Dark Nights in the City - Excerpt

Prologue

Dan- 1998

It was a glorious autumn afternoon, but that's not why he'd remember it. Dan Cerutti was sprawled in a reclining chair in his book lined office/library, feet perched on his oak parquet desk, scanning the Sunday Times, ignoring the strident interruptions of an NFL pre-game ego clash and working his way through a pizza with extra anchovies. He'd just finished a story on another of Pataki's inept attempts to keep the state from financial disaster when it caught his eye.

It was, a one-column filler on the third page of the Times Metro Section. It would have been easy to miss.

" Unidentified Remains Found in Chinatown Renovation."

He read it quietly, folded the paper, picked up the remote, tapped the mute button and considered the bizarre fact that something he had been expecting for almost thirty years had caught him completely by surprise. He glanced around the room, his gaze moving from the silent TV to the bookshelves laden with the collected literary and philosophical wisdom of the ages, all the questions, all the answers, but not to this.

A moment passed, then another as he continued to gaze at the unresponsive books. He knew he should ignore the item, should fold the paper, retrieve the sound and enjoy the Giant's latest attempt to hold onto first place, but just as certainly, he knew, it would never happen. Finally, with a half regretful sigh, he dropped the paper, picked up the phone and dialed.

Why was he jarred by the appearance of this piece of ancient history? He had been anticipating it for most of his adult life. Why was it so important? Stupid question. He knew why.

Three thousand miles away, in a rundown frame house, in a unfashionable section of The San Fernando Valley, Tommy Day answered his phone.

Tommy was, like Dan, on the bad side of sixty; his once athletic physique, bloated to over two hundred fifty pounds; his classically handsome features, puffed and sagging, adding lines of defeat to a ravaged landscape as he settled into quiet oblivion.

"It's me," Dan said. "They found them."

"Who?"

"Our friends. You know, Mott Street."

"No, they couldn't have!"

"Okay." he conceded. "I'm lying."

There was a long pause. When Tommy spoke, it came out in a pleading whine.

"What are we gonna do?"

"We're not gonna do anything," Dan sighed, squeezing the disdain from his voice, wishing that he hadn't called. "You're going stay right where you are and live your life and I'm going to do the same thing, right here."

"But—"

I should have known, he thought, nothing is ever as simple as you think it's going to be. So he took a deep breath and tried to end it.

"There's nothing to do. I was just letting you know. Just giving you information. There is no connection."

"Of course there is," Tommy wailed. "Jake lived there."

"He sublet," Dan explained, not for the first time, "from Barbot. Barbot's been dead forever. There's no connection."

"Yeah, but now they've got the bodies—"

"Don't mean shit," he growled, picturing the Tommy he had known; the spectacular athlete; the charming dissembler of female virtue; the heroic friend who had stood by him in the face of ultimate danger.

"Once they got the bodies," Tommy was back to high whine and the image crumbled, "they know they got a murder."

"So?"

"Well—I mean—they—"

"Jesus!" Dan snapped. "Stop talking like an asshole. There's nothing to do and nothing to worry about. Just forget I called."

"Forget? How can I forget? I been thinking about this for fucking ever."

"You must," Dan said, closing his eyes and shaking his head in despair, "have a very boring life."

"What?"

"Nothing. What were you doing when I called?

"Having breakfast."

"Fine," Dan advised. "Finish breakfast. Go out and cut the lawn."

"I cut it yesterday."

Dan hung up.

He sat staring at the phone for almost five minutes, depressed by what his friend had become, debating whether or not to make the second call. Finally, giving in to some primal urge for communication, he dialed again. It took longer this time. There was some clicking as the call routed through unidentified overseas operators and then he could hear it ring.

"Yeah?"

Even after these many years Zack Rhodes raw rasp was unmistakable.

"It's Dan, " he said. "They found them."

"So?"

He smiled.

"You call Tommy?" the gravely voice inquired.

"Yeah," he admitted.

"And he's shittin' his pants, right."

"Right."

"Asshole."

"Just letting you know," he said.

"Thanks."

There was a long silence before Zack asked the question.

"You ever hear from her again?"

"No," he lied. "You?"

"Uh uh."

He hung up.

He put down the phone and sat perfectly still, his hand never leaving the instrument, staring thoughtfully across the comfortable room, his eyes not seeing the thousand odd book titles that stared back from the thick wooden shelves. He was thinking about the dead men whose bones had been the subject of the Times story, wondering for perhaps the thousandth time, why those deaths, conveniently, maybe inaccurately accounted for on the self-defense side of his ledger had never fostered any sense of guilt.

I am, he thought, not for the first time, a well-educated, logical, sentient, human being with a functional moral structure. Despite all that, I actively participated in the killings of three men, men whom until the day they died, I had never met.

True, he had not sought them out but neither had he made any serious attempt to avoid the confrontation. On the contrary, years of contemplation had all but convinced him, that he had deliberately let it happen.

How could this be? How could this have happened? What was missing in him that had allowed those events to take place and that now allowed him to live all but untainted by the result of that encounter?

He didn't know. What he did know was that even now, more than thirty years later he still, inconceivably, felt absolutely no remorse.

Death is a factor in all our lives. It's a given that no one gets out of this life alive and that therefore we must all face death at least once in our existence. The reality is that we each face it many times and in many forms and it often affects us in different ways.

Coming, as he did, from a large Irish/Italian family, Dan Cerutti had been familiar with death from his earliest years. Uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins and finally his own parents had all passed away and been dispatched with the requisite mourning and respect.

If, at least on his part, those passing's had been without the agonized grief that we have come to expect from the occasion of death, he could only put that down to the anticipation of the event having softened the actual impact; or possibly the lack of some quality in his own makeup.

That is not to say that sorrow did not accompany these events, but more that the sorrow was for the passing of fondly recalled experiences he had shared with the deceased, rather than for the actual deaths themselves, Suffice it to say that the aforementioned family deaths had caused only a modicum of significant impact on his life.

The same cannot be said of those deaths recounted in the Times story or for that matter, maybe even more significantly; those of three friends and a little girl, the victim of a fire on MacDougal Street, who he had never known. Three friends, each a victim: one of educational deprivation and industrial ignorance, one of a tainted, dysfunctional family and twisted goals; and one of a psyche shattering event expanded by her own demons; and the little girl of—what— fate? Maybe, if you believe in it.

Seven people, whose deaths, each in their own way, had seriously impacted his life, altered his perceptions and adjusted his fit with the world.

He sat, ignoring the gorgeous panorama outside his window, staring blindly at the rows of books, indulging himself in the luxury of reverie, as in his head, a projector ran in reverse, flicking back in time, past a devastating industrial accident, past a day of atrocious violence in Little Italy, past a tragic and terrifying conflagration on MacDougal Street, past never ending parties peopled by fascinating women and brilliant, often contentious men, past nights of mind expanding talk and drunken revelry in tiny Village walkups, huge AIR lofts and bar after bar after bar, all filled with the faces and voices that had infused his young life, all the way back to 1958, and an auspicious meeting in a world famous watering hole, one of the events that would effect him to the point of actually changing the way he perceived the world.