MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I’m in the middle of my set at Nick’s Comedy Stop on Warrenton Street when Homicide Detective Batista Wells walks in with a beautiful woman on his arm. I haven’t seen Wells since I’d been subpoenaed to testify in front of the grand jury that eventually brought indictments against Darryl Jenkins on money laundering and tax evasion charges. Detective Wells and his partner, Brill, would have preferred murder charges but the evidence wasn’t there for that; there were plenty of bodies, my friend and business partner Gus Molten among them, but none they could rightly pin on Darryl.
I had cleaned myself up for the court date, which took some doing, bought a pair of polished Camper wing tips, donned a suit and a tie—though not nearly as nice as Wells’s; he’s the Boston Police Department’s sartorial torchbearer—and invoked my Fifth Amendment rights, sparing everybody the agreed-upon lies the Boston Police Department and the FBI had concocted in the wake of Devlin McKenna’s bloody return to his former killing grounds.
Darryl is nearly halfway through his four-year bid at MCI Concord, a medium-security prison situated directly across from the Massachusetts State Police barracks on Route 2, within easy driving distance of Boston by way of Cambridge. I’m not sure if this proximity to the city makes it easier or harder for Darryl to do his time, the shimmering downtown and new harbor skyline visible through the bars of his cell working as a tease or inspiration as he counts down the days toward his release; it’s not what we talk about when I visit him if we end up talking at all. Sometimes we just sit staring at each other across the chipped and scarred visitation table, elbows down as if holding phantom cards, our collective history piled like chips between us, searching for a tell in the other’s eyes.
After the grand jury had its day I gave my suit to a longtime homeless neighbor of mine by the name of Albert who used to camp out in the loading docks of the industrial loft on Thayer Street I’d been evicted from in the months before Darryl’s trial, when I was still recuperating from gunshot and stab wounds at Beth Israel hospital. Albert, as is his way, wasn’t much on giving thanks, and accepted the handout blank-faced before turning the collar out, peeking at the label for a recognizable brand name. Then he inquired after my shoes.
“What good’s a suit without shoes, Zesty?” Albert mumbled through the catacombs of his beard, crumbs tumbling like ashen snow to the sidewalk. To look at Albert you’d never imagine the suit would fit him, but in truth he was a homeless onion: Peel back the layered T-shirts and sweaters, and we were about the same size.
“You going someplace, Albert?” I said.
“Gotta look presentable. Neighborhood done changed.” Albert leaned in conspiratorially, his hot breath an open oven of baking compost. “I’m trying to blend in, see, lay low. Where you living now? I don’t see you around much no more.”
“I’m renting a closet on Union Park,” I told him.
“Oh.” Albert took a moment to consider the implications of that address. “So you right in the thick of it. How you like it?”
When I had moved onto Thayer Street it had no lighting, the road was dirt, mud when it rained, the loading docks and sidewalks littered with condoms, crack vials, spent needles, and trash from contractors who would dump their waste at all hours of the night. The Pine Street Inn, the city’s largest homeless shelter, on Harrison Avenue, was within view of my windows. Now that the Big Dig’s been completed, the artists, musicians, and misfits who had inhabited the rough industrial lofts either evicted or bought out, this once neglected outer edge of the South End rebranded as a historic district, Thayer Street has been reborn with art galleries, a cobblestone path, well-lit sidewalks, high-end restaurants, and condominiums with sand-blasted redbrick exteriors that start in the seven figures.
On Union Park it’s bumper-to-bumper BMW and Subaru sedans, the sidewalks clogged with eight-hundred-dollar ergonomic carbon-fiber baby strollers and long-limbed mommies tucking yoga mats trailing the ever-present honeysuckle scent of a perfume that might as well be called Eau de’Entitlement.
“It’s different,” I told Albert and left it at that.
“They gonna let you stay?”
It was a fair question. “Long as I got shoes,” I told him.
Detective Wells is wearing dark indigo Levi’s and a fitted Harris Tweed blazer over a gray Converse All Star T-shirt. From the stage I can’t see his shoes, but it’s a safe bet they cost more than box seats in Fenway. The woman with him has long dark hair that spills out over her shoulders and looks like a million dollars in a little black dress that goes well with everything, even Detective Wells.
“So,” I say, stumbling into my delivery, thrown off by the detective’s presence. “Seems the Russians just started their own version of the NBA, successfully bypassing the American franchising fee. Their slogan?” Pause. “Nothing but Nyet.”
