Convinced he’s stumbled upon a drug war between the Italian Mafia and a Chinese tong, Taylor is on fire once more. But as he blazes forward, flanked by his new girlfriend, ex-cop Samantha Callahan, his precious story grows ever more twisted and deadly. In his reckless search for the truth, he rattles New York’s major drug cartels. If he solves the mystery, he may end up like his victim—in a watery grave.
The NYPD Harbor Launch Patrolman Crane thudded over the waves toward the Brooklyn docks.
Millions of New Yorkers lived on islands and never gave a thought to the sea surrounding them. At this moment, the water was very much on Taylor’s mind. Gripping the rail of the police boat, he was looking down at a small undulating patch of it. Throwing up.
Minutes earlier, Taylor had watched the big orange Staten Island Ferry John F. Kennedy cross the harbor. He’d stared too long, and the police boat had bounced even harder as it crossed the ferry’s wake. The rocking of the Patrolman Crane and the counter movement of the Kennedy on Taylor’s immediate horizon had sent him running for the side.
Once he was done, Taylor stood and leaned against the side of the boat. A small American flag fluttered from a pole on the back of the launch. The Patrolman Crane’s white cabin and pilothouse, which took up most of the space on the vessel, were in front of him. The NYPD craft looked like a working boat—all business—and one that could move quickly when necessary.
Officer Greg Mott laughed at Taylor’s rookie distress. “You haven’t been out on the water for thirty minutes and you’re sick.” He handed Taylor a wet cloth.
Taylor wiped his face and thanked the Greek Orthodox God of his late mother he’d only had a buttered hard roll for breakfast two hours ago.
“Wouldn’t mind if this was real news. Seasick for a feature story? Not a price worth paying.”
“We’ve had a bunch of ride-alongs with reporters. Suddenly there’s lots of interest because the tall ships are coming for the Bicentennial celebrations. Usually no one cares what we do out here.”
Taylor gritted his teeth and ordered his stomach to stop flipping. It wasn’t listening.
The police boat slowed as it neared the Brooklyn piers, which jutted into water deceptively blue, considering how badly polluted it was. Must be some trick of the light.
Mott, a short, muscular member of the NYPD scuba team, leaned against the rail. “How the hell you going to cover Operation Sail if you’re seasick?”
“After this one feature about the harbor and what you guys will be doing July Fourth, I’m working from dry land. There are lots of safe, solid places to watch the boats.”
“Wouldn’t call them boats. Not if you want to write accurate. There’ll be ships. A lot of ships. Full-rigged and barks and barkentines and schooners.”
“Sound like an expert.”
“Sail myself. I begged to work the Bicentennial on Sunday. July Fourth, 1976. Two hundredth birthday of the USA. We’ll have the biggest modern day assembly of tall ships ever. Naval review. Fireworks. Great day to be on the water. Then there’s all the events on land. Might not see the like of any of it again. I mean, took them years negotiating just to get the ships here.”
At this moment, Taylor didn’t care if he saw a boat, ship, or whatever again, much less stood on one.
Sergeant Pat McCarthy, pilot and commander of the launch, stuck his head out the window of the bridge.
“Get ready, Motty. Possible drop.”
Mott pulled on his wetsuit and zipped himself in. “What’s the call?”
“Someone said they saw something go in before dawn.” “They’re telling us that now?”
“Precinct’s apparently been really busy.” Sarcasm seasoned McCarthy’s thick New York accent—Queens or maybe the borderlands with Brooklyn. “New York, man.”
Mott checked his equipment. Taylor marveled at him. The man should get a medal for just jumping into the polluted soup of New York Harbor.
“What’s a ‘drop’?” Taylor said.
“Drugs, usually. They cruise over from Jersey and dump sealed packages near the piers for pick-up later. The narcotics boys have had me check a bunch of times. Came up with four kilos of smack a month ago.”
“Why go by water?”
“Because of traffic stops outside the Jersey docks. The narcs have a fix on some of the suppliers’ messenger boys. Been grabbing them after the stuff comes off the freighters.”
Taylor shook his head. More than a decade covering cops in New York, and he still came across new and different ways to commit crime. The launch slowed more as McCarthy eased the craft between two piers. Sunlight turned to shadow. The morning had started with the air on land humid and heating up, but the breeze across the water made it feel less like an oppressive summer day.
The police boat stopped, gently bobbing between the pilings. That wasn’t enough to convince his stomach. Taylor didn’t know what would, but he wasn’t putting his head over the side if a real story was about to come aboard. He’d held no hope of anything that good happening when he stepped onto the launch.
Mott dropped into the water. Minutes passed. He came up with a headshake and dove again.
McCarthy stood by the rail, watching.
Taylor joined him. “How does he know where to look?” “The divers have a way of combing an area. Eliminates guesswork. Dumbasses think they can throw a gun in the water and it’s gone. They’re so wrong. Motty and the other divers know what they’re about.”
“What will they do during Operation Sail?”
