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Deacon King Kong / (by James McBride, 2020) -

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Deacon King Kong /    (by James McBride, 2020) -

Deacon King Kong / (by James McBride, 2020) -

1969 . - , . . . . , . , 1969 . , , , . , . , . , , , , .

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Deacon King Kong / (by James McBride, 2020) -
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2020
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James McBride
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Dominic Hoffman
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upper-intermediate
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14:05:43
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Deacon King Kong / :

.doc (Word) james_mcbride_-_deacon_king_kong.doc [1.02 Mb] (c: 1) .
.pdf james_mcbride_-_deacon_king_kong.pdf [2.21 Mb] (c: 3) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: Deacon King Kong

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1 JESUS_S CHEESE Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969. That_s the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .38 Colt in the face of a nineteen-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens, and pulled the trigger. There were a lot of theories floating around the projects as to why old Sportcoat_a wiry, laughing brown-skinned man who had coughed, wheezed, hacked, guffawed, and drank his way through the Cause Houses for a good part of his seventy-one years_shot the most ruthless drug dealer the projects had ever seen. He had no enemies. He had coached the projects baseball team for fourteen years. His late wife, Hettie, had been the Christmas Club treasurer of his church. He was a peaceful man beloved by all. So what happened? The morning after the shooting, the daily gathering of retired city workers, flophouse bums, bored housewives, and ex-convicts who congregated in the middle of the projects at the park bench near the flagpole to sip free coffee and salute Old Glory as it was raised to the sky had all kinds of theories about why old Sportcoat did it. _Sportcoat had rheumatic fever,_ declared Sister Veronica Gee, the president of the Cause Houses Tenant Association and wife of the minister at Five Ends Baptist Church, where Sportcoat had served for fifteen years. She told the gathering that Sportcoat was planning to preach his first-ever sermon that upcoming Friends and Family Day at Five Ends Baptist, titled _Don_t Eat the Dressing Without Confessing._ She also threw in that the church_s Christmas Club money was missing, _but if Sportcoat took it, it was on account of that fever,_ she noted. Sister T. J. Billings, known affectionately as _Bum-Bum,_ head usher at Five Ends, whose ex-husband was the only soul in that church_s storied history to leave his wife for a man and live to tell about it (he moved to Alaska), had her own theory. She said Sportcoat shot Deems because the mysterious ants had returned to Building 9. _Sportcoat,_ she said grimly, _is under an evil spell. There_s a mojo about._ Miss Izi Cordero, vice president of the Puerto Rican Statehood Society of the Cause Houses, who had actually been standing just thirty feet away when Sportcoat pointed his ancient peashooter at Deems_s skull and cut loose, said the whole ruckus started because Sportcoat was blackmailed by a certain _evil Spanish gangster,_ and she knew exactly who that gangster was and planned to tell the cops all about him. Of course everybody knew she was talking about her Dominican ex-husband, Joaquin, who was the only honest numbers runner in the projects, and that she and her Joaquin hated each other_s guts and each had worked to get the other arrested for the last twenty years. So there was that. Hot Sausage, the Cause Houses janitor and Sportcoat_s best friend, who raised the flag each morning and doled out free coffee care of the Cause Houses Senior Center, told the gathering that Sportcoat shot Deems on account of the annual baseball game between the Cause Houses and their rival, the Watch Houses, being canceled two years before. _Sportcoat,_ he said proudly, _is the only umpire both teams allowed._ But it was Dominic Lefleur, the Haitian Cooking Sensation, who lived in Sportcoat_s building, who best summed up everybody_s feelings. Dominic had just returned from a nine-day visit to see his mother in Port-au-Prince, where he contracted and then passed around the usual strange Third World virus that floored half his building, sending residents crapping and puking and avoiding him for days_though the virus never seemed to affect him. Dominic saw the whole stupid travesty through his bathroom window as he was shaving. He walked into his kitchen, sat down to eat lunch with his teenage daughter, who was quaking with a temperature of 103, and said, _I always knew old Sportcoat would do one great thing in life._ The fact is, no one in the projects really knew why Sportcoat shot Deems_not even Sportcoat himself. The old deacon could no more explain why he shot Deems than he could explain why the moon looked like it was made of cheese, or why fruit flies come and go, or how the city dyed the waters of the nearby Causeway Harbor green every St. Paddy_s Day. The night before, he_d dreamed of his wife, Hettie, who had vanished during the great snowstorm of 1967. Sportcoat loved to tell that story to his friends. _It was a beautiful day,_ he said. _The snow came down like ashes from the sky. It was just a big, white blanket. The projects was so peaceful and clean. Me and Hettie ate some crabs that night, then stood by the window and watched the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. Then we went to sleep. _In the middle of the night, she shook me woke. I opened my eyes and seen a light floating _round the room. It was like a little candlelight. _Round and _round it went, then out the door. Hettie said, _That_s God_s light. I got to fetch some moonflowers out the harbor._ She put on her coat and followed it outside._ When asked why he didn_t go to the nearby Causeway Harbor after her, Sportcoat was incredulous. _She was following God_s light,_ he said. _Plus, the Elephant was out there._ He had a point. Tommy Elefante, the Elephant, was a heavyset, brooding Italian who favored ill-fitting suits and ran his construction and trucking businesses out of an old railroad boxcar at the harbor pier two blocks from the Cause Houses and just a block from Sportcoat_s church. The Elephant and his silent, grim Italians, who worked in the dead of night hauling God knows what in and out of that boxcar, were a mystery. They scared the shit out of everybody. Not even Deems, evil as he was, fooled with them. So Sportcoat waited till the next morning to look for Hettie. It was Sunday. He rose early. The project residents were still asleep and the freshly fallen snow was largely untouched. He followed her tracks to the pier, where they ended at the water_s edge. Sportcoat stared out over the water and saw a raven flying high overhead. _It was beautiful,_ he told his friends. _It circled a few times, then flew high up and was gone._ He watched the bird till it was out of sight, then trudged back through the snow to the tiny cinder-block structure that was Five Ends Baptist Church, whose small congregation was gathering for its eight a.m. service. He walked in just as Reverend Gee, standing at his pulpit in front of the church_s sole source of heat, an old woodstove, was reading off the Sick and Shut-in Prayer List. Sportcoat took a seat in a pew amid a few sleepy worshippers, picked up a tiny one-sheet church program, and scrawled in a shaky hand, _Hettie,_ then handed it to the usher, Sister Gee, who was dressed in white. She walked it up to her husband and handed it to him just as Pastor Gee began reading the list out loud. The list was always long, and it usually bore the same names anyway: this one sick in Dallas, that one dying out in Queens someplace, and of course Sister Paul, an original founder of Five Ends. She was 102, and had been living in an old folks_ home way out in Bensonhurst so long that only two people in the congregation actually remembered her. In fact there was some question as to whether Sister Paul was still alive, and there was some general noise in the congregation that maybe somebody_like the pastor_ought to ride out there and check. _I would go,_ Pastor Gee said, _but I like my teeth._ Everybody knew the white folks in Bensonhurst weren_t fond of the Negro. Besides, the pastor noted cheerfully, Sister Paul_s tithes of $4.13 came by mail faithfully every month, and that was a good sign. Standing at his pulpit mumbling down the Sick and Shut-in Prayer List, Pastor Gee received the paper bearing Hettie_s name without a blink. When he read out her name he smiled and quipped, _Git in your soul, brother. A working wife is good for life!_ It was a funny dig at Sportcoat, who hadn_t held a steady job in years, while Hettie raised their only child and still worked a job. Reverend Gee was a handsome, good-natured man who liked a joke, though at the time he was fresh off scandal himself, having recently been spotted over at Silky_s Bar on Van Marl Street trying to convert a female subway conductor with boobs the size of Milwaukee. He was on thin ice with the congregation because of it, so when no one laughed, his face grew stern and he read Hettie_s name aloud, then sang _Somebody_s Calling My Name._ The congregation joined in and they all sang and prayed and Sportcoat felt better. So did Reverend Gee. That night Hettie still didn_t come home. Two days later, the Elephant_s men discovered Hettie floating near the shore at the pier, her face gently draped with a scarf she_d worn around her neck when she left the apartment. They pulled her out of the bay, wrapped her in a wool blanket, laid her gently on a large tuft of clean, white snow near the boxcar, then sent for Sportcoat. When he got there, they handed him a fifth of scotch without a word, called the cops, and then vanished. The Elephant wanted no confusion. Hettie was not one of his. Sportcoat understood. Hettie_s funeral was the usual death extravaganza at Five Ends Baptist. Pastor Gee was an hour late to the service because gout had swollen his feet so badly he couldn_t get his church shoes on. The funeral director, old white-haired Morris Hurly, whom everybody called Hurly Girly behind his back because, well . . . everybody knew Morris was . . . well, he was cheap and talented and always two hours late with the body, but everybody knew Hettie would look like a million bucks, which she did. The delay gave Pastor Gee a chance to preside over a hank between the ushers about the flower arrangements. No one knew where to put them. Hettie had been the one who always figured out where the flowers went, placing the geraniums in this corner, and the roses near this pew, and the azaleas by the stained-glass window to comfort this or that family. But today Hettie was the guest of honor, which meant the flowers were scattered helter-skelter, just where the deliverymen dropped them, so it took Sister Gee, stepping in as usual, to figure that out. Meanwhile Sister Bibb, the voluptuous church organist, who at fifty-five years old was thick-bodied, smooth and brown as a chocolate candy bar, arrived in terrible shape. She was coming off her once-a-year sin jamboree, an all-night, two-fisted, booze-guzzling, swig-faced affair of delicious tongue-in-groove-licking and love-smacking with her sometimes boyfriend, Hot Sausage, until Sausage withdrew from the festivities for lack of endurance. _Sister Bibb,_ he once complained to Sportcoat, _is a grinder, and I don_t mean organ._ She arrived with a pounding headache and a sore shoulder from some kind of tugging from last night_s howling bliss. She sat at her organ in a stupor, her head resting on the keys, as the congregation wandered in. After a few minutes, she left the sanctuary and headed for the basement ladies_ room, hoping it was empty. But she stumbled down the stairs on the way and twisted her ankle badly. She suffered the injury without blasphemy or complaint, vomited last night_s revelry into the toilet of the empty bathroom, refreshed her lipstick and checked her hair, then returned to the sanctuary, where she played the whole service with her ankle swollen to the size of a cantaloupe. She limped back to her apartment afterward, furious and repentant, spitting venom at Hot Sausage, who had gotten his breath back from the previous night_s tumble and now wanted more. He followed her home like a puppy, lingering half a block behind her, crouching behind the mulberry bushes that lined the projects_ walkways. Every time Sister Bibb looked over her shoulder and saw Hot Sausage_s porkpie hat protruding over the bushes, she flew into a rage. _Git gone, varmint,_ she snapped. _I_m done merryin_ with you!_ Sportcoat, however, arrived at the church in great shape, having spent the previous night celebrating Hettie_s life with his buddy Rufus Harley, who was from his hometown and was his second-best friend in Brooklyn after Hot Sausage. Rufus was janitor at the nearby Watch Houses just a few blocks off, and while he and Hot Sausage didn_t get along_Rufus was from South Carolina, while Sausage hailed from Alabama_Rufus made a special blend of white lightning known as King Kong that everyone, even Hot Sausage, enjoyed. Sportcoat didn_t like the name of Rufus_s specialty and over the years had proposed several names for it. _You could sell this stuff like hoecakes if it weren_t named after a gorilla,_ he said once. _Why not call it Nellie_s Nightcap, or Gideon_s Sauce?_ But Rufus always scoffed at the notions. _I used to call it Sonny Liston,_ he said, referring to the feared Negro heavyweight champ whose hammer-like fists knocked opponents out cold, _till Muhammad Ali come along._ Sportcoat had to agree that by whatever name, Rufus_s white lightning was the best in Brooklyn. The night had been long and merry with talk of their hometown of Possum Point, and the next morning Sportcoat was in fine shape, seated in the first pew of Five Ends Baptist, smiling as the ladies in white fussed over him and the two best singers in the choir got into a fight over the church_s sole microphone. Church fights are normally hushed, hissy affairs, full of quiet backstabbing, intrigue, and whispered gossip about bad rice and beans. But this spat was public, the best kind. The two choir members involved, Nanette and Sweet Corn, known as the Cousins, were both thirty-three, beautiful, and wonderful singers. They had been raised as sisters, still lived together, and had recently had a terrible spat about a worthless young man from the projects named Pudding. The results were fantastic. The two took their rage at each other out on the music, each trying to outdo the other, hollering with glorious savagery about the coming redemption of our mighty King and Savior, Jesus the Christ of Nazareth. Reverend Gee, inspired by the sight of the Cousins_ lovely breasts swelling beneath their robes as they roared, followed with a thunderous eulogy to make up for his joke about Hettie when she was already dead in the harbor, which made the whole thing the best home-going service Five Ends Baptist had seen in years. Sportcoat watched it all in awe, reveling in the spectacle with delight, marveling at the Willing Workers in their white dresses and fancy hats who scurried about and fussed over him and his son, Pudgy Fingers, who sat next to him. Pudgy Fingers, twenty-six, blind, and said to be half a loaf short in his mind, had evolved from childhood fat to sweet slimness, his etched chocolate features hidden by expensive dark glasses donated by some long-forgotten social service agency worker. He ignored everything as usual, though he didn_t eat afterward at the church meal, which wasn_t normal for Pudgy Fingers. But Sportcoat loved it. _It was wonderful,_ he told his friends after the service. _Hettie would have loved it._ That night he dreamed of Hettie, and like he often did in the evenings when she was alive, he told her the titles of sermons he planned to preach one day, which usually amused her, since he always had the titles but never the content: _God Bless the Cow,_ and _I Thank Him for the Corn,_ and __Boo!_ Said the Chicken._ But that night she seemed irritated, sitting in a chair in a purple dress, her legs crossed, listening with a frown as he talked, so he brought her up to date on the cheery news of her funeral. He told her how beautiful her service was, the flowers, the food, the speeches, and the music, and how happy he was that she had received her wings and gone on to her reward, though she could have left him a little advice about how he could get hold of her Social Security. Didn_t she know it was a pain to stand in line downtown at the Social Security office all day? And what about the Christmas Club money she collected, where the members of Five Ends put away money every week so they could buy Christmas gifts in December for their kids? Hettie was the treasurer, but she had never said where she hid the money. _Everybody asking about their jack,_ he said. _You shoulda told where you hid it._ Hettie ignored the question as she fluffed at a wrinkled spot in her bodice. _Stop talking to the child in me,_ she said. _You been talking to the child in me fifty-one years._ _Where_s the money?_ _Check your poop hole, you drinking dog!_ _We got some chips in there, too, y_know!_ _We?_ She smirked. _You ain_t throwed a dime in there in twenty years, you joy-juice-swillin_, lazy, no-good bum!_ She stood up, and just like that they were off, arguing like the old days, a catfight that developed into the usual roaring, fire-breathing, ass-out brawl that continued after he awoke, with her following him around as usual, with her hands on her hips, tossing zingers while he tried to walk away, snapping back responses over his shoulder. They argued that day and the next, fussing right through breakfast, lunch, and into the next day. To an outsider, Sportcoat appeared to be talking to walls as he went about his usual duties: down into the projects boiler room for a quick snort with Hot Sausage, back up the stairs to apartment 4G, out again to take Pudgy Fingers to where the bus picked him up to take him to the blind people_s social center, then out to work his usual odd jobs, and then back home again. Wherever he went, the two of them fussed. Or at least Sportcoat did. The neighbors could not see Hettie, of course: they just stared at him talking to someone nobody could see. Sportcoat paid them no mind when they stared. Fussing with Hettie was the most natural thing in the world to do. He_d done it for forty years. He couldn_t believe it. Gone was the tender, shy, sweet little thing that giggled back in Possum Point when they slipped into the high corn of her daddy_s garden and he poured wine down her shirt and thumbed her boobs. Now she was all New York: insolent, mouthy, and fresh, appearing out of nowhere at the oddest times of the day, and each time wearing a new damn wig on her head, which, he suspected, was something she_d received from the Lord as a gift for her life struggles. The morning he shot Deems she_d appeared as a redhead, which startled him, and worse, she flew into a rage when he asked, for the umpteenth time, about the Christmas Club money. _Woman, where_s them dollars? I got to come up with them people_s chips._ _I ain_t got to tell it._ _That_s stealing!_ _Look who_s talking. The cheese thief!_ That last crack stung him. For years, the New York City Housing Authority, a mega-mass of bloated bureaucracy, a hotbed of grift, graft, games, payola bums, deadbeat dads, payoff racketeers, and old-time political appointees who lorded over the Cause Houses and every other one of New York_s forty-five housing projects with arrogant inefficiency, had inexplicably belched forth a phenomenal gem of a gift to the Cause Houses: free cheese. Who pushed the button, who filled out the paperwork, who made the cheese magically appear, no one knew_not even Bum-Bum, who made it her cause d_?tre for years to find out the origin of the cheese. The assumption was it came from Housing, but nobody was stupid enough to awaken that beast by calling downtown to ask. Why bother? The cheese was free. It came like clockwork for years, every first Saturday of the month, arriving like magic in the wee hours in Hot Sausage_s boiler room in the basement of Building 17. Ten crates of it, freshly chilled in five-pound hunks. This wasn_t plain old housing-projects _cheese food_; nor was it some smelly, curdled, reluctant Swiss cheese material snatched from a godforsaken bodega someplace, gathering mold in some dirty display case while mice gnawed at it nightly, to be sold to some sucker fresh from Santo Domingo. This was fresh, rich, heavenly, succulent, soft, creamy, kiss-my-ass, cows-gotta-die-for-this, delightfully salty, moo-ass, good old white folks cheese, cheese to die for, cheese to make you happy, cheese to beat the cheese boss, cheese for the big cheese, cheese to end the world, cheese so good it inspired a line every first Saturday of the month: mothers, daughters, fathers, grandparents, disabled in wheelchairs, kids, relatives from out of town, white folks from nearby Brooklyn Heights, and even South American workers from the garbage-processing plant on Concord Avenue, all patiently standing in a line that stretched from the interior of Hot Sausage_s boiler room to Building 17_s outer doorway, up the ramp to the sidewalk, curling around the side of the building and to the plaza near the flagpole. The unlucky ones at the end of the line were forced to constantly watch over their shoulders for the cops_free or not, something this good had to have an angle_while the ones near the front of the line salivated and edged forward anxiously, hoping the supply would last, knowing that to get within sight of the cheese and then witness the supply run out was akin to experiencing sudden coitus interruptus. Naturally, Sportcoat_s affinity with the very important distributor of that item, Hot Sausage, guaranteed him a hunk no matter what the demand, which was always good news for him and Hettie. Hettie especially loved that cheese. So her crack about it infuriated him. _You ate that cheese, didn_t you?_ Sportcoat said. _You ate it like a butcher_s dog every time. Stolen or not. You liked it._ _It was from Jesus._ That drove him wild, and he harangued her till she disappeared. Their fights, in the weeks previous to the shooting, had become so heated he had begun to rehearse his arguments to himself before she appeared, drinking booze in her absence to clarify his thoughts and wipe the cobwebs out his mind so he could lay out his reasoning clearly and show her who was boss once she showed up, which made him seem even more bizarre to the residents of the Cause Houses, seeing Sportcoat in the hall holding a bottle of Rufus_s homemade King Kong in the air and saying to no one in particular, _Who_s bringing the cheese? Jesus or me? If I_m the one standing in line for the cheese . . . And I_m the one fetching the cheese. And I_m the one hauling the cheese home in the rain and snow. Who_s bringing the cheese? Jesus or me?_ His friends excused it. His neighbors ignored it. His church family at Five Ends shrugged. Big deal. So Sport was a little crazy. Everybody in the Cause had a reason to be a little left-handed. Take Neva Ramos, the Dominican beauty in Building 5 who poured a glass of water on the head of any man stupid enough to stand beneath her window. Or Dub Washington from Building 7, who slept in an old factory at Vitali Pier and got busted every winter for shoplifting at the same Park Slope grocery store. Or Bum-Bum, who stopped in front of the picture of the black Jesus painted on the back wall of Five Ends each morning before work to pray aloud for the destruction of her ex-husband, that the Lord might set his balls on fire and they might sizzle on a frying pan like two tiny, flattened potato pancakes. It was all explainable. Neva got wronged on her job by her boss. Dub Washington wanted a warm jail. Sister Bum-Bum_s husband left her for a man. So what? Everyone had a reason to be crazy in the Cause. There was mostly a good reason behind everything. Until Sportcoat shot Deems. That was different. Trying to find reason in that was like trying to explain how Deems went from being a cute pain in the ass and the best baseball player the projects had ever seen to a dreadful, poison-selling, murderous meathead with all the appeal of a cyclops. It was impossible. _If there_s no time limit on fortune-cookie predictions, Sportcoat might make it,_ Bum-Bum said. _But outside of that, I reckon he_s on the short list._ She was right. Everyone agreed. Sportcoat was a dead man. 2 A DEAD MAN Of course the folks in the Cause Houses had predicted Sportcoat_s death for years. Every year in the spring, when the project residents would emerge from their apartments like burrowed groundhogs to walk along the plaza and sample whatever good air was left in the Causeway_much of it polluted from the nearby wastewater-treatment plant_some resident would spy Sportcoat staggering through the plaza after a night of bingeing on King Kong rotgut at Rufus_s or playing bid whist at Silky_s Bar over on Van Marl Street and say, _He_s done._ When he caught the flu back in _58, which floored half of Building 9 and gave Deacon Erskine of Mighty Hand Gospel Tabernacle his Final Wings, Sister Bum-Bum declared, _He_s going up yonder._ When the ambulance came to get him after his third stroke in _62, Ginny Rodriguez of Building 19 grumbled, _He_s finished._ That was the same year that Miss Izi of the Puerto Rican Statehood Society won raffle tickets to see the New York Mets at the Polo Grounds. She predicted the Mets, who had lost 120 games that year, would win and they did, which encouraged her to announce Sportcoat_s death two weeks later, explaining that Dominic Lefleur, the Haitian Sensation, had just arrived back from Port-au-Prince after visiting his mother, and she actually saw Sportcoat drop in his tracks, right in front of his apartment on the fourth floor, from the strange virus Dominic brought back that year. _He went _fatty boom bang_!