Better Than Dead—17

By Colin  Deerwood

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The country was going to the dogs and was being led there by the rats under the spell of the pied piper in a wheelchair. That’s what the guy sitting down the counter from me said. He wasn’t saying it to anyone in particular. What he was saying was that war was inevitable. I’d heard it all before. I didn’t care for the Marconi Messiahs or the broadcasts from the big tent evangelists predicting the storm that everybody knew was coming. If a guy wants to strut around on a stage pretending he’s god-almighty Charlie Chaplin that’s his problem and maybe he should see a head doctor, but it’s none of my beeswax. And now some squinty eyed guy by the name of Hero He Too across the wide Pacific was getting too big for his pants. If there was a war then I faced the prospect of being drafted and I wanted to avoid that at all costs. I could always take a hike to Canada but I was no dogsled jockey. South of the border, the islands, Cuba, Chile sounded exotic and full of senoritas, and all more appealing. Mister Loony, Herr Mustache, Hero He Too didn’t mean nothing to me. No matter the drumbeat, I wasn’t marching.

marconi messiahHe was going on about other things, Commies, getting loud, angry, until the cook waved a big metal spatula at him and told him to turn it down. I was looking at my hands trying to be invisible, hat pulled down over my ears, dark glasses no matter that they looked like beach wear. A problem had developed. Because of Sid’s frap between the eyes, the bruise around both of them had turned the color of a ripe eggplant. I didn’t think my nose was broken but it was still throbbing the next morning.

After the crime scene had closed down, after they led Linkov away in bracelets to the paddy wagon, his white hair in unruly spikes and his pointed beard and swirling moustache held up defiantly beneath blazing eyes, after watching Hogan in a huddle of high priced suits with Nekker and his G-men while the body from Alice’s studio was carted out to the coroner’s van, after the crowd had drifted off in clots of twos and threes and only a few of the neighbors were still giving Alice their sympathies, after that I stepped from the shadows from where I had been watching. Rebecca had managed to get closer to Alice and finally led her away, down to her studio. I followed close behind.

It wouldn’t have taken much to upset the clutter of Alice’s tiny space. The chalk outline on the floral carpet only partially contained the spread of a dark burgundy stain. The sergeant had given her the name of someone who could clean it up for her.

“Why am I struck by the total modernity of that composition?” she asked, a cigaretted hand flailing at the floor and giving that silly grin that precedes an immediate collapse.

I caught her before she hit the floor. Rebecca helped me stretch her out and then prop her feet up. I got a pillow from the bed for her head.

As I crossed the room taking in the disarray, I saw that Ted’s portrait was slightly askew, the gleam in his eyes gone. And I thought of Linkov. The peeper. I bet I could find a hole on the other side of that wall where he was accustomed to watching Alice’s sexy dance in front of the portrait of her deceased lover. If it hadn’t been for Linkov’s voyeurism no telling what harm might have come to Alice. He was the real hero.

She came to as Rebecca was patting her cheeks, eyes blinking and looking around and moaning, “I can’t stay here.”

Up in Lee’s loft, Alice sat on a small rickety chair holding the cup in both hands, sipping strong coffee, shivering still wrapped in the blanket, dragging the smoke out of a cigarette, and looking up at the skylight as the first of early morning brightened the flat pane. “What in the hell happened?”

I had to tell her about how a swim in the East River led to the possession of a valuable piece of information that could garner a small fortune in diamonds and how Rebecca had rescued me from the double crossing diamond dealers in the face of a gun battle between them and unknown assailants whose description resembled the men that attacked her in her studio, and helped me escape to her father’s Used Clothes shop where she revealed that in fact she had absconded with the diamonds and then the G-Men showed up because as it turns out her father is a bombmaker followed by the escape through the coal chute where the diamonds dropped from Rebecca’s pocket and later that night when the attempt to retrieve the diamonds from the coal bin failed I went to the cocktail lounge to collect the postal slip stolen from Della’s mailbox and ran into a gang from the funny paper who kidnapped me so Rebecca got away but only to come upon the body in her studio and that maybe her and Rebecca going to get the traveling bag from my office wasn’t such a good idea and hadn’t fooled anybody because they had been followed.

Alice looked at me blankly for a moment and then down at her cup. “What did you put in this?”

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The counterman came by and reheated my joe. He jerked his paper hatted head in the direction of the loudmouth. “”Don’t mind him. He shouldn’t read the newspaper. Gets him riled up.”

I nodded and took a sip from the cup. “Thanks. I don’t pay him no mind.”

