Proving Ground by Peter Blauner is a sweeping crime novel, an intricate story about the quest for redemption, and a vibrant portrait of contemporary New York City (available May 2, 2017).
Nathaniel Dresden never really got along with his father, an infamous civil rights lawyer who defended criminals and spearheaded protest movements. As an act of rebellion, Natty joined the U.S. Army and served in Iraq, coming back with a chest full of commendations and a head full of disturbing memories.
But when his father is found murdered near the peaceful confines of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Natty is forced to deal with the troubled legacy of their unresolved relationship. He also has to fend off the growing suspicions of NYPD Detective Lourdes Robles, a brash Latina cop with something to prove, who thinks Natty might bear some responsibility for his father’s death. Though truth be told, the list of people—cops and criminals—who wanted David Dresden out of the way is long. The search for answers leads Natty and Lourdes into an urban labyrinth where they must confront each other—and the brutal truths that could destroy them both.
A helicopter with a searchlight is hovering low over Prospect Park, its juddering hum reminding Lourdes of a man deciding how to respond to an insult.
As she approaches the Fifth Street entrance, she sees ambulance guys smoking cigarettes, in no big hurry to do anything. Yellow tape cordons off the bike lanes, a big crowd behind it already, bathed in flashes of blue, white, and red from the squad car lights. An exclusive nightspot for people you wouldn’t want to party with: white-shirted supervisors, regular uniform cops, and detectives in off-the-rack suits.
On first glance, it looks like the unusual event they’ve shown up for is a vacant parking space in No-Park Slope. But then she sees the fleecy white and red clumps, which turn out to be feathers, trailing back toward the sidewalk. They lead past inside-out latex gloves, snipped rubber tubing, and a bent syringe to a body facedown near an elm tree, stuffing coming out through the ruptured stitching of a Canada Goose parka.
Lourdes flips tin at the cop standing guard and ducks under the tape, not liking the way her trousers crackle with the bend. A month without carbs and she still can’t get under 165. But fuck it, she’s bootylicious and proud. Always been a big girl, with lots of bounce to the ounce. All creamy café con leche abundance busting from a halter top when she was waitressing undercover at the Golden Lady Gentlemen’s Lounge, substantial and serious when she’s wearing her Lane Bryant business suit in the squadroom. Either way, whoever couldn’t appreciate that rearview had no class and could just move it along, nothing to see here, fellas.
“Detective Robles, welcome back.” Captain Bowman, the CO from her patrol days, is just inside the tape, shivering in the spring chill. “I’ll cue the balloons.”
She smiles and bunches her cheeks up like brioche tops. Three months back in the detective squad and still catching grief from the trolls downstairs. What else could she expect? Even before she got in trouble, she’d been dangerously low on allies at the seven-eight. Pretty much everyone she used to work with had been pissed about her getting to jump the line before she’d even completed her eighteen-month rotation in Narcotics.
But none of them happened to be getting highlights at the Sophisticated Lady Hair Salon on Flatbush Avenue when a five-time loser named Tyrell Humphries tried to hold the place up with a .22, which he dry-clicked twice upside Lourdes’s head after she ID’d herself as a cop. Somehow even with a smock on, she’d managed to wrestle the gat away before shooting him in the ball sack. Which, in turn, led to her getting promoted at a special ceremony attended by the mayor and the PC.
Her photo appeared in the Daily News, effectively ending her career as an undercover. And leaving her unprotected six months later when her fuckwit partner, Erik Heinz, got caught on a cell-phone camera verbally abusing an Arab cab driver for cutting them off on Ocean Parkway, with Lourdes standing behind him, silent and embarrassed. The clip became an instant YouTube sensation, seventy-five thousand clicks in the first three hours, earning Heinz a new assignment moving Staten Island barricades and Lourdes six weeks in a VIPER room, watching security monitors in a housing project basement. When she got out, she was no longer known as the “Heroine of the Hair Salon,” but as “that fat girl who got in trouble.”
“What do we got, Captain?”
“Deep breath, LRo. Taxpayer down.”
“Amazing. You’re getting called in six hours after your tour ends and you figure that out on your own. No wonder they let you hang on to that little gold shield.”
Four detectives from her squad are already at the scene, joining a couple of medical-legal investigators from the ME’s office in Tyvek suits and booties. Two CSU techs take photos and make notes. The ghouls are parking the morgue van over by the parks administration building. She notices that every time she catches someone’s eye, it darts away.
“The 9-1-1 operator patched the call through a few minutes past eleven,” Bowman says. “Residents across the street reported hearing shots.”
Lourdes looks over at the limestones and brownstones on the other side of Prospect Park West, lined up like nineteenth-century novels you needed perfect ACT scores to read. Each worth four million easy these days—more, if you could get a dentist or a shrink paying office rent on the garden floor.
It must be twenty years since the last murder in the park that white people cared about. A drama teacher got shot for his mountain bike near Swan Lake, back when she was in fifth grade and Brooklyn was still fierce.
Nowadays, the whole damn park is an ad for healthy urban living. At least when the sun is up. Private foundations and citizen volunteers had poured dollars and hours into protecting the trees, saving the ducks, bringing in the Metropolitan Opera, and chasing junkies from the band shell. Any Saturday or Sunday, the six hundred acres are fields of well-tended flesh: world-class runners, Tour de France wannabes, Audubon Society bird freaks, Olympian volleyball players, and Ivy Leaguers dragging their $500 congas to the African drum circle in the grove.
At night, though, the ghosts still come out. The Picnic House gets shrouded in mist like a castle from some old Shakespeare play. Homeless people still hide out in encampments in the woods, where they can lie down quietly with their sorrows in the moonlight. The occasional wolf pack still roams over from Parkside Avenue or Empire Boulevard. Every few years, a ninja with a sword shows up in the Vale of Cashmere, a vengeful spirit from the eighties slashing at gay men in the bushes. And every season or two, a lonely life still ends dangling from a low branch on Suicide Hill.
“See all the fluff that came out of the coat?” Bowman points out the wisps blowing away. “Must have been a big gun.”
“Or defects in the nylon.” Lourdes aims her chin at a flagrant rip in the stitching. “Eyewits?”
“The good news is, we found some screwball with a sleeping bag and a view of the crime scene just on the other side of the wall.”
“The bad news?”
“He’s not talking.” The captain jerks a thumb over his shoulder.
Detective Robert “Beautiful Bobby” Borrelli from her squad is a few yards away, gesturing haplessly at a man wearing a hat with furry ears and a plastic shower curtain over his shoulders.
“It’s not clear he speaks English,” the captain says. “Or any other earth language.”
“Like that matters.” Lourdes unbuttons her coat as she strolls over. “What up, B.B.?”
Beautiful Bobby, Romeo-eyed with a Guido Elvis pompadour and a small pink baby butt of a bald spot, shrugs at his subject.
“Mork from Ork here. Ten minutes, no ID, no hablo. He’s either deaf and dumb or thinks we’re from the intergalactic border patrol.”
“I’ll talk to her,” the homeless man says matter of factly.
“See that, B.B.?” She throws her shoulders back. “It’s all about the attitude.”
“I know you.” The homeless guy adjusts the shower curtain like an aristocrat’s cape.
“You know me?”
She studies the homeless dude more closely. He has the face of an Aztec warrior debauched by years of hard city living: high, bruised cheekbones and slanting almond eyes with tiny globs of mascara sticking to the lashes.
“I met you in the park,” he says, with a hint of a Mexican accent. “Long time ago.”
“Yeah?” She wrinkles her nose, hoping this isn’t someone she once dated.
“I was living down under the bridge, by the ravine.” He doffs the furry ears in tribute. “You were in uniform but I knew you were an angel.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot.” She rolls her eyes at B.B., knowing she’ll pay for this later at the squad.
“It was ten below zero in the park.” Little yellow whales crinkle on the shower curtain cape. “You gave me a twenty-dollar bill and told me to get the fuck out.”
“De nada.” Lourdes nods. “Was I nice about it?”
“Tonight I’m sleeping by the wall, when I hear these people talking.” The homeless man pops his eyes open, to recreate the moment. “Old white dude says, ‘Hey, guys, what’s doing?’”
“‘Hey guys’? Like it’s someone he knows?”
“Dunno.” The homeless man shrugs. “Then I hear, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,’ and bap bap bap. I drop back down behind the wall and I hear this other dude go, ‘Kizz, kizz.’”
“‘Kizz, kizz’? You sure?”
“More likely, ‘Keys, keys,’” a deep, tired voice says behind her. “Like the victim dropped his car keys and one of them was saying pick it up.”
A tall, red-faced man with 1977 sideburns and bloodhound eyes has lumbered over in a black raincoat, uniformed cops getting out of his way like meerkats fleeing an elephant.
“Kevin Sullivan, Brooklyn South Homicide,” he introduces himself in the diffident grumble of a country priest with a Marlboro habit.
So this is Him: the Last of the Mohicans. His reputation precedes him, but he’s actually more imposing than Lourdes expected. Maybe six-five, six-six, two fifty—the kind of big that makes everyone else have to adjust their seats when he gets in a car. Said to be peaceful of disposition until provoked—then potentially terrifying. Up close, he looks to be in his early sixties but his ruddy complexion is still so pockmarked from adolescent acne that it appears small animals have been gnawing on his face. He smells of Old Spice and patchouli. His mop of black hair has no shading or nuance. More Grecian Formula Apache than Sitting Bull Natural.
“Yeah, that must have been what they were saying.” The homeless guy nods. “When I looked over the wall, they were getting in a Benz and driving away.”
“Mercedes-Benz?” Lourdes makes a note.
“Yeah, I’d say an old 450.” The homeless man registers Lourdes’s questioning look. “I used to be a mechanic out at one of those garages by Shea Stadium.” He glances away wistfully. “Anyhow, I look out and see the white dude’s crawling along the sidewalk going, ‘Help me, help me.’ But by the time I got to him, he was gone.”
“Can you describe the guys who jacked the car?” Lourdes asks, a little self-conscious about keeping her voice steady with Sullivan clocking her.
“No. It was too far from the streetlight.”
“Excuse me, how many shots did you say?” Sullivan looms over the homeless man, more solicitous than threatening.
“Sure about that?” Sullivan gives Lourdes a sidelong glance.
“I’ve seen better days, but I can still count to three,” the homeless man says, a brief history of shame passing across his face.
“All right.” Sullivan nods at Borrelli. “You got this?”
“Oh yeah, we’re BFFs now.” Beautiful Bobby helps the homeless guy keep his cape on. “I’ll get him a hot chocolate and take his statement.”
Lourdes watches them trundle off, then looks back toward the body as the CSU techs slip paper bags over the dead man’s hands. Sullivan drops into a surprisingly agile squat and starts to count the evidence placards.
“I see five shell casings; he says three shots.” He sucks his lips. “You find that odd?”
“I wouldn’t take his word for anything.” She shrugs. “He’s out of his fucking mind.”
“Watch the language, please.” He doesn’t meet her eyes.
God, another one of those lace-curtain Irish hypocrites, who swears like Lil Wayne around other men but blushes every time a woman lets a four-letter word drop.
“Good you got him talking though.” Sullivan bounces on his haunches.
“What we do.”
“White man dead by the park, in an $800 coat, with a Benz driving away afterward.” Sullivan stands, wipes his hands on his coat. “There’s going to be a lot of eyes on this.”
“You telling me to back off?”
“Just saying. You have options.”
So he’s heard about Erik Heinz.
“You want me off, do whatever you have to do,” she says. “But I’m not going willingly.”
He looks her up and down. Other girls may have wanted to be ballerinas or princesses, but Lourdes never thought about being anything other than a cop. Spent her nights watching Kojak reruns and reading Dorothy Uhnak novels while Papi was starting his bid upstate and Mami was out getting high. And now that she’s finally made it to a detective squad, she’s not looking back. Other people got into the job for the benefits or because they couldn’t think of anything else to do. But Lourdes always knew she had the calling. While other girls she grew up with at the projects were getting pregnant too young and soft-minded with reality shows and self-pity, she was sharpening up like a Westinghouse scholar. Getting all sagacious and streetwise about human behavior. Even Erik Heinz couldn’t quite kill her feeling for the work. After eleven years on the job, the girl loves having her own desk and coffee mug with the NYPD emblem, loves the dark science forensics and data-bank searches, loves the interrogation head games, and yes, even sometimes loves working with men instead of women—appreciating the simplicity of dealing with a bunch of coarse, hairy-knuckled guys who don’t talk shit all day about their weight and how no one really appreciates them.
“Hey, detectives.” Bowman is waving them over, a tech from Crime Scene with him holding up a wallet. “Know who this is?”
The vic has been rolled. An older guy, maybe mid-sixties, with a halo of wizard-white hair spilling out around his head and a kind of exhausted middle-class nobility to his leonine features. He wears a scruffy beard and the slightly perplexed expression of a man interrupted while making his morning coffee.
“That’s David Dresden.” Sullivan goes still.
“The lawyer?” Lourdes asks.
“Try the lawyer every cop in the city hates,” the captain says.
Big mouth on the evening news, press conferences on courthouse steps, always carrying on about police brutality and racial injustice. Lourdes heard him referred to as “the white Al Sharpton” and worse long before she even became a cop. Despised not only for keeping criminals out of prison but for causing epic traffic jams with his protest marches.
“Scumbag.” The captain breathes out a cold vapor. “I don’t want to say ‘what goes around comes around,’ but…”
“Then don’t.” Sullivan turns away, broad shoulders hunched.
“Wasn’t he just in the news, defending some raghead who wanted to blow up a bridge?” the captain asks, not taking the hint.
“Suing the FBI.” Sullivan looks back over his shoulder, setting his teeth. “For a client who claims he was tortured. Slight difference.” He eyes Lourdes. “Sure you still want in?”
“I come a long way to get back to the dance, daddy.” She sticks her chest out. “Don’t send me home early.”
“Suit yourself.” Sullivan takes out his notepad and ambles back to the body. “Just don’t count on meeting any princes at the ball.”
Copyright © 2017 Peter Blauner.
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Peter Blauner is an Edgar-winning, New York Times-bestselling author of Slow Motion Riot and The Intruder. He spent the 1980s covering crime, politics, and other forms of socially-abhorrent behavior for New York magazine. For the past decade he has been working in television, writing for several shows in the Law & Order franchise and the CBS show Blue Bloods. He was born and raised in New York City and currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife.