About the Author
Jerome Charyn (b. 1937) is the critically acclaimed author of nearly fifty books. Born in the Bronx, he attended Columbia College. After graduating, he took a job as a playground director and wrote in his spare time, producing his first novel, a Lower East Side fairytale called Once Upon a Droshky, in 1964. In 1974, Charyn published Blue Eyes, his first Isaac Sidel mystery. This first in the so-called Sidel quartet introduced the eccentric, near-mythic Sidel, and his bizarre cast of sidekicks. Although he completed the quartet with Secret Isaac (1978), Charyn followed the character through Under the Eye of God. Charyn, who divides his time between New York and Paris, is also accomplished at table tennis, and once ranked amongst France’s top 10 percent of ping-pong players.
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The Good Policeman
An Isaac Sidel Novel
By Jerome Charyn
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1990 Jerome Charyn
All rights reserved.
It could have been St. Louis.
There was a metal rainbow in the sky, an arc that loomed over the city like a gigantic toy. And Isaac didn't feel like testing himself against toys. He wasn't little David out on a picnic with his lyre. He was a police chief who'd been riding across the country as a guest of the Justice Department. The great American detective out on a tour. Justice was sending him to meet with the country's other detectives, to share his information with them, his expertise, and to discover how police departments in Seattle or St. Louis dealt with the same pathology that Isaac found in New York. He'd captured Henry Armstrong Lee, the FBI's Most Wanted Man, a bank robber who liked to dress in women's clothes. And now Isaac was the first Alexander Hamilton Fellow, lecturing to men and women who had more sophisticated gadgets than Isaac had ever seen, who could reconstruct whole bloodlines from a speck of hair, identify serial killers with one spot of semen, but couldn't make the pathology disappear any better than Isaac.
The arc was bloodred this morning.
What other town had a metal rainbow right on the levee? He'd arrived with ten other chiefs from Missouri and Kansas who'd heard him lecture about social disease. Poverty and decay. The no-man's-land of certain housing projects where citizens had to form posses to leave their apartments. The biggest deterrent to crime, Isaac had said, was an alphabet book. "Teach a kid how to read and his curiosity goes inward. He'll dream about Sinbad the Sailor and he won't steal cigarettes from the old man down the hall."
And then the chief of some border town in Kansas asked Isaac if alphabet books could cure New York of the Mafia. Isaac said no. "There's nothing to cure. The Mafia's big business. But it's not on the board. It doesn't need a stock exchange. All it needs are citizens who can't get what they want from city government because it's too involved with feeling its own belly, and tickling its own back."
The chiefs smiled to themselves and wondered how long this Alexander Hamilton Fellow was going to survive in the same bed with the Justice Department, talking like the Mafia was only another city agency. But they liked his gruff manner and his graying sideburns, Isaac Sidel, police commissioner and big-city boy. He belonged in the funny papers, with Dick Tracy. But Dick Tracy didn't carry a bottle of milk in his coat, the way Isaac did. Isaac always carried a bottle of milk. He had a tapeworm, and when it got hungry and mashed his insides, he fed it with a swallow of milk.
He rode out with the chiefs along the Daniel Boone Expressway, across Gravois Avenue, to visit a "juvenile facility," because that's what Isaac wanted to see. And it broke his heart. Not because the jailers seemed cruel. They were as enlightened as he could expect from a city shelter. The nurses didn't even have an institutional smile. It was the children. Isaac knew that half of them were a little retarded. And the other half were already beyond repair. They had that maimed look Isaac had met in a hundred other classrooms and shelters, kids with uncurious eyes.
He traveled from room to room with his delegation of chiefs. He visited the soup kitchen, drank the minestrone that was offered him, and sucked on his bottle of milk. But he couldn't get away from those uncurious eyes. The walls were ocean-green in the recreation room. The shuffleboard sticks were all new. But the children seemed to play in slow motion, as if they didn't have an attitude toward the wooden discs they shoved into the scoring zones.
Isaac joined the game. The chiefs could do nothing but watch as Isaac gripped his long wooden cue and scored a perfect seven. The disc had its own strange music, like a flattened planet sliding on a painted floor. But not even Isaac and his cue stick could bring those children out of their slumber.
He left the shuffleboard field, the chiefs right behind him, most of them in uniform, like a little army of many coats. Isaac wanted to get out of this children's jail. He wanted to give up his fellowship and remind Justice to go to hell. He had nothing to teach. He wasn't Dick Tracy. He was more like a commissioning agent who gathered detectives and stoolies around him, some kind of clever spider. And while he prepared himself to make his exit with the chiefs, to run from this jail and that metal rainbow over St. Louis, he was trapped by a face. It belonged to a boy who was as runty as the rest, a boy in the same brown jumpsuit that was standard issue in this jail. A uniform with many pockets.
"Hello," the boy said, singling Isaac out from the other chiefs. His mouth was crooked and there was a mockery in his voice, a form of play that Isaac hadn't found in the shuffleboard room. The boy had lots of wrinkles. His face was used up, but he wasn't a little sleepwalker. He was like a wizened old man of six, with an old man's eyes.
"How old are you, son?"
"Twelve," the boy said.
Isaac didn't believe the kid. Where were his shoulders?
"What's your name?"
"And how long have you been living here?"
"Half my life."
The chiefs pulled at Isaac's elbow. They didn't like this colloquy. He wasn't supposed to engage the children in a heart-to-heart talk. These were wards of St. Louis, a city with its own unusual life, because it belonged to no other county in America. It was like a landbound island named after Louis IX, the crusader king who watched over this old French village on the Mississippi. But the boy wouldn't stay silent.
"Who are you, grandpa?"
"Isaac Sidel ... police commissioner of New York."
"Heck, that ain't much of a living," the boy said, and the cops continued to pull at Isaac.
"Loren," Isaac said to the city's chief of detectives, who'd brought him out of Kansas and into that little country under the metal rainbow. "I'd like to sit with the boy."
"No time, Isaac. We're having lunch at Catfish and Crystal. The mayor'll be there."
"Loren, I've had too many mayors for lunch. Let me talk to the kid."
And Loren Cole, who ran the detective bureau like a crusader king, who was as incorruptible as Isaac, and decided where justice fell in St. Louis, took Isaac aside.
"Kingsley's not for public consumption."
"I'm not going to write about him, Loren."
Captain Cole stood belly to belly with that cop from New York. He was bigger than Isaac. He could have dragged Isaac to Catfish & Crystal, but Isaac would only have haunted him in the restaurant, haunted him about Kingsley. "He's one of our invisibles, Isaac. Supposed to be lost. We didn't want him running through the courts. So we stuck him in this crevice, if you know what I mean?"
"What the hell did he do?"
"Do? He lived with an uncle in a goddamn shack behind Busch Stadium. The uncle tossed him around. I'm not sure. There weren't no other kin. Kingsley took a Coke bottle, sharpened the lip, and while the old man was sleeping, he dug him in the neck. I saw the shack. I saw that old man's river of blood. We brought Kingsley in, tested him, had a team of child psychologists studying the color of his piss. The kid had an IQ that was taller than a church. He knew all the Cardinal greats. He'd read the Bible, Isaac, every verse. He talked about the stars and how things were dying everywhere. I can't say that uncle needed a Coke bottle in his neck. But I didn't want reporters interviewing the boy. I didn't want him on the six o'clock news like a freak. I took him to a friendly judge and had him remanded here. The case is still sitting in my drawer. Don't spoil it, Isaac."
"I'm not keeping a journal, Loren. I don't work for Justice. Let me talk to him."
But Isaac was stubborn and explosive, like the boy, and Loren knew the kind of day he'd have to endure if Isaac didn't get a couple of words with McCardle. Dick Tracy would destroy Catfish & Crystal, bring that restaurant down.
"Two minutes, Isaac. And if you bring up unpleasant matters, I swear to Jesus I'll put my cuffs on you and lock you in the toilet."
"Anything you say, Loren."
And while the other chiefs waited, Loren put Isaac together with McCardle in a pantry between the kitchen and the nurses' station.
"I'd gut him again, old Uncle Sol," the boy said without a bit of provocation from Isaac. "He was mean as a tit."
"I didn't ask you about family business."
McCardle laughed. "I know what's on your mind, grandpa. How old are you?"
Isaac sucked on his milk bottle.
"Forget it. What would you like to be when you grow up?"
"Grandpa, are you dumb?" McCardle said, wrinkling his eyes. "I can't afford to grow. I got to stay here with the children. Ask the cop. I teach them arithmetic."
"It's not much of a future," Isaac said.
"Depends on what you mean, grandpa. I have a future. I can be the oldest kid in St. Louis. I get to see the Cards every summer on Stan Musial Day. I hear Enos Slaughter had a better arm than Stan. Is that true?"
"Slaughter had the best arm in baseball."
"How would you know that?" McCardle asked with his old man's eyes looking at Isaac's milk bottle.
"I grew up with the New York Giants."
"What was Slaughter like?"
"He was bald and had big ears and he ran like an donkey and threw like a knife."
"That's Slaughter all right. I read about him in Guffy's Guide to St. Louis ..."
Loren peeked into the pantry. "Time's up," he said.
"Wait a minute," McCardle said. "I'm talking to the man."
Isaac walked out of the closet and returned Kingsley to his jailers. He didn't even say good-bye to the boy. An anger was building in Isaac. He sat next to Loren in the limousine.
"What are you going to do with the boy?" Isaac whispered.
"There's no secrets here," Loren said. "Everybody knows McCardle."
"Well, what are you going to do? You can't let him rot inside that little jail."
"Rot?" Loren said. "He's doing high school in there."
"We sneak him through the back door at Washington U."
"What if the back door is closed?"
"This isn't Moscow, Isaac. We can always try another college. We'll get him in."
"He's dying in that little jail, Loren, can't you tell? His face is all wrinkled."
"He was like that when we found him."
"Well, maybe he could use another environment."
"We're not stage designers, Isaac. We gave him what we've got."
"But you could lend him to me."
Loren lowered his head and whistled into his hands. "Don't even dream of it, Isaac. The boy is ours. And if you make a stink, if you cry to some judge, I'll have to shorten the life of your fellowship ... we don't lend out orphans in St. Louis."
The chiefs all sat with sour faces. They arrived at Catfish & Crystal. Isaac romanced the mayor, charmed him with stories of how he'd captured Henry Armstrong Lee, the Most Wanted Man in America. "We had our best stoolies on the case. Henry Armstrong didn't have a chance."
He devoured a dozen crab cakes. And when Loren went to the john, Isaac followed him. "I apologize, Captain Cole. I was getting a little greedy. But I thought I could help the kid. He wouldn't have a past history in New York. He could start all over again. I could get him into a decent school, find him a place to live."
"It wouldn't solve a thing. That uncle of his was the only kin he had. We don't believe in forgettin' kin ... thanks for the pitch, Isaac. But Kingsley would die of loneliness in Manhattan."
"I guess you're right." Isaac didn't believe it. His head whirled with kidnapping schemes. But he couldn't make war on the city of St. Louis. He didn't have any stoolies in town.
He said good-bye to the mayor and went to his suite at the Breckenridge. He could see right into Busch Stadium from his bedroom window. It was a windy afternoon, and Isaac imagined ol' "Country" Slaughter throwing bullets, forty years back in time. Why had that runt upset him so? Did Isaac read his own sadness in McCardle's eyes? They could have been a pair of orphans together. Isaac's dad had abandoned him to become a painter in Paris, his mother had started to pick rags, and Isaac ran around with murder in his brain. That's why he was such a good policeman. He liked to dance at the very edge of violence.
