Late at night by posh Gramercy Park, a woman peers into the backseat of a parked car. She’s never seen a dead body before, but there’s enough blood that she has no doubt what she’s looking at. She remembers seeing a strange man nearby, and the police use her fuzzy identification and a few other bits of tenuous evidence to finger Billy Sowell, an alcoholic bum with limited intelligence and a patchy memory, as the killer. Who cares if he’s guilty? Billy’s an easy conviction, and his case is forgotten until years later, when it falls in the lap of PI Marty Blake. Blake will take anything as he tries to rebuild his practice after a year’s suspension for illegal surveillance, and he attempts to clear Billy’s name using his expertise at computerized investigation. But when it comes to proving the New York Police Department wrong, virtual sleuthing will not be enough. For this computer expert, it’s time to play tough.
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Last Chance for Glory
By Stephen Solomita
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Stephen Solomita
All rights reserved.
WHEN THE FIGHT STARTED, Marty Blake stepped from the blazing interior of his yellow cab onto the blazing pavement of West Forty-seventh Street to get a better view. He felt no impatience, no anxiety, despite the painfully obvious fact that when the wheels of a cab don't turn, the driver doesn't make any money. Despite knowing that by the time he paid off the 5 AM-5 PM lease and filled the tank, he'd be lucky to have enough for dinner and a beer.
Marty Blake was not a bloodthirsty man. He would've liked nothing better than to leave without a backward glance for the two lunatics about to do the urban shuffle. Unfortunately, the combatants' cars were between his cab and the corner. The only way around was the sidewalk and even if he had the courage to face the pedestrians gathering to watch the fight (which he didn't), his route to the curb was blocked by an illegally parked van with enough tickets stuffed beneath its wiper blades to fill the street's gaping potholes.
"Please, Mister Cabbie, I'm not feeling well. I can't stop here. I'm a passenger."
The woman's face, caught in the intense glare of the midday sun, seemed almost featureless. The sweat-moistened powder on her forehead gleamed with pinpoints of light, as it did along the bony length of her nose. Blake could see a tiny sun in each lens of her cats-eye glasses.
"There not a lot I can do about it, ma'am." Blake managed a shrug. "It's in God's hands, now."
He was hoping the pious reference would shut her up. Fat chance.
"I can't take the heat. It's too much for me. You should have chosen a different route."
Blake had picked up the old lady and her bundle of packages on Sixth Avenue near Macy's in Herald Square. She was headed for West End Avenue and he'd dutifully plowed uptown, fighting the traffic while he looked for a way out of the Midtown mess. Forty-seventh Street had been clear to Seventh Avenue, which was as far as he could see. Now, he was a hundred yards short of Tenth Avenue and immobilized for the duration.
"You're right," Blake admitted. The woman's face was contorted by running mascara, as if she'd been weeping tears of black blood. "I should have taken a different street, but I didn't. Now we're screwed."
He managed a quick smile before turning back to watch the fight. The tall fat guy was still leaning over the Ford, screaming at the black man trapped inside.
"Black-assssss. You are black-assssss. We should send all black-ass back to Africa."
The man in the car seemed more confused than afraid. Blake had had any number of conversations with the Russian cabbies who hustled the hotels. They used the term "black ass" the way others used the word "nigger."
"Mister Driver, please."
Blake turned back to the woman. On average, he carried sixty passengers a day. He liked to think of them as packages.
"What do you want me to do, ma'am? There's nowhere to go."
"Why did you take this street? I demand an answer."
"Just lucky, I guess."
"Ha, with your big mouth. I'm an old lady."
"I sympathize, but it's not my fault."
"And I'm dying from the heat. It's a hundred degrees in this taxi."
"A hundred and ten, actually. I've got a thermometer in the front. It was a hundred and ten when I got out."
The black man trapped in his car was making noises like he wanted to mix it up. His problem, as Blake saw it, was how to get out without being sucker-punched.
"Please. Don't ignore me. I'm a passenger and I have rights."
"Lady, all you have to do is walk up to Tenth Avenue and find another cab. There's no trick to it."
"If I have to walk, I'm not paying."
Blake reached into the cab and shut off the meter. There was no way, short of physical violence, that he was going to collect this fare. At another time, a few months ago, he would have argued, demanded, threatened to call a cop. Not today. After 364 days of exile, he was going home. Home being, in this case, Manhattan Executive Security, Inc.
"That's okay, ma'am. You must need the money more than I do." He opened the door and stepped back. "Don't forget your packages."
The woman (seemingly refreshed by the prospect of saving a big three dollars and fifty cents) slid from the back of the cab, cradled her bundles against her bony chest, and skittered off down the block. Blake watched her for a moment, thinking that she reminded him of his Granny Emma who'd told stories of the Great Depression the way his other grandmother, Granny Agatha, recited Mother Goose. Granny Emma, his mother's mother, had spent the final decades of her life meditating on the nickels and dimes she'd saved at the supermarket. Or the sweater she'd plucked from the clearance rack of a hospital thrift store. Her considerable estate was now supporting her daughter.
