Tag Archives: “Brother can you spare a dime?”

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—13

by Colin Deerwood

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The sachet of diamonds dangled from her index finger provocatively. But a sack of rocks couldn’t beam as bright as the pride in what she had done. She loosened the draw strings and gave me an encouraging nod. I was to add my pebble to the pile.

Against my better judgement I dropped it in and looked her in the eye. “You got a plan on how we’re gonna divvy them up?”

“This is not a word that I know. What is this ‘divvy’?”

“How’re we gonna divide the loot?”

“You explain with one word and confuse with another.” Now she was frowning, frustrated.

“Okey, how many rocks are in the bag?”

“There are six. With yours.”

“Don’t you think that the address book with the cockamamie writing is worth all six of them?”

“I have no way of knowing. It depends on how useful is the information.”

“Yeah, but Soloman got pretty excited about getting his hands on it so maybe it was worth a lot. I got the impression that had the deal gone through without a hitch, he would have forked over all six of those babies.”

She studied me with those big blue eyes of hers and I could tell the gears were turning beneath the auburn thatch of her perfectly disheveled hair. “You are very naive for a private police, Lack. Now that you have undergone this ordeal at the hands of these men, do you think that they would have agreed to a fair exchange?”

She shook her head and I watched the ringlets bounce on her shoulder. “There is something that perhaps you do not know about diamonds. One stone alone, even uncut, is same as many, many American dollars. Six is, as you say, a ransom for a king.”

“So you’re thinking I should only get one?”

“Two, I think, would be more than fair.”

“But not three.”

She shrugged. “We must be reasonable, not greedy.”

Here we were having our first disagreement, and wouldn’t you know it, it was about money.

mitch“I have cut my ties with these bad people, Lack, I cannot go back to them and ask for help. These diamonds will allow me to start a new life here in America.” Her eyes pleaded. “Don’t you trust me? Besides. . . .”

She didn’t finish because someone was banging on the door to the tailor shop and it sounded angry.

“Quick,” she said as she steered me to the back and to a little workbench behind another curtain, “Hide in here.”

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I listened with my ear to the curtain as she talked through the door. It was the super and he was mad, bawling her out, from what I could hear, about the mess in the bathroom. He was threatening to call the landlord to have her father pay for the plumber. I could hear the surprise in her voice, at first a stuttered half felt apology and then indignant insistence that she had nothing to do with the stopped-up toilet. The super yelled that he would call the cops and that cast a shadow on an otherwise rosy picture.

radio repairThe alcove I was in was some sort of workshop, but it didn’t look like something you would find in a tailor shop. Spools of wire instead of thread, pliers instead of scissors, screws and bolts instead of buttons. There was an odd odor, too, but I couldn’t quite place it. A few sheafs of grimy paper were folded in among what looked like radio parts on the workbench. I spread one open. It was a diagram of some sort, measurements and notations, and in the same weird alphabet as in the address book. I stared at the drawing on the second page, turning it sideways and upside down. It didn’t make sense, cylinders, squares, squiggly lines, kind of a blueprint, but of what exactly?

I felt the stirring behind the curtain as Becky pushed it aside. Her frown accompanied darting accusing eyes and she was about to launch a volley when she caught sight of what I had in my hands and it seemed to deflate her. “Oh,” she said.

“So your old man repairs radios, too?” I could tell by her downcast eyes that I wasn’t going to get a straight answer.

“It is just hobby for him. He was engineer once and design wireless. When he was to come here, he must be a tailor. His father was tailor and his father before him, and so it was not difficult for him be tailor in this country.” She led me out from behind the curtain and changed the subject. “Lack, we cannot stay here. Mrazovich will call the police. We must leave.”

I was hearing what she was saying but my mind was back at the workbench. That faint acrid smell lingered in my memory too. It bothered me.

“Lack, are you listening?”

I nodded, distracted by the feeling that not everything was as it seemed.

“Yeah, yeah, I heard him threaten to call the cops. For what, a stopped up terlit? They’re not going to come for that.” I fixed her with a purposeful look. “Here’s the plan. We lie low until it gets dark and then skedaddle.”

I was about to outline the rest of the plan when it came to me. I looked back at the curtain and then back at her. It was like someone had pulled on the overhead light erasing the shadows I hadn’t even known were there.

“What is it, Lack?”

“Your old man.”

“My father? Yes?”

“He’s a bomb maker.”

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She didn’t have to deny it. I could tell by the way her face fell, the droop of her mouth, the slight tremor of her chin’s tacit agreement. Now her eyes glistened.

“It is as I have told you. I did not realize what his work for Professor Soloman had him do. He was organize the work of help refugees in warring country I think. He is a brilliant man, my father. But not a leader. It is they who use his genius, those who want power, not freedom. The criminal, the politician, the oligarch, they are all the same! He was fixing portable wireless for a friend, he said. But radio never work. He said it was missing component. Vacuum tube, he say, but wireless engineer is much more difficult than learn to speak American.”

I wanted to believe her, believe the gathering drop at the corner of her eye.

Her laugh was like a string of pearls catching light. “You say such funny things! In my country you would be a poet!”

“Then yesterday night. . . .” She stopped for a breath and fixed me with her gaze. “It seem so much longer than that, so many pages ago, but yes, after I was returned from our rendezvous with Max, I was sent to my room. My father was in his office and I went in to tell him I was safe. On the floor by the door was box he kept the small wireless and I ask if he has finally fix, and he say yes, it will be heard very loud.

“Then when they have their meeting I listen at the door because I must know what is the cause for all this activity. It is a very quiet time I have since I have come to this city. I am used to freedom because my mother, a school teacher, encourage to be, how you say, independent? But here I am bored. My father say I am too strong in the head with my ideas, but I think I am much like him for my ideas. Then you, Lackland Ask, private police, come into my life and now it is upside down.”

I wanted to disclaim any responsibility for upsetting the apple cart but unfortunately my recent activity was anything but innocent such was my duck and dodge on the mean cruel streets.

“When I have listened to the door, I hear Herr Doktor speak to my father and say that information in address book has confirm what they know about location of Black Hand in America. And he ask if the explosive is ready to be used and my father say yes and I understand that he has been making bomb again.”

“Wait a minute? Again?”

radio1“The reason he must flee to America is because of bomb that kill police officials in Salonika. They say his bomb. They say he is Soviet agent because he is graduate of university in Moscow. He was to come here and beginning again, he has told me. Now I see what it means ‘begin again.’”

“You’re sure it was a bomb? In the radio?”

A tear was poised on the brink of her upper lip. “And I will never see him again because I also hear Doktor Soloman say he has new passport and passage on ship to Rio and then another for a new assignment in Palestine.”

I put my arm around her shoulder and she wiped her nose on her sleeve. “It’s gonna be ok, kid. We’ll get clear of this mess.” I said it like I knew what I was talking about, but at the back of my mind I wasn’t so sure. My taste for revenge had got me more than a mouthful. Maybe I’d bit off more than I could chew. I was looking into the eyes of a dame who was an illegal refugee and I guess you could say, a jewel thief and tough cookie all around, whose pop was a bomb builder and possibly operating for Uncle Joe in a secret war against some mob I’d never heard of before but also some of the same guys who wanted to fit me with a pair of cement galoshes. And that was only part of the fix I was in.

She had lifted her head to look back up at me, a bemused expression haloing her bright cheeks. “Why, Lack, why did you not want to make more affection to me after we have return here and we are alone? Do you not like me? Is there something I have wrong? You have fire in your eyes when you look at me. I have seen before this in other men. But they do not have respect for me. You are different. Why?”

It was a good question and as usual I didn’t have an answer. I was never all that good in the brains department. I didn’t think. I just did. Sometimes I landed in hot water. Other times, I was riding the caboose on the gravy train. Right now I felt like I was about to board the good ship Lollipop. I looked into her bright eyes and spoke what was on the tip of my tongue. I told her that I didn’t want to take the chance of getting any man oil in her baby machine.

Her laugh was like a string of pearls catching light. “You say such funny things! In my country you would be a poet!”

“No thanks, I’ve got enough going against me as it is.”

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She brought her lips up to mine and I tasted their delicate sweetness. It was almost as thrilling as a first kiss. Not bad for a guy who was used mostly to broads who wore cheap perfume and did their eyes up like Nefertiti. She pushed her body up against mine and I got that old familiar feeling. Her arms around my neck, she worked the tongue action like a real adult, and briefly, very briefly, I had to wonder where she learned how to do that.

I leaned her against the cutting table bringing my nose to nuzzle her neck and sweeping my hands over her body to make sure everything was in the right place. I wasn’t disappointed. He scent was intoxicating and I was drunk with urges. My clumsy fingers worked at the buttons of her blouse as I kissed her delicate skin down over the collar bone to the edge of lace.

She pulled at me urgently, uttering little breaths of encouragement. Her hands tugged at my waist and fumbled with the buttons of my fly. She scooted herself up onto the edge of the table wrapping a leg around the small of my back. She hissed with a desperate passion. It had the desired effect.

sex-inMy headache had gone away and was replaced by the pounding of my heart with special emphasis on the timpani of my ears. She moaned as my lips touched the inside of her thigh, grabbing my hair in her fists and arching her back. My hand reached under her skirt and found the top of her silkies. I pulled them down from her hips to be met with the moist miasmic vapors of the hairy grail. Now she had me thinking like a poet, but the Billy club in my pants was draining all the blood from my brain. And besides, it was no time to be thinking.

She helped me get the bloomers down to below her knees and quickly undid my suspenders, my pants dropping around my ankles. She had her hand in my briefs and delivered another deep felt smooch.

I had to use all my concentration to keep my mind off the intense pressure of pleasure promised at letting go. And it wasn’t any easier once she freed me. Like a bat, I wanted to head straight for the cave.

She had other things in mind. One of them was to drive me crazy. I glared at the ceiling cross eyed. Then she pulled me in toward her. I was tense with expectation, trying to distract myself by not looking down and get caught up in her roiling ecstasy just yet. I focused my gaze at the part in the curtain that faced the front of the shop where constellations of dust motes floated in a shaft of morning light slanting in through the wide display window. The same light was also reflected as a flash off the windshield of a big sedan that had screeched to a stop at the curb.


Next Time: “Cripes! It’s the Cops!

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—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