Small Town

Page 9



They were on their feet when he reached their table. He knew Avery Davis, who said, “Fran, it’s good to see you. You know these fellows, don’t you? Irv Boasberg and Hartley Saft.” He shook hands all around, apologizing for keeping them waiting, and was assured they’d just gotten there themselves. They had drinks in front of them, and when the waiter came over he ordered a Bombay martini, straight up and extra dry, with a twist.

Hartley Saft, who had a drinker’s complexion, took a refill on the Scotch. Davis and Boasberg said they were fine.

The conversation throughout the meal steered clear of Topic A.

Ongoing terrorism got some of their attention, along with speculation about the eventual development of the Ground Zero site.

Someone brought up a current scandal involving the health inspector’s office. “I remember when the papers used to print a weekly list of restaurants that got cited for violations,” Irv Boasberg said. “You’d look at the list, terrified you’d find your favorite Chinese restaurant on it, and what did it mean if you did?”

“That somebody forgot to slip the inspector a couple of bucks,” Hartley Saft said. “But it killed your appetite, didn’t it? You know what? Let’s not talk about restaurant violations.” So they ate French food and drank California wine, and he made everybody happy by telling cop stories. That was always safe because everybody liked cop stories, and Fran Buckram had a batch of them that had stood the test of time.

Not every former police commissioner could say the same.

Buckram was atypical in that he had come up through the ranks.

New York’s top cop more often than not lacked any real police experience. The position was largely administrative, and the present holder of the office had previously served as fire commissioner in Detroit; he’d never been a policeman, or a fireman either, as far as that went.

It made a certain amount of sense. The president of the United States, after all, was commander in chief of the armed forces, but that didn’t mean he had to have been an army general in order to do the job.

As far as most cops were concerned, anyone fairly high up in the NYPD was light-years away from the street, and chiefly concerned with covering asses, his own and the department’s. The man at the top, the commissioner, was first and foremost a politician, then an administrator, and not a real cop at all.

Still, the street cops liked it when the top slot was filled by someone who’d been on the job himself. Buckram, who started out walking a beat in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn and put in his time as a detective with Major Cases, eventually parlayed a saloon-born friendship into a stint as police commissioner of Portland, Oregon. He spent three years there, and got a ton of good press; the crime rate dropped, and the Portland cops went up a few notches in everybody’s esteem, not least of all their own.

He’d liked the job, but he missed New York every single day he was out there. Portland was a good place, it had a lot to offer, but it wasn’t New York, and that was the thing about New York—if you loved it, if it worked for you, it ruined you for anyplace else in the world.

Out of lust and boredom, he had an affair with a TV reporter, and that only made things worse. He’d had affairs before, he neither chased women nor ran away from them, but affairs seemed to mean more in Portland, somehow, and by the time this one had run its course, so had his marriage. His wife, who’d never wanted to go to Oregon in the first place, moved back to New York and took the kids with her. He stayed where he was, hating it now, and when the New York offer came he had to hold himself in check to keep from appearing too eager. If he didn’t get the job, he decided, he was moving back anyway. He’d go into private security, he’d open a restaurant, he’d sell shoes, but whatever it was he’d damn well do it in New York.

He got the job. The mayor who gave it to him wanted someone who would jump right in and make waves, and Buckram gave him what he wanted and then some. He’d tried out some theories in Portland, his own and some other people’s, and he’d learned how to make a police force proactive, not just responding to crime but targeting career criminals and getting them off the street. Crime dropped when there were fewer criminals out there to commit it, and there were perfectly legitimate ways to take them out of the game without trampling all over their civil rights. It had worked in Portland, and it damn well worked in New York.

He did so well it cost him the job.

There’s no limit to what a man can accomplish if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.

He’d heard the line somewhere, and he didn’t know the source and wasn’t sure of the precise wording, but a few weeks ago he’d been fooling around on his home computer and he dummied it up, printed it out, and kept forgetting to pick up a frame for it. It belonged on the wall over his desk, but what was the point? He’d learned the lesson, though not in time to save his job.

Because the commissioner’s job wasn’t just about covering asses. It was also about kissing one—specifically, the mayor’s. And this particular mayor had wanted the credit for every positive thing that happened on his watch, and couldn’t stand it when any of it went to somebody else.

Buckram had known that (though no one had known the full megalomaniacal extent of it) but the media loved him and he was great on camera, the expensive clothes showing to good advantage on his lean frame, the natural wave in his styled hair, the easy smile on his lips, the glint in his Irish blue eyes. The mayor was pudgy, with a narrow chest and a potbelly, and a comb-over that might have been endearing on a humbler man. Buckram spoke in bracing sound bites; the mayor’s on-camera remarks seemed harsh and mean-spirited at best, and out of context they often came across as heartless.

