Tag Archives: Tug Boats

A Detective Story—5

by Colin Deerwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

         

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Hello,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Nein,” he answered, “Shimol.”


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

A Detective Story—4

by Colin Deerwood

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I never expected to be drinking gasoline and water.  I’d had just as bad before, but this was East River water, and the gasoline, diesel by grade, was from the overturned powerboat.  It had happened all so fast.

           He had a gun in his hand.  I had my hands on the gun in his hand. 

Kovic or one of his goons was yelling something at me.  I couldn’t tell what – they all sound like they’re clearing their throats.  I realized they were yelling at me about the same time they realized I wasn’t the guy I was supposed to be.  What they were trying to tell me in that gargled tongue of theirs was that I was on a collision course with a tug pulling a barge.  At the same time, the discovery that I wasn’t one of them got two toughs up on their feet lurching toward me, guns in hand.

The barge loomed closer.  I hit the throttle and a hard left on the rudder.  I didn’t know what I was doing but it seemed like the right thing.  The powerboat sleighed on its gunnels as it performed a tight arc away from the barge.  The wheel spun in my hands as the boat rolled back to an even keel.  Now I was headed back the way I’d come.  There were red flashing lights and sirens approaching.  The floodlights of the patrol boat illumed me.

I looked back at my passengers.  There were only three of them now.  And they all had guns aimed at me.  I’m a quick study.  I throttled up and gave a hard right rudder.  I was sure they couldn’t get off a straight shot as I busted my wake.  The bulk of the barge loomed ahead, a dark behemoth hauling its tons of garbage to a landfill in down state.  A shot careened off the dashboard a foot too close for my comfort.  I turned and saw that I still had three men in my tub.  The one lunging at me had a very familiar face.  It was the one I’d been looking for.  He led with his chin and I caught him in the windpipe with a full set of knuckles.  He choked in my face as he landed on top of me and knocked me to the deck.

He had a gun in his hand.  I had my hands on the gun in his hand.  He was stronger than me, but the fact that he couldn’t breathe was in my favor.  It was a draw until the impact.

The gun went off.  He went limp.  We both went flying into the drink.  I was tangled up with him otherwise I would have made my own splash.  We sank like rocks in men’s clothing.  My peacoat was sucking up water like a wino after a three-day bender.  Friend and I had to part ways and I was about to remove my arm from under his when I had the presence of mind to reach inside his suit coat and extract what felt like a small brick, the wallet I had watched him peel the C note from.  I shed the pea coat, a veritable anti-life preserver if there ever was one, and scrambled upward till my head broke the surface.

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I had never learned to swim.  What I was doing was called splashing, and gasping for air.  I had the memory of doing that once before revisit me.  I must have been ten.  It was at the Municipal Swimming Pool.  I was one of those skinny little kids in the baggy trunks that hung out in the shallow end.  I liked playing in the water, splashing my friends and being splashed back.  But I hated getting water up my nose.  I had water up my nose now and I didn’t like it.

I was also the skinny kid in the baggy trunks who was always getting yelled at by the lifeguard for running around the slippery edge of the pool.  I was hearing that yelling even now.

Once, when I was playing up around the deep end of the pool, someone came up behind me and pushed me in.  I splashed wildly as I began sinking.  There was an older kid nearby who swam to help me.  I remember the dull roar of the watering rushing into my ears as I went under, much like the throbbing roar I was hearing now.  As I sank to the bottom of the pool, I remember grabbing onto the trunks of the kid swimming to help me and dragging them down around his ankles.

I also remember his foot kicked me in the face. It was a lot like the pain I was feeling now as a big white donut hit me on the side of the head.  There were people on the tugboat yelling at me over the roar of the engine to grab the life ring.

