A Detective Story—1

by Colin Deerwood

Lackland Ask is the name.  ‘Lack’ to my friends, ‘Don’t’ to those who think they’re funny. You might have seen my portrait on the cover of Black Mask, the crime fiction magazine. This is my story.  It starts with a blonde.  This kind of story always starts with a blonde.

I was wearing my only suit, a barely stylish, casual lapel pinstripe black coat over a high vest and loosened at the neck a small knot red, blue and gold school tie.  The frayed cuff of my white shirt at my left wrist nudged the square crystal of the watch held there with an alligator hide strap. That hand rested casually half out of the pocket of the matching pinstriped trousers.  My other hand held a police special, finger on the trigger, pointed in the general direction of the sawdust and dirt floor.

I let go with a single round. It shattered the calm of the tumbledown roadhouse where I had stopped in for a mint julep. All they had was sipping corn.  It also disturbed the concentration of the two hayseeds whose hands were doing a thorough job of roaming all over the pink parts of the blonde in the black spaghetti-strap dress.  They turned their heads, hands poised, to look at me with sorrowful puzzlement.

“You’re a dead man,” I said evenly.

I twitched a corner of my thin, neatly trimmed moustache and drew my left hand out.

They were real attentive to the meaning of my thumb and scurried sideways into the mismatched collection of barrel stave tables, chairs, and benches

I moved my slick combed head just enough to let the blonde know what I wanted.  “Now you and I will take a ride.  Chevy coupe, out front.  Get in it.”

She stared at me, uncomprehending.  I emphasized with my thumb.  She clutched her small black handbag to her breasts and brushed past me.

The bartender looked like he was trying to decide whether to make a foolish move with something from under the bar.

“You’re a dead man,” I said evenly.

He froze and I stepped away, keeping the pistol in front of me, waist high, still pointing toward the floor.  I indicated the dollar bill next to my empty glass.  “Buy these gents a drink on me.”

I gave them the benefit of one of my smiles, lips over bared teeth.  Their mouths gaped like the knees of worn overalls.

I stepped sideways in three steps and was out the door to a gray evening in early May, North Carolina, just outside of Raleigh.

The blonde was sitting in the passenger’s seat.  She thought she was being nonchalant looking at her face in a hand mirror and passing a puff over her cheeks. Getting in on the driver’s side I caught her knees trembling.

I fit the key in the ignition and turned the machinery on, working the gas.  The yokels had obviously decided to have that drink.  In gear, up on the clutch, and gravel spewed out from under the rear wheels to pepper the tin siding like buckshot.

I was listening to the engine purr as it lapped up the macadam and glanced over to see her clutching the purse nervously to her lap.  My hand to the dash radio made her flinch.  I tuned in one spark of reception after another but out in the wet green hills, no signal had the strength to be heard, not even the high powered stations from Memphis or West Virginia. Music might have relaxed her, dispelled her fears, soothe the savage breast.  She must have had an inkling of who I was, what I was doing, and where I was taking her.  It couldn’t have been the first time. I figured I should answer her unasked questions

She beat me to the punch.  “Who do you think you are?”

I reached inside my jacket and slipped out the faux gold cigarette case, placing it on the seat between us.

“Relax.  Have a smoke.”  I thumbed the catch and the case snapped open revealing the cigarettes, Luckies, the reefer I had rolled especially for her, and my card.

She weakened visibly when she caught sight of the brown paper cigarettes.  “Who are you?  Anyway.”

“Go ahead, light up.”

She snaked a red nailed hand out to the case, and paused, curious, a finger on my card.     She read it silently, and with an uncomprehending smile, the flip of her blonde hairdo bobbing, half asked, “Lackland Ask, Confidential Matters Investigated?”

The green and chrome point of the Chevy coup ate up the gray ribbon of roadway on its way back to the Bad Apple.

She was the boss’s daughter.  The boss was a stubby Serb by the name of Yan Kovic with crossed green eyes and a shiny pink bullet for a head.  He liked to be called “Yan-kay” by his warts and wiseguys. Like that was supposed to make him sound more American. He was a small caliber hood in the way of a lot of smarter, more ambitious Italian punks.  His kid was just another worry.

