into his paw. “Francis Black.”
“Okay, Franny, stick by me. Keep your mouth shut. Learn something.”
“I go by Frank,” I said. “And I thought that’s what I did at the Academy?”
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no. That was bullshit. This is Jokertown.”
It was indeed Jokertown. Bill’s beat encompassed most of the famous tourist attractions—the Famous Jokertown Dime Museum, the strip club Freakers, the line of mask and cloak shops on Hester. Interspersed among them were Starbucks stores and—most incongruous of all—a new Hyatt Hotel.
The sidewalks were crowded, worse than even normal Manhattan. Joker body shapes aren’t exactly human normal, and many jokers require additional help to get around. So the sidewalks were also clogged with wheelchairs, four-wheeled carts, and other unique forms of conveyance. At one point Bill stepped casually through the scrabbling eight legs of a giant spider topped with the head and torso of an old woman scrabbling down the sidewalk. Bill acknowledged her with his baton. “Morning, Arachne.”
“Hi, Bill,” the spider-woman responded.
I didn’t trust myself not to tread on one of Arachne’s legs so I stepped off into the gutter to walk past her.
“First day on the job?” the old woman asked.
I stopped. “Uh, does it show that bad?” I tried to look at the human face, look the woman in the eyes, but my eyes kept flicking back to the spiky hairs protruding from the spider body, the eight legs culminating in pincers.
She chuckled. “Yes, you look poleaxed.”
“Franny, come on,” Bill bellowed. I ducked my head at Arachne and hurried to catch up.
Bill strode along, nightstick swinging in the rhythm of his walk.
“Isn’t it a little threatening to be carrying your stick? All you’d have to do is slap your palm with it, and you’d be a perfect cliché,” I said.
“It’s how I access my power, kid. When I want a critique of my policing style I won’t be asking you.”
A big hand closed on my shoulder. “That’s okay. At least you have the sense when to climb down. So many of us are macho assholes. Even the girls.”
“So, what is your power?”
“The day is young. I’m sure you’ll see before it’s over.”
“I noticed that every pairing seems to be a joker and a nat, or an ace and a nat,” I said.
“Precinct policy. Pair a nat and a wild card whenever possible.”
We made a stop at a newsstand at the corner of Hester and the Bowery. An incredibly wide man with blue-black skin and tusks protruding from his mouth was selling a Times, a Newsweek, and an Economist to a multiarmed, multieyed joker. After the joker skittered away on what seemed to be a million centipedelike legs, the proprietor leaned on the weather-worn counter. He and Bill slapped palms and bumped fists. Then Bill asked, “What’s the word, Jube?”
“Well that won’t last,” Bill said.
“Hey,” said Jube, “I got a new one. A joker, a priest, and a rabbi are in a lifeboat . . .”
But I was thinking about Bill’s last comment and didn’t hear the joke. It was August. In a month, on the fifteenth of September, Jokertown was going to bust out in a celebration that was half Mardi Gras, half St. Patrick’s Day, and half riot: Wild Card Day. For me it was the anniversary of my dad’s death.
Bill groaned. “That was terrible. You need a new writer.” Then added in his absurd voice, “Let me introduce my new partner. Franny, meet Jubal. He’s been watching the world go by from this newsstand, for what? Forty years?”
“Close enough. I don’t want to actually count them up.” A broad hand thrust toward me. We shook, and Jube looked closely at my nameplate that read F. X. BLACK. “There was an F. X. Black at the 5th twenty-five years ago. Any relation?”
The words emerged from between my teeth like pulled taffy. “Yeah, my dad.”
Bill was staring at me and I felt heat rising up the back of my neck. Mercifully we were interrupted by yelling.
“You ugly son of a bitch! I gave you a goddamn fifty, and you gave me back change for a twenty. I don’t fucking think so.”
Across the street and on the corner, people swirled like water circling a drain, attracted by the altercation at the pretzel cart. Bill and I plunged between parked cars and into the street. Bill held up his stick like Moses exhorting the waves, and lo and behold, all the traffic stopped.
A red-faced nat dressed in shorts, tennis shoes with calf-high socks, and a green polo shirt that strained across his belly screamed into the masked face of a joker. “You’re a goddamn crook, you fuckin’ freak.”
The small joker seemed to be shriveling beneath the barrage of words and profanity. His face might be hidden, but folds of skin sagged down his neck like wattles on a turkey, and the same dangling folds festooned his arms, visible because of his short-sleeved shirt.
“Okay, let’s all just calm down. Now what seems to be the problem?” Bill said. It’s the standard cop line, and usually presented in an all-knowing tone. Bill’s high-pitched voice rather undercut the effect. His bulk made up for it.
“I gave this guy a fifty, and he only gave me change for a twenty,” the tourist repeated, at a much lower volume.
“I didn’t,” the joker whined.
“Open your cash box,” Bill said.
I gulped. If the joker refused we’d be forced to get a warrant. But he didn’t. And I checked off lesson number one. It never hurts to ask. Cops are intimidating, people usually agree and you avoid the warrant. I could just imagine how Dr. Pretorius, my constitutional law professor at Columbia, would react to my conclusion.
There was no fifty in the cash box. I decided I needed to start acting like a cop and investigate. “How much for a pretzel?” I asked.
“Buck twenty-nine with tax. Buck sixty-seven if you want cheese. He wanted cheese.”
I looked up at Bill who was glaring at me. I took a breath to help quiet the quivering that had hit my gut and said, “Nobody pays for a dollar sixty-seven pretzel with a fifty-dollar bill.” I peered into the cash box. “And he . . .” I indicated the joker. “Would have cleaned out his cash if he’d tried.”
“Which is why he just pocketed my money,” the tourist blustered.
Bill looked from one to the other. Suddenly he unlimbered the cuffs and spun the joker around.
Back at the station Mr. Kuzlovsky had recovered his fifty-dollar bill, the pushcart vendor was in a cell, and I was feeling really, really stupid. After the arrest Bill had patted down the joker, and found the fifty tucked away in the drooping folds of skin around his belly. Bill was laboriously typing up a report using a one-fingered hunt and peck method, and he sensed my embarrassment. He looked up, and his expression was kind.
“Don’t worry about it, Rook. Just don’t let pity cloud your judgment. And don’t overcompensate by assuming innocence just because they’ve been afflicted and you find them disgusting.”
My new partner was turning out to be frighteningly astute. I decided not to insult us both by denying it. “I’d quibble with the word choice, but I am finding this harder than I expected,” I said. “I took an apartment down here so I could try to see the neighborhood as just a neighborhood.”
“That’s good. And now you gotta see jokers as people. Which means like most people they’re shits.”
I dropped into a chair, and shifted my nightstick and handcuffs so they weren’t digging me in the kidneys. “That’s a damn depressing attitude.”
Bill shrugged. “Just being realistic. We’re cops, which means we see the bad, not the good.” He flashed me a grin. “Cheer up. In a week you’ll assume everybody’s lying.”
“Great.” I sighed and looked away.
“What else is bothering you?” I was beginning to wonder if Bill’s power was telepathy.
“I’m worried that searching a physical deformity qualifies as a strip search. If it does we should have gotten a warrant.”
Bill stopped typing and leaned back in his chair. It creaked ominously. “You one of those annoying armchair shysters?”
I stared into that broad face and for one cowardly moment considered lying. “No, I’m an actual shyster.”
“Oh, fuck. That’s just great.” He shoved back from the desk, the wheels on his chair chattering across the floor. “Well, that probably means you can type. Be my guest.” And he stomped away toward the break room. It looked like the bonding moment was definitely over. As I settled down behind the computer I figured the word would be all over the precinct by shift change.
We were back on the street by 10:30 A.M. We broke up a fight outside Squishers Basement at 11:15. The combatants were about sixteen sheets to the wind. As I stepped back, panting and rubbing my upper arm where one of the drunks had landed an ill-aimed punch, I found myself yelling at the bartender who had come outside to observe the fight.
“What the hell time do you open? Or did you ever close? Unless you’ve got a special license you better have closed at 4:00 A.M.”
Bill slapped me on the back. “They serve ‘food.’ ” He put air quotes around the word. “Which means they can open at ten, and he makes a great hangover remedy.”
After the drunks were sent back to lockup I realized I was famished. Bill was hungry too, so we hit a local diner for burgers. I made the mistake of ordering mine with guacamole and blue cheese. For the next hour I got to listen to Bill talk about my “yuppie burger,” and I was revising my opinion of his empathy. I checked my watch. It was 1:20 and I had a headache blossoming behind my eyes.
A stir on the sidewalk again drew my attention. I was starting to distrust anything that disrupted the smooth flow of bodies through the canyons of Manhattan. There were youthful male hoots and catcalls.
An old man’s voice with a decidedly Yiddish accent quavered out, “You’re a bunch of pigs. Just pigs.”
