"What's the thing you must never do, but you can't resist doing?" asks the street preacher on the loading dock. "The extra step that you can't stop from taking? The excess that brings you to Hell's Gate?"
It's what I did tonight, thinks the man in the front row, sinking down, trying to hide, knowing he's chosen the wrong place.
It's too light in here. Too big and empty. The men chasing me must be right outside.
The street preacher wears coveralls. The eleven P.M. sermon takes place on a hot September night. The once-a-week "church" is an abandoned warehouse garage in the South Bronx. Bare bulbs illuminate folding chairs that hold a smattering of half-sprawled, half-asleep prostitutes, homeless men, and even one long-haul trucker who knows he shouldn't be here but couldn't resist looking for a certain redheaded hooker. She'll infect him with AIDS forty minutes from now.
I should have just gone to work tonight. I should have driven the taxi. I should never have come to Hunts Point. Save me, anyone, prays the fugitive in the front row.
"For each person the temptation is different. But the result is the same."
The man in the front row pulls down his Mets cap and turns to squint toward the smashed-in garage door. Three silhouettes -- large men, from the shapes -- have just materialized in the shadows back there. Their heads move side to side as they scan the audience. Their features are invisible, but the fugitive feels as if their scrutiny carries weight, and darkness, coalesced into human form, needs a few more seconds to gather power, to attack.
"Hell's Gate," warns the bald, bearded preacher in a soft voice, "is as small as the last digit of a phone number you know you shouldn't be dialing, as delicious as one too many sips of scotch before you drive off on an icy night. It's as logical as an urge to please someone you love: a parent, a boss, a child."
The shadow men glide forward.
"You men! We have extra seats in the front if you'd care to sit."
The attention freezes them, but they resume moving when the preacher's attention shifts to the trucker and the hooker, who are whispering together in the third row.
Only a few years ago here -- before fire closed the place -- big eighteen-wheelers would back up to this dock in the Hunts Point warehouse district each night to unload fat prosciutto hams from Parma, sweet Vidalia onions from Georgia, bananas from Honduras, crates of baby peas, yellow squash, corn, black beans. Food biblical in its proportions, to feed New York. Bounty grown, manufactured, or genetically engineered from all corners of the earth.
"If you are here, friends, you have known temptation."
Homeless men eye folding tables laden with freebie Tropicana orange juice, freebie Dunkin' Donuts.
"You never dreamed you'd live in a wasteland like this."
The shadow men halt in the dark areas flanking the front row; two on one side, one -- the biggest -- on the other.
I never should have followed them into that bar, the man in the middle of the first row thinks. Or asked them that last question.
He looks pathetic, more boy, less man. His khaki shorts are as grimy as his black Keds high-tops. His sweat-stained T-shirt swells with a pear-shaped body that's been out of shape for years. His Mets cap is pulled low over black-framed glasses. Only his biceps show muscles, as if they're the only part of him that gets exercise.
He might win an arm wrestling contest. He'll never win a race.
I shouldn't have asked them about their job.
"Hell's Gate is the name we New Yorkers call the body of water only half a mile from here," the preacher announces to the blast of a tug horn, a requiem floating over his congregation in a low F flat. "It's a ship graveyard, right in our city. Down there lies the broken sloop Irene and the schooner Diadem. The tug Vixen and the brig Guisborough. The wrecks of the Flagg, the Planter, the fine old Hannah Ann."
I'm too scared to stand.
"Imagine those struggling sailors as the water closed over them. But my friends, they'd reached Hell's Gate long before their ships."
The man in the front row bolts.
He runs up onto the loading dock, toward the startled preacher but away from the men. Charging past the preacher, he glimpses wide bottle-green eyes and white palms coming up, as if to ward off an attack.
The man plunges through a half-sealed doorway into the abandoned main warehouse. The dark assumes geometry. Blocky forms of burned-out machinery rise up in opaque light seeping through mesh windows, or flooding through holes smashed in sooty glass. The runner weaves past stripped-down conveyer belts, rusted blackened crane hoists, stilled winches, pushcarts robbed of wheels.
