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Detective Jack Leightner was struggling to extricate half a bagel from his toaster when the doorbell rang. It was a day off from work and he just wanted to sit in his kitchen and eat breakfast in peace. He was tempted to ignore the bell, but it rang again. As he walked out of his kitchen, half his mind was preoccupied with remembering to unplug the toaster before sticking a fork in, and the other half was busy imagining what might happen if he didn't. Electrocution was a pretty rare cause of death, yet he had seen a few startling examples in his years with Brooklyn South Homicide.
The hallway of the house he shared with his elderly landlord was musty, and carpeted with a layer of Astroturf. (Mr. Gardner was a home fixer-upper, but he tended to improvise with found materials.) As Jack approached the door, he saw a vague figure standing outside beyond the frosted glass. The mailman? No, it was Sunday. He shook his head: maybe a Jehovah's Witness.
He opened the door. "Yes?"
A stranger stood there, a middle-aged, stoop-shouldered black man, several inches taller than Jack. He wore black pants, a white shirt, and a frayed gray windbreaker.
"Are you Jack Leightner?"
The man's cheeks were spotted with dark freckles, and the skin under his eyes was droopy. He looked like he had seen more than a few miles of bad road.
"That's right," Jack said. "How can I help you?" He lived in the quiet Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood; one of its benefits was that unexpected visits were rare.
"Could I take a minute of your time? I don't mean to bother you."
Jack frowned. In his experience, people who said that they didn't mean to bother you actually meant to do just that. "Are you selling something? I'm sorry, but I'm not interested."
"No, sir," the man replied. "I'm not selling anything at all. Would you mind if I come in for just a minute?"
Jack crossed his arms. "Why don't you just tell me what this is about?"
The man bowed his head for a moment, and then he raised it. "With all respect, I don't think this is something you'll want to discuss out here on the stoop."
Jack didn't like the sound of that—it was something he often said before breaking the news to relatives of homicide victims. "I don't generally invite strangers into my home unless I know what they want."
The man stared at him for a moment, then sighed and shook his head. "Of course not. I wouldn't either." He looked away for a moment and watched a neighbor trundle her shopping cart down the street. The day was bright and sunny and a dogwood tree was blossoming above the sidewalk. (Later, when Jack recalled this day, he would envision this splash of pink, like a bomb going off.)
The stranger turned back. "I don't suppose you recognize me. I didn't think you would."
Jack's first thought was of the .45 service revolver sitting on top of his bedroom dresser. As one of only about a hundred NYPD members of service who had earned the designation Detective First Grade, and one of the most seasoned and determined of that elite bunch, he had helped send quite a number of men to prison. Very few had been accepting of their fate. "Excuse me for a second," he said. "I left something on the stove. I'll be right back."
"I'll wait," the stranger replied.
Jack ducked back into his apartment, grabbed his handcuffs and crammed them in his back pocket, and stuck the .45 in a pocket of his sweatshirt. It looked pretty obvious in there, which was fine with him. He returned to the front door.
The stranger was sitting on the stoop. He turned to stare up at the detective and immediately took in the new situation. "I don't think you're gonna need the piece. I'd just like to talk to you. Are you familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous?"
Jack nodded. "Why?
The stranger took a wrinkled piece of paper from his pocket, lifted it close to his mournful eyes, and read aloud. "Step Eight: we made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Step Nine: we made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."
Jack felt his throat tightening. "Who are you? What do you want?"
The man folded the piece of paper and stuck it back in his pocket. He placed his hands carefully on his knees, looked away, and cleared his throat. When he looked back at Jack, his eyes were troubled and piercing. "You had a brother," he said. "I believe his name was Peter. I was the boy who killed him."
Jack felt a roaring in his ears and then the ground fell out from under him; he was hurled back to a warm November morning in 1965.
PETEY KEPT SINGING, "HELP Me, Rhonda." He loved to sing, Jack's two-years-younger brother, a lively thirteen-year-old with the biceps of a serious athlete. They were playing hooky, roaming aimlessly around Red Hook, their waterfront Brooklyn neighborhood. They had killed some time tossing pebbles at seagulls, out on one of the piers, and now they were strolling up Sullivan Street, past a vacant lot.
Petey was playing with a Spaldeen, and the little rubber ball took a bad bounce into the lot, beneath an old abandoned trailer. That's where he discovered the hidden case of Scotch, probably swag boosted out of a ship by some sly longshoreman.
They pulled it out, and were hurrying up the street to go hide the liquor in their friend Joe Kolchuk's basement when they were approached by two Negro kids, bigger and years older. Jack was holding the case. One of the strangers, wearing a green Army jacket, slammed Petey up against a wall; the other, a kid with a big Afro, demanded that Jack hand over the booze.
