By David Ellis
Read by Edoardo Ballerini
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For Detective Billy Harney, getting shot in the head, stalked by a state’s attorney, and accused of murder by his fellow cops is a normal week on the job. So when a drive-by shooting on the Chicago's west side turns political, he leads the way to a quick solve. But Harney's instincts—his father was once chief of detectives and his twin sister, Patti, is also on the force—run deep. As a population hungry for justice threatens to riot, he realizes that the three known victims are hardly the only casualties.
When Harney starts asking questions about who's to blame, the easy answers prove to be the wrong ones. On the flip side, the less he seems to know, the longer he can keep his clandestine investigation going . . . until Harney's quest to expose the evil that's rotting the city from the inside out takes him to the one place he vowed never to return: his own troubled past.
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LIGHTS, CAMERA, action.
This could mean everything to Latham. It could be his ticket out.
But it could ruin him, too. It could land him in prison.
Or worse. It’s the “worse” that jars him awake in the middle of the night, heart pounding, bedsheets soaked in sweat.
If Shiv ever found out. Shiv wasn’t the forgiving sort. Shiv didn’t have a sense of humor.
Just ask Joker Jay, who one day last summer made the mistake of joking around a little too much with Shiv’s woman. They found Jay in a pool of blood by the field house in Clark Park. Shiv had decided to take Jay’s nickname literally and slice open both sides of his mouth.
Jay doesn’t joke around much anymore.
And that’s just for messing with Shiv’s girl. Messing with Shiv’s business?
If anyone figures out what Latham’s doing, he’s a dead man. Shiv will make an example of him, beat him, torture him, leave his bloody corpse for all to see. This is what happens when you mess with Shiv. This is what happens when you mess with the business of the K-Street Hustlers.
Lights: easy enough, the sunlight of late afternoon pouring through Latham’s bedroom window, up on the fourth floor of the apartment building.
Camera: a small one, hidden inside the AC unit perched halfway out his window, overlooking the street to the south.
Action: a silver BMW sedan slows at the intersection down the street, then turns left, driving north on Kilbourn toward Latham’s position.
A Beemer, Latham thinks. Promising.
Using the toggle, Latham zooms in on the license plate, then widens the view and captures the intersection’s street signs, Kilbourn and Van Buren.
Then he returns the focus to the street, where the BMW crawls along Kilbourn before pulling over to the curb on its left, exactly where Latham knew it would stop, just past the alley, by a brick two-flat, only four doors down and across the street from Latham’s apartment and his hidden camera.
A young African American in an oversize Bears jersey and tattered jeans—that’s Frisk—strolls by, does a once-over of the idled sedan, then looks up at some people sitting on the porch of the brick walk-up. Latham doesn’t bother moving the camera. He knows what’s going on. Frisk is looking for the green light from Shiv, sitting on the front porch.
Shiv must have given it, because Frisk ambles over to the sedan and leans against the driver’s door. The window rolls down. Latham toggles the camera down and focuses in. The driver is a white man, probably midthirties, dressed in a suit and tie. He talks to Frisk for a minute, then hands him some cash, folded over once. Frisk palms the money like an expert, still leaning in close, then gestures down the street, to the spot where the driver will score the drugs he wants. Heroin, presumably; it’s cheaper in the city than it is in the suburbs.
The car moves on. Latham stops the camera, downloads the short video onto his laptop.
Picks up his cell and calls his cousin Renfro, in his third year at the DMV since graduating from Farragut. Reads him the license plate.
“Registered to a Richard Dempsey,” says Fro. “From River Forest. That’s cash, my brother. And a BMW?”
Latham agrees: it could be a real payday. Guy like that, dressed like a professional, in a fancy ride from a fancy suburb, probably a doctor or lawyer or financial guy. A guy who’d have a hard time explaining that video to his bosses or his wife.
He’ll check out this Richard Dempsey. Will go online, look at his house, find out his occupation, search him up on social media. You can’t get too greedy. Gotta be something they can afford.
