Former Suffolk County cop Gus Murphy returns to prowl the meaner streets of Long Island’s darkest precincts with a Russian mercenary at his back in the stunning second installment of Reed Farrel Coleman’s critically acclaimed, Edgar-nominated series.
Gus Murphy and his girlfriend, Magdalena, are put in harm’s way when Gus is caught up in the distant aftershocks of heinous crimes committed decades ago in Vietnam and Russia. Gus’s ex-priest pal, Bill Kilkenny, introduces him to a wealthy businessman anxious to have someone look more deeply into the brutal murder of his granddaughter. Though the police already have the girl’s murderer in custody, they have been unable to provide a reason for the killing. The businessman, Spears, offers big incentives if Gus can supply him with what the cops cannot—a motive.
Later that same day, Gus witnesses the execution of a man who has just met with his friend Slava. As Gus looks into the girl’s murder and tries to protect Slava from the executioner’s bullet, he must navigate a minefield populated by hostile cops, street gangs, and a Russian mercenary who will stop at nothing to do his master’s bidding. But in trying to solve the girl’s murder and save his friend, Gus may be opening a door into a past that was best left forgotten. Can he fix the damage done, or is it true that what you break you own...forever?
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He was one of the chatty passengers, the type who wanted to be my pal, my best pal ever. Just my luck. I usually worked security at the club on Saturday nights, but with Fredo at his sister’s wedding and our substitute driver out sick, I had to drive. For my first year on the job as the nightshift courtesy van driver for the Paragon Hotel, I hated guys like this. The compulsive talkers who dealt with their anxieties about flying or being near New York City or being away from the wife and kids by making nice with the poor schmuck who drove the three-stop route between Long Island MacArthur Airport, the hotel, and the Long Island Rail Road’s Ronkonkoma station. And this guy had it bad. He was a determined sort.
“So—hey, what’s your name, anyway?”
“So, Gus . . . Gus, huh? What’s that short for? August? Gustave? -Unusual names, either one, huh?”
I nodded, not bothering to tell him that Gus was an abbreviated version of my middle name, Augustus. What for? This wasn’t an actual conversation. It was verbal smoke that would waft away and disperse into nothingness the moment I unloaded his bags and turned him over to the new night clerk for registration. It was a trick of time, a way to waste the empty minutes, to fill them up with something, anything other than reflection or thought. But I was onto the trick of time and I knew all there was to know about emptiness.
On and on it went. Where did I come from? What did I do before this? Was I married? Did I have kids?
That first year, either I wouldn’t answer or I’d grunt or I’d make stuff up. Anything to deflect or to quiet the chatter, anything not to tell the truth. That I was from Smithtown. That I was three-plus years retired from the Suffolk County Police Department. That I was divorced. That I once had two kids, but now only had one. The last part, the part about losing a kid, that was really the answer to all of his questions, to any questions about me, because it defined me. Who I was, where I came from, all the answers, none of it mattered. I was once somebody, then my son John died, then I was somebody else. Before John Jr. During John Jr. After John Jr. It was like that. I was still becoming that somebody else. I supposed I would be becoming him until the moment I stopped drawing breath.
Thankfully, it was the short run I was driving, the one from the terminal at MacArthur back to the hotel, and I wouldn’t have to deal with Mr. Curious for too much longer. Actually, I’d moved my focus away from Chatty before we’d made it out the airport exit and turned onto Vets Highway. No, my attention was fixed on my other passenger, the one half bathed in shadow in the last row of the van.
He hadn’t said anything to me when I hoisted his beat-up blue duffel bag into the back of the van and had only nodded when I asked if he was going to the Paragon Hotel. He’d headed straight for the last row of seats, though the van had capacity for twelve people and there was only him and the talker along for the ride. I don’t know why, exactly, but I got the sense he was a foreigner. I laughed at myself for thinking that word. “Foreigner,” such an outdated term, like something my belligerent drunk of a father might’ve used or a word out of a ’50s movie about marauding Commie spies in our midst.
Both my passengers had gotten off a Southwest flight from Fort Lauderdale. Not much intrigue in flights from Fort Lauderdale, just a lot of old snowbirds who split their time between New York and Florida. No intrigue on any flights into MacArthur because there were no international flights. There were barely any flights to anywhere anymore, and the place was down to two airlines. Word was that Islip Township, the authority that ran the airport, was trying like mad to lure an Icelandic airline to fly into MacArthur. If that failed, I guess they could always try for Burkina Faso Airlines with daily nonstop flights to Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso. Either way, it might add a little character to Suffolk County, certainly to the parts of Suffolk County that weren’t the Hamptons. Which is to say, most of the county. For the vast majority of Suffolk residents, the Hamptons might as well have been as far away as Ouagadougou or Reykjavík.
I also got the sense that the foreigner was running. From what or from whom or to where, I couldn’t say. But that he was a runner, I knew. A street cop, even one who worked the less-than-mean streets of East Northport and Commack, knows a runner when he sees one. Although his vacant blue eyes were hidden in the shadows, I felt them on me as I glanced back at him in my rearview mirror. I felt them darting from side to side, alert, on the lookout, assessing. Where was the threat coming from? Who was a threat? Where could I run? Who could I trust? And then there was his frayed blue duffel bag: faded, stitched—ragged, ugly unskilled stiches like drunken railroad tracks—taped and taped again. It hadn’t been neatly packed, but was lumpy and unevenly weighted. It was the kind of bag a man who has to move on the spur of the moment might pack. He might just shove all of his things, his dirty laundry, his books, his family photos, his secrets into it, and go.
The chatter stopped, as it always did, when I pulled the van into the driveway of the Paragon and parked beneath its weirdly ’80s-style portico that had somehow escaped remodeling. I flung the column-mounted gearshift into park, the van lurching forward. I used my left foot to kick the door open, hopped out of the driver’s seat, ran around to the side of the van closest to the hotel entrance, and swung open both side doors to let my passengers out. I went to the rear of the van and unloaded the chatty guy’s two roller bags and the runner’s duffel. Chatty gave me two dollars and strolled toward the hotel without a word. I guess we weren’t best pals anymore.
The runner didn’t tip me. Didn’t speak. He just picked up the duffel, his head on a swivel, and moved to the hotel entrance. I didn’t care much about him beyond the potential for trouble that might surround any runner. I had to care about that much because I doubled as the hotel detective. That was part of my deal with the Bonacker family, the folks who currently owned the Paragon. I drove the van four nights a week, bounced at the Full Flaps Lounge on weekends, provided my police expertise and, when called for, my muscle. In return, I got paid a modest salary and a free room for as long as I was employed at the hotel. So far it had worked out well for us all, which was why I made sure to keep an eye on the runner as he made his way through the sliding doors.
It was when he got inside that I noticed something that piqued my interest in him even more than his duffel bag or his suspicious eyes. Slava, the night bellman and my friend, a man who worked nights because the dark helped hide his past, blanched at the sight of the runner. I didn’t know much about where Slava had come from or why he’d come to the States. He refused to share those things with me because he was so ashamed by them that he didn’t want to think about them himself. That much he’d shared. But one thing I knew about Slava, a big, ugly man with a jolly demeanor, was that there wasn’t much in the world that scared him. So why, I wondered, was he scared now? What about the runner, a thin, weak-jawed man with high flat cheekbones, scared Slava?
Then I saw it, the subtle exchange between them. The runner smiled at Slava. It was a slight, sad smile of recognition, which Slava greeted with a frown and a quick shake of his large, nearly bald head. And that was it. Snap! Done. Over, just like that. If I had blinked or turned away for the briefest second, I would have missed it completely. The runner moved to the registration desk and Slava headed out of the hotel toward me, fishing a cigarette out of his jacket, fumbling for his lighter.
“Gus,” Slava said, his still unlit cigarette dangling from the yellowed corner of his lips. “How is doing your night?”
I shrugged, not sure I wanted to give myself away or to put him on the spot. One of the deals Slava and I had made was that we would not pry into each other’s lives, especially our past lives. We could share a meal together, drink together, even help each other out when it was called for, but it was strictly verboten to dig in yesterday’s direction. Our lives, as far as our friendship was concerned, began the day we started working together at the Paragon. And until the runner did something that put the hotel, its guests, or its staff in danger, I wasn’t going to ask Slava about him, though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious. Really curious.
“Same as always,” I lied. “Same as always.”
The next morning I woke up thinking about the runner and Slava. There was a time not too long ago when my first thought every morning was the same thought: John Jr. Well, that’s not accurate, not completely. John would be at the center of my first thought, but the focus would shift. Sometimes the focus would be on remembering his death, all the horrible episodes surrounding it coming at me like the distinct flashes of a strobe light: the call from Annie, telling Krissy about her brother, the hospital, the wake, the burial. The cruelest thing in life, a parent putting a kid in the ground. Sometimes it was the emotions: the hurt, the rage, the sorrow, the grief. The grief . . . that was still present, like the background traffic noise when you lived close to the expressway. It had once been a blaring train horn blasting in my ears all day long until I’d wanted to surrender to it. But the warning horns were moot. The train had already run me down. There was no getting out of the way.
Sometimes they were good memories, though. I can’t pretend there weren’t good memories, too. Memories of John Jr. playing basketball—he was always at peace playing b-ball—John at the kitchen table checking his sister’s homework, John as a little boy falling asleep in my lap at Yankee Stadium. Annie reading with John before bedtime. Good or bad, they were relentless, giving me no rest, no escape, no peace. It was only when I’d begun to resent my dead son, to hate him for dying and haunting my every waking moment, that I turned to someone for help.
Doc Rosen had saved me from myself. He would deny it, had denied it when we’d spoken about it. But just because he refused to take credit didn’t make it any less true. It was Dr. Rosen who’d gotten me out into the world again, who had basically drawn footstep patterns on the floor of his office and shown me how to put one foot before the other. Right foot, then left foot. One step, then two steps, then, before you know it, you’re walking. And only the living walk, John. Only the living. And it was my appointment with Doc Rosen that I was headed to when I stopped down at the front desk to talk with Felix.
Felix, who ran the front desk during the day shift, was my friend, too, much in the same vein as Slava. Felix had come from the Philippines and had shared some of his story with me, but he also had his secrets, though seemingly less sinister ones than Slava. Felix was the kind of guy who would beat himself up with guilt over having once thought about stealing a piece of gum. He would never have taken the gum, not Felix, and there was something really cool about people like him. Honesty that wasn’t self-serving or reflexive was in very short supply these days. Perhaps it always had been.
“Gus, good morning to you.” Felix extended his short arm to me. We always shook hands. I liked that about him. “What is going on today?”
“Heading out for a little while. Hey, listen, a guy checked in last night around the same time as Mr. Logan. Both got off a Lauderdale flight.”
Felix’s smile vanished as he tapped the keyboard on the desk in front of him.
“Why, is there trouble with him? I mean, will there be trouble?” His Filipino inflection got intense when he became agitated.
Felix was a worrier, always looking for trouble, and finding it even when it wasn’t there. This time, maybe it was there.
“Mr. Michael Smith,” he said. “Room one eleven. Checked in right after Mr. Logan.”
“Smith?” Unoriginal. I laughed a little laugh. “I doubt there’ll be any problems, but I want to make sure. Can you print out all his particulars for me?”
“Certainly, Gus. Just give me a minute.”
As Felix worked the keyboard I asked, “How long a stay is he down for?”
“Let me . . . Okay, no, wait . . .” He was talking more to himself. “Seems like it is an indefinite stay. At least that is what it says here.”
I heard the high-pitched whine as his printer came to life, the soft chatter of its machinery, and then it went quiet.
“Here you go, Gus.”
I took the sheet from Felix but didn’t bother looking at it just yet. Instead, I folded the page once and then once again, sliding it into my back pocket.
“Something from the coffee shop?” I asked.
“No, thank you. I am fine.”