Something very bad was about to go down.
There are things you know as a cop in Boston. You know how the city feels, because its streets are your veins and the voices of its people come through your lips when you talk. You know the smell of the salt in the harbor like the scent of the back of your wife’s neck, and it’s just as precious, reassuring. The hammering of footsteps out of Back Bay Station for the morning rat race wakes you up, and the wail of sirens in the old Combat Zone at night puts you to sleep. Every Christmas, you gather up some young wide-eyed uniforms to take poor kids from East Boston and Hyde Park into the toy stores, try to show the new cops and the kids that they can get along. You know that in a few years, some of those cops and some of those kids will end up killing each other. But that’s how the city works. It’s like a living thing. It sheds, and it hurts, and it bleeds.
I could feel what was about to happen in the air. It was an unexpected and dizzying heat, surreal against the snow on the ground outside the car.
When my partner Malone and I got a call to go to the commissioner’s office downtown, I knew we were in for it. A Boston cop knows that being called to the commissioner’s office is a bad, bad thing.
Malone always made fun of me for thinking I had Boston’s pulse, a sense about approaching trouble in the city. On the morning of the marathon bombing, we’d been a mile up Boylston Street doing crowd control and I told Malone I felt hot and weird, like I had a fever. We felt the thump of the first blast under our feet a second or two later.
We were in the back of the cruiser, Malone looking out the window, joggling his knee and picking his teeth.
“Wait. I know what this is,” he said suddenly. “This is about that baby. We’re getting a medal for the baby last week.”
The week before, Malone and I had been walking out at the end of a shift when a woman outside a café two doors from the station started screaming like she was on fire. She was standing in the street pointing at a balcony five floors above, where a toddler was sitting on the concrete ledge, having the time of his life. A crowd gathered, and it was quickly established that the mother was inside but wasn’t answering the door or her phone. While some guys went in to try to break down her apartment door, Malone and I watched, pulling out our own hair, while the toddler crawled along the ledge and then, wobbling, stood up.
There was no time to decide who would catch the kid. Malone and I both went in and snared him in a tangle of arms about two feet off the ground while the people around us hollered and screamed. Turned out the mother had been so damned tired from working two jobs that she fell asleep with the baby on the couch, the balcony doors open and a pot of peas cooking dry on the stove.
It was a good get, the kind of thing that wins you cheers when you walk into the station the next day. Ribbing about how tubby you look in the YouTube footage. Calls from the Globe. A medal, maybe. The toddler catch had gotten my wife, Siobhan, on the phone for a week, bragging to all her friends, telling them to watch the news, patting my head and saying she was proud of me like I was some kind of heroic dog.
But today wasn’t about the kid. I could feel it in my bones.
“This is bad,” I told Malone. “They only send a car for you when they know you’ll be too fucked up to drive home afterward. We’re in big trouble here. You better start thinking what we’ve done to piss off the top brass.”
Malone, still twitching and joggling his knee, settled back and watched our driver. I gripped the seat belt and let Boston roll by, trying to guess what they were about to tell us.
The car dropped us at the building on Tremont Street. We went in, and as the elevator doors closed on us, I noticed that all Malone’s twitching had suddenly stopped.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His eyes were fixed on the floor. “I’m real sorry for this, Bill.”
“You’re sorry for what?”
He didn’t answer. I had to hear it from the commissioner.
Boston PD legend says that the visitor’s chair in the commissioner’s office is an old electric chair. I’d heard whispers around the department that some sadistic jerk occupying the top job had acquired the chair from a prison auction in Ohio and simply cut the straps and headgear off to make it acceptable for the office. Malone and I entered and took two identical chairs, either of which might indeed have been an Old Sparky sourced from the depths of the Midwest. The wood was eerily warm, and there were gouges in the arms that perfectly fit my fingernails.
I wouldn’t have liked to be sitting in front of Commissioner Rachel McGinniskin even if the news were congratulatory. The red-haired, narrow-faced woman was a descendant of Barney McGinniskin, the first Irishman ever handed a police baton in Boston. From the moment Barney pulled on his blue coat, his appointment spurred hysterical newspaper reports, violent riots, and Irish bashings nationwide. The anti-immigration, anti-Catholic parties dumped him out of his job after only three years, and years later, Rachel McGinniskin had fought her way up the ladder in the force out of pure spite.
The commissioner opened a laptop and swiveled it on the desk so that the screen was facing us. She pushed a button and a black-and-white video began to play.
Only minutes into the video, I could feel sweat sliding down my ribs beneath my shirt. I looked at Malone, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes.
McGinniskin pointed to a guy in the video. “Detective Jeremiah Malone,” she said. “Is that you there on the screen?” Her tone was strangely heavy, like she was the one getting the bad news. Malone didn’t say anything. Just nodded, defeated. She let the video play a while longer.
