by Colin Deerwood
I never expected to be drinking gasoline and water. I’d had just as bad before, but this was East River water, and the gasoline, diesel by grade, was from the overturned powerboat. It had happened all so fast.
He had a gun in his hand. I had my hands on the gun in his hand.
Kovic or one of his goons was yelling something at me. I couldn’t tell what – they all sound like they’re clearing their throats. I realized they were yelling at me about the same time they realized I wasn’t the guy I was supposed to be. What they were trying to tell me in that gargled tongue of theirs was that I was on a collision course with a tug pulling a barge. At the same time, the discovery that I wasn’t one of them got two toughs up on their feet lurching toward me, guns in hand.
The barge loomed closer. I hit the throttle and a hard left on the rudder. I didn’t know what I was doing but it seemed like the right thing. The powerboat sleighed on its gunnels as it performed a tight arc away from the barge. The wheel spun in my hands as the boat rolled back to an even keel. Now I was headed back the way I’d come. There were red flashing lights and sirens approaching. The floodlights of the patrol boat illumed me.
I looked back at my passengers. There were only three of them now. And they all had guns aimed at me. I’m a quick study. I throttled up and gave a hard right rudder. I was sure they couldn’t get off a straight shot as I busted my wake. The bulk of the barge loomed ahead, a dark behemoth hauling its tons of garbage to a landfill in down state. A shot careened off the dashboard a foot too close for my comfort. I turned and saw that I still had three men in my tub. The one lunging at me had a very familiar face. It was the one I’d been looking for. He led with his chin and I caught him in the windpipe with a full set of knuckles. He choked in my face as he landed on top of me and knocked me to the deck.
He had a gun in his hand. I had my hands on the gun in his hand. He was stronger than me, but the fact that he couldn’t breathe was in my favor. It was a draw until the impact.
The gun went off. He went limp. We both went flying into the drink. I was tangled up with him otherwise I would have made my own splash. We sank like rocks in men’s clothing. My peacoat was sucking up water like a wino after a three-day bender. Friend and I had to part ways and I was about to remove my arm from under his when I had the presence of mind to reach inside his suit coat and extract what felt like a small brick, the wallet I had watched him peel the C note from. I shed the pea coat, a veritable anti-life preserver if there ever was one, and scrambled upward till my head broke the surface.
I had never learned to swim. What I was doing was called splashing, and gasping for air. I had the memory of doing that once before revisit me. I must have been ten. It was at the Municipal Swimming Pool. I was one of those skinny little kids in the baggy trunks that hung out in the shallow end. I liked playing in the water, splashing my friends and being splashed back. But I hated getting water up my nose. I had water up my nose now and I didn’t like it.
I was also the skinny kid in the baggy trunks who was always getting yelled at by the lifeguard for running around the slippery edge of the pool. I was hearing that yelling even now.
Once, when I was playing up around the deep end of the pool, someone came up behind me and pushed me in. I splashed wildly as I began sinking. There was an older kid nearby who swam to help me. I remember the dull roar of the watering rushing into my ears as I went under, much like the throbbing roar I was hearing now. As I sank to the bottom of the pool, I remember grabbing onto the trunks of the kid swimming to help me and dragging them down around his ankles.
I also remember his foot kicked me in the face. It was a lot like the pain I was feeling now as a big white donut hit me on the side of the head. There were people on the tugboat yelling at me over the roar of the engine to grab the life ring.
They worked me over, demons in dingy cable knit sweaters. They pumped my arms and peered in my face with eyes as black as eightballs. They jumped on my back and grunted incomprehensible demon words, expelled by breaths that would have pickled squid. They kept it up until I gave in and released, in a gush, the river I had swallowed. I had not meant to take it, it was all part of the process of drowning, but still I was being punished. In this particular hell, large steel cables and giant coils of rope made up my limited horizon. A steady growl vibrated up through the deck pressed against my face. It was the machinery of hell.
Just as I choked and coughed up the last of the East River, the rain began. It was a hard rain and it hit the scrubbed wood planks of the deck with explosive force, as if each drop were a spark launched upward in the dim amber of the demon lanterns. I was peppered by its force, wetting me more thoroughly than my baptism in the river. I resigned myself to the fact that my hell would be a soggy one. Then the demons rolled me over on my back and teased me with the vision of an angel, a beautiful, blue-eyed angel with red gold wings protruding from her temples. Her luscious full red lips parted ever so slightly to reveal the pearls of paradise. I felt her sweet breath on my face and heard her melodious voice.
“Take the lubber down below.”
The cup held something hot, and every time I sipped from it, my shivering lessened. It wasn’t broth, it wasn’t tea, it wasn’t even coffee. Whatever it was, it had a bite that spun through my insides like torrid devils from Tasmania. Just what the doctor ordered. I was slowly making sense of my surroundings, wrapped in a coarse square of gray blanket at the edge of a bunk in an oily stinking noisy space in the innards of some kind of boat. What didn’t make sense was the vision of beauty before me.
