Tag Archives: 1940

Better Than Dead—20

by Colin Deerwood

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I was looking down the barrels of half a dozen police specials while they slapped the cuffs on me. I don’t think they suspected me of causing the carnage but they were it playing safe. I had started to explain but a police sergeant with the shoulders of hod carrier and face like a splintered plank told me to shut my yap until the lieutenant got there. They’d called for an ambulance and the coroner’s meat wagon. The ambulance was for the hulk in pajamas from the Bombay gang. From what I’d seen, the Asp twins, Al, and Al’s sister, Della, all had an appointment with a slab at the morgue. Kovic’s boys hadn’t fared much better. The guy with the shovel and one other unlucky goon in a pinstriped suit would be joining them. Mr. K and whoever else of his mob had made their escape. The nurse with the ambulance looked me over and gave a shrug and smile. “He’ll live,” she told the sergeant, “Looks like his face knows its way around a knuckle or two.”

I was about to make my usual wise crack about she shoulda seen the other guy when I saw the detective coming up under a full head of steam. I might have guessed. It was Hogan.

“You!” He pointed a finger in my face. “Tell me you didn’t have anything to do with this, wisenheimer!” He was giving me that withering guilt inducing stare that cops and priests can do so well.

I had to tell him that I did and didn’t. He didn’t like what he was hearing so he dragged me over to the fender of a big Packard that I recognized as belonging to the Thieves. He had me repeat the first part again.

I told him I’d been kidnapped but in order to explain how I’d been kidnapped I had to explain about the explosion at the Serbian Social Club. I couldn’t talk about the explosion at the social club without saying why I was at the social club and I knew that I didn’t want to admit to why I was there so I had to say that I was rescuing a damsel in distress who unfortunately had been killed by the explosion or the fall that it had caused.

omalleyHogan was shaking his head all the time I was telling him. “You believe this bum, O’Malley?” he asked the sergeant who was nodding in agreement. “You gotta lay off the dime detective fare, pal. It’s turning your brain to pulp!”

“He’s right about the explosion at the social club down by the railyards, Lieutenant. We got a call early in the AM about an explosion and sent a squad car to investigate. They were told that it was a boiler blew up and that they didn’t need any cops, what they needed was a plumber. All the same the squad did a perimeter inspection and didn’t find anything suspicious except for some debris that appeared to come from four floors up.”

“They didn’t find the body!?” I blurted.

Hogan didn’t try to hide his disbelief. “A body? Whose body?”

“Becky! The girl I’d gone to, uh, save. She fell from the terrace when the bomb exploded.”

“Now there’s a bomb.” I could tell that Hogan was starting his predictable slow burn by how red the tips of his ears got.

“Uh, right, the bomb that was planted there to take out some of the fascist mob.”

Hogan raised his eyes as if imploring the heavens.

The sergeant shook his head. “We’ve been looking for you, Ask, in connection with the murder of Ralph Silver, a two bit ambulance chaser.”

“And they have crates of Tommy guns hidden in the attic!”

Now Hogan brought his face close to mine. “Tommy guns, you don’t say.”

“Right, and Kovic and his gang were planning something, something big. I saw the map of what they were planning,”

“A map.”

“Something is going to go down, I heard Kovic say that they were gonna do it soon. They had the custom shed and the federal building downtown staked out.”

Hogan frowned. “The Federal building? That’s where the grand jury’s meeting to indict Kovic for tax evasion. Today.” He turned to the sergeant, “Get Neckker and his boys on the horn. If this palooka’s right, Kovic is going to try to ice the jurors. And get a couple of squads to following me down to the docks and the customs shed.” And then to me, “You better be right.”

“How about you take me out of these cuffs?

The sergeant shook his head. “We’ve been looking for you, Ask, in connection with the murder of Ralph Silver, a two bit ambulance chaser.”

“Naw, you can’t pin that on me. That was Kovic’s doing. He had Ralphie killed and then waited for me to show up and discover the body. Ralphie and me, we go way back, I’d a never. Just ask Hogan, he knows.”

Hogan nodded and the sergeant reluctantly keyed the bracelets.

I was curious. “How did your guys know to find Kovic down here at the abandoned warehouse?”

O’Malley explained. “One of the squads spotted this Packard as fitting the description of a car involved in a robbery at the Eastside Post Office. When he got out to take a closer look, he heard the gunfire and called for reinforcements. By the time they got here the shooting had stopped.”

I glance into the backseat of the Thieves’ car, and there it was, the bundle the tailor, Rebecca’s father, had mailed to me. I yanked open the door and pulled it out.

“This is mine, it’s addressed to me. I’m taking it.” I insisted.

“No you’re not.” Hogan took it from me. “It’s evidence. Because if it is what I think it is, why would these guys hold up a post office on a Sunday to get a bundle of old clothes. You got a lot of explaining to do, Ask. You’re coming with me. And when we get this matter at the customs shed settled, you’re coming downtown and we’re going to have a talk, a real long talk about how you come to be involved with Kovic in the first place.”

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It was just like those crime shows you hear on the radio. They put out a Calling All Cars bulletin. The patrolmen jumped on the running boards and were hanging on to the door frames, cranking the sirens and lights blazing. The squad car took a corner on two wheels and everyone in the back shifted toward the center of gravity. Reaching for a grip, Hogan let loose of the bundle and it landed on the space at our feet. And then we were there. A police van pulled up behind and unloaded half a dozen guys with long guns. Hogan took charge and deployed his men. Before long the robbers who had been trying to bust into the customs shed were being led away with their hands over their heads.

They’d forgotten about me. And I was just as glad. I picked up the bundle from where it had fallen and made my exit from the cop car. There were still uniforms heading for the fray, pistols in hand. I tried to make myself invisible in the dawn’s early light.

calling all carsThe commotion was drawing a crowd of shipyard and dock workers just arriving to begin their shifts or leaving after a long uneventful night. Anything out of the ordinary was going to attract them like moths to a flame. Unfortunately I wasn’t invisible enough to get past the police line. They weren’t letting anybody in or anyone out. I scanned the faces of the crowd of workers being held back by the coppers. I recognized one of them, from Annie’s tug, The Narcissus, the tall one. I could tell from his expression that he recognized me, and he turned away quickly to disappear into the crowd. I lurked in the rapidly shrinking shadows dreading that Hogan would notice I had gone missing and raise the alarm. I did not at any cost want to go downtown to have a little chat and explain about Rebecca. Then I saw her, perfection in a sea of broken faces. It was Annie. Her mate had gone to fetch her. She caught my eye and gave a nod. She was up to something.

As they were marching the bad guys into the back of the black Mariah and the cops were wrapping up their operation, I could see Hogan by the side of the squad car looking around like he wanted to find something. Just then the crowd surged against the police line. A fight had started in the crowd and the cops on the line rushed in to break it up. That was my cue to fade into the melee. I felt a tug on my sleeve and looked down to see the short one of the Annie’s crew leading me to the opposite side and away from where the action had been. We skirted the cargo bins and piles of pallets. The next thing I knew Annie was striding alongside me. She was smiling. “First the cops were looking for you and now you’re working with them. Who are you, mystery man?”

“It’s a long story.”

“You can tell it to me over a cup of java.” She cast an appraising eye over me. “You look like you might need it.”

I handed the bundle of clothes to her. “I thought I’d return these to you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t think I’d ever see you or those rags again, but from the looks of you, I’d say you better hang on to them.”

Once below deck I settled behind the little table in the galley and sipped at the scalding hot brew. “Thanks for getting me out of that jam. Again.”

She gave me that beatific smile that always spun my head. She had a lot of miles on her but she was still a beauty and I guess she got a hint of what I was thinking because she kinda blushed and said, “Always glad to help a sailor in distress.”

“I ain’t no sailor.”

“Don’t give up. You’re still young.”

I groaned. “After the last couple of days, I don’t feel that young.” And I had to tell her how I ended up with Rebecca and how I’d foolishly let her follow me when I went to get my revenge on Kovic. I left out the part about the diamonds, but I had to tell her about the Thieves of Bombay, and how my friend Alice had been attacked by goggle wearing bandits and was saved by a former Russian aristocrat peeping tom, and how Rebecca’s old man was an anti-fascist bomb maker and that it was his bomb that had caused her death even though I held myself partly if not completely responsible. And how I ended up at the docks and the customs shed because I had no idea what Kovic was planning there except that my alerting the cops had stuck a stick in his spokes.

ADS Annie21“Gold,” she said with a frown, “Gold and jewels. People are fleeing the war in Europe and sending their wealth abroad. It’s an open secret. Everybody on the docks knows about it. But it’s scum like Kovic that’s gonna try and heist it.”

I nodded. “Yeah, now all the more reason for me to lie low. I got the cops, the Thieves, and Mr. K all trying to get a piece of me.”

“You’re safe here, mystery man. Nobody needs to know you’re not part of my crew.”

I shook my head, “I don’t want to get you involved in this, it’s dangerous. I got people after me that want to fill me full of lead, fit me for a pair of cement socks, or lock me up and throw away the key. I need to go to ground till the heat blows over. And I just thought of a way to do that.”

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Maybe the blow on the head knocked some sense into me. I didn’t want let on about the rocks, but my plan was to go find them in the coalbin and I had to do that in a hurry. I looked into Annie’s eyes as I stepped from the gunwales and onto the dock. I waved this time. “I won’t forget you.”

She waved back. “I’m not counting on it. Good luck. You know where I live.”

I grabbed a trolley to my office on 9th. I waited outside for about an hour and no one looked out of place. I tripped up the steps and through the door. Half way up the flight to the second floor, I heard the super’s door creak open. When I got to my office there was a new padlock, and I didn’t have the key. I heard the shallow breathing behind me and turned to see Curtis peek his head above the railing.

“Why’s there a new padlock on my door, Curtis?”

When I didn’t scream at him he stepped up to the top of the stairs. “Yer behind on yer rent. So th’owner said. . . .”

“I don’t care what the owner said. Curtis. I have to get into my office. It’s my place of business. I have business to conduct so that I can get paid and in turn pay my rent. You don’t have to go to Yale to figure that out.” I’d lowered my voice partly because I was exasperated at another road block. But Curtis was interested in my argument because hardly anyone talked to Curtis—they just told him what to do or listened to his excuse. He cocked an ear and strayed closer.

“Listen, I got five bucks here in my pocket. I can put it toward the back rent or you could forget I gave it to you.” He gave me a baleful look considering the offer. I made like I was going to pull the money from my pants but instead snagged his skinny arm and slammed him against the wall, not hard, but enough to get his attention and let him know that I meant business. “You got the key, Curtis?” The ring of keys he carried on his belt made him feel important and he never went anywhere with them.

“No,” he said feeling his face where it had hit the wall.

I wrenched his arm and bumped him with my chest. “See this face? Yours is gonna look worse. I don’t have time to mess around and I won’t mess around.”

He got the hint and fumbled with his keyring. Once the door opened I shoved him in ahead of me. I looked around. I wasn’t going to miss the dump although it had kept the rain off my head and was not a sidewalk where I could pass out drunk. It wasn’t a place I’d bring a dolly to. More of a lair where I could go lick my wounds. There wasn’t anything that had any value to me in the jumble of junk except for the one item squirreled away under a blanket in the closet. That was Ted’s diorama.

I grabbed a handful of change from my pocket and threw it on the floor. “For your trouble.” I said as Curtis scrambled to gather the coins.

I made my way over to Alice’s studio with the art piece under my arm. She wasn’t home but I knew where she kept the key. Inside the smell of fresh brew coffee said she would be back soon. I stripped off the clothes I was wearing and put on the working clothes that Annie had insisted I keep. I found the satchel where I’d left it under the kitchen table and stuffed the suit, vest, and pants into it. The cement damaged shoes, too. I placed Ted’s art piece under his portrait on the wall and found a pencil and wrote on a scrap of paper “I’ll be back to pick up my things later today. We have to talk.” I looked up into Ted’s eyes. They didn’t move.

coalyardPulling the flat cap down over my eyes, I made my way over to the coal yard. There was a queue of coal wagons backed to the chutes and I figured the guy with the papers in his hand was the foreman. Holding a sheaf of papers was not a hard job but the scowl on his face wanted you think that it was. He didn’t like the look of my mug, either. I asked him if he knew the coal company that delivered to the address of the building where Rebecca’s old man had his used clothes store because I had to do some work in the basement and didn’t want to do it if they were going to dump a load in the bin. The foreman was distracted by a wagon that had not pulled close enough to the chutes and the ore was spilling onto the ground. “Oreville Coal Company!” he yelled as he ran to chew out the coal wagon driver.

The coal company was a few block over from where the used clothing shop was located. The secretary looked like she’d had a rough Sunday and could barely keep her eyes open. I had to repeat twice what I’d come in for, the coal delivery schedule. She grumbled at having to lift the heavy ledger covers and ran a meticulously manicured finger down a row of entries. She shook her permed thatch and muttered. “This time of year, we’re on call, no more than once a month, if that.” I was out the door before she finished.

I found the super sitting on a stool inside the doorway to the building. I told him that I was with Oreville Coal Company and that there’d been a complaint about the way the coal chute operated. That was a surprised to him but he agreed to let me take a look and fix the problem. I glanced at the door to the tailor shop. There was a government seal over the lock. The super had to tell me all about how the G-Men busted into the building after a crazy woman, girl, actually, and her father who were obviously some sort of criminals or saboteurs if the feds were after them. He led me through the closet and to the stairs down to the basement. It looked familiar and the overhead light worked. I made a bee line for the coal bin. It had been dark the last time I’d passed through just days ago but judging by the amount of coal in the bin, it didn’t appear to be any more or less, and the super confirmed that he hadn’t used but a couple shovels full to keep the furnace going being the weekend and all. I scanned the greasy smelling chunks but nothing looked anything faintly resembling the little white pouch the diamonds had been in. I got that sinking feeling. I wasn’t going to find the diamonds because they weren’t there.


Next Time: High Tailing It Out Of Town

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

Better Than Dead—16

by Colin Deerwood

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There was an explosion of smoke, the rumble and roar of competing conversations, cacophonies of shouts, bursts of laughter as low belly guffaws of gents or the high whinnies of fillies, the distinct clink of bottle and glass, a shuffling and scraping of chairs, and music from a coin operated Victrola over in the corner where a few couples were rubbing their bodies against each other to the lowing moans of a crooner in what passed for dancing. The heady hoppy scent of beer and sharp tang of high octane joy juice mixed in the tobacco haze that hung in the air just about at eye level. It was a lively crowd and no one noticed as I stepped up to the bar where shoulder to shoulder the serious drinkers sat on stools or leaned against it for support.

cocktail lounge1Neither of the two bartenders treading the boards pouring drinks and ringing up the sales on the big brass cash register was the tree trunk that had served me the first time when I’d stepped in to avoid a tail. I tried to wedge myself between a couple of muscle heads who weren’t interested in letting me squeeze through until they laid eyes on Rebecca. Then they became gentlemen whose mouths had dropped open and whose eyes popped out of their sockets accompanied by an ahooga horn.

It just made her smile even prettier at the attention. She was what the old Jewish ladies in the neighborhood used to say, a real  shayna punim: a pretty face. I’d looked into that pretty face with stars in my eyes, too. But something was telling me it was too good to be true.

We’d followed Alice’s suggestion and took a breather in her friend’s loft on the top floor of the building. It was a tiny place, like Alice’s studio, but big enough to be crowded with large canvases hanging on or leaning against any spare wall space below the low ceiling and skylight. Becky sorted through them as if leafing through a sheet music bin, sounding little notes of surprise or astonishment. The ones on the walls looked like swabs of brush cleaning to me.

