Some of the plot issues in the new Frank Nagler story come together.
It was always gray, the ghetto was; dim, shadowed by the rocky face of Swedes Hill whose eastern ridge marked the spot in Ironton where the coal smoke from the stoveworks slammed into the eastern sunlight and then filtered down to coat the roofs of the workers’ shacks, the dusty, cobbled streets, and the dreams of kids like Frank Nagler.
That was the life he saw as he examined the mural being painted by Destiny
Wonder on the expansive wall that filled one side of the lobby of the public housing complex. Nagler’s soft, “Wow” caught her attention, and she stopped painting.
“You’re Frank, right?”
He turned to greet the voice. Destiny was a short, thin woman with blonde hair spangled with streaks of blue and green. One strap of her black bib coveralls slipped from her bare, muscular shoulder.
“I’m Destiny. LT said you were coming.”
“I’m supposed to meet Lauren and…LT?”
“Yeah, Maria. You know, Lieutenant Maria Ramirez. LT. I’m her partner.”
Nagler tipped his head trying not be embarrassed. “I’m, I’m, sorry.. all the time we have worked together… I never asked or even thought…”
“Hey, Okay. She has to be cool about it. She wants to be chief, and this place ain’t ready for a queer police chief.” Destiny’s voice took on a dismissive tone.
“Wait, that’s not what I meant,” Nagler said. “Maria should have been named captain while I was out. I’m going to take that up after we get this bombing settled. She’s qualified. That’s all that matters. It’s not a question I ask, not because I don’t care or understand the implications, but because it doesn’t matter to me.” His glance softened. “Do your job. That’s all I care about.”
A half smile. Destiny said, “She said you’d say that.”
Nagler touched the mural.
“I grew up here.” His voice was suddenly heavy and moist. He reached for a shadowed face, squared jawed with dark, brooding eyes. “That could be my grandfather. His face was always hard, except when he looked at my grandmother. Eyes between anger and sadness.”
“It could be,” Destiny said, as she tapped another face with the wooden bush handle. “This one my grandfather, and this one his brother.” She tapped another, incomplete face. “I’m basing the faces and scenes on photos from the historical society.”
Destiny smiled. “That partner of yours, Lauren Fox, is one smart lady. She knew when this complex was proposed, she could not stop it for a bunch of governmental reasons, but she fought for some changes, more efficient heating and cooling systems, better sound proofing, a neighborhood playground, and this, to mark the history of the ghetto which was being plowed under. The developer was not pleased.”
“Sounds like her. Who’s the developer?”
“Over here.” Destiny stepped over to a pencil drawing that looked like a dragon. “It’s not done yet. I think I’ll do it in red, for the dragon, and for the blood that was spilled by the workers that made the company all that money.”
“Why a dragon?”
“That’s the company’s name, Dragon Associates. Why?”
Nagler squinted at the drawing and then at the floor. “I’ve heard that name before, or something like it.” He waved hand at the mural. “Wonderful work. It’ll come to me.”
“You know what they will never get?” Destiny asked with a smirk. “How subversive this mural will be. Their corporate dragon logo is benign, almost cartoonish, symbolizing tradition and leadership. Mine will be angry, domineering with a trace of evil in its eyes. The company men will see it as a symbol of power, but the power I will draw will be in the faces of the workers. Their eyes will be both hard and yearning, fists clenched around tools, not symbols of progress, but of defiance, the torches they carry not signs of safety, but a rising.”
Nagler smiled with appreciation. “That’s a big goal.”
“The trick,” she said, “Is that on the face, it will seem a work celebrating the company that built this center, because we like simple stories and want to believe that all is good. But in detail it will be anti-establishment, celebrating not the masters, but those they thought they mastered.” She stepped along the wall, brushing her fingers across painted faces and pencil sketches of others. “Celebrating not the end, because there is no end, but the struggle for what continues, for dignity, family and love. It will celebrate you and your family and that of Del Williams…” she touched a dark face that Nagler recognized in that instant as that of his old friend. “And my family and Maria’s, and everyone who came before to build this city and fill these unnumbered streets with life.”
Destiny leaned her back against the wall, tipped her head back, her face composed. “And if they miss the point, which they will,” she twirled and slapped her hand at a spot on the wall, “Right there will be me and Maria, arms enwrapped, lips pressed together, wearing brightest rainbow t-shirts I can create.” She turned to face Nagler, her left shoulder pressed against the wall. “Because we all belong.”
The cheering voices of Maria Ramirez and Lauren Fox echoed across the vacant space, their heels slapping on the bare concrete floor.
“She gave you the nickel tour, I guess,” Ramirez said as she hugged Destiny. “Ain’t she something?”
Lauren wrapped an arm around Nagler as he asked. “How did you pull this off?”
“The builder had a deadline to tap into a federal loan program. I had a choice. I could have dragged out the approval for months, which would have forced them to pull out of the development, or I could have handed them a list of, shall we say, needs, including this mural.”
“Of course you did,” he said. “Did they approve the artist?”
“I gave them no choice. I did offer a theme, ‘the triumph of progress,’ or some horseshit. I gave the project to Destiny, and look what we got.”
Nagler kissed her hair. “Yeah, but I don’t think you wanted to meet me here for an art appreciation class.”
“Yeah, we got a problem, Frank,” Ramirez said, tipping her head toward a distant corner of the room. “That’s why we’re here. No prying eyes or ears.”
Once there, Nagler said, “I know. We have a leak in the department. Remember that kid, Mahala Dixon? She said someone in Boonton was talking about that white van. I told her she needed to stop talking about it. How the hell would they know?
The two women shared a look. “More than one, Frank,” Lauren said.
“We set a trap,” Ramirez said, and pointed to Lauren to continue.
“After the flood five years ago we got a federal grant to replace the computers in all city departments. We got new computers and a load of new software, especially for system security and intrusion defense. We announced that. What we didn’t say is that we also installed in some of the most advanced anti-hacking software available from an unknown source as a pilot program. Stuff that was not available on the common marketplace. What no one knows is that our source upgrades the software constantly. A little trade-off.”
“I never knew that,” he said with appreciation. Then he chuckled. “I thought we didn’t keep secrets.”
Lauren patted his chest. “If I told you who gave it to use, I’d have to kill you.” She smiled, teasing. “Actually, now that you know this, they may kill you anyway.”
“Oh, good. I’ll just go step in front of a truck to save them the trouble. Do we know who the spies are?”
“Not yet,” Maria said. “They’ve used multiple names and hotspots. “But we know that they are looking at the financial files that Lauren has gathered, and this is odd, the files from the old Carlton Dixon case, like photos of the white truck.”
Nagler held up a hand to stop her. “This is beyond me. I can barely answer my phone, which you both know. “
Lauren shared a wink with Maria.
“Told you he’d say that,” she said. “We’re counting that our opponents also know that,” she said to Nagler. “So we set up a dummy Frank Nagler online.”
“What’s that mean?”
“In the real world not a thing,” Ramirez said. “Virtually, online that is, and there is no way to say this politely, you are bait.”