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Crime Fiction
They called her The Bride. Young, homeless, and wearing a tattered wedding dress and veil matted with grime, she floated through the streets of Hell’s Kitchen like a spectre. Until she wound up dead.
The Private Eye Writers of America has selected Sinners' Ball as Best Paperback Original Novel of 2010 and awarded it the coveted Shamus Award.
"Old Flame is a gem of crime fiction." Booklist Starred Review
“Berkowitz nails New York, and in particular modern-day Hell’s Kitchen ... an impressive debut."
–Jason Starr

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Chapter One


April 2004 - New York City

He sensed this day would finally come, and now that it had, he greeted it with great anticipation. This would be a special day, the start of another great adventure.

After a breakfast of creamy scrambled eggs, lightly buttered toast, and coffee, he straightened the apartment, made his bed, showered, dressed, and went out. It was a glorious day, a day to revel in beginnings. High scudding clouds moved across the face of the sun so swiftly that the flat winter light appeared to vibrate.

He had planned every detail carefully. His first stop was Coppola’s Barbershop on Tenth, where ten dollars bought a first-class haircut and the closest shave any man would ever want. Angelo Coppola waved him into the chair next to the window, giving him an unobstructed view of the street.

“The usual?” Angelo asked. It was the same question he had asked every week for over fifty years, and the response was always the same.

“Sure, a trim and a shave.”

Angelo draped a sheet over his friend’s torso, pulled a pair of scissors from the pocket of his smock, and went to work shaping the thick shock of gray hair.

“So how’re things going, Ange?”

“Terrific! I’m supporting a shylock who looks like the third guy from the left in the evolutionary chart, I take two steps and I need a nap, and business sucks. Other than that, I’m in the pink. But this you gotta hear. I bet this horse running at Yonkers. Far and away the class of the field. Went big on him. Can’t miss, right?” Angelo said.

He waited for the punchline.

“The fucker bled! Could you believe it? With all the other shit you got to worry about, like track condition and times and whether the jock is down on another nag in the race, I got a horse that bled, for Chrissakes. At the half-mile post the fucker collapsed and died. Never seen anything like it in my life. It got me to thinking. Screw win, place, and show. They ought to have a window where you can bet whether the horse fucking lives.”

He smiled. “Do you think the Giants win ten games
this year, Ange?”.

“I’m through with them,” he said, tucking the scissors back in his pocket. “I coulda sent all three of my kids to college on the money I lost on those lay down artists.” He stepped back to check his work. “You’re good,” he pronounced, without asking for confirmation. He adjusted the chair and his old friend closed his eyes and lay back.

Angelo reached into a silvery globe, plucked out a steaming towel and wrapped it around his friend’s face leaving only his nose exposed.

“Too hot?” Angelo asked.

His friend muttered something that sounded like “no”. When the towel hit his face the muscles went slack and the only sound he heard was a muffled strop as Angelo honed the straight razor.

Angelo removed the towel and applied the lather, working it into the bristles. With deft strokes he scraped until the skin was as smooth as fine silk. Finally, he splashed some Pinaud on his hand and patted it on his friend’s face.

He came out of the chair, reached into his pocket and brought out a fifty, palmed it, and tucked it into Angelo’s pocket. “You take care now, Ange,” he said. He was feeling on top of the world.

His next stop was Chase Bank. He walked down a flight of stairs to the vault. A pretty, young woman with auburn hair and laughing eyes sat at the desk. He signed the register and handed her the key to his safe-deposit box. He retrieved the box, opened it in her presence, and removed its only contents, a gray manila envelope. He handed her the empty box. “God, you’re pretty,” he said. “If I were only fifty years younger...”

A blush crept up from her throat and she smiled. “I wish you were, too.”

He patted her cheek. “Ah, more’s the pity.”

He left Chase and walked east to Fifth Avenue. It was choked with people. At Fifty-seventh Street he turned west until he reached Cressgil & Smith. He entered the store and asked for a bottle of Aberlour single-malt scotch.

“You’ve got good taste,” the sandy-haired young clerk said. He wore chinos, and the sleeves of his yellow shirt were rolled up over his elbows.

The price was outrageous, but it was a rare indulgence. “Nothing but the best for a special day,” he said.

The clerk retrieved the bottle and placed it on the counter. “Are you familiar with its history?”

He was, but the clerk was so earnest, he let him tell it.

“Well, the water comes from a natural spring in Ben Rinnes, Scotland. Legend has it that hundreds of years ago a Saint, Drostan I think, baptized the people of the town with it.”

“Do you believe it?” he said.

The clerk shrugged. “Why not?”

“A good answer,” he said. “Then let’s proclaim it a holy drink. Fit for absolution and the washing away of sin.”

“I never thought of it that way,” the clerk said, ringing up the transaction and placing the bottle into a small plastic shopping bag imprinted with the store’s red and green logo.

When he returned home, he set the Abelour and the envelope on a sidetable and walked into the kitchen. He took a tumbler from a cabinet and rinsed it with hot water. With a dishtowel he rubbed it until it gleamed, then set it on the table next to the Abelour. The sun streamed in through the window, backlighting the bottle and turning the scotch to glowing amber. Just looking at it made his mouth dry from want.

He walked into the bedroom and undressed, neatly hanging his clothes in the closet. Reaching into the back, he removed his uniform and laid it on the bed. Then, he dressed. It was tight but he managed. He stepped into a pair of highly polished shoes and walked to the mirror for an inspection. His gold Detective’s shield gleamed.

Satisfied, he went back to the living room and settled into his easy chair. He unsealed the bottle of Aberlour, poured the liquid into the tumbler, and inhaled the aroma of fruit and spice mixed with honey. He lifted it to his lips and sipped. It was creamy and smooth, just as he remembered. Small sips, he reminded himself. To do anything else would be sacrilege.

He put the tumbler down and glanced at the two framed photographs sitting on top of the TV. There was one of him and his wife on their wedding day, and the other with the boys on a party boat out of Sheepshead Bay. They had gone for blues. It was a good day. A fishing trip didn’t make a father, his wife had scolded. And a marriage license didn’t make a husband, he thought. Things didn’t turn out the way he had expected. Life sometimes got in the way. He sighed, but this wasn’t the time for regrets.

He took another small sip of Aberlour and opened the manila envelope and removed its contents: a black leather- bound notebook and a thick bundle of letters. He read the letters first, in chronological order. In half an hour he was finished. As little as he had to drink, he felt the scotch working into his bloodstream. The skin on his face grew tighter, his tongue thicker. He felt good. At peace. Setting the letters in his lap, he picked up the notebook. He read it all the way through, and then read it again. He reached over to the end table and retrieved two objects he had set out the night before, a Xerox copy of a photo and his service revolver.

It was time.

After filling the tumbler to the top, he drained it. It tasted like morning sun. Then he lifted the revolver, stuck the muzzle in his mouth and pulled the trigger.