This time I led the way toward the altercation, pushed through the crowd, and found a naked woman. She was young, and trying to cover herself with a forearm across her breasts and a hand in front of her crotch. Her arms sported some interesting Oriental ideograph tattoos along with the usual punk girl hearts and skulls. The only other thing on her body, aside from a mop of untidy jet-black hair, was a nose stud flashing in the autumn sunlight. Her cheeks were bright red with embarrassment.
A wolf whistle cut the air followed by, “Hey, baby, great ass!”
“Oh, bugger off!” she shouted back. The accent was British.
I held up a hand and said authoritatively (I hoped), “Okay, nothing to see here, move along.” The minute the words emerged I winced because right on cue some wags in the crowd delivered a one- two punch.
“What? Are you gay?”
“Like hell there isn’t.”
There was a clerk from a mask and cloak shop gawking. I shouted at him, “Bring her a cloak.” He hustled off. I turned to the girl. “Okay. What are you protesting? Fur? World hunger? The mayor?”
“Listen, Mr. Policeman—if you are a policeman, and not a park-keeper or something—I didn’t do a thing. I was just walking along, minding my own business when suddenly—” She gestured down the length of her body. “I’d like to report a robbery.”
The clerk returned with a cloak that the young woman flung around her shoulders and pulled tightly closed to a chorus of disappointed “Oooh’s” from the onlookers.
“Well, that’s a new one,” I said. I unlimbered my handcuffs.
“You’re arresting me!?” Hazel eyes flashed fury.
Bill arrived, his bulk scattering the crowd like a polar bear through a seal colony. “Hold on there, Rook.”
“My clothes just—”
“Vanished. Yeah, I know,” Bill interrupted. He said to me, “Women have been losing their clothes almost daily. We figure it’s some ace perv, but we haven’t got a line on him yet. So question some of these pervs.” He raked the crowd with a jaundiced eye. Men started drifting away.
“Hey, hold it,” I yelled, but a lot of them vanished into the bustling crowds. I questioned the few I’d corralled while listening to Bill and the girl’s conversation. Now that I realized she wasn’t a criminal it had begun to penetrate that she was really cute.
“What’s your name, miss?” Bill asked.
“What do you do?”
“I am an actress.”
“Look, we need you to come down to the precinct and make a statement.”
“I have no clothes.”
“We’ll give you a jumpsuit.”
“Wonderful. I’ll look like a criminal. And what do I do in the meantime?”
Bill called out to the shop owner. “Hey, Jeannie, we’re gonna borrow the cloak for a few hours, okay?”
“Clean it before you bring it back,” Jeannie called.
Abigail’s mouth formed an “O” of outrage, and she emitted a sound like a furious kitten. “I would prefer to return home.”
“And I would prefer you come to the precinct.”
“. . . it was involuntary public nudity.” We were in an interrogation room. Abigail was making an orange prison jumpsuit look almost attractive. She wore a pair of flip-flops that Sergeant Penniman had pulled out of her locker, and was sipping a Diet Coke. Bill was asking questions and I was taking notes.
She peered down her nose at me and said, “Involuntary. That’s I . . . N . . . V . . .”
Bill choked on a laugh. I felt the top of my ears getting warm. “I know how to spell ‘involuntary.’ I went to law school.”
“Oh, how interesting? As what?”
“As a student!”
Bill restored the peace by asking, “Okay, where do you live?” She gave an address on the southern edge of Jokertown. Bill leaned back and studied her. “They pretty much cater to students. I thought you said you were an actress?”
Abigail blushed, and took a quick sip of soda. “Well, I am . . . almost. I’m just finishing up a few classes at the New York School of Performing Arts. But I’m understudying a major role at the Bowery Repertory.”
“Oh, so you’re a wannabe actress,” I said.
“And you’re a failed barrister.”
“I chose to be a police officer,” I began.
“Franny, go get me a soda.” He handed me a dollar bill. “An orange. And while you’re at it ask Apsara for the victim report form.”
I left, grumbling. That girl had really gotten under my skin. I had to ask the old ram’s horn detective how to find the file room. He gave me a very tedious set of exact directions, and I headed there.
Watching too many cop dramas had given me a sense of what a file clerk should look like. An old, male, potbellied, maybe retired cop. What met me was a vision out of an Asian film. The girl looked very young, and she was flat-out gorgeous. Jet-black hair that hung past her ass, skin like honey, an amazing figure. I tried to moisten my lips, but my mouth had gone Sahara dry. “I need . . . I need . . .”
“Yes, officer?” Her voice was like bells. “What do you need?” Long lashes briefly veiled the laughter in her eyes.
“Victim’s report form.”
“All right.” I watched her go swaying away to a filing cabinet.
Her path led her past a strange little ornately carved wooden house with a gold leaf roof. I realized I’d seen similar styles in Thai restaurants. She returned with a couple of sheets of paper. “I’m Apsara Nai Chiangmai. You’re new. What’s your name?”
“Fran—” My voice squeaked. I coughed and tried again. “Francis Black.”
“Francis,” she said slowly, making my name into a song. “That’s a nice name. I like the feel of that on my tongue.” She did that thing with her lashes again, and I thought about cold showers.
“Thank you,” I muttered, and grabbed the papers and headed for the door.
“Come by anytime,” she called.
“Okay,” I gasped.
As I left I thought I heard a cranky old man’s voice saying her name in that parent tone that tells you you’ve really fucked up.
I found the soda machine, bought Bill’s orange beverage, and got myself a Coke. I didn’t open it right away. Instead I rolled the cold can across my forehead. Having regained control over my anatomy I went back into the interrogation room.
It wasn’t deliberate, I hadn’t planned it, but I happened to be at the front door when Abigail headed out. She was still in the jumpsuit.
“Do you need a taxi?” I had to clear my throat to get out the last word.
“You might notice that I no longer have a purse, which means I have no money, so no.”
“Uh . . . right . . . I could loan you . . .”
She walked past me, heading for the door. I hurried to open it for her.
“Uh . . . look . . . I’m new in town, and you’re . . . foreign, maybe we could have dinner . . . tonight . . .” At her expression I modified the statement. “Sometime?”
“Are you on crack? No!” The door closed behind her and I heard Sergeant Taylor (whose nickname was Wingman, I had learned) give a snort of laughter. “You gotta work on your timing, Franny,” he said.
2:10. Back on the street. Bill gave a warning to a panhandling joker whose gig was to offer to wash the windshields of cars waiting at stoplights. He looked like a big octopus from the waist down, and he had an interesting pitch. If the driver was polite and gave him a dollar, the joker would heave his bulk onto the roof of the car, and with a shammy in each of his nine tentacles (I don’t know why he had nine tentacles, but he did), he would proceed to wash all the windows on the car. If the driver was rude he still heaved himself onto the roof of the car, but this time he inked all the windows.
As we walked away I asked, “So, why does he just get a warning?”
“Because Arms washes the captain’s car.”
“Maseryk?” I had heard about Maseryk from Altobelli. He described him as a military flat- topped, hard-ass straight arrow. I couldn’t mesh that image with him getting free car washes from a joker.
“Ah.” The other captain of the 5th was a joker. It was beginning to look like jokers stuck together. Bill again appeared to read my mind.
“Arms is bipolar. He can’t really hold a job. Washing police cars is the only steady pay he gets.”
“Ah,” I said again. “How long does it take, acquiring this”—I gestured around—“I guess you’d call it area knowledge?”
“I’ve been in this precinct for five years, three years before that at the 13th. But I grew up in Chinatown near the 5th. I’ve got a pretty good handle on J-Town, and in Chinatown I know practically everybody.”
“That isn’t very encouraging. I’m going to be ready to retire before I get to know people.”
“Assuming you stick. You strike me as the type to end up down at One Police Plaza at headquarters.”
I watched his broad back, and resolved that wouldn’t happen. Then I realized that was probably exactly what my rabbi, Sam Altobelli, was planning. And if I really did want to follow in my dad’s footsteps and make captain I was going to have to play the political game. I followed morosely in Bill’s wake because I was back to questioning the motivations that had led to this career.
I was a Columbia law school graduate. I had passed the New York State bar. I hadn’t been law review material, I was never going to end up in a white-shoe law firm, but I had been in the top third of my class, I could have found a good job. But I wanted to make a difference. Help people.
So, become a public defender, or work for an environmental nonprofit, said that inner voice that sounded suspiciously like a cross between my mother and my college advisor.
I will, I promised them. If this doesn’t work out.
I was deep in thoughtful contemplation of my navel, watching the cracks in the sidewalk, when Bill’s radio crackled to life. “Bill, one of my pooches spotted our purse snatcher. He’s running west on Broome over near the Dumpling House.”
“Thanks, K-10, we’re on it.”
Bill took off running. I grabbed at my stick and cuffs to keep them from battering my kidney and took off after him. We came around a corner onto Broome and I heard a woman screaming. I had a fleeting glimpse of a young man clutching a large red leather handbag and running as if all the hounds of hell were on his heels.
