Albert Jay Smalls sits in an interrogation room accused of an unspeakable crime. The police have no witnesses, no physical evidence, but they are certain he is hiding the truth. With less than twelve hours before he must be released, Smalls will be put through one final interrogation.
It is a search that leads into the shadowed recesses of one man’s shattered mind–and to the devastating secrets buried in a desolate seaside town. It is a quest that takes three desperate cops down a dark, twisting road as they race against the clock to find out what really happened one rainy autumn afternoon in 1952. The answers will be more shocking than anyone can imagine, blurring the boundaries between pursuers and prey, between the innocent and the guilty, between the truth that sets us free and the tragedies that haunt us to the grave.
Against a gripping backdrop of murder and redemption, master storyteller Thomas Cook probes the uneasy, shifting bonds of family, love, and unbearable loss, proving once again why he is “perhaps the best American writer of crime fiction currently practicing” (Drood Review).
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
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Are we alone in this?
6:00 P.M., September 12, Trevor and Madison
Eddie Lambrusco pressed down on the brake and steered Siddell Carting Truck 12 over to the curb. Five metal garbage cans stood in a sloppy line at the edge of the street. All were swollen with the day's refuse, but Terry Siddell, Eddie's shift partner for the night, made no effort to deal with them.
"Well, you getting out or not, Terry?" Eddie asked.
Siddell didn't move, but that didn't surprise Eddie. Siddell wasn't used to taking orders. Eddie was used to nothing else. Except when he was with his daughter, Laurie, saw himself reflected in her adoring gaze and suddenly felt like a man again. He thought of Laurie now, the way her eyes had followed him out the door of her room that morning. Don't go, Daddy. Any man would do anything for such a sweet kid, Eddie thought. Anything he had to do to make her happy. And yet he'd not been able to stay with her. He knew that other fathers would be with their kids tonight, all curled up on the family sofa, watching Sid Caesar or Uncle Miltie. But not Eddie Lambrusco. Old Man Siddell would never have given him the night off just because his daughter was sick. With that bitter recognition, Eddie returned his thoughts to the job at hand.
"Look, Terry, we got a full twelve-hour shift," Eddie said, making sure that the raw hostility he felt for Terry Siddell didn't show.
Siddell peered morosely into the night. "Twelve hours," he griped. "Twelve fucking hours."
It wasn't just the hours, Eddie knew. It was that Terry had to spend them with a guy like Eddie, a little guy, going nowhere, without power or influence, a guy who could never make Siddell pay for anything he did, which Eddie yearned to do . . . just once.
"Nobody likes a twelve-hour shift," Eddie said. Again he thought of Laurie. Her sickness. Her fever. The way she'd vomited through the night. Then his mind shifted to her mother, snatched from the secretarial pool, screwed, and tossed aside. He'd scooped something out of her, the guy who did that, so that she'd collapsed from the inside, abandoned her husband and daughter, leaving nothing behind but the lingering smell of her afternoon gin.
The terrible loss that had been inflicted upon his life abruptly swept down upon Eddie Lambrusco, a grown man who couldn't hold on to a wife or stay home with a sick daughter or say "Go fuck yourself" to anyone at all, not even the little punk who sat whining at his side.
"So, you getting out?" he asked.
"Okay, okay," Siddell answered sourly. He grasped the door handle, jerked it up, and pulled himself out of the truck, leaving the door open behind him.
"Fucking wimp," Eddie growled under his breath. He leaned over and violently jerked the door closed, imagining Siddell's right hand smashed by the impact, screaming for him to open the door, release him, gazing in horror at his mangled fingers when he did. The only problem was that such vengeful fantasies were brief, and in their wake Eddie felt only smaller and more powerless.
In the wide rearview mirror, he watched as Siddell lumbered toward the bulging cans. Christ, he thought, what a lousy break. A twelve-hour run ahead of him, every second of it with a rich kid who'd be his boss in five years, another jerk he'd have to answer to. He imagined Terry Siddell behind a big desk, dressed in a suit and tie, pinkie ring on his finger, puffing a big cigar as he handed him the pink slip. Sorry, Eddie, but we just can't keep you on.