Dim, through the wreckage, he makes out a exit door at the far end of the big room.
He bangs his shin but keeps from crying out, more from vocal-cord paralysis than self-control.
Someone call the police. He sends his will out as a prayer.
The only answer is the sound of footsteps behind.
A flashlight beam swings in the dark.
What is about to happen will never make the newspapers. The homeless people of Hunts Point don't talk to police. The trucker's not about to admit he left a $110,000 rig parked alone. The preacher will make no inquiries because in this neighborhood that would violate an unspoken bargain.
Which is mind your own business, preacher, and pimps and pushers won't bother you.
Maybe the agreement will bring me to Hell's Gate one day, the preacher sometimes thinks.
"I won't tell," the man in the Mets cap yells as he batters his way through the two-by-fours half-nailed across the exit. Doubled with exertion, he pants back onto the street.
I won't tell.
Outside, Hunts Point presents itself as deserted block after block of warehouses, razor-wire fences, and bars in which the liquor served is more of a side business. The rare private home is squeezed between tire shops. Squad cars -- when they come -- seem more lost than appropriate in a place where most vehicles lack even parts to be stripped. Street names -- like Tiffany and Casanova -- suggest that geography itself would rather be somewhere else.
In the distance, through gaps between warehouses, the running man sees the lights of Manhattan, beyond the East River shoreline oil terminals.
"Get away from meeeee!"
His sneakers slap against glass and roadway. He realizes that he's run the wrong way. He crashes into a chain-link fence topped by concertina wire. Moonlight illuminates a municipal sign beside a long hole cut in the fence.
TIFFANY STREET PIER. KEEP OUT AT NIGHT.
Beyond that the dark river churns toward the roughest part of the harbor. The late summer air seems as thick as water down there.
I can't swim. The man pounds down the pier.
And of course here they come, as silent and purposeful as African wild dogs he once saw on TV in a National Geographic special. He'd told himself not to talk to these guys, but had been unable to resist asking one five-second question, the one that had made their eyes turn hard.
"Please don't hurt me."
Sinking down on his knees, he feels the moist scrape of wood and smells the tarry odor of resin. He's afraid to make eye contact as the men reach him. When a hand appears at face level, he sees the tiny tattoo below the knuckle of the index finger. He'd noticed it in the bar, a picture of an old-style cutlass side by side with a barracuda. At the time the image had made him think of pirates.
Henry Morgan. Blackbeard. Calico Jack. Captain Greaves.
When the finger crooks now, the barracuda's mouth seems to open.
"I don't know what you're doing. I don't care what you're doing. I'll go away and never come back," the man in the baseball cap whimpers.
The Mets cap falls into the water.
The hands, when they touch him, are gentle.
He hears a siren in the distance.
It's much too far away.
Hell's Gate again, seen this time through a telescope.
"You left him in the water," says Ted Stone coldly, eye pressed to the piece.
Leon Bok stands behind him, eyeing Ted's fine paintings. He is unintimidated by the severe tone. The room is silent and the two men so high up the only sound is the hum of central air-conditioning soothing away the mechanized fray sixty-five stories below. No sound from FDR Drive or the UN helipad or river walkway. Ted's triple-strength windows turn Manhattan into a diorama. The city is filled with moving toys down there.
"A police patrol was coming. There was nothing else to do," Leon remarks in his flat, dead voice.
"But you did go to his apartment," says Ted. "Right?"
"He had frozen pizzas in the refrigerator."
"I'm not asking about his diet."
"I know what you're asking. He wasn't the one."