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They worked me over, demons in dingy cable knit sweaters.  They pumped my arms and peered in my face with eyes as black as eightballs.  They jumped on my back and grunted incomprehensible demon words, expelled by breaths that would have pickled squid.  They kept it up until I gave in and released, in a gush, the river I had swallowed.  I had not meant to take it, it was all part of the process of drowning, but still I was being punished.  In this particular hell, large steel cables and giant coils of rope made up my limited horizon.  A steady growl vibrated up through the deck pressed against my face.  It was the machinery of hell.

ADS Annie1Just as I choked and coughed up the last of the East River, the rain began.  It was a hard rain and it hit the scrubbed wood planks of the deck with explosive force, as if each drop were a spark launched upward in the dim amber of the demon lanterns.  I was peppered by its force, wetting me more thoroughly than my baptism in the river.  I resigned myself to the fact that my hell would be a soggy one.  Then the demons rolled me over on my back and teased me with the vision of an angel, a beautiful, blue-eyed angel with red gold wings protruding from her temples.  Her luscious full red lips parted ever so slightly to reveal the pearls of paradise.  I felt her sweet breath on my face and heard her melodious voice.

“Take the lubber down below.”

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The cup held something hot, and every time I sipped from it, my shivering lessened.  It wasn’t broth, it wasn’t tea, it wasn’t even coffee.  Whatever it was, it had a bite that spun through my insides like torrid devils from Tasmania.  Just what the doctor ordered.  I was slowly making sense of my surroundings, wrapped in a coarse square of gray blanket at the edge of a bunk in an oily stinking noisy space in the innards of some kind of boat.  What didn’t make sense was the vision of beauty before me.

In dungarees, stained by grease and paint, with a wide leather belt that cinched just enough of her waist to accentuate her curves, she filled my narrow horizon.  A rough shirt hung squarely from her wide shoulders, sleeves rolled up to the elbows to reveal the dingy white of a long undershirt down to her wrists.  Her dusty red blonde hair was pulled back in a knot, loose strands dangling at the temples.

The voice, harsh but with a hint of playfulness, didn’t go with the vision.  “So Mr. Yamatski, how did you end up in the drink?”

She was holding a book in her hand and she seemed to be reading from it.

“You work for Kovic?”  Again, her way of speaking, rough, unpolished, a sharp contrast to her pin-up looks.

I shrugged.  “I can’t remember.”

She made a face.  It was a more mature face than I first realized.  There were lines, shiny cheekbones.

“Convenient.  Maybe you got water on the brain.”  I placed her accent.  Coaster, from further south.

A dark dwarf at her side muttered something foreign.  She laughed a laugh that tore me in half and replied in the same guttural tongue.  “Diego thinks we should throw you back.”  She smiled bewitchingly. I wanted to explore her like an ant in a honey pot.

“Ok,” I lied, “I used to work for Kovic. But I made him unhappy so he roughed me up,” I pointed to the bruises on my cheek, “and tossing me in the river was his way of letting me go.  I guess he was too much in a hurry to fit me with a pair of cement socks.”

ADS tugboatx            The dwarf said something else, stepping from the shadows, half addressing me.  I saw that he wasn’t really a dwarf but a truly short stocky man with a thick mass of graying curly dark hair under a well-worn stocking cap.  He was dark enough to be African but his features said   maybe Arab or Portuguese.  The dim light of the bulkhead lamp glanced off the small gold loop in the lobe of his right ear.

“Diego is wondering if they were just going to toss you in the river, why they would have rammed into a garbage scow.”

“Well, I think that them being chased by the cops had something to do with it.  And Kovic’s mugs ain’t exactly sailors.  They got a little excited and lost control of the powerboat.   That’d be my guess.”

“Kovic is a rat.  Anybody on his bad side is on my good side.”  She tossed the book in my lap.  It wasn’t a book.  It was Yamatski’s wallet.  I thumbed through it, a little disappointed.  There were a few large bills, but I was mistaken again.  It wasn’t a wallet.  It was an address book!

