Captain Raymond Holt looked up from the screen of his laptop to see an ancient crow perching in the open door to his office. When the foul apparition noticed that it had his attention, it opened its hateful beak and unleashed the horrible screech that was its voice.
“Madeline. I thought I smelled sulfur. Are you here to file a report against the starving orphans who consumed your gingerbread house?”
The old goat took a few steps into his office, her cloven hooves clopping on his floor. “I don’t have time for our usual back and forth today, Raymond--” she bleated.
“Why?” he interrupted, anything to make the noise stop even for a fraction of a second. “Has someone said your name three times in front of a mirror?”
“No.” The corners of her mouth had lifted and she was baring her teeth at him now, a sign of aggression in many species. “I’m just here to give you your new assignment.”
This was rich. “My new assignment--?”
“It’s from the commissioner,” she clarified. Only then did he notice the manila folder pinned under her scrawny wing. When she snatched it in her claws to toss it onto his desk, Raymond barely kept himself from recoiling.
“This is one of your ploys, I assume?”
She cocked her head like the smug lizard she was. “No, not really. I’m just the messenger. Though, I do have to say, I could not have come up with anything more perfect for you.”
Raymond waited for her to elaborate. Her voice was dripping the toxic slime she no doubt excreted from every pore. “You’re going undercover,” she said. “We’re sending you up the river, Raymond.”
His ears must have mistransmitted the rusty chainsaw noises coming out of her mouth. She could not be saying what he thought she was saying. “What?”
“Sing Sing Correctional Facility,” she drawled in her grinder of an accent, “You’re going there. Undercover as an inmate.”
“I am a captain running an entire precinct--”
“So? Face it, Raymond, you’re the one least likely to be recognized because you haven’t had many arrests in the last, oh, has it been a decade? After all, you did spend a significant amount of time in the public relations department. How long was it again?”
He glared at her, but his glare, unlike hers, did not have the power to turn people to stone. Carefully, he opened the file on his desk, almost expecting it to drip with her foul secretions.
“You’re familiar with the case, I assume,” she continued, tainting the air with her vile breath.
He was indeed. There had been a little talk about recent incidents at the correctional facility in the media as well as among colleagues.
“As far as I know, a major crimes task force is already on the case,” he said. The case being the murder of a correctional officer at the facility and the suspicion of an inmate-run drug smuggling ring in which the correctional officer had very likely been involved.
“They were, until their guy was made. They barely got him out of there alive.” No doubt eager for the chance to tear the flesh from his carcass, the vulture grinned. “No one knows a decrepit paper pusher like you up there, not anymore, and even if they did, age has ravaged you enough to make your face look like an old rubber mask, so no need for an elaborate disguise. Plus, didn’t you want to be out in the field more?”
Raymond suppressed the urge to gnash his teeth. He truly did want to be out in the field, in fact, at any time during his eight years in the public relations department, he would have jumped at the chance. Even now, he felt a prickle of excitement.
However, nothing good could come from Madeline Wuntch. She was giving him a dangerous mission, expecting him to fail and in this case, failure could very well mean death. Well, he simply had to best her once again by solving the case and making her look even dumber than she already did, which was difficult to imagine because she already looked very dumb.
“Needless to say, your orders are coming from the top brass, so…” Her grin was so wide now, Raymond was sure he could see the legs of the insects she had consumed for lunch stuck between her teeth. “You don’t have a choice, unless you want to tell them you’re not up to the task…”
She knew very well that he did not.
“But, fear not, Raymond,” she continued, still as smug as a snake that had swallowed an entire litter of puppies, “you’ll get to take your little friend Peralta with you. He’ll be brought in as a CO. Everything’s already been cleared with the warden, so there’s nothing left for you to do but pack for your trip. You can bring anything you want.” Impossibly, her grin widened, to the point where he thought it might accommodate two puppies at the same time, depending on the breed, of course. “You know, as long as it fits into your prison purse.”
Naturally, it still fell to him to ensure his precinct would be running smoothly during his absence. He had to speak to Sergeant Jeffords, explain the situation to the squad and introduce them to his contingency plan, which consisted of two binders. Santiago squealed with joy when she saw them.
