Edgar Award Finalist: In the first novel of the Jack Leightner crime series, the Brooklyn homicide detective investigates a perplexing murder in dangerous terrain: the rundown neighborhood of his youth.
Unlike the other members of the elite Brooklyn South Homicide Task Force, Detective Jack Leightner prefers his murders baffling. He likes to lose himself in tough cases, and he has just caught a murder that will consume him like no other: an unidentified body, bound execution style, on the banks of the Gowanus Canal. Leightner is finishing his first look at the corpse when he discovers a knife wound and loses his lunch. He has seen a thousand dead bodies, but nothing brings back bad memories like death by knife.
The victim was a hardworking Dominican man with a family, a job, and no ties to the underworld. Investigating this murder will suck Leightner back into Red Hook, the neighborhood of his youth—now a labyrinth of empty docks and crumbling housing projects. It’s a tough case, but not half as hard as going home.
Red Hook is the 1st book in the Jack Leightner Crime Novels, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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The Gowanus Canal was a bilious green. Long ago, Brooklyn kids had jumped in off its narrow banks to shout and splash around, but more than a century's worth of raw sewage and pollution from the adjoining factories had rendered the water unfit for every living thing except some algae and a tiny perverse species called killifish. Its opaque depths kept many secrets, but by a stroke of luck this corpse was not one of them.
The body lay in a scrub of sun-dry marsh grass at the top of the bank. As Detective Jack Leightner made his way up, his hamstrings strained, but he told himself he was still in good shape for a fifty-year-old. As a member of the elite Brooklyn South Homicide Task Force, he'd been called in to aid the local precinct with the investigation.
A team had already fanned out around the corpse, stooped over like migrant workers as they searched the ground for evidence: a scrap of clothing, a clump of hair, maybe just a cigarette butt with DNA evidence smooched on the filter ... A Crime Scene Unit photographer shifted around, snapping pictures.
One of the locals, a massive man with a bear's ponderous gait, straightened up and smiled as Jack approached. "Hey, whaddaya know?" he said. "The cavalry's here!"
At thirty, Gary Daskivitch was the youngest detective in the Seven-six Precinct. He and Jack had worked together the year before on a murder in the nearby Gowanus housing projects.
"You catch the case?" Jack asked.
"Yeah. Looks like we'repartners again."
At four o'clock the August sun should have been high, but a bank of scudding dirty-cotton clouds dimmed the light. The air bore the heavy, metallic tang of an approaching storm.
"Hey, you see the Mets play last night?" Daskivitch asked.
Jack snorted and looked up at his partner, who stood a full head taller. "I saw it. Almost made me ashamed to be a New Yorker."
He tugged the knees of his slacks and squatted down. Baseball was fun, but not nearly as interesting as a fresh murder. The vic lay on his left side, splayed out in the grass in front of a chain-link fence. A beefy young man, he wore a pair of cheap gray dress slacks and a T-shirt beneath a red plaid shirt. Hispanic, probably mid-twenties. Several nasty bruises mottled his face but the cause of death was not apparent. The kid stared out, his eyes gray as the sky above; they glinted silver in the photographer's flash.
A chain joined two cinder blocks to his ankles. The fence, which marked the rear boundary of a lot filled with abandoned delivery trucks and a rusted black crane, curled up at the lower edge; a rusty spike had pierced the cuff of the victim's pants. The cloth was bloodsoaked: closer inspection revealed that the wire had also pierced the vic's calf.
Jack duckwalked around to look at the corpse's back. The man's well-muscled arms were tied behind him with rope and his legs were similarly bound. "Hey, Dupree," Jack called out, "you get a close-up of these knots?" A particular knot could be a signature, linking this case to other murders.
"Got it," the photographer said curtly, annoyed by this questioning of his expertise.
The vic's T-shirt was raised above his belly, which hung to the side like a sad, soft gourd. If Jack didn't know better than to touch a corpse before the Crime Scene guys finished their job, he would have reached out to pull the shirt down.
"Who found the body?" he asked the young detective.
"We got an anonymous call early this afternoon."
"You ID him yet?"
"Okay," Jack said, rising. "Why don't you make a sketch while we wait."
Daskivitch took out a steno pad and began to draw the position of the body in relation to the fence and the canal.
