WRITING: The Last Breath in Williamsburg

One of the most fantastic things about writing, I feel, is the research, one learns so much about things, but it is also the most time consuming, so here is an apology and hopefully something to whet your appetite for more, it is hopefully a kind of taster.

The apology; my latest book, The Last Breath in Williamsburg, as previously advertised, will NOT be ready for Christmas.

Now please don’t get me wrong, it’s well underway, it’s just that it has gained a momentum all of its own and now it has become a greater story of Angels and Demons, Witchcraft and Heroes.

So, here I introduce you, by way of the full finished prologue, to Patrick Teller. He is my Indiana Jones, my Jack Reacher, my Sherlock Holmes.

And I am planning a series of books around him…so please enjoy this sneak peek.

Prologue

Lower East Side, New York City, 1935

“There are those who rebel against the light, who do not know its ways or stay in its paths.”

Job 24:13

There was no air that evening, not a single breath, and it was hot, humid, muggy, stifling, enough to drive a man wild and a wife to drink herself to temporary happiness, albeit until another depressing morning surfaced and the merry-go-round of a marriage teetering on the edge of an abyss began its daily cycle of tit-for-tat comments and counter-comments.

Hurtful lies and accusations, disguised deceit and sometimes not disguised at all, in the latter’s case designed to cause an argument, to force a reaction and to get the ball rolling for the day.

A cycle of hidden hatred born out of years of verbal abuse and bouts of physical violence.

For Molly Mathere, Senior Typist in the largest typing pool in New York City, 22 floors up at President’s Charter Insurance Inc’s downtown office, it was just another day, just like the last, happily off to sleep with a brain full of cheap Pink Gin the night before, awake with two Aspirin and an antidepressant and a sense of impending doom.

Her husband, her tormentor, Josef, son of an Anglo-German migrant, was one of the 15 million jobless souls scrabbling for work and food and respect, and Molly had spent the last two years being the loyal wife despite the violent retribution he frequently dished out in frustration.

But it hadn’t always been that way.

She had once been his rock, when things were good, but when the Stock Market crashed, when the banks and the bankers tumbled and with it their ‘on margin’ shares, bought with borrowed money, became worthless, their comfortable lifestyle on Sutton Place evaporated overnight.

The terrible cocktail consisting of the start of 1929’s Great Depression and the end of Prohibition in ’33, had jointly switched their allegiances away from each other and towards alcohol, their own self-preservation from constant violent outbursts became reliant on intoxication, the relentless use of hate-filled threats and violent drunk actions were easily deflected that way.

Indeed Molly most days covered her scars and the yellowing black bruises beneath her carefully chosen clothes whilst Josef secretly kept his mental torment at being in the unemployed line or the bank run line or in the bread line, hidden from what friends he still had and from his loose acquaintances and any potential employers, for longer now than he cared to remember.

It wasn’t a marriage anymore, hell, it wasn’t even an existence, life? Life was screwed and them both with it.

To find some instant, welcome relief from the stifling New York heat, Molly loosened the collar on her blouse just a little as she hurried home along Orchard Street, she was careful not to show too much flesh as there was a fresh scar hidden beneath the white cotton.

The line of tall five-storey tenement buildings stretched for as far as she could see, both upwards into the bright blue sky and off into the dirty grey mashed tones of heat haze.

Not that she looked up anymore, the place disgusted her.

The pollution stained red brick buildings with the familiar black zig zag iron fire escapes and the obligatory New York washing lines covered with days worth of laundry drying in the summer sun filled her vision when she glanced forwards briefly and unhappily.

The contrast between that and of her huge house on the Upper East Side still a fresh and painful memory; her current situation depressed her deeply, it depressed her that they now lived in a twin roomed apartment costing $2 a month surrounded by migrants from the four corners of the globe.

It depressed her that her wealthy friends still lived a life of opulence just a few miles away while they, she in particular, scrabbled about in the dirt and the filth for less than $1300 a year; that they had to rely on relief from what was left of Bowery and Williamsburg’s once plentiful supply of Mutual Aid Societies; that Josef, when he could be bothered or was not drunk and incapable, had to queue for food at one of the fifty bread lines in the Lower East Side.

