by Colin Deerwood
I was surprised. Al’s sister was a real looker. Al was the oldest of twelve kids and she was his baby sister. She was still older than me. A looker all the same, the kind of dame who knows how to keep herself up. She could have been thirty-five, more like forty, and right away, from the expression on her face, I could tell what she thought of me.
She didn’t waste any time. “Jesus, Al! How many times I gotta tell ya I don’t want to meet any of your creepy friends! You tell me a nice clean cut kid I don’t expect a runaway from the morgue, a goddamn zombie, for crissakes! Look at that face! I’ve seen better faces in an ashtray!”
She had spunk, that much was obvious, and her carrot colored hair had been permed to give it that Orphan Annie look.
“Now don’t start in on him, Della. Lackland, he’s a nice guy, he’s just in a rough line of work. He’s a. . .confidential investigator, you know, a private eye. . .you stand a chance of being pushed around. . . .”
She stopped in the long shadow of the light pole and fetched a cigarette from her purse to her lips. She glanced back at Al and then at me. “This guy?” she asked in disbelief pointing her cigarette at me.
I offered my lighter and she took the flame, eyeing me as she sucked in.
“Yeah, this is the guy, like I tole ya, maybe he can help you out.”
That made her smile. She blew a ball of smoke with practiced ease. At second glance, she did have a lot of make up on, a flesh-tone paste, rouged at the cheekbones, and a sort of green grease lining her eyes. Her eyelashes were unbelievably long, and her eyebrows, much too precise and too thin.
“Yeah, maybe. . . .” The lipstick was a deep red but it didn’t altogether mask the tiny lines that indicated that those lips had been puckered to the limit.
“What’s this all about?” I wanted to know.
“I want you to find a man for me, and before you go suggesting that I look no further, the man I’m looking for walked out on me and took. . . .” She drew on the cigarette and appraised me with one eye shut. “Let’s just say he took some of my valuables and money.” She let that sink in, and then, “I don’t care about the money but there were a few items of, uh, sentimental value, and I’d like to recover them.”
I nodded my head, stifling a yawn.
Al suggested we all go have a drink and we went down into this little joint with a yellow and green neon palm tree in the window and a pale varnished bamboo interior. It was one of those places where you could order fancy exotic drinks with umbrellas in them. Too fancy for me so I ordered the usual, Al a beer, and Della something in half a pineapple when it came. The bartender was a seedy looking oriental in a Hawaiian shirt I thought I recognized from the track. He too took a long look at my mug.
It seemed that Della was more interested in getting her man back than the money or the jewelry. I was supposed to find him, find out where he’d moved to, and if he were living with anyone, female, for instance. She would take care of the rest. All she wanted to do was talk to him and she was positive she could convince him that they could work out their troubles. She sipped on the two tiny straws poking out of the pineapple and blinked her long lashes at me.
Maybe I looked like I had just fallen off the turnip truck. “You got a pair a socks or something I could use to track him down. I just feed ‘em to my bloodhounds and away we go!”
I got a cold stare. She reached into her handbag, a tiny green thing that matched her shoes and, incidentally, her eyes.
“This is the garage where he gets his roadster worked on.”
She handed me an old work order. “And he makes book in the barber shop down on Mulberry, the Italian’s”
I touched a finger to the swollen side of my mouth. “If you’ll pardon me for saying so, this guy is starting to sound like some kind of pimp.”
The green eyes glared. Al coughed nervously into his beer. I tried to smile but it hurt to move my mouth that way.
“Don’t make that any of your business, crumb. Find him, if you can, and stay out of his way because if he gets his hands on you. . . .”
The barbershop had a bell over the door that sounded when I walked in. The man in the polished hair behind the chair looked up from the array of combs in his hand. He chose one and pointed with it to the door behind me.
“Get outta here!”
“I’m looking for Eddie Cartucci. I got a message for him.”
“Wad I say? Get outta here, I doan need your kinds!” He bared his teeth beneath the dark sliver of hair on his upper lip. “Gedout! gedout!”
A couple of toughs slid through a crack in the door at the back and hunched over toward me.
“Hey, creep, you heard the man, beat it!”
I caught a look at myself in the mirror behind the barber chair as a big hand slapped my shoulder and I was spun around and lifted out through the door, my shins slammed into the concrete steps leading up to street level.
I walked to the diner down the street and over the tracks by the row of warehouses. I sat on a round stool at the counter and ordered a cup from the chef in the sweat trimmed white paper hat. He drew the coffee from the huge steamer tank like a bartender drawing a beer from a keg. The air was sweet, thick, and greasy. I’d taken a sip and passed my hand over my head to slick the hair back before I noticed him.
