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

Better Than Dead—10

by Colin Deerwood

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“Becky? Becky!” but with the gag covering my mouth I could have just as well been saying “cookie.” I clattered around in my severe confinement and yelled, “Becky! Get me out of here!” I had managed to slip the gag off to one side of my chin. “Becky! Hurry!”

“I can’t, Lack. They would know it was me and I would be in much more trouble. I am confined to my room and was only able to sneak out because, as your native Americans say, they were having a big powwow.” She sounded sorry sad and I might have sympathized except that I had a pressing need.

“Becky, listen to me!” I strained to make my voice heard, the gag now around my chin. “You don’t understand! This is very serious!”

“Lack, I know,” she spoke quietly, “I have overheard them talking. It is serious.”

“Then get me out of here!”

“I can’t, I’m sorry.”

I figured I’d let her in on the emergency. “How can I put this delicately, uh, I have to whiz so bad my back teeth are floating!”

“Whiz? What is this whiz? Oh, perhaps it is the new all color film from Hollywood? But teeth, I’m not certain. . . .”

“Becky!” I yelled, “Listen to me! If I don’t get out of here I’m going to wet my pants! Just let me out of this box so I can find a corner to do my business and I promise I’ll get right back in and no one will ever know. I’ll even let you tie me up.” I was desperate. I would have crossed my legs if they hadn’t been tied at the ankles.

Silence. Then, “The teeth that float. . . .”

“Becky! I’m begging you! Let me out of here!”

“Shush!” she hissed. “I think I hear them calling for me.” I heard movement away from the box. “I’ll return if I can.”

That decided that. It didn’t matter  that I wet my pants because worse was yet to come and once I was ripe enough, the mugs would sort through what’s left of me and get their diamond. I would have to come to terms with that, but incrementally.

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Wet wool is itchy. Maybe that would make a good epitaph for my tombstone not that I could be guaranteed anything more than cement socks at the graveyard bottom of the East River. The happy thoughts just weren’t coming as I tried to distract myself.

I’d managed to get the gag off my face and somehow loosened the rope binding my hands only to have them explode into a swarm of pins and needles. Problem was, I was breathing my own air and it was making me drowsy.

I could hear workmen nearby hammering. Someone raised a shout. And the sporadic hammering resumed. I was surprised by the sound of running and suddenly my confinement was given more light as well as a large displacement of air. I was crushed by a heavy weight consisting of knees, elbows, and full torso with a voice shushing in my ear. The lid to the box snapped down and I was in the dark again. It was Becky. And it was the last straw that emptied my suffering bladder.

I grabbed her by the elbow and brought my face close to hers. “What I heard wasn’t hammering, they were gunshots. Who was doing the shooting?”

She was breathing hard in my ear, her chest heaving. I started to say something but she shushed me again. “Stay quiet they won’t find us.” She whispered and I realized I could get used to those whispers in my ear. I tried to relax but trussed up the way I was and with her knees in my kidney and her elbow in my neck, I just couldn’t get comfortable. She wasn’t tied up so she could shift her weight and her hip pressed down on my ribs causing me to gasp for breath. I grunted. She whispered “Sorry,” and that made it all better. We stayed quiet listening to each other’s breathing and for any sounds outside our confinement. My stomach rumbled or maybe it was hers. The minutes seemed like hours.

I heard a hinge creak and a shaft of light pierced the dark interior. Now both her knees were gouging into my arm and my thigh. There was enough light for me to catch her profile as she peaked outside the box which I realized was a large trunk with a domed top. Then she sat back down on me and let the lid drop and we were in the dark again.

“It was awful, Lack, they burst in shooting everyone.” She started to blubber.

“What? Who? Becky, untie me and get me out of this box so I can understand what you’re babbling g about.”

The trunk lid was pushed open and I was bathed in a dim grey light.

“These knots are impossible! And they’re wet!”

“I have a penknife in my vest pocket, use that!”

I felt her frisking me but maybe she was unfamiliar with men’s vests?

“Oops, sorry.”

“Yeah, not that pocket.”

Finally she found it after fumbling under my coat and began sawing at the rope tying my hands to my feet. The ropes came loose and I was able to free one hand and pull myself upright. She stood on the outside of the trunk helping me stand up. I took the knife from her and freed my feet. I pulled myself over the edge of the large trunk and fell to the floor. It hurt and felt good at the same time.

I didn’t waste a minute getting rid of the ropes, rubbing the circulation back into my wrists. I grabbed her by the elbow and brought my face close to hers. “What I heard wasn’t hammering, they were gunshots. Who was doing the shooting?”

