arts 01.6.06

Speak of the Devil

BLOCKQUOTE>New York is used as a setting on a fair number of television crime dramas, but relatively few mystery writers these days use New York as their backdrop. Even fewer depict the city as well as Richard Hawke does in his new thriller Speak of the Devil, which will be published next week by Random House. We read an advance copy and loved it. The book's hard-boiled conventions are deftly integrated into contemporary NY settings, it has a terrific narrator in Fritz Malone, a refreshing dose of wry humor, and plenty of suspense — the best New York mystery we've read in years. We wanted to share it with you, so with the kind permission of Mr. Hawke, here for MUG readers is the full first chapter of Speak of the Devil


CHAPTER ONE

If she had known she would be dead in another five minutes maybe she wouldn't have swatted her son so hard. That's just my guess. His balloon had been drifting into my face, that was the problem. It wasn't bugging me but it was bugging his mother. He was a tow-headed kid with a round, pink face. The balloon was larger than his head. I couldn't say one way or the other if the kid was having fun, but Mom clearly wasn't.

"Ezra, if I have to tell you one more time."

She seemed to be wound awfully tight for nine thirty in the morning. But I've never been a parent, so I'm hardly the person to judge. Maybe the kid was an absolute handful and his actions drained his mother daily of her reservoir of patience. Maybe the reservoir wasn't terribly deep to begin with. Or maybe the two had been running late that morning and Mom hadn't gotten her caffeine jangle for the day.

Maybe this, maybe that. Maybes all over the place. Cheaper than a dime donut, as my father used to growl.

It was a Thursday. Thanksgiving is always a Thursday, so that part is easy. Fall was playing out nice and slow that year. The trees in Central Park were more yellow and red than I'd seen them in years. A high, bright sun was sending down just about zero warmth through the bracingly crisp air. What they used to call apple cider weather.

I was standing at the corner of Seventy-Second and Central Park West. I wasn't supposed to be standing there. I was supposed to be making my way up five flights of stairs in a turn-of-the-century brownstone halfway down Seventy-First, swinging my bag of bagels and whistling a happy tune. I had fetched the bagels (three poppy, three sesame) at a place on Columbus that makes them on premises, but instead of trotting directly back to Margo's like a good dog, I had drifted up the street, lured by the sound of crashing cymbals, and was standing on the corner patiently dodging a white balloon and watching Mother Goose roll by. Big pointy hat. Over-sized smile.

Mother Goose, that is. Not me. I was hatless. And I wasn't smiling. When I see a gun being drawn in a crowd and it's not attached to a cop or to someone I know and trust, generally speaking, I don't smile.



Central Park West runs north-south. The parade runs south. Been that was since 1926. Back then, they used to release the big balloon figures at the end of the parade. There were only a few of them in those days, so it's not as if the skies of Manhattan suddenly darkened with a flotilla of giant balloon figures. You couldn't do it today. You'd have scrambled F-16 fighter jets intercepting the balloons faster than you could blink.

I was standing on the west side of the street, directly in front of the Dakota, when I saw the gun being drawn. If you've seen the movie 'Rosemary's Baby' you've seen the Dakota, although they called it something different in the movie. In the book, too. Richard Nixon tried to get his suitcase in the door of the Dakota not long after he was bounced from the White House, but the residents there would have none of it. It's that kind of place. When I think of that story it's actually Nixon's wife I imagine. Poor beleaguered Pat. I imagine her standing on the sidewalk with her skinny arms crossed over her skinny chest, one of her dull practical pumps tapping irritably against the pavement. Well, Mr. I-am-not-a-crook… what next?

The gun was a Beretta 92F. That's nine-millimeter. Eight and a half inches long, a fraction over two pounds. Magazine capacity of fifteen bullets. The Beretta is one of the most popular pistols these days with both police and military shooters. The guy holding this one was neither of those. And though it's a good looking gun, I didn't suspect he was pulling it out simply so he could admire it in the bright morning sun.

I instinctively slapped at my left shoulder. My gun is a simple .38. Short barreled Snubbie. No fancy history. A simple workhorse. I use it in my line of work, which is private investigation. Margo calls it my 'associate', a little joke she picked up from her father, from when he was a private investigator and he used to call his gun his associate. This was before he actually took on a real associate. A junior partner. Which was me. Green, eager, fearless, and, at the time, extremely pissed off.

Nothing came between my slap and my shoulder. My associate was back at Margo's, in its holster, up on the dresser. Safety on. Facing the wall.

The guy with the Beretta was up on the low stone wall that borders the park. It was a fluke that I had a clear view of him. There was a gap between the Mother Goose float and the marching band in front of it, a high-stepping troupe of teenagers from Berlin, Maryland, and I happened to be standing where I could see right through the gap. The man stood about five eight or so. He was wearing a green windbreaker, khaki pants, sunglasses and a baseball cap. I saw him unzip his windbreaker and pull the Beretta from his belt, then take a step backwards and drop off the wall, out of sight.

The white balloon drifted into my face again. The mother slapped the boy on his small arm. Very hard.

"Ezra, for the last time."

I heard the boy beginning to cry as I took off running.

As I hit the street, the shooter's head reappeared above the stone wall. He planted his elbows on the wall and took aim. His target was clear. The easiest of all. Mother Goose.

"Get down!"

I threw my bag of bagels at the float. It hit the float just below the platform where Mother Goose was standing. I yelled again.

"Get down! Gun!"

I got her attention. The pointed hat dipped my way, a look of irritation replacing her waving-at-the-crowd smile. I saw the spark from the Beretta across the street and heard the shot a half-instant behind. Mother Goose dropped to her knees…and all hell broke loose.

