East village noir, p.1
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           Russell Atwood
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"East Village Noir"

  a Payton Sherwood mystery

  by Russell Atwood

  a short story introducing the private eye hero of the Shamus-Award nominated novels, EAST OF A and LOSERS LIVE LONGER.


  (originally appeared as East of A in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 1997)

  Copyright (c) 1997 by Russell Atwood.


  All rights reserved and controlled by the author. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


  New York City, 1997

  Finding a teenage runaway in New York City is easy. The hard part is finding the one you're looking for.

  I was in my office/apartment at the computer, hooked up to the Department of Justice's database, downloading a file on evidence seizure for a lawyer friend, when call-waiting interrupted the transfer. My modem crackling, I switched the phone cord and picked up the receiver.

  They were calling from a payphone at Veselka's deli three blocks down. Walter and Louise Strich had come to the city to find their daughter Melissa. After a day of looking on their own, they wanted me to find her.

  I asked them to pick me up a coffee--dark, three sugars--and come right over. My place was a mess but there was enough time to empty the ashtrays, fold the couch bed, and gather all the dirty glasses into the sink. I met them at the top of the stairs.

  Mr. Strich said, "Thank you for seeing us on such short notice, Mr. Sherwood."

  "Thank you for the coffee." He waved away the dollar I offered. "Please come in."

  It took them awhile to get it all out, but my guest chairs are comfortable and I was patient. Their story was a familiar one:

  Melissa Strich, fifteen, had left her home in Keene, New Hampshire five months before, in mid-April, telling a friend she was going to Manhattan to be with her boyfriend, Gary Stadnicki, a would-be guitar player. The New Hampshire police's efforts to locate either Melissa or Stadnicki had turned up nothing; Stadnicki's last known address had been a squatter's building on East 13th Street that the NYPD had evacuated for demolition the previous week.

  For five months the Strichs didn't hear from their daughter. Then, two days ago, Tuesday, she called asking for enough money to get her home. So happy to hear her voice, they didn't pressure her for details, just wired the hundred dollars where she told them to, a Western Union on Avenue A, the Lower East Side. The next day, when there was no word from her, the Strichs checked with Western Union and discovered the money hadn't been claimed. Not knowing what else to do, frantic after so many months of worrying, they left their home before dawn the next morning and drove the six hours to New York. By 10 A.M. they were parked in front of the Western Union on Avenue A. They watched all day, but their daughter never came for the money.

  I asked Mr. Strich what kind of car they drove.

  Mrs. Strich answered. "You can see it from your window, Mr. Sherwood. The stationwagon on the corner."

  I craned back and, through the wide oval window overlooking 12th Street and 2nd Avenue, saw a pale blue stationwagon parked across the street. It had New Hampshire license plates and, sitting on its hood, a rangy hooker--probably little older than the Strichs' daughter--applying badly needed flesh tone to her face.

  "Your daughter could've picked your car out from five blocks away," I said. "You may have scared her off."

  "Our daughter's not scared of us," Mr. Strich said, almost a challenge.

  "But we didn't know what else to do," Louise Strich said. "I got so desperate I started stopping people on the street, showing them Missy's picture, asking if they'd seen her."

  She handed me the photograph, a head and shoulders shot of Melissa taken the year before: round hazel eyes, cornsilk hair fluffed back, feather earrings brushing her long, slender neck. She was hugging a golden retriever. If she'd been roughing it on the street for five months, I wondered if even her own mother would recognize her now.

  "Some people wouldn't even stop," Louise Strich said. "But...then there were these children sitting by--"

  "Children!?" her husband groaned. "One was shaved bald. A tattoo of a bat on his forehead. I couldn't believe she went over to 'em."

  Mrs. Strich set the record straight. "They were very polite. I showed them Missy's picture, but they said they didn't know her."

