Eugene Sparrow

At about ten-thirty on a December evening in 1970, Eugene Sparrow was in his basement workshop, sanding a chair leg and listening to a police band scanner, when he heard that there had been a multiple car accident, with fatalities, on a nearby entrance ramp to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

The workshop was in the only corner of the basement that was not full of the relics of dead people: his father's suits, business records and mementos of the several shops he had owned, and his sister Susan's clothing, furniture and stuffed animals. His sister Trelia's possessions were stacked there too; she was dead to the family if not actually deceased.

The workbench itself had been built by his father, Thomas, who had purchased the bright tools hanging on hooks in the cork-board wall. Some of them Sparrow had never used.

Sparrow, a plainclothes detective, was not on duty again until the next morning, but it was his habit when anything interesting was happening, to go take a look and to see if he could be of any help. He went up to the kitchen and told his mother, who was sitting at the table looking vacantly out the window, that he was going out.

He was at the accident scene five minutes later. Flashing police lights immobilized droplets of icy rain. Sparrow saw three vehicles wrapped together. One, which had apparently been at right angles to the others, was a large Lincoln. It had been hit on the ramp both by a small Ford and by a Buick LeSabre. At first glance, Sparrow could see two victims. Paramedics by the three cars were working on someone they had already placed on a stretcher; he couldn't tell the sex because the victim's face was completely wrapped in bloody gauze. About thirty feet away in the roadway was what looked at first like a pile of denim rags. Standing upright next to it was a single cowboy boot. He walked over and recognized Desiree Stein from Midwood High School, lying dead in the street. Charlotte Davis must then be somewhere nearby. Holding out his badge, he walked over to the paramedics, who were still working over the slight figure on the stretcher. Her right hand was visible; he thought he recognized Charlotte's thin ringless fingers. He moved closer and heard her say, "Where's Desiree?" He took her hand then and said, "Charlotte, its me, Eugene Sparrow." Her fingers closed tightly on his with a surprising pressure. "Where's Desiree?" she asked again. "Desiree is fine," he said, not because it was the right thing but because he didn't know what else to say. They were ready to load her in the ambulance, so he stepped back. Charlotte didn't want to let go of his hand.

There were two other ambulances, but no-one to take. In addition to the dead girl in the roadway, each of the cars contained the corpse of a boy he knew: one Midwood drop-out and two alumni. The boy in the third car was hardest to identify; he had been decapitated.

"What happened here?" Sparrow asked Phil Signorelli, the uniformed officer in charge. "First the Lincoln came down the ramp," Signorelli said, gesturing. "He slid sideways and either passed out or stalled out. Then the Ford with two girls and a boy came down and hit the Lincoln. It looks like the boy in the Buick was going like a bat out of hell when he hit the other two. The girl who lived was thrown through the windshield in the second collision. She went across the Lincoln's hood and under its wheels. Everybody else was killed."

"How did the other girl end up in the street?"

"She was driving the Ford, and was thrown from the car on the second impact. She landed on her head."

"Has anyone notified her parents?"

"Not yet. We don't know who she is."

"I know her. Her name is Desiree Stein. I'll take care of it if you want."

"I'll owe you one," Signorelli said. "I'll take care of the other three, when we ID them."

Sparrow told him who they were, then turned to go. Down the hill, drivers on the expressway were slowing down to gawk at the bodies. He recognized a detective he disliked, Jim Starling, getting into a Chevrolet.

"What's Starling doing?"

"He was here when I got here," Signorelli said. "Said he was passing by when it happened."

The next afternoon, Sparrow dropped by the precinct house to seek out Starling, who was just coming on shift. He found him in the locker room and said, "I was looking for your report on last night's accident and they said you didn't file one."

Starling shrugged. "Signorelli had it covered, so I didn't think it was necessary."

"Phil said you saw it happen."

"I heard it happen. I was on the highway, heard the smash, called it in, and backed up on the shoulder. I told Phil all that. He was there less than three minutes later."