In the old days he'd been partnered with Charlie Sweeney, and the two of them had laughed the night away. If Eddie hadn't lost his job with the city, they'd have still been partners, gotten the work done, cleaned up the whole area around police headquarters, the park, Briarwood, where the big Dumpsters bulged with the dreadful garbage of Saint Vincent's Hospital, and finally the crumbling tenements of Cordelia. They'd have laughed their way through the whole damn thing because Charlie was a jokester, a guy who made faces and could imitate the people he saw on the street. Charlie moved the clock forward one gag at a time, lightened the load for everybody else. Every shift run, Eddie decided, needs a comedian, and he knew that without Charlie, tonight would be long, the work arduous, and there'd hardly be a moment when he wasn't brooding about Laurie, chewing at the fact that he wasn't with her, despising himself for leaving her alone.
A clatter sounded behind the truck, the intentionally vicious noise Siddell always made, rolling the cans back and forth and banging them against the metal sides of the truck as if trying to get even with Old Man Siddell for making him work for his supper. Amazing, Eddie thought, what some guys feel entitled to. He reached in his pocket and drew out the battered pocket watch he'd inherited from his father, a laborer's timepiece with its chinks and scratches and slightly skewed hands that circled turgidly around the yellowing dial. After a lifetime, he thought, this.
Siddell groaned as he crawled back into the truck. "Okay, let's get out of here."
Eddie glanced in the mirror. A trail of garbage lay strewn across the wet street. "Next time try to get some of it in the truck, Terry," he said, relishing what he knew would be only a fleeting moment of authority over Terry Siddell.
Siddell's lips jerked into a scowl. "Fuck you, asshole."
Eddie gave no indication that he'd heard Siddell's insulting reply. After all, what could he do about it? Punch the little shit's lights out and get fired for it? No. He couldn't do that. He'd gone that route before, been fired by the Parks Department and the Sanitation Department and even the private carting service where he'd worked before being hired by Old Man Siddell. No, he had to control himself now. For Laurie's sake. Because she needed things.
And so he swallowed his rage, grasped the black knob of the gearshift, stomped the clutch, and stirred the truck back onto the deserted avenue, his eyes locked on the street ahead, where, at the end of it, the great stone facade of police headquarters loomed.
As the truck lurched forward, Eddie let his gaze drift up the side of the building. On the top floor, he could see a solitary figure in a lighted window, staring down at the darkening street, head bowed, shoulders slumped, as if beneath a weight he could not carry anymore.
6:12 P.M., Office of the Chief of Detectives,
227 Madison Street
Chief of Detectives Thomas Burke peered through the arched window of his sixth-floor office, hands clasped behind his back, staring down at the city's tangled streets. At the corner of Madison a garbage truck made a clumsy rocking turn, a spume of trash blowing behind it. Is that what dooms us in the end, he wondered, a million small neglects?
He had no answer to this question, and he looked out across the city, where lights had begun to flicker in the distant apartment houses as the day workers returned to their rooms like birds to their nests. The image, he knew, was from one of his son's poems. What had Scottie called the city? A rookery of scars.
He closed his eyes briefly, tried once again to fathom his son's fall. Where had it come from, Scottie's utter lack of nerve, the way he'd curled into a ball of defeat and let life squash him like a can in the street? A little spine would have saved him, Burke thought, but there'd been no sign of that. No sign of muscle, sinew, the strength required to take a punch. He thought of Rocky Marciano, the championship bout that was coming up. That's what Scottie had needed, a touch of the fighter in his soul. But Scottie had hit the mat in the first round, and never gotten up.
When Burke opened his eyes again, the great bridge rose mutely before him, its stone ramparts towering above the unreflecting waters of the harbor. The bridge was often lost in spooky fogs, but this evening, as night fell, it glowed in a pale blue light. Burke thought of ghost ships in the mist, of the coffin boat that had disgorged some half-starved ancestor at the harbor door a century before, a scullery maid or landless tinker. Scottie had failed to grow the thick hide and sharp fangs of these wolfish forebears. If subjected to some final interrogation, Burke wondered what answer his son would give to the one question he should have asked him. Why didn't you fight back?
A knock at the door.
He turned to face it. "Come in."
It was Commissioner O'Hearn, tall and erect in the doorway, all but gleaming in his dress uniform, the police-brass equivalent of a tuxedo. His luxurious black coat was folded neatly over his crooked arm, his cap held delicately in recently manicured fingers, and in that pose the Commissioner looked decidedly aristocratic, like an old European military man, trusted adviser to the Kaiser or the czar. Only the lilt of his voice betrayed his shanty-Irish roots.
"Did you ever figure, Tom, that I'd end up wearing a monkey suit like this?" the Commissioner asked.
