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Authors: Matt Burgess

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BOOK: Uncle Janice
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“Uh?” Janice said.

One of Prondzinski’s giant blue eyeballs rolled in its socket to consider her. “Itwaru,” she said. “How long are your arms?”

Janice held them out in front of her. “I don’t know. Average, I guess?”

“Gotchya, you little bastard,” Prondzinski said, and her hand came out from under the copier holding an untwisted wire hanger, at the end of which she’d just speared a paper clip. Immediately Janice began mentally rehearsing the story for the other uncles: a paper clip, and not even the fancy kind with the plastic coating, either, but a regular old metal one, three hundred to a box. “Waste not,” the lieutenant said as she got to her feet.

They stood facing each other, Janice and this intimidating white lady whom Janice wanted to become in fifteen years, hopefully sooner, although Janice would probably dye her hair and come to work in stockings without runs in them and let her paper clips die a natural death behind photocopiers. The rumormongers put Prondzinski’s age somewhere between forty-four and sixty-four, but they also claimed she suffered from vaginal dentitis and used to topple skyscrapers in Tokyo.

“You got a minute?” she asked, always a bit of a trap question coming from one of the Big Bosses, who considered an unoccupied moment tantamount to truancy.

“A minute?” Janice said. She let her eyes linger on the folder of empty pages in her hands. “Yeah, okay. I can probably do a minute.”

Prondzinski swiped the
WILL RETURN
sign off her doorknob as she led Janice into her office. A gigantic map of Queens, color-coded by precinct, hung on the wall. The 115—encompassing East Elmhurst, Corona, and Jackson Heights, where Janice, Tevis, Sergeant Hart, his investigators,
and occasionally Gonz all worked—was shaded a light purple. Tall mounds of paperwork buckled plastic in-box trays. In the entire rumpus only Janice kept a messier desk, and that shouldn’t even count since all her folders functioned as props. Not her fault. When stuck in the rumpus between buy days, Janice, like every other uncle, had nothing to do.

She sat across from Prondzinski in a hardback wooden chair that kept sliding her butt forward, a chair that was impossible to get comfortable in, its two front legs probably sawed off a quarter inch just for this purpose.

“So,” she said, resisting the urge to ask if she was in trouble. “What can I do for you?”

“Do you like it here in Narcotics?” Prondzinski asked.

Afraid of another trap, but hopeful that Prondzinski was asking her to consider a potential transfer to the NYPD’s counterterrorism bureau, a legit possibility considering Janice’s vaguely Arab-looking face, she said, “I’m happy wherever the department thinks I’d be most useful.”

The answer, which she had considered perfectly diplomatic, seemed to disappoint the lieutenant. “And if the department thinks you’d be most useful back in patrol?” she asked. “In that polyester bag of a uniform? With all those guys you left behind patting you on the head, saying, ‘Hey, kid, don’t sweat it, not everyone’s cut out for Narcotics.’ You’d be happy? Really? At the bottom there?”

Janice scooted herself back up into the chair. “No,” she said. “Not at all.”

“Then I need you to make
buys
,” Prondzinski said. “You seen this board they put up? There are new expectations around here. From on high, you understand?” The usual justification for a browbeating:
Hey, it’s not me, it’s my boss
. Shit might roll downhill in the department, but responsibility always got deferred the other way, up the chain of command, from lieutenants through captains to Commissioner Kelly on to God and beyond, until the buck settled where bucks always seem to settle, around His Honorable Mayor Mike Bloomberg. New expectations. From up high. It never ended. To be fair to Prondzinski, though, she was the first woman Janice had worked for in the department who
did not make a special effort to torture her female subordinates under the pretense of tough love. She stretched her hands out across the desk blotter, the better to make her appeal. “With this Sean Bell trial going on,” Prondzinski said, “I’ve got people all over me in full-on panic mode, okay? Telling me we
need
to make more buys. We
need
to come in under budget something awful or I don’t even know what. And Internal Affairs? Are you kidding? Internal Affairs is actively looking to cut someone’s nuts off, Itwaru, so if you see
anything
, anything remotely shady or questionable, I’m going to need you to bring it straight to me so we can sort it out in the, you know, most efficient way possible. And that’s assuming you’ll even still be here next month. Because can I tell you something? I’ve got people over my shoulder looking at the downward slope of your buys, all right? And they want to know what’s going on. They’re asking me, ‘Does she not care anymore? Is she getting worse?’ ”

Imagine that: overexpose an uncle in a neighborhood, tell every dealer she gets arrested that they’ve just sold drugs to a narc, and all of a sudden she starts to make less buys over time. Again, Janice scooted herself back into her seat. “It’s an improving neighborhood,” she said lamely. “Less street crime, more gentrified. I heard there’s even supposed to be a Starbucks going up on Thirty-Seventh Avenue.”