“As of now, there is no fixed timeframe for this mission. Major crimes has set a four week ultimatum for me to make contact with their main suspect and integrate myself into his inner circle, but we can expect adjustments to this depending on my progress during the early stages of the operation.”
“Four weeks? Four weeks without Jake? But how--”
“Ugh, now you’ve done it, sir,” groaned Gina, “this is going to be Bunheads all over again.”
“Why would you mention that?” whimpered Boyle.
“Calm down, Charles, we can still hang out,” Peralta said, “I may not be working here, but I can totally meet you all at Shaw’s or something after my shift.” He looked up at Raymond, boyish admiration shining in his eyes. “Captain’s got the cooler part. I’m just a CO, he’s an inmate. By the way, have you thought of a badass street name for yourself yet? Because I’ve got a few suggestions…”
Peralta started working the next day; Raymond would be transferred in nine days later.
He met with one member of the initial task force for a briefing the next day.
That briefing and the file handed to him by the NYPD’s resident hellbeast would be the sole preparation he would have.
It would have to suffice.
Lieutenant Millford waited for him in one of the small offices at One Police Plaza. He was black, middle-aged and pleasantly no-nonsense. They had run into each other numerous times before, but had never been social outside of work. Raymond had heard that Millford secretely disapproved of what the third party who told him this referred to as ‘his lifestyle’. Millford, however, had never said anything, their interactions had never been anything but professional.
This was no exception. After an efficient greeting: a Good Morning, Captain and a handshake, Millford laid out the facts.
Their main suspect was Justus Grady Brooker, a forty-seven year old African-American man, with a novel-length rap sheet. Over the course of his life, he had been incarcerated numerous times, mostly for drug and gang-related crime. Currently, he was serving a 15-year sentence and had been transferred from Georgia State Prison, a medium security facility, six months before.
The NYPD had sent a young black detective, Nick Wilds, thirty-three years old, to enter Sing Sing undercover in order to infiltrate Brooker’s inner circle.
“I think he pushed too hard, too fast. Wilds is ambitious, he wanted to prove himself, took unnecessary risks. If we’ve learned one thing, it’s that Brooker’s got no patience for young hotheads.”
“I see,” Raymond said. “And his true identity was discovered?”
“Actually, we’re not sure. As you know, Detective Wilds is still in the hospital. We have not been able to get a conclusive statement from him.”
“Which is to say the chances that Brooker knows he is under investigation are.. what?”
Millford frowned. “Sixty-forty would be my guess.”
Sixty-forty. Raymond mulled over the odds. They were not in his favor and certainly not desirable during an operation where he would have almost no backup - with the exception of Peralta. Who had grown on him over time, that much was undeniable… still…
“I must say, and please don’t take this the wrong way, Captain, but you would not have been my first pick for this assignment.” The lieutenant flicked open a file and pushed a stack of photos across the table.
“Were you considered for the assignment?” Raymond asked. Millford was in his late forties and had far more field experience than he did, due to not having been banished to the public relations department for his sexuality.
“Me?” Millford laughed, a dry sound, devoid of actual amusement. “No, Captain, and if the brass had tried to send me up the river, I would have fought them tooth and nail. It’s not just that this is going to be miserable and extremely dangerous, no, it’s also one of those cases no one actually cares about. Even if you succeed, they won’t thank you because, let’s be honest, neither the NYPD nor the public are all that interested in what’s going on behind these walls, so long as it stays there.”
Leafing through the crime scene photos, Raymond raised his eyebrows. “What about the guard who was killed?”
“No family, suspected of drug smuggling and, well, black. State’s already buried him six feet under the cheapest gravestone tax money can buy.”
A bleak statement indeed. Almost as bleak as the photos of the man in question lying face down in a pool of his own blood on the grimy tiles of the prison showers.
“Jefferson Fry, 34, his throat was slit from behind. Of course, the time of his death coincided with a surveillance outage in that sector, which lasted for 67 minutes.”
“67 minutes?” Raymond asked. “And no technicians were sent to look at the malfunctioning cameras? No additional correctional officers were dispatched to the affected areas?”