_ she exclaimed. Gone. Quit. Outta here. She even pointed to the black van from the city morgue that showed up that night and hauled out a body as proof, only to recant the whole bit the next morning when it turned out the body they_d claimed belonged to the Haitian Sensation_s brother El Haji, who had converted to Islam and broken his mother_s heart, then collapsed of a heart attack after his first day on the job driving a city bus_after trying to get on at Transit for three years, too, imagine that. Still, Sportcoat seemed earmarked for death. In fact, even the cheerful souls at Five Ends Baptist_where Sportcoat served as a deacon and president of the Five Ends chapter of the Grand Brotherhood of the Brooklyn Elks Lodge N47, which for the grand sum of $16.75 (paid annually, money order only please) had a standing guarantee from the head honchos at Five Ends Baptist to _funeralize any and all Brooklyn Elks Lodge members who need final servicing, at cost of course,_ with Sportcoat serving as honorary pallbearer_had predicted his death. _Sportcoat,_ Sister Veronica Gee of Five Ends said soberly, _is a sick man._ She was right. At seventy-one, Sportcoat had contracted almost every disease known to man. He had gout. He had the piles. He had rheumatoid arthritis, which crippled his back so bad he limped like a hunchback on overcast days. He had a cyst on his left arm the size of a lemon, and a hernia in his groin the size of an orange. When the hernia grew to the size of a grapefruit, doctors recommended surgery. Sportcoat ignored them, so a kind social worker at the local health clinic signed him up for every alternative therapy known to man: acupuncture, magnet therapy, herbal remedies, holistic healing, applying leeches, gait analysis, and plant remedies with genetic variations. None of them worked. With each failure his health declined further and the death predictions grew more frequent and ominous. But not one of them came true. The fact is, unbeknownst to the residents of the Cause, the death of Cuffy Jasper Lambkin_which was Sportcoat_s real name_had been predicted long before he arrived at the Cause Houses. When he was slapped to life back in Possum Point, South Carolina, seventy-one years before, the midwife who delivered him watched in horror as a bird flew through an open window and fluttered over the baby_s head, then flew out again, a bad sign. She announced, _He_s gonna be an idiot,_ handed him to his mother, and vanished, moving to Washington, DC, where she married a plumber and never delivered another baby again. Bad luck seemed to follow the baby wherever he went. Baby Cuffy got colic, typhoid fever, the measles, the mumps, and scarlet fever. At age two, he swallowed everything: marbles, rocks, dirt, spoons, and once got a kitchen ladle caught in his ear, which had to be extracted by a doctor over at the university hospital in Columbia. At age three, when a young local pastor came by to bless the baby, the child barfed green matter all over the pastor_s clean white shirt. The pastor announced, _He_s got the devil_s understanding,_ and departed for Chicago, where he quit the gospel and became a blues singer named Tampa Red and recorded the monster hit song _Devil_s Understanding,_ before dying in anonymity flat broke and crawling into history, immortalized in music studies and rock-and-roll college courses the world over, idolized by white writers and music intellectuals for his classic blues hit that was the bedrock of the forty-million-dollar Gospel Stam Music Publishing empire, from which neither he nor Sportcoat ever received a dime. At age five, Baby Sportcoat crawled to a mirror and spit at his reflection, a call sign to the devil, and as a result didn_t grow back teeth until he was nine. His mother tried everything to make his back teeth grow. She dug up a mole, cut off its feet, and hung the feet on a necklace around the baby_s neck. She rubbed fresh rabbit brains on his gums. She stuffed snake rattles, hog tails, and finally alligator teeth in his pockets, to no avail. She let a dog tread on him, a sure remedy, but the dog bit him and ran off. Finally she called an old medicine woman from the Sea Islands who cut a sprig of green bush, talked Cuffy_s real name to it, and hung the bag upside down in the corner of the room. When she departed she said, _Don_t say his true name again for eight months._ The mother complied, calling him _Sportcoat,_ a term she_d overheard while pulling cotton at the farm of J. C. Yancy of Barnwell County, where she worked shares, one of her white bosses uttering it to refer to his shiny new green-and-white-plaid sport coat, which he proudly wore the very afternoon he bought it, cutting a dazzling figure atop his horse in the harsh Southern sun, his shotgun across his lap, dozing up on his mount at the end of the cotton row while the colored workers laughed up their sleeves and the other overseers snickered. Eight months later she woke up and found the mouth of ten-year-old Sportcoat full of back teeth. She sought out the medicine woman excitedly, who came over, examined Cuffy_s mouth, and said, _He_s gonna have more teeth than an alligator,_ whereupon the mother happily patted the boy on the head, lay down for a nap, and expired. The boy never recovered from his mother_s death. The ache in his heart grew to the size of a watermelon. But the medicine woman was right. He grew enough teeth for two people. They sprouted like wildflowers. Bicuspids, molars, liners, fat long double chompers, wide teeth in the front, narrow teeth in the back. But there were too many of them, and they crowded his gums and had to be pulled out, the extractions dutifully done by delighted white dental students at the University of South Carolina, who desperately needed patients to work on to obtain their degrees and thus held Sportcoat dear, extracting his teeth and giving him sweet muffins and little bottles of whiskey as payment, for he_d discovered the magic of alcohol by then, in part to celebrate his father_s marriage to his stepmother, who often recommended he go play at Sassafras Mountain, 258 miles distant, and jump off the top naked. At age fourteen, he was a drunk and a dental student_s dream. By age fifteen, the medical school had discovered him, as the first of many ailments gathered forces to attack him. At eighteen, blood poisoning blew up his lymph nodes to the size of marbles. Measles reappeared, along with a number of other diseases, which smelled the red meat of a sucker marked for death and dropped by his body for a go-round: scarlet fever, hematoid illness, acute viral infection, pulmonary embolism. At twenty, lupus had a throw and quit. When he was twenty-nine, a mule kicked him and broke his right eye socket, which sent him stumbling around for months. At thirty-one, a crosscut saw cut his left thumb off. The delighted medical students at the university sewed it back on with seventy-four stitches, chipped in, and bought him a used chain saw as a gift, which he used to cut off his right big toe. They reattached that with thirty-seven stitches, and as a result two of the students won major medical internships at hospitals in the Northeast, and they sent him enough money to buy a second mule and a hunting knife, which he used to slice into his aorta by accident while skinning a rabbit. He fell unconscious that time and nearly died, but he was rushed to the hospital, where he lay dead on the operating table for three minutes but came back again after a surgeon intern stuck a probe in his big toe, which sent him sitting up, cursing and swearing. At fifty-one, measles came back for one last fling and quit. And thereupon Cuffy Jasper Lambkin, rechristened _Sportcoat_ by his mother and loved and admired by all whom he knew in Possum Point save the two people responsible for his well-being in the world, his stepmother and father, left the entreaties of the grateful medical students of the state of South Carolina and ventured to New York City to join his wife, Hettie Purvis, his childhood sweetheart who had moved there and set things up nicely for him, having gotten a job as a domestic for a good white family in Brooklyn. He arrived at the Cause Houses in 1949 spitting blood, coughing gruesome black phlegm, and drinking homemade Everclear, later switching to Rufus_s beloved King Kong, which preserved him nicely until his sixties, at which point the operations began. Doctors removed him piece by piece. First a lung. Then a toe, then a second toe, followed by the usual tonsils, bladder, spleen, and two kidney operations. All the while he drank till his balls hurt and he worked like a slave, for Sportcoat was a handyman. He could fix anything that walked or moved or grew. There was not a furnace, a TV, a window, or a car that he could not fix. What_s more, Sportcoat, a child of the country, had the greatest green thumb of anyone in the Cause Houses. He was friends with anything that grew: tomatoes, herbs, butter beans, dandelions, beggar_s-lice, wild spur, bracken, wild geranium. There was not a plant that he could not coax out of its hiding place, nor a seed he could not force to the sun, nor an animal he could not summon or sic into action with an easy smile and affable strong hands. Sportcoat was a walking genius, a human disaster, a sod, a medical miracle, and the greatest baseball umpire that the Cause Houses had ever seen, in addition to serving as coach and founder of the All-Cause Boys Baseball Team. He was a wondrous handyman to the residents of the Cause Houses, the guy you called when your cat took a dump and left a little piece of poop hooked in his duff, because Sportcoat was an old country man and nothing would turn him away from God_s good purpose. Similarly, if your visiting preacher had diabetes and weighed 450 pounds and gorged himself with too much fatback and chicken thighs at the church repast and your congregation needed a man strong enough to help that tractor-trailer-sized wide-body off the toilet seat and out onto the bus back to the Bronx so somebody could lock up the dang church and go home_why, Sportcoat was your man. There was no job too small, no miracle too wondrous, no smell too noxious. Thus the sight of him staggering through the plaza each afternoon drunk, headed to some odd job, caused the residents to murmur to one another, _That fool_s a wonder,_ while secretly saying to themselves, _All_s right in the world._ But all that, everyone agreed, changed the day he shot Deems Clemens. Clemens was the New Breed of colored in the Cause. Deems wasn_t some poor colored boy from down south or Puerto Rico or Barbados who arrived in New York with empty pockets and a Bible and a dream. He wasn_t humbled by a life of slinging cotton in North Carolina, or hauling sugarcane in San Juan. He didn_t arrive in New York City from some poor place where kids ran around with no shoes and ate chicken bones and turtle soup, limping to New York with a dime in their pockets, overjoyed at the prospect of coming to New York to clean houses and empty toilets and dump garbage, hoping for a warm city job or maybe even an education care of good white people. Deems didn_t give a shit about white people, or education, or sugarcane, or cotton, or even baseball, which he had once been a whiz at. None of the old ways meant a penny to him. He was a child of Cause, young, smart, and making money hand over fist slinging dope at a level never before seen in the Cause Houses. He had high friends and high connections from East New York all the way to Far Rockaway, Queens, and any fool in the Cause stupid enough to open their mouth in his direction ended up hurt bad or buried in an urn in an alley someplace. Sportcoat, all agreed, had finally run out of luck. He was, truly, a dead man. 3 JET There were sixteen witnesses at the Cause Houses plaza when Sportcoat signed his death warrant. One of them was a Jehovah_s Witness stopping passersby, three were mothers with babies in carriages, one was Miss Izi of the Puerto Rican Statehood Society, one was an undercover cop, seven were dope customers, and three were Five Ends congregation members who were passing out flyers announcing the church_s upcoming annual Friends and Family Day service_which would feature Deacon Sportcoat himself preaching his first-ever sermon. Not one of them breathed a word to the cops about the shooting, not even the undercover cop, a twenty-two-year-old detective from the Seventy-Sixth Precinct named Jethro _Jet_ Hardman, the first-ever black detective in the Cause Houses. Jet had been working on Deems Clemens for seven months. It was his first undercover assignment, and what he found made him nervous. Clemens, he_d learned, was the low-hanging fruit on a drug network that led up the food chain to Joe Peck, a major Italian crime figure in Brooklyn whose violent syndicate gave every patrolman in Jet_s Seventy-Sixth Precinct who valued his life the straight-out jitters. Peck had connections_inside the precinct, down at Brooklyn_s city hall, and with the Gorvino crime family, guys who would stake out a claim on a cop_s guts for a quarter and get away with it. Jet had been warned about Peck from his old partner, an elderly Irish sergeant named Kevin _Potts_ Mullen, an honest cop recently returned to the precinct after being banished to Queens for the dreadful habit of actually wanting to lock up bad guys. A former detective busted back to swing sergeant, Potts had dropped by the precinct one afternoon to check on his former charge after discovering Jet had volunteered to work undercover in the Cause Houses. _Why risk your skin?_ Potts asked him. _I_m kicking doors down, Potts,_ Jet said proudly. _I like being first. I was the first Negro to play trombone in my elementary school, PS 29. Then first Negro in Junior High School 219 to join the Math Club. Now I_m the first black detective in the Cause. It_s a new world, Potts. I_m a groundbreaker._ _You_re an idiot,_ Potts said. They were standing outside the Seven-Six as they talked. Potts, clad in his sergeant_s uniform, leaned on the bumper of his squad car and shook his head. Filtered out,_ he said. _You_re outta your league._ _I just got in, Potts. I_m cool._ _You_re in over your head._ _It_s just small-time stuff, Potts. Grift. Jewelry. Burglary. A little narcotics._ _A little? What_s your cover?_ _I_ll be a janitor with a drug habit. First black janitor in the projects under the age of twenty-three!_ Potts shook his head. _This is drugs,_ he said. _So what?_ _Think of a horse,_ Potts said. _Now think of a fly on the horse_s back. That_s you._ _It_s an opportunity, Potts. The force needs Negro undercovers._ _Is that how the lieutenant sold it to you?_ _His exact words. Why you dogging me, man? You worked undercover yourself._ _That was twenty years ago._ Potts sighed, feeling hungry. It was nearly lunchtime, and he was thinking of mutton stew and bacon stew with potatoes, the latter of which he loved. That_s how he got his nickname_Potts_from his grandmother, because as a toddler he couldn_t say _potato._ _Undercover work was mostly memos back then,_ he said. _Horse racing. Burglaries. Now it_s heroin. Cocaine. There_s a load of money in it. Thank God the Italians around here in my day didn_t like drugs._ _You mean like Joe Peck? Or the Elephant?_ Jet tried to keep the excitement out of his voice. Potts frowned, then glanced over his shoulder at the precinct building to make sure nobody he knew was within earshot. _Those two got ears in this precinct. Leave _em alone. Peck_s crazy. He_s probably gonna get burnt by his own people. The Elephant . . ._ He shrugged. _He_s old-fashioned. Trucking, construction, storage_he_s a smuggler. He moves stuff out of the harbor. Cigarettes, tires, that kind of stuff. He doesn_t work in drugs. He_s a hell of a gardener._ Jet squinted at Potts, who seemed distracted. _He_s a weird bird, the Elephant. You_d think he_d favor Lionel trains or toy boats, or something. His yard looks like a flower show._ _Maybe he_s growing flowers to hide marijuana plants,_ Jet said. _That_s illegal, by the way._ Potts sucked his teeth and shot an irritated glance at him. _I thought you liked to draw comic books._ _I do, man. I draw them all the time._ _Then get back in the blues and draw your comics at night. You wanna be the first at something? Be the first Negro cop smart enough to forget the Dick Tracy crap and retire with your head in one piece._ _Who_s Dick Tracy?_ Jet asked. _Don_t you read the funny papers?_ Jet shrugged. Potts snickered. Filtered out. Don_t be an idiot._ Jet tried to get out. He actually broached the subject with his lieutenant, who ignored him. The Seventy-Sixth Precinct, which Jet had only recently joined as a detective, was a demoralized mess. The captain spent most of his time at meetings in Manhattan. The white cops didn_t trust him. The few black cops, smelling his ambition and terrified about being transferred to East New York_considered hell on earth_avoided him. Most wanted to talk about nothing more than fishing upstate on weekends. The paperwork was overwhelming: twelve copies for a shoplifting arrest. The bomb squad sat around and played cards all day. Potts was the only one Jet trusted, and Potts, at fifty-nine, was biding his time to retirement with one foot out the door, having been demoted to sergeant for reasons he never discussed. Potts planned to retire in less than a year. _I_ll get out,_ Jet said, _after I_ve done it a year. Then I can say I_m a pioneer._ _All right, Custer. If it goes bad, I_ll call your mom._ _C_mon, Potts, I_m a man._ _So was Custer._ The day of the shooting, Jet, clad in the blue Housing Authority janitor_s uniform and leaning on his broom, was standing in the plaza daydreaming about taking a job in his cousin_s cleaners and being the first Negro to invent a new shirt steamer, when he saw Sportcoat in his ragged sports jacket and beaten slacks teetering out of the dim hallway of Building 9 and drifting toward the crowd of boys around Clemens, who sat at the plaza flagpole surrounded by his crew and customers, not ten feet from where Jet was standing. Jet noticed Sportcoat smiling, which was not unusual. He_d seen the ancient coot around, grinning and talking to himself. He watched as Sportcoat stopped for a moment in the crowded plaza, did a batter_s pose, swung at an imaginary pitch, then straightened, stretched, and teetered forward. He chuckled and was about to turn away when he saw_or thought he saw_the old man pull out a large, rusted pistol from his left jacket pocket and place it in his right-hand pocket. Jet looked around helplessly. This was what Potts called _a situation._ Most of his work up until this point had been smooth. Make a few buys. Take mental notes. ID this one. Figure out that one. Get the lay of the land. Figure out where the spiderweb goes, which was to a supplier in Bed-Stuy called _Bunch_ and through a dreaded enforcer on Bunch_s crew named Earl, who came around to distribute and collect. That was as far as Jet had gotten. There was a killer, he heard, a hit man named Harold who was apparently so horrible that everyone seemed afraid to mention his name, including Deems himself. Jet hoped not to meet him. As it was, he wasn_t feeling skippy about matters. Every time he briefed his lieutenant on his progress, the man seemed nonchalant. _Doing good, doing good_ was all he said. The lieutenant, Jet knew, was angling for a promotion and had one foot out the door, too, like most of the commanders at the Seven-Six. With the exception of Potts and a couple of kind older detectives, Jet was on his own, with no guidance and no direction, so he cooled it and did the job easy as Potts had instructed. No busts. No collars. No comments. Do nothing. Just watch. That_s what Potts said. But this . . . this was something different. The old man was approaching with a gun. If Potts were in his shoes, what would he do? Jet glanced around. There were people everywhere. It was nearly noon, and the assortment of neighborhood gossips who met at the flagpole bench every morning to sip coffee and salute the flag had not quite departed. An odd truce had developed, Jet noticed, between Deems and his drug-slinging crew and the old-timers who came here every morning to gossip and insult one another with jokes. For a short period, between eleven thirty and noon, the two groups actually shared the flagpole space. Deems worked a bench on one side of the flagpole, and the morning residents gathered on the other, mumbling about the declining state of the world, which included, Jet noticed, Deems himself. _I_d put a baseball bat to that little wormhead if he was my son,_ Jet had heard Sister Veronica Gee grumble once. Added Bum-Bum, _I_d send him hobbling, but why interrupt my prayers?_ Threw in Hot Sausage, _I_m gonna warm his two little toasters one of these days_when I_m not under the influence._ Deems, Jet noticed, ignored them, always keeping his foot traffic to a minimum until the old-timers departed, leaving the squabblings, the posturing, the cursing, the harsh arguments, even the fights, for later. Before noon the plaza was safe. Until now, Jet thought. Jet checked his watch. It was 11:55. Some of the old-timers were starting to rise up from the bench, with the old man and his gun still coming, now fifty feet away, his hand thrust into his gun pocket. Jet felt his mouth go dry watching the old drunk teeter forward five feet at a time, stopping to swing an imaginary baseball bat, then swaying forward once more, taking his time, talking, apparently having a two-way conversation with himself: _Ain_t got time for you, woman . . . Not today I don_t! You_re not yourself today anyway. And that_s an improvement!_ Jet watched, unbelieving, as Sportcoat closed to forty feet. Then thirty. Then twenty-five, still talking to himself as he moved toward Deems. At twenty feet, the old man stopped muttering, but still he came on. Jet couldn_t help himself. His training kicked in. He dropped to a crouch to grab the snub-nosed .38 strapped to his ankle, then stopped himself. A gun strapped to the ankle was a dead giveaway. It screamed cop. Instead, he stood up and drifted away as the old man circled the crowd surrounding Deems. As casually as he could, Jet walked to the wide, circular concrete flag base, placing his broom against the base, stretched his arms, and feigned a tired yawn. He glanced at the bench where the old-timers sat, and he saw with alarm that a few of them were still there. They were laughing, saying a last word as they stood up, joking, taking their time. A couple of them glanced at Deems and his crew, who were gathering, happily ignoring the old folks on the opposite bench, the young troops surrounding their king. One of the boys handed his leader Deems a paper bag. Deems opened it and removed a large hero sandwich, unwrapping it. From where he was standing, Jet could smell it was tuna. He glanced at the old-timers. Hurry up. Finally, the last of them stood up. He watched with relief as Hot Sausage grabbed the giant coffee thermos and Bum-Bum picked up the cardboard cups and they were off, leaving only two: Miss Izi and Sister Gee. Sister Gee got up first, her arms full of flyers, and wandered off. That left only Miss Izi, a heavyset, light-skinned Puerto Rican with shiny black hair whose laughter followed Sister Gee, her cackles sounding like chalk screeching across a blackboard. Get gone, Jet thought. Go, go! The elderly Puerto Rican woman watched Sister Gee drift off, rubbed her nose, scratched her armpit, glared at the gathering of drug users now circling Deems, said something in Spanish toward Deems, which Jet guessed was an oath, and finally began to amble away. Still, the old man came on. Ten feet. He smiled at Jet as he slipped past, smelling strongly of booze, then eased into the circle of heroin heads surrounding Clemens, disappearing from Jet_s view behind the shoulders of the anxious users clamoring for their first hit of the day. Jet_s fear amped into panic. What the fuck was the old fool thinking? He was gonna get blasted. He waited for the bang, terrified, his heart racing. Nothing. The circle didn_t move. The boys stood around Deems, bustling as usual, ribbing one another and joking. Jet snatched his broom off the flagpole and, pushing it toward the circle of boys, tried to appear nonchalant, absentmindedly sweeping, picking up pieces of trash as he went, knowing that the normally careful Deems wouldn_t bother noticing him, since he too was a customer. As he swept close to the group, he paused to tie his shoe this time, placing his broom on the ground. From this vantage point, low to the ground and less than ten feet away, he could see through the angle of bodies straight into the circle surrounding Deems and the old man. Deems was seated on the back arm of the bench working on his hoagie, talking to another boy, the two of them laughing. Neither noticed Sportcoat standing over them. _Deems?