Every so often I write a little flash piece and “perform” a radio version with a couple buddies for cheap laughs. Hilarity tends to ensue. This time is no different.
If you have six minutes, take a listen.
Every so often I write a little flash piece and “perform” a radio version with a couple buddies for cheap laughs. Hilarity tends to ensue. This time is no different.
If you have six minutes, take a listen.
The night was sticky and hot and I was sweating plenty even though it was well past sunset. Gravel crunched beneath my shoes, echoed loud off abandoned buildings. This neighborhood wasn’t safe after dark but I was hurting and needed to be here. A five-inch blade was folded up in my pocket just in case.
Manny’s black Ford sat rusting in its usual spot, five spaces over from the back door of the Skol Bar. Three men talked softly by the car but their muted voices fell quickly silent as I approached. Curt goodbyes were said and two of the men peeled away from the third. They drifted over to the back door of the Skol Bar and went in. The door closed itself behind them.
The third shape called from over by the car. It had Manny’s voice.
“Who is it?”
“Jesse,” Manny said. “No shit?”
I heard him thumb the hammer forward on a handgun, watched him stuff it down into his waistband. I went over to stand by him.
Manny looked like a tramp freshly tossed off a railcar into the mud. He never shaved, didn’t seem to have much regard for soap. His clothes were dirty and threadbare, his hair dingy and grimy. A dented-up bowler hat sat too small on his head.
“I’m shaking apart,” I told him.
Manny was a guy who enjoyed watching people squirm. His eyes lit up and he gave me a greasy smile. “Haven’t seen you in days,” he said. “Hell, maybe weeks.” He fished a cigarette from a crumpled pack, tapped it on a nickel plated lighter, and studied me like a butterfly pinned to a board. He bit down on the cigarette, wrapped it with a meaty hand to shield it from some imaginary breeze, and fired it. “Thought maybe you moved away or something.”
“I tried to kick.”
He chuckled out smoke and clicked shut the lighter. “Dolophine?”
“Cold turkey!” he whooped. “Hoo boy! You got balls, Jesse, I’ll give you that!” He gaped at me for a while. Then the amusement died in his eyes and the smile slid off his face. With a tone of pure disdain, he asked: “Up or down?”
“Both,” I said. “Can you set me up a speedball so I can see straight?”
A scornful guttural sound came from deep in his throat. “You want a cocktail, you’re gonna have to cook it up yourself. I ain’t your goddamn bartender!”
“Easy now,” I said. “Take it easy, Manny. It was just a question. You don’t have to get sore.”
“I’m not sore,” he snapped. “I’m just sick of you dopers coming around hitting me up for favors all the time.”
He stared at me, bug-eyed and challenging.
I said nothing, wiped damp hands on my pants.
“How much do you need?”
A drop of sweat slid cold down my back. I could feel my pulse in my eyeballs. “Two of each.”
He bunched up his forehead and his eyes were wary. “Two? Of each?”
I fought to keep the tremble from my voice but my mouth was dry and my throat felt scratchy. “I-” I cleared my throat. “I fell into some money.”
He leered at me for a few beats, waited for me to say more. When I didn’t, he turned and popped the trunk of the Ford. Inside was a green tackle box and he reached in, unlatched it, and flipped it open. A triple-beam scale sat down in the bottom of the box. He took it out and placed it carefully beside the tackle box. Then, with the attentive care of a chemist, he weighed two grams of heroin, wrapped it up in tinfoil, and set it aside.
Next, he weighed the cocaine. I watched him weigh it, watched him twist up the tinfoil, and my heart galloped. He turned back to me, presented the packets proudly, one in each hand. “Two at two grams apiece,” he said. “And this is no bunk. Get reckless shooting this stuff and they’ll be tagging your toe.”
Now my heart lurched up into my throat and the folding knife was open in my hand. Manny’s eyes shot to the shining blade and grew round. I watched them roll back white as I punched the knife into his chest. I pulled the blade out red, plunged it in again. Then again. I thrust it deeper. Harder. And – oh god! – the blood came spurting, hot and sticky, into my face. My eyes rolled back and I came spurting, hot and sticky, into my briefs.