“Untangle anchor lines of civilian craft. Help direct traffic. We hope nothing more serious. The Coast Guard expects thousands of small boats. Maybe more. We don’t want anything bad to go down on Sunday. New York needs this.”
Mott came up, pulled his mouthpiece out, and yelled for a line.
“Up against one of the pilings. A body.”
“Shit. I’ll call homicide.”
It took Mott more than ten minutes to get the body properly secured with the line. McCarthy and a second crewman strained to pull the dripping thing up into the boat. Water ran off a blue gingham dress onto the deck. The face and arms were already puffed up. Taylor knew the dead woman hadn’t been in the water long because the body would have looked a whole lot worse. She was white, with red hair, and appeared to have been relatively young. Her right foot had on a purple sandal. Her left was bare. She’d been shot in the right eye.
The witness had seen the body dumped early this morning. It was like the woman had gone for a summer walk sometime on Tuesday and run into terrible violence.
Around the body’s waist, looking almost like a floatation belt, was taped a chain of six square packages wrapped in heavy-duty black plastic. Maybe garbage bags. Maybe sheets of industrial-grade stuff.
Mott came up the ladder and dropped an iron bar in the boat. “That was tied to her foot. Why she wasn’t a floater.” Perversely, the body had settled Taylor’s stomach. Now he had a crime to focus on, and the possibility of a real story acted like some kind of natural Dramamine. He eased around to her left side. There was a deep depression above her left ear, the hair still matted by dried blood that hadn’t washed away. Hit hard and shot. Just to make sure? Somebody seriously wanted this woman dead. He wrote down everything he saw so he’d remember what to ask about later.
Wearing a work glove, McCarthy leaned in and pressed one of the black packages. It gave in to the pressure. “They’re not weights. That was the iron bar’s job. What’s inside stayed dry. The heroin we pulled up last month was wrapped exactly like this.”
Taylor looked up from his notebook. “Really think it’s drugs?”
“Why would someone deliver drugs strapped to a body?” “What if we didn’t pull her up?”
“Well, whoever was coming for the drugs would find her.”
Taylor pointed at the blue gingham.
“Exactly. I ain’t no detective. Never will be. Like driving my boat too much. My guess is someone’s sending a message.”
“That I couldn’t tell you. Know a message when I see one. Right now, I got other things to worry about. This week is supposed to be big PR for the city. My captain is going to go through the roof. Like I dropped the poor thing in the water.”
McCarthy went back to the cockpit, slowly backed the 50-foot Patrolman Crane out and navigated her between Governor’s Island and Brooklyn. Taylor, at the rear, took one moment to watch the Brooklyn Bridge, with its massive granite towers and, by comparison, fragile webs of steel cables, recede and disappear as the boat came around Red Hook. He loved that bridge, New York’s most majestic. As a Queens boy, he had to give Brooklyn credit for the bridge, but that was all. Brooklyn had nothing else to recommend it. He could say that in full confidence, especially since he lived there now.
McCarthy, the crewman, and Mott attended to their duties, taking care of all sorts of boat-related chores. There wasn’t anything more they could tell Taylor about the woman. Once the bridge disappeared from view, he sat near the body with his long, lanky legs stretched out in front of him, wondering who had put her under the water as some kind of message. He folded a stick of Teaberry Gum in his mouth to clear the bad taste. His stomach didn’t flinch. He stayed with her during the launch’s short journey from the piers to Harbor Charlie, the docks at the Army Terminal used by the Patrolman Crane and the rest of the Harbor Precinct.
Narcotics and homicide detectives, two apiece, from the 72nd Precinct were on the scene when the launch tied up. The narcs and the murder cops both wanted the case. They were still arguing over jurisdiction when the wagon took away the woman’s body. McCarthy and his crewman stowed gear and secured rope. Mott checked his diving equipment. Taylor hung back from the argument. Stepping in the middle of it would get him in trouble and yield no information.
The homicide cops ended the dispute by leaving. As the aristocracy of the NYPD, they swaggered off, probably certain they would go back to the house and win the turf war. Why were any of them trying so hard to add to their caseload? There was more than enough crime to go around for a police force shrunk by huge budget cuts. Too much. Maybe they wanted to be in on what was happening in New York Harbor this weekend. Even if it was the evil stuff.
One of the two narcotics detectives jumped into a Ford, leaving behind the other, Marty Phillips, a narc of Taylor’s acquaintance. Dressed in the not-quite-convincing attire of the modern plainclothesman—flared jeans, blue-and-white tie- dye T-shirt, and long hair not actually long enough—Phillips walked toward the exit to the street.
Taylor caught up. “Where’re you heading?”
“I need a drink.” Phillips always needed a drink. “How’d you sniff this one out so fast?”
“I was on the launch.”
Phillips’ light-brown eyes gave Taylor a quizzical look.
“A ride-along for an Operation Sail feature.”
“Seriously? Police reporter like you is writing about sailboats?”
“Everybody’s writing about sailboats. At least through the weekend. That why the homicide guys wanted to add this to their board?”
“I’ve seen killings over drug deals. I’ve seen ’em over who sells on what corner. This doesn’t fit.”
