“A cracker of a story, original, well-written and fast-paced.”
“Fiction’s most exciting private dick — keeps Nadelson up there with the crime greats.”
The plot concerns the murder of one child and the abduction of another in a city still locked in the terror that's never gone away since 9/11. It is the world of Artie Cohen, New York's smartest Russian-Jewish detective.
“A cracker of a story, original, well-written and fast-paced.”
“Fiction’s most exciting private dick — keeps Nadelson up there with the crime greats.”
A woman in a red fox coat walked down the boardwalk that was bleached white from snow and salt, a pair of large black poodles at the end of the leash in her hand. The wind whipped her backwards so the dogs seemed to pull her along as if on a sled. Above her the Parachute Drop, broken down, shut up, loomed against the winter sky, the Coney Island amusement park haunted by relics of its old dreamscape.
Inside Nathan's, as I passed, a trio of workers on the early shift, in their red Nathan's jackets, huddled together watching the cops outside. In the fluorescent light of the restaurant, I could see the faces of the three workers clearly; they had flat brown Indian faces, as if they'd come direct from some Andean village to the coast of America to serve up hot dogs dripping with yellow mustard. Like everyone in Brooklyn, they clung to their tribe; no matter how fragile or tiny it was, there was some kind of protection in it, or that's what I still thought that morning. One of them laughed suddenly. He flashed white teeth.
I'd been eating breakfast, key lime pie and coffee, in the city twenty minutes earlier when my phone rang and it was my boss, Sonny Lippert, at the other end.
"I need you."
"It's a little girl," he said. "A child. They found some stuff a few hours ago."
Coney Island, he mumbled. You could see the old Parachute Drop from where they dumped it, you could see Nathan's, he said. Some slob probably eating hot dogs could have stopped it, but no one admitted seeing anything. They were all fucking blind, he yelled into the phone, they never see, they never tell, fucking monkeys, he added. They're piling on the sauerkraut and mustard and they don't fucking look out the window, you know, man? There's an empty stretch of ground out by the Keyspan Park where they play baseball now. Some jogger stumbled on it this morning. You with me? The stream of fury had poured into my ear, and I said, "OK, I'm coming, I'm there. OK?"
His voice cracked like, I was going to say cracked like a cold sore, but it didn't. It was never like that. In real life there were no metaphors; just dead people. His voice broke up; he was crying.
"I know she's dead. I can feel it."
"Feel what? Where's the body?"
But the line was bad and all I heard him say after that was, "Her shoes." Then the line broke.
All the time, while I drove from Manhattan out to Brooklyn, what lay just ahead, what Lippert had found out at Coney Island, was in my mind. I knew it was a child; I figured the kid was dead. Abused. Mutilated. It was everywhere, this thing with kids, the porn rings, the child abuse; babies were used, too, and you thought, who does this kind of thing? I thought of the killer in Boston who dug an underground tunnel and kept little girls in a row of cages. His sex slaves, he said. Some of them he kept for years. They clawed at the bars while they had energy then, broken, just sat and waited for him.
You never got used to it, you got drunk, you got ulcers, you smoke yourself into a fog, you went crazy from stuff you saw. Any cop who gets used to it should quit.
I parked the car just beyond Nathan's and climbed up on the boardwalk and looked at the beach that stretched for miles along the Brooklyn coast. Beyond it was the ocean, the color of steel and out on the horizon was a ship that looked like a toy. Wind blew off the water.
I walked a couple of hundred yards. Away from the ocean and the beach, on the other side of the boardwalk, was a stretch of waste ground; a couple of blue and whites, their lights flashing, were parked nearby. I ran down the steps from the boardwalk. The half-frozen ground was littered with junk, soda cans, used condoms, cigarette butts, syringes-the detritus of a Friday night. As I got closer I could see there was a hole in the ground, like an empty grave, cordoned off by yellow tape. Dead weeds were scattered on the mounds of earth beside it. While I watched, a black body bag was loaded onto a waiting EMS truck.
Near the hole in the ground stood two cops, like gravediggers, one male, one female, holding shovels, seeming to wait for an order. Move on. Dig some other place. Keep at it. But no one said it. It was like a play, no one moving, people looking down with the expressions frozen on their faces. Somewhere a siren wailed.
