James Joseph Donovan stares out his own window, watching as the rain soaks Manhattan and puts a damper on his thirty-ninth birthday. J.J. Donovan is a private consultant - an expert people turn to when they've run out of options. Before the day is out, Janet Fein, a social worker friend, will ask Donovan to help a little boy named Clifford Brice.
Clifford's mother Ruby - a prostitute and a heroin addict - has been brutally murdered. The police have a suspect in custody, but Janet and Clifford don't think it's the right man. The police don't seem to care. Janet wants Donovan and his eccentric partner, Doctor Boris Koulomzin, to find out the truth.
Neither man can abandon the bright young boy. As they are formulating a plan, there is a second murder... and an attempt on Clifford himself. Donovan finds himself going undercover at a dank manufacturing plant in Brooklyn, where the rats, the criminals, and the immigrant laborers all struggle to make ends meet. It is a place where the people, like the machines, are broken. In this place, there is little room for repair or redemption, but Donovan pushes on. In the process, he and Boris expose a fraud, catch a murderer, and manage to blow up the better part of a city block.
Broken Machines is a gritty mystery in the tradition of Robert Parker and Elmore Leonard.
About the Author
Michael I. Leahey is the Director of the Office of Clinical Trials at Columbia University/New York Presbyterian Hospital. He lives in Westchester with his wife and two children. Broken Machines is his first novel.
Michael I. Leahey, author of The Pale Green Horse, is the director of the Office of Clinical Trials at Columbia University/New York -Presbyterian Hospital, where he facilitates research involving new drugs and devices. He lives with his wife and two children in Westchester.
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It was Tuesday, September 17. My birthday. I don't usually like birthdays, but I was trying. My nose was pressed up against the big window in the kitchen and I was hoping to spot something out there to cheer me up. When the rain started coming down in sheets, I gave up and switched on the lights.
My name is James Joseph Donovan, but most people just call me Donovan. I'm six feet, two inches tall, weigh about 195 pounds — some of which is still cut into muscles — and have light brown hair and green eyes. Women have told me I'm not bad to look at, which is a polite way of describing the wear and tear on my weathered profile. My home and office are near the top of an old high-rise building between 101st and 102nd Streets on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City. I have a plain white business card that reads J. J. DONOVAN — CONSULTANT. I don't have a cute logo.
I do have a partner, however. His name is Boris Mikail Koulomzin, and he lives in the apartment next door. This is a necessary convenience, since Boris rarely leaves the building during daylight hours. Because of the way our building tapers as it rises, there are only two apartments on the seventeenth floor, and we own them both. They were gifts to us from Harry Noble, the landlord. He was once a client, and the apartments were Harry's way of showing his gratitude for our help.
Our consulting business offers services to people who think they've run out of options. In most cases, they have problems that the legal system has either created, made worse, or is incapable of addressing. We're not licensed detectives, lawyers, paralegals, or anything like that. We're just two private citizens attempting to help people who've been screwed by the system.
Lest you think that a modern-day Robin Hood and his faithful Slavic Little John have taken up residence in the Big Apple, I should point out that we generally expect and receive payment for our services. The amount and form of the payment depends on the circumstances, but I think it's fair to say that we do pretty well for ourselves. I like to think we also do some good.
I was in the kitchen fixing lunch. A man needs fuel to sulk. The menu included a cold vinaigrette salad of artichoke hearts, feta cheese, and whole black olives; grilled chicken cutlets on a bed of Spanish rice; fresh bread from the local bakery; and several well-chilled bottles of Peter Michael Chardonnay. A pleasant little distraction to temper the aches and pains one begins to notice at the age of thirty-nine.
The telephone rang.
"Hey, Donovan," a voice bellowed, "happy birthday! How's my baby feeling today?"
It was my friend Janet Fein.
"Good, Janet. Good, but older," I said with the resignation of an Irish martyr climbing the steps to the gallows.