“A Starbucks.” This answer, too, seemed to disappoint. “I’m not singling you out here, Itwaru. I know you’re a hard worker. I
know
you’re ambitious, and believe me, I admire it, it’s admirable. Honest to God. But what I’m not going to do? I’m not going to go into Inspector Nielsen’s office and tell him to take it easy because guess what, there’s a Starbucks about to open on Thirty-Seventh Avenue. No, but what I
am
going to tell him? I’m going to tell him that this Officer Itwaru, who he wants so badly to toss back to patrol? So he doesn’t have to promote you in two months. So he doesn’t have to find room on this shrinking budget of ours for your new detective-grade salary—”

“One month,” Janice said.

“One month, what?”

“You said two months, but it’s actually one. I’m seventeen in already.” Seventeen and four days, but who’s counting? “I’ll make detective on April first.”

“I hope so,” Prondzinski said. “And I’m going to do what I can, all right? I’m going to go into Nielsen’s office and I’m going to tell him that you are a hardworking, ambitious young cop whose rocket is soaring. Who’s going to do great things for this department one day. And you want to know why? Because you are willing to take on accountability. I’m going to tell Nielsen you have a message for
him
. That when I met with you just now in my office you guaranteed four buys.” She held up an equivalent number of fingers. “Four buys before the end of next month. And if you don’t? See you later. He’ll send you back to patrol, which is what he wants to do anyway. You got it? He is rooting
against
you, Itwaru. Own that. Embrace that. You’re going to make these four buys and you’re going to make them fast and you’re going to shove them in our faces. You want to know why? Because you understand that we’re not in business here to give away detective shields for free. Right? Right. Now, what questions do you have?”

As soon as she returned to her desk, she told the other uncles almost the whole story, omitting only the part when Prondzinski asked her to report anything shady or questionable. The last thing she wanted to seem like was a potential informant, a narc among narcs. Without IA anxieties to distract them, the uncles’ reactions to her story were the expected ones. Fiorella reassured her that four buys in a month was difficult although not impossible, but then Gonz reminded her that when you subtract weekends, days when they had to stay in the rumpus, and ghosting assignments, Janice actually had far fewer opportunities to make buys than you’d think. Prick. Klondike and Morris, talking over each other, agreeing without realizing it, complained about quotas, which they said wouldn’t have been so offensive if the department would just admit they kept quotas. Under interrogation, Puffy—who, like Janice, was nearing his eighteen months—admitted that he had not received a similar ultimatum, but maybe that was only because he worked for a different lieutenant with a more hands-off management style. Or maybe, Gonz suggested, Puffy wasn’t even worth warning and the Big Bosses planned
to boot him back to patrol any day now because, correct Gonz if he was wrong, but didn’t Puffy make far fewer buys than Itwaru? Once again on his back across Janice’s desk, Puffy gave Gonz the standard rebuttal: thanks for the pep talk. Tevis warned that internal pressures like these only ended one way, with people getting hurt, just like in the story he wanted to tell them.

“Not now,” the uncles said.

Worried as always about appearing idle, she wandered away toward one of the rumpus’s open computers. To any Big Bosses passing by, she looked—she hoped—as if she were typing up an important buy report, even though she didn’t have any buy reports to type up, important or otherwise. With her mouse pointer ready to maximize a departmental database, she signed into her Amazon account to check the delivery status on a book order, which was at least a work-related book order:
Sway: The Art of Gentle Persuasion
, by Wanda R. Rearsman, PhD. Apparently, according to Amazon, UPS had delivered the book to her back porch last Friday. And either her neighbor, Mr. Hua, had stolen it or her mother had brought it into the house and then forgotten to say anything. Probably the latter. Janice planned to go straight home after work, find her package somewhere in the towers of unopened mail on the kitchen table, and read a couple of chapters before bed, to be good, she really wanted to be good, but at the end of her shift the sergeants told all the uncles they had to report back to the rumpus in five hours. The Big Bosses wanted everyone out on the street, fishing, when the early-morning methadone clinics opened for business. The uncles who lived farthest away, out on Long Island, retreated to the cot room to sleep alongside Grimes. The rest, Janice included, took their muttering complaints over to A.R.’s Tavern.