He pretty much matched the description I had dragged out of Della. Broad shouldered, well dressed, patent leather hair, tanned features, and narrow, mean eyes. He was leaning over the table of the booth at the far end of the diner and talking to a couple of his employees like he meant business.
By the time I tuned in, he’d changed his tone and was saying something jokey like “you’ll know how long it gets when you get it up.” One of the girls, a pale frail with a bright red smoocher, offered her cigarette for him to light. He snapped the flame to the tobacco and she blew out a puff with a knowing smile.
On the way out he gave me a sidelong glance, which immediately suspicioned me to the probability that this gent was slick enough to be checking over his shoulder, and that following him to his address would be dangerous to my life, limb, and safety. I chose a much pleasanter option.
I walked over to the booth, cup in hand.
“Buy you girls a coffee?”
The blonde with the soda took her mouth off the straw only long enough to say, “Take a walk, buster.”
The pale brunette held me with her eyes, cigarette in her hand poised by her chin, a sheer light blue neck scarf tied to one side over the shoulder.
I addressed her. “Come on, sister, nothing wrong with buying a cup of coffee for a couple of hard working ladies, is there?”
The blonde was doing the talking. “Ok, so what do you want, tough guy? Obviously we ain’t the coffee type. Maybe you think we ain’t nice girls or something.”
With that the brunette smiled her smile. It had a thrilling effect on me. I wanted to find a place for both of us to lie down and let her do her nasty stuff.
“No, no, I certainly wouldn’t think that of you ladies. I was just wondering about that friend of yours, the one who just left. He looks an awful lot like a guy I went to school with. What’s his name?”
The blonde sneered at me, the brunette still smiling. “You never went to school, fat head. What do you really want?”
I decided to play it straight and lay it on the line. What did I have to lose?
I leaned over the table and got confidential. I told them I was a private dick. That raised a chuckle. And I told them about the bump on my head. I told them about Al’s sister and about their man. They laughed at everything I said. The details had them in stitches. Pretty soon I was sitting down taking a refill from the chef, lighting the brunette’s cigarette, and making small talk with the blonde. She was interested in Al’s sister. It wasn’t inconceivable that their man was traveling with a straight woman. She wanted to know more, and we traded information in an off the cuff fashion bit by bit.
I left the diner pleased by my audacity and, best of all, with the information I wanted. I felt a little less stupid though the bruises on my face still ached and my shins smarted.
The brownstone was on the Westside and easy enough to find. So was the mug’s yellow roadster. It stuck out like a new shoe in a cobbler’s shop. I was being a sap again.
Al’s sister had me come up to her apartment after I’d called her to say that I’d got a line on her Eddie’s new address. She was sociable this time, maybe a tiny bit seductive. She didn’t object when I asked for an advance and gave me the fifty bucks I wanted. Then she smiled a smile that seemed to say everything.
“Lack, I want you to go to Eddie’s place for me. Ask him to return my things, tell him I still love him, tell him I want to see him soon, ask him to call or come by.”
I looked at the drink in my hand. Drugged? I shook my head even though that made it hurt. “That’s a good way of getting myself killed, lady, not on my life am I gonna do that!”
She didn’t blink. “I’ll add another hundred to your fee.”
I blinked. I started to think but stopped at the dollar sign. “What is it you want. . . returned? I could leave a note, you know, saying ‘Della really misses you and she wants you to call or come by or something, and by the way, I’m taking the. . .what was it again?”
“A jewelry box, a black lacquer jewelry box.” She mimed the size and shape with her hands.
“Jewelry box. Ok. Do you get my drift? I can get the jewelry box back, but I don’t particularly want to be anybody’s messenger boy.” Maybe it was the drink, but I felt dangerously close to being a messenger boy just then.
She smiled thin. “Suit yourself.”
Then I stopped in at McCauley’s to pay off my tab. The bartender asked me if I was practicing to be a wino as he took my money. I had to order another drink after that crack. I put it on my tab. And another after that. And another so that by the time I stood in front of the brownstone, my face didn’t hurt anymore, it only looked like it did.