Down on the water, a breeze jigged the reflections of the sky and the straggly trees and bushes that managed to cling to the banks. Across the way ran a long factory wall with no windows. Farther along, the canal was bordered by warehouses and industrial lots. A drawbridge crossed the water seventy yards to the north, but the sightlines were obscured by trees and tall grass. Whoever killed this man had picked a spot so isolated you could clump a body there in broad daylight.
Half a mile to the south, the F train shuttled across the skyline, a centipede on its elevated track. A mile over the horizon the canal would pass through Red Hookwhere Jack was born, where his father had worked the docksand then open into the Gowanus Bay and New York harbor.
Jack sidestepped down the bank. He watched a Clorox bottle and a potato-chip bag float south on the oil-slick water. Which would reach him first? He put his money on the Clorox bottle.
A minute later the chip bag slid by in first place.
He turned and clambered back up, pleased to see that Daskivitch had been joined by Anselmo Alvarez, the head of the Crime Scene Unit, a short Dominican man with ramrod posture. A few strands of hair were combed carefully across Alvarez's bald pate, in tribute to what his ID photo revealed had once been a proud pompadour. The investigator was the best forensics man in Brooklynhe took seriously the responsibility of standing up for the dead.
"Let's start," Jack said.
Daskivitch shut his notepad. The men pulled on white latex gloves and crouched down.
First Jack checked the victim's pants for identification. Due to the execution-style disposition of the body, there wasn't much chance of finding any, but he had to check. Even after twelve years in Homicide, it still felt odd to reach his hands into someone else's pockets. They were empty.
The victim's kinky black hair was pressed out awkwardly against the dirt.
"We can surmise one thing right off the bat," Alvarez said. "The deceased is having a very bad hair day."
Jack smiled. Alvarez himself could not really be said to have hair days at all anymore, but he kept the thought to himself.
He noted the soul patch, the tuft of beard under the vic's bottom lip, and the tattoo of a jaguar on the right tricep. The red and green lines of the tattoo were crusted overit was either fresh or had just been renewed. Jack had never gotten a tattoo, even during his time in the Army: a tattoo would brand you forever. He avoided bumperstickers on any car he owned for the same reason. It was better to go through life unmarked.
"What should we do next?" he asked Gary Daskivitch. When it came to murders, the kid was a rookie. (With only four homicides in the past year, the Seventy-sixth Precinct was hardly a crisis zone.) He'd learn better if he was pushed to do more than just watch.
The young detective frowned in concentration. "How about we check to see how long he's been here?"
"Okay. How we gonna do that?"
"I guess ... first we need to get him off the fence." Daskivitch took a breath, then reached out and hesitantly prodded the corpse. Jack traded a subtle wink with Alvarez; the rookie hadn't yet seen enough bodies to be comfortable with the task. Hell, the kid didn't even look comfortable wearing a suit.
It took the men several minutes to disengage the victim's leg and pants cuff from the rusty chain-link.
Daskivitch rolled the body forward; he noted that the weeds underneath had not had time to brown.
"You're doing good," Jack said.
Alvarez took out a flashlight and shone it into one of the victim's eyes: the cornea was clouded over. The forensics man pressed his hands against the face, arms, upper body. Jack followed his example. The body was rigid until he reached the thighs, where the flesh still rolled under his palm.
"Feel this," he told the young detective.
Daskivitch winced as he patted the body. Other veterans would have baited the rookie with wisecracks, but Jack refrained. He liked the young detective. The kid was brashhe'd recently come from several years of playing cowboy with a narcotics squad, leaping out of vans and making tough with crack sellersbut he took his new job seriously and was eager to learn.
"What do you think?" Jack said.
"Rigor mortis hasn't set in all the way down."
"Correct. How many hours since the lights went out?"
"I dunno." That was another good thing about the kidhe didn't bullshit. "Less than twelve?"
"I'd say six."
Alvarez nodded. "I'll have to take an internal temp to make sure, but that sounds about right."
The back of the dead man's neck was purple, a different tint from the bruises. Jack pushed a finger into the flesh and pulled it back. The spot momentarily whitened. He knelt down and pulled the back of the T-shirt up: same purple discoloration, same white spot when pressed.
"The body was moved postmortem," Jack said. "How do I know?"
Daskivitch frowned again. "Uh, lividity, right? After the blood stopped circulating, it would have pooled in the lowest parts of the body. That should be his side, not the back."
"Good." Jack turned to Alvarez. "Could these blows to the face have done him in?"
The forensics man stared down thoughtfully. "I think that was just a warm-up."