“I don’t know,” her eyes wide with fright, “Their faces were covered by kerchiefs and they wore auto racing goggles. I heard one of them shouting ‘Where are the diamonds?!’ Issac and Golie and the others were shooting too, and Herr Doktor I think was. . . .”

We were in some kind of storage loft. A dull light seeped through the dusty windows along one wall, packing crates, more large trunks, odds and ends of bulky furnishings made indistinct shadows and shapes. The windows were closed but I could still hear the sirens getting closer. “We have to get out of here.!”

Rebecca pointed to the door set into the far wall and I followed, limping the cramps out of my legs. I was reminded once again that I’d been left to my own devices and that certain things can’t be put off forever.

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The door led to a dimly lit hallway at the head of a flight of stairs leading down. At the opposite end a window allowed access to a fire escape. I could hear the shouts and clomping of flatfeet spreading out over the crime scene several floors below. From the vantage of the window onto the fire escape, the alley was swarming with the flashing lights of patrol cars.

fire escape2“What floor are we on?”

“We are at the very top, seven.”

“I shook my head. “Too much can go wrong on a fire escape seven stories up. What’s on the roof?”

“A little garden where the women of the building grow edibles for their kitchen. Oh, and Golie’s pigeon coop. He is so gentle with them, you wouldn’t think that he was the same fearful enforcer.”

“How close are the nearby buildings?” I was thinking if worse comes to worse.

She shook her head. “No, they are either too distant or many stories shorter.”

“Well, that’s it. We’re cornered. The cops are after me in connection with my lawyer Ralphie Silver’s murder I heard through the grapevine. They found my prints at the scene. Kovic’s mob is after me for dumping him in the drink and icing his muscle. That I should have figured, but Max confirmed it. Somebody else is after me for something I don’t even know about. And my ex is after me for alimony payments. The cops are gonna turn this place upside down looking for witnesses, victims, or gunsels and I’m a hot property.”

She looked at me perplexed. “I am not certain I understood everything you were saying except that maybe you are in a lot of trouble if the police find you. I too must avoid contact with the police because if they ask for my papers, they will learn that I am in this country illegally.”

“Rats, just as I get out of one pickle I end up in another!”

“Lack, this is no time to think about food. I have an idea. Come.”

She hurried back into the storage loft and I followed on her heels as she rushed over to a bank of shelves and started pulling down bags and suitcases. She rooted through some large boxes, yanking out articles of clothing, handing me a dress. “Here, try this on.”

It was too tight around the shoulders and the neckline was too revealing. I saw what she was up to and I liked what she had in mind but I didn’t think it was going to work. Not many dames of the six foot square shouldered variety.

She must have realized that too. She pulled out a large man’s overcoat that likely belonged to somebody who was wider than they were tall. The bottom hem came to my knees. She fit a big ugly green scarf over my head and tied it under my chin.

“Take off your pants.”

I wasn’t sure I heard right. “What?”

“And your suit jacket. Put them in this bag”

She had me step into a large skirt with lace around the hem and then fit an apron over that, cinching it at the waist. My hairy ankles and clodhoppers were still in plain view.

She frowned. “Stoop down. Yes, bend your knees. Good, that hides most of your ankles and your socks and garters. Here, keep this bag with your clothes in front of you so that they cannot see your big man’s shoes.”

She hurriedly slipped into a large gray overcoat and slung a leather purse over one arm. She wrapped a multicolored scarf over her head and tied it under her chin. Then she fussed with my scarf, closing it around my face so that nothing but the tip of my nose and my eyes were showing. She stepped back to admire her handiwork and gave a big smile. “If we had a mirror we could see that we look like a couple of old babushkas on the way to market!”

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The first cops, a couple of plainclothes mugs running up the stairs with their guns drawn like Saturday matinee cowboys didn’t expect to see us. We were on the back stairs that existed for services not the front where the lobby, elevator, mezzanine, and carpeting were for looks. The young one with the slicked back hair and the twenty five dollar suit stared at us and then spoke to Rebecca. “You ladies live around her?”

I looked him over. I could take him and his cheap suit but what about his partner, a downtown cop I’d seen in the company of Hogan before looking back wondering why the kid was bothering?

It was the two cops guarding the other side of the door  on the steps leading to the alley that wanted to make a deal of it..

Rebecca, shoulders hunched timidly, pointed a finger up the stairwell and said “mop,” miming the action, and then mimed passing an iron over a board.

“Ok, yer the housekeepers for the apartment upstairs? You seen any guys with guns running around?”

I had a hard time keeping from bursting out laughing and covered with a sneeze. Rebecca’s shock and disbelief looked real.

“C’mon,” the older cop called, continuing up, “they don’t understand a word you’re saying.”

