BY: A. J. SIDRANSKY
In the brutal heat of an August “Dog-Day” afternoon, Detectives Tolya Kurchenko and Pete Gonzalvez climb the rickety stairs of a wood frame house to the third floor to find a sight so astounding it stops them cold. Inside a partially demolished wall sits something between a skeleton and a mummy in a double-breasted suit, Fedora still perched on his head. Who is this man? How long has he been here? How did he get here? The search for his identity opens a long-closed cold case which leads Kurchenko and Gonzalvez back to another murder they solved a few years earlier. The connections are just a little too close.
From the immigrant rooming houses of upper Manhattan in the 1950s and 60s to the terrifying realities of Trujillo’s iron-fisted Dominican Republic, from the ashes of the Holocaust to the children of its victims, Forgiving Stephen Rothman will grip you from page one. Sometimes, revenge is more important for the soul than forgiveness.
“In Forgiving Stephen Redmond, a corpse in a wall kicks off a mystery that crackles with sharp dialogue and an insider’s view of a quickly disappearing part of Manhattan.”
—Richie Narvaez, author of Noiryorican
“A gripping opening plunges the reader into a story of colliding cultures that never goes where expected. Sidransky creates an array of strong, vivid, authentic characters to resolve a mystery that plays out across decades in the Washington Heights neighborhood he clearly loves. My heart and my head kept me turning pages. A great read.”
—Jane Kelly, author of the Meg Daniels Mysteries
“The crime drama, at the heart of the plot, was well-developed and well-paced. It kept me guessing to the very end. The historical detail and various subplots interweave to create a compelling read. I highly recommend this book.”
—Heidi Slowinski, author of The House on Maple Street
Washington Heights, NYC
5 July 1966
Hands worked deftly applying plaster to lathe. With each application the face of the dead man receded a bit more into darkness, never to be heard from again. The plasterer found that thought satisfying. This criminal didn’t deserve the propriety of remembrance. His name would be blotted out, forever erased from memory.
At the same time an ache settled into the plasterer’s soul, one that he knew would never leave him. He’d gotten what he wanted, but it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel the way he’d expected it to feel. How empty, how devoid of satisfaction this revenge was. Not at all what he’d imagined. He’d planned it out, choreographed it like a ballet, but in the end, the dance took on a life of its own. The story wrote its own ending.
Before placing the last lump of plaster on the wire mesh, the plasterer stared at the face inside one final time. Unexpectedly, though he recognized the face in death, it was in some way different than in life. In life, this face had been calculating, self-important, overly confident. In death it appeared confused. It would wear this expression for eternity. With all its cockiness, it never saw what was coming, and when death came this face was shocked, and would remain so forever.
The plasterer spread the last of the wet, sandy, putty-like mortar over the fine mesh encasing the dead man forever. He smoothed it out, the wall becoming whole again. Tomorrow he would paint the entire room. His stomach turned a bit, as if he were about to vomit, but there was nothing in it to expel. He hadn’t eaten in hours. He kept the dry heave at bay, straightened himself up and stretched his arms high into the air and behind his head, bits of half-dry plaster flying off his cloths and hair. Memory overwhelmed him, yet there was no satisfaction. Even this was not enough. But it would have to be. The dead were buried now, both here and in Santo Domingo. Life would go on. Perhaps he would too, if he could only learn to forgive himself.
Washington Heights, NYC
1 August 2007
The heat slapped Detective Tolya Kurchenko in the face as he pushed open the door from Mi Ranchito Restaurant onto Saint Nicholas Avenue. No matter how many years he lived in Washington Heights, no matter how many years passed since leaving Russia, he would never get used to the heat and humidity of a New York summer.
“Pana,” said his partner, Detective Pete Gonzalvez, rubbing his bare arms with both hands, “it’s too cold in that restaurant. And I don’t know what you like about Mexican food, anyway. Tomorrow we’re gonna find some good Dominican lunch.”
“Sure, whatever you say,” Tolya replied, smiling to himself. Pete was a creature of habit. He could eat the same thing every day, at the same table, at the same place. Unfortunately for Pete, the Dominican hash house they ate at virtually every day for years had closed, soon to be an upscale steak house. Another reminder of the changing neighborhood.