I’d cleaned up a bit. brushed the bin dust off the elbows, lapels, and knees. I washed my mug of the coal smudges. The bruises weren’t in any hurry to leave. And enough time now had elapsed since the hot grope in the tailor shop. She was still being coy but cool. It was like she knew she had me, she didn’t have to tug on the string.

I had other things on my mind besides. The throbbing at the base of my skull was annoying. I’d been beat on a little too much lately and it was taking its toll. A good long sleep would probably take care of that. In the meantime, getting the rocks back was the first priority, fencing them to diamond dealers Rebecca said she knew or even Max Feathers if worse came to worse. That would generate enough cash for me to light out for parts unknown, far enough that any of Mister K’s mooks might accidently bump into me. But now Becky and I were partners, business partners, so to speak, and there’s no better way to ruin a romance.

We bided our time waiting for evening to get grayer in a kind of no touch tango, dancing around what each of us might be thinking.

I thought taking the back way out of the building the safest bet and we scuttled across the trash strewn backyard to the alley behind. The less we were seen the better I was going to feel. She’d tied a scarf under her chin and I had my too large fedora down over my ears. We probably looked like an old couple out for an evening walk on the mean streets of the East Side. No cars followed us with their headlights dimmed and no mugs were tailing our footsteps. We were all but invisible. And I warned the kid. If things went south or anything happened to me or we got separated she was to amscray back to Alice’s and wait till I got word to her. When it developed that getting at the diamonds wasn’t in the immediate future, I had a backup option.

“Whatallitbe?”

I’d attracted the bartender’s attention although not in the same manner that the kid was attracting the attention of the wolf in the pinstriped suit next to her. The leer of his oily grin wouldn’t pass the Hays code.

I held up two fingers and then sideways signifying a double.

“And your little sister?”

Rebecca smiled up at me and I remember how loopy she’d got on Max’s hootch.

“A Shirley Temple,” I said which prompted her to squeak with delight, “Oh, I love Shirley Temple!”

After I laid the simoleon on the bar I told the bartender that a friend of mine had left an envelope for me. I pointed to the cash register. “My name’s on it.”

He came back with the envelope. “What’s your name?”

I told him but someone was getting loud at one of the tables and he had to ask again. So I said it louder. “Lackland Ask!”

He didn’t quite hear what I said and bent his ear toward me. “Lackland Ask!” I repeated even louder. And right about then there was a lull in the barroom din and anyone who wanted to heard my name. He handed over the envelope and I pushed the two bits from my change on the bar toward him. “Gee, thanks.” He said and grinned brightly.

I’d been keeping a side eye on the skunk in wolf’s clothing trying out his con with the kid. She may have been starry eyed but she wasn’t dumb. She wasn’t going to fall for the line that he was Shirley Temple’s long lost brother, Ramon. Or was she?

lackbec1I nudged her with my elbow. “imtay otay ogay.”

She blinked once and frowned. “But Ask, I haven’t. . . .” As she turned to glance over her shoulder she saw the look on my face.

The wolf had been nudged out of the way by a snake and I felt like I’d just stepped into a frame of an Orphan Annie strip because the narrow framed ferret eyed fella in a long overcoat was a spitting image of the Asp.

He smiled one of those smiles that wasn’t a smile and I expected a forked tongue to slither out from between his tight bloodless lips. Instead he said in a high pitched voice, “So nice of you to announce yourself, Mr. Ask. If you will please come with me. Someone would like to ask you some questions, Mr. Ask.” He thought he was being funny but I could see by the way he was holding his hand that he had a gat in his coat pocket pointed at Rebecca and that he was very serious.

I nudged the envelope into the kid’s hand and murmured “Aketay isthay.” Then I turned to the large stevedore quaffing his brew behind me unaware of the little drama going on inches from him. I patted him on the derriere and when he turn to give me the mean eyes, I made a kiss with my lips. That enraged him.

He set his beer down and prepped a roundhouse.

“Ukday!’ I yelled, ducking as his fist landed square on the side of the Asp’s head. I goosed a couple of other saps scrambling for the door and within seconds the place had erupted into the brawl it had been waiting for all night.

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Once on the bricks I twirled undecided which way to run. Just before the end of the block was a service alley. I headed there all the while scanning the opposite side of the street lined with jalopies. I wanted to stay to the shadows so I crossed over, the kid on my heels. I figured to get to the main drag where I might flag a cab or duck down to the subway. It wasn’t to be.

The asp-man was rubbing his head. “I can make him talk.” He examined the tips of his fingers, blood.

It was like they’d materialized from the bricks and shadows, the Asp’s twin, a skinny guy in a tweed cap and a red scarf around his mug, a bruiser with a taffy colored bald head, arms like elephants trunks, ten penny nails for eyes, and a short shrimpy guy with a tall hat and high heeled shoes. Only it wasn’t a guy. It was Della, Al’s redheaded sister. And I had to guess that the skinny guy with the scarf was Al.

“You have something that belongs to me!” she growled in my face.

The bruiser held me up by the scruff of my coat like I was hanging from a hook. The Asp had grabbed Rebecca by the arm as she tried to get away. She reached into her pocket and smacked him on the side of the head with the flashlight. It surprised him just enough to loosen his grip and it was all she needed.

“Unray, unry!” I shouted to her as Al started to chase after her.

Della called him back. “Letter go. This is the guy we want.” I felt the slap, the taste of blood in the mouth. “You took something from my mailbox.” There was another slap but not as hard. She may have hurt her hand the first time. “I want it back!” and a knee below the belt. That hurt, and I groaned because that was all I could do. “Wherizit!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about?”

“You’re lying!”

The giant shook me like maybe the answer would drop from my sleeves like burgled silverware.

“You took the postal slip from my mailbox in the lobby. One of the neighbors saw you. She reported to the cops but I knew it was you from her description. That’s a federal rap you know, stealing mail.” She said it with a mean smile.

The asp-man was rubbing his head. “I can make him talk.” He examined the tips of his fingers, blood.

“Give her what she wants, Lack.” Al spoke up, “You don’t wanna get hurt. Not by Sid.”

“Al,” I said, “I thought we was pals. You said I should come to you if I needed help. Are these creeps the muscle you’re talking about, Al?”

Al shrugged. “Ya shouldna takenit, Lack. I got no choice.”

“The slip!” Della screamed in my face. Then Sid’s fist caught me between the eyes. I thought I was seeing double and hearing things, the shrill eerie cries of a banshee. But it was just Sid’s twin, and he was telling Della, “Less getoutayear! Cops erondereway!” and then I realized, “the sirens!”

1935_Chrysler1Rough hands lifted me and stuffed me into the back of the Chrysler sedan and before I knew it I had King Kong, the Asp, and my shadowy old pal, Al sitting on top of me while the other snake got behind the wheel with Della seated beside him, roaring off just as the paddy wagon pulled up. One of them was sticking something sharp into my spine and it hurt.

“It’s stupid to die over a piece of paper, Lack,” Al insisted.”

The pain increased. “Ok, ok! It’s in my office over on 10th Street.”

“That dump you call an office is over on 9th, meatball. I know, I been there,” Della barked. “Don’t think you’re smart.”

“Right, 9th Street. The slip is in my office. Hidden.”

“You’re lying! I tossed the place. I didn’t find anything except dirt, flies, and soiled underwear.” She gave a smile with her tiny bone grinding teeth. “You’re a slob, you know that?”

The pressure on my spine eased some. I had to come off sincere. “No, I hid it pretty good. You wouldn’t find it unless you knew where to look.”

Della told the driver to head back toward 9th. “If he’s lying, you and Sid know what to do with him.”

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Curtis was lurking in the foyer with a broom and a dustpan when I came through the door. He looked up surprised to see me accompanied by the Asp brothers, the muscle bound gorilla, Al, and his sister, Della. He smiled at first. Then he frowned. “Hey Mr. Ask, where you been? The cops has come around lookenferya.” He gaped at Della. “And yer udder sister. From why oming.”

“Oh yeah, well, tell the cops I ain’t here.” I said as I brushed past him.

“Hey, you know the rule about visters affer fivaclock!”

One of the Sids grabbed the handle of the broom Curtis was holding and used it to smack him between the eyes. “Mind yer own business if ya know what’s good ferya.”

stairwellA herd of elephants might have been quieter climbing up the two flights to my office. Alice must have forgotten to lock the door and I walked right in. The bruiser had an iron grip on my shoulder. “Don’t try any funny business,” Sid warned. I flicked on the light and saw what Alice and Rebecca had seen earlier that day. Messes don’t have a tendency to right themselves no matter how long they’re left alone.

“Whooo! Open a window!” And one of the Sids started over to do Della’s bidding.

“Ah, nah, bad idea. It’s broken. Open it and it’ll never close.” I should have kept my mouth shut. Sid grinned over his shoulder and yanked on the sash lifts at the bottom. It would budge. At first. And then it shot up like a rocket. I heard the top pane crack and shatter. Well, I hadn’t planned on spending another winter here.

Dempsey didn’t pay them no mind. “Shadap! Some gents downtown wanna talk to ya. Somethin’ about a dead lawyer!” He pulled the cuffs from his pocket. “Yer not gonna give me a hard time, are ya?”

“In the closet.” I said pulling myself free from the baby giant who I just noticed was wearing some kind of pajama pants. But given his size, he could wear just about anything he wanted. “In the trench coat.”

“I already looked there!” Della was trying to squeeze into the closet with me.

“In the lining.” I’d palmed the postal call slip when they were dragging me up the steps. I reached in and after some rummaging to make it look like it had really been hidden, I pulled my hand back out with the orange slip that had item too large for box written across the top.

She snapped it from my hand, glanced down at it, and then gave me a suspicious glare. “I already looked there. Is this some sort of con your pulling, pepper ?”

“That’s them, officer!” Curtis was in the doorway with the beat cop. Dempsey. He was a large cop and what they call a hard man. Della’s genie may have been bigger but he wasn’t as hard. And he had a loud cop voice. Probably because he was deaf in one ear. “What the holy hell is going on here!” He had his fists on his hips, one of them holding his billy club, and the bulge in his back pocket was his pistol. “Who’s responsible for this mess!”

Curtis pointed at me. “That’s him, officer. That’s Lackland Ask.”

Dempsey’s eyes narrowed and his mouth twisted with that particular Irish determination. He strode across the room and pulled me out of the closet. “We been looking for you! Come with me.”

That was one of the few times I went anywhere willingly with a cop. “What’s the beef, officer?” I glanced around the room. The two Sids were pretending to find something interesting with the wallpaper. My pal Al had the red scarf wrapped around his nose and staring at his shoes. And the oak doorway was trying, not very successfully, to blend in with the shadows. Della looked surprised and was about to say something.

Dempsey didn’t pay them no mind. “Shadap! Some gents downtown wanna talk to ya. Somethin’ about a dead lawyer!” He pulled the cuffs from his pocket. “Yer not gonna give me a hard time, are ya?”

When I shook my head no, he put them away. And besides he wasn’t going loosen the vice grip he had on my arm. But that wasn’t how I escaped.

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Something must have happened in the room after Dempsey hustled me out. Curtis had been bringing up the rear and lingered at the door. The next thing I knew he barreled past me on the stairs with terror in his eyes, banging into the cop and throwing him off balance. Dempsey loosened his grip to catch his balance and I wrenched free. Down to the next landing I leaped overtaking Curtis, knocking him down, and then practically skipped the entire next flight of stairs, skidding into the wall. I caught myself and jumped another half dozen steps down the next flight. Dempsey was roaring behind me, yelling at Curtis laid out across the stairs to get out of the way. I made it down to the foyer and through the front door onto the stoop and the street. I looked both ways and then dashed down toward the end of the block where a large delivery truck was parked. I skidded around behind it and ducked down.

truck101I could see Dempsey pause at the top of the stoop, look around to see if he could spot me. Out of breath, he lifted his cop cap and scratched his head realizing he’d lost me. He slapped the billy in the palm of his hand a couple of times and then strode off to the call box at the other end of the block.

The night was filled sirens, but that seemed typical for a Saturday. I waited till Della and her misfits exited the building and drove away. She’d got what she wanted. Or so she thought. Rebecca was the one with the postal slip she wanted, and I had to get to her in a hurry. I cut through a couple of alleys and made my way over the few blocks to Alice’s. If she’d listened to me, she would be waiting for me there. With the diamonds I’d yet to retrieve and what I had a hunch Della’s package contained, I  might just be looking for a place on easy street.

I rounded the corner down from Alice’s studio, and there they were, a squad car blocking the street and a gaggle of blue uniforms. The cop car was stopped right in front Alice’s building. I didn’t like what that was telling me.

A crowd had begun to gather and some of the patrolmen were pushing them back. I wanted to get closer, make sure it wasn’t what I was thinking. There was a lump lying along the iron railing leading down to Alice’s A cop was down on one knee examining it and, looking up at his partner, shook his head. Then I spotted her, sitting on the steps, wrapped in a blanket, shivering, a cigarette between two fingers. Alice. A patrol sergeant by the chevrons was talking to her and writing her answers in his pocket notebook.

I had the urge to bust through the cordon to be by her side, put a protective arm around her when I felt a tug on my sleeve. It was Rebecca. Her eyes were red like she had been crying, her lips trembling.

“Oh, Lack, it was awful!” she sobbed.

I needed details. And she gave them to me in fits and starts. She had made her way back to Alice’s studio. When she arrived there were a few neighbors standing around the steps leading down. Then she saw something on the sidewalk. It was a body. She could see that Alice’s door was wide open. Fearing the worst she ran in. Alice, stunned and shaking was crouched down by the icebox. On the floor was another body. It had a huge bloody slash across its back. Seated on one of the kitchen chairs was a man. With a sword. It was Linkov.

“I screamed. And that brought Alice out of her daze. She told me not to be frightened. It was Linkov who had saved her. Two men had burst into her studio and demanded to know where you were, Lack! They were looking for you! They hit her a few times and threatened to do things to her.” She paused to see if I understood what those things might be.

I nodded, looking over at Alice, smoke trailing from her mouth as she answered the cop’s questions. “Where is he” jumped back into the forefront of my brain as a recent memory.

“She had just finished taking a shower she told me. And she said that she usually did a little dance before the portrait of Ted because she misses him so much. And that is when they burst in and began to slap her around, demanding she tell them where you were! And all of a sudden there was Linkov with his sword! He slashed them before they even knew what had happened. One fled out to the street but he is dead too, on the sidewalk.”

I put my arm around her shoulder. “That musta been pretty scary, kid, no wonder you screamed.”

“That is not why I scream, Lack. I scream because they are the same men who come to Rabbi Joseph’s apartment and start the shooting. They have the googles and the kerchiefs the same.”


Next Time: Coming To Grips With The Black Hand

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

Better Than Dead—11

by Colin Deerwood

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I’m not a big believer in coincidence but Becky’s description of the shooting in Soloman’s flat was going to win me over. She kept it to herself as we made our way through the traffic and gathering crowds drawn by the police action and blocking the once deserted upscale neighborhood street, me still struggling to maintain my stooped over squat pose—there’s no doubt my knees took a beating that night. I finally got to stand tall a couple of blocks later once I was stepping down the tiled stairs to the turnstile and through to the subway platform. Becky kept her grip under my arm, propping me up,  even though she didn’t have to at this point.

“Ok,” I said, “tell it to me from the beginning” at the same time realizing that the pain in my head was like a spike being driven through my eye socket and that I had a thirst that would drain a lake.

The platform was empty and silent, no air stirring tunnel roar signaling the approach, trains less frequent in the graveyard hours. From the vantage of the dim lit far end I could keep an eye on the entrance to the platform while staying in the shadows. Becky too kept a focused vigilance. Unless anyone looked close, our disguises held true.