Ted is tall and lean and at thirty-five he's reached the tail end of his competitive-squash-playing years. Tiny rectangular distance glasses give him a slight air of befuddlement when he looks down his nose through the lenses, but accentuate his intimidating aspect if he gazes over the top. It's the sort of look that gets guys punched in bars but works well against subordinates in offices. His eyes are as cold as marble. His face is long and remote. His sand-colored hair is thick and boyishly straight on top, cut close at the sides and beginning to show gray. His light wool suit is soft as cashmere. Red suspenders add a festive splash while enhancing the conservative core. His desk is filled with photos of a pretty, adolescent girl playing tennis. She's got Ted's limber build.
She seems like a happy kid.
Leon is shorter but wider, and well muscled in a rough, outdoor way, judging from the way the pinstriped fabric fits on his two-button Armani suit. He seems at ease, at peace. The silk striped tie is perfectly knotted. His skin is tanned as a sailor's and his face is smart, broad, flat. Combined with his soft vague accent, his intriguing features often lead women to speculate over his nationality. Wide-ranging guesses include Moroccan, Turkish, Argentinean, dark Russian. The women always choose someplace exotic. Something in the man suggests that no matter where he is, he arrived there from far away.
Leon unwraps an small, foil-covered piece of dark Swiss chocolate. "Anyway, we should be finished in five days, more or less."
"The police will find him before that."
Stone straightens up from the telescope. Bok shrugs.
"Police aren't even permitted to hit people in this country," says Leon. "So how can they accomplish meaningful things?"
"They get lucky once in a while."
"No one ever called finding me lucky."
Outside, Hell's Gate burns red, reflecting the chemically enhanced glow of the rising sun. Crimson light flows down the spires of Midtown. It spreads along the bridge cables and reddens fog patches spotting the river. Tugs look as industrious as army ants down there. They are a mechanized current threading Hell's Gate.
Inside, Ted's phones are ringing and the two men -- equally matched -- regard each other under the scrutiny of a dozen pairs of staring eyes. There's the imperious George III, depicted in the original portrait painted by Richard J. Barrington in 1779. The drooping condescension in the glance of the duke of Cornwall, as he poses with his sword in the left hand, right hand on jutting hip, 1693. The gluttonous desire in the black irises of the Spanish Infanta María Christina, betrothed to Prince William of England to bind two royal families. The marriage failed.
The chairs come from Christie's auction house. The glass case holds mahogany-handled pistols fired at Waterloo against French dragoons. The hunt tapestry once hid a water stain in a castle eight miles from Inverness. British troops looted the tapestry and carried it back to London, where it was eventually sold to, in order, a Pennsylvania coal magnate, a Chicago radio producer, a Silicon Valley software inventor, and finally British antiques enthusiast Ted Stone.
Maybe Bok is part French, Ted thinks, picking up the mockery in the way he regards the British paintings, and the snobbish reverence whenever food comes up. Like they never make mistakes? They groveled to Hitler. They sell nuclear parts to anybody. They lost a war to Algerians and had to be bailed out both times Germany attacked. But eat a Pop-Tart in front of a French office messenger who failed high school and he'll treat you like you're a gorilla.
"I want someone watching that apartment all the time, Leon."
"I want to know if police go there."
The impassiveness in Bok's face conveys about two thousand years of evolved indifference, as if any of his ancestors who couldn't knock down an oak with contempt stopped breeding around the time of Charlemagne, and now, after centuries, only the champs of ridicule remain. Bok's face muscles seem not to have moved in the slightest, and still the feeling coming off him is pure disdain, like, what do you think, I'm stupid? What do you think, I flew in from Santiago or Bonn or wherever the hell you ordered me in from because I don't know what to do?"
"I'll need the name of any police who come, and the license on the car," Ted orders.
"Perhaps I can finish up in three days, before your lucky imaginary policeman can figure things out."
Ted feels the warm flow of relaxation spread over him, of wishful thinking. But then Bok shrugs.
"I cannot be rushed," Bok says. "It is not a science. Perhaps I will need ten days, not three."
Ted Stone goes back to the telescope as a form of dismissal. A half-minute later he hears the door close.
