The Letter Writer

The Letter Writer

by Dan Fesperman


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The Letter Writer by Dan Fesperman

The first thing Woodrow Cain sees when he steps off the train in New York City on February 9, 1942, is smoke from an ocean liner in flames in the harbor. It’s the Normandie, and word on the street is that it was burned by German saboteurs. “Ten lousy minutes in New York and already his new life felt as full of loss and betrayal as the one he’d left behind.”

What he left behind in a small North Carolina town was a wife who’d left him, a daughter in the care of his sister, and a career as a police officer marred by questions surrounding his partner’s murder. When he gets a job with the NYPD, he wants to believe it’s the beginning of a new life, though he suspects that the past is as tenacious as “a parasite in the bloodstream.”

It’s on the job that Cain comes in contact with a man who calls himself Danziger. He has the appearance of a “crackpot,” but he speaks five languages, has the manners of a man of means and education—and he appears to be the one person who can help Cain identify a body just found floating in the Hudson River. But who exactly is Danziger? He’s a writer of letters for illiterate immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—“a steadfast practitioner of concealing and forgetting” for his clients, and perhaps for himself: he hints at a much more worldly past. What and whoever he really is or has been, he has a seemingly boundless knowledge of the city and its denizens. And he knows much more than the mere identity of the floating corpse. For one thing, he knows how the dead man was involved in New York City’s “Little Deutschland,” where swastikas were proudly displayed just months before. And he also seems to know how the investigation will put Cain—and perhaps his daughter and the woman he’s fallen for—in harm’s way. But even Danziger can’t know that the more he and Cain investigate, the nearer they come to the center of a citywide web of possibly traitorous corruption from which neither of them may get out alive.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101875063
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/19/2016
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

DAN FESPERMAN's travels as a journalist and novelist have taken him to thirty countries and three war zones. Lie in the Dark won the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain’s John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for best first crime novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows won their Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for best thriller, and The Prisoner of Guantánamo won the Dashiell Hammett Award from the International Association of Crime Writers.

Read an Excerpt


First day on the job, half an hour left on his shift, when the call came in. There was a body in the Hudson, down by the docks at the end of 30th. Captain Mulhearn wore a big crooked smile as he carried the sheet over to Woodrow Cain’s desk, like he was delivering a housewarming gift to a neighbor he didn’t particularly like.

“All yours, Southern Boy. Welcome to the third district, and enjoy your night on the town.”

Twenty minutes later, his left thigh stiff after sitting all day, Cain limped carefully through the dark, crossing railroad ties and wet cobbles, and then stepping beneath the trestled gloom of Twelfth Avenue as he approached the muted shimmer of the waterfront.

Just ahead were two uniformed cops in silhouette, illuminated dimly by the twinkle of Hoboken on the far shore. They were talking, hands in motion, not yet aware of his presence.

Cain stopped to listen.

“I say we poke him.”

“Poke him?”

“Toward downtown, with a stick. One of those things with a crook on it, like the swabbies use.”

“A boat hook? Where we gonna find a boat hook?”

“Okay, so maybe we throw something. Make enough waves so he gets pushed back into the current at the end of the pier. Presto, he floats on down to the tenth. Then he’s their problem.”

“It don’t work that way. Besides, what if the tide’s coming in? Then he floats uptown a couple blocks and we’ve turned a one-­hour job into a whole night’s headache, and I’m freezing my ass off as it is.”

“Whadda you mean, ‘tide’? It’s a fucking river. It’s upstream or downstream, and the tenth is downstream.”

“With a tide, numbnuts. Besides, he’s bumping the wharf, so he’s already ours. It’s in the Manual of Procedure. ‘Cases Occurring on Piers, Boats, and Navigable Waters.’ Jurisdiction depends on which bulkhead or pier the body comes to rest on.”

Cain stepped forward, looming up out of the shadows like a ghost. The cop advocating the boat hook strategy jumped like he’d been goosed, while the one on the right reached for his sidearm.

