by Colin Deerwood
I was being followed. I had just pushed out from the brass and glass doors of City Bank where I had gone to break down the c-notes to more expendable denominations. A high crowned fedora with the brim turned down topped a slight figure in a long gray overcoat with the collar turned up. I dropped to one knee in front of the entrance to the jewelry shop next door. I retied my shoe glancing up at the reflection in the display window mirroring rings, jewels and watches. The shadow hesitated, dark goggles and wan cheeks peeking out from above the V of collar. I knew I could probably take him. Unless he had a gun in his hand in those deep overcoat pockets.
I rose and turned abruptly, striding in his direction. He spun and walked hurriedly out of sight around the giant granite cornerstone of the bank building. Just as quickly I turned and ducked into a cocktail lounge two doors down.
It was one of those tall, narrow, opaque window, dark interior, shotgun places that catered to bank tellers, bookkeepers, secretaries, and clerks with tables along one wall and an enormous mahogany bar along the other that allowed only constricted access to the darker reaches of the back where the facilities were located. And the phone booth. That’s where I headed.
An older woman in a ratty fox and a dish mop for hair, and an even older purple beezer gent in a rumpled brown suit and shapeless hat pulled down over a ruff of shaggy white feathers looked up from toying with the ice in their tall glasses. The bartender, with whom they had been conversing in earnest hushed tones, was a broad browed palooka with calm guileless gray eyes. He ambled down, a wide door in a dress shirt and a black string tie, to where I had ensconced myself among the shadows and where I had a good view of the entire length of the bar and the entrance. He looked me over as he placed a cork coaster in front of me. I was still wearing the clothes Annie had loaned me, the rough checkered shirt and pair of dungarees, the cracked leather windbreaker. I needed a shave. Maybe he thought I was in the wrong kind of dive. But he understood me perfectly when I held up one finger and then two fingers horizontal to the bar. Double. Whisky. Neat.
I laid out a fin when he brought me the drink and he came back from the register with three fish and some bait. They must expect some well-heeled patrons at those prices. I didn’t say it out loud. Besides the first sip told me that it was the good stuff and why disturb a sleepwalking giant.
Someone had left the daily paper in the corner near my elbow. I unfolded it and angled it to catch the light off the bright mirrored back bar. The headlines screamed about the mess in Europe. Under the fold one headline caught my eye. It read, Mob Boss All Wet and then in sub head, Two Still Missing.
Apparently while trying to avoid capture by Federal and local authorities several reputed crime figures crashed their speedboat into a garbage scow on the East River. All but two of the occupants of the speedboat were recovered from the frigid waters. One of the missing men was believed to be Milosz Yamatski, a man known to be second in command to reputed crime boss, Jan Kovic. The other man’s identity was unknown. I reassured myself that Yamatski’s address book was still in my jacket pocket. I was going to give its contents the third degree once I got the chance. Right now I had more immediate things to attend to. The swelling on my face had gone down and only the hint of a bruise outlined my chin line and the cheek under one eye. If I was going to stay in business I was going to need some new duds, clean up, scrape the stubble off my cheeks. Look sharp, feel sharp. First I had to call my crooked lawyer, Ralphie Silver. Not to ask for legal advice. He was the one who referred me to Kovic in the first place. I figured I should warn him as well as give him hell for setting me up like that. I drained the glass. It went down like cool molten gold. I had to have another.
The old couple looked down my way, annoyed that I was calling away. . .their son? I smiled at the thought and the jolly gentle giant eyed me quizzically.
“Yeah, one more of the high class joy juice, and whatever your mom and dad are having. On me.” He laughed a big belly laugh but his eyes were as cold as ten-penny nails. I pushed the fish and bait toward him and laid out another fin. He gurgled the shot until it lapped at the rim.
I slurped at the excess. I continued to plan my course of action, the one I had begun to form on my way back up the coast. I still had to be careful but I was assuming that Kovic thought I was feeding the eels along with his number two boy. As far as I was concerned that had been a draw. Maybe I was expecting a little more cash for my troubles, but for now what I had was a down payment. The address book was probably worth something to the right people. Maybe a closer inspection of Yamatski’s digs would turn up something else that was my due.
Then there was Al’s sister. That was a prospect I could cut loose though I knew I didn’t have the full picture as far as she was concerned. I went to my wallet and pulled out the pink postal package notice. I had grabbed a deposit envelope while I was in the bank. I folded the pink slip and fit it into the envelope. I called down to Tiny for something to write with and he brought me a stubby pencil. I scrawled my name on the envelope and laid a sawbuck on top of it. I pushed it toward him.
“I was supposed to meet a friend here but it looks like he’s gonna be late and I gotta be somewhere. Can you hang on to it and give it to him when he comes in? He’ll know to ask for it. His name’s on it. The tenner’s for your trouble.”