Down on the river, the sun's turned the waters of Hell's Gate gold, the color of doubloons, embossed stock certificates, and the Krugerrands Ted's been accumulating as the stock market tanks.
He's sweating through his shirt now, despite the air-conditioning.
I never should have started this. It can't possibly go longer than five more days. Please please let it stop before five more days.
Unconsciously, he's adopted the same stance as that of King George III, whose portrait, on his wall, was finished two weeks before the Americans won their Revolution. George looks pretty poised up there, even haughty, but maybe it was an act that day. Maybe he was consumed with fear too. Maybe he showed the painter one face, but inside he was screaming in terror.
If anyone can help me, it's Leon.
"So this is Hell's Gate," Camilla says.
Voort opens his eyes and shields them against noon sun that is as warm as a first rush of anesthesia. The gorgeous blonde on the beach towel to his right wears a black string bikini right out of a teenage boy's dream.
Voort loves her long hair. Her trim, tight athlete's body. Her tanned, smooth skin that highlights her fierce Irish blue eyes.
The green birches and oaks behind the strip of beach are filled with migrating tanagers. Two foldable kayaks, yellow for Voort, red for Camilla, lie pulled up where they'd left them two hours ago.
"I can't believe we're in the middle of New York," she says.
"Ready to head back through the Gate?"
"Falling asleep during an argument doesn't win it."
"I fell asleep because I was tired."
"You're tired because you've been carrying the load for Mickie for weeks. You're working without a functioning partner. If you get in trouble, who's going to save your nicely muscled ass, Voort?"
A good day, despite the edge to the banter. A relaxing day. His first day off in two weeks.
"Whatever's wrong, Mickie will work it out," he says, knowing that in all likelihood, he's just lied.
Brushing her hair, she leans close. Even when she's irritated her lips fascinate him. "That's interesting because you don't even know what it is," she says. "You say, 'Hey, Mickie.' He says, 'I know.' End of conversation. What is it with guys?"
"They give all their attention to their gorgeous fiancées," says Voort, who knows Mickie's problem well enough and has been jeopardizing his job by protecting his best friend.
"That's the most pathetic, condescending and bald-faced attempt at dropping a subject I ever heard," Camilla says, grinning.
"Yeah, but you liked it," Voort says, smiling back.
There's something about a woman when you finally decide on her, Voort thinks. It's a solid feeling that makes all the old questions disappear. You sleep more deeply. You're filled with a kind of certainty you'd never known existed before. You understand things you've been missing.
"At least talk to Mickie," she says.
"You know what they say about Irish women?" Voort stands and starts gathering up the remains of lunch. "They never die. They just get smaller and smaller from wind erosion. After a while nothing remains but a complaining voice by the fireplace."
"You know what they say about Dutch men?" she counters. "They never die because they were never alive in the first place."
"Okay, I'll really talk to him this time."
Her kiss still gives him a jolt. Any disagreements between them these days are nothing compared to the obstacles they've overcome. He flashes back to some of their history. There was the initial three-month period when the richest cop in New York had started dating the tough, beautiful TV producer. It had been the most sexually thrilling time of Voort's life, and her day-to-day temperament -- the rhythms of her quiet times -- had matched his own. But there had also been some extra quality that defied definition. Some primal connection that had driven him wild.
He'd been so infatuated he'd found himself praying for her in church each day, including her in the supplications he sent out for the family.
God, he'd say, help me make her as happy as she makes me.
Now as they store the remnants of lunch in the kayaks he remembers the second phase, when she'd started disappearing evenings, seeing a shrink, as he later found out. He'd learned of a betrayal so bad it seemed impossible he could ever forgive her.
She wanted to come back but I said no.
Which is why he'd been amazed to find himself ringing her bell one day after the Szeska case had concluded. They'd become friends again, and then lovers, and now -- four years after they met -- what exists between them lacks the spicy danger of the early days, but it's a mix of trust, respect, and chemistry, with just enough unpredictability thrown in to make him anticipate happy surprises in the upcoming years.
