Two to Tango

 

Or

 

The Case of the Manx Pigeon

by Anon 2

kvile27@yahoo.com

*

A hard-baked, half-boiled mystery thriller with tough broads, weak men, and birds on the side.

*

 

Hane's the name.  Sam Hane.  No, not to be confused with my cousin who made good in the underwear racket.  And besides, he spells it different.

 

No, the closest I came to that business was when one of Biggie's Mob goons tried to fit me for a cement overcoat.  I had to tell him I didn't do outerwear.  And then I had to shoot him.  I think I shot him.  At this point, I'm not really sure.

 

You know, some guys have all the luck.  But I'm not one of them. 

 

For one thing, I'm not a guy.  Although not everyone knows that.  It's Samantha to the IRS.  But I don't look very feminine, and on the street you'd never guess.  I have a certain fondness for neckties and fedoras, and with my suit jacket on it's easy to miss the tits. 

 

And for another thing, Stewy says there's a guy downstairs from the DA's office who 'wants to speak to me'.  Again.  I think it's time I took that extended vacation to the South Seas. 

 

If only I had the dough.  Well, if I had the dough I could do a lot of things, including buy off that lousy DA stoolie.  All he really wants is his cut, and I'd be pleased to buy him off if I was rolling in moola.  It could be a good investment, me bein' a private eye and all.  I'd say a private dick, but I don't do dick if you know what I mean, and I try not to work too much neither.  But there's a lot of investment opportunities I have my eye on-there's a good looking bridge downtown and I hear you can buy a piece of it real cheap.  So why should I waste my money on a dime-a dozen hustler, just because he happens to be from a city office?  My luck, I pay him off, he skips and next week it's somebody else.

 

But my luck's not all bad; last Tuesday when the DA's boy came looking for me I was in the ladies room, throwing up.  It seems that the fifth of blended Loch Ness sludge I downed to deal with my near miss in the garment trade didn't sit so well after all.  I kept it in the desk for emergencies, and it turned out to be pretty good for that after all, only I wish I hadn't had to drink it. 

 

The Suit also brought along some muscle in uniform-a policewoman no less; at least someone was paying attention.  Fortunately she was one of them dames with a cast iron bladder, or she would have caught me with my head in the shitter. 

 

They lingered around, fingering the upholstery and asking too many questions, but Eve Somers, my secretary, told them I was 'on a case' and she had no idea when I'd return.  She can't type worth beans, and she spends way too much time on the phone, but she's good at evasion and she can smell a cop further away than a hog farm in summer.  It's useful skill when you've been on the streets half your life, I guess.

 

Evie has tits enough for both of us-she'd really be a looker if she hadn't been a hooker.  And trust me, you can tell.  The tough look that works wonders for thirteen year old models wears a little thin when you get to the shady side of forty.  Evie's a good girl, but you can tell she's been around the block a few times.  A few hundred, maybe.  Still, with what she was able to salt away from the pimps and the pittance I pay her, she manages to keep off the streets these days.  She's got a nice apartment over in Perspex heights-or so I've heard.  I haven't been invited over, and that's alright with me.  I got no way to return hospitality; in fact between the rent on this dive and the salary I pay her÷ well with the lack of customers this last month I had to let the room go.  I've been sleeping in one of the doss houses down on Avenue B, and leavin' early enough they don't notice I never have to shave.

 

Now talk about luck-Eve's the lucky one.  That day she sent errand-boy off with a flea in his ear and a blush on his face, and then she got to lock up and go home. 

 

Me, I don't have a home, and right now I don't have an office neither.  And I'm in the biggest jam of my life.  But I see I need to explain, and for that I need to backtrack a little.

 

It all started simply enough. 

 

Tuesday

 

It was a real quiet day; no phones, no mail.  I was just getting a little shut-eye before taking an extended lunch break.  My plan was to go over to The Watering Hole, where Stewy, the sympathetic bartender, is always ready to pour out an extra double for the liquid lunch crowd. 

 

I was practically asleep, when this gorgeous dame waltzed into my office.  Before I could even get my feet off the desk my heart was ready to rumba.  I hardly knew what hit me. 

 

I guess Evie was out getting coffee, because there was no buzz of the intercom, no warning at all.  She was just there, like a piece of pie you forgot you ordered.  The waitress brings it to you when you're already full, and suddenly you can't starve fast enough.  Lookin' at this dame-just lookin'-was like one of those cartoons were the poor saps eyes pop right out of his head.  It was a creepy feeling, but I had to just go with it.  Finally I pushed my face forward enough to get my eyeballs back into their sockets, put my feet on the floor, and asked her what her business was.  She said her name was Judy Hollowfurnace-hell of a name-and she had a little domestic problem. 

 

"Oh, no you don't," I said; "Hold it right there.  No irate boyfriends."  Gorgeous or not, I knew where to draw the line.  I'd been down that route before and let me tell you it stinks worse than insurance fraud.  I learned my lesson the hard way, and I still have the scars to prove it.

 

Then she told me I was all wrong about her, there was no boyfriend trouble, it was just that she had a parakeet, and it had gone missing.  I thought it would be a quick easy job-I was raised in the church, you know, and very familiar with the order.  I figured it wouldn't take more than an hour or two to find the guy, I'd collect a daily fee and still have time for a couple of doubles down at Stewy's. 

 

That, of course, was my first mistake.

 

I tried for a little background info.  I should have been suspicious when she told me the guy's name was Pretty Boy, but for some reason I was lost in contemplation of that pair of reliquaries she carried around on the front of her chest.  I woke up again as she was saying she didn't have any idea where he could have gone.  So we went to her apartment so I could check out the scene for clues. 

 

It was a nice apartment in a residence hotel on Park Avenue.  If the dame was kept, she had class.  Everything in the place was perfect.  Two large windows looked out on the side street.  The curtains matched the upholstery, and the rugs matched the furniture.  There was a fireplace, a small kitchen area, and a couple of closed doors that I assumed led to other rooms.  Before I could investigate, though, she had me sitting down on what was just about the softest chaise lounge I'd ever experienced, with my shoes off and my coat over a chair.

 

She got me a drink and I prepared to listen to the rest of her story.

 

Turns out she didn't say Paraclete, like I thought, but parakeet, apparently it's some kind of a bird.  She'd opened the door of the cage, the window was open at the top, and it flew out.  She squeezed out a few tears when she showed me the bag of birdseed she'd planned to feed it. 

 

Well, livestock ain't my bag, if you know what I mean, but dames÷ dames I know.  I can tell when one a them needs consoling, and she was really heartbroken over the loss of her pet.  So I consoled her-just so I could get to the information, you understand-but somehow one thing led to another.  Don't get me wrong, I'm a professional; I did get the facts.  But I got to know her pretty well too, before the afternoon was over-several times and in a number of different positions, as a matter of fact, and if I'd been a John it would have cost me a bundle.

 

But she was the client, at least theoretically.  I shoulda known there was a catch.  It seems she wasn't really free after all; she belonged to one of Biggie's enforcers, and he came home at just the wrong time.  Goldilocks-as the wolf called her-just had time to kick my suit under the chaise lounge we'd been consoling each other on before meeting him at the door.  I didn't have time to think, I jumped behind the first door I could find.  It was the bedroom, and I smelled her perfume on the satin sheets while I waited for her to get rid of him.

 

I could just get a glimpse of him through the crack in the bedroom door while she was stalling.  He was a big ugly mug, older than I expected.  He had a head like a steel wool pad, just going grey and pomaded down so securely it was as if he was preparing to go to his mother's funeral through a hurricane.  He shoulda been out enforcing-he was supposed to be collecting the surplus Bingo payments from Father Damascus at Our Lady of Myopia, I found out later. 

 

But it seems the little old ladies of OLM were taking longer than usual to lose their dough for the glory of god and the more temporal protection of Mr. Joseph Ignatius Biggolotti, devout church-goer, philanthropist, and mob boss extaordinaire. 

 

In the interval, Brillo-boy got lonesome for his little Goldilocks and decided to take a break.  Turns out that meant a trip to the bedroom, and I thought for a minute there I was sunk like the Monitor, or the Merrimack, or whichever one it was ended up on the bottom of Davy Jones' locker.

 

There was no closet, no room under the bed, no large empty trunk-nowhere for me to go but the ledge outside the window-which at least fit in with the story about the missing bird if I was caught.  I didn't even have time to close it behind me, and I could hear her whining about her pet as he complained about the draught. 

 

Funny how different the same story can sound under different circumstances. 

 

Anyway, I guess he bought it, because the cage was empty, and all he did was close the window without really looking.  Which was a good thing, because I hardly looked like a window-washer in my sleeveless undershirt and leopard print panties.  So I hung out there in the freezing wind in my skivvies for close to an hour while she undid his clothes, and did him. 

 

It was cold out there, and I'm scared of heights, so I couldn't look down.  I held onto the drainpipe and stared at the brickwork while I listened to the obbligato of her obligation.  It was good brickwork; they built them right in those days.  Just like she was built, only a little squarer.  I tried not to think about the fact that we were on the 15th floor.  I thought about the blonde a few inches away instead.

