SOFTENING FLATBUSH

A Max Royster Mystery

by Frank Hickey


Copyright © 2014 by Frank Hickey

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, mechanical or electronic, including manual re-input, photocopying, scanning, optical character recognition, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

This novel is a work of fiction. All characters and events described herein are fictitious and wholly the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to events or actual persons, living or dead, is unintentional and coincidental.Published by Pigtown Books, an imprint of
Hidden Pearl Books L.L.C.

ISBN: 978-0-9848810-6-2

First Edition / First Issue



To Jane Hickey Sexton,
dancer, singer, actress, sister and friend, who began performing in Flatbush.



Prologue

After roll call, we flowed down the Flatbush precinct house steps. My legs shook from fear in the rookie blue pants.

The burly black Captain Asphar pulled me aside.

“Royster, you got three civilian complaints in just two weeks after the Academy,” he told me. “The Internal Affairs rats will grill you about these charges. They can find you guilty of not combing your hair. Or anything else they want. You’re still on probation. I’m betting that you will be thrown off the NYPD and probably jammed by the Feds for civil rights violations. FBI already called me to say that they opened a case on your pink butt.”

My legs wilted. I turned from him and coughed and retched and spat a dry heave into the gutter.

He nodded to himself.

“On paper, your arrests look solid,” he said. “I don’t know what happened out there. But all three mutts say that you stopped them for Walking-While-Black and then beat them for no reason.”

“I got two guns and crack and a switchblade off them, Captain,” I said. It was the truth. My voice cracked. “All three fought me. One bit my neck.”

Even to me, it sounded like I was lying.

The Captain made a face.

“But before that, you got to appear before a Citizens Against Police Abuse meeting. This is a new wrinkle. This Flatbush, Brooklyn, precinct here is ninety-eight percent black. The meeting judges if white cops like you belong in Flatbush.”

I shook.

“Never saw nobody get that many complaints so fast,” my Captain said. “You got a problem with us black folks, Royster? Do you use the n-word about us?”

“I call all criminals ‘clients’, Captain,” I said. “No matter what race. The clients here ruin lives of honest black families. Murders every week. Crime causes tragedy. Not racism. But nobody wants to hear that.”

“Patrol tonight, but do nothing,” he said. “Nothing, do you hear? I got to put you out there for our patrol stats. But leave us black fools alone.”



Twenty minutes later, I was freezing in the chill fall night. The cold cut through the dark blue NYPD uniform right through it to my skin.

They had given me a meal period. But I forgot what time the period was. Stress could do that to me.

This could be my last night walking around free, I thought. The FBI wanted to have me walking a prison yard in a different uniform.

The shuttered Flatbush shops in gray-black city shades mocked me. They remembered happier years, of a safer neighborhood.

Past midnight now, everyone was shut tight. Rap music pounded somewhere.

My shaky legs brought me across Empire Boulevard and up a side street.

A black man strode in front of me. He chanted something. Then he ripped off his white T-shirt.

Huge gladiator muscles bunched and swelled. He looked like a super-hero on the back page of a comic book. He stood at least five inches over me. His shaved head and thick torso said weightlifter.

Tearing off clothes meant he was on PCP. That drug gave the user superhuman strength.

“Seven-One David,” I sputtered into the radio. “10-85 on Sullivan and Washington. Possible PCP suspect. Request a Taser and a sergeant-”

The radio squealed.

This was a dead zone. Nobody could hear me broadcast.

Huge apartment buildings loomed above me. They blocked my radio signal. The NYPD never spent cash on things like radios.

My belly heaved again. I wanted to run away. Let black cops bust black clients here. There was no reason for me to get bitten again and called a racist and sent to die behind bars.

This client saw me.

“Wawwww!” he hollered.

He charged at me.

I skipped backwards. Everything in me froze.

The law said that I could not shoot him. I had to arrest him without hurting him. Let the lawyers try it.

Nerves made me hop sideways. My fingers tore the OC teargas from my belt and manage to spray above his screeching mouth.

“Awww!” he shouted in a Jamaican accent “That’s nothing but cheap aftershave!”

He knocked the can from my hand.

My other hand drew the plastic baton. It slammed into his thigh with everything that I had.

The Academy had taught us this thigh shot. They said that it would drop anyone.

It did not drop him.

I hit him again.

“Get back!” I shouted.

He was on me. I smelled the PCP chemical odor and his sweat. We went down together.

