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It was on a Tuesday in May, to be exact. I got home from the paper early. I'd just finished up a series on Cable TV graft. We had a new managing editor starting tomorrow. Everything was in waiting, nothing was cooking. The Mets were on free TV. I took the night off.
I got back to my place on Eighty-sixth Street around 8:00. I picked up my mail and went upstairs. The apartment was dark, but I could make out the cracks on the wall. The harsh light from the shops on the street came in through the window. So did a red glow from the Triplex marquee. And the traffic noise. And a spring breeze.
I went to the refrigerator first, got a beer. I went into the bedroom second, switched on the TV. I dropped into my easy chair, loosened my tie, lit a cigarette. I went through the mail, half-listening to the pre-game chatter.
I tore open an envelope, watching the lineups on the set. It was New York against L.A.
Life is good, I thought.
The phone rang.
Shit, I thought.
I tossed my mail on the bed, picked up the phone. I was still watching the tube.
A hoarse whisper came over the line. "Wells? John Wells?"
"This is Sergeant Frank D'Angelo."
"You know me."
I considered it. "No, I don't."
"I'm dying," he said.
"I still don't know you, pal."
"Yeah, you do. Sure you do."
"Do I? Maybe I do."
"Yeah." He coughed. "The desk sergeant at the 112th."
"Oh yeah. Oh yeah, sure. Sure I know you." I heard him cough again. "So you're dying, huh?"
"That's too bad. That's rough."
"That's really too bad, Frank." I put out my cigarette.
"Wells," he gasped. "I need to see you."
"Uh, now?" Orel Hershiser was pitching for L.A.
"Yeah," said Sergeant D' Angelo. "I'm down at St. Vincent's. Could you come down?"
"St. Vincent's, huh?" Against Doc Gooden for the Mets.
"Yeah. Yeah, I gotta talk to you, Wells. I ain't got much time."
Doc Gooden, Frank, I thought. Don't they rent out TV's at St. Vincent's? "Sure," I said. "Sure, Frank, I'll come right down."
"Thanks, John. I appreciate it."
"Sure," I said. Life is shit, I thought.
And it wasn't any picnic getting to St. Vincent's either. It was way the hell downtown. I had to take the Six train to Fourteenth and then change over. It was probably the third inning just by the time I got there.
When I did get there, I found Frank D' Angelo. He was lying in a bed in a room on the fourth floor. He was dying, all right. He looked all shrunken and gray. I couldn't exactly remember what he looked like before, but not all shrunken and gray, I'm sure of it. The flesh was hanging from his cheeks. His eyes bulged—they were bright as lanterns. He had just a few strands of hair stretched over his spotted pate. Under his pale blue pajamas, a thin frame fought for breath. He wheezed, he snorted, he grunted. He lifted a skeletal hand in the air and waved at me to close the door. I closed it. He waved at me to sit down.
It was a semiprivate room but the other bed was empty. I sat on the edge of it.
"You look good, Frank," I said.
"It's bad, John. It's real bad."
I nodded. "Yeah."
He tried to smile. "Don't smoke," he gasped.
"Nah. I gave it up years ago."
"Yeah, give it up, because this ... this is bad."
I nodded. I looked away from him. I looked at the green walls. I looked at the print of hunting dogs on the wall across from him. I looked at the small window on the wall beside him. There was a view of a bunch of water towers atop downtown roofs. I listened to him wheeze and gasp. I nodded.
"Nice view," I said.
"Yeah. They treat you nice here."
"That's good, Frank."
"They don't give you a TV?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I got a TV."
"But I been thinking."
"You know. About things."
"Oh. Yeah. Sure."
"I guess I never shoulda let my wife go. Take the kids."
I nodded. "Yeah. Great girl."
"Betty, right. Terrific lady."
He rose up a little and coughed hard. A streak of spittle went down one corner of his mouth. "Oh God," he gasped.
"Yeah, yeah." He fought for another breath. "You're divorced too, right, John?"
"You got kids?"
"No. Well ... she died."
"Oh yeah, I remember," he gasped. "Killed herself, right?"
"I remember hearing. That's a shame." He lay back flat. He stared up at the ceiling with his bright eyes. "It's bad," he said. "Not to have anybody. Now, you know. The end. Betty gone. The kids, they don't even know me. Live out west. My oldest girl, she called a few times. She don't know me. No one to visit. You lie here. You make these noises. You try to breathe. You get to thinking."
I kept nodding. "You oughta get your mind off it, Frank," I said. "Watch TV or something. Sports. You know, it's baseball season."
"Yeah. Yeah. But I been thinking, ya know. I been thinking about E.J. McMahon." He turned his head on his pillow. He gazed at me. "You remember E.J.?"
I thought about it, shrugged. "No, I don't ..."
"Easy E.J.," he said.
"Oh yeah," I said. "Yeah. The steak house guy, yeah. Tried to tip off Conti before the Long Island hit. I've heard that story from a couple of guys, that's a good story. It happened a few years before I came to the Star."
"Remember how he disappeared ...?"
"Right out of the airport. Two guys posing as cops." I snorted. "Poor idiot."
