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By REGGIE NADELSON
Walker & Company
Copyright © 2009 Reggie Nadelson
All right reserved.
Chapter One From behind the bar at his club in the West Village, Tolya Sverdloff looked up and saw me.
"Artie, good morning, how are you, have something to drink, or maybe a cup of good coffee, and we'll talk, I need a little favor, maybe you can help me out?" All this came out of his mouth fast, in a single sentence, as if he couldn't cram enough good things into it if he stopped for breath.
In the streaming shafts of morning sunlight coming in through a pair of big windows, he resembled a saint in stained glass, but a very secular saint, a glass of red wine in one hand, a Havana in the other and an expression of huge pleasure on his face. He stuck his nose in the glass, he swirled it and sniffed, and drank, and saw me watching.
"Oh, man, this is it," he said. "This is everything, a reason to be alive. Come taste this," added Tolya and poured some wine into a second glass. "A fantastic Ducru. I'll give you a bottle," he said. "As a reward."
I sat on one of the padded leather stools at his bar. "What for?"
"For coming by at this hour when I call you," said Tolya, who tasted the wine again and smiled, showing the dimples big enough for a child to stick its fist in. He brushed the thick black hair from his forehead, and rolled his eyes with pleasure at the wine, this big effusive generous guy, a voluptuary. Wine and food were his redemption, he always said.
"So what do you need that you got me here at the fucking crack of dawn on my first day of vacation?" I said. "I'll take that coffee."
He held up a hand. Some opera came in over the sound system. "Maria Callas," said Tolya. "Traviata. My God, has there ever been a Violetta like that?"
While he listened, I looked at the framed Soviet posters on the wall, including an original Rodchenko for The Battleship Potemkin, and wondered how the hell he had got hold of it.
"Try the wine," he said. "You should really come into business with me, you know, Artie. We could have so much fun, you could run this place, or we could open another one, you could make a little money. Anyhow, you're too old to play cops and robbers."
"I'm a New York City detective, it's not a game," I said. "You met somebody? You sound like you're in love."
"Don't be so pompous," said Tolya and we both burst out laughing.
"Yeah, I know."
"You working anything, Artemy?" He used my Russian name.
Like me, Tolya Sverdloff grew up in Moscow. I got out when I was sixteen, got to New York, cut all my ties, dumped my past as fast as I could. He had a place over there, and one in England. Tolya was a nomad now, London, New York, Russia. He had opened clubs in all of them.
"I am on vacation as of yesterday," I said. "Off the job for ten fantastic days, no homicides pending, no crazy Russians in need of my linguistic services." I stretched and yawned, and drank some more of the wine. It wasn't even nine in the morning. Who cares, I thought. The wine was delicious.
Tolya lifted his glass. "My birthday next week," he said.
"So you'll come to my party?"
"In London," he said.
"You know I worked a case there once. It left a bad taste."
"You're wrong. Is fantastic city, Artemy."
I drank some more wine.
"Best city, most civilized."
Whenever he talked about London these days, it was to tell me how wonderful it was. But he described it as a tourist might—the parks, the theaters, the pretty places. I knew that he had, along with his club there, other business. He didn't tell me about it, I didn't ask.
He put his glass down. "Oh, God, I love the smell of the Medoc in the morning, Artyom," said Tolya, switching from English to Russian.
Tolya's English depended on the occasion. As a result of an education at Moscow's language schools, he spoke it beautifully, with a British accent. Drunk, or what he sometimes called "party mood", his language was his own invention, a mix of Russian and English, low and high, the kind he figured uneducated people speak—the gangsters, the nouveau riche Russians. He taunted me constantly. He announced, once in a while, that he knew I thought all Russkis were thugs, or Neanderthals. "You think this, Artemy," he said.
His Russian, when he bothered, though, was so pure, so soft, it made me feel my soul was being stroked. Like his father spoke when he was alive, Tolya told me once. His father had been trained as an actor. Singer, too. Paul Robeson complimented his father when his father was still a student. He had the voice, my pop did, said Tolya.
"You said you need a favor?"
"Just to take some books to an old lady in Brooklyn, okay?" Tolya put a shopping bag on the bar. "You don't mind? Sure sure sure?"
He already knew I'd do what he wanted without asking. It was his definition of a friend. He believed only in the Russian version of friends, not like Americans, he says, who call everybody friends. "My best friend, they say," he hooted mockingly.
"I would go myself," said Tolya, "but I have two people who didn't show up last night. Which a little bit annoys me because I am very nice with my staff. I pay salary also tips, unlike many clubs and restaurants."
It was one of Sverdloff's beefs that most staff at the city's restaurants were paid minimum wage and made their money on tips. "I hate this system," he said. "In Spain it is civilized, in Spain, waiters are properly paid," he added and I could see he was starting on his usual riff.
"Right," I said, feeling the wine in my veins like liquid pleasure. "Of course, Tolya. You are the nicest boss in town."
"Do not laugh at me, Artyom," he said. "I am very good socialist in capitalist drag."
Tolya had called his club Pravda2, because there was already a bar named Pravda, which the owner, very nice English guy but stubborn, Tolya said, had refused to sell him. Club named Pravda must belong to Russian guy, Tolya said. English guy won't sell me his, I open my own.
Pravda2, Artie, you get it?
You like the pun, Artie? You get it? Yeah, I get it, Tol, I'd say, Truth Too, In Vino Veritas, blah blah, you're the fountainhead of all that is true, you, in the wine, I get it.
Originally, he'd planned on making P2, as he called it, a champagne bar he'd run for his friends, to entertain them, and where he would only sell Krug. He added a few dishes, and got himself a line to a supplier with very good caviar, and a food broker, a pretty girl, who could get excellent foie gras, he told me.
To his surprise, it was a success. He was thrilled. He gave in to his own lust for red wine, big reds, he calls them, and only French, the stuff that costs a bundle. And cognac. Some vodkas.
I wasn't a wine drinker. People who loved it bored the shit out of me, but sometimes Sverdloff got me over in the afternoon when the wine salesmen come around and we spent hours tasting stuff. Some of them were truly great. Like the stuff I was having for breakfast that morning.
Tolya saw himself, he had told me the other evening, as an impresario of the night. I said he was a guy with a bar.
He liked to discuss the wines, not to mention the vodka he got made for him special in Siberia that he kept in a frozen silver decanter. He went to Mali last January to visit his Tuareg silversmith. He stayed for a month. Fell in love with the music.
Sverdloff liked the idea of the rare piece of silver, the expensive wine, liked to think of himself as a connoisseur. It's just potatoes, I said. Potatoes. Vodka is a bunch of fermented spuds, I told him.
"So you'll take the books for me?" Tolya said.
"Give me the address." I finished the wine in my glass.
"They're for Olga Dimitriovna, you remember, you took some books before, the older lady in Starrett City? She likes you, she always says, please say hello to your friend. I got them special from our mutual friend, Dubi, in Brighton Beach, very good editions, Russian novels, a whole set of Turgenev," he added, and picked up his half-pound of solid gold Dunhill lighter with the cigar engraved, a ruby for the glowing tip. He flicked it and relit his Cohiba.
"Thank you for this, Artie, honest. It is only these books, and some wine, but this lady depends, you know?" He put his hand into the pocket of his custom-made black jeans, and extracted a wad of bills held together with a jeweled money clip. "Look, put this inside one of the books. She won't take money, but I know she needs."
I took the dough.
"I would go myself if I could," he said.
"Yeah, yeah, and how would you ever find Brooklyn anyhow?" I picked up the bottle and poured a little more wine in my glass.
"So you'll go now, I mean, you're waiting for what, MooDllo?" he said, his term of affectionate abuse, a word that doesn't translate into English but comes from "modal" that once meant a castrated ram but moved on to mean a stupendously stupid person. An asshole was maybe the right word, but in Russian much more affectionate, much dirtier. He glanced at his watch.
"What's the hurry?"
My elbows on the bar, I was slowly winding down into a vacation mode, thinking of things I'd do, sleep late, listen to music, some fishing off of Montauk, maybe ride my bike over the George Washington Bridge, see a few movies, take in a ball game, dinner out with some pals, maybe dinner with Valentina though I didn't mention it to Tolya. He was crazy about his daughter, Val, and so was I. If Tolya knew how much, he'd rip my arms out. She was his kid, she was half my age.
"Pour me a little more of that wine, will you?" I said.
"I hear you. I'm going."
"You'll come by tonight?" said Tolya.
I was halfway out the door, when I heard Tolya behind me.
"Artemy?" He stood on the sidewalk in front of Pravda2, and held his face up to the hot sun. He waved at a delivery guy, he smiled at a couple of kids on skateboards. He was lord of this little domain, he owned it, it was his community. I envied him.
"You used to know a guy named Roy Pettus?"
"Sure. Ex-Feeb. Worked the New York FBI office back when, I knew him some, worked a case, a dozen years, more maybe, around the time we met, you and me."
"I don't remember," said Tolya. "Anyhow, he was in here, asking about you."
"Last night after you left."
"Pettus? What did he want?"
Tolya shrugged. "Came in wearing a suit, said he wanted a glass of wine, didn't drink it, didn't look like a guy who knows his Pauillac from his Dr Pepper. Made a little conversation with me. Asked about you."
"How you were, were you still working Russian jobs," said Tolya, "How's your facility with the lingo. Doesn't ask straight out, but kind of hangs around. Tells me we met at your wedding, knows you got divorced. Pretends he is just making conversation, but what the fuck is a guy in a suit like that doing in my club? I got the feeling it was why he dropped by, wanting to ask about you."
"Why didn't he just call me?"
"What do I know? Maybe he's just some old spook who likes playing the game, what do they call it, tradecraft?" said Tolya laughing and making spooky noises and laughing some more. "Well, as my daughter says, whatevs, right?'
"Yeah, right. Last I heard Roy Pettus retired home to Wyoming."
I headed for my car at the curb. I had gotten it washed in time for vacation, and it looked beautiful, gleaming and red, the ancient Caddy convertible. I climbed in, put the Erroll Garner disc into the slot, and turned the key.
"Think about coming into the business with me, okay?" Tolya called out.
Already I was listening to the joyous music of Concert by the Sea, but I took in what Tolya said. Every month or so, when he asked me again, more and more I thought: why not go in with Sverdloff? Why not take him up on it, a trip to London, a chance for a new life, stop chasing fuckwits who murder people? Maybe it was time.
"Don't get lost in Brooklyn," Tolya called out, grinned and waved me away.
Chapter Two If I had gone straight to Brooklyn from Tolya's, if I had not stopped at home to grab some swim shorts and call Valentina, maybe I could have avoided the whole damn thing, maybe I would have avoided the little kid, yelling and waving, mouth open in an O with a howl coming out.
By the time I saw her, as she darted into the street, I was a second away from running her down, from killing her. Sweat covered my face, ran down the back of my neck. The bag on the seat next to me fell on the floor, books tumbled out, the books I was taking to the old lady for Tolya.
I slammed on the brakes. I got out of my car in the middle of the street. There wasn't much traffic out here in this dismal corner of the city, but a few cars were honking now, and I yelled at them and grabbed her up, the kid who was yelling, and sat her down on the curb. It was a warm dry day, gusts of wind coming off the water half a mile away. Balls of newspaper and dust rolled along the nearly empty street. It was a holiday. July 4.
On the broken sidewalk out here at the edge of Brooklyn, where it butts up against Queens, I put my arm around the kid in the dirty pink t-shirt and tried to get her to talk to me.
After a while, she calmed down some, and started talking in a tiny voice and I realized she was a Russian kid. I asked her name. Dina, she mumbled, and pulled at me, and I followed her across the street, which was lined with ramshackle houses, some of the windows broken and covered with plywood and plastic. In one of the yards weeds had grown up over the skeleton of an old Mercedes. There was garbage everywhere. A desolate place, fifteen miles from the middle of Manhattan.
Dina ducked under some rough bushes. In front of us was a gate to an old playground surrounded by chain-link fencing. There was a padlock on the gate. A piece of the fence was missing and Dina got on her belly and crawled under it. I followed her into a wasteland of overgrown weeds and grass, used needles, empty bottles. It was silent, a thick, dead silence, except for something creaking, a low raw sound I couldn't identify.
The jungle gym was broken. The sandbox was empty, no sand to play in. Dina was silent now, too, she had stopped babbling, stopped talking. Then she lifted one skinny arm and pointed and I followed her gaze and saw it, a figure on a swing. It was the source of the noise, the raw creak, the metal chains grinding against the poles where the swing hung.
Wrapped in silver duct tape that glinted dully in the morning light, the figure – probably a woman – was sitting on the swing, arms tied to the chains with rope, a harsh wind moving her back and forth. Or maybe it was her own weight that propelled her as she went to and fro, back and forth, on the swing in the deserted playground in Brooklyn.
"When did you find this?" I said in Russian as softly as I could, though there was nobody else here.
"Is she dead? She is dead?" said Dina, and then suddenly broke away from me, and ran out of the playground, head down, too fast for me to catch her, a blur of skinny legs and arms and pink shirt.
I called it in, and went back to the swings.
I caught the body and held her still. She was heavy. She seemed to lean against me. I stumbled and tripped and fell on my knees. A broken bottle cut me and blood stained my ankle.
The feel of the greasy duct tape dank from humidity made me want to gag. I could feel this was flesh under the tape, that this had been a woman.
I've been a cop a long time, twenty years, more, but this was so surreal, for a second I thought I was hallucinating. I didn't know what to do, not when the body against me seemed to breathe in and out of its own accord.
Was she still alive?
From above came the sound of a solitary plane; piercing the blue sky over the city, it came in low over the Jamaica Wetlands on its way into JFK.
I had to know what was under the tape.
Holding the body still with one arm, I lifted a small section of tape off the face. The tape rasped against the skin. It had been crudely done. The tape came away easily. I touched the skin near the nose lightly, and I saw one of her eyes and thought I felt it flutter, as if it might suddenly open.
She was dead. I never was an expert on physical death but she had been on the swing a long time, far as I could tell.
Excerpted from LONDON GRAD by REGGIE NADELSON Copyright © 2009 by Reggie Nadelson. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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