But yeah, Latham’s seeing dollar signs. Ten thousand? A guy like that, to protect his dirty little secret? He might pay that.
Shit, ten thousand dollars—that’s more than halfway to the tuition for film school. More than Latham could make in six months at Best Buy.
“Peace.” Latham punches out the phone. Thinks about the money.
Thinks about film school.
I’d like to thank the Academy, he’ll say one day, clutching his Best Director Oscar, and I’d especially like to thank the men and women who made this all possible by traveling the Heroin Highway.
TODAY’S THE day. The roiling in my stomach is supposed to signal excitement, not dread.
I open my eyes to the water damage on my ceiling, the paint splintering and soggy, which should be a metaphor, though I can’t make it work. I can’t make much of anything work. My head is banging like a gong; my tongue feels like shag carpeting; my stomach has erupted into civil war. I warned myself when that third bourbon slid across the bar last night. By the sixth, I was pretty confident the morning would be a challenge.
You’re avoiding, my shrink would say, the shrink the department made me see during my “vacation” from the force—paid administrative leave while the department shook out from the scandal, indictments, calls for reform, reassignments. I was the hero and the villain in the story, depending on your point of view, though most of my comrades on the force put me in the latter category. They couldn’t fire me after my one-man wrecking ball to the police department that made Sherman’s march through Atlanta look like a sightseeing tour. I’m the face of reform now!
“More like the face of death,” I mumble, getting a load of myself in the bathroom mirror. Hair standing on end, dark circles, pale complexion. I have…what, twenty minutes to look presentable? But how presentable do I have to be, sitting behind some desk or assigned to traffic duty? Who knows what the superintendent’s going to do with me? I’ll be about as welcome in his office as an IRS audit.
“You don’t have to go back,” I say to my reflection. “But what else are you gonna do? Work private security? Roam the earth as a shepherd?”
I’m not sure which side won that debate, but twenty minutes later, I’m driving to headquarters, at 35th and Michigan, still considering that shepherd thing. Does it have to involve sheep?
Police headquarters is a long low-rise building that looks like a high school. Not a bad analogy, because this mandatory meeting feels like being sent to the principal’s office, though far less pleasant. I’d rather be visiting my proctologist, and he has a criminal record.
Most people don’t notice me as I walk the halls in my sport jacket and blue jeans, shield on, just another cop, not one who opened the wrong closet door and found a bunch of department skeletons inside. Not one who got a bullet to the head and a murder indictment for his trouble. And my biggest crime? That I overcame all of it. I was supposed to go away, surrender, but instead I fought back and won—if returning to a job where you’re persona non grata counts as a victory. Good thing I’m not bitter.
“Detective Billy Harney for the superintendent,” I say to the receptionist when I enter the vaunted anteroom of the Chicago top cop’s office. He might also be Chicago’s top asswipe, though a lot of people are competing for that prize.
I glance at the clock to make sure I’m not late. I’m late by two minutes. Aces.
“You’re late,” says the supe before I’ve even entered the room. He’s alone behind his desk. Makes sense. No eyewitnesses.
I think you can be a shepherd without sheep. You just wear flowing robes and say something deep once in a while. Fear not what you do not know but that which you do not endeavor to know. That’s not half bad, and I just pulled that out of my keister.
“Have a seat, Detective.” Superintendent Tristan Driscoll, though the top cop in full dress this morning, isn’t a cop in any real sense of the word. He’s a politician. He somehow managed to survive the destruction I caused, which also took down the person who appointed him, the mayor of Chicago. Not to mention the top prosecutor in town, the Cook County state’s attorney. It was a big wrecking ball.
But Tristan, who must have had sadistic parents for giving him that name, managed to stay in the graces of the new mayor and avoid the chopping block himself. And all while Chicago is making a name for itself as the murder capital of the free world—Beirut-by-the-Lake. His knees must be sore. The walls surrounding us are lined with framed photographs of him standing next to people whose asses he’s kissed.