Despite being manhandled by Soloman’s thugs, the adrenaline was keeping me cocked, and my brain clocking a thousand miles an hour though there was no telling how much longer until I sprung a spring. I had to think that I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time or it had something to do with me. Kovic had picked up my trail and that led him to Rabbi Joe and his minions. But if they were after me, why go to all the trouble of shooting up the place. Becky’s description of the gunmen made me think that they might be a gang of professional robbers. There’d been a rash of penthouse robberies in the ritzy neighborhoods around the first of the year. The Anti-Claus Gang, one rag dubbed them as they were after expensive holiday purchases of jewels, gold, and art. Their masked getup was in favor of that conclusion. They might have started up again. And in the report of the previous strong armed heists, there had never been any shootings, just very effective threats. But the one thing that Becky said had me leaning to not a coincidence at all.

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substation1Men in suits suddenly appeared on the platform with the frantic looks of having just missed the train. From the window I watched them scamper to the brink of the tracks as it accelerated out of the station. The car was empty except for a blind man slumped forward, propped up by his white cane, at the other end by the door leading to the next car. I sat facing Becky on the seat across from me, keeping an eye on the door leading into the rest of the train. It was the downtown local because that was the direction of the one room apartment I hadn’t been back to for over a week. It seemed like the obvious place to head. Except. What if Kovic’s goons or the goons in blue had my place staked out? The Y happened to be downtown, too, and the thought crossed my mind that for two bits a night I could hole up there for a while. But then Rebecca’s old man had his used clothing store practically across the street.

She must have read my mind. “Lack, we can hide in my father’s shop, no one will think to look for us there. Today is the Sabbath and he will not. . . Oh!” She caught her breath.

“Was your father’s at Soloman’s when. . . ?

She nodded. “I know he was there but he was not with the others. He has a room behind the kitchen where he can stay when he does not stay at the shop. It is next to my room.” She made a face. “Maybe I should call it a cell where I live and work with the women. But my father is not one of them, the top echelon, Professor Soloman’s council. He has high intelligence but for our cause he is better used analyze strategy to defeat the enemy he told me. But I have never seen him with gun. And guns I saw and guns I heard.” She put her hands to her cheeks in horror. “I could only think, they are ruining the furniture!”

The train pulled into another stations. No one entered the car and the blind man bobbed with the jolt of the train lurching back up to speed.

“Ok,” I said, “tell it to me from the beginning” at the same time realizing that the pain in my head was like a spike being driven through my eye socket and that I had a thirst that would drain a lake.

“It is all so what you say swiftly passing by my eyes, flashing, so fast. One of the maids was look for me and call my name. I should be in my room but she call up the stairwell because she know I have to get away sometime to myself. When I come down, she say I have package, but who would deliver package at that time at night, and before she say any more, loud noise come from front door near where we are stand and men with guns in long coats and hats pulled down over eyes, red kerchiefs over faces, some with racing goggles, rush in

“There were three, maybe five, into parlor when from Herr Doktor’s library’s Isaac the door open to step out with his gun shooting. Then all they started shooting. Isaac fall in the doorway and I see Golie and Herr Doktor and some of other men come with guns shooting. Guns fire from everywhere. The maid, Anya, who had come get me, hit on cheek by splinter of doorway explode from bullet. From my room for my coat I go by back stairs. I was in panic not to go down where there might be others to do me harm. Up is only other way.”

What she described had all the makings of a heist I was convinced. I had a question but a shadow filling the door at the far end of the car distracted me.

She was saying, “But Lack, there is something else I must tell you,” when the door opened and in walked trouble.

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One of them was dressed like a typical college kid, tweed suit coat, vee neck sweater, bowtie, and a crushed fedora on the back of a mop of black hair. The other two looked like they were still waiting for the right haberdasher. The tall skinny loose limbed one wore a shirt whose sleeves only reached to his elbows, a pair of baggy pants held up by a belt knotted at the waist, and a baseball cap with the bill tipped up. He was a blinker and about as bright as a dead bulb. The short guy in a beanie with a smudge of moustache looked like he might be the ring leader. They were loud and maybe a little drunk. The blind man drew their immediate attention as the object of their rambunctious baiting, laughing and pointing, waving their hands in front of his eyes giving him the how many fingers test.

The one with the bowtie must have caught sight of me, and of Rebecca who had turned to glance over her shoulder at the ruckus, and now he was poking beanie in the arm with his elbow and nodding in our direction and saying something under his breath that made beanie’s eyes get that special sparkle.

subway1With barely a hint of nonchalance they sauntered down the aisle to where we were sitting. Beanie, flanked by string bean and bowtie, took the toothpick out of his mouth and pointed it at me. “Well if it ain’t grandma and little red riding hood. You’ll never guess who we are.”

“Yeah,” the string bean drawled, “we’re the big bad wolves.” There was no mistaking the waterfront twang of their accent. Bowtie gave a crocodile grin leering at Rebecca.

None of them were being subtle and there was no reason why I should be. With as much soprano as I could manage, I piped, “You look more like the three little pigs.”

Beanie’s eyes darted to me. “What a really big yap you got, grandma.” Bowtie was giving me a suspicious scowl as string bean leaned over beanie’s shoulder to look down on me to say “Yeah, and what really big feet you got, too, grandma.” Everyone stared down at my Thom MaCans.

My forehead smacked beanie between the eyes after I’d grabbed him by the shirt front. His eyes rolled back like he couldn’t believe it and he folded like a pair of trousers around his ankles. I had more headache to pass around and went for string bean but his hands were high above his head and gawking at Rebecca. She had a little pistol pointed at him. Bowtie scrambled stumbling back down the aisle toward the next car tripping as he ran past the blind man, sprawling head first into the edge of a seat.

Was I dragging the kid along, too, or was she part of the deal? She was cool, smart, and she had a gun. That was in her favor.

I stood my full height and stepped on beanie’s hand. The train was slowing on the approach to the next station. I could tell by the squeal of the brakes and that of beanie’ pain.

“You messed with the wrong grandma.” I grabbed bean stalk by the arm and twisted it. I pulled beanie to his feet by his collar and dragged them both to the doors as the train entered the station. “You don’t want to miss your stop.”

Bowtie was holding his head sitting up. He immediately got what the motion of Becky’s pistol meant and as soon as the doors parted he dashed out onto the platform with his pals.

I looked around. There was no one else in the place but me, Rebecca, and the blind man. He held up his hand. “I didn’t see anything.”

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The tailor shop was a solid brick block from the subway exit. I had shed the scarf and stood at the curb looking up at the building. All the windows were dark. In the distance the silhouettes of the midtown skyscrapers were lightening around the edges. Soon people would be heading off to work or looking for work.

storefront1Rebecca didn’t have a key. She was going to have to wake up the super. She had me wait in a dark doorway of a shop further down where had anyone seen me in my overcoat and bare legs would have called the cops to report a flasher. When the light inside the shop blink on and off I would know to come to the door and she would let me in.

I was dying for a smoke but I knew better than to light up. The headache was a dull throb now and had moved to behind my right ear. My tongue felt like sandpaper. I could feel another prune forming above my left eyebrow. I was in the middle of something that was spinning out of control, sucking me in. Was I dragging the kid along, too, or was she part of the deal? She was cool, smart, and she had a gun. That was in her favor.

I knew I had to get the stink that was Kovic off me. He tried to have me iced after I rescued his hophead daughter from the sour mash South. He put a couple of slugs in Ralphie, my lawyer, an old pal from the neighborhood who had steered me to the blood hound job in the first place. Times were tough and any cabbie or street corner mug mighta made me. Dropping a dime was not gonna be any sweat of their noses.

Running into the tailor and his daughter was pure luck. Whether it was good luck or bad luck was another matter I still couldn’t figure. Who had been chasing me when I chanced onto them? I didn’t feature that it was any of Kovic’s mob. Someone was tailing me, that was for sure. The mess in my room had been tossed by someone who claimed to be my sister, according to Curtis, the super’s pervert son. His description made me think Al’s sister. I had something that belonged to her, the pink postal package slip I’d lifted from her mailbox. A fair exchange for setting me up. Was she just the tip of the iceberg and was I a titanic dope for not seeing it coming? She had to have some reach. As soon as I come up with her ex-boyfriend’s whereabouts, he ends up dead. Now there were more bodies. The robbers used the package delivery ruse, but at that time of night what express service would be delivering? Unless someone was expecting a delivery. But Rebecca had said that the package was for her.

It was like I had come in to the middle of a movie and wasn’t making heads or tails of the plot. Her beautiful face close up filled the entire screen of my vision. For a kid she was quite a dame.

As if I didn’t have enough worries, I had pricey rock floating around in my gut with no idea on how I was going to work that out. I’d asked the kid to tell me again the part about when the gangsters busted in, what were they yelling? “Where are the diamonds?” she’d repeated and then something she couldn’t make out. “It sound like name, Worsey. Wharzee? I do not know.” I repeated the name to myself again in the darkened doorway. Worsey, Wharzee, Wharz-ee, Where-zee. Where is he?

A light blinked or it coulda been me dropping off, asleep on my feet.

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There was a cot behind the curtain separating the display room from the back workshop of sewing machines, ironing boards, and a narrow cutting table. I stumbled toward it as if I was being drawn by an irresistible urge to fall face first on it. I was beat, not to mention bounced around, kicked, and hammered. Too long without anything to eat, too much to drink, or no time for sleep made me want to throw in the towel, wake me when it’s over. I drank water from a glass in big gulps. My head was swimming. I held it in my hands sitting on the edge of the cot knowing I’d drift off as soon as I was horizontal.

Rebecca fussed unpacking the bags and taking my pants to the large tub sink against the back wall.

“Lack, there is something you should know.” Now she was looking at me with those pale blue eyes and it seemed like that was all I needed to know. She sat on the cot next to me and looked down at her hands. “Those men, Doktor Soloman and the others, they cheat you out of the diamonds of your agreement. Your address book was not destroy. I hear them talking.

“When I was brought back, Herr Doktor tell me go to my room and stay until he call. When I go through kitchen before my room, the cook is shaking head because she is not understanding why she must boil a book of empty paper for Isaac who she does not like but because zayde say so.”

It was like I had come in to the middle of a movie and wasn’t making heads or tails of the plot. Her beautiful face close up filled the entire screen of my vision. For a kid she was quite a dame.

“They discover your notebook in water closet. Drop in commode when one of the men went to use. He give it to Herr Doktor who has an idea to keep your valuable information, and diamonds, too. I hear them talking before they bring you up back stairs. They are laugh. They think they are very clever about how they cheat you.”

She was looking at me now and I felt her soft breath soothe my battered cheek. I leaned toward her blinking to keep my eyes open. My lips brushed hers. I didn’t blame her for putting her hand on my chest and pushing me away. It didn’t take much. I’m a pushover for dames like her. And I kept falling, onto the rumpled blanket that smelled of cabbage and old sweat, hearing her say, “There is something else you should know,” and me replying, “You say the nicest things,” before her lips pressed hard against mine and I realized that some part of me was still very much awake.


Next Time: Diamond In The Rough

Better Than Dead, A Detective Story—9

by Colin Deerwood

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The rain had stopped but there were puddles among the piles of trash in the alleyway. I steered her away from a big one by stepping in it for her.

“You’re so gallant,” she said.

She had looped her arm through mine and leaned on me for support. I leaned on her because it felt good. She was smiling and humming to herself and I kinda knew what that felt like just then.

“Mind if I call you Becky?”

She looked shockingly pleased. “Becky, a name like in your American writer, Shemuel Klemins’ book, who is the sweetheart of a Tom Sawyer, yes, Becky. We read his stories when I was in school in Zurich.” Her tone turned confidential and intimate. “He is quite famous with his American tall tales translated into many languages. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was my very favorite. How I longed to sail on the mighty Mississippi!” she added with a sigh.

toms1Max’s hi-test fruit juice had really made her loopy and I didn’t want to pop her bubble to correct her because she was pretty happy thinking she knew what she was talking about, but everybody knows that Tom Sawyer was written by Mark Twain and even though I never read the book I did see Jackie Coogan in the movie version and that whole fence routine was a pretty funny scam. I’ve known guys who operate just the same way, although they weren’t all that nice or clever in getting you to do their work for them, and then taking all the credit. As for that whole bit with Becky, it just proved that dames are dames even at a young age waiting for some charming prince to ride up on a white pony and rescue them.

We were under the streetlight by then. I looked down into her glimmering eyes and said, “You can call me Tom.”

Her laughter echoed down the deserted rain wet street. It was a pleasant laugh, full of promise.

“Golie? Golie is here, too?” Now she was frightened and that was exactly what she wanted me to be as Hairy the Hat had her by the arm and was hustling her toward the Packard.

Then Herr Hat had to spoil it. He came running out from the shadows. “Rebecca, Rebecca! Where have you been? You took so long! We were going to come looking for you!”

“Oh, David!” she said as he approached, obviously ready for any and more attention, “Were you really worried about me?”

By then he’d got close enough to get a whiff of her breath as she smiled up at him. “Are you drunk?” I got the benefit of an angry glare.

“Don’t be silly!” She slapped him playfully on the lapel. “I am perfectly slobber, I mean, sober!” And then broke out in a fit of giggling.

The Hat was making moves like he might want to take a poke at me. I wasn’t too worried about him, he was just a kid. It was the other guy behind him, a guy I hadn’t seen before, with slick backed pomaded hair, a razor sharp nose, pencil thin moustache, and a mean sadistic gleam in his bug eyes.

The dame saw him, too. “Isaac? Why is Isaac?” she addressed the kid in the hat, and then stared at me, instantly sober.

I was keeping my eye on the Isaac guy when  I thought I saw the big pole in front of the barbershop step forward. I wasn’t feeling any pain but I wasn’t that far gone. Then I remembered that there wasn’t a barbershop on this block and that wasn’t a barber pole. The guy was seven foot if he was an inch and a head on him like a cornerstone.

“Golie? Golie is here, too?” Now she was frightened and that was exactly what she wanted me to be as Hairy the Hat had her by the arm and was hustling her toward the Packard.

“Hey!” I shouted, about to say, “you can’t do that!” when I got a set of knuckles in the kidney from razor face. I folded like a day old racing form.

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If it ever crossed my mind I might have considered what a ragdoll felt like being tossed into the back of the rattletrap pulled up at the curb. It was an old bazou from the previous decade, as they say up north of Maine, and if it ever had a cushioned bench seat it wasn’t obvious. It didn’t matter anyway as I was dumped on the floorboards and the big mug kept his foot on my back while hatchet face took the wheel. The jalopy was lacking in springs as well and every bump and pothole was telegraphed like a smack to my face. It seemed like the driver was going out of his way to find something to bump over or bang against. And of course when he took a corner on two wheels, my head slammed on the door post. Good thing I was wearing my hat. By the time the ride was over I’d been pummeled and no one had laid a hand on me. Unless you count the bruiser’s foot, and the brass knucks to the kidney that was the admission price for this carnival ride.

The gorilla pulled me to my feet and pushed me against the gray granite of a swank building. And it had started to rain again. I had a sense that I was back where I started from but in the alley by the servant’s entrance. I was still feeling weak in the knees when Mutt woke me up by slamming my head against the bricks. Neither of them had said a word the whole time I was taken for the ride. Now the skinny guy said, “Less go” while the lummox picked me up and tossed me into the open doorway.