A fat man who has the entire front row of tables to himself laughs out loud and I feel the sudden urge to jump offstage and hug him. There are about twenty-five people in the club on this Sunday night. Nearly half of them are aspiring comics and fellow comedy workshop classmates participating in tonight’s performance hosted by Hank Aroot, a veteran New York City comic and former Boston transplant. Hank teaches the stand-up class twice a year under the auspices of Emerson College on Commonwealth Avenue; for a few of us, this is the first time onstage. It’s ludicrous. I’m actually paying money to fail.
“Nothing but Nyet,” I repeat as Detective Wells cracks a smile in the darkness, whispering something to the woman, who laughs with her eyes and covers her mouth with her hand. “Which coincidentally also happens to be the title of Vladimir Putin’s autobiography.”
The workshop students laugh out loud in an exaggerated show of support but I’ve lost the fat man in the front row. Could he not know who Putin is? I take a deep breath, resist the urge to explain the joke to him, and move on. I can feel my heart hammering inside my chest, a drop of sweat trickling its way down my temple past my ear. The red light facing the stage blinks on, signaling that I have about thirty seconds left before Hank will come bounding onstage to pry the microphone from my cold clammy hands. Death by Spotlight, Hank calls it. To be avoided at all costs.
I’m a bike messenger by trade, a job that places me in mortal danger every time I slip my size-ten Adidas into a set of toe clips, and two years ago I’d narrowly survived a collision with a gold Buick, the first link in a chain of events that culminated with me staring down the barrel of a gun held by Boston’s most infamous crime boss. I was scared then, but I’m terrified now, squinting into the hot stage lights; which probably doesn’t speak much for my level of intelligence. Or sanity. McKenna ended up shooting me twice, one bullet narrowly missing my spine, but not getting a laugh on my last joke hurts nearly as much. There’s got to be something very wrong with me.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch Hank in the wings twirling his hand in a circular motion, telling me to get on with it.
“So, uh, I started taking a pottery class recently, really enjoyed it. It’s relaxing. Creative. But after doing it a few times I started getting nervous because everyone knows pottery’s a gateway art to, like, some of the harder stuff. Stained glass. Mixed media. Oils … And I didn’t want to get hooked.”
Hank comes bounding onstage and mugs me for the microphone. “Gateway art!” he says in an inexplicable and exaggerated Irish lilt, Riverdancing with his thumbs under his armpits, which cracks everybody up. My joke but Hank kills with it. “Zesty Meyers, everybody. Nice job, Zesty.”
There’s a smattering of polite applause as I leave the stage and when I pass the fat man he tosses a couple of beer nuts into his mouth and opines around them, “Don’t quit your day job, kid.”
I back up and plunk myself uninvited into an empty seat beside him. “Putin’s the prime minister of Russia,” I tell him.
“That joke’s funny.”
“Maybe. But your delivery was terrible.”
Onstage Hank is saying, “Our next comic is coming to you from … her mother’s vagina. Well, not directly! Please give a warm round of applause for Caitlin—”
“It’s practice is all, don’t get offended.” The fat man shrugs into his shirt pocket and hands me a card that reads, OTTO HELMS: NICK’S COMEDY STOP, printed in dark black letters. There’s no phone number printed below his name. No Web address. It’s a card from the Dark Ages; by all rights it should be etched on stone. “When you’re ready. What do you do for day work, kid?”
I tell him and dig out a card of my own, a winged Mercury on a bicycle trailing flames from his rear wheels. “You could actually say I specialize in delivery.”
“Now that’s funny.” Otto Helms pockets the card without looking at it, his attention firmly back on the stage. “Will you look at the rack on this broad.”
I look up at my classmate Caitlin. Being the observant type, I’d already sussed out that her rack, as Helms referred to it, is largely the product of a miracle push-up bra and I’ve heard her tepid material before, which centers around her former marriage to a stockbroker and her current penchant for serial dating policemen. Still, she is easy to look at and I have to give her credit, the stage doesn’t seem to make her nervous like it does most of us, the spotlight bathing her in an enervating glow, which she uses to full effect.
“Why are you here? Isn’t this a little like bird-dogging the minor leagues?” I flick Otto Helms’s card loudly with my index finger, momentarily drawing his eyes off Caitlin’s chest.
“Just killing time,” Helms says. “Like you kill punch lines.”
“Yeah, try being more funny. Do you mind? I wanna listen to this.”
The entire class is slated to perform tonight and Caitlin’s last up before we take a short break to give people a chance to hit the bathroom, maybe smoke a few cigarettes outside to calm their jangling nerves. I wasn’t going to approach Detective Wells—he’s as entitled to a night out without heckling as the rest of us—but he waves and kicks out a seat for me to join them. I amble over but stay standing. It’s not that I don’t like Wells, but his date is even prettier up close, gold flecks in deep brown eyes, and I’ve been told that I have a problem with staring so I’m inclined to keep this visit short and leer-free.
