ADVENTURE THE 23RD: SURPRISE ME
For those unfamiliar with the posting structure of a blog: postings appear in the order they are made by their author, not necessarily in the order that would most benefit an ongoing series such as the one you are about to read. Since the purpose of this blog is to be an ongoing thriller, simply removing the previous chapter to alleviate confusion is not an option – since no one coming to the series after the first chapter had been removed would be able to follow the story line.
Therefore, if you scroll down or visit the archives in future months, you will be able to read this continuing drama in the manner and order it was intended to be read. For this reason and purpose each subsequent adventure in the ‘Eddie Mars’ serial will be marked by a number. If you follow these numbers marked at the top of each chapter in their numeric order - eg ‘Adventure the 1st’ - you will be able to follow this continuing saga.
For those savvy to the blog world – this disclaimer may seem redundant, and for that no apology is made. This disclaimer is meant to better acquaint new readers in how the entries in this blog will be posted and how best to follow the series from this point on. And now…
ADVENTURE THE 23rd: SURPRISE ME
I don’t surprise easily. I’ve seen too much. Funny thing about reality – once the vapors from this ugly little world get inside your head, you stay touched. The lucky ones don’t care. The rest of us just lick our wounds and go on, or find somebody with a soft tongue to pick the spots that need wet tickling most.
But on that frozen January night, I had no time or cause to think about what a miserable little existence I’d been dealt or how long it had been since tickling was an issue. Instead, I pushed on like Millie, the ol’ plow horse on grand dad’s farm; stubborn - with colic, down the snowy deadening incline until the after glow from my pyrotechnic light show was just a distant memory.
Down, through that dark snowy ravine that cut through a messy little creek – up to my ankles in muddy ice water and sludge, and, Mico trudging along side. We crossed the bank in record time. Frost bite’s a great incentive to haul your ass to safety.
Up the other side of the ravine, through gnarled thistle with enough bite sticking up and out of its rusty thicket of crust-sharp branches. Not even the beavers and the rabbits thought to set up shop here. Animal instinct – always on cue.
Cold, wet, throbbing with a strong desire to turn back to…what? I don’t know.
Just as I was giving serious consideration to freezing to death, the sobering sound of gunshots pierced that silent night. Hope springs eternal – especially when fear is its copilot. A new surge of inspiration kicked me in my balls with the knowledge that at least one of our uninvited visitors had survived.
We emerged onto a lonely side road framed on all sides by a very narrow path of gravel and walled in corridors of wild pine and cedar.
“Maybe someone will come” I remember Mico saying.
But there was only one car that might and they weren’t listed as user friendly on this hitch hiker’s guide.
A few miles removed from fear and danger, a nice old geezer in a pickup took pity on us.
“You folks lost?” he asked, swinging open the passenger door to his cab.
“No,” I shot back, “Just on the fifty-cent tour.”
That shut him up. He seemed harmless enough, but they all do until greed sets in.
Anyway, he gave us a lift to an out of the way train depot and went so far as to ask the clerk when the next one was coming along.
“Any minute now,” he replied, turning to me, “Luggage?”
“Uh…” I stumbled, “We travel light.”
I can practically make out the silhouette of a tread wheel and gerbil spinning in his brain.
“Two-forty each,” the clerk mutters.
So it was that the words had barely left him when the ground beneath us began to rumble with the slow cadence of heavy steel on steel, the echo of grind growing until there appeared the single piercing beam of a locomotive from around that towering corner of pines, and dragging a set of four passenger cars behind it.
“All aboard, Angel,” I whispered into her bitter little ear.
. . .
“What are you doing?” Mico mumbled.
She had fallen asleep on my shoulder shortly after pulling out of the station, probably dreaming that we’d never met or still had dibs on that New York penthouse she’d traded in for a life on the run. Like most impulsive gestures, what seemed like a good idea at the time had turned into an abysmal and misguided failure. But I had ideas too.
“Makin’ a list,” I tell Mico, “…and checkin’ it twice.”
“A list of what?” she asks, only half curious and awake.
I shake my head.
“Who,” I explain, “Did Hemmingway ever mention a guy named Frank Brody?”
