The Rhythm Bar was a brick barnacle clinging to the underbelly of Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s West Side. You wouldn’t want to be caught dead there, although a lot of people had been.
At least the Rhythm Bar had live music. And it wasn’t like Conor Bard could afford to be picky. So here he was, onstage with a drummer, a bass player, and a guy with a beat-up electric piano. A white boy singing rhythm and blues.
“Papa was a rolling stone …”
Conor slid his hand along the neck of his Fender Stratocaster. His fingertips pinned the steel strings against the well-worn frets, coaxing a shriek from the vintage guitar.
“Wherever he laid his hat was his home …”
Conor looked up and found himself staring into a mirrored wall at his own image. He didn’t like what he saw. The soft facial features molded from the clay of his Scotch-Irish heritage were more like craggy rock now. The brown hair falling just over his collar was more gray now. In fact, everything about him seemed more something now. Or was it less something? When did this happen? Hell, I’m only forty-two.
In one swift motion, Conor whipped the leather guitar strap off his shoulder, dropped the Stratocaster, crouched down, yanked a .38-caliber pistol from an ankle holster, and rose into a shooting stance.
The man in Conor’s sights was around fifty years old. White. A slight build. A tortured face. A hopeless expression.
Conor held his gun high, but even from the elevated stage he was having trouble getting a clear shot. If the man stood and ran, Conor would have to let him go.
After a collective moment of fear and confusion, patrons stampeded out the door. Conor now had a direct, unobstructed view of his target.
“On the floor!” Conor yelled. “Facedown!”
The man obeyed.
Conor jumped from the stage, rammed a knee in the guy’s back, then clamped a pair of cuffs on his wrists.
The man twisted his neck around and looked up at Conor. “Not a bad voice,” he said. “For a cop.”
Conor led the cuffed man out of the club and handed him off to two uniformed cops.
“You coming?” one asked. “Gotta get my guitar,” Conor said. “I’ll meet you there.”
As Conor started back toward the bar, an unmarked vehicle, lights flashing and siren blaring, skidded to a stop a few feet away. An NYPD captain emerged from the car. He looked to be in his late forties, his military posture signaling he was as comfortable giving orders as taking them. He charged toward Conor.
“Are you Detective Bard? Conor Bard?” The captain’s face was flushed and he was out of breath.
Conor was surprised to see a captain at a routine collar. “Hey, Cap. Yeah, I’m Conor Bard. But what are you doing here? I thought you guys only showed up when someone got killed.”
“Well it’s a goddam miracle no one did get killed.”
Frank Reynolds wasn’t happy. It was his turn to be the duty captain, a revolving assignment shared among all the captains in the department. Reynolds was covering the lower half of Manhattan, which meant he had to make an appearance at the scene if anyone was found dead south of Central Park. It could keep you running all night.
“According to what I just heard over the radio, you felt it necessary to draw your weapon in a crowd situation.” Reynolds narrowed his eyes. “Is that correct? Or did I misunderstand the transmission?”
“I couldn’t let him walk,” Conor explained. “Right. Better to risk the lives of innocent people.”
“Trust me. They’re not so innocent in there.”
“So who the hell was this guy?” Reynolds demanded. “You know how most people carry pictures of their kids in their wallet?” Conor began. “Well, my partner, Ralph Kurtz, carries old mug shots in his wallet. So every time we have a drink he pulls out these mug shots. And I always say, ‘Ralph, can’t we ever just have a drink without these scumbags?’ And Ralph always says, ‘Just look at the mug shots. Maybe one day you’ll see somebody.’ Tonight I saw somebody.”
“That’s touching,” Reynolds managed. “Now, one more time, who was this guy?”
“Name is Robert Willis. Ten years ago, he was convicted of raping a sixteen-year-old girl, but then some hotshot lawyer got the conviction overturned. When Willis walked out of prison, the first thing he did was chop up his girlfriend. Seems she didn’t wait for him like a good woman should.”
“I agree. He should’ve just dumped the bitch.”
Conor and Reynolds squared off silently for a moment.
“Anyway,” Conor continued, “after he butchered his girlfriend, Willis disappeared. Until tonight. Hadn’t been for Kurtz and his mug shots …”
Conor drove to the One Eight, his precinct on West Fifty-fourth Street. He began the tedious process of filling out a DD5 form documenting the events that led to the apprehension of Robert Willis. As he filled in each line, Conor began to wish he had just finished his set at the Rhythm Bar and left Willis alone.
“Nice collar,” Sergeant Amanda Pitts said as she sat on a chair next to Conor’s desk.