The second set of cops were mostly uniforms clustered around the exit door to the alley and looked mean the way street cops do, having seen it all, and too worldly wise to be taken by some cheap disguise, parted like the Red Sea as Rebecca held me under the arm and I shuffled along as best I could to the exit door, head bowed down, not one of them thinking what are these two old broads doing at the scene of  a crime?

It was the two cops guarding the other side of the door on the steps leading to the alley that wanted to make a deal of it.

“Hold up, ladies, and where do we think we’re going now?” He was a tall skinny redhead with his cap sitting on the back of his head. His partner was a beefy bloke with a cauliflower for a face. He said, “What you two’s doin here?”

Rebecca put her fists to her hips and got close, frowning into his grainy mug. “Ve are to verk how ve cannot eat not verk?”

“Now, ma’am,, he just wants to know the reason why you’re being at a crime scene seeing as how it being off limits to all but the police and all.”

“I vant complain!” she shouted, “but no is listen! Mrs. Krawitch old lady!” she said tugging me down the steps, “cannot sleep all that bang bang bang. I call police can’t sleep! Tell them must verk Vest Side, mop, mop, mop, clean, clean, clean!”

“But lady, we are the cops!” pasty face offered.

copsShe pointed a finger at his puffed out chest. “Then something do it about!” she said with all the authority of a shrew. “I have verk go now. Come, Mrs. Krawitch.” Hooking an arm around my stooped shoulders, she carefully steered my shuffling progress through the maze of idling squad cars, occasionally glaring back accusingly at the two perplexed coppers.

I had to admit that she had talent and I could just imagine what those dumb flatfoots were saying behind our backs.

“That’s the trouble with them foreign broads, they’s ugly as sin. Ya seen the mug on that old hag. I swear she was growing a moustache. Smelled like an outhouse.”

“Yeah, but the young one’s a looker.” 

“Problem is they all end up looking like they got crippling arthritis,  five o’clock shadow, and permanent shiners.”


Next Time: The Subway To Bliss

Better Than Dead, A Detective Story—9

by Colin Deerwood

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

“You’re so gallant,” she said.

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

“Mind if I call you Becky?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is still my property.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Time: Massacre In The Heights

A Detective Story—5

by Colin Deerwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

         

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Hello,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Nein,” he answered, “Shimol.”


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

A Detective Story—3

by Colin Deerwood

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

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

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

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

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

“Whadyawant?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gedoudayere!” he said finally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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


Next Time: Into The Drink

A Detective Story—2

by Colin Deerwood

I was surprised. Al’s sister was a real looker. Al was the oldest of twelve kids and she was his baby sister. She was still older than me. A looker all the same, the kind of dame who knows how to keep herself up. She could have been thirty-five, more like forty, and right away, from the expression on her face, I could tell what she thought of me.

She didn’t waste any time. “Jesus, Al! How many times I gotta tell ya I don’t want to meet any of your creepy friends! You tell me a nice clean cut kid I don’t expect a runaway from the morgue, a goddamn zombie, for crissakes! Look at that face! I’ve seen better faces in an ashtray!”

She had spunk, that much was obvious, and her carrot colored hair had been permed to give it that Orphan Annie look.

“Now don’t start in on him, Della. Lackland, he’s a nice guy, he’s just in a rough line of work. He’s a. . .confidential investigator, you know, a private eye. . .you stand a chance of being pushed around. . . .”

She stopped in the long shadow of the light pole and fetched a cigarette from her purse to her lips. She glanced back at Al and then at me. “This guy?” she asked in disbelief pointing her cigarette at me.

I offered my lighter and she took the flame, eyeing me as she sucked in.

“Yeah, this is the guy, like I tole ya, maybe he can help you out.”

That made her smile. She blew a ball of smoke with practiced ease. At second glance, she did have a lot of make up on, a flesh-tone paste, rouged at the cheekbones, and a sort of green grease lining her eyes. Her eyelashes were unbelievably long, and her eyebrows, much too precise and too thin.

“Yeah, maybe. . . .”  The lipstick was a deep red but it didn’t altogether mask the tiny lines that indicated that those lips had been puckered to the limit.

“What’s this all about?” I wanted to know.

“I want you to find a man for me, and before you go suggesting that I look no further, the man I’m looking for walked out on me and took. . . .”  She drew on the cigarette and appraised me with one eye shut. “Let’s just say he took some of my valuables and money.”  She let that sink in, and then, “I don’t care about the money but there were a few items of, uh, sentimental value, and I’d like to recover them.”

I nodded my head, stifling a yawn.

Al suggested we all go have a drink and we went down into this little joint with a yellow and green neon palm tree in the window and a pale varnished bamboo interior. It was one of those places where you could order fancy exotic drinks with umbrellas in them. Too fancy for me so I ordered the usual, Al a beer, and Della something in half a pineapple when it came. The bartender was a seedy looking oriental in a Hawaiian shirt I thought I recognized from the track. He too took a long look at my mug.

