Red on Red
By Edward Conlon
Hardcover, 464 pages
Spiegel and Grau
List Price $26
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.
Excerpted from Red On Red: A Novel by Edward Conlon. Copyright 2011 by Edward Conlon. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved.