Deacon King Kong (3. Jet)
There were sixteen witnesses at the Cause Houses plaza when Sportcoat signed his death warrant. One of them was a Jehovah’s Witness stopping passersby, three were mothers with babies in carriages, one was Miss Izi of the Puerto Rican Statehood Society, one was an undercover cop, seven were dope customers, and three were Five Ends congregation members who were passing out flyers announcing the church’s upcoming annual Friends and Family Day service—which would feature Deacon Sportcoat himself preaching his first-ever sermon. Not one of them breathed a word to the cops about the shooting, not even the undercover cop, a twenty-two-year-old detective from the Seventy-Sixth Precinct named Jethro “Jet” Hardman, the first-ever black detective in the Cause Houses.
Jet had been working on Deems Clemens for seven months. It was his first undercover assignment, and what he found made him nervous. Clemens, he’d learned, was the low-hanging fruit on a drug network that led up the food chain to Joe Peck, a major Italian crime figure in Brooklyn whose violent syndicate gave every patrolman in Jet’s Seventy-Sixth Precinct who valued his life the straight-out jitters. Peck had connections—inside the precinct, down at Brooklyn’s city hall, and with the Gorvino crime family, guys who would stake out a claim on a cop’s guts for a quarter and get away with it. Jet had been warned about Peck from his old partner, an elderly Irish sergeant named Kevin “Potts” Mullen, an honest cop recently returned to the precinct after being banished to Queens for the dreadful habit of actually wanting to lock up bad guys. A former detective busted back to swing sergeant, Potts had dropped by the precinct one afternoon to check on his former charge after discovering Jet had volunteered to work undercover in the Cause Houses.
“Why risk your skin?” Potts asked him.
“I’m kicking doors down, Potts,” Jet said proudly. “I like being first. I was the first Negro to play trombone in my elementary school, PS 29. Then first Negro in Junior High School 219 to join the Math Club. Now I’m the first black detective in the Cause. It’s a new world, Potts. I’m a groundbreaker.”
“You’re an idiot,” Potts said. They were standing outside the Seven-Six as they talked. Potts, clad in his sergeant’s uniform, leaned on the bumper of his squad car and shook his head. “Get out,” he said. “You’re outta your league.”
“I just got in, Potts. I’m cool.”
“You’re in over your head.”
“It’s just small-time stuff, Potts. Grift. Jewelry. Burglary. A little narcotics.”
“A little? What’s your cover?”
“I’ll be a janitor with a drug habit. First black janitor in the projects under the age of twenty-three!”
Potts shook his head. “This is drugs,” he said.
“Think of a horse,” Potts said. “Now think of a fly on the horse’s back. That’s you.”
“It’s an opportunity, Potts. The force needs Negro undercovers.”
“Is that how the lieutenant sold it to you?”
“His exact words. Why you dogging me, man? You worked undercover yourself.”
“That was twenty years ago.” Potts sighed, feeling hungry. It was nearly lunchtime, and he was thinking of mutton stew and bacon stew with potatoes, the latter of which he loved. That’s how he got his nickname—Potts—from his grandmother, because as a toddler he couldn’t say “potato.”
“Undercover work was mostly memos back then,” he said. “Horse racing. Burglaries. Now it’s heroin. Cocaine. There’s a load of money in it. Thank God the Italians around here in my day didn’t like drugs.”
“You mean like Joe Peck? Or the Elephant?” Jet tried to keep the excitement out of his voice.
Potts frowned, then glanced over his shoulder at the precinct building to make sure nobody he knew was within earshot. “Those two got ears in this precinct. Leave ’em alone. Peck’s crazy. He’s probably gonna get burnt by his own people. The Elephant . . .” He shrugged. “He’s old-fashioned. Trucking, construction, storage—he’s a smuggler. He moves stuff out of the harbor. Cigarettes, tires, that kind of stuff. He doesn’t work in drugs. He’s a hell of a gardener.”
Jet squinted at Potts, who seemed distracted.
“He’s a weird bird, the Elephant. You’d think he’d favor Lionel trains or toy boats, or something. His yard looks like a flower show.”
“Maybe he’s growing flowers to hide marijuana plants,” Jet said. “That’s illegal, by the way.”