There were a couple of tough nuts waiting for me, each one there to greet me with a fist to the solar plexus or the side of the head. At least I was out of the rain. I tried to look at the bright side but now all I was seeing were stars. Then everything went black because they knocked my hat off and pulled a hood over my head. I was more in the dark than I wanted to be. One of their punches had affected my hearing and all that was coming through was the dull roar of voices as they dragged me up a couple flights of stairs. I wasn’t resisting but they were moving faster than my legs would allow and they didn’t care that my shins were banging against the risers. Then they half dragged me a long stretch through another door by the sound of it slamming open.

A gruff voice gave an order that sounded like “put him there” or “in the chair” and next thing I knew I was thrown roughly into the sitting position and the hood was yanked off my head. I blinked in the bright light. A couple of big body shapes came into focus. The Mutt and Jeff of the strong arm crew first, hovering, waiting for me to make a wrong move, any move, in fact. Among them standing well back by his desk, Herr Doktor and his pointy goatee looking more than agitated, the bookshelves and the maps looming behind him and I knew I was back to where I’d started from, but obviously things had changed.

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“Do you takes us for fools?!” It wasn’t a question Professor Soloman was expecting me to answer.

“We have made inquiries about you, Mr. Ask. We have friends in high places. According to them you have an unsavory criminal record, receiving stolen property, public nuisance, drunk and disorderly, impersonation a police officer, soliciting prostitutes, nonpayment of alimony, vagrancy, assault and battery, unlicensed possession of a firearm, discharge of a weapon in a public place, murder, attempted murder, trespassing, invasion of privacy, stalking and spying with lewd intent. To say nothing of the fact that you have a price on your head placed there by the notorious Balkan gangster, Jan Kovic, a mortal enemy to our cause and my people, a tentacle of the Black Hand in this country!”

By the time Soloman got all that out off his chest I had a chance to get a sense of the mess I was in. There were a couple of other palookas besides the viper named Isaac and the gorilla they called Golie standing around the den with broad shoulders and mean eyes mostly pointed at me. They had me surrounded. The next thing I know I might be dead.

I pointed to the pocket of my suit coat. “Mind if I smoke?” I was playing for time and they probably knew it. The viper hissed and made like he was going to smack me one. He hadn’t hit me in the last five minutes and maybe he needed to go another round.

Soloman waved him away. “No, no, let him have his cigarette.” He said it like he was letting me have my last smoke.

I shook out one of the few left in the pack of Lucky’s and fit the smiz to my lip, the one that was starting to swell when the snake had smashed my face against the wall. I searched out a blue tip from my vest pocket and snapped the flame to life with a thumbnail. After I caught a lungful I blew it out slow and easy like I didn’t have a care in the world. I felt a little tickle below my throbbing nose where my moustache used to be and put a finger up to it. It felt sticky and when I looked at the tip I saw that it was blood. I leaned back and crossed one leg over the other.

“You might have missed a couple, Doc, but seeing as how they were minor offenses, I’ll let it pass.” I picked a fleck of tobacco off the tip of my tongue. “Sounds like someone let you take a peek at my rap sheet. Each one of those so-called charges are not at all what they seem.” I brushed some floorboard dirt off my pantleg “Take for instance the drunk and disorderly. I’m no stranger to drink but when you find out your wife has been carrying on with your best pal, well, it does something to you so I got drunk and angry. You can’t blame me. And besides the mug threw the first punch and I was in no mood for that and laid him out with a right to the jaw. But he wouldn’t stay down so I had to kick him in the head a couple of times till he got the idea, and then the bartender and some of his friends came after me and I had to pull my rod to let them know I meant business and put a round over their heads. When the cops arrived I told them I was one of them and showed them my private investigator tin. They said that it wasn’t a real badge and that I was under arrest.

“But it was just that one time.” I waved away the smoke. “And just to set things straight, I never murdered anyone. The rest of that is just part of the job or misunderstandings, personal and financial. Besides you don’t need a pedigree to do what I do in a world of cheats, chiselers and double crossers. You gotta know the game, Doc, And that’s something I know. So you think you can just toss me around and step on me? Something’s up and it smells fishy.” I blew out another mouthful of smoke like I meant it.

“Fishy? There is this!” He shoved a wet towel in my direction and I saw what looked like a soggy pile of paper the size of an address book resting on its soaked black leather covers. It looked very familiar.

“This mushy matzos is what was discovered in the water closet after you left.” He positioned himself to give me the broadside. “But not before the contents had been irreparably damaged!”

I’d seen Oliver Hardy give a more convincing chin nod. He had malarky written all over his mug.

“This item you had to sell to us is useless, worthless. We could not consider the remuneration we had agreed on and must withdraw our offer.”

I got up to take a closer look but the big brute slammed me back in the chair with one hand on my shoulder like he was merely closing a window. I stared at the pile of paper pulp. How could four dozen pages get so soggy in that short of a time? I hadn’t stuck Yamatski’s address book in the toilet tank, but in the space behind it and the wall, and if the address book had survived a swim in the East River fairly intact, especially zippered shut, why was it now just a sopping stack of curled pages?

Then I remember that I’d seen such a mess before. In the kitchen of Pat Fitzpatrick’s apartment, a freelance reporter I used to know who went off to cover the war in Spain and hasn’t been heard from since. His wife at the time, Flossie the floosy, had washed a pair of his trousers but forgot to check the pockets and didn’t find his notebook till she was putting it through the ringer. Pat was in a rage when I just happened to drop by and I might have saved Floss another knuckle mouse to her powdered cheek. But Floss wasn’t one easy to phase. She heated up her iron and one by one steam pressed each of the pages and laid them out to dry. Pat’s pencil and the ink scribbles were still readable if not a little scorched. She’d even stitched it together when it was dry and handed it back to him saying that maybe it wouldn’t have happened if he washed his own clothes.

I eyed what had been my ticket out of the dumps. If the information in that address book was that valuable, why weren’t they trying to save it? I would have. I didn’t doubt that it had occurred to them so why the con?

“Keep your shirt on, big boy,” I said as I fished the pebble out and held it between my thumb and forefinger. “This what you’re looking for?”

I drew on the fag and considered my options. I didn’t have many. I never expected a jackpot from the contents of the address book just more opportunities to get my revenge on Kovic and his mob, and I’d already harvested the cash so I was back to Go and waiting for my turn on the dice. I let out a breath of smoke. “Well, easy come, easy go. Too bad about the soaking of the goods, Doc, and that we won’t be doing business. I can’t expect you to accept damaged goods.”

“Garbage!” the old guy insisted, “You offer me garbage!” He pointed his cigar at me accusingly. “And to think I allowed young Rebecca to accompany you to meet with that degenerate, Max Feathers, a traitor to his people!”

I could tell he was warming up to launch a tirade and I didn’t want to hear it. “Listen, Doc. . . .”

“No, you will listen, Mr. Ask. I will not deal with criminals like you and Feathers. Again my suspicion is aroused. Perhaps you are an agent of the Black Hand after all, sent to reconnoiter the scope of our operation. I was right to be suspect you of trying to trick us with this worthless material! This garbage.”

“I get the drift, Doc, it’s garbage, but it’s my garbage so I’ll just take it back and be on my way.”

“Don’t bother yourself with it, we will dispose of it for you.” He called over one of his goons, “Maurice, see that this muck is thrown out with the kitchen refuse,” and handed him the pile of wet paper.

I had to object. “Hey, wait, that’s my mine, I don’t care if it’s wet!”

Soloman waved away my objection. “It is unusable rubbish. You have no use for it.”

“It is still my property.”

“It is something that belonged to someone else of which you were in possession, hardly your property. You are a thief and consort of thieves. Young Rebecca tells me that you, not she, are in possession of the uncut diamond, something else that does not belong to you. You will surrender it.” He held out his hand.

I admit that it stung my pride that she’d finked on me because I thought that there just for a moment maybe we had seen eye to eye and she had felt about me the way I felt about her but it was probably just Max’s bug juice that was making me addlepated. A dame is always going to be looking out for her own best interest and the kid was a dame, she couldn’t help it.

“Ok. Ok, let me stand up. I have to reach in my trouser pocket.”

I was hemmed in on all sides. Once I gave them what they wanted what’s to say they wouldn’t drop me off a roof or in the drink with bricks tied to my ankles. I was getting the bum’s rush that was plain to see, and this skit with the useless notebook was doing serious damage to their high and mighty cause.

I stuck my hand in my pocket and felt for the little white box the diamond was in. I could tell that it had popped open, likely during my manhandling on the way over, and that now the rock was somewhere in the corner of my pocket consorting with the local lint. I pulled out the open box to give my finger more maneuvering room and tossed it on Soloman’s desk.

He was alarmed to see it empty and Isaac stepped toward me impatiently like I was trying to pull a fast one.

“Keep your shirt on, big boy,” I said as I fished the pebble out and held it between my thumb and forefinger. “This what you’re looking for?”

I laughed at Soloman’s anticipation as I tossed the rock in my mouth and did a quick swallow just before Isaac’s fist hit me right on the button and the lights went out.

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I felt trapped like a rat, encased on all sides by something that wouldn’t give. I was blind as a mole but I could still picture what that was like. I couldn’t feel my hands and my shoulders ached from being pulled behind my back. My knees ached for the same reason. I was struggling to breathe. I’d been falling and tried to catch my breath. That’s what brought me back. I had a clanging headache as well. If it was a bad dream I was dying to wake up. The combination of the workover I got and the gut full of Max’s plum potion treating me to the stamping feet of pink elephants convinced me that the pain was too real to be all in my head even though that’s where all the hurt was congregating.

crateHow long had I been out? My jaw still throbbed so maybe not that much time had passed. I was thirsty and at the same time had the urge to relieve myself. I was lying on my left side, not my preferred side for unconsciousness. I didn’t have much choice the way I was trussed up. The gag was constricting my breathing and I started to panic. I could still move my head and tried to rub my cheek against the surface I lay on. I didn’t have much leeway. I felt as if I’d been stuffed in a crate that was too small for me.

Finally the edge of the gag pulled away enough to let in a little unobstructed air. It was a relief but my bladder may have got the wrong message. Next to being dead, the last thing I wanted was a spill in my BVDs.

I was boxed in, no mystery there, and how to get out was a question for Professor Quiz as I had let my subscription to Houdini Magazine lapse and missed the issue where they had tips on how to escape from a fix just like this one.

At the same time I managed to reposition the blindfold up over my cheekbone that allowed for an unimpeded view of more dark. There was a distinct smell of damp mustiness that reminded me of mothballs and dusty attics.

It was a familiar smell. I’d spent a lot of time in my granny’s attic above the old mercantile store upstate. It was a kingdom of dust and cobwebs and I would root around in the old crates and barrels and cedar chests and play with old wooden toys that belonged to my dad and my grandad before him. Tattered leather bound books piled on the floor and the shelves behind them, and bundles of piano sheet music for the piano no one played anymore, itself gathering its own dust in the parlor below. There were mice and spiders in the rafters, threads of gossamer trailing from the clay thimbles around which the wires for the “electric”, as granny called it, were wound to power the light in the parlor and in the kitchen and one in the bathroom.

I’d lived at granny’s off and on when I was growing up, mostly when the old man was at sea and the old lady was off doing something that didn’t involve anything that had to do with me. They fought a lot and drank a lot when they were together, and I kinda fell into that pattern too, and soon I was a candidate for reform school which had nothing to do with reform and everything to do with keeping me locked up. How I ended up being a private peeper is another story for another time.

I tried to unbend my knees but that only pulled on my arms and wrenched my shoulders but in doing so I managed to dislodge more of my gag. Big gulps of air almost made me forget the headache and my throbbing chin. I was still under pressure from my bladder. I did a little more squirming and all it did was make me feel helpless.

Angry, I jerked  whole body no matter how much it hurt. It had the effect of bunching up the top of the blindfold so that my left eye could peek over the edge and make out more darkness. I kicked the only way I could and my feet hit a wall behind me with a solid thud. I could feel with the top of my head that it was lodged in a corner of the crate. My knees with a little movement bumped another solid surface.

I was boxed in, no mystery there, and how to get out was a question for Professor Quiz as I had let my subscription to Houdini Magazine lapse and missed the issue where they had tips on how to escape from a fix just like this one.

Beside the sounds of my struggle and grunts there wasn’t much to hear. I felt like I was drowning in a big bowl of silence. Silence, with an occasional creak and groan of the architecture and maybe the occasional soft tread, titter, and squeak of rats, the occasional slammed door, a distant car horn, the rumble of an elevator, those are the sounds of silence in the big city. And the occasional sound of feet walking discretely on toe tips, the sharp tapping of fingertips on the outside of the crate, and of a soft voice asking softly, “Lack, are you all right?”


Next Time: Massacre In The Heights

A Detective Story—7

by Colin Deerwood

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Her eyes never left me as she steered the old gent to a chair alongside Soloman’s desk. They were blue shiny pools and I was drowning in them. She stood behind him once he was seated. Gramps had perked up since the fainting episode, his cheeks had a little color and he was focused, attentive. He pointed a gnarled finger in my direction. “You have more of these documents?”

I drew myself up to my entire height, pulled in my gut, and put as much authority as I could in my stance. It was all an act. I was wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. “Yeah, I do. It’s an address book.”

Soloman threw old Joe a look and then said, “You can read the Cyrillic?”

“Ixnay, Doc, I’m just guessing from the way some of it was arranged. Plus there were street names in American I could figure out.”

Now it was Rabbi Joe’s turn. “You are in possession of this dress book?”  There was a fierce gleam in his eye as he leaned forward.

“Yeah, yeah, I just brought that page to see what it might be worth. I coulda brought the whole works but you guys mighta said it was nertz and I woulda never known the diff.”  As it was the book was digging into my backbone just about the beltline.

Soloman and Joe looked puzzled. Finally the old rabbi asked, “What is this ‘nertz’?”

Soloman shrugged. “It is not Yiddish to my knowledge. And this ‘diff’ I do not know also.”

JELLO ADThe tailor’s daughter smiled and I about swooned. She spoke and I felt my knees turn to Jell-O. “I think I know, zayde. I have been studying my American. Nertz is a Brooklyn pronunciation of the expression ‘nuts,’ maybe meaning crazy or perhaps nonsense, also a negative term for bankrupt or no good.”

Even I didn’t know that and I used the word all the time. This frail would be a smash on Information Please.

Soloman looked surprised and the old guy beamed a prideful smile at his granddaughter.

“Also,” she continued, “I believe that ‘diff’ is a shortened form of the word ‘difference.’  Americans speak like telegrams I have learned.”

Just like that I was laid bare by some Jane who just got off the boat.

Soloman harrumphed to get the conversation back on track. “I would say that if the rest of the book is similar to what you have shown us, we could come to a lucrative arrangement.”  He smiled what wasn’t really a smile.

I figured when he said ‘we’ he meant more than just those present in the room. I had to be extra cautious around these jokers. There was a whole dining room full of tough kikes on the other side of the door. And once the dolly had opened her yap instead of flapping her lashes some of her glow had dimmed for me. She was out of my league, besides. “Yeah, doc, what you got to offer? I’m all ears.”

Rabbi Joe gave a knowing nod and Soloman went to the wall of books, moved a couple aside to reveal a tiny wall safe. He looked over his shoulder to make sure no one was peeking and then spun the dial. When he rejoined us he had a tiny cloth bag in his mitt like a miniature Bull Durham pouch.  He loosened the ties and poured the contents into the palm of his hand and held it out for me to take a gander.

I looked at him and back at the hand and then at the rabbi and his granddaughter who all seemed very pleased by what was being offered.

“You’re offering me pebbles? Little gray rocks?”