I was still running. A chunky policeman who had been stationed on the corner not twenty feet from the shooter reacted simultaneously to the gunshot and to the sight of a loony - me - racing from the curb into the parade route yelling and shouting. He started for me. I cried out, "Gun! Gun! Gun!" and pointed toward the wall, but the cop wasn't hearing. He was going for his own gun. Behind him, the shooter rose calmly to his full height, swung the Beretta to the street level and fired again.

I swerved, crashing into a copper-skinned teenager holding a bass drum. More shots rang out as the drummer and I tumbled to the street. The shots continued. The drum head ripped as another of the marching band troupe - a tiny girl with a shiny alto sax - planted her foot on it. Blood was pumping onto the white bib of her uniform. Nothing had even registered yet on her face.

I got to my feet. The chunky policeman was lying on the ground. He wasn't moving. People were scrambling for cover, though here and there were pockets of onlookers who remained frozen, unable to process. The chunky policeman was on the ground, not moving. The Mother Goose float had halted, the Styrofoam wings of the goose still flapping mechanically. The shooter might as well have been standing at a carnival shooting gallery. He was pointing and shooting, pointing and shooting, pointing and shooting. To my left, a skinny guy in a Macy's t-shirt lifted off the ground with the force of the bullets slamming into his chest. Pop! Pop! Pop!

Hunched over, I scuttled across the pavement to the policeman. He was lying on his right side. I knelt down and shoved him onto his back. A piece of skull the size of a doorknob was gone from the right side of his head. Ignoring the gore, I unsnapped his holster and pulled out his service revolver, then ran to the near side of the float, putting it between myself and the shooter. I ran along the float, flipping off the gun's safety, and came around the rear with the gun in both hands, aimed at the stone wall.

He was gone. A squirrel was perched on the wall almost exactly where the shooter had been. Tail high. Head high. Tense and alert. I suppressed a roaring urge to blow it to bits.

I took off running. Holding the pistol down next to my leg, I crossed the street and started up the paved path that leads into the park. Some hundred or so feet in from the street, the path opens to a small plaza. There's a decorative stone circle embedded in the walkway. The word IMAGINE is inscribed in mosaic on the circle. The city did this after John Lennon was murdered in 1980 outside the Dakota, which was where he lived. Him they let in.

Compared to what had just transpired on the street, the plaza was eerily quiet. As usual, several kids were seated on the periphery of the IMAGINE circle, strumming guitars and softly singing All you need is love. A girl in an oversized Army coat was arranging flowers on the pavement.

The paved path continued on past the memorial into the park. Benches and bushes line the path for another thirty feet, until it comes to a small clearing.

That's where the shooter came from.

He dashed from the clearing onto the path and raced on further into the park, in the direction of the Bethesda Fountain. I chased. He turned to look back him and he saw me charging after him. His arms pumped even harder and he reached the small bridge overlooking the fountain plaza. He veered left and started down the stone steps. As I approached the bridge two police cars raced past on the roadway, their sirens shrieking out of synch. I reached the bridge and started down the steps.

Mistake.

The shooter was already standing at the bottom of the steps. In a wide stance. Facing me. Aiming the Beretta. Behind him, the wings of the huge angel in the fountain stretched majestically against the blue sky. I dropped as the gun barked, getting off three shots myself before I hit the steps. One of them took the shooter in the right shoulder, near the collarbone. The Beretta fell to the bricks as the shooter staggered backwards.

I lunged forward, knowing the instant I did it that it was the wrong thing to do. I was half running, half falling down the steps. Somewhere in the tumbling I lost my grip on the policeman's service revolver. Below me, the shooter was hugging his bad arm with his good, taking Frankenstein steps toward his gun. He'd reach it years before I could.

A body went flying past me down the stone steps. It was a cop. Gun drawn and shouting. A second cop grabbed me from behind and stopped my tumbling descent. It was a good strong grip.

"Fucking move, you're fucking dead! Just freeze!"

I did. Below me, the other cop reached the wounded shooter. With a nifty sweep of a foot, he brought the shooter to the ground. Ignoring the wounded shoulder, the cop jerked the guy's hands behind him and cuffed him. I was cuffed, too. I offered no resistance and no explanations. My cop was a tall, fierce-looking black man. His heartbeat was probably nearing two hundred blows a minute. Mine sure as hell was. Way too many engines running way too high. I relaxed into custody. There would be time to talk.

The shooter was dragged back up the steps and shoved into the back of a patrol car. My cop was joined by another one, his partner. Squatty guy shaped like a gumdrop. The gumdrop patted me down for weapons then shoved me into the back of a second patrol car. I was separated from the front seat by a cage. The black guy got behind the wheel. Gumdrop took shotgun.

They did the next part without sirens, which surprised me. It also surprised me that they didn't take the eastern exit out of the park, or the exit to the south. Either would have taken us away from the parade mess. Instead, the two cars rolled along up to Seventy-Second Street, where at least a dozen more police cars and several ambulances were already criss-crossing the street, lights whirling. The screaming had ceased. Now it was time for the crying. The crying and the wailing. People hugging people. People staggering in a daze. Faces registering disbelief, horror, shock. Gumdrop muttered, "Jesus god damn Christ," as we inched our way forward.

The parade was in tatters. Band instruments were strewn all over the place. I spotted the Pink Panther far to the south, around Columbus Circle, hovering precariously above the street. The wind had kicked up and the huge figure looked like it was being uppity, bucking and shifting against its ropes.

As we crossed Central Park West at a walker's pace I spotted a second balloon. This one was much smaller. A white balloon. The tow-headed kid was still clutching the string. As the stretcher bearing the boy's mother was being slid into the back of an ambulance, one of the EMS workers gathered the boy up into her arms and the balloon drifted lightly against her face.

Ezra, for the last time…

The little boy released the string.


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