She mistook my expression.  “You’ll find everything in your book as it was.  I didn’t take nothing.  Just looking to see who you might be. You had a death grip on that thing.  Figured it must be pretty important to you.”  She looked over at her mate. “You can ask around, they’ll tell you, Captain Annie Bassinger and the crew of the tugboat Narcissus is square.”

I nodded.  “No, no, everything looks fine.  Thanks for fishing me out of the river.”  I proffered one of the C notes in an act of suicidal generosity.  The Portugee was about to step forward to take it but a look from his captain stopped him.

“No need for that.  I can offer you some dry clothes and put you ashore as soon as we get back from down state.”

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The cops were waiting for us when we docked.  They were Feds and the local gendarmes.  I saw Hogan among them.  They wanted to question Annie about the barge accident. It happened right as the Narcissus was coming down river.  They had a witness who said they thought they had seen her crew fishing a body out of the water.

gmenAnnie nodded.  “Yeah, I thought it was a body too, but turned out it was just a waterlogged tree trunk floated down from upstate.  What are the chances, huh? You see people in the water and you go to save one of them and it turns out to be just a hunk of wood.”

The G-man didn’t change expression.  “I’ll have to see everyone’s identification and their seaman’s cards.”  I felt a certain tightening where the sun don’t shine.

Hogan butted in.  “What’s this bum doing here?”

The agent didn’t like being distracted.  He was the one in charge. I’d heard of him.  His name was Neckker.  “What are you talking about?”

“I know this bum.”  He was pointing at me, “I know this bum.  Whadaya doing on this tub, wisenheimer?  Don’t tell me you decided to wise up and take up honest work.”  He turned to the fed.  “He’s a no-bit wannabe gumshoe. His name is Lackland Ask.  He don’t run with the class of criminal we’re after.”

Neckker was taller than Hogan. He used it to his advantage to look down on him.  “Just let me do my job,” he spoke crisply.

Since I had become the focus of attention, I was first.  It went by the book.

“What’s your name?”

“Like the cop said, Lackland Ask.”

I could see Annie was frowning.

“Let me see some identification.”

I handed him my wallet.

“What are you doing here?”

I glanced over at Annie and caught a barely perceptible nod.

“I’m one of the crew.”

Neckker leafed through the odd scraps of paper, not much of it money, my driver’s license, and my PI permit.  I’d had a guy over in Chinatown make it up for me.  It looked real official.

He held it up to me.  “This is worthless.  Where’s your seaman’s card?”

“I got his papers in the works, chief.”  It was Annie.  “I needed a body in a hurry so I hired this guy while they process them down at the hall.”

I got my wallet back and a raking glare from Hogan as they moved on to check the others.

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I had gone through Yamatski’s address book on the trip down to the landfill.  He was pretty organized for a thug.  There were the names of dames accompanied by phone numbers and a system of stars next to each that was fairly self-explanatory.  There were other numbers that probably belonged to his associates: Zsebo with a Butterfield exchange, Mikkel with a Melrose exchange, and so on.  Then there were pages with what appeared to be some kind of code, strings of numbers and letters, and writing in an alphabet I wasn’t familiar with. Some sections were underlined with exclamation points. There was also a business card stuck in the front cover that stated simply if found return to Milosh Yamatski for a reward and gave an address on the Eastside and his phone number, a Cedar exchange.  Feeling the slowly diminishing lump below my right eye, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of reward he might have been offering. The cash that came with the address book amounted to three 100-dollar bills.  I figured that it was my payment for the job I’d done for Kovic and a little extra for my trouble.

She smiled.  It was painful, like staring at the sun.

I’d slept a good part of the trip down to the dump site. Whatever it was in that grog Annie had fed me did the trick.  The crew, Diego and his counterpart, a tall lanky type by the name of Robal, avoided me.  Together they were right out of the funny papers, Mutt and Jeff.

Annie had been coiling hawsers when I came up from down below.  It’s not exactly woman’s work, but she made it look easy.  And sexy.  With someone like her, I could begin to forget about Grace.

I bummed a smoke, dawn showing at the dark, faraway edge of the Atlantic.  She cupped the match to my cigarette.

“You don’t look like the Kovic type.”

I gazed through the smoke at her bright blue eyes.  “You don’t look like the tugboat type.”

She smiled.  It was painful, like staring at the sun.  “This boat belonged to my uncle Wally. I spent most of my life on this tug, and others like it.  My folks died when I was just a baby.  He raised me out here on the river.”  She took a deep drag and then let go a shapely puff.  “He left me the business when he passed. . . .”

“Harbormaster says we got company waiting for us at the docks, Cap,” Robal had called down from the steering house.

She looked at me, gauging my reaction.  “The law, maybe? Suppose they’re looking for you or somebody like you, what should I tell ‘em?”

“That’s up to you,” I replied, feigning nonchalance.  “I don’t have anything against coppers, but I’d like to avoid any official business with them.  If you know what I mean.”

I replayed that scene over and over in the taxi back to my room.  She didn’t have to cover for me, but she did.  I wondered if it might have been my battered and drenched lost puppy dog look.  I considered the more remote possibility that she might have taken a liking to me.  Even when I was being questioned by the fed and my real name came out didn’t seem to make a difference.  She had stuck by her story and the cops had left and soon after so did I.  I should have turned and waved as I made my way down the dock.  I hailed a cab instead.

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I know the difference between my mess and someone else’s.  This was someone else’s.  The room had been turned upside down.  Someone had been looking for something.  I would never turn a room over like that.  My way of looking for something was to move things around, not upend them.  The drawers to my bedside dresser had been yanked out and overturned, socks, underwear, ties, cufflinks in a pile on my desk. Paper clips, pens, pencils and papers scattered all over the floor.  The mattress was set on edge revealing a hutch of assorted dust bunnies Seins marvy1under the bed frame as well as my private library of French Art magazines.  I stared down at the big red bouche of the brunette on the cover of L’Etoile.  Amazingly someone hadn’t disturbed any of the magazines.  I reached down and pulled out a buried copy of Seins Marveilleux.  The pink postal slip still marked the page where Yvette displayed her substantial endowment.  Maybe that’s what someone was looking for.  I folded it into my wallet. Then I went downstairs and banged on the super’s door with the edge of my fist. 

Curtis opened the door and the stale stench of  decay hit me in the face. He was attired in his usual sweat stained undershirt and matching slacks, one suspender off the shoulder.  The two-day growth of beard didn’t make him any more appealing.  He blinked in the light of the hallway, eyes veined red with road maps to perdition.  “Wadyawan?”

“Curtis, did you let anyone into my room?  Somebody’s been in there and undone all my fine housekeeping.  And I’m missing a cufflink.”

I stared over his shoulder into the brown dimness of his apartment.  A kid was sitting knock kneed on the couch, a glass of something in her hand.

“Yasisteh come lookin’ forya.  Sheyada message forya.  I letterin.”

“I don’t have a sister, you gas bag.  What did she look like?

“Older broad.  Wearin sunglasses, scarf over her head, like she come from a funeral.  Redhead, maybe.”

“Right, my older redheaded sister came looking for me to tell me about a death in a family.”

The kid threw a glance at her elbow when she saw me give her the onceover.  She was all of eleven acting like she was older, twelve or thirteen.  I wouldn’t put it past Curtis.  His fly was down.

I could have let it pass.  “What, you a babysitter now?”

He frowned and then grinned, showing me an uneven row of marbled Chiclets, his pallor growing faintly dark.  A strong wind could have knocked them down his throat.  I just wasn’t that wind.

A female voice shrieked a name from a few stories up.  The kid jumped to her feet and ran to the door.  I walked away.


Next Time: Tailed And Tangled