 

Just the thought of what she'd done to me kept me warm enough on that ledge.  I have to say her talents in that line bordered on the unnatural.  And by the way, I can vouch for the fact that she wasn't no natural blonde, neither.  Anyway, I didn't have to use my imagination much for a while, although I flatter myself I got the best of her vocalization skills.  Although perhaps the sheer bulk of Brillo-boy muffled the higher notes.  Finally she managed to get him dressed and out the door to go back to work.

 

She opened the window and I climbed back in.  I had to report that there were no parakeets, missing or otherwise, on the ledge of the15th floor west.  In fact, I'd observed no birds of any kind, although I did have the beginnings of chilblains for my trouble. 

 

Then of course she knew I was half frozen, so she was considerate enough to thaw me out.  In her bed.  I got thawed a couple of times, and then I remembered there was another reason why I'd come.  So without setting off her lachrymose glands again, I tried to get on with the detection. 

 

I held up the sack of birdseed, and proceeded to expound on my theory, and she was laughing at me, telling me to get dressed already.

 

So there we was, getting me back into my duds, when with no warning Brillo-hair comes back in. 

 

There was no way out this time.  He caught me with her hand in my panties alright, although right then it wasn't how it looked.  But he wasn't looking for another explanation and he told me exactly where I was headed-the East River-and how many pounds of cement he was going to use in my mouth.  I told him I had better uses for it, and for some reason that got him really mad, as if he'd just been warming up before.  He went for me.  I was all set to deck him with one of my famous left hooks-it helps to know how to box when you're small-when what do you know.  He fakes right and goes to the chair.  He grabs my gun out of the shoulder holster and aims it right at Judy-or Goldilocks, if you prefer, and says he'll kill her too. 

 

After that everything happened so fast÷ all I know is, we struggled, all three of us.  The gun went off, and next thing I know I'm standing there holding a gun over a stiff with her laying over his chest, both of them covered in blood. 

 

She's weeping and screaming, "You killed him, you Brute!  How could you!  You Murdered my husband, you Rapist!  I'm calling the cops!"

 

Well, I know when I been set up; I grabbed my hat and my pants and high-tailed it out of there faster than the Monongahela Valley Express.  Somehow I must have left the gun behind as I grabbed my coat.  I went down the service stairs, out the back door of her building and through the alley to the pedestrian walkway between avenues.  It was just going on four o'clock, by then.  I settled the hat deeper over my face and mingled with the crowd, trying to look like I just couldn't make up my mind which flower shop or fruit vendor to patronize.  The streets were full of shoppers on the way home from work and I drifted along with them until I got to the back of the block where I keep my office.  I took the fire escape up to my floor, came in the side entrance, and didn't turn on the lights.  I got the desk open and went straight to my secret stash of twenty-malt scotch.  I needed it after the day I'd had.  I had no idea that my troubles were only beginning. 

 

Well, on my empty stomach it had the effect I described.  I went back out the other door of the office before the cops arrived and hit the loo, where I could hear enough from the conversation in the hall that I knew I didn't want to go back to the office.  I didn't sneak back in until after Evie left, so she could safely say she'd never seen me to give me the message from the coppers.

 

So there I was, sitting in the dark.  I'm used to being in the dark, but not this dark.  I have to confess, I was stumped.  Blondie had been willing-well, more than willing, and I was sure she had been sincere, at least half the time.  I've bought my share of genital attention and I know the difference.  Why set me up like that?  I don't know much, but I know I never raped the girl.  If anyone ever put out of her own accord she had.  But now there was a stiff in the picture and the cops were sniffing around.  I sure needed all the perfumes of Arabia if I was going to get the smell of her off my hands, not to mention a few other places.

 

I wanted to visit the Turkish baths down at Third and Elm, but I decided to wait until there was a chance of privacy. 

 

That was my second mistake of the day.

 

As I sat there like a rat in the dark, I could hear the elevator going up and down as all the other workers left for the day.  I was just getting ready to make my move when I heard the elevator come up one last time and stop at my floor.  I listened.  Stealthy footsteps, coming closer.  I could see a shadow against the frosted glass of the outer door from the nightlight in the hall.  I couldn't really tell if it was a man or a woman-the outline was vaguely masculine, but that's not to say what was in the suit.  I thought about hiding-under the desk, behind the filing cabinet÷ where?  There really was no good place.  I must make a note that the next time I take office space-if I ever get to have an office again-there have to be a lot more escape routes. 

 

So I listened to the soft scratching noises as someone tried to pick the lock and break in discreetly.  Without making a sound I slithered along the floor and made sure my inner door was locked-might as well slow them down all I could-and waited for my chance.  Once they were in the outer office I intended to slip out my side door and then either take the elevator or go back to the fire escape, whichever one looked more promising.

 

It took a lot less time than I expected for the thief to enter the outer office and I could see the beam of a flashlight searching the walls.  I ducked out quickly and was relieved to find the thief had no accomplices-none I could see anyway.  I decided to try the stairwell-no point in going past the open door to make for the elevator-and I slipped down to the next floor without any problem.  I called the elevator from there, and sent it down to the ground floor.  Maybe that would rattle my intruder a little.  I crept down a few more flights and then eased my way out onto the fire escape, still listening for any hint of my intruder's identity. 

 

Nothing happened for a long time, until suddenly I heard a crash from an upper floor.  Then there were shouts; and a shot was fired.  I heard running feet, making for the stairway.  Stealth be damned, someone was running, and fast.  I tried to catch a glimpse into the stairwell from my perch outside, but there was only a shadow of a grey suit, nothing more.  Whoever it was left through the front door, because no one came out the alley. 

 

Then it was quiet again; not a sound marred the entire district. 

 

I was tired, hungry, and filthy as a chimney sweep.  I figured the darkness of The Watering Hole would cover the worst of the dirt, but I was still playing it safe, so I slunk around to the kitchen entrance.  The Chinese dishwasher chattered something at me and I ducked back out just in time to miss Harry Pronto, the DA's bright-eyed boy.  I hid behind the dumpster, holding my breath.  When the alley was clear again I sat down in the remains of a crate of cabbages and had a smoke.  Then I went back into the kitchen and helped myself to a couple of plates that were brought back for scraping.  I got a bit of a rinse at the sink while the dishwasher's back was turned, so at least I looked semi-presentable.  Then I went out the back way and around the block to stroll in the front door. 

 

I sauntered over to the bar and ordered my usual.  Stewy was giving me the hairy eyeball, but I just shrugged and made a 'tell you later' kind of gesture with my chin.  I scooped up a handful of peanuts and tried to look like I'd been there all night.

 

When there was a lull in business he drifted over and handed me another double plasma on the rocks.

 

"Pronto was in here earlier, looking for you."

 

"What did you tell him?"

 

"I said it was busy, the new boy could have served you and I wouldn't have noticed.  Were you in earlier?"

 

"I dunno, I haven't figured out if it's better I was, or better I wasn't"

 

"Some help you are.  The DA wants to have a talk with you."

 

"Did he say why?"

 

"No, he just said it was important, and if I saw you I was to call him."

 

"What did-never mind, I'm sure it's nothing.  I'm off the clock right now, so Mr. Harry Pronto will have to excuse me if I don't get back to him so pronto.  Any chance of you puttin' me up tonight, so's I can catch a few winks?

 

"Oh, Sam, you know I'd like to, but Bruce will have my wrinkled ass in a sling if I bring a woman home with me.  I'm sorry."

 

So Bruce was back in the picture.  This was news.  And not good news.  Just for that I asked him to run me a tab, because I had a big job coming in, and then I left and walked downtown to the baths.

 

Wednesday

 

It was late, after midnight I'd guess, when I finally lowered my sorry carcass into the steamy hot water of the public bath.  There were no other customers; even the whores had packed it in for the night.  Only one old broad with no teeth was open for business in the corner.

 

"What's your name, Doll?"  I said.

 

"Caprice," she said.  I think that's what she said.  It came out more like 'Cabrith"

 

"How much?"

 

"Depends.  What for?"

 

"Uh-- Laundry and a bed?"

 

"No way!  Do I look like your mother?"

 

There was no good answer to that one, and I slunk back into my dirty clothes.  I went out and walked down the Bowery for a while, finally fetching up on the ferry for Staten Island.  I slept the sleep of the indigent on the seat near the wheelhouse for a few trips back and forth until a copper nudged me off the boat on the Staten Island side.  I walked along the esplanade by the river for a while, finally settling down on a park bench.  I dozed a bit on the hard wooden bench, and feverish dreams haunted me.  I saw Goldilocks-Judy-and she was sprinkling me with birdseed, and then pecking it off me.  I could feel her hard beak pinching my hand.  When I woke up I was covered with a heavy dew and surrounded by pigeons.  I shook them off and kicked my way clear.  I headed back to the ferry, stamping my feet for warmth.

 

It was just before sunup and the city was already full of life as the stockbrokers made ready to go to their offices in the city.  I took the ferry back and wandered slowly up towards City Hall, waiting for the moment I could get a quick word in with Homer Christmas, the DA.  I was tired of being passed from minion to minion.  I knew I'd have to answer a few questions, but I wanted to ask a few, too, and the only way for that to happen was to go to the top.  If I timed it just right I could meet him as he arrived for work.