It took a while to register and then Soloman almost choked on his goatee laughing. Rabbi Joe’s laugh was wheezy squeak. The girl held her hand over her mouth but her eyes were yukking it up. When Soloman finally caught his breath he intoned, with all his puffed up superiority, “But Mr. Ask, these are uncut diamonds.”

You coulda fooled me. What do I know of uncut diamonds? They looked like rocks to me. And then as if a light had been shined in my eyes: rocks, diamonds, ok, I got it. But who could tell the diff. Maybe I sounded suspicious. “How am I supposed to know that these aren’t fake?”

“I can assure you, Mr. Ask, these are diamonds of the highest quality. From Africa,” he added.

Learn something new every day. Diamonds that look like driveway gravel from Africa when all I thought they had was bananas and coconuts.

“Maybe you are who you say you are, Doc but I only met you and Rabbi Joe here less than thirty minutes ago. I need to get the say-so from someone I’ve known a bit longer.”

Soloman looked astonished. “You have an appraiser?”

“Yeah, guy I know runs the pawn shop over on Fourth near Chinatown. He was in the diamond trade years ago. He knows his stuff.”

Now Soloman was almost on his tippy toes with indignation. “Stuff? If he knows this stuff then I knows of his stuff. I am familiar with everyone in the diamond trade. Name your stuff expert!”

I’d obviously hit a nerve. And again I was distracted by the comely granddaughter and feeling like the big bad wolf. “Yeah, sure, everyone knows him. Triple A Pawn, Max Feathers proprietor.”

Two bigger bug eyes you couldn’t find in the cartoon featurette at a Saturday matinee.

“Feathers?” he moaned the name as if was a curse. “Max Feathers was disbarred from the League of International Gem and Diamond Merchants. Feathers is a fraud! A cheat! A scoundrel! A confidence man!”

I shrugged. “Yeah, but he knows his diamonds.”  From the shade of crimson creeping up toward his popping temple veins I figured my bird in the hand had flown the coop. But I was saved by an angel.

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“Herr Doktor” she said, and why he wasn’t charmed is beyond me. He raised an eyebrow as if being spoken to by a woman was highly irregular. “Zayde,” she also invoked the protection of the old rabbi, “I have a suggestion if you will indulge me.”  Of course I was enchanted and I’d have to say she’d been doing pretty good at learning her English. Old Joe gave a nod lifting his hands to Soloman as if asking what’s the harm?

“Just as Mister Ask has brought only one page, perhaps we can allow him one,” and she smiled at me, “pebble to verify with Mister Feathers. In exchange for the book he will receive more.” She beamed, proud of herself although gramps wasn’t so sure.

Soloman didn’t like the idea as soon as she started talking and when she was done he liked it even less.  “Nein, nein. What if he did not return? He has gained an item of value and we have nothing but a scrap of paper! Does he take us for fools?”

The thought had crossed my mind. If the diamond was real I could be on a boat to Havana before anyone was the wiser.

“It was my suggestion, uncle, and I have a feeling that Mr. Ask is in a situation unlike any other he’s been in before.”  She came at me with her eyes as if she were boring in and I began wondering when I’d last changed my underwear.  “Here he is with the opportunity to make a considerable amount of money, enough to give him a vacation from his dangerous profession for a very long time. I don’t think that he would pass up that opportunity.”  Now she was appealing to my mercenary side: with a load of dough I could ditch this burg, maybe move to Hollywood, reconnect with Grace. “Furthermore, I think that Mr. Ask is a man of honor, a man of his word who would not consider betraying us.”  By “us” I was sure she meant “her.”  And the way she said it, the implications were tempting. I just wanted to see how committed she was to her scheme.

“There was an expression I liked to see after I’ve made love to a woman—shock and pleasure. I recognized it immediately because it was so rare of an experience.

“Thanks, miss, I forget your name, but you are correct. I am a man of my word. Once I shake on a deal it is solid. And if what I have is that important to you,” and I meant to her, “then it is just makes good business sense for us to conduct this exchange, the book for the rocks.”

Soloman sniffed like something didn’t smell right. He squinted one eye at me as if trying to view me from a different angle.

“Like the girl said, I take one diamond to Feathers. He looks it over. If he gives the ok, I get the gravel and you get the book. No one breaks a sweat.”

Soloman was shaking his head. He didn’t like the logistics. “How will we make the exchange? The Rabbi nor I cannot go abroad.”

“What? I ain’t asking you to leave the country.”

“No, no we have to be careful in this city. We have enemies. We cannot be seen in public.”

“How about a coupla your minions. They look like they can handle themselves.”

Soloman gave a sour look. He didn’t like that idea either.

“How about the dame?”

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There was an expression I liked to see after I’ve made love to a woman—shock and pleasure. I recognized it immediately because it was so rare of an experience. That’s what was missing in my life. I could tell by the demur smile that she liked the idea. Shock for being put into that position and pleasure because it felt good.

Soloman sputtered like he’d inhaled something down the wrong way and coughed till his eyes bulged holding on to the edge of his desk for fear he might fall down.  Then it translated into, once he caught his breath, “absolutely not, impossible, I won’t hear of it.” And in a couple of other languages, I couldn’t be sure.  In a way it made the objection international, like we were hemmed in by little flags stuck in a map. The old rabbi looked uncomfortable, color coming to his ears, and lowered his eyes.

But she knew her mark. “Zadye,” she began, “if you send Mr. Ask with your men to the Feather Diamond place he will become suspicious and might not want to verify the authenticity of . . .” and looked directly at me, “the pebble.”

The rabbi had lifted his eyes. They asked what are you getting at?

“Now if I were to accompany Mr. Ask to the pawnbroker, he would not be suspicious because we could pose as betrothed,” she smiled, pleased with herself, “and we are inquiring as to the authenticity of the stone.”

It sounded so simple. And naive. I know, I’d been there.

Soloman wasn’t buying it. “Nien! Nein!” He was pacing now. “It is not safe! Who knows who we’re dealing with.  This might all be a ploy. He could be working for them. To kidnap Rebecca!”

“Herr Doktor, they could not have known that I would be involved. I didn’t know it more than a minute ago when I suggested it.”

“Rebecca, my child, these are cruel and evil people we are dealing with. They are clever, insidious.”  His head wagged back and forth like a dog’s tail.  That meant no.

“Listen, Hair Doctor, do we have a deal or don’t we? Otherwise I’m wasting my time here.”

“What you suggest is impossible. How do I know you have what you’re claiming to have in your possession? That it is authentic. What else is there beside this single page? What am I buying?”

“First of all, Doc, suddenly you’re worried about authenticity. You musta thought that this page was the hoot’s snoot otherwise you wouldn’ta asked me into the inner sanctum. You were gonna offer me a bag of gravel in exchange for the book. That’s how authentic you made that single page. I get it. You think you need to be extra careful because you don’t know me from Adam. But lemme put you straight. This book usta belong to one of Yan Kovic’s goons, a guy by the name of Yamatski who is now swimming with the fishes in the East River. How I got it is a story we won’t get into. Just let’s say I got wet and the pages only suffered a little water damage around the edges, but everything is still readable because it was written in pencil. It’s an address book and doubles as a wallet, about the size a cigar case, leather like one, and it’s got a wraparound zipper that closes up the three sides.” I don’t know why I felt I had to claim the wallet was empty, but I did. “There are pages of what look like names and addresses like I said, and what looks like some kinda codes. I couldn’t figure out what they said because my Buck Rogers decoder ring got lost in the mail.  Besides they mostly was all in that serialic writing.”

Now the doc and old Joe were trying to say something to each other without opening their mouths.

I gave them a nudge. “I saw you flash the old stink eye when I mention’s Kovic’s name. He’s from that part of the world you were showing me on the map, am I right?” I pointed to the map on the wall. Mrs. Peabody would have been proud of me—maybe something did sink in after all.

“Yes, the name is known to us. America is truly the land of opportunity when a petty thief in his home country can become an American gangster and make more money than even the President of the United States. Is that what you call democracy, rule by the petty?”

“He’d be part of this secret society then, the Black Hand, I’m guessing.”  Even the frill took a breath in fright at the mention of the name.

Soloman nodded glumly. “They are a network of thugs and murderers who prey on the vulnerable, the fringes of society and culture where the powers that be often look the other way. We are the mercy of their genocidal schemes. There is a chance, a slight chance, that the address book will provide information that will aid us in our resistance and thwart their aims. These fascists are drunk with power! The Black Hand must be stopped from terrorizing our people!”

“You don’t have much of a choice then, do ya, doc. Me and the bird take a rock over to Feathers’ shop. He scopes it and it’s either deal and you get the book you wanted or no deal and I get a free ride downtown in the company of a beautiful young woman.”

Soloman made a face that made him look like he had exclamations points all over his mug!!!  “They are real, that you can count on, and I would expect delivery of the address book upon verification!”  He glanced sideways at the rabbi whose head reluctantly nodded yes. “Simon and David will drive you there and make certain there is not a. . .double cross, as you American’s like to say.”

I shook my head. “The girl is right. Max sees a couple of mugs with us, he’s gonna smell something fishy. Just me and her. Nothing to worry about. Max won’t bite. You just watch.”

“Nonetheless, they will accompany you and stay discreetly hidden but nearby. Should the need arise, Rebecca, do you know what to do?”

“Surely my father must have told you of what I and my troop of Red Kerchiefs did in the hills above the city.”  Before Soloman could interject, she said, “We secured the parachute drops and parachutists and hid them from the authorities.”

“Ja, ja, we are well aware of your exploits. And that is why you are here in the United States. To keep you safe, out of harm’s way. You are, after all, Rabbi Joseph’s great granddaughter and ark of his ancient family line. Your father was foolish to leave you behind.”

“I stayed with my mother, to fight in the resistance.”

“And sadly she is no longer with us.” Soloman lowered his head. “And you are here in relative safety.”

“I would have stayed behind! I wanted to avenge her death! Instead you had me kidnapped and brought to this country!”

I had to step in. “I hate to breakup this family tussle here, but missy, if you want to get your revenge, the quickest way is to get going with the plan.”  I coulda asked her if she had a backup plan but this was looking like taking candy from a baby. “Only I need to use the can before we head out.”  With the quizzical looks they gave me I had to add, “My bladder’s lapping at the overflow valve.”  Still nothing. “The facilities, the toilet?”

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They rolled a big Packard around to the front entrance. The tailor’s daughter didn’t look a bit like the kid in Soloman’s study. She was wearing a dark wool skirt and a beige blouse with a collar tied in big bow under her porcelain chin, a russet three quarter length wide lapeled tweed coat, and a tiny brown Robin Hood peaked cap with a black and red band propped jauntily on the luster of her long auburn hair. Looking like she just stepped off the silver screen, she smiled at me as I held the door open for her, long lashes blinking a beguiling thank you.

1940-packard-1Two mooks sat like bowling pins in the front seat of the Packard—they couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old—the one who looked like he was working on a ‘stache driving. The other one had a head of curly hair no hat, even the bucket he was wearing, was going to hide.

I sat in the back seat with Rebecca. I’d made a detour to the water closet before we left, pretended to make my business all the while wedging Yamatski’s address book up behind the gravity flush water tank. Then I flushed.

I even felt a little flush—sitting next to this specimen of female flesh had worked up my blood. It was her feisty nature as well as her good looks that kept my interest. She, however, was interested in only one thing. Learning how to talk American.

“What is this stink eye?”

“Uh well,” I was at a loss, “it’s just kind of one of those looks you give somebody who says something that spills the beans when they shouldn’ta.”

“Beans? In the kitchen? I see, they have spilled a pot of beans and you are giving them this look that you are disappointed, no, angry! Angry eye, yes?”

“Yeah, angry, maybe the evil eye without all the hoodoo voodoo behind it.”

“ Hoo-doo voo-doo. This is your American tall tales you are telling me. I have heard that they are told and one must be cautious because they have flam flam. No, flim flim, that’s it!”

She had such a little pink innocence to the scrunch of her nose, such a determined set to her lips, such an intense gaze I couldn’t decide if I wanted to kiss her or laugh in her face. “Flim flam.”

“Yes, that is what I said. And this stink to the eye. It smells, it emits an odor, and you are . . .threatening with it? No, you are giving them this, this. . .stentsch with the look of your eye! Yes?”

She had my mind taking corners I didn’t even know were there and it was making me dizzy. I was on the verge of asking her if she wanted to see Niagara Falls because I was about to change my name to Niagara and I was falling for her. But it would have just added to the confusion. I didn’t want to look like a dumbo so I said, “The look says you can see the reek rising up off them and lets them know that you can.”

She cocked her beautiful head to one side as if considering the explanation “And who is this Buck Rogers, an associate of this Feathers man?”

I don’t know why all this wasn’t covered at Ellis Island but all of a sudden I was feeling like a tour guide at the Statue of Liberty. “Naw, Buck Rogers, he’s this guy who flies around in a rocket to other planets in outer space. In the funny papers, the brats, you know, the Katzenjammer Kids? He’s on the radio, too, and in the movies, that Olympic champ, Buster Crabbe plays him.”

Her pretty little forehead gave a frown. “This is your flam flim, yes?”

She was a real doll, and I can’t say that I’d ever met one before, not one like this, not putting on a front, acting tough or sexy, but smart as a pistol, and from what I could see, some terrific gams. She caught my gaze and pulled the hem of her skirt to cover her knees. “I am curious also. A hoot’s snoot, this is more of your filmy flam?”

“Naw, just something I made up. ‘don’t give a hoot’ means ‘I don’t care,’ and ‘snoot’ means ‘nose,’ kinda like I’m ‘thumbing my nose’ and I just threw them together because they sound the same. It’s jive talk, that’s all.”

“A whole other American language?

“You might say that. It’s what you might hear on the street, you know from the hep cats or if you hang out in jazz clubs.”

This is something you can do in American? I am unaware.”

“Well, yeah, you can if you’re good at it”

“And you are good at this, what would you call, improvisational arabesques, verbal flourishes? Maybe you should be a writer.”

“Yeah, I thought about it once.”

“What happened?”

“I ran out of paper.”

She laughed, peals of amusement filled the entire car, and even Mr. Hair had to look over his shoulder to make sure we weren’t being unruly.

“Ah yes, I understand,” her eyes widely innocent,  “Jive talk, a kind of argot.”

She wasn’t going to get me with that fancy word because I knew exactly what she was talking about so I said, “No, it ain’t like them snails you eat at fancy French restaurants.”

This time she chortled behind her gloved hand and her eyes gleamed merrily reflecting the neon night of the passing streets. “Mr. Ask, I find you extremely charming which belies your rough exterior and manner. This is a most wonderful and informative conversation.”

“Pigs who speak Latin, another one of your American tall tales, yes?”

The beam of her smile blinded me and tangled up my tongue. I didn’t know what to say, besides my heart was in my mouth and I didn’t want to spit it out and hand it to her because that would definitely be uncouth, and what little couth I had I wanted to wait and use at the right time so I said “Yeah, I was thinking the same about you, and maybe sometime you and me, we could, ah, get to know each other a little better, you know, over a cup of coffee or a drink, I could take you to a club, go dancing, hear some jazz.” I put my arm across the seat behind her and moved in her direction. “We probably got a lot in common. I mean, you’re doll and I’m a guy.”

She shifted toward the door on her side and I felt something hard poke against my ribs. I looked down at her hand in her coat pocket and up into that determined look I had found adorable earlier now steely and uncompromising. “You are suggesting what it is called a date, but not from a palm, one agreed on ahead of time on a calendar. I don’t think my father would approve or allow it. Our supposed engagement is a ruse, Mr. Ask, nothing more. Please do not try to make more than it is. I am fully capable of taking care of myself.”

