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The girl was thirteen and Irish, and fashioned out of sunlight so bright she made you believe in angels. The box was older, made from the same steel that armored battleships. It held momentous sins; the dark, grisly legacy of a terrified empire in ruin.
Seven thousand miles and thirty-seven years separated their burials, the box in a reinforced granite cave on the east end of Hokkaido Island, Japan; the girl in a velveteen-lined coffin at 111th and Central.
Give a Nobel laureate this year’s NASA budget and every witch in New England and there’s no way he could marry the two. Maybe the tarot readers in Chinatown saw Pandora coming—God knows they love that mystical shit more than money—but I didn’t. I didn’t see the murders of my friends. I didn’t see the stacks of life-out blood money. I didn’t see people I loved forcing me into a box so dark your soul melts.
Nineteen years I’ve been a ghetto cop and thought I’d worked every heartbreaking, horror combination possible. But I hadn’t. I wasn’t marginally prepared for how bad six days could get. And neither was anyone else.
OFFICER BOBBY VARGAS
FRIDAY, 10:00 AM
Black, white, brown, or yellow, on Chicago’s South Side, your neighborhood is your surname. Put on a gun belt, a suit, or a nun’s habit, and all you did was accessorize.
For those of you exiting the ’L near Eighteenth and Laflin in the Four Corners, the etiquette is: grab a length of rebar, scratch a cross in the concrete, set both feet solid in the quadrant that best fits your skin tone, lean back, and start shooting. Welcome to Chicago, the “2016 Olympic City.” We’re glad you’re here.
How Olympic? We have the best hot dogs, best pizza, worst baseball team, six months of weather that would give pause to a statue, and a river we dye green on St. Patrick’s Day because we can. If the IOC could possibly require more, page two is fourteen miles of sandy beaches, blues bars that actually play the blues, icebergs in the winter, four racetracks, and street gangs with twenty thousand members. Think of Chicago as Club Med, but with issues. Wear clean underwear and socks in case there’s an accident, and you’re good to go.
On a good day.
Which, unfortunately, today isn’t. Chicago isn’t California-broke/bankrupt, but we’re guaranteed citywide layoffs, school closings, and half-staff hospitals if we don’t win the 2016 Olympic rebid now that Rio folded. Because our civic karma is a bit spotty, we’re submitting our rebid during a Latino gang war on the West Side that won’t stop making headlines, telling the IOC they’d be lots happier in Tokyo.
A Chicago defeat is worse than bad, but I/we have larger problems. Outsiders have come to the Four Corners. Outsiders who don’t understand that some history will kill you dead if you don’t leave it alone. These people weren’t here twenty-nine years ago. I was.
Right over there, winter of 1982.
Above the unpatched asphalt and broken glass, in those four-story brick tenements.
It was cold and dead silent then; it’s a hundred and six now. Frayed curtains flutter through windows propped open with No. 10 cans. Sharp voices bark from inside, blending with radios singing songs and making promises in three languages. Beneath the windows, lowriders and highriders idle their Chevys and pickups at their respective curbs, eyeing each other for insults they work overtime trying to see. Their neighborhood runs on friction, blame, violence, and reprisal.
America, the great melting pot? That’s where Mayor Daley said we were headed when I grew up here, before the ’68 and ’72 riots changed everything. The truth is, that version of America is dead. We’re the Balkans now, waving foreign flags from an idyllic old country that wasn’t there when we left.
I lived two blocks from here when the riots went off, around the corner behind St. Dominick’s. Grew up singing in the kitchen with my mom; wore what no longer fit my brother, Ruben; snuck Pall Malls from my father’s pack before lung cancer and his two years in Korea finally killed him; and combed my hair as American as I knew how. We had a flag on our stoop every day it wasn’t raining and I put it out there. My dad and I would stand at the flag, shoulder to waist, and salute it. I miss him and the country he died for, every morning when his picture watches me buckle on the body armor and 9-millimeter.
When I was a toddler, the Four Corners was home to “Ricans”—any shade of brown was considered Puerto Rican, like we’d all gotten off the same boat in Humboldt Park. Back then three other groups made up the neighborhood: shanty Irish, the I-talians who never made it to Taylor Street, and a sprinkling of Lithuanians from what they called Jewtown. The blacks were expanding toward us from the north and west but weren’t here yet. Residents of the Four Corners didn’t live on an island, more of a refugee camp with bad history and worse on the way. Not to say that blacks caused what happened. Everybody caused it.
