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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Whites

A Novel

Richard Price

Picador

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CHAPTER

1



As Billy Graves drove down Second Avenue to work, the crowds worried him: a quarter past one in the morning and there were still far more people piling into the bars than leaving them, everyone coming and going having to muscle their way through the swaying clumps of half-hammered smokers standing directly outside the entrances. He hated the no smoking laws. They created nothing but problems-late-night noise for the neighbors, elbow room enough for the bar-cramped beefers to finally start swinging, and a plague of off-duty limos and radio cabs all tapping their horns to hustle fares.

It was the night of St. Patrick's, worst of the year for NYPD's Night Watch, the handful of detectives under Billy's command responsible for covering all of felony-weight Manhattan from Washington Heights to Wall Street between one a.m. and eight a.m., when there were no active squads in any of the local precincts. There were other worst nights, Halloween and New Year's Eve for two, but St. Patrick's was the ugliest, the violence the most spontaneous and low-tech. Stompings, blunt objects, fists-more stitches than surgeries but some very malicious acting out.

One-fifteen in the a.m.: tonight, as always, the calls could come in at any time, but experience had taught him that the most fraught hours, especially on a drinking holiday, were between three a.m., when the bars and clubs started shutting down, everyone pouring out into the streets at once, and five a.m., when even the most hard-core animals were out of fuel and lurching off to oblivion. On the other hand, the city being the city, Billy never knew exactly when he'd see his pillow again. Eight a.m. could find him at a local precinct writing up bullets on an agg assault for the incoming day squad while the actor was either still in the wind or snoring in a holding cell; it could find him hanging around the ER at Harlem Hospital or Beth Israel or St. Luke's-Roosevelt interviewing family and/or witnesses while waiting for the victim to either go out of the picture or pull through; it could find him strolling around an outdoor crime scene, hands in pockets, toe-searching through detritus for shell casings; or, or, or, if the Prince of Peace was afoot and Yonkers-bound traffic was light, he could actually be home in time to take his kids to school.

There were gung ho detectives out there, even on the lobster shift, but Billy was not one of them. Mainly he hoped each night that most of Manhattan's nocturnal mayhem was not worthy of his squad's attention, just petty shit that could be kicked back to patrol.

* * *

"SEOUL MAN, HOW YOU BE," he drawled, stepping into the 24/7 Korean's across Third Avenue from the office. Joon, the night clerk with his gaffer-taped horn-rims, automatically began gathering up his regular customer's nightly ration: three sixteen-ounce Rockstar energy drinks, two Shaolin power gel squibs, and a pack of Camel Lights.

Billy cracked a can of Go before it could be bagged.

"Too much of that shit make you even more tired," the Korean delivering his standard lecture. "Like a boomerang."

"No doubt."

As he reached for his Visa card, the security monitor next to the register caught Billy in all his glory: football burly but slump-shouldered, his pale face with its exhaustion-starred eyes topped with half a pitchfork's worth of prematurely graying hair. He was only forty-two, but that crushed-cellophane gaze of his combined with a world-class insomniac's posture had once gotten him into a movie at a senior citizen's discount. Man was not meant to start work after midnight-end of story, pay differential be damned.

The Night Watch office, on the second floor of the Fifteenth Precinct and time-shared with Manhattan South Homicide, which occupied it during the day, looked like a cross between a fun house and a morgue. It was a drear, fluorescently lit scrum of gun-metal-gray desks, separated by plastic partitions brightened with autographed eight-by-tens of Derek Jeter, Samuel L. Jackson, Rex Ryan, and Harvey Keitel, along with mug shots, family snaps, and garish crime scene photos. An eight-foot glass tank filled with miniature sharklike catfish dominated one cinder-block wall, an embassy-sized American flag fronting the other.

None of his regular squad were in: Emmett Butter, a part-time actor, so fresh to the unit that Billy had yet to allow him to spearhead a run; Gene Feeley, who, back in the late '80s, was part of the team that broke up the Fat Cat Nichols crack empire, had thirty-two years on the Job, owned two bars in Queens, and was just there to max out his pension; Alice Stupak, who worked nights in order to be with her family during the day; and Roger Mayo, who worked nights in order to avoid being with his family during the day.

