This is the opening passage of Rat Island. It captures how I experienced the maelstrom of 1995 42nd Street in Manhattan and gives a pen-picture of the novel’s protagonist, Callum Burke, and his past.
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Callum Burke was late for the Chinese taxidermist’s murder. He shoved a Camel between cracked lips and sparked his Zippo then leaned against the wall next to the subway entrance on 42nd. He lit the cigarette like a fuse. His watch read eight-twenty.
A handsome drunk black guy in khaki pants and a busted-up jacket caught his eye and sauntered over, flexing and weaving through pedestrians like the booze in his system had liquefied his bones.
‘Excuse me, man, you got thirty cents?’ Alcohol fumes seeped through Callum’s tobacco cloud.
‘No, I don’t have any change.’
‘Thirty cents, man. I just need thirty cents for my bus to Chester.’
‘Sorry. No change.’
‘Alright. God loves you anyway, man.’
The drunk lurched off as a Latino girl in a PVC miniskirt with a sweet face and glazed eyes strolled up.
‘Hey, baby. You all by yourself?’
‘Just like the song.’
‘You want some company? I got a half hour to spare.’
A wired, scrawny white youth made a move after the girl tottered away.
‘Hey, man, you got the time?’ His voice was drowned by the stream of traffic heading to and from 8th Avenue. Callum cocked his head toward the youth as a siren howled from somewhere behind Port Authority.
The youth leaned closer. ‘You got the time?’
Callum checked his watch. ‘Uh, it’s – ’
‘I got blow, speed, crack, H. What you need?’
‘No, I’m good.’
‘It’s aaaaall good, man’
Callum pinched the bridge of his nose. A cop was standing on the corner fifteen feet away working hard not to notice the wicked business going down on his patch. The buildings of midtown rocketed skyward, swallowed by low rags of cloud oppressing the early evening bustle of the streets. A tide of gossip, questions, information and bawdy profanity assaulted him. Before, in the other metropolis of Hong Kong, it had been just as raucous but most of it was Cantonese backwash, white noise he filtered out. Now it was rushing him, penetrating his skull and cannoning around in his head.
‘Thirty cents, man? Port Authority’s just across the street.’
The black man reappeared on his right, face bathed in yellow from a neon sign declaring, In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him.
‘I told you already,’ said Callum.
‘Hey baby, you busy?’
‘You wanna’ get high?’
‘You wanna’ fuck?’
‘What time is it, brother?’
Callum dropped the spent smoke on the sidewalk and ground it out with his boot. He sparked up another and imagined himself through their eyes: the hustlers, the hookers and pushers. He looked younger than his twenty-nine years, despite the dark two-day growth on his face. A thatch of unruly black hair cut short and a nose skewed by a couple of prime shots in the ring. A wide mouth and a funny accent, maybe Irish but not like that comedy Top-O’-The-Mornin’ brogue people put on for St. Paddy’s. Heavy black brows over affective hazel eyes that were tender or playful or flinty at the whim of his moods.
Those eyes were his greatest tell.
The cop had crossed 42nd Street and disappeared downstream among the mass of citizens heading toward Penn Station on 8th Avenue. Callum took in the parking lot opposite, Port Authority Bus Terminal diagonal, the huge Camel mural across 8th to his right, and wondered how long he could live with this noise and fury.
Amid the chaos, a beautiful woman dragged a small child by the arm toward the subway entrance where Callum stood. Her hair was darker than shadow, her skin amber under the lights of the city, like she was sculpted from gemstone. She was East Asian but looked nothing like Irene Chu. Yet her face as she swept the child into her arms pulled Callum back to Hong Kong and his estranged wife. The child burrowed her head deep by her mother’s neck and Callum felt the memory leave a cold crater in his chest as he thought of his daughter, how Tara would do the same. Tara’s hands could barely meet as they encircled his neck back then.
The mother and child passed him by on 42nd and disappeared down the steps to the subway and he felt a part of him descend with them.
Callum pulled hard on the cigarette. That was his problem – he always went hard. Drank too hard. Gambled too hard. Maybe he loved too hard, now that his family was gone. He’d blown it with them and almost blown it with his job.
And now he was in New York.
He’d been here once before, a short trip with Irene but that had been the Empire State Building, Central Park and museums. This, tonight, was low cloud crawling through midtown, the buildings monoliths scattered with pinpricks of light. Rain was close. He dropped his smoke.
He scratched his head. No one likes to watch a man murdered but Callum couldn’t duck this one, so might as well get it over with. It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen plenty of bodies. But this time, he’d watch the Chinese taxidermist’s life snuffed out while he sat with a coffee and a cigarette. As he turned to enter the subway, he checked the change in his pocket and snorted.
PRAISE FOR RAT ISLAND AND JOHN STEELE:
‘A nonstop thrill ride… a lyrical, super read filled with plenty of intrigue, action and suspense and sent against an exotic and seldom explored corner of crime fiction’ Gerald Posner
‘RAT ISLAND speeds and thrashes with the dangerous energy of the Manhattan streets which are so vividly recalled’ Gary Donnelly
‘John Steele writes with grit, pace and authenticity’ Claire McGowan
Author Bio –
John Steele was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland. In 1995, at the age of twenty-two he travelled to the United States and has since lived and worked on three continents, including a thirteen-year spell in Japan. Among past jobs he has been a drummer in a rock band, an illustrator, a truck driver and a teacher of English. He now lives in England with his wife and daughter. He began writing short stories, selling them to North American magazines and fiction digests. He has published three previous novels: ‘RAVENHILL’, ‘SEVEN SKINS’ and ‘DRY RIVER’, the first of which was longlisted for a CWA Debut Dagger award. John’s books have been described as “Remarkable” by the Sunday Times, “Dark and thrilling” by Claire McGowan, and “Spectacular” by Tony Parsons. The Irish Independent called John ‘a writer of huge promise’ and Gary Donnelly appointed him ‘the undisputed champion of the modern metropolitan thriller’.
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