 

It wasn't a moment too soon when I walked up the steps of one of the blindest justice systems in the country.  Oh, I knew Homer was all right.  But the people he worked for had their own agenda, and part of it had always been putting people like me safely behind bars, where their little girls could never be corrupted by the idea that there might be something more to life than chintz and brokerage.  I saw him start up the steps and moved to intercept.

 

Before I could get out more than a brief 'hello', I was up close and personal with the fine granite steps, and Pronto was sitting on my back.  I hadn't seen him come up.  Mistake number three, although if I thought about it too hard there was probably a mistake two-A somewhere in there as well.

 

They ran me through the wringer, and I held back for all I was worth.  I figured the only thing I could safely plead to was planning to file a stolen gun report for my rusty 38; I'd probably dropped it in the scuffle, but Brillo boy had taken it from my coat first, and that made it stolen in my book.

 

Finally around the tail end of lunchtime, Homer dropped in to see how I was doing.  I think even he was a little appalled at the work-over Harry and his boys had given me, but he didn't say anything, just took off the cuffs and led me over to his office, which was empty.

 

He sat me down in the visitor chair, leaned against the front of his desk, folded his arms, and glared at me.

 

I was sore, so I figured if he wanted something, he could ask for it.  In the meanwhile, there was one thing I did want to know.

 

"So," I said.  "How's Verna?"

 

You see, he's my brother-in-law.  Yup.  Verna Christmas, nee Quinnocks, was my baby sister.  Well, she wasn't my blood sister.  She had only been three years old when her parents adopted me.  I still don't know why.  Maybe Marcus Hain paid them to take me off his hands.  He was a dockworker with a penchant for booze and women that I inherited full force to both.  I was 10 and already a handful, but Verna for some reason looked up to me and I could never refuse her anything.  When the boys on the playground picked on her, I beat them up.  When she got into trouble with a corrupt Girl Scout club, I took the heat for her.  When junior lawyer Homer Christmas had come wooing I covered for her.  And I convinced the parents to let her marry him. 

 

It wasn't so much persuasiveness on my part.  But I set such a good bad example of just how bad things could get if she didn't get settled, they caved with very little protest.  They pulled a few strings, and made sure he got a decent job.  And then they kicked me out.  So in a sense he owed me one, although I didn't get much out of it.  About the best I could do in return was promise not to turn up at family gatherings.  But I knew Verna was still fond of me, and I always sent her a card on her birthday, no matter how hard up I might be at the time. 

 

He glared a little harder.

 

"I've been cutting you slack for too long, Hane," he growled.  "Now tell me what you've been up to this time."

 

"I'm not up to anything, my dear brother in law, except reporting a stolen firearm."

 

"Like I should believe you," He sneered.

 

"Just because my name is Hane, you expect heinous things from me.  I don't know why you're all over me like a cheap suit.  I haven't done anything."

 

"That's always been part of the problem.  If you'd taken a decent job-"

 

"Look at me, Homer.  Do I look like a librarian to you?  What kinds of jobs do you think are going to be open to a mug like me?  Honest, I'm doing the best I can."

 

He sighed.  "Alright, you made your point.  Now suppose you tell me all you know about Darius Lockwood?"

 

"Who?"

 

"Darius Lockwood," he said patiently.

 

"Never heard of him," I said with some confidence.

 

"I don't believe you.  You've been seen speaking with him on numerous occasions.  He's the security guard in your building."

 

"Oh, you mean Buster.  Why didn't you say so?  I don't know what end of the stick you think you're holding, but Buster would never get mixed up in anything shady.  He's a great guy."

 

"Then I suppose you'd be sorry to hear he's dead."

 

"Buster?  Buster dead?  Are you kidding?  Why the guy is healthy as a horse."

 

"Not any more, I'm afraid."

 

"I'm shocked."

 

"Then I suppose you'd also be surprised to learn he's been murdered?"

 

"Murdered! Buster?  Why?  When?"  This was news.  I thought I'd be questioned on the murder of Brillo-head, or maybe rape or assault against Judy Hollowfurnace, not the night watchman in my own building.  But I knew better than to offer anything up that I didn't have to.

 

"Last night.  And donŪt you think you ought to be asking where he died?"

 

"Alright, Homer, I'll bite.  Where did he die?"

 

"In your office, In fact, he was shot with a 38.  A gun of that description was found at the scene.  We're running it through forensics at this very moment, but I have little doubt it will prove to belong to you."

 

"I have no doubt whatsoever," I sighed.  I told him a severely edited version of the day before, only giving Judy Goldilocks address and description of Brillo-head, the fact that he'd lifted my gun and that I ran away.  Homer took a few notes, never taking his eyes off of mine.  How did he do that, I wondered.  It would be a useful skill in my business, and someday, when all this was cleared up, I was going to have to get him to show me the trick of it.

 

Anyway, I told my pitiful story.  I didn't lie, but there were a few things I didn't want to bring up and a few others I didn't like to admit to Homer.  When I got to the end he sighed, a big heavy sigh, and crossed his arms again while he turned to stare out the window.  It was a while before he spoke.

 

"You know, Samantha, one of the worst things about this case is that I think I actually believe you." 

 

"You do?  I mean of course you do."

 

"Yes.  I know you, Samantha.  You wouldn't ransack your own office to make it look like robbery and then leave your gun behind.  You'd throw the gun in the river before you started the cockamamie story."

 

"My office?  What happened to my office?"

 

"You don't know? "

 

"I haven't been there, uh, recently, no."

 

"Well, I think it's safe to say you'll be re-locating, at least temporarily."

 

I sighed.  I was back down a rung on the ladder of life and I hadn't been too far from the bottom to begin with.  Homer gave me a minute to grieve before driving home the last nail.

 

"And Samantha?"

 

"Yeah?"

 

"That rot-gut you drink is going to be the death of you."

 

"They found my stash?"

 

"They smashed your stash.  Another reason I believe it wasn't you.  I don't think you'd ever voluntarily break eight bottles of scotch, no matter how bad."

 

Eight?  EIGHT?  I had only hidden 5.  Damn that Evie.  She's been holding out on me.  I sighed again and was about to say something deeply profound when Harry Pronto rushed into the office.

 

"There she is.  Alright, MISS Hane, the lock-up is calling your name."

 

"Ease off, Harry," Homer said.  "We're not charging Miss Hane at this time.  I've got another job for you.  Head down to 588 Park and see a Miss÷" he looked at his notes.  "A Miss Hollowfurnace in 15-D.  She may have some information on the shooter."

 

"But-" the errand boy looked outraged, and I hung my head and tried not to look responsible.

 

"On the double, Pronto!  Before the bird flies!"

 

"Yes sir."

 

I was willing to bet the bird had already flown, but I didn't say anything.

 

Homer looked me over, and I knew he wasn't liking what he saw.  He reached deep into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and then stopped.

 

"If I gave you a twenty, what would happen to it?  Would you drink the whole thing in an hour?"

 

"Homer, Homer, Homer.  Don't you know me better than that?  I wouldn't ever put down more that a fiver against a tab at one time.  It goes against my principles."

 

"Samantha, you're a mess.  A disgrace to the family.  But Verna would never forgive me if I let you get seriously hurt.  Here's a tenner.  Go get yourself cleaned up."

 

"Thanks Bro.  I mean that, you're alright."

 

"Don't push me Samantha.  Verna's expecting you for tea at the Carlisle, four o'clock, the Oak Room.  Be there.  And be presentable."

 

"Oh, Jeeze, Homer, you can't mean that.  I'm in no shape to go socializing with a buncha dames.  I gotta go deal with my office."

 

"Not while it's a crime scene, you don't. "

 

"But-"

 

"No buts.  And you know what Verna will be like if you don't show."

 

I shuddered.  One person who could always order me around was my little sis.  I don't know how, but she always made me feel like the worn-down heel under a tramp's foot when I didn't do what she wanted.  I still had one more ace, however.

 

"Look at me, Bro.  Do I look like I'm in any shape for the Oak Room?"

 

He had to admit I wasn't, but he made me promise to call Verna before her train left.  Then, finally, he let me go. 

 

I took the El up to Grand Central and called Verna from there.  The pay phones were quiet there, and the booths were luxurious, by phone-booth standards.  I decided they would be a good substitute office, if my place was so trashed I couldn't use it.  Never mind the police seals on the doors; those were meant to be ignored. 

 

I told Verna a little more of what happened to me-leaving out the details about Judy, the stiff, and the fact that her husband's employees had worked me over.  She was still miffed, although I offered to meet her for a drink somewhere else.

 

"I'm not going to that Dyke Bar," she said, outraged.  "The Purple Pudenda, or whatever you call it."

 

"Vern, it's the Lavender Purse, and I broke up with Pauline months ago.  I never go near there now.  How about The Watering Hole?"

 

She sniffed and said what about the Oyster Bar at Grand Central.  I don't know what it is about my brother in law that inspires her so much, but my little sis sure has a taste for oysters.  I just hope he's worth it.  Anyway, we argued for a bit, and finally compromised on the Evergreen Diner at four o'clock.  Right now, I had to go salvage what was left of my office.

