by Colin Deerwood
The cab took me crosstown to my lawyer’s office building. It wasn’t the best address, but these days all you need is a telephone and a listing in the yellow pages to run your operation. It was a six story brick that had seen better days, but that might have been before I was born. It had an elevator. Unfortunately, it was usually out of service.
Nothing had changed, my footsteps echoing across the chipped marble floor of the deserted lobby. An old guy in a shapeless hat and a shapeless smock sat on the shoeshine platform reading a racing form. I knew him as the elevator operator, too, from the times the elevator had been working. He looked up at me with a mournful expression, his brown cheeks as wrinkled and creased as some of the shoes he’d shined.
I shook my head. “Elevator. How long’s it been out of service?”
“Oh, couple of days, I’d say.” That’s what he’d said the last time. “Still waiting on Otis to come fix it.” That too.
“Guess I’ll have to get the top the old fashioned way.” And as an afterthought, “Seen Mr. Silver around lately?”
We both glanced at the lobby tenant board in the metal frame by the elevator door with its list of business. They were mainly garment industry offices or pattern mills, talent agents, dime magazine fronts, and booking agents who only dealt in odds. The fourth and fifth floor had been given over to sweat shops making Fifth Avenue knockoffs. My lawyer, Ralphie Silver, had the entire sixth floor to himself even though he only occupied a tiny office on the far end of the hall with a window overlooking an air shaft and the back of a building almost identical to this one.
“Not in a couple of days.” It was always a couple days with this guy.
I didn’t think much of it. Going up six flights you take your time, run into people you’d ordinarily miss if you were on the elevator. A couple of dolls who looked like they jumped off the cover of a crime magazine stepped by, the vest and shirt sleeved office weasels scurrying up and down the stairwell, always in a rush, a swell or two without a care in the world, and clots of head scarf wearing women babbling in something that just did not make sense.
By contrast the fifth floor was eerily quiet. In the past it had always been a hive of activity. I looked around before pulling open the door to the next flight up. The air hung pale gray and heavy with the smell of cotton dust. I doubted that the workers were on holiday. And a light was on, a single bare bulb, behind the frosted glass partition at the far end of the hall. Bookkeeper working late on the second set, most likely.
I was not exactly winded but I was breathing a little harder than usual when I came through the door onto the sixth floor. My mistake. The air was close, packed with the stench of an open cesspool the size of Lake Erie. I tried not to gulp but that only made it worse. There was a window on the landing. It was wide and led out to a fire escape. It looked like it hadn’t been opened in a long time, sill and casement seamlessly painted in one continuous coat of the same chipped and cracked brown. I gave the brass handles a tug and it rose surprisingly easy.
The stink roared past me as I held my hand over my nose and mouth. If Ralphie wasn’t noticing the gut churning reek, he must have a really bad head cold. He had to notice the buzzing. It sounded angry, coming from behind the door to his office which I at that moment pushed open and came face to face with a thousand thousand flies and their thousand thousand eyes. They swarmed me and then gave way as I barged through the whirring cloud and stopped at the front of Ralph Silver’s desk.
Ralphie was in the office alright, but he was going to miss that late commuter train up state. There were a couple of big bloody holes in his face encrusted with scintillating blue green bodies. And he smelled like he’d gone bad, really bad.
My mouth filled with adrenaline laced saliva, my eyes grew to the size of truck tires and my hearing sharpened enough to pick out a gnat’s fart. Flies were throwing themselves at me. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. The thumping in my ears was definitely not a gnat. It could have been my racing heart. Or footsteps padding down the hall in my direction.
I ducked behind Ralphie’s desk and wedged myself into the foot well. My hand planted in a puddle of sticky blood, my face up against the stalactites dripping from the seat of his swivel chair. I would have spewed but there was nothing in my roiling gut but the golden dew I had imbibed earlier. I tried to make myself smaller by holding my breath not that the overwhelming stench wasn’t already an incentive.