_ The old man spoke up. Clemens looked up. He seemed surprised to see the old drunk swaying before him. _Sportcoat! My man._ He bit into his sandwich, the tuna hero dripping with mayonnaise and tomatoes. Sportcoat always made him a little uncomfortable. It wasn_t the old man_s drinking, or his bravado, or his stern lectures about drugs that bothered him. Rather it was the memory, not long ago, of Sportcoat shagging fly balls with him at the baseball field on warm spring afternoons; it was Sportcoat who taught him how to pivot and zing a throw to home plate from 350 feet out. It was Sportcoat who taught him how to pitch, to throw his weight on his back foot when he wound up, to extend his arm as he powered the ball home, to grip the ball properly to throw a curveball, and follow through with his legs so all his weight and power was on the ball, not on his shoulder. Sportcoat made him a star in baseball. He was the envy of the white boys on the John Jay High School baseball team, who marveled at the college scouts who risked life and limb to venture to the funky, dirty Cause Houses baseball field to watch him pitch. But that was another time, when he was a boy and his grandpa was living. He was a man now, nineteen, a man who needed money. And Sportcoat was a pain in the ass. _How come you ain_t playing ball no more, Deems?_ Sportcoat asked. _Ball?_ Deems said, chewing. _That_s right. Baseball,_ Sportcoat said, swaying. _Got bigger ball to play, Sportcoat,_ Deems said, winking at his cohorts as he took a second big bite of his sandwich. The boys laughed. Deems wolfed another bite, barely looking at Sportcoat, his attention focused on the dripping sandwich, while Sportcoat stared, blinking dully. _Ain_t nothing bigger than ball, Deems. I ought to know. I_m the big cheese when it come to ball _round this projects._ _You right, Sportcoat. You the man._ _Best umpire this projects ever had,_ Sportcoat said proudly as he swayed. _I brings the cheese. Not Peter. Not Paul. Not Jesus. Me. I brings the cheese, see. And I has not excused you, Deems Clemens, from playing ball, y_understand? For that is what you do best. So how come you is not playing ball?_ Clemens, his hands clasped around the giant sandwich, chuckled and said, _G_wan, Sportcoat._ _You ain_t answered me. I trained you to God_s way, son. I taught you Sunday school. I teached you the game._ Deems_s smile disappeared. The warm glow in his brown eyes vanished; a dark, vacant look replaced it. He was not in a mood for the old man_s bullshit. His long, dark fingers clasping the hero tightened down on it tensely, squeezing out the white mayonnaise and tomato juice, which ran into his hands. _Git gone, Sportcoat,_ he said. He licked his fingers, bit into the sandwich again, and whispered a joke to a boy seated on the bench next to him, which sent the two of them chortling. At that moment, Sportcoat stepped back and calmly reached into his pocket. Jet, four steps away, still crouched, his hands on his shoelaces, saw the move and uttered the words that would ultimately save Deems_s life. He howled out, _He_s got a burner!_ Clemens, with a mouthful of tuna sandwich, instinctively turned his head in the direction of Jet_s shout. At that moment, Sportcoat fired. The blast, aimed at Deems_s forehead, missed, and the bullet struck his ear instead, severing it, the spent bullet clanging off the pavement behind him. But the force of the blast felt like it took Deems_s head off. It tossed him backward over the bench and threw the bite of tuna sandwich against the back of his throat and down his windpipe, choking him. He landed on his back on the concrete, coughed a few times, then rolled onto his stomach and began choking, desperately trying to rise to his hands and knees as the stunned boys around him scattered and the plaza collapsed into chaos, flyers dropping to the ground, mothers pushing baby carriages at a sprint, a man in a wheelchair spinning past, people running with shopping carts and dropping their grocery bags in panic, a mob of pedestrians fleeing in terror through the fluttering flyers that seemed to be everywhere. Sportcoat squared his old pistol on Deems again, but when he saw Deems on his hands and knees choking, he had a change of heart. He was suddenly confused. He had dreamed of Hettie the night before wearing her red wig hollering at him about the cheese, and now he was standing over Deems, the dang thing in his hand had fired somehow, and Deems was on the ground in front of him, trying to breathe. Watching him, Sportcoat had an epiphany. No man, Sportcoat thought, should die on his hands and knees. As quick as he could, the old man climbed over the bench, mounted Deems, who was on all fours, and with the gun still in one fist, did the Heimlich maneuver on him. _I learnt this from a young pup in South Carolina,_ he grunted proudly. _A white fella. He growed up to be a doctor._ The overall effect, seen from across the square, the nearby street, and every window that faced the plaza, 350 in all, was not good. From a distance, it looked like the vicious drug lord Deems Clemens was on all fours being humped like a dog from the back by an old man, Sportcoat of all people, jouncing atop Deems in his old sports jacket and porkpie hat. _He fucked him hard,_ Miss Izi said later, when describing the incident to the fascinated members of the Puerto Rican Statehood Society of the Cause Houses. The society was only two other people, Eleanora Soto and Angela Negron, but they enjoyed the story immensely, especially the part about Deems_s spitting up the leftover sandwich, which looked, Miss Izi said, like the two tiny white testicles of her ex-husband, Joaquin, after she poured warm olive oil on them when she found him snoring in the arms of her cousin Emelia, who was visiting from Aguadilla. The humping didn_t last long. Deems had lookouts everywhere, including from the rooftops of four buildings that looked down on the plaza, and they scrambled into action. The lookouts from the roofs of Buildings 9 and 34 bolted for the stairs, while two of Deems_s dope slingers who had scurried away after the initial blast got their wits back and stepped toward Sportcoat. Even though he was still drunk, Sportcoat saw them coming. He released Deems and quickly swung the big barrel of the .38 toward them. The two boys fled again, this time for good, disappearing into the basement of nearby Building 34. Sportcoat watched them run, suddenly confused again. With the gun still in his hand, he turned toward Jet, who was ten feet off, standing erect and frozen now, one hand on his broom. Jet, terrified, stared at the old man, who squinted back at him in the afternoon sun, which had come up high now. Their eyes locked, and at that moment Jet felt as if he were looking into the ocean. The old man_s gaze was deep-set, detached, calm, and Jet suddenly felt as if he were floating in a spot of placid sea while giant waves roiled and swelled and lifted up the waters all around him. He had a sudden revelation. We_re the same, Jet thought. We_re trapped. _I got the cheese,_ the old deacon said calmly as the moans of Deems wafted behind him. _Unnerstand? I got the cheese._ _You got the cheese,_ Jet said. But the old man didn_t hear. He had already turned on his heel, pocketed the gun, and limped quickly toward his building a hundred yards off. But instead of heading to the entrance, he veered off, teetering down the side ramp that led to the basement boiler room. Jet, frozen with fear, watched him go, then out of the corner of his eye he saw the lights of a police cruiser fly by the street edge of the pedestrian plaza, a distance of about a city block. The car skidded to a stop, backed up, then plunged straight down the pedestrian walkway toward him. Relief washed over him as the squad car fought its way through the fleeing pedestrians, causing the driver to brake, swivel left, then right to avoid the panicked bystanders. Behind that car, Jet saw two more cruisers swing onto the walkway and follow. His relief was so enormous he felt like he_d just taken a great relieving piss, one that had drained him of every bit of life force. He turned one last time to see the old man_s head disappearing down the basement ramp of Building 9, then felt his guts unlock and found himself able to act. He dropped his broom and leaped over the bench toward Clemens, just as he heard the tires of a squad car slide to a stop behind him. As he crouched over Clemens he heard an officer shouting at him to freeze, stand up, and put up his hands. As Jet did, he said to himself, I_m no longer doing this. I am finished. _Don_t move! Don_t turn around!_ Two hands grabbed him from behind and pinned his arms. His face was slammed against the squad car hood. He felt cuffs slapped onto his wrists. From his view, with his ear flush against the hot hood of the car, he could see the plaza, busy as a train station minutes before, completely deserted, a few flyers fluttering in the wind, and the thick, white hand of the cop on the car hood near his face. The cop had put his hand there to brace his weight on it, while the other hand pinned Jet_s head into place. Jet stared at the hand a foot from his eyeballs and noticed a wedding ring on it. I know that hand, he thought. When his head was snatched from the hood, Jet found himself staring at his old partner Potts. Deems was on the ground, twenty feet off and surrounded by cops. _I didn_t do nothing,_ Jet shouted, loud enough for Clemens and anyone nearby to hear. Potts spun him around, then patted him down, carefully avoiding the .38 strapped to his ankle. As he did, Jet muttered, _Arrest me, Potts. For God_s sake._ Potts grabbed him by the collar and swung him toward the backseat of his squad car. _You_re an idiot,_ he murmured softly. 4 RUNNING OFF Sportcoat walked into the basement furnace room of Building 9 and sat on a foldout chair next to the giant coal furnace in a huff. He heard the wail of a siren, then forgot all about it. He didn_t care about any siren. He was looking for something. His eyes scanned the floor, then stopped as he suddenly remembered he was supposed to memorize a Bible verse for his upcoming Friends and Family Day sermon. It was about righting wrongs. Was it the book of Romans or Micah? He couldn_t recall. Then his mind slid to the same old nagging problem: Hettie and the Christmas Club money. _We got along all right till you decided to fool with that damn Christmas Club,_ he snorted. He looked around the basement for Hettie. She didn_t appear. _You hear me?_ Nothing. _Well, that_s all right too,_ he snapped. _The church ain_t holding no notes on me about that missing money. It_s you who got to live with it, not me._ He stood and began to search for a bottle of emergency King Kong that Sausage always kept hidden someplace, but was still pie-eyed and feeling addled and murky. He pushed around the discarded tools and bicycle parts on the floor with his foot, muttering. _Some people got to stay mad to keep from getting mad,_ he grumbled. _Some goes from preaching to meddlin_ and meddlin_ to preaching and can_t hardly tell the difference. Well, it ain_t my money, Hettie. It_s the church_s money._ He stopped moving items with his foot for a moment and stilled, talking to the air. _It_s all the same,_ he announced. _You got to have a principle or you ain_t nothing. What you think of that?_ Silence. _I thought so._ Calmer now, he started searching again, bending down and talking as he checked toolboxes and under bricks. _You never did think of my money, did you? Like with that old mule I had down home,_ he said. _The one old Mr. Tullus wanted to buy. He offered me a hundred dollars for her. I said, _Mr. Tullus, it_ll take a smooth two hundred to move her._ Old man wouldn_t pay that much, remember? That mule up and died two weeks later. I coulda sold her. You shoulda told me to turn her loose._ Silence. _Well, Hettie, if I weren_t taking that white man_s good hundred dollars on principle, I surely ain_t gonna take no mess from you _bout some fourteen dollars and nine pennies you done squirreled up in Christmas Club money and hid someplace._ He paused, looked out the corner of his eye, then said softly, _It is fourteen dollars, ain_t it? It ain_t, say, two or three hundred dollars, is it? I can_t do three hundred dollars. Fourteen is sheep money. I can raise that sleeping. But three hundred, that_s over my head, honey._ He stopped moving, frustrated, still looking around, unable to find what he was looking for. _That money . . . it ain_t mine, Hettie!_ There was still no answer, and he sat down again in the folding chair, flummoxed. Sitting in the cold seat, he had an unfamiliar, odd, nagging feeling that something terrible had occurred. The feeling wasn_t unusual for him, especially since Hettie died. Normally he ignored it, but this time it felt bigger than usual. He couldn_t place it, then suddenly spied the prize he was looking for and forgot about the problem instantly. He stood up, shuffled over to a hot-water heater, reached under it, and pulled out the bottle of Rufus_s homemade King Kong. He held the bottle up to the bare ceiling lightbulb. _I say a drink, I say a glass. I say do you know me? I say the note is due! I say bring the hens! I say a poke and a choke, Hettie. I say God only knows when! Brace!_ Sportcoat turned up the bottle, drank a deep swallow, and the nagging feeling bubbled away. He placed the bottle back in its hiding place and relaxed in his seat, satisfied. _G_wan, King Kong,_ he murmured. Then he wondered aloud, _What day is this, Hettie?_ He realized she wasn_t speaking to him, so he said, _Hell, I don_t need ya. I can read . . . ,_ which was actually not true. He could read a calendar. Words were another matter. He rose, ambled over to a weathered wall calendar, peered at it through the haze of his drunken glow, then nodded. It was Thursday. Itkin_s day. He had four jobs, one for every day but Sunday: Mondays he cleaned Five Ends church. Tuesdays he emptied the garbage at the nursing home. Wednesdays he helped an old white lady with the garden of her brownstone. Thursdays he unloaded crates at Itkin_s liquor store, just four blocks from the Cause Houses. Fridays and Saturdays had once been baseball practice for the Cause Houses baseball team before it disbanded. Sportcoat looked over at the wall clock. Almost one o_clock. He had to get to work. _Gotta go, Hettie!_ he said cheerily. He pulled out the bottle again and took another quick nip of the Kong, slid it back to its hiding place, and walked out the back door of the basement, which exited a block away from the plaza flagpole. The street was clear and quiet. He wobbled easily, freely, the fresh air steadying him a bit and partially lifting the drunken haze. Within moments he was heading down the row of neat shops that lined Piselli Street and the nearby Italian neighborhood. He loved walking to Mr. Itkin_s place, toward downtown Brooklyn, seeing the neat row homes and storefronts, the stores full of shopkeepers, some of whom waved at him as he walked past. Stacking booze and helping customers cart their wine to their cars was one of his favorite small jobs. Small jobs that didn_t last more than a day and didn_t require tools were perfect for him. Ten minutes later, he ambled to a door under an awning that read Itkin_s Liquors. As he reached it, a police car roared past. Then another. He paused at the door, hastily felt in his jacket vest pocket, where he stored booze or any empty or stray liquor bottles that might_ve been stuffed in there from some previous unremembered moment of elbow bending_forgetting his hip pockets altogether_then turned the door handle. The doorbell tingled as he entered and closed it behind him, shutting off the howl of yet another police car and ambulance roaring past. Mr. Itkin, the owner, a stout, easygoing Jew, was wiping the countertop, his paunch protruding over the edge. The store was silent. The air-conditioning was blasting. It was still five minutes till opening time. Itkin nodded over Sportcoat_s shoulder at the cop cars racing toward the Cause Houses. _What_s going on out there?_ _Diabetes,_ Sportcoat said, plodding past Itkin_s counter to the back stockroom, _killing _em off one by one._ He slipped into the back room, where stacks of newly arrived liquor boxes awaited opening. He sat down on a crate with a sigh. He didn_t care about any sirens. He removed his hat and wiped his brow. The counter where Itkin stood was a good twenty feet from the door to the back room, but Itkin, from his vantage point at the edge of the counter, could see Sportcoat clearly. He stopped wiping and called out, _You look a little peaked, Deacon._ Sportcoat dismissed the concern with a grin and an easy yawn, stretching his arms wide. _I_m feeling dandy and handy,_ he said. Itkin returned to wiping his counter, moving out of sight to work the other side of it, while Sportcoat, carefully keeping out of Itkin_s sightline, grabbed a root beer from a crate, cracked it open, took a long drink of it, put it down on a nearby shelf, and began stacking boxes. He glanced to make sure Itkin was still at the far end of the counter and out of view, then, with the practiced smoothness of a cat burglar, he snatched a bottle of gin out of a nearby case, unscrewed its cap and poured half its contents into the root beer can, closed the bottle, stuffed it into his jacket hip pocket, removed the jacket, and placed it on a nearby shelf. The coat landed with an odd clank. For a moment Sportcoat thought he had a forgotten bottle stuffed in the pocket on the other side, since he_d only quickly rifled through his chest pockets before entering the store and not his hip pockets, so he snatched up the coat again, fished in the hip pockets, and yanked out the old .38. _How_d my army gun get here?_ he muttered. Just then the jingle of the door sounded. He shoved the gun back into the jacket and glanced up to see several of the day_s first customers entering, all of them white, followed by the familiar porkpie hat and brown worried face of Hot Sausage, still wearing his blue Housing Authority janitor uniform. Sausage lingered at the door a moment, feigning interest in a nearby liquor display as the paying customers fanned out. Itkin, irritated, glanced at him. Sausage blurted, _Deacon left something at home._ Itkin nodded curtly toward the back room, where Sportcoat could be seen, then was called down an aisle by one of the customers, which allowed Sausage to slip past the counter and into the back room. Sportcoat noticed he was sweating and breathing hard. _Sausage, what you want?_ he said. _Itkin don_t like you back here._ Hot Sausage glanced over his shoulder, then hissed, _Goddamn fool!_ _What you so hot about?_ _You got to run! Now!_ _What you fussing at me for?_ Sportcoat said. He offered the root beer can. _Have a sip-sot for your coal-top._ Sausage snatched the root beer soda can, sniffed it, then slammed it down on a crate so hard liquid popped out the opening. _Nigger, you ain_t got time to set around sipping essence. You gotta put your foot in the road!_ _What?_ _You got to go!_ _Go where? I just got here._ _Go anyplace, fool. Run off!_ _I ain_t leaving my job, Sausage!_ _Clemens ain_t dead,_ Sausage said. _Who?_ Sportcoat asked. _Deems! He ain_t dead._ _Who?_ Hot Sausage stepped back, blinking. _What_s the matter with you, Sport?_ Sportcoat sat down on a crate, wearily, shaking his head. _Don_t know, Sausage. I been talking to Hettie _bout my sermon for Friends and Family Day. She got to hollering about that cheese again, and the Christmas Club money. Then she throwed in my momma. She said my momma didn_t__ _Cut that mumbo jumbo, Sport. You in trouble!_ _With Hettie? What I done now?_ _Hettie_s been dead two years, fool!_ Sportcoat puckered his face and said softly, _You ain_t got to speak left-handed about my dear Hettie, Sausage. She never done you no wrong._ _She wasn_t so dear last week, when you was bellowing like a calf about that Christmas Club money. Forget her a minute, Sport. Deems ain_t dead!_ _Who?_ _Deems, fool. Louis_s grandson. Remember Louis Clemens?_ _Louis Clemens?_ Sportcoat tilted his head sideways, looking genuinely surprised. _Louis been dead, Sausage. He been dead five years this May. He been dead longer than my Hettie._ _I ain_t talking about him. I_m talking about his grandson Deems._ Sportcoat brightened. _Deems Clemens! Greatest ballplayer this projects ever seen, Sausage. He_s gonna be the next Bullet Rogan. I seen Rogan play once, back in forty-two. In Pittsburgh, just before I come up here. Hell of a ballplayer. He got to arguing with the umpire and got throwed out the game. Bob Motley was umping. Motley was something. Greatest Negro umpire ever. Jumped like a basketball player, Motley did._ Hot Sausage stared at him a moment, then said softly, _What_s a matter with you, Sport?_ _Nothing. Hettie_s just been a bear. She come to me said, _I know your momma___ _Lissen to me. You shot Deems and he ain_t dead and he_s gonna come at you with his hooligans. So you gotta get moving . . ._ But Sportcoat was still talking and didn_t hear him, ___degraded you._ My momma did not degrade me. That was not my momma, Hettie,_ he said to no one in particular. _That was my stepmomma._ Hot Sausage whistled softly and sat down on another crate across from Sportcoat. He looked out into the store at Mr. Itkin, who was still busy with customers, then he picked up the root beer can full of gin and took a long swallow. _Maybe I can get a visitor_s pass,_ he said. _For what?_ _For when they put you in the penitentiary. If you live that long._ _Quit chunking at me _bout nothing._ Hot Sausage sat thoughtfully a moment, sipped the gin, then tried one more time. _You know Deems, right? Louis_s grandson?_ _Surely,_ Sportcoat said. _Coached him in baseball. Taught him in Sunday school. That boy got talent._ _He_s shot. Near dead._ Sportcoat_s brow furrowed. _Gosh almighty!_ he said. _That_s terrible._ _He_s shot on account of you. Hand before God. You shot him._ Sportcoat chortled for a moment, thinking it was a joke. But Hot Sausage_s serious face didn_t waver, and Sportcoat_s smile thinned. _You funning, right?_ he said. _I wish I was. You rolled up on him and throwed that old cannon of yours on him. The old one your cousin from the army gave you._ Sportcoat turned and reached into the pocket of his sports jacket lying on the shelf behind him and pulled out the Colt. _I wondered why I got this damn thing . . ._ He hammered it against his hand to check. _See, it ain_t been fired since I bought it. Ain_t got but one bullet in it, and that_s just for show._ Then he noticed the empty cartridge and a pasty look crossed his face as he held the gun in front of him, staring at it. Hot Sausage pushed the gun barrel toward the floor, glancing at the door. _Put that goddamn thing away!_ he hissed, his voice low. _You already done caused a world of trouble with it!_ For the first time, seeping through Sportcoat_s drunken stupor, the words began to have an effect. Sportcoat blinked in confusion, then laughed and snorted. _I disremember a lot of what I do these days, Sausage. After you and me got pixilated on the Kong last night, I went home and had a dream about Hettie and we got to fussing as usual. Then I woke up needing a breakfast of champions as they say so I had a taste of the Kong to keep the crease down, y_know. Then I went to see Deems about getting the baseball game against Watch Houses going again. We can_t win without Deems, y_know. That boy got talent! Could throw seventy-eight miles per hour when he was thirteen._ He smiled. _I always favored him._ _Well, you picked a poor way of showing it. You walked to the plaza and throwed that gun on him. Right in front of his gang of heathens._ Sportcoat looked stunned. His brow crinkled in disbelief. _But I hardly carry this thing, Sausage. I don_t know how I . . ._ He wet his lips. _I was drunk, I reckon. I didn_t hurt him bad, did I?_ _He ain_t dead. They say just his ear_s shot off._ _That don_t sound like me. It ain_t smart to shoot a man_s ear off. A man ain_t got but two._ Hot Sausage couldn_t help himself. He stifled a chortle. _You been home today?_ _Naw. I come straight to work after I . . ._ Then Sportcoat paused a moment, his face etched with remembrance and concern. _Well, now that I think on it, I do remembers some boy with his head bleeding and choking for some reason. I remembers that. So I gived him that thing I seen a doctor do back home once. He was having trouble drawing air, poor fella. But I cleared him. I reckon that was Deems I cleared. He all right now?_ _He_s well enough to pin a gold star on your chest before airing you out._ _Can_t be!_ _You done it!_ _I disremember it! It couldn_t have been me._ _You shot that boy, Sport. Understand?_ _Sausage, I reckon that running lie is a good one to truck about, being that a boy with that kinda talent that don_t use it ought to be shot in this world for wasting it. But_hand before God_I didn_t shoot him to my recollection. Even if I did it_s only _cause I wanted him to go back to pitching baseball. He_ll forget all about it when his ear heals. I got only one good ear myself. A man can still pitch with one ear._ He paused a moment, then added, _Anybody seen it?