“The warden told us it was a software problem. One that, believe it or not, had occurred before. They’d had an update twelve days earlier. Ever since then, they’d had camera outages.”
“You are telling me that, for close to two weeks, they simply accepted the tremendous risk these outages posed?” An unbelievable outrage, yet, sadly, not too surprising.
“He assured us the previous outages had never lasted more than sixty seconds and that they had been working on fixing the issue since the moment they became aware of it. As for sending additional COs to the affected areas, he just said they were chronically understaffed - which is true - and had been unable to find replacements for the handful of COs who had called in sick that day.”
“We are looking into these individuals, I assume?”
“Yes, I briefed your detective and I’ve got their files right here.” Millford tapped a folder. “But apart from that, I really don’t know how to prepare you, Captain.” He sighed. “If Fry had any living relatives, there’d be more than enough here to sue the prison officials for hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not a million - my wife’s a lawyer - but well… you can see why there’s some interest to pin it all on Brooker, slap a few more decades onto his sentence for the murder and be done with it.”
“For what it’s worth,” he continued, “I’m glad the department agreed to change strategies and bring in your detective to investigate the guards too. I wish both of you the best of luck.”
Raymond Holt would enter Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the same manner all its new inmates did. He was picked up from jail cuffed, put into a prison van alongside a few other men and driven north.
Already he was surrounded by people who were not to know his true identity.
To them, he was Charles Taylor, who, after a string of armed robberies, the last of which had ended in second degree murder, had finally been arrested and sentenced to twenty years in prison.
“What they got you for?”
Raymond turned to look at the man behind him. He was short and broad shouldered, his skin a shade lighter than Raymond’s but dry and pockmarked. His age was difficult to estimate; he could have been anything between twenty-nine and forty-three. The atrocious grammar was not much of a clue.
“I am being incarcerated for first degree robbery and second degree murder,” Raymond replied. “I have been sentenced to twenty years.”
The man behind him gaped, displaying a broken central incisor.
“And you?” Raymond asked out of politeness.
“Shot a nigger,” the man said.
Processing was as dehumanizing as Raymond had expected. He was stripped of his clothes and possessions, handed a set of orange jumpsuits, underwear, shoes and basic toiletries. They took his picture for his inmate identity card, then sent him on his way to his temporary lodgings, a one-man cell, empty but for a cot, a toilet and a sink. For the first couple of days until his identity card was finished and all mandatory health and psychological examinations were done, he would stay there before finally being transferred into general population.
“Inmate, it’s time for your big move!” The voice was too cheerful, but then it frequently was. After two days in blissful silence, with food wonderfully devoid of taste and an interesting wall to stare at while contemplating Spinoza, Raymond stood and walked to the door of his cell where he was greeted by Peralta, who was grinning, then quickly trying to turn the expression into something more neutral and professional.
“Taylor, right?” he asked. “I’m Peralta, this is Riggs.” He pointed his thumb at the officer next to him, a grim, badly-shaven white man who stared at Raymond expressionlessly. Raymond recognized him from Millford’s file; he was one of the COs who had called in sick the day of the murder.
“We’re here to take you to gen pop, si-” Peralta interrupted himself with a cough, “inmate.”
“Get movin’,” grunted Riggs. “Got your stuff ready like you were told?”
Raymond nodded. “Yes.” His few belongings were sitting at the foot of his cot. Riggs jerked his chin, signalling him to collect them.
They marched quietly for a few minutes, through the dank halllways of the correctional facility, other inmates and guards watching as they passed. Raymond could feel the eyes on him, sizing him up. Raymond neither puffed up nor hunched down; he had nothing to prove to these punks but he could feel a prickle running up his spine. It was a similar feeling to the day he’d first walked into a precinct as a newly-minted officer.
They walked past rows of iron-barred cells, most of them in complete chaos, their occupants glaring or making obscene gestures at Raymond when they noticed him glancing inside. Finally, they came to a stop in front of one such cell, from the outside difficult to distinguish from any other.
“This is you,” Peralta announced brightly, “time to meet your new bunk buddy.” He was smiling with his lower lip tucked under his front teeth, the way he often did in uncomfortable situations. Next to him, Riggs remained expressionless as he pulled the cell door open.