I wasn’t the only one affected. I figured there were two of them by the thudding clunk of their large shoes on the floorboards and the exchange of their words.
“Oh, that stinks!”
“I don’t see him.”
“He mustacominyere. Look behind the desk.”
“Jeez, that’s just disgusting.”
“Whadaya allofasudden squeamish?”
“Fresh I don’t mind. It’s when they start going bad.”
A shadow passed over the light from the one window in the office. “Naw, nothing here but the stiff. Let’s gedouttayere.”
“But the shine said he come up here. Unless. . . .”
“The window at the end of the hall! It was wide open!”
“Ya think he went to the roof?”
“If he did, we got him trapped. Let’s go!”
I waited till their footsteps receded and eased myself out from under the desk. The flies were happy to see me again. My palm was covered with blood and I smeared a print across the back of Ralphie’s shirt and got most of it off. I looked at the wet blob on one knee and realized I must have knelt in some of it too. I sidled up to the open door and peeked around the corner. The coast was clear. I made a dash for the stairwell. I could hear the goons clomping around on the roof above me. No time to waste I took the stairs two and three at a time practically leaping from landing to landing. When I finally rattled out into the lobby, my eyes were crazed like a rat with a cat on its tail. I glanced at the shoeshine stand and the surprised expression of the dark man next to it. I was on him in a bound. He reached into a drawer under the step-up and I knew it wasn’t for polish. I grabbed his wrist and head butted him adding another prune to my forehead. One more and I’d have a jackpot. The gat fell from his hand and clattered across the marble floor. It looked like something that might have survived the battle at Ypres. Now it was mine.
I bolted through the front door and kept my back to the bricks until I came to the corner. Two blocks over and one block down to a subway entrance. I waited for a gaggle of women from the garment factory to move across the intersection and joined them. I heard what sounded like a shout from the rooftop. I didn’t turn or react until I got to the next corner and then sprinted like a mad man for the stairs leading down to the subway, my hat still firmly on my head. If the thugs were stuck up on the roof I had a good head start, but I didn’t want to take the chance that they were the only ones on the lookout for me.
Larry Jakes lived up in the triple digits, a part of town where I stood out like a Chiclets in a box of chocolate. But it was a part of town where no one asked questions and no one gave answers, willingly at least. I could lie low.
I’d given the hoods the slip by grabbing a train heading uptown. At the next stop a downtown train was pulling in and I got off and doubled back. When the train came to a stop in the station where I had originally boarded, I scanned the platform for any sign of the mugs, and there they were as painfully obvious as a couple of sore thumbs casting mean looks around and scaring old ladies and kids. Why they thought that I might have been on a train that just pulled in was beyond me. I waited till they boarded the car behind mine and just as the doors were about to slide closed, squeezed through and back onto the platform. I took the next uptown train to Larry’s neighborhood.
Larry was an artist making his living as a sign painter. He also knocked out some pretty lurid covers for the magazine trade under a variety of assumed names. Dime Detective, all the Spicy magazines, Black Mask, you name ‘em, they all bought his cover art. He specialized in buxom half-dressed blondes and square jawed ham fisted brutes with blazing irons.
He took one look at me standing in the doorway and ushered me into his studio. “Sit, sit over here under this light.” He pointed to the bruise under my eye. “That’s exactly the color purple I’ve been looking for!” Excitedly he grabbed a palette and brush and began mixing up colors on the spot. “Not as dark as plum and not quite maroon. Ok, needs a little yellow. Man that is ripe!” He grinned at me. “Wait, this is too good, I’m going have to sketch you right now. Oh, and those welts on your forehead. That one looks like it’s casting a shadow. Don’t move now. I need to get that color just right.”
Larry was West Indian, a tall cinnamon colored man with a polished dome offset by a dark beard and a wide big lipped smile. His lively brown eyes flicked across my face translating what he saw onto the pad in his hands. He spoke like a limey which was a reminder that he was an educated guy. Why he moved to this country to be treated like mud I could never figure. But he’d proven himself a good friend in the past and I needed his help to stay out of sight.
