Better Than Dead—14

by Colin Deerwood

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“Cripes, it’s the cops!”

She stared at me dreamily with incomprehension and sat up perplexed, looking down at herself as if it was something she did.

I was pulling my up pants. “We got visitors!” I said, “The cops! Outside!” Now I knew what a bucket of cold water felt like.

I could see the panic in her eyes as she jumped to the floor.

“Let’s get out of here. Is there a back door to this place?”

She was slipping into her coat, bag in one hand, setting her hat on with the other. “Yes, down the corridor and to the left!”

I found my coat and headed for the door by the hat rack. I needed a hat. Bare headed men are always too conspicuous. And I lost mine near the back entrance to Soloman’s building. I couldn’t afford to be picky but they were mostly trilbys and flat caps, a few boaters, and one lone fedora. It fit a little loose around the ears but I wasn’t going to worry about that now.

nekkerThe shadows of men halted in front of the wide display window. One of them put his nose up against the window to peer in. I recognized the nose and the face behind it. The G-man, Nekker.

Out in the hallway I followed Rebecca dashing to the rear and an alcove to the left. She threw herself at the door. “It’s locked!” she grunted in frustration.

I gaped at the large padlock and the chains. I ran back to the hallway. I could see water seeping out onto the floor from under the washroom door. It didn’t look like a federal offense. And across from it, the maintenance closet. From which I had emerged less than a week ago. It was a crazy idea and I had to go for it. If it didn’t work, we were trapped, no matter what.

I steered the kid into the closet, closing the door just as I heard flat feet flapping on the floor tiles and voices raised, commanding, announcing. The closet was dark and I felt my way to the opposite side, feeling for the handle of the door down to the furnace room.

The door creaked open onto a dark abyss. I knew there were stairs going down but I couldn’t remember how many seeing as how I had mostly crawled my way up them last time. My eyes adjust to the faint glow of light cast by the dirt encrusted window on the coal furnace hatch. Slowly I made my way down the steps made more difficult by the hat sliding down over my eyes and Rebecca’s iron grip on my arm making my balance all the more precarious. Finally I set my foot down on the cinder littered floor. It was still all but pitch black. I could see my hand in front of my face but I couldn’t tell how many fingers. I tried to remember the direction of the coalbin and took a few hesitant steps in that direction.

The noise at the top of the stairs meant that they gone into the closet. It was only a matter of time before they found the door leading down. I barked my shin against something solid but was thankful that it didn’t clatter. I bit my lip to stifle my bark. A few more steps and I touched the lateral boards of the coalbin. I felt around the front for the latch to the gate. I could now see a silver sliver glistening off a few lumps at the top of the heap, the seep of daylight coming in at the top of the chute. The gate scraped open wide enough to wrench through onto the jumble of oar. I felt her hesitate. Then voices, “Find the light switch!”

“It’s not working. Bulb must be burnt out”

“Go back to the car and get the flashlights!”

I scrambled to the top of the pile and felt for the edge of the chute. I whispered in her ear that I was going to hoist her up onto the chute and that she had to reach up to push open the hatch to climb out into the loading zone. She was willing enough and light enough to lift, and agile enough. I followed her up with a little more of a struggle. A voice shouted, “I can hear someone down here! Hurry up with those flashlights!” By then I was pulling myself out of the hatch and crawling onto the midmorning pavement at the rear of the building.

Rebecca stared at me from her sitting position next to a crate and the brick of the building. Then she started giggling.

Hysteria, I’d seen it before, under many different circumstances. Giggling, and pointing, pointing at me, now with the other hand over her mouth to catch any unladylike guffaws. “You are covered in coal dust, all over your face, and your hat!” That was apparently the funniest part of all. “Your hat is crushed, and is falling around your ears. You are like a Charlie Chaplin character! A clown!”

On second look she hadn’t made out any better wrestling with the coal chute. She had a scrape on one knee, her hat was off to one side, and she had smudges on her cheeks and her nose. Yet she gleamed like a diamond.

I leapt to my feet. “Let’s skedaddle!” And raced for the street and the narrow alleyway that ran directly opposite. It being a Saturday, the commercial traffic was light. I spotted a delivery truck pulling away further down. I raced toward it with Becky close behind. The driver hadn’t rolled down the back gate and he was going just slow enough to catch up. The large truck hesitated before turning on to the street. I  gave Becky a leg up and hopped on as the truck turned into traffic

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We abandoned ship when a passing cabby alerted the truck driver that he had a couple of stowaways. We landed a few blocks from my office on 9th. Hopper’s Diner was just around the corner and down the block. I was in a mood for some honest java and a chance to get my head around what I had to do next.

hopperscafe“They ain’t gonna think of looking for us in plain sight,” I said when she stared at the wide windows looking out on to the street. There was another couple in the one booth in the back and I would have preferred to be down there, half way out of sight, instead of perched on a stool hunching my shoulders to the street. Still I had a gut feeling that we might have eluded the G-Men and I could catch my breath. From the counter man’s mug he thought we looked a little rough.

Rebecca peered at me over her cup. “You have an eye that is blackening purple and a dark bruise on your forehead.”

