There’s no place colder than a construction site.
An ironworker told me why once, explained the chill that pulls the warmth from your bones while you’re working, the wind that blows through steel and concrete carrying the ancient dampness of echoing caves.
He was a welder, used to working the high steel–two hundred feet up and nothing between him and the air above the city but the girder he was on and the harness that, half the time, he didn’t wear. He had a leather face and scarred, thick hands. We were sitting over a beer at Shorty’s one evening in that time of year when the end of the workday and the start of the night push on each other, when everything feels like it’s already too late.
A building going up doesn’t live, he said. It grows, like that monster Frankenstein built–hammered, welded, bolted together out of things you bring from other places, things that had their own histories long before they were part of this. It looks like what you want it to be, but it’s not. Not yet.
And while it grows, it pulls a little life from each of the men who work on it, making them leave something, something they are, behind.
Then one day, he said, when it’s stolen enough life, stored up enough history, it starts to breathe. It begins to live, and living things are warm. You can feel that moment. The deep chill goes, replaced by a cold that’s only temperature, no different from anywhere else. It’s not a construction site after that. It’s a building, the past of its bones and skin part of it, what they are making it what it is, old things in a new place. And the lives of the men who built it giving it life. ?
I don’t know if he was right or not. I didn’t know him well, and I didn’t run across him again. He was getting old, and I was young then. I don’t know how much longer he had, or wanted, working the high steel.
But I know there’s a bone-chilling cold, and a sense of never being alone in an old and lonely place, on every building site I’ve ever been on.
I felt it the first hot July morning I walked through the gate onto the Armstrong site, into the noise and the dust and the mud behind the wooden fence that wrapped half the block. Outside, on Broadway, traffic flowed with a purpose, most of it heading south, commuters getting a jump on the day. Grilles still blanked off storefronts and the sidewalks were largely empty, square rough concrete expanses like ice floes supporting, here and there, a sleeping figure drifting each through his own wilderness.
The site, though, was jumping. Seven-thirty was starting time and, though I was early, I wasn’t first. A guy in a leather apron hefted a stack of two-by-fours up a wooden ramp and disappeared into the first-floor darkness. A pickup backed beeping toward a jury-rigged truck dock. I looked at its load: pallets of bricks. I’d be seeing them later. The crane operator lounged drinking coffee in his cab, one steel-toed boot propped on the open window. Soon, some crew would need steel studs, sacks of concrete, a half-ton of mechanical equipment up on the eighteenth floor, and this guy would swing into action. The right switch, the right lever, a gentle touch, and he’d do what Superman used to do in the contraband comics I stole as a kid: one man moving the weight of the world, making everyone else’s work possible.
That’s the job Lenny Pelligrini was doing when he disappeared.
The building was going to top out at forty stories. It was half of that now, the core sticking up from the center, leading the skeleton by thirty feet. Rising from the lowest floor and encircling the building, the brickwork was going in, starting late and low because the other trades won’t work below a mason. I shielded my eyes, leaned my head back to stare at the stark lines of the highest steel, black against the ageless blue sky.
I headed for the wooden ramp, following the carpenter. Half a dozen steps into the site, over the scrunch of gravel under my own steel-tipped boots, I heard a yell.
“Hey, yo! Hard-hat site! What’re you carrying it for, save your jewels?”
I waved an acknowledgment to the guy with the two-way radio and slipped my hard hat on. I’d worked construction in high school and college, and some after, but I’d been away a long time. Once, I wouldn’t have stepped inside a fence with my head bare, any more than, now, I’d grab my revolver to go cover an assignment without checking the load. Safety becomes instinct; it’s easier that way. I wondered what else used to be instinctive to me on a building site, what else I’d forgotten.
The dry gritty heat of the yard halted suddenly at the top of the ramp as though it had tried, failed, and by now given up any attempt to confront the chill and the dimness inside. Caged lightbulbs strung loosely along girders led toward a warren of trailers in the back, and I headed that way, smelling the sourness of long-unturned earth. As I heard my footsteps echo on the bare concrete, I felt that chill against my skin, that old coldness, and I knew I’d forgotten that too.