To the south, the Chicago River kept us away from the bungalows of Mayor Daley’s working-class, but way better-off, Bridgeport. If you were Irish and beholden to the Daley Machine but hadn’t achieved working class yet, then you lived farther south, beyond the parking lots and souvenir sellers of Comiskey Park, in violent, insular Canaryville. If you were Irish and aspired to be beholden to the Daley Machine but were too poor or not tough enough for Canaryville, you lived across the river with us “Ricans” in the Four Corners; you listened to the White Sox on a neighbor’s radio, drank Hamm’s Beer on your stoop, and nights someone in your family mopped blood in the stockyards until it closed for good in ’71.
To our east, fourteen elevated lanes of Dan Ryan Expressway and a hundred years of urban legend separated us from the First Ward. Within its boundaries the patronage jobs were doled out, as were the graft and violence necessary to run a major American city. The river ran through the First Ward’s heart, ferrying goods to and from what was once the third-largest port in the world. Planes from the world’s busiest airport flew over the First Ward. All the money coming into or out of Chicago made a stop in the First Ward. Big-boss aldermen brokered the city’s future, beginning with Kenna and Bathhouse John, and ending with Toddy Pete Steffen who’s still a kingmaker. One block farther east of Toddy Pete’s dominion was Chinatown, but when I was a kid that trek meant braving the First Ward so Chinatown might as well have been fifty miles by camel.
To the north we could breathe a little; the Burlington Northern Railroad merely separated us from Jewtown—“Maxwell Street” we called it—a crosshatch of sweaty jangling street market where -drinking-age restrictions hadn’t caught on and goods-and-services warranties weren’t given or implied. Jewtown we “Puerto Ricans” could go to if we were careful, which being young we weren’t, until the riots changed the rules.
On Sundays, Muddy and Junior and Howlin’ Wolf and anybody you could name played Maxwell and Halsted. Black men sportin’ canary-yellow fedoras and girls on each arm mixed with nervous teenagers shopping for Mexican switchblades and factory-reject cowboy boots. Men with the musicians had walking sticks with voodoo heads and their women had nickel-plated revolvers. On the corner, Jim’s Original grilled onions and Polish sausages all day. Nighttime white girls arched their backs under high-piled wigs, wore boots and tiny shorts and looked at you too long. The blues singers sang with half-a-man in each pocket, sipped those bottles between two fingers and each song till they were empty—song, bottle, and man.
Maxwell looked sort of like Eighteenth and Laflin does now, but acted way different. Fred Hampton of the Panthers was dead; so was Martin Luther King and the tension was high, but Sunday was a black/white truce day and Maxwell Street was the DMZ. Just before my big brother Ruben became a cop, he found me my first music-industry job sweeping the sidewalk out front of 831 West Maxwell at Maxwell Radio and Records—a real nice Jewish guy owned it, Bern Abrams and his wife, Idell-Idy. Ruben was their friend, made it a point that all the bad guys knew.
A week into my music career sweeping the sidewalk, Ruben walked out with three-hundred-pound Chicago legend Chester Arthur Burnett, the Howlin’ Wolf himself, harmonica in one world-class hand, guitar in the other. Howlin’ Wolf called me by name, took my broom, and slung his guitar over my shoulder. Un-freakin’-believable. Told me playin’ was better than sweepin’; that he’d done a truckload of both and knew whereof he spoke.
Howlin’ Wolf’s why I bought my first guitar. Okay, it was the girls, but Howlin’ Wolf was second. Big brother Ruben rode with me to a pawnshop in his friend’s squad car the very next day and put up half the money; told the steel-eyed man behind the counter I was good for the other half. And ever since a guitar’s been my answer to the day’s questions.
My guitar didn’t save Maxwell Street, long gone to “urban renewal,” and it hasn’t saved the blues from rap, although I’m trying. The Four Corners has hasn’t fared well, either. Out here I have to be Officer Vargas, but you can call me Bobby. Actually, if you’re a girl and like weekend guitar players, you can call me whatever you’d like. Toss in one of those pouty smiles or a three-star hair move, or just clap real loud while everyone else is talking, and I’m yours till you’re tired.