"Help me here," Alvarez said to Jack. They rolled the body over and Alvarez pulled aside the plaid shirt. The T-shirt underneath was stained with a big patch of rust-colored blood. There was no blood on the ground, confirmation that the body had been moved.
Alvarez rolled the T-shirt up the victim's chest. "There you go."
At first Jack didn't see what he was talking about, but then Alvarez pressed down on the corpse's side, opening the thin ugly slit of a stab wound. Jack pressed his hands against the spiky grass and squeezed his eyes shut. Sweat beaded his upper lip.
"You okay?" Alvarez asked.
Jack nodded, but swallowed, fighting the bile rising in his throat. His head swam and he was afraid he might black out.
"Back?" Daskivitch said.
Weakly he shook his head, lurched to his feet, staggered a few yards away, and heaved up his guts.
He took a deep breath and wiped his mouth with a handkerchief, ashamed to turn around. A veteran getting queasy over such a well-preserved corpseit was as pathetic as a surgeon fainting over a nosebleed.
He patted the sweat from his forehead, straightened up, and turned back to the other detectives. They seemed to have trouble meeting his eyes.
"Whew. Must've been something I ate. Bad shrimp, maybe."
"What is it with you and the stabbings?" Alvarez said quietly.
Jack looked up sharply. "Why don't you mind your own fucking business!"
"Whoa." Alvarez raised his hands.
Daskivitch's eyes widened. The kid had seen the veteran lose his lunch; now he was losing his cool. Jack cleared his throat. "Sorry. I just got a little dizzy, is all. I'll be fine."
The forensics man shrugged, then knelt down by the corpse and started doing something unpleasant with a thermometer.
Jack turned away, queasy again. He glanced at Daskivitch, alert to any condescension or contempt.
The kid just looked concerned. "You sure you're okay?"
"Yeah. Let's just drop it, all right?"
Daskivitch nodded and looked away.
"Okay," Jack said, taking charge again, "the vic died somewhere else and was shlepped here. He could have been carried from the bridge, but that's a long way and there's no stairs. I think they just chucked him over the fence, and he got snagged on the other side."
"One guy could never have gotten him over. Sofirst of all, they would've had to untangle him from the wire. Then they'd have to carry him down to the water. The question is, why didn't they finish the job?"
"You think somebody eyeballed them from the bridge?"
"Too far. The sightlines are crap."
He looked down at the water. "At least the scubas will be glad they don't have to go in." Once he'd seen a couple of miserable Harbor Scuba Unit divers kneeling by a hydrant near the canal as they hosed off a thick layer of scum and muck. Perhaps they were remembering a scuba whose mask had slipped off while he was down: the poor bastard inhaled a mouthful of typhus and cholera and ended up in intensive care.
Daskivitch grimaced. "A few minutes in that poison would strip a body like frikkin' piranhas."
Alvarez pulled out a couple of paper bags and taped them over the victim's hands. If the man had died fighting, he might have tissue from his murderer under his nails. Unfortunately, they'd have to wait until after the autopsy to take fingerprints.
Jack and his partner took a walk along the canal, discussing the possibilities. A few yards on, they came upon the first officer on the scene, a young uniform anxiously checking the yellow tape he'd stretched between the fence and a tiny tree. In one hand he held a clipboard, his log of everyone who entered the perimeter. He coughed awkwardly as the two detectives approached, unsure whether to look at them or away.
"How's it going, kid?" asked Daskivitch. That he was only a few years older than the patrol cop didn't mattera detective's shield hung on the pocket of his jacket.
"Very good, sir," the uniform replied. "Do, um, did you find out what happened?"
"Yeah," Daskivitch said. "The vic was offed by a big guy, probably an American Indian, left-handed, wearing a blue-jean jacket and Air Jordans."
The patrol cop's brow furrowed.
Jack remembered his own days walking a beat. Half the time, dealing with the public, you felt like a big wheel; the other half your superiors made you feel like shit. "Don't worry about it," he told the young cop. "He's just busting your chops."
A deflated soccer ball drifted downstream. Jack watched it for a moment, then turned to his partner. "The canal."
"Someone was sailing down the canal."
"What, are you kidding? It's a cesspoolnobody's sailed here in a hundred years."
