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The day had gone badly for Raymond Ambler, a bitterly cold, gray, January day not long after New Year’s, the wind like a knife, slicing into the cavern cut by 42nd Street between the skyscrapers on either side. The wind stung his face and whipped under his trench coat as he walked the couple of blocks to the library from Grand Central, where he’d gotten off the subway from the courthouse downtown. Banks of piled-up snow, stained and filthy as only snow on a city street can get, hanging on from the storm the day after Christmas, lined the curb, the gutters at each street corner a half-foot deep in slush and muddy water.
Fuming after four hours of haranguing by a trio of five-hundred-dollar-an-hour attorneys against him and his representative, an Orthodox Jewish family lawyer from Borough Park, the ink on her Brooklyn Law School diploma barely dry. The custody battle was over a grandson he never knew he had until they’d come together under tragic circumstances when the boy was eight.
He’d had to take the morning off from work, so his coworker and friend, Adele Morgan, was helping as best she could assemble an exhibit Ambler was curating at the 42nd Street Library. The exhibit, celebrating the library’s collection of American mystery novels, had taken two years of planning. A Century-and-a-Half of Murder and Mystery in New York City was scheduled to open in a few weeks. The preparation was behind schedule because of the Christmas blizzard and now more delays because of family court dates, meetings with attorneys, and mediation sessions. His grandson Johnny’s grandmother, a wealthy socialite, was trying to undermine Ambler’s relationship with the boy so she could alter the terms of the custody agreement. So far, because Johnny wanted to live with Ambler, she’d been unsuccessful. But she was relentless.
As he climbed the steps between the two marble lions standing guard in front of the library, he saw a man in front of him at the top of the steps and recognized the broad shoulders, the bulky shape, the close-cropped gray hair. He hadn’t seen Mike Cosgrove, a NYPD homicide detective, since Mike had persuaded a young—everyone was young these days—Manhattan assistant district attorney not to bring murder charges against him over a year ago.
Despite the frigid weather, groups of tourists, bound up in colorful and fashionable down jackets and coats, many of them young, slim, dark-haired, and Asian, took photos on the library steps, or passed one another in a steady, if disheveled, parade up and down the steps. He caught up with Mike inside the cavernous, ornate foyer, Astor Hall. When Cosgrove turned around, Ambler realized someone was with him.
“Ray. I was just coming to see you.…” Cosgrove put his hand on the shoulder of the man beside him. “Paul Higgins.” He reached for Ambler’s shoulder with his other hand. “Paul, this is the man you want, Ray Ambler.” Seeming pleased with himself, he stood between them with a hand on each man’s shoulder like a referee between two welterweights.
Ambler shook the man’s hand and met his gaze. It was steady and probing, at the same time ingratiating, eager; you’d have to say genuine. A thatch of red hair rusting to gray, a scar on his forehead, his nose broken more than once, shoulders slightly stooped, he moved stiffly, as if in chronic pain from long-ago injuries, a guy you might think of as an old warhorse, or a former athlete, football more than tennis.
“Paul,” the man said, “Paul Higgins,” pumping Ambler’s arm vigorously. “I’ve been anxious to meet you.”
“Oh?” Ambler took a mental step back from Higgins’s enthusiasm.
“Paul’s a writer,” Cosgrove said.
“You probably haven’t heard of me.” Higgins said, “I’m kind of an amateur.” The admission didn’t dampen his enthusiasm.
Given a minute to sort through the zillion book titles and authors in his memory, Ambler did recognize the name. A retired cop, maybe FBI, Higgins had written a couple of all-American-vigilante-hero versus evil-to-the-core criminal thrillers that made an initial splash and quickly faded. He was being modest, not as obscure as he implied, not far off on the “amateur” appraisal.
“Of course,” Ambler said. “Dark Night of Terror, right?”
“Night of Black Terror,” Higgins said. “I’m amazed you know of it.” He knew better, it seemed, than to ask if he’d read it.
The point of meeting Ambler, Higgins got to quickly enough, was he wanted to donate his papers to the New York Public Library’s crime fiction collection. Because he had some concerns, Cosgrove suggested he meet Ambler.
