After an intense heat wave, storms threaten to blanket New York City, and three boys walk across town with knives in their pockets and murder on their minds. They’re tough kids in combat boots, crossing into Spanish Harlem to pick a fight. And when they see one of their intended victims, they surround him, draw their knives, and plunge their weapons into the poor boy’s gut. The attackers flee, and blood pours down the victim’s lifeless body, mingling with the sudden rain. But despite the showers, nothing will be able to extinguish the full-blown panic that threatens to set the city aflame.
Prosecuting the case falls to Hank Bell, a Harlem-born district attorney with a solemn sense of civic duty. As the case threatens to unravel, Hank will be the only thing that stands between his city and blood-spattered anarchy.
The inspiration for John Frankenheimer’s classic film The Young Savages, this is a hard-eyed look at a city on the edge of chaos, written by a man who understood urban crime better than anyone else: legendary crime writer Ed McBain.
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A Matter of Conviction
By Ed McBain
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1959 Ed McBain
All rights reserved.
The azaleas were dying.
Naturally, they would be dying, and he should have known better. A man born and bred in New York City could dig each hole to its properly specified depth, spread peat moss in it, lay the plant onto this rich brown cushion with loving care, keep it watered and spoonfed with vitamins — and the thing would die anyway for no other reason than that a city boy had planted it.
Or perhaps he was being overly sensitive. Perhaps the intense heat of the past few days had been responsible for the plants' illness. If that were the case, the azaleas might just as well give up the ghost, because today was going to be another scorcher. He rose from his squatting position near the fading shrubs that lined the terrace, squinting into the distant harsh glare of the Hudson. Another bright, sticky day, he thought, and his tiny office came instantly to mind, and he glanced rapidly at his watch. He still had a few minutes, at least time for a cigarette before he began his trek to the subway.
He pulled the pack from his jacket pocket, tore off the cellophane top and shook a cigarette free. He was a tall man with a large-boned frame, his body padded with sinew that would never turn to fat. His hair was black, cropped close to his skull in a crew cut which subtracted five years from his age. At thirty-eight, he still managed to convey to juries the look of a young innocent about to prosecute a case only because it was in the best interest of the people. And, like a young boy, he could suddenly vent seemingly spontaneous fury on a witness, turning his testimony into a shambles under the gleaming truth-sword of the very young. This morning, as every morning, his blue eyes were pale after a night's sleep. Later in the day they would regain their full color, quickly readable meters of the ebb and flow of energy within the man.
He pulled up one of the rattan chairs, maneuvered it so that it faced the river and the pure cloudless blue of the sky, and leisurely puffed on his cigarette. He turned when he heard the screen door clatter shut behind him.
"Shouldn't you be on your way?" Karin asked.
"I have a few minutes," he said.
She crossed the terrace lazily, stooping beside the potted geraniums, plucking a few dead leaves from each plant, and then walking to the huge stone bowl that served as an ash tray, dropping the leaves, and coming to where he sat. He watched her, wondering if all men were still delighted by their wives' beauty after fourteen years of marriage. She had been only nineteen when he'd met her, and the hunger of a Germany in defeat had robbed her body of its rightful claim to flesh. She was still a slender woman, but slender with the glow of health now, thirty-five years old with the firm unsagging breasts of a young girl, an abdomen only faintly striated by childbirth years before. She pulled up a stool and caught his free hand with her own, bringing it to her cheek. Her long blond hair touched the back of his hand. She was wearing a short-sleeved white blouse and dungarees and he thought, How American she looks, and then realized how ridiculous he was being. Why, even her English, heavily accented when he had first met her in Berlin, had lost its guttural Teutonic bite, had become rounded and polished, a pebble worn smooth by contact.
"Jennie up yet?" he asked.
"It's summertime," Karin said logically. "Let her sleep."
"I never see that girl," he said. "My own daughter."
"The prosecution exaggerates."
"Possibly," he answered. "But I get the feeling I'll come home one night and find Jennie sitting at the dinner table with a young man she'll introduce as her husband."
"Hank, she's only thirteen," Karin said. She rose and walked to the edge of the terrace. "Look at the river. It's going to be very hot today."
He nodded. "You're the only woman I know who doesn't look like a truck driver when she puts on a pair of pants."
"And how many other women do you know?"
"Thousands." He smiled. "Intimately."
"Tell me about them."
"Wait until my memoirs are published."
"There's the excursion boat," she said. "I wish we could go one day. Could we, Hank?"
"The boat ..." She paused and studied him. "I thought it might be fun."
"Oh. Oh, yes."
For a moment, a cloud had passed, fleeting, ephemeral, disturbing him with the puritanical fact that he had not been the first with Karin Brucker. Well, it was wartime, he told himself, what the hell. She's my wife now, Mrs. Henry Bell, and I should be grateful that an incredible beauty like Karin chose me over the competition, but why the hell did there have to be competition, well, it was wartime, it was ... and yet, Mary would not have.