“At ease, gentlemen.” Cain flashed his brand new shield. He recognized the patrolman on the right from the station house. “Officer Petrowski is correct. Article 7 from the manual. It was a question on the sergeant’s exam.”

“They made you take that? I heard you was a charity hire.”

“Made me take all kinds of tests. So what have we got?”

“Floater. Have a look.”

Cain peered down from the bulkhead. Bottles and trash formed an atoll around a man’s body, facedown in the dark water. Fully clothed, but bloated tightly in a T-­shirt and work pants, like a roasting sausage ready to burst its casing with a pop and a sizzle. The smell of dead fish, boat fuel, and putrefaction wafted up to him in the gloom. Something rippled the water from just beneath the surface, a carp or a swimming rodent, nosing around the body. Bile surged to the base of his throat. He swallowed to keep it down, leaving a sour burn. Then he stepped back, took a deep breath. Petrowski and the other cop were talking again.

“You gettin’ that smell?” the first one asked.

“What’d you expect?”

“No. Like something burning. You smell that?”

“It’s the Normandie.”

“Can’t be. That was, what, two months ago?”

“But she’s still there, laying on her side. Burnt stuff really holds its stink, and it’s less than twenty blocks away. So when the wind’s right .  . .”

“See? It’s blowing south. If we’d just pushed him out far enough—­”

Cain interrupted. “Did y’all call the morgue?”

“Fifteen minutes ago,” Petrowski said. “Said they were on their way.”

“Then I need y’all to secure the area.”

“Nothing down here this time of night but bums and railroad bulls.”

“Then keep the bums and bulls away. Split up, one to either side.”

“Yes, sir.”

They headed off in the same direction, Cain shaking his head at the insolence. He began counting to ten under his breath while they resumed their conversation in lowered tones.

“ ‘Y’all.’ You get that? Said it twice, like he’s from Dogpatch in the funny papers. So what did the krauts put in it to make it burn like that?”

“The Normandie? That wasn’t the krauts. It was a dumb fuck welder with an acetylene torch. Threw a spark on some packing straw.”

“Likely story.”

“It was in the papers.”

“Like I said. If—­”

“Hey!” Cain shouted.

The cops froze.

“You guys forget how to secure a scene? One to either side. Now split up and get moving!”

“Yes, sir,” Petrowski answered.

“New guy who don’t know shit,” the other one grumbled. “Already throwing his weight around.”

“He’s got a rabbi.”


“His father-­in-­law is what I hear. Some white-­shoe asshole on Wall Street.”

Second time today he’d overheard a cop muttering about his rabbi. Cain was Baptist, and his father-­in-­law was Episcopal, but the meaning was obvious enough. A ward heeler, a political hack. A guy who called in favors from the powers that be. Obviously his new colleagues had found out that Cain’s father-­in-­law, Harris Euston, a partner with a patrician law firm on Wall Street, had put in a word for him.

True enough, but it rankled all the same. Probably explained why everyone at the station house had been so standoffish. A few nods and hellos, not a whole lot more. He supposed he understood. Half the cops on the force seemed to be studying for the sergeant’s exam, trying to climb the next rung on the ladder, to the level he’d already reached. He’d heard them firing questions back and forth in the break room while he ate his lunch alone, a ham sandwich with a Lucky for dessert, everyone acting like he was invisible. Although later Captain Mulhearn had said something about going out for beers next week, first round on him, like it was a rite of passage. So there was that to look forward to, he supposed.

The dimmed headlights of the meat wagon crept toward Cain down 30th, past the high brick walls of the Stanley Soap Works. Two men hopped out, equipped with netting and what looked like a pair of giant tongs. They got to work like it was no big deal, an everyday occurrence. Maybe it was.

For Cain it was a milestone—­his first corpse in New York. He’d come across only one other floater, years ago, similarly bloated. A poor soul who’d snagged on a fallen tree in the Neuse River. Presumed drowned, until they rolled him over and saw the damage from a shotgun blast. Pellets of lead had remained lodged in his skin even as his chest wheezed out the sump of the river like a broken accordion. It took a week to make an ID, but Cain never solved it, and so far this one looked equally promising.

Cain had never grown accustomed to the gore and grief of homicides, but he was passionate about working them. Unsolved cases never faded over time. Like debts, they accrued interest and weighed on his mind. He was not particularly religious, but whenever he contemplated an afterlife he imagined being accosted from the moment he arrived by everyone whose murder he’d never closed, and who wanted to begin eternity like that?

Within minutes the guys from the morgue had maneuvered the body onto the dock next to a giant pile of coal. They flipped him onto his back, which made a slapping noise like a landed fish. The eye sockets were empty. Foul gases erupted from the open mouth along with a gray stream of water that rolled down his cheeks like spilled gravy.

Cain swallowed fast and breathed through his mouth. He stepped forward for a closer look.

A pink scar ran diagonally across the man’s forehead toward a big dent in the cranium. Someone had bashed him hard enough to either kill him or knock him cold. Cain wondered if the man had still been alive when he hit the water. He imagined a body falling from way up on the George Washington Bridge, miles north of here, an impact which surely would’ve finished the job. But that seemed like a dumb place to dispose of a body—­too showy, nothing that a professional would do. They’d use a boat, although a thorough practitioner would’ve also weighted the body to make it sink. Unless he was in too much of a hurry. Perhaps he—­or they—­had been interrupted, or were new to the business. Not that Cain knew much about how the murder business worked up here.

He reached into an overcoat pocket and withdrew a dog-­eared steno pad, the latest in a series dating to his first days on the job back in Horton. The NYPD had given him an official one—­a memo book, Mulhearn called it—­but Cain preferred his old one, maybe because he used them for more than just work. Scribbled on pages between the case notes were grocery lists, nature sketches, birthday reminders, a bad poem or two. Having all those things in the same place made his life feel more stitched together, which seemed more important than ever now that almost everything else had fallen apart. Although he’d always wondered what the consequences would be if his notebook ever got entered into evidence—­all those private musings and observations, laid out for judge and jury. His life in miniature, scarred by bullet points, cross-­outs, and erasures. Cain on the page was a mess, barely legible.

“Anything in his back pockets?”

They shrugged.

“Heave him back over.”

They looked at each other for a second, then did as he asked, uncorking more gases, a cold smell of mud, the sediment of centuries from the bottom of the Hudson. Cain crouched and slid his hand into the man’s front right trouser pocket, wet and tight.

“Hey,” one of the morgue guys said. “You shouldn’t be doin’ that.”

Cain pried loose a stick of gum, still in its wrapper. Stuck to it was a sodden ticket stub from a movie theater, the print faintly legible. Nothing else. He stood and wrote down the details.

“Pull up his shirt.”

They hesitated, gave him a look.

“C’mon. The sleeves, too.”

On the man’s chest there was a scatter of a dozen or so small black circles—­cigarette burns? Cain had once seen them on the body of a child, a memory that made him pause in his writing. On the man’s right shoulder was a small, crude tattoo of a woman’s name in cursive, “Sabine.” Otherwise, there was nothing that might identify him. Someone at the morgue would take his fingerprints, but without a name to go on there would be no way to make a match with the thousands upon thousands that were on file.

“Not carrying any ID, huh?” one of the morgue guys asked.

Cain shook his head.

“Another John Doe, then.”

“You get a lot of those?”

“Ninth this week. Maybe seven hundred a year.”

“Seven hundred?” Cain shifted his weight to keep his bad leg from stiffening. “What happens to them?”

“With most of ’em, some friend or relative comes by in a week or two, stakes a claim, gives ’em a decent burial. If not, we keep ’em three months. Then it’s off to City Island, up in the Bronx.”

