I should have let the answering machine pick up. Unhappily I didn't, so I heard the cigarette voice of Sergeant Duffy, who had been the Saturday-night desk officer at the Manhattan Borough Office since he'd accidentally shot himself in the groin while directing traffic outside Yankee Stadium in 1988. He said they wanted me to come in, overtime--an all-night shift.
In the living room, Kevin slurped his egg-drop soup and glowered. Like me, Kevin was a New York City police detective, and we'd both been on the job long enough to have regular weekday schedules, Monday through Friday. On Saturday nights, we liked to stay home, order Chinese, watch television. Kevin did not like changes in his routine, especially on Saturday nights.
But I was bored enough that working a shift seemed interesting, so I told Duffy, "I guess I can do it if you're really stuck. What time?"
"Immediately, if not sooner, Detective. Somebody called in sick."
"What kind of job?"
"Undercover, they tell me. Temporary assignment. Your name came up."
"An assignment so special that somebody called in sick?"
"You got that right."
"So where do I report?"
He made a noise that sounded like a lawn mower trying tostart. Then I heard him flipping through some papers. "That would be ... 257 West Twenty-seventh Street. That would be room 538--five-three-eight. Tell her what she won, Duffy! Yes, indeedy, Detective Geraldine A. Conte, you have won an all-expense-paid shift with an Organized Crime Task Force unit. To collect your prize, you must see one Lieutenant Campo, first name unknown. C-A-M-P-O. That's 257 West Twenty-seventh, New York, New York."
"Okay, Sarge," I said.
Actually, I liked the prospect of a tour in an organized-crime unit. In my five years as a detective, I'd worked a lot of undercover, but never OCTF. OCTF was selective and haughty, like a hotshot fraternity. The feds and the state were coming down on the New York Mafia families like sledgehammers, in independent and highly competitive operations. Everybody knew that OCTF was obsessed with Sally Seashore, the Glitz Godfather. Sally Seashore was public enemy number one, the most brazen of the current bosses, real name Salvatore Messina. He ran the Giavanni family and, besides murder, had so far gotten away with armed robbery, hijacking, loansharking, gambling, extortion, labor fraud, arson, assault, and conspiracy to commit all of the above. And that was just the felonies. Only a month earlier, Messina had swaggered out of federal court in his alligator loafers, acquitted of racketeering, and held a press conference. The tabloids were still swooning.
Sally had schemed and bashed his way to the top of the Giavanni heap during the 1980s, when he acquired a subscription to The Wall Street Journal as a fashion accessory and began dressing like a star mutual-fund manager. Unlike old-line Mafia bosses, who tended to become fresh corpses if their pictures turned up in the newspaper, Sally unfurled brilliantly white capped teeth and flashed his diamond cufflinks whenever the photographers spotted him at a trendy East Side cafe or at the marina on the Hudson below the World Trade Center where he docked his fifty-foot boat, My FantaSea. "Hiya, boys," he would say, like in the movies, as the paparazzi scuttled forward and genuflected to make their shots.
A criminal who gets that much attention drives cops crazy. SoI figured that spending a tour with OCTF would at least be an interesting break from the depressing grind of work I'd been assigned to for the past year, the Special Victims Unit, women and children abused in ways a normal person couldn't even dream of. An infant in a dryer, cotton cycle. A little girl with a hatchet in her crotch. A wife nailed sideways to a headboard. Some days, I'd get home feeling like someone had put a spigot into my heart and drained it.
As I was about to hang up, Duffy said, "Wait, Detective. One more thing. You got to dress up nice. Supposedly this is crucial. 'Dress up nice,' it says. You got to go to some nightclub, apparently. You know, wine and dine courtesy the taxpayers of the city of New York. Tough work at time-and-a-half."
"Dress up," I said, knowing better than to ask what that was supposed to mean. To male cops, it meant they put on sportscoats and ties. Naturally, it wouldn't occur to them that a female cop would need more specific information about where they were sending her on an undercover assignment. The Waldorf? The bowling alley at Port Authority Bus Terminal?
I went into the living room and laid my arms on the top of the couch like it was a backyard fence and watched Kevin dab mustard from a little packet onto his egg roll. My dinner was barely touched.
"I have to go in, honey."
"What in the hell for?" he said, clearly peeved.
"They want me in on OT."
"Jesus," he said. On Saturday nights, Kevin wouldn't leave the couch if it was on fire. Annoyed at the sudden disruption in the routine, he dropped the egg roll into his soup container and pushed it away, spilling puddles of glop on the coffee table.
"For Christ's sake, Gerry. It's Saturday night. I keep telling you, you shouldn't answer the phone. You never learn. So now the whole night is shot in the ass."
"Sorry," I called over my shoulder, hurrying into the bedroom.
Kevin and I had been engaged for a ridiculous period of time: five years, reasonably happily for about the first half of that timeand now merely coexisting. We lived in his old bachelor place, a one-bedroom third-floor walkup on Bleecker Street over a Chinese restaurant called Cheng's Happy Good Luck Garden.
Having Chinese food delivered from three flights down was one of those amenities that compensates for the endless inconveniences of life in New York, which is the only city I know of where adults with well-paying jobs actually choose to live like college students, the only place in America where you routinely associate with grown-ups who have never had a driver's license.