He looked at Sparrow defiantly. Both men knew they were required to file a report on any incident at which they were present. Sparrow had already turned his in.

Starling was the son and grandson of policemen and had an uncle in the state senate. As a result, he was a little more arrogant and easygoing than the average cop, which was why Sparrow disliked him.

Sparrow went back upstairs and called Phil Signorelli at home. "I was just chatting with Jim Starling," he told Phil, "and he says he didn't see the accident at all, only heard it."

"That's strange," Phil said. "I thought it was Jim told me the blonde girl went out the side window of the Ford. Maybe he was just guessing."

"Yeah, maybe," Sparrow said. He left the precinct and instead of going home, drove to Futo's Body Shop on McDonald Avenue. Joe Futo was a former policeman. He had joined at the same time as Sparrow but left the force after eighteen months to avoid being discharged. He had been sitting in the cafeteria with some older officers when something happened which should have caused him, according to Internal Affairs, to leave the room and report them. Since it was of the nature of something which happened almost every day and went unremarked, he stayed and finished his sandwich, ending his career in the police. He joined the family towing and wrecking business, and was regularly consulted by officers investigating automobile accidents.

Sparrow liked the smell of oil and the tangle of auto parts at Futo's. He said hello to two of the grease monkeys and waited for Joe to come out of the office. "Come upstairs," Futo said. He was a leathery-faced man with huge ears. They mounted the stairs to a big, disorderly office and Joe poured himself a shot-glass of Scotch. "What the hell, I'm off duty," Sparrow said, and Futo poured one for him too.

Futo read the copies of the reports Sparrow brought him, then got out one of his famous sheets of oak-tag and drew the ramp itself, the street above it and the expressway below. From a drawer, he took three match-box cars, a Lincoln, a Ford and a Buick for accuracy. "Kids always accelerate on the ramp," he said. He moved the Lincoln down it, turned it sideways so it blocked almost the whole ramp, and left it there. He maneuvered the Ford so it tapped the Lincoln. "Does the survivor remember anything?" "She's still unconscious," Sparrow replied. Futo touched the oak-tag with his forefinger, and said, "Ok, here's where we put our thinking caps on. This was probably not the fatal part of the accident, because your girl, Charlotte, wouldn't have survived the second hit if she'd already been out the window, lying in the street, on the first one. But if she went out the window on the second hit, the first one was probably not strong enough to smash anything. So what happened? The Ford wasn't going as fast as the LeSabre behind it. She hits the dashboard, is stunned, maybe. The guy in the back seat is dead drunk; maybe he's knocked out too, or is fumbling around trying to get up. The driver of the Lincoln is either unconscious, or still trying to start the car. Along comes the driver of the LeSabre at sixty or seventy miles an hour. He turns all three cars into jelly, kills himself , the kid in the Lincoln and the one in the back seat of the Ford, and throws your girl out the window." Futo's brow furrowed and he tapped with his marker on the oak-tag. "What I don't understand is the other girl. Show me where she was."

Sparrow took the marker and made an "X" on the oak-tag.

Futo shuffled through the papers until he found what he was looking for. "Cause of death was apparently a fractured skull and a broken neck, according to Dempsey, the ambulance guy on the scene. Will there be an autopsy?"

"No-one thought there was any reason. We already released the body to the family."

"Okay, well, I know Dempsey, and he makes pretty good calls. You'll get over to Kings County and check the cause of death on the certificate anyway, I'm sure, make sure it matches up. So." He whistled absently for a few moments. "Something doesn't figure."

"I didn't think so either," Sparrow said.

"Or you wouldn't be here, right? Okay," he said studying the markings, "you would say she was lying in the street what, twenty, thirty feet away?"

"About thirty feet, I think."

"She didn't fly out of the car like Signorelli's report says. No way. Nobody flies thirty feet to the side after being hit from behind. She would have gone through the windshield like the other girl."

"That's what I thought."

"Anyway, I'll prove it to you. Let's go look at the car."

"You have it here?"