“A potter’s field?”

The guy nodded. “Big damn place. More than a hundred thousand. Stinks to high heaven.”

Cain shook his head in amazement. That was more populous than any city in his home state. He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose, the gases lingering in his nostrils. He knew from experience that his overcoat would smell this way in the morning. To him, at least.

“We’ll take it from here unless you need to see more. Our pencil pusher will be around with some papers to sign.”

Cain nodded and stepped toward the bulkhead, where he cleared his throat and spit into the water, which again rippled from below, some creature rising to inspect the latest contribution. He pulled out his pack of Luckies, the flare of the match flashing on the river as he inhaled deeply, a small moment of tribute to his home state. Bright leaf tobacco, like his dad used to grow. Cain had once helped hang it, leaf by leaf, in big barns in the fields east of Horton, where the smell of curing fires had been as much a part of fall as carved pumpkins and college football.

A guy walked up out of the darkness, notebook in hand.

“You handling this?”

Cain nodded.

“Got an ID yet?”

“No. Nothing in his pockets but a gum wrapper and a ticket stub.”



“The gum wrapper.”

He consulted his notebook. “Blackjack.”

“Anything else?”

“Big blow to the head, looked like. A bunch of small marks on his chest, you’ll see ’em. Cigarette burns, if I had to guess. A small tattoo on his right shoulder with a name, Sabine.”

He asked Cain to spell it, so he did.

“Cause of death?”

“Thought that was your department?”

The guy smiled, kept scribbling.

“What about the stub? Ballgame?”

“Some movie theater on 96th.”

“The one up in Yorkville?”

“Don’t know. Maybe.”

“Then he’s either been in the drink a while, or never did his laundry. That joint’s been closed since December. Kraut hangout. Shut down right after Pearl. The whole neighborhood’s kraut.”

The guy scribbled for a few seconds more, then asked another question.

“And your name is?”

“Woodrow Cain. Detective sergeant, third division.”

“Kane with a K, like the movie?”

“With a C.”

“Like Cain and Abel?”

“In name only. Woodrow as in Wilson.”

Officer Petrowski ambled up.

“Hey, Cain. The morgue guy is here.”

“I got it covered.”

“No, dunce, back over by the body. You ain’t talking to this jackal, I hope?” He scowled and drifted back into the night.

“Who the hell are you?”

“Sam Willett, Daily News.”


“Is that official?”

Cain frowned and gave him a pleading look that said Go easy. In return he got a look that said Fat chance.

“New, huh? And not from around here.”

“Scram, will you? Before I get in any deeper.”

“Okay by me. Got all I need.” Willett shut his notebook. “Good stuff on the cigarette burns. Sounds like somebody really worked him over. Decent bet he’s German, which should get me a few column inches. Be seeing you.”

Cain tossed his cigarette toward the water and went off to find the morgue guy, a tall fellow as pale as a cadaver with a personality to match. He looked up from a clipboard and gave Cain a fisheye, head to toe.

“Word to the wise, Bud. Never, repeat never, have my people rearrange clothing or go fishing around in pockets.”

“My name’s Cain, Bud. And I did the pockets myself.”

“Even worse.”

“Duly noted. Will you be doing the autopsy?”

“I’m not a cutter. This’ll be Doc Bolton’s.”

“How ’bout a favor, then? Tell Bolton that in addition to the usual items I’d like an estimate on how old the tattoo is. The one on the right shoulder that says Sabine.”

“Duly noted. But put it in writing, then sign these. Plus your initials on that box down at the bottom that says you disturbed the corpse. Bud.”

Cain wrote his request and signed what he had to. He sent Petrowski and the other cop home, and lit another smoke as the meat wagon pulled away. By then the reporter was gone, and things got quiet in a hurry. Nothing but the slap of the river against the bulkheads, the low roar of passing traffic up on the viaduct. Further down the waterfront you could hear hammering, a twinkle of industry, the war effort still lumbering to its feet. He stared into the murk. If his name ended up in the papers they’d probably think he was grandstanding, already playing to the crowd. Too late now.

