This is the opening scene of New York Minute— the event that starts everything in motion heading toward a bloody showdown a week later, when the Blackout occurs on 13 July.
Thursday Night, 7 July 1977WEST VILLAGE, MANHATTAN
On the far side of a lot cluttered with rotting garbage, dumped furniture and torched cars, the abandoned, elevated West Side Highway loomed like a curtain about to go down on New York City. Beyond, on the Hudson River waterfront, squatted the Christopher Street Pier, once the berth for classic ocean liners and cargo ships, but now dark, derelict and a haven for both furtive and brazen figures meeting to do what they dared not elsewhere. Most of Manhattan was brightly lit, but the waterfront was darkness, with the lights of New Jersey farther away than the width of the river.
William Kane waited on a slice, extra pepperoni, when he spotted a wraith he pegged as trouble approach from the darkness underneath the West Side Highway. The pizza joint was tiny, dirty and Kane wasn’t optimistic about what was warming up in the oven, but he’d been following Alfonso Delgado all evening, it was almost midnight, and this was the only available food west of Washington Street.
Kane sat at one of two sticky surfaced Formica tables crowded along the wall, leaving barely enough room for someone to slide past to the counter. One of the long fluorescent lights was out, tilting the light in the joint. It was hot and oppressively humid. The absentee owner wasn’t going to waste money on air-conditioning with two ovens going full blast and a single employee slaving away in the midst of a sweltering New York City July. Kane’s chair was angled toward the propped open door, back to the wall.
The junkie entered reeking of sweat, desperation and the aforementioned trouble. Not just because he was strung out, a person couldn’t swing one of the dead rats by the piers without running into the like, but also by the tense hitch in his shoulders and the one hand in the pocket of the stained olive drab Army field jacket. He was dirty white with filthy long hair of indeterminate color, scraggly beard, tall and thin in his worn-out, done with life, mid-thirties. A muscle on the left side of his face danced to the dark beat of his subconscious.
The stained field jacket presented history a former soldier like Kane could interpret via the subdued patches: the winged dagger of the 173rd Airborne on the right shoulder and Screaming Eagle of the 101st on the left. These indicated combat and current assignments, although both were in this guy’s past. The standard embroidered US Army tag above the right pocket. The man earned a smart point for removing the nametag above the left pocket given the not-as-dirty-strip of exposed jacket along with the outline where the name and a combat infantry badge and jump wings had recently resided.
Kane hoped the youngster behind the counter wasn’t willing to die for minimum wage and paltry tips.
The junkie eyed Kane and shifted to the pizza maker. “The cash. Now. On the counter.”
Kane was only slightly better dressed than the junkie, but he was cleaner. Jungle fatigue pants dyed black with pockets on the thighs. The cuffs were banded over the tops of faded green canvas uppers and worn black leather jungle boots. He wore a gray t-shirt, covered by a slightly too long unbuttoned, blue denim shirt, with the sleeves rolled up as far as they would go. A rust-stained, green canvas map case rested on the Formica table.
Kane was six feet, lean, with an angular face smeared by two days of not shaving and topped with thick, black hair, poorly cut and not recently combed. Thirty-two hard years had sprinkled some gray in the hair and chiseled lines in his face. His eyes were green, a gift from his father’s side of the family.
“Oh, come on,” the pizza maker said. “Gimme a break. Second time this month and it’s only the seventh.”
The junkie pulled a small nickel-plated revolver out of the pocket and jabbed it around. “The cash.” He checked Kane once more. “Don’t get any ideas.”
Kane had his hands flat on the map case. “I’ve run out of them today, sarge. I just want my slice. Got places to go. People to see.”
“Yeah, don’t we all,” the junkie said. The revolver was crap; one of those cheap .22 caliber pieces the press titled ‘Saturday Night Specials’. Their more realistic moniker was ‘suicide specials’.
The pizza maker opened the register and slapped an anemic cluster of greasy bills on the counter. “That’s all.”
“Oh, come on,” the pizza maker said, displaying a limited verbal range of outrage. He grabbed a paper cup and clattered it with coins from the register’s tray.
The junkie stuffed the bills in a pocket. Picked up the cup of change with his free hand. He turned toward Kane. Glanced at the map case. Kane looked him in the eyes, his face passive, and waited for the junkie’s dancing pupils to focus.
