In the prison movies that were Morris Wing’s favorites before he went away the gates swung shut with a resounding clang whenever a convict was let out of stir. For sixteen-and-two-thirds years Wing had been waiting for that sound at his back. But after breakfast on his release date he was brought through the administration building to an exit as inauspicious as a craphouse door. What he heard were hinges that needed oil. The warden was not there to remind him to keep his nose clean. Not a single guard shouted See you soon.
Beyond the shadow of the walls the river ran clear and blue. There was never a time, glimpsing the Hudson through the bars, that Wing hadn’t dreamed of crashing out. How he would make good on his escape was not detailed. He saw himself in the water, swept along in the current. Wing’s dreams were short on specifics until he was in New York with a knife in his pocket.
The old bus was one of the few things on the street that looked the same. The sleek cars without running boards and headlight cowlings were designed for the people in sharp clothes going around with a spring in their step, a far cry from the Great Depression, when Wing was sent up. He was nineteen then. Nearly middle-aged now, he felt old. Little in this new world seemed as it should be, least of all himself. The only thing that hadn’t changed was his hatred for the man who’d ruined his life.
Two cons from Wing’s block sat at window seats and pressed their face against the glass. Wing shut his eyes. He didn’t want to be distracted by new things. The way he figured it, the bus ride was the first leg on a round trip. The new things would create appetites that would frustrate him when he was on the inside again.
Wing was first off the bus at the terminal near Times Square. The newsstands were crammed with girlie magazines in full color. Flipping through one, he was surprised by how much skin they showed. A redhead with huge jugs was on the cover, and when you unfolded her picture in the center you even got a look at her nipples. Wing replaced the magazine in the rack. Big jugs were something he’d struggled to forget about in prison. No sense in stoking an appetite for them either.
Real Detective had gone modern, too. Painted covers of jewel thieves in evening attire had given way to photos of molls in tight sweaters. The pictures looked like news shots, but Wing was doubtful. Sweater girls didn’t need guns to make a killing. He opened a copy to the contents page. Although the editorial offices had moved uptown, the name at the top was still Ed Pelfrey.
"This ain’t the library, mac," someone said. "Buy it, or give it a rest."
Wing looked up at a newsdealer in a Long Island Star-Journal apron, gave him a slit-eyed stare fashioned after the old movies and distilled on the yard. The man turned away in a hurry to take five pennies from a sailor who needed Clorets.
Times Square had become more of what it was before. In a store with French decks and loaded dice and handcuffs and braided whips and stilettos in the window Wing asked to see a switchblade knife. The mechanism wasn’t smooth; Made in Japan was stamped on the handle. He tried a gravity blade, flicking the steel till he found one with a nice feel. Then he put his release money, a hundred dollar bill, on the counter.
"Knife’s $2.98," the clerk said. "You don’t have nothing smaller?"
Wing snapped his wrist, and the blade locked into place with a soft click. "How’d you like to be smaller?" he said.
Pelfrey had been blue-penciling stories since 8:30, and his head hurt. Few of his writers were writers in any real sense, and he had to re-work each sentence between the double-spaced lines of copy. Pelfrey did not take coffee breaks, or leave the office for lunch. Nights, holidays, and on weekends he brought home articles to edit. Real Detective had cost him his marriage and most chances at happiness, but he was too busy to think about it. A minute away from work had to be made up another time, and he didn’t have a moment to spare.
Several times a year, when he was hurting for copy, Pelfrey named a cop as Real Detective’s police officer of the month. The awardóa cheap plaque from a Hell’s Kitchen trophy shopówas useful in getting tight-lipped detectives to open up about cases that stymied his reporters. Lieutenant Tom Podgorny of the Poughkeepsie, New York police was due in the office at noon. Pelfrey would have to write Podgorny’s story under deadline, which was making his headache worse.
"Hi there," Pelfrey said when he noticed a stranger standing over his desk. "It’s a privilege to meet you."
"So now it’s a privilege?" Morris Wing said.
Pelfrey rarely met a cop with a sense of humor, but the man watching him work struck him as funny. His deadpan was better even than George S. Kaufman’s, which was cracking up everyone who owned a TV.
"It’s not every day a hero comes to visit us."
"So I’m a hero, too?"
Not that funny after you heard him twice, and the lack of expression was creepy. Podgorny had been asked to wear his uniform so a photographer could get some shots. Instead he had on a chalk-stripe suit with broad lapels twenty years out of style, a dingy shirt, no tie, and cracked leather shoes. Either he was working a plainclothes detail on skid row, or he was headed there on his own.
