When the phone rang I was asleep, and I was dreaming.
Alone in the shadowed corridors of an unfamiliar place, I heard, ahead, boisterous shouts, cheering. In the light, in the distance, figures moved with a fluid, purposeful grace. Cold fear followed me, something from the dark. I tried to call to the crowd ahead: my voice was weak, almost silent, but they stopped at the sound of it. Then, because the language I was speaking wasn’t theirs, they turned their backs, took up their game again. The floor began to slant uphill, and my legs were leaden. I struggled to reach the others, called again, this time with no sound at all. A door swung shut in front of me, and I was trapped, longing before, fear behind, in the dark, alone.
The ringing tore through the dream; it went on awhile and I grabbed up the phone before I was fully awake. “Smith,” I said, and my heart pounded because my voice was weak and I thought they couldn’t hear me.
But there was an answer. “Bill Smith? Private investigator, Forty-seven Laight Street?”
I rubbed my eyes, looked at the clock. Nearly two-thirty. I coughed, said, “Yeah. Who the hell are you?” I groped by the bed for my cigarettes.
“Sorry about the hour. Detective Bert Hagstrom, Mid-town South. You awake?”
I got a match to a cigarette, took in smoke, coughed again. My head cleared. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. What’s up?”
“I got a kid here. Fourteen, maybe fifteen. Says he knows you.”
“Who is he?”
“Won’t say. No ID. Rolled a drunk on Thirty-third Street just up the block from two uniformed officers in a patrol car.”
“Sounds pretty stupid.”
“Green, I’d say. Young and big. I told him what happens to kids like him if we send them to Rikers.”
“If he’s fourteen, he’s too young for Rikers.”
“He doesn’t know that. He’s been stonewalling since they brought him in. Two hours I been shoveling it on about Rikers, finally he gives up your name. How about coming down here and giving us some help?”
Smoke twisted from the red tip of my cigarette, lost itself in the empty darkness. A November chill had invaded the room while I slept.
“Yeah,” I said, throwing off the blanket. “Sure. Just put it in my file, I got out of bed at two in the morning as a favor to the NYPD.”
“I’ve seen your file,” Hagstrom said. “It won’t help.”
Fragments of stories I would never know appeared out of the night, receded again as the cab took me north. Two streetwalkers, one white, one black, both tall and thin, laughing uproariously together; a dented truck, no markings at all, rolling silently downtown; a basement door that opened and closed with no one going in or out. I sipped burnt coffee from a paper cup, watched fallen leaves and discarded scraps jump in the gutters as we drove by. The cab driver was African and his radio kept up a soft, unbroken stream of talk, words I couldn’t understand. A few times he chuckled, so whatever was going on must have been funny. He let me out at the chipped stone steps of Midtown South. I overtipped him; I was thinking what it must be like to grow up in a sun-scorched African village and find yourself driving a cab through the night streets of New York.
Inside, the desk sergeant directed me through the glaring fluorescent lights and across the scuffed vinyl tile to the second floor, the detective squad room. Two men sat at steel desks, one on the phone, the other typing. A third man, at the room’s far end, punched buttons on an unresponsive microwave.
“Ah, fuck this thing,” the button-puncher said without rancor, trying another combination. “It’s fucked.”
“You break it again?” The typist, a bald-headed black man, spoke without looking up.
“Hagstrom?” I asked from the doorway.
The guy at the microwave turned, said, “Me. You’re Smith?”
I nodded. He was a big, sloppy man in a pretty bad suit. He didn’t have a lot of hair but what he had needed a trim. “You know how to work these things?” he asked me.
“Try fast forward.”
The typist snorted.
“Screw it,” Hagstrom said, abandoning the microwave, crossing the room with a long, loose-jointed stride. “Doctor says I should lay off the burritos anyway. Come with me.”
I followed him into the corridor, around a corner, into a small, stale-smelling room. It was empty and dim. The only light came from the one-way mirror between this room and the next, where a big kid rested his head on his arms at a scarred and battered table. Two Coke cans, an empty Fritos bag, and a Ring Ding wrapper littered the tabletop.
Hagstrom flicked a switch, activated the speaker. “Sit up,” he said.
The kid’s head jerked up and he looked around, blinking. His dark hair was short; he wore jeans, sneakers, a maroon-and-white varsity jacket with lettering I couldn’t make out on the back. They were all filthy. He rubbed a grubby hand down his face, squinted at the glass. That glass is carefully made: It will show you your own reflection, tell you what’s behind you; it hides everything else.
Hagstrom switched the speaker off again. “Know him?”
Hagstrom waited. “And?”
“Gary Russell,” I said. “He’s fifteen. Last I heard he lived in Sarasota, but that was a couple of years ago. What’s he doing here?”
“You tell me.”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s he to you?”
I watched Gary shift uncomfortably in the folding chair they had him on. The knuckles on his left hand were skinned; his jacket had a rip in the sleeve. The dirt on his face didn’t hide the bags under his eyes or the exhausted pallor of his skin. As he moved, his hand brushed the Fritos bag, knocked it to the floor. Conscientiously, automatically, he picked it up. I wondered how long it had been since he’d had real food.
“He’s my sister’s son,” I said.
This small room was too close, too warm, nothing like the crisp fall night the cab had driven through. I unzipped my jacket, took out a cigarette. Hagstrom didn’t stop me.
“Your sister’s son, but you’re not sure where he lives?” Hagstrom’s eyes were on me. Mine were on Gary.
“We don’t talk much.”
Hagstrom held his stare a moment longer. “You want to talk to him?”
I nodded. He stepped into the corridor, pointed to a door a few feet away. He backed off, so that I was the only thing Gary saw when I opened the door.
Gary stood when I came in, so fast and clumsily his chair clattered over. “Hey,” he greeted me, his fists clenching and opening, clenching and opening. “Uncle Bill. How’s it going?”
He was almost as tall as I was. His eyes were blue, and under his skin you could still see a hint of softness, the child not yet giving way to the man. Otherwise we looked so much alike that all the mirrors I had seen that face in over the years rushed into my mind, all the houses I’d lived in, all the things I had seen in my own eyes; and I wanted to warn him, to tell him to start again, differently. But those were my troubles, not his. You could look at him and see he had his own.
I pulled out a chair, nodded at the one he’d dropped to the floor. He righted it and sank into it.
“It’s going great, Gary,” I said. “Nothing like getting up in the middle of the night to come see your nephew in a police station.”
“I’m …” He swallowed. “I’m sorry.”
“What are you doing here, Gary?”
He shrugged, said, “They say 1 tried to rob this guy.”
I waved my hand, showed him the walls. “Not here. We’ll get to that. What are you doing in New York?”
He picked at a dirty fingernail, shrugged again.
“Your folks here too?”
“No.” Almost too low to hear.
“They know where you are?”
“No.” He looked up suddenly. “I need to get out of here, Uncle Bill.”
I dragged on my cigarette. “Most people in here say that. You run away?” “Not really.”
“But Helen and Scott don’t know where you are.”
He shook his head.
“You still live in Sarasota?”
“I can find out, Gary.”
He leaned forward. His blue eyes began to fill. With an effort so desperate I could see it, he pulled himself back under control: boys don’t cry. “Please, Uncle Bill. It’s important.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Get me out of here. I didn’t hurt that guy. I didn’t even take anything off him.”
He spread his hands; a corner of his mouth twisted up. “He didn’t have anything.”
“Why are you here?”
“Something I got to do.”
He dropped his gaze to the table and was silent.
I sat with him until my cigarette was done. Once he looked up hopefully, like a kid wondering if you’d stopped being mad at him and were ready to play catch. His eyes found mine; he looked quickly down again.
Wordlessly I mashed out the cigarette, got up, opened the door. Hagstrom stepped out of the observation room at the same time, and I knew he’d been listening to what we’d said.
Back at his desk in the squad room, Hagstrom brought us both coffee in blue PBA mugs. “I checked you out,” he said.
I drank coffee.
“Your sheet: five arrests, one conviction, misdemeanor; interference with an officer in the performance of his duties.”
“You want to hear the story?”
“No. That officer was kicked off the Department the next year for excessive use of force. You also did six months twelve years ago on a misdemeanor in Nebraska.” He shook his head. “Nebraska, for Christ’s sake. Where is that?”
“In the middle.”
“You think your sister still lives in Sarasota?”
“Even though the kid says no? Maybe. Helen and Scott Russell. Street has a strange name … Littlejohn. Littlejohn Trail.”
Eyes on me, Hagstrom picked up his desk phone, dialed Florida information. I worked on the coffee. After a while he put down the phone again. “No Helen Russell, no Scott, no Gary, anywhere in the Sarasota area.”
“They move around a lot.”
“You got any ideas?”
I shook my head. “Sorry.”
“This is your sister?”
I didn’t answer.
“Christ,” Hagstrom said. “My brother’s an asshole, but I know where he lives.” He finished his coffee. “I wondered why the kid wasn’t afraid you’d call his folks.”
I had nothing to say to that, so I just drank coffee.
“Mike Dougherty, lieutenant, Sixth Precinct?” Hagstrom said. “Says hello. Says he’s a friend of yours.”
“In fact, you seem to have a lot of friends on this Department. Especially for a guy who’s been picked up half a dozen times.”
“Whatever. You’re Captain Maguire’s kid.”
I took out another cigarette, lit it, dropped the match in a Coke can Hagstrom fished from his trash. I made myself meet Hagstrom’s eyes. “That’s true too.”
“I never met him. Leopold did.” He tipped his head toward the man who’d been typing when I first came in and was typing still. Leopold looked up, surveyed me silently, went back to work.
“What I’m saying, Smith, I hear you’re okay.”
I finished my coffee. “I never heard that.”
That got a snort from Leopold. The third guy, off the phone now, looked up from the sports page of thePost,went back to it.
“This kid,” Hagstrom said. “Your nephew. He’s fifteen?” “That’s right.”
“If I put him in the system now, he’ll have a hell of a time getting out.”
I nodded; I knew that was true.
“We’ll find your sister, but Child Services will have to check them out. Wherever they live now, they’ll contact the child protection agency there. There’ll be an investigation. He’ll be here, in Spofford, while that happens. Even if they send him home, they’ll start keeping records. He have brothers or sisters?”
“Two sisters. Younger.”
“Your sister and her husband—they abuse these kids? That why you don’t speak to them, maybe?”
The question was asked with no change of manner. Hagstrom sipped his coffee and waited for the answer.
“No,” I said.
“That the truth, Smith?”
“So why’d the kid run away?”
“You heard him. He says he’s got something important to do. He also says he didn’t run away.”
“When I was his age,‘something important’ only meant a girl. Or a football game.”
“Could mean the same to him.”
“Does he do drugs?”
“I haven’t seen him in a while. But he doesn’t look it.” “True.”
Hagstrom studied me, making no effort to hide it. I finished my cigarette and shoved it in the Coke can. The cop with the paper flipped the pages. The other kept typing. Somewhere else a phone rang.
“I’ll release him to you if you want him.”
“I never did the paperwork. What he said, he didn’t take anything from that wino? It’s true. I got no reason to hold him, except he’s a green, underage kid who doesn’t even know how to pick his targets. A wino on Thirty-third Street, jeez. Will he tell you where his parents are?”
“I don’t know. But I can find them.”
I took Gary in a cab to my place downtown. He slipped me worried sideways glances as we moved along near-empty streets. For most of the ride he said nothing, and I gave that to him. Then, as the cab made a left off the avenue, he shifted his large frame to face me on the vinyl seat. “Uncle Bill? Who’s Captain Maguire?”
I looked out the window at streets I knew. “Dave Maguire. He was an NYPD captain. My uncle.”
“My mom’s uncle too?”
“I never heard about him. All these cops, it seemed like he was a big deal.”
“He was.” That was about as short an answer as I could give, but he didn’t drop it.
“I heard them say you were Captain Maguire’s kid. What does that mean?”
I turned to him, turned back to the window, wished for a cigarette. “When I was just about your age I moved in with Dave. For the next couple of years I kept getting in trouble and he kept getting me out. It got to be a joke around the NYPD. Dave was the only one who didn’t think it was funny.”
Gary gave a thoughtful, companionable nod; this was something he understood. After a moment he asked, “Did you?”
“Think it was funny?” I asked. “No, I didn’t.”
He was quiet for a while. As we turned onto my block he said, “You moved in with him, like you mean, instead of living with your folks?”
“Did my mom too?”
The cab pulled to a stop. “No,” I said.
I paid the cabbie, unlocked the street door, had Gary go ahead of me up the two flights to my place. At this hour, on this street, there was no one else. Even Shorty’s was closed, everyone home, sleeping it off, getting ready for another day.
Upstairs, I showed Gary where the shower was, gave him jeans and a tee shirt for when he was done. The kid in him had stared around a little as the cab stopped and he realized this street of warehouses and factory buildings was where I lived. He gave the same wide eyes to my apartment above the bar, and especially to the piano, but he said nothing, so I didn’t either.
I made a pot of coffee and scrambled four eggs, all I had in the house. When he came out of the bathroom, dirt and grease scrubbed off, he looked younger than before. He was wiry, long-legged, and he didn’t quite fill out my clothes, but he came close. His shoulders were broad and the muscles in his arms had the sharp, cut look lifting weights will give you.
