Hot Poppies (Artie Cohen Series #2)by Reggie Nadelson
A murder in New York’s diamond district; a plastic bag of irradiated heroin lying on the mantelpiece in an empty apartment; a fire in a sweatshop in the city’s swarming Chinatown; the worst blizzard in New York history…. These events conspire to bring ex-cop Artie Cohen out of retirement and back into an obsessive world of murder and politics that
A murder in New York’s diamond district; a plastic bag of irradiated heroin lying on the mantelpiece in an empty apartment; a fire in a sweatshop in the city’s swarming Chinatown; the worst blizzard in New York history…. These events conspire to bring ex-cop Artie Cohen out of retirement and back into an obsessive world of murder and politics that once nearly killed him.
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The fresh cold snow slapped my face around and when I licked some off my mouth it tasted like a blast of gin right out of the freezer. It was the morning I found the snapshot of the dead girl near her body. In the picture she stood next to a big white Caddy convertible, wearing a hot pink jacket and grinning fit to die. In real life, if you could call it that, she lay on the floor of my friend Hillel's place in the diamond district, dead, naked and white. Not white like the snow; more the color of asbestos.
I'd been in bed with Lily Hanes when the phone rang around dawn. I groped for it on the floor I hate the goddamn cellphone, always going off somewhere you can't see it, like your heart ringing and Lily switched on the TV. She's an event freak like all reporters. Taking in the news of the blizzard, Lily smiled. `I love the sense of impending disaster,' she said, then she kissed me, turned over and went back to sleep. I threw on my clothes and left, and Lily's tousled red hair and her bare freckled back were the last warm things I saw.
It was like walking into a meat locker when I got to Hillel Abramsky's, or maybe like walking into hell, if hell froze over. Even before I got inside, a snake of chemical cold curled out from under the door, and I knew it was much worse than Hillel had let on when he called me at Lily's. Why would you put on air conditioning when it's snowing out unless there's something putrid in your place, something you figure is going to stink?
The cold made my skin pucker up like an old persimmon. The hairs on my arm went rigid. The thing on the floor made me hang back in the doorway. In my pants pocket, I scrabbled for cigarettes.
`I'm glad you're here, Artie. I need you.'
I had to squint to make out that it was Hillel talking. Then I saw him. He was kneeling on the floor under the window. Black hat on the back of his head, beard spread over his shirt front, he was lit from behind like one of those Jesus pictures by the thick milky light that was coming up outside. From somewhere I could hear the grind and whine of the garbage truck eating bottles and a radio playing Frank Sinatra. `I've got the World on a String', Frank sang. I scratched the wall for a light. A fluorescent bar blinked on and made everything look hard and flat.
`You got to look, Artie. Please. It's why I got you out of bed. Please,' Hillel said again and pulled back the coat to show me the body. She lay on her back, tiny and dead. The nakedness embarrassed me.
`She's Chinese.' Hillel clenched his fists when he said it. `I got enough trouble. What's she doing up here on 47th Street, anyhow? What's she doing outside Chinatown?'
She was Chinese, and her scrawny legs were splayed at skewed angles. Bruises covered her arms. Everywhere else, as far as I could see, there were lacerations, scratches, stab wounds. Rigor had set in and her tiny hands seemed to clutch at something: life, maybe.
I bent over. Her face appeared to have been slashed with some kind of rake, a knife with multiple blades. The flesh looked like rats had clawed it over and over.
`Jesus Christ,' I said and sat on the edge of the cot in the corner to keep from shaking.
`Drink that,' Hillel said, reaching for a paper bag and extracting a carton of coffee. He dumped in some sugar. `Drink it.'
The coffee was cold and it tasted of cardboard, but the sugar and caffeine gave me the buzz I needed.
Hillel put his coat back, over the body and I should have stopped him. It would contaminate the scene, but I kept my mouth shut and Hillel, nimble for such a tall man, got up and put his hand on my shoulder. He's forty like me, but the black clothes make him seem a lot older. Also, Hillel has seen a lot more of life. He already has six kids.
`You want to turn the air off, Hil. It's gonna freeze up and bust if you don't.' I looked at the body. `It's OK. She's not going to stink or anything. Turn it off. You called 911?'
`I called you, Artie. I don't want trouble. This woman, she's Chinese,' he repeated himself. Bullets of sweat seemed to freeze on his forehead and hang there.
`You have to call the cops, Hil. I'm out of it. I'm not on the job. They call this extended leave without pay, but it means it's over. I'm a civilian.'
`You're the only cop I can trust,' he said.
`I'm not a cop. I quit.'
Hillel looked exhausted. `Fine. You're not a cop any more. You're an ex-cop. What's the difference? You're my friend.'
He sat down heavily on the cot next to me. Bent over himself like a hollow giant, he sat on the edge of that cot and picked at the floor. He pulled up a wood splinter and examined it, then tossed it away and leaned his elbows on his knees. `Give me a cigarette, Artie,' he said, then added sheepishly, `I was supposed to quit.'
For a minute we sat and sucked at the cigarettes; the nicotine helped.
