Statement No. 011:
Five whores, an infant child, and a flask of gin. How's that for starters? Just the launch of another unusual case, all right. Or the makings for one helluva party. Or maybe both. Put that down on the record. Sure.
You could bother to chase down my original statement at the Third District Station House, maybe. That maybe is the point. That maybe is what I'm doing here at the Eighteenth. The South Side's as good as another burg altogether, so far as anyone else cares. That's the truth and you know it. Whether you'll say it out loud's another thing. It's like they're running a private police force down there. On the one hand justice, on the other corruption—that keeps their hands full. What's kept inside that force is as good as buried. And our mayor's office doesn't help any.
The bulls on the South Side look after their own, like anywhere else in the city. Only more so. They have to. They're on their own. That means reports get mislaid or misfiled, sometimes. That means, sometimes, a report never existed in the first place.
So here I am, talking to you. I'm here to finish the job I was hired to do. That means setting it down. I want this on the record. I can't count on the Third District to speak for my client. I won't count on it to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves. I'm here to make sure this one gets in the books.
A lot of principles balled up in this one, sure. All ways around. I take it personal, being played for the patsy. But I swallowed it, all right. Jamaica played it shrewd, as shrewd as they come. But I can't hold that against her. Not with everything in her world being threatened. Jamaica saw every last thing hanging by a thread. Ready to consider anything, do anything. Ready to try anything, even me. Sure. That leads me back to that crowd in my office.
I found them lying in wait for me. The five of them, plus the kid. They ringed my desk like front-row fight fans at the International Amphitheatre. Maybe I am laying it on a little thick—that papoose didn't come across as too vindictive.
One dame stood firm as a potbelly stove. She had one fist fastened at the hip, the other hand tipping a sparkling, silver flask to her lips. A couple ladies leaned backsides against the desk, taut arms crisscrossed over their chests. Another cradled this infant in her arms, swaying gentle-like, side to side.
I've saved for last the ensemble's most striking member. Her lean form traced tight circles in front of the others, a tigress on the prowl. Brown, almond eyes peered from beneath angled lines. You'd cast her for Asian if not for that rich complexion. She kept her jetty hair close to the skull in short, closed curls. High cheekbones set off full lips from her thin face. She modeled a close-fitting number, oriental in flavor with high collar, low hem, and a side slit as long as your imagination. You could see the material was cheaper than day old bread, but she sold it like a million. A million bucks on the shoulders of a thirty-year-old diplomat of the streets.
I hung by the doorway and drank them all in—not exactly my kind of mixed drink. I met each gaze, one by one. I've seen coroner's juries with happier pusses.
You don't get a whole lot of happy in this racket. That must go for your line, too. You can do right by clients, but that doesn't exactly make them cry for joy. You can mollify them and satisfy them maybe, up to a point. Maybe set their minds at ease. That's at best. At worst, you confirm their darkest suspicions. This group? Some of those dames looked out for blood. I had to wonder whose blood they had in mind.
I parked my hat on the coat stand, closed the door, swung around with my hands in my pockets. The tigress halted in front of the others, one arm wrapped across her breast, the other supporting the hand that caressed her chin. She eyed me up and down, real slow.
"As long as you already helped yourselves in," I said, "you may as well help yourselves to a seat."
The broad in the brightest blue wrap dress you ever saw, the one with the passion for bright flasks, snapped back, "We prefer to stand, thank you!"
"Speak for yourself, honey, if you don't mind." The jane toting the baby sounded downright demure. "I'm eyeing that cushy sofa."
"In that case," I said, "make yourselves at home, by all means."
Three of the dames maneuvered to the couch, led by the one with the kid. The bright blue, thirsty one took a chair in front of my desk. The tigress held her ground and made a study of me.
The flask tipper half-sipped, half-spat, "The sooner we get on with it, the sooner we can bug out of here."
"First things first," I said.
"You want to know," the tigress said in a breathy rasp, "how we got into your office." She held her chin high.