It seemed that Della was more interested in getting her man back than the money or the jewelry. I was supposed to find him, find out where he’d moved to, and if he were living with anyone, female, for instance. She would take care of the rest. All she wanted to do was talk to him and she was positive she could convince him that they could work out their troubles. She sipped on the two tiny straws poking out of the pineapple and blinked her long lashes at me.

Maybe I looked like I had just fallen off the turnip truck. “You got a pair a socks or something I could use to track him down. I just feed ‘em to my bloodhounds and away we go!”

I got a cold stare. She reached into her handbag, a tiny green thing that matched her shoes and, incidentally, her eyes.

“This is the garage where he gets his roadster worked on.”

She handed me an old work order. “And he makes book in the barber shop down on Mulberry, the Italian’s”

I touched a finger to the swollen side of my mouth. “If you’ll pardon me for saying so, this guy is starting to sound like some kind of pimp.”

The green eyes glared. Al coughed nervously into his beer. I tried to smile but it hurt to move my mouth that way.

“Don’t make that any of your business, crumb. Find him, if you can, and stay out of his way because if he gets his hands on you. . . .”

The barbershop had a bell over the door that sounded when I walked in. The man in the polished hair behind the chair looked up from the array of combs in his hand. He chose one and pointed with it to the door behind me.

“Get outta here!”

“I’m looking for Eddie Cartucci. I got a message for him.”

“Wad I say? Get outta here, I doan need your kinds!”  He bared his teeth beneath the dark sliver of hair on his upper lip. “Gedout! gedout!”

A couple of toughs slid through a crack in the door at the back and hunched over toward me.

“Hey, creep, you heard the man, beat it!”

I caught a look at myself in the mirror behind the barber chair as a big hand slapped my shoulder and I was spun around and lifted out through the door, my shins slammed into the concrete steps leading up to street level.

I walked to the diner down the street and over the tracks by the row of warehouses. I sat on a round stool at the counter and ordered a cup from the chef in the sweat trimmed white paper hat. He drew the coffee from the huge steamer tank like a bartender drawing a beer from a keg. The air was sweet, thick, and greasy. I’d taken a sip and passed my hand over my head to slick the hair back before I noticed him.

He pretty much matched the description I had dragged out of Della. Broad shouldered, well dressed, patent leather hair, tanned features, and narrow, mean eyes. He was leaning over the table of the booth at the far end of the diner and talking to a couple of his employees like he meant business.

By the time I tuned in, he’d changed his tone and was saying something jokey like “you’ll know how long it gets when you get it up.”  One of the girls, a pale frail with a bright red smoocher, offered her cigarette for him to light. He snapped the flame to the tobacco and she blew out a puff with a knowing smile.

On the way out he gave me a sidelong glance, which immediately suspicioned me to the probability that this gent was slick enough to be checking over his shoulder, and that following him to his address would be dangerous to my life, limb, and safety. I chose a much pleasanter option.

I walked over to the booth, cup in hand.

“Buy you girls a coffee?”

The blonde with the soda took her mouth off the straw only long enough to say, “Take a walk, buster.”

The pale brunette held me with her eyes, cigarette in her hand poised by her chin, a sheer light blue neck scarf tied to one side over the shoulder.

I addressed her. “Come on, sister, nothing wrong with buying a cup of coffee for a couple of hard working ladies, is there?”

The blonde was doing the talking. “Ok, so what do you want, tough guy? Obviously we ain’t the coffee type. Maybe you think we ain’t nice girls or something.”

With that the brunette smiled her smile. It had a thrilling effect on me. I wanted to find a place for both of us to lie down and let her do her nasty stuff.

“No, no, I certainly wouldn’t think that of you ladies. I was just wondering about that friend of yours, the one who just left. He looks an awful lot like a guy I went to school with. What’s his name?”

The blonde sneered at me, the brunette still smiling. “You never went to school, fat head. What do you really want?”

I decided to play it straight and lay it on the line. What did I have to lose?

I leaned over the table and got confidential. I told them I was a private dick. That raised a chuckle. And I told them about the bump on my head. I told them about Al’s sister and about their man. They laughed at everything I said. The details had them in stitches. Pretty soon I was sitting down taking a refill from the chef, lighting the brunette’s cigarette, and making small talk with the blonde. She was interested in Al’s sister. It wasn’t inconceivable that their man was traveling with a straight woman. She wanted to know more, and we traded information in an off the cuff fashion bit by bit.

I left the diner pleased by my audacity and, best of all, with the information I wanted. I felt a little less stupid though the bruises on my face still ached and my shins smarted.

The brownstone was on the Westside and easy enough to find. So was the mug’s yellow roadster. It stuck out like a new shoe in a cobbler’s shop. I was being a sap again.

Al’s sister had me come up to her apartment after I’d called her to say that I’d got a line on her Eddie’s new address. She was sociable this time, maybe a tiny bit seductive. She didn’t object when I asked for an advance and gave me the fifty bucks I wanted. Then she smiled a smile that seemed to say everything.

“Lack, I want you to go to Eddie’s place for me. Ask him to return my things, tell him I still love him, tell him I want to see him soon, ask him to call or come by.”

I looked at the drink in my hand. Drugged? I shook my head even though that made it hurt. “That’s a good way of getting myself killed, lady, not on my life am I gonna do that!”

She didn’t blink. “I’ll add another hundred to your fee.”

I blinked. I started to think but stopped at the dollar sign. “What is it you want. . . returned? I could leave a note, you know, saying ‘Della really misses you and she wants you to call or come by or something, and by the way, I’m taking the. . .what was it again?”

“A jewelry box, a black lacquer jewelry box.”  She mimed the size and shape with her hands.

“Jewelry box. Ok. Do you get my drift? I can get the jewelry box back, but I don’t particularly want to be anybody’s messenger boy.”  Maybe it was the drink, but I felt dangerously close to being a messenger boy just then.

She smiled thin. “Suit yourself.”

Then I stopped in at McCauley’s to pay off my tab. The bartender asked me if I was practicing to be a wino as he took my money. I had to order another drink after that crack. I put it on my tab. And another after that. And another so that by the time I stood in front of the brownstone, my face didn’t hurt anymore, it only looked like it did.

I hadn’t sent for the ambulance, either, but there was one there, parked out front of the brownstone and flanked by squad cars of the city’s finest. There was also a fair sized crowd gathered around the entrance to the building. I weaved through the throng, easy enough in my condition, and up to the uniforms holding the on-lookers back. They were just wheeling the stretcher out followed by a couple of plainclothes guys and a blonde dame who looked awfully familiar. Then it all came together as she caught my gaze and recognized me. She was one of Eddie’s girls, the one I had entertained at the diner. Her finger was pointing at me and I knew then that that was Eddie with the sheet over his face. The thing that struck me funny was that these plainclothes cops were wearing exactly the same kind of fedora. The guy behind me was craning around me to get a better look and didn’t understand that I wanted to get back through. He didn’t like it when I shoved him, but he didn’t get a chance to shove me back. I had a hat on each arm leading me aside.

“Hey, what’s going on, boys?” I said nonchalantly.

“Let’s go downtown and talk about it,” one or the other said.

Hogan looked in on me cooling my heels in the holding tank.

“Whatsa matter, wisenheimer, vagrancy again? Or is it drunk and disorderly?”

“Murder,” and I watched his bulldog face turn to mud.

“Ya don’t say?”  He had his fists on his hips, sheaf of papers in one, tie loosened around the collar, sweat darkened yoke and pits, cuffs rolled up to the elbows. If it weren’t for the revolver on his hip, you’d swear he smelled just like a parish priest. Now he was interested.

“I always took you to be dumber than that. Murder takes guts. And some smarts. You got neither.”

“Thanks, Hogan, I really appreciate your concern but don’t bother. I know you think I’m a good for nothing asshole and you’re probably right. . . .”

“Not probably, positively. What happened to your face?”

“I fell down on some guy’s knuckles or the toe of his shoe, something like that.”

Hogan was starting to bore me. He must have got the hint because he left after razing me with a long pitying look, the kind you get from the padre when you tell him you don’t care if you go to Hell.

Della didn’t answer. When I got through with the doorbell I started in on the door. I thought I heard the wood crack, but that could have been my fist. A woman in wire curlers stuck her head out the door down the hallway.

“She left about an hour ago.”

“Thanks,” I said, “I’ll bet you say that to all the boys. Wanna try for the sixty-four dollar question? Any idea where she might have gone?”

I got a slammed door dead bolt triple lock chain rattle for my answer. I cursed loud enough for the entire floor to hear. First I’d been beaten to a pulp by some no-bit hood and then set up by some ball-busting torch. I stood there on the moth eaten carpet in the hallway not knowing which one was worse. That the cops had bought my alibi was about the only bright smudge in the whole dismal chain of events.

I dragged myself down the three flights of stairs to the street below. A cold rain had begun to fall, the failing light failed even more, and me without an umbrella. I paused in the foyer before making a dash for it. The row of mailboxes caught my eye. Hers was number thirty-four. It had a little paper strip fastened to the front with “D. Street” written in a neat hand. A mother and her daughter rushed by on the sidewalk sharing an umbrella. I dug out my pocketknife and pried the box open. Advertisers, bills, a reminder from her dentist, and a pink slip from the post office that had the “article too large for box” square checked. I put everything back except for that.

