By Karen Ellis
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One of the few black kids on his Brighton Beach block, Titus “Crisp” Crespo was raised by his white mother and his Russian grandparents. He has two legacies from his absent father, Mo: his weird name and his brown skin. Crisp has always been the odd kid out, but a fundamentally good kid, with a bright future.
As Detective Lex Cole tries to unravel the clues from Crisp’s night out, they both find that what you don’t know about your past can still come back to haunt you.
Tell It to the Judge
For the real event they’ll be starched versions of themselves, in blue gowns and tasseled mortarboards, but Crisp likes this better: the sea of kids in ripped jeans with rings and tats in full flare; teachers scattered in the back rows of the vast auditorium, casually enjoying the fruits of their labor. A party mood, with mostly just the elders paying attention to his rehearsal of the valedictory, The Speech he practiced at home, over and over, for his mother and grandparents.
Center stage, he finishes: “…and that is why my years at Stuyvesant have been not just formative, but inspiring. Aut viam inveniam aut faciam—I shall either find a way or make one.”
An explosion of applause tells him that he was wrong—people were listening. Adrenaline nearly lifts him off the stage, and there he is, floating over everyone, smiling, laughing, reaching down to feel a thousand fingertips graze the palms of his hands. Feeling like the new balloon at next year’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, representing…what? A brown-skinned, fro-headed hybrid of a young man with high-tops clean and white, the way he likes them, and—here’s the kicker—something to say.
He levitates through the rest of rehearsal and then the 687 other seniors are dismissed until morning, when the official ceremony will take place.
Outside in the buttery June afternoon, Crisp unlocks his bike and flies along Chambers Street and onto the Brooklyn Bridge. Dodging pedestrians with pinball precision, the lightweight bike so attuned to him that it feels like part of his body. Ignoring dirty looks and riding fast, faster across the wingspan suspended between two urban shores. Energized by the fact that a lifetime of New York City public schools is behind him. Wondering how, if, he’ll fit in next year at Princeton. The sharp tip of that thought bursts his bubble and he feels the air begin to seep out of him. Of course, it won’t be easy. He slows along the bridge’s off-ramp, merges into traffic, and comes to a stop at the intersection of Tillary and Adams.
“You.” A short, burly cop standing in front of the corner diner waves him over. “Come here.”
“Me?” Crisp points to himself, his mind whirring.
“No, sir.” Crisp pedals onto the sidewalk, comes to a stop near the officer, and hops off his bike. “Did I do something wrong?”
The cop rips a curled printout off his ticketing device and hands it to Crisp with a dead-eyed stare.
“What’s this for?”
“Can’t you read?”
Crisp looks at the ticket and there it is: a hundred-dollar fine and a court summons for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk. He swallows the bitter foretaste of a percolating anger.
“Officer Russo,” getting the name off the lopsided tag beneath the badge, “I rode over because you told me to.”
“It’s against the law to ride your bike on the sidewalk. You oughta know that, kid.”
“But you told me to come over. When I was riding in the street.”
“You saying you didn’t ride on the sidewalk just now?”
“You think I’m blind?”
“Don’t do it again.” Russo begins to move away.
Color flushes out of Crisp’s fingers, he’s gripping his handlebars so hard. He shouts, “Who do you think you are? Franz fucking Kafka?” He inches his bike closer to Russo and jerks it to a stop.
“What’d you call me?”
“Franz Kafka is a who, not a what. Sir. But you wouldn’t know that—fucking idiot.” He’d meant to think that last part, but somehow the words hissed out.
Forehead sweaty, jowls shaking, Russo whips out a set of handcuffs.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”
“Oh, I am not kidding you, son.” He snaps open one bracelet and latches it to Crisp’s left wrist.
“‘Son’? You think you’re my father now?”
Muttering the standard Miranda warnings, Russo yanks Crisp’s right hand off the handlebar and clinches the second bracelet. The bike crashes to the sidewalk.
“I didn’t do anything wrong!”
“Assaulting an officer. Resisting arrest. And now—” Russo glances at the fallen bike. “—littering.”
“Verbal assault with threat of physical violence.”
“What? This is insane!”
“Trying to mow me down with that bike.”
“I did not!”
“Tell it to the judge.”
A rhythmic snapping echoes onto the Dreyfus family rooftop. Lying in the sun, Glynnie opens her eyes and something Ms. Abrams said in class last week returns with a jolt. She said, “It used to be that identity was internalized before it was externalized. These days it’s the reverse, it seems to me.”
It seems to me. Glynnie lops off that final clause in her mind, as a favor to Ms. Abrams, who all year tormented everyone by denuding bold statements with self-doubt. Making these big, interesting statements and then, wham, killing them with a weak finish. It was the last English class Glynnie would ever, ever take in her life—hallelujah. Another week of freedom before being packed off to fucking Outward Bound.
She closes her eyes and conjures Ms. Abrams’s face: oval, freckly, a face that never managed to carry authority all through senior year. It isn’t that Ms. Abrams is too young or isn’t smart; it’s that she’s unsure of herself.
Glynnie brings the roach to her lips and nearly burns her fingers lighting it. Waves out the match. Breathes deeply, holds in the smoke, lets it out in a wandering cloud. Feels the shiver pass into her brain, loosening her thoughts. The lift. The expansion.
Yes, that’s it. That’s Ms. Abrams’s problem: She’s insecure.
Snap snap snap.
Ms. Abrams’s face fragments like cracked glass. Glynnie opens her eyes again. She lets one bare foot drop off the chaise onto the wood deck, thinking she might investigate the sound, but then she sees what it is, where it’s coming from, and lies back down to continue letting the rays soak unfiltered into her skin. The air just a bit chilly on her nipples, puckered in little salutes to the sun. So good to be out here, topless, alone, on a warm blue day after the long winter and meandering spring.
Snap snap snap.
Sitting up, she can make out, in the near distance, several figures milling around inside the caged recreation area on top of the Brooklyn House of Detention, though she can’t see any detail. Just a bunch of guys shooting hoops. Exercise hour. Happens every day. But something about the sound of the ball seems different today—sharper, angrier, with every bounce crackling through her nerves.
“Identity was internalized before it was externalized,” Ms. Abrams said.
Glynnie suddenly understands, really gets what the teacher meant. She reaches her arms out to the sides, flexes her fingers. Yup. It used to be that people had time and space to think, but not anymore. You’d have a chance to know who you are before you wondered who you should be. That’s what Ms. Abrams was talking about last week. Finally, at the bitter end, the woman teaches her something that might be worthwhile. Chaucer never penetrated, that’s for sure.
Internalized identity. What, she wonders, is hers? She knows what it looks like from the outside—her demographics, her family—but from the inside?
The other night she overheard her father on the phone talking to whoever, a Scotch in his hand: “Seven million—that’s what our brownstone’s at now. Give it a year to reach eight.” His voice oozy with intoxication equals booze plus self-satisfaction.
Fucking bourgeoisie. Worse: one percenter. Not her fault she’s his kid.
Between the Dreyfus manse and the House of Detention two blocks north, a patchwork of windows reveals the lives of condo tenants—million a unit, Glynnie’s dad once guessed, maybe two. Seven floors in all, possibly a dozen units per floor—half a full block of “gold coast real estate” was how her dad described it to whoever he was talking to that time. Whoever the Scotch was talking to. Sober, Nik Dreyfus didn’t brag about money things; compared to his fancy clients, he was practically poor.
Glynnie hates it, really hates it, all this…this greed…hypocrisy. It doesn’t represent her. It’s not how she feels. She feels agitated, restless, bored. But what does any of that mean?
She takes another toke and extinguishes the blunt on the side of the chaise.
A window shade in one of the condos across the street blinks shut. Towering behind it, an entire universe away, that snap snap snap atop the House announces something less serene. Glynnie stares past a woman watering a condo roof garden and at the shadows milling inside the basketball cage that looms higher than the nearer building by at least three stories. Dark figures whom she imagines darkly (there you go, Ms. Abrams: finally, a poetic turn of phrase from the class fuckup), distinguishable only by slight variations in height.
And then: “I see you!” A voice sails out of the cage. A real voice. Male, plump with intent.
