Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Pixel Eye excerpt

Nice long excerpt from the beginning of The Pixel Eye (3rd Phil D'Amato novel, hardcover published by Tor 2003, ebook published by JoSara MeDia 2014)

Part I: Cold Spring

                                                                    Chapter 1


A cold November wind stalked Central Park.  Leaves strafed the pavement, squirrels ran for cover.   I put my arm around Jenna.

"I don't see any fewer squirrels than usual," she said.

I looked around and agreed.  "Birds?"

She pointed to a lone hawk, coasting above.  Then to clusters of pigeons and sparrows on the ground.   She shook her head.  "I'd say they're the same.  But maybe you should call in a professional birdwatcher or something."

"I can't believe I'm wasting even my own time on this," I replied. "This has to be a new low in my career: investigating missing animals."

"Are birds animals?" Jenna asked, and snuggled.

"Sure, in the 'animal, vegetable, mineral' sense," I said.

"Well we can get all three at Sambuca's," she said.  "I'm starving."

I took her hand and we walked toward West 72nd Street. "You're going to have mineral water instead of wine?" I asked.

"Why, is wine vegetable?" Jenna responded.

I nodded.

"Maybe I'll have both," Jenna said.  "I could have just plain water too -- that would count as a mineral, wouldn't it?"

"Probably -- yeah."  We reached Central Park West.  The restaurant was just across the street.  The wind was even colder on this corner. "I'm getting calamari or some kind of invertebrate," I said. "That way I won't feel guilty about eating a possible subject of my case."

***

I knew, of course, that missing animals could be a symptom of something much more serious -- they could be the first victims of a new germ-warfare salvo, to pick the obvious.  I tried to keep this thought in mind as I went in the next morning to see Jack Dugan, just appointed Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, a newly created post in the new administration.  But I also recalled the time way back in the 1980s when cats started disappearing on the New Jersey side of the Hudson.  A Chinese restaurant in need of a free supply of "chicken" turned out to be the culprit.

Jack smiled.  "Phil, good to see you!"  The same greeting he had been giving me for years.  Same slicked-back hair too -- still mostly black, now with some gleaming strands of grey.  But his dark blue woolen vest was new, and fit the job.

Technically, he was no longer a cop -- he was New York City's equivalent of the Secretary for Homeland Security, a top-secret position at least as powerful as the Police Commissioner, maybe more. Technically, I was still with the NYPD -- but one of the conditions Jack had set on his appointment was that he could call me in on a case.  I didn't object.  It wasn't the head of the task force Jack and other brass had been dangling in front of me for years.  That position had fallen victim to the reorganizations of "security governance" that seemed to happen in this city every month now.  But being the de facto Deputy Mayor for Homeland Security's eyes and legs -- and sometimes brains -- had its advantages.

He gestured me to a seat. "So what have you got for me?" he inquired.

"I've been on the case just two days."

His smile broadened.  "You would have called and cancelled the appointment if you had nothing to tell me," he said.

"The Parks Commissioner is sure that squirrels are missing," I said. "I interviewed most of his sources – four workers in Central Park, three in Prospect Park, one in Van Cortlandt Park -- and they're sure too. I looked around those parks myself, and Ft. Tryon Park as well, and saw plenty of squirrels, but, hey, what do I know."

"Your take at this point?" Dugan prodded.

I shrugged.  "The same as with possible human murders.  Without bodies, we have no proof of a crime.  And with squirrels, we have the additional problem of no family members to report them missing."

"Other than the park workers," Dugan said.

"Right."

"Didn't Paul McCartney have a song about birds not falling from the sky when they die -- they go off and hide someplace?"  Dugan asked. "Maybe that's why there are no obvious bodies."

"Elton John," I replied, "and Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics." But I still had to admire Dugan's command of popular culture. Impressive for a man in his job.  "Anyway, we're talking squirrels not birds.  I asked some of the park workers if they'd noticed any reduction in the numbers of pigeons, sparrows, crows, and they said no.  I didn't see anything untoward, birdwise, either.  I did get hit by a nice big splat of something from some bird in Prospect Park, but that's par for the course, too."

Dugan nodded.  "So at this point it doesn't look like a West Nile virus thing -- no dead crows."

"Right.  At this point, it doesn't look like anything at all."

Dugan nodded again. "Let's beat the out-of-the-way places in the parks for squirrel corpses, anyway. I guess we should bring in a squirrel expert -- what are they, rodents?"

I nodded.  "The squirrels are, yes.  The experts presumably are human."

Dugan snorted.  "Let's find out where they go to die."

That was a good exit cue.   But I’ve never been particularly good at taking them.  "I'm not sure they go anywhere, " I said.  "I've seen a few dead squirrels just laying on the sidewalks over the years."