Futo nodded.

"Why didn't you tell me that in the first place, you fucking mook?"

Futo walked downstairs laughing, wiping the marker ink off his fingers with a rag. Around back, in the little lot, he had the three cars from the accident. The Ford was collapsed like an accordion. "Note the starring and the blood on the windshield, where the other girl went through. Ok, now note the driver side door."

It was closed, crushed into the framework of the car. The glass of the window hung down from it, in shards but still together.

"There are only two ways to be thrown out the side of a car. The door is either open, or you go through the window. In this case, the door is closed, and I'll bet good money she didn't go through that window. No starring, no blood. The window blew outwards when the frame of the car was compressed too much to hold it. No, there was just no reason for her to fly out of the car sideways, and no evidence she did."

"You mean she wasn't in the car."

"I think so," Futo said. "I'll tell you exactly what happened, because I've seen it before. She ran from the vehicle after the first impact. Someone else coming down the ramp, someone who swerved to avoid the mess, hit her. She flew over the hood and landed on her head. There's another car out there somewhere with traces of this girl on it."

Sparrow thanked him. He called his mother to tell her he would be in late and not to wait dinner, but she was crunching chicken bones as she spoke to him. He went to Kings County and talked to Emily Johnson, a kind, worn-faced black nurse who ran the critical care unit. The Steins had just left. Sparrow went in to the large room, where five patients, men and women, were hooked up to noisy equipment. Cardiac monitors beeped and respirators whooshed. Charlotte Davis was on both a monitor and a respirator. Her face and head were completely covered by bandages. Her right arm was in a cast but the left lay loose on the coverlet. As he watched, her hand opened and closed, opened and closed. He read her chart but couldn't understand most of it. He stood by Charlotte's head and said, "Charlotte, its me, Eugene Sparrow. Raise one finger if you can hear me." The entire fist opened and closed. He pulled a visitor's chair over, sat by her and took her hand in his. Again, Charlotte's hand grasped his with surprising force. Sparrow had heard it was good for comatose people to hear friendly voices, so he spoke to her, very haltingly, about nothing in particular.

You want to live, he thought. You're a fighter. He remembered seeing her on the streets and at the place near Brooklyn College where the kids hung out. He had always thought she was a nice, rather serious girl. Not flirtatious, not overly pretty, but smart. He had been worried when she became friends with Desiree Stein, whom he did not like.

The surgeon came by on his rounds about thirty minutes later and was surprised to find him there. "Who the hell are you?" he asked. "Visiting hours were over at eight."

Sparrow introduced himself and the doctor looked pointedly at his hand and Charlotte's, which were still joined. Sparrow flushed. He let go of Charlotte, stood up and left.

On the way home, he drove down the block alongside Brooklyn College. It was below zero, with another sleety rain, and he was not surprised there was no-one there. But he got lucky on the Junction: David Solomon, known to his friends as "Shipwreck", was walking home. Sparrow hailed him from across the street and was rewarded by the teenager's look of fear and annoyance.

Sparrow pulled across Flatbush Avenue and alongside the boy, who stood hands in pockets. He knew better than to run from Sparrow, having tried it once.

"Did you see Desiree Stein last night?"


"I said, did you see Desiree Stein last night?" Sparrow said, as if talking to a simple-minded person.

The boy looked worried and thoughtful, as if deciding whether to lie. "Its true she's dead?"

"Over at Cohen's Funeral Parlor as we speak. Funeral is tomorrow," Sparrow said. "You Jewish types bury fast."

"I didn't want to believe it," David said. "When Big Moe cracked up his dad's car two years ago, people said he was dead, but he was only in the hospital."

"Big Moe wasn't so lucky this time." He was the boy in the Buick.

"Yes, I saw her."


David hesitated. "At Coop's," he said at last, as if it was painful.

"Was there a party?"


"Cooper's folks in Atlantic City again?"

"I think so."

"When did Desiree leave, and who with?"

"I don't know. I was already out of there."

"What time?"

