Clifford Brice lay against the slope of the roof, his hands folded behind his head. He was very small for a ten year old and looked even smaller wrapped in the big green blanket he'd gotten from the social worker, Ms. Fein. It was a cold clear night, with a sky full of stars that sparkled in the reflection of his thick, wire rimmed glasses.
"Cliff, what you doing, baby ? You gonna catch your death. "
He didn't answer and his mother, Ruby, went back into the bathroom. She was getting ready for a night on the street and Clifford didn't want to watch. Besides, he knew the routine. Right now she was sticking a needle into her thigh or maybe an ankle. Before long she'd be numb and then it was like talking to a zombie. Instead, he tried to focus on the stars overhead.
There was something magical about the night sky. He'd read about the stars in books and studied the constellations till he could name them all. But nothing he'd ever read compared to the real thing. He let out a long sigh.
"Clifford, I gotta go now, honey, " Ruby said softly, her words beginning to slur.
The child looked over at his mother. She was leaning against the window sash looking sad and tired. When he didn't speak, Ruby smiled nervously, showing all her teeth.
"I love you, momma, " he said without blinking.
Ruby could feel the tears coming. She leaned way out, picked up her precious bundle and held him close.
"Don't you stay out here all night, little man, " she said seriously. " I don't want nothing happening to you. I got a big score coming down and then we be outta here. "
He just nodded his head.
"No, baby, don't be shaking your head. This time is for real. " They stared at each other a moment longer, then Ruby Brice turned and headed for the door.
"Good-bye, momma, " he whispered.
From his perch on the little roof over the front stoop, Clifford could follow his mother as she walked down the block and stopped under the lone street light before crossing the avenue and disappearing into the shadows on the other side. His gaze lingered for a moment, then he retraced her steps, studying the abandoned houses, crippled cars and week old piles of garbage that lined the path. Somewhere nearby a dog started barking and then another. Pretty soon the whole street was awake as garbage cans tipped over. Cats screamed and people started yelling for quiet. When the clouds moved in and rain began to fall, Clifford gave up and crawled back into the bedroom.
Ruby made her way to Berriman Street, where the factories had men working nights. She was just trying to make a few bucks and then get home to her baby. She had fixed herself and painted a big smile on her face, but it hadn't done much good, the night was quiet. Before long it started to rain. She didn't worry about Clifford catching cold up on the roof, the child had more sense than any grown up she'd ever met. But thinking about him made her sad.
She'd been walking the block for about an hour when she noticed the headlights. A real cool ride, like a new Chevy or maybe a Lincoln, jet black with a touch of chrome. It slid up to the curb; a big cat on the prowl. The windows were tinted charcoal and she could she her reflection in the glass.
The interior of the car came to life as the driver lit a thin cigar and motioned her to the door. Ruby could just make out the figure of a bearded man in a flashy suit, diamond ring on his pinky as he held the lighter. Then the flame went out. There was a low hissing sound as the passenger door shut behind her, like the seal on a vault. Then the car edged slowly down the street, heading for Flatlands Avenue.
A burst of thunder startled Clifford, spilling his book onto the floor. The room was cold and dark except for his reading light. He pushed his glasses back up on the bridge of his nose and crawled down to the end of the bed to look out the window. It was raining harder and the wind was howling. He thought about his mother, standing in some doorway trying to keep warm, and his lips began to tremble. He opened the window and stuck his head outside. But the stars were all gone and there was nothing to be found in their place.
It was Tuesday, September 17th. My birthday. I don't usually like birthdays, but I was trying. My nose was pressed up against the big window in the kitchen and I was hoping to spot something out there to cheer me up. When the rain started coming down in sheets, I gave up and switched on the lights.
My name is James Joseph Donovan, but most people just call me Donovan. I'm six feet two inches tall, weigh about 195 pounds, some of which is still cut into muscles, and have light brown hair and green eyes. Women have told me I'm not bad to look at, which is a polite way of describing the wear and tear on my weathered profile. My home and office are near the top of an old hi-rise building between 101st and 102nd streets on Amsterdam Avenue, in New York City. I have a plain white business card which reads: " J. J. DONOVAN - CONSULTANT ". I don't have a cute logo.
I do have a partner, however. His name is Boris Mikail Koulomzin and he lives in the apartment next door. This is a necessary convenience since Boris rarely leaves the building during daylight hours. Because of the way our building tapers as it rises, there are only two apartments on the seventeenth floor and we own them both. They were gifts to us from Harry Noble, the landlord. He was once a client and the apartments were Harry's way of showing his gratitude for our help.
Our consulting business offers services to people who think they've run out of options. In most cases, they have problems which the legal system has created, made worse, or is incapable of addressing. We're not licensed detectives, lawyers, paralegals or anything like that. We're just two private citizens attempting to help people who've been screwed by the system.
Lest you think that a modern day Robin Hood and his faithful, Slavic, Little John have taken up residence in the Big Apple, I should point out that we generally expect and receive payment for our services. The amount and form of the payment depends on the circumstances, but, I think it's fair to say that we do pretty well for ourselves. I like to think we also do some good.
I was in the kitchen fixing lunch. A man needs fuel to sulk. The menu included a cold vinegarette salad of artichoke hearts, feta cheese and whole black olives; grilled chicken cutlets on a bed of Spanish rice; fresh bread from the local bakery and several well chilled bottles of Peter Michael Chardonnay. A pleasant little distraction to temper the aches and pains one begins to notice at the age of thirty-nine.
The telephone rang ....
Excerpted from BROKEN MACHINES © Copyright 2002 by Michael I. Leahey. Reprinted with permission by Thomas Dunne Books. All rights reserved.