I shrugged and sagged back to my side of the bench. I felt the breeze of being blown off followed by the disappointment of being wrong about a dolly again, I always end up leading with my chin wearing my heart on my sleeve, and falling for a herring, the operator behind my eyes putting me through to a wrong number.

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I’d been shot down before so I laughed it off. “I dunno why you need any help from me. Your English ain’t so bad.”

“Yes, but it is my American I must improve. I am curious again for a word. What is this ixnay?”

“Nix, no. What you just said to me, notta chance. It’s pig Latin.”

“Pigs who speak Latin, another one of your American tall tales, yes?”

“No, it’s for real, something we used to talk in the neighborhood among us kids. Only thing I still use is ixnay, anybody who’s ever spoken it still does, that and amscray.”

“Amscray, I have not heard.”

“It means scram, beat it. . .go away?”

“I must remember these, scram, beat me. . . ? I am still confused as to why you speak the Latin of pigs as a child.”

“Well, it ain’t really Latin, it’s a made up language, kind of a code so you can say stuff that somebody who don’t know the igpay ain’t gonna understand, like if they ain’t part of your gang, see?”

“Now I am very confused. Are you being truthful or are you with me making a toy?”

“No, it’s all true. Now I wasn’t as good at it as little Stevie Silverman, he’s the guy who taught igpay to most the guys in our gang. We called him “Stubby” cause he was so short. He could hold whole conversations in pig Latin. Once he recited the preamble to the Declaration of Independence in pig Latin to history class. Mrs. Peabody didn’t know if she shoulda been shocked or amused, but it got Stubby beat up on the playground for being a showoff anyway.”

“This is fascinating. How is this pig Latin spoken?”

“It’s pretty easy. You take any word, like say ‘pig’ and you move the first letter of the word to the end and add ay, a-y, so pig becomes igpay. Or, like scram, you take all the letters bunched up before the a and move them to after the m, add an ay, and you get amscray. Simple.”

“That is easy for you perhaps, but let me see if I grasp. Pig is igpay. If I wanted to say  pig Latin I would say igpay. . .atinlay?”

“Yeah, I suppose, if you wanted to say that. Usually we just said things like amscray or uckday.”

“You would say a duck? For whatever purpose?”

“That is a very short question to a very long answer, but the gist is ‘keep your head down.’ Unray was always popular when we seen the cops coming.”

“Run, am I correct?”

pawnshop“Yeah, I think you got the hang of it. Try this one on for size. Ouyay areyay ayay ishday.”

“I am at a loss. It sounds like an infant’s babble.”

“It means ‘you are a dish.’”

“A dish? What is a dish? Do you mean a place setting. . . ?” She blushed, “Oh, porcelain.”

I laughed “No flies on you.”

She brushed at her shoulders, suddenly alarmed, “I hope not!”

I laughed again. And we were there.


Next Time: Max and The Empress’s Cucumber

A Detective Story—5

by Colin Deerwood

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I was being followed. I had just pushed out from the brass and glass doors of City Bank where I had gone to break down the c-notes to more expendable denominations. A high crowned fedora with the brim turned down topped a slight figure in a long gray overcoat with the collar turned up. I dropped to one knee in front of the entrance to the jewelry shop next door. I retied my shoe glancing up at the reflection in the display window mirroring rings, jewels and watches. The shadow hesitated, dark goggles and wan cheeks peeking out from above the V of  collar. I knew I could probably take him. Unless he had a gun in his hand in those deep overcoat pockets.

            I rose and turned abruptly, striding in his direction. He spun and walked hurriedly out of sight around the giant granite cornerstone of the bank building. Just as quickly I turned and ducked into a cocktail lounge two doors down.

            It was one of those tall, narrow, opaque window, dark interior, shotgun places that catered to bank tellers, bookkeepers, secretaries, and clerks with tables along one wall and an ads bar1enormous mahogany bar along the other that allowed only constricted access to the darker reaches of the back where the facilities were located. And the phone booth. That’s where I headed.

            An older woman in a ratty fox and a dish mop for hair, and an even older purple beezer gent in a rumpled brown suit and shapeless hat pulled down over a ruff of shaggy white feathers looked up from toying with the ice in their tall glasses. The bartender, with whom they had been conversing in earnest hushed tones, was a broad browed palooka with calm guileless gray eyes. He ambled down, a wide door in a dress shirt and a black string tie, to where I had ensconced myself among the shadows and where I had a good view of the entire length of the bar and the entrance. He looked me over as he placed a cork coaster in front of me. I was still wearing the clothes Annie had loaned me, the rough checkered shirt and pair of dungarees, the cracked leather windbreaker. I needed a shave. Maybe he thought I was in the wrong kind of dive. But he understood me perfectly when I held up one finger and then two fingers horizontal to the bar. Double. Whisky. Neat.

            I laid out a fin when he brought me the drink and he came back from the register with three fish and some bait. They must expect some well-heeled patrons at those prices. I didn’t say it out loud. Besides the first sip told me that it was the good stuff and why disturb a sleepwalking giant.

            Someone had left the daily paper in the corner near my elbow. I unfolded it and angled it to catch the light off the bright mirrored back bar. The headlines screamed about the mess in Europe. Under the fold one headline caught my eye. It read, Mob Boss All Wet and then in sub head, Two Still Missing.

         

Apparently while trying to avoid capture by Federal and local authorities several reputed crime figures crashed their speedboat into a garbage scow on the East River. All but two of the occupants of the speedboat were recovered from the frigid waters. One of the missing men was believed to be Milosz Yamatski, a man known to be second in command to reputed crime boss, Jan Kovic. The other man’s identity was unknown. I reassured myself that Yamatski’s address book was still in my jacket pocket. I was going to give its contents the third degree once I got the chance. Right now I had more immediate things to attend to. The swelling on my face had gone down and only the hint of a bruise outlined my chin line and the cheek under one eye. If I was going to stay in business I was going to need some new duds, clean up, scrape the stubble off my cheeks. Look sharp, feel sharp. First I had to call my crooked lawyer, Ralphie Silver. Not to ask for legal advice. He was the one who referred me to Kovic in the first place. I figured I should warn him as well as give him hell for setting me up like that. I drained the glass. It went down like cool molten gold. I had to have another.

            The old couple looked down my way, annoyed that I was calling away. . .their son? I smiled at the thought and the jolly gentle giant eyed me quizzically.

            “Yeah, one more of the high class joy juice, and whatever your mom and dad are having. On me.”  He laughed a big belly laugh but his eyes were as cold as ten-penny nails. I pushed the fish and bait toward him and laid out another fin. He gurgled the shot until it lapped at the rim.

            I slurped at the excess. I continued to plan my course of action, the one I had begun to form on my way back up the coast. I still had to be careful but I was assuming that Kovic thought I was feeding the eels along with his number two boy. As far as I was concerned that had been a draw. Maybe I was expecting a little more cash for my troubles, but for now what I had was a down payment. The address book was probably worth something to the right people. Maybe a closer inspection of Yamatski’s digs would turn up something else that was my due.

Then there was Al’s sister. That was a prospect I could cut loose though I knew I didn’t have the full picture as far as she was concerned. I went to my wallet and pulled out the pink postal package notice. I had grabbed a deposit envelope while I was in the bank. I folded the pink slip and fit it into the envelope. I called down to Tiny for something to write with and he brought me a stubby pencil. I scrawled my name on the envelope and laid a sawbuck on top of it. I pushed it toward him.

            “I was supposed to meet a friend here but it looks like he’s gonna be late and I gotta be somewhere. Can you hang on to it and give it to him when he comes in? He’ll know to ask for it. His name’s on it. The tenner’s for your trouble.”

            I was talking his lingo. “Yeah, sure, can do.” He smiled like a kid who had just been given a new toy. I watched him stick the envelope in the space behind the ornate cash register on the bar.

          ADS38_taxi_27Ralphie wasn’t answering so I dialed for a cab from the booth and then strolled to the front door and peered out the small square window. I couldn’t see much from that vantage, just the odd hat bobbing past, and the intermittent shadows of bodies hurrying by. When the cab pulled up, I took a deep breath, pushed the door open, strode across the squares of sidewalk to the curb and jumped in the back almost all in one motion. The cabbie cut back into the traffic flow with a screech of tires. I gave him an address on Second Avenue and glanced out the rear window. A big black town car driven by a tall hat had pulled out from the curb a few cars back. I didn’t want to take any chances.

            “The black town car back there, can you lose him?”

            The cabbie glanced in the side mirror and then into the rear view at me. “That’ll be extra.”

            I slid a sawbuck across the back of the seat to him. I was starting to hemorrhage money.

            “Hang on,” he said, and took the next corner on two wheels.

 

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I should have asked for my money back. The cabbie had turned onto a street that was being repaved. Not only that, he rammed right into the back of a dump truck carrying a load of hot asphalt. If that wasn’t enough, the collision triggered the lift on the dump bed and the contents emptied onto the hood of the cab. The cabbie had just enough time to get out before the door was sealed by a mound of steaming black pavement. To top it off, he immediately got into a shouting match with a large man holding a large shovel. I bailed from my side and flattened myself against the bricks of the building. The town car had turned into the street a few cars back. There was nowhere to go. A crowd was gathering and I joined in the flow long enough to duck behind the dump truck and sprint another fifty yards to the narrow shadow of an alleyway. It was blind. Overflowing garbage cans and a few packing crates at the far end up against the brick face of the building and a fire escape that lead up to the roof. I ran to the end and judged the distance from the top of the crate to the bottom rung of the ladder. I could make it. I walked around the crate closest to the building thinking to reposition it at a better angle. I didn’t see the hole. My leg went straight down throwing me face forward against the bricks. It hurt but not as much as my knee wrenched as it was at such an obtuse angle. I collected my senses and saw that I was standing in the entrance to a coal chute. The crate had partly covered the hole and now I was wedged between the wall and the crate. I unstuck myself by pushing on the box, and untwisted my knee. I could feel the side of my face begin to swell and throb. The pain from my knee ripped at my thigh like a claw. I kept my sob to a cough, eyes watering, and realized that I had found my avenue of escape. I lowered myself into the hole and slid the crate to cover it completely. I was in the dark. I felt the wooden hatch cover behind me. It gave way with a slight moan of hinge. I had to assume there was a chute. I set my legs ahead of me and inched forward. There was a ledge and then my feet struck metal, the chute. I went over the edge and gravity took hold. There was a drop and my feet hit, scattering loose coal. Finally after all these years I’d made it to the top of the heap. I was in a coal stall. A faint light leaked through the cracks in the boards. I hoisted myself to the top of the box. There was barely enough room for me to fit between the ceiling and the top edge of the enclosure. My now bad knee wasn’t cooperating and caught briefly on the side along with part of my pant leg. The pain was such that I let go thinking that the drop would not be close to as painful. I was only partly right. My elbow took the brunt of the impact. I lay there for a while, I don’t know how long. I didn’t hear anything that would indicate someone was looking for me. I was in a semi-fetal position, the hand on the arm with the bad elbow cupping the bad knee and the other hand cupping the bad elbow. The shadows of rats crossed the faint light coming from beyond the hulk of brick furnace and boiler. I got to my feet like a man who had just been beat on by six angry stepbrothers.

            The steps the single bare light bulb thoughtfully illuminated led up. I followed them. There was a door at the top. The door led to a large closet arranged with mops brooms and buckets. There was another door on the far side. It led to a hallway and the ground floor business advertised on the glass as a purveyor of fine discount clothing. I’d thought about getting to a tailor, just not in such a roundabout fashion.

 

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            Through the window I could see the red, white, and blue sign, YMCA. I was neither young or Christian, and I wasn’t so sure about my associates. While the tailor worked on the alterations, I walked across the street and into the building. The kid at the desk was a bleeding heart, wan from self-abuse. I had a choice, a room for six bits a night which included pool and shower privileges or I could pay two bits and just use the shower, towel, soap, lock and locker included. That’s what the sign on the wall behind him said. I went for the bargain. There was a four bit deposit on the lock. It was no bigger than a matchbook and you could probably open sloanehouseadit with a hard stare. There was an elastic looped through the top of the key. “You can wear that around your wrist when you shower.”  He said it as if were a dirty word. And I just wanted to get clean. The use of a razor with disposable blade was another two bits. I followed the arrows that pointed to the lockers and the shower bay. There were rows of wooden lockers with their doors standing open. I picked one closest to the tiled entrance to the showers and shucked off my clothes. I stood there with my towel in front of me feeling very naked. It bothered me that my wallet and Yamatski’s address book would be vulnerable to anyone who bothered to sneeze on the lock and rifle through my belongings while I was in the shower. Most of the other lockers around mine were empty. I took a chance and removed the items and tucked them at the far back of the top shelf of the locker next to mine. I took a fin out and stuck it in my pants pocket. That done I stepped across the cold wet tiles, hung my towel on the rack at the entrance and up to the first shower head. I was alone. And naked. I stayed naked while the hot water gushed over me with pleasant stinging force. I wasn’t alone for long.

The desk clerk stuck his head into the shower room and goggled at the fallen Charles Atlas. If there’d been sand I would have kicked it in his face.

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            If you took a wedge of pink skin, thick muscle and bones and stuck it on a pair of chopsticks you’d have what this guy looked like. I imagine that it wouldn’t be that obvious if he had clothes on, or that he had a little spigot like those guys on those Greek statues have. His head sat on his broad muscular shoulders almost like an afterthought. He was either a jailbird or a friend of the prison barber. The bluebirds tattooed at the top of each pec were supposed to make you think he was a creampuff. Maybe he was. I got the feeling I was going to find out. I stepped out of the spray and headed for my towel.

            “Hey, where you going so fast, I just got here!”  He was going to stop me from reaching my towel.

            “Come on pally, I don’t have the time or the inclination to play drop-the-soap.”  I pushed passed him but he grabbed my arm. His grip slipped and I gave a hard shove against his chest, tangling his pipe cleaners with my foot. He went down hard on a cushion of muscle with a grunt. Grimacing he got back to his feet while I planned my next move. I’d only succeeded in making him mad. He rushed at me and I feinted toward the door and then I lost traction on the wet floor and he had me in a bear hug before I knew it. I had to use my head. And I did. I brought my forehead down on the bridge of his nose. It hurt, but it hurt him more. His grip loosened and I broke it bringing my knee up hard between his legs. From his howl I could tell I caused him big pain. I was about to plant my foot in his face but he started crying, begging that I not hurt him anymore. He was a cream puff after all.

            The desk clerk stuck his head into the shower room and goggled at the fallen Charles Atlas. If there’d been sand I would have kicked it in his face. “What’s going on?” he asked alarmed, his eyes darting from me to Samson and back. I got the impression he was more interested in checking out our packages.

            I pushed past wrapping a towel around my waist. “Nothing to get worried about, kid, just a lover’s quarrel.”

 

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            Smooth as a baby’s ass. Almost. I patted my fresh shaved jaw and eyed what was staring back at me in the mirror above the washbasin. I’d decided to lose the moustache and now my upper lip looked naked and unfamiliar. I imagined with time I’d get used to it. Maybe. It had been a fixture on my map since it was just a fuzzy little caterpillar. But it was the least I could do to change my appearance. Compared to the plum over my right brow where I’d head butted the moose in the shower, the rest of my bruises were fading to a dull bluish amber. Now I just looked rugged, my features chiseled by patent leather shoes and big ringed knuckles. Surprisingly my nose had withstood the onslaught without being permanently bent out of shape. That was a good thing because a peeper needs a respectable looking nose. Someone sees you with a lopsided schnoz and they figure you zigged when you shoulda zagged. Appearance is 99 percent of the presentation I read in the back of a dime magazine once. It made sense. I slicked back my wet hair with a steel comb and gathered up my wallet and the address book from the adjacent locker. My trousers were light the fiver I’d stuck in the pocket. Now it made sense. The ape wasn’t love loony, he was just running interference while his confederate, most likely the kid at the front desk, rifled through my clothes. I figured to collect it when I turned in the useless lock and key. I turned to go and there was Armstrong again.