"That would be swell, for starters," I replied. "Of course I could check the lock for scratches, but I'm betting you didn't pick your way in."
"Mm!" The drinker finished a swallow. "We met the sweetest old man while we were dawdling around in your hall. That custodial man."
I nodded. "Sixty or so with a bum leg that trailed him by a step?"
"He's the one I found. And what do you think?"
"I haven't the slightest," I said.
"He's a man what appreciates a taste of the juice himself!" She winked.
"Nathan. Sure. Just for the record, in case I need to do some second story work myself, what kind of hooch did he go for?"
She jiggled the flask, "Gin. A little taste of gin." She smiled.
"And now you'd like to know who we are." The tigress gave me a one-sided smile.
I stepped over to the last chair and held it for her. "Allow me."
She hesitated for a beat, swiveled, and melted into the straight back like a bar of chocolate in the sun. I headed to my side of the desk. I felt her eyes on my back.
"You girls appear a ways from home."
"You telling us to get lost?" Bright blue was itching for a fight.
"That's not what the man said, Agnes." The tigress caressed her chin with the back of a hand.
"Just a simple observation," I said. I put an edge on it. "Nothing more, nothing less. That's my business."
"Agnes is in a bit of a state. But I'm not apologizing for her. We're all a bit fired up. That's why we came."
"All right, she's Agnes. You all got a gander at the stencil on the door before you forced your way in, so you already know who I am. Who are the rest of you?"
"On the couch there," the tigress spoke with a wry smile, "we have Annie and Coco. Ophelia's the one with the child. My name is Jamaica."
"Smith. Plain old Jamaica Smith."
"There's nothing plain about Jamaica. Not in this burg. What's the kid's name?"
"No need to involve the child." Agnes clenched her jaw.
"I was just being polite. Skip it."
Ophelia spoke softly and sweetly, "Her name is Juliet."
"That's a beauty," I nodded.
Ophelia smiled to herself.
"She's crazy," Agnes said. "Juliet."
"All right. Now everybody knows everybody. Annie, Coco, Ophelia, Agnes, Jamaica—what makes you girls worm into my humble office on this lovely spring afternoon?"
Except for Jamaica, my callers lost their nerve. Jamaica poked her tongue in her cheek and rolled her eyes. Her compatriots fidgeted every which way. Annie and Coco exchanged shy glances. Agnes threw back another swig. Ophelia mouthed baby talk with the cherub. Annie considered her nails. Coco smoothed out her skirt.
I lit up a cigarette and waited. Coco finally gave Jamaica the eye and jerked her head twice in my direction. Jamaica returned Coco's prodding with a coquettish smile, then dropped it hard to address me. "I'll take one of those," she said.
I took out my pack of cigarettes, shook one loose, and Jamaica delicately plucked it out of the deck. I struck a match and held it above the blotter. Jamaica leaned the end of the butt into the flame.
"I guess it's up to me," Jamaica exhaled a blue cloud. "I'll lay it on the line. I'll give it to you fast and straight. Then you can see what you make of it. Fair enough?"
I said, "Fair enough." An underlying chuckle peppered my words.
Jamaica cocked her head. "I didn't say anything funny. We didn't come all the way up here to be laughed at."
"You think you can laugh at us, man?" The indignant Agnes straightened in her chair, poised to stand fast.
"Excuse me, kid," I said, "but you know who you sound like?" That caught Jamaica off guard. "You sound like me talking to the cops."
Jamaica covered her mouth, and I detected a faint giggle. That put her on the spot. She had to save face in front of her friends and get real serious.
"We mean business, here. Don't go getting cute with us."
"I don't mean to be cute. Sometimes my line of work calls for it."
"Now ain't that a laugh. We have something in common."
"We're working girls, if you hadn't figured it out, and we came to you because we're in a spot."
"I take it you don't mean elementary school teachers."
"All right, Mr. Private Detective. You want me to say it? You're dealing with five girls getting on some stiff time as streetwalkers. Okay? Five of the best from the South Side."
"All five you say? You're practically a union."
"We're in a serious fix."
