Sitka Federal District
Detective Ben Levy put the cigarette into his mouth and struck a match. He put flame to the tip of the cigarette and inhaled deeply. Levy had to fight to keep the smoke down. The old man at the newsstand was out of his brand of American smokes, so Levy settled on a cheap pack of some Turkish floor sweeps. The smoke burned like hell going down and tasted foul coming out. But they still contained the nicotine his body so desperately craved.
Levy leaned against the side of his unmarked SPD cruiser and waited for Jake outside the all night dinner. The sign advertising Al’s Kosher Coffee & Burgers blinked in bright yellow neon in the three main languages of Sitka -- Yiddish, Russian Cyrillic, and American -- and was just one of many neon signs that flanked both sides of Lake Avenue. Signs advertising soda, cigarettes, cars, Alaska Airlines, and a few cat houses two blocks over were all lit up in some sort of garish primary color. When the winter came and the long nights with it, the majority of Sitka would be illuminated thanks to the neon lights.
“They were out of jelly donuts,” Jacob Abrams grunted as he approached the car. He was schlepping a box of donuts with one hand while the other hand was wrapped around a cardboard container with two coffee cups.
Jake Abrams, in this wayward place for all things Jewish related, was a standout Jew. It was the height along with the skin and the hair. Abrams was Tlingit on his mother’s side and that side’s genes ran deep. He stood somewhere around six and a half feet tall with skin the rich brown of a walnut and his close cropped hair pitch black. If you had no idea who Jake was or his history, you would have thought the yarmulke safety-pinned to the back of his head was some hack comedian's bad idea. What do you get when you cross a Jew with an Indian and give him a badge and a gun?
The punchline was Detective Jacob Abrams
“This is the third time Al has shafted me on the jelly donuts,” Levy said, shifting the cigarette in his mouth to the left corner. “Next time his little greasy spoon gets held up by some fucking lekish
with a peashooter, we’ll see how fast we try to pinch them.”
Jake plopped the box of donuts on the roof of the car along with the cardboard cup container. He scowled at Levy as he pulled his coffee out the container.
“How come when Abe Titlebaum wants to give me a mink stole for my wife, that’s an unacceptable gratuity, but Al giving us free donuts and coffee isn’t?”
Levy flashed the younger detective a look of annoyance before he went for his own coffee. It was bitter and black. Just the way he liked his coffee.
“Al would have to feed us coffee and crullers for twenty years to get to the cost of what that stole would be, kid.”
In his mind, Levy was proceeding to continue on with his lecture about common sense, about how Al Abromowitz was just a Russian Jew pushing burgers and bacon up and down a griddle, and Abe Titlebaum was far from that. Titlebaum was part of the nakht mentshn.
He, and his ilk, never gave to a cop without expecting tenfold in return. Levy stopped his prepared mental lecture when he saw the smile creeping on Jake’s face.
“You think I’m that fucking stupid, Bennie?” Jake asked with a raised eyebrow. “I may be green, but I ain’t a fucking feeb, c’mon.”
The two cops ate their donuts and sipped the coffee in silence, though it was not truly silent. It never was on Lake Avenue. Cars buzzed up and down both sides of the street while small clusters of pedestrians travelled the sidewalks. Levy checked his wristwatch and saw it was a little after three in the morning. The bars in this part of the city had just closed for the night. A group of sailors swayed down the sidewalk towards Al’s. A common enough occurrence in the city. Alaska’s distance from mainland America meant Sitka was the place to go for US servicemen on leave.
It was also a pain in the ass and a logistical nightmare when one of the soldiers would inevitably step out of line and be arrested by Sitka PD. He thought about one particular case he worked a few years back. A drunk Marine in a bar fight stabbed an old shikhur
in the eye with a broken beer bottle and blinded him. Levy made the arrest… and in the end he had to let him go, let the Navy’s own criminal department handle it. Justice for one of Sitka’s own was eluded thanks to red tape and bureaucratic resistance. Levy took another long drag on his smoke and watched the sailors stumble into Al’s with a wary eye. He expelled a long column of smoke into the air and took a bite from one of the doughnuts.
“Looks like it’s-,” Jake started to say.
“Don’t finish that sentence,” snapped Levy. “Don’t even think about it, less you jinx it.”
Rule Number 1 of any and all nightshift policing: a slow shift can become a hectic and busy shift at the drop of a hat, especially if the quiet is noticed and commented upon. There is nothing more damning to any officer’s peace and quiet than the words “Looks like it’s going to be a slow night tonight.”
They finished up their food and climbed back into the unmarked car. The driver's side door squeaked loudly as Levy opened it up. Levy shook his head at the sound. It seemed no amount of grease or lubricant would make it go away. Like most of the Sitka PD’s fleet the unmarked was a secondhand gift from the Alaska Territorial Police. The bottom was rusted out from a decade of driving on salt covered roads, the shocks were shot, and the radio seemed like it only worked if you held the mic just
right. Even though Sitka’s operations budget was one hundred percent federal, the remoteness in Alaska meant the Department of Interior bought everything for the PD from the Alaska Territory. Levy could only speculate, but he was sure that the army and navy bases in the territory didn’t buy their shit secondhand from the Alaska government. Remoteness was only an obstacle if you wanted it to be.
Levy checked his wristwatch in the dim light of the car. Another three hours before the end of shift. This was the bi-annual sweet spot of the year when Stika had a normal day and night cycle. The sun would be rising just as he and Jake clocked out and all the good jews of Sitka would be rising to great the day and the multitude of problems that awaited them. It took him to the third attempt to start the car, but once it was on Levy pulled out into Lake Avenue. He headed north towards the Sitka Channel, the small sliver of water that separated tiny Japonski Island from Baranof Island and the whole of Sitka. They heard the static and the occasional squawk from the radio mounted on the dash, the usual chatter between dispatch and patrol that was effectively white noise to Levy.
The drive passed mostly in silence. Levy and Jake had only been partners for three months or so. They were in that stage of a police partnership when the first bit of small talk and question asking had passed, but yet they weren’t so well versed in each other that they could have entire conversations inside the silence. Levy liked the kid well enough. He was sharp, likeable, and seemed to know how to do his job. His age gave Levy pause. He was a half-breed cop already with five years experience under his belt and making the leap to detective work. Shit, Levy had to hump a foot patrol for almost eight years before he got a detective posting. The Jewish half of his family had to be someone connected. Was Jake’s family some sort of well-heeled pioneer forerunners that came north in preparation of the big exile? They must have seen something a lot of jews in America hadn’t. Levy’s family included.
He’d been a young man when his folks got the news they were moving to Alaska. He was already a cadet in the Detroit PD at the time, three weeks from graduating. He hadn’t wanted to go, nobody had really wanted to go. But thousands of years of history told the Levy family that it was either to go quietly and safely or be forced, like a lot of jews were once the US government’s patience ran thin. Sometimes Levy got wistful thinking of his childhood back in Michigan. Take away the fucked up solar patterns and unbearable winters, and Sitka was a lot like Detroit. Just replace the smell of automotive manufacturing, the metal and oil and grease, and replace it with the smell of halibut and tuna canneries.
Levy hit the beltway that surrounded the inner city of Sitka and cruised north. The beltway allowed Levy a look at the Sitka skyline. Even this late at night the city was illuminated by streetlights and neon signs. The most prominent was the polar bear. The bright blue neon polar bear sat atop the North Star Casino and Resort, the most profitable and most corrupt Yid owned business in Sitka.
“I always like to look out at the city,” Levy said to Jake. “I was a twenty-one year old kid when I showed up here, fresh off a boat from Seattle with my folks. The place was a mess then, rickety prefab houses that were little more than shacks stretched out across a muddy field. New Zion, some smartass had scrawled on a sign in the field. Another smartass had drawn a question mark at the end of the Zion part. This place ain’t New Zion, that’s for damn sure, but it’s a far cry from what it was.”
“Yep,” Jake said with a nod of agreement. “My ma raised me just across the water on Kuiu. I remember as a boy seeing the city at night, knowing just across the water was my father’s home, in it my father’s people. I couldn’t wait to grow up and come here.”
Levy was about to take the opening to ask about Jake’s dad and get a few answers that had been gnawing at him. But then the radio belted out a burst of static and a call.“Detectives requested at 9815 Schalka Blvd. Possible 10-24.”
Levy and Jake traded looks. Jake went for the mic. It seemed the temperamental thing would cooperate with him more than it would with Levy.
“Car 31-A, we’re in the area and on the way.”
“You just had to say something,” Levy said as he hit the blue lights on the unmarked. “Had to comment about it being a quiet night. What’s rule one, kid?”
“It’s only a possible
homicide,” said Jake. “And I tell you what, if it is an actual homicide then breakfast is on me.”
“And you write the initial incident report,” said Levy. It wasn’t a question.
“You motherfucker,” Jake said in perfect American. Like many Sitka Jews, American was the preferred tongue of the curse word. “Fine,” he said back in Yiddish. “I type faster than you anyway.”
Levy winked at his younger partner and hit the gas, the old car rattling as he pushed it past sixty miles an hour.
Yuri Rudnitsky threw the stub of his cigarette on the ground and crushed the smoldering butt with the heel of his shoe. His legs felt rubbery as he stepped off the train platform and started down the steps. He felt nervous about the upcoming meeting. He desperately needed the money. It took the last dollar to Yuri’s name to get him across town from the Unter Tage
to the inner harbor area.
His German and Yiddish was for shit, but he knew enough to know Unter Tage
meant underground. Even though high-rise tenement buildings covered the Unter Tage,
it got its name from the early days of Sitka. Polish Jews, burned too many times over the centuries by the powers that be, were wary of their new American benefactors. The Unter Tage
was covered with an intricate and elaborate network of underground tunnels the old Poles dug in the event they would need to flee and fight when the other shoe inevitably fell. In the years since the tunnels had become something of a haven for Sitka’s degenerate behavior. Drugs, cheap booze, a crap game, and any sort of sexual act that could be thought of could all be found in the tunnels. Nothing was off limits in the dim lighting below Sitka’s streets.
A few years back Yuri tried his hand at pimping a few of the whores who worked the tunnels. He gave up after a few months when it proved to be too much work than it was worth. The girls were able to easily evade their would-be pimp as their knowledge of the tunnel system far outweighed his. He spent a whole night one time chasing a girl down to get… twenty bucks. Yuri wasn’t one to turn down any money, but in Sitka there were always easier ways to get it.
It was why he was heading to the meeting tonight. He had to admit he felt a bit self-conscious in what passed as his best clothes. He’d made sure his blonde hair was trimmed and his face was freshly shaved. He was dressed up, or as dressed up as he could be. He wore black slacks and a navy blue sweater over a white button-up shirt. A shabby navy peacoat and his worn black boots finished the ensemble. The weather was beginning to turn away from the mild summer to fall. Winter would not be long behind it and Yuri hoped to god this plan meant no more winters at the cannery.
Yuri stuck his hands in the pocket of the peacoat as he walked down the sidewalk towards the waterfront of Sitka Sound. At this hour he was one of only a few pedestrians on the sidewalk. Most were nightclub patrons on their way to afterparties or home. He looked up and saw the great big blinking polar bear. The North Star sat only a block away from where he was now. Fifteen years in Sitka and he’d yet to step foot inside of it. That was mostly okay with him. He didn’t have the money to spare on slots or dice. The North Star was just as crooked as any racket Yuri had ever tried to pull out on the streets, only it was far more successful at separating suckers from their cash. People like Yuri got called crooks and were labelled dangerous, but the real dangerous crooks were the ones who backed the North Star. Because when they committed a crime, it always came with full political backing.
The lobby of the Hotel Verbinsky was deserted this time of night. Yuri silently nodded at the desk clerk as he passed by for the elevator. His attire helped him blend in with the more middle and upper class clientele of the hotel. He still looked like someone not to trifle with, but he was an appropriately dressed someone not to trifle with. Yuri told the elevator operator he wanted the tenth floor in Russian-tinged Yiddish. When they arrived the operator looked at him expectedly with a tip in mind. Yuri sheepishly shrugged as he stepped off the elevator.
“Fucking jerkoff,” the operator said in American.
Yuri pretended to not hear him as he found room 1045 and rapped his knuckles on the door. He waited for a few moments until the door swung open. The man who greeted him was a hardcase. He had at least three inches on Yuri, an impressive feat given Yuri stood around 6’2, and at least fifty pounds of muscle on him.
“Gotta pat you down,” the man said in Yiddish.
Yuri held his arms out and consented. He only owned one gun, and he was sure as hell not stupid enough to bring it here. When the heavy was satisfied, he stepped back into the room and ushered Yuri in. Yuri felt a small sense of pride as he stepped into the hotel room. The thug had missed the knife hidden in his boot.
The inside of 1045 was a simple two bedroom room. Although Yuri noticed the heat right away. The cast iron radiator by the window was working overtime to heat the place and Yuri could feel it. The man he came to meet, however, seemed, mostly unphased by it. He stood by the window in a neat three-piece suit, smoking a cigar and looking out over the city. His hairless head reflected the lights of the city off of it in a dull sheen. Yuri had to guess he was probably in his early 60’s. He turned to look back at Yuri and flash him an apologetic smile.
“Sorry about the heat,” he said. “I’ve been in Alaska almost twenty years and still can’t get used to the cold. Guess I have thin blood. Take a seat, please.”
The two made their way to a table to the right of one of the beds and sat. Yuri noticed a diamond ring on the man’s pudgy pinky finger and some sort of eagle crest. It looked close to the two-headed Russian eagle, thought Yuri.
“How is your Yiddish,” asked the man.
“I understand it better than I speak it,” said Yuri.
“Cocksucker, motherfucker, son of a bitch,” Yuri said with a wry smile.
The man laughed and shook his head.
“We’ll do Russian,” he said with a shrug. “It’s not my best language but it should be enough to get my point across. So tell me, Yuri, do you know who I am?”
“More or less,” replied Yuri. “I don’t know your name, but I know you know David Kotel. And David respects you. That’s a rare privilege.”
“David is one of my best shylocks. And he says you’re one of his best leg breakers. You keep a cool head about you, tougher than two week old matzo.”
Yuri grunted. “It’s not steady work, and David pays like shit… but it helps.”
“Where are you from originally, Yuri?”
The man raised an eyebrow.
“A smuggler’s haven. Ever done any smuggling?”
“Yes, but I left when I was a teenager,” Yuri shrugged. “The most I did was unload crates for the real smugglers for a few rubles.”
The man chuckled. “How handy are you with a gun?”
Yuri leaned back in his chair and looked at the man. He kept eye contact with him as pulled down the collar of his shirt. To the left of his Adam's apple were the tattoos of three small stars. The man’s eyes flashed in recognition of the tattoos and what they stood for.
“When?” he asked.
“Back in Russia,” Yuri said softly. “It’s the reason I’m here.”
The man reached out and placed a pudgy hand on top of Yuri’s.
“I think you’re wasted as a debt collector, Yuri. How would you like to make some real money?”