I gave him my account of how I had traced his daughter to Raleigh and her slick talking country boyfriend who had just thrown her over for the deputy sheriff’s spit-curled waitress.

“You waste da punk like I telling you?”

“Yeah, he’s dead.”  I didn’t bother to add that the deputy had done the job for me with a double barrel shotgun.

He folded his hands on the desk in front of him.  I watched his knuckles go white.

He nodded his skinhead.  “Good, good.”  A finger called over one of his Polish sausages, a washed out, pimple faced blonde with dumb eyes and a white tie over a black shirt.

“Give to Mr. Ask, Confidential Matters Investigated, his fee,” he laughed with a cough.  “A C-note, was it not?”

I tapped a Lucky on the cigarette case, fit it to my lips and lit it.  I said, “Yeah,” let the smoke out, and turning my attention to “Yankee’s” kielbasa. I watched him reach inside his suit coat, a garish mauve with pinstripes, and extract a long black leather wallet.  He folded it open and I caught a glimpse of the sheaf of bills.  That much money made me nervous. His large fingers flicked through the stack expertly and shoved a crisp specimen in my direction. The sight of Ben’s likeness in the oval hypnotized me.  I reached for it and it fluttered, just missing my fingertips, towards the plush red pile of the carpet under my feet. I crouched to catch it before it landed.  As I did, I realized my mistake.  The red pile exploded into blackness against my cheek.

I didn’t like groaning out loud.  But I couldn’t help it. The lump at the base of my skull throbbed in pain.  I should have been dead.  The Polack was a stupid careless son of a bitch and he didn’t have long to live.  I’d come to that conclusion over the last five hours since I dragged myself out of a ditch upstate.  A good Samaritan, I didn’t get his name, dropped me off at my rooming house.

The Polack was going to die very simply because I was going to kill him.

I let my head fall forward. It didn’t hurt any more or less in that position. My forearms across my thighs, I stared at the butt and ash stuffed saucer next to the ringed tumbler and the stained coffee cup on the otherwise cluttered table. I’d given the cleaning woman the month off and she’d taken a year.  I splashed more rotgut against the sides of the tumbler and knocked it back.

The Polack was going to die very simply because I was going to kill him.  First, I had it all planned out. I’d burn his ape and relieve him of his bank roll and then I’d split the Slav’s melon.  My reward would be an extended vacation in some place like Chile.  I heard they had a climate just like California down there.  It was an ideal place for a gringo with cash, that is if you didn’t mind Christmas coming in the middle of summer.

I felt around in my jacket pockets for the pack of Luckies I hoped would be there.  My luck was still breaking bad.  Not a smoke left and it was five blocks to the all-night deli, five blocks I wasn’t going to make easily.

I’d gone to a lot of trouble finding that slate-eyed hophead kid of his.  He was real small time for that trick.  It steamed me.  I knew the jerk wasn’t worried about a measly hundred clams. He had just wanted to show off that he was still a tough guy to his troops, show them the old general still had it in him.

Fatal mistake.  They should have made sure I was dead.  I’d be doing the younger hoods a favor.  I could charge for it but this one was going to be on the house.  Besides, I don’t like doing business with wiseguys.  I don’t like their ethics.

I stood up but sat back down.

Sipping my supper in a little dive on the edge of Chinatown, I went over my finances. A broken ten spot: a fin, four fish and change.  The prospect of what I had to do to get more was competing with the dull throb at the nape of my neck.

My pal Al worked in the kitchen. The wrinkles on his brow made steps up to his receding hairline.

“You don’t look too good, Lack.”

He was a little rat of a guy.  The sleeves of his dingy grease stained white shirt rolled up to his elbows showed off the graffiti of tattoos up and down his forearms.  There was an unusually elaborate round design just below the crook of his left elbow that always got me wondering.  Next to the palm trees, martini glass with naked woman as olive, assorted half clothed shapelies, parrots, and slogans, the emblem was real artwork.  When I asked him about it once, he had just shrugged and said that it was something he’d got one night when he was drunk. In Bombay. Or Calcutta.  Some place exotic I’d never visit.  It wasn’t the kind of answer I was expected to believe but I knew that was all I was going to get.