Thick black Magic Marker labeled the plywood doors to the contractor’s field offices. Mocking the corridor-and-apartment setup the finished building would offer, the halfdozen cheap trailers faced each other across a cramped, ceilingless DMZ. I passed Crowell, first on the left and biggest, because they were the general contractor, running the job, in charge. Mandelstam was next–plumbing–and across from him, the masonry sub, Lacertosa. That door was standing open.
I knocked and walked in.
The guy behind the desk raised his eyes without raising his head. He had a lined, shadowed face, pale blue eyes, a pencil stuck behind his ear, and a pencil in his hand. Papers piled the desk, but neatly. His greeting, not unfriendly, was, “Yeah?”
“Smith,” I said. “Union sent me.” I showed him my union card, legitimate but less than twenty-four hours old.
“Uh-huh. Mason or laborer?”
“Uh-huh. Fill these out.”
While I did the paperwork, he went back to his own. When I was done, he glanced over what I gave him.
“Why’d you leave Houston?”
I’d never lived in Houston, but that was the story. That was because DeMattis, who’d sent me here, had people in Houston and could cover the paperwork there, in case anyone got interested enough to run a check. And though my accent was Kentucky, it was faded enough from years overseas and up North that it could pass for Texas to any ears but a Texan’s.
“Hadn’t worked in a year,” I answered.
He grunted. Hard-luck Texas stories probably didn’t even register on anyone in construction anymore.
“Hope you stayed in shape,” he told me, shuffling my papers. “You ain’t young.”
He looked up with a slow, ironic smile. It softened his face, made him look both older and kinder. “Me neither. Got bumped up to sitting on my butt just in time. Okay, your crew’s on six. Foreman’s Joe Romeo. He’ll tell you when to eat and where to piss.” He handed me a paper to sign and I signed it. “We’re up against a schedule, but do quality, okay? Joints even, struck clean–you know the drill.” He sighed. “Crowell’s a pain in the ass, both of them, father and son. Old man don’t get up on the scaffold much anymore, but Junior comes around bustin’ nuts, so watch out for him. At least the architect’s rep don’t give us no trouble. Owner’s a lady, by the way, and she comes around sometimes too, so watch your mouth if you can. Use the south hoist, north one’s materials only. Got a problem, see Romeo, then me. John Lozano, by the way.” He half stood and offered me his hand. “Smith, huh? You a paisan?”
“No,” I said, “I’m a mick.”
“You’re on the wrong crew. How come you ain’t driving nails?”
“I’m a spy.”
He grinned, I grinned, and I headed back through the maze of naked steel columns and dangling wires to find the south hoist. John Lozano went back to his paperwork, probably thinking that what I’d just answered him wasn’t true.
I exchanged morning nods with the mechanic running the hoist. Boring, but not a bad job, seated and indoors. They put the older guys there, the guys with seniority, not ready to retire but not productive on a crew anymore. The hoist creaked and grumbled as it hauled me up.
Once past the second-floor level I could see outside the fence. The old buildings up and down Broadway, brick and worked limestone, copper cornices and, on the one on the corner, a frieze of terra cotta suns and lions, stared down at this rising, muscular, unliving frame I was moving through. Looking at them, the early shadows lying across their facades, the sun blanking their windows, I had an uncomfortable sense of being surrounded by the smugness of disappointed hopes. You think you’ll be different, those buildings seemed to say to this one. Bigger, stronger, better. Young. New. We thought so too, once. But look, look now. And you’re not made of anything different from what we’re made of. You’ll be just like us.
I turned away, faced into the site, waited for the hoist to stop. I thanked the guy running it, stepped onto the raw concrete of the sixth floor and went to find Joe Romeo, the guy I’d been sent to see.
Chuck DeMattis had sent me. DeMattis was an ex-cop, off the job about four years. He’d gotten a P.I. license the day he’d retired, but unlike most of us, who work from home or out of someone else’s back room, Chuck wasn’t interested in running his new business from his Staten Island address. He’d rented a corner suite in a new tower in midtown and moved in before the paint was dry.
