This visit to Pier 84 was for me the start of the strange case you read about in the papers, the one with the Supreme Court Justice and those pictures of the naked woman, the one with the dead client and the kidnapped lawyer and the rotting old ship and the ghost reaching back from the dead to exact his revenge. That one, remember? But for me it wasn't yet a headline, it was just a call in the night that had sent me scurrying to the water's edge, and so the strange sight of that rotting old ocean liner was just that, a strange sight, nothing more. A fading remnant of a far brighter past, it sat there, dead in the water, like a warning I couldn't yet hear.
"Victor Carl," came a rich voice from within the cordon of the yellow tape. "Why am I not surprised when your name comes floating up in the middle of a God-awful mess? Let him in, Sal."
The cop with the crossed arms stepped aside.
Detective McDeiss, Homicide Division, was wearing a long black trench coat, a gray suit, a black porkpie hat tipped low. His large hands glowed strangely blue, covered as they were with latex gloves. He was a big man, broad shoulders, thick legs, the cheeks of one who savored his wines and preferred his sweetbreads rare.
"Thanks for coming out, Carl," he said. "The deceased's wallet is gone and there's no quick way to make an identification, but lucky us, he had your card in his back pants pocket."
"You sound surprised. You don't toss them to the multitudes?"
"Just to passing ambulances and old ladies who fall and can't get up." I took a deep breath to steady my nerves, smelt the coppery tang of spilt blood, suppressed a gag.
"You all right there, Carl?"
I wasn't, not at all, but I turned away from the covered thing on the ground and tried not to show it. "So let me get this right, Detective. You have a dead man, you don't know who he is, but he had my card and you took a flyer on seeing if I could identify him."
"If it's not too much trouble."
"Can I stand back a bit when I do it?"
"Please. These are new shoes."
McDeiss laid a gloved hand on my shoulder and squeezed before stepping towards the lump of something covered by a blue tarp twenty feet away. The crowd surrounding it stepped back. At McDeiss's instruction a sharp white beam was focused on the tarp and the puddle. McDeiss leaned down, grasped the edge of the blue sheet of plastic with his gloved hand, looked at me.
I swallowed and nodded and stepped back still farther as McDeiss lifted the corner of the tarp.
I caught a glimpse, that was all it took, even bleached by the bright white light it took only a glimpse of the face rising out of a thick puddle of dark blood, only a glimpse and I knew without a doubt. A single bat swooped low, aiming for my head. I flinched and turned away.
They say Philly is a city of neighborhoods, but it's really a city of neighborhood taps. There they sit, one on every corner, with the same hanging sign, the same glass block windows, the same softball trophies, the same loyalty among their denizens. When you're a Philly guy you can count your crucial affiliations on the fingers of one hand; you got your mom, you got your church, you got your string band, you got your saloon, you got your wife, and the only thing you ever think of changing is your wife.
Jimmy T's was just such a neighborhood joint. When Beth and I stepped inside we were immediately eyed, and for good reason. We were strangers, we were wearing suits, we had all our teeth.
The dank, narrow bar was decorated like a VFW hall, Flyers pictures taped to bare walls, cheap Formica tables, a pool table wedged into the back, a juke box in the corner with its clear plastic cover smashed. Someone had made an unwise selection, maybe something not sung by Sinatra. Working men of all ages slumped at the bar, leaned on the tables, wiped their noses, sucked down beers, complained about politics, the economy, the Eagles, the cheese steaks at Genos, the riffraff moving in from the west, their girlfriends, their wives, their kids, their lives, their goddamned lives. Before we stepped in it had been sullenly loud, but the moment we opened the door it had quieted as if for a show. It didn't take long to realize we were it. I figured we might as well make it a good one.
The foregoing is excerpted from Past Due by William Lashner. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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