Authors: Brian M. Wiprud
For my sister Rebecca, with love
“The prudence of the best heads is often defeated by tenderness of the best hearts.”
C h a p t e r 1
icholas stepped under the awning and into the full bare-bulb glow of a Chinatown fish stand.
Behind him, Asian shoppers flooded the sidewalk, a turbid human river wielding pink plastic bags laden with pea pods, bok choy, mung beans, and squid. The evening air was filled with relentless rain, buzzing neon signs, exhaust grit, and the sour vowels of vendors bickering with their customers. Cars and semis crept by on Canal Street; traffic was jammed toward the Manhattan Bridge in one direction, toward the Holland Tunnel in the other.
Nicholas zeroed in on the fish shop proprietor, a blind old man with a wispy beard, skullcap, and pernicious smile who waved his cane through the air with the determination and panache of a maestro before his choral group. Even blind, the shopkeeper knew the locale and price of each variety of fish. He priced and protected the wares with his baton, while his harried assistant was relegated to making the actual exchanges of money for scaly food. A pair of crones double-teamed the geezer, singing their demands and gesturing with fists at a tin bucket full of writhing hornpout. The conductor barked a price at the chorus, only to be flanked by the staccato of two other women yowling and pointing to the sea robins and spiny urchins. The piscatorial patriarch swung his baton, thwacked the bucket to which they pointed, and barked a price. Upstarts in this glee club would not be tolerated.
Late that afternoon, Nicholas had been on the phone with a man who called himself “Dr. Bagby,” a guy with a hot painting and a penchant for a noisy part of town. The background clamor was familiar—the honking, the cane smacking the metal buckets, the yammering. Two hours and seven cab rides later, Nicholas’s search had brought him to this Canal Street fish stand. He’d finally pegged the specific market din not because he spent any appreciable time shopping in Chinatown but because of Figlio’s, a Foley Square lounge around the corner. Courthouse-types watered there, and Nicholas had often had occasion to buttonhole young ADAs at Figlio’s for information. He’d stood many times in front of the fish stand to hail a cab.
February bowled a wet ball of wind under the fish stand’s awning, and Nicholas turned away from the tin bucket ensemble, water beading on his glasses and close-cropped hair. He waded back through the pedestrian current to a phone booth on the corner, where he found fugacious refuge from the tide of pink bags and two-dollar umbrellas.
Dr. Bagby hadn’t called from a cell phone. Background noises are always strangely garbled in digital signals. No, this had been clear—a landline, but on the street.
Nicholas targeted a vendor close to the phone booth. Her shop comprised a huge golfer’s umbrella, a Coleman lantern, and a peach crate, all assembled on the threshold of a defunct savings-and-loan building. Huddled beneath the umbrella, the Asian dwarf woman buzzed away with a hobby tool, fashioning netsuke from chunk plastic. The finished products hung by threads from the spokes of her umbrella. It was as if a tornado had lifted a yurt from a Mongolian bazaar and dropped it in downtown Manhattan.
Nicholas stepped forward and poked at a carving of a peanut, which twirled in the light of the lantern. “How much for this one?”
Magnifying goggles made the dwarf woman’s eyes appear the size of fried eggs. Her tool buzzed to a stop.
“That special. Twenty buck.” The giant eyes vanished as they reconsidered the masterpiece at hand. The tool buzzed, puffs of plastic dust pluming from where she crouched.
“Here.” Nicholas held out a twenty, which undulated to the rhythm of grocery bags whacking him in the shins. The tool stopped buzzing, and the woman’s egg eyes reappeared. She sniffed, looked at the twenty, wiped her gloved hand on the top of her greasy woolen cap, and snatched the bill.
“Tank you. En-joy.” Nicholas turned up the collar of his tweed overcoat as wind battered the dwarf’s umbrella overhead. He admired the twenty-dollar peanut between thumb and forefinger.
“I’d like to buy something else.” Nicholas held out another twenty. “I want to buy what you know about a man who made a call from that phone booth. That phone booth there. Did you see a man? He coughed. He’s sick.”
She scratched her head in thought, wiping her nose with the back of her glove.
“Man? Sick man?”
“Yes. Sick.” Nicholas demonstrated, coughing and holding an imaginary receiver to his head and pointing at the booth.
Her face sprouted a smile as wide as she was tall.
“I see. Sick man. I see all time. I see come, go, all time. Sick man. Twenty buck.” She put out a hand, but Nicholas held the bill out of reach. The damp winter gusts looked like they might just blow it away.
“Where does he live?”
The building was a prewar four story. Spanish American War, that is, and every year seemed to weigh heavily upon its frame. Nicholas stood in the foyer dripping water, wiping the rain from his glasses, razzing the damp from his bristly hair, and re-flipping the small curl that formed at his widow’s peak. He’d long since abandoned umbrellas, preferring to tough it out in an overcoat. He’d spent considerable time in the tropics, where one got used to being wet, and being caught in the rain was welcome relief from the heat. As his mentor in those days had been fond of saying, “Humans are already waterproof.” Pretty absurd considering that the mentor in question drowned.
In the vestibule, ancient shellac was beaded on the chipped woodwork like yellow sweat. A low-watt bulb illuminated an amber tulip sconce and little else. The mailboxes were all unlabeled, flanked by ancient buzzer buttons. Nicholas wanted to arrive unannounced, so he tried the door’s rusty knob. The oak door creaked, but it wouldn’t budge. He put his face up to the murky glass and attempted to peer beyond the shredded lace curtain.
The door opened suddenly.
“Yahj!!” gasped a Chinese gent in a porkpie hat. A carpetbag fell from his grasp as he staggered back in alarm, hand raised defensively.
“It’s OK…It’s OK…” Nicholas took the opportunity to step past the door. He picked up the carpetbag and held it out to Porkpie.
Porkpie recovered quickly and snatched the bag back. His shock was replaced with indignation, and he wagged a threatening finger, scolding Nicholas in Cantonese. Nicholas shooed him out into the foyer with reassuring gestures, then turned to the building’s interior.
The staircase was a rickety bit of architecture with a distinctly German Expressionist flair. The whole shebang looked as though it might spiral in on itself like a collapsing cup. Nicholas ascended quickly, each step voicing a creaky complaint. At each landing a dim sconce barely lit the way. Scents of sesame oil and soy grew stronger the higher he went. At the top landing, next to a sconce, stood a door made conspicuous by the lack of a Confucian icon thumbtacked over the apartment number. Nicholas put an ear to the door. Just the gentle slurping of steam heat came from within. He turned the knob and the latch clicked open.
Squinting into the apartment’s gloom, Nicholas had a view along a crooked hallway that terminated in an island of light at the kitchen. A man was slumped at a table with a towel over his head. Wisps of steam snaked from under the towel. He was dressed in a worn terry bathrobe and grimy slippers. Dr. Bagby sleeping? Next to him, leaning against the stove, was a large, square, flat wooden crate—one that might hold, say, a painting. Somewhere a radiator valve hissed like a cobra ready to strike.
Nicholas slid quietly in and pushed the door closed. It was roasting hot in the apartment, and he loosened his overcoat. It didn’t help that he was wearing a tweed suit. He pulled the neatly folded handkerchief from his top pocket and mopped the back of his neck while he did a quick survey of his surroundings. The place was stacked with old newspapers and magazines like some kind of recycling center. Bagby was evidently one of those freaks who couldn’t throw away reading material of any kind. Furniture must be in there somewhere, along with legions of roaches. Chinatown was rife with roaches. Nicholas expected the place to smell musty, of decay. But instead it smelled of menthol.
His eyes latched back onto Bagby. He took a few steps in that direction and the floor squeaked a loud warning—but the man at the kitchen table didn’t stir. Nicholas approached more swiftly and discerned that the man was more than asleep. Circling behind Dr. Bagby, he found a hypodermic needle jabbed into the base of Bagby’s skull, just above a large bruise. Clubbed and stuck.
Nicholas circled to the side and lifted the towel. The corpse fit the dwarf’s description of the man from the pay phone: a heavyset man, dark curly hair, eyebrows pierced by small silver rings. He might once have been swarthy, but his complexion now was waxy. Eyes open, dilated, dead. His cheek was smooshed against a croup kettle, and droplets of condensed steam clung to his beard stubble.