Three and a half years on the job, and the crime rate dropped and the streets got safer and people felt great about the city, and hotel room occupancy soared with an increase in convention bookings, because suddenly New York was everybody’s favorite city. Foreign tourists flocked to it, and midwesterners, who for years wouldn’t even change planes at JFK, were pouring in, rushing to see lousy musicals and stand in line outside cookie-cutter theme restaurants on Fifty-seventh Street.

The mayor got plenty of credit, and deservedly so, but he wanted it all, and Buckram was too cocky to get out of the way whenever somebody showed up with a camera and a notepad. So one day he was out of work, and the city was up in arms about it for a few minutes, but the crime rate kept on dropping and the tourists kept on coming, and that was that. The mayor got reelected and Fran Buckram signed up with a lecture bureau, giving after-dinner speeches for $3,500 a pop.

He was forty-three when he got the job, and had just turned forty-seven when he had to give it back. Now he was fifty-three, and the mayor had finished his second term a hero, elevated to that status by his performance during 9/11 and its aftermath. The voters would have given him a third term—they’d have made him dictator for life if they’d had the chance, and awarded him both ears and the tail in the bargain—but constitutional term limits forced him to step down, and his replacement was halfway through his first year in office and seemed to be doing just fine.

The new man had three and a half years to go, plus four more if he ran again and won. So it was far too early for anyone to enter the lists to succeed him, but people had a pretty good idea who was in the running.

Buckram’s name was at the top of the Maybe column.

And that was what this dinner was about. He knew that, and his three dinner partners knew it, and so did Claudia Gerndorf and that demi-hoodlum from Local 802 of the Amalgamated Federa-tion of Widget Makers. Anyone who recognized the four of them could figure out why they were sitting there together, washing down sole meunière with pinot grigio.

Meanwhile, he told his cop stories. The three men seemed to enjoy them.

“N O W T H A T ’ S I N T E R E S T I N G , ” M A U R Y Winters said. “To your left, four men sitting together, the waiter’s just now pouring their wine.”

She looked, saw three men in suits and one in a blazer, and asked what was interesting about them.

“That they’re here together,” the lawyer said. “Recognize anybody?”

“No,” she said, and considered. “The one in the blazer looks familiar. Who is he?”

“Nobody at the moment, but a few years ago he was police commissioner.”

“Of course, Buckley, but no, that’s not right. Buckman?”

“Buckram, sweetheart. Like a fine binding. First name Francis, but don’t call him Frank. He prefers Fran. The other men, well, I recognize two of them, and they’re both real estate machers, and so’s the third, I’d be willing to bet you. Do you suppose they’ve banded together to help our former top cop find an apartment?”

“I have a feeling the answer is no.”

“But to find a job, that’s another possibility altogether. How’s your tornado?”

Her dish was tournedos Rossini, filet mignon capped with foie gras, tender as butter and wonderfully savory, and his mispronun-ciation was an affectation, a part of the diamond-in-the-rough image he’d perfected. His gray hair was shaggy, his suit imper-fectly tailored for his fleshy physique, and his tie showed the odd food stain. She wasn’t sure of his age but knew he was well into his sixties, and the years showed in his face and carriage. And yet he remained an extremely attractive man, and how fair was that?

If a woman let herself go like that, no one would look at her twice.

With a man, well, if he had the right sort of energy emanating from him, you overlooked some of the flaws, called the rest character, and wound up with wet panties.

“My tornado is gale force,” she told him. “If there’s a trailer park in the neighborhood, its days are numbered. How’s your veal?”

“It would make a PETA activist rethink his whole program. I’ll tell you, it’s a pleasure to watch a woman with an appetite.”

“Oh?”

“People say they hate to eat alone. What’s so terrible? You go to a nice restaurant, you take a book, you eat a meal at your own pace. Listen to me, but do I listen to myself? I’m out five nights a week with someone adorable, and they’re all either trying to lose weight or trying to keep from gaining it, and either way, as far as their value as company, you’d be better off going to a whorehouse with Ed Koch. See, you laugh. They don’t get my jokes, or maybe they just don’t think they’re funny. You eat, you laugh, Susan, you can call me for free legal advice for the rest of your life.”

“As long as I keep on eating and laughing.”

“Why would you want to stop? You never gain an ounce, you got a better figure than the models.”

“Why do you go out with them, Maury?”

“Besides the obvious?”

“You don’t have to take them to L’Aiglon for that.”

“Them I don’t take to L’Aiglon. Them I take to someplace flashier, so they can say they’ve been there. But what they are is arm candy, darling. Look at that alte kacher, out with that sweet young thing. He must have something, the old bastard.” He shrugged. “Anyway, they’re cute, they’re cuddly, they’re adorable, they’re like a kitten or a rabbit. You don’t expect to have a conversation with a bunny rabbit, do you?”