Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Hell's Kitchen

Jeffery Deaver

  Hell's Kitchen

  Jeffery Deaver

  Every New York City neighbourhood has a story, but what John Pellam uncovers in Hell’s Kitchen has a darkness all its own. The Hollywood location scout is hoping to capture the unvarnished memories of longtime Kitchen residents in a no-budget documentary film. But when a suspicious fire ravages an elderly woman’s crumbling tenement, Pellam realises that someone might want the past to stay buried. As more buildings and lives go up in flames, Pellam takes to the streets, seeking the twisted pyromaniac who sells services to the highest bidder. But Pellam is unaware that the fires are merely flickering preludes to the arsonist’s ultimate masterpiece – a conflagration of nearly unimaginable proportion…

  Jeffery Deaver

  Hell's Kitchen

  The third book in the John Pellam series, 2001

  “I’m a professional. I’ve survived in a pretty rough business.”

  – Humphrey Bogart


  He climbed the stairs, his boots falling heavily on burgundy floral carpet and, where it was threadbare, on the scarred oak beneath.

  The stairwell was unlit; in neighborhoods like this one the bulbs were stolen from the ceiling sockets and the emergency exit signs as soon as they were replaced.

  John Pellam lifted his head, tried to place a curious smell. He couldn’t. Knew only that it left him feeling unsettled, edgy.

  Second floor, the landing, starting up another flight.

  This was maybe his tenth time to the old tenement but he was still finding details that had eluded him on prior visits. Tonight what caught his eye was a stained-glass valance depicting a hummingbird hovering over a yellow flower.

  In a hundred-year-old tenement, in one of the roughest parts of New York City… Why beautiful stained glass? And why a hummingbird?

  A shuffle of feet sounded above him and he glanced up. He’d thought he was alone. Something fell, soft thud. A sigh.

  Like the undefinable smell, the sounds left him uneasy.

  Pellam paused on the third-floor landing and looked at the stained glass above the door to apartment 3B. This valance – a bluebird, or jay, sitting on a branch – was as carefully done as the hummingbird downstairs. When he’d first come here, several months ago, he’d glanced at the scabby facade and expected that the interior would be decrepit. But he’d been wrong. It was a craftsman’s showpiece: oak floorboards joined solid as steel, walls of plaster seamless as marble, the sculpted newel posts and banisters, arched alcoves (built into the walls to hold, presumably, Catholic icons). He -

  That smell again. Stronger now. His nostrils flared. Another thud above him. A gasp. He felt urgency and, looking up, he continued along the narrow stairs, listing against the weight of the Betacam, batteries and assorted videotaping effluence in the bag. He was sweating rivers. It was ten P.M. but the month was August and New York was at its most demonic.

  What was that smell?

  The scent flirted with his memory then vanished again, obscured by the aroma of frying onions, garlic and overused oil. He remembered that Ettie kept a Folgers coffee can filled with old grease on her stove. “Saves me some money, I’ll tell you.”

  Halfway between the third and fourth floors Pellam paused again, wiped his stinging eyes. That’s what did it. He remembered:

  A Studebaker.

  He pictured his parent’s purple car, the late 1950s, resembling a spaceship, burning slowly down to the tires. His father had accidentally dropped a cigarette on the seat, igniting the upholstery of the Buck Rogers car. Pellam, his parents and the entire block watched the spectacle in horror or shock or secret delight.

  What he smelled now was the same. Smoulder, smoke. Then a cloud of hot fumes wafted around him. He glanced over the banister into the stairwell. At first he saw nothing but darkness and haze; then, with a huge explosion, the door to the basement blew inward and flames like rocket exhaust filled the stairwell and the tiny first-floor lobby.

  “Fire!” Pellam shouted, as the black cloud preceding the flames boiled up at him. He was banging on the nearest door. There was no answer. He started down the stairs but the fire drove him back, the tidal wave of smoke and sparks was too thick. He began to choke and felt a shudder through his body from the grimy air he was breathing. He gagged.

  Goddamn, it was moving fast! Flames, chunks of paper, flares of sparks swirled up like a cyclone through the stairwell, all the way to the sixth – the top – floor.

  He heard a scream above him and looked into the stairwell.


  The elderly woman’s dark face looked over the railing from the fifth-floor landing, gazing in horror at the flames. She must’ve been the person he’d heard earlier, trudging up the stairs ahead of him. She held a plastic grocery bag in her hand. She dropped it. Three oranges rolled down the stairs past him and died in the flames, hissing and spitting blue sparks.

  “John,” she called, “what’s…?” She coughed. “… the building.” He couldn’t make out any other words.

  He started toward her but the fire had ignited the carpet and a pile of trash on the fourth floor. It flared in his face, the orange tentacles reaching for him, and he stumbled back down the stairs. A shred of burning wallpaper wafted upward, encircled his head. Before it did any damage it burned to cool ash. He stumbled back onto the third-floor landing, banged on another door.

  “Ettie,” he shouted up into the stairwell. “Get to a fire escape! Get out!”

  Down the hall a door opened cautiously and young Hispanic boy looked out, eyes wide, a yellow Power Ranger dangling in his hand.

  “Call nine-one-one!” Pellam shouted. “Call!-”

  The door slammed shut. Pellam knocked hard. He thought he heard screams but he wasn’t sure because the fire now sounded like a speeding truck, deafening roar. The flames ate up the carpet and were disintegrating the banister like cardboard.

  “Ettie,” he shouted, choking on the smoke. He dropped to his knees.

  “John! Save yourself. Get out. Run!”

  The flames between them were growing. The wall, the flooring, the carpet. The valance exploded, raining hot shards of stained-glass birds on his face and shoulders.

  How could it move so fast? Pellam wondered, growing faint. Sparks exploded around him, clicking and snapping like ricochets. There was no air. He couldn’t breathe.

  “John, help me!” Ettie screamed. “It’s on that side. I can’t-” The wall of fire had encircled her. She couldn’t reach the window that opened onto the fire escape.

  From the fourth floor down and the second floor up, the flames advanced on him. He looked up and saw Ettie, on the fifth floor, backing away from the sheet of flame that approached her. The portion of the stairs separating them collapsed. She was trapped two stories above him.

  He was retching, batting at flecks of cinders burning holes in his work shirt and jeans. The wall exploded outward. A finger of flame shot out. The tip caught Pellam on the arm and set fire to the gray shirt.

  He didn’t think so much about dying as he did the pain from fire. About it blinding him, burning his skin to black scar tissue, destroying his lungs.

  He rolled on his arm and put the flame out, climbed to his feet. “Ettie!”

  He looked up to see her turn away from the flames and fling open a window.

  “Ettie,” he shouted. “Try to get up to the roof. They’ll get a hook and ladder…” He backed to the window, hesitated, then, with a crash, flung his canvas bag through the glass, the forty thousand dollars’ worth of video camera rolling onto the metal stairs. A half dozen other tenants, in panic, ignored it and continued stumbling downward toward the alley.

  Pellam climbed onto the fire escape and looked back.

  “Get to the
roof!” he cried to Ettie.

  But maybe that path too was blocked; the flames were everywhere now.

  Or maybe in her panic she just didn’t think.

  Through the boiling fire, his eyes met hers and she gave a faint smile. Then without a scream or shout that he could hear, Etta Wilkes Washington broke out a window long ago painted shut, and paused for a moment, looking down. Then she leapt into the air fifty feet above the cobblestoned alley beside the building, the alley that, Pellam recalled, contained the cobblestone on which Isaac B. Cleveland had scratched his declaration of love for teenage Ettie Wilkes fifty-five years ago. The old woman’s slight frame vanished into the smoke.

  A wheezing groan of timber and steel, then a crash, like a sledgehammer on metal, as something structural gave way. Pellam jumped back to the edge of the fire escape, nearly tumbling over the railing and, as the cascade of orange sparks flowed over him, staggered downstairs.

  He was in as much of a hurry as the escaping tenants – though the mission on his mind now wasn’t to flee the ravaging fire but, thinking of Ettie’s daughter, to find the woman’s body and carry it away from the building before the walls collapsed, entombing it in a fiery, disfiguring grave.


  He opened his eyes and found the guard looking down at him.

  “Sir, you a patient here?”

  He sat up too fast and found that while the efforts of escaping the fire had left him sore and bruised, sleeping these past five hours in the orange fiberglass chairs of the ER’s waiting room was what had really done him in. The crook in his neck was pure pain.

  “I fell asleep.”

  “You can’t sleep here.”

  “I was a patient. They treated me last night. I fell asleep.”

  “Yessir. You been treated, you can’t stay.”

  His jeans were pocked with burn holes and he supposed he was filthy. The guard must’ve mistaken him for a bum.

  “Okay,” he said. “Just give me a minute.”

  Pellam moved his head in slow circles. Something deep in his neck popped. An ache like brain freeze from a frozen drink spread through his head. He winced, then looked around. He could understand why the hospital guard had rousted him. The room was completely filled with people awaiting treatment. Words rose and fell like surf, Spanish, English, Arabic. Everyone was frightened or resigned or irritated and to Pellam’s mind the resigned ones were the most unsettling. The man next to him sat forward, forearms resting on his knees. In his right hand dangled a single child’s shoe.

  The guard had delivered his message and then lost interest in enforcing his edict. He wandered off toward two teenagers who were smoking a joint in the corner.

  Pellam rose, stretched. He dug through his pockets and found the slip of paper he’d been given last night. He squinted and read what was written on it.

  Pellam picked up the heavy video camera and started down a long corridor, following the signs toward the B wing.

  The thin green line hardly moved at all.

  A portly Indian doctor stood beside the bed, staring up, as if trying to decide if the Hewlett-Packard monitor was broken. He glanced down at the figure in the bed, covered with sheets and blankets, and hung the metal chart on a hook.

  John Pellam stood in the doorway. His bleary eyes slid from the grim dawn landscape outside Manhattan Hospital back to the unmoving form of Ettie Washington.

  “She’s in a coma?” he asked.

  “No,” the doctor responded. “She’s asleep. Sedated.”

  “Will she be all right?”

  “She’s got a broken arm, sprained ankle. No internal injuries we could find. We’re going to run some scans. Brain scans. She hit on her head when she fell. You know, only family members can be in ICU.”

  “Oh,” an exhausted Pellam responded. “I’m her son.”

  The doctor’s eyes remained still for a moment. Then flicked toward Ettie Washington, whose skin was as dark as a mahogany banister.

  “You… son?” The blank eyes stared up at him.

  You’d think a doctor working on the rough-and-tumble West Side of Manhattan would’ve had a better sense of humor. “Tell you what,” Pellam said. “Let me sit with her for a few minutes. I won’t steal any bedpans. You can count ’ em before I leave.”

  Still no smile. But the man said, “Five minutes.”

  Pellam sat down heavily and rested his chin in his hands, sending jolts of pain through his neck. He sat up and held it cocked to the side.

  Two hours later a nurse pushed briskly into the room and woke him up. When she glanced at Pellam it was more to survey his bandages and torn jeans than to question his presence.

  “Who’all’s the patient here?” she asked in a throaty Dallas drawl. “An’ who’s visitin’?”

  Pellam massaged his neck then nodded at the bed. “We take turns. How is she?”

  “Oh, she’s one tough lady.”

  “How come she isn’t awake?”

  “Doped her up good.”

  “The doctor was talking about some scans?”

  “They always do that. Keep their butts covered. I think she’ll be okay. I was talking to her before.”

  “You were? What’d she say?”

  “I think it was, ‘Somebody burned down my apartment. What kinda blankety-blank’d do that?’ Only she didn’t say blankety-blank.”

  “That’s Ettie.”

  “Same fire?” the nurse asked, glancing at his burnt jeans and shirt.

  Pellam nodded. He explained about Ettie’s jumping out the window. It wasn’t cobblestones she landed on, however, but two days’ worth of packed garbage bags, which broke her fall. Pellam had carried her to the EMS crews and then returned to the building to help get other tenants out. Finally, the smoke had gotten to him too and he’d passed out. He’d awakened in the same hospital.

  “You know,” the nurse said, “you’re all… um, sooty. You look like one of those commandoes in a Schwarzenegger movie.”

  Pellam wiped at his face and examined five dirty fingertips.

  “Here.” The nurse disappeared into the hall and returned a moment later with a wet cloth. She paused – debating, he guessed, whether or not to clean him herself – and chose to hand off to the patient. Pellam took the cloth and wiped away until the washcloth was black.

  “You, uh, want some coffee?” she asked.

  Pellam’s stomach churned. He guessed he’d swallowed a pound of ash. “No, thanks. How’s my face?”

  “Now you just look dirty. That is to say, it’s an improvement. Got pans to change. Bah now.” She vanished.

  Pellam stretched his long legs out in front of him and examined the holes in his Levi’s. A total waste. He then spent a few minutes examining the Betacam, which some kind soul had given to the paramedics and had been admitted with him to the emergency room. He gave it his standard diagnostic check – he shook it. Nothing rattled. The Ampex recording deck was dented but it rolled fine and the tape inside – the one that contained what was apparently the last interview that would ever be conducted in 458 West Thirty-sixth Street – was unhurt.

  “Now, John, what’re we gonna talk about today? You want to hear more about Billy Doyle? My first husband. That old son of a bitch. See, that man was what Hell’s Kitchen was all about. He was big here, but little everywhere else. He was nothing anywhere else. It was like this place, it’s its own world. Hmm, I got a good story to tell you ’bout him. I think you might like this story…”

  He couldn’t remember much else of what Ettie had told him at their last interview couple of days ago. He’d set the camera up in her small apartment, filled with the mementos of a seven-decade life, hundred pictures, baskets, knickknacks, furniture bought at Goodwill, food protected from roaches in Tupperware she could barely afford. He’d set the camera up, turned it on and just let her talk.

  “See, people live in Hell’s Kitchen get these ideas. They get schemes, you know. Billy, he wanted land. He had his eye on a couple of lots over nea
r where the Javits Center is today. I tell you, he’da brought that off he’da been one rich mick. I can say ‘mick’ ’cause he said that ’bout himself.”

  Then, motion from the bed interrupted these thoughts.

  The elderly woman, eyes still closed, picked at the hem of the blanket, two dark thumbs, two fingers lifting invisible pearls.

  This concerned Pellam. He remembered, month ago, the last living gestures of Otis Balm as the 102-year-old man had glanced toward the lilac bush outside the window of his West Side nursing home and began picking at his sheet. The old man had been a resident of Ettie’s building for years and, though hospitalized, had been pleased to talk about his life in the Kitchen. Suddenly the man had fallen silent and started picking at his blanket – as Ettie was doing now. Then he stopped moving. Pellam called for help. The doctor confirmed the death. They always did that, he explained. At the end they pick at the bedclothes.

  Pellam leaned closer to Ettie Washington. A sudden moaning filled the air. It became a voice. “Who’s that?” The woman’s hands grew still and she opened her eyes, but still apparently couldn’t see too well. “Who’s there? Where am I?”

  “Ettie.” Pellam spoke casually. “It’s John. Pellam.”

  Squinting, Ettie stared at him. “I can’t see too good. Where am I?”


  She coughed for a minute and asked for a glass of water. “I’m so glad you came. You got out okay?”

  “I did, yep,” he told her. Pellam poured a glass for her; Ettie emptied it without pausing.

  “I kind of remember jumping. Oh, I was scared. The doctor said I was in surprisingly good shape. He said that. ‘Surprisingly good.’ Didn’t understand him at first.” She grumbled, “He’s Indian. Like, you know, an overseas Indian. Curry an’ elephants. Haven’t seen a single American doctor here.”