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Bonfire of the Puggle

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Cricket and Bean.  

And the more Roberto talked, the more his credibility needed shoring up. His speech was an urgent, wheedling patter, wide-eyed and gesticulatory. He announced that he was an ex-con, just out of Rahway after a nine-year bit for armed robbery, but that he was now reformed and had a job and was keeping his nose clean. “Truly!” said Cliff. “We work together!” Roberto showed us his I.D., told us we could trust him.

He said we could go to the project where he lived in downtown Manhattan and talk to the neighbor he gave Queenie to. The dog, though, wouldn’t be there; the kid had given her to his girlfriend, and she’d taken her to Staten Island. It was the first solid-seeming lead we had, and we were too tired to fight it. I called a cop friend who lived nearby; if we were going to get into this, I wanted backup. But he was at a wedding; he suggested we call the nearest precinct.

So Cricket, Roberto, Cliff, and I got into a cab and headed to the precinct—a dead end, since it didn’t cover this particular project. We decided to keep going; it was late, and getting the dog back would become impossible if everyone had gone to bed.

We walked farther downtown, Roberto talking a mile a minute, as if any conversational gap would allow doubt to come pouring back in. The topic he seemed most comfortable discussing was his life of crime; he’d had multiple convictions for violent offenses and had spent most of his adult life in maximum- security prisons. He held forth on the subject of prisoner rape in Sing-Sing and pointed out that the fact that his face was still handsome proved how good he was with his fists. The guards, he said, were worse than the prisoners.

I recognized some of his tattoos and asked if he was a member of a particular gang. He had been but swore that was in his past. Then he rolled up his sleeve to display a tattoo of a barbed-wire-bound fist clutching a .45; he said he’d earned it as a gang enforcer.

We talked about how violent Alphabet City used to be, and I unthinkingly mentioned a killing that had struck me as particularly brutal. Roberto’s face flooded with horror; he crossed himself, plucked his cross from inside his Knicks jersey, and pressed it to his lips; it turned out I had handled the body of one of his friends. This epiphany quieted him down, and we walked on a considerably less chatty group.

Nearing the projects, I was struck by how he seemed to know everyone—just about every person we passed greeted him warily, casting a quick eye over Cricket and me. There was a police post not far from the project; I talked with the officer inside, and he radioed the precinct for someone to go in with us. I was encouraged that Roberto seemed to want a police presence, then a little worried about exactly why that was.

V. The Projects

It was about 11 p.m. when we reached Roberto’s building, where Ricky, the neighbor to whom Roberto had given the dog, also lived. As we waited outside for the cops, Roberto grew more and more jumpy. He explained that, no disrespect, but being seen with us was bad for his reputation. People like him, he said, have as little to do with cops as possible, and for him to bring us, whom he saw as extensions of the NYPD, into the projects was an ethically compromised act. He told us there was no way of knowing when, or even if, the police would show up, that the week before there’d been gunfire—“big guns, automatic weapons!”—and the police hadn’t bothered showing up for two hours.

Eventually, he announced he was going inside to get water; too tired to stir from our bench, we declined his invitation to meet his mother. We called our friend Russ to meet us; Russ would be fresh, plus he’s ex-Army. The air was misty, softening the light from the lamps around the fenced-in lawns, and the temperature had eased down into the seventies.

When Russ arrived, we’d been waiting there for an hour, with no sign of the police. It was nearing midnight, and Roberto came out to announce that we should go in now or else risk losing forever our chance to recover Bean. We all crowded into the elevator, where Roberto announced that, for greater leverage, he’d told Ricky we were cops and had shown up at his workplace and forced him to tell the truth about the dog. Before we could address this revelation, the door opened, and we were in front of Ricky’s door.


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