Tag Archives: Fedoras and Flatfoots

Better Than Dead—17

By Colin  Deerwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Howdya do that?”

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

“At least the light was better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Time: The Philharmonic Radio Hour

Better Than Dead—16

by Colin Deerwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatallitbe?”

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

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

“And your little sister?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He set his beer down and prepped a roundhouse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re lying!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, Lack, it was awful!” she sobbed.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Time: Coming To Grips With The Black Hand

Better Than Dead—15

by Colin Deerwood

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I couldn’t let on to Alice about my swim in the East River and the address book that was worth a Bull Durham sack full of diamonds or that Mister K had put price on my head and that international saboteurs were after me because Rebecca stole from the diamond dealer in whose apartment a gun battle had occurred and whose father was a bombmaker without sounding like something out of a men’s magazine. I was having a hard time believing it myself.

Rebecca’s giggle said they were going to be good friends. Alice looked over her shoulder at me. And smiled.

I smiled back nipping at the java. “You’re right, I couldn’t sell the art Ted gave me. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ll just have to figure some other way to go on the lam.”

ads2 diner coffee1“Sure, Lack.” She’d started another cigarette and let the smoke drift from between her lips. “But if you kids need a place to hang out for a while, that’s alright with me.”

We were kids now. “I’m going to need some things from my, uh, office but I can’t go there myself.”

“Ok.”

“Maybe you and Becky can go over there and pick up an item for me.” The item I had in mind was a battered leather satchel, what I thought of as my “getaway” bag. If things got too hot or too dicey I could beat feet out of town and make myself scarce. In the bag were a pair of woolen slacks, a change of underwear, a denim shirt, some well-worn kicks, and a heavy overcoat for when the nights get chilly in the back of a cross country bus. In the lining of that heavy coast was pinned a one hundred dollar bill, my “getaway” money. Alice didn’t need to know that detail.

“Sure.”

The bag was in a corner of the closet under a pile of newspapers and dime magazines. I said they might have to move stuff around to find it. I gave Alice the key.

“Someone got into my room about a week ago and tossed the place. I haven’t been back since. That’s why it’s probably a mess.”

“That’d be different,” Alice quipped. She’d been to my office before.

“And don’t let Curtis see you because I’m a little behind on my rent.”

“That pervert!” Alice tucked her shirt into her pajama bottoms and slipped into some Mexican sandals. “Come on, Becky, I’ll show you how it’s done on the West side.”

Becky pranced like an eager pony that made Alice grin. Then she snapped her fingers. “Why didn’t I think of that in the first place!” Her eyes widened with her really good idea. “My friend. Lee. She has a loft on the top floor.” She pointed up to make sure I knew the direction. “She went out West to visit her boyfriend’s parents. In Wyoming.”

Rebecca’s eyes grew almost as wide as Alice’s, savoring the exotic word. “Wyoming,” she repeated.

“She won’t be back for a couple weeks. She asked me to water her plants and feed her cat! It’s perfect. You’d have your privacy.”

“No, no, it’s nothing like that.” I could feel the flush of my face.

My embarrassment was funny to them. I stopped them at the door. “Oh, and see if I’ve got anything in my mailbox. I’m expecting bills but there might be a check in among them.”

Alice looked annoyed. “Do you have a key?”

I shook my head. “Naw, just use your hairpin.”

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The guy stood out like a tack on a marble floor, behind the wheel of an old Plymouth, hat pulled down over his eyes, sleeping, or pretending to be. Could have just as well been a copper as a mug. I’d tailed Alice and Becky. They were too busy getting acquainted to notice me.

I left my perch from a doorway down the street from my building and headed in the opposite direction. At the next corner, a prowl car was pulled over in front of a fire hydrant. A couple of fedoras were leaning down to the open window. The low sun was just breaking through the clouds and made me wince with its bleak intensity. By the time I got back to Alice’s, my eyes were watering like the wind had swept motes into them. I ducked down under the stoop entrance just as the beat cop came sauntering by. Someone called out a greeting from across the street and he gave a jocular reply.

I let myself into the studio, a space I was not unfamiliar with. Alice had a little brown Bakelite radio with an amber square panel parallel to the speaker grill off to one side of her worktable and I turned the knob to break the silence. Rapid recitation of stock averages. I twisted the dial. String music. A man talking about saving his soul and anyone else who had the faith and the money. There was an installment plan. The end of the stock report and news on how hostilities on the continent blah blah blah Precedent Roosterfelt et cetera et cetera, conscription of young men, and so on. The strings won and the crescendos were easier to take than the words I was hearing. News of a proposed draft was not at the top of my list of happy.

Alice’s place wasn’t exactly a dump, as if I should have been talking. It was a brick and plaster box with a tiny sink and a hot plate. A curtain half concealing Alice’s unmade bed raised on bricks and lumber pilfered from a nearby construction site cut the room by a third and certainly did not making it any less cramped. Neat is not a word I would use to describe Alice. Stacks of paper with sketches and daubs of color. Portraits she’d sketched at nearby restaurants and cafes and in the neighborhood park strung like laundry to dry. I recognized the automat in the background of one of them. Just a few precisely placed brush strokes and ink lines caught it all. There was a large portrait of Ted framed on one wall, kind of a shrine with a tiny votive candle as well as stray articles of intimate clothing under it. No telling what Alice might be doing in her sad all alone. Ted seemed more alive in Alice’s rendering than he’d been in person, cigarette in hand, smiling ruefully. It was the eyes, they seemed to sparkle.

I thought I heard a noise. The coffee had somewhat done the trick and I was barely paying attention to the clanging going on between them. It could have come from behind the small ice box next to Ted’s portrait, a rat or maybe just the old building settling further into its foundations. I turned to see the doorknob move with a click and Alice and Becky walking in.

“I didn’t know you liked classical music.” Alice said setting down the brown satchel.

“Tchaikovsky!” Becky exclaimed although it sounded like a sneeze. She handed me my mail.

gladstone“We ran into that creep Curtis when we were leaving.” Alice was digging through the drawers of her dresser under the portrait of Ted. “I told him that we had a bag for you but you weren’t in your apartment, which, by the way, is a picture perfect disaster zone.” I noticed Becky wrinkling her nosy at the unpleasantness of the experience. “He didn’t say anything about the rent. Probably because he was too busy ogling your ‘sister’.” Alice indicated a beaming Becky with a nod of her head. “From Wyoming.”

Becky nodded in assent. “I love to say the word. ‘Wyoming’. A place whose name poses a question. I must learn what is this oming.”

Alice laughed a shriek. “Probably something Buddhist, honey!”

My mail consisted of an ad from a dry cleaner and laundry, two return-to-sender letters that I had mailed to Grace on the West Coast and which now had returned with their refusal to acknowledge my attempts to communicate, a familiar Last Notice envelope from a collection agency, and postal item-too-large-for-box slip.

I went from heartbroken to puzzled. The pink postal slip in Della’s mailbox I had filched. I’d put it out of mind. But this one was for something different, deliverable to me. I was stumped. And distracted. Della’s postal notice was in a bank deposit envelope tucked behind the cash register of a cocktail bar waiting for someone with my name on it to claim. This didn’t make sense. I could say I had a gut feeling about the package slip, but it was the hairs on the nape of my neck that had stiffened.

Becky pointed to the notice in my hand.” I think this is package of old clothes my father send to you after you buy your suit when I first see you.”

“That’s so romantic!” Alice could be sarcastic.

Of course, it was obvious as the smudge on my nose.

“Becky told me you’re helping her find some family jewelry stolen by a gang of jewel thieves? I guess that’s better than peeping in windows.” Alice gave it her sly wicked smile. “And you had to hide in a coalbin to get away from them?”

I had new respect for the kid. That was a better story than I could come up with, and believable, coming from her. She was smart, she was good looking, and she had imagination. That made her very attractive. It also made her very dangerous. A woman with a mind of her own is unpredictable. Proceed at your own risk, as the old man used to say.

“That’s probably why you two look like a hobo vaudeville act.”

I’d caught a glimpse of myself in the fragment of mirror above the tiny sink. My face looked like I had been bussed by lips of charcoal. The red watering eyes were sad, like a clown’s.

“You can clean up in the bath down the hall. Linkov was leaving just as we came in. He’s off for his daily chess game in the park and won’t be back for a couple of hours.”

I brushed at the sleeve of my coat. “Naw, I’m ok, maybe just splash some water on my mug. Gotta a towel? And who is this Linkov?”

“You know, Linkov, the mad Russian painter, he has the studio next door. We share the, ahem, facilities.” Alice winked at Rebecca. “He likes to peep.” And gave me a knowing look.

My concern must have shown.

“I just hang a towel over the hole. Don’t worry. He’s harmless. An old Russian aristocrat. He says he was wounded by the Reds. He was a White, apparently.”

If Alice wasn’t going to worry about it, I wasn’t either. I glanced around at the walls of her tiny studio. There’s never only one hole.

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It was no use. The coal hatch wouldn’t budge. It was locked from the inside. Rebecca had tried the front door to the building but it was locked as well. I’d cased the street an hour before and there was no signs of the feds or anyone else who might be taking an unusual interest in the tailor shop. Looking for the sack of lost diamonds in the coalbin was going to have to wait another day. Rebecca looked at me expectantly, crouched by the coal chute. She was going to have to try sweet talk the super again.

coal shuttleI pulled her to her feet. “Let’s go have a drink and think this over.”

“Why Lack? First it is food you must always have and then is drinking. What will we do about stones?” She returned the flashlight borrowed from Alice into her coat pocket.

“Listen doll,” I said turning her to face me, “the rocks are as safe as if they were in a bank. No one knows the diamonds are down there. Just you and me. But in the meantime, I have other business to attend to so you might as well tag along.”

“Where is this place I will tag to?” she asked as I pulled her along by the hand.

Over one block to the intersection of the bright lighted main drag and down another block to the granite cornerstone of the metro bank building and left past the jewelry store to the sturdy nondescript mahogany door with the amber rectangle of glass where the speakeasy peephole used to be. Even before I pulled on the door handle to open it I knew that it wasn’t going to be the quiet little cocktail lounge I had ducked into over a week ago. It was Saturday night.


Next Time: A Hot Time In The Old Town

Better Than Dead—14

by Colin Deerwood

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“Cripes, it’s the cops!”

She stared at me dreamily with incomprehension and sat up perplexed, looking down at herself as if it was something she did.

I was pulling my up pants. “We got visitors!” I said, “The cops! Outside!” Now I knew what a bucket of cold water felt like.

I could see the panic in her eyes as she jumped to the floor.

“Let’s get out of here. Is there a back door to this place?”

She was slipping into her coat, bag in one hand, setting her hat on with the other. “Yes, down the corridor and to the left!”

I found my coat and headed for the door by the hat rack. I needed a hat. Bare headed men are always too conspicuous. And I lost mine near the back entrance to Soloman’s building. I couldn’t afford to be picky but they were mostly trilbys and flat caps, a few boaters, and one lone fedora. It fit a little loose around the ears but I wasn’t going to worry about that now.

nekkerThe shadows of men halted in front of the wide display window. One of them put his nose up against the window to peer in. I recognized the nose and the face behind it. The G-man, Nekker.

Out in the hallway I followed Rebecca dashing to the rear and an alcove to the left. She threw herself at the door. “It’s locked!” she grunted in frustration.

I gaped at the large padlock and the chains. I ran back to the hallway. I could see water seeping out onto the floor from under the washroom door. It didn’t look like a federal offense. And across from it, the maintenance closet. From which I had emerged less than a week ago. It was a crazy idea and I had to go for it. If it didn’t work, we were trapped, no matter what.

I steered the kid into the closet, closing the door just as I heard flat feet flapping on the floor tiles and voices raised, commanding, announcing. The closet was dark and I felt my way to the opposite side, feeling for the handle of the door down to the furnace room.

The door creaked open onto a dark abyss. I knew there were stairs going down but I couldn’t remember how many seeing as how I had mostly crawled my way up them last time. My eyes adjust to the faint glow of light cast by the dirt encrusted window on the coal furnace hatch. Slowly I made my way down the steps made more difficult by the hat sliding down over my eyes and Rebecca’s iron grip on my arm making my balance all the more precarious. Finally I set my foot down on the cinder littered floor. It was still all but pitch black. I could see my hand in front of my face but I couldn’t tell how many fingers. I tried to remember the direction of the coalbin and took a few hesitant steps in that direction.

The noise at the top of the stairs meant that they gone into the closet. It was only a matter of time before they found the door leading down. I barked my shin against something solid but was thankful that it didn’t clatter. I bit my lip to stifle my bark. A few more steps and I touched the lateral boards of the coalbin. I felt around the front for the latch to the gate. I could now see a silver sliver glistening off a few lumps at the top of the heap, the seep of daylight coming in at the top of the chute. The gate scraped open wide enough to wrench through onto the jumble of oar. I felt her hesitate. Then voices, “Find the light switch!”

“It’s not working. Bulb must be burnt out”

“Go back to the car and get the flashlights!”

I scrambled to the top of the pile and felt for the edge of the chute. I whispered in her ear that I was going to hoist her up onto the chute and that she had to reach up to push open the hatch to climb out into the loading zone. She was willing enough and light enough to lift, and agile enough. I followed her up with a little more of a struggle. A voice shouted, “I can hear someone down here! Hurry up with those flashlights!” By then I was pulling myself out of the hatch and crawling onto the midmorning pavement at the rear of the building.

Rebecca stared at me from her sitting position next to a crate and the brick of the building. Then she started giggling.

Hysteria, I’d seen it before, under many different circumstances. Giggling, and pointing, pointing at me, now with the other hand over her mouth to catch any unladylike guffaws. “You are covered in coal dust, all over your face, and your hat!” That was apparently the funniest part of all. “Your hat is crushed, and is falling around your ears. You are like a Charlie Chaplin character! A clown!”

On second look she hadn’t made out any better wrestling with the coal chute. She had a scrape on one knee, her hat was off to one side, and she had smudges on her cheeks and her nose. Yet she gleamed like a diamond.

I leapt to my feet. “Let’s skedaddle!” And raced for the street and the narrow alleyway that ran directly opposite. It being a Saturday, the commercial traffic was light. I spotted a delivery truck pulling away further down. I raced toward it with Becky close behind. The driver hadn’t rolled down the back gate and he was going just slow enough to catch up. The large truck hesitated before turning on to the street. I  gave Becky a leg up and hopped on as the truck turned into traffic

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We abandoned ship when a passing cabby alerted the truck driver that he had a couple of stowaways. We landed a few blocks from my office on 9th. Hopper’s Diner was just around the corner and down the block. I was in a mood for some honest java and a chance to get my head around what I had to do next.

hopperscafe“They ain’t gonna think of looking for us in plain sight,” I said when she stared at the wide windows looking out on to the street. There was another couple in the one booth in the back and I would have preferred to be down there, half way out of sight, instead of perched on a stool hunching my shoulders to the street. Still I had a gut feeling that we might have eluded the G-Men and I could catch my breath. From the counter man’s mug he thought we looked a little rough.

Rebecca peered at me over her cup. “You have an eye that is blackening purple and a dark bruise on your forehead.”

“Yeah, I felt as much. Too bad you can’t see my headache. My head is throbbing like a sack full of kittens.”

“Should we go to the hospital?”

“Naw, that’s the first place they’d look for me.” What the G-Men wanted with me was an open question. Was it me? Or was it the kid? Maybe her old man? Kovic wasn’t going to let up until I was worm meat. And the others, who were they, and what did they want? “We gotta find a place to lie low. Change the way we look. I got a place nearby but I don’t want to take the chance that it’s being watched. I can’t go there.” Then it came to me. “But you can!”

I outlined my scheme. She would hide out at my place while I got a hold of Max and made arrangements to move the diamonds. Then we would have the cash to make a dash to wherever our hearts desired, including a ritzy hotel with room service. I could tell right away she didn’t like the idea.

She looked sorrowful enough, but I got the feeling something wasn’t right. “You lost the diamonds?”

“No, not Max, he is not a good diamond dealer if now he must be a pawn man. I know people, and the people I know know people, and these people will pay top rate for the diamonds. And we must also consider that by now the police have been informed that the diamonds are missing and a pawn shop is the first place they will look.”

She was right, I just naturally assumed the cops would be looking for me for whatever reason.

“Ok, you got a point. And if the diamonds are missing and you’re missing, they’re going to put two and two together and come up with you. And if they get that far, they’re gonna notice that I’m missing, too, and when they add me in, they’ll get us.” Now I had a bunch of international saboteurs on my tail to boot. And for the time being the diamonds were hot no matter how uncut they were. My ready cash had whittled down to Hamilton and his older brother, Jackson, a couple of fins, and some fish. If we were going to lie low someplace until the rocks cooled we were going to need a larger stake. And I had something I could use as collateral.

I dropped a couple of Jeffersons on the counter and pushed out the door to the street, the kid on my heels. “Where are we going?” she wanted to know.

“I got an idea,” I said as we hustled down to the corner, “we’re not gonna need those diamonds just yet.”

“Yes,” she nodded, patting the pocket of her coat. Then she stopped and patted the other pocket, and then rummaged in her bag. “Lack,” she moaned, “I can’t find the diamonds?”

“What?” I couldn’t believe my ears.

“I was certain that I had put them in my coat pocket. . .you remember, when we talked about them.”

I wasn’t remembering anything. I threw my hat to the ground and glared at her with my hands on my hips. “You lost the rocks?” I must have shouted it because a guy passing by gave me a quick look of concern. I leaned forward and growled in her ear. “You checked all your pockets?”

She fumbled with her coat. “Yes, look, the lining is ripped. It must have happened when I was climbing up the coal chute. And that pocket was the one with the hole in it.”

She looked sorrowful enough, but I got the feeling something wasn’t right. “You lost the diamonds?”

She put her hand on my arm and said with an earnestness I had to believe, “They have fallen out in the coalbin! We must go back and retrieve them!”

I was about to answer when a couple of older dames dressed up like they were just coming back from Church or a funeral brisked by. They gave me a suspicious cursory once over and then one of them reached into her purse and dropped four bits into my hat. An act of charity if it hadn’t been for the looks of pity mixed with haughty superiority.

“Right now the shop is probably crawling with feds. We’ll have to go back later. And getting past the super ain’t gonna be no picnic.”

“Lack” she said looking puzzled, “Why must you always talk about eating?”

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“I want you to meet my friend, Alice.”

Alice stood in the doorway of her small basement studio in a man’s shirt stained with paint and her pajama bottoms, blinking. “Lack, hello.” Smoke trailed up from the cigarette in her fingers

“Alice, this is my friend Rebecca.”

“Hi, come on in. What brings you around?” She pointed us to the two chairs and table by the small kitchen sink.

It had been a while since I’d been there. The last time I saw Grace was in this small apartment with its mattress on the floor and lopsided set of drawers. Not much had changed. The large table covered with large mottled sheets of paper and jars and brushes, cakes of color.

I’d had to admit my powerlessness at changing what could not be changed. Grace had made up her mind. She was moving to San Francisco. If it hadn’t been for Alice, I mighta been looking at an assault and battery rap. Ted had just died and it was tearing her up. And she’d lost it, in high hysteria, her grief so complete that it overshadowed the pettiness of our squabble, demanding all the attention. By the time she’d calmed down, I’d accepted what wasn’t going to change. I’d look in on Alice on occasion, help her out if she needed a few extra bucks. She seemed fragile but she was made of tough stuff.

I caught the kid gaping, wide eyed, fascinated, I was sure as much by the story as by the lingo it was being told in. She’d stumbled tail over teakettle down the rabbit hole into the land of the real American argot.

“I got a question about something that Ted gave me a coupla years ago.”

“Ok, have a seat. Nice to meet you, Rebecca. I’ll start some coffee.”

“I hope we didn’t come at a bad time.” Alice’s bob looked a little lopsided and she’d yawned a few times to unrumple her face.

She glanced shyly over her shoulder. “No. I stayed up late last night with some friends down at Sid’s. What did you want to ask me about?”

She’d found a couple of chipped tea cups and a hefty mug to set on the table.

“Yeah, remember that time Ted had the art show at that gallery down on 2nd Avenue? What, maybe two years ago?”

windowbox“Crane’s. Yeah, I remember. What a disaster that was. Ted got so drunk. He was celebrating the first one man show of his assemblages. He knew he was dying even then but kept it under his hat. Didn’t want to bother anyone unnecessarily” She turned from the tiny icebox. “Milk’s gone sour, but I’ve got a little honey if you want.” with a self-effacing smile that shouldered all the sorrows of the world. “What about the show?”

“There was this really obnoxious guy there, some stock broker, a money guy, and he was bad mouthing Ted’s stuff, you know, the little constructions and dioramas?”

“I remember it well. Such a phony blow hard.”

“I was ready to slap him silly and teach him some manners, but Ted let it slide. Then the guy sees one of the little boxes with the glass face and says that it is the best piece of art he’s ever seen. Or something like that.”

“That was Huddington, not a stock broker, but an art critic and dealer. A complete, pardon my French, arsehole.”

“And offered Ted, what, a thousand bucks for it right then. And Ted turned it down, said that one was from the collection of a friend, and when this guy demands to know who owns it, Ted points at me and says, ‘That guy, I just gave it to him.’

I knew I’d get Alice laughing with that story. She held the pot over my mug. “And Huddington offered you the thousand buck and you turned him down, too.”

I caught the kid gaping, wide eyed, fascinated, I was sure as much by the story as by the lingo it was being told in. She’d stumbled tail over teakettle down the rabbit hole into the land of the real American argot.

“Yeah, I knew that was Ted’s game, get even with the loud mouth, so I told him to go pack sand. But what surprised me was that when the party was over, Ted actually gave the box to me to keep.”

“I remember that.”

“And I said, ‘You’re crazy, it’s worth a thousand bucks’ and he said, ‘You’re worth more than that, Lack. Thanks for being a friend.’” I stopped because I was feeling a little heat behind my eyes.

Alice nodded, looking away as she remembered sadly, “Yeah, that sounds like him.”

“So even after I had to move out the apartment with Grace into my office, I hung on to that box. I still have it. I promised never to sell it.”

“That’s real sweet of you, Lack” and she kissed me on the cheek. I saw her wink at Rebecca. “We’re old friends.”

“So I’m wondering if that guy Huddington would still be interested in buying that box.”

If anyone could do forlorn it was Alice. And disappointed. “Probably. After he built a pyre of all his paintings and assemblages and lit them afire, what he called a bonfire of vanity, because each of them was an occasion of sin, there are probably less then a dozen people who own any of his pieces. So yeah, I’d say you could probably get more than what he’d have paid two years ago.” She narrowed her look at me and blew out some smoke. “But Lack, you said you would never sell it.”

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I felt like a rat. Alice was right. It wasn’t a new feeling. I always knew I was a rat because I had to be a rat just to get by, and doing what I did, Confidential Investigations like it says on the card, is something a rat is good at, always looking for an angle, always an ulterior motive, always considering what was in it for me. I had what some might call veneer, a tough exterior that was as persuasive as my solid good looks and native charm. I could talk the talk and I rarely had to prove it by walking the walk. But I didn’t want to have to be that kind of rat.

modelapuTed was my brother-in-law for a very short time. When I hooked up with Grace, he was already pretty sick. Alice said it was because of all the chemicals he used in his business that had got to his lungs, his brain. He refinished furniture so he could afford to work on his art. Every once in a while I helped him moving furniture he had refinished and deliver it to the customer in his old ’28 Ford when I wasn’t tracking down runaway daughters or nieces or spying on the wives of poor deluded bastards or retrieving someone’s possessions, like jewelry boxes.

We’d relax over a couple of long necks in his workshop afterwards and he’d explain to me why all the little boxes and scraps of odds and ends left over from a job and arranged in a certain way was called art. I never understood much of what he was saying, but what I did understand was that Ted liked me for who I was, the actual me, the guy who’d helped him lug a settee up six flights of stairs, not the tough guy that I wore when I was doing my job as a private dick. And the fact, that for some erroneous reason, he thought I was good for his sister.

I was going to have to think of another way of scamming some cash and finding a place to lie low. True to my rodent nature though, I had an idea of how I could use Alice and Rebecca to evade the eyes that might be watching my place, and buy me time to retrieve the rocks from the coalbin, if indeed that’s where they were.

I watched the kid take in the cramped but comfortable carelessness of Alice’s studio. The art on the walls, the sketches on the work table must have clued her.

“Oh! You are an artist!” Rebecca exclaimed and Alice joined her at the work table. “Watercolors!”

“Well, I’m not O’Keefe, but yeah. They’re not exactly a big seller like oils on canvas, but after what fumes did to Ted’s health, I don’t want any of that mess. Anyway, I get by doing department store display sketches and such.”

I could tell by Becky’s eager expression that she had a thousand questions and that  Alice was going to have a lot of explaining to do.


Next Time: Back To The Bin

Better Than Dead—13

by Colin Deerwood

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

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

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

“How’re we gonna divide the loot?”

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

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

“There are six. With yours.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But not three.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lack, are you listening?”

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

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

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

“What is it, Lack?”

“Your old man.”

“My father? Yes?”

“He’s a bomb maker.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait a minute? Again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Time: “Cripes! It’s the Cops!

Better Than Dead—12

by Colin Deerwood

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I like my coffee hot and black. I was drinking a strong tea that had been poured over half a dozen sugar cubes. The daily blatt’s morning edition headlines screamed MASSACRE IN THE HEIGHTS and took up almost all of the space above the fold to make up for the fact that they didn’t have any information except that the cops had found what appeared to be a shootout in an attempt at robbery. Even though I had the inside track of what really happened, I paid attention to what the news hacks had come up with. That the police were baffled came as no surprise. G-men were being brought in to help with the investigation. That was funnier than Dagwood.

Soloman, I kinda figured, was a respected businessman with international connections. He had ties to refugee organizations who were helping displaced people who were fleeing the krauts and the nasties in the Balkans around where I was guessing Rebecca was from. Rabbi Joe, Joseph Frank, they called him, also well respected and a community leader, resided at that address but was unharmed. According to unofficial reports, two of the stiffs were also residents of that suite of apartments, a third, thought to be one of the robbers, was Asiatic which was another way of saying Chinese or Japanese. Half a dozen people had been taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds. A few residents were also not accounted for. There was an ill lit photo of a large room with a long table I took to be the dining room. A trio of men in fedoras with their hands in the pockets of their overcoats very much out of place, Police were questioning neighbors and were asking witnesses with information to please step forward.

I looked up at one of the unaccounted for residents and a witness and got a frown. I’d been getting them since I woke up. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate all she’d done for me. I didn’t expected her to wash my trousers and iron them dry and thought I’d thanked her by saying “you didn’t have to do that.” And she’d grabbed a morning paper as soon as the bundles hits the bricks at the newsstand down the block. She’d obviously read the reported account of what she’d been in the middle of and that giving a cause for worry. But that wasn’t it, exactly.

I had to ask, “Where’s the library?” I got a crossword puzzled look. “The terlit, the commode?” and I was hoping that it wasn’t a bucket behind a curtain.

The confidence that had been a part of her upbeat personality seemed shaken and I suppose it coulda been my fault. I had the choice between being a good guy by being a bad guy or a bad guy by being a good guy. I never thought of myself as a good guy. On the streets, do-gooding tends to get kicked to the gutter. I don’t even know why I chose pain over pleasure or maybe the pain was the pleasure of being perverse. So I said, “No.” And when I saw her look, I said, “Not now.” I wise up at the worst times, and when it happens, I don’t know why it doesn’t happen more often. As a result, I got some much need shut eye while I suppose she stewed over why I didn’t give her a tumble. I had to work out my next step but she had her own ideas.

“I cannot go back to them, Lack, you must understand. They are bad men, dishonorable men. Even my Zayde is foolish and old fashioned and believes the lies they tell him. He was my last hope to make them let you go. You are not at fault. You are good man, Lack, I can see that now.”

My ears heated up and I was hoping I wasn’t running a fever. “You have to find your father and tell him you are all right. To find out if he’s alright. Do you have a phone number you can call in case of an emergency, somewhere you can go to be safe.

“I am safe here, Lack. This is the only place I know other than the room behind the kitchen in the apartments.”

“But what about your things? Your clothes?” I had a pain behind my eyes that wasn’t going away and I wanted to blame Max’s hooch. Besides I wasn’t having any luck convincing her that the worst for her was probably over. “Once this gets calmed down, you can go to your father and tell him you’re safe. Who knows, he might even show up here looking for you.”

“No if he is not here by now, he has either been detained or he is not coming back.”

“You don’t know that he’s dead.”

She shook her head as if to rid herself of a sad expression. “No, I don’t think he is dead because now I understand what has happened.” Now she gave a sardonic little twist to her mouth. “You came to the apartments at a fortunate time, Lackland Ask. Did you not notice the large gathering of men? You came at the end of a long day of discussion and planning by the men of I don’t know what but I can assume it was to do about the refugees who are being detained in Albania. It is a very complicated situation my father has told me.” She shook her head, “He treats me like a child.” Her blue eyes blazed with hurt. “I know what he does for them. He is a proud man and a believer in the cause. It is why he does what he does and wants to keep the truth from me.”

“Well slap me silly and call me Einstein. You’re a Red!”

She must have noticed my surprised look. “What do you know about me, Lackland Ask?” She gave a fierce smile. “You know where I am from, I am a refugee from Salonika, I have no papers, and I cannot go to the authorities. When I was young I play the piano at five years old. I was reading the classics by ten. Then I was sent to special school in Zurich where I belong to a group young-pioneersof comrades, we called ourselves the “red kerchief” because that was our uniform, a red kerchief around our necks. When the war came I return to Salonika. My mother was a school teacher and belong to a political party prohibited by the metaxfascist government. The secret police arrest everyone in connection and steal their property. The Black Hand gangsters firebomb our place of worship and kidnap those of our faith for ransom. My mother was torture until death. My father escape to Istanbul on a Black Sea freighter and with help of compatriots come to America. I stay behind to be with my mother and help hide refugees until she is arrested and I hear she is dead. I have to flee because the secret police wishes to arrest me, too. I catch fishing boat across to island of Lesbos, and then to Anatolya where I ride many bus lorry wagon for many days to reach Beirut where after a long wait I am able to catch ship to come to this city and find my father who has joined with Herr Doktor Soloman and his refugee organization and where I can get new papers to say who I am and why we must fight for the revolution and overthrow the oligarchy!”

That made my ears perk up. And the more she talked the more I was beginning to get the picture. She went to a fancy school where they filled her head with a lot of baloney about truth and justice and capitalism and oppressed masses and fired her up with a fever to change the world to be a better place for people and puppy dogs. What she didn’t realize  that if it we’re for dog food, the dogs would be eating each other and even bit the hand that might pet them. All this high toned coffeehouse jabber disappears as soon as you step out on to the street where you have to look three way, right, left and right again if you didn’t want to get upended by some bat out of hell, I wanted to tell her. Someone was always on the grift and they didn’t really need to have a fine opinion or reason to take you to the cleaners. You’re just another pebble in the path leading to the top trod on by an endless stream of crooks and cons with table manners and nice suits with their hand in your pocket and who would think nothing of snuffing you as if you were a bug, maybe even less because at least they have to admit the bug’s existence. I was trying to tell her all that and if the people at the top of the heap ain’t buying it, it ain’t getting sold, but she was all pink in the face, eye bugging with intensity, declaiming that the workers of the world had to unite and overthrow the ruling class. I knew they only way that got done was through strong arm robbery, what some might want to call revolution. I had to laugh. “Well slap me silly and call me Einstein. You’re a Red!”

It was probably the wrong thing to say. I got the frown again and the glare that went with it. “I am not a color! I am a human being who wishes for equal rights for all mankind!”

I didn’t want to tell her she was in the minority so I concentrated on the matter at hand. I didn’t doubt that her people even her father and maybe even the cops would show up at the shop. I needed to make myself scarce and even though the kid had got her hooks into me, I was going to have to slip free if I was going to get back what was mine, with interest. I had a diamond in me and I had to get it out. A good strong cup of Java would have done the trick without thinking. The tea, strong and sugary as it was, was making me think about what I had to do and I was wondering if I was up to the intellectual effort. One of the things I learned from my old man was to make sure you were in the proper circumstances and that was by sitting in the library as it was often called. And if I went to library I would need reading material. I noticed that she had been filling in the squares on the crossword puzzle so that ruled that section out. She’d explained when I noticed her scanning the columns of clues, “This is how I am learning vocabulary for to better my English.” She’d said it with a beam of pride. The screaming front page headline seemed untouchable so I opted for the for the funny page.

I had to ask, “Where’s the library?” I got a crossword puzzled look. “The terlit, the commode?” and I was hoping that it wasn’t a bucket behind a curtain.

She gave me a look of pleasant surprise. “So it is called that also, the library! Of course!” She had a key and pointed me to the water closet down the hallway past the broom closet that led down to the furnace room. “Be careful the super does not see you.” It was a tiny spot crowded with a corroded gravity flush commode, a scummy washbasin, a battered plumber’s helper and a stinking soaked mop.

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Staring at the blue and red can of Drano on the shelf under the sink wasn’t helping, but then neither had Maggie and Jiggs, Orphan Annie, Gasoline Alley, Mickey Finn, or Terry and the Pirates. My brain was sending commands down to the engine room but nothing was turning or churning. Popeye , The Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt or Jeff couldn’t take my mind off what I had to do. I was about to give in and pull my pants up from around my ankles when I felt the tremor, faintly, but I knew my gut had finally made up its mind and was sending signals to set off a chain of events. I quickly freed a double page of newspaper and slid it under the seat and then sat back down to let nature take its course. I was hoping that what I was expecting was at the head of the line and that I wouldn’t have to wait for the next installment.

katzenI stink, I’ve been told that many times, mainly by dames, and for entirely different reasons. This time I was looking at the evidence that I did and trying not to add to it with something coming up my throat. I set the package on the washbasin and slowly ran water over the sticky stinking muck. They were two well-formed specimens. I began separating them with a pencil tip. Most of it washed away as a disgusting brown slurry and I almost lost it down the drain and had to stop up the hole with my thumb while my other hand carefully separated the tiny chunk of gravel to one side of the basin and onto a dry section of the newspaper. I held the pebble under the faucet and let the slow stream wash the dirt away. It still looked a bit of grit but now that I knew what it was it was more than that. Slipping it into my vest pocket, I ran water over my hands washing off the crap and scrubbing my fingers with the bar of lye soap on the shelf next to the can of Drano. No matter how many times I put my nose to them, the stink lingered around my sparkling cuticles. I dumped the newspaper and the remains into the commode and after slipping into my suspenders, strode out into the hallway and back into the tailor’s shop.

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“You seemed pleased with yourself.”

“I’m happy to report that everything came out ok.”

“It was then a good ending?”

“Yeah, very satisfactory.”

“Did you bring some of it with you. I detect. . .something. In the air?”

“Maybe we should find some fresh air. Things are looking up and there’s a chop suey joint down the street in need of my business.”

“Do you think it is safe to be in the public? The police?”

DiamondFI“I plan get as far away as possible from the cops and this little beauty is my ticket out of here. I just got a little bit of unfinished business to take care of and I’m gone.”

“Oh, that is the diamond. Have you had on you all this time? I did not find it when I was washing your clothes.”

“I had it in me.”

“Oh. . .ooh, that explains the odor.”

Yeah, well I didn’t have much choice. I had to do what I had to do do.”

“That is joke, yes?”

“Yeah , you catch on fast.”

“And where is this place you will be gone now that you have a diamond.”

“Any place but here. But I hear South America is nice. Rio, Buenos Aires, maybe even Santiago in Chile. I hear the weather is like California, and it’s not as expensive. A cheap place to lie low while I’m on the lam.”

“Now you are just making up words. I have never seen this word in my cross puzzles.”

“What’s a three letter word meaning ’23 skidoo’?”

“You are making fun of me but you also make me laugh, Lack.”

“Yeah I’m just a barrel of laughs once you get to know me. I kill ya with my jokes cause ya die laughing.”

“Now you speak of murder? Why is this funny?”

“Forget it. It’s just an expression.”

“Lack, I have something else to tell you.”

“You’re full of surprises.”

“Herr Doktor cheat you from the diamonds like I told you. They have the real book that you have sold them for the diamonds. They trick you with a false book soaked to look like it has fallen in the commode. I hear them laughing about this and I think they are cruel and dishonorable men. And I think that they must be not succeeding in this cheating.”

“I appreciate the thought, but a diamond in the hand is worth six in the safe.”

“That is just it, Lack, there are none in the safe!”

“Whaddayamean?”

“When they have their meeting in Zayde’s apartment I go into Herr Doktor’s office and take the diamonds from the safe.”

“You did what? How did you know the combination?”

“It is my birthday.”

“So you have the diamonds?”


Next Time: Diamonds And Coal Dust

Better Than Dead—11

by Colin Deerwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Time: Diamond In The Rough

Better Than Dead—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—8

by Colin Deerwood

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stormy sky allywayI instructed the boys to park mid-block in the shadow of the cone from the street light. Max’s Triple A Loans was half a block down and locked up tighter than a spinster’s legs on a full moon night. I squired the dame around the corner and into the alley that ran behind Max’s pawn shop. She didn’t hesitate once as we entered the narrow unlit corridor of discarded crates and overflowing overturned garbage cans, a sliver of gutter water gleaming down the center, the scramble of rats scurrying away. Visible in between the gap of tall buildings the sky was filling with the dark billowing clouds and in the distance a flash then a rumble sounding like someone was moving furniture around in the apartment upstairs, really heavy furniture.

I’d been there before and even though the sign on the large metal door claimed to belong to Ho Gung Import Exports, I banged on the door a couple of times. I knew Max burned the midnight oil counting his filthy lucre and probably even slept there. All I got for my trouble was a reminder of how hard a metal door can be. I tried again, this time adding my voice. “Max! It’s me, Lackland Ask, open up!” I thought I heard a movement on the other side of the door and put my ear up to it. “Max! Open up!”

“Go away,” a faint tired voice answered.

“Come on Max, it’s me, Lack Ask. I found your stupid niece for you when she ran away upstate with that travelling Bible salesman!”

Nothing. Except for the raindrops that were falling with increasing intensity.

“I don’t know what was worse for Max, that she ran away or that it was with a Bible salesman,” I said from the corner of my mouth. I slapped  the palm of my sore hand on the door a few more times. “Come on, Max! It’s important! And it’s starting to rain!”

The gal thought she’s give it a try, stepped up and rapped on the door delicately with her knuckles. “Mr. Fedderman,” she called out, “my name is Rebecca Levy. I request a special favor of you. I am here with my betrothed, Mr. Ask, and we have an item we wish for you to appraise if you would be so kind.”

What she said was more of a mouthful than Open Sesame, but it worked. I could hear the bolt being slid back and the tumblers turning and finally the heavy door creaking on its hinges swinging outward to reveal Max with a Louisville slugger in one hand and a very perplexed look on his mug. He stared at Rebecca and then at me and back again. “Betrothed?” he croaked.

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“Come in, come in” Max waved his hand impatiently, smiling at Rebecca and frowning at me. There was the stink of old in the little storage room in the back and it wasn’t just Max. And as I had guessed, a cot pushed against the wall under some shelves crammed with pawned items. He led us into the cage that was his office just off the main showroom and pulled the chain on the overhead light. In among the clutter was a rolltop desk and a work bench.

Max sat in the only chair and looked up at us. He was a sight. A halo of wild white frizz surrounded his mottled dome, wrinkles on his forehead stepped down to a pair of cheaters like the bottoms of jam jars astride a carbuncled schnozzle below which sat a smear of liver lips on a bed of untrimmed whiskers. No wonder he was known as The Owl on the street, but an owl that had just smoked an exploding cigar. He smiled and showed that he was running out of teeth and the ones that he still had weren’t in that good a shape. The smile was aimed at the dame. Me, he fixed with a squint.

Max grunted and placed the pebble in the palm of his hand and poked at it with a finger. “The first difference you will notice between a pebble and an authentic uncut diamond is that an uncut diamond has a faint oily feel to it.”

“So you are getting married? The temperature in Hell must have dropped below zero.” The liver lips shaped a smirk.

“Thank you for agreeing to see us, Mr. Fedderman.” The kid beamed her glow at him. “It is the matter of a stone and its authenticity. Mr. Ask. . .I mean, Lackland, doubts that it is real.”

“A stone,” Max breathed noncommittally.

“Yeah, Max, it’s supposed to be an uncut diamond, but how can you tell? I mean, it looks like a pebble you might find in your shoe.”

“Uncut diamond?” Now the old guy was interested because instead of slouching in his chair he sat straight up.

“Lackland says you are an expert in such matters and can appraise its value for us.”

From the look on Max’s face maybe he took the term “expert” to  be some kind of insult. He stood up and I realized how short he was. Still, puffing out his chest he said, “Young lady, I will have you know that I was the most respected and renowned purveyor of gemstones in the international community of Shanghai. I handled only the finest in jewels, from diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and jade. . . .” He was about to go on but the tailor’s daughter jumped in.

“Oh, jade, I love jade. My mother had the most beautiful jade necklace. . . .”

Not to be outdone, Max dismissed what she had to say. “I carried only the finest of Burmese jade, the jade of emperors and empresses, to some more valuable than diamonds!”

Now it was my turn. “That’s what I told them, Max. . . .” And at the dame’s scowl, corrected myself, “Uh, her, that’s what I told her. You know your gems, diamonds especially.”

“Of course, if I do say so myself.” Acting humble didn’t suit him. “If I may examine the specimen.” He held out his hand and the girl reached into her coat pocket and produced a small white box. Max took it from her and opened the box and muttered a hmmm. He set the box on his work bench and found a pair a tweezers which he used to hold the rock up to the light.

“Like I told you, Max, it looks like something you might find on the beach.”

Max grunted and placed the pebble in the palm of his hand and poked at it with a finger. “The first difference you will notice between a pebble and an authentic uncut diamond is that an uncut diamond has a faint oily feel to it.” Then he parked his glasses on top of his dome and pulled a loupe from his vest pocket and fit it in his eye socket. “The next detail is the surface of the stone, its facets, what are their shapes.” He dropped the diamond back into the little white box and handed it to me. “Congratulations! You are in possession of a genuine diamond. Quite a valuable one, I have to tell you.”

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money eyesWell, that cinched it. I was going to be a rich man. My eyes and my grin were competing with each other over which was going to get bigger. I looked at the dame and her smile was trying to make up its mind if she was pleased or now what. But I didn’t care. All I could think about was what I was going to do with all that money once I turned those diamonds into cash. A new roadster like a Torpedo or that Roadmaster I had my eye on, an apartment in a classy neighborhood with a doorman at the entrance, new suits, none of those second hand threads, dames, booze, travel, maybe catch a train to Frisco and look in on Della who I heard was working for a slick lawyer on Mason Street and flash my roll and say “who’s the loser now.”

Luck was finally turning my way. I could open my own office instead of just passing out business cards in cocktail lounges and night clubs. I would certainly be looking at a more upscale clientele. I’d actually have customers I could call clientele. I would need a receptionist, someone to answer the phone and show the clients into my private office with Lackland Ask, Confidential Investigations in gold lettering on the frosted glass pane of the door, maybe a dame like this one, smart, sassy, and eager to learn. Happy days were here again where actually they had never been before or if they had, they didn’t stay for very long. I was going to be rich!

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No doubt I was taking advantage of the situation but I reached around and put my arm over the frill’s shoulder and pulled her to me. “Hey baby, how about that. we got a real diamond. It’ll make a beautiful wedding ring!”

I got a sharp elbow in the ribs for my trouble. “Yes, of course, darling,” she said between gritted teeth and giving me a firm no smile avoiding the closeness of my face like I had three day bender breath. “Maybe we should be on our way and thank Mr. Fedderman for his kindness.”

I looked at my cup. Maybe the joy juice had affected my hearing. “You mean Dracula country? Don’t tell me you’re a vampire, Max.”

“Leaving?!” Max’s whole body, head, arms, legs shook no. “I would not think of it! This happy occasion calls for a drink! I insist!” and he produced a short round bottle from the bottom drawer of a dusty wooden file cabinet, the kind of bottle Sinbad might have rubbed when he was calling out the genie. He had a glass but it was greasy and finger stained. He shook his head and scurried to a set of shelves along the wall crammed with odds and ends, mostly glass and porcelain figurines like you might find in a Chinese variety store. He reached into the clutter and with a grin that was startlingly sinister, produced a pair of blue and white tea cups, setting them on the edge of the desk, and proceeded to drip some of the liquor into each of them before pouring a generous helping into the smeared glass for himself.

I didn’t see why not. A drink always went a long ways to settling my nerves. It was the best tonic I knew. Besides I was in a mood to celebrate. The frail wasn’t so sure and stared at the cup Max had handed her.

“Mazel tov! To the health and prosperity of your union. May you have many offspring to see to you in your old age!”

She went all red in the face and I almost felt sorry for her. She hesitated and Max leaned forward to say something like it was going to convince her. “Ming dynasty,” he said indicating the cup, “Very rare.”

She pass the cup under her nose, still uncertain.

“A plum brandy from the old country.”

She took a tiny sip to wet her lips. She smiled at the sweetness of the taste and tried a little more. By the time it reached her throat her eyes were watering and she was trying to catch her breath. She began to cough.

“Where are my manners?” Max gently steered her to the only chair in the room. “Here, sit, sit.”

She thanked him and asked, “Where is your old country?”

“Transylvania.”

Dracula_(1931I looked at my cup. Maybe the joy juice had affected my hearing. “You mean Dracula country? Don’t tell me you’re a vampire, Max.”

