Chapter One Excerpt
THE DEAD SITTING on his desk could wait.
Instead of going back to the office, Coleridge Taylor stopped at the newsstand on 23rd Street and looked at the front page of The Daily News. MAYHEM IN QUEENS spelled out in two-inch type. Another story that should have been his. The Times led with a dull speech by President Ford. It made him miss Nixon. Nothing like a crook in the White House to sell papers. He spent a nickel on a pack of Teaberry gum, folded a stick into his mouth, pulled his field jacket tight against the wind, and turned east toward Bellevue.
Taylor spent his long lunches making the rounds—precincts, ERs, firehouses—the same rounds he’d done when he was the paper’s top police reporter, before they’d banished him to obits. Unless he caught a break soon, his career would be over. He’d be a has-been at thirty-four. As he walked, Taylor rapped his pen on his notebook, a nervous habit that kicked in when he was looking for a story, and now he was running out of time. In a week, Worth and Marmelli were going to review the work he’d done since his demotion and decide. A permanent job writing obituaries or back out on the street. He didn’t know which was worse, but if he kept dodging obit duty, that meeting wasn’t going to go so well.
Gusts off the East River buffeted him as his long strides carried him up First Avenue. His arms were long, too, while his high cheekbones and strong jawline added to the impression that Taylor was all angles. He slipped the notebook and pen into his coat and stuffed his big hands into his pockets. Bellevue towered over FDR Drive and the muck-brown East River. He went up the driveway to the ER entrance.
The waiting room was empty. Unusual for New York’s medical center of last resort. The nurse behind the reception desk, Barbara Cortez, was a bit on the chubby side and smiled no matter what she had to deal with.
“Anything good?” He leaned in.
Cortez was one of those women who looked better the closer you got because of her kind dark eyes and smooth olive skin. “We’re going to be busy in about ten minutes. Three kids up in Harlem. All gun-shot.”
“A detective sees a kid pull a knife at 131st and Lenox. He shoots. More shots. We’ve got another race riot.”
This sent a jolt through Taylor’s gut. “They’re driving them all the way downtown? What’s wrong with Harlem Hospital?” “The cops ordered it. They didn’t want protestors going over there and making things worse.”
“Ten blocks versus more than a hundred? Those kids could die.” Taylor took out his notebook, wrote down the intersection and what Cortez had said about the order to bring the boys downtown. He circled this last fact. If something stuck out, he noted it.
“I just treat whoever gets here alive.” Cortez shrugged. “I thought you were doing death notices.”
“Aren’t they the same?”
“One you pay for. One you don’t.”
Taylor headed down the corridor, away from the ER. Few things bothered him more than walking away from a big story. Cops shooting black kids was a very big story, and every police reporter in town would soon descend on the ER. He couldn’t be there when they did.
The gray hospital walls matched his mood as he wound an aimless route around the hallways and ended up in a back corridor. A black orderly, tall with graying hair, pushed a gurney with a body under a sheet in the other direction.
“That one of the boys from Harlem?”
“No. This one’s white and no cop shot him. Young. Homeless. Found dead on the street.”
“How’d he die?”
“Like I said, homeless.” The orderly stopped pushing. “That’s not a cause of death.”
“What it’s been for five others in the past two weeks. This wicked March freeze is catching them all off guard.”
“Five? Dead from exposure?”
“That’s right. I’ve got to get this one into the cutting room.”
The orderly pushed past, and Taylor followed him into the autopsy room.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m going to write about this kid.”
“The homeless don’t get stories in the paper.”
“First time for everything.”
The orderly rolled the gurney onto an elevator. Taylor stepped on, too. The orderly read his press pass. It expired in three months, and if Taylor couldn’t get back on the police beat by then, he’d lose it and all the access it gave him. Doors all over the city would slam shut. The thought chilled him.
“Coleridge Samuel Taylor.”
“Just Taylor.” He hated the literary ornamentation of his name.
The autopsy room looked like any operating theater with its silver-domed lights, trolleys of medical instruments and glass- fronted metal cabinets. The acrid smell of disinfectant was even stronger here.
A second orderly came in and helped Jackson shift the wrapped body onto a table, both of them grunting.
“Jesus, this body is frozen stiff,” Jackson said.
The second orderly shrugged and left, as if moving bodies was his only job.
“You said he died of exposure, right?” Taylor leaned in.
