Authors: Matt Burgess
ALSO BY MATT BURGESS
Dogfight, A Love Story
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Matthew Burgess
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.
and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
Jacket design by Emily Mahon
Jacket photograph © James Worrell; styling by Megan Caponetto
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Uncle Janice : a novel / Matt Burgess. — First edition.
ISBN 978-0-385-53680-6 (hardcover)—
ISBN 978-0-385-53681-3 (eBook)
1. Policewomen—Fiction. 2. Undercover operations—Fiction. 3. Drug dealers—Fiction. 4. Drug traffic—Investigation—Fiction. I. Title.
For the real-life J.I.
whose courageous dishonesty made this book possible
Only the knife knows what’s in a pumpkin’s belly.
Two dirt-gray pigeons perched close together for warmth. They were fifty-some feet above Roosevelt Avenue, in a tangle of steel girders beneath the elevated train tracks. The night before, a late-season storm, the worst so far of 2008, had whitened the sidewalks and packed the el’s eaves tight with snow. For the birds it was still too cold to coo. They hugged their wings tight to their bodies, their chests swollen with a stubborn civic pride, because unlike the upstate robins, wrens, hawks, and white-throated sparrows, the city’s pigeons felt far too urban to even consider migrating south for the winter. Where would they go? Myrtle Beach? West Virginia? Yeah right. Good luck finding a decent discarded bagel on the sidewalks of Morgantown.
Fifty-some feet below them on Roosevelt’s slushy street, an overweight Korean leaned against an el pillar. Zippers crisscrossed his white leather jacket along the shoulders, at the elbows and cuffs, and across his wide chest. Greasy strands of hair, in a bowl cut so terrible it could only have been ironic, hung down to his eyebrows. He played some sort of game on his cell phone. Or maybe was just typing an extra-long text message. In the midwinter, late-day, rush-hour light, the phone’s blue screen cast his face in a ghoulish glow.
The pigeons felt a tingle beneath their splayed feet. Time to go. They took off toward the nearest rooftop, where the stubby arms of satellite
dishes thrust their round fists into the air. Time to go for the Korean as well. Seeing the pigeons fly away, he heaved himself off the pillar and retreated a few steps onto the sidewalk. A minute later, maybe less: the rumble. A little black kid bouncing a freshly purchased handball paused to plug up his ears. In the nearby, too-close apartment buildings, old women set teacups back onto saucers and young women recapped their eyeliners. The avenue’s flyer-hander-outters rested their vocal cords. All the cell phone walkers/talkers put their callers on hold and at last a Flushing-bound 7 local train went screaming overhead. Knocked loose, a heavy clump of snow—a real nasty neck-shiverer—fell from the eaves and landed plop in the spot where the Korean had been standing only moments earlier. Once the train safely passed, both he and the pigeons returned to their posts.
Janice Itwaru went up to him and said, “Hey, yo.”
He did not bother to look up from his phone.
Did she feel extra hopeful he’d have drugs on him for sale because he was a person of color? And if she did, did that make her a racist? Well, yes, sorta, and yes, sorta, although probably less racist than most, plus she herself was a person of color, Guyanese, with a mother from the capital, Georgetown, and her fuckface father born and bred in a much smaller place literally called Paradise, but whatever, listen, racism aside, the real reason she approached the guy hopefully was because when an ordinary citizen gets tired he goes home or sits on a bus bench, but an on-the-clock drug dealer with no other place to go leans his expensive white jacket against a dirty-ass pillar. Unfortunately this alleged on-the-clock dealer seemed more interested in his phone than the twenty-dollar bill crumpled up in her back pocket. Hey: no judging. Maybe his mother told him to never talk to strangers. Maybe the last person he’d trusted was a barber at Supercuts, and lookit how that had turned out. Maybe—and this was perhaps most likely—maybe, not recognizing her, he worried she might be an undercover cop. Fine. Understood. Trapdoors abounded for these dealers. On today’s walk down Roosevelt, starting in the Queens neighborhood of Woodside, then Jackson Heights, and now into Corona, the guys who
recognized her suggested she go fuck
herself, go rape herself. Compared to those creepazoids, this Korean came off like a prince. Skittishness she could handle. When she needed to make a buy, she liked to step up to every potential dealer, close enough to smell the fast food on their breath, but she also knew how to take half a step back and let the particularly paranoid shuffle over to her.
“Has the guy come through yet?” she asked. She tilted her chin toward a red-and-yellow bodega across the street. “The guy who’s always out there?”
His eyes flicked up at her before returning to his phone.
“No hablo inglés.”