In dungarees, stained by grease and paint, with a wide leather belt that cinched just enough of her waist to accentuate her curves, she filled my narrow horizon. A rough shirt hung squarely from her wide shoulders, sleeves rolled up to the elbows to reveal the dingy white of a long undershirt down to her wrists. Her dusty red blonde hair was pulled back in a knot, loose strands dangling at the temples.
The voice, harsh but with a hint of playfulness, didn’t go with the vision. “So Mr. Yamatski, how did you end up in the drink?”
She was holding a book in her hand and she seemed to be reading from it.
“You work for Kovic?” Again, her way of speaking, rough, unpolished, a sharp contrast to her pin-up looks.
I shrugged. “I can’t remember.”
She made a face. It was a more mature face than I first realized. There were lines, shiny cheekbones.
“Convenient. Maybe you got water on the brain.” I placed her accent. Coaster, from further south.
A dark dwarf at her side muttered something foreign. She laughed a laugh that tore me in half and replied in the same guttural tongue. “Diego thinks we should throw you back.” She smiled bewitchingly. I wanted to explore her like an ant in a honey pot.
“Ok,” I lied, “I used to work for Kovic. But I made him unhappy so he roughed me up,” I pointed to the bruises on my cheek, “and tossing me in the river was his way of letting me go. I guess he was too much in a hurry to fit me with a pair of cement socks.”
The dwarf said something else, stepping from the shadows, half addressing me. I saw that he wasn’t really a dwarf but a truly short stocky man with a thick mass of graying curly dark hair under a well-worn stocking cap. He was dark enough to be African but his features said maybe Arab or Portuguese. The dim light of the bulkhead lamp glanced off the small gold loop in the lobe of his right ear.
“Diego is wondering if they were just going to toss you in the river, why they would have rammed into a garbage scow.”
“Well, I think that them being chased by the cops had something to do with it. And Kovic’s mugs ain’t exactly sailors. They got a little excited and lost control of the powerboat. That’d be my guess.”
“Kovic is a rat. Anybody on his bad side is on my good side.” She tossed the book in my lap. It wasn’t a book. It was Yamatski’s wallet. I thumbed through it, a little disappointed. There were a few large bills, but I was mistaken again. It wasn’t a wallet. It was an address book!
She mistook my expression. “You’ll find everything in your book as it was. I didn’t take nothing. Just looking to see who you might be. You had a death grip on that thing. Figured it must be pretty important to you.” She looked over at her mate. “You can ask around, they’ll tell you, Captain Annie Bassinger and the crew of the tugboat Narcissus is square.”
I nodded. “No, no, everything looks fine. Thanks for fishing me out of the river.” I proffered one of the C notes in an act of suicidal generosity. The Portugee was about to step forward to take it but a look from his captain stopped him.
“No need for that. I can offer you some dry clothes and put you ashore as soon as we get back from down state.”
The cops were waiting for us when we docked. They were Feds and the local gendarmes. I saw Hogan among them. They wanted to question Annie about the barge accident. It happened right as the Narcissus was coming down river. They had a witness who said they thought they had seen her crew fishing a body out of the water.
Annie nodded. “Yeah, I thought it was a body too, but turned out it was just a waterlogged tree trunk floated down from upstate. What are the chances, huh? You see people in the water and you go to save one of them and it turns out to be just a hunk of wood.”
The G-man didn’t change expression. “I’ll have to see everyone’s identification and their seaman’s cards.” I felt a certain tightening where the sun don’t shine.
Hogan butted in. “What’s this bum doing here?”
The agent didn’t like being distracted. He was the one in charge. I’d heard of him. His name was Neckker. “What are you talking about?”
“I know this bum.” He was pointing at me, “I know this bum. Whadaya doing on this tub, wisenheimer? Don’t tell me you decided to wise up and take up honest work.” He turned to the fed. “He’s a no-bit wannabe gumshoe. His name is Lackland Ask. He don’t run with the class of criminal we’re after.”
Neckker was taller than Hogan. He used it to his advantage to look down on him. “Just let me do my job,” he spoke crisply.
Since I had become the focus of attention, I was first. It went by the book.
“What’s your name?”
“Like the cop said, Lackland Ask.”
I could see Annie was frowning.
“Let me see some identification.”
I handed him my wallet.
“What are you doing here?”
I glanced over at Annie and caught a barely perceptible nod.
“I’m one of the crew.”
Neckker leafed through the odd scraps of paper, not much of it money, my driver’s license, and my PI permit. I’d had a guy over in Chinatown make it up for me. It looked real official.
He held it up to me. “This is worthless. Where’s your seaman’s card?”
“I got his papers in the works, chief.” It was Annie. “I needed a body in a hurry so I hired this guy while they process them down at the hall.”
I got my wallet back and a raking glare from Hogan as they moved on to check the others.