And she was depressed that she had to work for a pittance in that godforsaken typing pool with her fat, lecherous, sewer rat of a boss, constantly getting too close to her while she was working, so close he could smell her clean hair while he stank of cigar smoke and sweat and bad breath, his overt lusting after her day after day after day was making her physically ill.

She was done, she’d damn well had enough of Josef, of New York, of FDR and his Government’s false promises to get America working again, their pointless Second New Start programme, the first hadn’t worked, what good reason could they give to ensure  the second would?

She’d had enough of hearing every dialect other than English in her neighbourhood, the Hispanic, the Italians, the Jews, the Germans, the Poles, the Negroes, ah the Negroes, she wasn’t convinced about the Negroes, had a mild distrust of them after the riot they’d caused in Harlem last month, prior to that she had no opinion of them at all.

Of course, she hid her mild bigotry, and she hid it damn well, together with her self-loathed, newly discovered cussing and cursing, it didn’t do to splash your true feelings about too liberally, she needed to hold onto a small degree of dignity and deep down, she realised, that she had no real problem with them at all, any of them, it was just that she had to live amongst them now, and that she was destitute, that was possibly the real reason for her feeling the way she did about people.

No, it wasn’t just the foreigners, New York had always been full of foreigners, who are native New Yorkers? There was no such thing, Molly conceded.

She was bitter she guessed, bitter and trapped with no way forward and no way back, she was static, life had become, well, nothing but the hugest struggle and she blamed everyone else for the predicament she was in.

The sun continued to beat down on her head and again she wished she had been able to keep her collection of wide brimmed hats to allow her to deal with the heat, her only hat, the one she wore almost everywhere, a Lilly Daché sailor design in red, did nothing to save her from the sun’s rays and her neck was terribly sore from sunburn.

She’d realised halfway through this heatwave that she had unwittingly become a redneck of sorts which again she cussed about.

She hurried along the uneven sidewalk weaving coyly, apologetically, through the crowds, and past the noise and the hustle of Orchard Street, the rushing automobiles and buses, an abrupt New York argument, the sound of delivery horse hooves on cobbled streets, the begging and praying and shouting and the swearing.

Her legs were heavy, her back ached from sitting down at a typewriter all day, and her black swing dance shoes, which she patched up a little more each day, pinched at her feet with each hurried footstep.

She kept her head down, avoided eye contact with everyone in the vicinity as they watched her rush by shyly, same time every day.

She stepped around some shoeless children playing in the gutters, laughing and singing and dancing, she dodged around some loose chickens broken free from their wooden crates stacked high at the roads edge and desperate to make a dash for freedom, and she paused from walking momentarily as a frantic woman dressed in rags screaming in a language she didn’t recognise, cut across her path and tried unsuccessfully to gather them up.

As if not wanting to be touched by soiled people, Molly hurried along shyly, just one more block, a group of young men sitting in the sun on the stone steps to their tenement, watched her scurry away, they, apart from one with green staring eyes, didn’t give her a second thought and continued to slowly chatter in another foreign language.

Flustered, feeling suddenly unwell, she reached her block more quickly than she expected, 78 Orchard Street, but felt heady, giddy when she slowly began to mount the steps, she had an odd feeling, something didn’t feel right, still she climbed the eight steps to the battered heavy wooden door.

It was uninvitingly ajar.

She stood at the door for a moment, she suddenly felt scared, and confused, confused and scared, her head felt strange, spinning but not spinning at all, dull, numb, alert but not awake.

The building felt; she couldn’t place it…uninviting maybe, no that was an underestimate, a terrible underestimate.

Evil described it more accurately.

She wasn’t sure what to do next, she had a feeling she shouldn’t enter the building, she shouldn’t climb up the three flights of stairs to get to her apartment.

There was a sense of dread washing over the place, it was never the most welcoming of buildings, being in one of the most deprived, toughest parts of the city, but she’d never felt like this about it before.

Her focus was fixed on the darkness of the lobby just inside the door, it stank, then again it always stank, but this stench was different it seemed, unusual, not unpleasant, just different.