Manny crumpled heavy against me with a long pneumatic wheeze and I caught his weight, eased him backwards and away. He slid down the Ford, his head skipping off the bumper, as he dropped in a heap to the ground. I stood over him, sobbing.
When my heart stopped flying, I bent down, wiped the blade on Manny’s jacket, and looked around. There was no one. I closed the tackle box, latched it tight, and took it.
They’ll tell you the first hit of any drug is the best, that the addict is always chasing his first high, and maybe that’s true for most. But I’ve done three kills now and I’m here to tell you: The rush gets better every time.
Bishop’s Lounge was busy and loud and blue with smoke. I sat by myself back in a dark corner booth, contributing my share of smoke and watching Angela. She had come in with a group of work friends and they sat at one of the tables chattering and drinking wine but she seemed distracted and kept looking over at the bar. She had on a black dress to match her black bob. There was also a black wire in her black purse but she was unaware of that.
A giant yellow-haired goon came in. He stood up at the bar and ordered a drink and looked at Angela and Angela talked to her friends at the table and tried not to look back at him. The bartender brought him a drink and he held it up to the light and inspected it. The glass looked like a thimble in his massive hand. He sipped from it, set it down, and stared at Angela some more.
Presently, she stood up and said goodbyes and crossed the room. Her fingertips brushed the goon’s thigh as she passed him. He picked up his drink, shot it down, set the empty on the bar, twisted around, and followed her out.
When the door closed, I left the booth and strolled casually to the window. I watched them go down the steps and turn right at the sidewalk. A few seconds passed. Then I shouldered my way outside, stood on stone steps, and brought out small binoculars. Through an earpiece, I could hear the purposeful click-clicking of Angela’s heels on the sidewalk and the goon’s labored breathing as he struggled to catch up. This guy might be able to toss a car into the ocean, I thought, but he wouldn’t be winning any marathons soon.
They walked to the end of the block and faced off beneath a street lamp.
“Got the money?” he growled.
Angela, looking bored, blew a stream of smoke in his face, flicked her cigarette butt to the sidewalk, and ground it out with her shoe. “Not yet.”
The big man’s face clouded. He stood staring with hot bright slits for eyes, his voice a menacing purr. “You’ve had a week,” he said. “How long do you need?”
Angela shrugged. “Well, I don’t know, big boy. How long can you…hold out?”
Quick as an adder, the big man’s arm shot out from his side and his meaty hand clamped around her arm. She gasped, round-eyed, and the goon held her that way for a couple seconds before letting go, his face a stony Easter Island head. “You think this is a game, lady?” he asked.
Angela scowled at the goon, her face angry and amazed and just a little afraid. She scowled down at her arm and rubbed it. “Why you gotta be so rough, you big ape?”
The goon smiled, gold teeth glittering. He reached a hand into his coat and brought out a wooden match. He studied the match, looked up at Angela and said: “A man’s gotta get his kicks somehow.” Then he stuck the match in his teeth and the grin died and the stone face returned.
Angela said nothing. She kneaded her arm and stood quiet and for a while the three of us listened to the hustle of the city.
Finally the goon said: “Tomorrow night then.”
“Tomorrow night. We’ll do the hit tomorrow.”
Angela bunched up her forehead, put a vertical crease between her eyebrows. “No, I-you can’t!”
The big man took the match from his mouth, looked at it some more, and put it back in his teeth. His heavy-lidded eyes came up to hers. “Listen lady, I don’t expect you to understand how much preparation something like this requires but, believe me, it’s plenty. This isn’t just a run-of-the-mill job. We have people in place. They expect to be paid. Every day we sit still costs money. Capisce?”
“I’m just…I’m having trouble…getting all the money together.”
The big man grunted and turned to go. “That’s unfortunate. I’ll be sure to let Tony know.”
“No!” she cried, taking hold of his lapels. “No, I can get it. I can. Very soon.”