On the bridge, a knot of gawkers had already assembled, drawn by the Crime Scene truck and the flashing patrol cars. Jack and his partner pushed through and made their way to the bridgehouse, a squat brick tower rising next to the far end. They peered over the side of the bridge. A crusted metal ladder descended to a half-open door. The detectives climbed over the railing and made their way down.
"Hello?" Jack called.
Inside the tower, a musty stairwell brought them up to a small office, where an old man sat facing a gleaming metal control panel covered with knobs and gauges. In front of him, a picture window offered a broad view of the canal and the metal-grated roadway. He wore headphones over greasy gray hair and flipped through a copy of the Post, whistling tunelessly with the music inside his head. 'If you wanna be my lover,' he suddenly sang, falsetto.
Jack rapped on the door and the bridgekeeper spun around. The detectives badged him, then explained their disagreement about canal traffic.
"Well," the man said, "nobody sails on the Gowanus, but we get some barges. Did you know this used to be the end of the Erie Canal? Back in the eighteen-eighties"
"How much traffic do you get?" Jack said.
"I lift the bridge a couple times a day."
"How many people on the barges?"
"They usually run with a crew of twothey trade watches, six hours on and off."
"They have radios?"
"Yeah. These days some of them carry portable phones too."
"You keep a log?"
"Of course I do. It's the law." The keeper lifted a large open notebook from a desk and handed it over.
The Volsunga, captained by one Al Perry, had passed by at 9:47 that morning, and the Chem Trader, captained by Raymond Ortslee, had passed at 12:40 that afternoon. The anonymous call to the Seven-six had come in five minutes later.
Jack lit a cigarette as he and Daskivitch stepped out the bridgehouse door. Across the canal lay a squat grass-covered berm, an oil company depot, surrounded by coils of barbed wire. Along the front of its loading dock No Smoking was painted in red letters six feet high.
"Jesus, don't drop that cig," Daskivitch said. "Don't worry about the oilthe canal itself'll catch and we'll have a river of fire all the way to Red Hook."
As the detectives climbed back onto the roadway, raindrops spattered down out of the leaden sky. Jack hunched his shoulders and lifted the collar of his sports jacket. "It's Murphy's Lawon rainy days, the bodies are always outside."
The windshield of the young detective's unmarked Grand Marquis fogged up quickly. Jack rubbed his handkerchief across the glass and watched the thundershower scatter the audience on the bridge. Down by the canal, the Crime Scene Unit was scrambling to spread plastic tarps inside the perimeter.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a little white packet.
"What's that?" Daskivitch asked.
"It's a hand wipe. You want one?"
"No, thanks," his partner said, amused.
Jack ripped open the packet and wiped down his hands, pleased by the familiar stinging scent of the alcohol. He knew the gesture was mostly futilethe world was teeming with hostile bacteriabut it made him feel better.
The ugly little mouth of the victim's stab wound opened in his mind and he shivered.
Daskivitch looked glum. "I wish I didn't catch this one. I'll take a grounder any day. The jealous wifeyou get to the scene and she's standing there with the Ginsu knife in one hand and her husband's stones in the other. Baddabing: case closed."
Jack didn't answer. He wished his partner would stop talking, and especially that he'd stop talking about knives.
"Why do you think the barge captain phoned it in anonymous?" Daskivitch asked.
His partner answered his own question. "The guy's probably shitting bricks. He thinks he witnessed the end of a Mob hit, and the guys who did it saw him, and he's gotta pass by here every day. You think it was Mob?"
"I doubt it." Though the side streets of nearby Carroll Gardens were home to a number of known Mafia soldieri, the neighborhood was quietthey didn't do business where their wives and children lived. Mobsters would have taken the body out and dumped it in the harbor, or by some distant parkway. Secondly, the victim was Hispanic, and stabbing was a Hispanic MO. A knife was often associated with domestic violencethe first weapon handybut Jack couldn't see some angry woman beating the shit out of this guy and then hoisting his body over a fence. He lacked the patience right now to discuss all this, so he just said, "If it was a Mob hit, they'd probably have just shot the guy."
Daskivitch pondered the matter. After a moment, he chuckled. "How'd you like the look on that rookie's face, huh? 'Blue-jean jacket and Air Jordans'!"
Jack didn't answer. He pictured the hilt mark next to the wound, indicating that the knife had plunged all the way in.