"Now how serious is that?"
"As serious as it gets."
"In my book that makes it life or death."
Coco chimed in, "Show him the clippings, Smitty."
Jamaica fingered through a leopard-skin clutch, pulled out some scraps of newsprint, handed them across the desk. I stubbed out my smoke, tilted back in the swivel, and ran through the first article, carefully torn out from The Defender. It began,
"The body of Rudolph Pockets Patterson of South State Street was discovered early yesterday morning in the alley behind Thirty-seventh Street and Princeton Avenue. According to police, Mr. Patterson suffered multiple stab wounds from a long, sword-like weapon. Authorities pronounced him dead upon arrival at St. Bernard Hospital."
I fingered through the other snippets. The second clipping reported the death of William "Chills" Clay. The last article noted the demise of Ontario "Pinky" Trane and Marcus "Middleweight" Monroe. All four men murdered violently. All four done in with some kind of sword, of all things. Or something damn close to it—reports got hazy on it. All on the South Side. All within the last three months.
"You catch those dates, Mr. Detective," Jamaica told me.
"I got it."
"What if I told you they were all hustlers?"
"Any of you turn tricks for these guys?"
"Annie and Ophelia worked for Pockets. Coco worked for Chills. Agnes worked for Monroe—on and off, anyway."
"I was pulling part-time," Agnes tossed in.
"Uh-huh. Go on."
"Okay, now dig. What if I told you that in the last two months six of our sisters have crossed over?"
"Cut up the same way?"
Jamaica took a long drag. Her eyes clamped shut and she nodded.
"Okay, sister, you've got my attention, in more ways than one."
"That's not all."
"Last week. Mama Rose passed over."
Annie and Coco repeated in a simultaneous whisper, "Mama Rose."
Agnes managed between swallows, "Mama Rose was everybody's mama. She looked after everyone in The Belt."
Jamaica's eyes narrowed. "That's the gospel. If you needed any kind of help, in any way, shape or form, you needn't bother even asking. You just turn around and find Mama Rose by your side. No matter what. No matter who you were. Even girls like us. It didn't matter to Mama. We were all her children."
Ophelia chimed in soft and low, "I wish I could've said a prayer for her."
"Amen." Agnes threw back a shot.
Through a gray cloud I said, "Murdered, I take it?"
"So violent," Jamaica said in a hush. "How could anyone treat her so bad? That's the mean thing about it. To end someone's life that way. Who in the world could have anything against sweet, old Mama Rose?"
"Allow me to get this straight. In the last three months four pimps, six hookers and Mama Rose, the neighborhood saint, have met their maker, and the mug responsible for it made none too pretty a job of it."
"As wicked a death as there is," Agnes bobbed her head.
"Mama Rose was the end, Mr. Detective." Jamaica's eyes fixed on mine.
"Uh-huh. Okay, give it to me."
"What's there to give? After Mama Rose, we couldn't sit by no longer."
"There's something evil after us," Agnes declared. "No two ways about it."
Ophelia rocked in place. "He's a madman. It's the work of a madman."
I asked, "What's the city's finest doing about it?"
"They doing what they always do. Sitting on their ossified hands." Coco swung her head. "Just sitting on their hands."
"You don't strike me as someone born yesterday," Jamaica said. "You know the bulls don't do any crime solving in The Belt. Half of them are on the take and don't give a damn. The rest are intimidated or have better things to do. As long as it stays in The Belt? No one's to care. That's why we're here. We all figure we have to pay someone to care."
"And you've chosen me."
"Someone should send the SOB to West Hell," Agnes raised her flask.
"We want you to solve the case." Jamaica spoke it slowly and distinctly. "That is your racket, ain't it, Mr. Detective?"
"Uh-huh. That's what it says on the license."
"A waste of time," Agnes muttered.
"Ain't no one," Annie spoke up, "in our neck of the woods who do what you do."
"That's solid, Mr. Detective," Jamaica appealed. "No one in The Belt's going to stick out their neck. You're our best hope."