It wasn't unusual for the room to be deserted thirty minutes into the tour, given that Billy didn't care where his detectives spent the shift as long as they answered their phones when he needed them. He didn't see the point of making everyone sit at their desks all night like they were in detention. But in exchange for this freedom, if any one of them-with the exception of Feeley, who was so old-boy-wired into One PP that he could do or not do anything he wanted-if any one of them failed to pick up when he called, even once, they were gone from the squad, dead batteries, toilet drops, drop kicks, theft, Armageddon, the Rapture, or no.

Depositing the grocery bag in his minute windowless office, Billy walked out of the squad room and down a short hall to the dispatcher's desk, manned by Rollie Towers, a.k.a. the Wheel, a big Buddha boy in track pants and a John Jay college sweatshirt, ass ballooning off either side of his webbed Aeron chair as he fielded the incoming calls, taking all requests for Night Watch from the various crime sites and fending them off like a goalie.

"Well look, Sarge, my boss isn't in yet," Rollie nodding to Billy, "but my guess is here's what he's going to say. Nobody got hurt, guy can't even say for sure it was a gun. I'd just throw a good interview at him, wait for the Fifth Squad to come in tomorrow morning, see if it fits any kind of pattern they're working, all right? There's really not that much for us to do on this one. No problem ... no problem ... no problem."

Hanging up and swiveling to Billy: "No problem."

"Anything happening?" Billy reached for one of Rollie's Doritos, then changed his mind.

"Throwdown in the Three-two, both shooters female, one on the sidewalk, the other in the rear seat of a ghetto cab. They're like maybe a couple yards apart, six shots fired back and forth and get this: neither of them gets hit. How's that for sharpshootin'?"

"Was the cab moving?"

"It started out, one of the broads was chasing the other through the Eisenhowers, she jumps in the car, screams for the driver to haul ass, but the minute he sees the guns he jumps out and starts hoofing it back to Senegal, probably halfway there as we speak."

"Feets do yo' stuff."

"Butter and Mayo are up at the Three-two watching Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane sleep it off."

"And the driver? For real."

"They found him eight blocks away trying to climb a tree. They took him in for an interview, but he only speaks Wolof and French, so they're waiting on a translator."

"Anything else?"

"No sir."

"And who do I got." Billy dreaded the voluntary sign-ups, the ever-changing collection of overtime-hungry day-tour detectives who nightly padded out his paltry crew, the majority of them no good for anything after two a.m.

"There's three, supposedly, but one guy's kid got sick, another was last seen at a retirement racket down in the Ninth, so maybe you should find out if he's in any shape to come in at all, and you better check out what Central Park sent us."

"He's in? I didn't see anybody."

"Check under the rug."

Back in the squad room, the sign-up, Theodore Moretti, was hiding in plain sight, hunched over, elbows on knees, at the desk farthest from the door.

"I'm in the air," he hissed into his cell, "you're breathing me in right now, Jesse. I'm all around you..."

Short and squat, Moretti had straight black hair parted precisely down the middle of his skull and raccooned eyes that made Billy's seem limpid and tight.

"How you doing?" Billy stood over him, his hands in his pockets. But before he could introduce himself as the boss, Moretti just up and walked out of the office, coming back a moment later, still on the phone.

"You really think you can get rid of me that easy?" Moretti said to the lucky-in-love Jesse, Billy right then recognizing him for what he was and writing him off accordingly. Although money was the prime motivation for those signing up for a one-off tour with Night Watch, occasionally a detective volunteered not so much for the overtime but simply because it facilitated his stalking.

* * *

ONE FORTY-FIVE A.M.... THE SOUND of tires rolling over a side street full of shattered light bulbs was like the sound of Jiffy Pop achieving climax, the aftermath of a set test between the Skrilla Hill Killaz from the Coolidge Houses and the Stack Money Goons from the Madisons, four kids sent to St. Luke's for stitches, one with a glass shard protruding from his cornea like a miniature sail. Where they got all the light bulbs was anyone's guess.

By the time Billy and Moretti stepped out of their sedan, the 2-9 Gang Unit, six young men in windbreakers and high tops, were already harvesting collars, plasti-cuffing belly-down bangers like bundling wheat. The battleground itself was lined with two layers of rubberneckers: on the sidewalk, dozens of locals, a few, despite the hour, with kids in tow; overhead, an equal number of people hanging out the windows of the exhausted-looking SROs that ran along both sides of the narrow street.