Suddenly, Sonny Lippert materialized from behind the EMS van.
As soon as he saw me, he started in my direction at about a hundred miles a minute, a human cannonball, compact, fast on his feet, pulling his little camel's hair coat close to him. Fast and tightly wrapped, Sonny was a small man.
"It's a serial," he said. "I knew it would happen, sooner or fucking later, I so goddamn knew."
"Who is she?"
He shook his head.
"I don't know. No one's claimed her. No one's reported a child missing anywhere in the area. What kind of people don't know their kid is missing, man?"
Lippert was probably sixty; he looked ten years younger. He used "man" every second word; when I first knew him, he thought of himself as a fifties hipster; he gave it up a while back, the clothes, the walk, except for the verbal tic. It made him sound weirdly young, now that "man" and "cool" fell out of the mouths of every wannabe hipster kid in every bar on the Lower East Side and Williamsburg.
"How old is she?" I said.
"They don't know."
"So make a guess."
Sonny said, "Ever since I started running this unit, I feel like I stepped in a sewer that has no bottom, just dropped down and all there is, is shit."
Lippert was at the head of a special unit that prosecuted cases involving kids: kidnapping; pedophiles; kiddie porn; priests-the country was littered with lousy priests. The whole miserable business had exploded in the last few years.
Kids were big business; they were cheap. You could get a kid for less than an adult, and it was global. And not just in Asia or some remote part of Africa where they stole children for soldiers or slaves. In Eastern Europe you could buy a kid for sex for less than you could rent a car. You went to Teplice and other border towns-in the Czech Republic, not India, not Africa, in Europe-and people stood at the side of the highway and handed their own children down to men in cars. Little kids. Their own parents luring them with candy. Take the candy, darling, go with the nice man. I'd been there. I'd seen it.
In California last summer, two little girls were killed so brutally they never told the public the details. Couldn't. I heard from some friends over there. I didn't think about it if I could help it. There had been so many kids abducted the last couple of years, so many high profile cases. Thousands of kids just disappeared. Tens of thousands. You saw the flyers on lamp-posts, you saw the milk cartons. Like dust scattering; like garbage; like insects. Just gone. Where did they go?
Lippert took on as much as he could and it was a lousy job. He had to keep everyone happy, the families, the local precincts, the local kidnap detectives, and some from homicide squads and the people at Police Plaza who also worked on child cases. He had been a cop and a federal prosecutor; he was a born politician and I didn't completely trust him, but I owed him and I'd made my peace with it.
He got me my first job as a cop after I graduated the academy. Said he talent spotted me, that's what he said when we were out together and a little bit drunk. I spoke a few languages; he said it was handy to have someone around who knew Russian, Hebrew, a little French, a little Arabic. Since his divorce he sometimes invited me to eat with him, at Peter Luger in Brooklyn because he loved the steak and hash browns, or at Rao's in Harlem; I went because he was the only person I knew who could get a table at Rao's, and because he liked me.
A beefy detective, a local who looked like he ate steroids with his Wheaties, glanced at me and I knew he was pissed off that Lippert was here and had called me out from the city. They were territorial in this part of Brooklyn and I already had a reputation for interfering in cases involving Russians in Brighton Beach, a mile or so west along the coast. Lippert ignored him and pulled me towards the boardwalk, then leaned against the railing and for a second pressed his hand against his temple as if he had a migraine that nothing could fix.
"Christ," he said, and the horror he seemed to feel transmitted itself like disease; it wrapped itself around me and I hoped Lippert didn't ask me to look at the body.
Don't ask, I thought. Please don't ask. I can't do it. This got to me in a way few things did; this thing with kids. I thought about Billy Farone, my cousin's boy.
"I want you to look," Sonny said. "I want you to see."
Like a tugboat at my side, he ferried me to the van. He signaled to the EMS guy to remove the black rubber bag and place it on the ground. I waited, listening to the bang of the door, the snap of the latex gloves as the EMS guy pulled them on, the zipper. For me the sound of death wasn't a gun or the hot howl of fire at a crematorium or the thud of a coffin lowered into the earth; it was the sound of the zipper on a body bag.