Lately, the apartment walls seemed to have moved closer together. I was thirty years old, vaguely unhappy, but too busy to do much about it. I was a third-grade detective, one of the youngest women ever to get a gold shield in the NYPD. I was also in my third year of law school, meaning I had classes most nights after work. My father, who had always treated me more like a son than a daughter, who showed me how to wire a lamp and throw a punch, wasn't much impressed when I became a detective. My enrolling in law school, though, was the proudest moment of his life.
Like most cops, Kevin loathed lawyers and thought it was ridiculous that I wanted to be one. Kevin was thirty-eight and set in stone for the rest of his life, complacently content as the years fell away toward the only things in life in which he had invincible faith, my presence and his retirement pension. Other than the calendar and the color of his hair, which had gone attractively gray at the temples in the past few years, little ever changed for Kevin. We had no pets, no plans beyond the next summer, and a vague, unexpressed understanding that we would someday get married.
He was a good and honest cop and a faithful supporter--until the night when I raced home four years earlier to tell him I'd been promoted to detective:
"What do I tell my friends? Now you're the same as me," he said.
"Honey, you'll always be the better detective," I'd assured him. But it was never the same after that. I continued loving him out of habit, the way I continued going to work.
The routine was our constitution. Usually we worked late on Fridays. Sundays, we were in bed before the ten o'clock news,meaning that Saturday nights were really our only free times together, and we had a ritual. Around five, he'd go out for the early Sunday edition of the Daily News and plant himself on the couch to work the "Jumble" puzzle, which he did with the intensity of a man cracking an enemy. code. Around six, I'd phone Cheng's, and the delivery man would show up about a half hour later. The order was always the same. For me, beef with broccoli in garlic sauce. Kung Po Chicken Ding for him. Three fat egg rolls.
My job was to answer the door. He seemed to think it was his to make sure the delivery boy didn't slip into a higher tax bracket.
"The guy's here with the food, honey. Do you have two dollars for the tip? All I have is a twenty."
"Unbelievable," he grouched, with exaggerated effort digging his wallet out of his back pocket. "I would have gone down for it, for God's sake."
"So sue me," I told him in my most nasal New York voice. "For two bucks, I'm Ivana Trump."
The same delivery man always came, carrying the brown bag like a birthday cake. Chinese delivery having as strict a protocol as Japanese tea-serving, names were never exchanged.
"Beef with broccoli? And Kung Po?" I said, checking the order.
Jokes never worked. "Egg-drop soup!"
"Honey, I'm only kidding. Egg-drop soup is right."
I paid him and shut the door.
"Two bucks," Kevin said, eyeing the food. "Ivana Trump."
"I gave him three bucks," I said, pleased at my rebellion.
"That's one buck for each flight of stairs!"
"Kevin, you're wearing out the needle playing that song. Give me a freaking break."
Actually, the routine had changed slightly over the years. In the old days, we'd go to bed at one o'clock on Saturday night and have sex. Our "appointment," Kevin always called it, with an annoying stage leer. But that had dropped from the agenda,without comment. Now, I'd slip into the bedroom around eleven to study torts or criminal procedure. Kevin stayed up late in the living room playing his old LPs, volume low, draining long-neck beers. When he had his load on, he got out his favorite album, The Greatest Hits of the Ink Spots.
He sauntered into the bathroom when I was in the shower. "Talk to me," he demanded above the splash of the water.
"I don't have a lot of time, Kevin."
He sat on the toilet lid, separated from me by the shower curtain, like in a confessional. Years ago, he might have yanked the curtain open, taken his clothes off, got under the spray.
"It's Saturday night. This is pure bullshit," he said.
"Don't start, Kevin."
He ignored me. "Instead of spending our one night together, you want to go play cops and robbers? You used to tell me you wanted to have a kid someday. What kind of a kid grows up with his mother running out on a Saturday night?"
Here we go, I thought. "The kid discussion? Again? Can we give it a rest right now?"
"You never want to talk."
The kid discussion only came up in fights. It was, I think, our way of avoiding discussing marriage. "Listen, I want to have a kid at some point," I told him wearily. "After law school, after I'm situated for a year or two. Maybe I can take a year off."
"A year," he snorted. "A year to raise a kid, and then back to the job?" He thought things might be better between us if I just stayed home with a child in our 850-square-foot apartment, whose main virtue was that it was rent-controlled at six hundred dollars a month.
"Kevin, last week I had to carry a six-year-old girl out of an apartment where her father had branded her on the behind. With a branding iron, Kevin. They had me hold up the kid for the tech guy to take a video."
"Like I haven't seen a lot of bad shit?"
"That isn't my point, Kevin! This is not the same world our mothers brought us into. I don't know how I could stand the risks a child faces every day."
"Well," he said, standing up. "Not that it matters much now.When's the last time we had an appointment, anyway?"
I turned off the water and reached out to grab a towel. I wasn't about to come out naked.
"I'm not getting into this now," I said, stepping out of the tub with the towel around me.
He heard the anger in my voice and backed off. "Okay, Gerry. I don't mean to give you a hard time. I'm just not happy about spending a Saturday night by myself." He looked me up and down, and tugged playfully at my towel, but I pulled away. I'd gained twenty pounds since we started living together, but he never criticized me. In fact, he'd said more than once, "I like you beefed up."
"Have it your way, Lady Gold," he said, retreating. "Lady Gold"--that was the nickname he gave he when I told him I had made detective. He knew I hated it.
The television belched a laugh track. In our tiny bedroom, where you couldn't do an about-face without hitting the mattress, I fidgeted at the closet. Dress up nice? It had been years since I felt a clothes panic. I riffled through the hangers and finally settled on something that my mother had bought me after I'd put on the weight. It was a two-piece silk Liz Claiborne outfit that I'd worn to my tenth high-school reunion two years before, a black skirt and yellow sheath top with puffed sleeves and wide cuffs dotted with seed-pearl buttons. The sheath hid my hips.
A blow-dryer tamed my hair, which I tied back with a gold ribbon from the box of Godiva chocolates Kevin had given me last Christmas. Eyeliner, mascara, lipstick, a little blush, and blue eyeshadow from a Bloomingdale's free sample that I'd got when I bought my mother her favorite moisturizer.
I pulled on the dress and walked out. Kevin watched with morose interest from the couch. It had been years since he'd seen me in heels and makeup.
"You look like you're going to a dance," he said evenly.
"I look okay, honey?"
He nodded. "You look real good."
I kissed him good-bye with a flush of affection that surprised both of us.
I took a cab to the address, an old ten-story building that was once a school administration headquarters. It was in the gloomy garment district, one of the only sections of Manhattan where you didn't see people on the street at night. The NYPD had commandeered a couple of floors, but the building was otherwise vacant. The front entrance was open. A linoleum-paneled elevator lurched up to the fifth floor as if it were on its last trip.
The OCTF office looked like a typical squad room, with dingy pea-green walls that hadn't been painted since the Kennedy administration, but it was busy for a Saturday night. About two dozen male officers, many of them in good suits, stood or sat around.
There wasn't another woman in sight. At the front entrance was one of the few sartorial delinquents, a detective in a short-sleeved shirt with a tie three inches too short lying on his paunch like something he'd spilled at lunch. He pecked with terrible intensity at a manual typewriter and would not look up.
"Excuse me," I said, more loudly than necessary, after he ignored me for more time than was appropriate.
Without a glance, he stood and waddled a few feet over to a file cabinet, mooning me with two yards of shiny trouser as he slid a file in the bottom drawer.
I rapped the top of the cabinet with my knuckles. "Hull-LOO!" I sang, moving in close to deliberately invade his personal space. Women who become cops quickly learn the importance of body language, the common physical aggressiveness you need simply to get someone to take you seriously.
I squared my shoulders and planted both feet apart. You never smile. "I'm Detective Conte, from the Special Victims Squad."
"And I was told to see a Lieutenant Campo." I smiled innocently. "Is he here, Officer?"
"Detective," he said hastily, finally meeting my eye. He pointed toward a tall, trim man across the room, late middle age, with wavy black hair. The lieutenant, a head taller than the three officers beside him, wore a starched white shirt with a crimson tie. In his right hand was an unlit panatela. The lieutenant interruptedhis conversation when I approached. A cop with manners, I thought.
"Detective Conte," he said, shaking my hand with a firm, but not crushing grip. "Louis Campo. Listen, thanks a million for helping us out tonight. I'm really sorry about the short notice."
"No problem at all, Lieutenant."
Campo studied me. "Somebody told me you're engaged to Brian Murphy. Brian and I go way back, to Homicide. How is he?"
"It's Kevin Murphy, sir."
His face went red. "Oh! Right. Jesus. I'm lousy with names. Tell him I said hello, would you?"
He nodded at a table with a coffeemaker on it. "Some coffee, Detective?"
"Gerry," I said. "Yes, please."
He handed it over with a paper napkin, which struck me as the height of elegance in a squad room.
"They didn't tell you what this was all about, I guess."
"That figures. Well, let me give you a broad outline before we get going. As you know, all anybody wants to hear about these days is, when are we going to get that bum, Messina?"
Ah, I thought. Already, we are discussing "Sally Seashore."
I knew that there were now more than a dozen separate federal, state, and NYPD operations working on Messina, some of them deliberately overlapping, others stumbling over one another like circus clowns. Yet so far, every time his picture turned up in the paper, his face was laughing.
And so I was going to fill in on one of those operations in this relatively small OCTF squad. Campo explained to me that the unit was being run out of a state Special Prosecutor's Office. They had custody of a single, potentially crucial informant--a twenty-eight-year-old made member of the Giavanni family. Messina had run this mob operation since his predecessor, Jack Ponte, conveniently died of some bullets outside a restaurant.
"In and of himself," Campo explained as we sipped the coffee, "the guy we have isn't that important. He's just a punk, really. Why we're putting so much effort into him is simple. See,he could be the missing link. His uncle is a Giavanni underboss. You heard of Anthony 'Blackjack' Rossi?"
The name meant nothing to me.
He went on. "We're building our investigation around this nephew. You'll meet him tonight."
"What's his name?" I asked.
"Rossi, same as the uncle."
"His first name?"
Campo waved his cigar. "Hey," he called over to a detective. "What's the first name of the confidential informant. The CI?"
"Jeez, I'm drawing a blank, Lou. Wait. Uh, Eugenio, Eugene, Gene, Gino. Take your pick."
"Gino," Campo decided.
The other detective said, "He don't like you to call him that. He's particular."
"What do you call him, then?" I asked.
"Eugene," the detective replied, wiggling his fingers airily. "He's freaking delicate about it."
The lieutenant said, "If everything breaks the way we hope, then the nephew leads us, over the course of time, directly to the uncle. Hopefully by then we will have enough of a case to squeeze the uncle by the garbonzos, excuse my French. Maybe it's the crack in the hierarchy that brings it all down."
From what I'd gathered so far, it all sounded pretty tentative, but I figured he was boiling things down since I was only going to be on the job for one night. I didn't want to appear out of line and press for detail. I figured they already had an elaborate plan.
