Sunday, August 26, 2007

Monopoly: A Novel of Atlantic City (Part One)


Slain Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno: murdered by his Atlantic City satrap Nicky Scarfo over control of Atlantic City


Private eye Scott Lawrence (George Peppard)

Teenage hitch-hiker Debbie Miller (Jodie Foster)




Monopoly: A Novel of Atlantic City (Part One)



Monopoly is a private eye thriller I worked on in the Eighties about how the Mob moved into Atlantic City. I got turned onto hardboiled fiction in May 1968, at the tender age of 13. I’ll never forget how it happened. I had just come back from an eighth-grade social studies field trip to the battlefields of Gettysburg (fittingly enough), when waiting for me at home were the first three—and only—issues of the magazine P.S., an experimental pop culture magazine put out by the publishers of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.


P.S. covered a variety of pulp and pop culture concerns. It folded after only three issues, but in 1968 back issues were advertised in F&SF (the top SF mag back then, as always). When I got home from Little Round Top, a treasure was waiting for me.


One issue was devoted to the private eye, and there was an article by Ron Goulart about the creation and evolution of the fictional private eye.


It mentioned that the very first private eye was named Race Williams, a "loud-mouthed doorbuster” created by a writer from White Plains, New York, named Carroll John Daly.


In real life, Daly was so terrified of dentists that he let all his teeth rot (like the great Fifties SF writer Cyril M. Kornbluth), but he had an amazing inner life.

In the early Twenties he created a new kind of hero in the pages of the famed crime pulp magazine Black Mask—an urban cowboy who spoke a vernacular out of Mark Twain, a link between the Wild West dominated by cowboys and outlaws and the Roaring Twenties dominated by gangsters, beer barons, and crooked politicians.

Son of Race Williams: Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)


Everyone knows Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, but Race Williams was the very first private detective—and Mickey Spillane openly admitted that he stole the whole personality and style of Mike Hammer from Race Williams. In fact, the name of Hammer’s partner in his first phenomenally bestselling 1947 adventure, I, The Jury, is named Jack Williams—an obvious tribute to Race.

In the early Fifties, at the height of his phenomenal popularity, Mike Hammer was the fictional personification of Joe McCarthy's era; in my screenplay Divide and Conquer, Scott has to defeat an evil crazed McCarthyite private eye who's clearly based on Mike Hammer: the chief assassin for the right-wing conspiracy that murdered Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 to put their man--a demagogue--into the White House

Goulart quoted amazing lurid passages from Race Williams’ story, showcasing Race’s habit of turning to the reader and justifying his mayhem and vigilante tactics—“I sent him crashing through the gates of hell with my bullet in his braincase”; "Sometimes...one hunk of lead is worth all the thought in the world" —and I was hooked.

Former Marvel Comics writer Mickey Spillane: in 1996, in a graduate English class at Queens College, a creative writing classmate swore to me that his mother had once worked as one of Mickey Spillane's ghostwriters--she and a team of others had cranked out the recent bestsellers that were issued under his name

I was already well-versed in the secret agent craze—in my neighborhood, in those pre-Lord of the Rings days, you weren’t cool as a 12/13-year-old unless you’d read the complete works of Ian Fleming—but when I encountered the hardboiled private eye, I was fascinated by this new kind of brash, uninhibited, freewheeling hero whose adventures were vaguely realistic.

I wasn’t the only one. Thanks to the Paul Newman movie Harper, a 1966 hit, the private eye had been revived as an American culture hero, for the first time since the fall of Joe McCarthy. In 1965, Hollywood producer Elliott Kastner saw the gritty, macho Richard Brooks Western The Professionals, starring Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster, and he turned to screenwriter William Goldman said, “I want to make a gutsy movie like that.”

Gentle Canadian-born English professor Kenneth Millar, a.k.a. Ross Macdonald, whose father deserted him when he was young; he transmuted that trauma into art in his later books

Goldman was a huge fan of private eye writer Ross Macdonald, the pen name for Santa Barbara academic Kenneth Millar, creator of Lew Archer and the inheritor of Hammett and Chandler’s mantle.

Diehard Marxist Dashiell Hammett, who went to prison in the Fifties rather than bend his knee to the McCarthyites; in 1917, as a Pinkerton private detective in Butte, Montana, during the Anaconda copper strike (see Red Harvest), he rejected an offer of $5,000 to murder labor organizer Frank Little, who was later lynched by masked vigilantes, obviously Pinkerton agents; the experience shook Hammett and radicalized him dramatically

Goldman recommended a film adaptation of Millar’s first Lew Archer adventure, The Moving Target (1947)—a copy of Chandler’s first Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep (1941), that was so blatant, Chandler himself considered legal action for plagiarism at the time.


Raymond Chandler, who poeticized hardboiled fiction and created the ideal of a noble, caring, altrusitic hero in Philip Marlowe that's endured ever since--a Christian knight and a Puritan redeemer


Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler were good friends--as a a believable tough guy, Fleming's Bond was heavily influenced by Philip Marlowe

Another factor was in play at the time as well—after two years, Americans were starting to get threatened by the 1964 British cultural invasion, as personified by James Bond and the Beatles, which had rushed in to fill the spiritual vacuum that the JFK assassination had created for a god-hungry people.

In From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming was trying to write the spy novel as Great Literature, on a level with Graham Greene; at the end, he clearly kills Bond off, just as Sherlock Holmes dies fighting Moriarity going over Reichenbach Falls

But when From Russia With Love failed to gain the recognition it deserved, he said, What the hell, give them what they want--and in Dr. No, he dished up an unabashed lurid Fu Manchu melodrama, complete with sinister Oriental mad scientist with a secret island headquarters

Americans were looking for a homegrown hero, and taking into account the Bogart revival that began at Harvard in 1961, where Bogart’s “cool” was worshipped in all-night undergraduate movie festivals, it wasn’t hard to figure out where to look—it was the good old American private eye, a mighty American hero from the pre-Vietnam, pre-Jack Ruby past.

Harper created a sensation—audiences were intrigued by a believable, everyday hero who woke up with a hangover in his T-shirt and had to drink bitter leftover coffee grounds (ran out of fresh) before his job interview with a wealthy client

The famous opening of Harper: Paul Newman wakes up with a hangover in his T-shirt with the TV set still on and no fresh coffee left in the house--he's forced to re-use yesterday's bitter leftover grounds

and a series of popular imitations quickly followed: P.J. with George Peppard (1967),

Warning Shot with David Janssen (1967),

Marlowe with James Garner as Saint Phillip himself (1969), a brilliant adaptation of Chandler’s Hollywood novel The Little Sister,

and Darker Than Amber (1970) with Rod Taylor as John D. Macdonald’s Florida-based neo-Marlowe clone, Travis McGee, featuring a notorious fight scene so brutal (with the amazing William Smith) that according to recent interview with Smith, to this day it’s impossible to find an uncensored copy of the scene.

The private eye craze rolled on. In 1969, John Leonard, the editor of the hugely influential New York Times Book Review and also a huge Millar fan, featured William Goldman’s review of the brilliant new Lew Archer, The Goodbye Look, in the front page of the NYTBR, and Alfred A. Knopf quickly rolled out editions of the collected works of Hammett, Chandler, and hardboiled pioneer James M. Cain, whose Cain X 3 was reviewed in 1969 by Tom Wolfe—again, on the front page of the NYTBR. In 1969, a flood of private eye shows hit network TV; the Bond craze had played out, because college students, sickened by the Vietnam War and terrified by the draft, no longer thought a hero who joked after he murdered people was so funny.

You've had your six: Dr. No (1961)

They were drawn instead to the figure of the moral loner who tries to preserve his ethics in a corrupt, debased world.

Bogart and future wife Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep

In 1970, at age 15, I jumped in with my own private eye hero, Scott Lawrence, in a novel called The Big Plan. (I sold a screenplay based on the second Scott Lawrence novel, Divide and Conquer, to Columbia Pictures in 1979.)

Private eye Scott Lawrence (modeled on Sixties icon George Peppard)

In high school, I picked up a copy of The FBI in Peace and War by Frederick L. Collins in the school library and was struck by the account of Hot Spring, Arkansas, as a gangster-run town in the Thirties—it reminded me of Hammett’s unforgettable portrayal of Personville, the gangster-run town in Red Harvest (1921) based on Anaconda, Colorado, that stands in Hobbes’ Leviathan, the state as a living being (as the brilliant critic Stanley Marcus observed—Personville is the personification of the American body politic).

I could have sworn that I read that the Hot Springs cops used to pick up local hitchhikers, subject them to false arrest, coerce them into jailhouse sex, and then turn them out as local prostitutes. It turns out I misread the passage, and later carried around with me a false memoryyeah, the Hot Springs cops coerced local prostitutes into jailhouse sex with them after arrest, but the rest my imagination made upyet my original concept blew my mind so much that all I could think of was, What a great premise for a story.

Rare movie stills of P.J. starring George Peppard

In 1964, my mother bought a little cottage in the seashore resort of Brigantine, New Jersey, a barrier island three miles from Atlantic City.

In August 1964, nine years old, I watched from the Boardwalk during the Democratic National Convention while Lyndon Johnson waved from a balcony at night to cheering crowds (another case of our god-hungry nation aching for a leader post-Jack Ruby), and thereafter I spent every summer in Brigantine, constantly visiting Atlantic City on the bus and watching its sleazy decline first-hand.



When the first talk of legalizing casino gambling surfaced in the mid-Seventies, I knew the Mafia was moving in. In the summer of 1976, I washed dishes in an Italian restaurant that was obviously a Mob front; the maitre’d was the son of Skinny D’Amato, owner of the legendary Mob-owned 500 Club and Cal-Neva Lodge (where Marilyn Monroe was deliberately drugged, gang-raped, filmed, and photographed two weeks before she died) and Frank Sinatra’s former boss.

Skinny D'Amato with Frank, above; with Sammy Davis, below: they worked for him

Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin first teamed at the 500 Club

The kid—who told me proudly that Frank himself had called him personally on his fifteenth birthday—later went to prison for hammering in his boyfriend’s head and then trying to saw his leg off. I voted against legalization in November 1976 as a New Jersey resident while a junior at Princeton (I was 21 and it was my first opportunity to vote), but the juggernaut was in motion and the fix was in.


Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe and Mike Mazurski as Moose Malloy (a classic ogre or giant figure in folklore; see my Gilgamesh post) in Murder My Sweet, the 1942 film version of Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely

In 1976 I developed the idea for Monopoly, a private eye novel about how the Mob moved into Atlantic City, and I wrote the opening in the summer of 1977, right after graduation. In September 1978, when I won a nationwide talent search conducted by Columbia Pictures for top young screenwriting talent, I was brought out to Hollywood to write a screenplay for Columbia. In my first story conference with the director of the Columbia Writers Program, a Wise Old Hack named David Zelag Goodman, who wrote violent, hysterical movies like Straw Dogs and The Eyes of Laura Mars, I pitched Monopoly as a possible script idea. He was enthralled. He thought it was a perfect vehicle for Clint Eastwood. “What about the ending?” he asked.

“I want the hero to show that violence can’t be met with violence,” I said.

“Look,” he said, “at the end of this movie, just have him come back and shoot the fuck out of everybody. Shoot the fuck out of everybody. You know what I mean? I mean you know what I mean?”

Cloris Leachman in the apocalyptic ending of Kiss Me Deadly (1955): opening the nuclear Pandora's box

I replied slowly, “I think I know what you mean.”

He wanted Scott to come back at the end of the film and machinegun all the gangsters. The year before, in my senior year at Princeton, my mentor William Goyen advised me that if I wanted to become a first-rate American writer, I shouldn’t compromise myself artistically at the first available opportunity.


So I turned Columbia down on Monopoly and instead adapted Divide and Conquer as a script.

The opening sequence of Kiss Me Deadly: while driving, Mike Hammer encounters an escaped female mental patient (above) who's the key to a terrifying conspiracy; in retrospect, I think the scene depicting the private eye hero behind the wheel coming across a lone woman by the side of the road influenced the beginning of Monopoly

Columbia ended up buying Divide and Conquer, but as Goodman told me, “You should have given me Monopoly.” Since then, I’ve always wondered if I did the right thing—it was probably my opportunity for a Big Break. If I had sold out back then, my life might have been easier.


The only problem is, I think that storytellers have a moral obligation to their audience, and there are too many people who can’t tell the difference between life on the screen and life on the streets. In 1976 I read a scholarly book called Saint With A Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye by William Ruehlmann, and it had an enormous impact on me.

Dick Powell, as arguably the greatest screen Philip Marlowe, in Murder My Sweet, the 1942 film version of Raymond Chandler's acknowledged masterpiece, Farewell, My Lovely

Ruehlmann argues that the fatal flaw of nearly all fictional private eye heroes is that they’re unlawful, vigilante killers—when you read the books closely, Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe are closer to Mike Hammer than you think, with their disregard for the law and human life and casual sadism—and then Ruehlmann goes on to tie in this vigilante streak in American life with Vietnam and the tendency for Americans to take the law into their own hands: the national lynch-mob mentality.

James Garner as Marlowe with Rita Moreno as a great, sizzling film noir femme fatale, Dolores Gonzales, in Marlowe--"Dolores?" Marlowe asks her. "Isn't that Spanish for pain?"

After reading Saint With A Gun, I was never able to regard Mike Hammer and his ilk (Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, et al) with anything other than revulsion, and it got to that I could spot vigilantism in a media action hero a mile away.

When I pitched Monopoly to Columbia in 1978, it was only four years since the release of Death Wish and two since Taxi Driver, and I really didn’t want to add to the national poison by creating a hero who shot the fuck out of everybody.

Frank Miller's Spillanesque graphic novel Sin City; the 2005 film version starring Bruce Willis seriously shocked, disturbed, and revolted me--ancient Rome and Weimar Germany never produced entertainment so decadent, hysterical, and evil; if America can embrace this kind of art, this nation is doomed

In May 1979 I drove back East (racing to stay one jump ahead of the gas lines that were then rippling eastward across the nation like a rising tsunami), and I moved back to Brigantine try to write Monopoly as a novel and try to do justice to it. In December 1980 I was looking for a job in Atlantic City. I walked into the personnel department of City Hall in Atlantic City, and it just so happened that the Mayor needed a speechwriter. His current speechwriter had just left, and at age 25, I wound up getting the job as Aide to the Mayor of Atlantic City. I was the mayor’s speechwriter, official representative, and general right-hand man.


The Mayor? He was the Honorable Joseph Lazarow—the man who had brought legalized casino gambling to Atlantic City in 1978. I was in the perfect position to research Monopoly.