I'd never been anyone's best hope before. And just for the privilege I'd have the honor of sticking out my scrawny neck. You boys know all about that one.
So we kicked it around a while longer, like pushing bocce balls with a feather. The girls had no more ideas about the killings than I had about changing Juliet's diaper. As for leads? They had about as much of a clue as a republican candidate for mayor. I'd of done better writing to an advice column.
They did offer one contact to look up. When I say they I mean Jamaica, of course. She scribbled it down on the backside of my business card. The man I wanted could be found at The Club DeLisa on South State Street, a Mr. Socrates Jones.
It was getting on late afternoon by the time the coterie waltzed out. I decided to take a stab, got on the blower, and got lucky. I caught up with Mr. Jermaine Hawkes, Defender reporter, lead man on the pimp slayings.
Hawkes second-guessed my interest at first, so I gave him a cursory rundown of my credentials and investigation. A couple of past cases rang a bell with Hawkes and convinced him of my sincerity. Hawkes turned out to be one of those civic-minded journalist types. He got a righteous thrill when an outsider showed concern for his beat. Hawkes relished being asked what he actually thought for a change. A man like him, he said, could write up the stale who, what, when and where in his sleep. The why fascinated him like the apple fascinated Newton.
Hawkes boiled it down convincingly. He couldn't tie it up in pink ribbon, yet, but he leaned toward a cut and dried solution. Each death occurred within a twelve-block radius inside the Grand Boulevard neighborhood—that covered a lot of nightlife, including clubs like The Club DeLisa. The slayings fit the same pattern. Hawkes eye-witnessed the bodies, and he described the stabbings to me in all their colorful and brutal detail.
The butcher made thorough work of it. More than thorough—multiple wounds approaching the sensational, but in a methodical sort of way. The corpse of William Clay, for example, displayed no less than fifteen separate stab wounds. Clean punctures, deep and controlled thrusts. None of the victims, however, exhibited signs of mutilation. That proved the key to Hawkes. One big show, he surmised, a pointed message as lurid and violent and loud as possible.
Hawkes asked about my next move.
"You mean after this conversation?"
"You mean after a bite to eat?"
"Yeah, man, what's it to be?"
"Looking up a gent at the Club DeLisa. I'm supposed to see some egg named Socrates Jones."
"Him you can see all you want, but he'll never see you, square man."
"I've got riddles enough without playing twenty questions, Hawkes."
"I'm just telling you. The man'll never, never ever see you."
"And why is that, Hawkes, because I'm just a square?"
"Socrates Jones won't see you because he's blind, baby."
"You're a card, Hawkes. A regular pistol. About as funny as a match in a gas pipe."
"Whatever you say, square man. You just watch yourself in The Belt. If you stray too far from those black and tans you might wind up meeting the wrong kind of barber. You dig?"
I noted that "dig" had more than one connotation. That's the kind of double-talk you get from writers. I thanked Hawkes for his help. He wished me plenty of luck. I promised to give him the story, if I ever got one. Hawkes presumed there'd be a story, all right, no matter what—the catch was whether or not I'd be around to tell it. He really broke himself up.
I drove my coupe straight through the city, cruising Wabash on into the loop. I grabbed a sandwich at the Wonder Bar at the corner of Jackson before heading to the South Side. I followed a beeline down State until I reached Garfield and the site of The Club DeLisa.
I hung a right on Garfield and pulled into a spot half a block down. One storefront over, three kids pitched pennies beneath the cool, fluorescent glow of a pharmacy sign. I got out of the coupe and felt the night air, dry and mild. The boys took notice of me as I stood at the curb, loosening my tie. The squirt of the group, a gangly runt with a face all eyes and yap, sauntered my way.
"You leaving your car there, Mister Charles?"
"That was the general plan. The coppers don't take kindly when I leave it on the sidewalk."
The kid leered over his shoulder, "Tommy, we got ourselves another comedian." He puckered his lips and scrunched his nose. "You think your machine be safe here?"
"What do you think?"