That was when Jack saw the patrol car moving slowly up the street, a couple of blocks away. And he said something he'd have a lifetime to regret. He stared defiantly at the kid with the Afro. "You gonna make us?"
Petey looked scared. "Just give it to them, Jack."
He held onto the case.
"I'm not gonna ask you again," the kid with the Afro said.
The patrol car was coming closer. Jack smiled. "Fuck you, nigger."
The others, including Petey, looked at him in disbelief.
"What did you say?" the Negro asked.
"I said, Fuck you and your nigger friend.'" It wasn't like he really had anything against black people—he ran with kids of all colors in the projects—but he saw the patrol car coming and he reached for the easiest jibe.
The kid who had Petey up against the wall pulled out a switchblade.
"Whoa," Jack said, going pale. "Look, I'm gonna hand it over." The cops were just a block away. He started to put the case down, and then he looked up the street and saw—to his horror—that the patrol car had pulled to the curb. The cops jumped out and went into a diner.
Petey began to struggle. And then Jack watched the kid holding his brother click the knife open and stab him. (He might well have stabbed Jack instead, if he hadn't been holding the case of liquor.) The guy only used the weapon once, but that proved more than enough. Petey put his hand under his shirt and it came out all covered in blood. He stared at Jack as if confused, and then he fell to his knees, and onto his side. He never got up.
The two assailants ran off down a side street, never to be found.
Jack's right hand closed on the grip of his .45. "Get up," he said, jaw clenched. "We're going inside."
His brother's murderer stood up slowly, hands half-raised. Jack looked around to see who might be out on the street, watching, but there was no one. He followed the man into the foyer, and took the gun out of his pocket. "Keep walking. Straight on through." He marched the man into his kitchen and ordered him to sit in a wooden chair, next to the red Formica table.
"Put your hands behind your back."
The stranger complied, and Jack cuffed him.
"You goin' to shoot me? Can't say as how I'd blame you."
Jack lifted the pistol and held it against the man's right temple. The stranger seemed oddly calm, but Jack's own breath had grown erratic, shaky. He closed his eyes for a second, saw red behind his lids, contemplated how good it might feel to apply a little pressure to the trigger. How it might put a salve on a lifetime of guilt.
After a moment, he opened his eyes. He had dedicated his life to catching killers, and he wasn't about to go over to the other side. "I'm not going to shoot you," he said.
The stranger's shoulders relaxed.
Jack scowled. "You dumb bastard. There's no statute of limitations on homicide."
"I know the law," the man replied. "And I'm not scared of prison. I'm just coming off a ten-year bid in Green Haven. That's where I found AA."
"Good for you," Jack said. "I'm sure they'll be thrilled to have you back."
The stranger shrugged. "You can do whatever you want with me. I ain't afraid of dying, and I ain't afraid of going back in. I've made my peace with the Lord." He bent his head down to scratch his chin against his shoulder. "There's just one catch. If you shoot me, or send me up, you'll never find out why I killed your brother."
Jack almost spat his reply. "I know damn well why you killed him, you piece of shit."
The stranger remained calm.
"As a matter of fact," he said, "you don't.CHAPTER 2
"Check it out," said Detective Richie Powker the next day. He held up a small plastic-wrapped package. "Little Debbie snack cakes! I used to love this crap when I was a kid."
The man stood in an aisle of a small deli on Coney Island Avenue, not far from Jack's Midwood apartment. The morning sunshine barely made it in through the grimy, advertisement-plastered windows.
Using his teeth, Powker ripped open the package's crinkly plastic wrap. "Don't worry," he said, grinning. "I'll pay for it." The detective from the Seven-oh house (the Seventieth Precinct), was a stout, shambling man with thatched red hair, a ruddy face, and the bulbous, veiny nose of a man who liked his whiskey. He was a good cop, though; Jack had worked with him on a mugging gone bad a year or so back. Now, again, as a member of the Brooklyn South Homicide Task Force, he was here to provide the local cop with expert help in dealing with the dead.
Jack noticed the picture on the snack package, a freckle-faced girl wearing a straw hat. A blast from the past. It reminded him of his own childhood, and then of course he was thinking of his unexpected visitor the day before.
"You okay?" Powker asked.
Jack rubbed his eyes. "I didn't get much sleep." He needed coffee—and needed to focus on his job.
Powker's eyebrows went up. "Some hot date action? You're divorced, right?"
Jack manufactured a polite smile but didn't respond. Over the other detective's shoulder, at the end of the aisle, he could see a couple of pathologists from the medical examiner's office crouched down, poking around the corpse of the day, a big Caucasian male. Jack caught a glimpse of the guy's pale face. (Then again, everyone looked pasty under these weak fluorescent lights.) Beneath the head, a pool of blood had spread out across the dingy blue linoleum. Jack gazed calmly at the scene. He'd get his chance to check it out soon, after the M.E.'s boys were through and Crime Scene had a whack at it.
He turned to his new temporary partner. "How long ago'd this happen?"
"About an hour."
"You talk to the clerk yet?"
"Briefly. He seems kinda shell-shocked."
The guy they were referring to, a plump young Indian or Pakistani, sat on a stool behind the counter, hunched over, hugging himself. He wore a Mets cap and a weak mustache and looked like he was fervently wishing that he had called in sick today.
"He says he doesn't know. Some customer just went nuts on the vic here."
"Were they having an argument or something?"
"He doesn't think so. He heard some kinda quick commotion, and he looked up and the vic was already down." Powker took another bite of his cake, then brushed crumbs from the front of his too-small sports jacket. "At least we know who the dead guy was: we found a driver's license. Name's Robert Brasciak. He lived three blocks away, on East Eighth."
"Did the clerk know either of the guys?"
"He doesn't think so. He's new on the job."
"Any other wits?"
Richie shook his head. "Not inside the store."
Jack noticed that nobody seemed to be paying any attention to the clerk, even though the kid was clearly struggling with the trauma of having just witnessed a murder. He walked over to the counter. "You okay? You want some water or anything?"
The kid shook his head.
"Don't worry," Jack said, patting him on the shoulder. "We're gonna need to ask you a few more questions, but we'll get you out of here soon."
He returned to his partner's side. One of the pathologists, a gangly, bespectacled young guy chewing a big wad of gum, glanced up at the two detectives, then nodded at a bloody object on the floor, a few feet from the corpse. "That looks like your weapon. The rim of it matches the kosh in our friend here's head."
Powker grinned. "The kosh? Is that a technical term?"
The pathologist shrugged. "It is now."
In Jack's decade and a half with the task force, he had seen a great variety of instruments of sudden mortality: the usual guns and knives, of course, but also a World War I bayonet, a heavy gilded picture frame, a clock radio (thrown into a bathtub), a number of baseball bats (wood and aluminum), even a poisonous snake (an East African Gaboon viper, according to the zoo employee who had managed to bag it up). Today's weapon, though, was one of the most mundane he had ever recorded: a can of baked beans.
He glanced away, down the aisle of bright products arrayed in neat rows. A refrigerator case full of energy drinks and sodas; some bins full of unhappy-looking vegetables and overripe bananas. He frowned: here he was, assigned to the most humdrum case in the world, when there was another murder he desperately wanted to be investigating. The thing was, that one had taken place almost four decades ago.
Powker took out a notepad and started sketching the layout of the crime scene.
Jack returned his attention to his present surroundings. The place was like a thousand other New York delis, though the detective did notice a few items that indicated the specific ethnic makeup of the neighborhood: some fat green Mexican cactus leaves in the vegetable display, a product labeled Bakar Khani in the baked goods section. The front window was half-covered with beer posters and Lotto ads—bad sight lines for any potential witnesses who might have been outside.
"That reminds me," Powker said, following Jack's gaze. "My wife wants me to buy a bunch of tickets today. It's up to eighty-something mil."
Jack frowned. "The lottery's a sucker's game." Then, realizing that he had just offhandedly insulted his new partner's spouse, he held up a hand. "No offense."
Powker shrugged good-naturedly. "None taken. But I'm not gonna send you a postcard when we get to Acapulco."
Jack pulled out his own pad. "Let's see what else the register guy might have to say."
Just as they reached the end of the aisle, the front door opened and a young uniform, the First Officer on the Scene, poked his head in. "Excuse me, detectives. A guy out here says he's the owner. He's pretty jazzed up."
Jack nodded. "Let him in."
In marched a short, imperious-looking Indian or Pakistani wearing a long linen shirt over pajama-like pants. He glanced toward the back of the store, then stared at the detectives. "What on earth is going on?"
Jack stared back. "That's what we're trying to figure out."
The man peered down the aisle at the victim. His air of indignation deflated a bit. "This is terrible, terrible. Who is this man?"
Jack shrugged. "We don't know yet. Does the name Robert Brasciak mean anything to you?"
The owner shook his head.
"Would you mind taking a closer look at him?"
The owner looked away, uneasy.
"The sooner we can find out what happened here, the sooner your store can get back to normal."
The man followed the detectives down the aisle. From about six feet away, they stared down at the body. The victim lay faceup, with his eyes rolled back in his head. It was a hard-planed face, like that of a backstreet boxer, with an oddly small mouth, which hung open slackly, as if he was sleeping off a bad three-day drunk.
"You recognize him?" Jack asked.
The owner nodded gravely. "I think so. He comes in sometimes. A customer."
"Did you notice anything about him?"
The owner frowned. "Not a friendly man."
Jack sensed that he was holding something back. "What? Anything you can tell us might help."
Excerpted from The Ninth Step by Gabriel Cohen. Copyright © 2010 Gabriel Cohen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 12, 2010
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