Red on RedA Novel
Spiegel & GrauCopyright © 2011 Edward Conlon
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780385519175
Nick Meehan knew there was more to every story, but he usually didn't want to hear it. He was in the woods, at a presumed suicide, and it was raining. There had to be limits, even if it seemed cold-blooded to set them. If, say, he asked a young man if he'd hit his girlfriend, a "No" might not mean anything, but a "Yes" always did, and Nick wouldn't have to listen much longer. The story would be worth hearing if she'd chased him with a hatchet, but there was no point listening to his sad proofs and sorry protests about how she'd never really loved him. That was another story, maybe true, but what mattered was how the man put his belief into action with a roundhouse right, chipping her tooth with the gold ring she'd bought him for his birthday. She might then wonder whether she had ever loved him, doubting why she'd stolen the money for the ring from her mother's new boyfriend, who tended to walk into the bathroom when she was in the shower. You needed to contain a story like a disease, before it spread. Nick was at a suicide in the park, and it was raining.
What happened was this: The rain had let up in the early evening, and Ivan Lopez had been walking through Inwood Hill Park when the shoe had dropped on him. Inwood, the stalagmite tip of Manhattan, where the Dutch had bought the wild island from the Indians, green since the beginning of time. The shoe, an open sandal with a low heel, had fallen from the foot of a woman who was hanging from a tree. She was half-hidden amid the lower branches of an old oak whose leaves had just begun to turn gold and red. Lopez had given a little shout—"Oho!"—but had regained his breath a moment later and called the police. He had done nothing wrong, he knew, aside from wandering in the woods after dark. He told the first cops that he'd gone there to walk his dog. Lopez didn't see the problem with his story, but even when it was pointed out that he didn't have a dog, he clung to the tale like a child clings to a toy, fearful that if it were taken, nothing would be the same.
Lopez was a slight man, with a put-upon air that made him look older than his thirty-odd years. He would not have agreed with any suggestion that his was a dishonest face, despite his worried, furtive manner. He had other burdens, other troubles. He'd had little experience with the police, but he knew at once that he shouldn't have begun by telling them, "You're not going to believe this, but . . ." Those first seven words were the only ones they seemed to accept, as he stumbled and jumped through his version of events, further jarred by the skeptical questions that seemed to presume he knew the woman's name, where she lived. Two cops had arrived, and then two more, in cars that had rambled over the muddy fields between the street and the woods, with stops and starts and shifts in direction, as if they'd been following a scent. The cops were all larger than Lopez, younger than him, and both facts rubbed against his dignity. He reminded them angrily that he'd tried to be a good citizen in a neighborhood where that quality was not always apparent. The rebuke seemed to have some modest effect on the cops, who withdrew and asked him to wait to speak with the detectives. No one was wrong—not yet, not terribly—but neither side credited the other with good sense or good faith. No one knew what had happened, and as more was said, less was believed.
That was the scene of stalemate the detectives took in when they arrived. One of them was physically robust, emphatic in manner, ready for conflict, the other spare and withholding. More of one, less of the other. The second one, the lesser—Meehan—seemed more sympathetic, and Lopez chose to focus on him when he repeated his account. The audience-shopping instinct was noted with suspicion, and it was the first detective, Esposito, who asked the first question, taking control of the conversation and returning to the earlier sticking point.
"So, where's the dog?"
Lopez exhaled heavily and said he did not know. He knew how it made him sound, but he didn't see the point—or rather, he didn't like it. He didn't like the next question any better, or the man—Esposito—who asked it.
"What kind of dog was it?"
"A brown one," he said, after some hesitation.
"What was the dog's name?"
That answer came too quickly, and seemed anticipated rather than remembered. Esposito pressed ahead, testy.
"'Brownie.' Where's the leash?"
"I don't have one. What does this have to do with anything? I was walking by and I got hit, out of nowhere—I could have lost an eye or something—and I try to do the right thing, and I get my balls busted by guys who—"
"By guys who what?"