Blake turned back to the fight just in time to see the initial escalation from words to deeds. The fat Russian suddenly reached into the interior of the black man's car only to find his knuckles between the black man's teeth. The Russian leaped back, screaming, while his opponent took the opportunity to escape through the far door.
No weapons, Blake thought. Please no weapons here. If they really fuck each other up, the cops'll have me giving statements for the next six hours.
His plea went unheard. The black man came around the back of his car waving a three-foot length of iron pipe. Which, Blake had to admit, wasn't such a bad idea. Not only was he six inches shorter and a good hundred pounds lighter than his adversary, he couldn't turn tail and run. His car was trapped behind the Russian's.
As the two men began to circle, Blake let his eyes drift over the crowd. Mostly male, their eyes glittered with anticipation, like men at a stag party watching the whore move from lap to lap. Jaws rigid, skin glistening, fists clenched—their clothing was already soaked with sweat. Later, the executives would shower and change; the alkies and the crack junkies would itch and stink.
"Yeah, get him, get him. Smash his fuckin' face in. Kick his fuckin' ass.
What it is, Blake decided, is street-ecumenical. The homeless meet the CEOs. Democracy in action. The vision of Thomas Jefferson sucked out of the Bill of Rights and dumped onto the pavement.
Blake turned back to the combatants. The black man clearly didn't want to fight. He was waving the pipe around, but making no effort to close the six feet of ground between himself and the Russian. The Russian, for his part, continued to circle, continued to chant the same curse in the same intense monotone.
"Black-assssss; black-assssss; black-assssss."
In the end, the black man's indecision decided the fight. When he finally struck, the blow, though it contacted the Russian's scalp with an audible thump, was neither killing nor disabling. The Russian, laughing, now, ignored the blood streaming over his left eye; he grabbed the smaller man, forced him to the ground, slammed his face into the pavement.
Slowly, as if trying to assert his dignity, the Russian heaved his bulk erect. He began to kick his stunned opponent, taking his time about it, grunting with the effort. Again and again and again.
Blake waited until he was sure the Russian wasn't going to stop. Until the small figure on the pavement lay motionless. Then he stepped forward.
"That's it," he said, trying to put enough command into his voice to get the Russian's attention, a necessary first step. "You won. The fight's over. C'mon, enough."
The Russian turned his head slightly. "I kill you, too," he grunted. His eyes, Blake noted, were still in lunatic heaven.
"You don't wanna talk about killing, pal." Blake held up his hands, palms out. "They do horrible things to you for killing people. Twenty-five years to life kind of things. In Attica."
He'd intended his counsel to be calming, but the Russian wasn't ready to listen. He did, however, move away from his fallen adversary, which Blake saw as a victory of sorts. Or it would have been a victory if the Russian hadn't been coming straight for him.
Blake wasn't afraid. Four years on the varsity wrestling squad at City College (good enough to get invited to the Olympic trials; not good enough to win a single bout) had taught him to keep his head. Ten years of post-college workouts in a sweaty YMHA in Forest Hills had only added to his confidence. At present, he was benching three-twenty-five, a hundred and forty pounds more than his body weight. He may not have been a candidate for power lifter of the year, but he was certain he could tie a lumbering, blubbery Russian into enough knots to fill a Boy Scout manual.
"Look, you're makin' a big mistake here." Blake continued to back away. "What happened before? You could claim self-defense. After all, the man hit you with a pipe and you've got the wound to prove it. But me, I'm unarmed." He raised his hands again. "And I'm running away, You hear the sirens? The cops'll arrive any minute. Don't you have enough problems without having to explain a second assault? Think about it."
Blake saw a flicker of awareness float through the Russian's eyes. He decided that while it wasn't exactly intelligence, it did indicate a certain shrewdness. A memory, perhaps, of his own native land and what the authorities in that native land could do to you.
"Why you no mind own business?"
"I should have. I admit it. But there's no sense in going any further. What we oughta do is let it drop and wait for the police."
"You are dirty coward."
"Okay, I can accept that."
"You are dirty American coward."
The Russian turned to face the oncoming police, and Blake, acting entirely on impulse, stepped forward to drive his fist into the fat man's lower back. While his blow (like that of the little man with the pipe) was not a killing blow, it was entirely disabling. The Russian fell to the ground and howled like a castrated pig.
Blake shook his head in disgust. "Check it out, putz. The first rule of American street life is never turn your back on a man you've just humiliated."
"Sarge, my whole family was on the job," Blake explained. "Two uncles, my old man, a bunch of cousins. Since 1883 when my great-great-grandfather was appointed to the cops by a Tammany boss named Kilpatrick."
"So what happened to you?"
They were sitting, Blake and Detective-Sergeant Paul O'Dowd, in a mercifully air-conditioned blue-and-white on Tenth Avenue, happily blocking the already snarled evening traffic while they chatted away.
"What happened, Sarge, was that my Irish father married a nice Jewish girl from Forest Hills. And what I did was become a computer freak with a bad attitude."