“Good to see you, too, Larry.”
Larry’s studio was on the second floor above a down home eatery known as The Bull Weevil. He let me flop on a cot in a room facing the street. At night I could look down from the window and see the flickering green and orange neon outlining the image of a boll weevil with the rack of a Texas Longhorn. Larry had designed the sign for Mavis “Ma” Stubblefield, the proprietor and cook. On weekend nights the swinging sounds of Kansas City jazz drifted out to the lively street from the back of the place. I was tempted to join the revelers but I knew I had to stay invisible until I figured my next move. On the other hand, it was hard to resist Ma Stubblefield’s inch thick fifty cent steak not to mention the mountain of mashed potatoes and greens that came with it.
I’d cleaned myself up a bit in the last couple of days. I was still trying to get used to my map without the ‘stache. Even Larry had objected, and when he finished up the sketch of my mug, he penciled it in. I scanned the daily blat for any hint that my lawyer’s corpse had been discovered, but if it had, it wasn’t deemed newsworthy.
I looked up to see Ma standing by my booth with a tin pot of coffee. “More coffee, sugah?” and when I nodded to the affirmative, she said, “Your steak’ll be along in a minute.” I thanked her and waited for her to top off my cup with scalding java.
The Bull Weevil was also a hangout for students from the University across the parkway. For that reason I wasn’t the only face in the joint though the way I was dressed in my natty new tweeds I might have been mistaken for a professor. I looked the part, a professor in the school of hard knocks.
They were a noisy lot slinging their slang like it was their own private language. It was difficult not to eavesdrop though I wasn’t always sure of what they were saying.
“I just got back from a clam bake on the island and it was a real ring-a-ding-ding. . . shine your lamps on this brownie she gave me. . .Murder, she’s a pip! I wouldn’t mind making whoopee with her. . .does she have a sister? I have to get this kitten on the blower. . . She’s only like that when she’s guzzling the giggle juice. . .save your breath, she’s a gold digger. . .a walking clip joint, she only wants to see the color of your kale. . .yeah, well I’m so beat I can’t even afford dog soup besides I’ve been burning the midnight oil I’m so far behind on the grind and any more minuses on my grades and the old man’ll drop me like a bad habit. . .she cost me a sawbuck and I only got to nuzzled her neck. . .and I thought she was a classy twist. . .that’s got to be some expensive whiff, pally.”
I dropped a couple of buffalos on the table next to my empty plate after I paid the bill.
“Prez in town,” Ma said from behind the counter. “He might drop by after hours for a session, him and some kids from Kansas City.”
She knew I was fond of the man in the pork pie hat. But the kids. I’d heard them before. They were a little wild for my tastes. “I’ll be there,” I lied setting my hat on my head and pushing out the door to the street. I lit up and dropped the match to the gutter. I’d been going over my options and a gut full of food got me thinking straight. I had a plan.
The street lights blinked on and cast different shadows on the backs of shopkeepers locking up. I stood under one such beacon and read the address on the scrap the tailor had given me. It was further uptown in a posh district I didn’t often have the occasion to visit. To avoid the gendarmes in that neck of the woods a cab would be necessary. And it wouldn’t be cheap. The postal notice I had squirreled away at the cocktail lounge would stay put until a time when the post office was open. The other option was Yamatski’s place. The way the tailor had reacted when he read the hocus-pocus in the address book gave me the idea that there was more to the scribble gobble then he let on. I had considered availing myself of an inventory of Yamatski’s possessions from the start. Maybe locate that tome of hundred dollar bills or something close in value. My rates as a private investigator are reasonable but double cross me and suddenly they’re sky high. And I had yet to feel fully compensated. Yamatski’s digs also had the advantage of being close to the subway line.
I stepped down into the lighted tiled pit and stopped at the bottom of the stairs. It wasn’t the beat cop leaning on the lip of the token kiosk yakking with the guy in the cage so much as the fellow in the fedora nearby, shoulders hunched to his ears, giving the fag end in his mouth the benefit of his breath that made me do an about-face. In my business someone like that might as well have been wearing a sandwich board with “I’m a mug” painted in bright red letters all over it. Maybe I was being overly cautious. Could it be that Kovic’s apes had all the subway stations under surveillance? They’d been waiting for me to turn up at Ralphie’s office so they probably figured I wasn’t feeding the fishies at the bottom of the East River. Maybe Yamatski’s body had washed up some place and they were figuring to even the score. I considered a list of other maybes including maybe I should go back to lying low or even skipping this burg and lighting out for someplace that wasn’t so hot. All that consideration had brought me to Broadway where I hailed a cab. It was dark by then and I kept my hat pulled down around my ears and the collar of my coat up around my chin. If the subways were being watched, the word was probably out to all the cab drivers. All I needed now was a green scarf to pull over my nose and I’d be nothing but a shadow.
The massive brick apartment building anchored the block at the corner of the intersection where the cabbie let me off. Further down the avenue, the entrance to the address I’d been given was shaded by a couple of elms not that there was need for shade at that time of evening. The whole block was treelined and kept smart befitting the swells out strolling with their pet terriers. A couple of places had awnings and guys in uniform paid to hold the door open for you. And the heaps parked at the curb looked like they spent most of their time in a garage waiting to be polished by the chauffer. I tripped up the marble steps and into the foyer through a fancy grilled double door with a big brass door handle. The place smelled of wood polish and floor wax. A little bald headed guy in a tie, vest and pinstriped pants stepped out of a door just inside the lobby with a newspaper in his hand, cheaters resting on the tip of his nose. He looked at me with a cant of his head and a fist on each hip. Obviously I wasn’t a tenant and the paradiddle on my map made him frown. I showed him the address the tailor had given me and told him I was there to see the rabbi about Cyril. That made his frown deeper and his mouth purse like he’d just tasted something sour. He stepped back into his cubby hole and I heard the stutter of the dial as he made the call. The talk sounded like yid. Live in this city long enough and you can recognize yid from kraut or any other non-native yammer. When he came back out he uptilted his chin and spoke. “Third floor, apartment three” but the way he said it, it sounded like “turd florr, aparrtement tree.” A polished mahogany banister curved up to the mezzanine and then accessed the broad stairway up. It was a well-kept joint, no doubt about that. The carpets on the stairs and the well-lighted hallways were stain free, thick and cushioned. Apartment Three had a shiny little brass numeral on the door just above the peep hole. I rapped my knuckles on the oak and adjusted the knot on my tie.
She was a narrow dame in a black dress with a white doily around the neck line, not exactly Elsa Lancaster in the Bride of Frankenstein, but a cause for the shivers all the same. She had the kind of severe pale face and cavernous eyes that made you want to say sorry wrong number and hang up even though you weren’t on the telephone. Her hand reached for my card like the claw of a predatory bird as I introduced myself and repeated the bit about Cyril. She stood aside and let me pass into the apartment, closing the door behind. Once inside, the dim lighting and the somber shades of brown and shadow, the lingering smells of an unfamiliar menu, I knew I was in a different world, and the little hairs at the back of my head were looking for a place to scram.
Maybe I’d come at a wrong time. I walked past the dining room and noticed it was set up for a meal. I followed Olive Oyl into the smoking parlor where there was a congregation of somber men in suits standing or sitting around an old guy with a pile of white whiskers and a black beanie on the back of his head. They all turned to give me the once over. No one said anything. And for once the cat had got my tongue. From a cluster of bent elbows on the other side of the parlor I recognized the tailor who came toward me smiling and nodding his head.