_ _No. Just everybody at the flagpole._ _Gee,_ Sportcoat said softly. _That_s like being on TV._ He took a swig of gin and felt better. He was having trouble deciding whether this was a dream. Hot Sausage picked up Sportcoat_s jacket and held it out for him. _Git down the road right now while you can,_ he said. _Maybe I should call the police and explain it to _em._ _Forget them._ Sausage glanced at the door. _You still got people in South Carolina?_ _I ain_t been to my home country since my daddy died._ _Go see Rufus over at the Watch Houses. Lay low over there. Maybe it_ll blow over somehow . . . but I wouldn_t buy no sweepstakes ticket on it._ _I ain_t going over to no Rufus_s place at no Watch Houses to sleep!_ Sportcoat snorted. _That Negro ain_t showered in two years. His body is dying of thirst. I got to be dead drunk to be around him. Plus, I got my own house!_ _Not no more._ _Where_s Pudgy gonna go? I gotta take him to the school bus in the morning._ _The church_ll see to that,_ Hot Sausage said, still holding out Sportcoat_s jacket. Sportcoat snatched his jacket from Sausage_s hand and placed it back on the liquor rack, grumbling. _You lying! I didn_t shoot Deems. I woke up this morning fussing with Hettie. I walked Pudgy to the blind folks_ school bus. I maybe had a taste or three. Then I come here. Sometime in the middle there I had another swig of the erratic and took Deems_s ear off. Maybe I done it. Maybe not. So what? He got another ear. What_s an ear when you got an arm like Deems? I knowed a man back home who got his pecker cut off by a white man for stealing a lady_s purse. He peed through a groin hole his whole life. He did all right. He_s yet living, far as I know._ _The white man, or the man without a pecker?_ _They both yet living to my knowing. And they got to know each other good over time. So why you all hot and bothered about somebody_s old ear for? Even Jesus didn_t need but one sandal. The book of Psalms says you ain_t desired my ears and you ain_t opened _em either._ _It says what now?_ _Something like that. What difference do it make? God_ll straighten it out. He_ll make Deems_s one better_n two ears._ That business decided, Sportcoat began unpacking liquor bottles from a crate. _You wanna go fishing this weekend?_ he said. _I_m getting paid tomorrow. I needs to reflect on my first-ever sermon at Five Ends. It_s in three weeks._ _If it_s about the hereafter, you ain_t gonna be short on critters and believers, that_s for sure. If I was a fly and wanted to get to heaven, I_d throw myself in your mouth._ _It ain_t about no fly. It_s about not eating the dressing without confessing. Book of Romans, fourteenth chapter, tenth verse. Or maybe it_s Simon, seventh and ninth. It_s one or the other. I got to look._ Hot Sausage stared, incredulous, as Sportcoat continued unloading liquor bottles. _Nigger, your cheese done slid off your cracker._ _Just _cause you says I got a note due someplace don_t mean I got one!_ _Is you listening, Sport?! You dropped Deems in his tracks! Then humped him like a dog. In front of everybody._ _You ought to test your lies someplace else other than your best friend, Sausage. I never humped a man in my life._ _You was drunk!_ _I don_t swallow any more spirits than anybody else in these projects._ _Now who_s lying? I ain_t the one they calling Deacon King Kong._ _I don_t get in a knot over the fibbing and twiddling things folks say about me, Sausage. I got my own thoughts about things._ Hot Sausage glanced out the door. Itkin_s customers had left, and the store owner was peering into the back room where they were standing. Sausage reached into his pocket and pulled out a small clump of dollar bills. He held the crumpled bills out to Sportcoat, who had paused and was now standing before him, glaring, his arms full of liquor bottles. _Thirty-one dollars. It_s all I got, Sport. Take it and get a bus ticket home._ _I ain_t going no place._ Hot Sausage sighed sadly, pocketed the money, and turned to leave. _All right. I guess I_ll use it to buy a bus ticket to see you in the penitentiary upstate. If you live that long._ 5 THE GOVERNOR Thomas Elefante, the Elephant, heard about the Deems Clemens shooting an hour after it happened. He was working on his mother_s flower bed in his brownstone on Silver Street just three blocks from the Cause Houses, dreaming of meeting a plump, good-looking farm girl, when a uniformed cop from the Seventy-Sixth Precinct rolled up, called him over to his squad car, and relayed the news. _They got a line on the shooter,_ the cop said. Elefante leaned on the squad car door and listened in silence while the cop blabbed on about what the cops knew. They knew the victim. They were certain about the shooter too. Elefante didn_t care about any shooter. That was Joe Peck_s problem. If the coloreds wanted to kill each other over Peck_s dope, that was Joe_s headache, not his. Except, of course, killings brought cops like this one. Cops wrecked the economy_his economy anyway. Moving hot goods while cops were running an investigation in your backyard was like being the dumbest kid in class who always raises his hand anyway. No matter how stupid you are, it_s only a matter of time before the teacher calls on you. Elefante was forty, heavyset, and handsome; his dark eyes and gaunt jaw held a stony silence that cloaked a delightful, sarcastic sense of humor despite a childhood of bittersweet disappointment. His father had spent a good part of Elefante_s childhood in jail. His opinionated, eccentric mother, who ran his father_s dock at the harbor during his dad_s imprisonment, spent her spare time collecting plants from every empty lot within five miles of the Cause, a hobby to which she increasingly dragged her reluctant bachelor son, who, she often noted, had worked himself well past the marrying age. Elefante ignored those comments, though lately he_d conceded to himself she was probably right. All the good Italian women in the Causeway neighborhood were already married or had fled to the suburbs with their families, now that the coloreds were fully established. The time to get married, he thought, was when I was young and stupid, like this cop. Even this lumphead, he thought bitterly, was probably dating some hot young number. He could tell by the way the kid talked he wasn_t from Brooklyn. He likely wasn_t even from the Cause District. He looked barely twenty-one, and Elefante, staring at him, guessed the guy was clocking maybe seven grand a year_And still, he_s meeting women, Elefante thought. Me, I_m just a kickball. A blob. I might as well be a gardener. He listened with half an ear as the kid chatted, then stepped back and leaned on the fender of the parked car behind him to glance up and down the street while the cop yammered on. The kid was careless, and obviously inexperienced. He_d double-parked right in front of Elefante_s house, in full view of every house on the block, which, like everything else around here, the Elephant thought ruefully, wasn_t safe. It wasn_t like the old days when everybody was Italian. The new neighbors were Russian, Jewish, Spanish, even colored_anything but Italian. He let the cop blab a little more, then, interrupting him, said, _The Cause ain_t my business._ The cop seemed surprised. _You ain_t got interests down there?_ he said, pointing out the windshield of his patrol car toward the Cause Houses, which rose like a pyramid three blocks distant, glimmering in the hot afternoon sun that sent heat waves off the beaten streets, and the Statue of Liberty, which could be seen shimmering at a distance in the harbor. _Interests?_ Elefante said. _They used to have baseball games down there. I liked those._ The cop looked disappointed and a little afraid, and for the briefest of moments, Elefante felt sorry for him. It bothered him that people, even cops, feared him. But it was the only way. He had done a few terrible things over the years, but only to defend his interests. Of course he_d done some nice things, too, but got no credit for any of them. It was how the world worked. Anyway, this stupid kid seemed okay, so Elefante pulled a twenty out of his pocket, carefully folded it in his fingers in his left hand, leaned into the car window, and deftly let it slip to the floor of the patrol car before turning away and stepping back onto the sidewalk. _See ya, kid._ The kid drove off fast. Elefante didn_t bother watching his taillights disappear. Instead, he looked in the other direction. It was an old habit. If one cop goes this way, look for the second coming that way. When he was satisfied the street was clear, he stepped to his wrought-iron gate, opened it, and reentered the garden that fronted his modest brownstone, closing it carefully behind him. Still wearing his suit, he dropped to his knees and began digging at the plants, glumly considering the shooting. Drugs, he fumed silently as he dug. Fucking drugs. He stopped digging to peer over his mother_s flower garden. He scanned the different ones. He knew them all: sunflower, catchfly, Jerusalem oak, bedfly, hawthorn, witch hazel, cinnamon fern, and what was the last, this one he was replanting right here? Lady fern, maybe? The ferns were not doing well. Neither were the hazels and hawthorn. He bent over and began digging. I_m the only forty-year-old bachelor in New York, he thought ruefully, whose mother collects flowers like junk_and then expects me to replant whatever crap she finds. But the fact is, he didn_t mind. The work relaxed him, and the garden was her pride and joy. She_d picked most of the plants out of the abandoned railroad tracks, ditches, and weeds that sprouted around the deserted lots and factories of the Cause District. Some, like this fern, were real treasures, arriving as near weeds and blossoming into full-grown plants. He scratched away at the fern, digging it out, pulling fresh earth out of a nearby wheelbarrow, pushing more earth aside, setting the new earth in place, and reanchoring the fern gently into place with the smooth efficiency born of experience and repetition. He stared at his work a moment before moving on to replant the next. Normally, his mother would check his work later on, but lately she_d been too sick to get out, and the garden was beginning to show small signs of neglect. Several plants were brown and dying. Others needed replanting. Several she wanted brought inside and potted. _There_s something going around Brooklyn,_ she declared. _Some kind of disease._ The Elephant agreed, but not the kind of disease she was worried about. Greed, he thought wryly as he dug into the earth. That_s the disease. I got it myself. Two weeks before, in the dead of night, an elderly Irishman had wandered into his boxcar at the pier while he and his men were loading cigarettes onto a truck. Nighttime visitors and odd characters were not unusual given his line of work, which included moving hot goods off harbor boats, storing them, or moving them inland to wherever the customer wanted. But this visitor was odd even by his standards. He looked to be about seventy. He was clad in a tattered jacket and bow tie, with a full head of white hair. His face had so many lines and rivulets it reminded Elefante of an old subway map. One eye was swollen shut, apparently permanently. He was thin and sickly, and seemed to have trouble breathing. When he entered, Elefante motioned for him to sit. The visitor complied thankfully. _I wonder if you could help a man in need,_ the old man said. His Irish brogue was so thick Elefante had trouble understanding him. Despite his physical frailness, his voice was clear and he spoke with an air of solidity and bearing, as if walking into the boxcar of one of Brooklyn_s most unpredictable smugglers at three a.m. was as simple as walking into a bodega and ordering a pound of bologna. _Depends on the need,_ Elefante said. _Salvy Doyle sent me,_ the old fellow said. _He said you could help me out._ _Don_t know a Salvy Doyle._ The old Irishman smirked and tugged at his bow tie. _He said you can move things._ Elefante shrugged. _I_m just a poor Italian who runs a trucking and storage company, mister. And we_re running late._ _Construction?_ _A little construction. A little storage, some moving. Nothing heavy. Mostly I move peanuts and cigarettes._ Elefante nodded at several nearby crates labeled _Cigarettes._ _You wanna cigarette?_ _Naw. Bad for my throat. I_m a singer._ _What kind of singing?_ _The best kind,_ the old man said gaily. Elefante stifled a smile. He couldn_t help himself. The old bugger barely seemed capable of drawing air. _Sing me a song then,_ he said. He said it for amusement, and was surprised when the old man moved his head from side to side to stretch his neck muscles, cleared his throat, stood up, thrust his whiskered chin toward the ceiling, spread his thin arms, and burst into a gorgeous, clear tenor that filled the room with glorious, lilting song: I remember the day, _twas wild and drear And night to the Hudson waves. Our parson bore a corpse on a bier To lie in the convict_s grave. Venus lay covered and taut She was the beauty of Willendorf She rests at the bottom of a shallow grav_ He broke off in a fit of coughing. _Okay, okay,_ Elefante said, before he could continue. Two of the Elephant_s men who were trooping in a steady line hauling crates back and forth through the boxcar to a waiting box truck paused to smile. _I ain_t finished yet,_ the old man said. _That_s good enough,_ Elefante said. _Don_t you know any Italian songs? Like a trallalero?_ _If I said I knew what that was, I_d be codding ya._ _It_s a song from northern Italy. Only men sing it._ Filtered your own bulldogs to sing that one, mister. I got something better,_ the Irishman said. He coughed again, a racking one this time, then regained himself and cleared his throat. _I take it you_re in need of money?_ _I look that bad?_ _I have a small shipment that needs to go to Kennedy airport,_ he said. Elefante glanced at the two men, who had stalled to watch. They quickly scurried back to work. This was business. Elefante motioned for the Irishman to sit in the chair next to his desk, out of the way of foot traffic. _I don_t haul stuff to the airport,_ Elefante said. _I do storage and light hauling. Mostly for grocery stores._ _Save that for the government,_ the Irishman said. _Salvy Doyle told me you could be trusted._ Elefante was silent for a moment, then said, _Salvy, last I heard, was pushing up worms in Staten Island someplace._ The Irishman chuckled. _Not when he knew me. Or your father. We were friends._ _My father didn_t have friends._ _Back when we was guests of the state your father had many friends, may God bless him in his eternal resting place._ _If you want a wailing wall, use the desktop,_ Elefante said. Filtered the show on the road._ _What?_ _What_s your point, mister?_ Elefante said impatiently. _What do you want?_ _I already said it. I need something moved to Kennedy._ _And past Kennedy?_ _That_s my business._ _Is it a big shipment?_ _No. But it needs a trusted ride._ Filtered a cab._ _Don_t trust a cab. I trusted Salvy_who said you could be trusted._ _How did Salvy hear of me?_ _He knew your father. I told you._ _Nobody knew my father. He was hard to know._ The Irishman chuckled. _You_re right. I don_t think he said more than three words a day._ That was true. Elefante filed the fact that the Irishman knew this away for posterity. _So who do you work for?_ he asked. _Myself,_ the Irishman said. _What_s that mean?_ _It means I don_t need a doctor_s note when I call in sick,_ the Irishman said. Elefante snorted and stood up. _I_ll have one of my guys run you to the subway. It_s dangerous around here at night. The junkies in the Cause will stick a pistol in your face for a quarter._ _Wait, friend,_ the old man said. _I_ve known you two minutes and I_m tired of the friendship already, mister._ _The name_s Driscoll Sturgess. I run a bagel shop in the Bronx._ _You oughta run a lying service. An Irishman running a bagel shop?_ _It_s legal._ _You better head back to whatever packing crate you call home, mister. My pop had no Irish friends. The only Irish my father talked to were cops. And they were like a fungus. You want a ride to the subway or not?_ The old man_s cheeriness emptied out of his face. _Guido Elefante knew plenty Irish in Sing Sing, sir. Lenny Belton, Peter Seamus, Salvy, myself. We were all friends. Gimme a minute, will ya?_ _I ain_t got a minute,_ the Elephant said. He stood and moved to the doorway, expecting the old man to rise. Instead, Driscoll peered up at him and said, _You got a good company here. How_s the health of it?_ Elefante snapped his glance down to the Irishman. _Say that again,_ he said. _How_s the health of your trucking company?_ Elefante sat back down and frowned. _What_s your name now?_ _Sturgess. Driscoll Sturgess._ _You got any other names?_ _Well . . . your father knew me as the Governor. And may your health always be fine, and the wind at your back. May the road rise up to meet you. And may God hold you in the palm of His hand. That_s a poem, lad. I made up a ditty with the last line of it. Wanna hear it?_ He stood up to sing, but Elefante reached a long arm out, grabbed the old man_s jacket, and tugged him back into his chair. _Sit a minute._ Elefante stared at him a long moment, feeling like his ears had just blown off his head, his mind buzzing the red alarm of an important, hazy memory. The Governor. He_d heard the name before, in a long-distant past. His father had mentioned it several times. But when? It had been years ago. It was near the end of his father_s life, and he, Elefante, was nineteen then, at an age when teenagers didn_t listen. The Governor? The governor of what? He dug deep in the recesses of his mind, trying to draw it out. The Governor . . . the Governor . . . It was something big . . . it had to do with money. But what? _The Governor, you say?_ Elefante said, stalling. _That_s right. Your poppa never mentioned me?_ Elefante sat a moment, blinking, and cleared his throat. _Maybe,_ he said. His father, Guido Elefante, had had a six-word vocabulary, spoken four times a day, but each word was a saber that cut through the dimly lit bedroom where he_d spent the last years of his life, crippled by a stroke suffered in prison, his grim, harsh commands cutting into the heart of his once happy-go-lucky boy, who had spent most of his growing years running wild with a mother unable to control him, raised by neighbors and cousins, while Guido had spent most of Elefante_s childhood doing time in jail for a crime Guido never disclosed. Elefante was eighteen when his father came out of jail. The two were never close. Guido, felled by another stroke that got him for good just short of his son_s twentieth birthday. By then, the son had spent a good part of his young life without a father. Other than a few occasions when he was five and the old man took him swimming at the Cause Houses pool, Elefante had few memories of leisure time with his pop. The old man who came home from jail that last time was silent as ever, a grim, suspicious, stone-faced Italian, ruling his wife and son with iron efficiency, guided by the one motto that he forced into his son_s consciousness, one that had led Guido safely from the poverty-stricken docks of Genoa to his dying moments in a handsome Cause brownstone bought and paid for, cash: Everything you are, everything you will be in this cruel world, depends on your word. A man who cannot keep his word, Guido said, is worthless. Only in his later years did Elefante truly appreciate his old man_s power, his ability, even bedridden and debilitated, to manage his trucking, storage, and construction business with clever, assured firmness. The old man with an odd wife, working his business in a world of two-faced mobsters with no imagination, and always willing to break his long silences with the same warnings: Keep a tight mouth. Never ask questions of customers. Remember, we_re just a bunch of poor Genoans working for Sicilians who don_t have our health in mind. That and health. The old man was a fanatic about health. Your health, your health is everything. Keep your health in mind. Elefante heard that so much he grew sick of it. At first Elefante believed that credo came from the old man_s own health misfortunes. But as the old man spiraled toward death, the admonition took on new meaning. As he sat before the elderly Irishman in his boxcar, the moment of realization suddenly tumbled into Elefante_s consciousness with startling efficiency, landing on his insides with a heaviness that felt like a blacksmith_s hammer falling on an anvil. They were in the old man_s bedroom just days before he died. The old man had sent his mother to the store, claiming he needed fresh orange juice_something he disliked but occasionally drank for his wife_s sake. They were in the bedroom, just the two of them, watching Bill Beutel, the longtime anchorman on Channel 7, giving the local news, Elefante in the room_s only chair, the old man propped on the bed. His pop seemed distracted. He raised his head from his pillow and said, _Turn the TV sound up._ Elefante did as he was told, then moved his chair next to the bed. As he tried to sit, the old man reached up and grabbed his shirt and pulled him onto the bed, yanking his son_s head close to his. _Keep your eyes open for someone._ _Who?_ _An old fella. Irishman. The Governor._ _The governor of New York?_ Elefante asked. _Not that crook,_ his father said. _The other Governor. The Irish one. That_s his name: the Governor. If he shows_and he probably won_t_he_ll ask about your health. That_s how you_ll know it_s him._ _What about my health?_ His father ignored him. _And he_ll sing about the road rising up to meet you, and the wind being at your back and God being in the palm of your hand. All that Irish Catholic crap. If he_s crowing that and asking about your health, that_s him._ _What about him?_ _I_m holding something for him, and he_s come to collect it. Give it to him. He_ll treat you fair._ _What_re you holding?_ But then they heard the door open and his mother return, so the old man shut down, saying they_d talk later. Later never came. The old man slipped into incomprehensibility a day later and died. Elefante, seated before the Irishman, who was staring at him oddly, tried to keep his voice even. _Poppa did mention something about health. But that was a long time ago. Just before he died. I was twenty, so I don_t remember so well._ _Ah, but a fair-play mate he was. He never forgot a friend. A better man I never knew. He looked out for me in prison._ _Look, get your blockers out the backfield, would ya?_ _What?_ _Put the show on the road, mister. What you selling?_ _I_ll say it once again for Mother Mary. I need something moved to Kennedy._ _Is it too big for a car?_ _No. You can fit it in your hand._ _You wanna play blackjacks and spout riddles all day? What is it?_ The Governor smiled. _If I was light-headed enough to drag a barrel full of trouble to a friend_s house, what kind of man would I be?_ _That_s touching, but it sounds like a lie._ _I_d move it myself,_ the old Irishman said. _But it_s in storage._ Filtered it out then._ _That_s just it. I can_t. The header running the storage place don_t know me._ _Who_s the guy?_ The old man smirked and peered at Elefante out the side of his one good eye. _I_d tell you in installments, but at my age, how_s that gonna work out? Whyn_t you wind yer neck in and pay attention?_ He smiled grimly, then from his chair sang softly: Wars were shared and gay for each Until the Venus faced the breach The Venus, the Venus, so dear to me At Willendorf always her image be. The Venus oh beauty Now covered and taut Lost to me, but not for naught. When he stopped, he found Elefante glaring at him, his lips pursed. _If you wanna keep your teeth,_ Elefante said, _don_t sing no more._ The old Irishman was nonplussed. _I got no tricks,_ he said. _Something fell in my lap many a year ago. I need your help getting it. And moving it._ _What is it?_ Again the old man ignored the question. _I_m on a short lease, lad. I_m on the way out. It won_t do me no good. My lungs are going. I got a grown lass, a daughter. I_m giving her my bagel business. It_s a good, clean business._ _What_s an Irishman doing baking bagels?_ _Is that illegal? No worries about the cops, son. Come up and see it if you want. It_s a good operation. We_re in the Bronx. Right off the Bruckner Expressway. You_ll see I_m square._ _If you_re so square and tidy, give your daughter what you got and live happily ever after._ _I said I don_t want my daughter mixed up in it. You can have it. You can keep it. Or sell it. Or sell it and give me a little piece if you want, and keep the rest for yourself. However you like. That_ll be the end of it. At least it won_t be wasted._ _You oughta be a wedding planner, mister. First you want me to move it. Then you want to give it to me. Then you want me to sell it and give you a piece. What is it, for Christ_s sake?_ The old man looked at Elefante sideways. _Your old man told me a story once. He said you wanted a job working for the Five Families when he came out. You wanna know how the story ends?_ _I already know how it ends._ _No you don_t,_ the Governor said. _Your poppa bragged on you in prison. Said you would run his business good someday. Said you could keep a secret._ _Sure can. Wanna hear one? My poppa_s dead, and he ain_t paying my bills now._ _What you getting hepped for, son? Your poppa gifted you. He put this thing up. Stored it for me years ago. And you got the key to it._ _How do you know I didn_t use the key and sell the thing already, whatever it is?