“Pah!” Max spit, “The fever dreams of an Irishman. In the Carpathian Mountains there are many strange legends, but none of them are about vampires.”

Rebecca took another sip now that she was sitting. She nodded. “I have heard many of the folk tales from that region. They are similar to the ones I grew up with.”

Max was pleasantly surprised from the way his whiskers parted to form a smile. “And where is that, my dear?” So when she said the name of the place that sounded something like Salami-ka, he exclaimed, “We’re practically neighbors!” He poured himself a little more of the liquor and then a dab into each of our cups. “To the crucibles of civilization!” he toasted and took another big gulp and just to be polite I followed suit. The girl, too, though maybe not so eagerly.

Then she asked the question that set it all in motion, and gave Max the opportunity to tell his story. “How did you end up in Shanghai?”

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“When I was a young man I had to leave my tiny village in the shadow of the larger castle town of Sibiu because of a matter of honor. It was a matter of honor for the father of a young woman who vowed he would kill me on sight. I offered to marry her but because of who I was that was impossible. I come from a poor family, my father an itinerant tailor, and she was the daughter of a prominent man in the village. I was quite handsome in those days and was known about the village as “zilbertung”. My father went to the mayor of the town and begged him to intercede. Being a wise man, the mayor proposed a solution. The man’s honor needed to be appeased but he was not an unreasonable man except for the fact that he wanted to kill me. He would accept satisfaction on two conditions. One, that I was to be banished from the village, and two, that a compensatory payment be made. As I said, my parents were very poor. The first stipulation would break my mother’s heart but at least I would still be alive, but the other was beyond their means. The mayor had an idea that would resolve both of the demands. With my parents’ agreement, my father was ready to kill me himself, the mayor took me to Sibiu and sold me to a travelling merchant as an indentured servant.”

“Oh, how awful!” the kid breathed, and accepted another drib from Max’s bottle while I leaned my rear on the edge of the desk. Max had the floor.

“It was the best decision I never made in my life!” Max held his glass up in acknowledgement and lapped up more of the juice. “From that moment on, I trusted only fate, dame fortune. Decisive action is for schnooks. And most of my life has proved me right. Opportunity is always underfoot, you only have to trip over it.

“As it turns out, the man I was sold to was a trinket merchant, a man who bought, I should say swindled poor peasants out of their family heirlooms. And he beat me horribly at first, especially when he was drunk, but I learned that he had a weakness for folk tales and so with my silver tongue I beguiled him with stories from my village, some that I had heard at my grandmother’s knee and others that I made up ex nihilo, especially the ones with fantastic beasts and enchanted maidens who would lure young men with their whiles. And so I always made certain that he had plenty to drink at whatever inn we stopped at and I would tell him stories until he fell asleep.

“By the time we arrived in St. Petersburg, he had me reciting my tales to the denizens of roadside taverns and passing the hat. Of course I never saw any of the money because I was essentially his slave, a slave to a Slav. But in St, Petersburg, creditors caught up with the merchant who was known as Ursulov, by the way, a bear of a man. He owed many debts and to pay them off he had to sell me even though he had become very fond of me and my stories.

Soviets-2“And I had landed in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century, a simmering cauldron of political dissent and talk of revolution, but now as the servant of a man who was a jewel merchant or a jewel thief, depending on whom you spoke with, a tiny man with a very bad temper who was not quite Russian and not quite Chinese—he claimed to be from the region near Lake Baikal which later proved useful in extricating me and my companions from a very dangerous situation.

“But I digress. At first I merely swept the shop and washed the windows and kept the fires going in the winter, and because I was quite strong, I accompanied him when he thought he might need protection. He carried a pistol and allowed me a knife. A known jewel merchant was not safe on the streets of St. Petersburg and he had made many enemies over his gem transactions. He had a young apprentice as well, a boy of about my age, perhaps younger, named Freddy, from Switzerland, and we became fast friends.”

“Ah, Switzerland,” the dame murmured, leaning a little sideways and accepting more of the fruit juice from the bottle. I had a refill as well. After a while, that stuff made you feel kinda warm and cozy, like you didn’t have a care in the world, and added to the fistful of diamonds I had in mind, I didn’t.

“I attended boarding school in Zurich,” she said dreamily, “I learned French, Italian, German, and English while I was there, and I had a friend in each of those languages.” She looked up at me trying to focus her eyes, “And now I am learning American.”

“The discontent in the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow came to a boil and the people revolted against the government. The revolt was quickly put down but it paved the way for the Bolsheviks a dozen years later.”

“A woman of words in the ways of the world!” Max raised his glass again and we all downed a slug. “I too learned many new languages during my time working for Otobayar as the merchant was known. Chinese and Russian, German, and French. Because of my silver tongue, languages were easy for me, and soon Mr. Otobayar came to trust me as someone who could always bargain a good price for the merchandise, either up or down, depending on the circumstances. I also learned much about the gem business, especially that stones were an international currency, and quite easily transported across borders sewn in the lining of a sleeve or the cuff of trousers, and were accepted everywhere.”

“Kinda like diamonds,” I said and I sounded stupid saying it.”

“”Exactly,” Max said passing the bottle around.

“Diamonsh,” the kid echoed and sounded just as stupid.

“Those were wild and dangerous times in St. Petersburg. There were strikes by workers and peasants alike. Factions of the military were trying to gain power by overthrowing the Tsar’s rule. There was fighting in the street, soldiers killing many of the citizens who were protesting, demanding food, better wages, or even wages. Much of this fomented by the disciples of a dead Engländer by the name of Marx. Less than half a dozen years into the new century, Russia had started a war with Japan. The discontent in the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow came to a boil and the people revolted against the government. The revolt was quickly put down but it paved the way for the Bolsheviks a dozen years later.”

“The damned Reds,” I growled and emptied my cup

“Soon Mr. Otobayar, whose full name by the way had thirty letters to it and was unpronounceable to anyone not familiar with the Mongol tongue even when they were sober, realized that a man in a business such as his was in more danger than a mere bodyguard could protect him from. It was time to flee. He had Freddy and I pack up as much as we could carry, sewing strings of gems into our clothes, in the linings of our suitcases, and the heels of our shoes, and we boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway and headed east. The streets of the capitol were running with blood and the Russian Empire was losing the war to the Japanese.”

“The Japanese,” Rebecca spoke dumbly and I had to agree with her.

“When we arrived in Moscow to board the train,” Max said, steeling himself with a sip for the next part, “there were soldiers everywhere. They were heading to the battle front. We feared we would not be allowed to board. But there were also poor peasants conscripted to hard labor in the east and so we rode in the boxcars with them, with Mr. Otobayar disguised as our servant.”

Max stared at the wall of his office like he was looking out a window and shook his head like he didn’t like what he was seeing. “It was an incredibly long journey across the wilds of Russia complicated by the fact that the train heading east, the one Mr. Otobayar, Freddy and I were traveling on, was regularly sidetracked to let pass the trains heading west that were loaded with the dead and wounded from the war with Japan.

transiberian“Even in your most extravagant moment you could not imagine the horrors I witnessed. Peasants starving or killing each other over a crust of bread, soldiers committing suicide or deserting which was almost the same thing as they had no hope of surviving in the wilderness, and particularly after a troop train of their wounded comrades passed the other way, there were always the wails of inconsolable desperation. We had to be continually on our guard and Mr. Otobayer and I had to deal forcefully with the growing insolence of the peasants. We feared for our lives and the gems we carried which of course would mean nothing to them. They wanted our clothes and our shoes.”

Max talked in a way that put pictures in my head and I just stared at him looking at what his words said. The girl was looking up at him with her mouth hanging open.

