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Officer Filomena Buscarela has traded in her uniform for the many joys and trials of being a single parent, but her passion for justice burns as hot as ever in this second installment of the critically acclaimed mystery series set in 1980s New York City. When the owner of Filomena’s neighborhood bodega is murdered and falls into the overcrowded category of just another “ethnic” crime that will probably go unsolved and unavenged, she doesn’t need much prodding from the dead man’s grieving sister to step in. Secretly partnered with a rookie cop, she hits the Washington Heights streets to smoke out the trigger-happy punks who callously ended an innocent life. In a town big enough to hold every kind of criminal, crackpot, liar, and thief, from ruthless gangsters to corporate executives drunk on greed and power, Filomena tracks a killer through the city’s danger zones. This is dark, humorous storytelling that also offers a recap of the social and economic horrors wrought by the Reagan era.
About the Author
Kenneth Wishnia is an associate professor of English at Suffolk Community College with a PhD in comparative literature from SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of the Filomena Buscarsela Mystery series, the first of which was nominated for both the Edgar and the Anthony Awards, and made the Booklist “Best First Mystery” list. He is also the author of The Fifth Servant, which was a finalist for the Sue Feder Memorial Historical Mystery Award. He lives in Long Island. Gary Phillips is the author of Cowboys, Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail, The Jook, and The Underbelly. He lives in Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
By Kenneth Wishnia
PM PressCopyright © 2013 Kenneth Wishnia
All rights reserved.
"He that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent."
— Proverbs 28:1
LÁZARO PÉREZ had a woman's heart.
I mean that. He had a heart transplant three years ago and the organ donor was a woman. He always said it made him the man every woman wants: strong back, soft heart. I needed that heart of his. His store, the only one in the barrio open past 1:00 A.M., was always a haven for me when I had to get out of the apartment or risk becoming a New York Post headline for murdering my indiscriminate fucker of a boyfriend. He also let me run up one hell of a tab when I needed it bad and no one else would give it to me. I don't think he ever knew how much he meant to me by just being there.
Lázaro was killed on April 28. Two punks held up his corner store for $211 cash and shot him dead. There was no other motive. Just two punks who lost control of the situation. Lázaro was a tough one: He got shot in the hand one time chasing two other punks out of his store and still managed to tackle one of them so hard the guy fingered his partner before the cops even got there.
I told the police detective these particular punks would probably party for a week until the money ran out then go and hit another place, and to watch for the same MO.
"What MO?" he said. "Two greaseballs held up a store and shot the owner. That's as common as Lincoln-head pennies."
But there's always an MO. I decided to find it.
* * *
I remember that April 28 was unseasonably cold. It rained all day and into the night. Lázaro's store was isolated on a corner facing the park. That's probably why they picked it. He had a small handwritten sign on the doorframe that read THIS IS A LEGITIMATE BUSINESS, because so many people cruised the block looking to score drugs and head back to White Plains or Jersey by way of the George Washington Bridge.
Now Lázaro has a ragged, bloody hole in that woman's heart of his. That's murder. Not something that happens during afternoon tea in quaint drawing rooms in the English countryside. And that's why there's a commandment against it, although sticking it alongside lying and dishonoring your parents kind of skews the priorities, if you ask me. You can always take back a lie, apologize, regain your honor. You can't bring back the dead. I've tried.
And there's always that same out-of-focus family snapshot or sickeningly sweet high school graduation photo of the smiling victim they run in the papers alongside a description of the cold, blood-stiff, fallen chest battered open with .38-caliber slugs.
He also used to give me a break on beer prices ("volume discount," he'd joke as he bagged the six-pack) while his doe-eyed younger sister Flormaría pushed a broom across the floor, sweeping her arms in wide arcs around her seven-month belly.