I stepped out into the rain, out into the slick dark street, out in front of a yellow cab that screeched to a halt a few inches from me. I got in and gave the driver my address. He screamed at me, said he was going to strangle me, beat me to a pulp, kill me for that stunt.

“Why’d ya stop?” I shouted back. I thought his hat was going to blow off the top of his head.

“Where’d ya say, chump?”   A true cabbie.

I unlocked the door to my office. It smelled wet. I figured the leak down the outside wall still hadn’t fixed itself. I switched on the overhead light. A mess, from the bed and the dingy sheets piled up in the middle like a tower of fungus, the reek of stale tobacco, garbage over spilling the can, butt crammed ashtrays on the table, to the unmistakable scuttle of tiny insects hightailing it for the shadows. I should have been disgusted but I was too preoccupied.

I had revenge on my mind and there wasn’t room for anything else. I reached under the mattress and pulled out a bundled oily rag wrapped around an old .38 Smith & Wesson with the serial numbers filed off. It was something that had come my way a few years earlier and I had stashed it away for just such a time. I dug through a box of papers on the floor of the closet. No bullets there. I went through a couple of coat pockets and found one .38 caliber bullet. Then I remembered I’d been using one to add up expenses and it was still on the table among the bottle caps and paper matches. That made two. I stood on a chair and reached my hand into the dark recesses of the closet shelf. Nothing but an old suitcase I’d all but forgotten. Full of old papers from a novel I was going to write. And yes, one lone bullet rattling around in the bottom. I had no idea how it got there.


Next Time: Out To Get Even

A Detective Story—1

by Colin Deerwood

Lackland Ask is the name.  ‘Lack’ to my friends, ‘Don’t’ to those who think they’re funny. You might have seen my portrait on the cover of Black Mask, the crime fiction magazine. This is my story.  It starts with a blonde.  This kind of story always starts with a blonde.

I was wearing my only suit, a barely stylish, casual lapel pinstripe black coat over a high vest and loosened at the neck a small knot red, blue and gold school tie.  The frayed cuff of my white shirt at my left wrist nudged the square crystal of the watch held there with an alligator hide strap. That hand rested casually half out of the pocket of the matching pinstriped trousers.  My other hand held a police special, finger on the trigger, pointed in the general direction of the sawdust and dirt floor.

I let go with a single round. It shattered the calm of the tumbledown roadhouse where I had stopped in for a mint julep. All they had was sipping corn.  It also disturbed the concentration of the two hayseeds whose hands were doing a thorough job of roaming all over the pink parts of the blonde in the black spaghetti-strap dress.  They turned their heads, hands poised, to look at me with sorrowful puzzlement.

“You’re a dead man,” I said evenly.

I twitched a corner of my thin, neatly trimmed moustache and drew my left hand out.

They were real attentive to the meaning of my thumb and scurried sideways into the mismatched collection of barrel stave tables, chairs, and benches

I moved my slick combed head just enough to let the blonde know what I wanted.  “Now you and I will take a ride.  Chevy coupe, out front.  Get in it.”

She stared at me, uncomprehending.  I emphasized with my thumb.  She clutched her small black handbag to her breasts and brushed past me.

The bartender looked like he was trying to decide whether to make a foolish move with something from under the bar.

“You’re a dead man,” I said evenly.

He froze and I stepped away, keeping the pistol in front of me, waist high, still pointing toward the floor.  I indicated the dollar bill next to my empty glass.  “Buy these gents a drink on me.”

I gave them the benefit of one of my smiles, lips over bared teeth.  Their mouths gaped like the knees of worn overalls.

I stepped sideways in three steps and was out the door to a gray evening in early May, North Carolina, just outside of Raleigh.

The blonde was sitting in the passenger’s seat.  She thought she was being nonchalant looking at her face in a hand mirror and passing a puff over her cheeks. Getting in on the driver’s side I caught her knees trembling.

I fit the key in the ignition and turned the machinery on, working the gas.  The yokels had obviously decided to have that drink.  In gear, up on the clutch, and gravel spewed out from under the rear wheels to pepper the tin siding like buckshot.

I was listening to the engine purr as it lapped up the macadam and glanced over to see her clutching the purse nervously to her lap.  My hand to the dash radio made her flinch.  I tuned in one spark of reception after another but out in the wet green hills, no signal had the strength to be heard, not even the high powered stations from Memphis or West Virginia. Music might have relaxed her, dispelled her fears, soothe the savage breast.  She must have had an inkling of who I was, what I was doing, and where I was taking her.  It couldn’t have been the first time. I figured I should answer her unasked questions

She beat me to the punch.  “Who do you think you are?”