There was an odd sound too, like a whisper floating around the innards, the guts of the building almost spoke to her, it was barely audible, somewhere between whispered words and a hum and a hiss.

Was it in her head? Was it the heat? Had it gotten to her? She rubbed her sore neck, heatstroke maybe?

She suddenly felt faint, weak.

She stumbled on her suddenly weak legs like she was a marionette, being controlled by someone, manipulated, controlled.

She had no option other than to comply.

Her eyes were dry and unable to focus clearly, she staggered at the top of the steps and had to grab at the ornate flaking metal handrail to stop herself from tumbling into the street below.

That was it, heatstroke, she thought, she needed water and a lie down, but still that didn’t explain why her body was resisting her going inside; clearly something, self-preservation possibly, was stopping her.

She craned her head awkwardly and painfully back like the muscles were being halted  against some invisible force, she searched skywards and eventually she located her apartment window, it was open and a breeze played with the delicate curtains, twisting and tugging at them like they were strands of hair.

She felt the same way, as if she too were being tugged at and then tugged back, like she were the ribbon tied to the centre of a tug-o-war rope, swaying backwards and forwards in a mighty show of strength.

The blood rushed to her head as she leant backwards searching for an answer to what was happening to her and suddenly she felt ever more dizzy, she held tighter to the rail and slowly stepped unsteadily away, down the steps one-by-one, panic rushed through her, my god, had they gotten to him after all these years?

Josef, my Josef, please don’t say they’ve been.

Molly was distraught when she reached the sidewalk, she was being controlled, she was convinced, her body was not her own, she wanted to sit on the bottom steps to gather her thoughts but she couldn’t.

Still she searched up at the window, desperate to get a glimpse of what had happened inside the brooding tenement block.

The fear now was palpable, it was measurable, her heartbeat alone gave away the panic inside of her.

But then it all ended with two uncontrollable, forceful tugs on her arm and two tiny female steps off of the sidewalk and deliberately into the road and into the path of a huge delivery truck.

She heard a man’s voice in the near distance call after her, screaming to whoever, whatever was controlling her to stop, leave her be. Her sad, expectant and sorrow filled eyes momentarily fixed on his, they cried for help but she was helpless.

She couldn’t stop herself, she had the urge to resist but that urge couldn’t be acted upon, her eyes widened as the truck piled into her, she heard a laugh in her ears, a whispered laugh, an evil laugh, short and sharp and she screamed silently as the squeal of the trucks brakes cut through the New York soundtrack.

There was the hugest most fearful thud as the truck hit her.

Molly’s fear ended, for now at least, her twisted, broken and bloodied body, instantly void of life was devoured by the truck, she was sucked beneath its tough, solid, rugged chassis, and pulled under the huge crushing wheels, her body crunched and split and burst in a sickening mix of frightful sounds and a woman’s distant scream.

She had become just another New York death, another accident, another wasted life, another dead nobody, another number in the Bellevue Morgue register.

The shortest time later, even before the Police Department had bothered to arrive, Patrick Teller pushed his way through the shocked crowd with his Speed Graphic camera in his tight grip and the deep pockets of his long coat full of dark slides and flash bulbs.

He nudged a few bystanders away nodding to the road at their feet and whistled his companion, a tough brown and grey mongrel, Toby, through the gap he’d made.

Teller was a good looking thirty-something, six foot two inches tall with a thick mop of black hair greased back, an annoying strand of hair always hung down across his right eye and he found himself brushing it back most of the day to no avail.

He had solid features, strong and dependable and he was clean shaven, not even one of those ridiculously fashionable, Hollywood-type, Clarke Gable-esk moustaches graced his upper lip as they did with most men these days, his alert piercing blue eyes surveyed the scene ahead of him.

He took in a deep breath, absorbed the scene in sight and smell and sound.

A bystander with thick black eyebrows and arresting green eyes wrestled with the crowd beside and behind him commented happily ‘sure is one hell of a mess Mister’.