Tolya followed Pete to the corner of 184th Street. “Let’s cross here,” Pete said, still rubbing his arms.
“No, walk with me, I gotta go up the block to Mi Pais. Karin asked me to pick up some platanos maduros, and some yuca.
“Okay,” Pete replied. “I need to warm up anyway before we go back to the station, too cold in there too.” Pete punched Tolya playfully on the left arm. “She’s turned you into a real Dominicano?”
“I guess,” said Tolya. He chuckled to himself. The truth was he wasn’t ever sure what he was, how to define himself.
As they entered Mi Pais market at the corner of 185th Street and St Nicholas Avenue Tolya’s cell phone rang, the unique ringtone indicating it was their captain. Tolya put it on speaker.
“Where are you boys?”
“Coming back from lunch.”
Tolya looked at Pete. “St. Nick and 185th.”
“Picking up a few things for the wife for dinner?”
Tolya didn’t respond.
“Take me off the speaker.”
Tolya touched the screen and placed the phone to his ear. “Swing by the construction site on 187th between Wadsworth and Broadway,” the captain said. “We just got a call. They found a body in the building.”
The three wood frame houses on the north side of West 187th street between Broadway and Wadsworth Avenue, stood hanging on the side of the steep hill for some seventy years. They had been vacant for as long as Tolya could remember. Now they were finally coming down, to be replaced by a new luxury apartment building, the other half of the change in the neighborhood.
While the Dominican community centered around St. Nicholas Avenue was thinning out, replaced by newly arrived Mexican immigrants—a fact Pete was constantly complaining about—the Russian immigrants, old German ladies, orthodox Jews, and the aging, retired teachers and civil servants that formed the white community west of Broadway was becoming younger, richer, and more hip.
Washington Heights was the ‘last frontier’ in Manhattan. What was more significant, the line between the white community west of Broadway and the Latino community east, was blurring. Luxury apartments east of Broadway geared to these refugees from lower Manhattan and Hipster Brooklyn were now a fact of community life.
“Excuse me.” Tolya shouted to the crowd of construction workers huddled in front of the entrance to the site. He and Pete waved their badges, as they slogged down the hill from its crest at Wadsworth Avenue. Beads of sweat dripped from Tolya’s neck down his back. Tolya glanced over at Pete. As always, the heat didn’t seem to affect him at all. “Who’s the foreman?” Tolya called out.
A large, squat, burly man wearing a wife-beater and construction helmet stepped forward. “That would be me. Afternoon officers.”
“That would be detectives,” Tolya said. “Detective Kurchenko.” Tolya shook the foreman’s hand. “And this is my partner, Detective Gonzalvez.”
“Thanks for coming so quickly.”
“We were around the corner.” Tolya surveyed the demolition crew. They were dusty and sweating, some drinking from plastic water bottles, some smoking, almost all Latino. “You might want to send them home. This is a crime scene. They won’t be working any more today.”
The foreman lifted his eyebrows. “Wow, I don’t have the authority to do that. I’m gonna have to call the office. Can you guys give me a minute?”
“Sure,” replied Tolya.
“In the meantime,” Pete said, “can we speak to the men who found the body?”
“Martinez, Abreu, come over here,” the foreman called out. Two men walked hesitantly up the hill from some twenty feet away. Both in their early 20’s, one was tall and thin, the other short and very muscular.
“Ingles or Espanol?” Tolya asked.
The men looked at each other. “Espanol,” they replied, nearly in unison.
Tolya smiled at Pete. “All yours.”
Pete pulled the men aside. Tolya listened with one ear while monitoring the foreman’s frenetic phone conversation with the other. He laughed to himself. He understood a few words of Pete’s Spanish and the answers the construction guys gave him, but not one word of what the foreman said. Tolya couldn’t even identify the language. Whoever the foreman was talking to was screaming back, his anger evident through the phone. Tolya’s phone rang. “Yes, Captain.” He could hear the same voice he heard through the foreman’s phone in the background, only this time screaming in heavily accented English.