Only later did I realize that all they had at this point, besides the informant himself, was an elaborate budget.
"We've had the nephew in custody for about three weeks," Campo said. "Secretly. The uncle has no idea the nephew turned."
"Are they close?"
He shrugged. "From what the CI says, they used to be almost like father and son. Evidently, the uncle raised this guy. Then a couple of years ago, he sends the nephew down to Florida to run some of the family businesses--strip joints, pool halls, restaurants. The kid reported to the uncle and sent up the percentages. Now, as far as the uncle knows, the nephew came back to townbecause he's in some kind of jam down in Florida. Tonight, the nephew and the uncle are supposed to be getting together with friends at this nightclub. Which is where you're headed."
He laid out the scenario for me. It sounded awfully complicated for a one-night gig. There would be two other detectives along, plus backup. We were going to a flashy nightclub called Harlow's. I recognized the name; it had opened in an old warehouse on Hudson Street not far from where I lived. It was one of those places that suddenly get wildly popular with the Upper East Side crowd and the Hollywood types with their lofts in SoHo. Limousines and Jaguars double-parked every night out front and they never got tickets, which to me meant only that somebody had fixed things up with the precinct.
"You'll meet the CI and his control officer there. One of our guys, a veteran undercover detective named Rey Vargas," the lieutenant said.
"Isn't that place a little downtown for the mob?"
"Not these days," he said. "The next generation of wiseguys is coming into its own. To these guys, those joints on Mulberry Street like Umberto's Clam House are just old-age homes."
"How'd you get the nephew to cooperate?" I said.
"Simple." Campo was casual. "Eugene got himself arrested down in Florida. Luckily, somebody in the Boca PD ran the name and spotted the family connection. They called us. Bingo! Our boy was persuaded that his one alternative to working with us was five-to-fifteen in the can. It took him less than a New York minute to decide to flip. With the mob, don't believe any of that omerta, silence-unto-death crap, Conte. Especially the younger crew, these guys fold like a cheap suitcase."
He leaned forward confidingly. "When the detective normally scheduled to work tonight called in sick, I specifically asked them to see if they could call you in."
"You have a good reputation for working with people, mainly. It's a new unit, we're just getting our act together. We needed somebody smart who could hit the ground running. That's you, from what I hear."
Being female was more than an incidental requirement, too, if I was going to be this guy's date.
"Who am I replacing?"
"Colleen Lewis. From Midtown South. You probably know her."
"Yeah," I said, and left it at that. Colleen, who was about Campo's age, had come up hard through the ranks in the days when a female cop trying to get ahead was regarded as little more than a school crossing-guard with attitude. The older she got, the more she behaved like a grouchy VFW post commander.
So she had called in sick to avoid moll duty. At least it wasn't the full-court hooker stint. Before I got my shield, hooker detail was one of the jobs I regularly pulled. The "John hour," as the NYPD called it. Dressed for the part, female cops were sent out to mingle on the streets with prostitutes, waving to johns and arresting those who offered money. As a city-employed "ho," working the John hour did major weirdness to the head. I'd get assigned a location where high-priced hookers hung out, say Fifty-ninth Street near the Plaza Hotel, where the girls could charge $100 for a half-and-half. I dressed like a businesswoman and when I finished my shift, I felt good about myself. Well, sort of ... . But the next time I might get sent to one of those grim last stops on the hooker circuit, like the West Side crosstown streets near the tunnels, where I'd have to appear tarted up in a leather miniskirt, and the going rate for a blow job in the back of a car was ten bucks. I'd go home feeling like death eating a cracker, with my self-esteem shot for days. Kevin said I took it all too personally, but it wasn't him strutting his Catholic-school ass down the block.
In comparison, how bad could this one night be? "So what do I do?" I asked Campo.
"You'll go to this club with another detective," he said. "You know, look like you're on a date. Then the CI comes in later, and you end up with him. Like some kind of girlfriend. Hopefully, he introduces you to his uncle later on. He talks, you listen. All part of the process--"
"Lieutenant, please pardon me for inquiring, but what does 'girlfriend' mean?" I asked warily.
"Don't worry about it," he said, smiling. "It's very low-key. The CI knows the deal, he knows to look for you. You'll have some caviar, go dancing, you'll drink some wine. Look at it likea night on the old armski, courtesy of the taxpayers."
"Will I be wired?"
"We'll put a booster in your bag. The CI will have a Nagra taped under his twelve-hundred-dollar suit."
A Nagra was a body transmitter, state-of-the-art high tech. I was happy to hear they at least had decent electronic equipment. Cheap wiretap equipment was the main reason Sally Messina had beat the last federal indictment. The audio quality was so bad that the jury couldn't decide whether they were listening to the godfather Messina order one of his goons to "whack" somebody or, as Messina insisted, "smack" him, which covered the considerable distance between a felony and a violation. The feds were still trying to live that down.
"So you're going to try to collar the uncle tonight?"
He laughed patiently. "We should be so lucky. No, this is a long-term deal. We're just starting out tonight. We'll put the CI through the hoops, see how good he jumps. Anything you and he pick up on tape is a present--but remember, the uncle didn't get where he is by shooting off his mouth. You just play it by ear."
That was certainly standard department procedure, playing it by ear. People always think there's a sophisticated plan, but mostly what cops think about is scheduling, transportation, equipment and food. Strategy tends to be improvised.
"I'll be able to recognize the CI?"
