Excerpt: Exchange Alley, Chapter One: Murder in Ramapo

This is the first chapter of my first novel, Exchange Alley, originally published by Warner Books in 1997 and now available on Kindle for the introductory price of just 99 cents. It introduces the main character, Frankie Byrne, and presents him with a very nasty little murder case — one that quickly turns extremely personal.

CHAPTER ONE

Ramapo, New York

Thursday, October 18, 1990; noon

“Bob and them found it just over there.” The woman smacked her lips in recollection. She was only about forty, but she looked sixty. One of her front teeth was missing, and the others were crooked and yellow. Her hair hung in greasy strands around her forehead, and there was a large mole on her left cheek. Her hands were wrinkled and gnarled. Arthritis, thought Byrne, and bad nutrition. Life was tough in the country. Almost as tough as it was in town. “We live out here pretty much by our lonesomes,” she said. “Like it that way.”

Lieutenant Francis X. Byrne of the New York City Police Department asked the woman for her name. Jean, Jean Brandmelder. He wrote it down as she spelled it out. Byrne followed the woman through the clearing in the woods. Even though it was mid-October, the weather was still warm; hot, even. “Bob and them was out hunting this morning, early,” Jean explained. “But really it was the dogs. They all of a sudden set to barkin’ and Jimmy – that’s my son Jimmy right there – went over to see what’s all the fuss about.” Another smack of the lips. Byrne took notes as he walked, and hoped he would be able to read them later. The nuns always said his handwriting sucked, and the nuns were always right.

“Bob and them” were standing near the body. Bob was Mr. Brandmelder. He was a big, heavy-set, older man with a weak handshake and the outsized girth that comes from a rigorous diet of McDonald’s, Coke and Cheez Doodles, one of the rural widebodies; Byrne thought he looked and sounded just like Andy Devine. Or maybe, with enough eye shadow, just Divine. Over his shoulder, Bob was carrying a shotgun, broken to show it was unloaded. On his face, he wore a gap-toothed grin. “Howdy,” said Bob as Byrne approached. He was pointing. “Over there.” He had a slight accent of indeterminate origin.

At first Byrne thought Brandmelder was indicating Jimmy. The son, about eighteen, was a sallow, rat-faced kid – looks obviously ran in the family – with a nasty glint in his eyes. A normal teenager would be horrified at what he had just found, but not Jimmy. He, too, was smiling. He shuffled his feet and spat on the ground by way of greeting. “Hey,” he said. Next to him stood his buddy, Billy Walters, a dirty, mean-looking blond with a wispy mustache and a tattoo of a girl straddling a dagger.

A dull hum rose from the hard, packed ground: flies. There hadn’t been much rain lately, and there were no apparent tracks or footprints.

On the surrounding hills the trees were nearing their autumnal foliage peak, but Byrne found nothing in the scenery to admire. He hated coming up here to the Rockland County boondocks, upstate, across the Hudson and a world away from New York City. The Ramapo hills were alien territory, a largely inaccessible hill country populated by folks who were all more closely related to each other than the law allowed – a little slice of Appalachia on the border between New Jersey and New York State, just sixty miles from midtown. Anything could happen here, and anything did. It was the perfect place for a dump job like this.

Plus his ex-wife Mary Claire, was living over in Nyack, nursing her bitterness and cashing his alimony check every month, which was how he knew she was still alive.

Byrne bent down to look at the body, snapping on a pair of rubber gloves and beginning his examination. The homicide detective was thirty-three years old, young for his rank. At five feet ten inches and one hundred and seventy-five pounds, he was about average size for a cop, and although he was waging a vigorous counterattack in the gym as often as possible, he could feel his body already starting to slide. Still, at least he had his hair, which was something not every guy could claim, and there was no gray in his light brown locks. Looking at him in his off-the-rack gray suit, one would never guess that he spent most of his time communing with dear, recently departed total strangers; he might be mistaken for a middle manager in a struggling business, the kind of guy you saw on the subway, wondered what he did, and felt vaguely sorry for. Only his eyes, blue, hard, cold and indifferent, hinted at his unpredictable, explosive temper.

Byrne contemplated the naked, nameless victim, and felt the little thrill he always got when staring into the face of death. He had graduated from Fordham University and few had expected him to follow his father into the department – it was such an Irish-American cliché – but here he was, right where he wanted to be. Not because of the human tragedy, or to protect the innocent, or to satisfy society’s need for justice or any of that blather. Not even out of a sense of revenge for his dad, who had been killed in the line of duty when Byrne was still a boy. He had become a cop because murder fascinated him.