The junkie evaluated through jumbled synapses. Trickles of sweat slid down his face. Kane arched an eyebrow and leaned forward slightly, enough to let the denim shirt fall to the side and display the rough grip for a .45 automatic in an un-topped holster on his left hip. “How you doing, Sky Soldier?”
The junkie’s face twitched, but he gave a slight nod at the moniker for the paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. “I’ve had better days.”
“You probably want a few more,” Kane said. “I’ve seen people kill with a twenty-two but they were experts and knew exactly where to shoot and were closer than you and I. With a forty-five, it’s like depth charges and nuclear bombs, I only gotta get a piece of you and the rest is going with it.”
“Yeah,” the junkie said, still evaluating. He squinted. “That blood on the map case?”
“Old blood. Second of the five-oh-third.”
“Fourth of the five-oh-third,” the junkie automatically responded with his 173rd battalion designation. He pondered the course and length of the rest of his life for another moment, desired it to be a bit longer, and departed, gun in one hand, change in the other, still drawing air.
“What da’ fuck,” the pizza maker said to Kane. “You got a gun?”
Kane stood and looped the strap for the map case over his left shoulder to hang on his right hip, opposite the .45. “You think I’m gonna pull a gun on a guy over this?” Kane’s accent was remnant Bronx, muted by over a decade and a half away from the city.
“He took everything from the register.”
“The money’s your problem,” Kane said. “I’m talking about my slice.”
“What da’ fuck you carry a gun for if you ain’t gonna use it?”
Kane frowned. “Habit? The frown twisted the end of a knotted sliver of scar tissue stretching from under the thick hair on the right side of his head. “My slice is done; I don’t like it hot.”
“The money ain’t mine. It’s my boss’s.”
“Not your problem then.”
“He’s gonna dock my pay,” the pizza maker complained. “And why didn’t he take your wallet? Or your bag?”
“He’s not that far gone,” Kane said. “He wasn’t going to shoot and he didn’t want to die. How much did he get?”
“Eight-two dollars. And the change. Maybe another five.”
Kane pulled out a money clip, extracted six twenties. “He didn’t take your tips,” Kane noted, as he stuffed the bills into the coffee can that held lonely singles and loose change, mostly pennies. “That’s the problem with being high. You miss things.” He nodded toward the oven. “My slice?”
Muttering, the pizza maker removed the slice with his peel, slid it on a thin paper plate, which was immediately soaked with greasy oil. Kane picked it up with his right hand and folded in half. Took a bite while avoiding the run off.
It was crappy as expected but it was pizza and this was New York City.
He exited Dino’s, as proclaimed by a muted neon sign, and vaguely vowed never to return. He drew the .45 with his left hand and flicked off the custom ambidextrous safety with his thumb. He stepped to the darkness at the side of the door to avoid being silhouetted against the lights. No sign of the junkie.
Kane took another bite. His boss, Toni Marcelle, called this R&D. Research and development. Except it never went beyond the research phase for him; the developing was her expertise. This was where he’d followed Alfonso Delgado, traveling alone, from a mob hangout, the Triangle Social Club on Sullivan Street in Tribeca. It was a good news, bad news situation. Good for Toni in her development of the divorce case that Delgado ended up here, but not so great on the research end for Kane. The norm.
Even though Kane lived eight blocks away, he hadn’t been on or inside any of the piers in years. He had vague memories of his father driving the family down from the Bronx to see Grandma, his father’s mother, off on a stately ocean liner to visit the ‘old country’. The ocean liner days were long past, a casualty of LaGuardia and Kennedy Airports, another part of New York City’s history overtaken by technology and time.
The West Side Highway, formerly the main car route along the west edge of the island of Manhattan, had been closed for four years from 23rd Street to the southern end. Ever since an overloaded northbound dump truck dropped through the roadway not far from here and it was reluctantly decided by the city that the road might be unsafe. New York was not a car friendly city, not just because of the terrible condition of the roads but the vertical density of the population. To keep a car in Manhattan was an expensive proposition.
The extensive subway network was the arteries that moved the people, but wasn’t in much better shape than the West Side Highway. Subway cars were lathered in graffiti making it impossible to see out the windows. The PA system announcement for upcoming stations was a garbled crackle of static that seemed a taunt by burnt out conductors rather than an attempt at conveying location. Crime was rampant and the transit police traveled in pairs. Nevertheless, native New Yorkers made it the most traveled train system in the country.
Kane’s right hand was slippery with oil when he finished the slice. He wiped it on his pants, staining the black darker. He walked underneath the West Side Highway, between rusting iron stanchions holding up the remains of the roadway, moving from city light to abandoned darkness. Kane paused on the far side a few moments. Checked if his presence spooked anything. He looked up, but the glow from the city behind him, diffused by the humid air and smog, hid the stars from view.
The pier extended into the polluted Hudson. It consisted of a long row of attached buildings and warehouses merging into one. Some had been passenger areas, others for freight. Now it was a maze of rotting wood and rusting metal sprawled on top of concrete slabs perched on pilings pounded into the river bottom.
Kane reached into the map case and retrieved night vision goggles. Turned them on, waited for the battery to boot, then slipped them over his head. He tightened the rubber straps as he did a survey. Everything on the interior screen was outlined in two-dimensional shades of green and the light was enhanced. The lack of depth perception was a drawback, but a worthwhile trade in order to see into the dark corners where the lions and tigers and bears preferred to hide.
The standard New York cacophony was behind him: sirens, traffic, car horns, the never-ending rumble of the City That Never Sleeps but was currently slumbering uneasily from fear of a gunman dubbed Son of Sam. Ahead was relatively quiet. Kane hefted the .45, finger resting on the outside edge of the trigger guard. The hammer was back and there was a round in the chamber and a full magazine in the grip, not approved for amateurs, which Kane was anything but.
The concrete floor was littered with debris so Kane slid his feet along, the way he’d done at night on patrol in the Central Highlands and on recon over the border in Cambodia, every nerve alert for a tripwire, expecting a burst of AK fire to shred his chest with 7.62mm.
Kane paused and took a few breaths.
There were different noises when he entered the largest building on the Christopher Street Pier and the sounds of the city dimmed. Below, the Hudson River gurgled and slapped against the pilings. Ahead there were grunts and murmurs and gasps in the darkness. The rhythmic smack of flesh against flesh. The smell was rotting wood, salt water, pollution, urine, sweat and sex.
Fuck Alfonso Delgado for making him come to this place. Kane briefly played with the idea of killing him, but he could more realistically imagine Toni giving him shit: what the hell, Kane? A dead guy can’t pay alimony.
This was New York, not Vietnam, and Kane had made a vow about ever killing. Again.
A flashing light from a beacon on the Jersey side of the Hudson cast abrupt shadows through the broken windows and fractured walls into the interior every ten seconds. It momentarily flared out the goggles each time. Kane waited through four iterations until he had the rhythm of the troublesome light.
Fuck New Jersey too.
Hushed conversations murmured, but it was mainly animal/human noises: raw, uninhibited sex. Two men were fucking to his left, one bent over the waist, the other standing behind holding a leash attached to a collar around the first man’s neck. They wore only boots and leather caps. Two more, similarly undressed, waited in line, stroking their cocks in anticipation. He saw them and three seconds later they saw him in the strobe of light. They ignored and he returned the favor since none were Delgado.
Kane went deeper into the illicit abyss. A light flared in the distant darkness, a blaze in the goggles, someone lighting up a cig or joint. Kane thought of a sniper waiting in the dark for that brief illumination and squeezing off a bullet directly into the spot, putting an exclamation point on the Surgeon General’s warning.
An odd, snapping sound caught his attention. There was a glow coming through a gap in the interior wall. Kane turned the NVG’s off and pushed them up on his head. Through the hole he saw several candles flickering in a circle. In the center, a naked man was tiptoed on a two-foot high wood crate. A rope was cinched around his neck and went over a ceiling strut, terminating at a small winch that was snap-linked to one of the metal supports. The man’s hands were on the rope, grasping it above his head, keeping himself steady. His legs were shaking on his precarious perch. Blood and sweat dripped down bare skin and his cock was erect. Another man, wearing black leather pants and vest, head covered with a black leather hood stood behind him, whip in hand. A half-dozen silhouettes surrounded the spectacle in rapt audience. None wore suits and unfortunately the naked man wasn’t Delgado.
Kane slipped through the gap and gave the group a wide berth.
There was movement to the right, along the outer wall, partially hidden by a stanchion.
The whip struck flesh.
A suit had his back against the outer wall, pants down, two people kneeling in front of him. Kane slid the .45 into the holster and retrieved the camera from the map case. Oriented the camera toward the subjects and squeezed his eyes shut.
The flash went off, then once more.