“Ah, you’ve come. I thought you might have forgotten.” And again admiring his handy work, “That suit is a perfect fit for you, yes, yes.” He worked his mouth as if he were chewing his words working up to say something else complimentary. An older guy with white streaked temples, a Herr Doktor goatee and a stub of a cigar in his hand cleared his throat. At least that’s what it sounded like. Maybe he said something because the tailor suddenly stiffened and allowed a worried look to cross his face.
He spoke to the cigar man deferentially. They were words I didn’t understand though I did get the drift that they were about me. It wasn’t difficult to see that they were about me as every pair of eyes was glommed onto me like bubble gum under a theater seat.
Now the cigar guy gave me the real once over. He spoke to me through a veil of phlegm. “You have something for Rabbi Joseph to see?”
“Yeah, some kinda gobble de gook I ain’t been able to figure out.” I gave them the benefit of my dumb Yank pose. “Your rag cutter here said maybe the old guy might be able to read it.” I reached into the inside pocket of my suit coat. It was like it was contagious because every shmoe in the parlor did the same thing though I figured they weren’t reaching for a slip of paper. I handed the page over to mister cigar who stared down at it, turned it over, and then looked back up at me and then over my shoulder at the tailor with a glare.
“This is all, one page? You’re bothering the rabbi with one page?”
The old guy who was obviously Rabbi Joseph had a smile like an idiot, rheumy eyes in inflamed sockets, and a set of square spectacles on a healthy honker and seemed to be oblivious to our conversation.
I shrugged. “Yeah, one page, what’s the problem? You don’t think he can read it?” I wasn’t a complete fool. No need to tip my whole hand. Judging from the tailor’s initial reaction the doodles might be worth something and I needed to get a fix on their value.
Now it was the tailor’s turn to get agitated. “You had a whole book, an address book, yes?” He eyed me suspiciously and everyone else in the room, except the rabbi, did the same.
“Oh, yeah, but I didn’t bring it with me,” I lied. “I mean, what if the old gent can’t read it. You ain’t my only option, you know. I got a friend works at the Metropolitan knows a guy who can read off the wall writing like that.”
While we talked the old rabbi had taken the page and looked it over. He turned as white as his beard and moaned before his chin dropped to his chest.
Everyone was looking at me like I’d just ordered a ham and cheese in a kosher deli. A phalanx of roly-poly women in headscarves and aprons rushed into the den, their hands to their heads, wailing. Among them was the tailor’s daughter. She wasn’t roly or poly. I caught her eye and she looked away quickly. One of the older women gently slapped the rabbi’s cheeks and spoke his name insistently. The rabbi came to as if he were struggling out of the clutches of something grabbing at him. His eyes snapped open with a fixed resolve and a sigh of relief, breeze-like, passed through the room.
Now that the little drama had simmered down the gent with the pointy chin beard bent stiffly to the rabbi’s ear. The women had filtered out through the crowd of suits like cigarette smoke. The rabbi nodded a couple of times and pointed to the torn page in his hand.
I’d ripped that page out randomly as I’d approached the apartment door and stuck the address book down the back of my pants. Now that I looked around the room I realized I was going to have to have an ace in the hole, or close to it, and I was glad that I did. You could cut the hostility and fear with a razor and only nick it, that’s how thick it was. I gave them the what-for back and that seemed to work for most of them. A couple still glowered and sidled over to box me in while adjusting their muscles.
Pointy beard called the tailor over and said something that caused the tailor to nod a few times in quick succession and then say something long and involved while referencing the address book page. Then they turned their attention to me, even the rabbi, one eye a large milky marble, and stared me down. At that the stuffed suit gave me a big phony smile and held out his hand apologetically. “Mr. Ask, of course, please excuse this unfortunate incident.” As I shook his hand he added, “The rabbi is an old man. It is not unusual.” He put his arm around my shoulder in a companionable way at the same time. “Why don’t we adjourn to the study and discuss this piece of paper? The rabbi will be joining us shortly.”