“You wanna attract ducks, you put out a decoy and sit in a duck blind, ” he’d explained. “I wanna attract lawyers.”
The building was a steel-and-smoked-glass office tower in the East Fifties, a single sleek box that now stood where a dozen brick walk-ups had been for a century, since their developer knocked down the farmhouse, dug up the crops, and paved the fields for streets.
The marble lobby was hushed and cool. The silent elevator whisked me to Chuck DeMattis’s twenty-eighth-floor office in less time than I usually take to climb the two slanted flights to my own place downtown.
Chuck and I knew each other professionally, had thrown each other cases once or twice over the years. We weren’t friends, not really, but it was mostly a question of style. DeMattis was a team player who liked to party and see his name in the papers. I keep to the shadows, quiet places where there’s good music and you can hear yourself talk, if anyone’s there you want to talk to. DeMattis wore Hugo Boss suits and alligator shoes and claimed he could reach anybody in New York with two phone calls, but it was his connections that stopped him on this one.
“Made sense they came to me,” he’d said, tapping coffee grounds into the stainless-steel bar sink in his private office, all sharp edges and glass surfaces and wide windows filled with great expanses of city and sky. In the outer room two secretaries juggled the phones while a bookkeeper probably juggled the books. On the other side of the suite, Chuck’s full-time operatives spent most of their days staring at computer screens and talking on the phone, the men in shirts and ties, the women in heels and hose, and all visibly armed whether or not they ever hit the streets because agents ready for hard action at any moment impress the hell out of clients.
Chuck was clean-shaven, balding, and brimming with energy and good-natured street smarts, at least in front of the hired help. He brought me a cup of espresso, rich and steamy and bitter, and told me why I was here.
“They need somebody to put a net over a guinea, they come to a guinea P.I., right? How’s the coffee?”
“It’s good Chuck.”
He beamed. “Always. My girls, they can type and shit, but if I ever get one knows how to make a decent espresso, I’m gonna divorce Marie and marry her.” Chuck had been married to Marie, a cheerful, hard-partying blonde, since the day after their high-school graduation. He gave her, every year, a present to celebrate their wedding anniversary, and another to celebrate the anniversary of the day she’d said yes.
“You really come in from the country just because I called?” Chuck asked me, rounding his desk to settle into a huge, soft leather chair.
“I drove in this morning,” I told him.
He shook his head. “You’re nuts, coming back to this furnace if you got somewhere else to be.”
“I don’t see you sitting around your pool on Staten Island.”
“You would if you ever came out like I invited you. But I remember about you; you’re the one don’t like people.”
“Not people, Chuck. Sitting around.”
Chuck sighed. “Yeah. Whatever. You’re ready to work, I got this thing.”
He sipped his own espresso, rested the tiny cup in its saucer on the king-size glass panel that served as his desk. “Crowell–you heard of them, right? Big outfit. General contractors.”
“Sure.” I said. “You see their logo around town. They have a few projects going.”
“Two right now,” Chuck agreed. “One wrapping up, one about six months in. Which is probably about half the construction business in New York, these days.”
“Times are bad in that business?”
“Money’s tight, I don’t know. It happens that way in construction, they tell me. You buy property, plan to build, then you get caught with your pants down when the bank rethinks its investment strategy, or whatever they call it. Anyway, that’s what’s got Crowell’s balls in an uproar.”
“They got problems on the one site, the newer one. Upper Broadway, Ninety-ninth Street. Forty-story residential.”
“I think I read about it. Commercial on the bottom, and mixed housing?”
Chuck nodded. “Low, middle, and high income. For poor people, normal people, and yuppies. Whaddaya suppose is the difference in the apartments?” He furrowed his brow. I mean, you think they got marble bathrooms in the yuppie ones and tile in the regular ones, and maybe outhouses for the welfare ones?”
“Bidets,” I said. I “With a lifetime supply of Perrier.”