I was talking his lingo. “Yeah, sure, can do.” He smiled like a kid who had just been given a new toy. I watched him stick the envelope in the space behind the ornate cash register on the bar.
Ralphie wasn’t answering so I dialed for a cab from the booth and then strolled to the front door and peered out the small square window. I couldn’t see much from that vantage, just the odd hat bobbing past, and the intermittent shadows of bodies hurrying by. When the cab pulled up, I took a deep breath, pushed the door open, strode across the squares of sidewalk to the curb and jumped in the back almost all in one motion. The cabbie cut back into the traffic flow with a screech of tires. I gave him an address on Second Avenue and glanced out the rear window. A big black town car driven by a tall hat had pulled out from the curb a few cars back. I didn’t want to take any chances.
“The black town car back there, can you lose him?”
The cabbie glanced in the side mirror and then into the rear view at me. “That’ll be extra.”
I slid a sawbuck across the back of the seat to him. I was starting to hemorrhage money.
“Hang on,” he said, and took the next corner on two wheels.
I should have asked for my money back. The cabbie had turned onto a street that was being repaved. Not only that, he rammed right into the back of a dump truck carrying a load of hot asphalt. If that wasn’t enough, the collision triggered the lift on the dump bed and the contents emptied onto the hood of the cab. The cabbie had just enough time to get out before the door was sealed by a mound of steaming black pavement. To top it off, he immediately got into a shouting match with a large man holding a large shovel. I bailed from my side and flattened myself against the bricks of the building. The town car had turned into the street a few cars back. There was nowhere to go. A crowd was gathering and I joined in the flow long enough to duck behind the dump truck and sprint another fifty yards to the narrow shadow of an alleyway. It was blind. Overflowing garbage cans and a few packing crates at the far end up against the brick face of the building and a fire escape that lead up to the roof. I ran to the end and judged the distance from the top of the crate to the bottom rung of the ladder. I could make it. I walked around the crate closest to the building thinking to reposition it at a better angle. I didn’t see the hole. My leg went straight down throwing me face forward against the bricks. It hurt but not as much as my knee wrenched as it was at such an obtuse angle. I collected my senses and saw that I was standing in the entrance to a coal chute. The crate had partly covered the hole and now I was wedged between the wall and the crate. I unstuck myself by pushing on the box, and untwisted my knee. I could feel the side of my face begin to swell and throb. The pain from my knee ripped at my thigh like a claw. I kept my sob to a cough, eyes watering, and realized that I had found my avenue of escape. I lowered myself into the hole and slid the crate to cover it completely. I was in the dark. I felt the wooden hatch cover behind me. It gave way with a slight moan of hinge. I had to assume there was a chute. I set my legs ahead of me and inched forward. There was a ledge and then my feet struck metal, the chute. I went over the edge and gravity took hold. There was a drop and my feet hit, scattering loose coal. Finally after all these years I’d made it to the top of the heap. I was in a coal stall. A faint light leaked through the cracks in the boards. I hoisted myself to the top of the box. There was barely enough room for me to fit between the ceiling and the top edge of the enclosure. My now bad knee wasn’t cooperating and caught briefly on the side along with part of my pant leg. The pain was such that I let go thinking that the drop would not be close to as painful. I was only partly right. My elbow took the brunt of the impact. I lay there for a while, I don’t know how long. I didn’t hear anything that would indicate someone was looking for me. I was in a semi-fetal position, the hand on the arm with the bad elbow cupping the bad knee and the other hand cupping the bad elbow. The shadows of rats crossed the faint light coming from beyond the hulk of brick furnace and boiler. I got to my feet like a man who had just been beat on by six angry stepbrothers.
The steps the single bare light bulb thoughtfully illuminated led up. I followed them. There was a door at the top. The door led to a large closet arranged with mops brooms and buckets. There was another door on the far side. It led to a hallway and the ground floor business advertised on the glass as a purveyor of fine discount clothing. I’d thought about getting to a tailor, just not in such a roundabout fashion.
