by Colin Deerwood
I couldn’t let on to Alice about my swim in the East River and the address book that was worth a Bull Durham sack full of diamonds or that Mister K had put price on my head and that international saboteurs were after me because Rebecca stole from the diamond dealer in whose apartment a gun battle had occurred and whose father was a bombmaker without sounding like something out of a men’s magazine. I was having a hard time believing it myself.
Rebecca’s giggle said they were going to be good friends. Alice looked over her shoulder at me. And smiled.
I smiled back nipping at the java. “You’re right, I couldn’t sell the art Ted gave me. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ll just have to figure some other way to go on the lam.”
“Sure, Lack.” She’d started another cigarette and let the smoke drift from between her lips. “But if you kids need a place to hang out for a while, that’s alright with me.”
We were kids now. “I’m going to need some things from my, uh, office but I can’t go there myself.”
“Maybe you and Becky can go over there and pick up an item for me.” The item I had in mind was a battered leather satchel, what I thought of as my “getaway” bag. If things got too hot or too dicey I could beat feet out of town and make myself scarce. In the bag were a pair of woolen slacks, a change of underwear, a denim shirt, some well-worn kicks, and a heavy overcoat for when the nights get chilly in the back of a cross country bus. In the lining of that heavy coast was pinned a one hundred dollar bill, my “getaway” money. Alice didn’t need to know that detail.
The bag was in a corner of the closet under a pile of newspapers and dime magazines. I said they might have to move stuff around to find it. I gave Alice the key.
“Someone got into my room about a week ago and tossed the place. I haven’t been back since. That’s why it’s probably a mess.”
“That’d be different,” Alice quipped. She’d been to my office before.
“And don’t let Curtis see you because I’m a little behind on my rent.”
“That pervert!” Alice tucked her shirt into her pajama bottoms and slipped into some Mexican sandals. “Come on, Becky, I’ll show you how it’s done on the West side.”
Becky pranced like an eager pony that made Alice grin. Then she snapped her fingers. “Why didn’t I think of that in the first place!” Her eyes widened with her really good idea. “My friend. Lee. She has a loft on the top floor.” She pointed up to make sure I knew the direction. “She went out West to visit her boyfriend’s parents. In Wyoming.”
Rebecca’s eyes grew almost as wide as Alice’s, savoring the exotic word. “Wyoming,” she repeated.
“She won’t be back for a couple weeks. She asked me to water her plants and feed her cat! It’s perfect. You’d have your privacy.”
“No, no, it’s nothing like that.” I could feel the flush of my face.
My embarrassment was funny to them. I stopped them at the door. “Oh, and see if I’ve got anything in my mailbox. I’m expecting bills but there might be a check in among them.”
Alice looked annoyed. “Do you have a key?”
I shook my head. “Naw, just use your hairpin.”
The guy stood out like a tack on a marble floor, behind the wheel of an old Plymouth, hat pulled down over his eyes, sleeping, or pretending to be. Could have just as well been a copper as a mug. I’d tailed Alice and Becky. They were too busy getting acquainted to notice me.
I left my perch from a doorway down the street from my building and headed in the opposite direction. At the next corner, a prowl car was pulled over in front of a fire hydrant. A couple of fedoras were leaning down to the open window. The low sun was just breaking through the clouds and made me wince with its bleak intensity. By the time I got back to Alice’s, my eyes were watering like the wind had swept motes into them. I ducked down under the stoop entrance just as the beat cop came sauntering by. Someone called out a greeting from across the street and he gave a jocular reply.
I let myself into the studio, a space I was not unfamiliar with. Alice had a little brown Bakelite radio with an amber square panel parallel to the speaker grill off to one side of her worktable and I turned the knob to break the silence. Rapid recitation of stock averages. I twisted the dial. String music. A man talking about saving his soul and anyone else who had the faith and the money. There was an installment plan. The end of the stock report and news on how hostilities on the continent blah blah blah Precedent Roosterfelt et cetera et cetera, conscription of young men, and so on. The strings won and the crescendos were easier to take than the words I was hearing. News of a proposed draft was not at the top of my list of happy.
Alice’s place wasn’t exactly a dump, as if I should have been talking. It was a brick and plaster box with a tiny sink and a hot plate. A curtain half concealing Alice’s unmade bed raised on bricks and lumber pilfered from a nearby construction site cut the room by a third and certainly did not making it any less cramped. Neat is not a word I would use to describe Alice. Stacks of paper with sketches and daubs of color. Portraits she’d sketched at nearby restaurants and cafes and in the neighborhood park strung like laundry to dry. I recognized the automat in the background of one of them. Just a few precisely placed brush strokes and ink lines caught it all. There was a large portrait of Ted framed on one wall, kind of a shrine with a tiny votive candle as well as stray articles of intimate clothing under it. No telling what Alice might be doing in her sad all alone. Ted seemed more alive in Alice’s rendering than he’d been in person, cigarette in hand, smiling ruefully. It was the eyes, they seemed to sparkle.
