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A young actress plummets through the sky, slamming down onto the roof of a parked car. Detectives Anthony Ryan and Joe Gregory believe the Broadway star's "suicide" may actually be something more sinister. The main suspect is a big-time Broadway producer with a shady past. But who is the mysterious figure known only as the "Juggler" — and what connection does he have to the dead girl? From the back alleys of Broadway to the vanishing Irish communities of Yonkers, Ryan and Gregory work through family secrets and ...
A young actress plummets through the sky, slamming down onto the roof of a parked car. Detectives Anthony Ryan and Joe Gregory believe the Broadway star's "suicide" may actually be something more sinister. The main suspect is a big-time Broadway producer with a shady past. But who is the mysterious figure known only as the "Juggler" — and what connection does he have to the dead girl? From the back alleys of Broadway to the vanishing Irish communities of Yonkers, Ryan and Gregory work through family secrets and tarnished reputations to find out what really happened on that balcony. As they discover the truth, the case becomes personal for Ryan, bringing him dangerously close to losing everything.
It was one a.m. when a figure in white plummeted through the incandescent Times Square sky and slammed onto the roof of a parked Ford van. Bits of broken glass danced gracefully across the luminous pavement in one of those silent, slow-motion moments that occur when the world stops. Stunned. As if even God were taken by surprise.
"Jumper," Detective Joe Gregory said.
Gregory and his longtime partner, Detective Anthony Ryan, were stuck in traffic across the street, in the short block near the TKTS booth on West Forty-seventh Street.
"You saw someone jump?" Ryan said.
"I saw white falling. A woman in white."
"Those terraces above the billboard. The white caught my eye. White nightgown. Young woman."
Within seconds downtown traffic backed up past David Letterman's marquee, and the horns began. Ryan rolled down the window of their unmarked, radioless Buick.
"How do you know she's young?" Ryan said.
"Because I'm a trained investigator."
"What's her zodiac sign?"
"Go ahead, mock me," Gregory said, peering up as if he could see the phosphorous trail of her flight. "But I'll lay odds she's under thirty. Distraught over a lover's quarrel. Ten bucks says we find a tearstained note on her pillow."
A few minutes earlier the veteran detectives had decided to call it a night, take a slow cruise downtown to Brady's Bar. Sip a gin and tonic, tell a few war stories. Now that nightcap would have to wait, because fifty yards away a crowd gathered as dust rose above the crushed roof of a van like incense in the glare of neon.
"Where the hell are all these young foot cops when you need them?" Ryan said as he waved his hand in a futile attempt to part traffic. "You see any uniforms anywhere?"
The NYPD's senior homicide investigators were accustomed to arriving when the scene was framed in yellow tape, blood already dry on the pavement. Gregory blew the horn long and angrily at a cabbie in a skullcap who acted as if the Buick's front bumper were not really inches away from his cab's side door.
"How do you say 'asshole' in Urdu?" Gregory said.
"Asshole," Ryan answered, and he opened the car door.
"Stay in the car, pally," Gregory said, grabbing his arm. "We'll get there soon enough."
But Ryan knew exactly why his mother-hen partner wanted him to stay put; they'd been reenacting this same scene . . . with every young victim . . . ever since the death of Ryan's son eleven months ago. Anthony Ryan Jr., known as Rip to his friends, died in a Utah hang-gliding accident. In the cruelest confirmation of their brotherhood, Ryan and Gregory had both joined the league of men who'd lost their only sons. Across the street the crowds began to spill into the roadway. "Someone has to get over there," Ryan said, pulling away. He slammed the car door behind him, then rapped his knuckles on the hood of the Buick to let Gregory know he'd be just fine. He tapped out the shave-and-a-haircut knock he'd heard his partner inflict on apartment doors for three decades. He'd be just fine. Then he shoved his leather shield case into his breast pocket, the gold badge hanging outside, and weaved through the jumble of cars jamming the intersection. The warm night air was moist and heavy, the pavement soft underfoot. The smell of sewer gas spiked the air.