We gave chase. Bill might be big, but I ran track in college, and the perp was motivated. We had soon pulled well ahead of Bill. The purse snatcher grabbed the corner of a brownstone and spun himself into an alley. I made the turn, and a garbage can came crashing and banging toward me, depositing its odiferous load at my feet. I slipped on a combination of rotting potato peels and plastic wrap. I managed not to face plant, but one hand and one knee dropped into the oozing garbage.
“Yuck.” I bounded up and ran on, trying to shake the garbage off my hand.
The alley ended at a chain-link fence. The purse snatcher had slung the purse over his shoulder and was swarming up the wire. I heard Bill behind me. He was roaring something, but the blood was pounding in my ears, and I couldn’t quite hear him between the slap of my feet on pavement and the shaking and chattering of the fence.
I leaped up, gripped the metal, and started to climb. The perp looked back and kicked at me. I yanked my head away just in time, and his foot just hit my shoulder. I was starting to get royally pissed. I lunged and managed to grasp the purse where it bounced on his skinny ass.
I heard Bill whistling as I yanked at the strap. The purse snatcher gave a wail of despair as he tumbled off the fence. I lost my grip and fell too . . . and realized we were both surrounded by a bright pink aura filled with sparks and floating stars.
“I told you to get out of the way,” Bill said.
I slammed the door of my locker and batted irritably at the stars floating in front of my face. I was now, intimately, familiar with Bill’s “power.” There were snorts of laughter from Beastie Bester and Van Tranh, aka Dr. Dildo. “How long is this going to last? And you better not say forever.”
” ‘Bout six hours.”
“Great. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The route to the front door from the locker room took me past the file room. The incredibly sexy Asian girl giggled, and peered at me from behind the curtain of her ass-length black hair. Apsara, that was her name. I had picked up some forms from her while we were booking Abigail, and had thought I’d ask her out. Now she thought I was a dork, and that was never going to happen. Feeling incredibly sorry for myself, I proceeded to the front door and emerged onto the darkening street. Ten hours ago I had stepped through this door feeling like anything could happen.
Unfortunately that had turned out to be true.
Halfway home a heavy hand descended on my shoulder, and suddenly I was kissing the soot-stained brick wall of a building. “Okay, you’re under arrest.”
“I’m a cop,” I mumbled against the rough surface.
“What’s that, scum?”
“I’m a cop!” I shouted.
“Yeah, and I’m the pope.”
“My badge is in my left breast pocket.”
Rough hands jerked me around and dove into my pocket and emerged with my badge and ID. I was facing a hideous joker. He had bulging eyes, a unibrow that made his forehead seem even more shelflike, a bullet-shaped head that looked like one side had been smacked with an iron skillet, and all of this crowned with spiky gray hair that looked more akin to a warthog’s bristles than human hair.
Standing next to him was a strange-looking girl with shaggy brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. She had the biggest barrel chest I’d ever seen on a human, and a tiny waist that would have made Scarlett O’Hara green with envy. She wasn’t ugly just . . . odd. Her name tag read MICHAELSON.
“Then why you got the glow?” the bug-eyed guy asked. His name tag identified him as BRONKOWSKI. The human whippet next to him smiled, revealing small fangs.
“Bill’s my partner. We were apprehending a purse snatcher and . . . well, he sort of . . . missed.” The ugly guy guffawed and a small dimple appeared next to the girl’s mouth. “And what the hell were you arresting me for?” I added, aggrieved.
“Walking while pink,” Michaelson said, in a tolerable female imitation of Officer Friday’s flat, unemotional tone.
“You mean you just arrest people for glowing?” I gestured at the stars and the sparks.
“Tinkerbill wouldn’t have whacked ’em unless they were guilty of something.”
“Tinkerbill?” Delight over my partner’s nickname gave way to lawyerly shock. “You’re arresting people without probable cause.”
“Kid, how long have you been on the job?” asked Michaelson. Which I thought was sort of rich. She didn’t look much older than me.
“Today was my first day.”
She and Bronkowski exchanged a glance. “You’ll learn,” she said, and they let me go.
I got arrested four more times before I got home. Each time my badge, and the explanation that I was Bill’s partner, got me released. But I sensed I had left a trail of hilarity for the swing shift.
In my effort to be P.C. I had picked an apartment smack in the middle of Jokertown. It was a relatively new building erected during a liberal mayor’s efforts to gentrify the area. It was white stone, relatively modern, which meant the living room, dining nook, and kitchen were all one big room. I had a decent- sized bedroom and a full bath with a tub in addition to a shower. I set my hat on the bookcase as I came in, and straightened the photo of my father in his dress blues. “Well, Dad, I hope you weren’t watching today,” I said to that stern, chiseled face.
I was supposed to have dinner with Altobelli that night, and I knew my mother would be waiting by the phone in the house in Saratoga, wanting to hear about my first day on the job. Not wanting to be seen in public, I canceled with Altobelli, but mothers couldn’t be postponed.
I put in an order for some Thai food to be delivered, and settled into the recliner with the phone tucked under my chin. “Hi, Mom.”
“Oh, honey, I’ve been thinking about you all day. How was it?”
The five-year-old who had run to Mommy with skinned knees and bumped elbows wanted to wail out every slight. Instead I feigned cheerfulness and said, “Great. It was great.”
“Your father would be so proud.” I heard the sigh in her voice. “So, who did you arrest?”
I told her about Abigail.
“Never get involved with perps or witnesses, dear. I’m sure Sam would tell you the same.”
“Yeah.” There was a knock at my door. “Hey, Mom, my food is here. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Okay, honey, take care. Be careful.”
I slammed down the footrest of the recliner with a satisfying kick, grabbed my wallet, and headed to the door. I opened it to a joker delivery boy. This one wasn’t too weird. He just had faceted eyes like a bee, and the usual fan of angry acne across his cheeks and chin that was the hallmark of every teenage boy. The hallway smelled of cabbage rolls and coffee, but they lost out to the sharp scent of green curry and garlic beef wafting up from the bag the kid carried.
“What do I owe you?”
The kid looked at the bill. “Twenty-one fifty-three.” I dug out twenty-five, and realized I couldn’t make a habit of this.
“Thanks.” I started to shut the door, but the kid held up a hand. “Yes?”
“Uh . . . if you want anything like for . . . dessert, I can set you up. I’ve got a friend.” He was staring at the pink and sparking nimbus that surrounded me.
“It’s a good thing you kept that vague, kid, because otherwise I would have to arrest you. But it’s your lucky night. I’m tired and I’m hungry so I’ll pretend I don’t actually understand what you’re saying. But just for that . . .” I took my cash back out of his limp hand, pulled out the five, and gave him a one instead. “No tip.”
“Hey! What about the fifty-three cents?” he howled in outrage as I started to shut the door.
“Get it from your friend.” I slammed the door.
“Everyone’s a winner. Come on, mister, five’ll get you ten. Ten’ll get you twenty. Easy peasy, just pick the card.”
The singsong patter of a three-card monte hustle reached us. Bill gave a gusting sigh. “Fuckin’ Joe Twitch. Just ’cause he’s a sometime snitch he thinks he can pull this shit. Let’s go protect the rubes.”
Joe had set up between the Jokertown Dime Museum and Freakers, a spot guaranteed to get a lot of traffic. The citizens of Jokertown ignored him, but there was a crowd of tourists gathered around. None of them had ever seen a man’s hands move that fast. They were almost a blur. The man guiding those hands was short, wiry, and ugly as sin. He had faintly mottled skin, curly brown hair, and catlike green eyes that technically made him a joker. Aces and deuces were people who were outwardly unchanged, but possessed superhuman (or totally lame) powers.
The current mark had his cowboy hat pushed well back on his head, and was watching the moving cards with frowning concentration. He made his pick. It was wrong—of course—and Joe took his money. That’s when I saw the tattoos across his knuckles—FAST and FSTR.
Before another sucker could step up Bill pushed through the crowd. “Clear out, folks, you’re blocking the sidewalk.”
The crowd moved away with alacrity. Joe had the cards and money in his pocket and the table folded before I had taken two steps. Bill extended his nightstick. That plus a single word, “DON’T,” rooted Joe where he stood.
“Aww, shit, Tinkerbill, I’m just an honest businessman, making an honest buck.”
“No, Twitch, you’re a crook and hustler. I don’t want to hear you’ve moved over one block and set up again.”
“This is like fucking harassment!” His body swayed and jerked spasmodically. “I’m get a lawyer, take way to the Supreme Court!” He was talking so fast that he was dropping words, and a tiny rivulet of drool had begun to run from the corner of his mouth.
“No, Twitch, this isn’t harassment. This is harassment.” Bill pointed his nightstick at Joe Twitch and whistled.