"Around ten."

"The Bonkers were around? It was getting wild, I bet."

David nodded.

"Well, you're a smart kid to leave before they started pulling the house down." Sparrow thought for a moment. "Ok, here's what we're going to do." He tossed David a dime; the boy grabbed for it with both hands, missed it, and chased it into the gutter. "Get on that pay phone and call your friend Cooper. Tell him I have to talk to him and it can't wait. Tell him to meet us on the corner of L and 28." David went to the pay phone and called, then came back. "You get him?"

"Yes. Can I go now?"

"No. Get in."

David got into Sparrow's VW Bug, miserable. He slumped down as far as he could in the narrow front seat. "If anyone sees us, I might get the shit kicked out of me tomorrow."

"Probably do you a world of good."

Cooper was waiting for them. He was a short boy, even slighter than David, and was trembling with anxiety and rage. "You know my father will use me for a punching bag," he said. Sparrow knew that Mr. Cooper beat his son. "That's why I had David here call you out," he said reasonably. "OK, I need to know what time Desiree Stein left your house last night, and who with."

Coop looked at David, who couldn't meet his eye.

"Is it true she's dead?" he asked.

"Yes," Sparrow said.

"How do you know?"

"I saw her myself."

"OK," Coop said, and took a deep breath. "I would say it was about ten twenty, ten thirty. There were four cars heading over to a party in Bay Ridge. First was Jim Fowler. Then Desiree, driving Tommy McPherson's brother's car. She was with Char Davis, and Tommy was in the back seat. He was too drunk to drive. Third was John Chalfin, in his daddy's Cadillac. Fourth was Big Moe. People are saying Jim, Tommy and Moe are dead too."

"They are. Thanks, Coop. Go home. You too," he said to David.

"Can you drop me?" Sparrow had driven him a good ten minutes further from his house.

"You'll walk," he said, and flicked David's arm with his hand until David got out of the car cursing.

It was after midnight, but Sparrow wasn't ready to turn in. I wouldn't be able to sleep anyway, he thought. He drove to Ocean Avenue at M and rang Jim Starling's buzzer in the big brick apartment building on the corner.

"Who's there?" said a slurred voice on the intercom.

"Its Eugene Sparrow. Let me in, Jim."

"Fuck," said the voice, but a moment later the lock clicked and Sparrow went up. Starling had the door open. He was in his underwear, carrying a half-full bottle of Glenfiddich by the neck. "I just this moment got to sleep." He took a swig from the bottle. "Want some?"

Sparrow didn't, but he wiped the mouth of the bottle with his hand and took a drink. He handed it back to Starling, who said, "What can I do for you, Eugene?"

"Can we sit for a moment?"

"Come on in," Starling said, and led him into a brightly lit, white-tiled kitchenette, where they sat on opposite sides of a small formica table.

"I was just trying to figure out this accident," Sparrow said. He looked around and saw a dirty fork balanced on the sink's edge. He reached for it and laid it in the center of the formica table. "This is the Lincoln," he said. He took a salt and pepper shaker and set them down against the fork. "Buick and Ford," he said. He pushed the three objects across the table.. "All three were in forward motion when the Buick hit. There's no way Desiree Stein would have flown sideways. She would have gone out the windshield like the other girl did."

"Well," said Starling, and pouted as if he was thinking. He was a big, good looking man, a former high school football star, about four years younger than Sparrow. "Maybe old Desiree flew out the window when the Ford smacked the Lincoln."

"No way," said Sparrow. "That impact wasn't hard enough to send the other girl through the windshield. And anyway, she still wouldn't have flown sideways."

"Well, then it beats the shit out of me. As I said, I didn't see the accident, I only heard it."

"Phil Signorelli says you told him Desiree flew out the driver side door."

"I did not," Starling said, flushing indignantly, "or if I did it was just a suggestion."

"Sorry to bother you," Sparrow said.

The Chalfins lived in a huge corner home with white aluminum siding. It was the largest place on the block. The Cadillac wasn't in the driveway. The garage door was open, and it wasn't in there either. Sparrow glanced up and down the street and didn't see it. A light was on and through the half-open shade, he could see Bernard Chalfin, John's father, in his bathrobe. He rang the bell. It was almost one thirty in the morning.

Bernard came to the door. He was holding an open can of Vienna sausage and a fork. He didn't let Sparrow in but stood looking at him through the screen. "Hello, Eugene," he said.

"Where is your Cadillac, Mr. Chalfin?"

"Its in the shop."

"Why is that, Mr. Chalfin? Did you have an accident?"

"No, routine," the older man said. He was a short, proud, gray man with a big mustache.

"May I speak to John?"

"He's asleep," Bernard said, but John came out of a doorway and stood in the hall behind his father.

"Its the middle of the night," Bernard said, annoyed. "Why don't you come back tomorrow?"

"I'll talk to him," John Chalfin said. He took his coat from the closet next to the door and pushed past his father onto the steps. As he passed, Bernard hissed something at him.

It was freezing cold. Sparrow took John to sit in the Bug. Bernard vanished from view, leaving the front door unlocked for his son.

John Chalfin was trembling. "I hit a girl," he said. "I hit Desiree Stein. I didn't see her. She popped up in front of me."

"She's dead," Sparrow said.

"I heard." The boy's teeth were chattering.

"Tell me how it happened."

"We were leaving a party at Coop's, convoying to another party in Bay Ridge."

"You were driving third, with Desiree and Jim Fowler in front of you."

"That's right. First Jim sped up to go down the ramp, then Desiree. I didn't."

"You're a careful kid. What happened then?"

"I got halfway down the ramp and I could see that Fowler's Lincoln had spun around, and Desiree had hit it. I pulled far out to the left, so I was halfway up on the grass. I was braking but I didn't think I could stop before I got there, so I wanted to be sure I missed them. I thought I was clear, when Desiree popped up in front of me. I was still moving, so I hit her and she flew over the car."

"What happened then, John?"

"I pulled all the way back over to the right and stopped on the BQE shoulder, just below the ramp. I turned around to look for Desiree and just at that moment there was like a big grinding crash. Another car, Big Moe's I guess, came down the ramp like a bat out of hell and hit the other two. I got out of my car and just then, a cop I know named Jim Starling arrived."

"Where did Starling come from?"

"He must have been up ahead. He backed up all the way down the shoulder and stopped in front of me. He got out of his car, saw me and said, 'What happened?' I told him I hit Desiree Stein and he said, 'OK, kid. Get out of here.'"

"He said what?"

"'OK, kid, get out of here.'"

"So what did you do?"

"I did what he said. I got back in the car and drove home."

"And then what?"

"Starling must have called my uncle, because Uncle Charlie came over and yelled at dad. Someone from one of dad's muffler shops drove the Lincoln away. Then dad and Charlie both shouted at me for a long time."

Uncle Charlie was a state assemblyman, home from Albany for the Christmas recess. "What did your uncle say?"

"He said he didn't want to owe that mick a favor."

"What mick?"

"I assumed he meant Jim Starling."

"One more question. Were you drunk or stoned when you hit Desiree?"

"I had a few," the boy said miserably. He had stopped shivering and had slumped down in the seat. "But you have to believe me, I was still driving carefully. There was nothing I could have done that would have saved that girl."

"I believe you," Sparrow said. "And I appreciate your cooperation. Tell your dad I'll drop by his office tomorrow." He sent John back into the house. He waited until the boy was inside, then drove home at last.

Theresa Sparrow had gone to sleep. Sparrow walked into his sisters' empty room and stood there long enough to take three or four deep breaths. For a time, the room had smelled like the soap and perfume his sisters used, but it only smelled like mothballs now. He went to his own room to prepare for bed.

In the morning, he went to look at the Lincoln, but it had been Martinized, and any dents had been hammered out, so there was no trace evidence. Next, he spent two hours writing up a report on what he had done so far, but he did not file it. He made an attempt to see Bernard Chalfin in the afternoon, but Chalfin referred him to his attorney, Sid Klein, whom Sparrow knew and hated.