“I’ve got the owner on the other line,” said the captain. He’s freaking out about closing down. Says they’re behind schedule. What’s the story?”
“We don’t know, yet.” Tolya put his hand over his mouth and turned away, the foreman staring directly at him and clearly unhappy. “We’re waiting for them to take us in. Pete’s talking with the two guys who found the body.”
“Okay. Just go in and call me when you’re done. We’re gonna have to close it down, but I’m not gonna tell the owner that till you call me back. I don’t want any problems right now.”
“Got it.” Tolya clicked off. He turned to Pete. “What’s the story?”
“They were in the first building, the one farthest down the hill, on the top floor, breaking down the walls with sledgehammers. When they hit the wall on the west side of the bedroom on the top floor, the plaster crumbled too easily. They pulled it down with their hands and in between the interior and exterior walls there was a body, still clothed, even has a hat on.” Pete struggled to suppress a smile and lowered his voice. “They freaked out. Ran out of the building. They don’t want to go back in.”
Tolya smiled as well. “Superstitious?”
Tolya turned to the foreman. “We gotta take a look.”
The foreman waved at the two workers who found the body. They averted their eyes, attempting to ignore him. He shook his head and mumbled something in his language. “Follow me,” he called to Tolya and Pete.
They circled around the crane into the site. “Watch your step here,” the foreman said, pointing to the cracked steps that led to the front door of the old wood house. “It’s a little wobbly.”
“The two men who found the body, I’d like them to come with us,” said Tolya.
“That ain’t happening,” the foreman said.
Tolya looked at Pete. “They’re not going back in there, brother. They told me they’re not coming back here for work either.” Pete shook his head. “Don’t force it.”
The heat became even more stifling inside the old house, the windows having been painted shut for decades. Where the glass had broken—which was pretty much everywhere—there were sheets of plywood hammered over the frames. The place stank, a combination of garbage, and animal and human waste that had accumulated over decades. They covered their mouths and noses with their hands.
The foreman pointed a flashlight to the dilapidated stairs. “It’s not as bad upstairs,” he said. “We unsealed the windows up there, there’s some ventilation.”
Visibility increased as they approached the third floor. The foreman pointed left, to the back room. Tolya and Pete walked gingerly, the floorboards creaking. Inside the wall between two windows was a body sitting on a chair dressed in a suit with a hat perched on its head. It was an odd sight, something completely out of context; almost like something in a dream that makes the dreamer question the authenticity of the scene.
Calling the thing in the chair a body was giving it more credit than it deserved. It was more like a cross between a skeleton and a mummy. There was still some thin, cracking skin stretched across the bones. What was clear was that it had been there a long time.
Pete and Tolya pulled out the rubber gloves they always carried with them and slid them on with a snap. “Never seen anything like that before,” Tolya said. “How long you think he’s been in there?”
“Long time,” said Pete, leaning in and examining the body more closely. “Look at the style of the suit, double-breasted with those wide lapels.”
The suit hung on the skeleton like a clothing hanger with nothing to fill it out. There was a large, dark, bloodstain on the left side of the jacket, mid torso. “I can see why those guys were scared and didn’t want to come back up here. That’s really creepy.”
Tolya unbuttoned the jacket and pulled it away from the skeleton gently so as not to disturb the fragile remains. Beneath the jacket, a white, sleeveless T-shirt, exactly like the wife-beater the foreman was wearing, hung from the bones. Tolya pointed to the large, dark stain on the T-shirt, mirroring the one on the jacket and the tear in its fabric. “Looks like that’s where a bullet entered.” The tear in the fabric corresponded to the location of the spleen. “The bleeding would have been very heavy.” Tolya let the jacket slip gently back into place.
“Don’t touch nothing else,” Pete said. “That whole thing could just collapse.”
“You’re right. Let’s get a CSU in here.” He pulled out his cellphone and turned to the foreman. “I’m sorry my friend, but like I told you on the street, send your boys home. Work’s done here for the next few days. This is a murder scene.”
The foreman mumbled something in his language again.
“Where you from?” Tolya asked.