"Yeah," Sergeant Frank D' Angelo wheezed. "E.J. McMahon was an idiot."
"But those guys weren't posing as cops."
I chewed that over. I patted the cigarettes in my shirt pocket. I was beginning to get the urge. "They weren't? That's what I heard. Posing as cops, yeah, that was it."
"I mean, they weren't posing, Wells. They were cops, I mean. They were really cops."
My hand fell away from my shirt pocket. I almost said something. Then I didn't. I sat on the edge of the empty bed. I watched the man's sagging gullet work each breath over. I watched the cloth of his pajama top shudder.
"You," I said.
He frowned. His lips trembled. A tear spilled out of one eye. It ran into his crow's-feet, worked its way through the map of crevices on his face, dripped onto his pillow. He had to take an enormous gasp for air, and he coughed it back out again.
Goddamn it, I thought. It was a good story. A very good story. But I did not want a good story right then. I wanted to go home. I wanted to watch the Mets.
"My partner brought it to me," Frank D' Angelo whispered. "A favor for some guys, he said. Wiseguys, but okay, he said. Good money in it." He shifted his head a little so he could look at me. Look at me with those burning eyes. "We were plainclothes, then, you know. We were way on the pad, deep on. It seemed like just another thing, you know. That's what he said it was, my partner. Just another thing. A favor."
I took a breath, tried to keep steady. I wanted a cigarette bad now.
"You know ..." He faltered. A strange sound came out of his chest. "You know that school, that kid's school. On Mulberry Street."
I shook my head. "I guess. Sure."
"That's where we took him. E.J.—" He fought back a coughing fit. "They were building it then. Making a sort of yard, like a ... like a playground. Filling in the foundation. A dump truck ... They had a dump truck there. Rough stone in it, you know. Like gravel, only big. Big pieces of gravel."
"Who? Who had them?"
"Four guys. Wiseguy types. Muscle. They were waiting for us. I didn't know them."
"Okay," I said.
"Yeah. So they took E.J. out of the car. And E.J. started screaming. So one of the guys stuffed a rubber ball in his mouth. Taped it shut. One of the other guys, he says to me, 'You wanna watch this?' He's laughing. 'This is gonna be good,' he says. 'Hang around and watch this.'" Sergeant Frank D' Angelo's whole body shook. "I didn't want to. I didn't want to know about it, you know? But my partner, he got all excited. 'Let's hang around,' he said. 'Let's hang around and watch.' I figured they were gonna, you know, bust him up a little."
I rubbed a hand over my face. I'd begun to sweat. "Hot in here," I muttered. My lungs were working hard, really itching for that smoke.
"They tied him up," Frank rasped. "E.J. They tied him up, hands and feet so he couldn't stand, he just could lie there. Then they tossed him into the hole, the foundation hole. It went down. It was deep. And there was a big construction fence there so no one could see from the street. But the people in the other buildings—some of them ... They must've seen. Some of them."
"Wait a minute," I said.
"Then they backed up the dump truck ..."
"Wait a minute, didn't they shoot him?"
A second tear spilled down that wasted face.
"Didn't they shoot him?" I said.
"They said, 'Wait around and watch this.' They said, 'This is gonna be funny.' They just backed up the truck and dumped the gravel over him. He was still alive, Wells. They poured the gravel over him. Slow-like. I could see his face for a long time. I could see him thrashing around. Then after ... after he was all covered ..." He stopped for a second, but he didn't cough. He hardly breathed. "... you could just see the gravel shifting. Moving, you know, with him under."
"And they were all laughing. One of em said ... I remember, he said, 'We're gonna have to use a compactor. Keep the concrete from sagging when he rots.' They were laughing." Now the coughing burst from him. It was damp and deep. He lifted his head off the pillow. His face went purple. The phlegm boiled in his chest.
"You all right?" I said.
He kept coughing.
I got up from the bed. "Frank?"
D' Angelo rolled over onto his side. His hand went out toward the call button.
I rushed to the door. Pushed out into the hall. The nurse's station was only a few steps away. Several people in white were milling behind the counter.
"Hey, we need help here!" I said.
At once, two people ran around the counter. A nurse in white, a young man—an intern—in blue. I could hear Frank hacking and gasping behind me. The nurse and the intern ran past me. They went to him.
When I turned back into the room, they were hovering over him.
"You'll have to go," the intern said. He didn't look up.
I nodded. I started to turn.
A hand shot out between the intern and the nurse. A skeletal hand, stretched out toward me. I stopped.
"You'll have to go!" the intern ordered.
But I didn't go. I walked over and stood beside them. The nurse was holding a mask over Frank's face. The doctor was giving him some kind of shot. Frank was taking deep, shuddering breaths. His eyes stared and stared at me over the mask.
He reached up toward me with one hand. With the other, he knocked at the mask weakly.
"We have to take him downstairs," the intern said. He looked scared. He must have been twenty-five.
"He wants to say something," I said.
"Get out of here," he said to me. Then he said to the nurse: "Get the resident. We're gonna have to take him downstairs. Get out of here!" he said to me again.