"Me too," Dugan said, "but talk to the experts anyway.  And I'll see if I can get the Parks Commissioner to conduct some kind of squirrel census -- presumably they have a rough count of the number of squirrels running around last year, so we can compare and see if the current numbers are lower."

"All right," I agreed, and started to leave.  "Oh, one other thing." I reached into my manila folder, and pulled out a printout of a news story I had pulled off the web.  It was from the Bergen Record, a local Jersey paper.

"See? I knew you had something more for me." Dugan grinned.  "What's it say?"

I gave him the single sheet of paper.  "Half a dozen hamsters were reported stolen from a pet shop in Teaneck last week -- Jenna's friend's little brother works in a deli next door, that's how I first heard about it.  Probably has no relevance to our squirrels, but hamsters are rodents, too."

***

I'd known Melvin Kaplan since Junior High School 135 in the Bronx.  In those days, he had two hamsters in a cage in his bedroom.  They, along with his collection of 1950s early rock 'n' roll 45s, were his pride and joy.  By the time he got to college -- City College, on 137th Street in Manhattan -- he had dozens of hamsters hanging around his one-room apartment off campus.  He sold some to pet shops, and used the money to buy more records.  He went on to own a pet shop or two. Last I'd heard of Mel, though, he'd decided to indulge his love of music, by purchasing the Grace Note in Greenwich Village. He turned it from a jazz-only to a jazz and early rock club.  I went down there to see him the next evening.  Mel still knew more about hamsters -- and rodents in general, I'd bet -- than anyone else I knew.  He was a little crazy, but weren't we all these days.

The Crows' "Gee" was playing on what looked to be an original Wurlitzer Juke Box by the door.  I had just been talking with Dugan about crows yesterday -- not the first time in my life that music seemed to come out of the world to reflect what was already on my mind.  Mel was sitting at a table, sawdust at his feet -- it was all around the floor of the club -- nursing a beer.  He looked exactly as I had last seen him, about five years ago -- tortoise-rimmed glasses, scanty beard, salt-and-pepper hair.  The glasses could have been the same he wore in junior high school, though the present ones did seem to take up a bit more of his face.

"Phil." He smiled and beckoned me over.

"Good to see you, Mel." I shook his hand and took a seat. "Looks like you're doing very well here."  The club was about half full. I had no idea whether this was good or bad for a Thursday night.

"Can't complain," Mel replied.  "It's a labor of love, anyway. I did ok in the stock market in the last boom, and socked enough away that I don't have to worry."

"Squirreled some away, eh?"

Mel laughed.  "What are you having?"

"A Stella would be great," I replied.

Mel called out the order to the waitress -- blonde, bouncy, in a short black skirt.  "So you want a little primer on squirrels..."

"Right," I said.

"Not really my speciality -- hamsters are -- but I can tell you what I know about them."

"Good.  Then we can also talk about hamsters."

"OK.  Well, you know, they -- squirrels -- have sort of a schizophrenic role in our culture.  Kids love 'em.  Adults don't always agree. Some folks call them 'tree-rats' or 'rats with tails'.  In  some parts of the South, squirrels are called 'tree-rabbits' -- I guess folks down there love squirrels a little too much."

"They eat them?"

Mel nodded.  "And here up north -- in fact, everywhere there are birds and bird-fanciers -- squirrels are often considered nuisances, because they outwit even the best squirrel-proof birdfeeders.  They can jump so far they look like they're practically flying.."

"You think some bird-lovers in Central Park are snuffing squirrels to protect bird-feeders?  Pretty extreme."  My sister had a couple of bird-feeders in her garden in Brookline, Massachusetts.  "They're usually attached to trees in backyards, right?

Mel agreed that vindictive bird-watchers were not likely to blame.  "You'd have to kill all the squirrels in New York City -- hell, in the whole northeast -- to make a difference, anyway.  They breed very quickly.  They're everywhere, especially in
urban environments where rabbits and chipmunks don't do as well."

The blonde arrived with my beer.  She leaned over and put the glass on the table.  I thanked her.

"They can also take up residence in attics," she offered. "They love eating through soft soffits – my neighbor had a real problem last year."  She smiled and left.

"Why do I get the feeling I'm about to enter a Walt Disney movie here?" I asked Mel.

He chuckled.  "Hey, life's a demented Disney movie, my friend." He started whistling.

I sipped my beer.  "We don't even know that they're dead -- just missing, some of them, maybe . . . ."  I drank some more. "All right, let's switch to your true expertise -- hamsters. A bunch were reported stolen from a pet shop in New Jersey -- you hear
anything about that?"

Mel shook his head no.  "They're cheap as dirt.  Can't see the point in stealing them."

"Unless the thieves didn't want to be known, or maybe they were kids," I said.

"I suppose," Mel replied.  "But stealing -- rather than buying -- to conceal who you are suggests some sort of unsavory purpose in getting the hamsters.  They're just sweet little creatures, is all."

"I believe you--"

"Never heard anyone say a bad word about them -- they're much better liked than squirrels," Mel continued. "Well, I guess you can see where my heart is on this. Hamsters even have their uses in laboratory science -- they're much better than squirrels in the lab, who can get really vicious when caged."

"What kind of experiments -- running around mazes like rats?"

"Yeah, that," Mel replied, "and I heard they were being used in some sort of music research up the Hudson -- in Cold Spring."

"Music?"  I became aware that it had changed in the jukebox. It was playing "Come On Baby Let the Good Times Roll."

"Oh yeah," Mel said.  "Hamsters are real rock 'n' rollers.  They got great hearing -- bad eyesight -- and they come out at night.  They're nocturnal.  They're real gone cats." Mel slapped a rhythm on the table to bring home his point. My empty glass, which I had put back down, provided rattling accompaniment.

I smiled and realized I was tapping my foot.  "And squirrels?"

The song ended with its saxophone flourish.  "Just the opposite," Mel said.  "Squirrels have great range of vision -- they're always scanning the peripheries with those beady eyes – and they're out all day, except for the siesta they take after lunch."

"So we've got squirrels in the day and hamsters in the night," I said.

Bill Halley and the Comets started on the juke box.

"That's right," Mel agreed. "Rockin' around the clock."

***

 A dead squirrel came to my attention the next morning. It had been spotted by a group of girls on their way to school on the northern end of Central Park.

"I can't believe we're even having this conversation," Ed Monti, the city's Medical Examiner, groused on the phone.

"My feelings entirely," I responded, "but let's just chalk it up to indulging Dugan."

"I guess one consequence of real homicides being down is we have time for the rodent kind – rodenticide."

"So you think this squirrel was deliberately killed?" I couldn't bring myself to utter the word 'murder' in these circumstances.

"Well, Rachel Saldana -- she performed the autopsy--"

"Right, I know her."

"-- Rachel's performed about half a dozen autopsies on squirrels found in the city in the past few days--"

"Is that typical?  Half a dozen squirrel deaths in New York in a few days?" I asked.

"Yeah," Ed replied.  "I checked into that -- for this time of year it is, if you take as your territory all five boroughs.  Squirrels are rushing around getting acorns for the winter, they're more vulnerable to getting hit by cars, that sort of thing."

"I'm surprised the city even keeps statistics on that sort of thing."

"We've been doing lots of that, quietly, ever since the anthrax and West Nile virus business."

"Ok," I said.  "But this morning's specimen died of something else?"

"Ketamine and Acepromazine," Ed replied, "standard anesthetic cocktail for rodents."

"Ketamine the date-rape drug?"

"Yeah, but not in these small amounts," Ed said.

"You really researched this."

"Rachel did.   The stuff's supposed to put the animal to sleep, not kill  it.  Her best guess at this point is that the squirrel received the dose in a dart, fell out of a tree,  and broke its neck in a fall to the  curb."

"Jeez." I was actually beginning to feel bad for the poor thing. "So some wildlife biologist is getting his kicks taking shots at squirrels now?  Last time I looked, they're not exactly selling those darts, or the tranquilizer, on Amazon."

"Could be the biologist's kid -- but yeah, I'd say you should check out supply houses, research labs, any place that might carry those drugs.  And I'll keep you posted on any new squirrel-cides that show up here."

"All right," I said. "I'm actually off to a research lab right now -- Cerebreeze Laboratories, up in Cold Spring."

"Cerebreeze?  I didn't know they were into wildlife," Ed observed.


"As far as I know, they're not.  They're into hamsters."



  
reviews
  • "The nuttiness of the premise and the grittiness of the near-future New York ambiance are equally appealing" - The New York Times
  • "a breezily chilling story ... enough to send a shiver down most readers' spines" - Publisher's Weekly
  • "a thoroughly enjoyable book, extremely readable, and brave" - SF Weekly
  • "D'Amato is a charming narrator and an intriguing character" - Cinescape
  • "Levinson's latest novel featuring the resourceful and wise-cracking D'Amato delivers another satisfying mix of hard-sf intrigue and detective story set in New York City" - Library Journal
  • "Levinson's descriptions of the unique hustle and bustle of New York City are right up there with Jeffery Deaver's." -MyShelf.com
  • "The Pixel Eye, much like Orwell's 1984 and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, presents a chilling vision of the future that hits way too close to home for comfort . . . a thought-provoking book that should be on anyone's reading list." -Royal Library
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