“Oh, no!” I gasped.

The big buildings spun on top of me. This was not supposed to happen. Cops were not supposed to be on the ground.

“Hey, look!”

“Po-po getting done up!”

Black men shouted. They gathered closer. They watched. I smelled beer and a cigar.

The client grabbed my throat. I swung the baton’s butt against his skull. Blood flew. He kept squeezing. I swung it again. He blocked it with his free hand. He tore it from me. It flew away into the gutter.

My thumb went into his eye. He kept squeezing. I twisted my head and broke his grip.

“Help me!” I rasped out.

I did not care that I was a cop. He was winning.

“Help yourself, po-po!” a black man shouted.

A window went up.

“Somebody help that officer!” a man bellowed from the window.

A foot crunched against the client’s cheek. The kicker kicked again. Spit flew from the client’s mouth.

The kicker was a black guy, short and stocky. He kicked again and scored on the client’s eye.

“Don’t help him!” the cigar smoker hollered.

“Uncle Tom!” his buddy added.

“That’s slave stuff right there!” another man said, waving a fat book.

The client tried for my throat again. His hands caught my neck and banged my head KLUMP! against the pavement.

“Don’t mix in it!” the cigar smoker shouted. “Big boy come looking for you later, if you do!”

“No court for me,” the man with the book said.

“I don’t be helping no white po-lice!” the cigar man shouted.

Hands from the crowd got my belt. One tugged at my gun. I squealed in terror.

“This is worse,” I whispered.

“Get that gun!”

I swung an elbow and hit the gun-grabber. But the client had heard. He let go of my throat. He unsnapped the gun from my holster. He held the black Glock.

Both my hands grabbed his hand holding the gun. We rolled over each other. I banged his gun hand against the sidewalk. He held onto the gun.

The kicker karate-chopped against the client’s neck. I could feel the shock. The client still held the gun. He pointed it at the kicker.

We rolled against a stone plaque set on the sidewalk. I slammed his wrist against the stone. He gripped the gun. His finger went to the trigger. I beat his wrist against the plaque again with everything that I had.

He yelped. The gun dropped. I let it go and head-butted him against the plaque. More blood wet me. His head lolled back. I butted again. His eyes closed.

My handcuffs spun out of my new belt and onto his right wrist. Then I crammed the left one on. It caught his skin and tore it. But it clicked shut.

He was cuffed.

My fingers found the Glock and shoved it down into the holster. The holster closed and locked around it.

The plaque stood above a square of concrete with the words:

On This Site Was
Ebbets Field Baseball Park
1913 – 1958

This was the park where Jackie Robinson had played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Flatbush had been safe then. The locals nicknamed the area “Pigtown”. Some had raised pigs in their backyards here.

My kicker was pulling on my arm. His young black face twisted, searching me.

“I couldn’t let him kill you!” he shouted.

“I couldn’t let him kill YOU!” I screamed back into his face. “We only got each other!”



Chapter 1.

Dancing Cheek-to-Cheek

Years later, I was in the rich Manhattan neighborhood that I called “The Playpen.” It ran from 59th Street to 96th Street on the Upper East Side.

Playpenners danced in the basement of St. Jean Baptiste Church, on 76th Street at Lexington Avenue, home of Stephen Dane’s Manhattan group. I often went there to dance.

Cooper, a woman I knew only from dancing, had just finished a rumba when I came in. She wore a silk-smooth evening dress that echoed her ebony hair. Sinatra sang a slow foxtrot over the speakers, “All My Tomorrows.”

“May we dance?” I asked her.

“Okay,” she said. “It’s my first night dancing this month. I just moved to Flatbush in Brooklyn.”

Her pure white teeth split in a grin. Dark blue eyes heated. Dancing, she leaned her slim strong frame back. Her evening dress molded to her figure. The tip of her nose showed a spring sunburn. It gave her a wilder look, like a forest animal.

Her fingers gripped mine. I could feel their strength. When she inhaled for the next step, the suntanned skin between her breasts showed.

I tried to look away from this stranger and think of loves gone sour in the past. Avoiding trouble was becoming my new religion.

“Flatbush is a cool neighborhood,” she said. “Stately old buildings. Great architecture, wonderful friendly people, next to Prospect Park. Each street and each house has a unique personality.”

“I know,” I said. “I used to work there.”

“Really, Max? What did you do?”

“I was a gandy dancer on the choo-choo train of justice.”

“Are you ever serious, Max?”

“I tried being serious once. All I could get was a job as a handgun target paster for the Ku Klux Klan.”

“You never give straight answers. Every time that I dance with you, you say funny things that I can’t quite figure out.”

“Me, neither. Why Flatbush?”

“Why not?”

“Because you and I agree that it is a great neighborhood. Beauty and dignity and magic from years past. Ebbets Field baseball stadium, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, known worldwide as ‘Dem Bums’.”

“So we both see Flatbush the same?” she asked.

I paused, spun her and stepped into promenade position.

“But Flatbush suffers,” I said. “The honest black folks live behind chains and locks. It may be Brooklyn’s most dangerous neighborhood. Murders run rampant there. After dark, the crack gangs run it.”

We danced some more.

Good cooking smells wafted from the kitchen in back.

“You see the faded glory in those old buildings on Flatbush Avenue, near the Prospect Park stone gates,” I said. “Even the street names have magic – Empire Boulevard, Beekman Place, Lenox Road.”

“Is this an obsession?” she asked me.

I smiled.

The dance ended.

Another man, white-haired, dressed in a blue Hawaiian print shirt resplendent with golden surfboards, took Cooper to dance an American waltz.

Sgt. Al Lipkin came down the staircase, wearing a light grey suit and a tight look on his elfin face. Sandy hair crested back in an old-fashioned pompadour. His nose crooked, broken in street fights as a young patrol cop.

“Why the heck do you twist my arm to get me here?” he asked. His high voice roiled a city accent.

“You need to unwind after working One Police Plaza all week. Politics, back-stabbing captains, meetings, chest pains.

“So here I am.”

“And the women are waiting to unwind you,” I said. “Slowly and gently. You’re not wearing a hip holster, I hope. They’ll feel that old .38 Colt Detective Special of yours.”

“Ankle holster,” he said. “What-the-Christ kind of people come here, richy neighborhood, and why am I here, dancing inside a Catholic church, a Jew like me?”

“Just New Yorkers who like to dance,” I said. “Secretaries, nurses, college couples, aging showbiz types, gigolos posing as dance teachers with older women.”

“Where are your other friends that help you clear cases?” Lipkin asked. “You know. Barkeeps. Crazies. Good-time ladies.”

“My friends, those Playpen Irregulars, are dancing through the doors now,” I said. “Here’s Tisa and her husband, Ivan.”

Tisa’s black hair, sleek and long, twirled around the high cheekbones of her laughing tan face. Her pearl teeth sparkled. Her smile echoed in her brown eyes

Ivan’s bulk would make two of her. Jazzmen would call him “Mister Five-by-Five.”

“She’s beautiful,” Lipkin said. “Mexican?”

“Ecuadorian Inca.”

Buenas noches, senora,” Lipkin said. “I’m new in the Playpen Irregulars. So I don’t know everybody yet.”

“We Irregulars laugh together through everything,” Tisa said. “Unemployment. Heartbreak. Cancer. No matter what.”

Her husband, Ivan, a bulky youngster built like the village blacksmith, drew her into a waltz. Curly hair and glasses framed his cherub’s face.

“That’s her husband?” Lipkin asked.

“I’ll save you time,” I said. “Ivan is around twenty-two, Jewish like you. From Far Rockaway. Tisa is ageless. Some Indian women are like that. Maybe forty. They seem very happy together.”

“Unusual group,” Lipkin said. “Don’t Irregulars sometimes bail out of your group?”

“Some do, sure. Some join looking for fast sex. Or to network with the rich. Or something darker. They forget how to relax. They don’t last long.”

“And you all dance?”

“Look around at them,” I said. “A cop like you watches people for a living. Some dancers here are twenty-one. Others are pushing eighty. Some are beauties. Others look like me. Hopefuls who want to learn dancing. Uptight supervisors like you. Battered ex-cops like me.”

Lipkin hunched his shoulders like a shy teenager at the prom and walked around the dance floor, scanning.

“Max! Mister Royster, sir!” Nancy said.

Her sky blue backless dress emphasized her tigerish shoulder muscles. Nancy stood about five feet tall, ninety-eight pounds of steel-wire strength. Her blonde hair lay brushed back from a heart-shaped face. Cherry-red-rimmed glasses gave her a small-town girl look.

We swayed into the waltz.