"Look." He tossed me a pair of latex gloves and I put them on and bent over the clothes.
Inside the bag was a pair of green sneakers. So soaked in blood were the All Star high tops that only a scrap of green canvas showed. There was a kid's T-shirt that had been white and was smeared with blood. I picked it up by its edge and saw there were cuts across the front and back, as if it had been sliced from the kid's body with a razor. There were faded jeans. A blue baseball jacket, Yankees logo, also bloody. Saturated with blood, the blue of both garments looked dark, almost black. The left sleeve of the jacket was ripped.
"It's enough," he said.
"What about the body?"
"There's no body, man," he said. "Habeas corpus. Not. You understand me?"
"What do you mean there's no body?"
He got agitated and kept repeating there was no body and it didn't matter.
"Calm down," I said. I had only seen Lippert like this a few times, but it happened. He got overloaded, he felt personally involved, he lost it.
"You don't even know she's dead," I said. "You don't even know who she is. You don't even know it's a girl. You're getting crazy, and about what?"
"Fuck you, man," he said. "Don't patronize me with that 'calm down' shit." He pushed me away from the others, pushed me with the flat of his hand against my chest. "I know is how I know I know. Twice before already this kind of thing happened, once about five years back when they found a kid's clothes first and then the body on Long Island, then around eighteen months ago, twenty, yeah, it was the summer before last, July maybe, I got a call, middle of the night, there were clothes, you understand me, there were kids' clothes and they were drenched in blood, just like this, in a hole in the ground out by Rockaway," he said and gestured towards the beach as it stretched west. "Then we found the body, a piece at a time. They had cut off her feet. They took off her sneakers and then her feet, and the feet floated up in the canal over by Sheepshead Bay. Somebody went fishing off a party boat and caught one. Enough? OK? You want more?" He stopped and caught his breath. "She was eight, and some piece of shit cut off her feet. Other parts. You want me to draw you a picture? It was, what, a couple miles from here? We found her eventually. I remember, there were sneakers then, the same kind of sneakers. Green high tops."
"I don't remember."
"You were in Bosnia or some other fucking place. Working private," he said and I knew he blamed me for leaving the job. When Lippert felt vindictive, he made it a moral thing; you worked just for money, you were a lousy human being. You had failed.
"You ever see parents ID their child, Art? You want to do that? You want to say to the mother, is this your kid with her feet missing? Her hands? Her face?"
The blood vessels in his face constricted; he turned a strange dark red, the color of pastrami.
"I knew it wasn't over. I knew he'd surface. They always do. They can't stop and I said, don't let it go cold, not this one, but they did and nobody worked cold cases over 9/11. The son of a bitch has started up again. I knew he was a serial."
"Or it's a copycat."
"The other cases have been out of the papers for too long for a copycat. Both cases. The one on Long Island, the one I worked out in Rockaway. But I know it's the same fucking bastard, and I'm going to get him fried this time. Fried and fried. If they let me stick the needle in myself, I'll do it and then I'll celebrate."
"You were going to ask if they cut off her feet before or after?"
I didn't answer.
He said, "I don't know. I don't know when they did it." I could feel his breath.
"When they called me with this earlier," he said gesturing to the scene, "I figured we'd hear a little girl was missing, you know? Give me a cigarette, Art, OK?"
I fumbled in my jacket pocket and got a squashed pack of Marlboros and handed it to him. Sonny, who doesn't smoke, stuck one in his mouth and I lit it for him. The wind from the ocean blew out the match and I lit another one.
"I can't stand the smell," he said.
All I could smell was the fresh bright air and a faint taste of salt.
"I don't know. I got something in my mind that stinks and I can't get it out and ever since I got here I keep smelling it. Never mind." He pulled on the cigarette then tossed it as far as he could.
A camera van from a local station rolled into view and Sonny yelled, "Get those fuckers out of there." He turned back to me, and then looked down at the blood-soaked clothes on the black rubber bag.
"Nobody called, you know, man? Nobody cares enough to make a call." He gestured to the van with the body bag. "Who does this, Artie? Who does this shit to a child? I stay up all night reading big books so I can find out who's evil enough to do things like this, man, and I still don't know anything. I thought it gave you wisdom. It doesn't give you shit."