He pulled himself up on the stool next to mine.  He ogled the gash over my eyebrow.  “Take a fall?  Or maybe you was tripped.”

I nodded and set the glass to my lips.  The alcohol still stung where my lower lip had been forced against my teeth by a knee or a shoe.  It brought back the moment in a series of painful images and I almost whimpered remembering.

Al was good at reading expressions.  “I tol ya before, if ya ever needed any muscle, ya should come see me.  I ain’t too big myself, but I got friends, connections.”

I began to tip backwards but Al grabbed my arm and I opened my eyes.

Once I pressed him on who his connections were but he changed the subject saying, “Don’t ask about it until ya really need it, kid.”

“No, this is something I’ve got to take care of myself.” I said.  I watched myself say it in the mirror behind the bar.  The right side of my face was puffed up and that corner of my moustache turned slightly upward.  It wasn’t the way I ever wanted to look.  I touched it gingerly and closed my eyes. Even the dim interior made them ache and water.  Or maybe it was the damn incense.  The whiny music really got to you, too, if you closed your eyes and had a few drinks.

I began to tip backwards but Al grabbed my arm and I opened my eyes.

Madame Chi was standing behind the beaded entrance to the backroom.  She wasn’t smiling.

“I gotta get back to work, Lack,” Al said in a whisper, “whydoncha come back ‘round midnight when I get off work?  I wancha should meet my sister.”

He gave me one of those smiles that showed me he wasn’t wearing his choppers.

I killed some time at a movie house in midtown that ran three features continuously.  One was a grade B white hat western I just caught the end of. . .riding off with a wave over the shoulder while the gal’s left behind with an empty feed bag and a yearning in her heart.  Then I dozed through a Robinson cops and robbers, tuning in and out from one dream to another.  Finally I was awakened by the unmistakable sound and smell of someone getting sick off of a sweet wine drunk.  Sailors on shore leave, kids playing hooky from night school, maybe.  I didn’t stick around to find out.

The lavatory was one flight below street level and reeked, dimly lighted.  A few seedy characters shuffled around in front of the half dozen splotched urinals and looked out from the corners of their eyes appraisingly.  I threw some water on my battered burning face and tried to shake the tired throb out from behind my eyes.  Even the water seemed repelled by my mug and dripped from my cheeks in huge greasy drops.

An old black man in a battered sea captain’s hat had come in behind me.  Now I saw him in the mirror looking at me, the pockets of his gray smudged smock bulging with rags, brushes and polish cans.  He had his weight on one foot, frame and face like a burnt wood match. The shoeshine man emitted a low whistle as I brushed past him, his brow furrowed with obvious concern.  “You shoulda seen the other guy,” I told him.

My stomach growled, unashamed.  Then it did a backward flip at the whiff of cheap cologne.  A groper.

I decided to try another part of the theater, away from puking teenagers or swabbies, and settled in a seat in the middle of the middle row, no one in close proximity.

I focused on the large black and white images flickering across the big screen.  Walter Brennan pours a drink for buckskin clad Gary Cooper and some of the redeye slops over and eats a hole in the bar top.  The image directly passed on to my stomach where nothing resembling food had made an appearance in twenty-four hours and blistered a hole in my empty gut, too.

Just about then I detected the scent of fresh popcorn and the not-so-subtle displacement of air as someone sat in the seat next to mine.  My stomach growled, unashamed.  Then it did a backward flip at the whiff of cheap cologne.  A groper.

I tried to keep my focus on the screen but caught myself nodding off, drool trickling over the rim of my swollen lip.

The next thing I knew I had a lap full of popcorn.  Then an earful of sour breathed apologies as he made to brush the spill onto the floor.  He bent forward, his hand stopping on my leg.  I jammed my elbow into his face, suddenly wide-awake.  The adrenalin pumped through me.  I could hear him choking and sobbing.  I had easily broken his nose. I imagined him inhaling blood as I burst out into the exploding neon night of midtown.

Next Time: Meet Al’s Sister