  I shrugged. "They probably wouldn't have told you if they did. These kids are down here living on the streets for a lot of different reasons; some are just slumming rich kids, playing homeless. Others are fugitives from their families, running from abusers, hiding out."

  "But listen, Mr. Sherwood, when we got back to the car, the one with the bat on his head came over. He said that he did know Missy and where she was."

  "He knew your daughter?"

  "He knew she was from New Hampshire."

  "He could've gotten that from your license plates."

  She looked unsure.

  "But he said he could go and get her for us, if only..."

  Her voice trailed off.

  I could see what was coming next. "How much did you give him?"

  Mr. Strich answered, disgusted. "Fifty dollars!"

  "But he needed it," his wife insisted. "He owed money to the person she was staying with and he--"

  "We waited over two hours," Mr. Strich said. "Then we called you."

  I nodded.

  "Is there anyone at your house in case your daughter calls?"

  "My sister's there," Walter Strich said.

  "How long do you plan to stay in the city?"

  "We don't have any plan, really." He was a little ashamed. "Do you think...how long usually do...?"

  I told them I'd have a better idea how things stood in the morning, suggested they check into a hotel for the night, and gave them the address of the Lincoln Towers on 34th Street; it had an underground garage.

  At the door, we shook hands. Their skin was cold and frail to my touch. In their watery, sleepless eyes I saw a desperation that embarrassed me. Against my better judgment I told them there was nothing to worry about, their daughter was fine.

  I'd looked for a lot of runaways since I took up the trade, first as an apprentice at Metro Security Inc. and for the last three years working freelance. The usual route was to canvass the youth hostels, shelters, and halfway houses, looking for Missy or anyone who may have seen her, but it was too late to start that process now, a little after eight P.M.

  It bothered me that Melissa never picked up the money. A hundred dollars pulled a lot of weight on the street. Something obviously prevented her from getting it; I just didn't know what. Rather than rely on my psychic powers, I put my mouth to work for an hour calling the area hospitals and asking if Melissa Strich or a Jane Doe fitting her description had been admitted in the last two days. Everywhere I called Louise Strich had preceded me. I guess calling hospitals is a parent's first reflex.

  I indulged a reflex of my own and called my "in" at the 9th Precinct on the Lower East Side.

  Billie Mallow had only been on the force three years, but she'd already perfected her professional tone of bored hostility. Of course, that all changed when she heard my voice: the hostility was no longer bored.

  "What do you want?"

  "Fine, thanks, and yourself, Billie?"

  "Look, I'm busy here, Payton."

  We used to date. It was more than five years ago, when we were both enrolled at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and only lasted four months, but I never lost the urge to hear her voice. As for Billie, I don't think she'll ever forgive herself for going out with me in the first place.

  I quickly gave her Melissa Strich's description and asked if anyone matching it had been collared over the last couple of days. At least it would've explained why Missy hadn't claimed the cash.

  Billie laughed gruffly. "Is that what you think I do? Stand by the door, stamping their hands as they pass through? Goodbye, Payton."


  Still, it'd been nice to hear her voice.

  A minute later, the phone rang and it was Billie.

  "Hey, Payton, you said Tuesday, right?"


  "Uh-huh. Your runaway got a name?"

  "Sure. Why, what you got?"

  "Maybe nothing. What's her name?"

  There was an official edge to her voice that made me sit up and squeak my swivel chair.

  "That depends who's asking, Bill."

  "How about a couple of first grades who'd love to spend the whole evening asking? They're looking for a kid like yours, snatched a purse outside the Outsiders Cafe Tuesday noon."

  "Things must be slow, detectives working on a purse-snatching."

  "They're homicide. The purse belonged to Charles Marburger's niece."

  The name was fresh in my memory. I thanked Billie for the information, but hung up on her angry demands for the girl's name. I dug yesterday morning's Post out of the garbage, shook out the cigarette butts, and read the article:


  A 72-year-old autograph expert

  was found fatally stabbed in his

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