“Yeah, I felt as much. Too bad you can’t see my headache. My head is throbbing like a sack full of kittens.”

“Should we go to the hospital?”

“Naw, that’s the first place they’d look for me.” What the G-Men wanted with me was an open question. Was it me? Or was it the kid? Maybe her old man? Kovic wasn’t going to let up until I was worm meat. And the others, who were they, and what did they want? “We gotta find a place to lie low. Change the way we look. I got a place nearby but I don’t want to take the chance that it’s being watched. I can’t go there.” Then it came to me. “But you can!”

I outlined my scheme. She would hide out at my place while I got a hold of Max and made arrangements to move the diamonds. Then we would have the cash to make a dash to wherever our hearts desired, including a ritzy hotel with room service. I could tell right away she didn’t like the idea.

She looked sorrowful enough, but I got the feeling something wasn’t right. “You lost the diamonds?”

“No, not Max, he is not a good diamond dealer if now he must be a pawn man. I know people, and the people I know know people, and these people will pay top rate for the diamonds. And we must also consider that by now the police have been informed that the diamonds are missing and a pawn shop is the first place they will look.”

She was right, I just naturally assumed the cops would be looking for me for whatever reason.

“Ok, you got a point. And if the diamonds are missing and you’re missing, they’re going to put two and two together and come up with you. And if they get that far, they’re gonna notice that I’m missing, too, and when they add me in, they’ll get us.” Now I had a bunch of international saboteurs on my tail to boot. And for the time being the diamonds were hot no matter how uncut they were. My ready cash had whittled down to Hamilton and his older brother, Jackson, a couple of fins, and some fish. If we were going to lie low someplace until the rocks cooled we were going to need a larger stake. And I had something I could use as collateral.

I dropped a couple of Jeffersons on the counter and pushed out the door to the street, the kid on my heels. “Where are we going?” she wanted to know.

“I got an idea,” I said as we hustled down to the corner, “we’re not gonna need those diamonds just yet.”

“Yes,” she nodded, patting the pocket of her coat. Then she stopped and patted the other pocket, and then rummaged in her bag. “Lack,” she moaned, “I can’t find the diamonds?”

“What?” I couldn’t believe my ears.

“I was certain that I had put them in my coat pocket. . .you remember, when we talked about them.”

I wasn’t remembering anything. I threw my hat to the ground and glared at her with my hands on my hips. “You lost the rocks?” I must have shouted it because a guy passing by gave me a quick look of concern. I leaned forward and growled in her ear. “You checked all your pockets?”

She fumbled with her coat. “Yes, look, the lining is ripped. It must have happened when I was climbing up the coal chute. And that pocket was the one with the hole in it.”

She looked sorrowful enough, but I got the feeling something wasn’t right. “You lost the diamonds?”

She put her hand on my arm and said with an earnestness I had to believe, “They have fallen out in the coalbin! We must go back and retrieve them!”

I was about to answer when a couple of older dames dressed up like they were just coming back from Church or a funeral brisked by. They gave me a suspicious cursory once over and then one of them reached into her purse and dropped four bits into my hat. An act of charity if it hadn’t been for the looks of pity mixed with haughty superiority.

“Right now the shop is probably crawling with feds. We’ll have to go back later. And getting past the super ain’t gonna be no picnic.”

“Lack” she said looking puzzled, “Why must you always talk about eating?”

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“I want you to meet my friend, Alice.”

Alice stood in the doorway of her small basement studio in a man’s shirt stained with paint and her pajama bottoms, blinking. “Lack, hello.” Smoke trailed up from the cigarette in her fingers

“Alice, this is my friend Rebecca.”

“Hi, come on in. What brings you around?” She pointed us to the two chairs and table by the small kitchen sink.

It had been a while since I’d been there. The last time I saw Grace was in this small apartment with its mattress on the floor and lopsided set of drawers. Not much had changed. The large table covered with large mottled sheets of paper and jars and brushes, cakes of color.

I’d had to admit my powerlessness at changing what could not be changed. Grace had made up her mind. She was moving to San Francisco. If it hadn’t been for Alice, I mighta been looking at an assault and battery rap. Ted had just died and it was tearing her up. And she’d lost it, in high hysteria, her grief so complete that it overshadowed the pettiness of our squabble, demanding all the attention. By the time she’d calmed down, I’d accepted what wasn’t going to change. I’d look in on Alice on occasion, help her out if she needed a few extra bucks. She seemed fragile but she was made of tough stuff.

I caught the kid gaping, wide eyed, fascinated, I was sure as much by the story as by the lingo it was being told in. She’d stumbled tail over teakettle down the rabbit hole into the land of the real American argot.

“I got a question about something that Ted gave me a coupla years ago.”

“Ok, have a seat. Nice to meet you, Rebecca. I’ll start some coffee.”

“I hope we didn’t come at a bad time.” Alice’s bob looked a little lopsided and she’d yawned a few times to unrumple her face.

She glanced shyly over her shoulder. “No. I stayed up late last night with some friends down at Sid’s. What did you want to ask me about?”