James Garner as Philip Marlowe confronts a Mafia hood in Marlowe

Atlantic City was a Wild West town back then, and it was astonishing to see how the infusion of cold hard cash was changing the desperate citizens of a crumbling seashore resort of 40,000 people. Money was corrupting everybody, and Reagan had just been elected President.


On this site, I’m going to present the opening of Monopoly, the first 55 pages, divided into two postings. When you read the first chapter, you will definitely see that I had Melville on the brain. I was thinking a lot about what Ishmael was saying in Loomings, Moby-Dick’s first chapter—when civilization begins to drive him crazy, he flees to the sea—and comparing it to the theme of Taxi Driver (1976): how New York drives people crazy.


At the opening of Chapter 3, I will admit to some deliberate literary symbolism. When Scott first meets Debbie, whose story triggers the book’s plot, he mentions, “She was wearing a white tank top and bluejeans.” That color combination is deliberate. A critic I’d read noted that the teenage mother at the beginning of Falkner’s Light in August was wearing both blue and white—the classic colors of the Virgin Mary.

Since all the girls at the Jersey Shore that year were wearing white tank tops and bluejeans, I knew immediately how to put the color symbolism into latter-day dress; and since Debbie represents the Ideal to Scott, all the innocent and purity in America that’s in danger of being destroyed forever, I thought the colors looked good on Debbie.


The four nuns who were raped and murdered by El Salvador soldiers in 1982, thanks to Ronald Reagan

In the introduction to the second half of the opening of Monopoly, I’ll discuss some of the personal circumstances that surrounded the writing of this novel, and I’ll talk a little bit more what I tried to accomplish by writing it. But at this point, I should add that Monopoly, like all my work, is heavily political, and I thought that the story I had created in Monopoly was a perfect way to talk about a lot of things that were on my mind, namely, that after Reagan took office, the bad guys had taken over the town. And what could you do about it?

Like a lot of people, I was terrified and outraged that a former front man of the 1964 Orange County John Birch Society was now President of the United States, and every time he fucked somebody, he acted like he was doing them a favor. Widespread homelessness in America created by the Reagan budget cuts? They’re “urban campers,” Grandpa quipped, and acted as if the homeless were all social rebels out of Easy Rider, guys and gals who quit the rat race to go on the road and do their own thing.


We got the first glimpse of this dark side of Reagan in the speech in front of the Republican National Convention in San Francisco in 1964. He derided hunger and starvation in this country (which have always been very real problems)—and any government welfare programs to assist—by joking: "We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well, that was probably true. They were all on a diet."

When I first watched Reagan deliver this psychopathic punchline via videotape, I was shocked. This is Nazi humor. When you kick the weak and helpless and add some humor to vent the hate, that’s Nazi humor. “Of course the Jew is a man,” Goebbels quipped. “But the flea is also an animal!” The trademark is always viciousness. But Reagan had found a way to inject humor into the torchlight rally.

There you go again

And now we’ll go back full circle—back to Kenneth Millar, a.k.a. Ross Macdonald, who wrote the basis of Harper, the movie that triggered the whole private eye revival. In 1982, I cold-called Kenneth Millar in Santa Barbara. He was in the book and I thought, hey, why not. (I’ve done the same with other writers and artists I've admired—at age 15 and 16, in 1970 and 1971, I had lengthy phone conversations with Harlan Ellison, August Derleth (founder of Arkham House, father of postwar fantasy publishing, and the only reason we know who H.P. Lovecraft is today), Lin Carter, and the great Steve Ditko, creator of Spider-Man and notorious recluse, who chatted with me for 90 minutes in 1971. Maybe I'll describe these conversations at length in a future post.


Comics genius and great American illustrator Steve Ditko, creator of Spider-Man and the psychedelic Dr. Strange: he was incredibly thoughtful with this fan in April 1971

Anyway, Ken’s wife, the famed Canadian suspense novelist Margaret Millar, answered the phone, and after ascertaining that I was a die-hard, true blue fan who had called to profess his admiration for Mr. Millar’s amazing body of work, she put her husband on the phone. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was dying of Alzheimer’s.

I never would have know it, until later in the conversation when I asked for his address and he couldn’t’ remember it. Otherwise, he was charming, pleasant, and very with it. I finally had the chance to tell him the story of how I got his 1959 masterpiece The Galton Case on the Princeton curriculum. In the fall of 1974, during the first semester of my junior year at Princeton, I took a class in Modern Poetry with Prof. Richard Ludwig, who was also the curator of the university’s Rare Book Collection. (The lucky bastard.) Dick and I developed a rapport, and he mentioned to me casually that he was going to be teaching freshman English, for the last time, next semester. At the end of the class, he wanted to give the students something enjoyable to read. By the way, he’d just run into Ken Millar at an academic conference in Santa Barbara (Ken was a faculty member of the University of California at Santa Barbara). Could I suggest something of Ken’s for the kids to read?

The enigmatic ending of Harper

The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald,” I blurted out immediately. “It’s his breakthrough book. It’s when he stopped trying to imitate Chandler, and he began dealing with more personal, Oedipal themes—like how his father left him when he was very young and he’s been searching for him ever since.”

That’s how The Galton Case ended up on the Princeton English curriculum. I also had the chance to tell Ken how much his 1947 novel Blue City and influenced my novel Monopoly. Like Red Harvest, Blue City is the story of a corrupted town (read: America), but it has a Chandlerian warmth and color that Red Harvest lacks.

I happened upon an extremely rare original Knopf hardcover edition from 1946 from the New Castle County Library when I was a teenager in Wilmington, Delaware, and even the rotten Kiddie Noir 1984 film version of it starring Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy (the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall on their generations) can diminish my love for the book.

I mentioned to Ken that I also realized that both Blue City and The Galton Case were pivots in his career. Blue City was his first really first-rate book, and The Galton Case shows his emergence as a writer of serious literature.

Dick Powell as Marlowe and Claire Trevor as a woman with a secret past out of Dickens in Murder My Sweet

“Wow, Blue City and The Galton Case, you really know my work,” he said, audibly impressed. “They were the two major turning points as a writer.”

I told him about how greatly Blue City had influenced my novel Monopoly about the Mafia takeover of Atlantic City, and he wished me best of luck on Monopoly. I was thrilled.

A terrific Japanese movie poster of Harper: Ken appealed to everyone

It was then I asked him if he was writing a new Lew Archer novel. He hadn’t been heard from in several years—the family had kept his descent into Alzheimer’s a carefully guarded secret, and rightly so—and like everyone else, I was curious.

Murder My Sweet

He asserted that he was, but when I got up my courage and asked if I could have a mailing address where I could write him, that’s when the memory lapses began, and shortly thereafter, Margaret took him off the phone.

In 1976, Paul Newman played Lew Harper again in The Drowning Pool: a German poster

Of course, at the time, I had no idea that Ken had Alzheimer’s, but nonetheless, I felt blessed that I had just spoken with the successor to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and a major boyhood hero. It was only later that I realized he’d been battling Alzheimer’s, and now, in retrospect, I’m extremely honored that after screening me, his wife Margaret thought I was fit to chat with her husband.


On a final note, I should also add that while writing Monopoly, I was greatly influenced by Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park, which I think is the finest American novel written since World War Two.