“We can forgo the pleasantries,” he says to me.
“That’s a relief,” I say. “I couldn’t think of any.”
His mouth zips into a tight smile. “Always that mouth, Harney.” He looks down at a file on his desk. “Your psych evaluation says you’re ready to return to the force.”
“I was always ready. I wasn’t put on leave because I couldn’t work. I was put on leave while you figured out if you could fire me. Then you realized you couldn’t, because it would look like retaliation against the reformer. The media would have you for lunch.”
Never hesitate to say that which is true over that which is comfortable but false. Shit, I’m really getting the hang of this. Where do I buy flowing robes?
Driscoll grins and leans back, rocking in his high-backed leather chair. “I own you, Harney. I can put you on traffic duty. I can make you Officer Friendly, wanding high school students and patrolling crosswalks.” He shrugs. “All I have to do to make that happen is to say you’ve been damaged psychologically. Forget about the union filing a grievance. Nobody’s taking your side. Nobody would challenge me. As long as I don’t fire you—so the media doesn’t ‘have me for lunch.’” He uses air quotes, playing my words back to me. “I can make your life a nightmare. And I will.”
My hands ball into fists, blood rushing to my head. My head was already hurting; now it feels like it’s going to burst.
“So whaddya say, Harney? You retire, you get a full line-of-duty pension, and I don’t have to deal with your fucking bullshit for one…more…day.”
He actually maintains his smile throughout.
The part that really stings—he’s not far off. Do I really want back in? With a shitty assignment and nobody wanting to work with me? The line-of-duty pension isn’t half bad, and I’m still in my midthirties—I could think of something. A fresh start.
But maybe it took this moment, this opportunity to walk away with a clean bill of health and some money in my pocket, to realize it: I still want to be a cop. If I did something wrong to deserve getting the ax, I’d own up to it. But I didn’t. I did my job. Why should I leave?
And those flowing robes? They’d be a bitch to keep clean, I bet.
“No deal,” I say. “Put me where you’re gonna put me.”
Driscoll loses that smarmy smile. He Frisbees a file across his desk. I catch it in my lap and open it. I read it. I read it again.
Then I say, “You’ve gotta be freakin’ kidding me.”
I STARE at my transfer papers, still unable to believe it, rechecking that it’s my name and star number at the top of the page, that there hasn’t been some kind of mix-up.
“Believe me, Harney,” says Driscoll, “it wasn’t my idea.”
The Special Operations Section. I’ve been assigned to SOS.
“We just announced it last month,” says Driscoll.
I saw the presser, Superintendent Driscoll making the announcement with the mayor by his side. The Special Operations Section is an “elite strike force” assigned to major crimes throughout the city. But its focus will be the West Side, terrorized by all the shootings that have given Chicago a nationally recognized black eye and made a lot of local politicians nervous.
Ah, the new mayor. He must be the one who made this assignment happen. Never met the guy, but he must’ve said, Hey, that Harney guy, let’s put him in this unit, show everyone how committed to reform I am. Ever the suck-up, Driscoll would’ve heartily endorsed the idea. He probably even gave the mayor a congratulatory hand job even though he privately wanted to coerce me to retire. He took a shot at getting me to quit just now, but I didn’t take the bait. So now he has to bite his tongue and promote me to one of the best assignments on the force. It must be killing him.
“You’re in the spotlight, Harney, right where you like it.”
I look up at him. Still in shock—this was the absolute last thing I expected—I’m unable to come up with one of my trademark one-liners. “I never wanted the spotlight. I just did my job.”
“Well, you got it anyway, Media Sweetheart. But the thing about the spotlight? It can be warm and comforting when you do good. It can be harsh when you screw up.”
That’s one thing he didn’t need to tell me.
“There’s nothing the press likes more than a fall from grace,” he says. “A hero cop who turns out to be a fuckup.”
That’s two things I already knew.
“That line-of-duty pension’s still on the table,” he says. “Walk away with some bucks in your pocket, move on with your life.”
“And get out of your hair,” I add.
Yeah. Driscoll’s the type who throws dead weight off the boat without a moment’s hesitation. He’d take the first opportunity to burn me if it suited him. And for all I know, that’s what this whole thing is—I’m being set up to fail.
So I’ll just have to make sure I don’t fail.
I give him a wide grin. “I accept the assignment, Mr. Superintendent, sir. Your Excellency.”
He gives me a sidelong glance. “Oh, you’re gonna last a real long time with that attitude, hotshot. Your boss is going to love you.”
I knew about the creation of SOS. But I never heard who’d be running it.
“Who’s my boss?” I ask.
MEET THE new boss. Same as the old boss.
“Don’t look so happy to see me, Harney,” says Lieutenant Paul Wizniewski, working the unlit cigar stub in the corner of his mouth. The Wiz has a melon face, a salt-and-pepper mustache, and one finger always testing the political winds of the department. He has a knack for predicting curves in the road and always makes sure he’s in the correct lane of traffic. That was always a problem between us when I used to work under him. I tended to lead with my chin; he always wanted to know whose ox was getting gored, map out the whole thing first, before making a decision.
He also once arrested me for murder, so there’s that.
“I’m speechless,” I say, deadpan.
“That’d be a first. Listen,” he says, leaning back in his chair, looking at me over his chaotic desk—he couldn’t have been in this assignment more than a week, in this shiny new space at North and Pulaski, and already the papers are piled so high they topple over onto each other. “It sure as shit wasn’t my idea to bring you here.”
“I’m getting a lot of that today.”
“Well, you’re gonna get more. If you have the smarts I think you have, you already know that.”
“I think that was a compliment.”
He scratches his stomach, something I wouldn’t recommend watching. “Look, the past is the past. You thought I was a lowlife. I know you did; it’s okay.”
“I wasn’t going to deny it.”
He chuckles, shakes his head. “Harney, what, you think cuz you got shot in the head and charged with murder—”
“By you,” I add.
He pauses on that. “Well, I didn’t shoot you in the head.”
That’s true. Just the murder accusation.
“Okay,” I say, “well, thank you for not shooting me in the head.”
“You’re welcome.” He comes forward, elbows on the desk, nearly knocking over a Styrofoam cup of coffee. “I know you’re a good cop, Harney. I might’ve had my suspicions about you once upon a time, and they might’ve been wrong—”
“They might’ve been wrong?”
He looks up at the heavens, exasperated. “I’m trying to, you know, make peace on this.”
“Turn the page?” I say.
“A new chapter?”
“Right. Because here’s the thing, my friend. You know what SOS stands for?”
“Yeah, Lew, I do,” I say, using the nickname we all called him. “It stands for ‘no fuckin’ around.’”
He points at me. “That’s exactly what it stands for. The supe is this close to losing his job over the shootings on the West Side. The blacks out there are howling, and our new mayor is a very sensitive-type guy. The SOS is supposed to start getting solves and getting solves quick. And I got a cop standing before me right now who, all things being equal, is the perfect guy for this assignment. One of the first people I’d choose, to give you the God’s honest.”
“But all things aren’t equal,” I say.
“Right. You’re a parasite around here.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is pariah.”
He glares at me, even allows a smile. “That’s the one, yeah. Okay, Mr. Word of the Day, so listen up. I’ve got a good team here. Some of the best in the city. Every one of them’s looking at you wondering if you’re going to screw it up. So don’t.”
“I won’t, Lew.”
He removes the cigar from his mouth, which usually means he’s about to say something serious. “The only way we’re going to stop the carnage out there is to solve murders. We solve murders, then the gangbangers don’t think they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. The police stop being a joke to them. Witnesses start talking to us again. All that shit on the West Side’s gonna stop. Because Special Ops is gonna make it stop. You hearin’ me?”
