A Shadow in the City: Confessions of an Undercover Drug Warrior

A Shadow in the City: Confessions of an Undercover Drug Warrior

by Charles Bowden

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Joey O'Shay is not the real name of the narcotics agent in an unnamed city in the center of the country. But Joey O'Shay exists. The nearly three hundred drug busts he has orchestrated over more than two decades are real, too; if the drug war were a declared war, O'Shay would have a Silver Star.
With nerves and mastery worthy of his subject, Charles Bowden


Joey O'Shay is not the real name of the narcotics agent in an unnamed city in the center of the country. But Joey O'Shay exists. The nearly three hundred drug busts he has orchestrated over more than two decades are real, too; if the drug war were a declared war, O'Shay would have a Silver Star.
With nerves and mastery worthy of his subject, Charles Bowden follows O'Shay as he sets in motion his latest conquest, a $50 million heroin deal that originates in Colombia and has federal agents sitting at attention from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to New York City. As it unfolds, O'Shay reveals the unerring instinct and ceaseless vigilance that have led him through minefields and brought down kingpins. But now they have led him to a place where it isn't so clear who the heroes are or what the fight has been for. And still the warrior fights on, in a murky and unforgiving landscape readers will not be able to forget.

Editorial Reviews

His name is immaterial. Call him "Joey O'Shay" or "John Doe" or any of a dozen other court pseudonyms, but the undercover drug warrior of this book still lives in shadows where names are disposable disguises. In A Shadow in the City, "O'Shay" reveals himself through the artistry of crime journalist Charles Bowden. In his two decades as a covert narcotics agent, "O'Shay" has brought down hundreds of heroin and coke dealers in a war that has no borders.
Publishers Weekly
Readers drawn into the brutal and corrupt realities of the war on drugs in Bowden's much-acclaimed Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family (2002) are likely to be disappointed by his latest foray into that world. Bowden begins with a brilliantly lyrical opening chapter, replete with vivid descriptions of the unnamed city where most of the action is set, bringing its sounds, smells and throbbing pulse to life. But the promise of that introduction to the narcotics agent referred to only by his pseudonym, Joey O'Shay, is unfulfilled; the evolution of a multimillion-dollar heroin deal is uncompelling and not always easy to follow, and O'Shay is ultimately unsympathetic. In fact, many will have difficulty parsing his frequent interior monologues to get a clear picture of which side of the law he's really on, and the numerous references to the themes of Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl's landmark Man's Search for Meaning in the drug agent's life hint at a psychological depth that's not fully developed. The hazards of undercover work and the strains on the agent's sanity and conscience have all been portrayed before in memoirs like that of the FBI's Mafia infiltrator Joe Pistone, and O'Shay's story feels more like an unaired episode of Miami Vice than something new and noteworthy. Agent, Anderson/Grinberg Literary Management. (July) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Bowden (Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family) presents the true story of Joey O'Shay, a fictitious name for a seasoned narcotics agent working in an unnamed U.S. city. O'Shay has coordinated approximately 300 drug busts over the course of two decades. Here, Bowden follows O'Shay as he organizes a $50 million heroin deal originating in Colombia. As the deal progresses, Bowden also digs deep into O'Shay's psyche, revealing the idiosyncrasies and events that have brought him to this point in his life and career. The readers are also introduced to many of the key contacts and associates in O'Shay's deal (no real names are used). O'Shay's story is told in a revealing, sometimes emotional manner, well conveyed. The writing style is much more literary than many other books in this genre. Recommended for large true-crime collections.-Sarah Jent, Univ. of Louisville Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher


"A Shadow in the City is a condemnation of the drug war, with a top officer saying the point of the war eludes him. But it's also a fascinating personal story about a man whose search for meaning in his life makes him reject his life's work."--The Washington Post Book World

“No writer casts a colder and more perceptive eye on our culture than Chuck Bowden. This is a look at drug enforcement that leaves you wishing it was a novel so it wouldn’t be true. The hero, Joey O’Shay, is an artist in his own genre and has to be one of the hardest men in our history.”--Jim Harrison, author of Legends of the Fall

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.34(w) x 9.16(h) x 1.08(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Shadow in the City

Confessions of an Undercover Drug Warrior
By Charles Bowden


Copyright © 2005 Charles Bowden
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0151011834

HE PUTS THE GUN DOWN. It is close, his finger beside the trigger, the round chambered and ready. Then the man moving toward him hesitates, and the moment passes. Joey O'Shay's face remains passive, a blank as he reaches for the gun and sweeps it up, a blank as he lowers it and puts it down.