I reached inside my jacket and slipped out the faux gold cigarette case, placing it on the seat between us.

“Relax.  Have a smoke.”  I thumbed the catch and the case snapped open revealing the cigarettes, Luckies, the reefer I had rolled especially for her, and my card.

She weakened visibly when she caught sight of the brown paper cigarettes.  “Who are you?  Anyway.”

“Go ahead, light up.”

She snaked a red nailed hand out to the case, and paused, curious, a finger on my card.     She read it silently, and with an uncomprehending smile, the flip of her blonde hairdo bobbing, half asked, “Lackland Ask, Confidential Matters Investigated?”

The green and chrome point of the Chevy coup ate up the gray ribbon of roadway on its way back to the Bad Apple.

She was the boss’s daughter.  The boss was a stubby Serb by the name of Yan Kovic with crossed green eyes and a shiny pink bullet for a head.  He liked to be called “Yan-kay” by his warts and wiseguys. Like that was supposed to make him sound more American. He was a small caliber hood in the way of a lot of smarter, more ambitious Italian punks.  His kid was just another worry.

I gave him my account of how I had traced his daughter to Raleigh and her slick talking country boyfriend who had just thrown her over for the deputy sheriff’s spit-curled waitress.

“You waste da punk like I telling you?”

“Yeah, he’s dead.”  I didn’t bother to add that the deputy had done the job for me with a double barrel shotgun.

He folded his hands on the desk in front of him.  I watched his knuckles go white.

He nodded his skinhead.  “Good, good.”  A finger called over one of his Polish sausages, a washed out, pimple faced blonde with dumb eyes and a white tie over a black shirt.

“Give to Mr. Ask, Confidential Matters Investigated, his fee,” he laughed with a cough.  “A C-note, was it not?”

I tapped a Lucky on the cigarette case, fit it to my lips and lit it.  I said, “Yeah,” let the smoke out, and turning my attention to “Yankee’s” kielbasa. I watched him reach inside his suit coat, a garish mauve with pinstripes, and extract a long black leather wallet.  He folded it open and I caught a glimpse of the sheaf of bills.  That much money made me nervous. His large fingers flicked through the stack expertly and shoved a crisp specimen in my direction. The sight of Ben’s likeness in the oval hypnotized me.  I reached for it and it fluttered, just missing my fingertips, towards the plush red pile of the carpet under my feet. I crouched to catch it before it landed.  As I did, I realized my mistake.  The red pile exploded into blackness against my cheek.

I didn’t like groaning out loud.  But I couldn’t help it. The lump at the base of my skull throbbed in pain.  I should have been dead.  The Polack was a stupid careless son of a bitch and he didn’t have long to live.  I’d come to that conclusion over the last five hours since I dragged myself out of a ditch upstate.  A good Samaritan, I didn’t get his name, dropped me off at my rooming house.

The Polack was going to die very simply because I was going to kill him.

I let my head fall forward. It didn’t hurt any more or less in that position. My forearms across my thighs, I stared at the butt and ash stuffed saucer next to the ringed tumbler and the stained coffee cup on the otherwise cluttered table. I’d given the cleaning woman the month off and she’d taken a year.  I splashed more rotgut against the sides of the tumbler and knocked it back.

The Polack was going to die very simply because I was going to kill him.  First, I had it all planned out. I’d burn his ape and relieve him of his bank roll and then I’d split the Slav’s melon.  My reward would be an extended vacation in some place like Chile.  I heard they had a climate just like California down there.  It was an ideal place for a gringo with cash, that is if you didn’t mind Christmas coming in the middle of summer.

I felt around in my jacket pockets for the pack of Luckies I hoped would be there.  My luck was still breaking bad.  Not a smoke left and it was five blocks to the all-night deli, five blocks I wasn’t going to make easily.

I’d gone to a lot of trouble finding that slate-eyed hophead kid of his.  He was real small time for that trick.  It steamed me.  I knew the jerk wasn’t worried about a measly hundred clams. He had just wanted to show off that he was still a tough guy to his troops, show them the old general still had it in him.

Fatal mistake.  They should have made sure I was dead.  I’d be doing the younger hoods a favor.  I could charge for it but this one was going to be on the house.  Besides, I don’t like doing business with wiseguys.  I don’t like their ethics.

I stood up but sat back down.

Sipping my supper in a little dive on the edge of Chinatown, I went over my finances. A broken ten spot: a fin, four fish and change.  The prospect of what I had to do to get more was competing with the dull throb at the nape of my neck.