 

It was a gloomy afternoon, and a fine autumn rain had begun to fall, making the pavements glisten.  But it was a gentle rain, so I decided to walk over there.  No point in wasting Homer's dough on a streetcar.  I set out west on 42nd.  My office was in Hell's Kitchen, an easy stroll over to the West Side.  As I meandered past the public library however, I got a funny feeling.  I changed course and paused by the carved stone lions.  Nothing out of the ordinary; but I couldn't shake the feeling something was wrong.  I ducked into the reading room, perused the card catalogue, and eventually made my way back out.

 

It was late when I finally managed to reach my office.  There was no guard on the desk, just a sign and a few withered carnations.  I took the elevator up, and went to survey the carnage.  The place was wide open.  All the glass in my doors was smashed, and what was left of the frames was just enough to hold up a little crime-scene tape.  I lifted it up and went in.

 

The coroners boys had been and gone, so the sad corpse of Darius Lockwood, AKA Buster the Night Watchman, had already been removed.  Only the chalk outline of his body marked his passing in my outer office.  He'd expired next to Evie's desk, leaving a trail of blood down one side.  That was one thing I'd never expected-that she might die of boredom while waiting for business, yes.  But not this. 

 

Homer was right, however.  There was no hope of using the place.  It had been thoroughly, savagely, trashed.  I picked my way through the fragments of furniture, the shards of broken glass and the muddle of papers and files, but there was nothing to save.  My scotch was nothing but a sticky, odiferous residue on the linoleum and my old cases were deader than last week's codfish.  I had brief moment to wish I'd followed Evie's advice on the insurance-at the time I figured she must have been dating a salesman-but it was too late for regrets.  I had to meet Verna; in fact I was already late.  My suit jacket was damp, and I could feel a chill coming on.  I looked in the closet for an umbrella.  Most of whatever it was that was in there was pretty ripe, but I found a trenchcoat that belonged to my secretary.  I put it on over my coat and had to admit it was a heck of a lot cleaner, even if it was a bit small on me.

 

I headed over to the diner.  Verna was already there, nursing a cup of coffee.  She was annoyed alright; I could tell by the set of her shoulders. 

 

"Is this seat taken?"  I asked, indicating the stool next to her where she'd put her fur coat.

 

Silently she moved the coat, and I sat down.  I ordered coffee too.  For acid sludge, it wasn't bad.  As coffee, well, it wasn't the Oak Room.  Verna continued to ignore me, and I looked around covertly.  I'd still had that prickly sensation of being followed; in fact it had only gotten worse since I left the office.  I sat there looking into my cup and let the silence stretch out like juice from a rotten tomato. 

 

Finally Verna spoke.

 

"Sam," she said.  "You look awful.  You're a disgrace to the family."

 

"Tell me something new, sister," I mumbled.  "I've been a disgrace since I entered it.  Why break a perfect record?"

 

"It's not that.  It's your job.  Your life.  Why can't you find something less dangerous, sober up, and settle down?  You should be getting married by now."

 

"I just haven't found the right girl," I mumbled, feeling a sense of unreality settle over me.  My sister was in a matchmaking mood again.  I guess her lack of success the last time had slipped her mind.  She'd been doing battle with my sexual preference since before the folks even kicked me out, and lost.  It was one of the few things I couldn't do to please her. 

 

I'd tried, I swear.  Three years ago I even went out on the date she arranged for me with one of the assistant DA's.  She got me all dolled up in a dress and shoes that practically gave me a nosebleed the heels were so high.  We had dinner, went to a show, and things went fine until he tried to kiss me.  My jaw just snapped shut, I swear it was completely involuntary.  The hospital was able to re-attach his tongue, the office granted him six months disability, and Homer pulled a few strings so I wasn't charged.  But it kept my dear sister from trying to fix me up for a good long while.

 

"Hog patooties.  You just won't see what's in front of your nose, that's all."

 

At the shrillness of her voice, the counterman sidled over.  "Is this mug bothering you, lady?" he asked.

 

"No," she said briefly and lowered her voice.  "Now you listen to me," she said.  "I postponed the party for today, but I want to see you at the Palm Court, properly dressed, no later than four PM, Friday.  THIS Friday.  Is that clear?'

 

"Oh, Vern, you know how I hate the drag.  I look stupid, feel uncomfortable, and itch worse than a compact-full of sneezing powder.  Do I have to?"

 

She was adamant.  I don't know what eligible bachelor she was planning me to meet this time.  I only hoped it wasn't Pronto.  I was having a hard time forgiving what he'd done to my ribs, and I might have to take it out of his face the next time we met.  But it was easier to just say yes, I'd be there, and hope I could find a good excuse before the end of the week.  I had no job, no office, and no place to change into female drag, even if I could find some by Friday.  And the last thing I wanted to do was enable her matchmaking proclivities.  But I had to say something, so I agreed.

 

She seemed satisfied, however, and I paid for our coffees and left.  She got into a cab, and I walked downtown.  I needed to think.  I didn't know what the connection was, but I was sure there was some tie-in between the murder of Brillo-boy and whoever trashed my office.  I set out in search of the only one who might be able to tell me something more about Brillo-head.  I was going to see Judy Hollowfurnace, and this time she better have some answers for me.  I wouldn't let her distract me this time.  If only I could find her. 

 

I loitered on my way downtown, looking at shop windows, trying to see if I could make the tail I was sure was on me.  At last I spotted him, a big mug in an astrakan coat, with a lethal-looking walking stick.  I continued down the avenue, slow, easy pace.  Suddenly I ducked into Bergdorff's and made straight for the ladies room on the second floor.  As I'd hoped, one of my exes was still the attendant there.  She let me out the back and I hightailed it down to the side street and grabbed a cab.  Homer's contribution sure came in handy.  I paid it off two blocks from Judy's crib and walked the rest of the way.  I was pretty sure I'd lost my company, but I took a good look around while pretending to look at magazines at a kiosk, just to make sure.

 

I waited near the corner watching the comings and goings.  When I saw an elderly lady returning to the building I wanted, I moved into action.  She was staggering along under a couple of bags of groceries.  I fell into step, struck up a conversation, helped her with the bags, and she got me past the doorman without a second thought.  She called the elevator and we parted at the 8th floor.  I went on up to the 17th and took the stairs down 2 flights, slipping off my shoes so I didn't make a sound.  I waited around for a while, but it was quiet enough. 

 

When I was sure the coast was clear I went over to the service entrance, pulled out my pocketknife, and jimmied the lock.  The apartment was quiet; there was no sound, and not a sign of the struggle that had taken place the day before.  Judy was gone, and so was the stiff.  The blood had been cleaned up; the satin sheets changed.  The only thing that marked it as the same place was the empty birdcage in the corner.

 

I looked around for clues.  Everything seemed normal.  The windows were closed, the drapes half-open.  I moved one aside to look out and three green feathers fell out.  Without thinking I slipped them into my pocket and examined the street.  No pedestrians, and very little traffic.  The light was failing as so was I.  I was as clueless as when I started.

 

I sat down on the chaise and waited.  I must have dozed off.  It was late when I woke; I could hear voices on the other side of the door.  One was shrill and weepy; I knew that must be Judy.  I could hear a man's voice, lower, but less distinct.  It sounded familiar, somehow, but I couldn't make it out.  Before I could pull myself together the door opened and the lights snapped on.  Judy was alone this time; the mug left her at the door.  She wasn't too happy to see me, but at least she didn't scream.

 

"Alright sister, I want some answers," I said, cutting her off before the excuses started.  "Why'd you set me up?"

 

Well, I knew I should have started with something simpler, because she went right to work with the 'I was so scared' and the 'I never meants'.  She cozed right back up to me too.  But whenever she got too close and the smell of her perfume began to get to me I thought about my office and the demise of the 8 bottles of scotch-and oh, yeah, Buster too-and held my ground.  I was still pretty sated from the day before, and a lot of things hurt that had been fine 24 hours ago, so it was easier to resist her.

 

There wasn't a lot of sense in what she said, but I did manage to glean three things: Brillo-hair's name was Salvatore MacPherson; he was part of the Scotch-Italian Mafia family of Joseph Biggolotti, and he was in the hospital.  It didn't really explain how the DA's boy turned up at my office so soon after the shooting, but I reasoned Pronto might have had a bug up his butt for any number of other reasons and it might have been a coincidence.  When I was sure there was nothing more to be learned from Judy I rejected her offer to put me up for what was left of the night and took off.

 

I walked aimlessly for a while, finally ending up on the pedestrian walkway next to the East River.  I looked out at the lights of Brooklyn and tried to make some sense of the events of the past two days. 

 

I never heard the guy sneak up on me until it was almost too late.

 

As it was I just barely ducked the powerful swing of astrakhan-coat's heavy stick.  We fought one way and then the other, neither having a clear advantage.  We broke apart, panting for a moment, and I lunged for him.  He sidestepped, but we were too close to the parapet by then and I couldn't stop myself.  Before I knew what happened I was in the river.

 

Well, it was wet. 

 

And it was cold, and it was swift.  I went down and stayed down.  It's true what they say about your life passing before your eyes-well, my eyes were closed, so as not to get full of muck, but I did think about who I was and everything that had happened to me.  I was a lousy, self-pitying drunk, that's who I was, and I was at about rock bottom, both career-wise, and river-wise.  I could stay down, or I could come up.  I was lucky the tide was slack or I might not have come up till spring.  As it was I barely made it to the surface.  I kicked off my shoes and fought my way towards the Brooklyn side of the river.  I was being carried past a hobo village when something caught the back of my coat, and I found myself being hauled toward shore.  It turned out to be one of the hobos doing a little late-night fishing and what he caught was me. 

 

Thursday

 

He took me home to a cozy little shack made of flotsam.  It lay under the anchorage of the bridge, and as a place of residence looked like a step up in the real estate market, if I was into buying any time soon.  The bum built a fire in an old oil drum and proceeded to serve me some homemade gin that put my twenty-malt to shame.  He was all set to toss me when I woke up again and pushed him off.  I stood up and put my mitts into Evies' coat, my hand encountering something small and flat for the first time.  I pulled it out.  It was her change purse, containing almost 30 dollars.  That wench.  I had no idea I overpaid her so badly.  I snapped the purse closed before the hobo could catch sight of the money, and grabbed what was left of Homer's loan.  I tossed a fiver at the bum to thank him for saving my life and fled. 

 

When I was clear of the yegg, I stopped and looked a bit more closely through the coat I'd appropriated.  In addition to the change purse I found a gas bill with Eve's address on it.  Had she been at the office when I'd gone to look over the damage?  I don't know why I didn't see her, but perhaps she was in the building somewhere.  She's always been like that.  The ways of secretaries are mysterious.  Like it's a secret club or something. 

 

I must have taken the coat she'd just been wearing, which explained why the intruders hadn't ransacked it too.  I thought I'd better return it, even if it was the middle of the night.  I didn't want her 30 bucks tempting me longer than I had to.  I set out to look for the main drag and found I wasn't too far from Perspex Heights; a half-hour's brisk walk brought me to her door.  It turned out not to be an apartment; she lived in a small house with a tiny garden in front.  There was a light on in the front hall, so I rang the bell and waited.

 

Minutes went by, but then the outside light went on.  The door opened.  She stood there in the doorway and looked me over.

 

"Samantha Lucille Hane," she said, drawing it out.  "In my stolen coat, dripping wet, and barefoot.  You'd better come in.  But be quiet, I don't want you to wake mother."

 

She had a mother?  I shuffled in and she closed the door.  She led me to the kitchen.  I stood there dripping on the linoleum while she vanished into some other part of the house.  In a little while she returned with a bathrobe, and made me undress.  She took my clothes, pointed me to the bath, and told me to come back when I had the scum removed.  I didn't know what she meant until I looked in the mirror.  The East River isn't the cleanest thing I could have fallen into and I'd brought in a good bit of fine Brooklyn mud from the shore as well.  Three rinses later I wrapped myself in clean towels and found my way back to the kitchen.  My clothes were nowhere to be seen, and she'd already washed the floor.  She sat me down at the small table and made coffee-very good coffee, as it happened, and I told her everything.  And I mean everything.  She's always had that effect on me.

 

It took a while, and before I'd even gotten to the part about the DA's office, she'd added eggs and toast to the menu.  She was a good listener.  She scowled a bit when I got to the part where Judy and I were getting acquainted, and I could have sworn I heard teeth grinding, but her expression was as neutral as ever, and I relaxed a little.  When I finally got to the mysterious assailant and my late-night swim she was looking thoughtful and uncommonly serious, but she didn't have much to say.  She just made up the couch for me, set me down on it and put a blanket over me, saying we'd talk in the morning.

 

When I woke the sun was streaming in the windows.  The house was quiet, and I could smell coffee.  I sat up and saw a neat pile of clothes on the chair next to me.  Eve.  I swear.  She had even ironed my panties.  There were fresh muffins on the kitchen table and a note saying she's be back as soon as she got her mother to church.  I sat down to eat and glanced over the morning paper.

 

Dressed in clean clothes, a good five hours sleep, a square meal, and I felt like a new woman.  Until I got a glimpse of the news, that is.  I was sitting there with my head hanging over the paper when Evie returned.

 

She put a nice warm hand on my shoulder and said, "What's wrong, Doll?"  That was my line, but I let it pass.

 

I showed her the headline story: "Mini Crime Wave Swamps City" it said.

 

There was a paragraph about the murder of a beloved night watchman, and a paragraph about an assault with a deadly weapon against a former altar boy and current church business advisor Salvatore MacPherson.  The poor box of Our Lady of Myopia had been robbed of $4000.  There was the obligatory breast-beating paragraph from Police Headquarters.  There was a picture of Father Damascus, clutching the sacramental wine.  Then there was a paragraph listing all the other crimes of the day: minor vandalism at some fruit-and vegetable stands, someone had ransacked the card catalogue at the 42nd street branch of the Public Library, all the tips at the Evergreen Diner had been stolen, a few phone books at Grand Central were vandalized, there was a shop-lifting incident at Bergdorff's, and an off-duty police officer had been assaulted while on an east-side beat.  Oh, and there was a report of a possible suicide in the East River.  My life was passing before my eyes again, and I was wishing the print was smaller.

 

Evie has a way of putting things in a nutshell.

 

"My, my," she said, reading over my shoulder.  "You had a very busy night."

 

I agreed and said it was lucky for her they'd lost my trail at the river, or I was going to be owing her a new house.  She frowned and said that was NOT going to happen and to shut up a moment and let her think.  I complied and leaned my head back against her stomach, and she absent-mindedly massaged the tenseness out of my shoulders while she thought.  Anything I can do to help, I'm happy to do, you know.

 

"There has to be some connection," she said at last.

 

"Between what?"

 

"Between the police and this Hollowfurnace dame."

 

It seemed logical, because all the trouble with them started after I got caught at Judy's apartment, yet when they were interrogating me they never mentioned her or Brillo-hair at all.  It felt more like the mob.  Yet the paper claimed Astrakhan Coat was an undercover cop.

 

Eve began to rub my temples, and I was nearly asleep against her.  Only her touch kept me from falling out of the chair. 

 

"There's another thing," she said.  "I went through your pockets after you passed out, and all I found was a few bucks and change-thank you for not raiding my purse, by the way-and you didn't say anything about visiting the church.  So that crime had nothing to do with you.  Right?"

 

"True enough.  I just feel guilty on principle."

 

"You don't need to feel guilty, Doll.  You didn't do anything wrong."

 

"No, you're wrong.  I shouldn't have let the Hollowfurnace dame get to me.  That was wrong AND stupid."

 

"But it was understandable.  How long since-" her voice drifted off.

 

"Since I got laid?  About six, eight months.  Since Pauline decided she was straight and started dating that cop.  Actually, except for the one goodbye fling we had behind the bar the night we broke up, it's more like two years, since she stopped actually screwing me when I took over security for the bar.  Our schedules-"

 

Eve put her hand over my mouth.  "You're a mug, you know that."

 

I agreed, sadly, that she was right.  I was a mug, and I'd let another woman dupe me for her own ends once again.  I just don't seem to learn.

 

"You deserve better," she said.

 

"That's what Verna keeps saying, only she means a guy."

 

"That's not what I mean," she said.

 

I was beginning to wonder if my secretary was up to something, because her hand had drifted down my face to my jaw, and her thumb was stroking my lip.  It felt really good there, and I was enjoying it, but something else occurred to me.

 

"Eve, do you go to church?"

 

"Never, except to take mother to play Bingo, why?"

 

"Maybe it's a typo, but no church poor-box should have four thousand dollars in it.  Think about it.  Even if everybody who came into the church in the course of a day left a dollar, it couldn't be more than a few hundred.  And who has a dollar to leave these days?  Last time I went everybody put in a nickel and begrudged the carfare."

 

"More than one day's take?"

 

"No, it would get stolen.  I know, because I used to steal from it."

 

She let that one pass.  "Maybe there's a wealthy benefactor?"

 

"No stockbroker's going to put money like that in poor-box.  If the cleric is blowing him, he'd give him a check in the sanctuary-otherwise he'd just send it in to the office by regular mail."

 

"So what you're saying is÷?"

 

"Look, we know Hollowfurnace and MacPherson are mixed up with the mob.  What if the cops are in it too?  It wouldn't be the first time."

 

"Very possible.  I screwed a lotta cops gratis to keep the pimps in good with them."  Eve said. 

 

I wasn't really in the mood for her reminiscences, so I turned my mind back to my own problems.  "But why would they be hounding me?  That's not the way the mob does business-one slip and you're dead, usually.  They don't pussyfoot around following people and waiting for them to make a move, they shake the tree.  Or just cut it down."

 

"Maybe you've got something they want.  Did you take anything from Judy Hollowfurnace's apartment?"

 

"I don't think so.  But you cleaned my clothes, what did you find?"