For all his zeal in murder cases, they’d never been a big part of the job in Horton—­three or four per year, six at the most. Maybe that’s why they stayed with him. Back in February, during his train ride north, Cain had taken out the same notebook he was using tonight. It was three a.m., with a half-­moon rising over a tidewater landscape, bare trees wild against the sky as the train clattered through the night. The other five passengers in the compartment were asleep, including, mercifully, a nosy old woman to his left who’d already asked a zillion questions. Where’s your family? Where do you go to church? How old’s your daughter? Why isn’t she traveling with you? Where’d you say your wife went?

The only wakeful company was his reflection on the window. He began writing in the notebook, and before long he’d filled an entire page with names, forty in all, a list of victims from every homicide he’d ever worked—­in flawless chronological order, no less, complete with race, age, and cause of death.

Now, standing by the Hudson, he flipped back a few pages, and there was the list. Number eleven was his unsolved floater: Eldridge Warren, Negro, 53, shotgun. The other two unsolved cases were at numbers nineteen and twenty-­two. Jake Tarn, White, 37, stabbing; Jan­elle Ellerbe, White, 24, strangled. Cain scanned the page. Shootings, stabbings, a drowning in a bathtub that had splashed blood and water all over the floor tiles. Three beatings—­one with a crowbar, one with a shovel, one with a stone pried loose from the wall of a cemetery. A single poisoning—­rat powder baked into a damson pie, the victim’s favorite.

So vivid, all of them. Gaze long enough at any one name and other faces swam into view—­grieving mothers and children, a father whose loud sobs had sounded like the shrieks of an elephant, right there in the middle of the police station, everyone giving him a wide berth.

Cain remembered that the nosy old woman on the train had awakened without him noticing.

“What are all the names?” she’d asked. “Friends of yours?”

“Work stuff,” he’d said irritably. None of your damn business.

Now he wondered exactly what he’d been up to. Taking a final inventory, perhaps, like a shopkeeper listing all his merchandise before he sold the store. Did these names represent items he’d hoped to leave behind, entrusted to others? If so, did that apply even to the most memorable one?

Rob Vance, White, 34, gunshot.

Rob’s name was last on the list, as if the others had been part of a process, a mechanism, that inevitably led to his death. Cain didn’t even need to close his eyes to see Rob’s face the way it had looked at the end, pale and drained, or the huge bloodstain soaking wet across Rob’s chest, like someone had just hit him with a water balloon—­a campus prank, maybe, from their days in Chapel Hill, or from their first years as cops, young detectives learning together in a job they hadn’t really wanted but had taken anyway because in 1930 no one else seemed to be hiring college graduates in that part of the state. He couldn’t shake that final image of his friend, dead on the floor, the shots still ringing in his ears and Rob’s mouth thrown open in surprise, his eyes already too glazed to be accusing.

No problem solving that one. Cain had witnessed it from start to finish. But questions had remained, for him and for everyone else in Horton: Could Cain have done more to stop it? Had he been complicit in some way? And what about the role played by Cain’s wife, Clovis? In that sense, at least, it was unsolved. Number four on his list. And here he was now, same notebook in hand, with a new and nameless body to go at the top of a clean page.

Cain edged closer to the water. Looming just down the Hudson were the tall, spectral silhouettes of docked ships from the cruise lines he had read about but had never sailed on—­Cunard, Panama, and Munson. They’d been a part of Clovis’s world, or at least the world she’d grown up in. Clovis, the Manhattan girl who traveled south for college, exiled by an overprotective father. Harris Euston’s intent had been to sever her ties to the fast crowd—­swank boys who plied her with drink, social-­climbing girls who egged her on. Let her settle down in the provinces for a few years, he reasoned, while everyone else headed for the Ivies and the Seven Sisters. Break free from the glut of easy money, and return home with a fresh outlook.

Her father got more than he’d bargained for when she also found a husband and a whole new way of life—­culturally barren, to Euston’s way of thinking, since it was an existence in which she almost never set foot in New York. Since his arrival Cain had hardly been able to turn a corner without feeling her presence. He was confronted daily by all the places she used to talk about—­Macy’s, Fifth Avenue, Central Park, Carnegie Hall, and now the cruise lines from her long ago vacations, lush trips to Europe and the Caribbean. Everything marked by energy and glamor, her trademarks, the very things that had first caught his eye. Rob’s too, probably.

He tossed his cigarette, lit a new one and turned away from the water, crossing a rail line and then pausing. The tracks down here were from all across the country—­the Lackawanna, the Erie, and the B&O—­all roads leading to Gotham, city of voyagers, with Cain still feeling very much like he had just landed. Then he realized something. Try as he might, all forty of those victims from Horton had somehow made it here with him. Crafty stowaways, forever his companions. Clovis, too, a spirit whispering his name from over his shoulder. The past wasn’t something you left behind. It was a parasite in the bloodstream, a congenital disorder. You could only hope that others wouldn’t spot the symptoms.

The only way to respond, then, was to work this case, and work it hard. Cain inspected the glowing end of his cigarette and wondered how long you’d have to press it against human skin to produce those angry black dots. Five seconds? Twenty? A full minute, perhaps? Another question for Doc Bolton at the morgue.

He was about to leave when a bright wash of headlights caught him in profile, a big car coming straight toward him as it bumped across the cobbles. No cloaking at all on the headlights. Didn’t they know there was a war on?

The car stopped twenty yards out, idling, as if whoever was inside was deciding what to do next. Cain slowly reached inside his overcoat for the .32 caliber Colt revolver holstered beneath his shoulder. The cross-­hatched walnut stock felt rough and chilly. Way too soon for this, no stomach for it. As he slid the gun free from the holster he felt its life-­taking power, coursing up his arm like an electrical impulse.

A car door opened. A big body emerged and moved in front of the headlights. Wide-­brimmed hat, bulky overcoat. No face visible, but certainly an easy target if it came to that.

“Detective Cain?”

“Who’s asking?”


“The fourteenth?”


The headquarters, in other words, the one for the whole department down on Centre Street. A place Cain had seen, but hadn’t yet visited. He’d been sworn in a week ago during an outdoor ceremony while standing in formation with more than a hundred new recruits on a windblown park square.

“Your attendance is required tomorrow at twelve thirty. Room 114-­B.”

“Says who?”

“Come on your lunch break, and keep it to yourself. Not a word to Captain Mulhearn or any of your asshole buddies in the station house.”

“Says who?”

“Twelve thirty sharp. 114-­B. You’ll be expected.”

The engine revved as the guy stepped out of the beams and climbed back in. The car made a slow U-­turn, leaving Cain in darkness as he watched the tail lights wink around the corner at Tenth.

What the hell could they want with him at headquarters? And why all the secrecy? Was he already in trouble? Fired, even? Then a mud-­smelling breeze off the water reminded him of what they’d just fished out of the river. He shivered, and set out for the station house.

He moved slowly at first, his leg stiff from all the standing around. The cold wind made him crave a warm bed, which in turn made him think again of Clovis, his wife, on silken sheets in some posh uptown hotel, the Plaza or the Astor, waiting for him in some other life where he’d never been a cop and she’d never traveled south. Plenty of blame for both sides, he supposed. Then the image was gone, and with each step afterward he felt the pressure of a hidden presence to his rear. Something creeping toward him from the river, building like a wave. He stopped, pivoting to face the shadows.


He resumed his journey. Muscles loosening, he quickened his pace, and did not look back.

No choice now but to keep moving forward.

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