Nick Meehan intruded with a mild and slightly sideways follow-up, and Lopez couldn't tell whether he cared more or less than the first detective, if he were signaling that he shared the joke with Lopez or was playing a new one on him: "You could get a ticket for not having a leash for the dog."
"But you don't believe the dog," countered Lopez, with a jubilant smirk. "You can't write the ticket if you don't believe the dog."
Nick didn't believe Lopez, but he was delighted by the oddly theological detour of the conversation. He didn't pretend to be useful, and didn't always want to be. Nick preferred cases that went nowhere, or rather, he was drawn to mysteries that were not resolved with a name typed on an arrest report—funny things or lucky things, glimpses of archaic wonder and terror, where life seemed to have a hidden order, a rhyme. Here, a witness was hanging himself in his story about a hanging woman, and the detectives were becoming entangled.
Esposito stepped heavily through the mud to borrow a flashlight from one of the uniformed cops. When he returned, he shone it back and forth between Lopez's face and the suspended woman, which somehow suggested a line drawn between them, connecting the dots.
"Do you have identification?"
Lopez handed Esposito a driver's license, which Esposito put in his pocket without looking at it. One of the cops began talking to another about the Yankees game, and Lopez looked over at them, irritated. Nick escorted Lopez to the back of their unmarked car, suggesting it might be more comfortable, more private, and situated him in the backseat. Nick sat beside him, not too close, and Esposito took the front passenger seat, leaning back. Nick put a hand on Lopez's shoulder, in a gesture that might have seemed more friendly, had the space not been so confined.
"Thank you. Thank you for calling us," Nick said. "Nobody should end up like that."
"I try to do the right thing."
"You did. Tell me, I'm not much of a dog person myself, just because you gotta walk 'em all the time. How often do you gotta take him out?"
"Three, maybe five times a day."
"That's a lot. How do you have the time? Are you working now?"
"I manage a shoe store. My daughter takes him out, too."
Esposito leaned in, as if he disbelieved that Lopez had much acquaintance with either work or women, and looked down. Lopez's boots were mucked over, like everything else, making it hard to tell much about them. Esposito did not relent. "What's your kid's name?"
The response came without hesitation, as did Esposito's follow-up. "What's your dog's name again?"
The seconds that passed before Lopez spoke were few—three or four—but painful to endure. "Lucky," he said, which was not true in either sense. He squirmed and pleaded, "Can I have my ID back now?"
"Yeah, sure," said Esposito, blithe for a moment before becoming abrupt and demanding again. "Let me see your hands."
"What? My God, this is a bad dream. . . ."
"Wake up, then. The hands. Now."
Lopez looked to Nick for support, but found none. The detectives did not feign anything in their hoary old binary roles—each hard look and kind word was authentic, heartfelt—but all of it was nonetheless deployed for effect, joined to a purpose. Nick took the flashlight from Esposito and turned it on—"Just procedure. Don't worry. Relax."—as Lopez raised his palms for examination, turning them over slowly, to show unblemished, unmarked skin. That, at least, did not lie. He might as well have slept in mittens and kept them on all day. Esposito grunted, noncommittal. Lopez shook his hands as if they'd been dirtied, then pointed outside.
"See? I told you—this is not me! I'm just here, same as you. It was already over, finished, done! This is just this. I don't know why you keep trying to put me in the picture. . . . This is simple—"
Esposito cut him off as he climbed out of the car, disdaining even to look at him as he left. "The funny part is, it coulda been."
Nick thanked Lopez again and asked him to wait there—"It won't be too much longer"—before joining Esposito outside, where they continued their conference beneath the tree. He understood what Esposito had been doing and why, respected its necessity. It wasn't as if Esposito were a bully demanding lunch money. Still, there was something unappealing in the unfairness of the contest, which bothered Nick, and he saw little to be gained from regarding Lopez as an adversary instead of a distraction.
"Lighten up a little on him, would you?"
The request was amiably offered, received with an obliging shrug.
"Whose is this, anyway?" asked Esposito. "Whose turn is it for what?"
"If it's a homicide, it's yours. If it's a suicide, it's mine. And it's a suicide."