I have a child now, a two-year-old. A beautiful, raven-haired daughter with soft canela skin a shade darker than mine and a shade lighter than her father's, that bum. I used to stop up and see Antonia's father on extended "coffee breaks" back when he was unemployed and I was a cop patrolling past his building. Raúl and I went from 0 to 60 in 6.2 seconds. Then I wasn't a cop anymore thanks to a premature midlife crisis helped along by a full-blown drinking and drugging habit, and we fizzled on and off for a while before some of his sperm got loose and Antonia happened. I had learned to stop abusing myself by then, and was driving a cab for a living at the time — that had to go. For a while, Raúl did the right thing by me, moved in and started splitting the bills. It was still hot once in a while. Even after the birth we had to stop the car one time because my breasts were leaking milk. Turned him on so much we did it right there in the rest area on the New York State Thruway. But after a year he split, unable to handle the commitment. Looking back, I'm surprised he lasted that long.
I entered into a long line of unrewarding positions, which leads me to now: I quit my new job today. Working the cash register in a Komputer King chain store isn't so bad, but it's one of those discount outlets where the sales reps know nothing about software ("Soft where?" we call it, because so much of it disappears out the door concealed inside $250 trenchcoats), so the customers used to ask me questions and I had to do a lot of unpaid homework to hang on to my job. Now it's May and so hot today we went into the back room and took our five-minute coffee break standing right in front of the air conditioner. So the boss comes up to us and tells us we're talking too long and to get back to our servile positions.
"The party's over," he says, "I'm crack-i-i-i-i-n-n-g down!"
"No, you're cracking up," I say. Words are exchanged. I take the subway home. Short three days' pay.
* * *
Broadway. Recognized by Australian aborigines twelve thousand miles away, its meaning in midtown has been secured in thousands of films, photos, artifacts. From 42nd to 59th, The Gay White Way. North of 200th Street it has a different meaning. Like railroad tracks in the old days, west of Broadway means tree-lined streets, the old stone parish church and Catholic school, the park. East of Broadway means you're on your own. Guess which side I live on.
I trundle out of the subway looking forward to seeing my kid a few hours early and getting to spend some time with her. Maybe I can make a real meal for her tonight. She's going to forget mamá can cook if I don't remind her once in a while. In front of the grocery store a guy who stinks like a damp rug that's been left in the trunk of a car for the summer offers me fifty dollars worth of food stamps for forty dollars cash so he can buy alcohol or drugs. Or maybe some rug shampoo.
I tell him, "You know, the White House is cutting food stamps to the poor because of frauds like you."
"Wha —? White House?" he asks, truly dazed.
"You know, the White House. It's that thing on the back of the twenty-dollar bill."
"Oh!" His face lights up. That. "Okay, twenty."
Oh, what the fuck. If I don't buy them, somebody else will. Little Antonia gets her favorite tonight. Shrimp.
* * *
Five flights up to mamita Viki's apartment. She opens the door, this mother of eight, grandmother of twenty, and great-grandmother of six (so far), working without papers on a strictly cash basis. What, did you think I can afford some fancy day care? Mamita Viki takes care of at least five kids all day every day because the parents have to work. She takes all ages. Gives some of these kids the only square meal they get. I squeeze past her squarish body through the narrow hallway into the living room where two boys five and six years old are trying to see how many times they have to run around the coffee table before the rug wears through to the wood.
Antonia is wobbling around the hall in her red overalls trying to master the lively art of throwing a rubber ball. She pinches the ball with remarkable strength, but isn't so good at releasing it. She's really only eighteen months, but that gets pretty tedious to repeat, so I always say she's two. For you non-parents that means she's still in diapers and speaks in priceless baby talk.
"Mommy!" she says, throwing her arms up, letting the ball bounce backwards behind her.
"Hey, beautiful!" I get the best hug I've had all day — or ever have these days.
Mamita Viki asks me point blank why I'm so early today, so we talk for a while over Spanish coffee so strong beads of sweat form on my upper lip. After a lifetime in Santo Domingo, she claims that's the best way to keep cool on a hot day. My proxy grandmother tells me a girl with my education is better off looking for another job.
Mamita Viki has the seniority to call a thirty-ish mother of one a "girl" and get away with it. She says with my law enforcement background I should try social work, she knows I'd be good at it because I do it for free all the time and why not get paid for it?
"Because I can't stand the system," I tell her in Spanish.
"Who can?" she says.
"I need a nine-to-five. How am I supposed to work an investigator's hours with a kid?"
Mamita Viki nods. "Such a waste."
"Well, we've got to be going. Tonia, where's your bottle?"