I had gone through Yamatski’s address book on the trip down to the landfill. He was pretty organized for a thug. There were the names of dames accompanied by phone numbers and a system of stars next to each that was fairly self-explanatory. There were other numbers that probably belonged to his associates: Zsebo with a Butterfield exchange, Mikkel with a Melrose exchange, and so on. Then there were pages with what appeared to be some kind of code, strings of numbers and letters, and writing in an alphabet I wasn’t familiar with. Some sections were underlined with exclamation points. There was also a business card stuck in the front cover that stated simply if found return to Milosh Yamatski for a reward and gave an address on the Eastside and his phone number, a Cedar exchange. Feeling the slowly diminishing lump below my right eye, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of reward he might have been offering. The cash that came with the address book amounted to three 100-dollar bills. I figured that it was my payment for the job I’d done for Kovic and a little extra for my trouble.
She smiled. It was painful, like staring at the sun.
I’d slept a good part of the trip down to the dump site. Whatever it was in that grog Annie had fed me did the trick. The crew, Diego and his counterpart, a tall lanky type by the name of Robal, avoided me. Together they were right out of the funny papers, Mutt and Jeff.
Annie had been coiling hawsers when I came up from down below. It’s not exactly woman’s work, but she made it look easy. And sexy. With someone like her, I could begin to forget about Grace.
I bummed a smoke, dawn showing at the dark, faraway edge of the Atlantic. She cupped the match to my cigarette.
“You don’t look like the Kovic type.”
I gazed through the smoke at her bright blue eyes. “You don’t look like the tugboat type.”
She smiled. It was painful, like staring at the sun. “This boat belonged to my uncle Wally. I spent most of my life on this tug, and others like it. My folks died when I was just a baby. He raised me out here on the river.” She took a deep drag and then let go a shapely puff. “He left me the business when he passed. . . .”
“Harbormaster says we got company waiting for us at the docks, Cap,” Robal had called down from the steering house.
She looked at me, gauging my reaction. “The law, maybe? Suppose they’re looking for you or somebody like you, what should I tell ‘em?”
“That’s up to you,” I replied, feigning nonchalance. “I don’t have anything against coppers, but I’d like to avoid any official business with them. If you know what I mean.”
I replayed that scene over and over in the taxi back to my room. She didn’t have to cover for me, but she did. I wondered if it might have been my battered and drenched lost puppy dog look. I considered the more remote possibility that she might have taken a liking to me. Even when I was being questioned by the fed and my real name came out didn’t seem to make a difference. She had stuck by her story and the cops had left and soon after so did I. I should have turned and waved as I made my way down the dock. I hailed a cab instead.
I know the difference between my mess and someone else’s. This was someone else’s. The room had been turned upside down. Someone had been looking for something. I would never turn a room over like that. My way of looking for something was to move things around, not upend them. The drawers to my bedside dresser had been yanked out and overturned, socks, underwear, ties, cufflinks in a pile on my desk. Paper clips, pens, pencils and papers scattered all over the floor. The mattress was set on edge revealing a hutch of assorted dust bunnies under the bed frame as well as my private library of French Art magazines. I stared down at the big red bouche of the brunette on the cover of L’Etoile. Amazingly someone hadn’t disturbed any of the magazines. I reached down and pulled out a buried copy of Seins Marveilleux. The pink postal slip still marked the page where Yvette displayed her substantial endowment. Maybe that’s what someone was looking for. I folded it into my wallet. Then I went downstairs and banged on the super’s door with the edge of my fist.
Curtis opened the door and the stale stench of decay hit me in the face. He was attired in his usual sweat stained undershirt and matching slacks, one suspender off the shoulder. The two-day growth of beard didn’t make him any more appealing. He blinked in the light of the hallway, eyes veined red with road maps to perdition. “Wadyawan?”
“Curtis, did you let anyone into my room? Somebody’s been in there and undone all my fine housekeeping. And I’m missing a cufflink.”
I stared over his shoulder into the brown dimness of his apartment. A kid was sitting knock kneed on the couch, a glass of something in her hand.
“Yasisteh come lookin’ forya. Sheyada message forya. I letterin.”
“I don’t have a sister, you gas bag. What did she look like?
“Older broad. Wearin sunglasses, scarf over her head, like she come from a funeral. Redhead, maybe.”
“Right, my older redheaded sister came looking for me to tell me about a death in a family.”
The kid threw a glance at her elbow when she saw me give her the onceover. She was all of eleven acting like she was older, twelve or thirteen. I wouldn’t put it past Curtis. His fly was down.
I could have let it pass. “What, you a babysitter now?”
He frowned and then grinned, showing me an uneven row of marbled Chiclets, his pallor growing faintly dark. A strong wind could have knocked them down his throat. I just wasn’t that wind.
A female voice shrieked a name from a few stories up. The kid jumped to her feet and ran to the door. I walked away.