Clouds Ahoy!--in The Deer Park, indeed: Mailer and Madonna, 1994

In the early Eighties, Mailer’s vision of America as a gigantic Deer Park—an official sex resort, a brothel for the King and his court—jibed perfectly with what I saw happening in Ronald Reagan’s America and the exciting new Atlantic City, where it only took two months for high-school graduates working as casino dealers to turn into raving speed freaks in order to stay awake on the grueling night shift.


* * * * *


Fun, fun, fun: George Peppard strikes an ultracool pose in an unidentified Sixties comedy




Monopoly: A Novel of Atlantic City




And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?

Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are within?

That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked; and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

And the LORD said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.

And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken it upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes:

Peradventure there shall lack for the fifty righteous; wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it.

And he spake unto him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty's sake.

And he said unto him, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: Peradventure there shall be thirty found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there.

And he said, Behold now, I have taken it upon me to speak unto the Lord: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for twenty's sake.

And he said, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten's sake.

Genesis 18: 23-32

Don't look back: the fate of Lot's wife during the flight from Sodom, frozen into a pillar of salt



Part I


THE GARDEN STATE


Chapter 1


The first Thursday in September, the day before Labor Day weekend, I fled, I escaped the City, I fled its sticky heat, its honking traffic, its polluted atmosphere, and the cold stares of its people. It was suffocating me. Late at night I would snap suddenly awake, fearing that a strong but shadowy figure straddling me was smothering me with my own pillow. In the fresh morning I would emerge into the sullied sunlight and join the hurrying ranks of the crowd streaming by, but soon the continuous scrape of shoe leather on cement would grate on my nerves. The proud monied towers of glass, steel, stone, and concrete would grow oppressive as they loomed above pressing in on either side, crowding out the sky.

For three unbroken summer months I endured my private work in the City, but by the end of August I found I was coming to loathe civilization. I would return home with a throbbing headache, my eyes burning with smog and particular matter. Involuntarily I would flinch when the subway came thundering into the tunnel, screeching to a stop; to be honest, I would grow afraid, standing alone in the dark subterranean catacombs, my nose aching with the peculiar smell of subways compounded of grinding metal, tension, zoo urine, and hot stale recirculated air, the stifling smell of a dead world.

Sometimes I would be scared that someone might shove me under the crushing wheels of the subway as it came roaring into the station. Sometimes I would be scared that I might jump.



As I marched with the rest of the restless crowd through the urban canyons, the faces of strangers would begin to float past like caricatured features painted on colorful helium balloons. The stiff faces of the middle-aged professionals in uniform business suits, the blank, painted faces of the women, the angry, resentful faces of the blacks, the drained gray faces of the elderly, the tired, irritable faces of the working-class people, the sneering faces of youths, after awhile they all became part of a passing parade of masks that increasingly bothered me. The women were starting to look like drag queens and the drag queens were starting to look like women.

I forgot about work. I was holing up in my office with the door locked and the blinds drawn and the air-conditioning turned up, drinking from my desk bottle of Seagram's 7 while the afternoon traffic rumbled outside in Times Square. I was shutting myself off from friends, in fact I was avoiding all unnecessary contact with people. I was not answering my phone, I ignored my message service. (As a result I was two weeks late learning the news that a close friend of mine, a restaurant owner, had been hospitalized by a brutal mugging he absorbed along with multiple stab wounds one sultry night at 90th and Amsterdam. His wife tried to call me. He subsequently died.) Instead of congregating with people I was home watching TV, or hanging out in midnight movie theaters, or drinking alone in bars, and when I realized what was happening it disturbed me.

I made a few attempts at human contact, but nothing worked. It was all self-defeating. Once I had an intense short-term affair with an attractive young woman in advertising I picked up in an East Side singles bar, but it ended disastrously. Doormen insulted me, over the phone secretaries put me on hold for fifteen minutes, friends notified me that letters mailed to me were being returned stamped "ADDRESSEE UNKNOWN." The last straw occurred when I got into a shouting match with a cabbie who nearly sideswiped my car—he was a moron—and I realized after jumping out of my Chevvy that I was about to haul off and deck him. The city was getting to me. I was getting, as my aunt used to say, peculiar.

So on the Thursday of the last official weekend of summer—the day before the Big Weekend, Labor Day—I elected to run away from the City. I announced to friends and business associates that I was going to the seashore to celebrate Mental Health Week. I spent the afternoon packing an old battered Naugahyde suitcase and locking up my chaotic studio apartment in the West Fifties, trying not to disturb the cockroaches. To avoid the rush-hour traffic I knew would be pouring out of town, at five I ate dinner up in my office, consisting of a crummy tuna fish sandwich on stale rye bread and a styrofoam cup of weak coffee from a deli downstairs, while I sat at my desk, alone, and listened to the city empty itself.

When it started to get dark, around seven, I closed up my office on 1501 Broadway and piled into my car, and roaring out of the underground parking garage I swung across West 42nd and Eighth, scattering a shrieking throng of the lost souls of Times Square and other human flotsam swarming past the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

In time the distant, twinkling skyscrapers crowding out the Manhattan skyline flashed by in the deepening dusk, and then I was shooting into the Lincoln Tunnel, glaring lights on either side illuminating the dirty white tiles of the hot, dim, womblike tunnel for me and for the rest of the roaring traffic speeding to get out of New York.

The air of the tunnel invaded my car, reeking of carbon monoxide and dread, it smelled like a subway, and then failing daylight, I was out, I was free, I was in the Garden State of New Jersey.




Dutch Schultz takes a nap



Chapter 2




Tearing down the New Jersey Turnpike as evening fell, weaving in and out of the violent rush-hour traffic shooting down the expressway, I found myself getting drowsy. It was almost as though, once liberated from New York, now that I was wending my way down through the Martian landscape of the industrial wasteland of North Jersey—oil tanks and eerily-illuminated refineries flashing by, flickering gas flames lashing against the hellish sky—my body was craving ease as it was finally able to relax, and now it was demanding rest.

So soon after I switched onto the Garden State Parkway I pulled into the Cheesequake Service Area that offered a restaurant and several Exxon gas pumps, and as I climbed stiffly out of my car, darkness having settled over the crowded lot, I watched the incessant stream of traffic hurtling down the Parkway like the advance hordes of a new mechanized army invading the South. Pulling open the gleaming glass door, I stepped out of the warm night and into the cool air-conditioned rest area. It felt great to be out of New York.

After waiting in a long line I ate a bad meatloaf dinner served up out of cafeteria-style troughs and looked at the pretty tanned teenage girls in their tight halters and shorts accompanied by their families; and refreshed by a hot meal I returned to my car, making it close to nine when I got back on the road.

For the next hour I passed quite a few disabled cars parked by the side of the road with their stranded drivers: vacationing motorists flocking to the shore in droves for Labor Day weekend whose autos had broken down in the middle of the night, their hazard lights now blinking. They tried to flag me down as I rushed by but I whizzed right past. I felt a little guilty about not stopping to help, but I just thought to myself, Sorry, but I can't spare the time.

By ten I was starting to get heavy-lidded again, so I turned off at the Monmouth Service Area in central Jersey to load up on coffee; and with a steaming mug in my hand I wandered around the place, checking out the brightly-lit vending machines and flipping through the local phone book to see if the parents of a local blue-collar Jersey Shore rock idol were still listed. Yes, they were.

