It’s a little after midnight. I’m freezing. The flight seemed to take forever and the security guy at the airport was a right prick. Apparently ‘a bit of both’ isn’t an answer that they can work with in reply to the question ‘business or pleasure?’ The cab driver who brought me from JFK to the Lower East Side had been thrilled to discover he had an author in his taxi. He took it as an opportunity to outline his idea for a novel. And when I say ‘outline’, I mean ‘tell me every word that is going to be in it’ and insist upon an in-depth critique.

So I’m grumpy. I’m hungry. My back aches and I can smell marijuana. Two men are arguing about a parking space and a small woman with her arms and feet poking out of the holes in a sleeping bag is sitting on a low wall swinging her legs and eating Chinese food from a tray. I’m outside the precinct where a few months from now, Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy will have his first meeting with New York Detective Ronald Alto. I’ve seen it on GoogleMaps a dozen times. But I’ve never felt the cold. Never tasted the air. Never breathed in this miasma of scents or learned that the drifts of compacted snow turn to jagged little mountain ranges of dirty ice. That’s why I’m here. I need to understand the city. I need to get my head tuned in right.

Two hours later I’m in a speakeasy where Lucky Luciano used to drink. I’m sipping cocktails from a teacup. The barman is wearing a bowler hat and braces (and other stuff too) and my brain is going into overdrive as he tells me about the date-rapist that got caught at a nearby bar slipping Rohypnol into a girl’s beer. She was a niece of a cop from New Jersey. Word is that somebody made him eat a hundred dollars in quarters before dumping him in the river near Staten Island. I’m not believing it, but the story is going down a treat with my Gin Sling.

And now I’m standing with the bouncers. ‘Nightclub security’ is the label they prefer. Big fella with a cauliflower ear is telling me how the movies get it wrong. ‘Aint no gangsters, not no more. Just criminals, man. Just bad people. You think we’d bow our heads to let some guy skip the line because he’s hooked up to some crime family?”

I push. There must be some Godfather characters left. Must be some patriarchs giving orders about life and death from an ice cream parlour downtown. The big guy scratches his cheek. Leans low enough to whisper. Tells me a story he heard at the gym. Old wiseguy. 70-plus. Used to keep a knuckle-duster under the handle of his walking frame. Served 20 years for strangling a council official with his own dog-lead. The dog had still been attached at the time. Pomeranian. Wiseguy got caught because he took the dog to the vet when the murder was over. Poor animal had dangled off his master’s back while the noose was tightened.

I’m soaking it up. Drinking it in. Imagining. People are coming to life in my brain.

Now I’m at an unlicensed boxing match. Slavic visages. Tattoos and buzz-cuts. Fur coats, leather jackets and the smell of garlic and cigars. I’m keeping my head down, as my guide has urged. Used to be a warehouse, apparently. Owner lost it in a card game. Belongs to the organisation that runs Little Odessa at Brighton Beach. Tonight’s bout doesn’t promise much blood. Just a friendly little bout between two young men looking to make some cash. The people betting on the outcome might not be criminals. Might be lovely people spending their salary on a different kind of night out. But I’m seeing so much more. Seeing an Irish Traveller who has flown over for a grudge match against a brute. Seeing it all go wrong. Seeing the carnage and the bloodshed and an ugly murder committed upstate – bullets and blades in the snow-filled, crow’s-back blackness.

Three days later I’m home. I’m fizzing with ideas. I’m reining myself in. The camera roll on my phone is full of more incriminating pictures than I’m comfortable with. The microphone has several hours worth of crackly conversations recorded in my pocket. I’m feeling alive. Feeling like a character in my own story. I can’t remember which bits are real and which are made up. It’s a good feeling. I start to write.

The detectives’ room is on the second floor of the utilitarian Seventh Precinct. It overlooks a dreary, blustery corridor of the Lower East Side. The constant wind seems to have picked up a vast chunk of Manhattan’s most uninspiring constructions and deposited them at the edge of the East River. The Seventh, housed at the pleasingly exact address of 19 and-a-half Pitt Street, looks out on a scene almost Soviet in its bleakness. This is a place of housing projects, bridge ramps, and squat brick buildings, rattled almost insensible by the constant rumble of vehicles crossing the bridge overhead. Nobody would put this view on a Christmas card, despite the hard, frozen snow which is piled up on the sidewalks like garbage bags. Fresh snow hasn’t fallen for three nights but the temperature has yet to get above zero and the flurries that did fall have now turned to jagged white stone. The emergency rooms are overrun with people who slipped and hurt themselves…

I nibbled at the rancid core of the Big Apple. I hope you take a big bite out of the story it inspired.

 

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