“First we didn’t know what it was,” someone said, and Byrne turned to look for the speaker. It was Jimmy, the son. “The sun was just comin’ up real bright, and with the light right in my eyes well, hell, I thought it was a damn possum.” He looked down at the body. “It bein’ so white an’ all.”

The state cops who had found the abandoned BMW 318i with diplomatic license plates had had the good sense to leave the crime scene alone. The corpse lay as it had been discovered, on its side near the base of a tree, the face turned away and partially covered by shoulder-length sandy hair. The body was entirely naked and bent slightly at the waist, the knees pulled up towards the chin; assume the position, thought Byrne to himself: the fetal position. The skin was milky white, gradually fading in death to a pale gray. The buttocks were smooth and hairless, as were the arms and legs. “Give me some room, please,” said Byrne.

Thank God it wasn’t a popper. All cops hated those exploding human sausages that had been left to stew in their own juice and then erupted when you looked at them cross-eyed. He had one a few months ago, a young black or Hispanic woman – it was hard to tell, given the state of decomposition – who had been raped, brained with a boulder, and buried in a shallow grave at the north end of Central Park; for some reason, no one had felt the necessity to report her disappearance for several days. When Byrne and his Crime Scene Unit tried to move the body, her stomach came apart in their hands and the intestines slithered out. It took him weeks to get the smell out of his nostrils.

The whine of the forensic photographer’s camera was intrusive. It felt like they were making a snuff film. The camera, an Olympia 35mm with a 50mm lens shooting Kodak Tri-X color film, fired again as Byrne sketched the scene in his notebook. “I think this guy’s ready for his close-up,” said Vinnie Mancuso, an investigator attached to the medical examiner’s office, as he set up the next shot.

The corpse held its jackknifed position as Byrne rolled the body over. By the looks of things, the victim had been dead eight to twelve hours; rigor mortis had begun to set in, and the skin’s lividity was fixed, or would have been: there was almost no blood left in the body, and none on the ground, which indicated that the killing had taken place elsewhere.

“Muthafucka!” exclaimed Mancuso, who had thought he’d seen everything and probably had and yet was still taken by surprise. For even in the welter of dried blood and butchered flesh it was clear that the body was that of a man whose entire manhood was missing, the penis and testicles excised by a sharp, scalpel-like instrument. Byrne guessed he had been alive at the time. What was the point of cutting somebody’s dick off unless he was still around to enjoy the experience? For some reason, the image of an Aztec executioner, ripping the beating heart from a victim’s chest and exhibiting it to him just as he died, came to Byrne. Thank God the Aztecs weren’t around any more; they’d probably be pouring over the border from Mexico, opening restaurants, driving gypsy cabs and performing virgin sacrifices in the Bronx – if they could find any virgins. Who said New York never got any breaks?

Gently, Byrne brushed the hair back from face, which might have been handsome once, when it was a face. One bullet, fired from behind, had exited through the right side of the head in the occipital-parietal area, blowing out the side of the skull and a good deal of the brain; at least one other shot, apparently from the front, had smashed through the bridgework. The eyes were pale blue and sightless. The throat was cut through the carotid artery.

The face, however, was untouched by the carnage. Was it still a pathetic fallacy to ascribe emotion to an inanimate object that once had been a human being? No matter how horrible the manner of their deaths, the deceased often had a peaceful look upon their faces, as if they were only sleeping, but this victim was extraordinary: not just peaceful, but at peace, like a saint who just joyously embraced his martyrdom.

Now for the distasteful part. He knelt, spread the dead man’s buttocks apart and dropped an object into a large evidence bag. It was a polished ebony dildo with a silver tip, about seven inches long.

“Wonder what the good sisters would say about this baby?” said Mancuso, who was widely regarded as having both a vile sense of humor and encyclopedic knowledge of restaurants. Mancuso was from the Bronx, but a branch of the family had owned a restaurant in New Orleans, and he always knew where to eat; hell, the man could even find food in New Jersey. “They’d probably take a shine to it. Did I ever tell you about Sister Ann Miriam, the one I had back in eighth grade? We used to call her Sister Sam, and a couple of the kids swore that underneath her habit she….”

Byrne wasn’t listening to Vincent Mancuso’s Catholic school reminiscences. He was looking at the markings on the dildo. Cyrillic, but whether Greek or Russian or even Bulgarian he could not tell. Not for the first time, he wished he had paid more attention to his language studies in college. Maybe if he had, he’d be in the FBI like his brother. The way New York was getting, it was like the Tower of Babel on the streets. Nobody committed crimes in English anymore.

The Brandmelders and Billy were standing silently nearby; Jean’s mouth was working, but she was saying nothing. She might have been chewing gum, or tobacco. The others stared at their feet. “You ought to see the car,” said Jimmy. Byrne sighed: these fag killings were always so messy.