Raising one of Bagby’s pant legs, Nicholas noted that the ankle over the white sock was just turning purplish—blood pooling in his legs. With the back of his hand, Nicholas felt a warm, hairy leg. Bagby had been kaput for a half hour or less.
The table was strewn with nasal sprays, cold formulas, used tissues, and lozenges, some of which had been knocked to the checkered tile floor. “Doctor Bagby’s Croup Elixir” read one bottle; the source of the man’s alias was one of the cold formulas.
Nicholas backed away from the table, self-consciously rubbing his hands on his coat. Time to start watching where he left his fingerprints. With his handkerchief, Nicholas tilted the crate toward him for a look-see. He lifted out the familiar gilt frame and saw the ragged ends of the blue canvass where the Moolman had been cut away. Sloppy, but quick. The 24" × 36" painting
Trampoline Nude, 1972
, had been lifted from a private collection in Westchester six weeks earlier by a man posing as an exterminator. Nicholas let the frame drop back into the crate with a thud.
“Super,” he snorted.
Had Chinatown been first on his dance card, Nicholas would probably have had the canvass in hand, and Bagby would still be suffering from his head cold. Someone else had got to him first. Sorry son of a bitch.
A door slammed at street level. Heavy footsteps on the stair. The squelch of a police radio echoing from a few floors below.
Nicholas didn’t have to think about his next move. He operated on instinct and turned to the kitchen window. Flipping the catch on the security gate with a forearm, he opened the grimy window with his palms and crawled out onto the fire escape. Flower pots and a mop tripped him in the dark. He grabbed the railing to keep from cartwheeling down the metal steps and into a long hospital stay, then sidled deftly down each flight toward the building’s backyard. He kept his weight mostly on the railing—the steps on these rusty old fire escapes sometimes snapped unexpectedly.
He jumped from the fire escape to the ground below just as a cop appeared in Bagby’s kitchen window, yammering into a radio. The backyard wasn’t some grassy nirvana of sprinklers, lawn gnomes, and azaleas. It resembled a small prison yard: a patch of buckled concrete surrounded by a wall topped with razor wire. Nicholas skirted the wall, out of view, his footsteps crunching lightly on the faint glitter of broken beer bottles and cigarette butts. He stole around the corner, into a blind alley that stabbed between two buildings. At the far end was a basement walk-down. It was locked, but a few shoves of his shoulder and the moldering jamb gave way like stale bread. A wave of sewage reek flushed from the dark.
Nicholas paused, confronted by the unexplored cavern. Street light spilled into the rank basement through a coal grate at the far end of the long, black space. A grim beacon. He sensed he wasn’t alone, and the scuttling claws of rats on concrete confirmed it. By the sound of them, he gauged that they were welterweights compared to the wharf-bruisers down near the Brooklyn Bridge where he lived. And certainly they were neither as fleet of paw as the Upper West Side rail yard design, nor as insouciant as the Tompkins Square model. Even as the bear was friend to Grizzly Adams, the rat was a pal of Nicholas Palihnic. He took a shine to their independent nature, their tenacity, their gritty lifestyle. But he knew enough to respect the domain of the cellar rat. Generally slow, midsize, and shy, they also had a tendency to be defensive, if not openly hostile, on their home turf. Nicholas recalled the story of a man trapped in a Chicago basement who’d been reduced to a paraplegic before he was rescued. Nibbled around the edges like a saltine.
But Nicholas’s years in gritty third-world slums had taught him not to fear places that were merely dark, squalid, or rat infested. Worldly battle scars that broke some men had armored Nicholas for a new lease on life. Disillusionment and subsequent hard lessons about human nature warped idealists into cynics, and Nicholas into a practical solipsist. Whatever New York could dish out, Nicholas had decided to bottle and turn into a buck. So a stroll through Ratville or shortcuts through subway tunnels were little more to him than a Park Avenue jaunt. It was hard on his tweed suits, but he had a lot of them.