"What about the age?" I said. "You made a guess by the size of the clothes?"
"Yeah, maybe eleven. But we're guessing."
"By her jacket?"
"The T-shirt, it was a girl's T-shirt for an eleven-year-old, we checked with the store already. Also, the feet," he said. "The size of the sneakers."
It hung there. We stood, two helpless guys, looking at the way the words seemed to hang frozen on the late morning air, and neither of us wanting to touch them.
"What else?" I said.
"Skin," he said. "Skin in the bottoms of the sneakers. Skin and blood, like somebody ripped them off her."
"What about socks?"
"Isn't that weird? It's freezing. What kid goes out without socks in this weather?"
"Yeah, I don't know, there were no fucking socks, anyhow. Or maybe the socks are some other place. That's why they're digging all those holes." His voice was flat, affectless.
I threw my half smoked cigarette on the ground and looked down at the black bag again, at the zipper that threw silver sparks in the bright sunlight. Sonny held onto my arm like a dog caught in my sleeve and I followed him away from the van and back towards the site.
A construction guy-someone must have called him in-was using a jackhammer to dig into a piece of still frozen ground. People milled around. Somewhere I heard a flag flap in the wind, that eerie sound a flag makes when it's battered by the wind, and the metal pulleys clank against the pole. I couldn't see it and it bothered me, no flag in sight, only the noise, the whipping of the fabric like wet laundry.
"Art?" Sonny was moving again, back to the ambulance.
I was distracted. I put on my sunglasses.
"Why the bags?" I asked finally.
He shrugged. "I didn't know where to put the clothing," he said. "I didn't want it out in plain sight."
I lit a fresh cigarette for myself.
"What do you need?" I said.
"I need help. I need to follow this. How are you fixed this weekend?"
"Nothing special," I said. "It's a holiday Monday so I took the three days, but I'm OK for whatever you need. Just tell me. You want me to go into the office, whatever; just say."
"I wanted you here because the jogger who found the baseball jacket is a Russki, you know, and her English isn't great. She's over there." He gestured to one of the police cars. A woman in sweatpants leaned against the hood of Lippert's car, head down, her hands over her face.
"You want me to talk to her?"
"Yeah, talk to the jogger, man, and go home and wait. I want you by the phone where I can get you."
"I have my cell."
"I want you by your regular phone. I don't want people listening in, the cell's like a megaphone, any fucker can clone it, you know? I don't want some rookie dickhead at the station house out here either fucking it up. They're obsessed now, make a collar, get a case. I want you by the phone, twenty-four seven, you understand? So talk to the Russian. I'll put it around I want you on the case because of your language skills. I'll make that the deal."
I was surprised. "But it's not?"
"You'll have a dozen people working this," I said. "Including a detective I saw from the local house who probably speaks some Russian. So why am I really here?"
"I trust you."
"I don't understand, you mean there's cops involved, you think there's other guys in this?"
"I just want someone I trust in a clean space. It's just a feeling," he added. "I'll say it's because of you speaking Russian, OK?" He repeated himself for the second time: "Like the old days, man? I'll say I need you because you speak Russian, that you know the community, OK, man? Which is true, right? More or less."
"Evidence like this, a little girl dead someplace, no one knows anything, no one even knows who the fuck she is, when the body turns up, we'll get blamed. They'll say we didn't work fast enough. We didn't care about it because it was out here, out in Brooklyn, by the water, in certain communities where there's only immigrants, you know? The shit will rain down on us, you know that. Media shit. Everyone just waiting to stoke the fear," he said. "And there's nothing you can do about it, you say, remember the snipers, you say, remember the other kidnappings, you remember, and you beg them, we beg the fuckers give us a little space to deal with this and their lawyers scream First Amendment. Christ, I'm sick of the fucking Constitution."
He reached out again as if to take my hand, a gesture I'd never seen him make; all he did was grab the sleeve of my jacket.