Ambler wasn’t interested—he didn’t think Higgins as a writer had much in the way of lasting value—until something Cosgrove said rang a bell.
“Paul worked NYPD intelligence for over thirty years, Ray. He’s got stuff no one would believe.”
“Oh?” said Ambler.
* * *
What struck him was a coincidence. A week before, his son John had called him from the upstate prison where he was serving time. A lifer there told John he was a friend of his father and wanted to talk to him. The prisoner, Devon Thomas, in fact had been Ambler’s friend—a very good friend—from sixth grade until Devon dropped out of high school at sixteen to run with the Black Peoples Party, the last time Ambler had seen him, except in a Daily News photo wearing handcuffs.
On his monthly visit to his son the previous Saturday, he looked up his friend. Devon told him he was in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
“My kid brother did the murder.” His hard stare faltered. “Trey was a snitch. I took the rap because I knew someone would kill him in here.”
“He died a couple of weeks ago.”
A skeptical person might doubt Devon’s story—that he’d spent his adult life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit out of loyalty to his brother. Ambler believed him. He’d met Devon in sixth grade at a new school for Ambler. The first day, he was surrounded in a hallway by a half-dozen would-be hoodlums taunting him for some imagined or fabricated slight, when he felt an arm around his shoulder. It was Devon, who amiably brushed aside the thugs and walked him into the classroom.
Ambler knew some of the history behind Devon’s arrest and conviction because it was major news in the tabloids at the time. In the early eighties, a group of truck drivers took on a corrupt union in the garment trucking industry. One of the leaders of the insurgents, Richard Wright, was murdered shortly after he was elected president of the local union in a government monitored election. Devon Thomas killed him, the newspapers said, in a feud between rival gangs over drug territory.
“No way I’d kill him,” Devon said. “I loved him like a father. Trey was a rat, a snitch. I didn’t know. Never thought it. Never suspected, until he got scared and told me. Told me his handler told him to off Richard.
“When he told me, I wanted to kill Trey myself. You became a snitch because you were paid or you did it to keep yourself out of prison. His handler from the NYPD told Trey he’d get off. Then, something went wrong and the handler told Trey he’d have to plead to manslaughter. They’d get him out in three years.
“Trey told me he whacked Richard and was going up for it. I couldn’t let him do it. I took the rap. I thought I’d get the same deal they told Trey, manslaughter, a three-year bid. Hah! I got life.”
Devon’s hair, still kinky, had turned gray, tight curls now, where years before it was a giant Afro; his eyes were clear, still hard, still something friendly in them, too, a flash of kindness behind the hard; his skin darker than Ambler remembered, his features as much European as African, a slender nose, thin lips. He’d developed a prison body, muscular, athletic. As he talked, he’d reach out now and again, putting his hand on Ambler’s forearm to make sure he had his attention, to reinforce the connection. He did this now.
“Trey got the AIDS. I got compassion leave to visit him in the hospice. He was out of his head a lot. Right before he died, he told me he didn’t kill Richard. They killed him.”
Devon shook his head. “I don’t know. I got some ideas. I been going back over what happened back then. I’m using the prison library. But it’s slow. I thought you might see what you can find in that library of yours about what happened back then. I read about you. That’s what you do, right? You find out what really happened when someone was killed.”
“Not exactly. You can tell the truth now, right? Your brother’s dead. You didn’t commit the murder.”
Devon’s eyes locked on Ambler’s. “Who’d believe me?”
“I know you, Ray. We were bros.” Devon laughed. It began as a kind of giggle, catching on like an uncertain motor until it became a chuckle, and then a full-out laugh. The sound of it rolled back the years to the endless summers he and Devon, baseball gloves and bats over their shoulders, rambled through Flatbush seeking out pick-up games in school yards and vacant lots, the nights they played stickball under the streetlights between the parked cars on East 19th Street off Beverley Road.
* * *
It was a long shot that Higgins knew anything about the murder Devon was in prison for. Still, it was worth asking. “Tell me about the collection,” Ambler said. “What’s in the papers? Is it about your undercover work?”