His partner drummed on the steering wheel with his index fingers, a habit Jack remembered from the last time they'd worked together. "You like the mysteries," Daskivitch said, his tone a mix of admiration and annoyance. "You're the only detective I know who doesn't mind a dump job." Nearly impossible cases sometimes turned up in car trunks or Dumpsters, decomposed, without ID, without witnesses. Jack had a reputation on the task force for pursuing such cases as far as he could. It wasn't always a good reputation: spending too much time on a few hopeless cases could drive down the team's clearance rate.
A slight tightening of his face was Jack's only response. He looked out the side window. A CSU man's red umbrella bobbed alongside the canal, a small splash of color against the unrelenting gray of the scene.
He loosened his tie, tilted his head back, and closed his eyes. Rain rattled on the roof.
The stab wound was directly above the heart. The victim might have bled to death, or the trauma might even have stopped the muscle directly. Sweat beaded Jack's lip again.
Daskivitch drummed his fingers on the wheel. "What do you say we go find the barge captain? I know the shift's almost over, but we could pick up some good OT."
Jack opened the door and stepped out. The red lights of a patrol car parked on the bridge slapped him repeatedly in the face. Cars slowed as they neared the bridge, their tires making a sound on the wet asphalt like tape being pulled up. He bent down to speak through the window.
"I'm gonna head home. We can do it first thing in the A.M."
He turned away from Daskivitch's look of surprise. They had a hot murder; the rookie was excited to pursue it. And here was the infamously dogged Detective Leightner, ready to call it a day.
Daskivitch shrugged. "All right, bunk. You okay?"
Jack was already walking toward his car.
Half an hour later, he arrived home in Midwood, a quiet Brooklyn suburb of stucco and brick. The houses kept close company; tulips filled small front yards often marked by one special treea weeping willow, a Japanese maple, an exotic pine. When he moved there after his divorce, Jack knew nothing about the neighborhood save that it was populated largely by Orthodox Jews and had a very low murder rate. He was Jewish himself, but the religious makeup of the neighborhood didn't matter to himhe just needed to live somewhere he didn't have to worry about what was happening in the streets.
He worried about his landlord, though. As he entered the front hall, he cocked his head for sounds of life upstairs. At eighty-six Mr. Gardner was alert and active, but his wife had died the year before and now he lived alone.
Radio voices, a clanking of dishesthank God, the old man motored on.
Jack stooped to lift a bundle of mail from the Astroturf-carpeted floor. (Mr. Gardner was a big fixer-upper, but he improvised with found materials.) He sensed that he was not alonean orange cat sat on its haunches at the top of the stairs, regarding him coolly. The cat belonged to his landlord, as much as it belonged to anyone. Jack respected its self-sufficiency: the old man fed it once a day, but otherwise it took care of itself.
Inside his apartment, a floor-through with faded wallpaper, he hung his jacket neatly in a closet and fished his NYPD paycheck out of a stack of junk fliers and credit card offers. In the kitchen, he scrubbed his hands and turned on a radio for background noise while he gathered a makeshift dinner: a can of sardines in mustard, creamed spinach in a boilable pouch, a packaged microwaveable potato. Bobby Darin crooned "Beyond the Sea."
While he ate, he read the back of a cracker box, which suggested accompaniments, including a slice of cheese. What kind of moron, he wondered, needed to be told that cheese went well with a cracker? The answer bounced back: the same kind of moron who couldn't bake his own potato.
Excerpted from Red Hook by Gabriel Cohen. Copyright © 2001 by Gabriel Cohen. Excerpted by permission.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Someone murdered Dominican Tomas Berrios, but before the killers can toss the body into the nearby canal off RED HOOK, Brooklyn, someone must have arrived. The culprits flee the crime scene leaving behind a corpse whose legs are tied to two concrete blocks. The crime makes no sense as Tomas was considered a good citizen who worked hard, was married and had two children. Even more surprising is the reaction of NYPD Detective Jack Leightner who vomits when he first sees the victim. Unable to resist the case, Jack obsessively investigates because a murder in RED HOOK brings back his own unhappy childhood memories and a reminder of his own failings with his son just like his own dad failed with him. Apparently his son is beginning to emulate that relationship. RED HOOK is a very good police procedural that is actually a powerful relationship drama. The story line is fast-paced and filled with action as Jack makes inquiries into Tomas¿ murder, but also into why his own life is such a failure at least in his mind. Gabriel Cohen takes Chapin¿s Cat in the Cradle and places it inside an urban who-done-it starring realistic people who make quite an enjoyable novel. Harriet Klausner