Through the window I could see the red, white, and blue sign, YMCA. I was neither young or Christian, and I wasn’t so sure about my associates. While the tailor worked on the alterations, I walked across the street and into the building. The kid at the desk was a bleeding heart, wan from self-abuse. I had a choice, a room for six bits a night which included pool and shower privileges or I could pay two bits and just use the shower, towel, soap, lock and locker included. That’s what the sign on the wall behind him said. I went for the bargain. There was a four bit deposit on the lock. It was no bigger than a matchbook and you could probably open it with a hard stare. There was an elastic looped through the top of the key. “You can wear that around your wrist when you shower.” He said it as if were a dirty word. And I just wanted to get clean. The use of a razor with disposable blade was another two bits. I followed the arrows that pointed to the lockers and the shower bay. There were rows of wooden lockers with their doors standing open. I picked one closest to the tiled entrance to the showers and shucked off my clothes. I stood there with my towel in front of me feeling very naked. It bothered me that my wallet and Yamatski’s address book would be vulnerable to anyone who bothered to sneeze on the lock and rifle through my belongings while I was in the shower. Most of the other lockers around mine were empty. I took a chance and removed the items and tucked them at the far back of the top shelf of the locker next to mine. I took a fin out and stuck it in my pants pocket. That done I stepped across the cold wet tiles, hung my towel on the rack at the entrance and up to the first shower head. I was alone. And naked. I stayed naked while the hot water gushed over me with pleasant stinging force. I wasn’t alone for long.
The desk clerk stuck his head into the shower room and goggled at the fallen Charles Atlas. If there’d been sand I would have kicked it in his face.
If you took a wedge of pink skin, thick muscle and bones and stuck it on a pair of chopsticks you’d have what this guy looked like. I imagine that it wouldn’t be that obvious if he had clothes on, or that he had a little spigot like those guys on those Greek statues have. His head sat on his broad muscular shoulders almost like an afterthought. He was either a jailbird or a friend of the prison barber. The bluebirds tattooed at the top of each pec were supposed to make you think he was a creampuff. Maybe he was. I got the feeling I was going to find out. I stepped out of the spray and headed for my towel.
“Hey, where you going so fast, I just got here!” He was going to stop me from reaching my towel.
“Come on pally, I don’t have the time or the inclination to play drop-the-soap.” I pushed passed him but he grabbed my arm. His grip slipped and I gave a hard shove against his chest, tangling his pipe cleaners with my foot. He went down hard on a cushion of muscle with a grunt. Grimacing he got back to his feet while I planned my next move. I’d only succeeded in making him mad. He rushed at me and I feinted toward the door and then I lost traction on the wet floor and he had me in a bear hug before I knew it. I had to use my head. And I did. I brought my forehead down on the bridge of his nose. It hurt, but it hurt him more. His grip loosened and I broke it bringing my knee up hard between his legs. From his howl I could tell I caused him big pain. I was about to plant my foot in his face but he started crying, begging that I not hurt him anymore. He was a cream puff after all.
The desk clerk stuck his head into the shower room and goggled at the fallen Charles Atlas. If there’d been sand I would have kicked it in his face. “What’s going on?” he asked alarmed, his eyes darting from me to Samson and back. I got the impression he was more interested in checking out our packages.
I pushed past wrapping a towel around my waist. “Nothing to get worried about, kid, just a lover’s quarrel.”
Smooth as a baby’s ass. Almost. I patted my fresh shaved jaw and eyed what was staring back at me in the mirror above the washbasin. I’d decided to lose the moustache and now my upper lip looked naked and unfamiliar. I imagined with time I’d get used to it. Maybe. It had been a fixture on my map since it was just a fuzzy little caterpillar. But it was the least I could do to change my appearance. Compared to the plum over my right brow where I’d head butted the moose in the shower, the rest of my bruises were fading to a dull bluish amber. Now I just looked rugged, my features chiseled by patent leather shoes and big ringed knuckles. Surprisingly my nose had withstood the onslaught without being permanently bent out of shape. That was a good thing because a peeper needs a respectable looking nose. Someone sees you with a lopsided schnoz and they figure you zigged when you shoulda zagged. Appearance is 99 percent of the presentation I read in the back of a dime magazine once. It made sense. I slicked back my wet hair with a steel comb and gathered up my wallet and the address book from the adjacent locker. My trousers were light the fiver I’d stuck in the pocket. Now it made sense. The ape wasn’t love loony, he was just running interference while his confederate, most likely the kid at the front desk, rifled through my clothes. I figured to collect it when I turned in the useless lock and key. I turned to go and there was Armstrong again.
“Ya shouldnta done that,” he said and took a swing at me coming from such a long way off I couldn’t have seen it without binoculars. I ducked under it easily and bumped his chest with mine pushing back against the bank of lockers with a loud clatter. I stuck out my tongue and retrieved the steel blue razor blade that had been resting there. I held the edge to the small space between his chin and his chest. He struggled and I slashed the side of his jaw. His yowl brought the desk clerk running. I threw a towel at the bleeder who was now looking at the red on his hands with disbelief. The kid ran to him. “What did you do? What happened?”
“Looks to me like he cut himself shaving.” I yanked the kid back by his shirt collar. “And the fiver you took from my trousers, give!” The kid squirmed and I gripped the back of his neck and squeezed hard. He crumpled to his knees and handed the five to me over his shoulder. I let go and shoved him towards his partner in crime. “A little bit of advice. Next time don’t stand so close to the razor.”