 

Eve went over to the counter and picked up a bowl.  It contained my meager worldly goods: The penknife Marcus Hain gave me when I was 9 years old; a couple of pawn tickets-"Huh.  And you said the Dictaphone was at the repair shop," Eve sniffed.  I groveled suitably, and laid out the rest of the items: a deck of cards, two Lucky Strike butts with a bit of tobacco still left, my lighter that I shoplifted when I was 10 and a half (my first and last successful crime), a chewed pencil stub, what was left of Homer's 10 dollar bill, the tail-feather's of Judy Hollowfurnace's parakeet, and a crumpled birdseed bag.

 

"Hey, that's it-I must have put the bag in my pocket instead of the gun.  I was holding it when Brillo-er, Salvatore burst in on us."

 

"Why would the mob sic the cops on you for a bag of birdseed?  What's in it?"

 

I opened up the bag.  I don't know what we were expecting-a bunch of IOU's-a wad of cash-the hand of an informant-but it was just birdseed.  Nothing unusual about it, except between the rain and the jump in the river and the dark of the cupboard it had started to sprout.

 

"Let's put all our clues on the table," Eve said.

 

We arranged everything on the oilcloth and stared at it.

 

"See, not much to go on," I said.

 

Evie picked up one of the feathers and turned it over, twirling it in her fingers.  "You say this Judy Hollowfurnace dame had lost her parakeet?" she asked.

 

"That's right.  The feathers tend to bear out her story, I guess."

 

"Not really, no.  See this feather?  It's not a parakeet feather.  It's from the tail of a European Rock Dove.  It's been painted green, to make it look like a parakeet.  With÷ mmm÷green eyeshadow, I think."

 

"You're kidding me!  How do you know these things?"

 

"Listen, I know birds.  In my line of work-my former line of work-well, ya gotta have somethin' to, y'know, take your mind off.  Some girls think about clothes; I learned about birds.  Makeup, I already knew."

 

"So you're telling me that there weren't no parakeet?  Ever?  Just this peon dove thing?"

 

"You'd probably know it as a pigeon.  Same thing."

 

"I don't see why them things gotta have so many names."

 

"They just do."

 

"Well, call it a dove, call it a pigeon, it's all the same to me.  But why would a dame like that keep a pigeon?  She was a high-class dame."

 

"She must have had a parakeet, and something happened to it.  This Salvatore guy, was he an animal lover?"

 

I looked over the news again.  Nothing.

 

"Try the obits," Eve said.

 

There it was, in black and white.  Salvatore MacPherson had been a member of the S.P.C.A. 

 

"So what does this mean?"  I asked.  Eve was batting a thousand so far, I figured I better just let 'er rip.

 

"We know Macpherson was involved with Hollowfurnace.  We know Hollowfurnace had bad luck with her pet-her pigeon got away, and perhaps she had a parakeet that got away before that, and she had to replace it in a hurry.  We know MacPherson was an animal lover.  Maybe he gave her the parakeet; maybe it was his parakeet.  So chances are, when she got the pigeon, she did it to deceive him.  Somewhere out there is a pigeon wearing green eyeshadow, with no tail, who could tell us everything we want to know.  If it could talk, I mean."  We were silent for a moment, contemplating the tail-less pigeon.

 

After a time Eve went on, "There must have been somebody else in the picture.  The voice you heard outside her door-maybe it was him."

 

"The third man!  She was unfaithful to both of us!"  I exclaimed.  Eve tactfully forbore to point out that it was really only the second man because I was a woman.  She's good that way.  But it was clear that someone else-someone with both mob and police connections-was involved.  But why follow me like that?

 

"You must have something.  Think.  Anything, anything at all you took from the apartment?"  Evie asked.

 

"Just the bag of birdseed," I sighed.

 

Eve went to pick up the sorry, sodden object with it's sprouting moldy contents.  It hardly looked like something anyone would kill for.  In fact the bag fell apart at the seams when she picked it up, spilling seed on her kitchen table.  She swept the sprouts together and spread the paper out to dry. 

 

My hands were beginning to shake a little, but I put them under the table, and Eve poured us second cups of coffee.  I couldn't stop the spoon from rattling a little against the cup as I stirred in the cream.  Eve looked over at me and I was grasping at straws, trying to divert her attention.  I picked up the bag and turned it around.

 

"What's this?"  I asked.  There was some writing on the bag that I hadn't noticed before.  "Og, something, wito-I can't make it out."

 

"It's upside down.  Try OLM 3790."

 

"OLM?  O, L, M.  Our Lady of Myopia!  That's the church that was hit by the robbery."  Finally we were getting a break.

 

"But what if it was a payoff, not a robbery?  What better way to collect payments than to use a church as a front?  Nobody would suspect people going in and out all day long.  It's a perfect place for a drop."

 

"Eve, doll, you are absolutely right.  This MacPherson mug could carry cash in and out of the church all day long and no copper would ever utter a peep.  He must be a bagman for the mob.  But I've never heard of anybody being paid off in birdseed.  And our mysterious voice in the hall÷ who's he?" 

 

"I don't know÷ but something else occurred to me.  Suppose the pigeon wasn't lost?  Suppose it was murdered?"

 

"Why would anyone want to murder a pigeon?  Wait, never mind. Although, you know something funny?  I had a dream about pigeons, pecking at me after I left the office that night.  And I woke up with them all around me."

 

"You had pigeons in your apartment?"

 

I guess I forgot to explain about my housing situation when I was telling Eve everything.  I had to admit to sleeping on park bench and then she dragged the part about being homeless out of me.  She didn't make any comments about it though, which was good of her, but I didn't really like the combination of grimness and determination on her face.  An expression like that could mean nothing good, so I tried to steer her back to the investigation.

 

Well, we went back and forth about it, but nothing else seemed to fall into place.  The day was passing, and Eve made us some sandwiches.  I was beginning to feel a little blurry around the edges, and I couldn't conceal the shakes any longer.  It had been almost 12 hours since I'd had a drink, and that was getting to be some kind of record. 

 

"I think I need to go, uh, out."  I said.

 

"And do what?"

 

"Uh, I need to, uh, check in with someone.  I'll just head over to Stewy's and see if there are any messages from my, uh, informant."

 

"I'm going with you."

 

"What?"  The last thing I wanted was for Eve to see me crawling up to the bar to throw myself on the mercy of The Watering Hole

 

"I'm going with you.  There's no telling what trouble you could get into.  Besides, I have to pick up mother at her bingo game."

 

Well, I tried to shake her but she wasn't having any.  She's just like my sister when she gets her mind made up.  We took the train into Manhattan and ended up not at the Watering Hole, but at another bar, the Crown and Pansy.  It was near Our lady of Myopia, where her mother was playing bingo.

 

I ordered a double scotch, no rocks, and water on the side, and she had a Manhattan.  As soon as the scotch hit my tongue I felt the world shift back into place.  Did I have a problem?  There was nothing to it.  The cops, the mob?  Fergit 'em.  I took another swallow and relaxed. 

 

We were sitting there just like any ordinary couple, and I had a strange sensation, like the bends, or how the bends are described.  Maybe it was just the alcohol rushing back into my system, or maybe it was the way Eve tucked her hand in my arm.  But something was giving me goosebumps.  I was sitting there lost in the sensation, when Eve gave me a little pinch. 

 

She leaned in and whispered in my ear.  She nuzzled a little, and said, "Don't turn around, but the priest from Our Lady is meeting with a guy in a grey suit at a booth behind us."

 

I pulled her around and gave her a little kiss, just for verisimilitude, and then I swung around on the stool and made for the men's room, getting a look at the two guys in the booth on the way.  One, I recognized from his picture in the paper.  He looked smaller in real life, but he was unquestionably Father Damascus of Our Lady of Myopia.  The other was none other than my favorite lawyer, Harry Pronto.  I averted my gaze and put a hand up to shield my face, pretending to scratch my ear.  I don't think they saw me. 

 

There was only one bathroom, but I ducked into it and locked the door.  Pronto was one mug I wasn't ready to run into yet.  I leaned against the filthy sink and tried to pull myself together.  After a few moments there was a knock on the door.

 

"Just a minute," I said.

 

"Sam?  It's me.  Eve.  Let me in."  She whispered.

 

I opened the door and before I could exit she slipped in there with me.  "What the-?"

 

"Shut up," she said.  Then she did the last thing I'd ever have expected.  She slid her arms around my neck and kissed me.  She was efficient-I knew that from the way she did my secretarial work; but she was thorough about it too.  I could hardly stand up; only her arms sliding down my sides held me in place.  Here I was, helpless against another dame.  I was just about to panic and run out of there, but she held me back. 

 

"Shah," she said.  She looked deep into my eyes, and I thought I saw something like compassion there.  She pulled back and gave me a little tap on the nose.  "They'll be gone in a minute."  Then she took a handkerchief out of her purse and cleaned the lipstick off my face.  I've kissed a lot of women, but she was the first one to treat me to a face wash as well.  It was a tender moment, almost maternal.  I didn't know what to do, so I let her call the shots.  She fixed her own face, and listened a moment at the door.  Then she said, "count to twenty and follow me."

 

When I came out of the bathroom, the priest and Pronto were gone.  Eve was back by the bar, folding up her change. 