“No reason. But you know what they say about birds of a feather,” I add, “See, I don’t think daddy did anything without first assessing his own kick backs and payoffs. Even his family was a front. It’s a good juggling act as long as you keep all the balls in play. I think one of his got out of hand. I think that ball was Frank Brody.”
Mico’s alert – suddenly and quite interested in that name.
“W-where is this Brody now?” she stammers.
“Guess,” I tell her, “Yours is as good as mine. He was double dipping with the client I worked for – Mike Trent. Turns out Mike and your stepfather are after the same thing.”
“The list,” Mico chimes in.
The centers of her eyes ignite like a wicker basket full of snakes. A shot of pure adrenalin has suddenly coursed through her willowy frame. She’s glowing…like that rusty neon beacon off the main highway that says ‘eat at Joes’; eat here and get gas!
She’s possessed of some great renewed strength so fast…so fast and for what…and for who…that’s the more important question; only not just yet. Not while there’s so much of this journey left.
Suddenly catching on that she’s revealed too much, Mico pulls away from the light of greed.
“Did I sleep long?”
“Maybe,” I say, “You snore too, Angel. Like a truck on cobblestone.”
“So do you,” she tells me.
I decide to bait her some more. It amuses me and besides, I just might get some straight answers. Until now, nothing’s made much sense, but especially those last days on my back in that clinic and the relatively easy way we made our planned getaway.
“I did some checking while you were out,” I explain, “I also telephoned Lieutenant Flannery of the N.Y.P.D. He’ll be waiting for us when we pull into Grand Central.”
I anticipate a flurry of activity to fire every piston in her brain, but instead become the Dramamine.
“If you think that’s best,” Mico agrees, rolling her head off my shoulder and onto the back of her own seat.
I can’t see her face. That’s probably best too.
. . .
“Well, look what the cat drug in,” Lieutenant Flannery chuckles as Mico and I depart number four carriage at the station.
He’s flanked by a couple of nondescript suits who don’t seem to share his enthusiasm for their craft.
G.C’s pretty crowded. The place chirps like a cage full of budgies.
“How many have you gone through since the last time, Mars?” Flannery asks.
For a minute I don’t know whether he’s referring to babes or bodies. Either way, it’s a few.
I’m sort of a mess. Stained with the crust of nature’s blessings; silt and mud just below the knee of my jeans and shoes; dirt everywhere else and scratched by a couple of branches from our forest hike. Unshaven and in want of a shower and someone to loofah my…even derelicts have more panache.
“I picked up a kitten,” I explain, helping Mico off the last step.
“My hero!” Flannery facetiously declares, putting his hand on the spot where a heart should be with all the off Broadway aplomb of a ham.
Well, at least I’ve pegged him the right animal… ‘this little piggy…’
Mico eyes me with a, ‘are you going to tell him or should I’ stare.
“Other way around,” I straighten Flannery out, “Lamb bites wolf.”
Flannery shakes his head approvingly.
“And he’s got the scars to prove it,” Mico adds, “Where can we clean up?”
“I booked you into the St. Regis,” Flannery explains, hustling us into a waiting squad car, “I also did some of my own poking and I think you’ll find the results most interesting.”
It’s neither the time nor the place for show and tell. I have my own reasons – none that I’m willing to share…just yet.
“Suppose we get changed first and meet you someplace for a drink?” I suggest.
I can tell his New Year’s celebrating still hasn’t completely worn off. Maybe it’s just a perpetual good time last call for the fat man who’d rather be home than scooping out the bowls of New York City.
“Suit yerself,” Flannery replies.
I do and we’re off to the St. Regis.
. . .
Not bad if you like dumps with plumbing. The St. Regis is about two steps up from a staph infection, but it’s got clean towels, fresh sheets and HBO. The shower’s not too shabby either.
“Go ahead,” I tell Mico, “Ladies first.”
I wait until I hear the sound of gushing water and see the first few curls of steam emanating from the cloudy stall before getting comfortable on the edge of the bed and on the phone to Flannery at the precinct.
“So now you wanna talk?” he reluctantly answers, “What about my drink?”
