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Authors: Reed Farrel Coleman

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Onion Street

BOOK: Onion Street
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ONION
STREET

a Moe Prager Mystery

REED FARREL COLEMAN

F+W Media, Inc
.

ALSO BY REED FARREL COLEMAN

Gun Church

Tower
with Ken Bruen

Dylan Klein:

Life Goes Sleeping

Little Easter

They Don’t Play Stickball in Milwaukee

Joe Serpe:

Hose Monkey

The Fourth Victim

Moe Prager:

Walking the Perfect Square

Redemption Street

The James Deans

Soul Patch

Empty Ever After

Innocent Monster

Hurt Machine

Gulliver Dowd:

Dirty Work

Detective John Roe (ret):

Bronx Requiem

For Ben LeRoy

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I would like to thank Ben LeRoy, David Hale Smith, and the late David Thompson for their faith in me.

A nod to Sara J. Henry, Ellen W. Schare, and Peter Spiegelman. As always, thanks to Judy B. But mostly to Rosanne, Kaitlin, and Dylan. Without them, none of this would be worth it.

“Look around the table. If you don’t see a sucker, get up, because you’re the sucker.”

— “Amarillo Slim” Preston, poker champ

PROLOGUE — DECEMBER 2012, BROOKLYN

Some men are born to die. Some, like Bobby Friedman, are just so full of life that you can’t imagine death will ever touch them. Even as I sat in front of his coffin and his rabbi told story after story of Bobby’s mischievous spirit and seemingly boundless generosity, I couldn’t quite accept the fact of his death. Like any of us who knew Bobby, I assumed he would be eighteen forever. During the worst of my treatments, when all I wanted to do was surrender to death, I’d sometimes amuse myself by thinking of the eulogy Bobby would have delivered at my funeral. Now here I was at his.

“What are you smiling at, Dad?” Sarah leaned over and whispered.

Although death had been so much on my mind over the months since my diagnosis, I wasn’t sure I could explain my smile in a way she’d have understood it. I wasn’t sure I understood it completely. Instead of answering, I winked and put my finger across my lips.
Shhhhh!

I was done with my treatments for the time being, but the surgery and the chemo had left me a frail shell of my old self: ashen and skeletal. I tired easily and I was still too weak to be trusted behind the wheel of a car, so Sarah had come down from Vermont to take me to the funeral. She said she wanted to come visit anyway. We had things to discuss, she said. I didn’t like the sound of that. I dreaded the day she would ask me to move up to Vermont with Paul and her.

“Surely,” said the rabbi, “it is no wonder to any of us who loved Robert that, of all things, it was his heart to finally succumb. There is only so much in a man to give, but how many of us truly give everything we have? Even the most charitable among us hold back a little in reserve. Not our Robert. Wherever his journey takes him now, he will go there having held nothing back. God will look Robert in the eyes and be proud of his creation. I will miss him, I think, more than I could have imagined. I already do.”

Of course, only a few guys from our days at Brooklyn College had any notion of the genesis of Bobby’s generosity, and now I was the only one left. Crowded as the chapel was, there weren’t many faces familiar to me. None of the old gang was there: some already dead, most just gone. Dead or not, gone is gone. It’s what happens to friends: they fall away. Time erodes them into fine grains of powder carried by the wind to alien places to teach or to start up a business or to settle down or to just run away. Me, I’d never strayed too far from Coney Island, but I suppose we all had to kill time somewhere before, in the end, time killed us. In the scheme of things, it didn’t much matter where that time was spent.

I can’t say I was pleased with feeling as weak as I did. There aren’t a basketful of joys that come with stomach cancer — even when your oncologist says you seem free of it. At least my condition gave me an excuse not to get up and eulogize my old friend. For that I was grateful. Had I the strength to speak, I might have been tempted to reveal what it was that had driven Bobby’s generosity. The depth of Bobby’s guilt might have forced the rabbi to reassess his vision of Bobby’s meeting with the Almighty. But his secret was safe with me. Secrets were always safe with me. When
I
died, I wondered, would the weight of all those secrets hold me down, or would they vaporize in the flames with the rest of me? Surely fire would remove the burden of my secrets and sins. I hoped they would, but where had hoping ever gotten me? Where had hoping ever gotten anyone?

It was a brutal December afternoon — raw, misting, gray — the kind of New York winter’s day that inspired the suicidal soundtrack years of the Paul Simon songbook. Like shrapnel, the jagged-edged wind gouged holes through the exposed patches of my pale, papery skin, and rattled my bones before passing out the other side of me. Since the chemo, my body’s thermostat had been on the fritz. There were days I could not cool down. On others I could not get warm. Cancer had gotten me in touch with my reptilian ancestry. Soon I’d have to sun myself on rocks in the morning like an iguana. Better to be a live iguana on a rock in the sun, I thought, than to be as cold and dead as Bobby Friedman. When you get as close up to death as I had been, as I likely still was, you’ll do practically anything to keep yourself on the other side of the coffin lid … even pray.

One step outside the funeral home, and Sarah balked at our going to the cemetery. She wouldn’t let me go, and I let her not let me.

“New Carmens for onion rings and thick shakes?” she asked. “My treat.”

My hair had started growing back. A sign of recovery, some said, but my appetite hadn’t gotten the memo. Just the thought of onion rings and thick shakes in the same zip code made me gag. It didn’t stop me from saying yes to Sarah’s offer. New Carmens was a restaurant — a diner, really — at the bent elbow of Sheepshead Bay Road in Brooklyn. New Carmens had been our special place, Sarah’s and mine: a place where a father could go to celebrate his little girl’s perfect report card or to discuss her broken teenage heart. It was also the place where, a few years back, we’d taken our first tentative steps toward reconciliation in the wake of her mother’s death.

She ate. I watched her eat. It was all I could do not to turn green at the smells in the place, but at least it was warm and the holes the wind had cut through me were healing nicely. Sarah was unusually quiet, and that scared me some. I could see she was building up her nerve to have that little talk with me. Then she looked up at me.

“Dad …”

Oy gevalt
, I thought,
here it comes
. I had rehearsed my reaction in my head a hundred times over the last twenty-four hours and now the moment of truth was at hand.
No, kiddo, I’m not ready to give up the business with Uncle Aaron and move to Vermont with you guys. I’m still getting my legs back under me and all my doctors are here. Besides, Pam has been coming down a lot and we’re in a good place
.

“Dad,” she repeated. “I’ve been thinking a lot about us lately.”

My body clenched. “What about us?”

“You know, I don’t think you ever told me why you became a cop in the first place.”

I nearly keeled over with relief. “Is that what you wanted to talk to me about, why I quit college and became a cop?”

“To start with, yeah, Dad. And why are you smiling like that? That’s the same goofy smile you had on your face when the rabbi was talking.”

“It’s because, in his way, Bobby Friedman was responsible for changing the course of my life. Without him, I don’t suppose I would have become a cop, or met your mother and we wouldn’t have had you.”

“How’s that?”

“You really want to know?”

Her face went utterly serious. “I asked, didn’t I?”

“Okay, kiddo. Take me back to my condo and we’ll talk. It’s gonna take a while.”

• • •

When we got back to my place, I poured myself a glass of an excellent Rhone. Sarah stared out the window as the skies fully darkened over Sheepshead Bay.

“Should you be drinking?” she asked, looking back at me.

I shrugged my shoulders. “No, but living through cancer, chemo, and surgery gives you a different perspective on shoulds and shouldn’ts. You want a glass?”

“No, thanks.”

“Are you sure? It’s a 1990 Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”

“Not today. I don’t feel like it.”

“Did my daughter just turn down a glass of one of the best red wines of the twentieth century? I already survived cancer, don’t gimme a heart attack.”

“That’s not funny, Dad.”

“Sorry.” I stood next to her and put my arm across her shoulders. “So, what’s up? You seem so serious today. You miss the old neighborhood?”

“It’s not that,” she said.

The gray mist that had dominated the day evolved into a pelting, icy rain. Gusting winds bent the trees over like cranky old men forced to touch their toes. The ferocity of the storm destroyed the reflective oily sheen that usually floated on the surface of the bay, making the water seem particularly cold and lifeless.

“Then what’s the matter, kiddo?”

She ignored the question. “You were gonna tell me about Bobby Friedman and how you came to be a cop, remember?”

“Okay, wait here.”

I retreated into my bedroom and dug deep into my closet to find the galvanized metal box that held the file I was looking for. Slowly thumbing through the file, I hesitated, realizing that this might not be as good an idea as it had seemed earlier. But I was committed. Removing a few old strips of newspaper clippings held together with a single paper clip, I put the rest of the file back in the box. I had only looked at these articles one other time since cutting them out of the papers over forty years ago. The narrow strips of print were like me: yellowed, delicate, fragile, on the verge of turning to dust. I laid them down on the coffee table in front of Sarah. “Read these. It’s sort of where the answer to your question begins.”

From
Daily News
, December 11, 1966

Detail of Coney Island Bombing

Gary Phillips

For the first time since a car exploded on West 19th Street in Coney Island on December 6, the police have released details about the investigation. The two bodies discovered in the wreckage have been positively identified as Martin Lavitz of Mill Basin and Samantha Hope of Gravesend. Both were students at Brooklyn College. The car, a 1965 Chevrolet Impala, was registered to Miss Hope.

Questions have swirled around the case since several unconfirmed reports surfaced that the blast was too powerful to have been the result of a gas tank mishap. Witnesses to the early morning blast reported hearing an enormous explosion and said they saw a huge fireball rising several hundred feet into the sky.

“I ain’t seen nothing like it since Korea,” said John Washington, a subway motorman who had stopped at nearby Nathan’s for a hot dog. “Shrapnel was falling every which way. It was just like Pusan all over again.”

Police spokesperson Lawrence Light stated, “It was definitely a bomb. We think that they intended to plant the device in or near the draft board offices in the Shore Theater building across from Nathan’s Famous. Our bomb squad thinks the explosive device simply detonated prematurely, killing both Lavitz and Hope.” The bomb itself was apparently very powerful, but not sophisticated. The police refused to release details on the type of explosives used in its construction.

Sources indicate that both Miss Hope and Mr. Lavitz were known to be affiliated with many campus radical groups and were part of the growing anti-war movement. Ronald Epstein, head of the Students Against Fascism at Brooklyn College, said, “Marty and Samantha are martyrs. They are just the first casualties in a long battle against the military industrial complex’s meat grinder war machine. Vietnam is a little war now, but it won’t be for long.” Others who knew both victims were shocked by the news.

Sarah finished reading the first article and placed it back down on the table. “I guess those were very different times.”

“Believe me, kiddo, you’ve got no idea. Sometimes, when I think back to those days, I can’t even imagine I lived through them.”

“But what’s this got to do with Bobby Friedman and you becoming a cop?”

“Almost everything.”

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