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A Cool Breeze on the Underground

Don Winslow

  A Cool Breeze on the Underground

  Don Winslow

  For Jean and Thomas, the how and the why


  Prologue: Dad’s Call

  Part One: The Sound of One Hand Clapping













  Part Two: The Main Drag













  Part Three: A Place You Can Hear Your Heartbeat














  Epilogue: Just Neal

  A Biography of Don Winslow

  Prologue: Dad’s Call

  Neal knew he shouldn’t have answered the phone. Sometimes they just ring with that certain rotten jangle that can mean only bad news. He listened to it ring for a full thirty seconds before it stopped, and then he looked at his watch. Exactly thirty seconds later it rang again, and he knew he had to answer it. So he set his book down on the bed and picked up the receiver.

  “Hello,” he said sourly.

  “Hello, son!” a cheerfully mocking voice answered.

  “Dad, it’s been a long time.”

  “Meet me.” It was an order.

  Neal hung up the phone.

  “What’s up?” Diane asked.

  Neal pulled on his sneakers. “I have to go out. A friend of the family.”

  “You have an exam in the morning,” she protested.

  “I won’t be long.”

  “It’s eleven o’clock at night!”

  “Gotta go.”

  She was puzzled. One of the few things Neal had ever told her about himself was that he’d never known his father.

  Neal pulled on a black nylon windbreaker for the cool May night and hit the streets. Broadway was still busy this time of night. It was one reason he loved living on the Upper West Side. He was a New Yorker, born and bred, and for all of his twenty-three years had never lived anywhere but on the Upper West Side. He bought a Times at the newsstand on Seventy-ninth in case Graham was late, as he often was. He hadn’t seen or heard from Graham in eight months and he wondered what was so goddamn urgent that he had to meet him right away.

  Whatever it is, he thought, please let it be in town. A quick trip down to the Village to pick up some kid and bring him back to Mama, or maybe a couple of quick sneaky snapshots of somebody’s old lady dining out with a saxophone player.

  He and Graham always met at the Burger Joint. This had been Neal’s idea. For a hamburger lover, it was mecca. A narrow little place, jammed in on the first floor of the Hotel Belleclaire, it catered to everyone from junkies who had scraped together a few bucks to movie stars who had scraped together a lot of bucks. Nick made the best burgers in town, if not the civilized world, and it was a terrific place to pick up a fast meal and a tip about a ball game. The Yankees would be in it this summer for sure—the Pennant and Series, too, just for the Bicentennial.

  Neal went in and waved at Stavros behind the counter, then took an empty booth in the corner. Sure enough, Graham wasn’t there yet, but Neal was early. He ordered a cheeseburger with Swiss cheese, fries, and an iced coffee. He settled into the Times and waited comfortably for things to happen. In his line of work, waiting well was an acquired talent and a necessity. Neal was a newspaper addict. He read the three major dailies religiously and absorbed the variety of weeklies that New York served up like a heavy dessert. Tonight it was the sports news that interested him, convinced as he was of the Yankees’ destiny.

  He started right in when the food came. Although “Meet me” always meant in one half hour at the last designated spot, Neal knew that he could double the time and still be waiting on Graham. He figured that Graham did it on purpose to annoy him. So he did his best to cover his embarrassment when he looked up from his paper to see the smiling face of Joe Graham looking across the table at him. Neal was glad to see him, but he didn’t want to show that, either.

  “You look like a bum,” Graham said.

  So Graham wasn’t being followed or in any immediate trouble.

  “Been working hard,” Neal answered. “How are you?”

  “Ah.” He shrugged.

  “So … what’s up?”

  “You in a hurry? You mind if I eat? I see you waited for me.”

  Graham signaled the waiter.

  “I’ll have what he’s having on a clean plate.”

  “Tell me this isn’t an all-nighter,” Neal said. “I have a test at eight-thirty in the morning.”

  Graham chuckled. “You don’t know the half. Why do we always have to meet in this toilet?”

  “I want you to feel at home.”

  The waiter came with Graham’s food. Graham examined it carefully before pouring half a bottle of catsup all over it. He sipped at his coffee.

  “When are you guys going to break down and make a fresh pot of coffee?”

  “When you change your shorts,” the waiter answered happily, and walked away. He’d put in his time on Broadway.

  Graham sat silently for a minute. Neal recognized the technique. Graham wanted him to ask the questions. Screw him, he thought. He hasn’t called me in eight months.

  “You’re going out of town tomorrow,” Graham said finally, wiping a smear of catsup from his mouth.

  “The hell I am.”

  “To Providence. Rhode Island.”

  “I know where it is. I’m not going, though.”

  Graham smirked. “What? You got hurt feelings we haven’t called? Your rent gets paid, college kid,”

  “How’s your hamburger?”

  “Maybe they’d cook it next time. The Man wants to see you.”


  “Levine lives in Providence?”

  “For all I see of Levine, he could be living in Afghanistan.”

  “Let me tell you something. Levine would rather never see you again. Levine would like to see you pumping gas in Butte, Wyoming. I’m talking about The Man. At the bank. In Providence, Rhode Island.”