Antonia points in the direction of the moons of Mars. We look around for it. After a while mamita Viki crouches down in front of the refrigerator and pulls the bottle out from under it. The warm milk supplement has separated into sour water and hyperactive yogurt cultures.
"¿Qué has hecho?" I ask Antonia.
Mamita Viki laughs. "I telling her que el paquete dice, 'store under refrigerator.'"
"That's 'store under refrigeration,'" I tell Antonia, knowing she doesn't understand me yet. "Next time."
Five flights down to the dim haze of a city so humid you almost envy the roaches, who seem so much better prepared for it. Nothing fazes them. I'd carry her, but it's too sticky out and I'm already lugging two environment-destroying plastic bags of groceries. The paper sacks would never survive all this abuse. I cross Broadway at 207th Street and pass a group of dominicanos in front of a bodega slapping dominoes down on a card table hard enough to break them. The two old ones are content to nod at me as I pass, but the younger ones ask, "What do you want, baby? Name it!" and promise, "I'll give you half my kingdom!" At least they show some respect when I'm with the kid. When I'm by myself they say things that you won't find indexed in Gray's Anatomy.
Three flights up to my one-bedroom I get intercepted by Mrs. McRae, who just lost her husband of forty-three years, may he rest in peace. She is one of those white-haired little old ladies who moved in after World War II and never paid the rent late in her life. Her face is gray with agitation and fear, like she's just been robbed.
"Mrs. McRae, what's the matter?" I ask hurriedly.
"Filomena, you know the law — can they do this?"
"This" is a legal-looking letter she's holding out to me with a trembling hand that only buried her husband last Sunday. I lower the groceries onto the stairwell and take the letter, keeping hold of Antonia, who is already squirming to be set free in the apartment. (Sesame Street hasn't gotten around to teaching abstract concepts like "patience" yet.) It's from the landlord, writing from his office above the clouds in Trump Tower, telling Mrs. McRae that since the lease was in her dead husband's name, she has one week to clear out of the apartment that she brought two cops and a schoolteacher into the world in. They must still be at work, so I get asked the legal questions.
"They can't throw you out," I tell her first. "You're immediate family and you've been living here since 1947."
"You're sure?" she asks. The mail must have come around one o'clock. I read three hours of agony in her face.
"They can't throw you out," I reassure her.
"But can they do this?" she says, letting me give her back the letter.
"The law can't stop them from writing this garbage and hoping you believe it," I say.
So she reminds me for the forty-fifth time about how her husband helped take back Okinawa from "the Japs" and now look at this country, but I have to agree, Trump Tower landlords threatening little old ladies with eviction is pretty irritating. Like anyone is going to buy into this crumbling place if they ever break enough laws to go co-op.
What yuppie's going to invest in a place that's not old enough to merit preservation, just old enough to be falling apart? Elevator? 1924 was a bad year for elevators. Just six flights of stairs, honey.
This is being done to half the buildings they own, but you'd never be able to establish a pattern because they set up a different corporation for each building just to break the chain of accountability.
Finally, the apartment door is open and the baby is free. Pyew! I didn't have time to take the garbage with me as I dashed out with the kid this morning. Banana peels and shitty diapers — a winning combination. And the goddamn landlord must have been doing some more of his non-union "renovation" in the warehoused apartment upstairs (since when does it take twenty-nine months to renovate a one-bedroom apartment?) because the floor is covered with a fresh coating of paint chips that dislodge from the ceiling every time they have trampoline practice upstairs, or whatever the hell it is they do up there at 7:00 A.M. on Saturday mornings. What, rest after a hard day? Not for me. Now I've got to vacuum up the pre-war paint chips so the kid won't swallow them and die of pre- war lead poisoning. As an ex-cop I happen to know that no construction activities are permitted other than on weekdays between 7:00 A.M. and 6:00 P.M. as cited in section 54.14 of the NYPD's Guide to Law, but a knowledge of the letter of the law never bought me much consideration when I had a shield, so why should it start happening now?