Sporting a shaved head and calf-length denim shorts like a superannuated playground bully, Eddie Lopez, the unit FIO, stepped to Billy, a dozen as yet unused plasti-cuffs running up his forearms like bangles.

"These two crews been trading smack on Facebook all week. We should have been here before they were."

Billy turned to Moretti. "The kids in the ER, go over with somebody from the Gang Unit, start taking interviews."

"Are you serious? They won't say shit."

"Nonetheless..." Billy waving him onward, thinking, One asspain down.

From the opposite end of the block, emerging out of the tree-lined darkness like a charging carnivore, came a battered livery cab, hitting its brakes nearly on top of the arrestfest, a fortyish woman in a bathrobe popping out of the rear seat before the car had even come to a full stop.

"They say my son could lose his eye!"

"Seven dollars," the driver said, extending his hand from the side window.

"Here we go," Lopez muttered to Billy before leaving his side. "Miss Carter, all due respect, we didn't tell Jermaine to be out here two in the morning hunting for Skrillas."

"How do you know what he was doing out here!" The streetlight turned her rimless glasses into disks of pale fire.

"Because I know him," Lopez said. "I've had dealings with him."

"He's going on a financial scholarship to Sullivan County Community College next year!"

"That's great, but it don't throw a blanket over it."

"I'm sorry, Charlene," one of the women said, stepping off the sidewalk, "all due respect, but truth be known you're just as much to blame as the boy who threw that glass."

"Excuse me?" Miss Carter cocking her head like a pistol.

"Seven dollars?" the driver said again.

Billy slipped him five bucks, then told him to reverse out of the block.

"I hear you every community meeting," the woman said, "you keep saying, My boy's a good boy, he's not mobbing for real, it's the environment, it's the circumstances, but this here officer is right. Instead of confronting your child you keep making excuses for him, so what do you expect?"

The kid's mother became big-eyed and motionless; Billy, knowing what was coming, hooked her arm just as she threw a punch at the other woman's jaw.

The crowd rippled with clucks and murmurs. A spinning cigarette landed on Billy's shoulder, but in these close quarters no real telling who had been the intended target, so c'est la guerre.

As he stepped back to brush the ash off his sport jacket, his cell rang: Rollie the Wheel.

"Boss, you remember the '72 Olympics?"

"Not really."

"The Munich massacre?"

"OK..."

"We had a guy there, helped take the silver in the four-by-four relays, Horace Woody?"

"OK..."

"Lives in Terry Towers in Chelsea."

"OK..."

"Patrol just called in, somebody stole his medal. You want us to take it? Could wind up being a media thing, plus Mayo's just sitting at his desk talking to himself again."

"Then have him head over to the St. Luke's ER and babysit Moretti, make sure he isn't boosting scalpels or something."

"And the case of the purloined medallion?"

Lopez peered at him over the head of a thirteen-year-old manacled Money Stacker. "Hey, Sarge? No sweat, we can take it from here."

"Send Stupak to meet me," Billy said into the phone. "I'm heading over now."

It sounded like a whole lot of nothing, but he had never met an Olympian before.

* * *

TERRY TOWERS WAS A TWELVE-STORY Mitchell-Lama semi-dump in the West Twenties, one step up from a housing project, which meant a few less elevators chronically out of commission and hallway odors not quite as feral. Apartment 7G itself was small, stifling, and untidy, dinner dishes still on the dinette table at two forty-five in the morning. In the middle of the cramped living room, Horace Woody, deep into his sixties but DNA-blessed with the physique of a lanky teenager, stood hands on hips in his boxers, the taut skin across his flat chest the color of a good camel hair coat. But his eyes were maraschinos, and his liquored breath was sweet enough to curl Billy's teeth.

"It's not like I don't have my suspicions as to who took the damn thing," Woody slurred, glaring at his girlfriend, Carla Garrett, who leaned against an old TV console covered with esoterically molded liqueur bottles and dog-eared photos in Lucite frames. She was maybe half his age, on the heavy side, with steady, realistic eyes. The droll, resigned twist of her mouth confirmed Billy's hunch about this one being a dummy of a run, at worst a slow-motion domestic, but he didn't really mind, fascinated as he was by the older man's uncanny youthfulness.