He said, "I'm scared, man. I'm scared about what's coming down. There's this little girl and there been others around the state, around the country, not to mention the cold cases. I can't even get this on the Amber alert unless I have more evidence. There were other cases I never told you about, I couldn't. We don't know who the hell she is or why someone would do it, but I'm scared. I'm scared about copycats. I'm scared. I'm scared of all of it, the crazies, the terror junkies. I think about it and in my mind I see paper dolls, you know, like I used to make for the kids, a row of paper dolls holding hands and then someone sets fire to them."
"You think this is terrorists?"
"Why not? You want to scare people, how about taking their kids?"
"You think it couldn't happen? I don't think anymore. I just try to cover my ass." He hesitated. "I can't get rid of the stink."
We had pretended we were OK, like everyone else; we pretended the recovery was complete, but the city was still on the edge of a nervous breakdown even after all this time, and Sonny Lippert had been in the World Trade Center that day.
He had been on his way to a meeting at Two World Trade when it happened and I knew he was going, I'd talked to him ten minutes earlier. I thought he was dead. I spent half the day thinking Sonny was dead, that a bunch of other people I knew were dead. Later I found him. He was digging at the site, still in his good gray suit, covered in dust, digging and looking for the living and there was no one. For a week we stayed there together. I couldn't leave him. I couldn't leave the hole. Maybe I should have gone home to Lily instead. Maybe if I'd gone home she would have stayed with me. She didn't. She left me and married somebody else.
Sonny said, "If you really have to go out, keep with your cell phone, at least, and call me back on a landline, OK? I mean stay with it all the time, when you take a piss, when you're sleeping. You get a message, you get a beep, anything. OK? And you don't do anything else. You don't do anything else without telling me. Just the phone. OK?"
Lippert could be crazy and lucid at the same time and I wasn't going up against him on this one.
I said, low-key as I could manage, "Maybe she's still alive, Sonny. Maybe this is about something else, the blood, the clothes. She could be alive, you know that?"
"Listen to me. She's not alive, but we'll pretend we're hopeful, like you say. I don't want any of this leaked. I don't want anything on TV. I know you know people around here, but you'll keep your mouth shut, won't you?"
"I hear you."
"I don't want anyone knowing we think this is a repeat of the others, that there's a serial killer involved, OK? We'll take it a step at a time. Because if news about this gets out, we'll have every family on our back, everyone whose kid has been out of the house for half an hour. You hear me? Keep it zipped, man, OK?"
He was over-reacting, he was blowing it out of all proportion, he was way out of the ballpark on this, I was sure of it. What made me go along finally, what made me believe him, was that Sonny Lippert said something I'd almost never heard him say in more than twenty years.
"It was my fault," he said. "The other girl. I didn't act fast enough. It was my fault," he said and walked away.
I kept my mouth shut.
A journalist and documentary filmmaker, Reggie Nadelson is the author of four previous Artie Cohen novels: Red Hot Blues, Hot Poppies, Bloddy London, and Sex Dolls. Comrade Rockstar, her biography of Dean Reed, the American émigré who became the biggest rock star in the Soviet Union, is under movie option to Tom Hanks. She was born and lives in New York's Lower West Side.
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The jogger running near Coney Island finds blood stained clothing. The Special Unit Dealing with Kids Crimes chief Sonny Lippert is disturbed by the apparent crime scene because he has been involved with similar and now cold cases like this one. Bloody clothing belonging to a preadolescent, a nearby hole, and no corpse at the locale, but the body turns up elsewhere later. He orders Detective Artie Cohen to help with the inquiry officially because he can speak Russian so will foster communication with the local community, but unofficially because he trusts him unlike the rest of law enforcement involved in the case......................... Artie would like nothing to do with the case, but knows he must become involved especially with the Russian community that is his heritage. When a possible second child homicide occurs, the city, still under siege mentally and physically from 9/11, goes berserk. With a storm coming, Artie realizes that his godson Billy is missing and could be the next victim of an apparent serial killer.................... This series is one of the best urban police procedurals on the market today as Reggie Nadelson combines a deep look at the Russian communities living in the Brooklyn Spit beaches with a top rate investigation. Artie is a terrific protagonist whose barbs lighten a tense tale at just the right moments. The investigation is fabulous as readers watch Artie turn desperate as the child he loves like a son has gone missing.................... Harriet Klausner