Detective Absalom Kearney took the exit for the Skyway and the Ford nosed upward, climbing with the gray asphalt. Lake Erie was frozen over far below and to her right; to her left, Buffalo’s industrial waterfront slept as quiet and still as an oil painting. The factory smokestacks rode past, even with her windshield, but not a smudge of smoke drifted up from them. The waterfront was dead, slumbering for the past three decades. When Absalom used to ride along this part of the highway with her father twenty years before, she’d sometimes hear the smokestacks keen as the storm winds hit them.
She rolled down the window. The smokestacks were silent. The squall hadn’t peaked yet.
The crest of the road was ahead, only slate-colored sky beyond. Three stories up, the Skyway was a ribbon of concrete spilled across the clouds. The wind shook the car with a guttering rattle. Abbie gripped the wheel harder.
She felt the fear grow inside her again, blooming like a growing rose in a sped-up film. She took the Skyway every time she had to go to South Buffalo instead of driving down the 90, where the highway hugged the earth all the way to the exit at Seneca Street, by the junkyard that seemed to hold the same hundred wrecked cars she’d seen there as a child. Abbie told herself she took the road above the lake because she wanted to face the thing that terrified her. Which was what, exactly?
White tendrils of snow skimmed ahead of her Ford Crown Vic, pushed by the wind. The front edge of the storm was blowing in, spinning a spiderweb of frozen lace on the asphalt. Her eyes followed them as the road rose. Endlessly intricate patterns, hypnotic to watch them form and break, form and break.
There were no cars up ahead, not a single red brake light in the tall, rippling curtains of snow. The empty highway made her think that if she moved the wheel just two inches to the right she would put the car into the railing. A lull, the bang of ice, and then water. Lake Erie in January was a freezing tomb. Death in fifteen minutes. She’d looked it up, whether to calm herself or scare herself she had no idea.
She could almost hear the snow crystals scour the asphalt. They made a rough, hissing sound that grated on your eardrums. It was like the shushing of a dogsled heading into blankness, disappearing into the advancing storm . . .
Abbie leaned and turned up the radio, which the last detective had tuned to a country station and which she hadn’t bothered to change. She found the University of Buffalo station playing some obscure eighties synth music.
When she told her partner Z about how odd she felt driving Buffalo highways, he’d asked her why. She’d brushed it off then, but now she knew. It’s the emptiness. The enormous emptiness. Or the loneliness, that was it, the feeling of being alone in a place that should be filled with other people, cars full of families headed to the supermarket, to the restaurant on the lake, to the hockey game. Buffalo had built miles of highways during the boom years, enough for a million people. The people that were going to come but didn’t. Why not? Where’d they disappear to? What happened to them?
Now the gray roads splayed across the city, empty half the time. The local joke was the only way Buffalo would get a rush hour was if Toronto got hit by a nuclear bomb and panicked Canadians came pouring south. You could drive for twenty minutes at a time at three on a weekday afternoon and not see another car pass you. The highway system was a network of veins laid across a dead heart.
But she couldn’t talk about those things, because eyes were already on her. She’d only been in Buffalo PD for a year. At thirty-one, she was already on her second police job. If she messed this up like she did Miami . . .
The radio crackled. “Detective Kearney, this is Dispatch. McDonough wants to know your ETA.”
A missing persons case in the County. Must be a family with some connection to the Department, because the missing guy had only been gone since Monday. Just two days. And the officer on scene had called in to check on Abbie’s progress, making the family think their missing son or daughter was a priority. Usually, they would just ask the family if Danny or Maura preferred crystal meth or alcohol.
She kept her eyes on the yellow line as she reached to pick up the handset. The radio was mounted far enough away to give legroom for a bigger person—that is, one of the sprawling six-foot men that the Department seemed to breed, not the average-sized Abbie. Finally, she hooked the cord with a French-polished fingernail and brought the handset up.
“Kearney to Dispatch,” she said in a husky voice. “Twenty minutes.”
She descended down the back slope of the Skyway, the lake coming up on her right and then the raggedy little marina where her father had liked to fish in the spring. Next to it were the hulking grain elevators, massive concrete silos that, like all the old mills down along the waterfront, had been empty for decades. It used to be that ships filled with golden wheat from the West would come steaming into the harbor and unload their haul. The West grew it, and Buffalo milled it. Now the companies were bankrupt and kids with Irish pug noses and no concept of mortality fell to their deaths after breaking the silo locks and climbing up the inside on the rusty maintenance ladders. There wasn’t that much else to do in the County on a Saturday night.
There’d been one just last week, a seventeen-year-old boy named Fenore who’d wanted to impress his porky girlfriend, who they found crying hysterically at the foot of the silo. Abbie had done one recovery and that was enough. The insides of the things smelled like rancid beer, and at the bottom, always the broken bodies.
Abbie had begun to think of them as sarcophagi, twenty-story vertical tombs facing out to the lake like some kind of postindustrial pyramids, the bones of the young inside. The whole city was entombed by the artifacts of its glory days.
She jumped off at Tifft Street, grinding the front wheels into a left turn, and shot off through the nature preserve.
Coming to South Buffalo was coming home, she guessed. But a little half-Irish girl from outside the neighborhood could never have been at home here, even if she’d been adopted and raised by a legendary Irish cop, the great and terrible John Kearney. Certainly not a girl with an unknown father, who’d given her a shock of midnight-black hair, what they called Black Irish in the County. And if that wasn’t enough, Harvard grads like Abbie were regarded as nothing less than two-headed aliens.
They called South Buffalo the Twenty-Seventh County, or the County for short, a patch of Ireland in the wilds of America. Blacks need not apply; strangers, be on your way; and faggot, can you outrun a bullet? Back in high school, her neighbors the Sheehans hadn’t even let that poor redheaded kid John Connell come on their porch to pick up their daughter Moira for the freshman dance. Not because he was Italian or German or, God forbid, Puerto Rican, not because he was too poor or addicted to alcohol or sexually suspect or pockmarked by acne. No. It turned out his family was from the wrong part of Ireland, Abbie’s friends patiently explained to her afterward. The Connells were from Mayo and the Sheehans were pure Kilkenny. “D’ya get it now? He’s the wrong county; the Sheehans won’t have a Mayo boy on their doorstep.” Their faces shiny with concern, emphatic that she should understand the intricacies of Irish-American dating.
“Yep,” she’d told them. “I get it now.”
Inside, she’d thought, Looks like I can forget about getting a date in high school. And she’d been right. Her raven-black hair, which was only accentuated by her pale skin and sky-blue eyes, her long-dead drug-addicted mother, and her unknown father had doomed her to a life as an outsider in the County, where ancestry was everything. She remembered the moment as the beginning of her disastrous romantic history, and probably her sharp tongue, too.
That had been in the nineties. Things were different now, people said. There were even a few blacks and Latinos sprinkled among the County’s population, though you never seemed to see them walking the streets. Maybe they carpooled for safety and conversation.
But some parts of the neighborhood never changed. The clannish logic. The hostility to outsiders. The secret, ancient warmth. The alcoholism.
As her partner, Z, said whenever someone from this part of the city did something completely inexplicable or self-destructive: “WATC.”
“We are the County.”
No other explanation necessary. Or possible.
Excerpted from Black Irish by Stephan Talty. Copyright © 2013 by Stephan Talty. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.