The study turned out to be a room with shelves to the ceiling and on just about every wall that didn’t have a window or a door and stacked both vertically and horizontally with an assortment of books squeezed into every available space, and, along with those books, years of accumulated dust. I sneezed. Pointy beard threw a frown that growled in my direction and then placed a finger alongside his nose before turning his back to me to make what sounded like spitting. A large map was draped across some of the shelves. I looked at it and didn’t recognize the location but then I was never big on geography. I figured it wasn’t upstate or down in the tidewaters mainly because the names were written in the same cockamamie alphabet as Yamatski’s address book. Little flags were stuck on various locations. It was probably ‘over there,’ as the doughboys used to say.
“Mr. Ask, I must beg your pardon. In all the confusion I neglected to introduce myself.” He made a little bow, bringing his heels together. “Doctor Soloman, Abraham Soloman.” He made his way behind the large cluttered desk and opened a fancy box and pulled out a fresh Havana. He didn’t offer me one, but then I was partial to smaller amounts of tobacco wrapped in white paper. When he finished preparing the torpedo, he lit it with a flame that belonged on the Statue of Liberty. It was his move so I waited, taking in more of the library and figuring that this was a place where some kind of planning was done by the table off to one side cluttered with an assortment of more maps.
Soloman cleared his throat and started in with how bad things were across the Atlantic what with Herr Moustache and Mister Loony stirring up trouble. It wasn’t anything I didn’t know about from the newsreels at the movie theater. Of course newsreels were the perfect time to get popcorn before the main feature. He went on and on and I was starting to get a hankering for salt and butter. Maybe even a nickel soda and a pocket half pint. He must have seen that he was losing me because he aimed a question at me.
“Have you ever heard of the Black Hand, Mr. Ask?”
I shook my head. “I’ve heard of Black Mask, the detective magazine.”
He made a face like he’d just tasted something awful and it made his pointy beard shift off to his left. “Mano Negra? That is not familiar to you? Or” and he said a name that rhymed with ‘shirt’ “as it is known to them.”
“You got me looking on all counts, doc. Nary a one rings a bell.”
Soloman smiled and indicated the map on the bookshelves with his cigar. He puffed himself up with the authority of what he was about to tell me and strode from behind the desk like a professor from behind a lectern. He tapped a place on the map with a fat finger. “Here, in these hills, live bandits, kidnappers, criminals, smugglers, extortionist. They have led this way of life for centuries, millennia even.”
I groaned inwardly. I was reminded of Miss Peabody’s history class and how she would whack me with her pointer whenever I dozed off. I could feel my eyelids getting heavy already.
“Here in this harbor city,” he said pointing to a small dot marked by a flag “is a peaceful community of merchants who have lived here in prosperity and peace just as long as the bandits have lived in the hills. In the past there have been the isolated kidnappings or robbery of unwary merchants. A wise man knew how to stay out of their clutches. Only the foolish and greedy would take the chances that would attract the attention of these bandit clans.”
I’d put my hand up to my mouth to stifle a yawn. If this kept up I was going to need a stiff shot of something to keep my mind from wandering.
“Recently,” Soloman droned on, “the bandits have become more brazen and are now robbing people in their sleep or even worse kidnapping children and demanding ransom with the threat that if the ransom is not paid they will sell them into slavery, or worse, to the Nazis.”
I was wondering when the main feature was going to begin when he held up the page from the address book. “This belongs to someone connected with the Black Hand and the bandits in these hills. They are smuggling the gold and jewels they have stolen into this country. I believe that the address book in your possession could be the key to uncovering this smuggling operation and recovering the property of those who have been robbed. It is written in Cyrillic and in code but I think we can determine the names and locations of their operations. Once we have that information, we can turn it over to the authorities.”
I was catching the drift. What I had was valuable. And Soloman and crew wanted it. I was not too overly convinced about the last part, about turning the information over to the cops. That seemed counterproductive. But then I was distracted. The tailor’s daughter and Rabbi Joe leaning on her arm had just entered the study.