I hadn’t sent for the ambulance, either, but there was one there, parked out front of the brownstone and flanked by squad cars of the city’s finest. There was also a fair sized crowd gathered around the entrance to the building. I weaved through the throng, easy enough in my condition, and up to the uniforms holding the on-lookers back. They were just wheeling the stretcher out followed by a couple of plainclothes guys and a blonde dame who looked awfully familiar. Then it all came together as she caught my gaze and recognized me. She was one of Eddie’s girls, the one I had entertained at the diner. Her finger was pointing at me and I knew then that that was Eddie with the sheet over his face. The thing that struck me funny was that these plainclothes cops were wearing exactly the same kind of fedora. The guy behind me was craning around me to get a better look and didn’t understand that I wanted to get back through. He didn’t like it when I shoved him, but he didn’t get a chance to shove me back. I had a hat on each arm leading me aside.
“Hey, what’s going on, boys?” I said nonchalantly.
“Let’s go downtown and talk about it,” one or the other said.
Hogan looked in on me cooling my heels in the holding tank.
“Whatsa matter, wisenheimer, vagrancy again? Or is it drunk and disorderly?”
“Murder,” and I watched his bulldog face turn to mud.
“Ya don’t say?” He had his fists on his hips, sheaf of papers in one, tie loosened around the collar, sweat darkened yoke and pits, cuffs rolled up to the elbows. If it weren’t for the revolver on his hip, you’d swear he smelled just like a parish priest. Now he was interested.
“I always took you to be dumber than that. Murder takes guts. And some smarts. You got neither.”
“Thanks, Hogan, I really appreciate your concern but don’t bother. I know you think I’m a good for nothing asshole and you’re probably right. . . .”
“Not probably, positively. What happened to your face?”
“I fell down on some guy’s knuckles or the toe of his shoe, something like that.”
Hogan was starting to bore me. He must have got the hint because he left after razing me with a long pitying look, the kind you get from the padre when you tell him you don’t care if you go to Hell.
Della didn’t answer. When I got through with the doorbell I started in on the door. I thought I heard the wood crack, but that could have been my fist. A woman in wire curlers stuck her head out the door down the hallway.
“She left about an hour ago.”
“Thanks,” I said, “I’ll bet you say that to all the boys. Wanna try for the sixty-four dollar question? Any idea where she might have gone?”
I got a slammed door dead bolt triple lock chain rattle for my answer. I cursed loud enough for the entire floor to hear. First I’d been beaten to a pulp by some no-bit hood and then set up by some ball-busting torch. I stood there on the moth eaten carpet in the hallway not knowing which one was worse. That the cops had bought my alibi was about the only bright smudge in the whole dismal chain of events.
I dragged myself down the three flights of stairs to the street below. A cold rain had begun to fall, the failing light failed even more, and me without an umbrella. I paused in the foyer before making a dash for it. The row of mailboxes caught my eye. Hers was number thirty-four. It had a little paper strip fastened to the front with “D. Street” written in a neat hand. A mother and her daughter rushed by on the sidewalk sharing an umbrella. I dug out my pocketknife and pried the box open. Advertisers, bills, a reminder from her dentist, and a pink slip from the post office that had the “article too large for box” square checked. I put everything back except for that.
I stepped out into the rain, out into the slick dark street, out in front of a yellow cab that screeched to a halt a few inches from me. I got in and gave the driver my address. He screamed at me, said he was going to strangle me, beat me to a pulp, kill me for that stunt.
“Why’d ya stop?” I shouted back. I thought his hat was going to blow off the top of his head.
“Where’d ya say, chump?” A true cabbie.
I unlocked the door to my office. It smelled wet. I figured the leak down the outside wall still hadn’t fixed itself. I switched on the overhead light. A mess, from the bed and the dingy sheets piled up in the middle like a tower of fungus, the reek of stale tobacco, garbage over spilling the can, butt crammed ashtrays on the table, to the unmistakable scuttle of tiny insects hightailing it for the shadows. I should have been disgusted but I was too preoccupied.
I had revenge on my mind and there wasn’t room for anything else. I reached under the mattress and pulled out a bundled oily rag wrapped around an old .38 Smith & Wesson with the serial numbers filed off. It was something that had come my way a few years earlier and I had stashed it away for just such a time. I dug through a box of papers on the floor of the closet. No bullets there. I went through a couple of coat pockets and found one .38 caliber bullet. Then I remembered I’d been using one to add up expenses and it was still on the table among the bottle caps and paper matches. That made two. I stood on a chair and reached my hand into the dark recesses of the closet shelf. Nothing but an old suitcase I’d all but forgotten. Full of old papers from a novel I was going to write. And yes, one lone bullet rattling around in the bottom. I had no idea how it got there.