`I'm grateful you came.' He gestured at the dead woman. `I don't want trouble with the Chinese. We already got plenty trouble in Crown Heights. We sold the place in Flushing because the Chinese came in. We sold the place on Canal Street when Chinatown ate up the neighborhood downtown. We were trapped, they had all these fights going on between themselves, different factions, different everything, Fujianese, Cantonese, what do I know from all this, except we got caught in the middle and these people are eating us up.'
`I didn't know the Chinese went in for diamonds.' I picked up the phone to call 911. Hillel took it away from me.
`Diamonds are big in Hong Kong. They got their own set-up. Sources in London, Russia also. They don't play by our rules.'
Hillel pulled on the cigarette. `There was a kid. Errand boy from one of my suppliers. He was OK. Then he gets nosy. Wants to learn the business, he says. I figure he wants a taste. I tell him, we're only family here. I tell his boss, keep him away, but they don't like it. He wants protection money. So I change suppliers.'
`What kind of supplier?'
`Toilet paper.' Hillel laughed without any humor. `Paper towels. Cleaning supplies. I told him to beat it.'
`Anything else I should know about this kid?'
`He was a kid, nineteen, twenty. Gold necklaces. Petulant. Weak mouth. So skinny, he stooped like an old man. Weird hair. Red.'
`What kind of weird?'
`More orange than red. You know, dyed. Like a lot of gang kids. And big in front. You know what I'm saying?'
I went to the door. No one had touched the locks. Only Hillel has keys, it's practically a religion with him.
I've known Hillel Abramsky a long time. He helped me with diamond district stuff when I was on the job. In a few hours, he would have been running back and forth to his uncle's building next door; the men cut the stones there in a room where diamond dust seems to float in motes of sunlight. Once, Hilly showed me what good diamonds look like, made me look through his loupe at them, beautiful, icy, unfeeling things that people kill for. Hil is not a material guy but I had seen how much the diamonds excited him.
`What's your security like?'
He stabbed his cigarette into the coffee carton where it hissed and died. `I have first class alarms. But this office I only use for paperwork. Sometimes I come in early to catch up. Mo, the accountant, does the books sometimes. I read a little. Pray. Next door at my uncle's where they keep the stones they got locks from Fort Knox.' He tried smiling, but all the gusto was gone.
`Then how did this girl slip through your door on a Sunday night, Hil? How? Talk to me.'
`I don't know. I don't know anything any more.' He was closer to despair than I've seen him in fifteen years.
`Call 911,' I said. `I'll wait until they come. Call like you would if you just found the girl. What else did you see when you got here?'
Clutching the portable phone, he punched 911. I looked at the body shrouded in Hillel's black coat. I'd seen worse stuff. Much worse. I'd gone numb with seeing stuff over the years, like cops do, drinking too much, getting ulcers, telling competitive horror stories for the laughs. `You hear about the baby on the plane that never cried?' some detective would say in a bar after work. `It was dead, man, hollowed out, stuffed with cocaine. They don't put that shit on TV.' Maybe being off the job, I had turned back into some kind of human being.
The radiator came on. The room grew suffocatingly hot and airless. Sweat trickled down my sides like ants. So a Chinese girl was dead, I thought. It was tough, but it happened all the time. When I looked at the body, though, I had the feeling this thing would snowball, it would get bigger and bigger, I could run away but it would roll over me. Run me over, gobble me up. I didn't want it. I lit another cigarette.
`Take your coat off her. Someone's gonna get real pissed off if they think you messed up the scene.'
Squatting on his heels, he pulled the coat back off the body then he got up. I crouched beside the girl. Lime green hairs from a sweater in a small pile of clothes next to it had drifted into the air and settled on her, stuck in the dried blood. I picked up the sweater. In the pocket was a stick-on label, an address printed in magic marker, like a kid going to camp. You could send her back if she got lost. Return to sender: one dead girl. No name. Probably never would have a name. I scribbled the address on a matchbook I had in my pocket.
Then I found the photograph the girl in it fooling around next to the white Caddy. I looked at the girl on the floor, then back at the picture in my hand. They were the same. The same person, one alive and smiling, the other dead, her face ripped apart.
`Artie?' Hillel plucked at my arm and, only half conscious I was doing it, I slipped the photograph into my pocket and got up from the floor.
In Hillel's outstretched palm was a red cloth flower, the kind you see all over Chinatown. `I also found this. Red's good luck with the Chinese.' He shook his head. `Some luck!'
Hillel's a realist. In his line of line of work, you have to be, not to mention his religion that gets in people's faces and makes them hate. The certainty, I envied; I wondered if there was anything that could make him doubt.
Maybe he has the inside track spiritually, but I don't get the prayer stuff, or the accessories, the shawl, the box on the forehead, and I'd be dead before I'd walk around with a yarmulke all day. I'm not that kind of Jew. I'm not sure I'm any kind of Jew.
`Look, I have some money.' Hillel put a neat fold of bills on the desk. `You could use the money. I need your help.' The phone was still in his hand and he spoke into it. `Dead. I told you. Yes. Sure, I'm sure. Sure. There's tracks on her face. Her belly's ripped wide open.'
`I can't take your money,' I said. Then I heard the sirens in the distance. The cops were on their way. `Hil, you'll be OK now. You will. I swear to God. But I can't do any more. If I get sucked into this kind of cesspool again, I'm going to fucking drown in it.'
The snow fell, the wind tinkled on the window, the radio played more Sinatra. In the tangle of clothes on the floor next to the dead girl, I imagined I saw something almost alive, something I didn't want to name, hadn't wanted to think about from the second I arrived.
`You knew,' Hillel said. `You knew fight away when you came through that door, didn't you? Didn't you, Artie?' His voice rose. He was almost hysterical now.
`Yeah, I knew.'
`She was pregnant, Artie. She was pregnant and they ripped up her face and cut her open. Then they killed her and the baby both.'
A trio of diamond dealers in long black coats minced along 47th Street like old ladies afraid to fall on the ice and crack their bones. I had come out of Hillel's. Listening to the sirens, I sat in my car, waiting for the cops. A patrol car pulled up followed by a vintage silver Porsche. From it emerged a guy in a white jacket. He pushed his Raybans on top of his head and, without offering any to the cops standing around, took some cigarettes from his pocket and lit up. He gestured at Hillel's building, then turned to look in my direction. He wasn't looking at me, though. He was waiting for the TV van that, even while I was sitting there, came up 47th Street and stopped in front of Hillel's.
I'd seen the cop on TV. Chan? Chen? Something Chen? He was a big deal. When there was a case involving the Chinese, they called him in. Hillel would be OK now, I told myself. He'd be OK. I drove back to 10th Street and slipped into Lily's bed. Without waking up, she turned and draped her leg over me.
I lay awake and watched Lily. We'd been going out, on and off, for around a year and a half. There was someone else in her life, but he was mostly in England.
Asleep, all six feet of her, she resembled a gangly twelve-year-old. Lily's forty-six, maybe forty-seven. I think. She won't tell me. It's her Achilles heel, the age thing, not that I give a rat's ass how old she is. She's very smart. Nice. We get along great, the sex is great, we love the same music. There's never any hidden messages with her either, and she has great legs. Also, Lily was born in New York.
Like a special perfume, she wears the city in her skin, has its confidence, style, class. It's the air she breathes, and she reminds me of my dreams. When I met her, I felt I'd sailed into a safe harbor.
Outside the window, weird fat flakes of snow were falling very fast. I love New York when it's cold and sharp and the air has that awesome clarity, when you lie in bed and watch the day come up and do its tricks with light all over again.
Half asleep now, I drifted. Maybe it's the only Russian thing left in me, loving the winter. It's twenty-five, twenty-six years since I left Moscow, the asshole of world cities. Skating in Gorky Park is one of my good memories. That last winter, a daring park apparatchik put Domenico Meduno doing `Nel Blu del Pinto del Blu' on the sound system. We bribed him to put a Beatles number on and our parents caught a lot of shit for it, but my mother, who always laughed at the system, laughed even harder. A long time ago, I thought, trying to settle into the warm pocket of sheets next to Lily's back. But I was restless.
Lying there, I tried to reclaim the guy I'd been a couple of hours earlier. We'd been good, me and Lily, ever since I quit. Mellow is what I'd been feeling right up until Hillel called. I tried to get it back. I didn't want to tell Lily about the dead girl. My last case, the one in Brighton Beach, had scared the shit out of her, and I figured if I stayed off the job, if I finally quit, maybe we could have a life together. But maybe I was kidding myself.
`What's going on?' Lily opened her pale blue-gray eyes, rubbed them, switched the TV on. `You OK? Artie?'
`Yeah. I'm fine.'
`Who was on the phone before?'
`Hillel Abramsky. He needed a favor.'
`What kind of favor?' The voice grew tart. `Artie? What kind of favor?'
`Some trouble at his shop. I helped him out. I owed him.'
`You owe too many people,' she said, but she was smiling, sitting up, watching the weather report as intently as a gambler at the track now, watching his horse come in. `I think this is going to be the biggest blizzard in New York history, you know.' She got up, grabbed her green silk pajama top from the floor and put it on.
`Come back to bed,' I said, but Lily was already at the window.
`Snow.' Gathering her hair into a pony tail and tying it with a rubber band she found in her pocket, she beamed. `Lots of snow. Lows, troughs, gale force winds, the whole awesome thing.'
Her clear eyes liquid with delight, she blew me a kiss, then headed for the bathroom door, where she turned and grinned like a cat that's just spotted a huge dish of cream. `Like I said, impending disaster, toots.' She meant the snow.
I was sweating bullets. By now I had realized what was driving me nuts. I knew her.
I knew the girl. I didn't know how I knew her or where, but what kept me awake, what made me sweat, was I knew the dead girl on Hillel Abramsky's floor.
Meet the Author
A journalist and documentary film maker, Reggie Nadelson is a New Yorker who also makes her home in London. She is the author of six novels featuring the detective Artie Cohen, most recently Red Hook. Her non-fiction book Comrade Rockstar, the story of the American who became the biggest rock star in the Soviet Union, is to be made into a film starring Tom Hanks.
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