“This one’s not about corners.” Phillips looked around, which was odd, since he wasn’t a guy to worry who heard what. “It’s an import war. Not saying more out on the street. Let’s get a beer. Fraunces Tavern.”
“All the way back in Manhattan?” “I like to get off my patch to think.” To drink.
After the subway ride under the East River, they walked several blocks, winding their way along the narrow streets that made downtown so different from the grid—the squares and numbers—of midtown. At the corner of Broad and Pearl Streets stood Fraunces Tavern, one of New York’s great survivors. Built in 1719, a tavern off and on since 1762, it had been headquarters to Washington and witnessed his farewell to his officers.
As they both stepped up to the bar, Taylor breathed in sweet wood polish mixed with the pleasant hint of fresh beer. The tavern’s greatest feat of survival was the most recent one: re- opening after being bombed by the Puerto Rican terrorist liberation group FALN. A year ago January, a deadly explosion had ripped through the building when ten sticks of dynamite detonated, killing four and injuring more than 50. A crack running through the wall mural of the City of New York remained as a testament to the attack.
Taylor pushed a hand through windblown brown hair, trying to get back the rough side part that was supposed to last all day. He didn’t carry a comb. Unlike Phillips’ hair, his was trimmed shorter than the fashionable style. He’d tried long hair briefly, but it’d looked messy and dirty. He now kept the close, parted style he’d worn—except for the experiment with the mop top—since he’d outgrown his childhood crew cut.
Phillips ordered rye on rocks, and Taylor a seven-ounce Rolling Rock. It was a few minutes after noon.
“What’s with the cute beers?”
“I’m a cute guy.”
Taylor didn’t tell the narc that drinking little beers was one of the rules he followed to avoid the alcoholism of his father. The rules weren’t something he shared with cops—or anyone else. His stomach had already settled some. The Rolling Rock would be the real test. The first sip went down well. In fact, made him feel better.
Phillips took a big swallow of rye. “Never used to come here. Place is for bankers, not cops. But I’ll be fucked if some scumbag ’Rican terrorists are going to kick me out of a bar.”
“Still haven’t arrested anyone.”
“This is America. We let you blow shit up. We let you get away.”
“Tell me about this import war.”
“Where’s the heroin on the street come from?’
That question was New York Crime 101. “Mostly Afghanistan by way of Marseilles. Brought in by the Italian mob.”
“Yeah. The Fronti crime family, to be specific. That’s one reason for those Brooklyn pier drops. When the package comes in on a ship, the ship docks in Jersey. Slipping across the water’s become a safer way to get it over. But there’s a new supply of heroin and a new supplier. China White out of Southeast Asia. The Golden Triangle. The Leung tong in Chinatown is bringing it in. They want the import license for New York City.”
Confirms what Mott said about Brooklyn drops. But….
“It’s actually referred to as the ‘import license’?” “No, that’s me. Pretty good huh?”
He smiled around another swallow of whiskey. “How’s the murder figure into this?”
“The tong wants to take over as heroin supplier to New York City. I’ll bet money the victim’s related to someone in the Fronti family. That woman’s a statement.”
“McCarthy said something like that. Sounds like a leap with the body just recovered.”
“C’mon. It’s even obvious to a guy who paddles around in a boat. Wives and kids are off limits for the Italians. Nobody hits them. The tong doesn’t play by the same rules. Slant-eyed bastards never do. That’s why her body says this is about the import war.”
“What other evidence you got?”
“There’s already more China White on the street. This is big. It’s why the homicide guys want in. Important case. Meanwhile, they want us to stay on the street busting pushers—who will sell whatever comes their way. Pushers don’t care who’s importing. They want the smack the addicts will buy. China White is the better shit.”
Taylor got Phillips a second rye and left the narcotics cop at the bar. The one little beer on an empty stomach had already given him a buzz. He needed to get out of there before he spent the afternoon drinking and talking cop stories he wouldn’t remember later.
He caught the subway uptown to Times Square and walked one block to the City News Bureau’s offices in the Paramount Building. He needed to manage expectations with Henry Novak. He’d write the feature on the harbor patrol. He also wanted to work on something his boss—and friend—wasn’t looking for on the eve of the Bicentennial. Taylor was covering a murder that could turn into a big drug story.
© Rich Zahradnik
“Taylor, who lives for the big story, makes an appealingly single-minded hero,” Publishers Weekly wrote of Drop Dead Punk.
Zahradnik was a journalist for 30-plus years, working as a reporter and editor in all major news media, including online, newspaper, broadcast, magazine and wire services. He held editorial positions at CNN, Bloomberg News, Fox Business Network, AOL and The Hollywood Reporter.
In January 2012, he was one of 20 writers selected for the inaugural class of the Crime Fiction Academy, a first-of-its-kind program run by New York’s Center for Fiction.
Zahradnik was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1960 and received his B.A. in journalism and political science from George Washington University. He lives with his wife Sheri and son Patrick in Pelham, New York, where writes fiction and teaches kids how to publish newspapers.