"Yes, believe me. Typical wiseguy look. But Rey Vargas might not be so obvious. I guarantee you won't make Vargas for a cop. The guy spent his first ten years on the force extremely deep undercover, infiltrating Puerto Rican terrorist networks. Never went to the Academy. He never even owned a uniform."
That intrigued me. At the police academy, I'd heard about such cops--guys designated to go so far undercover that the department didn't want to risk the inevitable conditioning that occurred during basic training, where the first thing a recruit picked up was how to talk like a cop. It would only take one casual line of copspeak--like "I'll meet you at Two-nine and Broadway"--to blow the cover. There were only a handful like Rey Vargas picked each year out of about two thousand new cops.
Campo said, "Okay, then. We want you there a good hour before Rey Vargas and the CI are supposed to walk in, which isat ten. They expect the uncle to show sometime around twelve, but he won't stay long, so it'll be a crapshoot if you get anything at all."
It was starting to look like a very long night ahead. I didn't relish the prospect of spending it cozying up to a mob informant who was betraying the uncle who supposedly raised him. Where I grew up, the name for this was "rat." Or, in Italian, zuglar, a filthy, stinking rodent. As a girl, I'd hear my grandmother use it when she whacked at a rat with a broom in the cellar off Mulberry Street where my grandparents made their wine.
Campo was pointing across the room to where several detectives stood near a window. "That's your partner, Danny Flanagan. That guy over there with the red hair?"
Flanagan's hair was startlingly orange. He appeared to be at least forty-five and looked like Elmer Fudd come to life. He had on a camel-hair sports jacket with black pants. Under the jacket he was wearing a blue-and-yellow Hawaiian shirt. Not that I was any movie star, but right away I could see we might have a problem with the doorman at some high-attitude downtown nightclub where they act like their letting you in is your biggest honor since someone took your virginity.
Campo told me quietly, "One other thing, Conte. You don't want to mention Flanagan's toupee. He's sensitive. He paid a bundle for it."
"Actually he has four of them, one for each week in the month, each one just a little shaggier than the other, so it looks like it's growing. Nobody mentions it, see, as a courtesy. Once you get past the wig, you'll see that Danny is a great detective, a terrific human being. Anytime somebody has a relative pass away, Danny's the guy they see for the Mass card."
He waved Danny over, introduced us, and led us into a small, neat office. On one wall was a bulletin board with a sign fanned on computer print-out paper across the top: LEADERSHIP OF GIAVANNI ORGANIZED CRIME FAMILY. Below that, somebody had carefully arranged about twenty-five photographs in a huge pyramid, on a background of construction paper. It looked like an eighth-grade class project. At the pinnacle of the pyramid, like the eyeball on a dollar bill, perched the face of "Sally Seashore"Messina, looking like it had been buffed with Turtle Wax. Just below were two portraits labeled "underboss" and "consigliere" and in widening rows below that came the rest of the capos, each photo labeled with a man's given name and his nickname. Unlike those of Messina and his two top lieutenants, which appeared to be news photographs, some of the pictures of the lesser members of the hierarchy were police mug shots. Pasted diagonally across some of the photos were little tan paper sashes labeled FUGITIVE or IN PRISON and, in one case, DECEASED with the date, which was recent.
My eye wandered to the middle row, to the face of an old Italian man with black glasses, a man who closely resembled my own father. All those Italian names on that board made me feel oddly ashamed. All together, the Mafia had maybe two thousand made members among the hundreds of thousands of hardworking, law-abiding Italians in New York City. But you could quickly become uncomfortably aware of all those vowels at the ends of the names, when yours ended with one too.
While we were waiting for the technician, Campo held up an eight-by-ten glossy of a young man and said, "That's our CI." The photograph showed a face that would have looked out of place among the cutthroats and plug-uglies assembled on the board. He was actually quite handsome, with close-cropped black hair and big dark eyes. Except for the annoying sneer, it could have been a graduation portrait on somebody's mantel.
The door opened noisily. A very skinny man came in carrying a beat-up cardboard box. "This is Hal, with your wire," Campo said. It was a good thing Hal worked in the tech room. On patrol, he was the kind of guy other cops loved to make miserable. Like, they'd ask his partner, "Can I check your umbrella?"
Hal got busy taping a matchbox-sized transmitter to the waistband of my skirt, with a wire running under the back of the sheath to an earpiece. I undid my hair to cover it. The earpiece was for messages from the van. Two other cops would be in an unmarked van outside to record whatever conversation was intercepted.
The booster was a device about the size of a small cigar box. Hal tucked it into a cheap-looking bag, a knockoff Coach, and put it over my shoulder.
"Will this thing work?" I said while he fussed with the strap.
Hal bristled. "It better goddamn work. It costs five grand. You just think of one word, Detective: proximity, proximity, proximity! And don't dig inside that bag and manhandle the equipment. That bag is not for lipstick and Tic Tacs! Everything will work unless you do something to screw it up."
Nicely done, I was thinking as Hal deftly embraced what should be the NYPD motto: Divest yourself of all responsibility for potential screw-ups as quickly as possible.
The two cops who would stay in the van were waiting for us by the elevator. Campo had one more thing to say. "I forgot to mention, Detective--Rey Vargas, he's Puerto Rican. But his cover now is that he's a Cuban drug runner, okay?"
Let me get this straight, I thought. I've got a six-dollar pocketbook under my arm, heading to a flashy nightclub with a man in a red wig to meet a mob rat and a Puerto Rican detective passing himself off as a Cuban drug dealer to a bunch of Italian hoods.