He'd had one semester at Columbia College, had devoured all of James Joyce like a detective prowling for clues in a sea of words. He'd read Durkheim and Veblen and Harry Stack Sullivan and hundreds of books on the criminal mind. He'd lectured at police academies, lunched with the best pathologists in the world. But he wasn't sure what kind of social pathology could explain McCardle. Was that uncle a demon or a violent drunk who slept a little too long one morning?
The telephone rang around midnight. Isaac woke out of a fever. He'd fallen asleep in front of the tube, watching Steve McQueen as a stone-faced cop. "Hello?" he growled into the phone. "Loren, is that you?"
"No, grandpa. What was Slaughter's last year with the Cards?"
"How'd you get my number, kid? Did Captain Cole tell you to call me?"
"Ah, all the big cops stay at the Breckenridge. What was Slaughter's last year with the Cards?"
"'Fifty-three." Isaac had the memory of a bat. It was metal rainbows that confused him, not "Country" Slaughter. "Anything else I can tell you?"
"Drink your milk, grandpa. Good-bye."
Isaac slept like a baby. The worm didn't bother him once.
He got up at seven, ate toast and tea in his room, scribbled a note to the Justice Department, and hopped on a plane to New York. Justice could find a new singing policeman. He was only Isaac Sidel. He didn't want to go to bed in Seattle and think he was in St. Louis. He sat in the sky and didn't have to worry about bumping into metal rainbows or being startled by a boy like Kingsley McCardle. He read Newsweek and Time, took a suck of milk, and arrived in New York as the former Hamilton Fellow.CHAPTER 2
There was the usual fury around him, all the fury of the fourteenth floor, where the commissioners presided at One Police Plaza. Isaac missed the old Police Headquarters, a crumbling palazzo on Centre Street, which was being converted into condominiums. He would sit in Teddy Roosevelt's office, with marble all around him, like a wayward prince, some Renaissance man who recognized the maddening colors of crime. He'd felt needed at the palazzo. He'd dance up the marble stairs that led to his office, chat with reporters who followed his every move, drink cups of coffee crowned with hot milk, brought to him from the Caffè Roma with cupcakes of ricotta cheese. Isaac was adored in Little Italy. He was Don Isacco, who happened to be the commandante di polizia. He was called dottore, like any other man of substance with a high-school diploma.
But the new headquarters was a brick tomb. It had no cafes or stone lions or the private terraces of a palazzo, gifts of a nobler time, when a policeman was like a consiglieri who settled arguments and delivered babies and whacked burglars over the head. Now Isaac's band of cops were remote functionaries who worked out of a bunker in the sky.
He'd been gone two weeks, and it was as if he hadn't been away at all. His deputies thrived without Don Isacco. They had their little territories to protect. They formed their own alliances while the PC was in San Diego somewhere, singing for his supper. He had to ask two of his sergeants to comb the building for the first deputy commissioner, who ran the Department whether Isaac was away or not. Isaac spoke at banquets. Isaac sat with the widow of a dead cop. He attended press conferences with Her Honor, Rebecca Karp, the mayor of New York, but he couldn't have told you how many cops were in the field on a particular day.
His First Dep was a black man who stood six feet six. Carlton Montgomery III. He'd come out of the black bourgeoisie. His dad had been a dentist. But no one called him Carlton on the commissioners' floor. He was Sweets, after Sweetwater Clifton, the first black basketball player on the New York Knicks. But this Sweets had never played professional ball. He'd heard Isaac lecture at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, watched him tremble like some Jeremiah chanting about the brutalities of city life, and Sweets had decided to become a cop. He was Isaac's heir apparent, perhaps the next PC.
Excerpted from The Good Policeman by Jerome Charyn. Copyright © 1990 Jerome Charyn. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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