I watched him as he crossed the living room. The circles under his eyes seemed to have darkened; they looked as though they’d be painful to the touch. He’d found Band-Aids for his knuckles. I saw a bruise on his jaw.
“Hey,” he said, his face lighting up at the smell of scrambled eggs and buttered toast. “I didn’t know you could cook, Uncle Bill.”
“Sit down. You drink coffee?”
He shook his head. “Uh-uh. Coach doesn’t like it.”
I poured a cup of coffee for myself, asked, “Football?”
“Yeah.” He dropped into a chair, shoveled half the eggs onto a plate.
“Wide receiver,” he said, his mouth already full. Then he added, “I don’t start yet,” to be honest with me. “I’m just a sophomore, and I’m new. This school, they’re pretty serious about football.”
I looked at his broad shoulders, his muscled arms. “Next year you’ll start.”
“Yeah, I guess. If we stay,” he said, as if reminding himself not to get too sure of things, reminding himself how many times he’d started over and how many times he’d have to. I had done that too.
“You used to play football, Uncle Bill?” he asked, reaching for a piece of toast.
He glanced up, clearly surprised; this was probably heresy, a big American man who hadn’t played football.
“We left the U.S. when I was nine and didn’t come back until I was fifteen,” I said. “Your mom must have told you that?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said offhandedly, but a brief pause before he said it made me wonder how much he did know about the childhood Helen and I had shared.
“The rest of the world plays soccer,” I said. “Not football. I played some soccer, basketball when we came back, and I ran track.”
“Track’s cool,” he said, seeming relieved to be back on familiar ground. “I run track in the spring. What events?”
“Longer distances. I started slow but I could last.”
“Track’s cool,” he repeated. “But except when you’re running relay—I mean, it’s a team but it’s not really a team. You know?”
“I think that was why I liked it.” I brought a quart of milk and the coffee I was working on over to the table. “Take the rest,” I said, pointing at the eggs. “It’s all yours.”
“I don’t eat breakfast at four in the morning. You look like you didn’t get supper.”
He ate like someone who hadn’t eaten in a week; but he was fifteen, it might have been two hours. Between bites, he said, “Thanks, Uncle Bill. For getting me out of there.”
“I’ve been in there myself,” I said.
“Yeah.” He started to grin, then stopped. He flushed, as though he’d said something he shouldn’t. He bit into a piece of toast. “How come you don’t come see us?” he suddenly asked.
“Hard when I don’t know where you are.”
He poured a glass of milk. “You and my mom …”
He didn’t finish his sentence and I didn’t finish it for him. I said, “It happens, Gary.”
After that I waited until he was done: all the eggs, four pieces of toast, two glasses of milk, a banana.
“Feel better?” I asked when the action had subsided.
He sat back in his chair, smiled for the first time. “You got anything left?”
“You serious? I could dig up a can of tuna.” “Nah, just kidding. I’m good. Thanks, Uncle Bill. That was great.”
“Okay, so now tell me. What’s going on, Gary?”
The smile faded. He shook his head. “I can’t.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Gary. A kid like you doesn’t come to New York and start rolling drunks for no reason. Something wrong at home?”
“No,” he said. “What, you mean Mom and Dad?”
“Or Jennifer? Paula?”
“They’re kids,” he said, seeming a little mystified at the question, as though nothing could be wrong with kids.
“Are you in trouble?” I kept pushing. “Drugs? You get some girl pregnant?”
His eyes widened. “Hell, no.” He sounded shocked.
“Is it Scott?”
“Dad?” Under the pallor, he colored. “What do you mean?”
“I told Hagstrom it wasn’t. That you wouldn’t run away to get away from Scott. But guys like Scott can be tough to live with.”
He didn’t so much pause as seem caught up, blocked by the confusion of words. His shoulders moved, his hands twitched, as though they were trying to take over, to tell me something in the language he was used to using. “It’s not like that, Uncle Bill,” he said, his hands sliding apart, coming back together. “I told you, I need to do something. Dad, he gets on my case sometimes, I guess. Whatever. But he’s cool.” His hands were still working, so I waited. “I mean,” he said, “this would be, like, cool with him. If he knew.”
“Then let’s call and tell him.”
I hadn’t expected anything from that, and all I got was another shrug.
“He gets on your mom’s case, too, am I right?” I asked. “And your sisters’? That can be hard to take.”
“I—” He shook his head, not looking at me. “This isn’t that. That’s not what it is.”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Christ, Gary.” I put down my coffee. “How long since you left home?”
“Day before yesterday.”
“Your mother must be worried.”
“I left a note.”
A note. “Saying what?”
“I said I had something to do and I’d be back as soon as I could. I said not to worry.”
“I’m sure that helped.” I was sorry about the sarcasm when I saw his eyes, but it was too late to take it back. “We have to call them, Gary.”
He shook his head. “We can’t.”
“Where are you guys living now?”
“Uncle Bill. Uncle Bill, please.” He was leaning forward the way he had in the police station, and his eyes looked the same. “You got to lend me a few bucks, let me go do what I got to do. I’ll pay you back. Real soon. Please—”
“You left home without any money?”
He glanced away. “I had some when I got here. But some guys …”
I looked at the skinned knuckles, the bruise. “You got mugged.”
“Three of them,” he said quickly, making sure I knew. “If it was just one—”
“They don’t play fair in that game, Gary.”
“Yeah,” he said, deflating. “Yeah, I know. Look, Uncle Bill.” I waited, but all he said was, “Please.”
“No,” I said. “Not a chance. Not if I don’t know what’s going on.”
He shrugged miserably, said nothing.
“Gary?” He looked up at me. I asked, “Did you know I had a daughter?”
He nodded. “She … she died, right?”
“In an accident, when she was nine. She’d be a little older than you are now, if she’d lived.” I looked into my cup, drank coffee. “Her name was Annie,” I said. “I never talk about her to anyone.”
He said, “That’s … I get that.”
“Do you know why I’m telling you about her?”
“Because, like, you’re telling me something important, so I’ll tell you. But I can’t.”
“It’s partly that,” I said. “And it’s partly, I want you to know kids are important to me.” I spoke quietly. “Maybe I can help.”
A quick light flashed in his eyes, a man who’d seen water in the desert. Then his eyes dulled again: the water was a mirage, everything as bad as before.
I waited, but I didn’t think he’d answer me, and he didn’t.
“All right,” I said, getting up. “You look like you haven’t slept in a long time. I have people who can find your folks, but I’m not going to wake them now. Take the back bedroom. I’m not going to sleep, Gary, we’re three floors up, and I have an alarm system here, so don’t even think about it. Just get some sleep.”
“You can sleep, or you can sit around here with me. Or you can tell me what’s going on. That’s it.”
His eyes were desperate, trapped; they searched my face for a way out. What they found was not what he wanted. His shoulders slumped. “Okay,” he said, and his voice was a small boy’s, not a man’s. “Where should I go?”
I showed him the bedroom in back, unused for so long. I brought him sheets for the bed, offered to help him make it up. “No, it’s okay,” he said, and he looked like someone who wanted to be alone, so I started out.
“Uncle Bill?” he said. I turned back. “Thanks. I’m sorry.” He shut the door.
I cleaned up the dishes, put the milk away. I went through the clothes Gary had left neatly in the laundry basket, picked up the jacket—the word arched across the back was WARRIORS—from off my couch. I was hoping for something, a label, some scrap of paper, that could get me closer to finding where he’d come from, but there wasn’t anything. Back in the living room, I put a CD on, kept the volume low. Gould playing Bach: complex construction, perfectly understood. I kicked off my shoes, lit a cigarette, stretched out on the couch, wondering how early I could call Velez, the guy who does my skip traces. Wondering what it was that was so important to Gary, so impossible to talk about. Wondering where my sister lived now, whether everything was all right there, the way Gary had said.
The searing crash of breaking glass came a second before the alarm started howling. I yanked myself off the couch, raced to the back, but I wasn’t in time. When I threw the door open I saw the shards, saw the pillow on the sill and the chair lying on the floor, and knew what had happened. Gary was a smart kid. He’d been afraid to mess with the catches, afraid the alarm would go off before he got the window open. So he smashed it. Held a pillow on the broken glass in the frame, lowered himself out, dropped to the alley. And was gone.
I charged down the stairs and around the block to where the alley came out, because I had to, but it was useless. I chose a direction, ran a couple more blocks calling Gary’s name. A dog barked; a drunk in a doorway lifted his head, held out his hand. Nothing else. Finally I stopped, just stood, gazing around, like a man in a foreign place. Then I turned, headed back to the alley. I checked under my window, where the streetlights glittered off the broken glass. No sign of blood: I let out a breath. I straightened, looked up at the window. Light glowed into the empty alley and the alarm was still ringing.
I’m sorry,Gary had said, before he closed the door.
Winter and Night Copyright © 2002 by S. J. Rozan
Excerpted from Winter and Night by S. J. Rozan
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.