I’m not quite your rock-star moment? Well, this guitarist has done a demo/session-player audition at Wolfe City Recording Studio, ground zero for the blues after Chess Records closed. Granted Wolfe City hasn’t called back yet, possibly because I stood in the outer office drooling on the framed, autographed eight-by-tens and album covers for an hour, trembling like it was first confession day at St. Dom’s. But Wolfe City will call, you’ll see. And then it’s “Stairway to Heaven” time. Get me the full pompadour, Ray-Ban 2140s, thin black tie—baby. Makes me shiver just thinking about it.
Unfortunately my district’s taxpayers, all the bangers, and most of my coworkers don’t see my future as clearly as I do; they think I’m just another pretty face. What I am is almost forty-two, the divorced father of two German shepherds—one of whom I miss—a failed Catholic, and speaker of street Spanish with some difficulty. My parents were both born in Mexico and my mom spoke lyrical Spanish every day of her life, so some in the Hispanic section of the Four Corners call my language issue a mental block. Others aren’t as kind.
Some in the neighborhood also say I have a problem with professionalism in certain situations. This might be true; I have received CR numbers (complaint registers) a hundred and sixteen times in nineteen years. Sounds like a lot, but it’s less than one a month and not bad if you beat them. If you don’t beat them, a hundred and sixteen would be a hundred and ten too many. Do I give a shit? Well, yeah, I enjoy beating the crap out of ghetto people.
Just kidding; we talk sort of tough down here. However, I do find some pleasure in trading punches with assholes, Hispanic gangsters in particular. Any gangster would do, but other than the Four Corners, the 12th District is almost exclusively Hispanic gangs, my homeys, many of whom I’ve known since they were shorties. They consider me a traitor; I have suggested they tighten up the hairnets and drive their ’62 Chevys south a thousand miles, learn to eat sand and iguanas, then come back and see which country they like better. I also insult black, white, and Asian gangsters, but not as well. A cultural bias? Only if you consider street gangs with twenty thousand members a culture.
SIREN. Then another. A blue-and-white wails past the alley’s mouth, a Crown Vic right behind him. A four-foot-tall tough guy backs away from the cars and into the alley’s mouth—flannel shirt, baggies, white sneakers. I pull my SIG Sauer, slide it under my leg, and pop my siren. The kid spins fast, almost falls, IDs the car, and digs in to run.
“Little Paul. Get your ass over here.”
Little Paul freezes, eyes cutting, trying to choose between whatever scared him into the alley or me, his seven-year-old brain not quite up to the task.
Little Paul unfreezes, pimp rolls to my front bumper, eyes me through the windshield, then cups his balls. He walks dented fender to my window where he stops and stands one shoulder lower than the other. The smooth brown face says, “Me llamo Pachito.”
“Your name’s Paul. You’re an American, in America. You speak English.”
His head, even with the do-rag and flat-bill ball cap, barely makes the bottom of my window. But he be bad, baby. Squint-eyed, teeth bit together, don’t-fuck-with-me bad. Me llamo Pachito . . . Ramera.” Ramera means bitch. As in, that’s what I am.
“All ganged up, huh? Your brother still dead? Your father? How’s that working out for them?”
Little Paul steps back and taps his chest with three fingers extended on both hands. KK—King Killers, street mythology that says his set kills Latin Kings on sight; doctrine that’s almost as stupid as the WTC-9/11-let’s-bomb-some-firemen ayatollahs.
“Your ma still working four jobs so you can wear those rags? Hang with these losers?”
“Speak English, you little fuck, or I’ll throw your ass in those trash cans.”
He looks away—fuck you in street Spanish.
I pop the door, knock him off-balance, and exit, SIG 9 in hand. “Hands on the tire.”
He does. Seven years old, a second grader, and he knows how to be arrested. And social workers wonder why this gang shit pisses cops off.
“Gimme the rock or I make you strip.”
“TAC cops can’t do that. Gotta call Juvy.”
“I’ll call the Sisters of Providence, too. But that’ll be right after I fuck you in the ass. The rock or strip. One or the other. Now.”
He does neither. I rip the dope out of his pockets and the pocket liners with it. Fourteen bags that should’ve been in his mouth but his mouth is too small. Ten dollars apiece. My left hand twists his shirt to his neck and spins him around to face me. My right hand holsters the SIG, then rubs black from my front tire. With my index finger I make a black dot on his forehead. Ash Wednesday for bangers.