The nurse rushed out of the room. The mask was strapped to Frank's face.
"You're going to be okay," the intern said.
Frank reached up and took the mask off. His face was slack, his bright eyes dimming.
"Partner ..." he said.
The intern grabbed the mask.
"Yeah," I said. "Yeah. Who was your partner?"
The intern moved frantically to put the mask back over the dying man's face. Just before he did, though, Frank D' Angelo whispered: "Tom Watts."CHAPTER 2
At nine sharp the next morning, I walked into the Star's city room whistling a jolly tune.
Rafferty, the city editor, raised his grizzled, bullet-shaped head from his computer terminal.
"Nice day," I said.
Various editors around the long desk froze. They looked up at me.
I stopped just inside the glass doors. "What?" I said.
Rafferty's imperturbable voice squeezed out between his unmoving lips. "Nice day?"
"Yeah." The editors stared at me. "You know: blue skies, singing birds."
"You actually heard these birds?"
"Well, no, but—it's spring. There must be birds." I stared back at them. "I mean, it's May. New York is at its best in May."
"Paris is at its best in May," muttered Jones, a wire editor. "It's Autumn in New York."
"Has all the thrill of first nighting," Rafferty said.
"Oh. Yeah. Well, anyway ..." I stuck a cigarette between my teeth. Lit it. I jogged my eyebrows over the smoke. "It's still a nice day."
"All right," Rafferty muttered. "All right, what have you got? In a word or less."
"In a word or less? Watts," I said.
The editors standing around the desk permitted themselves a soft murmur.
Even Rafferty almost reacted. "You got Watts?" he said.
"I got lots of Watts. I got all the Watts there is to gots."
The assistant city editor, Vicki Goldblum, sat perched on the edge of the desk. "Well, what do you know? That might just save you from the wrath of your new boss."
"The thought had crossed my mind," I said. "Speaking of which, is my new boss here?"
Rafferty made a vague gesture toward the ceiling. "With the People Upstairs. They're discussing something about giving you a party ... a going-away party ... a retirement party ..."
"A necktie party, I think it was," said Vicki.
"Something like that," Rafferty said. "They ought to be down soon."
I took a long, sweet drag of my cigarette. "Well," I said. "It's still a nice day. Still." And I left them there.
I walked into the maze of cubicles that stretches over the vast white room. I heard the hum of computer keyboards, the soft murmur of voices rising over the white walls, under the rows of fluorescent lights. I came to my own space. Stood staring a second at the debris on my desktop. Finally, I shoved a pile of newspapers to one side. They splattered onto the floor. Where they had been, there was now revealed an old Olympia Standard typewriter. I sat down in front of it. Found a piece of paper under an old Big Mac carton. I tossed the carton in the trash. I rolled the page into the machine.
I pulled a notebook from my pocket. Flipped it open. The pages were almost full. There were also some torn and crumpled slips that fell out onto the desk. Some of them were stained or smeared. They still smelled of Scotch.
I never did get to see the Mets last night. I never even got to read my mail. I sat at the desk in my apartment until three in the morning. I sipped liquor and smoked and wrote down what Frank D' Angelo had told me. Then I dug out some of my old clips on Tom Watts. I read through them, taking notes, sipping Scotch, smoking. Then, smoking and sipping Scotch, I wrote down the names of everyone I would want to call. Then I stumbled into the bedroom through a haze of cigarette smoke. Then I dropped facedown onto the unmade bed. Then I woke up, took off my clothes, put on some other clothes and came to work.
Now, I started typing up some of my notes. I also started to scream at the top of my lungs: "Fran!" I kept on typing.
A small voice called back at me: "What?"
I stopped typing. "What?" I said. I stood up, looked over my cubicle wall.
Fran was at her computer terminal at an open desk at the front of the city room. She was peering at the monitor. Her long black hair was tied back severely. Her monkey face was set and grim.
"Fran," I explained—still at the top of my lungs. "Fran, not 'What?' More like: 'Here's your coffee, Mr. Wells. Black, just the way you like it. Mm mm.' And, Fran—try to sound subservient." She let out an angry breath at her screen and started to stand. I sat back down. "What!" I muttered. I went on with my typing.
Two voices, male and female, started up behind me.
"Have you noticed," said the man, "that ever since Cambridge was canned, there's been a certain—I don't know ..."
"Spring in his step?"
"A lilt, I'd call it."
"A lilt in his voice, you mean."
"A lilt in his voice, a spring in his step."
"A gleam in his eye."
"A song in his heart."
"A pain in my ass," I said, swiveling around.
Lansing was sitting on the file cabinet to my left. She was eating a buttered hard roll. McKay was leaning against the partition to my right. He was drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup.
"So what do we figure it's gonna be now?" McKay asked no one in particular. The fat cheeks of his baby face curled with a smile. "Likability. Predictability."
I lit a fresh cigarette and leaned back in my chair. "With the new boss, you mean?"
Excerpted from Rough Justice by Andrew Klavan. Copyright © 1989 Andrew Klavan. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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Posted August 4, 2012