Author: Guede Mazaka
“I moved down to Boston because Boston crime’s straightforward. Uncomplicated. Everything goes back to the seven sins, you can do the psych analysis while your coffee cools down till it won’t burn your fucking tongue off, and at night everyone sleeps the sleep of the simple.” Paul let his head fall back against the couch, watching the ceiling lights slowly spin around and around and around. They’d gotten halos, the lousy smart-ass commentators: bright rings of white light that were doing the dizzy hula above his nauseated mind. “It’s like living in one big, fucking miserable village shit-pit.”
In the background Greenly was banging stuff around. It sounded like glass, mostly, with some plastic mixed in. He was supposed to be making up some decent java, but more likely he was just breaking Paul’s china. Jackass. He should’ve left already, but for some reason he was taking the chief’s order to see Paul off the scene and take care of him much too seriously.
The Scotch wasn’t working fast enough. Well, Greenly had gotten in the way so Paul could only grab one of the little shot-glasses and not the tumbler. At least he hadn’t been stupid enough to take it away till after Paul had poured himself some. Anyway, he was still on shift for another couple of hours, so he had to go soon.
“So you worked New York before?” Greenly called out.
“Yep.” Good riddance to that town. It’d been a melting pot of nutfucks, all whirling together to make a six-year migraine. He’d been glad to get his transfer, even if Boston was the understudy and the New York stage was where reputations got made and broken. Fuck reputations. Paul had cracked his fucking bones in that city and had gotten nothing but hell for it.
The smell of good roast suddenly filled the air, shortly followed by the sound of a steady drip. Apparently Greenly had finally mastered the coffee-maker. “You ever go back? You even get nostalgic at all, or were you born a stone-cold son of a bitch?”
After a moment, Paul laughed. Figured that all he had to do was get drunk for Greenly to toss off the bravado and flash some real fucking balls, like how Paul had been trying to goad the idiot into doing ever since they’d met. The kid had some potential, whacked as it was; he’d at least been trying to come up with a theory about the first killings, whereas his compatriots just stood around and mumbled about the latest Celtics game and dicked around waiting for the labbies to come swab stuff down.
“I went back once. Vacation. But no, Greenly, it wasn’t to hang with my old buddies. I don’t have ‘old buddies.’” Paul could practically hear Greenly thinking ‘thought so’ in that typical complacent idiot tone. “Nobody in New York law enforcement does. Things there are twisted like your little pin-brain couldn’t ever imagine. You want friends, you make them off the beat and far away. Only reason we tolerate Jersey, really.”
“…skunked…” Greenly muttered, slapping around cabinet doors. “Totally skunked. Jesus.”
To be honest, Paul was still several glasses away from being drunk enough to justify the kind of shit he was pouring out right now. But he was just—just wrung out. He already felt like he was hung-over. “I hope it’s not just me you’re referring to, Greenly.”
He closed his eyes. When the footsteps had come near enough to him, he held out a hand. The warm, smooth weight of a mug hit it, then almost slipped through his fingers because he was too slow in closing. He heard Greenly bite off a curse as they fumbled to grab it; their fingers overlapped several times and he could also hear Greenly’s hitching breath, practically stentorian in its inability to keep out the emotion.
“Go back to work, kid,” Paul mumbled. He finally got his index and middle finger hooked through the handle and brought the cup up to his lips. It wasn’t bad, if he’d been trying to get sober. He wasn’t, of course, so it was fucking shit.
Greenly sat down on the fucking couch instead. “You know, you freaked the hell out of us back there.” He probably was scratching nervously at the back of his head there, all big and embarrassed. Then he gulped loud enough to carry across to Paul: cue the grudging sacrifice of personal pride. “Look, man, you’re crazy even when you’re normal. But—okay, but you’ve been more on top of this case than anyone else, so it’s just…kind of worrying to see you flip out like this.”
Yeah, it probably was. God help them if Paul completely shorted out. Who’d get sent in next—Special Ops? Nah. CIA idiot goons, with some Immigration thrown in. The MacManuses—MacMani? MacManii?—were illegals, Paul would stake his last cup of joe on it, and in the insular world of the Boston Irish, violence usually trailed back to the IRA. In this case it most likely was just where they’d happened to have shopped for their weaponry, but hey, it only took a little association to get you blacklisted.
Coffee in one hand, Scotch still in the other. After a second of thought, Paul dumped the one in the other. He was having himself a Gaelic time of it, all right. “I’m not flipping out, dumbass. I flipped out, and now I’m progressing to washing out.”
All right, all right. No scaring the children. At least, not till they were no longer in a position to keep Paul from going out and making a proper crawl of it. “I went back to New York to see a kingpin. Frank White. You heard of him?”
Greenly let out this noise, like he was whistling through clenched teeth, only with more spit in it. “Shit, man. Yeah. Didn’t he almost turn New York upside down? And you knew the—were you on his case the first time around? Y’know, when they finally nailed his ass?”
“No, that was a friend of mine. Roy Connelly.” Made a mean Bloody Mary, Paul idly recalled. He sipped at his coffee. Not enough booze.
“I thought you said—”
“Two days after they took White into custody, Roy gets bombed to Pluto in a parking lot. He was smart enough to ship all the evidence and witnesses to Philly, where the local Cosa Nostra head didn’t like White much, but he was too much of a moron to check his car’s undercarriage every morning.” Actually, he’d been a dickhead just for keeping a car around in the first place. He said it’d been cheaper than renting, what with all the out-of-town jaunts he had to make, but in New York City that was just bravado speaking. Paul always took the subway. Boston was convenient that way, too. “I never met White my whole time in New York. I was working the white-collar end, Wall Street. He liked it best in Harlem.”
That was the first thing any agent or cop had to comment on. Likes it black, licks up that nigger shit, blah blah racist stupid shallow blah. Never mind that for any white guy to get a black gang to split drug profits evenly with him, let alone be fucking loyal to him, said a lot more than just locker-room ethnic slurs could cover.
“So…this guy has your friend assassinated, and then what, you go have lunch with him?”
Paul rolled his eyes. “No, first he did time in jail. I saw him after he got out—just before that whole mess with the NYPD killed him and nearly wiped out half a precinct at the same time. Jesus. If he hadn’t died too, I would’ve shot that fucking stupid captain myself.”
Greenly had that kind of silence that meant only confusion was keeping him from throwing a misguided, ill-informed fit in defense of the grand tradition of law enforcement.
“Right,” Paul snorted, downing more coffee. The whisky barely burned through the sour scummy coating on his tongue. “They shoved that all under the rug. Oh, and it was dinner.”
* * *
It’s actually kind of an accident. Paul’s in town because of White, yeah—because he’s curious to see how this guy made it out of prison and how he’s apparently, so Paul hears, fucking the NYPD into a schizophrenic break. Because he got gently pressured out of his nice cozy Boston beat and back to this shithole to take a working vacation, see the lay of the land and figure out whether maybe it’s something with which his ‘expertise’ might be able to help. But by the time he’s in the restaurant, he’s already looked over the files and said the internal mess-up was so fucking bad it’d be too embarrassing to the local law if he had to get into it. He recommended the NYPD get another few weeks to try and pull its act together on its own, out of respect for his fellow law enforcers.
Bullshit. He hates this city too much to get sucked in again like that. He’s got a night left on his government-paid hotel stay, so he’s taking in the scene again, trying out a food place that wasn’t around when he’d transferred, and then he spots Frank White sitting in the corner booth.
Connelly had once described the guy as a gutter Sphinx. Connelly had been having night terrors and chewing anti-psychotics by the handfuls by that point, but Paul can see where he’s coming from. White’s no ordinary jumped-up street kid, living it large and tacky, and he’s no trust-fund legacy slumming it either. He’s not even the so-called dark side of the American Dream, yuppie gone bad. His shirt-sleeves stick out from his coat exactly the right amount, he’s got a good but not screamingly snotty bottle of wine next to him, and his two girlfriends are wearing outfits too subtly slinky for the middle-class imagination to encompass; they’d call it conservative cut, and they’d be morons.
Paul’s halfway through an uninspired prime rib at that point, and the way he calculates, he’s still got a couple of glasses of cognac in his expense account for this trip. So he waves over the waiter.
The girlfriends go to powder their noses about a beat before the cognac label gets flashed in White’s face, which suits Paul fine. He’s feeling stupid enough about slipping behind the fence of shrubbery that splits the restaurant in two without having to do the polite preliminaries with a bunch of call girls, too.
White pours his own glasses. He raises an eyebrow when Paul slides into the booth across from him. “That’s a nice bottle you sent. But I think you’ve made a mistake.”
“You are Frank White, aren’t you?” Paul tones himself down, thinking as gray as possible. If his interest had been that short-term, he would’ve hit the streets for a fuck, he projects through his eyes. He knows White’s straight as an arrow in that department. “Paul Smecker, FBI.”
The light slicks over White’s eyes like street-lamps over a wet street. He smiles after a moment. He’s got good, straight, big teeth that have the same dull gleam. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”
“My jurisdiction’s Boston, so I wouldn’t know,” Paul says, smiling back. He pours himself his own glass, and whirls the stuff around. His nose gets a good, silky-acrid hit. It is a good bottle. “Though it’s interesting that that’s the first thing you feel you have to say.”
The sounds around them lap up and ebb away: tinkling silverware against porcelain, the soft slosh of liquid in glass, trilling conversation. Apparently White isn’t the kind to say something when it’d just be to bluff, or to maintain the rep, or anything like that. He just sits there, staring, not even twirling the stem of his glass between his fingers.
Across the room, the first of his girlfriends has just come out of the bathroom. She stops, chin rising a fraction, with her eyes on Paul. One well-time second later, the other girl’s sliding out behind her so they can stalk towards the table from opposite sides of the room. But suddenly White, who’s never looked away from Paul, raises his hand. The girls stop.
“Did you come all the way up from Boston to shoot the breeze with me?” he asks, sounding slightly incredulous. His eyes aren’t surprised at all, which Paul finds mildly disconcerting.
Paul tips his glass so the rim just taps his lower lip, then pushes up so he laps a mouthful. It’s smoky, full-bodied, a little hazy on the finish. He shrugs to himself, thinking what the hell, vacation. He’d only respected Connelly’s above-average sarcasm, after all. And he’s never bought into the whole vengeance on those who struck at a cop deal; it’s only natural for a crook to try and kill the guy prosecuting him. “Yeah.”
The girls float towards the far wall and then out the door, like smoke. They don’t look happy, their hands sliding over their hips and inside their clothes for reasons that are more thanatos than the eros in all the belatedly averted gazes from the restaurant’s male population.
“That’s funny.” White smiles again. It’s an odd one, a slight lift of his upper lip to show a strip of teeth. “Most of the cops I meet seem to want to shoot me.”
“So I’m told,” Paul neutrally replies.
That idiot precinct captain should’ve been sacked way into Jersey for the way he’d been handling things. First he sanctioned a series of harassing and manhandling attacks on White that, if the rumors are even half-true, were as juvenile as they were unethical, and then he loses control of his detectives like that. Three dead, and one in a public shotgunning that can’t be covered up as easy as three carloads of cops going on a fucking vigilante spree through the slums. Insert sarcasm here, because Paul doesn’t even have the fucking words--respect is what lets a cop in a stupid polyester uniform rule over a neighborhood of several hundred. And respect—respect and revenge both aren’t born out of unzipping and getting into the same ghetto-ass pissing contest as the criminals because hell, they’re good at it. They’re always gonna be better at it than the cops, because that’s how they live.
They’re used to it too, to getting and giving it, so not like it’s even going to do the favor of scaring them. It’s not even going to make an impression. What does is reminding their sorry asses that the law’s a higher power, that it’s better than their shit-for-brain selves, that it’s got a right to screw with them when they can’t screw back. What does is fucking the criminals right where they never would’ve expected it, with ways they never could duplicate because they’re on the wrong dumbass side.
“I’m not a cop. I’m Federal,” Paul thoughtfully adds after a moment.