“You tell Danny Vacco I catch you walking his dope again, I put a bullet in his head.” My index finger taps the dot. “Right. Fucking. There.”
“Don’ think so.”
“You don’t, huh? Why don’t we go find him now? I shoot the spic right in front of you. Make you boss.”
Little Paul looks away.
I shove him backward. “Why do I keep trying to be your friend? Maybe you’re just too stupid to save.”
He throws me the KK again.
“Get the fuck outta here. Tell big bad Danny I got his dope.” I draw my SIG and show Little Paul the barrel. “Right inside there is where I got it. And tell him Bobby Vargas don’t have to hide in his own neighborhood.”
Little Paul marshals his peewee-gangster dignity and slowly walks away to explain how he lost fourteen bags of rock. Later today I’ll make a pass on Jourdan Court so Danny Vacco knows it wasn’t bullshit. Even seven-year-olds don’t live long if they steal from the gang.
Back in the car I consider today’s Herald on the seat. The headline above the fold is Furukawa Industries and their billion-dollar support of Chicago’s Olympic rebid. We get the Olympics, money flows in from everywhere; Chicago’s budget is in the black for the next five years; developers make a ton of money; and a whole bunch of ghetto along the lakefront and ghetto gangsters are pushed out of the city.
Beneath the fold the news isn’t so good. Part one of an “exposé” written by Tracy Moens, Chicago’s star crime reporter. My name is prominent, as is Coleen Brennan’s, and so is the Four Corners’ troubled history—special problems like rape, cop killings, cop reprisals, and dead little girls. History that’s better for everyone if it stays buried with the victims and families... but won’t as long as there’s money to be made and old scores to be settled. And a big-city newspaper on life support.
I knew Coleen Brennan and her twin sister, Arleen—not to play with; when I was a kid you didn’t play with the white girls, especially the Irish—but by the time we were six Coleen and I had become real friends just the same. The last time I saw Coleen she was in an alley between here and Greektown before Greektown was six-digit condos and coffee cost five dollars. They found her lying faceup, crumpled in the trash, a mitten on one hand, a torn school-uniform blouse, and nothing else. February had frozen her fast, the screams still in her eyes. At the time, and maybe still, it was the scariest, saddest thing I’d ever seen. She and I were thirteen. February 3rd, year of our Lord 1982.
Year of our Lord—no way the God most people worship is real, not with the shit He allows. That said, I’ll grant the preachers and faith healers that something powerful is out here festering in the dark, whatever it is. If you’re a cop you can’t help but believe in evil—not after a career of gag-reflex basements, eighty-year-old rape victims, full-auto drive-bys... every now and then a Mulwray (from the movie Chinatown, our name for a father-daughter; some stuff you have to rename).
The 12th District cops caught Coleen’s killers and the state tried them—death sentence for the older one; triple life for the other because he only confessed to raping her. The killers were from Stateway Gardens, the projects by Thirty-fifth on the other side of the Dan Ryan, black teenagers who said they were in our neighborhood to see relatives who’d just moved in. It was the fearful era of white flight and the integration strategy of blockbusting and solid footholds. A week after the Herald printed the relatives’ part in the boys’ confession, the relatives’ apartment burned to the foundation. Took the Irish firemen an hour to get their hoses right. But the blacks kept coming and their gangs came with them.
Coleen’s twin sister, Arleen, stayed at St. Dom’s but no one outside the school ever saw her other than a uniform cop who’d walk her both ways and a Child Services worker (shrink) who visited twice a week. Coleen’s mom waitressed across the river in Bridgeport, tried to hold it together because she had Arleen to raise, but as it turned out Mrs. Brennan had only a year to live herself. After Coleen’s murder, the father became a neighborhood fixture even the non-Irish cops left alone, a mean hair-trigger longshoreman who drank on the Brennans’ stoop till the wife died and the surviving twin ran off a day later—fourteen years old and she didn’t even stay for her mother’s funeral—says something about that household. The father eventually disappeared into Canaryville or some other private hell. I never set foot on Coleen’s block again. And prior to Coleen’s father leaving, no black people did, either.
