Detective Mel Freedman’s life changes forever the day Joe Cullen walks into his New York City office to confess to murder. Cullen, a pilot and Vietnam veteran, has come to admit his guilt in the murder of an American priest, thrown from a helicopter to his death in the jungles of El Salvador 800 feet below. But when a prostitute to whom Cullen also confessed turns up dead, Freedman quickly realizes that there is much more to Cullen’s story than meets the eye. As he digs deeper into the mystery, Freedman unravels a tangled web of conspiracy stretching from the cocaine fields of Central America all the way to CIA headquarters. Tense and thought-provoking, The Confession of Joe Cullen is a powerful thriller about government corruption and the individuals who try to combat it, by one of the most masterful American writers of the twentieth century. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Howard Fast including rare photos from the author’s estate.
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The Confession of Joe Cullen
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
The First Confession
* * *
JOE CULLEN came in out of the rain, his hat soaked, his trench coat sodden across the shoulders, and leaned his weight against the bar and waited for Billy Sullivan to look at him and recognize him. It was early in the afternoon and there were only three other customers in the place, two men at the bar and a woman who sat drinking alone in one of the booths. One of the men, at Joe Cullen's left and far down the bar, nursed a shot glass of whiskey. He was a fat man in jeans and an old dirty shirt, and he seemed to be half asleep over his drink. The other male customer was lean, middle-aged, with hard hands. He looked as if he might be one of the construction workers on the high-rise that was being built on the other side of Ninth Avenue.
Billy Sullivan made no effort to keep his voice down. He was telling the drinker how he had come to buy the place. It was a good story, and though Joe Cullen had heard it at least five times before, he didn't mind listening to it again. In a way, it was reassuring. It made him feel secure; it enforced the reality of his being back here in New York City in November of 1987 and not in a place that he thought of as the black pit of creation. Billy Sullivan was at that part of the story where he had rolled eleven passes in the great legendary crap game in Saigon, which had happened just a week before the last American troops pulled out. The winning pot held fourteen thousand, one hundred and sixty-two dollars, ten thousand of which Billy used as a down payment for the Shamrock Bar at Ninth Avenue and Nineteenth Street. And at that point in his story, he shifted his glance and noticed Joe Cullen.
He dropped his story in the middle and went over to Joe Cullen and leaned across the bar, gripping Joe's arms in a sort of half embrace.
"I sure as hell thought you were dead."
"I'm not dead," Joe Cullen answered. "Maybe I'm not a hundred percent alive, but not dead."
"You walk out of here," said Sullivan, "and three months go by — hell, that can wait. What are you drinking?"
Sullivan drew him a beer. "You walk out of here," Sullivan began again. "Jesus, we're all crazy, more or less, all of us. You remember that big black guy, Moses Something-or-other, he was in Charlie Company, and last week he took a big bite on a forty-five automatic pistol and pulled the trigger and blew the back of his head away. I had to go ID him because they know this is a hangout for some of the guys who were in Nam, and all I could think of is that you were somewhere—"
"With the back of my head blown away."
"Not likely. I was always scared of guns. I'd never put a pistol in my mouth."
"You want another beer? For Christ's sake, where were you? I remember you walking out of here with Oscar Kovach. He never came back. That didn't break my heart. I never liked that shithead."
"Yeah. That says it."
"What the hell! I was never any good at family history. I did a couple of things and I made some money."
Joe Cullen was a tall man and well built, an inch over six feet, wide shoulders and a mop of brown hair. Billy Sullivan was smaller, skinny, more demonstrative. He kept reaching across the bar to touch Joe Cullen, and though Cullen did not like to be touched by another man, his feeling for Sullivan was too deep for him to reject him. They had seen too much together.
"Because I seen you walk out of here with Kovach, and I had a feeling he was bracing you for something, and I felt like saying to you, Culley, for Christ's sake, dump him."
"Maybe you should have."
"You want to talk about it?"
Cullen shook his head and then nodded at the woman who sat alone in the booth. He had glimpsed her out of the corner of his eye when he first walked into the bar. Now he looked at her. She had a handsome bony face, dark eyes and black hair, and a good figure. She wore a black suit, and her hair was combed back and cut in a long bob.
"She's a hundred-dollar hooker, name of Sylvia. Some kind of Spanish, but she was born here."
"What's a hundred-dollar hooker doing here?"
"She don't work out of here," Sullivan said. "She lives around the corner. She'll have a drink here because I don't let anyone crap around with her."
"That includes me?"
Sullivan shook his head. "You got a hundred bucks, talk to her, Culley. I didn't want to ask about Frannie?"
"There's nothing to ask. I haven't seen her for almost two years. I never wanted anything from Frannie. I never took anything from her. I don't blame her for taking off. I had no job. I was flying with a little commuter line up in the Mohawk Valley, and making decent pay, and wham, they go out of business, and Frannie never took any shit. That's the third airline goes out of business. It's just a lousy time for the small carriers, and no jobs. Even the hotshot old men on the 747s and the LIO-IIS are getting dumped, and they're still suspicious as hell about the guys from Nam."
