Michael Collins

Act of Fear

Chapter 1

It began with the mugging of the cop.

Person or persons unknown jumped the patrolman in broad daylight on Water Street near the river, dragged him into an alley, and cleaned him out. No witnesses. This is the lower west side, the Chelsea district, where alley windows are boarded up and people do not see what they’re not sure they should see.

We all knew the cop: Patrolman Stettin. He’s a young cop, Stettin, not long on the force and still eager. We all heard that he felt so bad about being taken that he offered to quit. That shows how young he is. Sooner or later everyone is taken in this world. This time the mugger took it all: billy club, pistol, cuffs, summons book, watch, billfold, tie clip, shoes, and loose change. The mugger was good. Stettin never even saw a shadow, according to the report I heard.

‘What’s a harness bull got worth stealing?’ Joe Harris said.

‘The pistol,’ I said.

Joe Harris is my oldest friend. He never left Chelsea, the way I did over the years, but we always kept in touch. Next to Marty, my woman, Joe is my best friend. Since I’ve been back in Chelsea this time, we see each other a lot. Joe is a bartender by trade. Which is probably why we see each other so much. Now Joe poured me a second free shot of good Irish whiskey while he thought about Stettin’s pistol.

We were in Packy’s Pub, where Joe was working that day. The boss, Packy Wilson, was too busy talking to his other twilight customers about Officer Stettin to notice the free drink. We had all heard about Stettin, even though they had it under wraps. The police were annoyed. When they are annoyed they go about their work with a grim efficiency. The police did not want publicity for a mugging of one of their men, but everyone in the know had heard.

In many ways New York is a strange city. One of the ways is that in any given neighbourhood, like Chelsea or Yorkville, there are two kinds of people. There are the people who were born in, say, Chelsea, who have always lived there and most of whom always will unless they are in jail or on the run, who are part of Chelsea the way a Greek villager is part of his isolated village. And there are the people born somewhere else — maybe Queens and maybe Omaha — and who think of themselves as living in New York, not in Chelsea, people who happened to find an apartment in a section most of them don’t even know is called Chelsea. Like a summer resort — the natives and the visitors. When you’re a native you hear the news. I was born in Chelsea, so I rate as a native. I also rate as something else.

‘No,’ Joe said at last, ‘there’s easier ways to get a gun, Dan. Even a private snooper oughta know that much.’

Daniel Fortune, Confidential Investigator: Reliable… Low Rates. The Fortune was once Fortunowski, and there used to be a T in the middle for Tadeusz. That was the name my grandfather carried off the boat: Tadeusz Jan Fortunowski. When I was a boy the old men told me that my grandfather carried that name with pride, even with arrogance. Like most middle and eastern Europeans, his pedigree was a chaos of history. He was born in Lithuania, under a Russian government, of Polish parents who spoke German. But he was proud that he was a Pole, and the name was all he had to prove what he was. My father was born here. Chelsea was a world of Americans and Irish then, and a man needs to belong. My father became Fortune. The old men told me that my grandfather had refused to speak to anyone named Fortune, son or no son. The old man died before I was born. I never knew him. Not that I knew my father. He gave me the name — changed — and not much else. Dan Fortune, who dropped even the T, and who doesn’t really belong anywhere. And, at the moment, a confidential investigator.

Not that I investigate much that is big or dangerous. Some industrial work and some divorces. Armed-guard jobs, and subpoenas for bread and butter. But mostly the personal problems of small people who want to apply a little pressure on someone but don’t want the police. It’s not work I especially like, but a man must eat, and it’s work I know how to do. (Most men work at what they happened to learn how to do, not at what they wish they had learned how to do.) I’m my own boss, and I don’t have to wear a white shirt or get up early. The work has one big drawback as far as Chelsea is concerned — it makes me a cop. In Chelsea that means something. It means that the only real friends I have are my woman Marty and Joe Harris. And even Joe doesn’t tell me all.

‘Who mugs The Man in broad daylight just for a gun?’ Joe said.

Joe was right, of course. To get a handgun isn’t exactly as easy as picking fruit off a tree in this country, not even in Chelsea, but there are a hundred easier ways than mugging a cop. No, Stettin’s mugging was all wrong.

‘Maybe just a fast buck?’ I said.

‘Come on, Pirate,’ Joe said. ‘Not even the new breed of punk strong-arms a cop for his loose change.’

‘Pirate’ Joe still calls me sometimes. The old nicknames stick even when a man has been away from his past as much as I have. I must know ten girls who are now six feet tall, fat, or forty, but who are still called ‘Bunny’ or ‘Puppy’. Danny the Pirate. That was the name I got a long time ago when I lost my arm. I tell a lot of stories about how I lost the arm. Exciting stories if you buy me a beer. It’s the left arm. I’m right-handed. There is some good in everything if you look at it right.

The truth is that I lost the arm when Joe and I were looting a ship. We were seventeen then. It was a dark night, and I fell into a hold. The arm broke in so many places they had to take it off just below the shoulder. Maybe if I had been rich I’d still have two arms. The city hospital didn’t have the doctors or the time to take a chance on my life. That doesn’t make me bitter. They saved my life. Fifty years earlier there wouldn’t have been a hospital for me to be saved in. Everything is relative.

I got the loot out a porthole, and Joe dragged me off the pier and got help. The only charge the company could have made was trespassing. They made no charge. You see, my father was once a New York cop. I had friends on the force. Or, to be accurate, my mother had friends on the force. She had a lot of friends.

The cops forgot the robbery. I’ve got no record. The natives did not forget. It wasn’t our only robbery in those days, just the one we were almost caught at. The neighbourhood knew it all. I lost my arm. The rest was inevitable: Danny the Pirate. They remember that in Chelsea. That’s fine with me. It takes off some of the cop-taint. It makes the natives sometimes overlook the fact that I’ve lived away so much, that I say things that show I’ve read books. It gets me friends I need on occasion. The natives remember the seventeen-year-old pirate, and the police forget. I like it both ways.

‘A cop gets killed, that figures,’ Packy Wilson said to the bar in general. ‘It’s the robbin’ and not killin’ that’s wrong.’

‘A junkie maybe,’ Joe suggested. ‘He could sell the gun for a fix. Maybe use it for a show of power.’

‘Could be,’ Packy said. ‘For a fix a junkie tries anything.’

‘A junkie trembles when he sees a cop on a movie screen,’ I said. ‘Never a junkie.’

I could not see an addict attacking a policeman in uniform on his own beat in broad daylight. But then I did not see anyone attacking a cop under those conditions.

About then the night regulars began to come into the bar, and Packy had a cash register to mother. Joe had to begin to work in earnest. First things come first in Chelsea, as they do in the rest of the world for that matter, and there was money to be made.

Packy ended the discussion with a pronouncement. ‘A cop hater. Some alley-crawler psycho with a grudge on cops.’

After that the regular customers kicked it around for a time. They did not really care about Stettin, any more than the millions who would read about Stettin in the newspapers would care, but a man has to talk about something while he drinks himself peaceful.

For a few more days it was good for a lot of talk around Chelsea and the Village. Then the talk faded. People are strange. Cops are killed in the world somewhere almost every day. A cop does not get mugged in broad daylight very often. Yet a cop killing is headlines for months, and a mugging, hot news at first, fades fast. People are more

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