The name sprang into his mind full-blown, as if it had been waiting to leap from a dark corner of his memory. Mary O'Brien. Not any longer, of course. Married now. To whom? What was his name? If he had ever known, he had now forgotten. Besides, she would always be Mary O'Brien to him, untouched, pure. ... You can't compare them, damn it! Karin lived in Germany, Karin was ...
Suddenly he asked, "Do you love me?"
She turned to him, startled. She had not yet made up her face. There were laughter wrinkles at the corners of her hazel eyes, and her unpainted mouth parted in slight surprise and then, very softly, she said, "I love you, Hank," with a note of wonder and chastisement in her voice and, in what seemed like embarrassment, she went into the house quickly. He could hear her moving noisily about in the kitchen.
Mary, he thought. God, what a long time ago.
He sighed and looked out at the Hudson, dizzily reflecting the early-morning sun. He rose then and went into the kitchen for his briefcase. Karin was picking up the breakfast dishes.
Without looking at him, she said, "About the boat ride, Hank."
"For it to be fun, it shouldn't be on a Saturday or a Sunday." She raised her eyes to meet his. "For it to be fun, Hank, you would have to take a day away from the office, sometime in the middle of the week."
"Sure," he said. He smiled and kissed her briefly. "Sure."
He got off the subway at Chambers Street, emerging into the bright slanting heat of the city. He knew there was a subway stop closer to Leonard Street and the district attorney's office, but he preferred the longer walk each morning. Rain or shine, he disembarked at Chambers and then walked toward City Hall, watching the change of geographical climate. It was almost as if the mayor's shrine were the unofficial border station between the world of big business spreading out from Wall Street and the world of law which had its nucleus on Centre Street.
You walked through the park outside City Hall, and the pigeons pompously strolled like old men deep in thought, and the sunshine washed the painted green benches, and suddenly the towers of business were behind you and ahead lay the impressive gray structures of the law. They squatted together, these formidable buildings somehow smacking of ancient Rome, pillared, strong in their simplicity, their very architecture symbolizing the inevitable power of justice. He felt at home among the buildings of the law. Here, he felt, no matter what damn foolishness they wreaked at Bikini, no matter how many governments changed or severed heads, here was order, here was the true basis of man's intercourse with his fellow man, here was the law — and here was justice.
And here, passing the County Court Building on the way to his own office, he looked up to the huge triangle of the façade, past the pillars supporting the stone, and read again the legend chiseled there: "The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government."
He thought simply, Yes, and quickened his pace.
The Criminal Courts Building was at 100 Centre Street. The district attorney's office, like a Siamese twin irrevocably united to its mate, lay back to back with the other building at 155 Leonard Street, just around the corner. He entered the building and said "Good morning," to Jerry, the uniformed cop who sat at a desk in the entrance lobby.
"'Morning, Mr. Bell," Jerry answered. "Lovely morning, isn't it?"
"Lovely," Hank said tonelessly, wondering why people insisted on equating summer heat with beauty.
"If it don't rain," Jerry added doubtfully as Hank moved toward the elevators. For reasons unknown to Hank, the elevators in the district attorney's office were run by women, all of them in their middle years. Fanny, a white-haired sprite who addressed the D.A., his assistants, and even judges by their first names while maintaining a cool "Mister" relationship with the building's custodian, brought her car to a stop, slammed open the doors, said "Good morning, Hank," and peeked into the corridor.
"Good morning, Fanny," he answered.
"Nice day for a murder, ain't it?" she said, stepping closer to her control panel, closing the doors, and setting the car in motion.
Hank smiled but said nothing. The car moved up the shaft silently.
"Number six," Fanny said, as if she were calling off a number in a Bingo game. She opened the doors for Hank, and he stepped into the corridor.
An attendant sat at the desk just inside the windows overlooking Centre Street and the parking lot across the way. The desk was lost in the marble reaches of the high-ceilinged corridor. The corridor ran like a dark tunnel toward the Homicide Bureau at the far end, windowless except for the patches of light near the two other elevator banks which divided its length into equal thirds. Inside the entrance corridor, marble gave way to walls of neuter paint, to illuminated severe glass plaques indicating public toilets, to small areas of artificial light spaced like sentinels along the long, dark corridor. Hank walked up the hall quickly. There was a cheerlessness to the corridor which sometimes depressed him. He did not like to think of the law as cold and forbidding. He considered it a human thing invented by humans for humans, and the corridor sometimes seemed like a heartless hallway to hell.
Dave Lipschitz, a detective first grade attached to the D.A.'s office, sat just inside the entrance doorway of the bureau.
"Hank," he said in greeting, and Hank said, "Dave," in reply and then turned right at the first doorway beyond the desk, passing a door marked "No Admittance," and going directly to his office, the third one in the hallway, an exact copy of every other assistant D.A.'s office on the floor. A tiny waiting room was tacked to the front part of the office. Four straight-backed wooden chairs sat there playing a ghostly game of bridge. He passed through the waiting room and into the office proper, a twelve-by-fifteen rectangle with windows at the far end. His desk rested before the windows, a leather chair behind it. In one corner of the room was a coat rack. In the other corner was a metal filing cabinet. There were two wooden armchairs in front of the desk and facing it.
Hank took off his hat and hung it on one of the pegs. Then he opened both windows to let in the scant breeze rustling in the sun-drenched street outside. The windows in the Homicide Bureau were made of wire mesh sandwiched between two sheets of glass, and they were attached to the frame in such a manner that they could open outward no more than six inches. It was impossible to shatter them or to crash through them, and it was impossible to squeeze through the narrow wedge they presented when opened. Perhaps such extreme caution wasn't really necessary. In the eight years Hank had worked for the bureau, he'd never known anyone to try a plunge. But the people with whom the bureau dealt were very often desperate, and suicide to some of them might have seemed preferable to death in the electric chair.
The opened windows did little to lower the temperature in the small cubicle. Hank took off his jacket and hung it over the back of his chair. Following a summertime routine broken only when he was expecting early-morning visitors, he pulled down his tie, unbuttoned his shirt collar and rolled up his sleeves. Then he sat down and pulled the phone closer, fully intending to dial the stenographic pool with a request for a typist. His hand hesitated. Instead, and quite impulsively, he dialed the reception desk.
"Yeah, who's this?"
"Hank. Think you can call down for some coffee?"
"So early? What happened? Big night last night?"
"No. Just too hot a day. I want to ease into work instead of leaping in with both feet."
"You go to trial with Tully tomorrow, don't you?"
"Yes," Hank said.
"You're not worried about it, are you?"
"Not a bit."
"I hear his lawyers are copping a second-degree plea."
"Where'd you hear that?"
"Heh-heh, you think I'm a detective for nothing? Am I right?"
"You're right," Hank said.
"Sure. I'll call down for the coffee. Cream and one sugar. Think I'll have a cup myself while I'm at it."
"Dave, would you just send it in when it arrives? You needn't buzz me."
"Roger," Dave said, and he hung up.
Hank cradled the phone and sighed deeply. He should, he knew, call the pool for that typist. There was nothing pressing about that, however, and once his notes were retyped his day would settle into the dull routine of waiting for tomorrow and the trial. Nor would there be anything spectacular about the case. The defense attorneys, as Dave's interoffice spy system had faithfully reported, were pleading guilty to Murder Two. In effect, the trial would be over before it began. Tomorrow, unless someone planted a bomb in the Criminal Courts Building, would be as uneventful as today promised to be, and probably just as hot. And after the Tully trial he would be assigned to a new case, and he would prepare it, and take it to trial, and either win or lose it for the people, and then wait for his next assignment, and his next, and his next, and his ...
What the hell's the matter with me this morning? he wondered. I'm behaving like a man who's tired of tightening bolts on an assembly line. The truth is that I'm as happy with my work as any man has a right to be. I'm a competent lawyer who isn't looking for headlines or screaming recognition. I have no political ambitions, and I work in the district attorney's office not because I'm a dedicated slob but because I suppose I like the idea of representing the people of this county. So what's wrong this morning?
He swung his chair around to face the windows and the shimmering blue sky beyond.
There's nothing wrong with this morning but that sky, he thought. It's a heat sky. It forces a man to think of sailboats and beaches.
Smiling, he swung his chair back to the desk and picked up the telephone receiver. Then, without hesitation, he dialed the stenographic pool and requested a typist. He began rereading his notes before her arrival, making small changes on the first few pages. As he read on, he realized he was making major revisions. He glanced at his wrist watch. It was ten o'clock and the typist had still not arrived. He called the pool again and asked for a stenographer instead. Suddenly there seemed a hundred things to be done before the trial tomorrow, and he wondered if he could complete them all before five o'clock.
He did not leave the building until six that evening.
By that time, the sky had already begun to turn gray with menace.CHAPTER 2
It looked as if it might rain.
The July heat had been building in the city all day long, mounting in blast-furnace intensity. Now, at seven-thirty, ominously dark clouds hung on the horizon, bringing with them a false cloak of blackness, an imitation night without stars. The magnificent New York skyline spread across the sham night in bold knife-edged silhouette. Lights had been turned on in defense against the approaching storm and window slits pierced the silhouette like open yellow wounds. There was the distant rumble of thunder across the river in New Jersey. Feeble streaks of lightning crossed the sky like erratic tracer shells searching for a nonexistent target.
When the rain came, it would sweep across the Hudson to lash the Riverside Drive apartment buildings with their doormen and elevator operators, with their obscenities scrawled on the foyer walls of what had once been the aristocracy of dwellings. The rain would continue eastward, driving unchecked through colored Harlem and then Spanish Harlem, racing for the opposite shore of the island and the East River, washing in passing the streets of Italian Harlem.
Excerpted from A Matter of Conviction by Ed McBain. Copyright © 1959 Ed McBain. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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