He’s probably waiting for another wisecrack. But that corny stuff? The stuff about how we’re here to protect the good people who just want safe streets? That’s what gets me every time. Every day that I was on paid leave, staring at my star, wondering if it was worth coming back to the force with all the baggage I’m carrying—every single time, all I had to do was think about why I wanted to be a cop since the day I could walk.
“I hear you, Lew. I won’t let you down.”
He stares at me until he’s sure I’m being straight with him. “Okay, Harney, good. So get to it.” He looks down at his desk, miraculously locating the file that had held his attention before I walked in. “Oh, and, uh…” He waves a hand absently, not looking up. “I apologize in advance for your partner.”
THE SUV is curbed along Cicero just north of the expressway, near a long brick building with the word FURNITURE stamped across the window, the store all boarded up and caged. “Turn that shit off,” says Disco, alone in the back seat, to the men in the front, playing obnoxious dance music. “Or…move it to the front of the car.”
“I don’t know how to move it to the front.” The two men in the front seat, dressed, like Disco, in shabby clothes and baseball caps, fiddle with the dashboard, trying to figure out how to transfer the music from the rear of the vehicle.
“Then turn it off!” Disco snaps, bowing his head, tapping his finger to his earpiece.
“The last customer just drove away,” says the voice in his earpiece. “It’s been a busy morning. They were lined up six cars long an hour ago.”
“And everyone’s outside?”
“Yeah. Shiv’s on the porch with the girl.”
“And you’re ready with the backup?” he asks.
Disco glances at the men in the front seat. Do we look like three dopeheads? Close enough, he figures—three white guys in casual clothes. They come in all shapes and sizes these days. Addicts wear business suits and turtleneck sweaters and trendy clothes and torn shirts and sweatpants. They are lawyers and accountants and housewives and students and homeless junkies.
Do they look too much like they’re trying to look like dopeheads? Disco, for his part, is wearing a sweatshirt he bought in a sporting goods store yesterday that he slept in last night, so it wouldn’t look too nice and fresh.
He stretches his arms, shaking out the nerves. “Okay, let’s go.”
The men in front straighten up, check their weapons. One of them kills the music. The SUV—an eight-year-old model with a dented fender—pulls off the curb and turns onto Van Buren by a convenience store littered with spray-painted graffiti. The signs advertise two-liter bottles of pop for ninety-nine cents and lotto cards and Marlboros and an ATM.
“They have lookouts past the alley by Kilpatrick, north side.”
“Okay. Boys,” Disco calls out, “say something to each other and laugh. Look like you’re not worried.”
Disco sits back, playing it calm, seeing three African American girls jumping rope on a sidewalk, eyeing the SUV as it passes. Otherwise, Van Buren is quiet this time of day, shiny and bright from the noon sun, almost tranquil in outward appearances despite the dilapidated homes, the vacant lots littered with garbage.
His partners in front are doing as he asked, joking around, trying to smile—pulling it off better than he would’ve expected—as the SUV turns north onto Kilbourn.
“Backup is ready?” Disco whispers into his earpiece.
Here we go.
Disco removes his earpiece, throws it to the floorboard.
The SUV rolls northbound on Kilbourn. The men in front grow quiet. Disco’s pulse thumps like a bass drum inside him. They pass an alley, a row of brick flats, a Dumpster. The vehicle pulls over to the left side, near a two-story brick walk-up where Shiv sits on the porch with the girl. A man idles by on the sidewalk, or pretends to be idling by, in an untucked Chicago Bears jersey. He glances up at the porch, at Shiv, who nods back. Then the man ambles over to the SUV.
“Roll down your window,” Disco tells the driver, bracing himself.
“How you fellas doin’?” says the man, standing a few feet away, bent at the waist.
- "Crisply written ... a fine thriller."—Booklist
- Praise for The Black Book:
- "The plot twists will give you whiplash."—Washington Post
- "Brilliantly twisty."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- On Sale
- Apr 6, 2021
- Hachette Audio