About the Author
Rich Zahradnik has been a journalist for 30-plus years, working as a reporter and editor in all major news media, including online, newspaper, broadcast, magazine, and wire services. He lives with his wife, Sheri, and son, Patrick, in Pelham, New York, where he teaches elementary school kids how to publish online and print newspapers. For more information, go to richzahradnik.com.
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Drop Dead Punk
A Coleridge Taylor Mystery
By Rich Zahradnik
Camel PressCopyright © 2015 Rich Zahradnik
All rights reserved.
The great headlines of other newspapers were always to be despised. Not today.
The three ancient copy editors were on their feet, with Copydesk Chief Milt Corman in the middle. Taylor stopped his walk through the newsroom to find out why. If someone had made a mistake, it must be a colossal one to get those fat asses out of their seats. He looked over Corman's shoulder. The copy chief held the Daily News. It was that day's edition, Oct. 30, 1975. The 144-point front-page headline screamed up from the page.
FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD
Corman rattled the paper violently. "That's a work of art. Tells the whole story in five words. He gave the city the finger yesterday."
Jack Miller, one of the other old farts, moved back to his seat. You could only expect him to stand for so long. He settled into his chair for another day of slashing copy. "What do you expect from our unelected president? Veepee to Nixon. Goddamned pardoned Robert E. Lee two months ago."
"Didn't pardon him. Gave him back his citizenship."
"Same thing. The barbarians are running the country and now they're at our gates. We're the biggest, most important city on the planet, and he's going to leave us hanging to get himself actually elected to the job."
Corman flipped open the paper to the Ford speech story across pages four and five. "Just listen to this bullshit. 'I am prepared to veto any bill that has as its purpose a Federal bailout of New York City to prevent a default.' He blathers on about using the uniform bankruptcy laws. On and on and on. How do you police the streets and pick up garbage under the uniform bankruptcy laws? A Federal judge trying to run the whole damn city? Chaos."
"Ford's from Grand Rapids." Miller shook his big round head. "He doesn't know from anything about this place. He's talking to all the flatlanders — a nation that hates us."
"Will you listen to this at the end? 'If we go on spending more than we have, providing more benefits and more services than we can pay for, then a day of reckoning will come to Washington and the whole country just as it has to New York City. When that day of reckoning comes, who will bail out the United States of America?' He'll kill this city to keep his job." Corman looked from the paper to Taylor. "You're the crime reporter. Why don't you go after this? Write the story about the man who murdered New York."
Taylor laughed. "You can't kill New York."
"Rome wasn't New York. You know this is the same political bullshit. Made up numbers and budget magic and threats from Washington. New York will still be here long after. It's a great headline, though. You guys should try writing 'em like that."
He left the horseshoe copy desk before they could protest that wasn't the style of the New York Messenger-Telegram. He knew all too well the three of them would kill to be headline writers at the Daily News. That paper wasn't perpetually on the verge of failing like the MT.
Taylor gave New York's financial crisis about thirty seconds more thought as he wound his way around the maze of the newsroom. To him, the crisis was background noise. The city had become a dark place since the Sixties decided to end early, round about 1968. Crime lurked in the darkness, and he covered crime. He was too busy with New York's growth industry to pay attention to the mayor's budget problems.
Corruption in the police department.
Buildings in the South Bronx torched by the block.
Those were the stories he went after, not failed bond sales and blabbering politicos. Problem was the damn financial story had pushed everything else off the MT's front page. Taylor hadn't had a decent story out there in three weeks. He needed the quick hit of a page one byline, needed it particularly bad this morning. The cops had called him at home last night. Not about a story this time. They'd arrested his father, reeling drunk in his underwear outside his apartment building. Taylor had been up until three a.m. dealing with that mess. A good story — a good story that actually got decent play — and a few beers after to celebrate. Now that would pick him up. For a day or two at least.
Make the calls. Someone's got to have something. Now that Ford's had his say, there must be room on page one.
He'd almost slipped past the city desk when Worth called out his name. Taylor tried to pretend he hadn't heard and kept going, but Worth raised his high-pitched voice and just about yelled. Taylor turned and went back to the pristine maple-topped desk of City Editor Bradford J. Worth, Jr.
"I've got an assignment for you."
That was always bad news. "Haven't made my calls yet."
"Doesn't matter. Need you down at City Hall."
Taylor brightened. Crime at City Hall. A murder? That would be big.
"What's the story?" He sounded enthusiastic. He shouldn't have.
"You're to go to the pressroom and wait for announcements. Glockman called in sick."
"C'mon, Worth. Not babysitting. You've got three other City Hall reporters." Who've owned the front page for weeks.
"They're all very busy pursuing the most important story in this city's history. Your job is to sit at our desk in the pressroom and wait for the mayor to issue a statement on Ford's speech. Or the deputy mayor. Or a sanitation worker. Or a cleaning lady. Anybody says anything, you phone it in. Rumor is they're working on using city pension funds."