He decided to seek advice that evening from older and wiser heads about what to do next. As he was tidying up his desk at five o'clock, Jim Starling came in angrily. Four other detectives watched as Starling said, "I heard you paid a visit to Bernard Chalfin in the middle of the night."

"I did," Sparrow said, and waited.

"Well," Starling said, "you know what they say."

"No, Jim, what do they say?"

"When the going gets tough, the tough get going."

Sparrow pushed past him without answering. He went home and had dinner with his mother, who hardly spoke to him while they ate the pork chops she had prepared. Theresa Sparrow had never stopped wearing black since her husband, the ruined businessman, died twelve years earlier. Susan, five years younger than Eugene, had died of a heroin overdose a year and a half before. A few months after, Trelia, the baby of the family, had dropped out of high school to go to California with an older man, and they did not know how to contact her. Sparrow figured his mother detested God but didn't know what to do about it.

The doorbell rang. "I'll answer it," said Sparrow, but Theresa was already out of the room, eager for any diversion. She came back and said, "Its H.C."

Francis X. Halloran, known as "H.C." for the number of times he had been called "Hero Cop" in Daily News headlines, sat in the living room. He was a thin, palsied seventy-five year old man, but was dressed in his police uniform with row after row of glittering hardware and ribbons on his chest. He had been a friend of Sparrow's father and instrumental in influencing Sparrow to become a cop. Sparrow had been planning to call him for advice.

"Excuse the clown suit," H.C. said, "but I'm on my way to a dinner where I'm expected to say a few words. I can't stay long."

"Would you like anything? Mom just brewed some coffee."

"No, thank you, Eugene. I'm here about Jim Starling. I've been asked to reach out to you on account of the boy fucked up at an accident scene night before last."

He paused, and Sparrow said, "Go on, Uncle Frank."

"The boy made a mistake," H.C. said. "There's no question. But it could have been worse. The way I see it, he told a driver to leave the scene of an accident a little bit prematurely. And he hasn't filed a report yet. If I offer to make sure that Starling cleans up his paperwork...."

"Yes, Uncle Frank, what do you want me to do?"

H.C. pursed his lips as if about to whistle. "The boy has promise. His father and grandfather both were cops, and good ones too. They were friends of mine. They're gone, but I'll step in now and give the boy a talking to, make sure he doesn't fuck up again."

"Uncle Frank, what do you want me to do?"

"I want you to refrain from ending the boy's career," H.C. said.

After dinner, Sparrow drove over to Kings County Hospital. Mrs. Johnson was on shift again. She told him that Charlotte was still unconscious, but the surgery had been successful and the prognosis was generally good. There was never any guarantee that anyone in a coma will wake up, but Mrs. Johnson had seen far worse. There was no reason to believe there was any permanent neurological injury resulting from the skull fracture. Charlotte would retain at least some sight in her right eye, which had received a deep scratch. Her physical responsiveness while in the coma was not determinative, but was certainly promising. "Its not scientific," Mrs. Johnson said, smiling, "but I'd say the girl will wake up, tomorrow or day after. Based on the things I've seen." She had worked in the critical care ward at Kings County for twenty years.

He went in the room, greeted Charlotte and watched her hand, flexing restlessly. As if in search of mine, he thought. He didn't want to touch her, afraid the surgeon would come back or someone else would see him. He thought bitterly about the conversation with H.C., and came to a decision on a matter he had been mulling over for a year: he would send off the law school applications he had prepared, and if he got admitted somewhere, he would leave the police.

He couldn't resist any more and reached out for Charlotte Davis' hand. She clutched his tightly, as she had twice before. Am I taking advantage, he thought, or does she know somehow its me.

A moment later, the unexpected happened. Something broke gently inside him, like an old scab separating from the new skin underneath, and he realized he was in love with the unconscious girl.