            “Ya shouldnta done that,” he said and took a swing at me coming from such a long way off I couldn’t have seen it without binoculars. I ducked under it easily and bumped his chest with mine pushing back against the bank of lockers with a loud clatter. I stuck out my tongue and retrieved the steel blue razor blade that had been resting there. I held the edge to the small space between his chin and his chest. He struggled and I slashed the side of his jaw. His yowl brought the desk clerk running. I threw a towel at the bleeder who was now looking at the red on his hands with disbelief. The kid ran to him. “What did you do? What happened?”

            “Looks to me like he cut himself shaving.”  I yanked the kid back by his shirt collar. “And the fiver you took from my trousers, give!”  The kid squirmed and I gripped the back of his neck and squeezed hard. He crumpled to his knees and handed the five to me over his shoulder. I let go and shoved him towards his partner in crime. “A little bit of advice. Next time don’t stand so close to the razor.”

 

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            I looked at myself in the tailor’s cheval glass. I was passable as a human being, bruised but clean. I never thought I looked good in tweed, brown’s not my color, but the suit was a nice fit. Maybe it was the new shirt but I almost looked respectable. The shoes fit nicely, who ever had worn them before had done a good job keeping them up. Buffed and polished to perfection, they felt comfortable, like old money.

            The tailor had a nose like a can opener, a little cloth beanie on the back of his head, a cuff of pins and needles on one sleeve, and a yellow tape slung around his neck. He was a little older than me by the white sprinkled in the fringe of red beard along the jaw line. He looked pleased with his work.

            I reached into my newly acquired wallet, courtesy of Yamatski, and pushed the twenty at him. Not a bad price for a dead man’s wardrobe that fit so nicely.

            The establishment was a used clothing store, I’d seen that right away when I emerged from my sojourn in the coal cellar. It was just what I needed. A change of clothes would at the very least give me an edge on whoever it was following me. Business must have been slow and I was able to get a good price on the brown tweed suit and vest. He threw in a pair of new skivvies and undershirt. The tie was extra as was the new Arrow shirt, and shoes, though he was willing to take half off when I balked. The socks were extra as well. I figure he was probably making close to a hundred percent markup considering that he could get a whole closet of suits for that twenty from some widow’s estate.          

He handed me a hat. “The pièce de résistance.” He said it like he was serving me dessert.

            It looked like a fedora to me. I set it snug on my head and flicked the brim. I was unrecognizable as me. At this point I felt I could splurge and fished for another five in the wallet. Maybe the hat distracted me. I fumbled the address book and it slipped from my hand.

            He was quick to pick it up and hand it back, but not before catching a glimpse of an open page. The color drained from his face and he lowered his eyes, hand shaking.

            He spoke something I didn’t understand. When I didn’t answer, he tried something else I didn’t understand. He looked at me, blue eyes wide, and I watch it dawn on him that I wouldn’t understand anything but a hundred percent Yank.

            “You are not a Slav?” He cocked a large ear at me like my answer was going to give him an idea to run or stay.

            I shook my head. “No, pal, I’m as American as a sawed-off shotgun. What of it?”

            He pointed at the wallet. “The writing in your book is Cyrillic.”

            I looked down at a page with Yamatski’s secret writing. “Is that what that is?”  And “What the hell is it?”

            “Cyrillic is the alphabet used in Greece and many of the countries along the Black Sea. The Russians use it.”

            “Ruskies? Think this is some kind of Communist code?”

            The tailor gave a shrug. “Unfortunately I cannot read it. I only recognized it as written using the Cyrillic alphabet.”

            He was lying. “Yeah, but you spoke to me in it, didn’t you?”

            “Speaking and reading are two different things. Where I come from we learn to speak many pieces of different languages without necessarily reading them.”

            Now it was my turn to lie. “Yeah, I found this in a phone booth in Grand Central station. Somebody musta forgot it. I’d return it. . .”  I looked down at the page, “. . .if I knew what it said.”

            The tailor brightened. “You are in luck. I know a rabbi who can help you. He is an old man well read in many languages including those written in Cyrillic. Allow me to give you his address.”  He retrieved a slip of paper and pencil from his shirt pocket and dropped his cheaters onto his nose.

            I looked over his stooped back to see a beautiful apparition peek through the curtains to a room at the rear of the shop from which emanated the unmistakable smell of boiled cabbage. I smiled at the vision.

            “Hello,” she said.

            The tailor jerked his head around at the sound of the voice and then straightened, handing me the slip of paper. “He can tell you what it means.”  And then, officiously, “What would you like me to do with your old clothes. I can dispose of them for you or I can have them delivered to your address?” 

            I gave him my card. “Yeah, bundle it up and send it to my post office box.” It would be a shame to lose that leather jacket, and maybe the shirt and pants would be an excuse to see Annie again.

            He glanced at the card and frowned. “You are a private police?”

            “Yeah, but I ain’t no cop,” I said still distracted by the comely tomato.

           rebecca The apparition stepped out from behind the curtain. She was beautiful and petite, red curls cut close to her perfectly shaped head. Even in the ankle length full sleeved shift she was wearing, you didn’t need x-ray vision to make out that the proportions were correct and that everything bulged or gave way in the right place.

            “My daughter, Rebecca.”  The tailor introduced with a worried frown.

            “Hello,” she said. Her big blue eyes bored a hole right through my chest.

            “Please excuse, her English is very limited, newly arrived from Salonika.”

            As far as I was concerned she spoke the universal language. My heart was deafening me, and I felt a familiar stirring below the beltline.

            She dropped her head shyly at my hypnotized gaze and clutched her father’s arm. “Gangsta, papa?”

            “Nein,” he answered, “Shimol.”


Next Time: A thousand thousand flies and their thousand thousand eyes

A Detective Story—4

by Colin Deerwood

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I never expected to be drinking gasoline and water.  I’d had just as bad before, but this was East River water, and the gasoline, diesel by grade, was from the overturned powerboat.  It had happened all so fast.

           He had a gun in his hand.  I had my hands on the gun in his hand. 

Kovic or one of his goons was yelling something at me.  I couldn’t tell what – they all sound like they’re clearing their throats.  I realized they were yelling at me about the same time they realized I wasn’t the guy I was supposed to be.  What they were trying to tell me in that gargled tongue of theirs was that I was on a collision course with a tug pulling a barge.  At the same time, the discovery that I wasn’t one of them got two toughs up on their feet lurching toward me, guns in hand.

The barge loomed closer.  I hit the throttle and a hard left on the rudder.  I didn’t know what I was doing but it seemed like the right thing.  The powerboat sleighed on its gunnels as it performed a tight arc away from the barge.  The wheel spun in my hands as the boat rolled back to an even keel.  Now I was headed back the way I’d come.  There were red flashing lights and sirens approaching.  The floodlights of the patrol boat illumed me.

I looked back at my passengers.  There were only three of them now.  And they all had guns aimed at me.  I’m a quick study.  I throttled up and gave a hard right rudder.  I was sure they couldn’t get off a straight shot as I busted my wake.  The bulk of the barge loomed ahead, a dark behemoth hauling its tons of garbage to a landfill in down state.  A shot careened off the dashboard a foot too close for my comfort.  I turned and saw that I still had three men in my tub.  The one lunging at me had a very familiar face.  It was the one I’d been looking for.  He led with his chin and I caught him in the windpipe with a full set of knuckles.  He choked in my face as he landed on top of me and knocked me to the deck.

He had a gun in his hand.  I had my hands on the gun in his hand.  He was stronger than me, but the fact that he couldn’t breathe was in my favor.  It was a draw until the impact.

The gun went off.  He went limp.  We both went flying into the drink.  I was tangled up with him otherwise I would have made my own splash.  We sank like rocks in men’s clothing.  My peacoat was sucking up water like a wino after a three-day bender.  Friend and I had to part ways and I was about to remove my arm from under his when I had the presence of mind to reach inside his suit coat and extract what felt like a small brick, the wallet I had watched him peel the C note from.  I shed the pea coat, a veritable anti-life preserver if there ever was one, and scrambled upward till my head broke the surface.

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I had never learned to swim.  What I was doing was called splashing, and gasping for air.  I had the memory of doing that once before revisit me.  I must have been ten.  It was at the Municipal Swimming Pool.  I was one of those skinny little kids in the baggy trunks that hung out in the shallow end.  I liked playing in the water, splashing my friends and being splashed back.  But I hated getting water up my nose.  I had water up my nose now and I didn’t like it.

I was also the skinny kid in the baggy trunks who was always getting yelled at by the lifeguard for running around the slippery edge of the pool.  I was hearing that yelling even now.

Once, when I was playing up around the deep end of the pool, someone came up behind me and pushed me in.  I splashed wildly as I began sinking.  There was an older kid nearby who swam to help me.  I remember the dull roar of the watering rushing into my ears as I went under, much like the throbbing roar I was hearing now.  As I sank to the bottom of the pool, I remember grabbing onto the trunks of the kid swimming to help me and dragging them down around his ankles.

I also remember his foot kicked me in the face. It was a lot like the pain I was feeling now as a big white donut hit me on the side of the head.  There were people on the tugboat yelling at me over the roar of the engine to grab the life ring.

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They worked me over, demons in dingy cable knit sweaters.  They pumped my arms and peered in my face with eyes as black as eightballs.  They jumped on my back and grunted incomprehensible demon words, expelled by breaths that would have pickled squid.  They kept it up until I gave in and released, in a gush, the river I had swallowed.  I had not meant to take it, it was all part of the process of drowning, but still I was being punished.  In this particular hell, large steel cables and giant coils of rope made up my limited horizon.  A steady growl vibrated up through the deck pressed against my face.  It was the machinery of hell.

ADS Annie1Just as I choked and coughed up the last of the East River, the rain began.  It was a hard rain and it hit the scrubbed wood planks of the deck with explosive force, as if each drop were a spark launched upward in the dim amber of the demon lanterns.  I was peppered by its force, wetting me more thoroughly than my baptism in the river.  I resigned myself to the fact that my hell would be a soggy one.  Then the demons rolled me over on my back and teased me with the vision of an angel, a beautiful, blue-eyed angel with red gold wings protruding from her temples.  Her luscious full red lips parted ever so slightly to reveal the pearls of paradise.  I felt her sweet breath on my face and heard her melodious voice.

“Take the lubber down below.”

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The cup held something hot, and every time I sipped from it, my shivering lessened.  It wasn’t broth, it wasn’t tea, it wasn’t even coffee.  Whatever it was, it had a bite that spun through my insides like torrid devils from Tasmania.  Just what the doctor ordered.  I was slowly making sense of my surroundings, wrapped in a coarse square of gray blanket at the edge of a bunk in an oily stinking noisy space in the innards of some kind of boat.  What didn’t make sense was the vision of beauty before me.

In dungarees, stained by grease and paint, with a wide leather belt that cinched just enough of her waist to accentuate her curves, she filled my narrow horizon.  A rough shirt hung squarely from her wide shoulders, sleeves rolled up to the elbows to reveal the dingy white of a long undershirt down to her wrists.  Her dusty red blonde hair was pulled back in a knot, loose strands dangling at the temples.

The voice, harsh but with a hint of playfulness, didn’t go with the vision.  “So Mr. Yamatski, how did you end up in the drink?”

She was holding a book in her hand and she seemed to be reading from it.

“You work for Kovic?”  Again, her way of speaking, rough, unpolished, a sharp contrast to her pin-up looks.

I shrugged.  “I can’t remember.”

She made a face.  It was a more mature face than I first realized.  There were lines, shiny cheekbones.

“Convenient.  Maybe you got water on the brain.”  I placed her accent.  Coaster, from further south.

A dark dwarf at her side muttered something foreign.  She laughed a laugh that tore me in half and replied in the same guttural tongue.  “Diego thinks we should throw you back.”  She smiled bewitchingly. I wanted to explore her like an ant in a honey pot.

“Ok,” I lied, “I used to work for Kovic. But I made him unhappy so he roughed me up,” I pointed to the bruises on my cheek, “and tossing me in the river was his way of letting me go.  I guess he was too much in a hurry to fit me with a pair of cement socks.”

ADS tugboatx            The dwarf said something else, stepping from the shadows, half addressing me.  I saw that he wasn’t really a dwarf but a truly short stocky man with a thick mass of graying curly dark hair under a well-worn stocking cap.  He was dark enough to be African but his features said   maybe Arab or Portuguese.  The dim light of the bulkhead lamp glanced off the small gold loop in the lobe of his right ear.

“Diego is wondering if they were just going to toss you in the river, why they would have rammed into a garbage scow.”

“Well, I think that them being chased by the cops had something to do with it.  And Kovic’s mugs ain’t exactly sailors.  They got a little excited and lost control of the powerboat.   That’d be my guess.”

“Kovic is a rat.  Anybody on his bad side is on my good side.”  She tossed the book in my lap.  It wasn’t a book.  It was Yamatski’s wallet.  I thumbed through it, a little disappointed.  There were a few large bills, but I was mistaken again.  It wasn’t a wallet.  It was an address book!

She mistook my expression.  “You’ll find everything in your book as it was.  I didn’t take nothing.  Just looking to see who you might be. You had a death grip on that thing.  Figured it must be pretty important to you.”  She looked over at her mate. “You can ask around, they’ll tell you, Captain Annie Bassinger and the crew of the tugboat Narcissus is square.”

I nodded.  “No, no, everything looks fine.  Thanks for fishing me out of the river.”  I proffered one of the C notes in an act of suicidal generosity.  The Portugee was about to step forward to take it but a look from his captain stopped him.

“No need for that.  I can offer you some dry clothes and put you ashore as soon as we get back from down state.”

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The cops were waiting for us when we docked.  They were Feds and the local gendarmes.  I saw Hogan among them.  They wanted to question Annie about the barge accident. It happened right as the Narcissus was coming down river.  They had a witness who said they thought they had seen her crew fishing a body out of the water.

gmenAnnie nodded.  “Yeah, I thought it was a body too, but turned out it was just a waterlogged tree trunk floated down from upstate.  What are the chances, huh? You see people in the water and you go to save one of them and it turns out to be just a hunk of wood.”

The G-man didn’t change expression.  “I’ll have to see everyone’s identification and their seaman’s cards.”  I felt a certain tightening where the sun don’t shine.

Hogan butted in.  “What’s this bum doing here?”

The agent didn’t like being distracted.  He was the one in charge. I’d heard of him.  His name was Neckker.  “What are you talking about?”

“I know this bum.”  He was pointing at me, “I know this bum.  Whadaya doing on this tub, wisenheimer?  Don’t tell me you decided to wise up and take up honest work.”  He turned to the fed.  “He’s a no-bit wannabe gumshoe. His name is Lackland Ask.  He don’t run with the class of criminal we’re after.”

Neckker was taller than Hogan. He used it to his advantage to look down on him.  “Just let me do my job,” he spoke crisply.

Since I had become the focus of attention, I was first.  It went by the book.

“What’s your name?”

“Like the cop said, Lackland Ask.”

I could see Annie was frowning.

“Let me see some identification.”

I handed him my wallet.

“What are you doing here?”

I glanced over at Annie and caught a barely perceptible nod.

“I’m one of the crew.”

Neckker leafed through the odd scraps of paper, not much of it money, my driver’s license, and my PI permit.  I’d had a guy over in Chinatown make it up for me.  It looked real official.

