Hours after Tito Rico's buddy Pepito Espinoza asks him for $500 to pay to a Harlem numbers runner who's been pressing him, Pepito's dead, his throat cut, and the cops think Tito did it. Well, they don't really think so, but they say they do, and turn him loose with a few vague threats. Tito runs into his violent friend Alonzo Brown in a neighborhood bar, and in no time at all the cops are talking to Tito again about a second killing, a crackhead shot in the basement of Pepito's building with Tito's fingerprints on his mail. This time, they say as they let him go, they'll be keeping an eye on him--and if they are, they watch him meet with a connection who says he got Pepito into dealing; throw his weight around in front of the Tenants Association head who'd quarreled with Pepito the night before he was killed; and shoot one of New York's finest with the cop's own weapon. ""You can imagine what a hole you're in when even the police are against you,"" says Tito sagely; with nobody to rely on but Alonzo and his trusty 9-millimeter, he's destined for even hotter water before the improbably happy ending. Newcomer Bertematti seems to be aiming for Walter Mosley in the projects, but the earnest, pedestrian voice he chooses (""He put me in a headlock and gave me the hardest punch in the face I have ever received"") is so wildly wrong for his rough-and-tumble hero that the effect is unintentionally burlesque. A halting, sincere first novel that makes you appreciate just what an achievement the Easy Rawlins stories are.