Danny was a gentleman. He held the door when we went out even when it slammed into his leg repeatedly.
The van was a beat-up Ford that looked like it belonged to a scrap-metal dealer. Danny drove. The other two climbed in back and stuffed their sound equipment like fishing tackle behind the seat. The passenger seat had been removed; in its place was this milk crate somebody had nailed to the floor. The back window was covered with a plastic shower curtain, held in place with masking tape.
"Nice wheels," I told Danny.
"Drives beautiful," he said.
Gripping the milk crate, I noticed that Danny had pinned a red carnation on his lapel.
Danny drove fast. We were there in ten minutes. As usual, the block was packed with cars, but Danny drove right up front, under the marquee. It must have looked like a delivery, until Danny hopped out, opened my door and helped me down. There was already a line of well-dressed people snaking halfway down the block, waiting to get inside.
One of the cops in back climbed behind the wheel and backedthe van down the block. He parked it in front of a hydrant with the engine running noisily.
Danny stood on the sidewalk blinking like a time-machine refugee looking for the Glenn Miller band. Around us people were rocking and giggling. The club's front door was blocked by a jukebox with legs. The bouncer's job was to guard that crushed velvet rope against the press of the obscure, and drop it to admit those he deemed worthy. My ego started doing somersaults.
Right away, I saw that I was not dressed like the rest of the women. Four-inch heels clicked impatiently on the sidewalk.
"We may not get in," I told Danny, feeling foolish.
"We got to!"
Gently, I said, "Danny, not for nothing. Maybe we just don't look right together. Just let me go up by myself and give it a shot."
"Don't leave me out here," he protested. "I'll never get in alone." At least he wasn't laboring under any major delusions.
I told him I'd be right back, and pushed my way up to the scowling bouncer.
"Listen," I said, watching his gaze flicker away to a pair of long bare legs folding out of a white limo at the curb. "Listen! I'm here with my brother who's visiting me from Idaho. He got off a Greyhound at Port Authority this afternoon. I want to show the guy New York. It would really mean a lot to me to show him your place. I'd make it up to you when we leave."
I gave his big bicep a little squeeze and flashed a John hour look, heavy on the eyelashes. You don't have to spell out BJ with guys like this. "We're not going to stay that long, just for a drink. It's my brother's birthday."
Then I slipped him a twenty for insurance.
"You coming back later without your brother?" he asked.
"You going to be around at closing time?"
"I don't leave the door till then."
"Okay," I said suggestively.
"What's your name?"
"Gerry," he repeated, like he was planning to write it down sometime.
I shot a glance down the line and waved to Danny, whobounded up like somebody called out of a game-show audience. He nearly died when they told him the cover was twenty-five dollars each. You would have thought it was his own money he was pulling out of his pocket.
Unhooking the rope, the bouncer advised me darkly, "Say he's a Euro."
You didn't walk into Harlow's. You were propelled in, like a steel ball shot up the chute of a giant pinball machine, which the place resembled, with flashing lights and people in constant chaotic motion. Two bars were set diagonally at the rear corner. On the walls, huge video screens pulsed with kaleidoscopic bursts of visual energy.
It was filling up fast. Money flashed in snatches of strobe light. A bearded man in a tux and a black eyepatch walked by with a bald girl who had a tattoo on her cheek and a hairless cat under her arm. The cat's eyes were hard as marbles.
Gorgeous models walked around selling black orchids out of boxes strapped to their midriffs. One approached Danny after we settled onto bar stools.
"Flower for your lady?" she asked sweetly.
"Nope," Danny grunted, the way you would brush off a panhandler.
I bought one myself and pinned it on my cuff. If Danny could have his carnation, I could have an orchid. I felt better immediately.
Down the bar, the bartender was leaned over talking to a guy in a baggy Armani suit. He nodded over to a drag queen dressed in a strapless gown and the guy walked over, undoubtedly to buy blow or Ecstasy.
The bartender approached us. "You want something to drink?" Danny said.
"White wine," I told him.
Danny said, "And give me a Rob Roy, straight up."
The bartender looked at him blankly.
"A Rob Roy," Danny shouted.
The bartender leaned over. "I'm sorry, man. What is that?"
Danny was amazed. "One part dry vermouth, one part sweet vermouth, three parts scotch. Shake with ice and strain it into a Manhattan glass. With a twist."
The bartender repeated this dubiously, as if he was thinking, Man, if you puke, it's not my fault.
Danny sipped his Rob Roy with a dour face and tried to make conversation, but you could tell it had been like a decade or so since he was out with any woman but his wife. He fidgeted and watched new people coming in like a fire-code inspector.
In a while he said, "Listen, you sit tight for a minute. I'll be right back. Watch the door for our friends."
He came back in less than a minute, very agitated.
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!"
"What's the matter, Danny?"
"The bathroom, is what. They got one of them universal-sex johns. Men and women using the same bathroom! At the same time! Holy Mother of God, what kind of a place is this?"
I couldn't hold back a laugh. "Are you sure you were in the right one? You sure they don't maybe just have those little cowboy and cowgirl cutouts on the doors, and you just couldn't tell which was which?"
"Believe me. It's all together, the same place. What the hell am I going to do?"
He looked like he was in pain, which made me anxious. His having to pee became my problem.
So I set off to investigate. The bathroom was shiny industrial chic; the back wall consisted of a long dark mirror with a waterfall cascading down over it. It was undoubtedly the urinal, since men were standing facing it. Women came and went from the stalls without a glance.