“Anitra Tehran.” Wells pretends not to notice when I slide the chair back in. “I’d like you to meet Zesty Meyers.”
“The Zesty Meyers?” His date leans back slightly in her chair as if I were growing taller on the spot. She extends her ring-free hand for me to shake; her name is familiar to me for some reason, only I can’t place it.
“I suppose,” I say. “Depending on what the ‘the’ stands for. Detective, how are you?”
“I’m good, Zesty. I was just starting to regale Anitra here with how we met, but she already seems to know that story. Among others.”
This is usually the point in a conversation where my defenses go up. Most people who think they know something about me or my family usually start by referring to my mother and her role in the 1986 robbery of the Allston branch Bank of Boston, in which a retired police officer and bank manager were killed. After which my mother disappeared into an underground network of disposable aliases and vacant safe houses, the narrative of my family’s history written in blood until last year’s revision, when I learned a more complicated truth. Not that it turned out to be easier to bear than the fiction.
I look at Wells, who keeps his blue-green eyes neutral but observant. Not much escapes Wells’s notice; it’s one of the things that makes him a sharp detective and could make him a solid poker player if he ever chose that route.
“I’m sorry.” Anitra Tehran swivels from me to Wells. “Did I say something wrong?”
“He’s touchy about his family.” Wells dispenses an elaborate shrug.
“Why should he be any different?” Anitra Tehran smiles an apology and I notice a tiny mole at the corner of her left eye, the effect like an exclamation mark on her beauty.
Walk away, Renée, I tell myself. Pillar of salt.
“Would you want your family’s history plastered on the front pages for a week?”
“Wouldn’t sell as many papers,” Wells says.
“You’re a reporter.” I snap my fingers, Anitra Tehran’s name finally catching up to my brain.
“I am.” Anitra stretches out the words, narrowing her eyes toward Wells.
“Keep me out of this.” Wells holds up his hands in mock surrender. “I’m just here for the elusive laughs.”
“You write for the Globe.”
“I do.” Ms. Tehran beams me perfect teeth before turning back to Wells with a quizzical look on her face.
“I didn’t know he could read.” He winks at her. “Plus, didn’t I tell you not to dress like Lois Lane?”
“I’ve seen your byline. I liked that series you ran on the Midnight Basketball League,” I tell her.
“I had lots of help, but thanks. Too bad not everybody felt the same way.”
That was because the articles were far more than just puff pieces about the citywide league that had originally been formed to keep at-risk youth off the streets during the summer witching hours, when gun violence spikes in the densely populated and ever-shrinking communities of color. Ms. Tehran’s reporting exposed something more sinister: rosters infiltrated by the gangs themselves, teams sponsored with drug money, coaches with long criminal histories, and a complicated snake pit of gambling and money laundering that ensnared a rising star in the state senate who had spearheaded the outreach and public funding for the project.
“So, is Detective Wells, like, your department-issued bodyguard?” I say.
“What makes you think I need one?”
“Where do I apply?” Wells extends his glass between his legs to avoid getting dripped on as Anitra Tehran deposits her elbow into his ribs. “Actually, it’s beyond bodyguard status already, Zesty. Anitra’s just entered the witness protection program. I figured what’re the chances of getting spotted here on a Sunday night?”
“Pretty high if you introduce her to everyone.”
“Good point. I’ll work on that.”
“This a new direction for you, Zesty?” Anitra indicates the stage with a tilt of her head.
“Not according to Detective Wells and his partner,” I say.
“You got that right.”
“Batista,” Anitra chides Wells playfully, nudging his leg under the table. “Be civil.”
“Define ‘civil.’” Detective Wells wolf-grins at her; curls his lips to a snarl in my direction as I silently mouth Ba-tis-ta.
“Right now stand-up’s just a hobby.” I turn back to Anitra Tehran’s question. “But I’m a glutton for punishment, so who knows. What brings the two of you here to amateur night?”
I know it’s not to see me because the only recognizable name featured on the marquee belongs to Hank, who at the moment is standing to the side of the stage chatting with Otto Helms, Hank’s default smile sliding off his face as Helms explains something to him with animated hands and an aggressive belly. I can’t make out what the fat man is saying but Hank doesn’t seem to like it, his face turning red as Helms spins away.
“Blind luck.” Wells raises his eyebrows, points to the stage where Hank’s resumed his emcee spot.
For a fat man, Otto Helms moves nimbly up the side aisle toward the rear of the club, Hank eyeing him only momentarily as he launches into the second half of the show and the next introduction.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Hank’s smile is firmly back in place, the deal with Helms not enough to knock him off his professional perch, “I’d like to introduce to you a really funny and imaginative comic, but unfortunately I’m stuck with this guy. Please give a warm welcome to…”
By the time the show wraps up I’m sitting at the back bar sipping a Coke, my classmates buzzing happily, chatting up the bartender and cocktail waitress, their voices a little too loud, throwing back drinks at a hurried clip, washing down the excess energy of their performance, exulting in killer bits while lamenting blown timing and fumbled punch lines. In the corner, Caitlin jots loose lines onto a cocktail napkin, hoping to mine them into comic gold.
As soon as the club empties Hank will gather us to review our performances, provide some feedback on our material and delivery, suggest things to work on if we really want to improve and survive in front of a paying audience.
Anitra Tehran flashes me a wave as she goes out the door, Detective Wells right behind her, his hand momentarily riding the small of her back before grabbing her roughly around the neck and throwing her to the ground as the open front door explodes inside its frame, a waterfall of glass cascading to the sidewalk.
Someone in the club screams and everybody hits the floor as Wells dives on top of the reporter, grabbing for his ankle holster under his Levi’s. I hear the outboard throttle of a motorcycle open up, the sound of a broken bottle shattering on the sidewalk, followed by the soft oxygen pop of ignition as bright orange flames illuminate the window and climb up Wells’s jacket as, from his knees, he arcs from right to left tracking a moving target with the small black gun he’s pried from his calf.
As I reach the door Wells is scrambling to his feet, the flames riding up his sleeve like a lit fuse, the gun, unfired, held rigidly in two hands, shielding the fallen reporter behind him. I catch a glimpse of a lime green motorcycle as it scars the corner onto Tremont Street and then hurl a pitcher of soda over Wells’s shoulder, a hissing balloon of black smoke punching him in his face, causing him to stagger backward.
Anitra Tehran looks shaken: There’s glass in her hair, blood from a cut on her sculpted right cheekbone and elbows and knees from being thrown to the sidewalk, one of her stylish high heels broken and lost in the crush of glass. One strap to her dress is off her shoulders but it looks like she’ll live to write another day.
Someone inside the club has started to spray the flames with an extinguisher, killing the flames before they spread. On the sidewalk, most of the gasoline from the homemade bomb has already burned off harmlessly, only blackening the curb. Coal-faced, Wells rips at the fabric of his smoldering jacket, muttering curses in my direction.
“Christ, who’s your tailor, DuPont Chemical?” I help Tehran to her feet. “You do know wool shouldn’t burn like that, right?”
Wells abandons his alterations, sheds the jacket and flings it into the narrow street. “You get a look at them?” He coughs into the crook of his elbow.
“Probably only what you saw.”
“Two black jackets, black helmets. Jeans. Kermit the Frog bike. A Honda, maybe?”
“So, fucking nothing.” Wells holsters the gun back at his ankle.
“Nothing but nyet,” I try for the third time tonight.
I hear Anitra Tehran chuckle behind me.
“Thank you very much. I’ll be here all week.” Actually, that’s not true. The shows will move to different venues throughout the week before culminating upstairs at the Hong Kong in Harvard Square, where one of us will be chosen for our first paying slot. I’d assist in dusting Tehran off but my hands can’t be trusted around that many curves so I let her shake herself out, do my best to avert my eyes.
Detective Wells surveys the scene, pulls his wallet and cell phone from his pants pocket. Shards of glass from Anitra Tehran’s dress tinkle like wind chimes as they dance on a square of burnt-toast pavement. As Wells punches numbers, a blue and white cruiser with its siren wailing and blue lights flashing turns sharply off Tremont, its side-mounted lamp finding him in its blinding glare.
“Well, look on the bright side, Zesty.” Wells squints through a half grin into the light from the squad car, shouldering the phone and letting the wallet fall open to reveal his gold detective shield. “Least now you can say you’re not the only one who bombed tonight.”
“For real?” I look to Anitra Tehran hoping for a measure of support, but get only a reporter’s objective view.
“It must be the spotlight.” She uses my shoulder to balance herself, snapping off the heel of her good shoe to match the other flat. “I’ve noticed it does things to people.”
A TOWN CALLED MALICE. Copyright © 2019 by Adam Abramowitz. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
“Fire Is Coming” words and music by David Minehan. Copyright © 1984 Minimum Music BMI. All rights controlled and administered by David Minehan. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Reprinted by permission of David Minehan.
“Joyride” words and music by Greg LoPiccolo. Copyright © 1991 by Pimiento Music Publishing. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Copyright © 1978 by Leeds Music Corporation