White hums to himself. He’s having the strip steak, and now he goes back to cutting it. In his hands the knife slides gracefully, smoothly through the meat, spilling generous red juices without resorting to that awkward sawing motion most people use. His smile’s retreated to just a curve of one side of his mouth. “There’s a difference? I never noticed, where I am. Seems like they’re all just the same short-tempered, bad-mannered guardians of the law.”
“Well, I’d say you were the same as King Tito and Larry Wong, if I didn’t know better. But you’re not.” Paul lets himself lean back and be cradled by the rich, overstuffed leather-covered back of the booth. He drinks his cognac slowly, sparing his throat from the usual hard flood of harsh liquor.
“Yeah,” White chuckles. He maybe could be in the running to play nice old grandfather someday. If he didn’t sit in the dark, where the shadows glove his hands. His eyes are washed-out pieces of glass, hard but mostly substance-less. “Yeah.” He flicks his gaze up, face suffused with a flicker of fury though his jaw remains relaxed, working at the meat tucked into his cheek. “Yeah, because I win.”
He’s not bragging. Frowning, Paul reviews the man’s tone in his head. “Think you can play the same game with the police?”
“They’re the police. The ball’s always in their court, Agent.” The last word slithers out of White’s mouth. He’s laughing at Paul, almost affectionately. Kind of the way incest is love of the family. “I just do what I have to in order to keep up.”
“To do what?” Paul asks. He waves his hand vaguely at White’s questioning look. “I’m assuming you’ve got a reason, a motivation. It’d piss me off if you were doing this just because you can, or some movie crap like that.”
That had been a lapse, and White zeroes in on it. “Piss you off?”
Well, it’s out there now, so Paul’s not going to be stupid enough to try and take it back, or to downplay it. He shrugs. “Look, the vast majority of cops and agents are power-trippers and violence-lovers on some level. Mostly it’s on the level of I-can-do-something, sometimes it’s on the level of I-can-fuck-with-you. Same as with most perps, only with badges and licensed guns.” That gets a knowing grin from White, who is gradually sinking into an elegant slouch. “But they’re not the law, anyway. The law is ordered social morality. And law enforcers—real ones—they like order.”
“I like you,” White says without preamble, flat monotone conveying more sincerity than a dozen hysterical fits. “It’s a good thing you’re in Boston.”
“I think so too, considering what happens to things you like. So do I need to wrap up, or can I just hand you a mirror?” Paul ripostes.
Oddly enough, this doesn’t pass with much approval on White’s part. He skids the knife over his plate, making it rasp loud enough to attract a few curious stares. Then he abruptly lets the knife flip over the back of his hand to land neatly against the edge of the plate. The clink rings through the room, silencing it for a moment.
“What I like’s doing some good. When I was in prison, you were dealing with what, four or five factions? Everybody fighting for turf, doing as much killing as selling. Wiping out the ground staff, sometimes popping off customers, too. Dumb.” White shakes his head. “My home neighborhood, it didn’t even have a proper hospital to deal with it. I put twelve million into its hospital, I ended the fighting. You can’t tell me the streets aren’t a little better for it.”
“And what about all the homes you’re breaking up and lives you’re ruining by playing to America’s drug problem?” Paul speaks a little too quickly. He’s used to the money-laundering and the guilt-tripping, even the crime-as-business metaphor. The idea of mergers-and-acquisitions leading to stability is a new one, though. And it’s a good one: before White came back, Paul’s ears were dinning with the sound of people bitching about Tito, about Wong, about Clay. There’s only so many government resources to go around, and way too many who need it.
A little spark gets in White’s eye. He blinks and it’s more firmly set. “But I’ve got invitations into those homes, into those lives. Like you said, law’s what society says it is. What is it, eighty years ago, they said you can’t buy booze. Okay. People bought anyway, so they had to change the law again. The law’s whatever people say it is, and I think I speak more for what people say than you do.”
“Cocaine does more damage than alcohol,” Paul says. His tongue’s limp; he has to force it out.
White doesn’t even respond. He just looks at Paul, head on a slight tilt, and snorts. The corner of his mouth is curling up, saying that he knows Paul knows better, and Paul knows that, too.
“I want order in my life, too,” White comments finally, tone reflective. He lays his hands on the table, spreads the fingers slightly. “What could I do without it? I’ve got to have order so people feel safe enough to come out and do business with me. I’ve got to have it so I don’t get cheated, so I make sure my customer comes back and my business partners are happy with their share. You know what’s bad for order? Jealousy. Tito always marked up his shit two, three hundred times before he’d sell to a black, just because he thought there was something wrong with black skin. So the blacks hated him, were envious of his profits. But me…I sell the same to everybody. I don’t care—if they’re buying, I’m selling. And we all win. And they’re not jealous.”
“So the solution to America’s racial problems is to give everyone the same deal on a nickel bag?” Paul’s incredulous. And he’s covering up, but badly. He pushes one hand into the other to stop the shaking. The cognac doesn’t taste so nice anymore, and it sure as hell isn’t steadying him.
The uptilt at the corner of White’s mouth pulls into a full smile. It’s sleek, aloof, amused. “It works for me.”
“Society would fall apart. You can’t trust a junkie to…to handle air traffic at La Guardia,” Paul mutters.
“I never said that. I just believe in ordering my world.” White lifts his hand a fraction, sending a waiter scurrying over. He gets shown a bill, but then the waiter puts it away and no credit card or signature follows. They let him run a tab, apparently. “It’s not my fault if my world keeps getting bigger as people move into it. I’ve got to run, but I like this conversation. Tell you what, next time you’re in town, leave a message for me at the Plaza Hotel. We’ll finish up.”
He flashes his teeth a last time, like a shark just issuing a warning, then slips out of his seat and glides through the quiet room. Paul sits where he is and watches him go.
Eventually Paul notices the waiter is trying to get his attention: White’s paid for his meal, too. It takes a half-hour and finally some badge-waving to make the manager let Paul pay for it instead, because hell if the FBI’s going to take a guy this close to making the national Public Enemy list pick up Paul’s tab.
Paul hits his hotel room and orders a bottle of whiskey. It doesn’t work right up till he passes out.
* * *
“Of course, that idiot precinct captain did do us all the favor of getting a lucky shot during his rampage and killing White about a week later,” Paul said. He wished his chair here was a swivel, like the one in his office. Right now he needed that building vertigo, that sick spinning of the world around him, and since he couldn’t get it by way of booze…God, he needed Greenly to go.
Greenly sat where he was, like a big lump of furrowed caveman brow. Then he put his hands on his knees and stretched, his eyes going up to fix on Paul. “Were you, y’know, planning to go back?”
Well. That took a little more perspicacity than Paul had thought him capable of. “Like I said, it’s a fucking good thing White got shot. Triumph of chaos, after all, but whatever the fuck. His kind of order’s the really dangerous kind. Makes you think it’s a viable substitute, and you gotta remember, they’re criminals and you’re fucking well not.”
“Huh,” Greenly said. It was a reasonably intelligent answer, given the circumstances.
Paul let it ride for a few moments before he sighed. “All right, does that prove I’m not about to go skipping off to the crazy train? Jesus Christ, the day I need a babysitter—”
“Okay, okay. Geez, you’re such a prick…” He was ungrateful, Greenly didn’t know why he even bothered, if he wanted to go jump off the building now Greenly sure as hell wasn’t going to stop him…et cetera till Greenly finally shut the damn door behind himself.
Idiot. Maybe he would’ve done for a breather. Maybe Paul might do him just to get a damn breather from his uncertain hovering. But at any rate, he didn’t get it. The real problem with Frank White, actually, wasn’t how good he’d made his brand of order look, but was that he’d died. Paul had already known legal order was a jury-rigged mess, and then he’d gotten proof that the hope wasn’t in illegal order, either. Wasn’t in any kind of order, in fact. And God, it’d hurt.
He’d sent an anonymous floral display to White’s grave, and had quietly let that side of him go into the dark.
That street-fight had had to be pure fucking chaos, Paul thought. He grabbed his keys and was out the door as soon as he heard Greenly’s car pulling away from the curb. Chaos. It was starting to look pretty goddamn good.