‘Sure is friend’ Teller replied with a disarming smile, he didn’t want to get into a conversation with the young cheerful man, he had a job to do and anyway, he hated the idle chat-chat that always seems to surround the sad death of another human being, like they were just the latest gossip until something more interesting came along that day.

He hated the lack of compassion in New York City, yes he knew he was just going to take pictures of a mangled and twisted human being for money but hell at least he’d do it with respect.

Ha, respect, in this town?

The man continued ‘Hey Mister, you need a hand?’

Teller had a thought, then replied ‘yeah Buddy, can you push em back a little, give me some space?’

‘Sure’ he replied, turning to the crowd with his arms out stretched wide and shouting in that familiar New York style ‘C’mon, c’mom will yu, give the guy a little space, c’mon, show a little respect’.

Whilst distancing himself from the man, Teller slipped a fresh dark slide into the back of the camera, cocked the shutter before yanking the sheath from it and slid it safely into his deep pocket, he then checked the dials around the lens, studied the light ahead of him and accurately guessing the correct exposure, he turned the aperture dial further to the right.

If he played his cards right, he’d get some lucrative unofficial shots of the deceased before New York’s Finest arrived and he’d be asked to don his unofficial police hat.

But he’d have to work quickly if he was to earn.

He’d been a New York street photographer since 1926, since his early twenties, and had a reputation only bettered by his rival and friend Arthur Fellig, the famous Weegee, whom he expected would join him at any moment now.

Both he and Weegee were way ahead of the curveball when it came to New York crime scenes, both had an instinct for hunting out stories, both were the luckiest sons of bitches at times.

Weegee in particular had been given his nickname by the Police Department because of his ability to locate a murder scene by instinct, almost as if the dead were calling him, like he was using a Ouija board. He was the most famous photographer in the city, it even said so on the back of each bromide print he supplied to the Press, a circular ink stamp read ‘Copyright – Weegee the Famous’.

He always was a shrinking violet was Arthur.

Other than blind luck, their apparent supernatural instinct at sniffing out the dead was down to the two illegal Police band radios Arthur had smuggled out of the Police Department years before, an offence they’d be tossed into the clink for for a very long time, if they were ever found out.

Still, New York Detectives were never bright enough to work that one out, rumour had it many still wrote to Mr Sherlock Holmes, care of London, for some advice, so the pair of them were more than happy to let them think they were magicians or wizards or something similar; give the case of the missing radios to a real Detective like Pinkerton’s though, well that was a different matter entirely.

Teller’s early arrival at this particular scene however, was pure luck, he had heard the commotion from his favourite diner, Black Joe’s along the street aways.

Something inside him, seconds before the woman was killed less than half-a-block away, alerted him, and all he had to do was slip the dregs of coffee into his mouth and swallow and feed Toby the last of the bacon from his plate and he was there.

He checked his watch, time was slipping away, so Teller set to work, running his fingers over the rear of the Valleries Transportation Service truck, thinking about the scene, feeling it, taking it in, absorbing it, then he hiked up his trouser legs and bent down below the wheel arch and viewed the remains of the poor soul beneath it.

He told her he was sorry but didn’t get a reply on this occasion, thankfully he hadn’t for months now, he still found those conversations unnerving, even after all these years.

On studying the mess beneath, he wasn’t sure the images he was about to take would be able to be sold, too graphic, like the famous London Police photos of Mary Jane Kelly, Jack the Ripper’s final victim, but he’d give it a try.

He set the Speed Graphic’s focus to 10 feet, slid his hand into his pocket, clicked a flash bulb into place and fired the first shot off; blinding white highlights illuminated the crowd of excited, chattering, laughing people, Toby sat guard just a few feet away, as obediently and as loyally as ever he did.

Once Teller had taken the first shot, he popped the hot spent flashbulb from its silver flashbowl and slid it into his pocket before he clicked another one in place, normally the flashbowl had a button which would carelessly eject the used bulb onto the concrete, but it didn’t do to be that careless at a crime scene.

From then on his natural momentum had quickly gained its full pace, he’d instantly become a machine, the professional sequence was played out once again, the fifth time today.