“Detective William Robinson.” She pointed at the screen again and looked at me, her eyes blazing. “Is that you?”
“It is,” I said. Malone still wouldn’t meet my gaze. Look at me, you prick, I thought. But the bastard put his face in his hands. McGinniskin turned the laptop back around and slammed it shut.
“You’re both out,” she said. The muscles in her jaw and temples were so tight, they bulged from beneath the skin. “And I’ve got to admit, gentlemen, after seeing that tape, it gives me great pleasure to say it. There’s no place in my police force for people like you. Your discharge will take effect immediately. If I hear that either of you have inquired about pensions, I’ll make sure you can’t get a job in this city as a fucking mall cop.” McGinniskin swept her hair back from her temples, chasing composure. “Give me your badges and your weapons,” she said.
It was hard for me to get out of the chair. Gravity seemed to have tripled. I took my gun off, walked what seemed like a hundred miles to her desk, and put my weapon down at the same time Malone did. He finally looked at me as we took our badges off. Then we left. Neither of us spoke until we were outside her office.
“Bill,” Malone said. “Buddy, listen. I—”
“I can’t believe you did this.” I was shaking all over. “I can’t believe you did this to us. We’re out. That’s it. It’s over. You lying, backstabbing piece of shit.”
My job. My city. The walls of the old stone building were pulsing around me, closing in. Malone had killed us. We were being expelled from the living thing. Shed like dead skin, like waste. I couldn’t breathe.
“I’m so sorry, Bill.” Malone sounded panicky. “I was trying to—”
I grabbed my partner by the shirt and slammed him into the wall beside McGinniskin’s door. It was all I could do not to knock his teeth out right there. I put a finger in his face and eased the words out from between my locked jaw.
“You and me?” I said. “We’re done.”
Two Years and Five Months Later
The death toll was eight, according to Cline’s count.
He knew it was narcissistic, but every day he sat under the big bay windows on the second floor of his house where he could see the ocean beyond the cypress trees and checked the papers for signs of his work. Some days he told himself he was being too proud, and other days he knew it was just good business. Since he had moved to the tiny seaside town of Gloucester, there had been eight overdose deaths. Two a month. The papers were blaring out words that excited him. Epidemic. Crisis. Downfall. Whenever things started to slide, Cline felt happy. Being a criminal meant his concept of the world was upside down. Reversed. A downward slide for others meant an upward rise for him.
That didn’t mean it was time to take it easy on anyone. As he sat reading the paper spread flat on the table before him, the way he used to in the can so that he could keep an eye on the movement of other prisoners, his lieutenants started assembling before him. Cline had made sure from the outset that his standards were known and respected. Tailored shirts. Cuff links. Ties for meetings. No speed-stripe buzz cuts, no neck tattoos, none of this gold-chain, bling-bling shit. They were a business, not a gang. The men who entered the room looked like a bunch of lawyers attending a daily meeting, but they came in punching each other and giggling and talking trash, and he silenced them with a glance. They were street thugs and prison bitches and violence-intervention-program dropouts he had recruited from rock bottom, but he’d make them true soldiers before long.
“Where’s Newgate?” Cline asked when everyone was settled. “You fuckers know to be on time.” There were uncomfortable looks around the crew, and then Newgate appeared with a baby in his arms. No, not a baby, a little girl, though she seemed like a baby in this setting, surrounded by hard men who made their living dealing in death. Cline stood and watched as big, muscle-bound, scar-faced Newgate put the barefoot child on the floor.
“I’m real sorry, boss.” Newgate gave a dramatic sigh. “I had a fight with my girl and she dropped the baby on me this morning and ran off. I didn’t know what to do.”
Cline watched the girl toddling around the room, pulling books off his shelves, slapping her greasy palms on the huge bay windows. He felt a muscle twitching in his neck as he went to the desk and got his gun.
“No problem, Newby. These things happen,” Cline said. “I’m sure she won’t cause us any trouble. Let’s give her something to play with while we talk. Come here, little princess. Come on.”
The lieutenants watched in horror as Cline loaded a full clip into his pistol and flicked the safety off. Newgate’s daughter gave a coo of intrigue, tottered over to Cline, and took the gun. Squid, perched on the edge of the couch, didn’t dare retreat but he hid beneath his gangly arms like they could protect from the child’s aim. The little girl swung the heavy gun around wildly, then lifted the barrel to her eye and looked down into the blackness. Cline’s eyes seared into Newgate’s, daring him to protest. The little girl walked up to her father and pointed the gun at him.
“Bang-bang!” The girl laughed. Newgate reached for the weapon as his daughter fumbled with the trigger, unable to get her pudgy finger around the steel. Before Newgate could take the gun, Cline reached forward and grabbed it. He pointed it at Newgate, whose face contorted as he realized what was happening.
“Like this, princess,” Cline said, smiling.