"Good. I mean—you know what I mean. This is not my cup of shit. Your case, your call."
Nick did know what he meant. Esposito disliked noncriminal investigations, the runaways and accidental deaths; they could be almost as much work as murders, but there was no contest, no opponent—no bad man to put in handcuffs at the end. Esposito was a fighter, and this fight had already been lost. For him, the dead woman in the tree might as well have been a live cat, a sad situation but not an urgent problem, not one that made his neck stiffen or heart soften. Lopez was the only figure of interest for him, and only because of a professional aversion to certain forms of deceit. Nick could see the impatience gather again in Esposito's face and then recede.
"However you wanna handle it, Nick. But tell me, you don't have a problem with a guy standing by a dead body, telling you lies?"
Nick took the flashlight and shone it upward. The midair fixity of the woman, taut on the tentative line, reminded him of a dog straining against a leash. The rope held, but would not for long. He didn't want to think of dogs, and he contemplated pointing the light accusingly at Lopez, as Esposito had. He pictured holding it under his own chin, as if to tell a campfire story. Which is what Nick was convinced that Lopez had done, making up nonsense because he had been caught sneaking out in the dark. Still, Lopez didn't matter; the woman did. He shut off the light and turned to Esposito to work through the practicalities.
"Say you got a guy, he's on his way to a whorehouse when he witnesses a bank robbery. He's a good witness, your only good witness, but he tells you he was going to church. Do you use him?"
Esposito smiled, taken by the fable, even more appreciative that Nick could disagree with him without argument. "That's why you gotta break him. You get in there and straighten him out. You let him know how it's gotta go. You break him, you avoid the whole problem."
"All right, but you know, it's my analogy here, and you don't get to change it. In my story, he won't break. And my story isn't this story—nobody robbed a bank. I mean, we'll cover the bases, but this guy didn't kill her. Nobody did. Come on. If this guy confessed to killing her, here and now, you'd kick him in the ass, tell him to go home and sleep it off."
"You're right. But his story still matters. It changes things, even if it's not true. And I still might kick him."
"Do me a favor and don't," said Nick, almost sure Esposito was joking about the kick, unready to consider the full meaning of the other remark. "Let's look at this, run through it, worst-case. How did she get up there? She climbed or someone took her. Say it's a homicide. He killed her there? Alive? Not even leopards on the nature shows do that. They kill them first, then they hide the food in the tree, so the lions don't steal it. That didn't happen here."
"Was that on the other night?"
"I saw that. Not bad. Still, you can't beat Shark Week. . . . I'm glad she's not a floater. They're a pain. You never know with them."
Esposito was right about floaters. They were far worse. You rarely could establish whether they'd jumped, fallen, or been pushed into the water. He and Nick had only worked with each other for a few months, but Nick had learned to follow his partner's trains of thought. Esposito had begun to shift from anger to boredom, disengaging—not that he was often or especially angry, but when he was in the game, he was all in, with all emotional color on display like a peacock's tail. If they'd been at a bar, leaning over drinks, it might have been interesting to puzzle over the situation, to spitball and tease the possibilities among the four categories: homicide, suicide, accident, and natural. They'd talk as if they were playing themselves on TV, looking for the odd detail, the brilliant twist. As it was, the case had the fascination of a flat tire for Esposito. Floaters, leopards, bank robberies—the comparisons had become a way of avoiding the subject instead of illuminating it.
"Anyway. The crime scene is the body, the tree, the ground," Nick reasoned. "The ground's already gone, with the rain, all of us here. The body's the main thing. We'll check it out as best we can. In theory, the tree should have scuff marks from the climb, bits of clothing, whatever trace evidence."
Things rub off on each other. The woman had a bit of tree on her, the tree a bit of woman, commingling in constant, invisible transactions. The oak seemed mournful and uneasy, as the branches shifted and the raindrops splatted from leaf to leaf with a staticky whoosh, a radio station that didn't quite come in. Nick looked at Esposito, and Esposito looked at his watch. They hadn't rubbed off on each other so much just yet.