“You’ll get it,” I tell him, “I just don’t think dinner would be a good time to chat.”
“Oh,” he says, “She dirty?”
“Yeah,” I tease, “But I like ‘em that way.”
Then, more seriously, “What’s your copper’s intuition tell you?”
There’s a slight pause. I can picture him leaning into that leather recliner in his office; a deep inhale of Cuban before letting his thoughts all hang out.
“You say she helped you escape from some clinic?”
“That’s what I thought,” I tell him, “Only now I think the whole thing was planned…but good. I was just dumb enough to fall for it.”
“Get me out of the way,” I suggest.
“She could have done that by killin’ you,” Flannery reasons, “Think smart. Play smart. It’s a personal motto.”
“Mine’s put up or wise up,” I say, “Kill me and she’d have to start from zero to find out what I already know,” I explain.
The water in the shower gets turned off.
“My quarter’s up,” I tell Flannery, “Do some background on a guy named Frank Brody – small time; woke up one morning and decided he was wearing the wrong size underwear. Get what you can, but keep it under your hat. Tonight’s all champagne and cavier.”
There’s a fairly long pause afterward.
“Would you settle for tequila and nachos?” Flannery asks.
Mico appears in the doorway, fresh and barely wrapped in her fuzzy white towel – compliments of the house.
“Is that our guy Friday?” she whispers, pointing to the telephone.
“Not tonight,” she coos, “I really do have a headache.”
All evidence to the contrary. Mico shimmies next to me, turning the small of her back into my right shoulder and letting the towel fall loosely around her waist.
“Oh,” I say with the receiver open.
Then, cupping my hand over the mouth piece, “You mind if I go alone?”
“Not as long as you take care of business here first,” she explains.
Well, I suppose when duty calls the mild mannered need not apply.
“Give me an hour,” I tell Flannery, “Wherever you say – just not right now. Housekeeping is calling.”
I observe the elegant soft musculature of Mico’s finely toned back, chiseled from smooth marble and on display for just one patron.
I play up the rest of my conversation with Flannery for Mico’s benefit.
“No, she can’t. Headache. Just my luck, I guess. So, it’s bachelor’s night out.”
Mico turns her lips into the soft nape of my neck.
“Better make it two.”
. . .
There’s few things more satisfying than sex – especially the kind that comes with no strings. I have a theory about it, but for now I’ll keep it to myself and get on with the case.
I go to our prearranged meeting place around nine-thirty and wait for Flannery to show up. I’m in the thick of counterculture – a turgid little enclave where the Goth and the vampires play.
It’s begun to rain again and I’m without an umbrella. On one side of a narrow alley, the techno beat of party music practically vibrates the mortar from a decaying junk warehouse façade. The alley bends onto more of the same; tight little isles full of storefronts that don’t give frequently flyer miles – a leather n’ whip emporium, porn shop, coffee house fronting for a powder shack and its rough trade.
I move out of the gathering drizzle just under a half burnt marquee of an old Bijou that’s showing Big Boobs from Around the World #7; the rancid stench of each sour rendezvous inside catching me by surprise each time the doors swing open to flush out the crowd.
A couple of rotten apples with their mops dipped in pink and purple hair varnish give me the once over as they squeeze and preen each other for my benefit and effect. Socially retarded waif #1 looks as though she hasn’t slept since the eighties and is proud of her insomnia.
After placing her fingers in a few inappropriate crevices, oddball number two decides to stick a slender digit inside her mouth and lick through her black-laced glove that’s probably never seen the inside of a washing machine.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter where you get your appetite,” I tell her, “As long as you eat at home.”
“That depends on the main course,” I’m told from behind.
I turn in place. It’s Flannery, and I’ve never been quite so glad to see anyone who looks that fatally provincial.
“Some spot you picked,” I tell him as the Death Sisters disappear around the corner with each other’s hands down their tops.
By now everything’s good and wet and the line ups for the club across the street are beginning to grumble that they want in before their collective Nyquil buzz wears off.
“I thought you’d appreciate the real estate,” Flannery tells me.
“Yeah,” I muse, “Prime. What does a four bedroom go for in this neighborhood?”
“Why?” Flannery shoots back, “You got friends?”
He gives me a clairvoyant stare.
“He owns this block?”
“And the next,” Flannery explains, “All the way up to and including the Billenfaire Theatre.”
“I know there’s a point to this special glimpse into Hemmingway’s life,” I say, “Get to it.”
We enter the porn shop across the street; humping grounds for the sexually deviant. The gyrating neon silhouette of two green breasts with their purple nipples knocking back and forth like a pair of pendulums overhead, invite us to a place where – scratch any surface with your finger and you’ll need to plunk it in lye or till gangrene makes it fall off.
There’s a much deeper cavity inside - probably goes on for a couple of blocks. We’re met by the establishment’s dumpy disheveled proprietor who looks like his last Lysol bath was in May.
“This here’s Inky Noir,” Flannery introduced.
“You’re joking,” I suggest.
“Name’s Albert Hepshavovitz,” the guy explains, oozing insolence from every pore, “Try fitting that one on a marquee. Besides I have a rep’ to consider, okay?”
Real class in a district that thinks high tone is the gloss you get from pouring Mazola across a leather thong.
“Shape up,” Flannery suggests, “This private dick knows how to bend ‘em in half. For a pile of crap you’re not much to look at, but you’ll have less to market once he gets through with you. So what’s it gonna be?”
There’s a long pause while Inky’s brain grinds into gear. It’s not easy - getting those wheels rolling after you’ve been stuck at the bottom of a manure pile for a couple decades.
“How long am I going to owe you?” Inky replies.
“Till it hurts,” Flannery replies with gritted teeth.
He’s not subtle but he is effective.
“Yeah…” Inky stammers, “Well, it’s getting to sting pretty good.”
“They make a cream for that,” I reason.
What do you want?” Inky asks me, his tone more contrite and will to please.
He and Frankie must’a had some good times….well…define ‘good.’
“Answers,” I tell him, “You ever met a guy named Frank Brody?”
The name rings more than a bell - chimes that resonate.
“Frankie,” Inky smiles, “What’s he done now?”
“Who said he did anything?” Flannery suggests, turning to me to help fill in the blanks, “Brody and this one were…you know.”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Inky becomes incensed, “I run a legitimate business.”
“For illegitimates,” I add.
“Screw you, you Puritan,” says Noir, like he can stand behind those words and still spell Nantucket backwards, “Brody was alright until this guy with a limo the size of my Johnson filled his with real whip cream.”
“What guy?” I prod.
“Hemmingway,” Flannery explains.
“Yeah,” Inky agrees, “That’s the guy. Threw enough money around to buy half my life twice over.”
The wheels begin to churn.
Inky’s not exactly the sensitive type but this latest inquisition has really struck a chord. He gets this puppy dog pout. Even the one’s with a bunch of tin cans tied to their tails look sympathetic.
“Inky loves Frankie. Frankie loves money…well, you get the picture,” Flannery concludes.
“And Hemmingway gets Frankie,” I deduce, “Chummy!”
“Yeah,” says Inky, all hot and bothered, “Only he doesn’t leave me alone even now.”
“How do you mean?”
But the biography of Inky Noir seems to have reached the last page without footnotes.
“I got a friend…” says Inky.
“Of course you have,” I reply.
The snub is enough to get the pen onto paper once more.
“An associate!” Inky punctuates with a catty stare. “He wants to open a club at the old Billenfaire at the corner and he wants me to go in with him…partners.”
I raise another curious eyebrow for effect.
Inky shoots me the bird as his own.
“So what?” I suggest.
“So, plenty,” Inky adds defiantly, “The Billenfaire’s got choice layout. It used to be this movie theatre with its own swing club and restaurant. So my friend asks me if I know who owns it. Sure, I says…and I give him that guys cell.”
“How’d you get it?” I ask.
Inky shrugs his shoulders sheepishly.
“Frankie didn’t just move uptown to start,” he says, “I checked his pockets. Only I get this threatening phone call one day later.”
Inky shakes his head.
“Nah, too smart for that. But the goon on the other end sounds like he’s got a fist that could do some damage. So I drop it.”