"Some people," Woody said, "they just don't want you to have no life in your life."

There was a light rapping at the front door; then Alice Stupak, five-four but built like a bus, eased into the apartment, her chronic rosacea and brassy short bangs forever putting Billy in mind of a battle-scarred, alcoholic Peter Pan.

"How's everybody doing tonight?" she blared with cheery authority. Then, zeroing in on the problem child: "How about you, sir? You having a good evening?"

Woody reared back with narrow-eyed disapproval, a look Billy had seen Alice get before, mainly, but not exclusively, from their suddenly off-balance male customers. But as fearsome as she was for some to behold, Billy knew her to be chronically lovelorn, forever pining after this detective or fireman, that bartender or doorman, endlessly driven to despair that all these potential boyfriends automatically assumed she was a dyke.

"Ma'am?" Stupak said, nodding to Woody's girlfriend. "Why are we here?"

Carla Garrett pushed off the console and started camel-walking toward the back of the apartment, curling her finger for Billy to follow.

* * *

THE HALO-LIT BATHROOM WAS A little too close, uncapped bottles and tubes of skin- and hair-care products rimming both the sink and the tub, used towels drooping from every knob, rod, and rack, stray hairs in places that made Billy look away. As Woody's girlfriend began rooting around inside a full and ripe laundry hamper, Billy's cell rang: Stacey Taylor for the third time in two days, his stomach giving up a little whoop of alarm as he killed this call from her like all the others.

"You got it in there?" Woody barked from the hallway. "I know you got it in there."

"Just go back and watch your TV," Stupak's voice coming through the closed door.

When the girlfriend finally stood upright from the hamper, she held the silver medal in her hands, as big around as a coffee saucer.

"See, when he gets his drink on he wants to pawn it and start a new life. He did it already a few times, and how much you think he got for it?"

"A few grand?"

"A hundred and twenty-five dollars."

"Can I hold it?"

Billy was disappointed in how light it was, but he felt a little buzzed nonetheless.

"See, Horace's OK most of the time, I mean, I certainly been with worse, it's just when he gets his hands on that Cherry Heering, you know? The man has got a alcoholic sweet tooth like a infant. I mean, you could get a good bottle of fifty-dollar cognac or Johnnie Walker Black, leave it on the table, he won't even crack the seal. Something tastes like a purple candy bar? Watch out."

"I want my damn medal back!" Woody yelled from farther away in the apartment.

"Sir, what did I just say to you?" Stupak's voice flattening with anger.

"Start a new life..." the girlfriend muttered. "All the pawnshops around here got me on speed dial for when it comes in. Hell, he wants to take off? I'll loan him the money, but this here is a piece of American history."

Billy liked her, he just didn't understand why a woman this lucid didn't keep a cleaner house.

"So what do you want me to do?"

"Nothing. I'm sorry they sent you. Usually some uniform guys from the precinct come up, mainly just because he was a famous athlete, and we play Where'd she hide it this time, but you're a detective, and I'm embarrassed they bothered you."

When they opened the bathroom door, Woody was back in the living room, sprawled on the vinyl-covered couch watching MTV with the sound off, his jellied eyes dimming into slits.

Billy dropped the medal on his chest. "Case solved."

Walking with Stupak to the elevators he checked the time: three-thirty. Ninety more minutes and the odds were he'd have gotten away with murder.

"What do you say?"

"You're the boss, boss."

"Finnerty's?" Billy thinking, What the hell, you cannot not celebrate, thinking, Just a taste.

* * *

"I ALWAYS WANTED TO GO to Ireland," Stupak shouted over the music to the dead-handsome young bartender. "Last year we had reservations and everything but, like, two days before the flight my girlfriend came down with appendicitis."

"You can always get on a plane by yourself, you know," he said politely enough, looking over her shoulder to wave at two women just coming through the door. "It's a very friendly country."

And that was that, the guy leaning across the wood to buss the new arrivals and leaving Stupak to blush into her beer.