"Last one through the Gate has to limit the wedding list to two hundred," he says.
"Then it better be you, because that's how many Voorts we have at the house every night."
In the foldable Feathercrafts they push into the swift water toward Hell's Gate. At this hour flood tide is flowing in from Long Island Sound, heading south toward the East River, which is churning north. The collision zone is the s-shaped curve ahead.
Beyond that Voort sees the towers of Manhattan.
"Yippee!" Spray flying, Camilla drives her foldable out of a bubbling whirlpool and up a four-foot wave. She's a former college kayak champ, a TV news producer laid off by NBC. She spends hours each day at the Hudson River boathouse, building custom models for private clients, having made the transition from professional woman to unemployed athlete without a hitch.
Voort keeps pace easily, a lean man, with good shoulders, bronzed by the sun and powdered by beach salt. He's the guy women notice in offices, churches, supermarkets, jazz clubs.
Overhead is the railroad bridge linking Queens with the soccer fields of Randall's Island. At Voort's back is Brother Minor, the island where he and Camilla had eaten their picnic of warm French bread, smoked gouda, pink strips of prosciutto, and ice-cold Evian water. No people live on Minor. Its ruins and woods are filled with migrating birds. Even farther astern, from the prison windows at Rikers, inmates jeer at anyone on the water who's having fun.
"Watch out, Camilla!"
A big square-prow tug chugs toward them, twin engines roaring, diesels set at full thrust to push through Hell's Gate. The captain blows his horn at the kayakers -- to him, Voort guesses, irritating specks on the waterway. Pleasure seekers who have no place clogging up a business highway, a commercial thoroughfare for real river men, not a playground for yuppies and their two-thousand-dollar toys.
"Fuck you too," Camilla shouts, getting out of the way easily. She's dainty as a schoolgirl one moment, tough as an eighteen-wheeler driver the next.
The tug sends up a wake that hits a wave that churns into a whirlpool. Seventy feet below, from a mountain of rock, tons of water bubbles up toward the sand barge towed by the tug's thick ropes.
"He's trying to slow me down, Voort."
"That, Camilla, is impossible."
Ahead, something white and big spins in a whirlpool. I hope that isn't what I think it is, Voort thinks.
Is that an arm?
The day so far has been a journey -- as any metropolitan trip is for Voort -- through three centuries of family history. It had started at eight this morning when they'd carried the foldable Feathercrafts in their knapsacks from his house on Thirteenth Street, a property Voorts have occupied since the end of the American Revolution, when the Continental Congress gave the family the land and any structure built on it in perpetuity, tax-free.
"It was a reward for keeping the British from landing in New Jersey," he'd told Camilla on their first date.
They'd walked under the FDR Drive to the Twentieth Street "beach," a strip of sand, rock, and washed-up pilings jutting twenty feet into the East River. They'd assembled the shock-cord frames and rolled on the Duratek skins of the foldables as fascinated onlookers, chess-playing oldsters, looked on.
"The British chained American POWs together in prison ships, off this point," Voort had told her.
The ninety-minute journey upriver had taken them through a panorama reminding him of family tales. Here was Roosevelt Island, to which Voort cops had ferried the city's orphans at the turn-of-the-previous-century. Here was the UN, where Voorts had held back protesters hundreds of times since the building opened its doors. Here was North Brother Island, to which Voorts had rowed the waitress Mary Mallon -- "Typhoid Mary" -- to live out her days in isolation.
"She sang all the way out," Voort had told Camilla.
Fact is, Voorts have protected the city since the Dutch first settled it. They patrolled the mud streets on foot in New Amsterdam. They drive electrically rechargeable Hondas in Central Park today.
"What's that in the water, Voort?" Camilla says now. "My God!"
"He moved! I think he's alive!"
Voort paddles hard to give the man something to grab, but a whirlpool sucks away the body.
I'm caught too.