The pink glow, stars, and sparks appeared all around Joe’s skinny body. For an instant I thought the guy was going to cry, and pity briefly twisted my gut. Now that I was close I could see dark circles under Joe’s eyes, and he looked like he’d been missing too many meals. He was also young, probably no older than me.
The moment of naked vulnerability passed, and he settled into bluster. “I’m somebody! I was on American Hero.” He was madly twitching now, popping his knuckles over and over. “You know Curveball? Babe, right? Well, her and me, we’re like this!” He crossed his fingers. “I can get her number for you.”
For one brief, wild moment I considered it, but then decided dating an ace would probably be more excitement than I needed. “No thanks.”
“And trying to bribe an officer can get you arrested,” Bill said.
“Yeah, like you’re not all on the take.”
Bill’s face tightened in anger at Twitch’s words. “Get out of here before I decide to find some reason to arrest you.”
Twitch and his table disappeared.
I spent the rest of the day occasionally thinking about the skinny joker and those desperate eyes. I was beginning to discover that sometimes certain people just get under your skin. Like the old lady whose apartment had been burgled, and she just kept crying because the perps had let her cat out. I had radioed K-10 and Tabby to be on the lookout. Quattore had been sympathetic, but Tabby had told me to shove it, he wasn’t the fuckin’ ASPCA. And now Joe Twitch.
We got back to the precinct at the end of our shift, I sat down in my chair, and the stench of cat urine rose up around me like an almost visible cloud. I felt the wet go right through the seat of my pants. Puff was laughing, his eyes glittering with malice. Tabby sauntered over. “Don’t you ever give me an order again, Franny,” he said in a low, ugly voice.
Like Joe, I didn’t know whether to fight or cry. I settled on, “It’s Frank, and I asked you for a favor.” It sounded lame even to me.
Wednesday afternoon I was typing up a report about a cat fight between two strippers at Freakers that had resulted in assault and property damage charges. Beastie and his partner Chey Moleka, a Cambodian immigrant who was known for sharp elbows and voracious ambition, came through with another naked girl. I assumed she was naked. Her feet and legs were bare, and she was wrapped in Beastie’s voluminous yellow raincoat. This was the sixth naked chick in three days. They all told the same story—they were just walking along, minding their own business, when suddenly their clothes disappeared. For my own satisfaction I had stayed late one night, and tried to establish some connection between the women when there had only been four of them. I hadn’t found a single point of contact.
“Where did you find her?” I asked.
“On Bowery,” Moleka replied shortly. Ever since she’d found out that my dad had been the captain of the 5th she’d gotten pretty short with me. Competition was a terrible thing—and I was planning on burying her.
And while I was daydreaming about my future victories something suddenly clicked. Frantically I rummaged through my desk and pulled out my notes on the other flashers. I tried to bring up MapQuest on the old desktop on Bill’s desk, but it hummed, clicked, and gave me the blue screen of death.
I went over to James McTate’s desk. He was new to the 5th, a detective and a joker/ace. If you just saw his face you would think he was normal, but his body was anorexic thin, and his bones seemed to be covered with skin and nothing else. He had immediately been dubbed Slim Jim. He was from Arizona, but for some inexplicable reason had decided to move to New York. When I thought about being a joker/ace in a place like Arizona, I started to understand why he’d moved.
McTate was a detective, but friendly, so I wasn’t too shy about approaching him. His partner, Tenry Fong, one of the older guys on the force, gave me a cold glance and went back to his report. Bill kept telling me that the detectives were no better than those of us in uniform, but I couldn’t shake the feeling they got the best cases, and I craved one of those shiny gold badges. Slim Jim looked up at my approach.
“Uh . . . could I use your computer? Just for a second,” I hastened to add. “Ours is . . .” I made a helpless gesture.
“Sure.” He pushed off with a foot and went wheeling out of the way. I brought up MapQuest, printed out the page, and highlighted the bus route. It ran along Park Row, then straight up the Bowery to Cooper Union and then continued up Third Avenue. Next I marked the location of the flashers in a different colored ink. Most were along the Bowery, but there had been a number of Cooper Union college girls among them.
I jumped out of my (new) chair, and yelled, “He’s riding the 103 bus. It’s somebody on the bus!”
“What are you yapping about, Franny?” Bugeye growled.
“Frank,” I said wearily, knowing it would have no effect.
I found Bill in the bathroom, and poured out my theory. He listened while finishing up. He shook off, zipped up, washed up, and said, “Let’s go talk to the sarge.”
We found Sergeant Choy down in the basement constructing a tiny machine out of paper clips and tin foil. I had been around long enough to learn her ace power. She could control any machine she had built or heavily modified.
“The rook here has a theory about the naked chicks. I think he may be on to something.”
I went through it all again to an impassive Choy. “I don’t have a car here, ma’am. I ride the bus, a lot, ma’am, and I realized all these flashing events are happening along one particular bus line. And it’s all pretty girls in their late teens and twenties, ma’am. It’s some guy on the bus, ma’am. I’m sure of it.”
Choy ran a hand through her silver-flecked black hair. “One ma’am is sufficient. It’s a good theory. Let’s test it out. Bill, you and the rook wear civvies tomorrow. We’ll put you both on the bus. I’ll contact the other precincts where that bus runs, and tell them we’re running a sting that will cross their territory. Now we just need a tasty temptation.”
“Apsara would be perfect,” I heard myself saying.
Bill and Choy exchanged amused looks. “Yes, I expect a lot of men would like to see that.” She tapped thoughtfully on the table with a bent paper clip. “If this perv is on the bus she would be hard to resist.”
“And I hear she’s not too much in the resistance department,” Bill said, then hastened to add, “Though she is a civilian . . . technically.”
Choy pushed back her chair. “Let’s ask her.”
So, the next morning I found myself riding the bus pretending to read the New York Times while I watched my fellow commuters. Apsara was happy to help, so she was set up to parade down the Bowery as the bus passed. All around her were various other officers ready to act, and Choy overseeing the operation.
I was seated at the back of the bus while Bill grooved on his iPod at the front. I focused on men seated in the window seats on the sidewalk side of the bus. I glanced ahead and saw Apsara prancing down the street carrying a shopping bag. Her long hair swayed with each swing of her hips. I forced myself back to watching the commuters instead of the girl. Good move. I saw a skinny teenage boy of maybe sixteen come slightly out of his seat. As I watched, his tongue licked nervously at his lips, and he raised his hand, brought his fingers to his lips, and blew a kiss. Apsara’s clothes vanished, and the kid leaned forward watching avidly as the bus went farting past.
I was out of my seat, grabbing the cuffs out of my pocket. “Got you!” A look of almost comical alarm crossed the kid’s face. “You are under arrest.”
Bill pulled the cord and the bus rolled to a stop.
The kid started yelling. “Don’t you touch me! I can fuck you up bad! I can make anything disappear. I could disappear your dick . . . or . . . or your eyeballs.”
Bill and I exchanged a glance. Clearly he was an ace. Clearly we didn’t know the limit of his powers. The heavyset African-American woman in the seat next to the kid handled the situation for us. She swung her incredibly large, and apparently incredibly heavy, purse into his belly. The air whoofed out of the kid, and he folded up like an origami figure. “You took the clothes off that girl? You’re a damn pervert,” she yelled. She slid out of her seat to make room for me. “You arrest his ass.”
I spun the still gasping kid around, pulled his arms behind his back, and slapped on the cuffs. Maybe he had to blow a kiss to use his power. I sure hoped so. In case he really could remove my dick. By now Bill had pushed through the rubbernecking commuters and was at my side.
Unfortunately, Apsara was already wrapped in a coat provided by Choy by the time we got off the bus with our prisoner. I felt a little guilty over my sexist and lascivious thoughts, so to make up for them I called to her as we headed toward a waiting squad car with the prisoner. “Thank you. I’m sure that can’t have been pleasant.”
“No problem, Franny.”
I winced. “Actually, it’s Frank.”
But she ignored me, swept the crowd with a dazzling smile, and added, “It was fun.”
The kid was in an interrogation room. The handcuffs had been removed and he was nervously rubbing at his wrists. On the other side of the one-way glass a crowd had gathered—Sergeant Choy, Tabby, Puff, Slim Jim, Rikki, K-10, Angel, Moleka, and Razor Joan Lonnegan. The female cops were all demanding blood, the males tended to be amused, and there I was saying over and over in ever more plaintive tones, “He’s a minor. We’ve got to call his parents.”
The gender bickering abruptly ended. Of course I had my back to the door so I didn’t get the hint to stop talking. “. . . call his parents!” My voice rang out.
A hand fell on my shoulder. I choked on the final word, turned, and looked up into the square-jawed face of Captain Maseryk. With his iron-gray crew cut and perfectly pressed uniform he looked more military than cop.
“Nice work, Black. I hear from Choy this was your idea.” I mumbled something. His pale eyes scanned the rest of the crowd. “And Black is right. Call his parents.”
“Can we talk to him before they do?” Bill asked.