The goon looked down at her hands on his jacket. He looked up and asked: “When?”
He shook his head. “Two days.”
She squealed, hung limp from the lapels. “I can’t get that much money in two days!”
“That’s a shame,” the big man snarled, taking hold of her wrists and peeling her away. He held her there and said: “Guess you should have thought about that before you asked us to whack your husband. You back out now and Tony will be very disappointed. No telling what he’ll have me do.” The gold toothed smile came back. “Maybe I’ll bring toys.”
“You have forty-eight hours,” he said, releasing her. Then he turned and walked.
I spoke down to my necktie: “That’s all we get, boys. Take them.”
Cops poured in from all over. Two stepped out from shadows in the alley. Three piled out of a parked van across the street. Then, the uniforms streamed in from both ends of the block training their rifles on Angela and the big man. Sergeant Hawkins yelled through a megaphone. “On your knees! Do it now!”
Angela and the big man exchanged a glance, hers terrified, his nonplussed, and put their hands up, dropping to their knees. Two uniforms came up behind them, pulled their arms down, and cuffed their wrists. One cop yanked the goon roughly to his feet but the other was gentler with Angela.
When they were standing, I walked over and said to Hawkins: “Letter of the law. Every “I” dotted. Every “T” crossed. I want this one flawless.”
“Consider it done, Sir.”
I nodded to Hawkins and turned to Angela. “Did you really think you could pull this off?”
“John!” she sobbed. “Oh, thank heavens! John, I’m mixed up in something awful here!”
I took out a cigarette and lit it. I took it out of my mouth and looked at it, watched smoke curl up into the night air. Then I looked at Angela. “Better get a lawyer, Sweetheart,” I told her. “I want a divorce.” I nodded at Hawkins and they loaded her, kicking and screaming, into a squad.
Now try this: Bugsy’s Revenge
I was tailing the unfaithful husband of a neurotic client down a dark alley on the outskirts of Rush City when someone slipped behind me and put a gun to my neck. I heard Bugsy’s voice and knew I had a problem.
“Frank Danger, P.I.!” he said with a delighted baritone that rumbled like a dump truck.
He laid a heavy mitt on my back and sent me staggering. Bugsy was a great guy. I thought the world of him. “Hands up!” he said, “Turn around slow.”
I came around to the barrel of a pistol pointed at my chest. I tried not to look at it. “Bugs!” I said. “Long time no see.”
He told me to shut it and waggled the gun around in a careless way I wasn’t thrilled with. “Eight years, Frankie,” he said. “Eight! Do you have any idea how long that is in the joint?”
“Well,” I said. “If I had to guess, I’d say eight years.”
He didn’t think I was cute. His meaty hand brought the gun up to my face and thumbed back the hammer.
“Easy, Bugs,” I said. “I’m not the guy who sold you out.”
He growled and his gold tooth glinted in the electroliers. He said: “I know it was you, Danger. Know why? ‘Cause I paid good money to find out, that’s why.” He puffed his chest, smiled, and showed the gold tooth. “Some of those cops you run with are dirty as me.”
I shook my head. “Bugsy my friend, you’ve been had. However, as luck would have it, I may know a way I can help you recoup some of your losses.”
“Losses?” He laughed. “You gonna give me back eight years of my life? Nah, we’re gonna make this right another way, Frankie. We’re gonna square things right here.”
“Thirty grand!” I said. A drop of sweat slid cold down my back.
Doubt flickered in his eyes. He tilted his head, tried to think. It looked painful.
“Mind if I smoke?” I asked, going inside my jacket. He frowned but didn’t stop me. I opened a cigarette case and took one, tapped it on my lighter and lit it.
Bugsy was skeptical. “What are you talking about?”
“Just a courtesy, Bugs, some people don’t care for smoke.”
“Before that,” he snarled. “The part about thirty grand.”
I snapped the case shut and blew smoke into the fog. “Thirty grand,” I said. “I have a line on it. We could take it, you and me. It’s just sitting there but I can’t do the job alone. Look Bugs, you mind lowering the gun? You make me nervous.”
He opened his mouth to say something, closed it, and eyeballed me suspiciously. The gun came down slowly and hung by his side but his finger stayed on the trigger. “Let’s have it,” he said.
I jammed a thumb over my shoulder. “That shop back there, the one with all the lights.”
He looked past me. “Do-jo?”
He looked like I told him I could fly. “That’s one of them karate outfits!”
I shook my head. “Do you see the word ‘Karate’ anywhere?”
He gawked over my shoulder. “What’s J-Jiyoo…”
“Jiu Jitsu,” I said. “It’s a Japanese dance. You’ve seen it. The guys tiptoe around barefoot in silk pajamas and wave their arms just so. They all wear ponytails. It’s a lost art. Monks invented it three thousand years ago.”
Bugsy stared over my shoulder. He really wanted that thirty grand. He looked back to me and asked: “What’s the play?”
“Simple,” I said. “We go in the front. You handle the Japanese guy while I go back and get the loot. It’s in an office safe but he never locks it.”
“How did this guy come by that much money?”
I winked. “Opium den.”
“Bugsy’s eyes narrowed. “How come you know so much?”
“I’ve been on this one a long time, Bugsy,” I told him. “Just waiting for the right opportunity.”
He suddenly shook his head. “I never knew you to pull no heists. You’re supposed to be a good guy.”
I shrugged. “Good guys gotta eat.”
Bugsy pondered that and asked: “What about masks?”
I waved it off. “Cops won’t put resources on this. That guy probably can’t even ID us in English.”
Bugsy nodded as though he found that reasonable. “Okay,” he said. “But don’t get cute or I’ll cut you down where you stand.”
“Understood,” I said, and we walked over. Once inside the dojo, I nodded to the instructor and spoke Japanese. “Evening, Phil. This guy’s got me hostage. He thinks we’re going to rob you.”
Phil’s eyes twinkled. He put his arms straight up, turned a frightened face to Bugsy.
“What did you say?” Bugsy demanded. “What did you tell him?”
“I told him this was a holdup. I said you were dangerous and you’d shoot him dead if he did anything stupid.”
Bugsy waggled the gun. “I will, old man. I’ll shoot you dead.” He looked at me. “Don’t just stand there. Get the money!”
The phone was on a desk. I had an operator send an ambulance and clattered out the back into the alley. I heard Bugsy say: “I mean it old man, not another step!” Then there was a scuffle. The gun went off and there came a dry, snapping sound. Bugsy began to scream.
“Danger!” he wailed from the floor. “Danger!”
I went down the alley and around the side of the dojo to the sidewalk. A lone set of headlights bounced towards me through the fog. I held up a hand on a hunch and the lights bounced over and stopped at the curb. “Riverside Casino, my good man,” I told the cabbie. “I’m feeling lucky tonight.”
The same electric sign has hung out over the sidewalk in front of Dusty’s Pub since 1946. The sign features a cartoon French maid dusting the word “Dusty’s” with a feather duster. One warm summer evening in 1978, Dusty, the club’s namesake and creative genius behind the sign, clutched his chest, slid down a wall behind the bar, and was no more. His widow sold Dusty’s before Dusty was cold and the pub went to a man named Claude Radke.
Radke did not rename Dusty’s Pub. Instead, he opted to spend the money needed for a new sign on something more practical. This practical something turned out to be a seven cartons of cigarettes which he smoked through in four weeks.
As Dusty had, Claude Radke required that “his girls” wear the uniform of the French maid on the sign. On Friday and Saturday nights, two of Claude’s girls would skitter about the pub slinging drinks and tickling the noses of their tippers with feather dusters. It was said that Radke’s girls would tickle other things although that remained, as yet, unproven.
One drunken night, Claude Radke groped one of his girls and she slapped him. Hard. Humiliated, he tossed her out on the sidewalk to the drunken cheers of his small knot of elderly regulars.
The banished waitress showed up at my desk the next morning with information about Claude Radke she thought I could use. She was right. I dropped by Dusty’s later that afternoon to tell him the good news.
Three men sat at the bar when I walked in. They swiveled to me.
“Afternoon, boys,” I said, opening my jacket. “Stop by again when you can’t stay so long.”
They grumbled at the badge and finished their drinks, tearing bills from wallets and flipping them onto the bar.
“So long, Claude,” one said.
“Thanks for stopping, guys,” Radke replied bitterly. The door closed behind them and Radke said: “What in hell do you want?”
“Nothing for me, thanks,” I said, taking a seat. “I’m on duty.”
He scowled. “A comedian.”
We were the only two in the building so I made a show of looking around and asked: “How’s business?”
His eyes narrowed to fiery little slits of hate. “You want something, cop?” he snarled, “or are you just here harassing a hardworking businessman for no reason?”
I shrugged. “Your gal, Louise, stopped in to see me this morning.”
“Not my gal.”
“Not anymore,” Radke said. He dried his hands on a towel.
“She claims you sell cocaine.”
Radke waved a hand in dismissal. “Bah.”
“She told me you keep a pile of it in a coffee can in back.”
“If you knew Louise. She’s crazy.”
“You won’t mind if I look around a bit since you’ve got nothing to hide.”
Claude Radke smiled sweetly; a golden tooth glinted. “Be my guest,” he said. “Long as you got a warrant.”
“Funny you should say that,” I said. I made a show of pulling open my jacket, reaching in, and coming out with a crisp, white sheet of paper, triple-folded.
Radke’s eyes shot to it and stayed there. His forehead bunched up. His nostrils flared.
“Do not do it Radke,” I said.
He bolted out the back.
I laid my palms on the bar, tried to vault it, and bashed a shin. I went down over a couple stools and gimped out the door, cursing a blue street. I went around to the alley and there stood Claude Radke, hunched over and gasping at the ground.
“You should have turned left,” I panted.
He ran a ways before sliding out in the gravel. He landed on his hands and rolled over onto his back. He laid there and moaned for a while and when he sat up, I was there. I palmed his forehead and laid him back down in the rocks.
“I don’t gotta talk to you, cop!” he snarled. “I want my lawyer.”
I let go of his face and sat n the dirt besi, panting. Radke was panting too. A deep, bloody gash had been carved out above his right eyebrow and both knees were torn up slick.
“Too old to be running, Claude. Where in hell would you even go?”
“I want my lawyer.”
“So you said.”
I stood and dusted my pants and held out a hand to Radke. He ignored it and climbed up on his own, wincing. We walked back towards the pub.
“I’m not arresting you,” I said.
“On the level.”
He stopped. “What is this?”
“Here it is: You give me the coffee can and I’ll walk out of here. You get to decide what you do with your time for the next three to five.”
Radke’s eyes got narrow and shrewd. He scowled. “You’re gonna sell it?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“You’re a coke head?”
I shrugged and walked. “Take it or leave it. Ask yourself how much your lawyer charges and compare.”
He grimaced and kept up. “I didn’t take you for a dirty blackmailer, cop. Next month you’ll be back for more.
“One and done. I’ll shoot straight with you, Claude. We’ve known each other a long time.”
He jutted out his chin. “And if I don’t?”
I shrugged. “The Department gets it. You pay an attorney for a plea deal, and you probably do time.”
We walked in the back door of Dusty’s and he put a large can of Folger’s in my hands. I opened it; Louise was telling the truth. I set the can on a table, pulled cuffs from my belt and said: “Claude Radke, I’m arresting you for possession of a narcotic with intent to sell. You have the right to remain silent…”
“You lied to me,” Radke said. His lips were shiny and spit flew when he said it.
I put the cuffs on him, finished his rights, and marched him around the bar out the front door. The pub was still empty.
Radke was bewildered.
I dug in my jacket pocket, removed the folded paper, unfolded it and showed it to him.
“LOST,” it said. “Male German Shepherd answers to the name Rex. Missing since June 17th. Has shots and is friendly. If found, please call…”
I folded the paper back into my jacket and Claude Radke and I took a drive downtown.