 

As we made for the door, she asked who the other man was, and I told her.  "I'm going to follow him, she said.  "He doesn't know me.  Will you get my mother and take her home?  She doesn't see well anymore and she's partly deaf.  She'll be the only one at Our Lady of Myopia with a purple headscarf."  Well, how could I refuse?  She handed me her keys and I stood up straight and promised to see her mother safely home from Bingo. 

 

I sauntered over to Our lady of Myopia, and made my way down through the church to the room in back where the old ladies gathered over their scorecards.  They were nearly done, so I stayed and watched.  There was nothing to indicate that OLM was a major link in a big crime syndicate.

 

It wasn't difficult to pick Eve's mother out of the group of old ladies, so I went over and introduced myself, telling her I was Eve's boss.  It seems she'd heard a lot about me, and she was happy to have my company, but she wanted to do an errand first.  Like daughter, like mother.  I could see where Eve came by her style.  Anyway, I spent the afternoon being on my best behavior, escorting Mrs. Somers around the city. 

 

Eventually I couldn't carry any more packages, so we went back to Brooklyn.  The old lady had her tea and retired for a nap.  I was beginning to get edgy, wondering where Eve was, and if she was in any trouble.  I went down to the corner store and bought some smokes, keeping an eye out for her.  It was a few minutes later I saw her coming up from the subway, and she looked nervous.  She came up to the storefront.  Without turning her head, she spoke: "Being followed.  Don't say anything."  I held my ground, and blew a few smoke rings into the evening air, while she purchased a paper and some gum.  I looked around and decided the man in the brown alpaca was the one following her.  I waited until she left the establishment, and sure enough, he made his move.  Then I made mine. 

 

I pitched a nickel on the street in front of him and tripped him as I went to pick it up.  We had words, and I apologized, trying to brush him off and delay him even more.  By the time he shook me off, Eve had disappeared.

 

I wasn't sure what to do next.  I didn't want to lead the guy to Eve's home, so I sauntered down to the subway and took the train back to Manhattan.  All the way I was thinking as hard as I could.  I knew there was something rotten about the timing of everything, I just couldn't figure out what.

 

The pigeon, Pronto, my office being vandalized; I kept putting two and two together and coming up with eight.  I had to think, and I wanted to look at the crime scene again.  Dangerous or not, I headed back to the office.

 

There was a new guard, who nervously accepted my credentials at the desk in the lobby.  I went up to my office and looked at the damage.  When I first saw it, I had been in shock, and although the details hadn't changed in a couple of days, I was clear headed now.  The thing that struck me was the level of destruction.  It wasn't just the work of a botched robbery, or a couple of yeggs tossing the place to look for something.  It was personal.  Someone hated me. 

 

I tried to think who could hate me that much, but came up empty.  Nobody who had that much reason to hate me was out of prison.  That I knew of anyway.  Of course it was possible someone escaped or had an unexpected parole.  I decided to go down to visit police headquarters and see if I could find any information on any of my old enemies.

 

I still had a couple of friends on the force-I just hoped one of them might be on the desk this evening.  For once I got lucky.  There was an elderly cop dozing at the desk, while leaning against it was a heavy-set woman who had the face of an Old English sheepdog.

 

"Brenda!"  I hailed her.  "How's tricks?"

 

"Sam Hane!  Come to turn yourself in, you mug?"

 

"Turn myself in?  Brenda, Brenda, I'm deeply distressed.  How could you imagine I have anything to confess about?  Now you on the other hand-collect any good graft lately?"

 

"Still the same old Sam.  How's the old neighborhood?"

 

"Wouldn't know.  I haven't been back in a dogs age.  You?"

 

"Nah.  I got ma in a rest home, up in Westchester.  I go up to visit on the weekends.  It's a nice place, clean, lots of space on the grounds.  How are your folks?"

 

"Dunno."

 

"Aww.  Still?"

 

"Yeah.  Can we talk about something more pleasant?  Like crime?"

 

"Sure, doll.  What you wanna know?  And how much can you pay for it?"

 

At that the old gork at the desk picked up his head and looked outraged, but Brenda reassured him.  "Don't worry Joe-me an' Sam go way back, I just can't resist pulling her leg.  We'll bring you a coffee."

 

We went back to the lounge and I told Brenda about the murder in my office, and asked what she knew about it.  She was in the dark.  It seems the DA's office had sealed the evidence. 

 

"Is that usual in murder cases?  Ain't you cops supposed to follow whatever leads they got?"

 

"Now that you mention it, it is pretty unusual."

 

"Who gave the order?  Homer, or somebody else?"

 

"Well, it was somebody from his office÷  Postal I think, or Tonto-no, that's the Lone Ranger.  "

 

"Pronto?  Harry Pronto?"

 

"Could be.  Why?"

 

I was beginning to get a theory, but I still needed to prove it.  A couple of calls, a couple of bar visits, and we were ready to go.  I didn't want to wait for the third man, whoever he was, to find a way to Eve's.  I didn't want to get beat up again, or spend another night on a bench or in the river.  I was taking control of the situation and I wasn't letting go until we caught the guy, or I was dead, whichever happened first.

 

When we were ready to move, I had Brenda place a call to my sainted brother-in-law so he could meet us downtown.

 

Friday

 

It was just after midnight when I took a little stroll down Park Avenue, fetching up on the corner opposite number 588.  I looked up at the residence hotel, and waited until a flashlight blinked twice from apartment 15-C, right next to Judy Hollowfurnace.

 

I walked up to the doorman and flashed a badge-So it came from Gordon Novelty, in the dim light it looked real enough.  I had a set of cuffs in my other hand and a special package in my pocket.  I took the elevator up to 15 and knocked on Judy's door.

 

She didn't want to let me in at first.

 

I gave my best aw-shucks lovesick performance-I was sick of her alright, but I didn't let that on.  I showed her a bag of birdseed, said I was returning it, and told her to call the guy, I knew she knew who that was.  I wanted to deal, I said, and I had the goods.  No need for anyone to get hurt.  She sighed and said she was glad I was being sensible at last.

 

She got me a drink, and I sat and waited while she got someone on the phone; I didn't catch the number, but I did hear the words, "yes, alone," and knew I was a goner if my back-up failed.

 

We sat around and waited, and I got her to talk more about her pet bird.  She'd had a canary once, only the poor thing refused to sing.  Then her dear friend Sal had brought her some Hempseed, and it sang beautifully.  But then something happened to the bird, and she got the parakeet.

 

Suddenly everything slid into place.  I didn't know when he was going to arrive, but I had a pretty good idea who was going to show.

 

It wasn't much after that there was a knock at the door.  A jaunty rap: shave and a haircut.  I knocked out the 2 bits on the arm of my chair and stood so the lamp was in back of me. 

 

Judy got the door and in waltzed none other than Harry Pronto, the wunderkind from Homer's office.

 

Well, it was about what you'd expect.  He threatened, I threatened.  Fortunately Judy had blabbed enough for me to put it together-he was part of Biggie's marijuana-growing operation, passing out the seeds to the growers disguised as ordinary birdseed.  When I tipped I was in the know about that one he just couldn't resist bragging on the rest. 

 

In return for his own supply of his drug of choice, cocaine, he also divulged information about upcoming raids.  He was an upcoming lawyer, an important man, and he wanted to make sure I knew what a loser I was before he wasted me. 

 

I was starting to get nervous about my back-up, but as soon as he explained how I was going to commit suicide throwing myself out a 15th floor window, the door burst open and in flew Brenda with Benny Crowbar and Jackie Pliers from our old neighborhood.  In no time they had Pronto on his face and handcuffed.  If the recording device they set up in the next apartment failed, they still had 3 witnesses to what Pronto had said; I wasn't counting on Judy for anything.

 

She looked like someone had hit her with a hammer.  As we left she started to cry and whimper "but what about my bird?"

 

"Here, sister," I said, tossing the bag at her.  "Switch to sunflower seeds.  You can go catch yourself another pigeon.  I'm done."  It might seem cruel, but it was kinder in the long run.  She'd be lucky not to be named as accessory.

 

Anyway, we all went downtown in a couple of squad cars, and Brenda took over the booking.  Homer came in from Westchester and really put the screws to his former assistant.  It was a thing of beauty, at least the little I saw before they sent me out of the room. 

 

Homer got me some coffee, and a couple of blocks of writing paper, and put me in a room to write up my statement.

 

When I was done the sun was rising through the mists over Long Island.  It promised to be a beautiful day-bright, unseasonably warm, the perfect day for a carefree detective to stroll through the park.  But I couldn't do that.  Nailing Pronto was one thing, but the real showdown was still ahead.  I had to confront my little sis and explain why her plan for my heterosexual future wasn't going to work out. 

 

Maybe I could just not show?  No, I tried that once, and she had Homer send someone to pick me up in a squad car.  It was deeply humiliating.  I was going to have to go, and I was going to have to find female drag someplace.  I headed uptown.

 

I wandered up through the waking city.  Busses rumbled, trains rattled.  I could hear the screech of the third avenue El, and the chatter of secretaries on their way to work mixed with the rough cooing of street pigeons as they foraged for food.  I drifted over to Washington Square park: more pigeons.  Feeling generous toward all the world I bought a bit of bread from a vendor and shared it with my feathered friends who were soon two-stepping around me like I was some kind of drab god.  I headed uptown once more and there under the arch I saw it: a tailless pigeon with green coloring sloppily applied.  It came up to me, and fixed me with its beady eye. 