“Yeah, but he feels like ….” The orderly frowned. “The last time a body came in frozen solid like this was when a jumper went into the Hudson back in January.” He pulled the sheets open near the neck. The corpse was still dressed and the orderly fingered the material of the outer clothing. “The coat and sweater are cold but not frozen.” He slid his hand inside the sweater. “The undershirt feels like it’s iced right to him. The skin is frozen.”
“That doesn’t make sense.” Taylor looked from the orderly to the body on the slab. “It’s like he froze from the inside out. Or his outer clothes were put on after he froze.” He made a note of this. “Be interesting to hear what the pathologist makes of it.”
“Not much if he thinks he’s cutting a homeless boy. How are you going to do a story on a dead nobody?” The orderly sighed and turned away.
I’ll find out what makes him a somebody. Getting frozen in your underwear and dressed by another person might do the trick.
“You gotta be a big somebody to get your death notice in the papers here.”
This victim’s story already bothered him. The boy was going to disappear. Taylor was watching it happen. No last words for the family. No notice taken anywhere by anyone. It had happened before, with Billy. This was going on now in Taylor’s city. There was no excuse for it.
“When did the body come in?”
“Night watch. Three, four in the morning.”
“You’re just now rolling him in?”
“No room at the inn. Kept the body outside in the ambulance.”
“What if they got another call?”
“Couldn’t. No one to replace the driver’s going off shift. Poor bastards had to take a cab back to their house. These budget cuts are just crazy. So we kept him cold out there. The guys just came back to get their wagon.”
“Where’d they pick him up?”
“The Meatpacking District.” Jackson looked at the body again. “I’ll tell you one thing. I doubt they’ll be cutting today. It’s going to take a whole shift to defrost him. Very strange. Or plain bad luck.”
Only the facts interested Taylor. They’d explain how this boy froze from the inside out, the cause and effect. Nothing unlucky. Nothing strange.
Jackson pulled off the sheet. The dead boy wore an army field jacket similar to Taylor’s. Threads hung at the edges of the rectangle above the left breast pocket where a name patch should have been.
“Whatever the name tag said, it wasn’t this kid’s,” Taylor said. “He’s too young for the military.” Could be the father’s, Taylor thought. Or maybe the boy bought it at the Army-Navy. Taylor would check all that out. The jacket had seen a lot of wear and tear. Some of that might be from life on the street.
“Now that I think of it,” Jackson said, “it looks like the one I got when I fought in Europe. You don’t see these as much. Thing never was warm enough.”
Jackson was right. The boy’s jacket featured lapels instead of a circular collar and the fabric looked thinner. The kid wore dungarees, patched the length of both legs, more patches than jean material really. The “V” of a blue sweater, probably wool, showed under the jacket.
Jackson nodded at Taylor’s jacket. “You a vet?” “No.”
“Just like the look?”
“No.” The implication stung, as if his was a fashion statement. His brother, trained to fight somewhere cold in Europe, was ordered to Vietnam. Billy didn’t need the heavy jacket, or didn’t want to pack it, or had wanted to leave something behind with his older brother. Taylor wasn’t sure which. He gave it to Taylor and never came back. Maybe because of the question, the teenager became his brother Billy for a moment. Another kid forever lost to his family. The boy was the same height, though slighter and younger. What was younger when you were dead?
The orderly was saying something, forcing Billy’s face to fade, replaced by that of the dead boy. This face was smooth, without lines, and the nose straight. His lips were full, almost pouting, and his gray eyes looked directly into the bright overhead lights, unblinded and blind. His hair was thick, long and clean, which was odd. If this kid was homeless, it should have been matted and dirty.
“Look at this.” Jackson pointed to the jacket’s right sleeve.
More than twenty national flags were sewn down the outside of the right arm of the field jacket, from the shoulder to the cuff. France, Italy, USA, East Germany, Canada, the USSR, West Germany, Red China, and countries some Taylor couldn’t identify.
Taylor walked around the table. “Same on this side. No unit or rank. Those were cut away a long time ago. Just more flags. It’s like the UN.”
Thousands of army field jackets hung in the closets of New York vets, the families of the dead and even ex-hippies, but none would look like this one. Taylor knew people would remember it. This was starting to look like a story he could follow.
Jackson left the room. Taylor checked the boy’s left hand, leaned in to get closer and used his Bic pen to lift the fingers. They were smooth, almost feminine, with telltale signs of civilized living—clean, well-trimmed fingernails. Not a speck of dirt under any of them. The fingers on the right hand were the same. This kid wasn’t homeless, or hadn’t been for long. The field jacket would lead to someone who knew him, who could tell his story. He listed the countries of the flags he could ID and descriptions of those he couldn’t.