“I kept a lot of things.” Higgins’s tight-lipped expression made clear he’d play his cards close to the vest. “Newspaper clippings, photos, tapes of conversations, transcripts, interviews I did with assets I handled, copies of reports I filed—”
“Why would you do that, keep your own files?”
“At first, it was for protection, to have my own record in case something came up.” He sized up Ambler. “Later, I saw it as material for stories I might write.” As he said this, he dropped his gaze, looking at the marble floor as he spoke, suddenly shy. “I have this idea that what I have here is history no one knows about, and won’t know about unless they find it here.”
Ambler paid closer attention.
“The thing is I’m not going to get anyone in trouble. I can’t do that. Some of what went on, people wouldn’t understand; maybe they will later, years from now. Those weren’t church picnics we infiltrated.”
Ambler raised his eyebrows. “I imagine you infiltrated those, too.”
Cosgrove chuckled. Higgins glanced sharply at Ambler. Menacing without making an effort at it, he was a hard, tough guy who didn’t need to prove it.
“You might restrict parts of the collection until the statute of limitations runs out or—”
“There’s no statute of limitations on murder.” Higgins’s tone was matter-of-fact.
Ambler snuck a glance at Cosgrove, who seemed to take the revelation in stride. Higgins’s wide-eyed expression was a burlesque of a boy trying to look angelic.
Ambler nodded in the direction of the stairway. “Let’s go up to my office.”
Halfway up the massive staircase, they ran into Adele Morgan and her friend Leila Stone, a research assistant in Manuscripts and Archives Division, on the way down. Adele stopped to say hello to Mike Cosgrove. Leila stopped for a second, glanced at them, and hurried on, so Adele, with an exasperated shrug, followed. The three men watched the two women descend the stairs.
“Looks like we scared them off,” Cosgrove said.
Ambler led Cosgrove and Higgins to the small reading room on the second floor that housed the library’s crime fiction collection. Bookcases lined the walls on one level; a narrow stairway like a fire escape led to a mezzanine level with wrought iron railings and more bookcase-lined walls.
Higgins took in his surroundings with a kind of awe, as if he might take off his hat, if he wore one, and tiptoe to his seat; his reverence for the collection softened Ambler’s attitude toward him. They sat at an oak library table in the middle of the room.
“Where is everyone?” Cosgrove asked, a good-natured needle.
Ambler rose to the bait. “Today’s quiet. Lately, it’s been busy.” He caught Mike’s little grin and felt foolish for being defensive, yet how could he not be with so much of the library, especially what might be thought an underused collection, on the chopping block?
“All of this is crime fiction?” Higgins waved his arm to take in the bookshelves.
Amber smiled in spite of himself. “Where are your files now?”
Higgins lowered his eyebrows. “Somewhere safe.”
Ambler told him the library didn’t like to restrict access to collections. “We like to think we’re here so people can find things, not build collections people can’t get at.”
“Some of my notes and reports on my undercover work, real-life operations my books are based on, I’d have to know for sure no one would see them. Or I’d have to get rid of them.”
If the collection was valuable, Ambler told him, the library could restrict a limited part of it for a period of time. He’d have to look into it and get permission. They talked for a while longer, with Higgins describing what was in the collection and telling Ambler about some of his undercover work.
After a while, when Higgins seemed to have gotten comfortable talking about the past, Ambler asked, “Do you remember in the mid-eighties a truckers union leader, Richard Wright, was murdered?”
Higgins knitted his brow and then shook his head.
Ambler told Higgins and Cosgrove the story Devon had told him.
“Sounds like bullshit to me,” Higgins said. “His brother’s dead. Why not hang the murder on him?”
“Maybe you’re right. But it could have happened the way he said, couldn’t it? You used bad guys to set up other bad guys. Nothing ever got out of hand? Suppose he’s telling the truth—”
“He’s not.” The change in Higgins’s expression was remarkable, as if someone yanked a cable tightening everything in his face. He turned to Cosgrove. “What’s with this guy? You said we could trust him.”