_ Elefante asked. _If you_d done that, you wouldn_t be making a bag of it in this blessed boxcar in the wee hours, moving this shit you call goods, which, if I_m remembering right from the old days, let_s see . . . twelve-foot box truck, thirty-four crates, at forty-eight dollars a crate, if it_s cigarettes and maybe a few cases of booze, you_re looking at . . . maybe five thousand gross and fifteen hundred clams in your pocket after everybody_s paid, including Gorvino, who runs these docks_which if your father knew you were still working for him, he_d probably marmalade ya. He_d be shook, that_s for sure._ Elefante blanched. The old guy had balls. And smarts. And maybe a point. _So you can add figures,_ he said. _Where_s this thing that you can_t name?_ _I just named it for you. It_s in a storage box probably._ Elefante ignored that. He hadn_t heard any name of anything. Instead he asked, _You got a slip?_ _A what?_ _A receipt? A storage slip. Showing the box is yours?_ The Irishman frowned. _Guido Elefante didn_t give receipts. His word was good enough._ He was silent as Elefante took that in. Finally Elefante spoke. _I got fifty-nine storage lockers. All padlocked by whoever rents them. Only the owners got the keys._ The Irishman laughed. _Be a good lad. Maybe it_s not in a storage box._ _Where is it then? Buried in a lot someplace?_ _If you want to relax with your slippers, I_m not your man. It_s got to be clean, son. Clean as a bar of Palmolive soap. Your poppa would see to it._ _What_s that supposed to mean?_ _Pull your socks up, lad. I just told you. Wherever it is, it_s got to be clean. It might just be a bar of soap, or be in a bar of soap. That_s how small it is. That_ll keep it clean, I suppose, if you put it in a big bar of soap. It_s about that size._ _Mister, you come in here singing riddles. You say this junk_whatever it is_needs a truck ride to the airport even though it_s the size of a bar of soap. That it_s got to be clean like soap, that it might even be soap. Do I look stupid enough to run around for a bar of soap?_ _You could buy three million dollars_ worth of suds with it. Give or take a few dollars. If it_s in good shape,_ the Irishman said. Elefante watched the worker closest to him lug a crate from the door of the boxcar to the waiting truck outside. He watched him shove the crate into the truck without saying a word or changing his expression, and decided the man hadn_t overheard. _I_d let you talk pretty to me like that all night if I could,_ he said. _But I_d hate myself in the morning. I_ll get one of my guys to take you back to the Bronx. The subway ain_t what it used to be. I_ll do that for my poppa_s sake._ Sturgess held up an old, wrinkled hand. _I_m not having you on. I got no muscle to move this thing. I know somebody who might want to buy it in Europe. That_s why I want to get it to Kennedy. But now, talking to you, you_re a smart laddie, I think it_s better if you take it. Sell it if you want, give me a small piece if you can. If you don_t, that_s okay. I got nothing except a lass at home. I don_t want no trouble for her. She runs my business good. I just don_t want to waste the thing, is all._ _What is it, Governor? Coins? Jewels? Gold? What_s worth that much?_ The Irishman stood up. _It_s worth a lot of crisps,_ he said. _Crisps?_ _Chips. Money. Dollars. Guido said he_d keep it, so I know it_s been kept. Where, I don_t know. But your pop never went back on his word._ He dropped his card on the Elephant_s desk. _Come see me in the Bronx. We_ll talk about it. I can even tell you what to do with it. You can throw me a bone afterward if you want._ _What if I don_t know where it is?_ _For three million biscuits, you_ll know._ _For that kind of money, old man, anything but murder is a parlor trick. A guy can stop paying taxes for good, chasing that kind of money around,_ Elefante said. _I ain_t paid taxes in years,_ the old man said. _Come on up to street level, would ya? How do I know you_re square? What am I looking for?_ _Check your load. See what you got._ _How do I know you_re not a bartender somebody floated out here just to mix drinks and box me in?_ _You think I_m some tosser who came all the way out here at this hour for exercise?_ The Governor rose and stepped to the open back door, leaning on the door edge, looking out onto the dock, where two of Elefante_s men could be seen several yards away, struggling to lift a huge, heavy box into the truck. He nodded at them. _You_d have ended up just like them if your father was like the rest of the gobshits we knew in prison, following the Five Families around. The thing is called the Venus, by the way. The Venus of Willendorf. She_s in God_s hands. That_s what your poppa said to me. In a letter._ Elefante glanced at his father_s old file cabinet, tucked in a corner of the boxcar. He_d been through it a dozen times. There was nothing in it. _Pop didn_t write letters,_ he replied. But the old man had already stepped out the door, slipped into the dark empty lot across the street, and was gone. 6 BUNCH From the dirty window of a worn second-floor brownstone apartment, the great lights of Manhattan_s skyscrapers danced in the far distance. Inside the dark parlor, a tall, slim brown man, wearing a colorful African kente kufi cap and dashiki, held a copy of the Amsterdam News newspaper in his hands and roared with delight. Bunch Moon was thirty-one, head of Moon Rental Cars and Moon Steak N Go, and codirector of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Development Corporation, and was seated at a polished dining room table, grinning as he held the latest edition of the city_s major black newspaper and read the good news before him. His laughter eased into a smile as he turned the page and finished the story he was reading. He folded the paper, fingered his goatee, then spoke softly to the twenty-year-old man seated across the table from him who was scratching at a crossword puzzle: _Earl, Queens is burning, brother. The Jews are burning it up._ Earl Morris, Bunch_s right-hand man, was clad in a leather jacket, the features of his smooth brown face etched in concentration as he worked his crossword. He had a pencil in his right hand and a lit cigarette in his left. He was having trouble negotiating both while trying to fill in the puzzle squares. Finally, he placed his cigarette in the ashtray and said without looking up, _Dig thaaaaaat._ _The city wants to build a housing project in Forest Hills,_ Moon said. _Them Jews out there are pissed, bro!_ _Dig thaaaaaat._ _So Mayor Lindsay goes out there and they give him hell. He gets mad and calls _em _fat Jewish broads.__ Bunch chuckled. _In front of the press and everything. Captain Marvel. You gotta love this guy._ _Dig that._ _Guess how many ran with it in their newspapers. Not one. Not the Times. Not the Post. Nobody. Just the Amsterdam News. He goes out there and insults the Jews and nobody says a drop about it. Except us. The Jews hate us, man! They don_t want no projects out there in Forest Hills._ _Dig thaaat._ _And the whiteys hate the Jews, because the Jews run everything. You dig?_ _Dig thaaaat._ Bunch frowned. _Can_t you say anything else?_ he asked. _Dig thaaat._ _Earl!_ Earl, scratching at his crossword puzzle, snapped to and looked up. _Huh?_ _Can_t you say anything else?_ _About what?_ _About what I just said. _Bout the Jews running everything._ Earl pursed his lips in silence, looking puzzled. He took a quick puff of his cigarette, then said softly, _Which Jews now?_ Bunch smirked. I_m surrounded by idiots, he thought. _How_s the kid from Cause Houses? The one who was shot yesterday._ Earl sat up straight now, recovering. He could tell the boss was heating up. _His ear_s messed up,_ he said quickly. _But he_s okay._ _What_s his name again?_ _Deems Clemens._ _Sharp kid. How long till he_s on his feet?_ _Maybe a week. Two at the outside._ _How_s sales up there?_ _They fell off a little. But he got a man in place._ _Did he get arrested after he was shot?_ _Naw. He wasn_t holding. He had a stash man. So the cops got nothing. Just the cash in his pockets._ _Okay. Pay him back his cash. Then get him off his ass and back on the street again. He gotta defend his plazas._ _He can_t._ _Why not?_ _He ain_t all the way well yet, Bunch._ _Shit, the nigger lost an ear, not his little Ray-Ray. He got a crew._ _Dig thaaat._ _Will you put a lid on the dig-that crap?_ Bunch snapped. _Can he get back on his feet sooner? If his crew ain_t tight, his sales are gonna fall off quick. Can he keep his crew selling at least?_ Earl shrugged. _Bunch, it_s kinda hot over there. The cops are still looking for the shooter._ _Who was it?_ _An old man. Some bum._ _Narrow that down. They_re a dime a dozen in the Cause._ _Dig th__ Earl coughed and cleared his throat as Bunch glared. Earl quickly hunched over the crossword puzzle, facedown, his chin inches from the page. _I_m using this here, Bunch,_ he said hastily, pointing at the crossword puzzle, _to get outta that habit. Finding new words every day._ Bunch sucked his teeth and turned away, heading to the window, his good humor gone now. He peered worriedly out to the street, first at the glistening Manhattan skyline in the distance, then at the tired, dilapidated brownstones lining the block. Piles of trash littered both sides of the street, along with several hulks of abandoned cars parked at the curbs in random fashion, hunched over like giant dead bugs, their motors missing and tires gone. He watched a group of kids playing atop one of the piles, vaulting like frogs from garbage bags to piles of refuse and ending at a broken fire hydrant. Amid the garbage and refuse along the bleak street, in front of the brownstone sat Bunch_s gleaming black Buick Electra 225, which stood out in front of his place like a polished diamond. _This fucking city,_ he said. _Uh-huh,_ Earl said, not trusting himself to speak further. Bunch ignored that, his mind churning. _The cops won_t bother with Deems,_ he said. _There_s not a peep about the shooting in the papers. Not even the Amsterdam News. The Jews in Queens is hot news now. And the riot in Brownsville._ _What riot?_ _Don_t you read the papers? Last week a kid got shot out there._ _White kid or black kid?_ _Bro, is your head soundproof? It_s Brownsville, nigger!_ _Oh yeah, yeah, that_s old news,_ Earl said. _I read that. Wasn_t he robbing an old man or something?_ _Who cares. The riots draw all the cop muscle from the Seventy-Sixth Precinct. That_s good for us. We need the cops to stay there till we straighten out our business in the Cause. Tell you what: Call up my Steak N Go shop and tell Calvin and Justin to take the day off. Tell them to get flowers for the family, and cake and hot coffee. Have _em take that stuff out to wherever the riot and protesters are meeting, wherever their headquarters is. Probably some church. Tell _em to bring some chicken, too, now that I think on it._ He chuckled bitterly. _No ideas flow through them Martin Luther King Cadillac types till they get some chicken. Call Willard Johnson to help set it up. He_s still over there, ain_t he?_ _Will called last night._ _About what?_ _Said he was a little short on money from that . . . whatever that thing is. The city thing we doing, the poverty program thing . . ._ _The Redevelopment Authority?_ _Yeah. He needs a little dough. For office rent and electric. Just to help him over the hump._ Bunch snorted. _Shit. The only hump that nigger is interested in got thighs like Calpurnia. He likes them big country girls._ Earl was silent as Bunch began to pace. _I gotta tie up that business at the Cause Houses. Tell me more about the guy who shot Deems._ _Ain_t nothing to him. Some old guy got drunk and shot him. A deacon at one of them churches out there._ Bunch stopped pacing. _Why didn_t you tell me that before?_ _You ain_t ask._ _What kind of church? Big church or little church?_ _Bro, I don_t know. They got fourteen churches for every man, woman, and child in the Cause. Some little nothing church, I heard._ Bunch seemed relieved. _All right. Find the guy. Find his church. First we deal with him. We gotta choke him hard or we_ll have every dope slinger in South Brooklyn pushin_ in on our corners. Make it look like a mugging. Steal his money if he got any. Cut him a little. But not too hard. We don_t wanna get his church people in a snit. After that, we go to the church as the Redevelopment Authority and say how sorry we are about all this crime and horror in our community and so forth. We cool _em out by buying _em some choir books or Bibles and promise them some redevelopment city money. But we gotta straighten out that old guy first._ _Why don_t we let the kid out there take care of him? He says he can._ _From his hospital bed?_ _He_s home now._ _I can_t run my business waiting for some kid to pull his Band-Aids off. Go over there and take care of the old man, before the Brownsville thing gets cold._ Earl frowned. _That ain_t our territory, Bunch. I don_t know all the players over there. Ain_t that what we paying Joe Peck for, him being our supplier and all? He got the cops over there in his pocket. He knows everybody over there. Whyn_t you call him?_ Bunch shrugged. _I did. I told him we_d take care of it ourselves._ Earl tried to hide his surprise. _Why?_ Bunch glanced at the window, then decided to take a chance. _I got a plan to get clear of him. Get our own supplier._ Earl was silent for a moment, contemplating. That was not the kind of information Bunch passed on lightly. It put him a little deeper into Bunch_s thing. He wasn_t sure if that was exactly good or safe_safe being the operative word. _Peck is Gorvino family, Bunch._ _I don_t give a fuck if he_s George Washington family. The Gorvinos ain_t what they used to be. They don_t like Peck no more anyway,_ Bunch said. _Why not?_ _He_s too wild._ _Dig thaaaat,_ Earl said, ignoring a hot glance from Bunch. He was distracted. He needed time to think this one through, because he didn_t know what to say and he felt himself sliding into the hot seat. The Cause Houses made him nervous. Other than making money and dope drop-offs once a week, he was a stranger in those projects. He fingered his chin thoughtfully. _Even if the Gorvinos are souring on Peck, there_s the Elephant to deal with. A brother could end up in the harbor wearing cement shoes fucking with the Elephant. Remember Mark Bumpus? He crossed the Elephant. What was left of him got tossed in the harbor without instructions. I heard they picked him out the water in pieces._ _Bumpus was a hardhead. A smuggler. The Elephant don_t traffic in dope._ _Yeah, but he got the docks._ _Just his dock. There_s other docks over there._ _The Elephant_s funny about the Cause, Bunch. It_s his turf._ _Who says?_ _Everybody. Even Peck and the Gorvinos don_t monkey with the Elephant._ _The Elephant ain_t Gorvino family, Earl. Remember that. He works with them, but he_s mostly on his own. If it ain_t cigarettes or tires or refrigerators, he ain_t interested._ _I hope so,_ Earl said, scratching his ear, his face etched in doubt. He squashed his cigarette and fiddled with his pencil. _Bumpus ain_t the only one who ended up finding Negro freedom at the bottom of the harbor care of the Elephant. That_s some party I hear, when that wop gets mad._ Filtered your subway tokens out and get rolling, would you? I told you, we ain_t gonna touch the Elephant. He ain_t interested in our business. Him and Peck ain_t tight. So long as we take care of our business quiet, we_ll be all right. This is our chance to ease Peck out and make some big dollars._ _How we gonna get our supply without Peck?_ Earl asked. _That_s my business._ Bunch sat down at the table, removed his kente kufi African cap, and ran a hand over his thick, dark hair. _Go over to the Cause Houses and clean up the old man. Bust his eye out. Break his arm. Set fire to his clothes. But don_t ice him. Just soften him up like it_s a mugging gone sour. Then we give his church a little donation from our redevelopment fund, and that_s it._ _Shit, Bunch, I_d rather Peck do it. Or Deems._ Bunch stared at him grimly. _Is you losing heart, bro?_ he said softly. _If you are, I understand, because business is gonna get heavy soon._ _It ain_t about heart. I ain_t for beating up no old man, then paying his church._ _Since when did you grow a conscience?_ _It ain_t that._ _Maybe I should call in Harold._ For the first time, Earl, who had been slouched in his chair at the table, sat straight up. _What you wanna let that nigger outta the cage for?_ _We might need an extra hand._ _You wanna tighten up the old man or you wanna nuke the projects?_ _Where_s Harold living these days anyway?_ Bunch asked. Earl sulked silently for a good minute. _Virginia,_ he said finally. _It should be Alaska after that last job. Fucking firebug._ _That_s the kind of talent we might need if Peck gets mad._ Earl rubbed his chin with the tips of his fingers, brooding. Bunch clapped the young man on the shoulders with both hands from behind, then massaged Earl_s shoulders. Earl stared ahead, nervous now. He had seen what Bunch could do close up with a knife, and for a moment a fleeting panic gripped him, then passed as Bunch spoke: _I know how you are about them church folk. Your ma was church folk, wasn_t she?_ _Don_t mean nothing._ Bunch ignored that. _Mine was too. We was all church folk,_ he said. _Church is a good thing. A great thing, really. Building up our community. Thank God._ He lowered his head to Earl_s ear. _We ain_t tearing down our community, brother. We_re building it up. Look at all the businesses I got. The jobs we_re providing. The help we give people. Is the white man opening car washes? Is he running car-rental places? Restaurants? Is he giving us jobs?_ He pointed to the window, the filthy street, the abandoned cars, the dead brownstones. _What_s the white man doing for us out here, Earl? Where_s he at?_ Earl stared ahead, silent. _We_ll give the church a bunch of money,_ Bunch said. _It_ll work out. You in or out, bro?_ It was an affirmation, not a question. _Course I_m in,_ Earl muttered. Bunch sat down at the table again, leafing through the Amsterdam News, and then nodded Earl toward the door. _Straighten out that old man. Clean him up good. Lop off one of his nuts if you have to. I don_t care what you do. Send a clear message, and we_ll leave Harold for another day._ _That assumes Harold knows the difference between day and night,_ Earl said. _Just get it done,_ Bunch said. 7 THE MARCH OF THE ANTS Just before fall each year, for as long AS anyone could remember, the March of the Ants came to Building 17 of the Cause Houses. They came for Jesus_s cheese, which came magically to Hot Sausage_s basement boiler room once a month, with several one-pound hunks Sausage kept for himself, which he stored inside a tall stand-alone pendulum clock he_d found years ago in Park Slope and dragged into his basement to repair it. The repair never happened, of course, but the ants didn_t mind. They happily headed for it every year, crawling through a slit in the building_s outer door, marching through the labyrinth of discarded junk, bicycle parts, bricks, plumbing tools, and old sinks that crowded Hot Sausage_s boiler room, moving in a curling line three inches wide that snaked its way around the discarded junk to the clock itself, which stood along a back wall. They climbed through the broken plate glass and across the clock_s dead hour hand, then down into its guts and innards to the delicious, odorous white man_s cheese wrapped in wax paper that lay inside. After demolishing the cheese, the line moved on, snaking its way out the back of the clock and along the wall, gobbling whatever was in its path_bits of old sandwiches, discarded Ring Dings, roaches, mice, rats, and of course their own dead. These ants were not normal city ants. They were big, red country ants with huge backsides and tiny heads. Where they came from no one knew, though it was rumored they might have wandered over from the nearby Preston Carter Arboretum in Park Slope; others said a graduate student from nearby Brooklyn College had dropped a beaker full of them and watched in horror as the beaker smashed to the floor and they scattered. The real truth was that their long journey to Brooklyn began in 1951, care of a Colombian worker from the nearby Preston chicken-processing plant named Hector Maldonez. That was the year Hector slipped into New York on a Brazilian freighter, the Andressa. He spent the next six years living the good life in America, before he decided to divorce his wife and childhood sweetheart, who had dutifully remained back home with their four children in their village near Riohacha, in the northern Perij? mountains. Hector was a man with a conscience, and when he dutifully flew back home to explain to his wife that he_d found new love in America, a new Puerto Rican wife, he promised he would continue to support her and the children as always. His Colombian wife begged him to return to their once-blissful marriage, but Hector refused. _I_m an American now,_ he said proudly. He neglected to mention that as a big-shot American, he could not have a village wife, nor did he invite her to return with him. Much angst and arguing followed, complete with swearing, hollering, and tearing out of hair, but at the end, after many assurances that he would continue to provide funds every month for her and their children, his Colombian wife tearfully agreed to a divorce. Before leaving she cooked him his favorite dish, a platter of bandeja paisa. She stuck the carefully wrapped blend of chicken, sausage, and rolls in a brand-new lunch box she had purchased and gave it to him as he left for the airport. He grabbed the whole business as he ran out the door, stuffed a few dollars in her hand, and left for America feeling light and easy, having gotten off scot-free. His plane landed back in New York just in time for him to make it to Brooklyn for his shift at the factory. After working his morning shift, he opened his lunch box to devour the delicious bandeja paisa and instead found the lunch box packed with hormigas rojas asesinas, the dreaded red ants from back home, along with a note that read more or less, in Spanish, _Adios motherfucker . . . we know you ain_t sending no pesos!