TUESDAY, MAY 27, 6:30 P.M.
NINE YEARS LATER
James Beck stood outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan and checked his watch again. Demarco Jones had dropped him off in front of the main entrance, then driven off to park Beck’s custom Mercury Marauder. Beck had ten minutes before the bus from Eastern Correctional Facility arrived. He wanted to be standing at the gate when Packy Johnson stepped off that bus, but he didn’t know which of the 421 gates in the massive terminal was the right one.
Beck weaved around the line of people waiting for cabs and maneuvered past an obese black man wearing layers of clothing who’d parked himself in front of the entrance along with two overflowing shopping carts covered by a blue tarp.
Beck walked in, looking for the information booth. He saw it fifteen feet in front of him. A sign on the booth read: Please go to the Information Booth located on the 1st floor of the South Wing, 8th Avenue entrance for assistance. Thank You.
He checked his watch. 6:32 P.M. He had eight minutes before the bus was due to arrive. Should he try to find the gate himself? He knew it was a ShortLine bus, but had no idea which gates were assigned to that bus line.
South wing. South wing. Maybe the ShortLine buses arrived in the south wing.
Beck turned and went back out onto Eighth Avenue and headed south, dodging slower moving pedestrians, sweating in the sultry New York heat and humidity. Typical New York spring. Last week, fifty-seven degrees and raining. Today, eighty degrees and sunny.
Beck remembered when he had come out of prison, five years ago. It was different for him. He wasn’t released on parole, so he had no restrictions. It was a crisp fall day in October instead of a muggy day in May. And he hadn’t spent the majority of his life incarcerated. Just eight years, but long enough so every connection to friends or family had withered or disappeared, so there was no one available to drive upstate and pick him up. He’d taken the exact same bus down from Eastern Correctional Facility just outside of Napanoch, New York. Because his conviction had been overturned, and he had a dedicated lawyer working for him, Beck had left prison with up-to-date identification, a working credit card, three hundred dollars in cash, plus an ATM card from Chase.
He had a change of clothes in a decent weekend bag and a very short plan of action. First stop—Smith’s bar on Forty-fourth and Eighth for a few shots of Jameson and a cold beer. He’d been looking forward to hitting the old Irish dive bar for months. Maybe even getting a sandwich from the steam table. But his plan hadn’t taken into account the passing of eight years.
There was no steam table. The bar had been renovated and expanded, gobbling up the ground-floor space next door. The old-school Irish bartenders in white shirts and black ties had been replaced by young girls who needed to be asked for everything: a glass for the beer. Another shot. A check. And they still acted like they were doing you a favor serving the overpriced booze. Amateurs.
Beck left the bar only slightly put out. All of New York City awaited him. The swirl of freedom and jolt of booze after a drought of eight years made him slightly disoriented, but also euphoric. He walked along the teeming streets, his weekend bag strapped across his shoulder, disoriented by the crush of cars, lights, and pedestrians. He hadn’t crossed a traffic-filled street in eight years. Twice he waited on a corner to get his bearings before stepping out into the moving throng.
He zigzagged north and east until he reached the Plaza Hotel at Fifty-ninth Street. Even though he had a reservation, when he checked in he fully expected there’d be no record of it. But the name James Beck did appear on the computer. He did exist outside the walls of the New York State prison system.
Beck asked for a room on a high floor overlooking Central Park. The hotel clerk stared at his computer screen, moving his mouse and clicking his keyboard for an inordinate amount of time. It began to annoy Beck, and the aura of menace he had cultivated during his years in maximum-security prisons pulsed off him.
“What’s the problem?” Beck asked.
When the hotel clerk looked up at Beck, he stopped fiddling with his keyboard and mouse and came up with a room that delivered most of what Beck wanted. Nestled on the eleventh floor but offering a view of Fifth Avenue. Good enough.
Beck remembered thinking the room felt huge after spending years in cells where he could spread his arms and almost touch the walls on either side. And the room felt almost unbearably quiet and luxurious. But it was the bathroom and the shower that had eased his soul that day. He still remembered the shower. He’d stood under the endlessly warm relaxing spray for twenty minutes, the extravagance and solitude almost too much to bear. Under that shower, for the first time in eight years, Beck felt his mind and body releasing the tension and dread he had been living with for so long.
The Plaza Hotel shower had given him a glimmer of what normal might be like, although for him normal would never be what it had been. He’d never lead the life most people lived, but he would construct a life he could be proud of and satisfied by, no matter who or what tried to stop him. His days of unbearable tension, of always being on the alert, suppressing who he was, were over. He knew two things: He would never return to prison. And no person, or institutions, or circumstances would ever stop him from being the man he wanted to be.
As he rushed into the south wing of the bus terminal, Beck knew Packy Johnson would also never be able to have a completely normal life after prison. He would help Packy find a job, and a place to live. Perhaps someday Packy might have a relationship with a woman. Be part of a family. But lurking under it all would be the decades of incarceration that had changed him forever.
Packy Johnson had gone to his first juvenile detention center at the age of ten with his twelve-year-old brother, Ramon. Their mother had been lost to drugs, and no family members had stepped up to take care of them. They had two older sisters, but they were barely able to fend for themselves.