"Cut the shit, Donovan!" she roared. "You're nearly ten years younger than me and I'm fresh out of pity today. Besides, life doesn't even start till you hit forty."
My friends are all very understanding. I continued my work at the stove.
"What's all that racket? I hear pots and pans banging."
"Oh, nothing," I said innocently.
"Wait a minute, you're cooking, aren't you?" She didn't wait for an answer. "Set another place at the table, I'm on my way over."
"You know, Janet, it's customary to wait for an invitation," I deadpanned.
I was speaking to a dial tone.
Janet Fein is a case worker for one of New York City's Child Welfare Services. She's forty-eight years old and lives alone; no husband, no children. The families she meets at the office keep her too busy. Day or night, she's available to settle arguments, post bail, locate doctors, or just provide words of comfort. It's a hard job, but she keeps at it because she cares.
I don't mean to create the impression that Janet is the saintly all-suffering type. Mother Teresa she is not. Ms. Fein stands five foot, eleven inches in flat shoes and is a solid 175 pounds of kinetic energy, heralded by a booming, gravelly voice nurtured on Brooklyn's Flatbush Avenue. She's a walking encyclopedia where the rights of the family are concerned, and with twenty-three years of the system filed away, she can move mountains when the need arises. When the mountains refuse to budge, she sometimes calls on me. I have never refused her.
So I threw another cutlet into the pan and took out a second plate. I also wondered why Janet was free for lunch on a Tuesday afternoon. It was hard enough to drag her out on a Saturday night, and even then she brought a beeper. About ten minutes later the house phone rang.
"Yo, Donovan, happy bertday, gringo!" This time it was Manny Santos, the building's superintendent and my personal screening service.
"Listen up, bro, Ms. Janet, she's on huh way up and she bringin' you a nice leetle cake."
Manny chuckled. He thinks he's a comedian.
It takes a while for the elevator to groan its way up to my floor, and the grating sigh of relief when it finally stops is louder than any doorbell. I opened the front door and a soggy Janet Fein swept in, leaving little puddles in her wake. She was cradling a small package and dragging the suitcase she uses as a pocketbook.
"Nice weather — for a freakin' duck!" she said, handing over a freshly baked cheesecake and planting a big red-lipstick kiss on my cheek. "Happy birthday and what's for lunch?"
I've known Janet a long time, long enough to know this was not a social call. I also knew she'd take her time before getting to the point. There was no rush. I opened a bottle of wine and served lunch. We talked about her job and laughed a lot as she jumped from one crazy story to the next. I was even required to blow out some candles stuck in a piece of cheesecake while she sang me a chorus of the birthday song. If you can imagine a serenade from Ethel Merman, you've got the picture.
Finally, when the birthday party and small talk were out of the way, Janet was ready to get serious. I cleared the table and poured mugs of fresh-brewed coffee.
"J. J., I'm here because I need your help," she began, her voice softer now. "I tried to handle this myself, but no one would listen to me. So now I'm knocking at your door."
"Hey, you name it, kid," I said, putting one of my big feet into my even bigger mouth.
"This isn't a simple problem, dear. In fact, by the time I'm through you'll probably think I've gone soft. Everybody else does." She shook her head slowly. "The mother of one of my kids was killed last week. We don't know who his father is, or was, and there's no other family. That leaves me and the state. It's not a good situation."
She didn't have to explain. New York City isn't Never-Never Land. Orphans don't rate a very high priority.
"The mother's name was Ruby Brice," Janet continued. "She was a twenty-five-year-old prostitute with a heroin addiction. Not exactly a debutante, right? Well, I won't bore you with the details of Ruby's short time on this earth. You can take it from me, she never had a chance. From birth to death, her life was a long series of crushing disappointments."
She stopped for a moment to collect herself.
"Look, I'm not trying to drum up sympathy for Ruby Brice. God knows she doesn't need it now. But it's important that you understand where this is coming from."
"You don't have to justify yourself to me," I said.
"I can't help it, J. J., it's becoming second nature. I spend too much time dealing with hard-nosed assholes who don't understand and bureaucrats who just don't care. Do you realize that there are fifty thousand people living on the streets of this city? Fifty thousand. And the average person looks at a homeless man like he's a bag of garbage the sanitation truck forgot to pick up. That way of thinking trickles down to me and it's a big problem. I'm trying to help the children. You'd think children would catch a break, right? I mean, after all, these kids aren't responsible for the lives they're leading, and they don't have any control over their circumstances. Doesn't seem to matter. They keep right on paying for the sins of their parents. Why do you think I had to come to you? No one else considers people like Ruby Brice and her son worth the trouble."
There was another pause.
"I better just get this over with," she said after a few moments. "When Ruby Brice was fifteen years old, she had a baby boy. His name is Clifford. Don't ask me to explain it, because it's something that comes from God or nature, but that boy changed her. He didn't stop the abuse she put herself through, but he gave her a reason to care about the future. If she could have given him a chance for a decent life, it would have made up for a lot.
"J. J., this woman was different. She came to me for help. It usually doesn't work that way. In most cases it takes me months to win the smallest confidences. Not with Ruby. She wanted to help Clifford and was willing to do whatever it took. That made her special to me."
I could see now why this conversation was so difficult. Janet had believed they were going to make it. She'd allowed herself to look forward to their success.
"We began about two years ago. I got Ruby into an out-patient drug program and even managed to get her a small increase in child-support money. It may not sound like much, but it was a start. We met once or twice a month, and we made a lot of plans. I knew she was still working the street part-time, but I ignored it. What can I say? Miracles don't happen overnight, baby."
She set her jaw as if she expected me to judge or challenge her methods. When I didn't say anything, she relaxed a little, lowering her guard.
"What I needed most was time," she said sadly, "but I guess it just ran out. About two weeks before the murder, Ruby ditched a meeting and I began to worry that she'd gone back on the needle. I called a few times, but she wasn't home. I even stopped by her apartment. We never did connect. By the time I tracked Ruby down she was just a piece of wax taking up space in the morgue."
Janet's eyes grew cold.
"Well, Ruby's gone now and I've got a ten-year-old boy to worry about. His mother was right — he deserves a chance. I plan to see that he gets it."
She paused again. I used the time to refill our mugs and to turn on some lights. The afternoon had come and gone and the room was full of shadows.
"Thanks, honey," Janet sighed as she tasted the coffee, though I think she was mostly grateful for the change in the atmosphere. The light seemed to slice through the gloom. She took another sip and continued.
"The thing is, J. J., Ruby's death was no accident. She didn't overdose or disappear. The woman was butchered!"
It finally clicked. The story had been page-three news in New York's picture papers. Janet dug into her bag and pulled out a thick manila folder. Inside, I found copies of the police report and the autopsy. There was also a stack of eight-by-ten color photos. As I leafed through them, my lunch began to turn in my stomach.
The body was found on Logan Street between Atlantic and Liberty Avenues in East New York, Brooklyn. The address belonged to a business that manufactures cardboard boxes. When the killer finished playing with her, he dropped Ruby Brice into a Dumpster in an empty lot behind the factory. I found a picture of the scene. It was taken from above, looking down into the Dumpster.
The dead woman was lying awkwardly on a twisted bed of cold gray steel parts, her wrists and ankles bound with strapping or baling wire. At first glance, the metal parts around her seemed to glow as if they were white-hot. But it was just reflected light from the flash bulb on the evidence camera. It had been raining and the body glistened, which helped explain why there wasn't more blood. There should have been a lot of blood. Ruby's body looked as if it had been run through a shredder, with strips of her flesh hanging loosely like rags. I put the photos down and turned to the autopsy report.