"No, never," Burke replied.
What he remembered were two kids from the slums, throwing rocks in the river, leaping off the pylons, racing across the bridge fast as the wind that hummed through its steel cables, playing them like massive harp strings. They'd sneaked into movie houses, stolen apples from peddlers' carts, both of them orphaned by fathers dead from drink and raised by mothers increasingly bitter, looking every day more ragged and used up, like the clothes they washed. Then the Dealer of the Cards had unexpectedly switched the deck and sent them Officer Horace Miles, the beat cop who'd taken two street urchins under his wing, offered a way they might escape the iron grip of Harbortown. You two don't have to end up like the rest of this scum, you know.
"I've never learned to like them, Tom." The Commissioner shook his head. "These fancy balls and dinners. Me? I'd rather go home, put my feet up, maybe listen to a Patti Paige record, smoke a cigar. That's my idea of a good way to spend the evening."
It was a lie, but Burke let it go, for it was harmless enough, a boy from the slums claiming against all evidence that some part of him remained loyal to the people who still toiled there. In fact, as Burke knew, the Commissioner felt nothing for the old neighborhood. Once lifted from the pit, he'd never looked back into its teeming depths. Even so, Burke could say nothing against the life his old friend had forged. Francis O'Hearn had worked hard to get where he was, a detective shield at twenty-six, Commissioner Dolan's hand-picked successor by thirty-six, Commissioner himself a short eleven years later. But more than that, Francis had put three daughters through college, a doctor, a lawyer, and an aide to the mayor. He'd reared strong, determined children, kids with grit and fortitude, and in Burke's view, once it could be said of a man that his children bore his steel, little could then be said against him.
It was a badge of honor he would never wear, Burke knew. He thought again of Scottie, this son of his who was a sneak-thief, beggar, dope addict, mercifully dying now, soon to be cremated. A fitting end, he thought, to a life reduced to ashes.
"It's the shindigs they throw at the art museum I have the most trouble with," the Commissioner added with a hearty laugh. "It's something the nuns never taught us, isn't it, Tom, that you need the rich if you want to get anything done." He drew in a deep breath. "I'm afraid I don't have the best of news for you tonight. This fellow we have. He's got to be released by six tomorrow morning. The D.A. says that's all the time we've got. You can't hold this guy forever, Tom, without some evidence. So I'm having him brought here for a final interrogation. He should arrive within the hour."
"Another interrogation won't do any good," Burke said. "We've been over everything with him time and again. All we get is evasions, denials. How he didn't do it, has no idea who did."
The Commissioner draped his uniform coat over one of the chairs in front of Burke's desk and lowered himself into the other. "True enough. But sometimes even the toughest of them will crack under the right questioning. You've seen that, Tom. You know what a good interrogation can do."
Burke well knew what a good interrogation could do, hammer home the incriminating evidence, wind the suspect in coils of lies and contradictions, force him to see under the ruthless light of inquisition that there was no escape from what he'd done. But he also knew that no interrogation could ever find the toxic spring that had finally boiled out into the world, poisoning everything it touched.
"Are you telling me that you see no purpose in any further questioning of this fellow?" the Commissioner asked.
"No, I just think that there are limits to what we can get out of him," Burke answered.
"That's the sin of despair, wouldn't you say, Tom?"
"You sound like a seminarian, Francis."
"Do I? But it was you who once considered the priesthood, wasn't it, Tom?"
"Not for long," Burke said. He shook his head. "Look, what we really need is evidence. Something that physically links Smalls to the murder. Without it, we can't-"
"The man's a child killer, pure and simple," the Commissioner interrupted. "We found the murder weapon in that hole he lived in, remember?"
Burke remembered. It was a two-foot coil of wire with a strand of long dark hair clinging to it, but otherwise washed clean by rain and mud, with no prints of any kind to link it to Albert Smalls. Nor had it actually been found "in that hole he lived in," but a full fifty feet away, near a worksite littered with pipes, bricks, other strands of the same rusted wire, any one of which could have been snatched from the ground, used to strangle a child, then tossed back into the debris.
"I don't want this fellow back in the park, Tom," the Commissioner said resolutely.
Burke was in the park now, the trees that bordered it in a thick green wreath, the gravel paths that wound through it, a playground filled with laughing children, and finally the child they'd found in the grass near the duck pond, her dark hair wet with the rain that had washed over the city that afternoon, a trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth.