An exclusive excerpt of Shovel Ready, a futuristic hardboiled noir by Adam Sternbergh (available January 14, 2014).
Spademan used to be a garbage man. That was before the dirty bomb hit Times Square, before his wife was killed, and before the city became a blown-out shell of its former self.
Now he’s a hitman.
In a near-future New York City split between those who are wealthy enough to “tap in” to a sophisticated virtual reality, and those who are left to fend for themselves in the ravaged streets, Spademan chose the streets. His new job is not that different from his old one: waste disposal is waste disposal. He doesn’t ask questions, he works quickly, and he’s handy with a box cutter. But when his latest client hires him to kill the daughter of a powerful evangelist, his unadorned life is upended: his mark has a shocking secret and his client has a sordid agenda far beyond a simple kill. Spademan must navigate between these two worlds—the wasteland reality and the slick fantasy—to finish his job, clear his conscience, and make sure he’s not the one who winds up in the ground.
It’s well past dark by the time I start walking down the waterfront. Not the safest walk at this hour, and the shortest route on foot would be straight down Columbia Street. But I still can’t bring myself to walk down Columbia Street.
So I take the scenic route, winding through Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, past the blocks of boarded-up and blacked- out brownstones. Occasional bonfire burns in a bay window. Nearly all the trees on these picturesque streets long since chopped down for salvage or firewood.
If only my Stella could see this. What’s come of our old stomping grounds.
She was my wife.
That’s not her real name either. Just a nickname that stuck. At least between us.
I skip our old block. Give it a wide berth.
Like I said, I like Brooklyn least of all. And then I finally reach the raised Brooklyn- Queens Expressway, cross under, and head into what’s left of Red Hook.
All the wiring’s waterlogged, corroded and useless, so there’s not a streetlamp lit in any direction. Streets are dark and the warehouses derelict, windows all broken by bored kids with good aim. In the road, oily water waits in puddles, camped out by the overstuffed sewers. There’s a dead-dog smell and, sure enough, a dead dog, chained to a fence to guard an empty lot, then left on its leash to starve and fester.
Red Hook’s version of a welcome mat.
Red Hook sits low on the water, and from some parts you can see the Statue of Liberty, and supposedly the whole place used to feel like a frontier town, a refuge to escape to when the rest of Brooklyn got flooded with money. But then Red Hook got flooded with water. A few times. Waist-deep sewage and six- foot- high watermarks staining the walls. Storm of the century came three times in a decade, so this neighbor-hood was in trouble even before Times Square. After Times Square, forget it. Anyone with a car and a suitcase headed for higher ground.
Some people still live here. The poor with no options, packed into public housing. Hardy stubborn squatter types who don’t mind living in an abandoned row house that’s made up mostly of mold. Business interests that rely on an element of privacy. Since the floods, the whole neighborhood stinks like the underside of a wharf. And, like the underside of a wharf, this allows a certain kind of life to thrive.
My plan is to drop in at the Bait & Switch, knock back a few drinks, and ask some questions. Maybe I’ll even get lucky. Unearth my Persephone.
Instead I’m only halfway down Van Brunt Street when I stumble on the same pair of police cars I saw back in Brooklyn Heights, with an ambulance besides, all pulled over at the end of Coffey Street, parked by the Valentino Pier.
Rooflights swirling. Turning the dead-end block into a disco.
On the stoops, wallflowers watch.
Guess the cops weren’t headed to Harrow’s after all. Though I’m not too eager to wander over, in case they’re out on some Lyman Harrow–related APB. Then I hear a crackled command on one cop’s walkie-talkie and realize that’s not what they’re here for.
Two cops shine their Maglites into the back of an abandoned van.
Black van. Or blue. Black or blue. Too dark to tell.
Even so, my chest clenches.
Which is weird.
Because what exactly am I worried about?
That someone got to her first?
Still, no one should go this way. Not like this.
I shoulder closer through the sparse crowd of mostly bored onlookers. One cop halfheartedly tries to shoo us all back while also checking texts on his phone.
Phone chirps. Incoming message. Cop smirks. Funny text.
I edge to the front of the crowd.
Van’s back doors are flung wide open. Blankets piled up inside.
Body under the blankets, if my eyes see right. Or bodies.
My eyes see right.
EMS guys yank the first stiff from the back.
Not a girl, though.
Dump him on to a gurney.
Arm flops over the side.
Back of his hand. A tattoo.
So much for leads.
First body lays splayed out on the stretcher, bloody and neglected, and it’s not like TV. No one solemnly says a prayer or pulls a sheet up over his head. These EMS guys have other things to worry about, like rolling up another gurney and pulling the second body from the van.
Also a man. Also mangled.
Signs of serious knife-work.
I ask the texting cop what happened. He doesn’t even look up from his phone.
Who knows? Lovers’ spat? Some random psycho? Ask me, smells like some homo 69 gone very wrong.
I wince. Play squeamish.
Looks like those guys got slashed to ribbons.
Sometimes passions run high.
Cop looks up finally.
Human garbage lives around here? Take your pick. I’m just surprised whoever did this didn’t torch the van. Would have saved us a trip. Let fire worry about it.
How long’s that van been here?
No more than a few hours, maybe. Only got called in because some thugs pried the back open, looking to loot it, and got spooked. Found more than they expected and phoned 911. Not until they’d stolen both stiffs’ wallets, of course. And stripped out the stereo.
Phone chirps again. New text. Cop smirks again.
I say thanks as I retreat back into the crowd.
Don’t really worry about him remembering my face.
I’m not that memorable.
Just a garbageman.
I should have remembered.
Bitch cut my face.
First rule of the runaway. Always carry a blade.
And don’t be bashful about using it.
She definitely wasn’t bashful.
Which is when I wonder if maybe I’ve been underestimating this Persephone.
And still has some claw in her yet.
Copyright © 2014 Adam Sternberg.
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Adam Sternbergh is the culture editor of The New York Times Magazine. Formerly an editor-at-large for New York, his writing has been featured in several other publications including GQ and The Times of London, and on the radio program This American Life. He lives in Brooklyn and is at work on a second Spademan novel, Near Enemy, set to be published in 2015.