Sample: Chapter One
Caution – Wet Floor
ew York City napped until Andre Castellano’s scream shook it awake. Castellano, a porter at the Olmsted Court apartment house, was in the building’s basement. He had been dragging fat, green, stuffed garbage bags from the trash compactor room. He already had rummaged through the piled magazines and newspapers for a copy of that day’s newspaper. The best he could find was a pristine, unread copy of the previous day’s New York Times, dated April 23, 1982.
Bulging bag in each hand, Castellano sang “New York, New York” as he worked.
The compactor seemed to hum in harmony. But then it started to sputter. It was choking on some chunky morsel again.
Wondering when the co–op would buy a new compactor or, at least, fix this one, Castellano dropped the bags.
There are two kinds of problems, he thought. Most happen when things are not what they seem. The rest are because things are what they seem.
He scrambled to the compactor’s base and threw a switch. The machinery’s whining and coughing stopped. The compactor’s pressing plate was stalled by the contents of a white plastic bag. Andre’s hand closed tightly on the bag. Something felt wrong —and wet. His hand jerked open. Blood was on his hand. Blood painted the inside of the compactor.
The plastic bag had been torn open, and Andre saw its contents — a portion of a human torso. Peeking out from beneath was the head of the decedent, Herman Matterweil, president of the co-op. Herman’s eye seemed to gaze right at the porter.
That’s when Andre screamed. And that’s when he ran to the super.
Upon hearing the news, Calvin Birmingham, the building superintendent, called 911 and the Police dispatcher directed a patrol car to Olmsted Court on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. News gathering organizations found their nostrils dilating when they heard the first call on their police band scanners.
The second call was even juicier. It came from the police officer sent to investigate. Portable two-way radio in hand, he was calling in from Olmsted Court’s basement.
“It’s awful,” he screamed. “It’s awful.”
He started to retch.
A female voice from headquarters broke in. “Officer, tell us what’s going on.”
“Male or female?”
“It’s in pieces. It’s cut into pieces. Oh God.”
“Okay officer, take it easy. Now carefully describe everything for me.”
The New York Post’s City Editor crouched by the police scanner in his office. He looked like a farmer whose prayers for rain had been answered.
“What’s to describe,” said the cop. “It’s a human body cut up like a chicken. Forget the ambulance. Send an erector set. Send a screwdriver.”
The newspaper city editors, the radio news assignment editors, the television news assignment editors wrote the information down, and hollered or made phone calls or picked up the microphones from their own two-way radios and sent reporters and news teams careening toward Olmsted Court.
Sergeant Bernard Moscowitz was just maneuvering his green Pontiac toward the Flatbush Avenue exit of the Manhattan Bridge when he heard the second call on the police radio. He knew the third call would be for him, and it was.
Some jokers at the precinct house had taken to calling him the “Jewish cop” because he had his father’s name. Others called him “schwartzer” because he had his mother’s pigmentation.
Moscowitz had black hair, a neatly-trimmed, black mustache that extended just beyond his lips, a long diagonal scar on his neck, a slight paunch and a well-developed upper torso.
The scar always reminded Moscowitz that it was dangerous to be dumb and smart to be lucky.
Years ago when he still was in uniform, he was sent to a marital dispute call. Moscowitz’s efforts to cool the situation failed. The husband grew increasingly incoherent and abusive. The wife’s fear-filled screams grew shriller. When Moscowitz managed to slap the cuffs on the husband, both husband and wife went silent. Moscowitz relaxed, and the wife snatched a carving knife from the stove and lunged for the cop. Moscowitz sensed the blur of movement from the corner of his eye, and tried to avoid the slash.
The knife did catch him in the neck; but his dodge spared him the humiliation of wearing a coroner’s tag on his toe. With a beefy left hand pressing against the bleeding wound, he went into a crouch and butted the wife in the belly and then connected with a solid right to the jaw.
Upon release from the hospital, Moscowitz decided to practice caution whenever possible.
After he reported his find to the super, Andre knocked on Michael Levine’s door for help. Levine, a psychotherapist, was one of the few shareholders who regularly said hello to Andre as if he meant it.
When Michael opened the door, he saw an agitated Andre Castellano, just repeating the phrase “Mr. Matterweil” over and over.
“No,” said Michael patiently, “Mr. Matterweil isn’t here.”
Andre greeted this assertion with frantic arm waving and shouting. Suddenly he reached forward and tugged Michael out of the doorway and into the waiting freight elevator. Like a new Charon, the porter silently steered the car down to the basement.
Michael considered explaining that he was going on a date and didn’t have time for this. He was not about to discuss his social life with the porter. Moreover Andre was too agitated to pay attention.
A plastic yellow A-frame “CAUTION: WET FLOOR” sign guarded the compactor room door. Inside stood Calvin Birmingham and the police officer who apparently had regained his composure.
“Calvin,” Michael began, “what—-”
Michael followed the trajectory of the superintendent’s gaze to the white trash bags. He found himself in one last staring contest with Herman Matterweil, his opponent so many times at co-op board meetings.
“Oh, no,” said Michael.
“Mr. Levine,” said the porter, “You must help me.”
Michael dimly heard Andre’s voice, but felt tied to Herman’s eyes.
That thing, that head, looked just like Herman but Michael (and he hated himself for even thinking this) had never seen Herman looking so detached.
“Oh, no,” repeated Michael. “Poor Herman. When did this happen?”
“You are my only hope,” said Andre. “You must help me.”
“Sure,” said Michael absently. “When did this happen?”
“I don’t know,” said Birmingham. “Castellano just found him”
“People here will think I did that terrible thing to Mr. Matterweil,” said Andre.
“You got that right,” said Birmingham.
“Oh” said Michael, “I don’t —-”
“They will. I can feel it. I have watched enough television to know it. I found it —them — him. That makes me suspect number one. It happens all the time. “
“You, Mr. Levine, must clear my name.”
“I don’t see a real problem here, for you.”
“These people will think I killed poor Mr. Matterweil,” said Andre. “For me that is a problem. My goose is cooked. My name is mud. Unless you help me.”
“Promise me, you’ll clear my name.”
This is foolish, thought Michael. But the man is scared. He just needs to know that somebody is in his corner. As pledges go this is easy to keep.
“Sure,” said Michael.
“You have just made a solemn promise,” intoned Andre.
Solemn promise, thought Michael. Whoa! I’d better check the fine print on this one. Herman was good at checking fine print. Oh, poor Herman. He was such a bastard; but this is no way to go. Why can’t I remember something good about him?
Michael, ready to embark on his adventure with the unknown but no doubt fabulous Dolores Caruso, returned to his apartment to finish preparing for his date.
Perhaps I should cancel, thought Michael. Nah, it’s too complicated to explain. And besides after what I’ve been through, I need this date. My first date in months — and now this happens to me.
Didn’t happen to me, he corrected himself. It happened to Herman. Even now, he’s making trouble for me. Why can’t I think of something good about Herman? I’m probably just acknowledging that Herman wasn’t a friend and I’m not in mourning and a date is not inappropriate behavior.
As Moscowitz eased into the Eastern Parkway service road that led to Olmsted Court, he saw the whirling lights of patrol cars, and double-parked television news vans.
You don ‘t have to run away to join the circus, he thought. Just stay with the Department.
Out of Order, a novel