_ Hector yelped and tossed the new lunch box into the long open trough that ran beneath the chicken factory, which sent chicken guts and sludge into a labyrinth of pipes that ran beneath the Cause Houses and out to the banks of the warm harbor. And there, in the agreeable coziness of the pipes and sludge, the ants lived in relative harmony, hatching, devouring each other, and happily indulging in the mice, rats, shad, crabs, leftover fish heads, and chicken guts, along with several other unfortunate live or half-live cats and mongrels from the nearby Cause Houses that wandered into the chicken factory for occasional munching, including a German shepherd named Donald, a favorite of the project_s residents. Apparently the poor creature fell into the polluted Gowanus Canal and nearly drowned in the foul-smelling water. He emerged from the water a mess, his fur colored orange and barking like a cat. He staggered around the bank for a full hour before collapsing. The ants ate him of course, along with other unmentionable creatures that lurked in and around the sludge and waste pipes that ran beneath the chicken factory, the ants surviving fine until each fall, when their inner clocks denoted they make their pilgrimage to the surface to do what every God-worshipping creature from the tiniest cell-sized hatchling in Victoria Falls to the giant Gila monsters that wandered the Mexican countryside did, or should do, or should have done: they sought Jesus, or in this case, Jesus_s cheese, which happened to be in Building 17 of the Cause Houses of the New York City Housing Authority, stored by Hot Sausage, a man who faithfully prayed every month that the Lord would allow him to lay his own sausage beside the tenderloins of Sister Denise Bibb, the best church organist in Brooklyn, in addition to faithfully laying aside several bars of Jesus_s cheese every week for a rainy day, which every year, in the fall, worked to the ants_ benefit. Of course no one in the Cause paid much attention to the March of the Ants. In a housing project where 3,500 black and Spanish residents crammed their dreams, nightmares, dogs, cats, turtles, guinea pigs, Easter chicklets, children, parents, and double-chinned cousins from Puerto Rico, Birmingham, and Barbados into 256 tiny apartments, all living under the thumb of the wonderfully corrupt New York City Housing Authority, which for $43-a-month rent didn_t give a squirt whether they lived, died, shat blood, or walked around barefoot so long as they didn_t call the downtown Brooklyn office to complain, ants were a minor worry. And no resident in their right mind would go over their heads to the mighty Housing Authority honchos in Manhattan, who did not like their afternoon naps disturbed with minor complaints about ants, toilets, murders, child molestation, rape, heatless apartments, and lead paint that shrunk children_s brains to the size of a full-grown pea in one of their Brooklyn locations, unless they wanted a new home sleeping on a bench at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. But one year a lady in the Cause got fed up with the ants and wrote a letter of complaint. The Housing Authority ignored it, of course. But the letter somehow made its way to the Daily News, which ran a story about the ants sight unseen. The story triggered mild public interest, since anything about the Cause Houses that didn_t involve Negroes running around cockeyed screaming for civil rights was seen as good news. NYU sent out a biologist to investigate, but he got mugged and fled. The City College of New York, desperate to clamber over NYU for public respectability, dispatched two black female graduate students to take a look, but both had finals that year and by the time they arrived the ants had departed. The city_s proud Environmental Action Department, which in those days consisted of hippies, yippies, draft dodgers, soothsayers, and peaceniks who smoked pot and argued about Abbie Hoffman, promised to take a look. But a week later a city commissioner, a first-generation Pole and a key mover in the New York Polish American Society_s annual failed effort to get the City Council to honor that great Polish-Lithuanian general Andrew Thaddeus Bonaventure Kosciuszko by naming something after him other than that half-assed, pothole-filled, rust-bucket shit bomb of a bridge that yawned over Williamsburg, bearing the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and whatever suicide jumper had the guts to wander up through the veering traffic before leaping off the crusty rails to crash into the poor souls below, wandered into the office, got a whiff of the freshly smoked Acapulco Gold being enjoyed by the hippie commie staffers who were busily engaged in arguing about the virtues of that esteemed early-twentieth-century union-organizing hell-raiser Emma Goldman, and left enraged. He cut the department_s budget in half. The investigator assigned to look into the Cause ants was sent to the Parking Authority, where she collected dimes from parking meters for the next four years. Thus, to the wider city of New York, the ants remained a mystery. They were a myth, a wisp of annual horrible possibility, an urban legend, an addendum to the annals of New York City_s poor, like the alligator Hercules who was said to live in the sewers below the Lower East Side and would leap out from manholes and gulp down children. Or the giant constrictor Sid from the Queensbridge Projects who strangled his owner, then slithered out the window to the nearby Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge, his ten-foot body camouflaged in the girders above traffic, occasionally reaching down at night to pluck an unlucky truck driver out of an open window. Or the monkey that escaped from the Ringling Bros. circus and was said to be living in the rafters of the old Madison Square Garden, eating popcorn and cheering as the New York Knicks got the shit kicked out of them for the umpteenth time. The ants were poor folks_ foolishness, a forgotten story from a forgotten borough in a forgotten city that was going under. And there they stayed, a sole phenomenon in the Republic of Brooklyn, where cats hollered like people, dogs ate their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at age 102, a kid named Spike Lee saw God, the ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope, and penniless desperation ruled the lives of the suckers too black or too poor to leave, while in Manhattan the buses ran on time, the lights never went out, the death of a single white child in a traffic accident was a page one story, while phony versions of black and Latino life ruled the Broadway roost, making white writers rich_West Side Story, Porgy and Bess, Purlie Victorious_and on it went, the whole business of the white man_s reality lumping together like a giant, lopsided snowball, the Great American Myth, the Big Apple, the Big Kahuna, the City That Never Sleeps, while the blacks and Latinos who cleaned the apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrow slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color. And all the while, the ants marched each fall, arriving at Building 17 kicking ass, a roaring tidal wave of tiny death, devouring Jesus_s cheese, moving out of the clock and into the boiler room and into the trash can by the hall door, polishing off whatever leftover sandwiches and bits of cake from the wilted, soggy, uneaten lunches Hot Sausage left behind each afternoon as he and his buddy Sportcoat ignored food in favor of their favorite beverage, King Kong. From there they moved on to more plentiful goods in the halls and supply closets: rats and mice, which were in abundance, some dead, some alive, the mice still trapped in glue traps and tiny cardboard boxes, others expired, having been smashed by Hot Sausage_s hand, the rats crushed by his shovel and lying underneath old carburetors and discarded fenders, amidst brooms and on dustpans, sprinkled with lime for later incineration in the giant coal furnaces that heated the Cause Houses. After supping on them, the ants turned upward, filing in a thick line up the broken toilet pipe to Flay Kingsley_s apartment in 1B, where there was little food or garbage to be found, since Miss Flay_s family of eight actually used apartment 1A across the hall, which had been empty since Mrs. Foy, the sole tenant, died four years previous and forgot to tell the welfare department about it, which created the perfect scenario for the welfare department and housing to blame each other about it_since one department didn_t tell the other. The apartment was quiet. Welfare paid the rent. Who knew? From there the ants moved up to Mrs. Nelson_s apartment, 2C, munching on the old watermelon rinds and coffee grounds she kept in a garbage can for her outdoor tomato garden, then up the waste pipe to 3C, Bum-Bum_s place, which was slim pickings, then across the hallway via outdoor viaduct to Pastor Gee_s place in 4C, which had no pickings at all, since Sister Gee kept a spotless house, then through Miss Izi_s bathroom in 5C, where they sampled all manner of delicious soap from Puerto Rico, which Miss Izi every year forgot to store in glass containers in the fall knowing they were coming, and finally to the outer roof, where they attempted to perform a high-wire act by trooping across a stepladder that connected the roof of Building 17 to the roof of Building 9 next door_where they met their death care of a group of clever schoolboys: Beanie, Rags, Sugar, Stick, and Deems Clemens, the best pitcher the Cause Houses had ever seen, and the most ruthless drug dealer in the history of the Cause Houses. As he lay in bed in apartment 5G of Building 9, his head wrapped in gauze, his mind fogged by painkillers, Deems found himself wondering about the ants. He had dreamed of them many times since he_d been hospitalized. He_d been home in bed three days, and the fog of painkillers and the constant ringing on the right side of his head had brought on odd memories and vivid nightmares. He had turned nineteen two months before, and for the first time in his life, he found himself unable to focus and remember things. He discovered with horror, for example, that his childhood memories were fast disappearing. He couldn_t remember his kindergarten teacher_s name, nor the name of the baseball coach from St. John_s University who had called all the time. He couldn_t remember the name of the subway stop in the Bronx where his aunt lived, or the name of the dealership in Sunset Park where the car salesman sold him his used Pontiac Firebird and then drove it home for him because Deems himself couldn_t drive. There was so much going on, everything was a spinning whirlwind, and for a kid whose almost-perfect memory once allowed him to collect illegal numbers for the local numbers runners needing neither paper nor pencil, the whole business of losing his past was troubling. It occurred to him, as he lay in bed that afternoon, that the shrill buzz on the right side of his head where what was left of his missing ear now lived might be the cause of the problem, or that if there are a thousand things you should remember in life, and you forget them all but the one or two useless things, maybe those things aren_t so useless. He couldn_t believe how good it felt to remember the dumb ants from Building 17. It had been ten years since he and his buddies had dreamed up wonderful ways to stop them from invading their beloved Building 9. He smiled at the memory. They tried everything: Drowning. Poison. Ice. Firecrackers, aspirin soaked in soda, raw egg yolk sprayed with bleach, cod liver oil mixed with paint, and one year a possum that his best friend, Sugar, produced. Sugar_s family visited relatives in Alabama, and Sugar hid the creature in the trunk of his father_s Oldsmobile. The possum arrived in Brooklyn sick and prostrate. He was tossed into a cardboard box taped shut with an entry hole and placed in the ant path on the roof of Building 9. The ants arrived and obediently climbed into the box and began to politely devour the possum, at which point the possum came to life, writhing and hissing, which caused the frightened boys to toss a glass of kerosene on the box and set it on fire. The sudden whoosh of flames caused panic and they kicked the whole business off the roof, where it landed in the plaza six stories below_a bad idea, since that was sure to bring the wrath of adults of one kind or the other. It was Deems who saved them. He grabbed a five-gallon bucket left on the roof by a work crew and, scampering downstairs, scooped the remnants of the whole business into the bucket and dashed to the harbor, dumping everything at the water_s edge. He became their leader then, at ten, and had remained their leader since. But leader of what? he thought bitterly as he lay in bed. He turned on his side, groaning. _Everything,_ he muttered aloud, _is falling apart._ _Say what, bro?_ Deems opened his eyes and was surprised to see two of his crew, Beanie and Lightbulb, sitting by his bed staring at him. He had thought he was alone. He quickly turned to the wall, away from them. _You all right, Deems?_ Lightbulb said. Deems ignored him, staring at the wall, trying to think. How had this started? He couldn_t remember. He was fourteen when his older cousin Rooster dropped out of CUNY and started making big bucks selling heroin, mostly to junkies from the Watch Houses. Rooster showed him how to do it, and bang, five years passed. Was it that long ago? Now he was nineteen, had $4,300 in the bank; his mother hated his guts; Rooster was dead, killed in a drug robbery; and he was lying in his bed without his right ear. Fucking Sportcoat. Lying there staring at the wall, the smell of the lead paint wafting into his nostrils, Deems thought of the old man not with rage, but rather with confusion. He could not understand it. If there was one person in the Cause who had nothing to gain by shooting him, it was Sportcoat. Sportcoat had nothing to prove. If there was one person in the Cause who could get away with backtalking him, charming him, yelling at him, calling him names, kidding him, jiving him, lying to him, it was old Sportcoat. Sportcoat had been his baseball coach. Sportcoat had been his Sunday school teacher. Now he_s a straight drunk, Deems thought bitterly, though that_s never affected anything before. As far back as he could remember, he realized, Sportcoat had been a drunk more or less, but more important, he_d been the same_consistent. He never complained, or gave opinions. He didn_t judge. He didn_t care. Sport had his own thing, which is why Deems liked him. Because if there was one single thing in the screwed-up Cause Houses_in all of Brooklyn, for that matter_that Deems hated, it was people who complained about nothing. People with nothing complaining about nothing. Waiting on Jesus. Waiting on God. Sport wasn_t that way. He liked baseball and booze. Real simple. Sportcoat did the Jesus thing, too, Deems noted, when his wife, Miss Hettie, used to make him. But even then he could see the old man and he were the same. They were stuck in Jesus houses. Deems had long ago decided that Sport was different from the Jesus nuts of his life. Sport didn_t need Jesus. Of course he acted like he did, just like a lot of grown-ups at Five Ends church. But Sportcoat had something that nobody at Five Ends, nobody in the projects, nobody Deems Clemens had known in his entire nineteen years of growing up in the Cause Houses, had. Happiness. Sport was happy. Deems sighed heavily. Even Pop-Pop, his grandfather, the only man he_d ever known as a father, had not been happy. Pop-Pop had spoken in grunts and ruled his house with an iron fist, collapsing into his armchair at night after work with a beer in his hand, listening to the radio all night until he fell asleep. Pop-Pop was the only person who visited him when he went to juvy prison. His mother didn_t bother. As if hours of talking about Jesus and the Bible would substitute for a kiss, a smile, a solitary meal together, a book read to him at night. She wore his ass out with her switch for the least offenses, rarely found anything good in what he did, never went to his baseball games, and dragged him to church on Sundays. Food. Shelter. Jesus. That was her motto. _I sling eggs and sugar and bacon twelve hours a day and you don_t even thank Jesus that you got a place to live. Thank you, Jesus._ Jesus my ass. He wanted her to understand him. She could not. There was no one in his house who could. He wanted to be an equal. He saw how stupid the whole thing was, even as a child, all these people crowded into these shitbox apartments. Even a blind person like Pudgy Fingers could see it. He_d even talked to Pudgy about it, years ago, when they were in Sunday school. He was nine and Pudgy was eighteen. Even though he was a teenager, Pudgy was sent down to stay in Sunday School with the little kids during service because he was said to be _slow._ Deems once asked if he minded. Pudgy simply said, _Nope. The snacks are better._ They were in the basement and some Sunday school teacher was prattling on about God and Pudgy was sitting behind him and he saw Pudgy feeling the air with his hand until his hand landed on Deems_s shoulder and Pudgy leaned over and said, _Deems, do they think we_re retarded?_ That surprised him. _Of course we ain_t retarded,_ he snapped. Even Pudgy knew. Of course he knew. Pudgy wasn_t slow. Pudgy was smart. Pudgy remembered things that nobody else remembered. He could remember how many singles Cleon Jones of the New York Mets hit against the Pittsburgh Pirates in spring training last year. He could tell you when Sister Bibb playing the organ in church was feeling sick just because of the way he heard her feet on the pedals. Of course Pudgy was smart, because he was Sportcoat_s son. And Sport treated kids like equals, even his own. When Sportcoat taught Sunday school, the Lord_s word was all candy and bubblegum, games of catch played in the church basement with balled-up church programs while the congregation sang and yelled upstairs. Sportcoat even took the class on a Sunday morning _outing_ to the harbor once, where he_d hidden a fishing pole, tossing the fishing line into the water while Deems and the other kids played and muddied up their clothes. As for baseball, Sportcoat was a whiz. He organized the All-Cause team. He taught them how to catch and throw a ball properly, how to stand in the batter_s box, how to block the ball with your body if need be. After practice on lazy summer afternoons, he_d gather the kids around and tell stories about baseball players long dead, players from the old Negro leagues with names that sounded like brands of candy: Cool Papa Bell, Golly Honey Gibson, Smooth Rube Foster, Bullet Rogan, guys who knocked the ball five hundred feet high into the hot August air at some ballpark far away down south someplace, the stories soaring high over their heads, over the harbor, over their dirty baseball field, past the rude, red-hot projects where they lived. The Negro leagues, Sport said, were a dream. Why, Negro league players had leg muscles like rocks. They ran the bases so fast they were a blur, but their wives ran faster! The women? Lord . . . the women played baseball better than the men! Rube Foster hit a ball so far in Texas it had to take the train back home from Alabama! Guess who brought it back? His wife! Bullet Rogan struck out nineteen batters straight until his wife took a turn and knocked his first pitch out of the yard. And where you think Golly Honey Gibson got his nickname? His wife! She_s the one made him good. She_d hit line drives at him for practice, the ball traveling like a missile at the height of your face for four hundred feet, so hard he_d jump out the way, yelling _Golly, honey!_ If Golly Honey Gibson was any better, he_d be a girl! The stories were crazy, and Deems never believed them. But Sportcoat_s love of the game washed over Deems and his friends like rain. He bought them baseball bats, balls, gloves, even helmets. He umpired the annual game against the Watch Houses and coached it at the same time, wearing his hilarious umpire costume_mask, chest protector, and black umpire_s jacket_running around from base to base, calling runners safe when they were out and out when they were safe, and when either side argued, he_d shrug and switch his rulings, and when there was too much yelling, he_d holler, _Y_all driving me to drink!_ which made everybody laugh more. Only Sportcoat could make the kids from those two housing projects, who hated each other for reasons long ago forgotten, get along on the ball field. Deems looked up to him. Part of him wanted to be like Sportcoat. _The fucker shot me,_ Deems murmured, still facing the wall. _What_d I ever do to him?_ Behind him, he heard Lightbulb speaking. _Bro, we got to talk._ Deems shifted around and opened his eyes, facing them both. They had moved to the window ledge, Beanie smoking nervously, glancing out the window, Lightbulb staring at him. Deems felt his temple. There was a huge lump of bandage there, wrapped around his head. His body felt as if it had been squeezed in a vise. His back and his legs still burned, aching from his fall off the plaza bench. The ear, the one that was wounded, itched badly_what was left of it. _Who_s covering the plaza?_ he asked. _Stick._ Deems nodded. Stick was only sixteen, but he was original crew, so he was okay. Deems checked his watch. It was early, only eleven a.m. The usual customers didn_t show up at the flagpole until noon, which gave time for Deems to establish his lookouts on the four buildings that directly faced the plaza to spy for the cops and hand-signal any trouble. _Who_s the lookout on Building Nine?_ Deems said. _Building Nine?_ _Yeah, Building Nine._ _Nobody_s up there right now._ _Send somebody up there to look out._ _For what? You can_t see the flagpole plaza from there._ _I want _em up there looking out for the ants._ The boys stared at him, confused. _For the ants?_ Lightbulb asked. _You mean the ants that come _round that we used to play with__ _What_d I say, man? Yes for the fucking ants__ Deems snapped to silence as the door opened. His mother marched into the room with a glass of water and a handful of pills. She placed them on the nightstand next to his bed, glanced at him and at the two boys, and departed without a word. She hadn_t said more than five words to him since he_d gotten out of the hospital three days before. Then again she never said more than five words to him anyway, other than: _I_m praying that you change._ He watched her as she moved out of the room. He knew the yelling, the screaming, and the cursing would come later. It didn_t matter. He had his own money. He could take care of himself if she made him move out . . . maybe. It was coming soon anyway, he thought. He stretched his neck to ease the tension and the movement sent a flash of pain firing across his face and ear and down his back like an explosion. It felt like the inside of his head was being torched. He belched, blinked, and saw a hand extended at his face. It was Lightbulb, holding out the water and the pills. _Take your medicine, bro._ Deems snatched the pills and water, gulped them down, then said, _Which apartments did they get into?_ Lightbulb looked puzzled. _Who?_ _The ants, bro. What apartments did they get into last year? They follow the same trail like always? They come up from Sausage_s basement in Seventeen?_ _What you worrying about them for?_ Lightbulb said. _We got a problem. Earl wants to see you._ _I ain_t studying Earl,_ he said. _I asked about the ants._ _Earl_s mad, bro._ _About the ants?_ _What_s the matter with you?_ Lightbulb said. _Forget the ants. Earl says Sportcoat got to be dealt with. He_s saying we gonna lose the plaza to the Watch Houses if we don_t do something._ _We_ll deal with it._ _We ain_t got to. Earl says he_ll deal with Sportcoat hisself. Mr. Bunch told him to._ _We don_t need Earl in our business._ _Like I said, Mr. Bunch ain_t happy._ _Who you working for? Me? Or Earl and Mr. Bunch?_ Lightbulb sat in silence, cowed. Deems continued: _Y_all been out there?_ _Every day at noon,_ Lightbulb said. _How_s business?_ Lightbulb, always a goof, grinned and pulled out a round wad of bills and held it out to Deems, who glanced at the door where his mother had disappeared and said in a hushed voice, _Put that up, man._ Lightbulb sheepishly pocketed the money. _Light, anyone come through from the Watch Houses?_ Deems asked. _Not yet,_ Lightbulb said. _What you mean not yet? You hearing they gonna come through?_ _I don_t know, man,_ Lightbulb said forlornly. _I ain_t never been through this before._ Deems nodded. Lightbulb was scared. He didn_t have the heart for the game. They both knew it. It was just friendship that kept them close, Deems thought sadly. And friendship was trouble in business. He looked at Lightbulb again, his Afro covering his oddly shaped scalp that resembled from a side view a sixty-watt lightbulb, thus his nickname. The beginnings of a goatee were growing on his chin, giving Lightbulb a cool, almost hippie look. It doesn_t matter, Deems thought. He_ll be shooting heroin in a year. He had that smell on him. Deems_s gaze shifted to the small, stout Beanie, who was quiet, more solid. _What you think, Beanie? The Watches gonna try to move on our plaza?_ _I don_t know. But I think that janitor_s a cop._ _Hot Sausage? Sausage is a drunk._ _Naw. The young guy. Jet._ _I thought you said Jet got arrested._ _That don_t mean nothin_. You check out his sneakers?_ Deems leaned back on the pillow, thinking. He had noticed the sneakers. Cheap PF Flyers. _They were some cheap joints,_ he agreed. Still, Deems thought, if Jet hadn_t hollered, Sportcoat would_ve . . . He rubbed his head; the ringing in his ear had now descended into a tingling pain, working its way down to his neck and across his eyes despite the medicine. He considered Beanie_s theory, then spoke. _Who was lookout on the roof of Building Seventeen and Thirty-Four that day?_ _Chink was on Seventeen. Vance was on Thirty-Four._ _They didn_t see nothing?_ _We didn_t ask._ _Ask,_ Deems said, then, after a moment, added, _I think Earl sold us a bunch of goods._ The two boys glanced at each other. _Earl didn_t pop you, bro,_ Lightbulb said. _That was Sportcoat._ Deems didn_t seem to hear. He ran through several quick mental checkoffs in his mind, then spoke. _Sportcoat_s a drunk. He got no crew. Don_t worry about him. Earl . . . for what we paying him, I think he double-crossed us. Set us up._ _Why you think that?_ Lightbulb asked. _How_s it that Sportcoat could walk up on me without nobody calling it out? Maybe it ain_t nothing. Probably old Sport just lost his head. But selling horse is so hot now . . . it_s taking off. Easier to just rob somebody than stand out on the corners selling scag and smack in five- and ten-cent bags. I been telling Earl_s boss we need more protection down here_guns, y_know. Been saying it all year. And we need more love on the money tip. We_re only making four percent. We oughta be pulling five or six or even ten, as much shit as we move. I had all my collection money on me when I was shot. I woke up in the hospital and the money was gone. Cops probably took it. Now I got to pay that back, plus the ten percent Bunch charges for being late. He don_t give a shit about our troubles. For a lousy four percent? We could do better getting our own supplier._ _Deems,_ Beanie said. _We doing okay now._ _How come I got no muscle to protect me then? Who did we have out there? You two. Chink on Building Seventeen. Vance on Thirty-Four. And a bunch of kids. We need men around. With guns, bro. Ain_t that what I_m paying Earl for? Who_s watching our backs? We moving a lot of stuff. Earl shoulda sent somebody._ _Earl ain_t the boss,_ Beanie said. _Mr. Bunch is the boss._ _There_s a bigger boss than him,_ Deems said. _Mr. Joe. He_s the one we should be talking to._ The two boys looked at each other. They all knew _Mr. Joe_: Joe Peck, whose family owned the funeral home over on Silver Street. _Deems, he_s mob,_ Beanie said slowly. _He likes money just like us,_ Deems said. _He lives three streets over, bro. Mr. Bunch is just a middleman, from way out in Bed-Stuy._ Beanie and Lightbulb were silent. Beanie spoke first. _I don_t know, Deems. My daddy worked the docks with them Italians a long time. He said they ain_t nothing to mess with._ _Your daddy know everything?_ Deems asked. _I_m just saying. Supposing Mr. Joe is like the Elephant,_ Beanie said. _The Elephant don_t do dope._ _How you know?_ Beanie said. Deems was silent. They didn_t have to know everything. Lightbulb spoke up. _What y_all talking about? We ain_t got to mess with the Elephant or Mr. Joe or nobody else. Earl said he_d handle it. Let him handle it. It_s old Sportcoat that_s the problem. What you gonna do about that?