“I trust him,” Cosgrove said mildly.
Higgins turned sullen. “What’s in my papers might help if someone wants to write my biography someday, if a scholar wants to analyze my books, if someone studying crime fiction wants to know the history behind the books. That’s why I’m donating the papers. Nothin’ in there’s gonna help some gangbanger who thinks he got a raw deal. All them fucking lowlifes think everything they did is someone else’s fault.” He drilled Ambler with a rock-hard stare. “I gotta think about this.” Higgins then turned an accusatory glare on Cosgrove.
Ambler watched them leave. It was unlikely Higgins would drop a collection of incriminating documents into his arms. If he did donate his papers, he’d most likely purge the collection of anything incriminating, preserving documents that reflected his unique view of the history of his times. “History is written by the victors.”
The main exhibition room on the first floor was closed to the public while the library staff assembled the exhibit Ambler was curating. He’d chosen a dozen crime-fiction writers who either lived in the city or whose stories were set in the city, beginning with Edgar Allan Poe.
He found the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage records in the Manuscripts and Archives Division’s holdings. The other holdings included a facsimile of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” as well as a lock of Poe’s hair, an original calling card of E. A. Poe, and a few original letters to Poe, including one written by Washington Irving. There were also prints from the library’s collection, including one entitled Mary Rogers, The Cigar Girl, Murdered at Hoboken, July 25, 1841, the real-life murder case that inspired Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.”
Late that afternoon, Adele closed a display case containing book covers from the library’s Dime Novel collection and looked up at Ambler. “Sorry about what happened on the stairs. I hope Detective Cosgrove didn’t think I was avoiding him.”
“No. It was Leila avoiding us. She needs to practice if she hopes to do well in the Miss Congeniality contest.”
“She’s really not so bad, Raymond. She’s abrupt. That’s her manner. I don’t know why you’re so hard on her.”
Ambler rolled his eyes.
Adele began shuffling through Ambler’s notes. “Georges Simenon? He’s a stretch. Paris? The Riviera?”
“Two books set in New York. He lived here for a time.”
“And he’s one of your favorite writers. I’ll let it go. Dashiell Hammett? San Francisco.” She put her hands on her hips.
“The Thin Man, New York.”
“Vera Caspary? I never heard of her.”
“Laura. You’ve heard of Laura, right?”
“I saw the movie.”
“She wrote the book here. She was a Communist and a bohemian.”
“My kind of girl,” said Adele. “Chester Himes?”
“The Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson books are set in Harlem—an imaginary Harlem, but isn’t everything in fiction imaginary?”
She winked. Her habit was to wink at odd moments, sometimes after a wisecrack, sometimes to make a point. He wondered if she knew how cute she was when she did it. She laughed, too, after the wink, and her face lit up. He felt it, too, her happiness in the moment. Often, she was engrossed in her work or deep in her thoughts. At those times, she was pretty, but remote, lost in herself in a way that seemed to exclude anyone else, including him. At those times, he felt sad for her; she seemed so alone. She had some darkness in her, deep unhappiness. He didn’t know what it was or what caused it. That part of her she kept to herself. So when she laughed like she did now and her brown eyes danced, he grew happy right along with her. He had some dark places himself that, without knowing she did, she yanked him out of when she was cheerful.
Talking about books, doing his work, absorbed Ambler, too. Engrossed in preparing finding aids for the collections, browsing in auction catalogs, digging through piles of long-ago correspondence or hand-written spiral notebooks of once-famous mystery writers, he could spend an entire afternoon without noticing the time passing, never looking at a clock, bent over his work long enough for his bones and joints to practically freeze in place.
A Century-and-a-Half of Murder and Mystery in New York City would come together, despite the difficulties. He’d been able to put the custody battle out of his mind for a few hours and spent part of the afternoon with Adele. It was a good day. Later, when he’d look back, he’d remember this afternoon among manuscripts, diaries, letters, and notebooks as a last moment of serenity—a prelude to the turmoil and tragedy to come.
Copyright © 2017 by Con Lehane