It's impossible to keep the kayak stable and reach out at the same time to grab a black-Ked-clad foot. Then the foot is gone but fists are spinning above the surface, as if the man twirls underwater like a Rollerblader enthralled by music on headphones, like skaters in Central Park.
The maelstrom pushes the forehead to the surface.
I was wrong. He's been cut up by propeller, or ship. No way is that guy alive.
On land, meanwhile, in Astoria Park, people are starting to realize something dangerous is happening twenty feet from the shore rocks.
Voort tips left, rolling dangerously. He's going to get dumped. He thrusts the flat of his paddle into the current and uses its counterforce to right himself. Camilla has driven her Feathercraft into the floater to try to push the body to shore.
"Together!" she shouts. TV producers have a need to produce.
They inch the corpse toward the softball field in Astoria Park.
The game has halted. Players in red or blue uniforms line the rocks, spread out to help if the kayakers can get close enough. Men extend bats, which are much too short to reach.
Someone screams, "Watch out!" and Voort spins the kayak left to avoid a heavy timber shooting past.
Camilla hits the riptide suddenly and her kayak gets caught between currents. She spins. She flips. She's upside down. Voort's heart goes to his mouth, but in that fraction of a second she surfaces again, cursing, long hair flying, muscles straining as she drives the prow into the body with renewed force, gaining another two feet.
"Camilla, get to shore and call 911."
A fisherman has removed the hook from his line and replaced it with bobbers and weights, to cast it farther as a makeshift lifeline. Falling toward Voort, the red and white plastic bobbers resemble Christmas tree decorations dropping from the sky.
"Camilla, go ashore! I'll follow the guy!"
But the current gives them a break, spurts them toward shore so the ballplayers haul up the body and kneel and grab the kayaks. Hands reach, grip wrists, pull hard until Voort and Camilla half crawl, half scramble onto land, blowing hard, out of breath.
The last thing Voort needs is some two-hundred-pound ballplayer shouting in his face, but the guy is doing it anyway.
"I'm a cop," he yells as Voort notices the team name -- Thespians -- on the man's blue shirt. "Are you crazy to go out there? You goddamn people! Crazy nuts! Your buddy's dead! Are you out of your mind?"
"The current's not even a class two," retorts Camilla, puffing up to them, coming to Voort's defense. She's right, Voort knows. Without the body to handle, passage would have been simple. They plan to honeymoon on more difficult stretches of water in Andalusia four months from now.
"Camilla, you hurt?"
But she looks fine and says, "Your cell phone's in my front compartment." Meaning, to call 911.
Camilla adds, "Excuse me, honey."
She leans over and throws up.
Voort introduces himself to the cop and takes over. He orders the off-duty Blue Guy, "Keep everyone away." He adds, recognizing shock in the man, "You did a great job. Tell your pals thanks."
After calling 911 he phones his partner, Mickie, on Long Island, at his waterfront mansion.
parNo one answers there. Nor does he get a response on Mickie's cellular phone.
Which has been the way things have been going even when they're on duty lately. Mickie's just not there.
Hell's Gate churns behind him as Voort bends and examines the body, the gashes, feels for breaks, studies the face. It's cut up but not puffy, so the death occurred last night or today, Voort guesses, maybe as recently as the last few hours, although his experience with floaters is limited, so he could be wrong.
The arms took a beating. The right hip seems caved in. The skull has suffered one hell of an impact, probably from boat, rock, timber, whatever shredded the T-shirt down the man's back. Blunt objects in the river flow down every few moments, coming at targets in multiple choice.
"Who is he?" Camilla asks, beside Voort again, staring down in horror, and yet he hears in her voice the TV producer's ability to dehumanize a situation, the instinct -- whether she's working or not -- that never goes away.
Voort orders her away from the body.
"I found him, buster."
A quick look from Voort and she's backing away.
"Do you think," she asks, "he jumped or fell?"
Voort kneels again, frowning. "Look how his pockets are all turned inside out. The current didn't do that. People did."
Copyright © 2004 by Ethan Black