He snickered. “Yeah. Anyway, the developer’s some black lady named Armstrong. Otherwise they might be having trouble up there, putting up even half a yuppie building in that neighborhood.”
“But they’re not?”
“Nah, the neighborhood seems happy enough. Crowell says they went out of their way to hire locals. And the building’s supposed to be pretty classy. Good-quality materials, all that shit. Armstrong lady wants it that way. What the hell, she owns it, she can do whatever she wants. ‘Course, from the way old man Crowell’s sitting here telling me what a great job it is, you’d think he owned it and designed it himself, besides building it with his own hands.”
“Old man Crowell?”
“That’s why they call it Crowell. Dan Crowells Senior and Junior. Family business. Senior’s been doing this all his life, though he don’t get up into the buildings much anymore. Truth is, he’s sick. Leukemia, something like that. I mean, he looked okay when he came to see me, but nobody, but maybe him, seems to think he’s gonna live more than another year or two. ”
“He told you that?”
“Not a chance. I checked them out between when they called me and when they got here.”
“What made you do that?”
“I always do that. Clients never tell you the stuff you really need to know. You gotta find it out for yourself You must have that same problem.”
“All the time,” I said. “So the old man’s sick?”
“Seems that way. And whatever he’s got, it keeps him moving kind of slow, so he stays in the office pretty much now. Between you and me, I think it drives him crazy that he can’t get around the way he used to, up and down the scaffold, showing the guys how you stick a rebar in the concrete, how you hammer a nail. That he has to depend on the kid to do it.”
“Crowell Junior’s the hands-on guy?”
“Coupla years out of college, was working somewhere else. Now I guess he thinks he’s taking over. Looks a little soft to me for that kind of work, but like everything else these days, construction’s more filling out forms and less pounding nails than it used to be.”
“And they both came to see you?”
“Yeah, sure. Though I got the idea Junior didn’t think much of the plan. While the old man’s talking, Junior sits here rolling his eyes, coming up with reasons not to hire me. I didn’t like it.
“That he didn’t want to hire you?”
“No, that he was disrespecting the old man like that, in front of me. I mean, it’s not like I’m their old family friend.”
“In that case, it would be worse.”
“Yeah, true. Anyway, he ticked the old man off, too.”
“But the old man did want to hire you,” I said, “Which is why I’m here.”
“You’re here ’cause you ain’t bright enough to stay away. But yeah, Crowell’s got a problem. They been having trouble. Times this tight, they had to shave their bid pretty close to get this job. When you do that you don’t wink at shit you might’ve let go if you had a little margin to throw away.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“At the beginning, some small stuff–you get it on construction sites sometimes. Some tools walking, some deliveries shorted. Then early on, someone stole a frontloader.”
“Just drove the damn thing off the site at four in the morning. Security guy was snoozing. They canned him, of course. Anyway, Crowell owns their own equipment, they don’t lease, so they took the loss.”
“But they must have been insured.”
“Oh, yeah. It was more of a pain in the ass than anything else. But something like that, it takes planning. So it started the Crowells thinking, and maybe watching the site more carefully than most.”
“And what happened?”
“Nothing like that again. Small stuff keeps going on, equipment and tools disappearing. Like anywhere; you almost can’t stop it. But now that they’re looking, they see a guy they don’t like the looks of. Name of Joe Romeo. Masonry foreman. They got a feeling he’s into some bad shit.”
“Shylocking, bookmaking. Also they think maybe drugs, nothing big, just some weed, but they don’t want it around.”
“Probably not. They don’t put it past him, but his movements don’t correlate.”
“I love it when you talk dirty, Chuck.”
He glanced at me over the rim of his espresso cup, but let it go. “Anyway, Crowell’d like to get rid of Romeo, but the union takes things like that personal, unless you got serious proof. And Crowell don’t want no union trouble. A strike’d kill the schedule, Crowell loses a fortune, which on this job they don’t particularly have. This Armstrong lady got no use for bad publicity either; it’s her first big building, Crowell tells me, and being black and a lady, there’s a lot of people out there just waiting for her to fall on her ass. So Crowell’s been sort of lying low on the whole thing.
“Then about two weeks ago, this one crane operator don’t show up for work. Don’t call, nothing. They call him, can’t find him. They lose half a day with the crane, everybody’s behind, guys are sitting around with their thumbs up their asses while they wait for another operator to haul his butt in from Queens. Crowell’s busting a gasket. Romeo and this operator, Pelligrini, been seen in each other’s company. Someone up there says they weren’t getting along so well, the last couple days. Now, maybe it’s one thing, maybe it’s another, but Crowell’s fed up. They want Romeo out of there.
“So they come to me. Because, see, I met Crowell Senior at some testimonial dinner for some guy the other week. You know how it is, you gotta keep schmoozing, you wanna stay in business. At this thing, Crowell’s already complaining about his equipment and shit walking. I ask him does he want someone to look into it, he says no, it ain’t worth it. But I give him my card, just in case. He says yeah, he heard of me, I’m famous.” Chuck spread his hands, palms up. Being famous is something that just happens to some guys.
“So this Pelligrini thing,” he went on, “I guess that’s the last straw. They come to me. They’re telling me, start from Pelligrini, go undercover, see what I can dig up. But come on, I know every guinea in New York. Can you see me undercover in a room full of wops? Now, Crowell don’t care how I work the case. The old man says he don’t need to know. I get the feeling he don’t want to know, in case I find a way to deal with Romeo that ain’t exactly kosher. The kid don’t like it. ‘You got to have more control,’ he tells the old man. ‘You can’t not know what’s going on.’ The old man tells him to put a sock in it, that Chuck DeMattis knows what he’s doing. ‘DeMattis’ll take care of Romeo,’ he tells him. ‘You worry about getting the building built.’ So I think about it for a while, and I figure as long as Crowell’s letting me do this any way I want, I’ll give you a call.”
“What about your operatives?” I asked. “You have about two hundred guys who work for you.”
“I got fourteen, and between you and me, buddy, they’re the Stick-Up-the-Ass Squad. College boys. They’re good investigators, make a good impression on clients, can follow a hell of a paper trail, but send ’em undercover to drink with a mason? Hah.”
He stopped for some more espresso. “You, it’s different,” he said. “We could set you up, just some guy, nobody knows the difference. Whaddaya say?”
“I’ve been to college, Chuck.”
“Yeah, me too, but on us it don’t show.” Chuck said this as though he were reassuring me that neither of us looked our age.
“Well,” I said, “what’s the gag?”
“Depends. I was thinking we find out where Romeo drinks, whatever, you move in on him, get to be his new best-friend.” he winked.
“And the point?”
“Get close, find out something Crowell can use to gently suggest to Romeo that he go away. Crowell’s not looking to lock Romeo up, just to lose him.”
“Will drinking with him get me close enough?”
“You could get closer?”
I sipped some more espresso, watched the city shimmer beneath the hot blue sky. “What are we really talking about here, Chuck? Guys walk away from their jobs for a lot of reasons. You really think this Pelligrini guy not showing up for work has something to do with Joe Romeo?”
“Me, it’s nothing from nothing.” Chuck shrugged. “But old man Crowell, he had a hunch.”
“Just a hunch?”
“That’s what he said. Between you and me, I think you’re right: This Pelligrini thing’s got nothing to do with anything. But that ain’t really the point. It sort of lit a fire under them, Crowell, when Pelligrini disappeared, and now they decided they wanna take care of this Joe Romeo situation before it gets out of hand.”
I finished my espresso, looked into the grounds coating the sides of the cup. “Lot of Italians in this conversation, Chuck,” I said.
“Just two, besides me.”
“Uh-huh. How many Italians do you need before you find one who’s connected?”
“Is that one of those lightbulb jokes?”
“If it is it’s probably not funny.”