Life went on in the Four Corners. Harold Washington out--campaigned Mayor Daley’s son and became the new mayor. Race and poverty and new urbanism dominated the city’s agenda, but back then the state of Illinois could still kill somebody for raping a little girl to death. Anton Dupree, the black teenager they executed, was thirty-seven when he finally died at Stateville; the other perp died in his cell—thirty-seven stab wounds to the neck, face, and chest. Anton talked a lot in the six months before the state killed him, pointed his finger everywhere except the mirror. By then I was on the job five years, got the chance to attend the execution in place of my commander, sat second row and smiled at Anton when they walked him in, but I don’t think he saw me—the state offers the condemned inmate tranquilizers ahead of time and Anton had accepted. Anton had a minister with him as well, a denomination-of-one preacher from Seventy-ninth Street who was sure this was a white conspiracy. The assistant state’s attorney sitting next to me said they should execute the preacher, too, call it efficient governance.
I was twenty-six on that very day and surprised that I didn’t feel any better when Anton died. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in capital punishment—sure, doing it quicker would make it more of a deterrent; and making state-paid DNA mandatory would level the field for the guys who can’t afford O.J.’s lawyers—but in the end, humans convicted of first-degree murder need to vacate the gene pool. And street cops can’t shoot them anymore.
So, why the Chicago Herald’s sudden interest in digging up the distant past? For one thing, it turns out Anton Dupree probably didn’t kill Coleen Brennan. I’m not saying Anton Dupree was an angel but it turns out he was retarded, “not operating with a clear understanding of his situation” when he gave and signed his confession. His public defenders say they didn’t know; the ASA who prosecuted him three times says she didn’t know; and I didn’t know... or don’t think I did.
But two of my fellow officers knew, one of whom was my older brother, Ruben. At least that’s what the lawyers for Anton’s family are saying. Wrongful death—$8.9 million from the city of Chicago; same from all four of the cops who worked the case, like cops have that kind of money. Hell, my brother didn’t come on the job until the first trial was almost over.
Should the cops who worked the case have known Anton was retarded, possibly innocent? That’s kind of the problem. On TV the hero cop bucks the system—takes on the role of the ASA, the judge, the jury, overrides the Constitution, does the right thing, and saves the accused as well as the American justice system from a tragic mistake. America can tuck the kids in, pet the dog, and go to bed knowing our system works—and when it doesn’t, heroes (insert movie-star name here) will fill in the gaps.
Try that shit in Chicago and you’d be fired, your pension toast, followed by a short or long prison term depending on the public mood, and named in a civil suit to take whatever money or valuables your defense lawyers didn’t. Why? Because someone would be positive you got it wrong. And some race, creed, or gender constituency would agree. There would be tabloid media and mainstream media, radio shock jocks, preachers, aspiring politicians, and law firms atop proud white horses. Time it just right and there’d be parades.
So cops stay within the system. Or you cheat carefully. And when you cheat for what you think are the right reasons, they say you’re the devil. And when you don’t cheat, they say you’re a coward. And you’re both, all the time, for a starting salary of $45K and the chance to die in a dark hallway for people you don’t know.
My pager goes off, and I throw the newspaper aside. Time to go to work, meet friends for a gunfight that has nothing to do with Coleen Brennan’s murder but everything to do with this neighborhood. I spend a last few seconds with her building, her window. So why won’t I shut up about her? Let it go?
Two reasons: First, Coleen was nice to me—it was our secret. Started when we were six. We went to different schools, but our windows faced each other across the alley. She was white and back then I wasn’t, and both mattered a great deal to me. Coleen was also my first real true and honest friend. Dangerous for us both because the Four Corners had race rules written in blood. Coleen and I weren’t allowed to look at each other, let alone talk, or God forbid, touch, so we conjured a plan.
We’d sit in our windows every afternoon reading each other’s books. She’d leave me one behind her trash can and I’d exchange it with one I’d get from our library on Loomis Street. By sixth grade, we decided we were officially boyfriend-girlfriend. I wrote songs about her. Coleen was the only Irish girl whose hand I ever held. By eighth grade, I was so in love with her and who we would become, that I didn’t stop carrying a picture of us until I was twenty-five. Had it with me, soft in my hand, the day Anton Dupree quit breathing.
Reason number two is the Chicago Herald’s exposé: “MONSTER: The Murder of Coleen Brennan.” Part one implies that in the days to come they will prove that my brother Ruben and I were the two boys who actually killed her.
From the Hardcover Edition