“But gently,” said the captain in an equally gentle tone.
Bill and I headed toward the door to the interrogation room. I had an itch between my shoulder blades as if invisible daggers were scratching at my skin.
The kid looked up at our entrance. He had a prominent Adam’s apple that was bouncing up and down. His black T-shirt had Ge N I U S with a word beneath each letter—Germanium, Nitrogen, Iodine, Uranium, Sulfur, and some numbers above them. His backpack, which we’d searched, had a number of science texts in them. It seemed he was a nerd with power—never a good thing.
“Stripping women. I think a competent D.A. can make the argument that’s almost rape.”
The kid went white at the R word. “I didn’t . . . it’s not . . . you’re full of it.”
“Maybe my partner is exaggerating, but only a little,” I said. “You’re in a lot of trouble.”
“I know my rights. I don’t have to say anything.”
“Oh, goody, now I can make up any story I want, and sell it to the D.A.,” Bill said.
“You can’t do that!” The kid’s eyes shifted nervously to me. “Can he?”
“Sure he can, and you won’t have said anything to counter his version of things,” I said, though it pained me to do so. “Look, talk to us. Tell us why you did it. The D.A.’s reasonable. If you just discovered your power maybe you were having trouble controlling it.”
It was the wrong thing to say. It struck at the core of his fragile teenage ego. His face went red, then white, the pimples livid against his skin. “I’ve had my power for three years. I tried out for American Hero. I’m not just some dumb kid. They said I was too young, but they took that stupid girl and her stuffed dragon! I’m an ACE!” And then he blew a kiss at me, and I was sitting there buck naked.
Bill gave a thoughtful nod. “And a one-trick pony. I can see why they didn’t take you. Tough power to put on television.” He said all this while I was holding my file in front of my package, and Bill’s behind my ass, shuffling for the door.
I exited to gales of laughter from my coworkers.
The following week Bill and I got moved to the swing shift. Night in Jokertown was a whole new experience. On the Bowery neon ruled, garish as the Las Vegas Strip. Off the main streets darkness ruled.
Even though I had moved into the neighborhood a few days before I started work, I hadn’t gone out much. Too busy getting settled. After I started work I hadn’t gone out much because I’d been too damn tired. And when I did feel like going out I was probably going to head to the Village or Little Italy. A singles bar in Jokertown didn’t look like a real good prospect for a nat like me. And in the privacy of my own head I could at least be honest with myself—I wasn’t going to date a joker.
At night the crimes were darker too. The bar fights more vicious. Armed robberies often became assaults. We found some bodies too, victims of the increasingly vicious turf war between the Demon Princes and the Werewolves, and I was proud of myself because I didn’t lose my dinner over any of them.
This night the heat lay on the city like a suffocating blanket. A hulking figure wrapped in a voluminous cloak shuffled out of an alley. My hand closed reflexively on the butt of my pistol.
Bill laid a hand over mine. “Relax. It’s the Oddity. They’re on our side—sort of.”
I had been on the job for a week and was starting to feel like a bit of a pro. “I know, I’ve heard about him. Bugeye, Puff, and Tabby seem to think he’s . . . she’s . . . it’s . . . a good guy.”
“I take it you don’t agree,” Bill said in a neutral tone.
“The rule of law is essential to an advanced society. You abandon that, and no one is safe because there’s no certainty. The government can seize your person or your property, gangs threaten you and your only recourse is to form or hire your own gang—”
“Aren’t we just another gang, bigger, better armed . . . maybe, but still a gang?”
“No. We try to adhere to a set of standards that protect people from the overwhelming power of the state. They have recourse when we act like thugs. They have none from a person like him . . . her.” I gestured at the figure now vanishing into another alley.
“Yep, you’re going to end up at One Police Plaza, Franny,” Bill said.
“Frank. It’s Fra—” I started to say when I was interrupted by squealing tires. A beautiful vintage Ferrari convertible came roaring around the corner. Bill and I dove off to each side as the car careened wildly, the driver trying to get control. I had a brief glimpse of long brown hair and a horror mask face before the car was past us.
We took off in pursuit while Bill radioed in our location and the description of the car. It wasn’t too hard to follow; there was the sound of scraped metal and squealing tires, and car horns from the other drivers on the street. Our pounding feet echoed off the walls of surrounding buildings. I felt like a one-man band with my handcuffs clinking against my heavy flashlight, billy club banging against my belt buckle, holster thwapping against my thigh.
Brakes screeched followed by a bang and the wail of crumpling metal. A girl, her voice at a supersonic level, screamed out, “Come on, boys! It’s all yours!”
We heard approaching sirens. I pushed harder, but didn’t seem to be running any faster. Bill and I finally spun around the last corner to see dark forms heaving all around the car, which had plowed nose first into a building. Not just any building; McGurk’s Suicide Hall, the headquarters of the Demon Princes. It was like watching African army ants swarming on the body of a fallen water buffalo. I pulled out my flashlight, thumbed it on, and eyes glittered in the sudden light. Jokers. Lots of them. All holding a piece of the Ferrari.
“Hey!” Bill shouted. We sprinted forward. We passed the mouth of an alley, and were ambushed by four rolling garbage cans. One hit me hard on the shin, and I went down. By the time Bill and I fought free, the car was a metal carcass and all we saw were a few backs vanishing into various alleys. Not one of them went into Suicide Hall, which meant we couldn’t either.
The girl who had driven the car into the wall was in the top ten of ugly jokers. A pair of tiny arms emerged just below her breasts, ending in hands with only three fingers tipped with claws. Right now they were folded over her stomach. She kicked off her high-heeled shoes and took off running.
I sucked in a deep breath and set off after her. She craned her neck around to look at me. A red fluid dripped from the corners of her eyes and ran down her cheeks like scarlet tears. Her nose was a flattened snout, but beneath them was a perfect cupid bow mouth with full, sensual lips. The incongruity was almost more horrifying than the deformities.
She was fast, but lacked stamina. Bill and I managed to get on either side of her. Her shoulders slumped, she came to a stop, and she folded the extra arms across her stomach. The claws were dripping the same viscous fluid that ran out of her eyes.
“Is that your car?” Bill panted.
“A friend loaned it to me,” she said.
“And told you to run it into a brick wall, and then have it stripped?” Bill’s voice dripped sarcasm. She gave the universal teenage response—a bored shrug. “Let me see some ID,” Bill said.
“I don’t have it with me.”
“Do you have a driver’s license?”
“Not yet. I’m in driver’s ed.”
“What’s you name?”
“Okay, Joan, we’re going over to the 5th and calling your parents,” he added with a glance to me. “Get the registration out of the car.”
I trotted off obediently, rummaged through the glove compartment, and came out with a folder containing proof of insurance and the registration. The car was owned by one Peter Fairbanks. Memory kicked in and provided the title that went with that name. It was Assemblyman. He represented a particularly rich and Republican part of Long Island. A slow throbbing headache began at the base of my neck, crawled up over my head, and settled behind my eyes. It was going to be a long night.
“Take her a Coke. See what she has to say,” Bill tossed over his shoulder at me as he pulled the phone closer and got ready to dial.
“Bill, she’s a minor. We’re not supposed to interview her without her parent or guardian present. We did that once with that stripper kid, and it made me really uncomfortable.”
“That’s ’cause he stripped you.” I just kept staring at him. “Are you a cop, or her fucking lawyer?”
I stood my ground. “I’m trying to be an honest cop.”
Bill came out of the chair and this time I did step back. “Franny, you are really pissing me off. Take her a goddamn Coke.”
“All right, but I’m going to formally register my protest.”
The vending machine ate my dollar and burped out a can of Coke. I continued on to the interrogation rooms. The walls were a particular shade of puke green, and they seemed to hold the scent of flop sweat, alcohol, vomit, and blood. The girl was seated at the table, hands cuffed behind her back. I sat down the cold can of Coke and unlocked the handcuffs.
“Oh, you must be the good cop,” she said sarcastically, but her voice quavered on the final word.
I didn’t answer. Just pulled out the chair, swung it around, and straddled it, resting my arms on the back. “Officer Chen is calling your folks.”
“Just my mom. Dad took off four years ago.”
“Yeah, it was because of me,” she said, in answer to a question I hadn’t asked. Her tone was casual, but I watched the bottom lip of that vulnerable mouth quiver slightly.
Cop Frank saw the opening. “Want to tell me what happened?”
“Shouldn’t I have a lawyer?”
Cop Frank knew what he was supposed to say. It’s not necessary. We’re just having a friendly talk until your mom arrives. It’ll go better for you if you cooperate. But Lawyer Francis answered, “Yes, you should have a lawyer. Are you requesting one?”
She shook her head. “No, we can’t afford it.”
“There are public defenders,” I said. I figured Captain Mendelberg and a D.A. were behind the one-way glass cussing me out.
The joker girl said, “Yeah, and they suck.”
