I SHOULD have never opened that door. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. Of course, it didn’t really matter if I opened it or not: five’ll get you ten that Nicky’s boys would have ignored the door and shot me right through it. That’s the kind of boys they are. That’s the kind of boy Nicky is—or was—and I had no excuse. I knew this was going to happen to me, sooner or later.
For my own safety and because he insisted, I’d been staying at Sam Lipinski’s apartment on Findlay Avenue in the Bronx. It was late September, but the city seemed to be hanging on to summer, and the days were long and lush and golden, with cool nights just perfect for sleeping, if that was what you wanted to do at night. I’d been staying there a couple of days and nothing bad had happened, or at least, nothing much. I knew better than to expect it’d stay that way, especially with what I had hanging over my head. It was inevitable that things were going to catch up with me, and unless I suddenly manifested the ability to disappear into thin air, Nicky Brooks’s boys would be around to pay a visit.
About four o’clock in the afternoon, maybe a little after, I heard a knock on the door, a polite rapping sound like somebody makes when they think you’re not home. I wasn’t sure if I should answer it, so I waited, but I guess my curiosity got the better of me. It usually does. I wasn’t completely stupid, so I peered through the fish-eye that looked out into the corridor.
Sam had warned me some of the neighbor kids liked ringing doorbells and running away, and sometimes they left a little gift behind, rotten eggs or somebody else’s putrid garbage. Mrs. Neumann, an old lady from two floors up, liked banging on doors in the middle of the afternoon so she could come in and talk your ear off, and sometimes the super liked to snoop around on the pretext of checking the plumbing or some other excuse.
Do they know you’re a cop? I’d asked Sam. I was willing to wager they knew when he went to bed and when he got up, what he ate for breakfast, and what color underwear he was wearing any given morning.
Of course they do, Sam said. Why do you think they’re so goddamn nosy?
THE man at the door was maybe five and a half feet tall, with bright-red hair escaping from underneath his Western Union cap and a spray of freckles across his nose. “Sam Lipinski?”
“No. I can take the telegram for him, though.”
At first glance he looked like any other messenger boy, until you saw his eyes. Cold, opaque, and empty. The eyes of a professional killer. “This message is all for you, Frankie-Boy. Nobody but you. Special delivery from Nicky Brooks.” He drew an automatic from somewhere inside his coat and squeezed the trigger; the slugs crashed into me at point-blank range, leaving behind a trail of burning agony. I felt hot and weak and sick, and my legs couldn’t hold me up anymore. Then a lot of doors opened, and a lot of people spilled out into the corridor. I heard someone shouting to call the police, call an ambulance, and somebody screamed. I kept telling myself to get up, get up already but nothing happened.
A young woman lifted my head into her lap; she said her name was Claire and she would stay with me. “Mrs. Neumann’s gone to telephone an ambulance. You’re going to be all right.” I knew I wasn’t going to be all right, but I didn’t have the strength to explain it to her. Everything around me looked weird, small and far away, and I could taste blood at the back of my throat. The hallway seemed to stretch out to an impossible distance, then suddenly collapsed back again with the kind of rushing noise the wind makes in the subway. I figured maybe I was going to die, and that was just too bad.
I WAS in a white room. There was a whirring noise close by, and the sunlight coming through the blinds was hurting my eyes. I tried to sit up, but someone had driven three enormous staples through my gut directly into the bed, pinning me like some exotic insect. My hands lay on my chest, quiescent and still.
I was alive.
Police Lieutenant Sam Lipinski was sitting in the chair next to my bed, his head resting back against the wall, his mouth slightly open, and his breathing slow and even. He was rumpled, as if he’d slept in his clothes, and unshaven, and his tie had been yanked down. His black eyelashes made dark shadows on the paler skin under his eyes, and there were lines of fatigue on his face. He was sound asleep. I watched the slow flutter of his eyelids as he dreamed, his hands twitching, his breath catching in his throat. He looked gentler when he slept, less perennially watchful, as if the part of him that observed and waited was somewhere else. I liked looking at him; Sam is a handsome man.
He blinked, sat up, and looked at me, wide awake. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m alive,” I said, “if not in one piece. Did the doc save me any souvenirs?” I’d never been shot before, and I wanted to keep at least one of the slugs Nicky’s boy had put in me, for posterity. I thought about keeping it in a glass jar in my bathroom medicine cabinet, somewhere close by, so I could remember. Or maybe I’d get it strung on a chain so I could wear it around my neck, some kind of lucky charm.