Potts sucked his teeth and shot an irritated glance at him. “I thought you liked to draw comic books.”
“I do, man. I draw them all the time.”
“Then get back in the blues and draw your comics at night. You wanna be the first at something? Be the first Negro cop smart enough to forget the Dick Tracy crap and retire with your head in one piece.”
“Who’s Dick Tracy?” Jet asked.
“Don’t you read the funny papers?”
Potts snickered. “Get out. Don’t be an idiot.”
Jet tried to get out. He actually broached the subject with his lieutenant, who ignored him. The Seventy-Sixth Precinct, which Jet had only recently joined as a detective, was a demoralized mess. The captain spent most of his time at meetings in Manhattan. The white cops didn’t trust him. The few black cops, smelling his ambition and terrified about being transferred to East New York—considered hell on earth—avoided him. Most wanted to talk about nothing more than fishing upstate on weekends. The paperwork was overwhelming: twelve copies for a shoplifting arrest. The bomb squad sat around and played cards all day. Potts was the only one Jet trusted, and Potts, at fifty-nine, was biding his time to retirement with one foot out the door, having been demoted to sergeant for reasons he never discussed. Potts planned to retire in less than a year.
“I’ll get out,” Jet said, “after I’ve done it a year. Then I can say I’m a pioneer.”
“All right, Custer. If it goes bad, I’ll call your mom.”
“C’mon, Potts, I’m a man.”
“So was Custer.”
The day of the shooting, Jet, clad in the blue Housing Authority janitor’s uniform and leaning on his broom, was standing in the plaza daydreaming about taking a job in his cousin’s cleaners and being the first Negro to invent a new shirt steamer, when he saw Sportcoat in his ragged sports jacket and beaten slacks teetering out of the dim hallway of Building 9 and drifting toward the crowd of boys around Clemens, who sat at the plaza flagpole surrounded by his crew and customers, not ten feet from where Jet was standing.
Jet noticed Sportcoat smiling, which was not unusual. He’d seen the ancient coot around, grinning and talking to himself. He watched as Sportcoat stopped for a moment in the crowded plaza, did a batter’s pose, swung at an imaginary pitch, then straightened, stretched, and teetered forward. He chuckled and was about to turn away when he saw—or thought he saw—the old man pull out a large, rusted pistol from his left jacket pocket and place it in his right-hand pocket.
Jet looked around helplessly. This was what Potts called “a situation.” Most of his work up until this point had been smooth. Make a few buys. Take mental notes. ID this one. Figure out that one. Get the lay of the land. Figure out where the spiderweb goes, which was to a supplier in Bed-Stuy called “Bunch” and through a dreaded enforcer on Bunch’s crew named Earl, who came around to distribute and collect. That was as far as Jet had gotten. There was a killer, he heard, a hit man named Harold who was apparently so horrible that everyone seemed afraid to mention his name, including Deems himself. Jet hoped not to meet him. As it was, he wasn’t feeling skippy about matters. Every time he briefed his lieutenant on his progress, the man seemed nonchalant. “Doing good, doing good” was all he said. The lieutenant, Jet knew, was angling for a promotion and had one foot out the door, too, like most of the commanders at the Seven-Six. With the exception of Potts and a couple of kind older detectives, Jet was on his own, with no guidance and no direction, so he cooled it and did the job easy as Potts had instructed. No busts. No collars. No comments. Do nothing. Just watch. That’s what Potts said.
But this . . . this was something different. The old man was approaching with a gun. If Potts were in his shoes, what would he do?
Jet glanced around. There were people everywhere. It was nearly noon, and the assortment of neighborhood gossips who met at the flagpole bench every morning to sip coffee and salute the flag had not quite departed. An odd truce had developed, Jet noticed, between Deems and his drug-slinging crew and the old-timers who came here every morning to gossip and insult one another with jokes. For a short period, between eleven thirty and noon, the two groups actually shared the flagpole space. Deems worked a bench on one side of the flagpole, and the morning residents gathered on the other, mumbling about the declining state of the world, which included, Jet noticed, Deems himself.
“I’d put a baseball bat to that little wormhead if he was my son,” Jet had heard Sister Veronica Gee grumble once. Added Bum-Bum, “I’d send him hobbling, but why interrupt my prayers?” Threw in Hot Sausage, “I’m gonna warm his two little toasters one of these days—when I’m not under the influence.”
Deems, Jet noticed, ignored them, always keeping his foot traffic to a minimum until the old-timers departed, leaving the squabblings, the posturing, the cursing, the harsh arguments, even the fights, for later. Before noon the plaza was safe.
Until now, Jet thought.
Jet checked his watch. It was 11:55. Some of the old-timers were starting to rise up from the bench, with the old man and his gun still coming, now fifty feet away, his hand thrust into his gun pocket. Jet felt his mouth go dry watching the old drunk teeter forward five feet at a time, stopping to swing an imaginary baseball bat, then swaying forward once more, taking his time, talking, apparently having a two-way conversation with himself: “Ain’t got time for you, woman . . . Not today I don’t! You’re not yourself today anyway. And that’s an improvement!”
Jet watched, unbelieving, as Sportcoat closed to forty feet. Then thirty. Then twenty-five, still talking to himself as he moved toward Deems.
At twenty feet, the old man stopped muttering, but still he came on.
Jet couldn’t help himself. His training kicked in. He dropped to a crouch to grab the snub-nosed .38 strapped to his ankle, then stopped himself. A gun strapped to the ankle was a dead giveaway. It screamed cop. Instead, he stood up and drifted away as the old man circled the crowd surrounding Deems. As casually as he could, Jet walked to the wide, circular concrete flag base, placing his broom against the base, stretched his arms, and feigned a tired yawn. He glanced at the bench where the old-timers sat, and he saw with alarm that a few of them were still there.
They were laughing, saying a last word as they stood up, joking, taking their time. A couple of them glanced at Deems and his crew, who were gathering, happily ignoring the old folks on the opposite bench, the young troops surrounding their king. One of the boys handed his leader Deems a paper bag. Deems opened it and removed a large hero sandwich, unwrapping it. From where he was standing, Jet could smell it was tuna. He glanced at the old-timers.
Finally, the last of them stood up. He watched with relief as Hot Sausage grabbed the giant coffee thermos and Bum-Bum picked up the cardboard cups and they were off, leaving only two: Miss Izi and Sister Gee. Sister Gee got up first, her arms full of flyers, and wandered off. That left only Miss Izi, a heavyset, light-skinned Puerto Rican with shiny black hair whose laughter followed Sister Gee, her cackles sounding like chalk screeching across a blackboard.
Get gone, Jet thought. Go, go!
The elderly Puerto Rican woman watched Sister Gee drift off, rubbed her nose, scratched her armpit, glared at the gathering of drug users now circling Deems, said something in Spanish toward Deems, which Jet guessed was an oath, and finally began to amble away.
Still, the old man came on. Ten feet. He smiled at Jet as he slipped past, smelling strongly of booze, then eased into the circle of heroin heads surrounding Clemens, disappearing from Jet’s view behind the shoulders of the anxious users clamoring for their first hit of the day.
Jet’s fear amped into panic. What the fuck was the old fool thinking? He was gonna get blasted.
He waited for the bang, terrified, his heart racing.
Nothing. The circle didn’t move. The boys stood around Deems, bustling as usual, ribbing one another and joking.
Jet snatched his broom off the flagpole and, pushing it toward the circle of boys, tried to appear nonchalant, absentmindedly sweeping, picking up pieces of trash as he went, knowing that the normally careful Deems wouldn’t bother noticing him, since he too was a customer. As he swept close to the group, he paused to tie his shoe this time, placing his broom on the ground. From this vantage point, low to the ground and less than ten feet away, he could see through the angle of bodies straight into the circle surrounding Deems and the old man. Deems was seated on the back arm of the bench working on his hoagie, talking to another boy, the two of them laughing. Neither noticed Sportcoat standing over them.
“Deems?” The old man spoke up.
Clemens looked up. He seemed surprised to see the old drunk swaying before him.
“Sportcoat! My man.” He bit into his sandwich, the tuna hero dripping with mayonnaise and tomatoes. Sportcoat always made him a little uncomfortable. It wasn’t the old man’s drinking, or his bravado, or his stern lectures about drugs that bothered him. Rather it was the memory, not long ago, of Sportcoat shagging fly balls with him at the baseball field on warm spring afternoons; it was Sportcoat who taught him how to pivot and zing a throw to home plate from 350 feet out. It was Sportcoat who taught him how to pitch, to throw his weight on his back foot when he wound up, to extend his arm as he powered the ball home, to grip the ball properly to throw a curveball, and follow through with his legs so all his weight and power was on the ball, not on his shoulder. Sportcoat made him a star in baseball. He was the envy of the white boys on the John Jay High School baseball team, who marveled at the college scouts who risked life and limb to venture to the funky, dirty Cause Houses baseball field to watch him pitch. But that was another time, when he was a boy and his grandpa was living. He was a man now, nineteen, a man who needed money. And Sportcoat was a pain in the ass.
“How come you ain’t playing ball no more, Deems?” Sportcoat asked.
“Ball?” Deems said, chewing.
“That’s right. Baseball,” Sportcoat said, swaying.
“Got bigger ball to play, Sportcoat,” Deems said, winking at his cohorts as he took a second big bite of his sandwich. The boys laughed. Deems wolfed another bite, barely looking at Sportcoat, his attention focused on the dripping sandwich, while Sportcoat stared, blinking dully.
“Ain’t nothing bigger than ball, Deems. I ought to know. I’m the big cheese when it come to ball ’round this projects.”
“You right, Sportcoat. You the man.”
“Best umpire this projects ever had,” Sportcoat said proudly as he swayed. “I brings the cheese. Not Peter. Not Paul. Not Jesus. Me. I brings the cheese, see. And I has not excused you, Deems Clemens, from playing ball, y’understand? For that is what you do best. So how come you is not playing ball?”
Clemens, his hands clasped around the giant sandwich, chuckled and said, “G’wan, Sportcoat.”
“You ain’t answered me. I trained you to God’s way, son. I taught you Sunday school. I teached you the game.”
Deems’s smile disappeared. The warm glow in his brown eyes vanished; a dark, vacant look replaced it. He was not in a mood for the old man’s bullshit. His long, dark fingers clasping the hero tightened down on it tensely, squeezing out the white mayonnaise and tomato juice, which ran into his hands. “Git gone, Sportcoat,” he said. He licked his fingers, bit into the sandwich again, and whispered a joke to a boy seated on the bench next to him, which sent the two of them chortling.
At that moment, Sportcoat stepped back and calmly reached into his pocket.
Jet, four steps away, still crouched, his hands on his shoelaces, saw the move and uttered the words that would ultimately save Deems’s life. He howled out, “He’s got a burner!”
Clemens, with a mouthful of tuna sandwich, instinctively turned his head in the direction of Jet’s shout.
At that moment, Sportcoat fired.
The blast, aimed at Deems’s forehead, missed, and the bullet struck his ear instead, severing it, the spent bullet clanging off the pavement behind him. But the force of the blast felt like it took Deems’s head off. It tossed him backward over the bench and threw the bite of tuna sandwich against the back of his throat and down his windpipe, choking him.
He landed on his back on the concrete, coughed a few times, then rolled onto his stomach and began choking, desperately trying to rise to his hands and knees as the stunned boys around him scattered and the plaza collapsed into chaos, flyers dropping to the ground, mothers pushing baby carriages at a sprint, a man in a wheelchair spinning past, people running with shopping carts and dropping their grocery bags in panic, a mob of pedestrians fleeing in terror through the fluttering flyers that seemed to be everywhere.
Sportcoat squared his old pistol on Deems again, but when he saw Deems on his hands and knees choking, he had a change of heart. He was suddenly confused. He had dreamed of Hettie the night before wearing her red wig hollering at him about the cheese, and now he was standing over Deems, the dang thing in his hand had fired somehow, and Deems was on the ground in front of him, trying to breathe. Watching him, Sportcoat had an epiphany.
No man, Sportcoat thought, should die on his hands and knees.
As quick as he could, the old man climbed over the bench, mounted Deems, who was on all fours, and with the gun still in one fist, did the Heimlich maneuver on him. “I learnt this from a young pup in South Carolina,” he grunted proudly. “A white fella. He growed up to be a doctor.”
The overall effect, seen from across the square, the nearby street, and every window that faced the plaza, 350 in all, was not good. From a distance, it looked like the vicious drug lord Deems Clemens was on all fours being humped like a dog from the back by an old man, Sportcoat of all people, jouncing atop Deems in his old sports jacket and porkpie hat.
“He fucked him hard,” Miss Izi said later, when describing the incident to the fascinated members of the Puerto Rican Statehood Society of the Cause Houses. The society was only two other people, Eleanora Soto and Angela Negron, but they enjoyed the story immensely, especially the part about Deems’s spitting up the leftover sandwich, which looked, Miss Izi said, like the two tiny white testicles of her ex-husband, Joaquin, after she poured warm olive oil on them when she found him snoring in the arms of her cousin Emelia, who was visiting from Aguadilla.
The humping didn’t last long. Deems had lookouts everywhere, including from the rooftops of four buildings that looked down on the plaza, and they scrambled into action. The lookouts from the roofs of Buildings 9 and 34 bolted for the stairs, while two of Deems’s dope slingers who had scurried away after the initial blast got their wits back and stepped toward Sportcoat. Even though he was still drunk, Sportcoat saw them coming. He released Deems and quickly swung the big barrel of the .38 toward them. The two boys fled again, this time for good, disappearing into the basement of nearby Building 34.
Sportcoat watched them run, suddenly confused again. With the gun still in his hand, he turned toward Jet, who was ten feet off, standing erect and frozen now, one hand on his broom.
Jet, terrified, stared at the old man, who squinted back at him in the afternoon sun, which had come up high now. Their eyes locked, and at that moment Jet felt as if he were looking into the ocean. The old man’s gaze was deep-set, detached, calm, and Jet suddenly felt as if he were floating in a spot of placid sea while giant waves roiled and swelled and lifted up the waters all around him. He had a sudden revelation. We’re the same, Jet thought. We’re trapped.
“I got the cheese,” the old deacon said calmly as the moans of Deems wafted behind him. “Unnerstand? I got the cheese.”
“You got the cheese,” Jet said.
But the old man didn’t hear. He had already turned on his heel, pocketed the gun, and limped quickly toward his building a hundred yards off. But instead of heading to the entrance, he veered off, teetering down the side ramp that led to the basement boiler room.
Jet, frozen with fear, watched him go, then out of the corner of his eye he saw the lights of a police cruiser fly by the street edge of the pedestrian plaza, a distance of about a city block. The car skidded to a stop, backed up, then plunged straight down the pedestrian walkway toward him. Relief washed over him as the squad car fought its way through the fleeing pedestrians, causing the driver to brake, swivel left, then right to avoid the panicked bystanders. Behind that car, Jet saw two more cruisers swing onto the walkway and follow. His relief was so enormous he felt like he’d just taken a great relieving piss, one that had drained him of every bit of life force.
He turned one last time to see the old man’s head disappearing down the basement ramp of Building 9, then felt his guts unlock and found himself able to act. He dropped his broom and leaped over the bench toward Clemens, just as he heard the tires of a squad car slide to a stop behind him. As he crouched over Clemens he heard an officer shouting at him to freeze, stand up, and put up his hands.
As Jet did, he said to himself, I’m no longer doing this. I am finished.
“Don’t move! Don’t turn around!”
Two hands grabbed him from behind and pinned his arms. His face was slammed against the squad car hood. He felt cuffs slapped onto his wrists. From his view, with his ear flush against the hot hood of the car, he could see the plaza, busy as a train station minutes before, completely deserted, a few flyers fluttering in the wind, and the thick, white hand of the cop on the car hood near his face. The cop had put his hand there to brace his weight on it, while the other hand pinned Jet’s head into place. Jet stared at the hand a foot from his eyeballs and noticed a wedding ring on it. I know that hand, he thought.
When his head was snatched from the hood, Jet found himself staring at his old partner Potts. Deems was on the ground, twenty feet off and surrounded by cops.
“I didn’t do nothing,” Jet shouted, loud enough for Clemens and anyone nearby to hear.
Potts spun him around, then patted him down, carefully avoiding the .38 strapped to his ankle. As he did, Jet muttered, “Arrest me, Potts. For God’s sake.”
Potts grabbed him by the collar and swung him toward the backseat of his squad car.
“You’re an idiot,” he murmured softly.