I couldn’t argue with that. There were always exceptions, but most P.D.s were young, overworked, and underpaid. Or angry attorneys from white-shoe law firms forced to do pro bono work. Then I remembered I knew one of the exceptions. He’d been a year ahead of me at Columbia and he was a joker; Charles Santiago Herriman. He was smart and had been inculcated by our Con Law professor Dr. Pretorius with a strong sense of outrage.
I wrote out Herriman’s name on my notepad and ripped off the page.
“Here, this guy is good. Have your mom ask for him when she calls the P.D.’s office.”
“Okay, thanks.” The girl took a sip of Coke and glanced at the wall. Her upper teeth sketched her lower lip. “I was at a party. At Barrington Prep.”
I knew the school. It was a place where wealthy families sent their sons to prepare them for their future positions as legacies at Ivy League universities. “Sort of a long way from home, weren’t you?” Barrington was up the Upper West Side near Central Park.
She nodded. “I’m on the debate team at school. We debated Barrington last month. I met this boy . . .” She cleared her throat and tried again. “We’d been tweeting a lot, and we liked a lot of the same things—books, music—and I beat him in the debate so he knew I was smart. He invited me to a party. . . . Todd picked me up.” Her eyes filled with tears and her snout nose was a vivid red. She rubbed a hand across her nostrils, and snot gleamed on her skin. “I’ve never been in a Ferrari before. I felt so special . . .” Her voice trailed away, and her eyes filled with real tears that alternated with the red gunk. “But it was a Pig Party.”
My spine stiffened. It had begun at colleges where frat boys invited the ugliest girls they could find, and gave prizes to the boy who brought the worst. It was a nasty game and apparently it had filtered down to the high school level.
“I wanted to leave, but they said I was the Pig Queen, and I had to stay.” False imprisonment, my mind supplied. “They let the other girls leave, then they got in a circle around me and started pushing me back and forth between them. They made the freshmen kiss me.” I made a comforting noise, and she continued. “It was getting rougher and rougher. I think the punch was spiked. They sure seemed drunk. Then they got this long pin and a fake tail, and they started playing pin the tail on the piggy. They jabbed me a bunch of times.” Assault and battery, my mind supplied. She stood up and started to pull up her skirt. “I can show you.”
“Uh, I’d need a female officer,” I rushed to say, really not wanting to see her bootie. “We should get a medical examiner and a camera to document your claim.”
“It’s the truth!” she said, stung by the word “claim.”
“I’m not saying it isn’t, but we need evidence. But go on.”
She found the thread of the story again. “Todd and some of the older boys started yelling about how I had to give them blow jobs. They grabbed me and forced me onto my knees. Some of the boys already had their pants unzipped, and they were . . . hanging out.” She held up her second set of hands with those long claws and studied the tips. “I got scared. Real scared. So I dug my claws into a couple of their . . . things.” I winced. “They were all shouting and screaming. I ripped Todd’s pocket and got the car key. Then I ran.”
“Why bring the car to the Demon Princes?” I asked.
“As I was driving away I heard Todd shouting. I guess his dad didn’t know he’d taken the car. I wanted to make him pay.” She hung her head.
“Okay. So, I assume there’ll be a mark on their . . . penises.”
She nodded. “This gunk is like ink. I’ve done tattoos for some of my friends.” She reacted to my expression. “Flowers and things. They’re pretty.”
“I’m sure they are. Look, uh—”
The door opened and a plump woman who looked like she’d thrown on her clothes rushed into the room. “Joanie, honey. What’s happened? Are you okay?”
“Oh, Mommy!” Sobs and hugs ensued.
The young D.A. who was on duty came in and indicated for me to leave. “Your daughter’s in some trouble, ma’am,” I heard him say as I left.
Work consumed my waking hours and even invaded my dreams. For some reason I couldn’t get the ugly joker girl out of my head. Maybe it was that beautiful mouth. Maybe because the entire neighborhood was discussing the case.
I was discovering that Jokertown was a tight-knit community. People knew of Joan, her accomplishments and goals. I went in to buy tomatoes only to hear Mr. Flannigan the greengrocer talking with Mrs. Synderman about how this might cost Joan her scholarship to Princeton. They both clammed up at my entrance, and I didn’t think it was just because I was a nat. I was the man who’d arrested Joan. The old joker men playing endless games of speed chess discussed Joan. Even in the precinct the joker officers occasionally murmured about the case.
I decided to call over to the D.A.’s office and inquire about the case, and I was shocked to discover they were throwing the book, the kitchen sink, and everything else at her. I raised the fact that she had been held against her will and assaulted. It’s strange how sometimes you can “hear” a shrug across phone lines. “It’s her word against theirs.”
“And her daddy isn’t a state legislator.”
“That isn’t why—”
I cut him off. “Yeah, right.”
“You’re not going to be trouble, are you?”
“Let’s just say you better be ready to treat me like a hostile witness.” I slammed down the phone. Bill looked up from where he was shoveling Shanghai spicy noodles into his mouth.
“You gotta learn to let things go, Franny. We arrest ’em. You don’t look back, and you don’t second-guess the learned counselors.”
“Even if I’m one of them?”
“You do that and then everyone will hate you,” he said.
And I had no answer to that depressing pronouncement.
That night I had the opportunity to get out of Jokertown. Sam Altobelli had invited me to a fund-raiser for the police benevolent fund at the Four Seasons. Extra tickets had been purchased by some of Manhattan’s richer citizens, and were to be handed out to “deserving officers.” I didn’t know how deserving I was, but I had a powerful rabbi. I also knew there was no way I could have afforded the two grand.
As I struggled with the cummerbund that went with my rented tux, I wondered if I ought to have refused harder, and not let Sam overrule me. The free tickets should have gone to some long-time veteran, or a person who had done something heroic in the line of duty. But Sam had argued that attractive and educated also counted for a lot, and many of those hoary old veterans sported noses with broken veins from too much booze, or trailed a long tail of citizen complaints. I found that depressing, and wondered if that would be my ultimate fate.
There was the strobe of camera flashes as I walked up the wide staircase toward the Pool Room. I hoped my picture wouldn’t make it into any of the papers. That would make my life pure hell.
The tables had been removed except for a few at the edges of the room to force people to “mingle” around the white marble pool in the center. The glitterati of New York society moved beneath a canopy of seasonally changing trees. They were still the bright green of summer. Conversation bounced off the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and reduced the small chamber orchestra to a strange hiccup of music that occasionally penetrated the roar. There was the faint odor of too many bodies. I could feel sweat forming under my arms, and I hadn’t even entered the press of people.
I snagged a glass of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter, and grabbed a shrimp puff thingee off another tray. It was good champagne and a good shrimp thingee. Then I scanned the crowd for a familiar face. Instead I found myself faced with a man wearing an elaborate gazelle mask. “Francis Xavier Black,” the man said.
“Um, yes . . . do I know—”
He laughed, a rollicking, deep belly sound. “No, no, but Sam told me about you. Lucas Tate, editor of the Jokertown Cry, and I think you might be worth an article. Son of Famous Captain Returns Home.” I could hear the capital letters in the headline, and shuddered.
“No, please don’t,” I said faintly.
Tate rolled right over me. “And we’re coming up on the twenty-fourth anniversary of your father’s death. I’ll send someone around. Or, hell, maybe I’ll do it myself.”
“Oh, no, really, please . . . don’t.”
I heard the mayor’s familiar nasal tones calling out a greeting.
“Lucas, how the hell are you?” They walked away with the mayor’s arm across Tate’s shoulders. “Who do I have to fuck to get your paper to endorse me?”
Eventually Sam found me, and I got introduced to the chief of detectives, the chief of police, and the D.A. for the City of New York. “I hear we lost you to the thin blue line,” she said. “If you ever change your mind, come and see me. I could use somebody who’s actually interacted with the scum.”
I wondered if she’d still feel that way if she talked to the young A.D.A. I’d basically threatened earlier in the day. Then I realized I had an opportunity to do something for Joanie McDermott. “Ma’am,” I began. “There’s this case.”
But her attention was wandering, drawn by a passing congressman. “Excuse me. Don’t worry about the case. We’ll put them away,” she threw over her shoulder as she hurried after power.
“That’s the problem,” I muttered to myself.
Unfortunately Lucas Tate remembered meeting me, and remembered his desire for a story. I demurred. Tate called Sam who called my mother who browbeat me into submission. The story appeared in the Sunday issue of the Cry. My hope was that everyone at the precinct would miss it because it was the weekend.
I walked into work, and suddenly I was naked. There was the click of digital cameras and phones snapping photos, and gales of laughter swept through the squad room. Apsara had her hand over her face, but her fingers separated so she could peek through. Bruce Cordova, aka the Stripper, was leaning on a broom handle in the doorway laughing at me while Puff pounded him on the shoulder. I snatched a file off a desk and covered my junk, but not before Captain Mendelberg walked through and gave me the once-over. “Not bad, patrolman,” she drawled and headed into her office.