"Mm mm. I don't like the looks of it. You never can tell, no sir."
"Maybe you'll keep an eye on it for me."
"Maybe I'll do just that—you make it worth my while."
"What do you have in mind?"
"Fifteen cents comes to mind."
"Fifteen cents, you say. Sounds kind of steep, kid. The going rate in the Gold Coast is only a nickel. You wouldn't be trying to take advantage, would you?" I worked awful hard to hold back a smile.
"Let me tell you how it is. The first thing is, see, that this here isn't the Gold Coast. The next thing is, there's three of us to take care of. You take that nickel three ways and you've got yourself three times the protection."
"You've got it all worked out."
"I've got it worked out plenty. Deal?"
"Sure. You got yourself a deal, kid."
The youngster held out his hand. I shook it firm. He tightened his mouth and squeezed his mitt as hard as he could, mustering every ounce of pressure he had into his puny grip. While he grappled, I pulled some change out of my pants pocket with my left, turned over his hand, dropped three nickels into his palm.
"Real coin of the realm, kid," I said. I winked and turned on my heels.
"We'll keep that bus safe, mister," he called after me.
The brute hovering outside the doors to The Club DeLisa must've had about six inches on me. I considered asking him if he got his tux from a tentmaker, then nixed the thought. He didn't say boo and let me pass.
The interior of The Club amounted to a gigantic hall, crowded, noisy, smoky, wailing, vibrating. All that on a Thursday night. At the back on the right side a throng of chorus girls, done up in silly Mexican hats and blouses tied above their navels, twirled and kicked a raucous floor show. Each dame wore the same frozen smile plastered across her kisser. Their out-of-sync kicks and turns delighted the audience—those paying attention. I turned my back and inched my way through crammed tables and roving patrons to the long bar on the left. I copped a stool, spun around to face the crowd.
A passing drunk tripped and nearly landed in my lap. He let loose a good-natured, "Whoa!" and stood himself up. He must've been flying higher than Lindbergh. The sight of me caught him by surprise.
"Christmas!" he leaned way back. "But you so fair you could pass—" He stopped himself, bent in close, squinted, threw up his arms. He turned away and ambled off announcing, "I beg your pardon, I beg your pardon."
That's when I spotted a sharpie duded up in a tux at the far end of the counter looking my way. He'd been watching. He sized me up for another half minute before signaling a barman working near my end.
The barkeep leaned over, "What can I do for you, mister?" His eyes never rose above the top of the bar.
"Maybe you can help me out. I was told to look up a man by the name of Socrates Jones."
"I asked what are you drinking?"
"Do you know where I can find Socrates Jones?"
"What are you drinking, mister?"
"Uh-huh. Make it scotch and water."
"Oak," he said, and walked away.
I took in the scene while I waited: the people, the floorshow, the hot brass and loud percussion. The music swung, the crowd enjoyed its energetic self, and only the wait staff out-paced the dancers, bopping across that spacious floor like mad ball bearings in some wild arcade. I heard the clunk of glass on wood at my elbow. I twirled around to catch that tux man, the one who gave the sign, setting down my glass.
"One scotch, mister."
I slapped a fiver on the counter.
"What's that for?"
"That's for the drink and some information."
"We don't sell information here, mister. You're looking for Socrates Jones? You found him." He leaned in a bit. "You see that curtain at the end of the bar? All the way down? Go right through there. You want the door at the end of the hall."
"Where does that lead?"
"That'll take you to Mr. Socrates Jones. Have your drink, keep your money, and don't be hanging around out here."
That was too easy. Way too easy. Maybe the word was out. Or maybe I'd been set up. In any case, I figured a stiff belt would be in order.
With the glass at my lips I asked, "This slug ain't going to kill me, is it?"
"Haven't had no fatalities, lately." The man didn't break the tiniest smile.
I threw back the shot fast and it burned through me like a cigarette burns through a cheap mattress. The tux man saw it in my eyes, snorted once, and began wiping down the bar.