My pal Al worked in the kitchen. The wrinkles on his brow made steps up to his receding hairline.

“You don’t look too good, Lack.”

He was a little rat of a guy.  The sleeves of his dingy grease stained white shirt rolled up to his elbows showed off the graffiti of tattoos up and down his forearms.  There was an unusually elaborate round design just below the crook of his left elbow that always got me wondering.  Next to the palm trees, martini glass with naked woman as olive, assorted half clothed shapelies, parrots, and slogans, the emblem was real artwork.  When I asked him about it once, he had just shrugged and said that it was something he’d got one night when he was drunk. In Bombay. Or Calcutta.  Some place exotic I’d never visit.  It wasn’t the kind of answer I was expected to believe but I knew that was all I was going to get.

He pulled himself up on the stool next to mine.  He ogled the gash over my eyebrow.  “Take a fall?  Or maybe you was tripped.”

I nodded and set the glass to my lips.  The alcohol still stung where my lower lip had been forced against my teeth by a knee or a shoe.  It brought back the moment in a series of painful images and I almost whimpered remembering.

Al was good at reading expressions.  “I tol ya before, if ya ever needed any muscle, ya should come see me.  I ain’t too big myself, but I got friends, connections.”

I began to tip backwards but Al grabbed my arm and I opened my eyes.

Once I pressed him on who his connections were but he changed the subject saying, “Don’t ask about it until ya really need it, kid.”

“No, this is something I’ve got to take care of myself.” I said.  I watched myself say it in the mirror behind the bar.  The right side of my face was puffed up and that corner of my moustache turned slightly upward.  It wasn’t the way I ever wanted to look.  I touched it gingerly and closed my eyes. Even the dim interior made them ache and water.  Or maybe it was the damn incense.  The whiny music really got to you, too, if you closed your eyes and had a few drinks.

I began to tip backwards but Al grabbed my arm and I opened my eyes.

Madame Chi was standing behind the beaded entrance to the backroom.  She wasn’t smiling.

“I gotta get back to work, Lack,” Al said in a whisper, “whydoncha come back ‘round midnight when I get off work?  I wancha should meet my sister.”

He gave me one of those smiles that showed me he wasn’t wearing his choppers.

I killed some time at a movie house in midtown that ran three features continuously.  One was a grade B white hat western I just caught the end of. . .riding off with a wave over the shoulder while the gal’s left behind with an empty feed bag and a yearning in her heart.  Then I dozed through a Robinson cops and robbers, tuning in and out from one dream to another.  Finally I was awakened by the unmistakable sound and smell of someone getting sick off of a sweet wine drunk.  Sailors on shore leave, kids playing hooky from night school, maybe.  I didn’t stick around to find out.

The lavatory was one flight below street level and reeked, dimly lighted.  A few seedy characters shuffled around in front of the half dozen splotched urinals and looked out from the corners of their eyes appraisingly.  I threw some water on my battered burning face and tried to shake the tired throb out from behind my eyes.  Even the water seemed repelled by my mug and dripped from my cheeks in huge greasy drops.

An old black man in a battered sea captain’s hat had come in behind me.  Now I saw him in the mirror looking at me, the pockets of his gray smudged smock bulging with rags, brushes and polish cans.  He had his weight on one foot, frame and face like a burnt wood match. The shoeshine man emitted a low whistle as I brushed past him, his brow furrowed with obvious concern.  “You shoulda seen the other guy,” I told him.

My stomach growled, unashamed.  Then it did a backward flip at the whiff of cheap cologne.  A groper.

I decided to try another part of the theater, away from puking teenagers or swabbies, and settled in a seat in the middle of the middle row, no one in close proximity.

I focused on the large black and white images flickering across the big screen.  Walter Brennan pours a drink for buckskin clad Gary Cooper and some of the redeye slops over and eats a hole in the bar top.  The image directly passed on to my stomach where nothing resembling food had made an appearance in twenty-four hours and blistered a hole in my empty gut, too.

Just about then I detected the scent of fresh popcorn and the not-so-subtle displacement of air as someone sat in the seat next to mine.  My stomach growled, unashamed.  Then it did a backward flip at the whiff of cheap cologne.  A groper.

I tried to keep my focus on the screen but caught myself nodding off, drool trickling over the rim of my swollen lip.

The next thing I knew I had a lap full of popcorn.  Then an earful of sour breathed apologies as he made to brush the spill onto the floor.  He bent forward, his hand stopping on my leg.  I jammed my elbow into his face, suddenly wide-awake.  The adrenalin pumped through me.  I could hear him choking and sobbing.  I had easily broken his nose. I imagined him inhaling blood as I burst out into the exploding neon night of midtown.


Next Time: Meet Al’s Sister