_ Deems was silent a moment. Lightbulb had said _you_ rather than _we._ He filed that thought for later, and it made him feel sad all over again. First he_d mentioned the ants and they_d hardly remembered. Protecting our building! That_s what the aim was. The Cause. Protect our territory! They didn_t even care about that. Now Lightbulb was already talking _you._ He wished Sugar were here. Sugar was loyal. And had heart. But Sugar_s mother had sent him to Alabama. He_d written to Sugar and asked to visit and Sugar wrote back saying _come on,_ but when Deems wrote him a second letter, Sugar never wrote back. Beanie, Chink, Vance, and Stick were all he could trust now. That wasn_t much of a crew if the Watch Houses came calling. Lightbulb, he thought bitterly, was out. He turned to Beanie and the pain from his ear shot through his head. He grimaced and asked, _Sportcoat been _round these parts?_ _A little bit. Drinking like always._ _But he_s around?_ _Not like always. But he_s still around. So_s Pudgy Fingers,_ Beanie said, referring to Sportcoat_s blind son. Pudgy was a beloved fixture in the Cause Houses, wandering around freely, often brought to his door by any neighbor he happened to run across. The boys had known him all their lives. He was an easy target. _Ain_t no need to touch Pudgy Fingers,_ Deems said. _I_m just saying._ _Don_t fuck with Pudgy Fingers._ The three were silent as Deems blinked, deep in thought. Finally he spoke. _Okay, I_ll let Earl take care of my business_just this once._ The two boys immediately looked glum. Now Deems felt worse. They had wanted to take care of Sportcoat, now he_d agreed, and now they were sad. Goddamn! _Stop being crybabies,_ he said. _You said we got to do it, and now it_s done. Otherwise, the Watch Houses is gonna come gunning for the plaza. So let Earl deal with Sport._ The two boys stared at the floor. Neither looked at the other. _That_s how it is out here._ They remained silent. _This is the last time we let Earl take care of our business,_ Deems said. _Thing is . . ._ Beanie said softly, then stopped. _Thing is what?_ _Well . . ._ _What the fuck_s the matter with you, man?_ Deems said. _You so scared of Earl you want him to take care of our business. Okay, I said let him. It_s done. Tell him go _head. I_ll tell him myself when I get on my feet._ _There_s something else,_ Beanie said. _Spit it out, man!_ _Thing is, when Earl come around yesterday, he was asking about Sausage, too._ Another hit. Sausage was a friend. He_d helped out Sportcoat with baseball in the old days. Sausage gave out the cheese to their families every month. Everybody knew about Hot Sausage and Sister Bibb, the church organist for Five Ends. She was also Beanie_s aunt. That_s the problem, Deems thought. Everybody_s related to everybody in these goddamned pisshole projects. _Earl probably thinks Sausage is hiding Sportcoat,_ Beanie said. _Or that Sausage is diming us out to the cops._ _Sausage ain_t diming nobody,_ Deems scoffed. _We working right in front of Sausage_s face. He ain_t no stoolie._ _Everybody in the Cause knows that. But Earl ain_t from the Cause._ Deems glanced at Beanie, then at Lightbulb. One looked concerned, the other frightened. He nodded. _All right. Leave it to me. Earl ain_t moving on Sausage. I_ll talk to him. In the meantime, listen: In the next week or two, it_s the March of the Ants. You two take turns setting on top of Building Nine like we used to. Let me know when the ants come. You the only ones that know how to do that._ _What for?_ Lightbulb asked. _Just do it. When you see signs they_re coming, wherever I_m at, come fetch me. The first sign you see, come get me. Got it? You remember the signs, right? You know what to look for?_ They nodded. _Say it._ Beanie spoke up: _Mice and rats running in that little hallway near the roof. Bunch of roaches running up there, too._ _That_s right. Come get me if you see that. Understand?_ They nodded. Deems looked at his watch. It was almost noon. He felt sleepy; the medicine was taking effect. _Y_all get down there and help Stick make us some money. Post all the lookouts on the buildings and pay _em afterward, not before. Beanie, check the roof of Nine before you go to the plaza._ He saw the look of worry on their faces. _Just be cool,_ he said. _I got a plan. We_ll get everything back to normal in no time._ With that, Deems lay sideways, his bandaged ear toward the ceiling, closed his eyes, and slept the sleep of a troubled boy who, over the course of an hour, had suddenly become what he_d always wanted to be: not a boy from one of New York City_s worst housing projects, an unhappy boy who had no dream, no house, no direction, no safety, no aspiration, no house keys, no backyard, no Jesus, no marching-band practice, no mother who listened to him, no father who knew him, no cousin who showed him right or wrong. He was no longer a boy who could throw a baseball seventy-eight miles an hour at the of age thirteen because back then it was the one thing in his sorry life he could control. All that was past. He was a man with a plan now, and he had to make a big play, no matter what. That was the game. 8 THE DIG three days after Hot Sausage predicted his doom, Sportcoat decided to stop in at the Watch Houses to see his buddy Rufus. Despite Sausage_s prediction that the world was going to end, Sportcoat hadn_t seen a sign of it. He teetered through Building 9 as always, arguing with Hettie in the hall, then wandered over to the Social Security office in downtown Brooklyn, where they ignored him as usual, then on to his various jobs. The church ladies at Five Ends stepped in to walk Pudgy Fingers to the bus stop to take him to the social center and even kept Pudgy overnight, cycling Pudgy between them. _Five Ends takes care of their own,_ Sport bragged to his friends, though he had to admit to himself that his friends were fewer and fewer with Hettie gone and that Christmas money missing. The church ladies helping with Pudgy Fingers hadn_t said a word about it, which made him feel even more guilty about not knowing where it was. He_d seen them place their precious envelopes bearing dollars and quarters into the Christmas Club collection tray every week. He_d already sought out Pastor Gee in his office after Bible study to clear the air. _I didn_t hide that money,_ he told Pastor Gee. _I understand,_ Pastor Gee said. He was a humorous, good-natured man, handsome, with a cleft chin and a gold tooth that sparkled when he smiled, which was often. But he had no smiles that day. He looked troubled. _Some in the congregation are in a snit about it,_ he said carefully. _The deacons and deaconesses had a meeting about it yesterday. I stepped in there for a minute. There were a few hot words thrown around._ _What did you say?_ _Nothing I could say. Nobody knows how much was in the box, or who put in what. This one claims he_s got a certain amount in there. That one says she got much more. The deaconesses are with you; they understand Hettie. The deacons ain_t._ He cleared his throat and lowered his voice. _You sure it ain_t stuffed in a drawer someplace at home?_ Sportcoat shook his head. _It ain_t no advantage to a man with a fever to change his bed, pastor. I_m about sick of the whole deal. If I ain_t looked for that thing every day since Hettie died, you can throw a dipper of water in my face right now. I done looked in every nook and cranny. And I_ll look again,_ Sportcoat said, feeling doubtful. He had looked everywhere in the apartment he could think of and came up with nothing. Where the hell did Hettie put it? He decided to seek out Rufus, who was from his home country back in South Carolina. Rufus always had good ideas. Sportcoat took the bottle of Seagram_s 7 Crown that he had clipped on his way out of Itkin_s store last Thursday and headed over to the boiler room at the Watch Houses, where Rufus worked. He figured to trade the Seagram_s for a bottle of Rufus_s Kong and in the process hear Rufus_s thoughts and advice. He found Rufus_a slender, chocolate-skinned man_on the floor in his boiler room, wearing his usual blue grease-covered Housing Authority uniform, his hands and nearly his feet stuffed inside the guts of a large electric generator that was roaring in agony. The generator engine was accessed by an open panel door and Rufus_s body was nearly completely inside it. The generator was roaring so loud that Sportcoat had to stand behind Rufus and yell until Rufus glanced up from the floor at him and grinned, displaying a mouth full of gold teeth. _Sport,_ he yelled. He adjusted the machine quickly and cranked it down a decibel, then pulled a long hand from the jumble of wires jutting from the machine to shake hands. _Why you wanna wrong me, Rufus?_ Sportcoat said, frowning, stepping away from the outstretched hand. _What_d I do?_ _You know it_s bad luck to greet a friend with your left hand._ _Oh. Sorry._ Rufus hit a button and the machine whirred down to a slow grumble. Still seated with his legs splayed apart, Rufus wiped his right hand with a nearby rag and offered it. Sportcoat shook, satisfied. _What you got?_ he said, nodding at the generator. Rufus peered at it. _This thing acts up every week,_ he said. _Something_s chewing on the wires._ _Rats?_ _They ain_t that stupid. There some bad things going _round Brooklyn, Sport._ _Tell me _bout it,_ Sportcoat said. He reached into his pocket and produced the new bottle of Seagram_s. He looked at the fresh liquor and sighed, deciding not to exchange it for some Kong after all. Rufus would give him the Kong anyway. Better to share, he thought. He cracked the label, then pulled a crate next to Rufus, sat down, sipped, then said, _Fella from our home country come into Mr. Itkin_s to buy some wine. Said he woke up in the morning and found some leftover jelly in his wife_s sifter._ _No kidding. She was baking?_ _Baked cookies the night before. He said she cleaned off everything afterward. She let the dishes dry overnight. Then this fella, her husband, he come into the kitchen in the morning and seen that jelly in her flour sifter._ Rufus produced a low whistle. _Mojo?_ Sportcoat asked. _I reckon somebody mojoed him,_ Rufus said. He reached for the bottle and took a sip. _I bet his wife done it,_ Sportcoat said. Rufus took a satisfied swallow and nodded in agreement. _You still worried about Hettie?_ Instead of answering, Sportcoat held out his hand for the bottle, which Rufus surrendered. He took a deep drink and swallowed before he said, _I got to replace the church_s Christmas Club money. Hettie kept track of it. She never told where she put it. Now the whole church is bellowing like a calf about it._ _How much is in it?_ _I don_t know. Hettie never told. But it_s a lot._ Rufus chuckled. _Tell them sanctifieds to pray for it. Get Hot Sausage to do it._ Sportcoat shook his head sadly. Rufus and Sausage didn_t get along. It didn_t help that Rufus had been a founding member of Five Ends Baptist Church and had quit fourteen years ago. He hadn_t walked into a church since. Sausage, whom Rufus actually recruited to join Five Ends, was now a sanctified deacon, which had been Rufus_s old job. _How you gonna replace something you don_t know what it is? It could be nothing in there but some thimbles and three teeth from the tooth fairy,_ Sportcoat said. Rufus thought a moment. _There_s an old somebody from Five Ends who might know where it_s at,_ he said thoughtfully. _Who?_ _Sister Pauletta Chicksaw._ _I remember Sister Paul,_ Sportcoat said brightly. _Edie Chicksaw_s momma? She still living? She got to be well over a hundred if she is. Edie_s long been dead._ _Long dead, but Sister Paul_s yet living to my knowledge,_ Rufus said. _She and Hettie was friends. Hettie used to go out and visit her at the old folks_ home out in Bensonhurst._ _Hettie never told me nothing about it,_ Sportcoat said, sounding hurt. _A wife never tells her husband everything,_ Rufus said. _That_s why I never got married._ _Sister Paul don_t know nothing about church business. Hettie done all that._ _You don_t know what Sister Paul knows or don_t know. She_s the seniorest member of Five Ends. She was there when the church was built._ _So was I._ _No, old man, Hettie was there. You was still back home getting your toes sawed off. You come a year later, after the foundation was dug. Hettie was there when the church was built. I mean the building itself. When the foundation was dug out._ _I was there for some of it._ _Not when they was digging the foundation and doing the brickwork, son._ _What_s that prove?_ _It proves you don_t remember nothing, for in them early days, Sister Paul collected the Christmas Club money. She done that before Hettie_s time. And I do believe she might know something about where that money might be now._ _How you know? You quit Five Ends fourteen years ago._ _Just _cause a man ain_t sanctified no more don_t mean he_s missing his marbles. Sister Paul lived in this building, Sport. Right here in the Watch Houses. In fact, I seen that Christmas box._ _If you was a child, Rufus, I_d pull my switch out and send you hooting and hollering down the road for lying. You ain_t seen no Christmas box._ _I walked Sister Paul to and from church many a day. When things got bad around here, she was afraid someone would knock her over the head for it, so she_d ask me to walk her to service from time to time._ _She ain_t supposed to walk around with the Christmas box._ _She had to hide it someplace after she collected for it. Normally she hid it at church. But she didn_t always have time to wait for church to empty out. Sometimes folks would linger eating fish dinners or the pastor would preach overtime or some such thing and she had to go home, so she brung it home with her._ _Why didn_t she lock it in the pastor_s office?_ _What fool would keep money _round a pastor?_ Rufus replied. Sportcoat nodded knowingly. _Sister Paul told me once she had a good hiding place for that box in the church,_ Rufus said. _I don_t know where. But if she couldn_t keep it there, she_d bring it home till the following Sunday. That_s how I know she had it. _Cause she_d come down and ask me to walk her over. And of course I was happy to do it. She_d say, _Rufus Harley, you_re a man and a half, that_s what you are. Whyn_t you come back to church again? You_re a man and a half, Rufus Harley. Come back to church._ But I ain_t a church man no more._ Sportcoat considered this. _That was years ago, Rufus. Sister Paul got nothing to help me now._ _You don_t know what she got. She and her husband was the first coloreds to come to these projects, Sport. They come back in the forties, when the Irish and Italians _round these parts was beating coloreds_ brains out for moving into the Cause. Sister Paul and her husband started the church in their living room. In fact, I was there when Five Ends was digging out its foundation for the building. Weren_t but four of us doing all that digging: me, her daughter Edie, your Hettie, and this crippled Eye-talian man from _round these parts._ _What cripple?_ _I done forgot his name. He_s long dead. He done a lot of the work on Five Ends. I can_t recall his name, but it was an Italian name: Ely or some such thing. Ending with an _i._ You know how them Italians_ names go. Odd man. A cripple, that fella. Only had one good leg. Never said a mumbling word to me nor nobody else. Wouldn_t give a Negro the time of day. But he was all for Five Ends Baptist. He had some money, too, I reckon, because he had a backhoe and hired a bunch of Eye-talians who didn_t speak a lick of English, and they finished the job of digging out the foundations and painting the back wall with a picture of Jesus that_s there. That picture of Jesus out back? That Jesus was painted by Eye-talians. Every speck of him._ _No wonder he was white,_ Sportcoat said. _Pastor Gee had me and Sausage help Sr. Bibb_s son Zeke color him up._ _That was stupid. That was a good picture._ _He_s still there. But he_s colored now._ _Well, you shoulda left it like it was, on account of the man who brung his front loader and all them Eye-talians. I wish I could remember his name. Sister Paul would remember. Them two got along good. He liked her. She was quite the beauty in them days, y_know. She was well up in age, had to be north of seventy-five, I reckon, but Lord, she was . . . I wouldn_t throw her outta bed for eating crackers, that_s for sure. Not back then. She was well upholstered._ _You think there was . . ._ Sportcoat moved his hand in a shaking motion. Rufus grinned. _Y_know, there was always a lot of tipping going _round in them days._ _Wasn_t she married to the pastor?_ Sportcoat asked. _Since when did that monkey stop the show?_ Rufus snickered. _He wasn_t worth two cents. But to be honest, I don_t know if she and that Eye-talian was doing the ding-a-ling, knock-a-boo thing or not. They got along good, is all. She was the only one he_d talk to. We wouldn_t have built Five Ends without him. When he come along, we got all that digging done. And there was quite a lot of it. That_s how that little church was built, Sport._ Rufus paused, remembering. _You know he gived the church its name? It was supposed to be Four Ends Baptist, see: north, south, east, and west, representing God_s hand coming from all them directions. That was the pastor_s idea. But when the Eye-talian added that back wall painting, somebody said let_s make it Five Ends, since Jesus is an end to Himself. The pastor didn_t like it. Said, _I didn_t want the picture up there in the first place._ But Sister Paul put her foot down and that was it. That_s how it come to be Five Ends and not Four Ends. They still got that picture on the back wall, by the way?_ _Sure do. Weeds and all is up around it, but it_s there._ _Do it still say over the top, _May God Hold You in the Palm of His Hand_? Y_all ain_t paint over that, did you?_ _Lord no. We ain_t painted over them words, Rufus._ _Well, you ought not to. That_s a credit to him, see, that Eye-talian. Long dead now. Doing God_s work. A man ain_t got to stand in church every Sunday to do God_s work, y_know, Sport._ _That ain_t telling me nothing._ _You asked me about Sister Paul, Sport. And I told it. You ought to take a ride out there and see her. She might know something about where that box is. Maybe she told Hettie where to hide it._ Sportcoat considered this. _That_s a long subway ride._ _What you got to lose, Sport? She_s the only one living from that time. I_d go with you. I_d like to see her. But them white folks out in Bensonhurst is a rough shuffle. They_ll throw a pistol on a Negro in a minute._ At the mention of _pistol,_ Sportcoat blanched and reached for the Seagram_s again. _This world is damn complicated,_ he said, sipping deeply. _Maybe Sausage_ll go with you._ _He_s too busy._ _Doing what?_ _Oh, he_s in a frolic about something or other,_ Sportcoat said. _Running around accusing people of doing stuff they don_t remember._ To change the subject, he nodded at the generator. _Can I help? What_s wrong with it?_ Rufus peered back into the guts of the old machine. _Ain_t nothing wrong with it that I can_t fix. G_wan out to Bensonhurst and take care of your business and look in on Sister Paul for me. Leave the bottle, though. A man needs a little shake and shimmy._ _Ain_t you making some homemade King Kong?_ Rufus crouched down onto one knee and stuck his head back in the generator. _I_m always making King Kong,_ he said. _But it_s a two-part thing. You got to make the _King_ first, then the _Kong._ The _King_ part is easy. That_s cooked and ready. I_m waiting for the _Kong._ That takes time._ He hit a button on the side of the machine and the generator sputtered, coughed for a few seconds, howled in agony, then roared to life. He glanced at Sportcoat, yelling over the din: _G_wan look in on Sister Paul! Let me know how she_s doing. Wear your running shoes out in Bensonhurst!_ Sportcoat nodded, took a last sip of the Seagram_s, and headed out. But instead of using the back emergency exit door, he took the door that led to a short hallway and stairs to the front door, which opened to the plaza. As he opened the outer door, a tall figure in a black leather jacket emerged from a broom closet underneath the stairwell that led upstairs and silently crept up behind him with a raised pipe. The man was two steps away when a baseball suddenly whipped down the stairwell from behind, struck the man in the back of the head, and sent him clattering back into the broom closet and out of sight. The next instant two boys, no older than nine, scampered down the stairs, whipping past a surprised Sportcoat. One of them scooped up the ball, which had come to a rest near the door, and blurted a hasty _Hey, Sportcoat!,_ then the boys vanished out the entrance, leaping down the front steps and out of sight, both of them laughing. Sportcoat, irritated, quickly stepped out the door into the outside plaza to yell at their backs: _Slow your roll! Ain_t y_all ever heard of a baseball field?_ He marched down the steps in their direction, never noticing the man behind him. Inside the broom closet, Earl, Bunch_s hit man, lay sprawled on his rear end with his feet protruding out of the partially opened door, his back resting on the wall. He shook his head to clear his brain. He had to move, quick, before somebody else came downstairs. He smelled bleach. He suddenly realized his rear end was wet. His feet were atop a wheeled yellow bucket full of dirty water that had overturned. He inched his back off the wall, placed his hands on the floor to brace himself, and found his right hand landing on the wet end of a mop. The other hand was on some kind of contraption. He shifted and kicked the door open wide with his feet. In the light he saw, to his horror, that his left hand was sitting on a sprung rat trap_with a furry dead customer inside. He jumped to his feet with a yelp and burst out of the closet, down the hallway, out the front door of the building, speed walking through the plaza toward the nearby subway, wiping his hand frantically on his leather jacket, feeling the cold air blowing at his drenched pants and sneakers. _Fucking old man,_ he muttered. 9 DIRT The two uniformed cops walked into the Five Ends Baptist Church choir rehearsal five minutes after the fight between the Cousins broke out. The fight had actually started twenty-three years before. That_s how long Nanette and her cousin Sweet Corn had been arguing. Sister Gee, a tall, handsome woman of forty-eight, sat in the choir pew fiddling with her house keys and staring down in her lap as the Cousins railed. _Lord,_ she murmured as the Cousins hissed at each other, _please rein in them mules._ As if in answer, the back door of the church opened and two white cops stepped through the tiny vestibule and into the sanctuary, the light of the bare bulb glinting off their shiny badges and brass buttons. The tinkling of their keys clanking against each other sounded like tiny bells as they made their way up the sawdust-covered aisle to the front, their leather gun holsters slapping against their hips. They stopped when they reached the pulpit, facing the choir of five women and two men, who stared back at them, with the exception of Pudgy Fingers, Sportcoat_s son, who sat at the end of the choir pew, his sightless eyes covered by shades. _Who_s in charge here?_ one of the cops asked. Sister Gee, sitting in the first row, took him in. He was young, nervous, and thin. Behind him stood an older cop, a thick man with wide shoulders and crow_s-feet around blue eyes. She watched the older cop_s eyes quickly scan the room. She had the impression she had seen him before. He removed his cap and spoke softly to the younger cop in a voice with a slight Irish lilt. _Mitch, take your cap off._ The younger cop obliged, then asked again, _Who_s in charge?_ Sister Gee felt every eyeball in the choir swing toward her. _In this church,_ she said, _we says hello to a person before we states our business._ The cop held up a blue folded sheet of paper in his hand. _I_m Officer Dunne. We got a warrant here for Thelonius Ellis._ _Who?_ _Thelonius Ellis._ _Ain_t nobody here by that name,_ Sister Gee said. The young cop looked at the choir behind Sister Gee and asked, _Anybody know him? We got a warrant here._ _They don_t know nothing about no warrant,_ Sister Gee said. _I_m not talking to you, miss. I_m talking to them._ _Seems to me you ain_t made up your mind about who you come to talk to, Officer. First you come in and ask who_s in charge, so I told it. Then instead of talking to me, you turns around and talks to them. Who you come to talk to? Me or them? Or is you just come by to make a bunch of announcements?_ Behind him, the older cop spoke. _Mitch, check the outside, would ya?_ _We already did that, Potts._ _Check it again._ The young cop turned, smartly snapped the blue warrant into Potts_s waiting hand, and vanished out the vestibule door. Potts waited until the church door closed, then turned to Sister Gee apologetically. _Young people,_ he said. _I know it._ _I_m Sergeant Mullen from the Seven-Six. They call me Sergeant Potts._ _If you don_t mind my asking, what kind of name is Potts, Officer?_ _It_s better than pans._ Sister Gee chuckled. There was something about him that glistened, something warm that churned and billowed about, like a smoke cloud filled with sparklers. _I_m Sister Gee. You got a real first name, sir?_ _Not worth using. Potts is it._ _Was somebody bald-headed, or looking on the bright side, or wanting to steal or tell the world something when you was born, on account of your people giving you that kind of name?