He says, "Never hesitate, never say a fucking thing, none of this hands-up shit. Just keep pumping them into him. If you want to live."

O'Shay looks at the departing man without expression.

The bluing has worn off the weapon.

The city does not sleep at this hour but becomes a zone of zombies, that time when the drunks have made it home, the sober have not yet risen, and the streets belong to the feral, to predators coursing its arteries for prey.

Deep night.

He cannot rest. The nights have always been hard but now with this major heroin deal bubbling along, he cannot sleep at all. When he was younger, he prided himself on not needing sleep. Now he is resigned to not getting sleep. He thinks of $5 million a week street value and then he does not sleep at all. Not out of greed but because of other hungers.

"One of my sons wrote this about me," he says. Then he slides the music into the dash of his truck.

A voice knifes through the stale air:

Come take a walk inside my mind,

Meet the ghost that lives inside

Fallen friends and broken dreams

That haunt me in my sleep.

COME, SMELL, LOOK, LISTEN. There, the city spreads like an oil slick across the flat plain at the point where the rain begins to die. The past falls dead here before it is born-bladed, buried, and unmissed. Yesterday has no more meaning than last night's bar bill.

Everyone comes here for the money and no one knows why the city itself exists. The sky refuses to forgive, the sun seldom smiles. The air sags with fumes and towers rise and try to center the glistening slick with no tool but money. The talk is boasts, the lips thin, the streets a refutation of the talk. As in all such places, most people believe in the promise and most lose. In the dirt and grass and wind and tired rivers that lie beyond the city, the eyes tighten at its name and one and all say they hate the city. And yet they come regardless of their hatred. And so the city thrives and devours despite the words of anyone. Streams barely move across the flat earth and the waters laze and eddy with trash and time.

Smell the exhaust of millions laid out like a pure line for all to suck up through rolled hundred-dollar bills. The grass rank by the ditch, the green water licking the air, diesel fumes foaming out of the trucks, a woman walking briskly in heels and trailing musk, piss in the alleys, raw onion chopped and biting from the small food stalls, pecan smoke reaching out from under the brisket, ribs, and sausage, the fresh tang magically lifting from the beaten streets after a sudden spring shower, the smell of a child's hair, that scentless scent shared with fawns hiding in the tall grass, the faint scent of a child's hair slamming the face in the dark of the night. The gunpowder shredding the stale air and hanging there-a noose and a gallows after the explosion has passed.

Look at the spires scratching the sky, squares, rectangles, spikes, all insulting the sun and the moon and the stars, houses hiding on the prairie, faces blank and safe, white, black, brown, vacant, nothing in the eyes but the city staring back, eyes careful, eyes eager, eyes always alert, eyes never trusting, the towers a gleam on the corneas, towers beyond reach, towers saying into the day and the night a yahoo and yodel to the prairie that fails around them. A woman's body rigid at a table as the waiter serves, his jowls sagging as he takes her in, a man leaning into the window and whispering fast words in code and his hand reaching for the hundred-dollar bill for the message, the idle of engines always at red lights never at green, the hope of Saturday night melding into the pollution of Sunday morning, always, always coming down, streets not mean but cold like the mortician who screws the coffin lid shut. Screams, laughs, alarms, wails, bottleneck strumming, quick picking, blue haze of a bar when everything briefly feels right and beckoning, soft music at two a.m. in the dark with the drink warming in the hand, whisk of tires down midnight streets, light creak of black leather as she walks her tight pants past, the thrumming of the fingers on the cleared desktop, the maps and plots where the money lies hidden in the ground, the lockstep as people move from their cages to their prisons, the towers rising and rising and saying join us or die.

Listen as the air brakes jack the ear on the big roads lacing the city and moving its blood like sludge, hear the horns, the choppers-whomp whomp whomp-overhead on their secret errands, the shout of children racing through the back lanes, the chirp and crackle of birds stalking the crumbs and garbage, the click of keys in the towers, the hum of overhead lights in the caves of work, the soft rich vowels of Spanish in the back rooms of businesses, the chords of a blues guitar asking for someone to consider the question, long sigh of a zipper down the back before the dress melts to the floor, the bark of angry dogs, the slippery song of knife sliding into flesh, blade warming itself with blood, the lights at night fighting the prairie, beams, shreds, slabs, towers, beacons of light that only seem to underscore the loneliness as people pull the shades in their houses and lock doors and scurry down darkened walkways and pray for dawn. The light golden in the fat wet air or glaring through the breath off the parched plains to the west, the choirs faltering toward heaven from the temples of Sunday, thunk of a shot glass after that necessary swallow, voices loud, braying, vowels licked and slurred, consonants like ice picks, voices clamoring for attention as the machines smother them with decibels, thrash of the tree limbs the night of the big wind, sirens, chimes, radios, televisions, bar bands, lap-dancing palaces, a singer saying the city "is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes," a preacher saying the city "is lost but must be saved," slap of shoes on dark streets, the audible click of eyes as the young men with guns lock onto a target, the silent prayer of her breasts falling from her bra, faint promise, barely a whissper, of lipstick spreading on the lips, the shout of a hammer locking on a gun.

Stories begging and getting not a dime, stories never written, never sung, stories from the place where the light does not go and where the pages refuse to turn, stories without endings or beginnings, simple stories like the city itself.

A small creek laces through the shotgun houses, the banks a maze of trees and canebrakes. Long ago, a humpbacked form slides silently down the creek, a huge beast with a hard back moving and hunting and yet the city knows nothing of this beast and of the beast's habits and ways. It is as if the violent appetite slipping down the calm waters did not exist and had no past or present or future. A boy watches at dusk from the bank and never forgets that moment or the feel of that moment.

He becomes a shadow in the city.

He remains unknown to the life moving around him.

He answers no questions.

He grows, thrives, slides silently down the streets.

He acts.

He loves.

He loses.

He kills.

He is the law but few remember this fact.

Sometimes, he forgets himself.

BOBBIE DOES NOT LIKE THIS DREAM. She's been in his deals for twenty years, but she's never let Joey O'Shay into a dream before.

In the dream, the phone rings and it is Joey. He tells her to go on an errand and so she does, she always does what he tells her to do. Bobbie obeys no one, she is proud of this fact. But she always obeys Joey. Even in her dreams.

When she gets to the place, she discovers it is a trap and she cannot escape. So she calls Joey and he says, "I'll send a car to get you."

And he does. He always does what he says. He always is in command.

As Bobbie steps into the car, two things happen. First she feels a stab of pain in her back and she thinks, My God, someone has shot me. And then she looks out the car window and sees Joey O'Shay standing across the street, and he is very safe and calm in the shadows of the city at night.

None of this, of course, matters to the actual deal. The plane is coming in, the money ready. The heroin is warehoused and waiting to be delivered.

It is 94 percent pure, the best Colombia has to offer. And there is no limit on the amount.

Heroin is the future. No one walks away from heroin. It is the love of life itself. And all the true lovers gather around its soft and clean whiteness. Heroin does not lie, does not leave you alone for a single instant. Even when heroin walks out the door, soon the slap of shoes hits the pavement, chasing heroin down the street. Such is love when it can be found.

JOEY O'SHAY'S SHOULDERS are powerful from lifting weights. His hands are strong, his feel for flesh instinctive. The trick is never to hesitate, not for a fraction of a second. Act and let God sort it out.

He and one of his gunmen are in the dark when the other man flinches. Something is back there in the dark, a hulking thing.

O'Shay says softly, "You saw it, right?"

The man with the gun says, "Yes."

A calm settles over O'Shay, his solid body relaxes briefly. He feels an odd sensation, he feels for a flickering moment that he is not absolutely alone because someone else has seen the blackness on his trail.

The thing that follows him is not listed in any field studies. No tracks have been discovered, no spoor has been found. But O'Shay can describe it exactly.

the thing is big and dark, a hulking form that somehow moves on cat's paws and casts no shadow, makes no sound, not a single fucking word, but never stops coming, follows me down all the streets and alleys.

Copyright 2005 by Charles Bowden

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Excerpted from A Shadow in the City by Charles Bowden Copyright © 2005 by Charles Bowden. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

CHARLES BOWDEN is a writer whose work appears regularly in Harper's, GQ, and other national publications. He is the author of several previous books of nonfiction, including Down by the River. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.

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