As I turned to leave, I caught myself in a mirror. Everything about me looked so wrong: Twenty pounds overweight. Skirt just below the knees. Nails too short. Hair frumpy. The blue eyeshadow. The reflection belonged to someone who worked in a daycare center.
I trudged back. Under all this pinball-machine lighting, Danny didn't look so odd anymore.
"You were right," I said. "But just sail in and use a stall before it gets too crowded."
He brightened, this alternative not having occurred to him, and wobbled away.
From the bar we could just barely see the sidewalk through awindow beside the door. A flashier crowd was starting to assemble. I was glad we got there early, because it was a sure thing we wouldn't have gotten in now. A little after ten o'clock, a white stretch limo pulled up, and a tall man with dark hair got out. I thought a woman would follow, but another man slid out and stood flashing his cuffs for a moment. They were ushered right in.
Danny raised his glass in the new arrivals direction. "Here comes our boys."
At first, it wasn't clear to me which of the two was the cop and which was the informant. Neither of them was what you would describe as drop-dead handsome, but they both carried a lot of beef, solidly arranged. A couple of leggy women drifted toward them as if they were rolling downhill. The men paused, adjusting attitude as they took in the scene, and made their entrance.
Leading the way was the taller one, who I took to be the informant at first because he looked nothing like a cop. He was resplendent, a dark-featured man in a flashy navy-blue pinstripe suit with a long-collared silk shirt that seemed to say "Weekend in Havana, 1959."
Then I noticed that the one behind him was sweeping his eyes back and forth regally as he worked through the front crowd. That was a move you saw only on Mulberry Street.
Eugene Rossi appeared to be even younger than twenty-eight. He had on a double-breasted cream silk suit. He was about five foot eleven, with broad shoulders on an upper torso that tapered down to a narrow waist. He flashed teeth like chiclets. Even though it was March and still chilly out, his face and neck were golden tan. On his feet were taupe reptile-skin loafers. Wiseguy deluxe.
The CI stopped and waited, with feet spread and hands folded, like a Vegas lounge singer about to begin "My Way." Something Rey said prompted a theatrical laugh, which he tossed over his shoulder.
Eugene broadcast fifty thousand watts of attitude. Rey, on the other hand, was a solid-state receiver. You could almost see him adjusting the signal.
Danny scooped his wet bills off the bar. Since he was actinglike the taxpayer's money was his own, I made sure he left a decent tip. We pushed through the crowd to the two men. Danny caught Rey's eye and got a slight nod back. Rey gave Eugene a small nudge. "This is the girl I was telling you about." Eugene looked down at me like I was about to ask for his autograph.
Just then, one of the black-orchid girls inserted herself between them. She was very downtown, very blonde, and lithe in her skintight black leotard. She presented a large orchid to Eugene, who held it up in the light, as if looking for flaws, and then dropped it back into her box. Staring right at me, he took out his wallet full of flash money from NYPD, thumbed a hundred-dollar bill, and slid it slowly down her top until his hand reached her breast. He didn't stop smirking at me the whole time.
When she left, he said, loudly, "No offense, sweetheart, but I'd never be with someone who looks like you."
He started to walk away. I was furious. "Hey, buddy," I said sharply. "You are supposed to stay close to me."
He pulled out a crisp new twenty and held it straight up, like I was supposed to reach for it. "Go and buy yourself a drink, honey," he said.
"No, no, no," I replied, like I was talking to a child. "Listen, Gino. You don't get it. You have got to stay close to me. Am I making myself clear?"
"Eugene," he said, a bit more amiably as he caught my arresting-officer expression, which I knew he had seen before.
Rey stepped around to introduce himself in a way that took a little more wind out of Eugene's sails.
"You and Danny up for this game?" he asked pleasantly.
"So they tell me," I replied, tapping my bag.
Rey edged us out of the crowd toward the bar where we could talk more freely. "The guest of honor won't be here for an hour or so," he explained. "Eugene knows what he has to do, but right now we have to go over to meet a couple of his cousins."
"There they are, at the table in the corner," Eugene said, peering across the room.
Danny and I agreed to have dinner first and then join them before the uncle arrived. Rey said he would tell Eugene's people that Danny and I were friends of his from "the health club."
"The health club?" I said dubiously.
"Tell them we work in the business office," Danny suggested.
Rey glanced at my skirt. "Right," he said evenly. "The name of the club is Heavenly Bodies. On Twenty-first Street in Chelsea, just in case."
"Check," Danny said, utterly serious.
Eugene chucked Danny on the arm as they stroke off. "Nice shirt, dude," he said.
The friends were a group of Mulberry Street players and their girlfriends, staked out at what must have been their regular Saturday-night table. Except for one dignified old lady in a neat black suit, the women appeared to be in their twenties and early thirties. Miniskirts, diamonds, gold bracelets.
"They're having a grand time," Danny said morosely.
He and I took a table a little distance away as they all got up from their crowded table of twelve to welcome Eugene uproariously and meet Rey. Except for the getups, they looked like my relatives at a wedding.
After about a half hour, Rey wandered over. My earpiece had started buzzing with complaints from the cops in the van that they weren't picking up anything, which of course was because Eugene had the microphone wired on him while I had the booster.
I took the opportunity to ask Rey, "What's with this guy? He planning to work tonight or screw around over there? We aren't getting anything."
"Just hang loose," Rey said, touching my shoulder.
