by Colin Deerwood
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.”
The 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.
“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?”
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?”
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.
Two 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.”
“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.
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?”
“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