It was true, as far as it went. Blake had come out of CCNY in 1983 with a BS in computer science and a job worth thirty-five grand a year. Not bad, for a twenty-one-year-old kid. The only problem was that he'd hated his work. Customizing software for investment bankers had seemed interesting enough, especially from the prospective of an undergraduate with no money to attempt a master's degree. In fact, it'd turned deadly dull in a hurry.
"So, how come you're drivin' a cab?"
"It's a long story. You sure you wanna hear it?"
"That coon's in a bad way, Blake. If he should happen to expire, it'll go down as a homicide. You're a witness. Good or bad is what I'm trying to find out. So, how come you're drivin' a cab?"
"You ever have a job you hated, Sergeant?"
"I hate the one I'm doing now."
"Well, pretend that somebody you just happened to meet at a party offered you a job that was a thousand times more interesting and paid better than being a cop. Would you think you stepped in shit?"
"Keep goin', Blake. There's gotta be a punch line here; I can feel it coming."
"The someone I met is named Joanna Bardo, president and sole shareholder of Manhattan Executive Investigations, Incorporated. When I told her I was a computer programmer, she offered me a job on the spot."
"Doing exactly what?"
Blake smiled. "Sarge, you know about knocking on doors? Burning shoe leather? Well, at Manhattan Executive, we don't knock on doors until after we knock on the computer. Motor-vehicle records, accident reports, criminal records, insurance records, property sales, births, deaths, marriages—it's all there, all legal. All just a phone call away."
"I take it the computer makes the phone call."
"That's right. Give the computer a social security number and it'll find you anywhere. Manhattan Executive was one of the first companies to use the computer for skip-tracing. There was a time, about five years ago, when every bail bondsman in the city was sending us business. There's a lot more competition, now, but we still get to pick and choose."
"It sounds okay, Blake. Probably good money in it, too."
"It would have been better if I'd stayed with the computer, but I wanted to do field work, so I got my license. I'm a full-fledged private eye. Or, I will be in about six hours. Right now, I'm on suspension. What happened was I set up an illegal surveillance and almost got caught. The case against me was pretty weak, but I didn't have the heart to take a chance at trial, so what I did was plead nolo contendere before the board and accept a year's unpaid vacation. Today's my last day off."CHAPTER 2
IT WAS WAY TOO early, just a little before six, but Marty Blake was already in the bathroom, soaping his dark, heavy beard. Though he'd been hoping against hope for another hour and a half's sleep, he hadn't even bothered to set the clock. What was the point? On an ordinary day, he'd already be cruising Manhattan, timing the lights as he methodically worked the avenues, from Ninety-sixth Street down to Houston Street. Looking for the last of the night people, the first of the office workers.
That nightmare was now officially over (though the memory lingered on). He'd done his time, served his sentence; he was going home. Maybe.
When he'd called Joanna Bardo, he'd expected a lot more enthusiasm. In fact, he'd expected a hero's welcome, because he was a hero. Even during the worst of it, when the prosecutors were talking fifteen years, when his own lawyer wouldn't meet his eyes, when the prosecutors were offering to let him walk away with his license if he gave up Joanna Bardo, he'd stood fast. He'd taken the heat like a good soldier.
The case had been simple enough. A small brokerage firm, Hattmann Brothers, suspected one of their executives, an accountant named Porcek, of insider trading. Namely, Porcek was feeding information on new issues to his brother-in-law who was passing it on to a cousin who was buying shares in his wife's name. The firm wanted to dump the accountant before the feds caught on, but they needed more than a paper trail. They needed enough hard evidence to convince Porcek to leave without a fuss. Or a scandal.
Hattmann Brothers had given the job to Joanna Bardo who'd given it to Marty Blake, her number-one investigator. Especially when it came to black-bag operations.
"They don't want to know what we're going to do, Marty," she'd said matter-of-factly. "They just want it done."
He'd taken the hint, entered Porcek's apartment while he was at work, bugged the rooms, and tapped the phones. It wasn't supposed to be a big deal. Despite the high-tech image cultivated by modern private investigators, the business was still as corrupt as it had been when private investigation meant catching errant spouses with their pants down. Clients expected results, but they weren't prepared to pay for six months of by-the-book investigation. If you wouldn't cut through the red tape, your competition would. It was that simple.
By the time Blake had realized that Porcek's extra-legal pursuits involved more than insider trading, the IRS had busted into Porcek's apartment, seized two million dollars in counterfeit currency, and discovered the various taps and bugs. The feds had kept the bogus fifties, but passed on the hardware to the New York State Attorney General. The AG had gone to Hattmann Brother's who'd implicated Manhattan Executive and Joanna Bardo. Joanna (with no real choice in the matter) had named Marty Blake.
In the end, it was the AG who'd blinked. Despite their blustering, the prosecutors hadn't had enough to go to trial. They'd offered Blake a dismissal of the criminal charges in exchange for a year's unpaid vacation. He'd taken it because he didn't have the courage to put a decade of his life in the hands of a jury.
Excerpted from Last Chance for Glory by Stephen Solomita. Copyright © 1994 Stephen Solomita. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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