My own body arched down to hers.

Lipkin danced with another woman, across the floor.

“Why are Civil Servants so horrible to us taxpayers?” Nancy asked.

“Your lovey-dovey man busted again, Nancy?”

“Worse than that. I got jury duty! Did you ever hear of anything so stupid? I’m trying to run my own business. You think that it’s easy to get a school like that up and running with students that pay their dues? If I get stuck on a trial, I could lose my school.”

Her Kansas drawl honeyed her words, even when she was mad.

“Nancy, there’s an easy way to get you out of jury duty,” I said. “And without you informing on Santiago, your little honeybunch, slinging crack outside the fertility clinic, the angel that he is.”

“Bribe them?”

“No, my way is different,” I said. “Nancy, you remember that I used to be a cop?”

“How could I forget?”

“And I know that you love me” I said. “I’m your old honeybunch. With every diphthong and corpuscle. Even though your heart belongs to that celestial little crack-dealer.”

“Forever, Max.”

“When you’re in court, tell them that you love an ex-cop,” I said. “That ex-cop is me. Because of that, you would be biased. You think that every cop is a great guy who would never lie. The lawyers, defense or DA’s office, will break their legs running to drop you from that jury pool.”

“Oh, that’s so neat!”

“And we love each other,” I said. “That’s the whole truth and nothing but right there!”

She hugged me. Those muscles crunched mine. Everyone on the dance floor eyed us.

For a minute, I forgot Nancy’s last name. Maybe my memory was going.

The dance ended.

Lipkin chatted with his dance partner, a patrician woman in a green flowered dress.

Cooper smiled and nodded her head with a young blond man. It made me feel pudgy and old.

A Business Type, dynamic and strong, liquor blowing near me, took Nancy’s arm as an invitation to dance. His hair appeared razor cut, designed for power breakfasts. His healthy face looked destined to rule. His eyes said that he knew it.

Nancy smiled her glowing cat smile at him and shook her head. He made a face and stepped away.

“I know that smile,” I said to her. “It means that you are vexed with that gentleman for touching you.”

“A woman’s body is a woman’s business,” she said.

“With your training, you could smile sweetly,” I said, “then take off his head and make him eat it with Brussels sprouts.”

Her smile glowed again.

“It IS tempting,” she purred.

“But that would hurt Stephen Dane’s Manhattan Ballroom friends. You wouldn’t want to do that.”

“No way. Stephen hosts the best ballroom in Manhattan.”

We both watched Stephen, agile and cheery, bring shy couples together to dance. He never stopped teaching, spinning around the floor behind his smile and immaculate dark suit.

The music changed to an Argentine tango, something slow and gliding. Violins pealed in the song.

Cooper appeared again.

“Dance, Max?”

“I’d be a fool to say no.”

Nancy smiled and moved off.

“How do you know my Flatbush so well?” Cooper asked.

“I told you,” I said.

She went into my arms.

My belly sucked in. She smelled of scented soap and light perfume. Cooper looked like a young and lithe thirty. I was hoisting forty-eight years around with me like a broken suitcase. 220 pounds on six feet of old injuries weighed me down. The injuries had scarred me as a knock-around guy first and then as a cop.

“Hey, Patso,” I said.

A burly man with a sagging choirboy’s face lit by baby blue eyes lurched onto the dance floor.

“Another Playpen Irregular comes to call,” I told Cooper.

“What’s ‘the Playpen’?’” Cooper asked.

“The Upper East Side, from 59th Street to 96th Street,” I said. “One of the richest and safest neighborhoods in the universe. Protected like a baby’s crib. You could live and die here without ever seeing the outside world.”

“So he’s another one of your secret club members?” Cooper asked. “Maybe I should join.”

We danced more.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked.

“Contrasts.”

“Excuse me?”

“And liabilities.”

Someone tapped my arm. Business Type leaned in closer, blowing Scotch breath on us both.

“I’m cutting in,” he slurred.

Cooper shook her head.

“Sure you are,” I said. “But some other dance, some other place, some other partner.”

“I’m in software,” Business Type said, touching Cooper’s shoulder. “Been up for three days for today’s conference. Had some dinner, drinks. Now I want to dance. And I’m going to. With you.”

I stepped away into the tango basic, holding Cooper. Then we went into the movement called ‘an ocho’. Her heels spun.

Business Type touched my arm.

“Now you got me mad,” he said.

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