The woman in white had landed on a dingy white Ford Econoline. Hand-painted on the side was "Times Square Ark of Salvation." A halo of loose dirt ringed the pavement beneath the van, jolted from the undercarriage by the force of the falling body. On the sidewalk in front of the van stood a tiny black man in a white shirt and black bow tie, holding a microphone in his trembling hands.
"Sweet Jesus," the street preacher kept saying. "Oh, sweet Jesus."
Ryan elbowed his way through the crowd as a familiar queasiness came over him. It was a feeling he remembered from his days as a young uniformed cop, when a sudden scream ricocheted off the buildings. Everyone looks right at the uniform; you cannot hide in the color blue in this city. John Q. Citizen demands that the monster be dealt with quickly, shoved back under the bed. And that shove was the street cop's stock-in-trade.
"Where did she come from?" Ryan said.
"From the Lord," the preacher said.
Ryan couldn't remember how long it had been since he'd felt the jitters that came with being the first cop on an ugly scene. But the standing rule of the first cop was, "Take control." The crowd calms when a uniform appears. The first cop plays all the roles. He's the doctor: he takes a pulse, checks for breathing, performs CPR, fakes CPR, fakes something, anything. Then he plays cop: covers the body, talks into his radio, barks at the crowd, yells, "Move back . . . give her some air!" But he "takes control." No matter how wildly his stomach is doing back flips.
"I mean what building did she come from?" Ryan said, the thunderous boom of the falling body still ringing in his ears.
"From the house of the good Lord Jesus," the preacher said.
The woman lay curled on the swayed roof of the van, her head tucked awkwardly under her left shoulder. Long reddish-brown hair covered her bloodied face. Ryan's legs trembled as he stepped up onto one of the preacher's wooden speakers. He leaned across the van's roof and adjusted the white garment to cover her bare thighs. The material felt thick and coarse between his fingers. It was not a nightgown, but a dress, pleated and full skirted. Old-fashioned, like something you saw on American Bandstand in the fifties.
Ryan took a deep breath and tried to detach, to keep his mind calm and think of this simply as a freak occurrence . . . not his life . . . not his problem. He looked around for his partner, then thought, Where the hell are the sirens?
He took another deep breath, and he was doing just fine . . . until he saw the pearl white shard of bone jutting through the skin at the base of her skull, and he saw his own gentle, funny son and shivered at the thought of his body shattering as it struck the floor of a bleak desert canyon.
"Someone call 911," Ryan said to the crowd, his voice hoarse. "Anyone, please." Someone had to have a cell phone: a hooker, a tourist, a drug dealer.
Ryan looked for Gregory, but the faces in the crowd were blurred and hazy. He tried to focus on something else. From its billboard perch across the street, the red Eight O'clock Coffee cup steamed endlessly into the sultry night air.
Then he heard something.
Sounds. Coming from the woman in white. Like words . . . whispered in a moan or grunt. In that instant his senses exploded and he was aware of everything. Images of air and light went large and floated in slow motion. He moved closer to her face, trying to hear or feel the slightest hint of a breath or twitch. He could smell her hair, a fruity shampoo.
The Ark of Salvation groaned under Ryan's weight as he climbed onto the roof of the van. Creases in the metal cut into his shins; sweat ran down his sides. He cleared the woman's hair away, and white beads from a broken necklace fell, tinkling onto the tin. At first he thought pearls, but then he found the crucifix of a rosary. He placed his hand on her shattered ribs. She felt like a bag of broken glass.
Ryan curved his body until his cheek touched warm metal. He opened her mouth. He could feel her blood on his face. Wet. As were her lips . . . warm and moist.
He didn't know how long he'd stayed up there or exactly what he'd done. But a cop on horseback pulled at his jacket, saying that it was enough. Next thing Ryan was back on the sidewalk, where a uniformed cop half his age said, "I've been in this precinct five years, champ. This is the last place in the world I'd be giving anybody mouth-to-mouth. Know what I mean?"
Amid the lights swirling, radios squawking, car doors slamming, Joe Gregory handed his partner a wet cloth that reeked of disinfectant.
"You know that was stupid," Gregory said softly. "I don't have to tell you that, right?"
Ryan wiped blood from his face and felt a slight stickiness on his upper lip. A tacky sensation he'd first noticed when he was trying to breathe for her. Maybe she'd creamed her face, or it was some residue of makeup remover.
"I thought she might be alive," he said.
"Are you nuts, or what?" Gregory said, not softly this time. He looked around to see if anyone had heard him. It was private business, between partners.
"You gotta let go, pally," Gregory said. "You're gonna make yourself sick like this, the way you're going."
Horns honked, cars rode by slowly in the warm electric night. Some guy yelled to a cop, asking if it was a movie set, looking around as if he expected to see Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis.
"Who is she?" Ryan asked.
"Some actress, they think," Gregory said, pointing up. "From this building here. The Broadway Arms. It's a co-op for theater people."
The pace of the street had risen to near normal again. Act one to curtain in a New York minute.
"Do we know her name yet?" Ryan said.
"Gillian something. Nobody I ever heard of. The squad's canvassing the building as we speak. But I'm having second thoughts about the jumping."
Ryan himself had wondered why someone would cream her face, then choose to die. But he'd seen enough strange suicide rituals, from donning a tuxedo to complete nakedness, the latter being the most common. He folded the damp cloth carefully and put it into his pocket with the broken rosary beads.
"Just come over here with me for a second," Gregory said, his big paw on Ryan's shoulder. "I got something to show you."
Ryan followed his partner around to the back of the van. A uniformed cop had covered the body with a red-checked tablecloth, a souvenir from the closing of Mama Leone's. Gregory held the tablecloth in the air and pointed to her feet.
"Check this out," he said. "She's barefoot."
"I see that," Ryan said, shrugging.
"And her feet are clean," Gregory added emphatically, still holding the tablecloth in the air. "How the hell did she walk across a terrace in this city without getting dirt or soot on her feet?"
Maybe the terrace was newly carpeted, Ryan thought, or she'd kicked off her shoes at the last minute, then stood on a chair. Maybe her shoes came off in the fall. There were logical explanations. Almost always.
"She said something to me," Ryan said, and instantly regretted it.
On the sidewalk, a black midget in an ornate blue-and-gold doorman's uniform hawked the stragglers and out-of-towners. Yanking them toward the entrance to a tacky nightclub on the second floor.
"Said what?" Gregory asked.
"I couldn't understand it."
The rolling lights of the ITT Building announced, "Sweltering! 95 degrees high. Yanks 1, Tigers 3."
"This woman was dead before you got there," Gregory said. "What you heard was expelled gas. The body expels gas after death. You know that. She didn't say a freaking word."
Maybe he's right, Ryan thought. With all the street noise, the sirens, everybody yelling. Who knows? He tried to recall the moment, to hear the sounds again, but it was like trying to snatch a puff of smoke from the air.
"You're probably right."
"Freakin' A I'm right," Gregory said.
Ryan was well aware that in moments like this you stuck with what you knew for sure. Two things were definite: He could still feel the stickiness on his lips; and he could not possibly have saved her. The words she spoke, the words he thought he'd heard, were the spoken testimony of nightmares, not courtrooms. He would now go about the business of trying to put them out of his mind. After all, it didn't make sense, not even to him. It was just a whisper. He was being weird again, he knew that. But it had sounded as though she'd said, "I love you."
(c) 1999 by Ed Dee"
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Posted December 23, 2001
Nightbird was a step back in time. I knew cops like Ryan and Gregory back in the Bronx. It's a one-night stand and will keep you awake all night. The dazzling dialogue and deliberate details are great. More. More.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 1, 2009
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