“I thought we were rid of you, Taylor.” Dr. R. Martin Quirk, the assistant coroner, stood inside the door. Taylor looked from Quirk’s long face to the stubby fingers that seemed imperfect instruments for prodding inside bodies, even dead ones.
“This kid wasn’t homeless,” Taylor said.
“What do you know? Don’t turn this John Doe into another of your page one specials. I’ve got six homicides in the cooler, bodies piling up in the emergency room—high priority, cops shooting civilians—and five accidentals, old people who froze to death in their apartments. I’ve got to cut them all anyway. They won’t let me put ‘unpaid Con Ed bill’ as cause on the death certificate.”
“Will you at least check the ‘missing’ list?”
Quirk always claimed to be overworked, but he was just plain lazy.
“That’s a cop’s job.”
“I’m not their master, thank Christ. Why don’t you do it? You’re the reporter.”
Taylor decided not to disabuse him of that notion. From his jacket’s right pocket, he pulled out and opened the collapsible Polaroid he carried for capturing a scene when a click was faster than taking notes. A snap-flash and Taylor held the instant photo, a black square until it developed. In two minutes, chemicals and metals would resolve into a color picture of the dead boy’s face. He needed it to track down who the kid was.
“I’ll call you to get cause of death.” He put the developing picture in his coat pocket next to his wallet and went straight through the double doors without glancing back.
Why didn’t the boy show the wear and tear of rough living? He might have been a recent arrival on the street, a runaway who didn’t bargain on the freezing weather and died almost as soon as he ran. A sad story. Newspaper readers loved sad stories, even if they said they didn’t.
He decided to go to Bellevue’s main entrance to avoid the chaos of the ER and the reporters who must be there by now. Jack Fahey, his replacement, would rat him out to the editors at the Messenger-Telegram. Fahey had gotten where he was now by being Worth’s newsroom stooge.
The hallway’s fluorescent lights hummed and flickered on, off, on, off. Pine Sol, piss, and hospital food filled the air. Two patients appeared to be sleeping on gurneys in the hall. At least he hoped they were sleeping. Not a nurse or doctor in sight. They were all in the ER now, no doubt. It was Taylor’s great hope, should bad luck or mischief befall him, that he remain conscious long enough to whisper to the ambulance driver, “Anywhere but Bellevue.”
To clear his head of the smells, he put a fresh piece of Teaberry gum in his mouth. The minty-licorice flavor helped some as he came out onto the street. The wind had died down. He took out the Polaroid snapshot, shook it a couple of times, and examined the kid’s face.
No, the boy didn’t look a thing like his brother. Why did this surprise him? Probably because Billy remained a teenager in Taylor’s memory, rather than the tall muscular soldier who left for Nam in ’73 at the age of twenty-two. Enlisting as a grunt had been the perfect rebellion against their father, who was the intellectual, the screamer of Coleridge’s poetry. Taylor had never known how to express the pain of Billy’s loss. It was a black, hard lump deep inside him. He was afraid of what would happen if he did anything but just let it sit there. So, he never tried. He slipped the picture back in his pocket.
Taylor brushed his hand through his short brown hair to put it back into a rough part. He’d tried growing it long to match the current trend, but felt it looked like a dirty mop as soon as the hair got past his ears. So it was cut to the same length he’d worn it at ever since outgrowing a boyhood crew cut.
His stomach made a grumbling noise, a complaint Taylor ignored. His body might think he needed to eat, but he had no interest. He’d lost interest in food after he’d written the story that got him demoted two months ago. Tonight he had work to do on his own time, and he needed to get his damn obits done first. Coffee would go down nice; he’d grab that on the way up to the paper.
Five-foot piles of rock-hard grimy snow walled the sidewalk from the street. The Messenger-Telegram’s offices were four broad avenues away, between Park and Lex, a pleasant walk across 28th Street if New York weren’t in the grip of the freeze. Taylor hiked his collar up. The other pedestrians were muffled in heavy overcoats and parkas, scarves and hats. He should have put on something like that, instead of Billy’s jacket. This morning he’d considered longjohns but couldn’t find any in the disarray of the Airstream trailer. He woke later than his usual late and rushed to get dressed, once he realized—with a loud curse—that the hot water heater was on the fritz. Should he get the water heater fixed? That might delay repair work on his house, and he was spending everything he could on that.
Six months ago, he’d broken the story on a ring of corrupt detectives on the Harlem vice squad and received a Molotov cocktail through the window as thanks. He needed to get out of the damn trailer in his driveway. His neighbors were running out of patience.