The desk sergeant walked up and said, “Better get some clothes before I have to arrest you for indecent exposure.” Wingman brayed at his own wit.
Once again I had files at my crotch and crack and I was shuffling into the men’s room. Bill came in after me. “It’s not smart to stick your head up, Franny. You’ll just get it cut off.”
I was in that state between anger and depression. I couldn’t figure out which way to fall. I decided anger was healthier. “Are you part of this?”
“No. If by ‘part of this’ you mean planned it.”
The door to the john flew open and Tabby and Puff strolled in. “You asked for it, Rook. You got a law degree. Your daddy was the captain of this precinct,” Tabby said.
“The kid didn’t pick his father,” Bill said.
“Yeah, but he picked to be a cop.”
“And come here,” Puff added.
“And he gets invited to receptions at the Four Seasons.” Tabby again.
“And has articles written about him,” Puff said.
“I didn’t ask for any of this,” I said.
Bill took a step forward. He was bigger than either of the other two officers. “Back off. Now. I won’t ask again.” Puff and Tabby left. Bill turned back to me. “Do you have an extra uniform?”
“Yeah, at my apartment.”
“Gimme the key. I’ll go get it.” His face fell comically as I dropped the files and spread my hands.
Days passed. I took to just keeping an extra uniform in my locker. The game was getting really old, but obviously not for my tormentors or for Bruce, whose parents had quickly cut a deal so the kid was doing his community service at the 5th. The cruder members of our force—read most of them—had adopted him as a mascot and my personal tormentor. I knew if I whined to the captains I’d pay, and they didn’t seem inclined to ride to my rescue. I considered confronting Cordova and giving him a little “come to Jesus” talk, but I was feeling so low I figured he’d just laugh and blow me off.
Which meant I was in a really bad mood so when I came across Abigail Baker again, I wasn’t inclined to be sympathetic despite our shared nude experience.
It started with a skinny joker that looked like a big ant. He had been racing into coffee, ice cream, and sandwich shops—anywhere there was a tip jar—grabbing the jars and racing off down the street. Bill was in taking a report from the latest victim. I loitered in the door where I could keep an eye on the street.
“How hard can it be to find a giant ant?” the owner, who looked like a giant caterpillar, asked.
I spent a moment picturing a Japanese monster movie version of the ant guy and the caterpillar guy battling over an empty pickle jar filled with dollar bills. It didn’t have quite the panache of Godzilla Versus the Swarm. But then my attention was drawn to the jewelry store across the street.
Mr. Zamaani, owner of Fine and Rare Things, came barreling out of the door and gripped a young woman by the upper arm. The girl was staring down at her hands, and the sapphire and diamond necklace that lay across them. Mr. Zamaani started screaming, “Thief! Thief!”
I ran across the street dodging cars and tourists in pedicabs. The girl was bucking like a foal newly broke to halter trying to break Zamaani’s grip. Zamaani’s round, fat face looked like an overinflated red balloon, and he was still bellowing in Farsi and English. “Thief! Evil thief!”
“I didn’t . . . I never . . . I was just admiring it.” I recognized the accent even before I saw her face. Abigail Baker.
I dodged past an elderly woman in a swan mask, pushing a shopping cart full of bric-a-brac with a cat riding proudly on top, and laid a hand on Mr. Zamaani’s arm. “I’ll take it from here.”
“Well, thank God, someone sensible,” Abigail said in aggrieved tones. I spun her around and slapped on the cuffs. “What the hell? I didn’t do anything. I was just standing here admiring the jewelry and suddenly it was in my hand.”
“You’re just a victim of circumstances, aren’t you?” I said sarcastically.
“Guess we’ll sort it out down at the precinct.”
“Not again,” she wailed. “I have an audition.”
At the same time Zamaani said, “You’ll lock her up?” I nodded. “For a long time?”
“That’ll be up to a judge.” I started walking away, towing Abigail behind me.
Back at the precinct I very quickly learned that these kinds of robberies had been occurring for decades. Long before Abigail was born, much less arrived in New York. Apparently Abigail was the world’s unluckiest person—unless you counted me. As she was walking out I apologized, and then, to my horror, I heard myself saying, “Uh, Abigail, there’s a jazz festival at a really great—”
“Oh, sod off!”
Three days later I was due in court to testify in the purse snatcher case. It didn’t take long, and as I was walking out I saw Mrs. McDermott and Joanie, accompanied by Charlie Herriman, the prosthetics attached to his flippers clutching at the handle of his briefcase. The inevitable happened. He dropped the case, spilling papers. I ran over to help him gather them up.
“Oh, it’s you,” Joanie said.
At the same time Charlie said, “I know you. You were at Columbia.”
“Yeah,” I said, helping him shove the papers back into his case. I stood and looked at Joanie. “How are you doing?” I asked.
Her response to even that tepid remark took me aback. Joanie’s eyes filled with tears.
“Not so good.”
“You shouldn’t be talking to my client,” Charlie said in a faintly whining and almost apologetic tone. That’s when I remembered that despite being brilliant, Charlie had always undercut the brains with his nervousness and klutziness.
“What’s going on?” I jerked my head toward the courtroom.
At that moment the familiar burly figure of Assemblyman Fairbanks hove into sight. He was accompanied by several young men dressed in the Barrington Prep uniforms, and a distinguished silver-haired man whose entire demeanor screamed counselor. Joanie buried her face against her mother’s shoulder to avoid looking at them. The boys smirked and whispered to each other. They entered the courtroom. Moments later a harried young D.A. came rushing past and hurtled through the doors into the courtroom.
“We’ve got to go,” Charlie muttered to the mother and daughter.
I stood dithering in the hall for a few more minutes, then slipped into the courtroom and took a seat in the back. Charlie was at the podium dropping papers while he made a motion to compel the young men to submit to a strip search to verify his client’s defense.
“How does this go to the charge of grand theft auto?” asked the elderly judge whose wrinkled skin and dark tan created the impression of a lizard squatting behind the bench.
“It’s an affirmative defense, Your Honor, going to my . . . um . . . client’s state of mind when she ran from the Barrington dorm. She was escaping a threatening situation where she was being held against her will.”
“She could have called a taxi,” the judge said.
“She was afraid she was going to be raped—”
The D.A. bounced to his feet. “Objection.”
Charlie plowed on doggedly. “She wasn’t thinking all that clearly.”
The D.A. was fulminating. “That’s incredibly prejudicial. Where’s the proof?”
The judge stared over the top of his glasses at the five perfectly groomed young men. The smirking jerk expressions had been replaced with those of respectful attention. He looked back at Charlie. “The D.A. raises a valid question, Mr. Herriman. Where is the proof?”
“The proof is on their bodies, Your Honor.”
I winced and watched the D.A. pounce.
“So she’s admitting to assault and battery?” His tone was silky.
Charlie opened and closed his mouth several times. “She had a right to defend herself, and they assaulted her first.” He yanked photos out of his briefcase and tried to wave them dramatically. They slipped out of his prothesis and went flying like frightened birds all over the front two rows. As he rushed about trying to pick them up he said, between sharp pants, “They stuck pins in her.”
The D.A. didn’t like where this was going. “Your Honor, granting this motion would be like giving the police a warrant without probable cause. There is no evidence that this pinprick occurred at Barrington, or that the defendant didn’t injure herself after the fact to support these claims.”
“And I suppose the wounds on the boys’ penises will be attributed to some quaint initiation rite at Barrington?” Charlie pulled out an asthma inhaler and took a hit.
The silver-haired lawyer seated next to Assemblyman Fairbanks stood up. He was very smooth, it was like watching water flow. “Gerald Pitken for the boys, Your Honor. I will resist any effort to traumatize and humiliate these young men. The public defender appears to be on a fishing expedition.” He sat back down.
The judge glanced at the assemblyman who wore a ferocious frown. He studied the boys again. He looked over at Joanie with her flattened snout and those grotesque arms thrusting out from her waist. He banged down the gavel. “Motion denied.”
I slipped away.
“Why, Officer Black, what a pleasant surprise. Do come in.”
“Pardon me for imposing, sir,”
Tate chuckled behind his lion mask. “Sir, please, you’ll have me looking over my shoulder for my father. Lucas, please.”
I ducked my head. “Lucas.”
The apartment would have been elegant and tasteful if the living-room walls hadn’t been lined with masks. There were so many that you stopped seeing individual designs and were just overwhelmed by colors, feathers, and flashing sequins. Tate mistook my expression for one of admiration and launched into an exhaustive and boring monologue about the masks. “This one is from the court of Louis the Fourteenth. . . .”
My eyes began to glaze over and soon all I was hearing was “Blah, blah, blah blah, Mardi Gras, blah blah blah blah, Hutu tribal, blah blah blah, Venetian Carnival, blah blah. I began to squirm because I’d come here with my own agenda, I had limited time, and he’d turned into a pedant.