She’d found a couple of chipped tea cups and a hefty mug to set on the table.

“Yeah, remember that time Ted had the art show at that gallery down on 2nd Avenue? What, maybe two years ago?”

windowbox“Crane’s. Yeah, I remember. What a disaster that was. Ted got so drunk. He was celebrating the first one man show of his assemblages. He knew he was dying even then but kept it under his hat. Didn’t want to bother anyone unnecessarily” She turned from the tiny icebox. “Milk’s gone sour, but I’ve got a little honey if you want.” with a self-effacing smile that shouldered all the sorrows of the world. “What about the show?”

“There was this really obnoxious guy there, some stock broker, a money guy, and he was bad mouthing Ted’s stuff, you know, the little constructions and dioramas?”

“I remember it well. Such a phony blow hard.”

“I was ready to slap him silly and teach him some manners, but Ted let it slide. Then the guy sees one of the little boxes with the glass face and says that it is the best piece of art he’s ever seen. Or something like that.”

“That was Huddington, not a stock broker, but an art critic and dealer. A complete, pardon my French, arsehole.”

“And offered Ted, what, a thousand bucks for it right then. And Ted turned it down, said that one was from the collection of a friend, and when this guy demands to know who owns it, Ted points at me and says, ‘That guy, I just gave it to him.’

I knew I’d get Alice laughing with that story. She held the pot over my mug. “And Huddington offered you the thousand buck and you turned him down, too.”

I caught the kid gaping, wide eyed, fascinated, I was sure as much by the story as by the lingo it was being told in. She’d stumbled tail over teakettle down the rabbit hole into the land of the real American argot.

“Yeah, I knew that was Ted’s game, get even with the loud mouth, so I told him to go pack sand. But what surprised me was that when the party was over, Ted actually gave the box to me to keep.”

“I remember that.”

“And I said, ‘You’re crazy, it’s worth a thousand bucks’ and he said, ‘You’re worth more than that, Lack. Thanks for being a friend.’” I stopped because I was feeling a little heat behind my eyes.

Alice nodded, looking away as she remembered sadly, “Yeah, that sounds like him.”

“So even after I had to move out the apartment with Grace into my office, I hung on to that box. I still have it. I promised never to sell it.”

“That’s real sweet of you, Lack” and she kissed me on the cheek. I saw her wink at Rebecca. “We’re old friends.”

“So I’m wondering if that guy Huddington would still be interested in buying that box.”

If anyone could do forlorn it was Alice. And disappointed. “Probably. After he built a pyre of all his paintings and assemblages and lit them afire, what he called a bonfire of vanity, because each of them was an occasion of sin, there are probably less then a dozen people who own any of his pieces. So yeah, I’d say you could probably get more than what he’d have paid two years ago.” She narrowed her look at me and blew out some smoke. “But Lack, you said you would never sell it.”

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I felt like a rat. Alice was right. It wasn’t a new feeling. I always knew I was a rat because I had to be a rat just to get by, and doing what I did, Confidential Investigations like it says on the card, is something a rat is good at, always looking for an angle, always an ulterior motive, always considering what was in it for me. I had what some might call veneer, a tough exterior that was as persuasive as my solid good looks and native charm. I could talk the talk and I rarely had to prove it by walking the walk. But I didn’t want to have to be that kind of rat.

modelapuTed was my brother-in-law for a very short time. When I hooked up with Grace, he was already pretty sick. Alice said it was because of all the chemicals he used in his business that had got to his lungs, his brain. He refinished furniture so he could afford to work on his art. Every once in a while I helped him moving furniture he had refinished and deliver it to the customer in his old ’28 Ford when I wasn’t tracking down runaway daughters or nieces or spying on the wives of poor deluded bastards or retrieving someone’s possessions, like jewelry boxes.

We’d relax over a couple of long necks in his workshop afterwards and he’d explain to me why all the little boxes and scraps of odds and ends left over from a job and arranged in a certain way was called art. I never understood much of what he was saying, but what I did understand was that Ted liked me for who I was, the actual me, the guy who’d helped him lug a settee up six flights of stairs, not the tough guy that I wore when I was doing my job as a private dick. And the fact, that for some erroneous reason, he thought I was good for his sister.

I was going to have to think of another way of scamming some cash and finding a place to lie low. True to my rodent nature though, I had an idea of how I could use Alice and Rebecca to evade the eyes that might be watching my place, and buy me time to retrieve the rocks from the coalbin, if indeed that’s where they were.

I watched the kid take in the cramped but comfortable carelessness of Alice’s studio. The art on the walls, the sketches on the work table must have clued her.

“Oh! You are an artist!” Rebecca exclaimed and Alice joined her at the work table. “Watercolors!”

“Well, I’m not O’Keefe, but yeah. They’re not exactly a big seller like oils on canvas, but after what fumes did to Ted’s health, I don’t want any of that mess. Anyway, I get by doing department store display sketches and such.”

I could tell by Becky’s eager expression that she had a thousand questions and that  Alice was going to have a lot of explaining to do.


Next Time: Back To The Bin

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