 

"You're better off here kid," I said to the pigeon.  And I tossed it the last crumb of my breakfast.  We were both free of the toils of Judy Hollowfurnace at last.  I tipped my hat to the dove and went to face the music.

 

Well, I looked at the thrift stores and Salvation Army shops as I made my way up toward my doom.  Nothing seemed to answer, even if I had the dough.  Finally I found myself near my old office.  It was close to noon and I knew The Watering Hole would be open.  I went in and threw myself on Stewy's mercy.

 

He protested, but Bruce was gone again so I guess he was ready for some diversion.  After fortifying me with my usual scotch he put his assistant on the bar and took me up to his apartment.  If you want female drag, ask a drag queen.  I may have started with a biological advantage, but he had me beat in the femininity department, eyelashes down.

 

So it was, that at four o'clock sharp I presented myself to the Maitre'D at the entrance to the Palm Court. 

 

I don't know what I was expecting, but when he showed me to a table in the corner with two ladies at it, I couldn't believe my eyes.  One was my sister Verna, I expected her in any case.  But instead of a passel of society dames, or a few women and a couple of milquetoast gents, there was my secretary, Eve.  Just Evie and my sister, alone at a small table, and they were getting along like a house afire by their looks.  They had their heads together and were talking away as fast as they could, as if they'd been intimate friends since dancing school.

 

I knew I was in trouble and I would have slunk out right then but the damn heels betrayed me again and before I could stumble away Verna looked up and caught me.

 

There was nothing for it but to sit down and let her do her worst.  I have no idea what I ordered, but somehow a cup of brown liquid and some sandwiches appeared in front of me.  Eve sat there like she belonged and my sister just beamed at her.  I was having a hard time keeping my brains, what few I had left, from exploding out my ears.

 

So we made small talk for a bit, and Verna asked Eve about her mother, while I sat there and got used to seeing them together.  I took a bite of the sandwich and surprisingly it wasn't bad.  "What's in this, I asked Verna. 

 

"Steak Tartare, she said. 

 

"Oh," I said, not getting any wiser.

 

"It's raw beef."  Eve explained.

 

"Now, that's more my style," I said.  No wonder those society broads are tough-under their frills and furbelows beat hearts secretly nourished by a diet of raw meat.  Well, we got through the eating part, and I managed to get a few slugs from my flask into the dishwater in the cup in front of me, so it had a bit more taste.  The waiter brought over a tray of cakes, and we covered ourselves with powdered sugar in the process of handing them out.  I was beginning to relax and think I was going to get through the ordeal without paying for it, when Verna shoved her cup back and took the floor. 

 

"Samantha," she said, fixing me with her eyes.  "This can't go on any longer."

 

"No."  I figured I'd just agree with her and that would get it over faster.

 

"You don't even know what I'm talking about yet."

 

"Er÷"

 

"Never mind.  I'm glad to hear you cleared up your last case, because I'm giving you an ultimatum."

 

Oh, gods.  Here it comes.  I made one last attempt to stand up for myself.  "Now, Verna," I said.  "I've tried, and goodness knows I'd do anything in my power to make you happy, but some things just can't-"

 

"I know," she interrupted me.  "Your secretary explained it to me.  You know how I was raised; it wasn't an easy idea to grasp, that my big sister, the one I look up to, who I expect to protect me, is a lesbian.  We were raised to think that was a bad thing.  But Eve here has filled me in."

 

"Uh.  You know she's÷ not what we÷ uh÷she÷" I faltered.  I couldn't think of a way to tell my sister she was getting her information from a prostitute without making it sound like a slam against Eve.

 

"I know all about her.  I know she's in love with you for one thing."

 

"Wha-?  How-?"

 

"Don't blame her.  I popped in to the office to see you one day last week, and I found your secretary in tears.  I pried it out of her.  You weren't there."

 

"Oh."

 

"And she's told me quite a lot about you too."

 

I just sat and cowered.  Eve reached for my hand under the table and held it.  It felt warm around my cold clammy one.

 

"One."  Verna started counting on her fingers.  "You're a drunk.  Two, you're broke.  Three, you're homeless, and your office is a mess.  Four, you have no taste in women.  Five-" 

 

"Now just a minute-" I had to protest again.

 

"Don't-" Eve had jumped in there to defend me, which felt even worse.

 

Verna held up a hand.  "Alright, look.  You're my sister and I love you, but there's only so much I can put up with.  Either you sober up and pull your life together or we end it, right here."

 

"I÷  I can't, Verna.  I tried to be what you want-"

 

"I'm not talking about your sexuality, Sam.  I give up there.  It was wrong of me to try to force you to be something you're not, and I apologize."

 

All I could do was stare.

 

"I mean it, I'm sorry.  I know it made your life harder.  I know it's partly my fault you're a drunk.  But you have to stop feeling sorry for yourself.  If you agree to dry out Homer and I will arrange for a sanatorium.  What do you say?"

 

"I don't÷  I÷  Won't they try to÷ change me?"

 

"No.  It was a hard job to find a place that would accept you, but I think we found a place that can help you.  Really help you.  It's six week program, and they have a very good success rate."

 

"And the alternative?"

 

"The alternative, " Eve took up the conversation, "is that we never speak to you again.  I've been wrong too, covering for you, buying you booze-I didn't know better.  Verna explained I wasn't really helping.  I'm not doing it any more."

 

"No, not you too-Eve-"

 

"Sorry, Doll.  It's for your own good.  And mine.  I love you too, but I can't go on watching you kill yourself.  I won't.  If you don't quit drinking I'll quit the business. 

 

I was overwhelmed.  I just put my hands over my face and started to cry in a very unbutchlike way.  But they were implacable.  Finally I had to ask, "And say I go, dry out, what then?  I'm still homeless, without an office, and over my head in debts to boot."

 

"No, doll.  If you can dry out I want you to come live with mother and me.  If not-well forget me.  And I'll take the insurance money.  I paid for it after all."

 

"Insurance?"

 

"On the office.  Remember you said no, no insurance?  I bought it out of my own pocket.  When the place got broken into I filed a claim.  We have enough to start over."

 

"But what will your mother think?"

 

"What she already thinks.  You're a nice young man and my boss."

 

"What?"

 

"You heard me.  Her eyesight isn't so good these days, and neither is her hearing, really.  You dry out and when you get home I'll buy a mute for her ear trumpet."

 

It took me a minute to figure out what she meant.  Instinctively I looked at my sister.  "This is okay with you?"

 

"Sam, I just want you to settle down and be happy.  If that means making Eve part of the family, well, that's what we'll do."

 

"Elsie and Pop will never buy it, Vern.  You know that."

 

"Sweetie, they hardly know their own names any more.  Homer and I sent them to Florida two years ago.  It's just us now.  Don't try to get out of this one.  It's your choice and your life, but if you want to lose it you won't get our help."

 

"You too?"  I looked at Eve.

 

"Me too, she said, taking her hand back.  "Your choice."

 

I got up.  "I have to think about it," I said.  "I'll let you know."

 

Eve looked like she was about to scream, but Verna held her back.  "Let her go," I heard her say.  "You have to let her choose" and then I was out of earshot. 

 

I don't know how I got back to Stewy's and into my regular clothes.  He came up as I was washing off the makeup.  "There's a boy from the DA's office downstairs," He told me.  "He said he needs to see you about something confidential." 

 

And that brings us up to the present.  Confidential my foot.  Oh, well.  My sister and my secretary ganging up on me, my life in the toilet, how could life get any worse?

 

I went down to the bar and took the mug outside.  No point in wrecking more of Stewy's business.  I could see the Suit was making the regulars nervous.

 

"So.  Wha'dya want?"  I asked him.

 

"Well, the DA told me I might find you here," the Suit says.  "We need to know where to send the reward."

 

"Reward?"

 

"For Information Leading to the capture and conviction of Joseph Biggolotti."  Well it seems Brillo-hair had started to sing like one of his own canaries when he found out about Judy and Pronto.  The Suit went on, "There's a twenty-five hundred dollar reward.  You'll split it with Brenda Kowalski, but it's still a sizable sum." 

 

Money.  The scent of it rose up in front of me like an endless bottle of scotch.  I could stay drunk a long time on that.  I could take that South Seas vacation.  And I could lose what family I had.  The temptation was as clear as it was ever going to get.  I told the mug to send the money to Eve's address in Brooklyn.  Then I went to a pay phone and called Verna.

 

"I'll take the deal," I said.

 

"Oh thank god." 

 

I could her talking to someone in the background.  "Put Eve on the phone," I said.

 

"Sam-" I could hear the tears in her voice.

 

"Listen Doll, I said.  "I got a few bad nights ahead of me.  But it'll make them easier if I know you'll be there when I walk out of that place."

 

"I'll be there.  And you'll keep your part of the bargain?"

 

"It takes Two to Tango," I said.  "In six weeks, get ready to dance."

 

The end.

 

 

 


Return to Contest Page
Return to Main Page