  “Montana, and I have a test tomorrow”

  “Not anymore.”

  “I can’t screw around this semester, Graham.”

  “Your professor understands. Turns out he’s a friend of the family.”

  Graham was grinning at him. Graham was an evil leprechaun, Neal decided. A short, round-faced, middle-aged little harp with thinning hair, beady blue eyes, and the nastiest smile in the whole history of smiles.

  “Whatever you say, Dad.”

  “You’re a good son, son.”

  Part One

  The Sound of One

  Hand Clapping


  Neal carey was eleven years old and broke. That wasn’t a big deal for most eleven-year-olds, but Neal was basically self-supporting, as his father had never put in an appearance and his mother had an expensive habit that more than ate up whatever money she brought home when she was capable of leaving the apartment. So when Neal snuck into Meg’s one slow summer afternoon, he was looking for a contribution. He was a skinny, dirty kid like a lot of others on the West Side. There was nothing unusual about Neal and he liked it that way. The ability to blend into a crowd is an important trait for a pic

  There was nothing unusual about Meg’s, either. It was just another bar that served beer, whiskey, and the occasional gin and tonic to the remnants of the neighborhood’s Irish population. McKeegan, the bartender, felt he’d landed in a pretty soft bog when he’d married Meg.

  “There is nothing more fortuitous than wedding an Irish broad with her own bar,” he was telling Graham that afternoon. “She’ll keep you in food, whiskey, and you know what, and all you have to do is stand behind the bar and make conversation with other drunks, no offense to yourself, you’ll be understanding.”

  Graham also felt lucky. He had an afternoon to kill, he was making a living, and he was parked on a bar stool in front of a cold glass of beer. A child of Delancey Street knew things didn’t get much better.

  Young Neal slid up and crouched under the bar next to Graham, listening to the sounds of the baseball game with which the man seemed involved. He waited until he heard the crack of a bat and the cheer of the crowd. Experience had taught him that men sitting in saloons lean forward when home runs are hit. Sure enough, this sucker did, and Neal placed his index and forefingers in a gentle pinch on the now-exposed top of the man’s wallet. When the man sat back again, the wallet popped into the kid’s hand as if it was saying, “Take me home.” Neal, who didn’t have a set at home, nevertheless thought that television was a wonderful thing.

  Stealing something is relatively easy; getting out with it is something else again. A thief is basically confronted with two choices: bluff or run. He needs to know himself and his gifts, his strengths and his weaknesses. A successful thief must possess an unusual amount of self-knowledge. Neal had some information, readily available from the swift observation that is part and parcel to a poor city kid. He knew that he was in an Irish bar with two more or less sober micks, that he was eleven years old, and that there was no way in hell that he was going to bluff these two guys. He also knew that there was no way on God’s good earth that either of these middle-aged guzzlers could ever catch him in a flat-out race. Baseball might be a spectator sport; theft is strictly participatory. He analyzed this data in the space of about a second and a half, and headed full speed for the door.

  Graham hadn’t felt his wallet being lifted, but he sure felt it was gone. Joe Graham never had much money, so he tended to know where it was and where it wasn’t, and even a Roger Maris shot over the left-field fence couldn’t mask the fact that his money wasn’t in its right and proper place in his pocket. He turned around, to see the back of a little kid running out the door.

  Graham didn’t pause to comment. Those who take the time to say something like, “That little bastard just took my wallet!” are acknowledging a fait accompli. He shot out the door after the kid, intent on the recovery of his property and the punishment of the perpetrator.

  Neal took a hard right out of the door and headed up Amsterdam, then jagged a left on Eighty-first Street. Halfway down the block, he decked right, spun left, and plunged into the alley, where a chain-link fence and an unlocked basement door promised haven. He hit the fence at full stride, digging in with the toe of his sneaker and pulling up with his arms. Neal knew from his childhood days of ringalevio that he could take a fence faster than any kid in the neighborhood. He knew he was being chased, but he also knew that by the time this jerk got over that fence, he would be separating fives from tens in the cool of the basement. He was in the middle of this pleasant thought when something hard and heavy hit him about kidney height in the back and dropped him off the fence. He was sucking for air for just a moment before he blacked out.

  Graham had seen as soon as he turned into the alley that this kid was a sprinter and that he wasn’t going to catch him. His clean shirt was soaked with sweat now and four beers were bouncing around in his belly and threatening worse. He knew that if this kid got over that fence, his wallet was history. So he grabbed his artificial right arm, a heavy hard-rubber affair, and jerked it out. Then, with his overdeveloped left arm, threw it at the thief.

  When Neal came to, he saw a mean little leprechaun leering down at him—a one-armed leprechaun.

  “Life stinks, doesn’t it?” observed the man. “You think you’ve picked yourself up a couple of bucks, you just about got it made, and some guy takes his arm off, for Chrissakes, and flattens you with it.”

  He grabbed Neal by the shirt and hauled him to his feet.

  “C’mon, let’s go see McKeegan. My beer’s getting warm.”

  He frog-marched Neal back to Meg’s. Nobody on the street took any notice. Graham slammed Neal down on a bar stool. Neal watched with fascinated horror as Graham put his arm back on and roiled his sleeve down over it.

  “Neal, you little fuck,” said McKeegan.

  “You know him?” Graham asked.

  “He lives in the neighborhood. His mother’s on the needle.”

  “Lucky for you you didn’t have time to spend any of this,” Graham said to Neal. Then he slapped him hard across the face.

  “You want the cops?” asked McKeegan, reaching for the phone.

  “What for?”

  Neal knew enough to keep his mouth shut. There wasn’t any use trying to deny the obvious. Besides, he was a little demoralized, having just been cornered and beaten up by a guy with one arm. Life sure does stink, he thought.

  “You do this a lot? Pick pockets?” Graham asked.

  “Only since last Friday.”

  “What happened last Friday?”

  “I took a bath in the market.”

  “You got a smart mouth for a pick who gets caught so easy. I were you, I’d work on my technique, let Jackie Gleason do the jokes.”

  Graham looked real hard at this child. He was just pissed off enough to call the cops and make the kid take the trip to juvenile hall. But a younger Joe Graham had found more than one meal in someone else’s pocket. And you never knew when a smart kid could be useful.

  “What’s your name?”


  “You a rock-and-roll star, or you got a last name, Neal?”


  “McKeegan, how about making a cheeseburger for Neal Carey?”

  McKeegan gestured behind him. “Do you know what this is?”

  “A grill.”

  “A clean grill, and it’s going to stay a clean grill until five o’clock. I’ll not be dirtying it up for a sneaky thief who’s after robbing my customers. I rob my customers.”

  “How about a turkey sandwich?”

  “That, I’ll make.”

  McKeegan turned to the counter to make the sandwich. Graham turned to Neal.

  “Your mother takes dope?”


  “Do you take dope?”

  “I take wallets.”

  Neal was confused. Generally speaking, people whose pockets have been rifled don’t buy lunch for the rifler. This was the first time in a two-year career that he’d ever been caught. He knew from neighborhood wise guys what to expect from the cops, but this was another thing altogether. He contemplated another run for it, but his back still hurt from the last attempt, and from the corner of his eye he could see a thick turkey sandwich on rye with mayonnaise. Knowing that a full stomach beat an empty one, he decided to play along for a while.

  “Your mother get money from you?”

  “When she can.”

  “You eat regular?” “I get by.” “Right.”

  McKeegan delivered the food and Neal wolfed it down.

  “You eat like an animal,” said Graham. “You’ll get sick.”

  Neal barely heard him. The sandwich was wonderful. When McKeegan, unbidden, served up a Coke, Neal thought he might like to get caught more often.

  When he was finished, Graham said, “Now get out of here.”

  “Thanks. Thanks a lot. And if there’s ever anything I can do for you—”

  “You can get out of my sight,”

  Neal headed for the door. He wasn’t one to push his luck.

  “And Neal Care

  Neal turned around.

  “If I ever catch you in my pocket again … I’ll cut your balls off.”

  This time, Neal ran.

  A week later, Neal was hiding in an alley. It was pretty late at night, but his mother was entertaining a customer and Neal didn’t feel like going home. People in the neighborhood lived on the streets on summer nights like this one, a sticky New York City night, the air as hot and black as tar. The multicolored carnival of a West Side night went on around him, but he was only dimly aware of the decadent beauty that made up this world. He was savoring a Hershey bar filched from a local bodega on Eighty-fifth Street. He was in a quiet mood, wanting to be alone, and that was why he was sitting in an alley, resting, in a position to see a very large man in his underwear come pounding down a fire escape in pursuit of a fleeing Joe Graham.

  “I’ll kill you, you bastid.” The fat man huffed, his sweaty gut bouncing over his Jockey shorts.

  Neal heard a woman’s voice and looked up to see a naked blond lady screaming out the window: “The film! Get the film!”

  Joe Graham didn’t pause a second when he glimpsed Neal Carey. With a quick backhand toss, he flipped the camera down to the boy and kept running. Neal didn’t have to be told what to do. When you are holding an item urgently desired by a furious three-hundred-pound man in his underwear, there is only one thing to do. Neal took off down the alley and into the street, where he soon lost himself in the crowd.

  The camera was one of those new small jobs, designed to fit—or more exactly to be concealed—in the palm of the hand. It was clearly not a device Uncle Dave carried to get a shot of Aunt Edna on top of the Empire State Building.

  Neal hung around the streets for a while, keeping a wary eye out for angry-looking gargantuans, then he made his way over to Meg’s. Joe Graham was at the bar nursing a whiskey and holding a piece of hamburger over his left eye.

  “I’m thinking you have to use a steak,” McKeegan was saying.

  “You have one?”


  “Then I’ll take another whiskey.”

  The bar was crowded. Neal squeezed his way over to Graham.

  “Did you lose something?” Neal asked him.