“Let’s take a look at it,” Byrne said to Mancuso, and together they headed over to the BMW, which had been left on the road, a rude foreign intruder in Chevy Impala heaven. It was a new two-door coupe, black with light gray interior. “German car, ain’t it?” said Jimmy. “We’re German. Brandmelder. Means ‘fire-alarm’.” He seemed proud of his knowledge.

Byrne, however, wasn’t interested in Jimmy’s ethnic derivation right now. “I want a double-check on the registration,” he ordered. “And I want prints on this vehicle, inside and out, make sure Aprahamian runs ‘em through every AFIS system he can think of, full liaison with the FBI. And everybody keeps their mitts off the car, okay?” One of the two members of the Bronx-based Crime Scene Unit who had made the journey north with him – his name was Andersen – went running back to the squad car to do the detective’s bidding.

The vehicle was immaculately clean inside, if you didn’t count the bloodstains on the driver’s side. No trash, no old newspapers in the back seat, no candy bar wrappings on the floor, no old stained Styrofoam coffee cups. Just a car phone, and nothing else.

“Let’s also get the blood type off this mess, gentlemen,” said Byrne, continuing to make notes. It seemed clear that the stains, while extensive, were not arterial bleeding. If the victim’s throat had been cut while he was in the car, the gouts sprayed forth by the pumping heart would have covered the windshield and been spritzed all around the interior of the vehicle. These stains, on the other hand, were pretty much confined to the seat, as if he had bled heavily while driving. Driving where? Surely not all the way up here, unless he had stopped along the way to change into his birthday suit, cut his own throat and shoot himself in the head several times before continuing on to his final destination.

Mancuso had disappeared under the front seat, but came up empty-handed. The only thing in the vehicle appeared to be the keys, which sat in the ignition awaiting their owner’s return. They were going to have a long wait.

“Check the glove compartment, Vinnie,” said Byrne.

Mancuso popped it open. “Nothing here, Frankie,” he said.

“Gotta be,” commanded Byrne. “Always is. Pennies, nickels, dimes quarters, cassettes, Kleenex, Kotex, old maps, a woman’s panties, something. Look some more. Nobody’s this neat.”

Again, Mancuso came up empty-handed, and shrugged. “See for yourself, boss,” he said. “No registration, no rental agreement, no insurance card, nothin’. And sure as hell no gal’s panties. In fact, no panties of any kind.”

At that moment, Andersen returned. “Lieutenant,” he said, “DMV says the vehicle is registered to the Danish consulate general on Second Avenue in Manhattan. The principal driver is listed as one Edwin A. Paine of 442 Little West 12th Street, New York, New York.”

“Twelfth Street? What’s a Village fruitcake doing with an embassy car?” asked Byrne. “Call BCI and see if this boy rings a bell.” If Paine had ever been arrested, the Bureau of Criminal Identification would have his New York State Inquiry Identification System number. And if Paine had a NYSIIS number, the Photo Unit would have a picture of him on file.

Byrne peered into the empty auto and then climbed into the back seat. “Lemme have a look,” he said. He ran his hands between where the seats met the back rests, where folks usually stuffed their seat belts, and down the sides. Nada, not even an old pen. Byrne was fishing around in the side compartments of the BMW, just below the windows on the driver’s side, when he felt something.

“Uh, Lieutenant?” said Andersen, who was still standing there. “That address? It’s not Twelfth Street, it’s Little West 12th Street. They’re not the same street, sir.”

“Just a minute.” He didn’t need a lesson in the arcana of Greenwich Village geography at this moment. He could get that from his art-dealer girlfriend Doreen the next time he stayed over.

“Nobody lives on Little West 12th Street, is all,” persisted the patrolman. “It’s the meat-packing district. Where the sex clubs are now.”

The object was crumpled, but even before he looked at it he could tell by the paper’s thick texture that it was a photograph. Byrne climbed out of the car and into the sunlight, where he could get a good look.

“The slaughterhouse district,” insisted Andersen. “My dad used to work there.”

It was a black-and-white snapshot of two women, with their arms thrown casually around each other’s shoulders. They were both wearing smiles, sweaters and out-of-date hairdos, which were being tousled by the wind. One of them, the movie-star pretty lady on the left with the flashing eyes, he did not recognize, but the other, plainer one he certainly did. She was young, she was fresh, and she most definitely was his mother, Irene Byrne, of Woodside, Queens, New York. He put the picture in his pocket, as unobtrusively as possible, and hoped no one would notice.

“Body bag,” he said.

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