“Fortunately for us, as the train rounded the southern tip of Lake Baikal, we took on a contingent of soldiers native to that region whose language Mr. Otobayat was quite familiar with and was able to convince them to allow us to continue to our destination in their company and under their protection.

“When we arrived in Harbin we waited for weeks in vermin infested lodgings along with other Russian refugees who had arrived before us and were still waiting for the Eastern Chinese Railway train to take us to Peking  We roomed alongside criminals and deserters, Japanese agents and Chinese soldiers. Our lives were more in danger than they had been on the train for these men, and women, knew the value of the gems they suspected us of carrying.

“Mr. Otobayat had engaged one of the servants at the inn to be our ears and eyes and keep us informed of the intentions of the other guests. The night of the train’s arrival he warned us that several of the toughs and army deserters planned to attack us in the morning of the train’s departure for Peking. Mr. Otobayat on hearing the news came up with a plan. He paid the servant to betray us and tell the bandits that we had got wind of their plan and were fleeing to a neighboring village. As there was only one road in that direction the gang of ruffians set out to follow us, assuming that we could not have gone very far. We waited for them outside the city limits hiding in ditches alongside the road. Once they came into view, we had Freddy run down the road in full view. As they ran past us, we jumped out of the ditches and beat them with our clubs. Mr. Otobayat had to shoot one of them and I cut another one’s throat.” Max held his hand like was holding a knife.

The dame’s eye opened wide and rigid like the slots on a pay phone. He kinda got my attention, too. And as if to fan all the smoke away, he said, “A week later were in the international settlement in Shanghai. Mr. Otobayat acquired quarters where we could continue our business in gems and sent Freddy on a steamer across the Pacific to America to look for further opportunities. Mr. Otobayar always thought of the future. Unfortunately his past caught up with him and he was murdered in a deal with a Burmese jade dealer.”

Max held the smoked glass of the bottle up to the light and squinted with one eye. There was a corner left, probably enough for one more round whether we needed it or not. “Fortunately I knew enough of the gem business to continue in the trade, I had my silver tongue, and by then I was considered a yu shu lin feng, a handsome young man, and cut quite a dashing figure among the emigres of the international settlement as well as the citizens of the middle kingdom. I even became the president of League of International Gem and Diamond Merchants, Shanghai chapter.” He frowned. “Until they brought false charges against me and had me barred from membership.” He dismissed them with a wave of a hand and downed the last in his glass. He peered at the tailor’s daughter. “And that is how I ended up in Shanghai, my home for a quarter of the century. I won’t bother you with the details of my having to flee before the Japanese invaded, the fascist Blue Shirts I had to bribe, the tongs, the Green gang, and Shanghai gangsters like Crater Face Huang and Elephants Ears Wang!”

Now there were some names for a Dick Tracy funny book and maybe the girl thought so too because she started giggling and then broke into a loud guffaw. “Elephant Ears Wang!” she snorted, and then let out a very unladylike gut splitter, tears running down her cheeks.

They say laughter is contagious. I thought it was kinda funny myself and volunteered a couple of chuckles. They bounced around the small office and the next thing I know, we were all practically rolling on the floor, pointing fingers, crying, and trying to catch our breaths with a bad case of the yuk-ups and ho-ho-hos.

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Wheezing and holding a hand up in surrender, Max wiped the tears from his eyes. “Thank you for your gift of humor, Miss Levy, soon to be Mrs. Lackland Ask.” That only caused to her to laugh some more, but not as heartily. He gestured to the interior of his shop. “Let me offer you something for your trousseau. Pick any item of clothing, silk dresses imported from China, or silk pajamas for the wedding night, perhaps. With my compliments.” He winked at me and I gave him a big wink back like we were part of some vaudeville routine.

“Oh, I just love the feel of silk on my skin,” she said getting to her feet, a little wobbly but managing a cross ankle dance to the clothing racks Max was pointing to further in the shop.

“Ah, yes, yes, the Empress’s Cucumber.” Even he looked a little embarrassed, clearing his throat

Max gave me the raised eyebrow and called me over for a tête-à-tête which I knew was French for a mouth to ear. “These diamonds, they have relations?” He was trying to be subtle but it almost went over my head.

“Uh, yeah, about a half dozen, I’d say. And if this deal works out, they’ll be all mine.” I couldn’t help grinning but Max’s grim mug made me stow it.

“Deal, what deal?”

“Don’t worry Max, I’ll cut you a commission for moving the rocks for me.” I looked over my shoulder to see if the dame was still occupied with sorting through the rack of dresses and pajamas. “See, I had this address book that belonged to one of Kovic’s goons and unbeknownst to me it was full of information about this mob called the Black Hand.”

At the mention of the Black Hand he gave me the Felix the Cat bug eyes. And nodded impatiently.

“These guys, the girl, this rabbi and his group are fighting them or something like that. It’s got everything to do with what’s going on. . . .”

“Yes, yes, I am getting the flavor of what you are saying. And it is you that Kovic is looking for?” He was giving me the once over like he didn’t think I had it in me. “There is a price. . . .”

That’s when we heard the kid scream and then start laughing again. I figured she spotted a rat but why was she laughing? It sounded hysterical.

She was holding a bright red Chinese dress to her neck with one hand and standing by one of the glass display cases, pointing to a brocade cloth Chinese box on top. “What is that?” she said, looking as she if she was pleasantly mortified.

I was kinda brought up short myself. I knew what it looked like and I could give a guess at what it could be used for, but I didn’t want to say. I left that up to Max.

“Ah, yes, yes, the Empress’s Cucumber.” Even he looked a little embarrassed, clearing his throat.

Now that he said it, I had to agree, it did kinda look like a cucumber. It was green and longer than it was wide, rounded and curved at the tip, with some carved leaves around what looked like a stem or handle at the other end. It looked like something valuable or at least expensive tucked in the plush padded red lining. On the other hand, it also looked like something you might find in the bedside table drawer of some lonely old maid.

“This once belonged to an empress?” The disbelief wasn’t hidden.

“Oh, no, no, this is merely a soapstone replica. They are also known as ‘auntie’s friend.’ The original one belonged the Empress Dowager Tzu-zi and made of the finest most translucent Burmese jade.”

“Her name was Suzy?” Now I was doubting what I was hearing.

“No Tzu-zi, although I know it does sound like Suzy. The original Empress’s Cucumber mysteriously disappeared after her death shortly after I arrived in Shanghai. Being in the jade business at the time I had heard rumors that it was for sale to the highest bidder. Mr. Otobayar thought he could broker a deal with a rich Japanese industrialist but it was all quite secret and I was kept out of the transactions. Although his death was attributed to a jade deal gone bad, I believe Mr. Otobayar was murdered by a sect of loyalist bent on restoring imperial rule. They believe that possession of the Empress’s Cucumber will boost their claim to legitimacy among the people of the middle kingdom. And from what I hear from my informants even though no knows where it is, treasure hunters and agents loyal to the throne of Heaven are still searching for it.” Then dropped his voice confidential like. “There is a rumor that the jade has been sighted recently. Whoever has possession of it is holding millions of dollars and the fate of a people in his hands. No wonder they would kill for it.”

traditional-chinese-bridal-dress001Max turned his head and smiled at the frail as if he hadn’t just been talking about conspiracy and murder. “So you’ve picked the red cheongsam dress with the gold embroidered birds of paradise. Excellent choice. The size looks right but maybe the hem could be let out a bit otherwise you might show a little more ankle than is proper. I can have it done by tomorrow and delivered to your address.”

As Max was showing us to the back door, Rebecca asked. “I was wondering, whatever became of your friend Freddy after he left for America?”

Max shook his head. “Sad story that. He returned to France and joined the Foreign Legion to fight in the Great War, and was wounded, lost his hand. Now I hear he seeks out the company of Bohemians and degenerate artists.”


Next Time: Full Flush Or No Flush