_ _I made a complete haymes of some potatoes once, back when I was a wee lad, so my grammy gave me that nickname._ _What_s haymes?_ _A mess._ _Well, that_s a mess of a name._ _That_d make your name fair play, wouldn_t it? Gee, you said? I_ll leg it out the door if you say your first name_s Golly._ Sister Gee heard one of the choir chuckle behind her, and felt herself stifling a smile. She couldn_t help it. Something about this man made her insides lift. _I seen you someplace before, Officer Potts,_ she said. _Just Potts. You mighta seen me around. I grew up four blocks from here. A long time ago. I was a detective in the Cause._ _Well now . . . maybe that_s where I seen you._ _But that was twenty years ago._ _I was here twenty years ago,_ she said thoughtfully. She rubbed her cheek, staring at Potts for what seemed a long time, then her eyes sparkled as her face unfolded into a sly smile. Her smile displayed a raw, natural beauty that caught Potts off guard. The woman, he thought, was all good handwriting. _I know,_ she said. _On Ninth Street near the park. At that old bar there. The Irish place. Rattigan_s. That_s where I seen you._ Potts reddened. Several choir members smiled. Even the Cousins grinned. _I_ve been known to have a business meeting there from time to time,_ he said wryly, recovering. _If you don_t mind my asking, were you having one there too? At the same time? When you saw me?_ _Ohlord!_ came a hushed laugh from someone in the choir. The two words mashed together like two coins: ohlord! This thing had gotten delicious. The choir laughed. Now it was Sister Gee_s turn to blush. _I don_t go to no bars,_ Sister Gee said hurriedly. _I does day_s work straight across the street from Rattigan_s._ _Day_s work?_ _Housework. I clean that big brownstone house there. Been cleaning for that family fourteen years. If I had a nickel for every bottle I pick up on the curb from Rattigan_s on Mondays, I_d have me something._ _I keep my bottles inside the bar,_ Potts said in an offhand way. _It ain_t a bother to me where your bottles goes,_ Sister Gee said. _My job is to clean. It don_t matter what I clean. Dirt_s the same wherever it goes._ Potts nodded. _Some kind of dirt_s harder to clean than others._ _Well, that do depend,_ she said. The lightness in the room seemed to be leaving, and Potts felt some resistance coming. They both did. Potts glanced at the choir. _Can I have a private word?_ _Surely._ _Maybe in the basement?_ _It_s too cold down there,_ Sister Gee said. _They can rehearse down there. There_s a piano._ The choir, relieved, quickly got up and filed out toward the back door of the sanctuary. As Nanette passed, Sister Gee grabbed her wrist and said softly, _Take Pudgy Fingers._ The remark was casual, but Potts saw the glance between the two women. There was something about it. When the door closed, she turned to him and said, _We was talking about something before, now?_ _Dirt,_ Potts said. _Oh yes,_ she said, sitting down again. He saw now she was not just handsome, but rather had a quiet, cumulative beauty. She was a tall woman, middle-aged, whose face was not etched with the stern lines of church folks who_ve seen too much and done little about it other than pray. Her face was firm and decisive, with smooth milky brown skin; the thick hair with a bit of gray, neatly parted; her slender, proud frame clad in a modest flower-print dress. She sat erect in the pew; her poise was that of a straight-backed ballet dancer, yet with her slim elbows dangling on the rail in front of her, jingling her keys lazily in one hand, eyeing the white cop, she had an ease and confidence he found slightly unsettling. After a moment, she leaned back and placed a slender brown arm on the top edge of the pew, the small movement graceful and supple. She moved, Potts thought, like a gazelle. He suddenly found himself struggling to think clearly. _You said some kind of dirt_s harder to clean than others,_ she said. _Well, that_s my job, Officer. I_m a house cleaner, see. I work in dirt. I chase dirt all day. Dirt don_t like me. It don_t set there and say, _I_m hiding. Come get me._ I got to go out and find it to clean it out. But I don_t hate dirt for being dirt. You can_t hate a thing for being what it is. Dirt makes me who I am. Wherever I try to rid the world of it, I_m making things a little better for somebody. Same with you. The fellers you seek, crooks and all, they ain_t saying _Here I am. Come get me._ Most of _em, you got to seek out, scoop up in some form or fashion. You brings justice to things, which makes the world a little nicer for somebody. Me and you has got the same job, in a way. We clean dirt. We clean up after people. We collects other people_s mess, though I reckon it_s not fair to call someone living a wrong life a problem, or a mess . . . or dirt._ Potts found himself smiling. _You oughta be a lawyer,_ he said. Sister Gee crinkled her brow, looking suspicious. _You funning me?_ _No._ He laughed. _You can tell by the way I talk I_m not a book-learned person. I_m a country woman. I wanted to go to school for something,_ she said wistfully. _But that was long ago. Back when I was a child in North Carolina. Ever been to the South?_ _No, ma_am._ _Where you from?_ _I told you. Here. The Cause District. Silver Street._ She nodded. _Well how _bout that._ _But my folks were from Ireland._ _Is that an island?_ _It_s a place where folks can stop and think. The ones with brains, anyway._ She laughed, and as she did, Potts felt as if he were watching a dark, silent mountain suddenly blink to life, illuminated by a hundred lights from a small, quaint village that had lived on the mountainside for a hundred years, the village appearing out of nowhere, all the lights aglow at once. Every feature of her face glowed. He found himself wanting to tell her every sorrow he ever knew, including the knowledge that the Ireland of the vacation folders wasn_t Ireland, that the memory of his ancient grandmother from the old country walking down Silver Street holding his hand when he was eight, clasping her last nickel in her palm, biting her lip as she hummed a sad song from her childhood of poverty and privation, wandering the Irish countryside looking for home and food, would kick through his arteries and bust into his heart until he was a grown man: The grass waves green above them; soft sleep is theirs for aye; The hunt is over, and the cold; the hunger passed away . . . Instead, he said simply, _It wasn_t so nice._ She chuckled uneasily, surprised by his response, and watched him blush. Suddenly she felt her heart flutter. A charged silence descended on the room. They both felt it, felt themselves suddenly being propelled along a large chasm, feeling the irresistible urge to reach out, to reach across, to stretch their hands from opposite sides of a large, cavernous valley that was nearly impossible to cross. It was way too large, too far, just unreasonable, ridiculous. Yet . . . _This fella,_ Potts said, breaking the silence, _this fella I_m looking for, he_s uh . . . if his name_s not Thelonius Ellis, what is it?_ She was silent now, the smile gone, looking away, the spell broken. _It_s all right,_ he said. _We know what happened with the shooting, more or less._ He meant to say it lightly, as a comfort, but it sounded official and he didn_t want that. The lack of sincerity in his own voice surprised him. There was an ease, a gentle filter in this long, chocolate woman that opened up a part of him that normally stayed closed. He had only four months to retirement. It was four months too long. He wished it were yesterday. He felt a sudden urge to take off his uniform, throw it to the floor, and walk downstairs with the choir and sing. He found himself blurting: _I_m retiring soon. A hundred twenty days. Going fishing. Maybe I_ll sing in a choir too._ _That ain_t no way to spend the rest of your life._ _Singing in a choir?_ _No. Fishing._ _I can think of nothing better._ _Well, if that floats your boat, go ahead on. I reckon that_s better than the funerals and going to large drinking gatherings._ _Like Rattigan_s?_ She waved her hand. _That place don_t bother me. They fight and squabble in every drinking hole from one to the next all over this world. It_s the God-fearing places that_s the worst. God is the last thing in some of these churches out here. Seems like they do more fighting than praying in the church today than they do on the street. Ain_t nowhere safe. It didn_t used to be that way._ Her words brought Potts around. With effort he returned to business. _Can I ask you about this fella, Thelonius Ellis?_ Sister Gee raised her hand. _Hand before God, ain_t nobody _round this church by that name that I know of._ _That_s the name we got. Got it from an eyewitness._ _Must_ve been Ray Charles who told it. Or maybe it_s somebody from another church._ Potts smiled. _You and I know he went to this church._ _Who?_ _The old man. The shooter. Drinks a lot. Knows everybody._ Sister Gee smiled grimly. _Why ask me? Your man knew him._ _What man?_ Sister Gee tilted her head at him. The tilt of that lovely face rendered him momentarily helpless. He felt as if a bird_s wing had suddenly brushed his face and pushed a cool puff of misted air into it, the mist fluttering down onto his shoulders. His eyebrows lifted as he blinked at her, then his gaze shifted to the floor. He felt the emotional door he_d managed to close moments before swing open again. Staring at the floor, he found himself wondering how old she was. _The cop who worked for Hot Sausage,_ she said. _Hot who?_ _The cop,_ Sister Gee said patiently, _who worked for Hot Sausage. In the basement boiler room. Hot Sausage is the head janitor and boiler man. The janitor under him. The young guy. He was your guy._ _What_s Hot Sausage_s real name?_ She chuckled. _Why you trying to confuse me? We talking about your man. Hot Sausage is the janitor at Building Seventeen. The colored boy that was janitoring under him . . . he saved Deems_s life, not nobody else. Folks _round here don_t know whether to thank him or throw a bucket of water on him._ Potts was silent. Sister Gee smiled. _Everybody in the Cause knowed he was a cop. Don_t you know your own people?_ Potts found himself resisting an urge to sprint out of the room, run back to the precinct, and beat the captain silly. He felt stupid. This was cleaning up garbage for the captain. Jet, Mr. First Black Everything. The kid didn_t have the stuff to be a detective. Too young. No experience. No savvy. No allies, no mentors, except maybe him. The captain had insisted, _We need Negroes down in the Cause Houses._ The guy had a soundproof head. How stupid can the captain be? _That kid_s transferred out to Queens,_ he said. _I_m glad. He_s a good kid. I trained him._ _Is that why you_re here?_ Sister Gee asked. _No. They asked me to step in because I know the area. They_re . . . trying to make a move on these new drug dealers._ He saw her expression change slightly. _Can I ask you a personal question?_ she asked. _Surely._ _How does a detective go back to putting on a uniform?_ _That_s a long story,_ he said. _I grew up here, as I said. I like the hours. I like the people. If the cops want to make a move on these drug lords, I_ll be a Holy Joe about it._ Sister Gee could not completely keep a smirk from climbing across her face. _If this is the move they_re making, it_s sideways,_ she said. _Sportcoat_s seventy-one. He ain_t no drug dealer._ Potts continued, _We_d like to talk to him._ _You won_t have no trouble finding him. He_s a deacon in this here church. Some call him Deacon Cuffy. But most call him Sportcoat on account of him liking to wear them things. You can get his name easily enough from that. That_s the most I can offer you. I got to live here._ _You know him well?_ _Twenty years. Since I was twenty-eight._ Potts quickly did the math in his head. She was ten years younger than me, he thought. He found himself straightening his jacket to cover his slight paunch. _What_s his job?_ he asked. _Odd jobs mostly. Does a bit of everything. Works over at Itkin_s Liquors some days. Cleans our basement other days. Takes out the trash. Gardens for a few white folks around these parts. He_s got a real green thumb. Can do just about anything with plants. He_s known for that. And for drinking. And baseball._ Potts thought a moment. _Is this the umpire from the baseball games between you and the Watch Houses? The one that yells and runs around all the bases?_ _One and the same._ Potts laughed. _Funny fella. I saw those games when I was on patrol sometimes. There was a hell of a ballplayer down there. Some kid . . . he was about fourteen or so. He could pitch like the dickens._ _That_s Deems. The one he shot._ _You_re kidding._ She sighed and was silent a moment. _Deems sat right where you is every Sunday till he was twelve or thirteen. Sportcoat_Deacon Cuffy_he was Deems_s Sunday school teacher. And his coach. And everything else to him. Till Hettie died. That_s his wife._ This is why, Potts thought bitterly, I got to get out of the business. _What happened to her?_ _She fell in the harbor and drowned. Two years ago. Nobody ever did figure that out._ _You think your man had anything to do with that?_ _Sportcoat ain_t my man. I been low in my life, but not that low. I_m married. To the minister here._ Potts felt his heart fall. _I see,_ he said. _He ain_t had nothing to do with Hettie dying_Sportcoat, I_m talking about. It_s just how things work around here. Fact is, he was one of the few around here who really loved his wife._ She sat very still as she spoke, but her lovely olive eyes bore a softness and a hurt so deep that when he looked in them he saw the swirls of pools beneath; he felt as if he were looking at a piece of ice cream left on a picnic table in the hot sun too long. Regret poured out of her eyes like water. She seemed to be breaking apart in front of him. He felt himself reddening and looked away. He was about to blurt an apology when he heard her say, _You looks a lot better in street clothes than you do wearing that fancy uniform. I guess that_s why I remember you._ Later, much later, it occurred to him that maybe she remembered him because she had been watching him, sitting outside the bar with his friends listening to the bitter soldiers of the IRA swear at the British and complain about the neighborhood going down because the Negro and the Spanish had arrived with their civil rights nonsense, taking the subway jobs, the janitor jobs, the doorman jobs, fighting for the scraps and chicken bones the Rockefellers and all the rest tossed to them all. He found himself stammering, _So I needn_t look into her death?_ _Look all you want. Hettie was a hard woman. She was a hard woman because she lived a hard life out here. But she was good through and through. She wore the pants in that house. Sportcoat did everything she told him. Except,_ she chuckled, _when it came to that cheese._ _Cheese?_ _They give out free cheese in one of the buildings every first Saturday of the month. Hettie hated that. The two of them fought about it all the time. But other than that, they were good together._ _What do you think happened to her?_ _She walked into the harbor and drowned herself. Things ain_t been right around this church since._ _Why_d she do it?_ _She was tired, I reckon._ Potts sighed. _Should I write that in my report?_ _Write whatever you want. The truth is, I hope Sportcoat_s run off. Deems ain_t worth going to jail for. Not no more._ _I understand. But your guy_s armed. Maybe unstable. That creates instability in a community._ Sister Gee snorted. _Things got unstable _round here four years ago when that new drug come in. This new stuff_I don_t know what they call it_you smoke it, you put it in your veins with needles . . . however you do it, once you do it a few times you is stuck with it. Never seen nothing like it around here before, and I seen a lot. This projects was safe till this new drug come in. Now the old folks is getting clubbed coming home from work every night, getting robbed outta their little payday money so these junkies can buy more of Deems_s poison. He ought to be ashamed of hisself. His grandfather would kill him if he was living._ _I understand. But your man can_t take the law into his own hands. That_s what this is for,_ he said, holding up the warrant. Now her face hardened, and a space opened up between them again. _Warrant on. And while y_all is throwing them warrants around, maybe y_all can throw a warrant at the person who stole our Christmas Club money. There_s a couple thousand in there, I expect._ _What_s that about?_ _Christmas Club. We gathered that money every year for us to buy our kids toys at Christmas. Hettie was the one who collected the money and kept it in a little box. She was good about it. Never told a soul where she put it, and every Christmas she handed you your money. Problem is, she_s gone now and Sportcoat don_t know where it is._ _Why not ask him?_ Sister Gee laughed. _If he knew, he_da gived it back. Sportcoat wouldn_t steal from the church. Not for drink even._ _For drink, I seen people do worse._ Sister Gee frowned at him, frustration etched across her clear, pretty face. _You_s a kind person, I can tell. But we is poor folks here in this church. We saves our little dimes for Christmas presents for our children. We pray for each other and to a God that redeems, and that does us well. Our Christmas money_s missing and likely gone for good, and that_s God_s will, I reckon. To y_all police, that don_t mean nothing other than maybe old Sportcoat mighta took it. But you_re wrong there. Sportcoat would throw hisself in the harbor before he_d take a penny from any soul in this world. What happened was, he got drunk out of his mind and tried to clean this place up in one big swoop. And because of it, you ain_t never seen so many cops turning up rocks trying to get hold of him. What_s that say to us?_ _We want to protect him. Clemens works for a pretty rough bunch. That_s who we_re really going after._ _Then arrest Deems. And the rest of _em who_s selling whatever the devil wants._ Potts sighed. _Twenty years ago I could_ve done it. Not now._ He felt the space between them close up, and he wasn_t imagining it. Sister Gee felt it as well. She felt his kindness, his honesty and sense of duty. And she felt something else. Something big. It was as if there were a magnet somewhere inside him pulling her spiritually toward him. It was odd, exciting, thrilling even. She watched as he rose and moved toward the door. She quickly stood and walked down the aisle with him, Potts humming nervously, picking his way past the woodstove and down the sawdust-covered aisle to the door as she watched him out the corner of her eye. She hadn_t felt that way about a man since her father showed up at school one afternoon to walk her home after a boy in her class got beat up by some white kids, the feeling of comfort and safety that radiated from someone who cared about her so deeply. And a white man, no less. It was an odd, wonderful gush to feel that coming from a man, any man, especially a stranger. She felt like she was dreaming. They stopped at the vestibule door. _If the deacon turns up, tell him he_s safer with us,_ Potts said. Sister Gee was about to respond when she heard a voice from the vestibule say, _Where_s my daddy?_ It was Pudgy Fingers. He_d wandered upstairs and was seated in a folding chair in the dark next to the church front door, his eyes covered with their customary shades, rocking back and forth as he always did. In the basement, the choir sang, obviously no one bothering to fetch him, since Pudgy Fingers knew his way around the church as good as anyone and often liked to wander about the tiny building on his own. Sister Gee placed a hand on his elbow to stand him up. _Pudgy, g_wan back to rehearsal,_ she said. _I_ll be right there._ Pudgy Fingers reluctantly stood. She carefully spun him around and placed his hand on the stair railing. They watched him work his way downstairs and disappear into the basement. When he was out of sight Potts said, _I expect that_s his son._ Sister Gee was silent. _You never told me what building your man lives in,_ he said. _You never asked it,_ she said. She turned to the window, her back to him, and rubbed her hands nervously as she gazed out the window. _Should I go down and ask his son?_ _Why would you do that? You see the boy_s not all the way there._ _He knows where he lives, I_m sure._ She sighed and continued to stare out the window. _Lemme ask you, what good does it do to squeeze the one person around here who done the little bit of good that_s been done?_ _That_s not my call._ _I already told you. Sportcoat is easy to find. He_s around these parts._ _Should I write that down as a lie? We haven_t seen him._ Her expression darkened. _Write it down however you like. However the cut comes or goes, once y_all take Sportcoat to jail, social services will have Pudgy Fingers. They_ll ship him up to the Bronx or Queens someplace and we won_t see him no more. That_s Hettie_s boy there. Hettie was in her forties when she had him. For a woman, that_s old to have a child. And for someone who lived a hard life like she did, that_s very old indeed._ _I_m sorry. But that_s not my department either._ _Course not. But I_m the type of person that goes to sleep if something comes along that don_t interest me,_ Sister Gee said. Potts laughed bitterly. _Remind me to eat some knockout pills next time I go to work,_ he said. Now it was her turn to laugh. _I didn_t mean it that way,_ she said. _Hettie done a lot for this church. She was here at the very beginning of it. She never took a penny of the Christmas money for herself, even when she lost her job. Do what you will or may, but once you arrest Sportcoat, they_ll roll Pudgy Fingers up in, too, and that_s a different pack of crackers altogether. I reckon we_d make a fight of it _round him._ Potts, exasperated, held out his hands. _You want I should pass out free jawbreakers to every kid in the projects with a gun? The law_s the law. Your guy is a triggerman. He shot somebody. In front of witnesses! The guy he shot ain_t a choirboy__ _He was a choirboy._ _You know how it works._ Sister Gee didn_t move from the vestibule window. Potts watched her, straight-backed, tall, staring outside, breathing slowly, her breasts moving like two nodding headlights. Her face turned in profile as her olive eyes searched the streets, the fragility and gentleness gone, the cheekbones, the strong jaw, the wide nose that flared at the tip, angry again. He thought of his own wife, back home in Staten Island in her bathrobe, cutting coupons from the Staten Island Advance, the local paper, her eyes moist from boredom, complaining about getting her nails done on Thursday, her hair done Friday, missing bingo night on Saturday, her waist growing wider, her patience growing thinner. He saw Sister Gee rub her neck and found himself pondering the notion of placing his fingers there, then down her long arched back. He thought he saw her mouth move, but he was distracted and couldn_t hear. She was saying something and he caught just the end of it, and only then did he realize it was he who was talking, not her, him saying something about how he had always loved the neighborhood and came back to the Cause District because he_d had some trouble at another precinct trying to be an honest cop, and the Cause was the only place he felt free because he_d grown up just a few blocks away and the neighborhood still felt like home. That_s why he was back, to finish his career here, to be home at the end. And this case, he said, was _just a doozy, in every way. If this was any other part of Brooklyn, it might disappear. But your choirboy Deems is part of a big outfit. They got interests all over the city, with the mob, politicians, even the cops_and you didn_t hear that last part from me. They_ll hurt anyone who bothers their interests. That_s got to be dealt with. That_s just how it is._ She listened in silence as he spoke, staring out the window at the darkened projects, at the Elephant_s old boxcar on the next block, the worn, battered streets with newspapers blowing about, the hulks of old cars that sat at the curbs like dead beetles. She could see Potts_s reflection in the window as he talked behind her, the white man in a cop_s uniform. But there was something inside the blue eyes, in the drift of his broad shoulders, in the way he stood and moved, that made him different. She watched his reflection in the window as he talked, his face downcast, fiddling with his hands. There was something large inside him, she concluded_a pond, a pool, a lake maybe. The lovely Irish brogue in his voice gave him an air of elegance, despite his wide shoulders and thick hands. A man of reason and kindness. He was, she realized, as trapped as she was. _Let it roll as it will then,_ she said softly to her reflection. _You can_t leave it there._ She looked at him sideways, tenderly. Her dark eyes glistened in the vestibule. _Come _round and see me again,_ she said. With that, she opened the church door for him. Potts, without a word, placed his NYPD cap on his head and stepped out into the dark evening, the smell of the dirty wharf drifting into his nose and consciousness with the ease of lilacs and moonbeams, fluttering around his awakened heart like butterflies.

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