After killing an hour and giving my nervous system time to recharge, I bought some peanut-butter crackers and a cold can of Pepsi from the vending machine and hit the highway again.

Once I passed by the Belmar-Neptune City exit, where 33 West branches off through Freehold toward Trenton, when I crossed the invisible line of demarcation that divides South Jersey from North, the competing traffic thinned out considerably. It was wonderful, coursing down through the Pine Barren country, and being the only or almost the only car on the road with no other headlights to disturb me, my engine purring in the blackness as I shot quickly down the parkway, surrounded by grass and the shadowy looming pines, their fragrance pressing in on me in the night darkness while the asphalt road ahead revealed by my headlights showed itself to be still stained and fresh-looking after a recent shower, the road ahead turning and rolling and burrowing on through the tunnel of night as it unfolded.

But I kept shooting past more broken-down cars with their hapless drivers: the first casualties of the Big Weekend. Their scared, distraught faces would flash past as they tried to flag me down, flares sizzling around their cars, and I would whip by.

My conscience really began to nag me. Some Good Samaritan I was. Why did I keep running away from them? These people needed help. My help. And if I didn't help them, who would?

But still I didn't stop.

As midnight came around, drowsiness started to creep up on me yet again. The darkness and the forest and the sweet pine fragrance were beginning to have a hypnotic effect on me, and I caught myself dropping off. So to avoid an accident I swung into the Atlantic City Service Area, just a few miles before exit 40, and after gassing up I stationed myself in a booth in the snack area, sipping coffee, and gazed out at the cars rushing by in the darkness.

When the coffee hit my intestines I hastily repaired to the men's room, striding past the biorhythm machine with the flashing lights that offered to predict my future, based on the day I was born. Ensconced in one of those stalls I was musing and thinking about those stranded motorists. It bothered me. What if one of these days my car broke down? Who would stop for me?

I was washing my hands at the sink when a piece of graffiti scratched on the wall arrested my eye. It read: "Learning the truth about yourself is like licking honey from a razor blade."



Chapter 3



Our Lady of Thailand



She was wearing a white tank top and bluejeans. She was standing by the side of the road with a duffel bag beside her and one thumb stuck in the air, and in that outfit at one o'clock in the morning she stood out as much as a shimmering pillar of fire or a burning bush.


I was just coming off the Parkway via exit 40 (Absecon/ Brigantine/Atlantic City) and driving down the White Horse Pike, Route 30, which is the way you get to Atlantic City, and passing through the wooded outskirts of Absecon, dead at this hour, closed-up motels and tattered billboards flashing past, when I see this girl hitchhiker standing all by herself beside this deserted field encircled by pines. In the middle of the night. On a road that is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

Ordinarily I never would have stopped. If I had started out from New York an hour earlier or later, I never would have met her; never would have known her name. But I had got to thinking about all those people whose cars had broken down back there on the Parkway, all the ones I hadn't stopped for and helped, and I got to feeling pretty guilty; and when I saw the girl all of a sudden I figured, well, if I wanted to help somebody this was my chance. Maybe this way I can make up for not having given those people a hand. Guilt pressed my foot against the brake.

And besides. A young girl, hitchhiking all alone at one in the fucking morning, in these parts? Jesus, she was asking for it! How stupid could she be?

Hitting the turn signal, I swung over to the shoulder of the road, my tires spraying sand and gravel as the girl came running up from behind with her duffel bag. I had just rocked to a stop when she poked her head in through the open window on the passenger side with a sunny smile. She was bending over, so I got a good look at her firm young breasts. "Hi," she said, a little out of breath.

Hitch-hiker Debbie Miller (Jodie Foster)

"Don't you know better than to be out at this hour of the night?" I nearly shouted.

She grinned at me. "You stopped for me."

"Where you going?"

"Where are you going?"

"Bay City," I said.

"That's fine with me."

"Get in."

Opening the door, she threw the duffel bag in the back and hopped in beside me. She slammed the door and I roared away.

She was young, maybe eighteen, nineteen, and pretty, with straight dirty-blonde hair to her shoulders. She had been an unmistakable sight by the side of the road: that gleaming white tank top shone like a beacon. Here in the car it looked painted on. She was wearing some sort of attractive, fragrant cheap perfume and her bare arms were nicely tanned.

She had a full, slightly roundish face, with baby fat still clinging to her cheeks, split occasionally by a cocky grin. A tomboy's face, with a sharp nose and doelike eyes and a full lower lip. As faces go it was not incredibly pretty, but it was a nice face, one that you could get to like, a sweet, vulnerable, appealing face, with a disarming smile and bright, cheerful eyes.

I would've taken her for a beach bunny except I saw intelligence in her startling gray eyes; she didn't have the dull, slack look so many New Jersey high school girls had, the drink-beer-and-go-along-with-the-boys faces, the faces that populated K-Marts and checkout counters and homes for unwed mothers. There was a liveliness to her face, and a quickness and a delight; it wasn't a scholastic intelligence that she had, but all the same if she wound up drinking beer in a trailer with the color TV on beside a slow-witted husband, a man beneath her she had married out of inertia or desperation or both, it would be a loss.

"Really, you shouldn't be out hitchhiking around here, especially at night," I said. "Every year generally several teenagers disappear in these parts. Mostly their bodies tend to pop up in Toms River. Nice place, Toms River. Interesting things seem to happen around there. A few years back a couple of teenage boys vanished. The police found their nude bodies in the woods a few days later, they'd been ass-ripped and their skulls were crushed. Somebody'd had a party with them." I grinned at her. "You ever hear about it?"

"No."

"Take my advice and take the bus next time. Stay off the roads."

"I've never had any problems."

I stared at her. "Why'd you just get in the car with me like that? How do you know I won't abduct you?"

"You wouldn't," she said, and smiled. "I trust you."

I sighed. "Well, you know, there used to be a ring that operated in this area. They used pretty young girls like you as decoys. A motorist—a man, usually—would pick her up hitching a ride and a little later on down the road one of her accomplices pretending to have car trouble would flag him down. She'd get the driver to stop and together she and her accomplice would rob the driver and kill him, take him out to the Pine Barrens and axe him. One of the nastiest little rackets ever conceived."

"Right," she said, nodding. "How do you know I'm not like that? How do you know to trust me?"

"You've got an innocent face. Besides." I grinned. "I'm lots bigger than you are."

"What's your name?"

"Scott Lawrence."

"I'm Debbie Miller." She offered her hand. "Pleased to meet you."

"Pleased to meet you." I shook her hand.

We passed by rundown, seedy motel after motel on either side, all with the most disarming, fanciful names, as if a romantic name could cancel out their essential grimness: the Sea Mist, the Twilight, the Holiday, the Rio, the Driftwood, the Motel 4-U, the White Horse, the R&A, and of course the romantically named Trade Winds Motor Lodge. Once, in the forties and fifties, this stretch had been quite prosperous, when the White Horse Pike was the main highway to Philly; but then the Parkway was put in, and this area dried up and fell into decrepitude. It was kind of sad. The sight of all these motels made me think of sex, but glancing over to the teenage honey beside me, all I could think of was, No way. I quickly put those thoughts out of my mind.

Finally we came to the flashing red light at the intersection where Route 9 passes through Absecon; to the left, as we shot through the crossroads, the road led up to Stockton State College in Pomona. "You a Stockton student?"

"No, I just got out of high school. I'm from Plainfield. Up north."