Raymond waited, wondering if the warden had arranged for him to be placed with a man from Brooker’s inner circle, someone who might offer a way in. It would be a bold move and risky, so soon after the attack on their first mole. Brooker would be suspicious and volatile.
“Inmate, what’re you waiting for?” barked Riggs.
Raymond stepped inside the cell. Immediately, Riggs slammed the door shut behind him. The resounding bang echoing in his ears, Raymond walked over to the bunk bed where his cellmate sat up and turned, letting his long legs dangle down for a second before dropping to the ground.
One glimpse of his white ankles told Raymond all he needed to know: this man was not in Brooker’s inner circle. Still, they would be locked in together for the majority of their time, and this first meeting was likely to set the tone of their relationship. Raymond squared his shoulders and held out his hand. The man in front of him was tall and slender, white, his fading ginger hair meticulously parted on one side, a neatly trimmed beard filling in his gaunt face. Were he not in a maximum security facility, Raymond would have pegged him for a whitecollar criminal.
He did look familiar, however.
“Charles Taylor,” Raymond said, balancing his meager belongings on one hand, so he could shake the other man’s.
“Kevin Cozner,” the man replied. His grip was dry and firm, the greeting brief and professional. Raymond could appreciate that, even as the name shook something loose in his memory.
“You…” Raymond felt the corner of his mouth twitch in surprise, his eyes widening a tiny fraction when he remembered why he recognized this man. There probably wasn’t a single NYPD detective who would not have known him because what Cozner had done had been so unbelievable. “You killed Seamus Murphy, “ Raymond said.
Cozner’s lips pressed into a thin, unhappy line. When he spoke, his voice was soft but firm. “I did not. I was accused of the murder. However, these allegations were never proven. I was convicted of the murder of Colin Murphy, to which I pled guilty. As I’ve stated many times before, I do not know what became of his cousin.”
Oh, in the privacy of his mind Raymond allowed himself to channel his sister for a second, you know damn well what happened to him: he dead. He real dead.
Back when it had happened, there had been a lot of speculation, even among seasoned detectives, about what really had transpired between the Murphys, one of New York City’s most dangerous crime families, and Dr. Kevin Cozner PhD., a Yale professor. During his trial, Cozner had stated that the Murphys had threatened his younger brother, hoping to use his extremely successful dental practice for money laundering purposes (thereby proving to the organized crimes unit, which had been watching Murphy for a while at the time, that the family was indeed trying to branch out to more prestigious businesses less likely to draw the attention of the authorities). The younger brother, Dr. Martin Cozner, was married and had two small children. Meanwhile, Dr. Kevin Cozner was single, did not have anyone apart from his brother and their elderly parents..
Colin Murphy had been shot in a parking garage. A surveillance video of the incident had been submitted as evidence, a grainy, black and white recording with no sound. In it, a man wearing a hat and trenchcoat like some thug from a silent movie was seen from behind. It could have been Cozner, who pled guilty, - or it could have been his brother, who had not said much at all.
The truly fascinating development had been the disappearance of Seamus Murphy and some of his lieutenants. Organized crime was certain they had not left the country. So was Seamus’ wife, who had been so devastated, she’d not only filed a missing person’s report but also actually talked to the police.
“You’re right. I apologize,” Raymond said, studying Cozner.
He turned to the beds, looking for a place to put his belongings. Both cots were neatly made. In this cell everything seemed to have its place. “I assume the top bunk is yours?”
“Yes, my previous cellmate was elderly. He preferred sleeping in the bottom bunk, but if you don’t mind, I would like to switch.”
Raymond almost felt compelled to raise an eyebrow. The top bunk was usually more popular, but sleeping closer to the ground had its advantages, especially if one did not trust one’s cellmate. “I have no preference either way,” he said.
“Then please take the top bunk.”
“I will, thank you.” He swung himself up. Something creaked with age. It might have been the bunk beds or his joints. Cozner refrained from comment, for which he was grateful.
He settled in, bracing himself for his first night locked into a tiny cell with a convicted murderer.