He indicated my eyewear with his chin. “A little trouble with the missus. You’re showing purple around the edges of your fancy glasses.”

“Naw, ran into a light pole last night.”

“Howdya do that?”

“I was walking in the pitch dark and was afraid I might tumble over something and hurt myself so I went toward the streetlight, tripped over the curb, and felling into the pole. Caught me right between the eyes.”

“At least the light was better.”

I laughed for what it was worth. And he walked away and came back with a box from under the cash register. It contained a collection of lost eyewear. “Might find something better than what you borrowed from the little lady.”

That had been Alice’s suggestion earlier before Rebecca and I left the loft. “Take Lee’s sunglasses, she never wears them. You don’t want to walk around looking like a ghoul from the Saturday matinee. Somebody’ll notice you.”

blindman21As if no one would take a gander at my beat up mug wearing a pair that belonged on a Hollywood dame. I held them in my hand as I had then to compare. There wasn’t too much of a selection in the box, mostly a tangle of round wire frames and cracked lenses. At the bottom was a square set of black lenses, the kind you might see on a blind man. I tried them on and they fit with a certain weight that felt comfortable. I turned on the stool and looked at my reflection in the diner’s front window. I was unrecognizable. I slipped Lee’s pair into my jacket pocket and smiled even though it hurt. “Whadyeoweya?”

The counterman shook his head and waved away my offer. “All you need is a cane.”

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First Alice was hysterical. “What were you thinking!? They could have killed me!” I wanted to say “or worse” but I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. Then she got angry. “You bastard! How dare you!? You put my life in danger with your stupid stunt. I could have died!” Then she got quiet and that was the worst because those eyes shouted their disgust with me.

Rebecca had tried to explain that there was no way they could have suspected that they were being followed from my office. “Did they ask for Lack by name? How can you be sure that it was him they were looking for?” Alice said she didn’t remember but who else would “he” be but me. And that’s what I was thinking. That he was me and a gang of goggle wearing bandits wanted to kill that me. But who were they? I thought if I knew I could figure out how to avoid them.

I could tell by the look on Rebecca’s face when she settle on the stool next to mine that she hadn’t had any luck with the tailor shop building’s super. “There is police seal on door to my father’s shop and padlock on door to boiler room and coal bin. I do not know how we will be able to get to the diamonds.” Her shoulders hunched, ready to release a sob. I held her hand and she looked up at me.

“They are very dark your glasses, Lack. Can you see from them?”

I got the feeling she wanted to change the subject. “Yeah, I can see with them just fine. And my eyes don’t hurt as much in the bright light.”

She gave a weak smile and let out a sigh. “What will we do?”

I shrugged. I knew I had to get out of town before Kovic and his mugs caught up with me. I had an idea but didn’t let on to the kid. I would go down to the coal yard in the morning and find out who the supplier for that address was and then I’d look over the delivery schedule and get to the place before the coal was delivered and make like I was from the coal company and say I was there to inspect the chute because there was a problem last time like maybe the chute was blocked or something like that. But that would take time and I didn’t have the time or the expense account. I had to think of something.

I had started out with the idea of getting revenge for being stiffed by Kovic. It seemed like a simple enough plan. Walk up to him and fill his face full of holes. If I could get close that is. But in my state of mind, I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to get beat out of my fee or beat down trying to collect. And I almost got it, too. But I got a consolation prize instead, Yamatski’s Black Hand address book. Then I’d been rooked out of that by Solomon and his boys. I shoulda been smarter than that. They got the book and I got nothing. Unless you count the kid and the promise of pilfered diamonds.

I looked over at Rebecca and past her at the guy in the battered fedora and the equally beat up traveling case handing his business card to the counter man who inspected it with one eye closed and a squint of the other, and shrug. “We don’t need no novelties. We just sell food here,” he said.

dinerI had a card in my wallet. It was Yamatski’s card, the one that promised a reward if his address book got lost and found and gave a phone number and an address to return it to. My original idea of taking a look at his setup and maybe taking something that might be worth my trouble came back into play. It would be dangerous and I didn’t think I should drag Becky into the scheme which was essentially a burglary. But when I told her I had to be someplace, she gave me such a sorrowful look and pleaded, “What will I do while you are gone? Alice is still very angry with you, with me. I have no place to wait.”

I felt bad for the kid. Against my better judgement, which was starting to seem like a bad habit, I let her tag along. When you take a shine to someone, it comes with responsibility. Maybe that was why.


Next Time: The Philharmonic Radio Hour

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