"Those guys in the van are driving me nuts," I complained.
"Just relax. Eugene ordered some DP sent over to you. Enjoy."
"Gee, great. This is what you guys do?"
"This is all preliminary," Rey said, leaving.
I'd only had a few bites of dinner at home and now I was really hungry. We looked over the menu, but Danny worried that everything was way too expensive. I ordered a chicken Caesar salad, $24.95. Danny ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, bruschetti, $11.95. Before the food came, the waiter brought the champagne and set up a silver ice bucket.
Danny croaked, "What's that?"
"DP, what else?" I said knowingly.
Danny didn't want to accept it. He leaned over close to me so the waiter uncorking the bottle couldn't hear, and asked anxiously. "How much does that stuff cost?"
The wine list lay in front of me. "Looks like a hundred and thirty-five, Danny."
"We can't have that!"
"Don't worry, Danny. Good-time Charlie over there is buying, courtesy of 'We the People.'"
Eugene saw me look over and responded by raising his glass. The waiter poured our champagne, which Danny drained in one big gulp. Then he filched most of the chicken from my salad. The guys in the van groused in my ear again. Finally, Rey brought us over to their table and introduced us as friends.
When Eugene got up to dance with a gorgeous young woman, Rey leaned over. "Eugene made a call and they said the uncle is probably on his way. Something came up, though, and he's running late."
"He is coming?" I asked, keeping my voice low.
"What, is this guy jerking us around?" I demanded.
He shook his head. "These things can take a lot of time. You just roll with it."
Eugene kept dancing and never got close to me. After a while, I saw him come out of the rest room patting his chest. I didn't learn till later that he'd taken off the wire and stuffed it in his pocket. By now the music was so loud we wouldn't have picked up a conversation anyway.
"You're silent! We can't get nothing!" the voice in my ear shrieked. "Get out here so we can check the bag! Something's wrong. You're screwing the booster up! You got to stick right next to the guy! We got to get something on this goddamn tape!"
I couldn't leave. I knew I'd never get back in. You'd have thought they were expecting to hear the Watergate tapes. I tried to ignore the cops in the van.
At the other end of the table, meanwhile, Danny had joined the old lady in an animated conversation. He flashed me a wink.He had settled in like a guest at a dinner party. He was telling her jokes, and she was in stitches laughing. Dweeb that I had made him for, Danny was probably the only one of us who would actually walk out of this place with a piece or two of useful information.
Eugene approached a girl at a nearby table and whispered something to her. She rose. With his hand on her lower back, he guided her onto the dance floor.
As Eugene danced, he glanced over his shoulder occasionally to look for a reaction. I tried to ignore him, but my gaze kept drifting his way. The song was Barry White's, "I'm Qualified to Satisfy You." Eugene was close to his partner. Her eyes were closed. He moved the lower half of his body the way I'd never seen any white man do before. Despite myself, I couldn't take my eyes off him, even though I guessed that he knew it.
After a while, it was obvious the uncle wouldn't show. I felt like putting the cuffs on Eugene right then and there, perp-walk him out with a raincoat over his head.
Frowning, Rey said to me, "That guy is one piece of work. You know what he ordered for dinner?"
"The most expensive thing on the menu," I said.
"Bingo. The chateau-freaking-briand for two. Didn't eat a bite, didn't even look at it, for Christ's sake. A forty-five-dollar steak."
When the song ended, Rey walked out on the floor and Eugene barked something into Rey's ear, I couldn't hear what.
Rey came back and put his hand on my shoulder. "We're leaving. Party's over."
He paid the check for the table with a platinum American Express card. I went over to Danny. "Ready to go?" He gave the old lady a peck on the cheek. In a minute, we were out of there.
In the streetlight outside, Rey's face was flushed. Eugene rocked gently on his heels with his hands folded neatly at his waist. There were still people lined up waiting to be let in.
"What's going on?" I said, hoping I was finished with this sorry operation.
"Change in plans," Rey said. "The big guy isn't coming,Eugene says. He evidently might be able to see us instead at some after-hours joint out on Long Island, just over the Nassau county line."
"Eugene's talked with him?"
He shrugged. "He says so."
"And you're going to Long Island? Tonight?"
"We're all going. You too."
"You have got to be kidding."
It was nearly two o'clock in the morning. The champagne made my head hurt. I wanted to go home to bed.
Rey nudged Eugene into the backseat of the limo and called back, "We'll wait for you at the corner."
Without much enthusiasm, Danny and I moped to the van. The two cops in the back were ecstatic when we informed them we were going to be racking up OT. They radioed Campo to get approval, getting him out of bed. His orders were to follow the limo. Since Danny was in no shape to drive, one of the cops got up front. I held on to the milk crate and off we went.
The limo was waiting for us at Fifth Avenue and 10th Street. When he saw the van come up behind, the limo driver, also a cop, pulled out fast. We bounced across town. In the side mirror, I saw an unmarked radio car fall in behind us. A motorcade.
We picked up speed in the plaza off the Bowery and headed onto the Manhattan Bridge, scattering cabs out of our way.
Over my shoulder I asked Danny if he thought this was a wild-goose chase.
He said, "All's I know is what the old lady told me, which is that Tony Rossi spends Saturday night in Atlantic City, and him and Eugene have been on the outs for a while. But she says nobody tells her nothing anymore since her husband got blown up last year in the explosion at that meatpacking plant in Red Hook."
Copyright © 1998 by Angela Amato and Joe Sharkey.