A Spanish-speaking Korean? Sure, why not? On this stretch of sidewalk, one of the most ethnically diverse in the world, with sari shops smushed up against momo carts smushed up against stores that sold both Communion dresses and Mexican wrestling masks, Janice was willing to believe any sort of miscegenation mash-up was possible. Again: understood. Addicted, along with the rest of her work colleagues, to the cheesecake telenovela
, which was running in chronological syndication on channel 47, Janice said, “You
guy. El hombre siempre de la tienda
.” The man who’s always out there.
“No speaky a Spanish,” the Korean said.
Disgusted, or rather pretending to be disgusted, she hiked her purse strap over her shoulder and dashed into the street without looking. Somebody nearby screamed. A dark blue gypsy cab skidded through the slush to a stop, inches from Janice’s hip. She meant to cut it close, but not this close. Her fingertips brushed the warm hood, as if petting a giant, purring, predatory cat. Inside the car, a dashboard Virgin Mary trembled with whiplash. The cabbie seemed too stunned to honk, but on his behalf all the other drivers behind him leaned into their horns. Surely the Korean had to be looking at her now.
She kept moving through stalled traffic toward the bodega’s bright lights. Out in front, flanking the front, was a pair of relics from an earlier New York, when people walked around with loose change instead of cell phones: a coin-operated, music-making, up-and-down, carousel-for-one machine that kept kids quiet and off their feet for about half
a minute, not a fantasy unicorn in this case or a flying elephant but a grounded-in-reality yellow taxi, albeit one missing a backseat; and next to that, a pay phone, still functional, its receiver slickened with germs. Both waited to be used. The bodega’s window signs advertised—as they had ten, twenty, thirty years earlier—
, with a more recent handwritten placard promising
HAVE CURE FOR BEDBUGS
Inside, the store’s closed-circuit television footage—assuming the security camera was even on—showed a grainy, black-and-white Janice wandering up and down the aisles. She scanned the newspaper headlines. “High Noon,” said the
. “Hill & Obama in Shootout,” beneath a picture of the presidential candidates wearing Photoshopped cowboy hats. Janice thought they both looked like assholes. She read the nutritional information on a box of Hamburger Helper. (Poor.) She compared Red Bull to Sugar-Free Red Bull. Because her feet hurt, because she was cold and thirsty and needed at least fifty cents in change anyway, because technically she was allowed two alcoholic beverages while working, she bought a tallboy of Modelo Especial, paying not with the twenty-dollar bill in her back pocket but with her own money instead, and drank the whole thing standing up at the counter while the nervous Pakistani bodega man made shoo-shoo gestures with his hands.
Out on the sidewalk she burped. Excuse her! Across the street the Korean was still leaning against the pillar, but now it was she who wouldn’t look at him, not directly at least. The musical taxi, meanwhile, had found a driver: a little boy who drove with both hands on the wheel, as if afraid he might crash. His father, or at least the man Janice assumed was his father—a twentysomething Latino with the gray polyester suit and cheap pleather shoes of a doorman or security guard—stood nearby and jabbered into a cell phone. He was not the guy Janice had been talking about,
el hombre de la tienda
, because the guy Janice had been talking about did not actually exist.
“Hey, where’s Corona?” she asked the doorman.
“What?” he said. He cupped a hand over his cell phone to muffle an angry woman’s voice wah-wahing out of the receiver. He said, “You’re
“No kidding?” Janice said. “Hey, you know where Manhattan is?”
When he pointed east, she stepped off to the side to give the Korean across the street a better view. He saw, she hoped, a fiending addict asking some random dude where her dealer was at. You know. The guy.
The Korean watched her—she assumed—pick up the pay phone’s receiver with only her fingertips. After depositing her quarters, she called what she imagined he imagined was her dealer, or maybe somebody who could get ahold of her dealer. Or maybe some other dealer she knew in front of some other bodega. Her mother answered on the second ring.
“It’s me,” Janice said.
“Where are you? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, but I think I might be getting some overtime tonight.” Intensely superstitious, but without any wood to rap her knuckles against, she used her forehead,
. “I probably won’t be home until pretty late,” she said. “Okay? Will you write that down on the whiteboard?”
“What is that noise I’m hearing?”
“A musical taxicab,” Janice said. “Will you write down on the whiteboard that I won’t be home until late, please?”
Janice had recently commandeered a label maker at work to post little reminders for her mother.
LOCK ME UP, GOOD LOOKIN’
for the back door’s dead bolt.
HEY HOT STUFF, TURN ME OFF
above the stovetop’s burner knobs. The whiteboard, hammered to the kitchen wall, was for the more temporary items, like
buy flaxseed, make dr appt, don’t panic: jan called and is working late
. Savita Itwaru—Vita for short, objectively speaking the world’s most beautiful woman, whose hands always smelled like the lavender lotion Janice’s sister gave her every Christmas—had been diagnosed sixteen months ago with early-onset dementia.