"The readers say you are. You took a vicious killer off the streets."
It wasn’t just the ugly clothes and poker face. The man was wrong for a cop, gray and sullen in a job that demanded personality.
"You don’t know who I am, do you?"
"Why don’t you tell me," Pelfrey said.
"Doesn’t ring a bell."
Wing shut the door.
"Leave it open, if you don’t mind," Pelfrey said.
Wing kicked the doorstop under the door. "You told the world everything about me, and you didn’t know one damn thing."
"When was that?"
"Six thousand, a hundred and ninety-one days ago."
Pelfrey knew what Morris Wing was. Murderers he’d covered when he started on the magazine in the 1930’s were being paroled in bunches. Wing wasn’t the first to show up at Real Detective holding a twenty-year grudge.
"I don’t remember you. Six thousand days is a long time."
"You’re telling me?" Wing said. "I’ll refresh your memory. I killed Becky Smart."
Pelfrey had written the story himself, a case that stood alone for the brutality directed at a child. Rebecca Smart was twelve, the daughter of one of the last commercial fishermen in the Bronx, when her body was found in a derelict tugboat in the mudflats off City Island. She had been stabbed, strangled, raped, subjected to an encyclopedic compendium of sexual tortures. The jury came back eleven to one for the chair. The holdout, a nun, insisted that the youthful defendant should be spared so that he would know God’s love. Pelfrey had chided her for being a bleeding heart. Morris Wing was not interested in God’s love and had not been sent to a place where it would find him.
"What do you want?" Pelfrey said.
"Those six thousand, one hundred ninety-one days I spent in hell, I want them back."
"Get out," Pelfrey said, "or your parole officer’s going to hear you’re harassing me."
"I did the whole beef," Wing said. "If I’m returned for another six thousand days, or sixty thousand, I can do the time."
Wing flicked the blade out of his knife, and pushed it back inside the handle, flicked it out, pushed it back. Pelfrey didn’t believe Wing was going to hurt him. Morris Wing wanted to make him sweat, to hear the unscrupulous editor beg forgiveness from the simple child-murderer he’d slandered. Watching him play with the knife, Pelfrey wondered if he would be rid of Wing sooner if he peed in his pants. It wouldn’t be hard to do.
He got up from his chair, and Wing pushed him down. The first he realized he’d been cut was when he felt blood running down his neck. The knife shot out again. Pain in his cheek was immediate. Pelfrey raised his hand as Wing swiped at him, and the blade pierced the flesh under his thumb. The next jab sliced through his sleeve. As blood erupted from his arm he shoved the desk at Wing, who danced around it and slashed his other cheek.
The Smart case came back to Pelfrey as precise in its details as if he’d written it the other day. The coroner had compared the killing to the Chinese death of a hundred cuts. When defense counsel pointed out that the Chinese had disposed of their enemies with ten times as many small wounds the coroner had testified that Becky Smart’s killer was neither patient nor light-handed, inflicting ninety-five serious punctures before severing the carotid artery.
Pelfrey heard shouting, the different voices not coming from the same place. What got his attention were the loudest shouts, which were his. On the other side of the door the editorial assistant, Mary Glenny, demanded to know what was going on. The door rattled, and several thumps might have been Mary throwing her shoulder against the wood. It was hard to sort out the sounds, impossible to see with his blood in his eyes.
Pelfrey had a good idea that he was dying, and was concerned that Real Detective would screw up the story. How he would play it was with a first person account by a staffer under Mary Glenny’s byline, and a cover line above the title. He’d begin with Wing turning up unannounced at the office demanding to talk, then flash back to his trial and the years in prison, suggest an enigmatic character, somewhat sympathetic, before revealing the gruesome facts about the killing of Becky Smart, and tying up things with Wing having his revenge.
The thumping got louder. The door inched away from the jamb, and skidded open. It wasn’t Mary Glenny who stumbled inside but a stranger taking in the scene with wild eyes that made Morris Wing seem tranquil in comparison. There was a gun in his hand, and he was looking to use it. As the situation became clear he turned the gun around, and hammered Wing’s head with the butt, hit him three or four times before the knife dropped, and Wing went down. Stepping over Wing, he clamped his hand around Pelfrey’s throat.
"Don’t move," he said. "It makes the blood pump faster."
"Who are you?" Mary Glenny said.
Pelfrey held still as the stranger compressed his neck wound. He didn’t have the strength for anything else. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he heard the man tell Mary, "Tom Podgorny."
"Who?" Mary said.
"Your hero for the month."
Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Koenig.