Worth's phone rang, and he picked up. "Yeah, I'm sending Taylor down. No, he'll do for now." He set the receiver lightly on its hook. "You've been down in the dumps since your friend Laura left us. Was it her going or the fact she got a job at the New York Times? Because you'll never get there, not with the way you dodge the biggest stories."
"Hey, you and I are both still here."
Worth frowned. Ambition rose off the man like an odor as strong as the cologne he wore. He'd made city editor at thirty without ever working as a reporter. Everyone knew he wanted more, and to him, more meant the New York Times. He'd almost been as upset as Taylor when Laura Wheeler announced she had the gig, and Worth wasn't the one in love with Laura. He had been sure he was leaving next.
"Both here, but I'm the one doing his job. Now get to City Hall."
"You have to be able to find someone else." Exasperation through grit teeth. "Crime is big for this paper."
"I decide what's big." He picked up the phone, dialed an inside extension, and showed Taylor his back.
Sitting at City Hall waiting for a press release was the perfect way to ruin Taylor's day, something the city editor liked doing so much it had become a bad habit.
Taylor arrived at his own desk to find the other police reporters gone, probably making their rounds.
The desk that had been Laura's reminded him of her — of her dark brown eyes, her black hair, her beautiful face. She'd left an aching emptiness inside him. They'd lasted a month after she'd moved to the New York Times, and then she'd broken it off. She said she realized the only thing they had in common was the MT. She hadn't been mean about it. And she wasn't wrong. The paper had been their life during the day and their conversation at night. He wondered if it also had to do with his age, 34, and where he was — or wasn't — in life. He pushed his hand through his brown hair. He'd even found himself considering his thin, angular face, something he'd never done before. Was that it? Laura was beautiful. Taylor couldn't think of a word for what he was.
He recently heard she'd started dating a guy on the foreign staff, Derek something. He wondered how old Derek was. Late twenties and optimistic, he guessed, unbowed by life. From a good family too, probably. It was always going to end. So why did it hurt like this?
Truth was Taylor had been living with emptiness for years before he met her. Over that time, he'd gotten used to it, let the job fill his life. Only, having her and losing her made him understand how much he disliked this lonely hole inside.
Really should leave right away.
The black phone in front of him was too much temptation. Worth couldn't see Taylor from the city desk. He picked up the receiver, pushed the clear plastic button for an outside line, and dialed the number for Sidney Greene at 1 Police Plaza. Greene was perhaps the most discontented, dyspeptic minor civil servant Taylor had ever encountered. He leaked stories not to expose injustice or right a wrong, but to screw his bosses. He simply loved watching them deal with the chaos he created by tipping off Taylor.
"Oh, a real shit show. Officer down."
Taylor flipped open a notebook. Even in the midst of this dark age of drugs, muggings, and homicides, a police officer murdered was still a big story. A page one story. "Where and when?"
"Avenue B and East Eighth, just in from Tompkins Square Park."
"That's all I can do for you. They're doing the headless chicken dance down here. You'll be ahead of the others if you get to the scene quick. Not by much, though."
Taylor left the newsroom for the Lower Eastside. He'd check for press releases at City Hall after visiting the scene of the cop's murder. Worthless would have his head if he missed even one minor announcement. Screw it. Taylor couldn't ignore a big story. A real story.
He hustled from the subway across the blocks to the crime scene. The day offered near perfect New York fall weather, with the air crisp and clear, tingling with energy. He unwrapped a stick of Teaberry gum and stuck it in his mouth. The temperature had dropped from yesterday's high of 70 and would only make it into the mid-fifties today. Jacket weather — Taylor's favorite. Not so hot he broke into a sweat on a good walk, and cool but not cold — he wasn't fighting the brutal winds of winter that blasted down the avenues. Easy weather put New Yorkers at ease. He could sense it as he walked. More smiles. Sidewalk trees even showed off muted reds and gold. Taylor knew it was nothing like the color upstate but it would do.
Taylor's press pass got him inside the cluster of patrol cars guarding the ambulance. A couple of fire engines had also rolled to the scene, which was a dilapidated brownstone with half its windows boarded and a huge hole in the roof. The place was a true Lower Eastside wreck in a neighborhood where hard luck meant you were doing pretty well for yourself.
Taylor climbed the cracked front steps. A "Condemned Building" sign was nailed to the open door. The first floor had few interior walls, only piles of rubble from when the roof had come down, bringing chunks of the next three floors with it. The smell of must mingled with the stink of garbage. Two uniformed and four plainclothes police stood around a uniformed body sprawled across a pile of plaster chunks and wood slats in the middle of what was once probably a living room. Off to the right in the front corner was a second body, guarded by no one.
Seeing an opportunity, Taylor moved closer to the body in the corner. The man, young and apparently startled by death, had taken one shot to the chest and one in the leg. Blood soaked a black T-shirt printed with big white letters Taylor couldn't read unless he adjusted the man's leather jacket, which was also covered in blood. The man's heart must have pumped his life's blood out in minutes. Faster maybe. His right hand was on his stomach and clutched a green leather purse with a gold chain strap. Taylor knew better than to touch anything. Instead, he leaned in and was met by the iron and musk odor of blood. The top of the man's hand was tattooed with a spiral pattern, an eye at its center. The fingers were inked with the bones of a skeleton, like an X-ray of what lay beneath the dead man's skin.