Within a year, Packy and Ramon took every opportunity they could to escape the hell of that first juvenile facility, where abuse had been a daily occurrence. They’d find a way to slip out and run the streets of East Harlem trying to find their mother, living a feral existence until the cops found them and returned them to the prisonlike juvenile institution, or later on to an overcrowded, repressive foster home.
By the time he was seventeen, Packy was a full-fledged drug addict and strong-arm robber. He was fearless, yet on some level utterly terrified by what he was capable of doing. He would rob anybody, at any opportunity, anywhere. He would take down a commuter walking to his car, a hooker and her john parked on a dark street in Hell’s Kitchen, a pimp, another junkie, a businesswoman leaving an ATM, a drunk leaving a bar. He had a gun; he was strong; he burned with a crazed intensity, and could practically outrun a police car. Packy never hesitated. When he shoved his gun into somebody’s face, opposition evaporated. He hit hard and fast and moved faster.
His only loyalty was to his brother, Ramon. When Packy went after two drug dealers who had threatened Ramon over a debt, he nearly killed both of them. The assault sent Packy to prison for the next seventeen years, much of his sentence served at Clinton, where he and Beck had formed their friendship.
Now, nine years later, on a muggy spring day in New York, James Beck’s friend was about to take the monumental step from in prison to out of prison. Beck did not want to be one minute late for it.
Unfortunately, Beck burned up five minutes running to the south terminal and finding out Packy’s bus would be arriving back at the main terminal.
He ran back to the main terminal and hustled through what looked to him like a cross between an old airport and a mall, trying to find the escalators that would take him up to gate 313.
He turned in to a long corridor with gate after gate angling into the passageway. Gate 313 was the farthest away. The only passengers in the entire area were standing in one ragged line, their bags resting on the floor at their feet, waiting at gate 310.
Beck checked his watch. Only four minutes late, but there were no passengers in front of gate 313. For a moment Beck thought, could I have missed everybody? No. Impossible. He checked the information board at the gate to make sure he was at the right place. The schedule listed all the small towns where the bus stopped. Various notes and pages of information were taped to the board. It all seemed messy and improvised, but it did list Eastern Correctional Facility as one of the stops.
Beck looked around for someone who resembled Packy. Nothing.
He checked back up the corridor and saw a blue rectangular booth with the company logo across the top: ShortLine. A fit-looking black man wearing a crisp white shirt sat at a desk in the booth. Beck tapped the window a few times to get his attention.
When the man looked over at him, Beck pointed down the hall and shouted through the speaker vent: “Hey, what’s with the bus that’s supposed to be at gate three-thirteen?”
The man motioned for Beck to hang on and picked up a phone.
Beck waited patiently, trying to tamp down the anxiety tightening his chest. Why the fuck can’t this go right today?
Getting a prisoner released on parole from a maximum-security prison in New York State took an enormous amount of effort. Countless hours providing everything the facility parole officer required: Approvals for housing. Employment interviews. Enrollment in programs after release. Assignment of a supervising parole officer, a field officer, confirmation of jurisdiction. There seemed to always be one more thing to do.
Beck and his lawyer, Phineas Dunleavy, had been through it before. They had a third member of the team, Walter Ferguson, a senior parole officer who had helped navigate the rough patches, pushing and coordinating with the facility parole officer at Eastern Correctional to keep the wheels slowly turning. But if one person in the process went on vacation, or somebody dropped the ball, or lost a form, if a prisoner became sick, or suddenly got transferred to another facility, or any number of things happened, the process could be delayed for weeks and sometimes months.
Everything had been done, prepped, and set up. They had sent Packy’s dressing-out clothes to Eastern, a prepaid cell phone they were supposed to give him on release, and the maximum of two hundred fifty dollars in cash. It had all been arranged, and now this.
Finally, the bus employee got off the phone and shouted at Beck, “Bus broke down near Ridgewood, New Jersey. They’re waiting for a new bus.”
“When was that?”
“About forty-five minutes ago.”
“So when will it get here?”
The bus employee gave Beck an apologetic look. “I don’t know, buddy. They got to wait for another bus. Ridgewood is about forty minutes out. Depending on traffic.”
“And the replacement bus hasn’t arrived yet?”
“I don’t think so.”
Beck muttered a thanks and turned away. The man hadn’t caused the situation, and he obviously couldn’t do anything to help.
He checked his watch again. The bus probably wouldn’t be in until around seven-thirty.
He walked back toward gate 313, pulled a slip of paper from his back pocket with Packy’s cell phone number, and dialed it. The call went directly to voice mail, telling Beck the phone was turned off.
He left a message anyhow. “Packy, this is James. I’m at Port Authority to meet you, but I found out your bus broke down. If you get this message, call me back, but just hang in. I’ll be at the gate when the bus comes in. Don’t worry about being late. I’ll be here whenever you get in. Call me when you get this message.”
Beck recited his cell phone number twice. He hung up and was about to call Walter Ferguson, the parole officer in charge of Packy Johnson, to make sure Packy had boarded the bus, when he saw Demarco Jones approaching from the other end of the long corridor.