The sheath was slipped from his pocket, rotated and was slid deftly back into the exposed dark slide, the black side of the sheath would show him later that the film on that side was exposed. Then the dark slide was pulled out of the back of the camera, reversed and slid back in, a fresh sheet of film.

The sheath on this side, with the silver tip showing that this was a fresh sheet, was yanked out and another shot was taken after he’d cocked the shutter and checked the spring tension and slid another bulb into place.

Within four minutes he’d covered the scene from all angles, eight dark slides, sixteen shots.

Now he stood with the Speed Graphic under his arm, smiled down at Toby who, he was sure, smiled back up at him, and with chalk marked the final dark slide with a WG and slid it back into his pocket with two marked NYPD/Teller, the rest were his to sell.

Seconds later and Weegee, with a little effort, barged his way through the crowd, still there was no sign of the Police.

‘Teller’ Weegee nodded as he joined him, he checked his watch whilst bending down and stroking Toby with a rare smile.

Teller nodded back then handed him the dark slide with the duplicate images he’d taken, it was an unwritten law that if you got to a scene first and there was no sign of your comrade, you give him some of your shots before the crime scene was spoilt.

Weegee thanked him and handed him back a fresh dark slide loaded with fresh film, another unwritten law amongst those in the know.

‘How the hell did you get here that quick? Anything sellable?’ Weegee asked.

Coolly Teller replied ‘Was at Joe’s having a coffee, Aw, wouldn’t think so, she’s a mess under there, not even a human shape’

Weegee sucked in thought at the unlit cigar which always hung from the corner of his mouth and had become his registered trademark, Teller knew he would take no noticed of his advice, he knew he’d take his own shots just to be sure, many of today’s newspapers were fussy with what they printed, but many others, such as Acme Newspictures, or Daily News were unhealthily keen to publish only the most gruesome.

But Teller wasn’t sure even they would publish these, they liked human shapes, they liked that a nondescript twisted mass was somehow a recognisable human being.

She wasn’t on this occasion, more’s the pity for his bank balance.

Teller seemed like a hard-boiled man but he wasn’t, he had a tough exterior and sure he could mix it up when he needed to, you needed to be handy with your fists in this town doing this job, but he also recognised that those less fortunate than him needed a leg-up occasionally, especially now, in this financial climate of despair, sorrow and depression.

Many had suffered and many were suffering still, starving even, he was conscience of that, and saddened by it, but it didn’t do to show compassion or humility in this town, it would eat you alive and spit out your bones if you did.

He stood in the sunshine watching Arthur work, he always loved watching Arthur work, he was a genius, then the Police arrived, two uniformed Patrolmen on foot, one on a motorcycle.

They were all the same rank, just street grunts; he chose the least likely to lose things, the least stupid looking, which was a difficult choice, then he handed the two dark slides to the motorcycle cop figuring that if they gave him a Police bike to ride he’d be slightly more intelligent than the other two.

‘Give these to Sergeant Fuller will yu buddy? 90th Precinct, Union Avenue’ Teller demanded, then he called over to Arthur, pointed to the slides indicating to him that he’d already taken the official crime-scene photos and that he therefore needn’t bother.

Weegee the Famous nodded back then continued his work.

Teller began to walk away from the scene, then he stopped for a moment in thought, something was playing on his mind in the baking hot sun, there was something more to this, he didn’t like it but was intrigued to find out more.

He didn’t know why.

Truly, he didn’t know why, just a strong feeling of something.

He checked his watch, 6.24pm, and it shook him from his thoughts, he needed to get these sheets back to the car to be processed and over to Acme by 7.30 latest.

A vision of the dead woman entered his mind and then floated away like it was a final, sad goodbye, he acknowledged it then went to go ‘Come along Tobes’ he called and the scruffy dog trotted after him as Weegee did his thing.

But Teller knew it wouldn’t be the last time he’d visit this block on Orchard Street over the next few days.

He had that feeling.

That feeling which was never, ever, wrong.

 – End –

Copyright Jon Ball 2015, All Rights Reserved.

My first novel, Subterranean Black is available here

The Last Breath in Williamsburg available soon.

L-ast Breath Full Cover copy

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