The face was young — twenties, probably early twenties — bony and pale, with a tattoo of a spider web that started below the shirt line and crept up his neck to his chin and right ear. His hair was short and spiky, in the punk style — as was his whole look. Many of them had recently moved into this neighborhood to be near the punk rock club CBGB and the other bars that were the heart of the punk rock scene. Many were squatters.
"Don't touch nothin'." A short chunky cop with a gold badge in his belt walked over.
"I'd never do that, Detective." Taylor rose from his crouch. "I'm very sorry about the loss of an officer."
"Yeah, thanks. And who the fuck are you?"
"Taylor with the Messenger-Telegram." Taylor tapped the laminated pass.
"The Empty, huh? Read it sometimes. At least you're not the fucking Times. I hate those pricks."
Five years since the New York Times interviewed Serpico and broke the story of massive corruption in the NYPD, and the paper was still on every cop's shit list. At the time, Taylor had gone crazy trying to follow the Times' scoops. He'd admired what the Times had done and hated being behind on such a big story. He didn't need to tell the detective that, though. It was fine with him if the man liked the Messenger Telegram. Taylor himself liked cops, the honest kind at least. When he'd started at the paper, police reporters were almost cops themselves. Or adjuncts, at least. They helped the police, publicizing successes, ignoring failures, and drinking in the same places. Not anymore. Trust had been lost, and it wasn't going to be won back anytime soon.
"This jamoke holds up a woman for her purse when she comes up from the subway at Astor Place. Officer Robert Dodd and his partner give chase. The mugger runs across St. Mark's Place, through the park and into this hole. They exchange shots. Both are killed. At least that's what we can figure so far."
"Couldn't keep up. Poor Dodd was stuck with a meter maid. When little Samantha Callahan gets here, they're both dead. What's the point of having broads patrolling if they can't back you up?" Lights flashed across the detective's jowly face. He looked out the glassless window at the car pulling up. "Assistant chief. I've got to make sense of this for him."
Taylor jotted down the name on the detective's plate, R. Trunk. He dug out a business card and handed it to the detective. "Anything more comes up, call me. We take care of cops at the MT." Laying it on thick never hurt. "Dodd's a hero. His story should be told right."
"Yeah, we'll see. Your paper may not be awful. Doesn't mean I trust you. Now get out of here. We got work to do."
Trunk turned as another plainclothesman walked up. "Still haven't got the kid's gun."
"Well, find the fucking thing. Assistant chief's going to be on us like stink on shit."
That was odd. If Dodd took out the mugger, the man's gun would be right here somewhere. It couldn't have walked away on its own. Taylor put that detail in his notebook. Anything odd always went in the notebook. He walked a wide arc toward the door to get a quick view of the dead officer. Dodd was a complete mess. He had to have been shot in the face. Taylor couldn't make out the nose, the eyes, anything in the gore and blood. That meant he had to have shot the mugger first.CHAPTER 2
Taylor squeezed between two patrol cars. At the other end of the street, the Daily News's Eastside radio car rolled up. The News had so much damn money, it ran cars with photographers around the boroughs twenty-four hours a day looking for good pictures. Last time the MT could afford anything like that was in the late Fifties, right when Taylor joined the paper. He walked quickly to the far sidewalk so the News guy wouldn't see him. He didn't want a competitor to know he'd gotten here first and been inside. He counted himself lucky for the two minutes he'd had in the building. With the assistant chief here, Taylor might end up being the only reporter to get that kind of look.
He stepped up on the curb. The Channel 7 truck arrived next.
Ladies and gentleman, children of all ages, the circus is about to begin.
About 20 feet farther from the scene, a female officer sat by herself on the stoop of another condemned building. She stared ahead, her face a mask. He approached. Her nameplate read S. Callahan.
"I'm very sorry about your partner."
Samantha Callahan looked up. Her gunmetal blue eyes seemed both sad and angry. "That's what everybody's saying. Sorry. They won't tell me what's going on. They look at me like I'm the guilty one." She shook her head. Taylor had watched male officers break down at the loss of a partner. Maybe Samantha Callahan didn't think that was an emotion she could afford.
The uniformed cops who weren't inside the derelict building stood at least 15 yards away to the left. No one was providing support or comfort to Callahan. Taylor wondered if they held the same views on female officers as Detective Trunk. There was a very good chance. Women had only been assigned to patrol in 1970. The ones he'd interviewed were bright, eager, and brave in more ways than was necessary to be a cop. They were going into a tough job knowing they weren't welcome. At all. Taylor liked that kind of guts.
Excerpted from Drop Dead Punk by Rich Zahradnik. Copyright © 2015 Rich Zahradnik. Excerpted by permission of Camel Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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