Chuck crossed one ankle over his knee, pushing back his chair to give himself room. “This guy Romeo,” he said. “His name came up before. He’s not connected, because nobody’ll have him. Oh, he’s got guys behind him, especially for the shylocking operation, guys he goes to. And he works with some bookie out of Vegas, what I hear. But no one local wants him. That’s a bad sign in a bad guy. I don’t think Crowell knows this, at least they didn’t say. But you might be doing the world a service if you could roust him.”
And this was why I worked with Chuck, why I’d come here at all to this high-priced, high-profile place with the endlessly ringing phones and the framed People magazine article spotlighting “Ten Top Private Eye Firms for the Nineties.” Behind the press releases and the late-night club-hopping and the winks and accommodating grins, the reasons Chuck had become a cop in the first place, so long ago, were still alive.
I lit a cigarette. Chuck shoved a slab of black marble across the desk for me to use as an ashtray.
“I used to work construction,” I told him. “I can lay bricks.”
“You’re shitting me.” Chuck’s eyes opened wide. “You don’t even speak Italian.”
“Who do you think lays bricks in Dublin?”
“You been to Dublin?”
“They got a lot of crooked walls there, my fine Irish friend. Is that an offer?”
“Why not? I’d rather work with the guy than drink with him, I think. And it’s easier. What if he drinks in some dive on Staten Island?”
“You’re all gonna be sorry you said shit like that when we secede, you know.” Chuck’s tone was completely serious. A man’s home is his castle.
“As long as you issue me a passport. So what about it?”
He steepled his fingers and tapped them to his lips, considering. “Well, okay. But I got a bad feeling about that site.”
I grinned. “Aren’t you going to back me up?”
“With everything I got, buddy. We’ll do all your background shit from here, just call. You want me to send someone onto the site to babysit you?”
“No way. And do me a favor, let me do the background stuff myself I don’t want to have to get a sign-off from your bookkeeper every time I need a license run.”
He frowned. “Just hand you off the case?”
“You and I don’t do things the same way, Chuck.”
I pulled on my cigarette, tapped gray ash onto the black marble. Framed in the window behind Chuck, a twin-engine plane made its way south over the East River. It was silent and the line of its flight was unvarying; it might have been pulled by a string.
“Now you put it that way,” Chuck said slowly, “maybe it’s a good idea. For the same reason Crowell don’t want to know.”
“You think I might do something you wouldn’t approve of?”
Chuck raised his eyebrows. “You could think of something I wouldn’t approve of? But anyway, maybe it’s better. You’re right, we do things differently. And I’m up to my ass in other things around here. Truth is I got no time for this, only I didn’t want to turn Crowell down. Could be a good paying customer for the long term, you know what I mean? But this’ll work out good. Your case, you work it. Only I don’t know how Crowell’s gonna feel about it.”
“Don’t tell them. I’ll report to you, you report to them. I’ll be working for you, Chuck. I have no problem with that. I just don’t want to be part of the DeMattis team.”
“If you’re sure that’s how you want it. But whatever, I got all these geeks back there, costing me overhead whether they’re running licenses or reading the racing form. You could avail yourself.”
“I have other things I’d rather avail myself of.”
“Ah.” Chuck smiled. “Your Chinese girl?”
?”Woman,” I corrected him. “Licensed P.I. Independent operator with a four-year apprenticeship, four years solo in ?the field, and a one-room office in Chinatown. And not mine.”
“Whose fault is that?”
“You want my advice? As a happily married man?”
“Okay, here goes. You know that old joke, where the punchline is, ‘Be patient, jackass’?”
“That’s my advice.”
“Thanks, Chuck. Can we get back to work?”
“Sure. Where were we?”
“You were about to give me the case. Let’s talk fee. When it’s over, I’ll send you a bill.”
“If that’s how you want it.”
That was how I wanted it, and that’s how we did it. Chuck handed me the file, told me I’d have a union card by tomorrow. We worked out a cover we thought would fit, and I went home to wait. On the way I stopped at a builder’s-supply place on the Lower East Side and bought three different trowels, a hard hat, and a pair of heavy leather gloves. I sent Chuck the bill.