“Motherfucker!” Alfonso Delgado screamed as he scrambled to pull up trousers.
Kane opened his eyes. He shoved the camera in the bag, drew the .45, and retraced his steps, surer of the way, avoiding the whipping and other debauchery. He removed the goggles as he left the pier, walked underneath the Highway, and re-entered what passed for civilization in lower Manhattan. He skirted the hulk of a burnt-out car sitting on blocks in a vacant lot. Kane holstered the pistol, levering the safety into its slot on the modified slide as he did so.
He proceeded along West 10th. Few people were about this late. He paused on the corner of Washington, which ran north-south. To his right, rising above the brownstones, vacant lots filled with debris and the run-down tenements and businesses of Greenwich Village, were the brilliantly lit, shiny, twin pillars of the World Trade Center. The ground had been broken for them the year Kane graduated West Point, 1966, and both towers had topped out in 1970. Four years of construction mirroring the four years of deconstruction in Kane’s life. From proud West Point graduate parading on the Plain to abject military prisoner. Red aircraft warning lights were flashing on what had been the world’s tallest buildings until three years ago when the Sears Tower in Chicago bested them, another chunk of pride bitten out of the Big Apple.
Kane felt the ghost of something, combat past or threat present or dismal future, tingle his spine.
He peered at his back trail but the street was clear.
Headlights cut the darkness as a bulky yellow cab rumbled by on cobblestones.
He remained still, waiting. Nothing.
Kane proceeded north on Washington, a main artery of Greenwich Village. A scattering of pedestrians, wary of each other, some crossing the street to avoid close passage. It wasn’t just the usual native caution; there was the specter of Son of Sam, still out there almost a year since his first attack. Kane continually checked for anyone following, zigzagging the street four times, with the occasional pause.
When he reached Jane Street he cornered right, remaining on the south side until mid-block. The street was cobblestone with trees arcing overhead along both sidewalks. A few streetlights struggled against the night.
Kane crossed over. Swung open the gate in a waist-high black wrought iron fence leading to the lowest level of an old three-story brownstone. The oiled hinges were silent. After shutting the gate, he knelt on the steps and faced back the way he’d come, hand hovering over the .45. No one on the street. Waited twenty heartbeats. Rose and took the four steps. The entrance for the basement apartment was to the left, underneath the steps leading to the main floor. There was a small arched alcove in front of the door.
Kane checked the matchstick stuck in the door jamb a foot above the ground insuring it was undisturbed, then unlocked and entered, putting the matchstick on the small table inside. Turned the light on. Out the entry, he was in a small sitting area with a horizontal, narrow, street-level window under the low ceiling. Down the short hall was a bedroom with no window, bathroom to the left side crammed beneath the upstairs hallway and finally a tiny kitchen and a door leading to steps to the small courtyard in back where the owner kept a struggling garden surrounded by buildings fore and aft and wood fences left and right.
The furniture was cheap second-hand, suitable to an equally inexpensive rental from the owner residing on the top two floors. The walls were lined with cinderblocks supporting bowed boards loaded with books. Hardcovers and paperbacks were stacked upright, sideways, there seemed to be no pattern to the placement. Above the door frame leading to the bathroom was a four-foot-long board with holes every three inches in it. Two long pegs were inserted. The bathroom doubled as a field expedient dark room and Kane carried the camera inside, then stepped back to the frame, gave a slight jump, grabbing a peg in each hand. He did several pullups, then moved the left peg one hole further out, a few more pullups, extended another hole and several more. When his arms were vibrating from effort, he dropped and got to work developing the film.
Propped against any available wall space not covered by books were framed prints of maps, primarily of New York City in various phases of its evolution from the Cortelyou Map of New Amsterdam in 1660 through a Michelin map from 1962, Kane’s senior year in high school. The glass and frames were covered in dust. None had been hung.
As Kane mixed chemicals in the old sink to develop the film, he reflected on another shit job completed and nobody dead. A decent evening. Especially given the last and most significant time Kane was involved in a killing it ended up on the cover of Life Magazine.
Perhaps that wasn’t the best thought for Kane to have. With the photos hanging and developing, he dragged his poncho liner and sleeping pad under the kitchen table and settled down. As he drifted off, crossing the threshold of his tight conscious control, the junkie in the pizza joint wormed out of his subconscious.
The 173rd and Ted had been the last
thing he needed to be reminded of.