I gave my head a slight shake, nodded to the man, pulled myself up. I got plenty of looks as I snaked my way through the mob. I reached the deep red, velvet curtain, glanced around one time, then pushed my way through. Low-watt bulbs lit the dark, brick corridor in a sickly, pale yellow. I made my way slow. As the music faded behind me, the door at the end came into sight. I gave the wood panel two solid raps.
"Come in, come in," boomed through the door.
On the other side of that door I found a cramped setting, a kind of dressing room and lounge combination. A full-blown dressing table butted against the long wall on one side, its illuminated mirror providing the only light around. The tiny bulbs made me squint as I struggled to make out the rest of the joint. A long white couch lay jammed down the opposite wall. A barrel-shaped man occupied the desk coming off the furthest wall. His face tilted up with eyes squeezed tight, two eyelids wrinkled shut like sealed folds of flesh. On a black, glass rectangle before him his thick digits rolled a reefer with the grace of a cardsharp. A phonograph droned the thick strains of something torpid and classical in the background.
"Mr. Socrates Jones?" I asked.
Jones curled an off-center grin. "They call me Socrates because I make a mean dialogue".
"Uh-huh. And the high-brow chicken scratching?"
"That is Mr. Wagner. You dig music?"
"I never found much time for it. I've caught Your Hit Parade on occasion."
"That's truly a pity. No personal favorites at all?"
"Sure." I planted my hands at my hips. "Teddy Wilson's pretty good."
"Mmm. Very nice choice. Delectable." The wide face beamed and the head tilted further back. "A very smooth sophisticate. Man, I could listen to good music and talk good music and forget about everything else."
"How do you account for good?"
"Whatever I take great pleasure in is good. Now, while I'm certain a dissection of my habits and comforts could prove quaint if not absorbing discourse, I am willing to suppose you have other things on your mind. Am I right or am I right?"
I approached the desk as I spoke. "I'd say that's about right. I've got the bodies of four men and six women on my mind."
"Yes, yes. Ten neighbors who have prematurely cut out to their final repose." Jones pinched the reefer between his fingers. "We all loved Mama Rose."
"That's right." I stood just opposite Jones, the black glass panel between us. "Four hustlers, five streetwalkers, and Mama Rose. I was told you might have some information for me."
"Yes, yes. Maybe I do and maybe I don't." Jones struck a match and brought the stick to his short, wide lips.
"I didn't come all this way for maybes."
"Of course, of course. And who might of told a daddy-o like you a thing like my having the information you seek?"
"Miss Jamaica Smith."
"Jamaica Smith, where the commonplace meets the exotic."
"So you've heard of her."
"I am familiar with Miss Smith's work. Not personally, you dig. But excuse me." He held out the juju. "Do you imbibe, man?"
"No thanks, it hurts my teeth."
"Yes, yes. It was at Miss Smith's request that I agreed to grant this audience, to look you over, to coin a popular phrase. That must sound immensely haughty to you, but a man like you is ignorant of such things in The Belt. I have earned a fair deal of reverence in my little world, a sort of wise old cat of South State Street. I consider the accolades somewhat exaggerated, but then it would be bad form to turn down such honors. Am I right or am I right?" He fired up the stick.
"Bringing your investigative experience to bear upon these most unhappy and unfortuitous events, applying all of your very own professional wisdom, what do you make of it these sorry circumstances?"
"As a professional I can picture an oodle of possibilities."
"Is that a fact, man?" Another puff sucked in his cheeks like collapsed grapefruits.
"Could be a crusader running around with a few screws loose."
"A misguided deviant attempting to cleanse our evil citizenry?"
"I don't buy the zealot angle, but it's always possible."
"Good. What else?"
"Could be an old working associate with a score to settle. But then the number of scores seems to be running a touch on the high side."
"Better and better. Any further suppositions to suppose?"
"Sure. The most likely set-up goes like this: some ambitious wise guy, probably a recent import to The Belt, sets himself up to spoil the competition. He's thinning out the resistance and sending a message to the rest."
"Ah. Bravo indeed. And how do you explain Mama Rose?"