I looked at myself in the tailor’s cheval glass. I was passable as a human being, bruised but clean. I never thought I looked good in tweed, brown’s not my color, but the suit was a nice fit. Maybe it was the new shirt but I almost looked respectable. The shoes fit nicely, who ever had worn them before had done a good job keeping them up. Buffed and polished to perfection, they felt comfortable, like old money.
The tailor had a nose like a can opener, a little cloth beanie on the back of his head, a cuff of pins and needles on one sleeve, and a yellow tape slung around his neck. He was a little older than me by the white sprinkled in the fringe of red beard along the jaw line. He looked pleased with his work.
I reached into my newly acquired wallet, courtesy of Yamatski, and pushed the twenty at him. Not a bad price for a dead man’s wardrobe that fit so nicely.
The establishment was a used clothing store, I’d seen that right away when I emerged from my sojourn in the coal cellar. It was just what I needed. A change of clothes would at the very least give me an edge on whoever it was following me. Business must have been slow and I was able to get a good price on the brown tweed suit and vest. He threw in a pair of new skivvies and undershirt. The tie was extra as was the new Arrow shirt, and shoes, though he was willing to take half off when I balked. The socks were extra as well. I figure he was probably making close to a hundred percent markup considering that he could get a whole closet of suits for that twenty from some widow’s estate.
He handed me a hat. “The pièce de résistance.” He said it like he was serving me dessert.
It looked like a fedora to me. I set it snug on my head and flicked the brim. I was unrecognizable as me. At this point I felt I could splurge and fished for another five in the wallet. Maybe the hat distracted me. I fumbled the address book and it slipped from my hand.
He was quick to pick it up and hand it back, but not before catching a glimpse of an open page. The color drained from his face and he lowered his eyes, hand shaking.
He spoke something I didn’t understand. When I didn’t answer, he tried something else I didn’t understand. He looked at me, blue eyes wide, and I watch it dawn on him that I wouldn’t understand anything but a hundred percent Yank.
“You are not a Slav?” He cocked a large ear at me like my answer was going to give him an idea to run or stay.
I shook my head. “No, pal, I’m as American as a sawed-off shotgun. What of it?”
He pointed at the wallet. “The writing in your book is Cyrillic.”
I looked down at a page with Yamatski’s secret writing. “Is that what that is?” And “What the hell is it?”
“Cyrillic is the alphabet used in Greece and many of the countries along the Black Sea. The Russians use it.”
“Ruskies? Think this is some kind of Communist code?”
The tailor gave a shrug. “Unfortunately I cannot read it. I only recognized it as written using the Cyrillic alphabet.”
He was lying. “Yeah, but you spoke to me in it, didn’t you?”
“Speaking and reading are two different things. Where I come from we learn to speak many pieces of different languages without necessarily reading them.”
Now it was my turn to lie. “Yeah, I found this in a phone booth in Grand Central station. Somebody musta forgot it. I’d return it. . .” I looked down at the page, “. . .if I knew what it said.”
The tailor brightened. “You are in luck. I know a rabbi who can help you. He is an old man well read in many languages including those written in Cyrillic. Allow me to give you his address.” He retrieved a slip of paper and pencil from his shirt pocket and dropped his cheaters onto his nose.
I looked over his stooped back to see a beautiful apparition peek through the curtains to a room at the rear of the shop from which emanated the unmistakable smell of boiled cabbage. I smiled at the vision.
“Hello,” she said.
The tailor jerked his head around at the sound of the voice and then straightened, handing me the slip of paper. “He can tell you what it means.” And then, officiously, “What would you like me to do with your old clothes. I can dispose of them for you or I can have them delivered to your address?”
I gave him my card. “Yeah, bundle it up and send it to my post office box.” It would be a shame to lose that leather jacket, and maybe the shirt and pants would be an excuse to see Annie again.
He glanced at the card and frowned. “You are a private police?”
“Yeah, but I ain’t no cop,” I said still distracted by the comely tomato.
The apparition stepped out from behind the curtain. She was beautiful and petite, red curls cut close to her perfectly shaped head. Even in the ankle length full sleeved shift she was wearing, you didn’t need x-ray vision to make out that the proportions were correct and that everything bulged or gave way in the right place.
“My daughter, Rebecca.” The tailor introduced with a worried frown.
“Hello,” she said. Her big blue eyes bored a hole right through my chest.
“Please excuse, her English is very limited, newly arrived from Salonika.”
As far as I was concerned she spoke the universal language. My heart was deafening me, and I felt a familiar stirring below the beltline.
She dropped her head shyly at my hypnotized gaze and clutched her father’s arm. “Gangsta, papa?”
“Nein,” he answered, “Shimol.”