Sullivan turned to his cash register, punched it, and took out a few bills.
"Come on," Cullen said. "I ain't poor."
Sullivan shrugged. "The beers are on me." He refilled Cullen's glass, and Cullen took it and walked over to where the dark lady sat, and squeezed into the booth opposite her. "The name is Joe Cullen," he said.
"The booth is occupied." The voice was low and rich.
"You're Sylvia. I'm an old friend of Billy's. I'm civilized. I'm not violent. Tell me to blow and I blow. I don't push ladies around. I'm cold and I'm tired." He took a roll of bills out of his pocket, riffled them, and found two fifty-dollar bills. He slid them across the table.
"For Christ's sake," she said, "it's half-past three in the afternoon, I'm not working. I don't work this place."
"You work the Plaza."
"You're goddamn right I do. And the Saint Regis and the Pierre."
"I didn't say you don't have class. You're a beautiful woman. You don't see many women as good-looking as you."
"Thanks for nothing."
"I'm sorry." He pushed the bills toward her and started to slide out of the booth. "Keep it."
"Hey, wait a minute. Are you crazy? Or do you give a yard to every bimbo that spits in your face?"
"You're no bimbo and you didn't spit in my face."
Cullen sat down and stared at her, smiling wanly.
"I just don't work here," she said. "I work the hotels, the johnny rooms. I work alone because I pay off the bell captains, and I can live without any lousy pimp sucking my blood."
"Billy says you live around the corner."
"Billy should keep his big mouth shut."
"He didn't mean any harm. We go back a long time."
She nodded. "I got a little apartment, but I don't take Johns there." She regarded him thoughtfully. "Who are you? What do you do?"
"I'm a pilot. I fly."
"Are you working?"
"Not right now. I walked out of a job, but it was good money. I got enough to stuff a pig."
"You one of the guys from Nam who hang out here?"
"Does it matter?"
"No. What the hell, you're no crazier than anybody else, and crazy ain't in short supply these days. We'll go up to my place."
Billy Sullivan made a circle of thumb and forefinger as they left.
Her apartment was on the seventeenth floor of a new yellow brick high-rise, and from the windows you could see the Hudson River, a piece of the harbor, and north to the George Washington Bridge in the misty distance. The living room measured twelve by eighteen feet, as did most living rooms in the new high-rises, and standing in the tiny foyer, Cullen could see the open door to the bedroom, as well as the cubicle of a kitchen. In the living room were three overstuffed pieces, two armchairs and a couch, violet carpeting on the floor, and three flower pictures on the walls. He had his own taste in matters of furnishing or decoration, and the place was all right in his mind, neat and nowhere disheveled, and it was clean. Sylvia started toward the bedroom, paused to tell him that he could sit down, and then went into the bedroom and closed the door behind her. Cullen went to the window and stared at the Hudson River and the Jersey shore. The rain had stopped, and the sky over the Hudson was streaked with gashes of silver, gray, and white, the blue sky as a backdrop to the latticework of cold, ripped clouds.
She opened the door slightly to tell him to take off his coat, for God's sake, and put his hat and coat in the closet. In the coat closet, opening off the little foyer, he saw a mink coat, a silk coat with a fur lining, and three cloth coats. Well, it didn't take much to have a mink coat these days. He had bought Frannie one for three thousand dollars, and a hundred-dollar girl who worked without a pimp could pretty damn well afford what she wanted. He couldn't think of her as a hooker. As a matter of fact, he hated the word, even though it had been explained to him by a post librarian in Nam as having nothing to do with the prostitute as a hook, hooking in the poor Johns. He was told, then, that during the American Civil War, a certain General Hooker had seen to it that his men did not lack for female companionship, whereby camp followers were dubbed hookers. Whether or not that was the case, he disliked the word.
He had finished hanging up his coat, and turned around to see Sylvia come out of the bedroom in a lacy negligee that left little to his imagination. She was a tall woman, at least five feet and nine inches, with strong rounded limbs and good breasts. "I should have my head examined for this," she said. "I never had a man up here before. So I'm stupid. Would I be a whore if I wasn't stupid?"
"I'm sorry. Do you want me to go?"
"I got your money — Joe — Joe Cullen?"
"My friends call me Culley."
"I don't know if we're friends, Culley, but you paid your money and you got your choice. You want to go inside and take your clothes off — or what?"
"Suppose we sit down and smoke a cigarette."
"Whatever you say. I don't go uptown until six o'clock or so. I'm in no hurry. Tell me what's with you? You're a good-looking guy, and you got a nice face and you're not crazy — I know crazy, and I run like hell — and you could walk into any singles bar and take your pick for a couple of drinks and whatever, so what is it? You got more pain than anyone needs."
"How do you know that?"
"It shows. Come on, get out of your clothes and we'll fool around."
He lit her cigarette and then his own, but made no move toward the bedroom. Instead, he dropped into one of the armchairs. "No damn use," he said.
"What does that mean?"
"It means I can't get it up and I'd crap out —"
She went into the kitchen then, and Cullen listened to the sound of water and ice. She came back with two oversized old fashioned glasses, loaded with ice and whiskey.
"You drink bourbon?" she asked him.
"I grew up in New Orleans with sweet whiskey. Drink up. You'll feel better. You always had this trouble?"
"I don't want to talk about it," Cullen muttered.
"Oh, shit. Grow up. They sell condoms on the TV now."
"If I always had it, I wouldna come on to you. I got more sense than that. If you came out of that bedroom, looking the way you look, six months ago I would have popped my pants."
He took a drink of the bourbon. "Good. I like bourbon. Nobody drinks it anymore."
"I drink it. Come on, Culley. What happened?"
The bourbon was warm inside him, and on top of the two beers, it warmed him and eased him. This was a beautiful woman. He could see the deep red discs around her nipples, the hard thimbles of her nipples erect and ready. Some damn fool had once argued with him that prostitutes could not be aroused. This woman was aroused. He could taste the hot scent of her, and as he drank the whiskey, raw over the ice, he felt the change and the hardening in his loins.
"I can't tell you."
"You can tell me anything. You know how it goes — a whore's a slob who'll listen to anything."
"Why do you have to call yourself a whore?"
She smiled, rose, and walked behind Cullen and kissed him on the top of his head. Then she dropped down in front of his chair with her arm over his knee. "Because that's what I am, lover."
"Can I have another drink?"
"Makes you nervous, me sitting here."
"Like hell it does. I just need another drink."
"OK, OK, don't bite my head off." She rose and took his glass. "It's not water. You say you're a pilot. What do you fly?"
"Anything. If it has wings, I can fly it. I'm a damn good helicopter pilot, as good as anyone in the business. That's how I was trained, Jesus God forgive me. What in hell difference does it make to you?"
"Just asking." She handed him the drink. "You really blow hot and cold, don't you?"
"You got another name besides Sylvia?"
"Why? Why? I don't know." He felt the second whiskey. He was not the kind of a drinker who could put down a fifth of whiskey and then walk away. The two beers had put a fuzz on his head, and now he was getting truly drunk. It was a warm, comfortable feeling that was nevertheless threaded through with fear, and he fought against the feeling of being enshrouded with fear, like a fly laced into silk by a spider. "You're a lady. Oh, shit, do you know what I mean?"
"Trouble was, Frannie never knew what the hell I was talking about."
"Sylvia Mendoza. No secret. Who's Frannie?"
"My wife. Once."
"So tell me what you want, Culley. Right now, you're sitting here and getting stinking drunk. If you couldn't do it before, you're sure as hell not going to do it now. You want to take the money back and get out of here before you get sick and vomit on my rug. That rug cost me twelve hundred dollars."
"I don't vomit, and I don't want the goddamn money back. I want to talk to someone. I got to talk. Can't you understand that — I got to talk."
She dropped onto the couch, indifferent now to her nakedness as a fact of sex. She had let go of seduction. Seduction was business, and she had dismissed Cullen as a client. "I'll tell you what," she said. "I got a John who's a shrink. I'll make a date for you, and for a hundred dollars an hour, he'll let you talk your head off."
"The hell with that! I don't need no hooker to put me down." He was bristling now. "Who the hell are you to put me down? I paid."
"Come on, come on," she said, getting up and going to him and taking his hand. "I didn't want to make you mad. I'm not putting you down, Culley. Come on to bed. I don't need to be satisfied, I'm not your wife."
"I want to talk."
"Then talk," pulling back from him. "Talk. What's eating you?"
"I'll tell you what's eating me," Cullen said, spacing the words so that each word stood by itself, the way some drunks speak. "I murdered a priest. That's what's eating me."
At first, Sylvia Mendoza did not react. She stood facing Cullen, her mouth slightly open, and that tableau, the two, the man and the woman, facing each other, staring at each other, silent, maintained itself for at least ten or fifteen seconds, and then she whispered, "Say that again, what you just said."
"I murdered a priest."
Now she reacted, her voice shrill, almost a scream. "Get out of here! Get out of here, goddamn you, you crazy motherfucker, you crazy bastard, get out of here or I call the cops!" She ran into the kitchen and returned with a ten-inch butcher knife in her hand. "Don't come near me, motherfucker, or I'll cut your heart out."
Cullen staggered to his feet, his hands spread, palms down. "Hey, take it easy. Be cool. I'm not going to hurt you." He shuffled to the outside door, opened it, and she followed him, the knife outthrust, for all the world like a bullfighter going in for the kill.
"Jesus God," Cullen begged, "get that damn knife away. I ain't going to hurt you."
The door slammed. A moment later it opened, and his hat and coat were flung out into the hall. Other doors were opening now in response to the shouting. Heads peered out, but no one came out of a door and into the hallway. Shocked back into a sort of sobriety, Cullen kept his finger on the elevator button until the car appeared. When at last he left the building to stumble out into the rain, he breathed a sigh of relief.
Excerpted from The Confession of Joe Cullen by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1989 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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