Someone has shoved a leaflet under my door telling me to come to the tenants' meeting tonight to discuss the landlord's underhanded tactics. At least he hasn't hired motorcycle gangs to beat down our doors at 3:00 A.M. Yet. I put the perishables away and get out the five-dollar garage sale vacuum cleaner. It's so weak I have to bend down and stick half the paint chips down its throat by hand. It takes so long Antonia has time to grab lots of loose chips to play with and I have to trade her for something less deadly half a dozen times. She should have come with a label: ONE BABY: ALL PARTS INCLUDED, JUST ADD LOVE.* Then in fine print: *MAY REQUIRE A LIFETIME OF MAINTENANCE.
When I'm finished vacuuming, I get to roll around on the floor with her, acting like a lunatic and talking baby talk. Hey, I have to speak in complete sentences all day long.
Cooking is a serious pain. Living with a baby has crammed so much into these two rooms that the place upholds the Puny Apartment Dwellers' Law of the Conservation of Volume: Whenever an object is placed on the shelf, another object of equal volume must fall off the shelf.
I unplug the toaster, pick the ten-inch black-and-white Korean TV off the floor, plug it in and put the toaster on top of the TV so I can catch the news while I wash and chop the vegetables. The big news is of interest to parents everywhere. Two executives are being sentenced to a year and a day for distributing chemically flavored sugar water as "100 percent apple juice." A couple of hundred thousand a year they make. You'd think six-figure salaries with five-figure bonuses would be enough money. What are these guys missing that they have to commit fraud to get more? I chop up a carrot that never stood a chance.
Local news brings a hot case from Long Island. A psychologist took the stand in a murder trial in support of the defendant's argument that he was possessed by a manipulative character from a "role-playing game" — whatever the hell that means — that forced him to kill his parents. I suddenly become aware of the chicken blood dripping from my knife to the cutting board. I was born in the highlands of Ecuador, so I know where we get our meat from, but sometimes I recall our pre-modem position somewhat further down the food chain, and I don't like being reminded.
Ecuador makes the international news! That can only mean an earthquake, a military coup, or maybe Madonna decided to buy the place. No, not Madonna, just the stuffy old U.S. secretary of state taking over a meeting of Latin American leaders to express his regret at Ecuador's newly reestablished diplomatic ties with Nicaragua, as if that's any business of his. But when he gets to the chambers of the Ecuadorian congress, he is shocked and outraged by a wall-sized mural by one of our notorious commie-simp artists that apparently equates the CIA iconographically with Nazi-style fascist militarism. A spokesperson for the U.S. says this will "not send a good message to the people of the United States." Ecuador's new president says the mural stays. The camera picks out Fidel Castro for a reaction. Boy, is he getting old. Yipes! I almost slice off the tip of my forefinger with the kitchen knife.
In sports, the Mets beat out the Expos 2-0, ending Dave Cone's recent slump. Let's go Mets. They get Cone in front of the mikes to tell us if he feels his luck is changing. "It's more than a three-hundred-sixty-degree turn," says the ballplayer.
I hope it's more than 360 degrees, because from what I learned in geometry class, 360 degrees leaves you right back where you started. We really ought to keep a sharper eye on these sports figures. Try teaching a kid math after he hears some quarterback go on about how he gave "a hundred and ten percent." Who's the kid going to believe, some wimpy math teacher or a star quarterback?
After dinner, I go over the finances. Shit. I need a new job. Fast. Even if I got one tomorrow payday wouldn't come fast enough to cover the bills. That means I've got to shake down Antonia's dad for his court-ordered thirty-six bucks a week. A phone call won't do it, I've got to go see him. For a lousy thirty-six bucks. Wonderful.
Excerpted from Soft Money by Kenneth Wishnia. Copyright © 2013 Kenneth Wishnia. Excerpted by permission of PM 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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What People are Saying About This
"Wishnia's world is like a New York subway train—fast, loud, dirty, and dangerous—but it's well worth the ride with Filomena Buscarsela in the driver's seat. A hard-edged story gracefully told." —Booklist
"Great fun . . . Fil is a hyperbolic character, spewing enough acerbic opinions to fill half a dozen average mysteries. A spirited sequel." —Publishers Weekly
"Nonstop activity, wry humor, mordant characterizations, and a solid dollop of police procedure make this a hugely appealing follow-up to 23 Shades of Black." —Library Journal