I cleared my throat. "Really? I figured you for a Stockton student thumbing her way to Bay City, a lot of Stockton students live there in the winter. They just opened up for the new school year, you know. You look older than eighteen."

"Thanks."

"What brings you here?"

"Oh, I just wanted to hitch down here for a week of sun and fun. Before it's all over. I've tried to get down to the shore as much as I can this summer."

"You starting college soon?"

"No. I don't know what I want to do. My mom wants me to get a job, so I guess I'll do that this fall. I'm just so happy to be out of school. I've been enjoying my freedom all summer."

"Don't your parents mind your being out like this?"

"My parents are divorced."

"What about your mom?"

"My mom sleeps a lot."

"Oh, I see," I said.

When I shook out a cigarette and fired it up with the dash lighter, she asked if she could have one too. After I gave her one she lit and drew on it like an old pro, then blew the smoke out as if she were Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.

"Thanks. I saw the New York plates on your car. You down for some gambling?"

"No, I own a cottage in Bay City."

"That's great. What do you do for a living?"

"I'm a confidential investigator."

"You mean a private eye?"

"More or less."

"Wow, this is really cool." Tapping her cigarette against the car ashtray she asked, "You down here on a case or something?"

"No, this is strictly a vacation for me. Are you staying with friends in Bay City?"

"Yeah, I know some people there. And if I don't get up with anyone there, there's always Atlantic City. I know plenty of places to crash."

"Well, if you need a place to stay, I've got lots of room. I live on 18th Street in Bay City."

She froze momentarily with sexual tension. "Thanks. But I, I don't think that'll be necessary."

Damn, I hadn't meant her to think I was coming on with her. At least I didn't think I'd been. So instead I smiled. "Fine," I said.

"What do you think of the new gambling? The casinos and all?"


"I don't pay much attention to them. They sure have changed the area, though."

"I think they're wild. I like going to them."

"A lot of people do."


We were leaving Absecon and approaching the glittering lights of Atlantic City. Debbie suddenly smiled beside me.

"Hey, you're an okay person to talk to, you know that?" she said. "I'm glad you picked me up."

"Glad you think so," I said, smiling to myself.

Then we hit the Wetlands.





Chapter 4





It stinks, I thought as the stench assaulted my nostrils. The heavy mephitic odor was overpowering.

"Pheww," Debbie said, wrinkling her nose, her pretty face screwing up into a grimace of disgust. "What's that smell?"

"Low tide." I grinned. "The stink of corruption. As the tide runs out, you see, it leaves all the debris—dead marine life, seaweed, sewage, you name it—stranded on the shore, where it just festers. And rots."

"Turns my stomach," she said and cranked up the window on her side.


As we shot through the tidal marshes outside Absecon—the Wetlands, as they're called, surrounding Atlantic City—reeds and cattails and spartina swept by, interrupted by looming dayglo billboards advertising the big-name headliners playing the casinos in A.C. I saw Jack Giordano the singer was at the Galaxy.

Then we were rolling over the Absecon drawbridge, where in the daytime you can see poor people fishing, and there before us, set against the soft sparkling night, was Atlantic City. As we headed straight down Absecon Boulevard, Debbie was excitedly calling out the names of the casinos she saw billboards for. The thoroughfare was strangely black and deserted. Not that many cars out at this hour. Quiet.


At the sign for Bay City I executed the curious jughandle to the right, paused for the light, then when it changed I shot across Absecon Boulevard and down Egret Avenue, the feeder road for the island of Bay City.


The place had changed in my absence. I could see that already, powering up Bay City Boulevard, even before I crossed the bridge leading to the island proper. Towering in the night, illuminated bleakly like a whited sepulchure, rose a gigantic ultramodern concrete casino-hotel, perched on the edge of the bay right across the road from the Pat Hurley State Marina. The name THE SILVER DOUBLOON was emblazoned across its massive edifice in gleaming metal lettering. It hulked there, brutal and self-confident in its power.

"That's a new addition to the scene," I said.

"Awesome," Debbie said beside me. "I'd like to go there sometime."


Then we were shooting up the ramp and we were crossing the bridge of light, the wide concrete span, bordered by twin streamers of glowing-white fluorescent tube lights, that connected the island to the mainland. Shimmering in the night when seen from afar, the fantastic bridge linked Bay City to the rest of the world like a celestial arch.

Bay City is an island community of some nine thousand souls that lies just north of Atlantic City, an isolated strip of land seven miles long hard by the Jersey Shore. It is so called because it huddles right next to Kidd Bay, named after the infamous Captain Kidd, allegedly the first white man to set foot on the island. Blackbeard the Pirate, Edward Teach, also slept there; even then Bay City was renowned as a haven for pirates.

Today Bay City is a middle-class haven, heavily blue-collar but increasingly a bedroom community for the casinos where a surprising number of well-to-do people live and the well-known retire. It's strictly a Peyton Place, the kind of town where everyone knows everyone else's business. And yet it is peaceful, and the streets are safe and you can go out for a stroll at night without fear of being robbed raped or mugged. It's very safe—probably the most secure community around, a town where until recently you could sleep with your doors open.

Bay City is just one of the many communities with fanciful romantic names—many with a nautical ring—that festoon South Jersey: Atlantic City, of course, and Ocean City, but also Surf City, Brigantine, Ship Bottom, Sea Isle City, Seaville, Stone Harbor. The names of these towns always kill me, lending such an exotic, fabulous aura to mostly small-time seashore resorts that come to life only in the summer, in the tourist season, but that in the winter hardly exist at all, except as desolate, windswept near-ghost towns.

As we coursed down the narrow causeway of Bay City Boulevard, the main drag of the town, through the residential area at the mouth of the island by the lagoon, we swept past the sign that has been there for years, and that always makes me smile. It showed the familiar Bay City lighthouse, and it read:

WELCOME TO

THE ISLAND OF

BAY CITY

All criminals must register

with Police Dept.

Violators will be prosecuted.


"You can let me off here," Debbie said. We were nearing the entrance, off to the right, for Bay City Estates, the vast tract of jerry-built condos and homes Baker-Ruehlmann Realty had thrown up in the last ten years that were being given away for only $150,000 and up to executives from Philadelphia and New York.

"Sure." I pulled over to the side of the road, close by which the waters of the cover lapped. Light shimmered across the lagoon.

"Thanks a million." She opened the car door on her side so that the dome light splashing down on her carved her youthful, sculpted features. "About back there—tell you the truth, I think I was lucky you picked me up."

"Wait a minute." Putting the car in park and letting the motor hum I got out my wallet, fished out a business card, then scribbled my local home phone and handed it to her. "Here. There's my number. If you ever need any help, just give me a call. Okay?"

"You got it." She treated me to an expansive smile. "Hope I can do something for you sometime."

She shook my hand and then she climbed out of the car. I caught a flash of her tanned legs and then the door slammed. "Have a nice vacation," I called.

"Right," she answered back from the darkness. "You too. G'bye."

Tooting the horn twice I drove off, my tires kicking off gravel. I thought about her. She was a sweet, very likeable young lady, charming really, in her own ingenuous, unaffected way. A piece down the road on the right, the local Wawa market was open. Boy, was it a big event for the island when a 24-hour store opened. I made a quick pit stop and copped some staples—milk, butter, bacon, bread, and eggs—to stock the refrigerator.

Once I reached the towering illuminated lighthouse—now a museum—planted in the center of the traffic circle, I swung around it and got onto Bay Avenue. I followed the bay on the left, listening to the quiet lapping of the water against the docks, past the public beach and the playground screened off by a chain-link fence, passing rows of streets lined with ugly little identical ranch homes on my right—pure Levittown, permastone palaces—until I came to 18th Street, my street, and turned left on it.


My house was third from the bay, on the left. I parked in front of it and shut the car down. Crickets. The street was deathly quiet. I referred to the block as Geritol Row, since I was the only resident under sixty. Across the street Mr. Goldfarb's brilliantly lit-up American flag flapped in the ocean breeze, the Stars and Stripes rippling in the wind.

Home again home again, jiggity-jog. Climbing out of my car, I hauled my suitcase out of the backseat and lugged it up the walk onto the front porch, and unlocking the front door I went in.


The house, of course, was in total darkness. Groping through the stuffy pitch black, my hand closed around the familiar standing lamp on the right between the orange plastic-covered twin sofas and I switched it on.

The place was a mess, as usual. Just as I had left it. Newspapers strewn about, books and magazines scattered everywhere, mail and records lying around. But home.


I'd acquired the place from my aunt Rose and my uncle Harry. After both my parents died in a drunken car wreck, I was transferred at the age of five to the custody of my mother's sister and her husband in South Philadelphia, and childless they raised me themselves. My uncle Harry, who worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, went without vacations for ten years and saved up enough to purchase a little railroad house on the Jersey Shore, and when they passed on I inherited it. Now I came down here whenever I needed to get away from it all. It was the only home I owned.

It was one-thirty. I opened the windows to let some air in, and prowling through the house to ascertain there'd been no break-ins, I installed my suitcase in my bedroom. After taking a welcome piss in the toilet I washed my face and brushed my teeth.


I was utterly exhausted. After having been on the road six hours, and now that the pressures were lifting off me, I was crashing quickly. As soon as I finished opening up the house, I climbed into my jammies and hit the sack.

Stretched out on my back in the double bed in what used to be my uncle and aunt's bedroom, I stared up at the stucco ceiling in the darkness a few minutes, then I turned over on my stomach and fell asleep quickly. I was home. Hooray. I dreamt no dreams that night.


Chapter 5





The goddamn phone woke me up. I stirred as the unsettling ringing continued unabated, cursed, and when the shrilling insisted, jangling my nerves, I lurched to my feet, furious in a dull way, my head still swimming, and stumbled into the small dining room. The phone was easy to find. It was screaming.

"Yeah?" I said, irritated, slumped against the open portal leading into the kitchen, half-awake. "What the fuck is it?"

"Bay City police," a hard masculine voice said. "Are you Mr. Scott Lawrence?"

"Why yes. Why do you—"

"You know a Deborah Miller?"

"Miller? Miller? Debbie Miller?" My head was just clearing. "Yeah, I gave her a lift tonight. Why, what happened to her?"

"She's been picked up on a possession of marijuana charge, and she's been allowed one phone call, and it's to you. You want to come pick her up?"

"What, where is she? Why isn't she—"

"She's too upset," the voice said. "She can't come to the phone."

"What's happening to her?"

"She was carrying under twenty-five grams when she was stopped on Bay City Boulevard, so it's only a misdemeanor, and our check on her shows it's her first offense, so she's being released on her own recognizance. But she'll still have to pay a fifty-dollar fine. You coming or not?"

"Why—sure. I'll be right down," I said and signed off.

What the hell was going on? Debbie had gotten herself picked up on a possession charge? How stupid could she be, carrying while walking down Bay City Boulevard in the middle of the night? And now she had sucked me into it. All I had wanted was a good night's sleep. It was four fucking o'clock.

Yanking on yesterday's stale clothes, I scrubbed my face with cold water and collapsed into my car. I was a little more awake when I parked on 14th Street outside the Municipal Building—the old City Hall. The modern, one-story brick structure, which could have passed for an elementary school or a suburban public library, was bathed in floodlights.

I walked into the police station, around the side. It was the strangest feeling; I'd spent most of my life in joints like these, first as a member of the Philadelphia police force, then as a private eye in New York: dirty linoleum floors and smeared pale-green walls and harsh flickering fluorescent lighting. But most of all the smell of fear. Haggard faces and styrofoam cups of sour coffee laced with Cremora and hard, emotionless men in blue uniforms. The American purgatory.

I must've been a sight to the uniformed night dispatcher in his glass-enclosed booth: heavy luggage under my eyes, wearing a rumpled suit and a dirty white shirt open-collared, without a tie. "I'm Scott Lawrence," I said. "I'm here to pick up the Miller girl."

"We got her back here," he said. "Follow me."

After he pressed the button that unlocked the green door to the interior of the station, the door buzzed and I entered and trailed him through an open office area with unoccupied desks into the back, down a short hallway into the tiny lockup area. They had three cells, all empty now, but he showed me into a holding room in the rear.

The room was bleak. A bare white cubicle that contained five metal chairs with colorful molded plastic seats and a long wooden table. In the room were the girl and two cops.

Atlantic City mob boss Nicky Scarfo

Debbie was shaken up, a mess. Her hair was disheveled and her face was upset, red, and tear-stained. Her clothes were rumpled and she was sniffing and sobbing and wiping away tears she was valiantly holding back.

The two cops could have been made of stone. One looked like a stern-faced Roman gladiator, one of the Emperor's favorites. Tall and well-knit and balding with an aquiline nose, he had clear cold eyes and receding dark hair. A Navy anchor was tattooed on the back of one hand and on the other the fingers were stained brown with nicotine.

The other cop was a little shorter but tight and muscular. A Pict. He had brush-cut black hair flecked with premature silver and hard, no-nonsense, appealing features. There were wrinkles collecting around his eyes and witnessing her distress he was coming close to smiling.

Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno, later murdered by Scarfo

"Which one of you called me?"

"Sergeant Bob Conover." The shorter one stepped forward and shook my hand with a strong, manly grip. "My partner, Gene Rossi. We were the arresting officers."

"Hello," said Rossi, the hawk-faced one, in a deep voice; staring at me levelly he didn't step forward to shake my hand but instead just inclined his head.

Officer Gene Rossi (Ed Lauter)

"What's going on here?"

"Mr. Lawrence?" Debbie cried, standing up and advancing toward me, sobbing. "This is so awful, this is just so awful, I don't know how to tell you—"

"What happened?"

"We picked her up by the side of the road about one-thirty," Rossi said. "We stop all stray individuals around this time of year. Vagrancy, burglary, that kind of thing. Well anyway we found this bag of marijuana in her duffel bag—" and he held up a clear plastic Baggie of pot lying on the table.

"That's a lie! That's a total lie! I didn't have that—"

"And brought her in and booked her," Rossi said in a bored tone.

"Mr. Lawrence—"

"Baby, you're just going to make it harder on yourself if you make a fuss," Conover said.

"Let her speak," I said. Conover stared at me.

"You want to know what they really did? They picked me up on a phony vagrancy charge and then they—what did you call it?" she asked Rossi. "Then they took me the long way home. They brought me back here and they—"

"Girlie," Rossi said, tensing. "Don't you try to—"

"They got me inside the jail cell here and I was scared, I was so scared, Mr. Lawrence—"

"I warned you," Rossi said.

"—and then they showed me this bag of pot they had lying around the station—"

"That's bullshit," Conover yelled.

"—and they told me that if I didn't cooperate they'd throw me in jail on a phony possession charge. And then this one, Conover, he comes up to me with this grin on his face and he goes, 'Okay honey—you want to get out of the jail cell, you got to fuck all the officers.'"

"Shut your face," Conover shouted.

"She's lying," Rossi declared loudly.

"And I didn't know what to do," Debbie sobbed, on the verge. "I mean it was two in the morning and here I was all alone by myself in this jail cell in this strange town and there was no one to help me and Sgt. Conover here unlocks the cell door and comes in—"

"She's a god damn liar," Conover yelled.

"Cool it, Bob," Rossi said. "Calm down. Can't you see what she's doing?" he asked me. "She's trying to smear us, hoping it'll draw attention away from her."

"It's your word against ours," Conover cautioned her.

"They raped me, Mr. Lawrence, they raped me and raped me—" she huddled against me sobbing.

"We did no such thing," Rossi said patiently. "Now miss, we can all see you're upset, so we won't hold this against you, but if we hear you talking this way about us again, we'll have no choice but to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law."

"Even so," Conover said, staring at her darkly. "We were gonna let you off easy. But now—"

"—they raped me!"

"Now you shut up now," Rossi snapped.


Me, I didn't know who the hell to believe, the girl or the cops, but the girl was just getting more and more upset and the cops were just getting angrier and angrier, so I voted the best thing was just to get her the hell out of here. So I started to hustle her out.

"Let me get her out of here and calmed down," I said. "She'll snap out of it."

"We don't like hearin' people spreadin' lies about us," Conover said.

"Yeah," Rossi said thoughtfully. "I'd watch it if I were you little girl. That mouth of yours could land you in a lot of trouble."

"You might wind up in jail as it is," Conover said.

Debbie had stopped speaking; she was reduced to whimpering tears.

I started to help her out of the holding room. The two cops were staring at us furiously.

"God damn little cunt," Conover said under his breath.

"Tell her to watch her mouth," Rossi called after us. "Or you'll be hearing from us."


Gorilla, a sculpture by noted Biblical illustrator Gustave Gore: note the influence on King Kong, the theme of the gorilla abducting a white woman



When I got her out to the car she fell apart. Totally. To pieces. I was, as you can imagine, pretty stunned by all this. She was obviously in no shape to answer questions. But I knew one thing I had to do: get her to a doctor and have her examined, to check out the veracity of her story.

So I piloted my car through the deserted gleaming streets of Bay City, with this sobbing hysterical girl beside me, back across the glowing bridge of light and into Atlantic City, where the casinos were just letting the gamblers out, and took Atlantic Avenue to Ohio and the Atlantic City Medical Center, where I had her examined in the emergency room. I explained the situation to a young doctor and a nurse led a tearful Debbie away.

Fifteen minutes later the doctor came out and announced his verdict: she was telling the truth.





Immediately the hospital summoned a detective from the Atlantic County Prosecutor's office, since that was the local law-enforcement agency under whose jurisdiction this kind of incident (allegedly involving area police officers) fell. While we waited for the investigator's arrival, physical evidence was taken from Debbie. The Rape Kit, it's called. Pubic hair combings, foreign pubic hair removal from the vagina with tweezers, blood sample, semen, saliva. Who, what, when, where.

Then Debbie saw a social service worker from the Rape Intervention Unit. A woman from the Atlantic County Women's Rape Crisis Center with iron filings in her hair. She spoke to Debbie in private. Interviewing her and, I guess, consoling her.

When the investigator from the Detective Bureau of the County Prosecutor's office arrived—a big, tired man by the name of Lt. Lewis Petrone, and really a pretty nice, if no-nonsense, kind of guy—I explained the situation to him and he went into the private room to see Debbie. A half hour later, when he came out, he didn't look the same. Even he, who must've seen everything, looked disturbed.

"We tried calling her mother, but nobody picks up," he said. "No other family she can think of right now. Who's she staying with?

"I don't know," I said. "I guess me."

He was taking the Rape Kit with him, he told me, and it would be a few days before they obtained the test results; but if the evidence was conclusive and supported her accusations—and it sure looks that way, he muttered, look at those bruises—the County Prosecutor's office would be following up with an investigation and a possible prosecution of the offending cops. Based on the Rape Kit test results, they could get a court order to pull blood and hair samples from the suspects. He told me they'd be in touch and to stick around a few days.

Feeling a little stunned—the Atlantic County Prosecutor's office?—I thanked him and watched him walk away down the long, gleaming, sterile hospital corridor, at the end of which Debbie waited.




Thank God they sedated her. I couldn't have taken having her in hysterics beside me in the car on the way back, now that I knew her story had been proved true: that the local Bay City cops were in the business of picking up stray teenage hitchhikers and fucking them for amusement. I couldn't have handled it. I would have been freaking out right along with her.


So she was groggy, not asleep but drugged-up as she sat beside me while I drove home through the bleached-out pre-dawn night. I was beat. And as she mumbled on I was able to piece together shards of her story.


There had been five of them. Conover and Rossi and the Deputy Police Chief and a short middle-aged one with a seedy mustache whose name she didn't catch and a younger one, tall, good-looking, muscular, with steelrim glasses, named Stanley. They all took turns. And when they finished, Conover got her calmed down and put her clothes back on and warned her that unless she kept her mouth shut, she'd really get into trouble.

I'd thought stunts like this went out in the Thirties. I knew that when Hot Springs, Arkansas, was a wide-open town run by gangsters in the Depression, the local corrupt cops would arrest young women they found hitchhiking by the side of the road (this at a time when several million kids were on the bum), then get them alone in lockup and tell them if they wanted out, they'd have to put out for all the officers, and that's how they staffed the local whorehouses. And I'd heard stray rumors that this kind of thing still went on in isolated small towns, mostly in the South, with young girls on hoked-up drug or vagrancy raps. But Jesus. In Bay City? In New Jersey?

Jesus Christ. I glanced over at Debbie, who was now dozing fitfully, thank God. The poor godforsaken kid. What must be going through her mind?

And here I come down for a nice, peaceful vacation and this had gotten dropped into my lap. What in the hell was I going to do with her? How was I going to handle this situation? I had no fucking idea. At this point, after all that had gone on, I just wanted to get home and get to bed. Let me figure it out tomorrow.

After I parked in front of my cottage, dusk lightening the horizon, I helped Debbie out of the car and led her into the house. Birds were starting to twitter in the trees. Under my guidance she tottered into the guest room. She didn't know what the hell was going on. With some difficulty I put her to bed.

I stumbled into my bedroom and shucked off my clothes, and climbing into some pajama bottoms I slithered into bed. Outside, a new day was beginning to flood the sky. Birds were singing. I closed my eyes and thought about the young woman down the hall whose innocence had been ravished hours before, and then I went to sleep.



* * * * *





Comments from readers are always welcome. You can reach me at: wolcottwheeler@gmail.com

If you're a publisher or editor who might be interested in publishing my novel Monopoly or seeing additional chapters, please feel free to contact me at: wolcottwheeler@gmail.com






1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the reading. I did however, notice something that was incorrect. The caption underneath Angelo Bruno's picture stated that he was murdered by Nicky Scarfo. In reality he was killed by Antonio Caponigro, aka "Tony Bananas" and Alfred Salerno (Antonio's brother in law)