“Hurts?” He was trying not to grin, but I knew him. Sam and I had grown up in the same neighborhood.
“Like somebody dug my guts out with a rusty spoon.” It was an apt simile, but I wasn’t looking forward to how I’d feel once the drugs wore off. “But I’ll live.”
“Doc says it was close.” Sam’s dark eyes held my gaze. “Goddammit, what’d I tell you about opening the door?” Sam had been putting me up at his place until we could figure out what to do with me. Nicky Brooks was out of jail, and word on the street was he’d be gunning for me. Sam figured there was nowhere safer than a cop’s apartment. He was wrong.
“I know, I know.” It was just like Nicky to send a murderer dressed up as a telegraph boy. I knew him well enough to expect such things, and Sam was right: I should have never opened the door. “I’m sorry.”
“I oughta slug you, that’s what I oughta do, and I would, only you’ve been through hell.” He raised one dark eyebrow. “You recognize the guy?”
“No, I’d never seen him before. Probably hired especially for the occasion. Nicky wouldn’t bother sending one of his usual guys. He knows I’d recognize anybody he sent.”
Sam’s gaze flickered over my bandages. “They get all the slugs out?” I asked.
“Yeah. The doc said they did.”
The last thing I remembered was a nurse pushing down on my abdomen while a young intern stuck his finger up my ass, checking for blood. Somebody yanked the pillows out from under my head and a black rubber mask was fitted over my face and I was gone, brother. Some people say you dream under anesthesia, but I never did. It was just a space of blackness sandwiched between two bouts of wakefulness and that was it.
“So tell me about him, this guy who shot you.” Sam, ever the cop, reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a notebook. “What do you remember about him?”
“Red hair, kind of young, maybe twenty years old. Pimply face.” It was hard to remember, hard to recall the details as they’d occurred. “He had an envelope—telegram—said it was for you. I told him I’d take it.” Even now it had the surreal flavor of something that had happened to someone else.
“Yeah, you took it all right.” He grimaced. “Anything else? Height, distinguishing marks, ethnicity?”
I shook my head, which was a big mistake. The room tilted and spun, and for a moment or two, I was sure I was going to vomit or pass out. “Sorry, Sam. I guess I’m not helping much, am I?”
“Anything you can give me is helping.” He jotted down what I’d told him. “Did he say anything or do anything that seemed strange or unusual? Something that tipped you off?”
“He said the message was for me, from Nicky Brooks.” My side twinged and I must have grunted, because Sam shut the notebook and stowed away the pen.
“You’re tired. I’m gonna let you get some rest.” He rose to go. “I’ve got a man on the door just in case Nicky tries again.” Sam leaned over me. He was warm and he smelled really good, but then, he generally did. Sam is one of those guys who usually looks as crisp as a new dollar bill. “If you need anything, anything at all, you know where to find me.”
I squeezed his hand. “I know. But Sam, you know he’s going to try again. This is Nicky Brooks we’re talking about. He’s not gonna quit until he gets me—unless I get him first.” Nicky Brooks, who’d already managed to cut a violent swath through my family, doing the kind of damage no amount of time will ever undo.
“Oh no you don’t.” His face settled into the same expression I’d seen him wear while interrogating hardened criminals. “Don’t you even think about anything like that.”
“Sam, it’s me or him. You know that.”
He stepped back from my bed, raised his arms in a gesture of futility, and let them fall. “Then you gotta concentrate on getting well so we can… I dunno, get you out of town or something. Maybe I can swing something—send you somewhere far away, someplace they ain’t never heard of Nicky Brooks. I mean it, Frankie.”
“That’s a great idea, Sam, but where the hell am I gonna go? He found me at your place. He could probably find me anywhere. And what am I supposed to do? Sell apples on the street? In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a war on.” So much for thinking we’d keep well out of it, but Pearl Harbor wasn’t an insult you could easily overlook.
“Leave it with me,” he said. “I’ll figure something out, I promise. Frank, you need to rest. Rest, now. I’ll be back tomorrow.” He touched my arm. “If you hear or see anything that doesn’t seem right, ring for the nurse. Don’t wait.”
I knew he was right, and dammit, I agreed with him, but I was suddenly tired, very tired, and my eyes were closing. Sleep was a deep, dark well, and I fell into it gladly.