She sat at a booth in the back with Puffy, Fiorella, Tevis, and James Chan, who used to jump out of airplanes in Afghanistan and now went everywhere with little white iPod buds in his ears. Other uncles sat at
other tables. Because many still pitied Janice her four-buy ultimatum, they sent over shots, soft stuff like Liberaces and Lemon Drops that she foolishly underestimated. An hour into the night, after slamming back something ridiculously yellow, she stood up to go home and the ceiling swung down to knock her back into the booth. All around her, on A.R.’s dozens of televisions, a New York Knick tomahawk-dunked a basketball in slow motion. The bartender asked her to please stop shredding the coasters; like her nail-biting, she didn’t even know she’d been doing it. When a Coors Light appeared in front of her, she reached for it carefully, with just her fingertips, as if a sudden movement might cause either her or the bottle to shatter. Without anyone noticing, James Chan fell asleep. The next time she stood up, to take a cab home to Richmond Hill, Puffy pulled her into the booth. They all had a kickback round coming. Then they had to wait for Fiorella’s jukebox songs to come on. The Knicks won by four. James Chan eventually woke up. At exactly 2:31 in the morning, Tevis announced that they had crossed the Rubicon, the point in the evening when it made more sense to stay out drinking than it did to go home. With a captive audience, too drunk to resist him, he started his story.

CHAPTER TWO

He said, “I haven’t been here forever, you know. I started in Narcotics in 1995 with even less experience in the job than you have now. They were more desperate back then for guys with my coloring, right? So I started in 1995, but I haven’t actually been here all that time. I left and then came back in 2003. That’s what? Five years? That still makes me the most senior guy here in terms of uninterrupted tenure, because Gonz came over in 2004, I think. After me, anyway.

“But like I’m saying, I haven’t been here straight through since ’95. I left in July of ’01 to go to the Firearms Unit, which is probably one of maybe three departments here that doesn’t go by its own initials.

“That was a joke.

“But it actually really doesn’t go by its initials.

“Now, I know some of you have like doubts about what we’re doing here. In Narcotics, I mean. That it’s kind of messed up or whatever. And there’s actually a whole other story I can tell you about that …

“Okay, okay, okay. But point being, any doubts we might have about
this
job, well, you wouldn’t worry about that if you were in Firearms because the job there is completely straightforward. Buy guns. Get them off the streets. You went home, you weren’t like, ‘Did I take advantage of that kid who sold me that nine-millimeter fully automatic handgun where you squeeze the trigger, it empties the clip?’ You didn’t spend a lot
of time worrying about the ethics on that one. We worked all over the city and we were very passionate and very obsessed. Because every gun you don’t buy, a bad guy does. And so you naturally felt very driven. And the department by then had gone completely over to statistics, so you felt compelled to get these guns off the street because, you know, they’re
guns
, but also you really wanted to get your numbers up, too. Because as a cop of a certain color, you’re thinking the stats are great. You can demonstrate now that you’re outperforming some of your peers who might, like, be better connected. You can say, ‘Look at the numbers.’

“So what was this very natural, internal competitiveness became a kind of external competition
between
guys. Which is exactly what the NYPD wants. Or thinks that it wants. What you saw in places like Firearms were these buy boards just like the one that went up today. It had our names, it had our numbers, and it even had Polaroids up there. Pictures of the guys holding these big-mama machine guns they’d gotten off the street.

“But now this is obviously a very stressful job. You arrest stockbrokers for solicitation or whatever, and they tell you how stressful their days are, the big deals they gotta make. You wanna laugh. Because nobody dies, right? But with Firearms you’re bringing massive amounts of money to these parking lots to meet some real scumbags and you’re not worried that they’ll think you’re a cop. You’re worried they’re going to rob you. With Narcotics, and I don’t mean to suggest Narcotics isn’t scary, but in Narcotics your big fear is does this guy have a gun on him. In Firearms, I mean that’s the whole point, right? You’re hoping.

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