"Mama Rose saw something she wasn't supposed to see."
"Ah," groaned Jones with a Cheshire cat grin. "Yes, yes." He took a long, slow drag and the vapor floated from his lips like an Indian rope trick.
"Any new blood around you can suggest? Some hotshot who blew in from out of town? Say in the last half-year or so?"
"Yes, yes. That is an astute interpretation of the situation. And I do believe I can think of at least one cat who fits your proposition."
"I'm not so sure how astute it is, but it's plain enough and simple enough. I like simple. Complicated almost never works."
I leaned across the desk. "Has he got a name?"
"The cat goes by the name of Marcel Dupree. But I hasten to add that it's most likely an established alias, you dig?"
"From the South, is he?"
"Monsieur Dupree purportedly hails from New Orleans."
"Which means there's got to be a reason he left The Big Easy in the first place. You know where I can find the mug?"
Jones pulled another drag and placed the reefer in a small ashtray at his elbow. "I hear tell Dupree fancies himself quite the proficient at billiards. The local establishment in which to indulge oneself in such activities would be Whitey's. Shall I write out the address for you?"
I found that an interesting offer coming from a blind guy. "No, just point me in the general direction. If I get lost I'm sure there's plenty of folks down here more than willing to help me on my way."
"A curious turn of phrase."
"I thought you might go for it. You have anything else for me?"
"You will find Whitey's on Garfield, two blocks east of State. I do recommend you take care. Your investigation may require the greatest delicacy and tact. In any case, may you go lightly, slightly and politely."
"I catch the drift, but I don't find anything tactful about being sliced open with some kind of saber."
"Yes, yes. Well, it may be that you know what you're doing more than it appears."
"Then again, maybe not." I gave Jones my back and strolled towards the door. "But that's okay, Mr. Jones. I don't mind working in the dark. Sometimes my line of work calls for it."
I lit up as soon as I hit the street and felt a chill on my neck. Could've been the cool breeze or could've been the old stranger in a strange land routine. Could have been the cool reception I found at The Club. And from Jones. Plenty of character, that one. I had no way of telling if he was on the level or feeding me to the wolves. Either way, he sure put out the minimum.
The State Street I knew in the Loop and on the north side of the city must have been some other State Street. Traffic outside the DeLisa lingered at a casual crawl. Motorists visited with each other, and pedestrians mingled in between lanes. I couldn't help notice that foot traffic on the sidewalk parted before me. Folks stepped out of my way, leaned away. They avoided me like I was some kind of path-crossing black cat.
A young punk with nerve jumped in front of me as I turned the corner at Garfield. "Are you lost, little man?" Junior stood no more than five-two himself. That made me Goliath to his Toulouse-Lautrec.
"No more astray than usual," I said.
"I think you're lost and don't know it." He kept tilting his head from one side to the other. It annoyed the hell out of me.
"What do you think you're doing here?"
"I'm looking for someone."
"Yeah? Who? Who you looking for?"
"Is your name Algernon?"
"That's right. I'm Algernon."
"It so happens I'm not looking for Algernon."
I brushed by the egg without waiting for any witty rejoinder. I wanted to get on with it. His goading calls trailed me, but I carried on to Whitey's, as seedy a pool hall as I've seen in my own neck of the woods. I pushed through the swinging door. A few of the patrons noticed me, their pans displaying the disbelief of the ages. The rest of the folks couldn't have cared less. I sauntered straight for the man behind the counter.
"No open tables," he announced.
"You could at least ask me if I want one, first."
"For instance, you could say, Can I help you? Or What'll it be? Something like that."
"Nope. No open tables."
"It just so happens I'm not interested in a table."
The door to Whitey's whipped open hard with a slam against the inner wall. Sure enough, the punk from the street couldn't let it rest. He posed in the doorframe like some puny cowboy of a punk, his thumbs tucked in his belt loops.
"Don't be knocking around my door, son," the counterman scolded.
I planned to ignore the kid as best I could. "It so happens I'm looking for someone," I told the counterman.