Tate finally seemed to realize that he was boring me insensible. “But enough of my particular hobby horse.” He led me over to a couch and gestured for me to sit down. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“I need a photographer.” And I outlined the situation.
When I finished I could tell Tate was smiling, though I couldn’t actually see his mouth behind the mask. “I’ll do it myself.”
When the kid opened the door his mouth dropped open and his eyes began to flick nervously from side to side. “Hi, Bruce,” I said. “First, the little morning game is gonna stop.”
“Yeah, how you gonna make me?” The nerd bluster was back.
“I’m going to sue you and your parents. Since I’m a lawyer it won’t cost me a dime, but it sure will cost your folks.”
The kid went white again, and he grabbed at my arm as I started to walk away. “No, please. Don’t.”
“Okay, then you’re going to do something for me.”
They really were a pack. Bruce and I sat on a bench at the edge of Central Park and watched as Todd Fairbanks and his posse emerged from the front doors of the Barrington Prep. The gold embroidered patch with the school’s insignia flashed in the autumn sun and glowed on their navy-blue blazers. Little budding Masters of the Universe.
I realized I found them more loathsome than the most deformed joker in Jokertown. “Them,” I said.
“I’ve never done that many,” Bruce whined.
“Don’t fuck this up.”
He concentrated to the point that the tip of his tongue emerged. Then he brought both hands to his lips and blew kisses at them. All their clothes vanished, except for one boy who still had his shoes and socks.
Tate, muffled in a long cloak with a hood, stepped forward. Over the roar of passing traffic I couldn’t hear the rapid-fire whine of the digital camera shooting multiple photos, but it was clear from the boys’ expressions they realized what was happening.
I turned to Bruce. “Okay, you can go.” He jumped up, but I caught him by the wrist. “But first, play back the deal.”
“I don’t say a word to anybody about this ever.”
“And I stop taking your clothes.”
I released him and decided to walk through the park. It was a nice afternoon. I could hear the music from the carousel, smell hot dogs and pretzels on the various carts. There were a lot of girls taking advantage of the last warm days before winter, and skating and running past in shorts and tank tops. And Tate would need time to download and print the photos.
The McDermotts lived in a run-down building on the south end of Joker-town. I stepped over a modified tricycle in the lobby and tried to visualize the child’s body that could ride it. I couldn’t twist my brain that much. Somewhere above me I heard the elevator making its slow descent. I gave up, and instead sprinted up the five flights to their floor.
Sheila had just gotten home from her job at an electronics store, and I knew her daughter had chess club and wouldn’t be at home. The mother answered at my knock and frowned, trying to place me, while she pushed a stray lock of hair off her forehead. When she did recognize me the weary irritation turned quickly to alarm. “Joanie . . . ?”
“Fine. She’s fine. I wanted to give you this.” I handed her a business card for Dr. Pretorius. I had considered using Charlie for what I had planned, but Pretorius was the most feared plaintiff’s attorney in Manhattan. He was a much better choice, and once I’d outlined the McDermotts’ situation he was excited to help. “Dr. Pretorius is expecting your call.”
“Why am I . . . I can’t afford to pay a lawyer, that’s why we have the public—”
“He’ll take his fee out of your settlement.”
“Joanie’s going to be able to attend any college she wants.”
“Call him,” I said, flicking my nail on the edge of the card. I left.
You don’t approach a public figure in their office. Surrounded by the trappings of their power and position they tend to bluster. Nor do you brace them in their homes. That sets off all the old defending-the-castle responses. No, you catch them in public where they can’t easily make a scene.
Being a cop also means you can locate a person pretty damn easily. Especially someone who doesn’t know he’s being watched or followed. I waited until Fairbanks was playing eighteen holes with three buddies, and I bought myself a tee time. I played golf in high school and college, and I was pretty sure I could outplay four fat old guys. I was right. By the fourth hole I was on their heels. Then I got lucky. Fairbanks sliced one into the trees. I heard him thrashing around searching for his ball. I hoisted my bag higher on my shoulder and called to his companions.
“I’ll help him find it. I’m just waiting.” It’s always fun to rub it in to bad golfers that you’re better. And I was pretty sure that any friends of Fairbanks would be assholes.
He grunted at me as I joined him among the oak and beech trees. “Sorry. We’re holding you up.”
“No problem. I wanted a chance to talk to you.”
His face closed down tight. “Call my office and make an appointment.”
I shrugged. “Okay, but you probably don’t want these floating around your office.” I took out the photos of Todd Fairbanks and his friends. Todd and two others had the distinctive marks and stains from Joanie’s claws.
“You asshole. Is this some kind of blackmail attempt because—”
“No, just reminding you of your civic duty. Your son’s a first-class thug. He and his little pals humiliated, imprisoned, and terrified a girl, threatened her with rape, and now you’re trying to get her thrown in jail. You’re going to use your influence and get the D.A. to drop these charges.”
His face was turning an alarming shade of red. “Like hell—”
I waved the photos. “Or else these go wide on the Internet, along with Joanie’s story. The best-case scenario for your kid is that people will believe he got a hand job from a joker and she tattooed his dick. Which will make him a laughingstock. Or they’ll suspect her story is true, and most Ivy League colleges aren’t going to risk admitting a potential sexual predator.”
“I’m asking you again. How much do you want?” The words squeezed between his clenched teeth.
“Not a damn thing. But Mrs. McDermott is going to be suing you and your son. I suggest you settle. She’s also suing Barrington Prep, and since you’re on the Board of Governors you should urge them to settle too.”
“Whoever the fuck you are, you’ve made yourself an enemy.”
“Good. I think the kind of enemies a man acquires tells you a lot about his character. I’m very comfortable having you dislike me.” I started to walk away. “Oh, your ball’s over there. Behind the tree.”
I returned to the fairway, smiled and nodded at Fairbanks’s companions. “If you don’t mind I’d like to play through,” I said.
The solid feel of the head of the driver connecting with the ball was very satisfying, and watching the ball arc straight down the fairway felt equally great. And then it rolled onto the green and stopped only a few inches from the hole. Heaven appeared to be pleased, too.
The next morning I walked through the precinct unmolested. Bruce looked up from where he was emptying the grounds out of the coffeemaker, then quickly ducked his head and looked away. Tabby and Bugeye, who had been loitering in anticipation of seeing me humiliated again, gaped, exchanged glances, then glared at me. I gave them a sweet smile. A knot of people were reading the Cry. The front-page story was all about the huge academic grant made by Barrington Prep to Joan McDermott, enough to fund her undergraduate degree at any Ivy League university. There were also rumors of a lawsuit against Assemblyman Fairbanks, and more rumors that he would settle.
I was a little sorry that Barrington hadn’t had their nuts hammered to a wall, but figured Pretorius had wrested more money out of them by letting them avoid admitting culpability. And I had a feeling Fairbanks senior was none to happy with his son and heir right now.
Bill was studying me with a look that was half frown, half calculation. “You’re not naked.”
“The charges against Joan McDermott have been dropped.”
“Looks like it.” I moved on toward the locker room. He followed me.
I had opened my locker and he peered in. “You don’t have an extra uniform.”
“What did you do?”
“Solved a few problems.”
“Do I want to know how?”
“Nope.” I slammed the door shut and headed for the door and our briefing.
“Answer me this.” I paused and looked back. “Did you have something to do with that McDermott girl?”
We measured glances. A slow smile split his face, and he nodded.
At the end of my shift I was packing up to leave when Bugeye came over. I eyed him warily. “Hey, a few of us are going over to Shift Change for drinks. Want to come?”
Shift Change was the local bar where most of the off-duty officers of the 5th went to drink. I’d never been invited before. “Sure,” I said. I wondered what new and horrible thing they were going to do to me.
As we walked down the street I realized that Rikki, Beastie, Shades, Wingman, and Lieutenant Kant had fallen into step with me. My nervousness increased, but they were just exchanging gibes and talking about cases.
Wingman held the door for me. I gave him a funny look, but went in. Bill was seated at the bar. Puff was lighting a cigarette with one of his flaming goobers. Tabby had a shot and a beer lined up in front of him. The usual cop groupies, generally older women with lush bodies, had hung themselves on the male officers.
“What are you drinkin’?” Puff said. “It’s on me.”
“Uh.” I wondered who had stolen the real Puff and left this version behind. “Scotch, rocks,” I finally managed.
A steady line of cops came by to give me a slap on the back and tell me that I’d been doing a helluva job. I looked up at Bill who had an expression like the Cheshire Cat’s. He had definitely been talking.
And from somewhere in the crowd someone said, “Nice work, Frank.”
I cranked around on the bar stool and addressed the room. “Franny will be fine.”
There were guffaws and Bill pounded me on the shoulder. I turned back to the bartender and ordered another drink. It seemed I had made the right career choice.
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