He raised a hand so Demarco would see him.
Demarco approached Beck with his usual effortless stroll. He wore a fitted black T-shirt, lightweight black cotton slacks, and Kenneth Cole slip-ons, no socks. His clothes and relaxed manner, however, didn’t soften his appearance. When people saw Demarco Jones they generally walked around him, or quickly past him.
Beck asked, “Where’d you park?”
“It wasn’t full?”
“Not for me it wasn’t. What’s up? Where’s Packy?”
“Goddam bus broke down. Won’t be here for about an hour.”
“Always something. Did you call him?”
“Yeah. Straight to voice mail. I got a feeling he never turned the phone on.”
Demarco squinted, trying to remember. “Were there cell phones when Packy went in?”
“Yeah, sure. 1998.”
“I bet Packy never owned one.”
“Probably not. Lot of shit he never owned in the last seventeen years.”
“What do you want to do? There’s more pleasant places to wait than here.”
“How much time you got before you have to meet your client about that security job?”
Demarco checked his watch. “Twenty-two minutes. But she’s always late.”
“Not this time.”
“You’re probably right.” Demarco pulled the parking ticket for Beck’s car from his back pocket and handed it to Beck. “You might as well take the Mercury. I can walk to where I’m meeting her.”
“Okay. Hey, how’d you find out which gate to come to?”
“Asked the parking guy. He didn’t know the exact gate, just said the three hundred terminal. Sorry I can’t hang with you, James. Tell Packy I’ll see him later.”
Demarco said, “It’ll be fine. This stuff happens all the time.”
“I know, but I wanted to get him settled in with the mother-in-law tonight.”
“You have time.”
“That old crone made no bones about not wanting him in her home. I hope she hasn’t locked us out by the time we get there.”
Demarco gave Beck a look. “What old lady is going to keep you and Packy locked out from anywhere?”
“You haven’t met this one.”
“Don’t worry. She’ll hold up her end of the bargain. She wants the rest of her money.”
“Come on, James, it was the mother-in-law’s or a shelter, and the last place we want Packy is in a shelter.”
“Hell, most guys get dropped off in a parking lot with a couple of dollars in their pocket, wearing the same dirty clothes they wore into the joint, and maybe a bed in a halfway house or shelter. Packy’s way ahead of the game.”
“Waiting makes me edgy.”
“Packy’s been waitin’ seventeen years. Another hour or two won’t make any difference.”
Beck stood. “You’re right. I’ll walk you out. I’m going to grab a beer.”
Neither of them spoke until they exited the terminal and said good-bye on Eighth Avenue. Beck continued east on Forty-second Street, heading for a hotel bar usually overlooked by the hordes of Times Square tourists because it was located on the eleventh floor of a building mid-block.
He stepped off the elevator and made it halfway to the lobby bar when his cell phone rang.
Beck didn’t even check the caller ID.
“No, James, it’s Walter.”
Beck stopped in the middle of the lobby, bracing himself for bad news.
“Oh, Walter, yeah, I’m glad you called. The bus broke down. It’s late. He made it onto the bus, right?”
“Yes, yes. He made it. He just called me.”
“Oh. Great. What’s the story? Is he on his way in?”
“Well, I’m not very pleased.”
Beck stepped toward the windows overlooking Forty-second Street. “Shit. What happened?”
“He’s at his mother-in-law’s place.”
Beck checked his watch. 7:32 P.M.
“What? How the hell did he get there?”
“He hitchhiked. Came over the George Washington Bridge and took a livery cab to the old lady’s apartment.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No. I’m not. It was incredibly stupid. He could have been violated back to prison if he got caught hitchhiking.”
“Unbelievable. I’m going to call him now.”
“Don’t bother. His phone battery is dead. It was dead when they gave him the phone. And I’m not sure he even has a charger. He called me from a pay phone near his mother-in-law’s.”
Beck wanted to curse and complain about the prison personnel, but didn’t bother.
“Do you have her number? I don’t have it with me.”
“I’ve called her many times, James. She never answers her phone. Listen, don’t worry about it. He’s there. He’s where he’s supposed to be. I told him to report to me first thing tomorrow at eight-thirty, my office in Brooklyn.”
“Maybe I should go up to the Bronx and make sure everything is okay.”
“James, I believe that might be too much right now. I gave him hell for that stunt. But between us, I think it might be positive. He took charge of his situation. The trick is to channel that in the right direction. I think we should let him settle down. Get himself together. He’ll check in with me tomorrow, and I’ll bring him around to see you right after.”
Beck thought it over, nodding to himself. “All right, Walter. By the time I get up there he might be asleep anyhow. All right, let him settle down. Tomorrow, then.”
Beck cut the call. He stared out the window looking down at the dazzle of Forty-second Street below him. A crushing feeling of loneliness came over him. He had been looking forward to seeing his friend Packy Johnson, perhaps in more ways than he realized. The last place he wanted to be was in a hotel bar amid strangers.
He turned away from the window and headed back to Port Authority to get his car.
Copyright © 2016 by John Clarkson