She holds a hand above her eyes to block the sun.
He’s standing up against the fence, facing her direction. The basketball is no longer dribbling, she realizes, and in the unanticipated silence the shadow turns into a young faceless brown man with a six-inch fralo (fro meets halo—her own word; I’m a poet, don’t you know it). The bulge of basketball pinned between arm and hip. The sky above him a springtime cerulean she wishes she could lick clean of its wispy clouds.
She shouts, “I see you, too!” Testing her instinct that this is a direct communication traversing worlds, that she isn’t nuts and he’s actually talking to her.
“Save some for me!” His voice is bold, edged with what she reads as humor, but she isn’t quite sure. She doesn’t like not being sure; she wants to know. Save some what? Weed? Or is he referring to her breasts? She suddenly feels as naked as she is but refuses to cover herself up. This is the body she was given at birth; it’s a gift that belongs to her, and she’s proud of it, and Shut the fuck up if you think it means anything else.
Bracketing her mouth with both hands to direct all her voice at the cage, she yells, “Come over, why don’t you?” Knowing he can’t, because he’s locked up for some crime he committed…allegedly.
A lull, a pocket of surprise. Another man joins him at the fence. And then laughter. But what kind of laughter? At themselves and their predicaments, being caged in—though she imagines they don’t find that very funny—or at her? She isn’t ready to finish this; she needs to know.
“What?” Standing up, spreading her wings. “Can’t you fly?” Half naked, open armed, she twirls across her rooftop. Sun queen, temptress, high-school graduate at long last. Then, just for the hell of it, she leans over her mother’s Italian planter, where a bush of English roses is about to bloom, and spits.
Crisp presses the hard curve of the basketball into his ribs, and looks at the half-naked girl on the roof across the way getting stoned in full view of everyone. There’s something about her that reminds him of someone, but he can’t think who. What, he wonders, would happen to her if she was locked up and missed the last arraignment roster of the day?
He knows exactly what would happen; half the kids at his school are just like her. Her parents or somebody would make sure she got onto that roster so she wouldn’t have to wait her turn to get her charges read out, the judge’s decision on bail or no bail, release or more detention. No way would anyone with a roof-deck like that (out of the pages of a magazine, with its cushions and sun umbrella and flowerpots and trees—yes, even trees) let their lily-white princess spend a night in jail, which is exactly what happens when you’re not on the afternoon’s last roster. No way would anyone let her stand in this cage if she was in his shoes.
No way would she even get arrested to begin with. Because she’s white. And a girl. And rich—he can see that just by looking at her right now in the context of her environment, his sociology teacher Alan might say.
“Huh,” Crisp mutters. He palms the ball and triple dribbles it hard.
That’s exactly where he is now too: in the context of his environment as seen through the lens of race and socioeconomics. And that lens doesn’t read anyone as half black, as he is, or half poor, as he is. He knows who he is and where he is: stranded in jail with a bunch of other boys and men trapped in their dark skins, missing out, watching that girl dancing around on her rooftop, flapping her arm-wings, feeling the sun and the air on her skin, without any reason in the world to think she’d ever get her liberty taken away.
He wants to shout back at the roof girl, “Sure I can fly! Yes I can!” But what’s the point? He’s here, she’s there. He turns his back and throws the ball to the first man-boy he sees across the cage.
And then he realizes what he recognized about her. It was a certain singsong in her voice when she said that last thing—“What, can’t you fly?”—that was familiar, and suddenly he remembers. She’s a friend of his friend from school. Over the winter break a bunch of Stuyvesant kids hung out with a bunch of Brooklyn Friends kids, and yeah, right, her. She was cool. She did a rap on his name, made him smile.
He claws his fingers through the chain-link fence and shouts across the roofscape, “Glynnie? Yo, Sarah Bernhardt!,” which is what he called her that night because of the nutty expressions she made when she sang. She had an unusually flexible face.
She stops dancing and wraps her arms around herself to cover her breasts and her jaw drops open, and he knows she remembers him too.
She yells, “Crisp Crespo, the Crisco King of Coney? What the fuck!” She jumps around and shakes her ass at him and cracks up laughing, and he can’t help it. He laughs right along with her.
Rumors and Time
The phone won’t ring but Detective Lex Cole stares at it anyway, then hates himself for waiting for Adam’s call and looks away, then turns back to the silent screen clenched in his hand: that cruel rectangular void.
He switches the phone to vibrate, puts it facedown on his desk, and checks the new case log on his monitor—nothing in since he last looked. After an initial flurry of activity at the start of the night shift, it’s as if the whole southern end of Brooklyn went to sleep all at once. Now it’s just him and Toby Rios left in the 6-0 squad room. His colleague must have opened a window because suddenly a brisk salty breeze and the rhythm of nearby waves fill the room.
“Think I’ll step outside a minute,” Lex tells Toby.
When Toby lifts his head from whatever file he’s reading, a sheen of light from the overhead bounces off his pate. “Sure thing.”
As soon as Lex stands, his right calf muscle cramps, followed by a note of craving he immediately silences—that old song of pain wanting relief and the slippery slope of getting it. Out on the surf that afternoon, he felt the vibration of a wave coming up behind him and turned to carve his board into it: flashes of silver light, an exhilarating lift out of time. He rode the swell as it chased him back to shore. As the wave shrank, he felt, irrationally, as if his mastery had subdued it. Right away another one crept up, powerful, ready to teach him a lesson. Turning to meet it, he thought he glimpsed Adam standing on the beach, watching him—handsome Adam, pale with his thatch of black hair, light and dark like a two-tone cat. It wasn’t Adam, though: it was another man who vaguely resembled him. In that single, hapless moment, Lex’s calf seized and he nearly lost his balance. A moment of injury in its full innocence; the treachery always came later.
He bends to push a hand into his boot and massage the muscle. Slides his phone into the back pocket of his jeans and heads for the stairwell down to the first floor.
Out on West Eighth Street in the moonlit darkness he listens to the roar of the ocean. Coney Island is uncharacteristically quiet, the Wonder Wheel at rest, Luna Park’s dazzle switched off. The solitude grips and terrifies him. He reaches for his phone and almost calls Adam, but resists the urge. Let Adam be the one to break the silence.
Toby clips past, jangling a set of keys to one of the precinct cars. “Caught one. I told Minnick you’re out here if someone else comes in.”
“Thanks,” Lex says. Whatever lands next will be his. After that, new cases will have to wait in line for whoever gets back first.
Just as he’s about to head inside, his phone vibrates and he stops breathing. The screen comes alive in his hand, but not with Adam’s name.
A text from his brother, David:
Sorry to ask but any chance you could bring Ethan to school tomorrow morning? Babysitter’s sick and I’ve got an early meeting with the AG.
David’s been angling since late winter for that meeting with the New York State attorney general, wanting to discuss a judgeship that’s about to open. Justice David Cole. Smiling, Lex taps out his response.
Short answer-yes. Long answer-if I don’t get derailed by a case. Better arrange a backup. Otherwise see u @7, that work?
Yes and will do and I owe you one.
Another one u mean.
Second time this month. David should consider finding either a new babysitter or a second wife. But in truth, Lex enjoys his rare one-on-one time with his nine-year-old nephew. Once Ethan is old enough to get himself back and forth to school and spend a few hours alone in the apartment, there won’t be any more calls for standby parenting on David’s custody days. Lex doesn’t look forward to the moment he’ll stop being the cool cop uncle and become just another asshole authority figure.
On his way through the lobby he nods at Minnick, the front-desk officer, mealy in his uniform, with a fringe of thinning hair poking out from beneath his cap. Minnick nods back in acknowledgment of the detective’s return.
A small woman clutching her purse to her side blasts through the precinct entrance and announces to Minnick, “My son is missing!” Her shoulder-length brown hair is frizzed from the moist night air, defying an apparent effort to straighten it. Lex pauses in the stairwell door. This is unusual, someone coming on foot to report a missing person; typically they panic and pick up the phone.
He turns and watches Minnick suck in his cheeks as he faces the monitor on his desk and clicks through to open a new case report. The officer asks, “How old is your son?”
“Oh. Okay.” Minnick clicks through to a different page, presumably having opened a report for a missing minor, based on the mother’s relative youth and her level of agitation. As he takes down the basics, Lex backtracks to the front desk; the case is just going to find its way upstairs to him anyway. Glad for something to think about not-Adam, he takes the printout that Minnick hands him.
“I’m Detective Lex Cole.” He gives the mother his card. “How can I help?”
Her forehead ruts. “My son never came home tonight. He was arrested yesterday and then—”
He glances at the report—her name is Katya Spielman—and interrupts, “Mrs. Spielman, let’s go talk somewhere quieter.”
“It’s quiet right here.” Impatience spikes her tone. “And it isn’t Mrs. I’m divorced.”
“My mistake.” He says it gently, in the hope of knitting a strand of calm into her worry. He leads her to one of the first-floor interrogation rooms, windowless gray walls that might have been white once, the metal table etched with someone’s initials.
She looks at his card, then at him. “Your full name is Alexei.”
“Yes, but everyone calls me Lex.” He sits, and gestures toward the opposite chair. “You were starting to tell me that your son,” he looks at the report, “Titus—”
“He also doesn’t use his given name. He goes by Crisp.”
“Crisp. That’s unique, but then so is Titus.”
“I’m so worried.”
“You were saying that Crisp was arrested yesterday, meaning Wednesday, right? Technically today’s already Friday. Just to be clear.”
“Yes, Wednesday. On his way home from school.”
Lex listens carefully, taking notes as she unspools the story: her son’s ticket for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk, followed by a “wrongful arrest” for assaulting an officer, “which he would never, ever do.” He spent a night in the Brooklyn House of Detention before finally appearing on the arraignment roster at around noon. She explains, “When he got home this afternoon—no, that would be yesterday afternoon now, Thursday—he wasn’t good. He looked exhausted, obviously, but it was more than jail. It was missing his graduation yesterday morning—speaking at his graduation—the honor of being valedictorian gone because some cop was trying to meet his quota. The principal himself tried pulling strings, but it was too late.”
“If the arrest was wrongful,” Lex assures her, “the charge will be thrown out.”
“It was wrongful. But then…” She lowers her face into her hands to stifle a groan of frustration. “I never should have told him that the Princeton dean’s office left a message. That was a mistake.”
“It upset him?”
“They gave him a full scholarship—everything, even housing. He must be worried they found out about the arrest, but who knows why they called? He said he’d return the call later, but I pressed the issue, and then he stormed out—and that was that.”
“Yeah, I get that, I do. But usually we give it a little time when it’s an adult, especially when it’s an older teenager.”
“This is a good boy. An unusual boy.”
“You said you’re divorced—could he have spent the night with his father?”
“My ex-husband isn’t in the picture, not since Crisp was a baby.”
“Does he have a girlfriend? Buddies he stays over with sometimes?”
“No girlfriend, no friends close enough to stay over. He’s more of an…an…intellectual
- "[An] existential thriller... Last Night is a group character study that offers realistic suspense. Ms. Ellis is an able guide inside the psyches of her subjects."—Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal
- "Without resorting to stereotypes, Ellis deftly shows just how different the stakes are for kids who supposedly live in the same world but who face very different obstacles and possibilities. This thoughtful entry in the Searchers series will satisfy fans of the previous work as well as those who enjoy a well-crafted look at New York's underbelly."—Booklist
PRAISE FOR KAREN ELLIS and A MAP OF THE DARK
"Elegant, haunting... a far-from-ordinary FBI novel."
"One of the most compelling psychological thrillers I've read in a long time, A Map of the Dark grabs you from the very first page and does not loosen its grip. I read this book in a day---I simply could not put it down---but I will be thinking about it for much longer."—Alison Gaylin, USA Today bestselling author of What Remains of Me
- "A taut, tense, exciting read with a sharp and very human protagonist."—Reed Farrel Coleman, New York Times bestselling author of What You Break
- "Karen Ellis entwines complex storylines with breakneck precision. A must-read for fans of taut, unpredictable psychological suspense."—Wendy Corsi Staub, bestselling author of Blue Moon
- On Sale
- Nov 5, 2019
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Mulholland Books