“But your sure this guy, whoever he was, you’re sure he worked for…”
“Who do you think?” Inky continues, “I mean, I could’a…well, I could’a made something of the place…only, two weeks after my friend checks out the wiring and stuff he winds up with a bullet in his head inside a parked Lincoln near Battery Park.”
“Occupational hazard,” I say.
“No way,” Inky insists, “He wasn’t into… he had a business…a legitimate one. Marvin’s Bridal on Lex.”
“There was a dead girl when they found the body,” Flannery explains, “A bit of skin anyone could get wholesale.”
“And did,” Inky confirms, “But not him. Not my friend.”
“You were wrong about Frankie,” I suggest, “What makes you so sure about this friend of yours?”
“Look,” Inky insists, more timid and hurt than anything else, “All I know is that my friend said the place was a steal. Said everything looked pretty good for wear and all. Even the freezers.”
Flannery and I exchange glances.
“First time I know anyone paying a hydro bill to keep an empty room cold,” I say.
. . .
The Billenfaire’s every bit the old time movie palace Inky described; a cavernous and gaudy slice of Americana ripped from the grand ol’ days when studios sold their big ticket items in style. After a bit of creative padlock picking, Flannery and I step back in time with a pair of flashlights pulled from the trunk of his sedan.
The Billenfaire’s lobby is impressive – even in the dark. Our beams bounce off its faux gold leaf scrolls and two story beveled mirrors, transforming the darkened recesses into a glittery light show.
The candy counter’s seen better days and there are signs that the place has doubled as an unofficial shelter for the homeless in recent years, but over all, the interior’s held up remarkably well. Even the carpet’s been recently cleaned. A set of winding stairs disappear beyond the scope of our beams, up to the second and third level balconies. But it’s the restaurant that interests me.
“Hey,” Flannery calls out in the dark, “I found a switch.”
He’s about to flick it.
“Don’t!” I shout back.
“Why not?” he insists, “Beats wandering around in the dark.”
“Not yet,” I say.
We make our way down a corridor that opens onto a huge ballroom. The windows have long since been boarded. Heavy red velvet drapes proudly cling to their rods and blot out what little ambient street light tries to get in.
Towering above our heads is a trio of gargantuan cut glass chandeliers covered in cobwebs and dust. The intricate parquet floor beneath our feet is also heavy on the dirt, dust and mildew left as souvenirs from the intervening decades. That’s how I know we’re not the first to step into this forgotten manufactured paradise.
“Take a look at these,” I tell Flannery as I follow the contour of freshly made footprints toward the back stairwell leading to the kitchen.
“Homeless?” Flannery suggests.
“I don’t know too many homeless who wear Florsheim,” I explain, “That’s the footprint of a dress shoe.”
In the back we find signs of a struggle, a couple tables turned over, dusty fingerprints I want Flannery to send to forensics, and, what looks like a trace of dried blood spots as we near the freezers. The footprints suddenly diverge into what appear to be a woman’s high heel and two treads that probably came from someone’s feet being dragged through the dust. The trail leads to the freezer.
“What do you think?” Flannery says, his thirty-eight nervously drawn and ready for action.
“I don’t think this place is being used to store Coney dogs. Open up.”
My suspicions are confirmed when we unbolt the door and take a look inside. We’re not in a freezer. We’re in a morgue. A rogue’s gallery of who-dun-its for clever disappearing acts that the local color and Feds are probably still trying to figure out.
I’m surrounded by bodies carelessly tossed on slabs and stock piled like fresh kill in a slaughter house. By the look of their clothes, some of these stiffs date back at least a decade.
“Son of a bitch,” Flannery declares with a sick satisfaction that knows he’s in for a promotion.
“What do you think our chances are of finding Jimmy Hoffa?” I tease.
“If he’s not here you can probably find somebody just as good,” admits Flannery.
Except the last person I’m expecting to find - Hemmingway, decked out in his Sunday best with half the back of his head missing. One problem’s just been solved, but I suspect another is just beginning.
…and you think so because?!? –
Eddie Mars will return in his next big adventure:
on February 28th, 2007.
@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).