I thought I heard a noise. The coffee had somewhat done the trick and I was barely paying attention to the clanging going on between them. It could have come from behind the small ice box next to Ted’s portrait, a rat or maybe just the old building settling further into its foundations. I turned to see the doorknob move with a click and Alice and Becky walking in.
“I didn’t know you liked classical music.” Alice said setting down the brown satchel.
“Tchaikovsky!” Becky exclaimed although it sounded like a sneeze. She handed me my mail.
“We ran into that creep Curtis when we were leaving.” Alice was digging through the drawers of her dresser under the portrait of Ted. “I told him that we had a bag for you but you weren’t in your apartment, which, by the way, is a picture perfect disaster zone.” I noticed Becky wrinkling her nosy at the unpleasantness of the experience. “He didn’t say anything about the rent. Probably because he was too busy ogling your ‘sister’.” Alice indicated a beaming Becky with a nod of her head. “From Wyoming.”
Becky nodded in assent. “I love to say the word. ‘Wyoming’. A place whose name poses a question. I must learn what is this oming.”
Alice laughed a shriek. “Probably something Buddhist, honey!”
My mail consisted of an ad from a dry cleaner and laundry, two return-to-sender letters that I had mailed to Grace on the West Coast and which now had returned with their refusal to acknowledge my attempts to communicate, a familiar Last Notice envelope from a collection agency, and postal item-too-large-for-box slip.
I went from heartbroken to puzzled. The pink postal slip in Della’s mailbox I had filched. I’d put it out of mind. But this one was for something different, deliverable to me. I was stumped. And distracted. Della’s postal notice was in a bank deposit envelope tucked behind the cash register of a cocktail bar waiting for someone with my name on it to claim. This didn’t make sense. I could say I had a gut feeling about the package slip, but it was the hairs on the nape of my neck that had stiffened.
Becky pointed to the notice in my hand.” I think this is package of old clothes my father send to you after you buy your suit when I first see you.”
“That’s so romantic!” Alice could be sarcastic.
Of course, it was obvious as the smudge on my nose.
“Becky told me you’re helping her find some family jewelry stolen by a gang of jewel thieves? I guess that’s better than peeping in windows.” Alice gave it her sly wicked smile. “And you had to hide in a coalbin to get away from them?”
I had new respect for the kid. That was a better story than I could come up with, and believable, coming from her. She was smart, she was good looking, and she had imagination. That made her very attractive. It also made her very dangerous. A woman with a mind of her own is unpredictable. Proceed at your own risk, as the old man used to say.
“That’s probably why you two look like a hobo vaudeville act.”
I’d caught a glimpse of myself in the fragment of mirror above the tiny sink. My face looked like I had been bussed by lips of charcoal. The red watering eyes were sad, like a clown’s.
“You can clean up in the bath down the hall. Linkov was leaving just as we came in. He’s off for his daily chess game in the park and won’t be back for a couple of hours.”
I brushed at the sleeve of my coat. “Naw, I’m ok, maybe just splash some water on my mug. Gotta a towel? And who is this Linkov?”
“You know, Linkov, the mad Russian painter, he has the studio next door. We share the, ahem, facilities.” Alice winked at Rebecca. “He likes to peep.” And gave me a knowing look.
My concern must have shown.
“I just hang a towel over the hole. Don’t worry. He’s harmless. An old Russian aristocrat. He says he was wounded by the Reds. He was a White, apparently.”
If Alice wasn’t going to worry about it, I wasn’t either. I glanced around at the walls of her tiny studio. There’s never only one hole.
It was no use. The coal hatch wouldn’t budge. It was locked from the inside. Rebecca had tried the front door to the building but it was locked as well. I’d cased the street an hour before and there was no signs of the feds or anyone else who might be taking an unusual interest in the tailor shop. Looking for the sack of lost diamonds in the coalbin was going to have to wait another day. Rebecca looked at me expectantly, crouched by the coal chute. She was going to have to try sweet talk the super again.
I pulled her to her feet. “Let’s go have a drink and think this over.”
“Why Lack? First it is food you must always have and then is drinking. What will we do about stones?” She returned the flashlight borrowed from Alice into her coat pocket.
“Listen doll,” I said turning her to face me, “the rocks are as safe as if they were in a bank. No one knows the diamonds are down there. Just you and me. But in the meantime, I have other business to attend to so you might as well tag along.”
“Where is this place I will tag to?” she asked as I pulled her along by the hand.
Over one block to the intersection of the bright lighted main drag and down another block to the granite cornerstone of the metro bank building and left past the jewelry store to the sturdy nondescript mahogany door with the amber rectangle of glass where the speakeasy peephole used to be. Even before I pulled on the door handle to open it I knew that it wasn’t going to be the quiet little cocktail lounge I had ducked into over a week ago. It was Saturday night.