Amanda Pitts was a fourth-generation cop. Thirty-seven years old. Not very pretty, but then again, she didn’t try. She hardly wore makeup and when she wasn’t in a uniform she dressed in loose-fitting, unflattering outfits. Amanda had been on the job twelve years and had distinguished herself as a detective. She took the sergeant’s exam as soon as she was eligible, just as her former-cop father and former-cop grandfather had done.
Conor never opted for sergeant. Never intended to. Although it was a promotion in rank, only one out of five detectives apply for sergeant even with its higher base pay. The job was entirely different from detective: more administrative, less investigative. Conor liked the street. The precinct gave him cabin fever.
Amanda, on the other hand, relished her duties as sergeant so much that she didn’t even care what shift she worked. Morning, noon, night; Saturday, Sunday, holiday—didn’t matter to her. Put her on the schedule, she’d show up. Which created the illusion that Amanda was always at the precinct. Take tonight, for example. Sunday. Late. There she was.
“Pulling a gun in a packed bar?” Amanda said. “Wasn’t the smartest thing you ever did.”
“Wasn’t the dumbest either.”
“Captain Reynolds called me. Citing regulations.” Conor frowned. “Why is he so bent out of shape?”
“Maybe it’s something personal,” Amanda suggested. “Can’t be. I never met the guy before tonight.”
“He’s bucking for deputy inspector. Guess he wants to make it look like he plays everything by the book. Goes on record with me so if anything ever comes up he can say he reported the incident. That way he’s clean.”
“What about you?” Conor asked. “How are you going to handle this?”
“Me? I’ll just write a letter for your file saying, ‘Don’t pull guns anymore in the middle of a set. It pisses off the paying customers.’”
Conor scribbled something on the form.
“Anyway,” Amanda said, “Kurtz will be happy. Him and those damned mug shots.”
Conor pushed the DD5 across the desk to Amanda.
“Schroeder in Cold Case was working on this guy,” Amanda said. “I’ll dump this piece of garbage on him if that’s all right with you.”
“Please,” Conor said, happy to be off the hook.
A uniformed cop walked up to Amanda. “We’ve got a body over by the Hudson River.”
“Where’s Colaneri and Doherty?”
“On a job.”
“What about Tomkins?”
“Jenkins and Francelli.”
Amanda made a face. “The rubber-gun squad? Forget it.” She turned and looked at Conor. “How much you had to drink?”
“Look. Sarge. Please. I’m off today.”
But Conor wasn’t going home anytime soon.
It had gotten cold. Conor was shivering as he stood in the muddy, empty lot on the banks of the Hudson River. And it didn’t warm him any to be looking down at a body. Male. Mid-fifties. Wearing a thousand-dollar suit.
Brian Cobb from the Crime Scene Unit walked up to Conor. Brian was forty-five years old. Six feet four at least. A graduate of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which was part of the City University of New York. Born and bred in Manhattan, no one would ever mistake him for a suburbanite.
“Shot six times,” Brian said, delivering the information with no inflection. Brian’s tone and expression never changed, regardless of the situation. He could tell you he’d won the lottery without any hint of excitement.
“White male. Age fifty-four,” Brian added.
“How do you know how old he is?”
“Wallet, watch, cash, all still on his person.”
Conor nodded. Either robbery wasn’t the motive or the killer had been interrupted before he could take anything.
“Body temperature’s ninety-six degrees,” Brian continued. “I’d guess he bought it in the last hour, two hours at the most.”
Conor checked his watch. It was almost midnight. Shooting likely occurred sometime after ten.
“Who found him?” Conor asked. “Some guy walking his dog.”
“Anybody take a statement?”
“Rossini.” Brian pointed at various footprints in the mud that fanned out around the body. “Got a parade of shoe impressions. We’re making casts.”
Frank Reynolds appeared out of nowhere. “You again?”
“Yeah, I love the overtime.”
“You smell like booze.”
“What can I tell you? Some jerk in the bar spilled a drink on me.” Reynolds gave Conor a look of disdain then walked away. “You two have some kind of problem?” Brian asked. “Don’t know what his problem is, but I’ve got no problem.” Conor turned his attention to the body again. Something about the face was familiar. “Is that who I think it is?”
“If you’re thinking that’s Walter Lawton,” Brian said, “you’re right.”
Walter Lawton was one of New York’s most successful criminal defense attorneys. You could kill somebody in Times Square on New Year’s Eve in front of a million people and Lawton could still get you off.
Brian stared down at Lawton’s body then turned toward Conor. “Looks like you caught yourself a big case, Detective.”
© 2009 Charles Kipps