The coroner noted a total of thirty-eight lacerations on the corpse. None of those wounds had been life-threatening, but they'd all been painful. The killer had toyed with Ruby, playing a sadistic cat-and-mouse game as his excitement grew. I pictured him cutting and slicing his way toward a climax. The report noted physical evidence of both anal and vaginal penetration, yet they didn't find any seminal fluid. The rain had probably washed that away too, or maybe the creep was firing blanks. In the end, he got off by placing a large butcher knife under Ruby's chin and thrusting it straight up into her brain.
A note had been attached to Ruby's left cheek with a large, stainless-steel safety pin. I found an enlarged photograph of the note. The neatly printed lettering read: YO SOY DE LA TIERRA DE LOS ALACRANES! I COME FROM THE LAND OF THE SCORPIONS!
I took a deep breath.
As I flipped through the papers, I came across a statement from a homeless man who called himself Doc. On the night of the murder, Doc was making the rounds with his shopping cart, looking for redeemable cans and bottles. He'd seen a shiny black car parked down the street on Flatlands Avenue, near the landfill site. The car had been rocking and bouncing on its springs like a cheap mattress, he said. There was a lot of noise too, which he figured was one of the girls putting on a show for her tip.
Unfortunately, Doc was a little too crazy to be much help in a courtroom. He'd gone on to describe himself as a wizard and proudly confided to the detective taking the report that he was four hundred and sixteen years old. The New York Post had used his picture, and there was a copy of it in the folder. I had to admit, if nothing else, the guy knew how to dress the part.
It didn't matter who Doc thought he was. No one would be calling on him to testify. The police already had a suspect in custody and he didn't own a car of any description. He was a twenty-two-year-old crack addict from the Dominican Republic who owned an extensive rap sheet and had a history of mental illness. His name was Oscar Mendosa.
On the morning of the murder, Mr. Mendosa was arrested by police officers on a routine patrol. They found him wandering naked in the chilling rain, not more than ten blocks from the site of the body. He had the victim's blood-soaked stockings tied around his neck and was ranting incoherently in Spanish. The man was so hyped up that a backup team had been needed to subdue him. Mendosa was currently under observation at Kings County Hospital, where he was keeping the shrinks busy.
"This is an incredible story," I said, looking up from the report.
"What it is is a load of bullshit!" Janet cried, startling me. "I knew this woman. Ruby was street-smart and tough. There's no way she would have let a nut job like Mendosa anywhere near her. Besides, this guy was so whacked he couldn't even sign his name at the arraignment. How did he manage to write a note and pin it to his victim if he couldn't hold a pen? Better still, where do you think he got a pen and dry paper in the middle of the night? It was raining, and the guy was stark naked!"
She started rooting around in her purse again. Finally, she pulled out a crumpled piece of sheet music. It was a song called "The Ballad of Durango." The words were in English and Spanish:
Yo soy de la tierra de los alacranes, yo soy de Durango, palabra de honor, en donde los hombres son hombres formales y son sus mujeres puro corazon ...; I come from the land of the scorpions, I'm from Durango, I give you my word of honor, where men are men and women have big hearts ...
"Last I heard, Durango was in Mexico," she added sarcastically. "Mendosa's from the D.R.!"
I was going to mention that sometimes the facts don't connect in ways that make sense, especially in crimes of madness or passion. But the look I got made me think twice about arguing with her.
"Where did you find this?" I asked, holding up the sheet music. "I mean, come on, The Land of Scorpions theme song isn't exactly Top-Twenty material."
"I surfed the Net," she snapped. "Look, J. J., this isn't a joke. Clifford Brice told me that Ruby saw something down at one of the factories, something she could cash in on. She was gonna get them some money. I don't know what Ruby was up to, but she told him it would be enough so that they could move away."
Janet paused one last time as the thought of a future for Ruby and her boy came and went. She finally sighed, clearing the slate.
"A couple of days before the murder, Ruby gave the kid a little plastic key ring with the astrological sign Scorpio stamped on it. She told him it would bring them luck."
Excerpted from "Broken Machines"
Copyright © 2000 Michael I. Leahey.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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