He held it up to me.  “This is worthless.  Where’s your seaman’s card?”

“I got his papers in the works, chief.”  It was Annie.  “I needed a body in a hurry so I hired this guy while they process them down at the hall.”

I got my wallet back and a raking glare from Hogan as they moved on to check the others.

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I had gone through Yamatski’s address book on the trip down to the landfill.  He was pretty organized for a thug.  There were the names of dames accompanied by phone numbers and a system of stars next to each that was fairly self-explanatory.  There were other numbers that probably belonged to his associates: Zsebo with a Butterfield exchange, Mikkel with a Melrose exchange, and so on.  Then there were pages with what appeared to be some kind of code, strings of numbers and letters, and writing in an alphabet I wasn’t familiar with. Some sections were underlined with exclamation points. There was also a business card stuck in the front cover that stated simply if found return to Milosh Yamatski for a reward and gave an address on the Eastside and his phone number, a Cedar exchange.  Feeling the slowly diminishing lump below my right eye, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of reward he might have been offering. The cash that came with the address book amounted to three 100-dollar bills.  I figured that it was my payment for the job I’d done for Kovic and a little extra for my trouble.

She smiled.  It was painful, like staring at the sun.

I’d slept a good part of the trip down to the dump site. Whatever it was in that grog Annie had fed me did the trick.  The crew, Diego and his counterpart, a tall lanky type by the name of Robal, avoided me.  Together they were right out of the funny papers, Mutt and Jeff.

Annie had been coiling hawsers when I came up from down below.  It’s not exactly woman’s work, but she made it look easy.  And sexy.  With someone like her, I could begin to forget about Grace.

I bummed a smoke, dawn showing at the dark, faraway edge of the Atlantic.  She cupped the match to my cigarette.

“You don’t look like the Kovic type.”

I gazed through the smoke at her bright blue eyes.  “You don’t look like the tugboat type.”

She smiled.  It was painful, like staring at the sun.  “This boat belonged to my uncle Wally. I spent most of my life on this tug, and others like it.  My folks died when I was just a baby.  He raised me out here on the river.”  She took a deep drag and then let go a shapely puff.  “He left me the business when he passed. . . .”

“Harbormaster says we got company waiting for us at the docks, Cap,” Robal had called down from the steering house.

She looked at me, gauging my reaction.  “The law, maybe? Suppose they’re looking for you or somebody like you, what should I tell ‘em?”

“That’s up to you,” I replied, feigning nonchalance.  “I don’t have anything against coppers, but I’d like to avoid any official business with them.  If you know what I mean.”

I replayed that scene over and over in the taxi back to my room.  She didn’t have to cover for me, but she did.  I wondered if it might have been my battered and drenched lost puppy dog look.  I considered the more remote possibility that she might have taken a liking to me.  Even when I was being questioned by the fed and my real name came out didn’t seem to make a difference.  She had stuck by her story and the cops had left and soon after so did I.  I should have turned and waved as I made my way down the dock.  I hailed a cab instead.

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I know the difference between my mess and someone else’s.  This was someone else’s.  The room had been turned upside down.  Someone had been looking for something.  I would never turn a room over like that.  My way of looking for something was to move things around, not upend them.  The drawers to my bedside dresser had been yanked out and overturned, socks, underwear, ties, cufflinks in a pile on my desk. Paper clips, pens, pencils and papers scattered all over the floor.  The mattress was set on edge revealing a hutch of assorted dust bunnies Seins marvy1under the bed frame as well as my private library of French Art magazines.  I stared down at the big red bouche of the brunette on the cover of L’Etoile.  Amazingly someone hadn’t disturbed any of the magazines.  I reached down and pulled out a buried copy of Seins Marveilleux.  The pink postal slip still marked the page where Yvette displayed her substantial endowment.  Maybe that’s what someone was looking for.  I folded it into my wallet. Then I went downstairs and banged on the super’s door with the edge of my fist. 

Curtis opened the door and the stale stench of  decay hit me in the face. He was attired in his usual sweat stained undershirt and matching slacks, one suspender off the shoulder.  The two-day growth of beard didn’t make him any more appealing.  He blinked in the light of the hallway, eyes veined red with road maps to perdition.  “Wadyawan?”

“Curtis, did you let anyone into my room?  Somebody’s been in there and undone all my fine housekeeping.  And I’m missing a cufflink.”

I stared over his shoulder into the brown dimness of his apartment.  A kid was sitting knock kneed on the couch, a glass of something in her hand.

“Yasisteh come lookin’ forya.  Sheyada message forya.  I letterin.”

“I don’t have a sister, you gas bag.  What did she look like?

“Older broad.  Wearin sunglasses, scarf over her head, like she come from a funeral.  Redhead, maybe.”

“Right, my older redheaded sister came looking for me to tell me about a death in a family.”

The kid threw a glance at her elbow when she saw me give her the onceover.  She was all of eleven acting like she was older, twelve or thirteen.  I wouldn’t put it past Curtis.  His fly was down.

I could have let it pass.  “What, you a babysitter now?”

He frowned and then grinned, showing me an uneven row of marbled Chiclets, his pallor growing faintly dark.  A strong wind could have knocked them down his throat.  I just wasn’t that wind.

A female voice shrieked a name from a few stories up.  The kid jumped to her feet and ran to the door.  I walked away.


Next Time: Tailed And Tangled

A Detective Story—3

by Colin Deerwood

I took the bus cross-town. I rattled around in the dim interior like a wooden pin, the only passenger. Raindrops slammed and squirmed into the black window reflecting my battered mug. The swelling had gone down and the bruises on my face were beginning to ripen. The egg on the back of my head had shrunk down to “over-easy.”  I had to take care of first things first. Della’s problem had sidetracked me. I had to get back what little self-esteem I had started out with and that meant I had to settle my score with Kovic and his goon.

There was a little Polish eatery over on 10th that Kovic frequented. Rain was still pouring down when I got off the bus and opened the umbrella. Occasionally a flash of lightning would send a clap of thunder rebounding down the brick canyon. I kept my hand on the butt of the revolver in the pocket of my overcoat. The drops were bouncing knee high off the sidewalk. I found a dark doorway across the street with a good view of the restaurant and settled down to wait.

It wasn’t long before Kovic’s limo swung into view followed by a big blocky sedan carrying the troops. They all hurried inside except for one guy who stayed in the car as a lookout. He wasn’t the one I wanted.

I waited. The rain kept up. The night passed. There was a street light about two doors down. It illuminated the scene in some places. In others it made long shadows. Finally I recognized the shoulders and square head of the gorilla I wanted. He ducked into the sedan, which rocked with his weight. Then the driver’s door swung open and the other mug got out and made a dash for the restaurant.

I waited till the door to the eatery closed and then stepped out of the shadows. I walked up behind the car and knocked on the window staying just behind his shoulder. He had to crane his neck and wipe his breath off the window. Finally he rolled it down.

“Whadyawant?”

I showed him the cigarette in my mouth. “Gotta light?”

He scowled and gave me a hard look. That must have been when he recognized his handiwork. He startled, eyes splayed open and his mouth followed seconds later.

I popped a slug into the dark cavern of his jaw and he slumped forward. I reached into the inside pocket of his coat and extracted his wallet. It felt as thick as a pocket dictionary. My umbrella had shielded the muzzle flash and as I edged away, I dropped the pistol into his lap. Maybe they’d think it was suicide.

I walked away pulling off my gloves. I made it around the corner before anyone came out of the joint to investigate whether it was a backfire, thunder or a gunshot that they’d heard.

My luck seemed to be changing. A yellow cab was dropping off a fare. “Grand Central,” I told him. We were there in no time at all. I pulled a page of currency from the wallet and told him to keep the change. He wasn’t sure.

“Whatsis? A gag? I want some real money.”

No matter how much I assured him, the cabbie wouldn’t take the hundred-dollar bill. I had to fish through my own pockets for the right change. I came up a nickel short. The guy was giving me the mean eyes.

“Gedoudayere!” he said finally.

Day and night Central Station is packed. I shifted from foot to foot in line to the ticket window. I kept glancing back at the revolving doors expecting an army of Kovic’s goons to come charging through, Tommy-guns at the ready.

The clerk wore a mask of complete indifference. He leafed through the pages of the large book at his elbow and quoted me the fare and departure time. I spread the bills on the marble tongue of the ticket window. He, in turn, folded, stamped, and inserted the ticket into an envelope marked with the Railroad’s insignia.

I walked out onto the platform. The din was incredible. People on the platform pushed by each other, maneuvering around clots of humanity standing in one spot, saying goodbye and trying to make themselves heard above the noise of locomotives shuffling and bumping cars around. The railroad men signaled with their lanterns and the engineers answered with a nod of the head or the wave of a hand.

What I first recognized was the back of her head, the way her hair, a shiny lustrous blond, defined the shape. I pushed past a family bidding farewell to their uniformed son and caught up with her.

“Grace?”  I was positive it was her. I wanted to tap her on the padded shoulder of her fox fur.

She turned a sidelong glance on me. It was Kovic’s hop head daughter. I couldn’t believe I’d made that mistake. I felt as if I should rub my eyes, but I just blinked. Then she was Della and she turned to me with a slow seductive smile.

 

I woke sitting straight up, sweat pouring out and over me, my undershirt drenched. I was going to have to change my shorts. Some dream.

I untangled my legs from the sopping bedcovers and threw them over the side. The cockroaches weren’t expecting me and scurried off to the corners when I pulled on the light. I looked at my face in the discolored mirror above the cracked, stained basin that often doubled as a urinal when the urge was too urgent or I simply didn’t have ambition to make the trek down the hall. My face didn’t look any better. But it was returning to normal.

I thought of climbing back into bed. A pale light was leaking in through the rips and tears in the blinds and around the frayed edges. Morning. No going back on what I had decided to do. I was determined to get my life back on track. First, the matter of Kovic and his wise guys. Then, Al’s sister.

I threw my arms into the sleeves of my burgundy bathrobe and headed down the hall to the shower. I was gonna start off clean.

 

Occupied. The sound of rushing water, steam curling up from under the door. Oh well, on to the next option.

My old man, he was a seaman and knew about these things, said that just like any other animal we’re always on our guard against predators, be they physical or supernatural. We’re all predators so we should know. And we’re the only ones who prey on the guts of our own species. He was a philosopher of sorts, my old man. He said that this caused us to close up the unconscious so as not to allow the real and secret self to be vulnerable to predation. There are these shields around our unconscious that don’t allow our real selves to come out unless we’re drunk, stoned, sleeping, or hypnotized, he said. He liked to repeat himself, my old man.

There are an infinite number of ways of expressing yourself, he’d say, why not try it. Repetition is the pulse of the universe. It’s so awesome that it terrifies us, which is where we get the word “repulse.”

Once you got my old man going there was no stopping him. No matter how far afield he wandered, he always came back.

“Only one other instance when we let those mental shields down,” I could hear him say. He would pause for effect at this point. “Yup, only one time. ‘ats when you got your dick in your hand and gonna pee. Or when you squat to shit.

“Just working the release on the old sphincter or bladder requires all your concentration. All of a sudden your guard is down and all this stuff comes pouring out. Great ideas, improbable inspiration, solutions to problems, all sorts of things. The greatest minds have all had their inspiration while sitting on the pot. Luther, Einstein, Picasso, Ford, Pythagoras, Archimedes. The great dialogues of philosophy were all conducted on the way to or from the shit house!”

He liked to exaggerate, my old man. He was always saying we should use language to its fullest capacity. Fact is but a seed from which the truth will grow. He was full of shit, my old man. One day he flushed the toilet and went down with the rest of it.

I watched the waters swirl in the yellow, blotched bowl. I knew what I had to do. Shave.

 

I pulled on a heavy peacoat and fit a stocking cap on my head. A pair of my rattier shoes and I looked like any mug that’d likely be drifting around the riverfront docks and warehouses.

Kovic’s turf was the waterfront. He ran the longshoreman action. He was king rat on the East River. And that’s where I headed. On the way I ran into Alice.

She was coming up the steps from her basement apartment. She had a thin hand on the black pipe railing and was stepping up onto the sidewalk. She fixed me with those deep sad watery eyes of hers. “Hi, Lack, where you off to?”  So much for my disguise.

We went for coffee down at Hopper’s Diner. Her long pale fingers wrapped around the thick white cup. She stared into the depths of the black coffee. It was a while before she said anything. But when she said it, I knew what she was going to say. “Have you heard from Grace?”

Grace was my ex. Alice and she had gone to school together. Alice had married Grace’s brother, Ted. Then he died. That made Alice a widow. Then I died for Grace. She moved to Hollywood. That made her a divorcee.

“No.”

Alice gave one of her sighs and lapsed into more silence. Sipped from her cup, pensive. Her bobbed hairdo fell around her ears like the puff of pantaloons and she was gazing out the window when she said, “I was more alone than I could have ever imagined when Ted died.”

Ted was one of those starving artist types, a small time painter who designed calendars and repaired furniture. He sold bits and pieces of himself just to survive so he could continue doing the same thing over and over again. I never saw any point in it. He also liked to take pills. Something else I never saw any point in. Alice wasn’t an artist. She was a starving widow.

I was depressed enough as it was. I held her limp hand in mine as I got up to leave. I slipped her a fiver. “Pay for the coffee, will ya?”

 

The Bucket Of Blood was the watering hole Kovic liked to operate from. It was a waterfront dive. The floor was covered in sawdust. The dominant cologne was obviously eau d’urine and essence de fart, and was favored by most of the splinter faced denizens. A haze of cigarette smoke topped the atmosphere like foam on the surface of fermenting juice. The din created by the inhabitants of this festering tide pool was about as soothing and pleasant as a herd of lovesick sea lions, and just as loud. I ordered a beer and found a corner in the shadows where I could keep an eye on the door at the top of the stairs where Kovic had his office. I’d been there before. I knew if I went in I’d recognize the red shag carpet. I didn’t have a plan. I just wanted to get even. I’d play the rest by ear.

I was just about to drain the last of my beer when they walked in. They stood out like terriers in a cat show. They were feds. None of the local gendarmes had the money or the taste for those suits. First there were just two, then six. I caught the bartender reaching beside the cash register for the alarm button. The hubbub had subsided to a murmur. The guys had obviously not come to drink. I spilled the rest of my beer down the front of my coat and staggered to the door. The clot of feds parted to let the drunk pass.

Outside, the street was crawling with suits. I brushed past one and he called to me. “Hey! You!”

Since that wasn’t my name I continued my stagger down to the alley next to the saloon. Once around the corner and in the dark between buildings, I put on speed. The alley was a dead end, a high wooden fence blocking my escape. Over the top went to the East River. Off to one side of the fence was a ladder going down through a square opening in the boardwalk. The fed was being a bit more insistent. “Hey, you, stop! I want to talk to you!”  He had his flashlight out and shined it on me as I hesitated before dropping down through the deck. As I did, I heard shots come from the saloon. The feds had not met with a friendly reception.

Under the wharf there was at first darkness. Then the glow of a red bulb showing toward the outer pilings, and a speedboat parked under it. There was a guy in a watchcap and peacoat standing by it, ready to cast off the line. He didn’t hear me behind him. I used my gat on the back of his head. He slumped to his knees and I rolled him off the catwalk into the water. I climbed into the boat and found the starter. The water bubbled up under the stern as the inboard motor rumbled to life. Then I had visitors. There were five of them. “Ok, ok, shove off!” a voice I recognized ordered. I pushed the throttle to full and the boat shot out of its berth. As I steered the craft out into the river, I looked over my shoulder just to make sure. It was Kovic.


Next Time: Into The Drink