"I've never been to Ireland myself," Billy said. "I mean, what for, I'm around Micks all day as it is."

"I never should've said 'girlfriend,'" Stupak said.

His cell rang, not the Wheel, thank God, but his wife, Billy race-walking out onto the street so she wouldn't hear the racket and start asking questions.

"Hey..." his voice downshifting as it always did when she rang him this deep into the night. "Can't sleep?"

"Nope."

"Did you take your Traz?"

"I think I forgot but I can't now, I have to get up in three hours."

"How about you take a half?"

"I can't."

"All right, just, you know, you've been here before, worse comes to worse, you'll have a tough day tomorrow but it won't kill you."

"When are you coming home?"

"I'll try and duck out early."

"I hate this, Billy."

"I know you do." His cell began to vibrate again; Rollie Towers on line two. "Hang on a sec."

"I really hate it."

"Just hang on..." Then, switching over: "Hey, what's up."

"Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water."

"Fuck you, what do you got."

"Happy St. Patrick's Day," said the Wheel.

* * *

BY THE TIME BILLY AND most of his squad made it to Penn Station and then to the long, greasy, lower-level arcade that connected the Long Island-bound commuter trains to the subway platforms at the opposite end, the cops who were on the scene first, both Transit and LIRR undercovers, had taken control of the situation better than he would have expected. Not sure what to preserve of the one-hundred-yard blood trail, they had cordoned it all off with tape and garbage cans like a slalom run. They had also miraculously managed to round up most of the sodden homebound revelers who had been standing under the track information board when the assault occurred, corralling them into a harshly lit three-sided waiting room off the main concourse. Taking a quick peek into the room, Billy saw the majority of his potential witnesses sitting on hard wooden benches gape-mouthed and snoring, chins tilted to the ceiling like hungry baby birds.

"Looks like the guy got slashed under the board here, took off running, and ran out of gas by the subway," Gene Feeley announced, his tie unknotted and dangling like Sinatra at last call.

Billy was surprised to see Feeley there at all, let alone first detective on the scene. But then again, this was Feeley's thing, the old-timer usually disdaining any run unless there were at least three dead or a shot cop, front-page stuff.

"Where's the body?" Billy thinking he'd be lucky to see his kids by dinnertime.

"Just follow the yellow brick road," Feeley said, pointing to the red-brown sneaker prints that marked the way like bloody dance-step instructions. "It's one for the scrapbooks, I'll tell you that."

They arrived at the subway turnstiles just as a southbound express pulled into the station, more pie-eyed revelers disembarking onto the platform, ho-shitting, laughing, stumbling, blowing vuvuzelas, everyone assuming the wide-eyed stiff was just drunk except for the two middle-aged detectives from the Crime Scene Unit who had opted to take the subway to work, their forensics kits making them look like down-at-the-heels salesmen.

Billy snagged a wandering Transit detective. "Listen, we can't have trains stopping here right now. Can you call your boss?"

"Sarge, it's Penn Station."

"I know where we are, but I don't want a fresh herd of drunks stomping all over my scene every five minutes."

The victim lay on his side, neck and torso compressed into a hunch, his left arm and leg thrust straight out before him as if he were trying to kick his own fingertips. It looked to Billy as if the guy had been trying to jump the turnstile, bled out mid-vault, then froze like that, dying in midair before dropping like a rock.

"Looks like a high hurdler just fell off the front of a Wheaties box," Feeley said, then wandered off.

As a CSU tech began teasing the wallet out of the victim's formerly sky-blue jeans, Billy stopped marveling at his live-action lava cast and took his first good look at his face. Mid-twenties, with wide open, startled blue eyes, arched pencil-thin eyebrows, milk-white skin, and jet-colored hair, femininely handsome to the point of perversity.

Billy stared and stared, thinking, Can't be. "Is his name Bannion?"

"Hold the phone," the tech said, pulling out the guy's driver's license. "Bannion it is, first name-"

"Jeffrey," Billy said, then: "Fuck me sideways."

"Why do I know that name?" the CSU tech asked, not really interested in an answer.

Jeffrey Bannion ... Billy immediately thought of calling John Pavlicek, then considered the hour and decided to wait at least until daybreak, although Big John might not mind being woken up for this one.



Copyright © 2015 by Richard Price