"We just run a clean hall here and we got no open tables."
"Tell him you're looking for Algernon!" the kid barked in his thin, nasal voice.
The counterman motioned with his head, "He with you, mister?"
"No, sir. Not by a long shot."
"Well, I guess that's one thing in your favor."
"I've got enough problems without that. I'm looking for a man by the name of Dupree."
"If I knew of any man by the name of Dupree, I'd have to tell you I don't know any Dupree."
"That's Marcel Dupree."
"Yeah, that's the Marcel Dupree I never heard of."
The kid sauntered in my direction. The counterman held up his hand with a start.
"You hold on there, son. If you need to do any whooping now, you don't do it in here."
"That's right, kid," I chided. "Take it outside."
"Take it outside?" His twang got more annoying with amplification.
"Forget this man, here," instructed the counterman. "Besides, why let all these good folk see you get your butt thrashed?"
"Okay. Okay, old man. I'll be outside—waiting," and the kid swung his way back out the door.
"If you've never heard of Marcel Dupree, I guess you've never heard of Marcel Dupree."
"I've never heard of him being in tonight. Not since this afternoon."
"Some of us know the score, but we got to look after our own selves. You with me?"
"Uh-huh. But I bet that never stopped Mama Rose.
The counterman sucked in his lips. He looked to his shoes. The door slammed wide again and the kid took two big steps inside.
The counterman nearly screamed, "What I tell you about that door?"
"I said I was waiting for you, mister!"
I turned away from the kid. "Can you tell this punk I'm saving my fight for someone else?"
"I don't think there's telling him anything, mister."
"Kid," as I turned back around, "You're all hopped up on bad westerns."
"I'm through talking, mister."
"Outside!" the counterman roared.
"I'm way beyond that, old man!" the kid roared. His head jerked left and right until he spotted a beer bottle on a nearby table. He grabbed the bottle by the neck and a sneer came over his punk face. The kid gauged the twenty feet that separated us. I guess sticking his tongue out the corner of his mouth helped with that.
Customers in my general vicinity began to fade. The counterman gave me room, too. I snapped up a cue stick from the hand of one of the patrons sidling past me. I held out the stick with both hands, like a dumbbell, and waited.
"Make your move, kid."
Junior jiggled the bottle in his fingers. He slid one foot forward, leaned over as a feint, and froze. With a jerk he wound up and unleashed the bottle with a ferocious fling. The kid's follow-through reminded me of Luke Appling. I raised the cue in front of my face in time to shatter the bottle. Green shards splintered past me. His arm impressed the hell out of me. The crowd hushed. I felt like Stokowski.
"You're out of ammo, kid," I said.
I moved one step forward, the kid shifted back his weight. He spread his legs and bent his knees, held his arms at his sides. His hands flapped like a runner on first base trying to distract the pitcher. I stared straight into his bulging eyes. He gawked at the stick gripped tight in my right hand. I raised the cue to shoulder level, took one step closer, and another. He threatened to lunge with only four feet separating us, but the movement of the stick balled him up. I raised it higher, swung it to my right, then whipped it in a half circle, down and around and it snapped sharp against his left shin.
The kid went down like a cheap marionette, his whining screech filling the hall. I glanced at the counterman. He had nothing to say. I dropped the stick in front of the kid and hit the door. The punk's nasal wail trailed away as I hoofed it up Garfield at a steady clip.
No Dupree, no lead, no soap. Sometimes things pan out, sometimes you've got a bad pan. Figured to be high time I got back to the coupe before I rankled anyone else. The next mug might turn out to be a lot better at pool. It was time to refigure things. Maybe press Jones again. Or look up Smith. With the right lead I figured it couldn't take that long to track down Dupree. Or some stooge or chippy working for him.
Two cars down from my coupe that fifteen-cent kid, my carhop, slammed into me blind. He practically bowled us both over racing out from the wide corridor between two buildings. I righted him by a hand on each shoulder, steadied him with a quick shake. Smears of blood streaked his shirt and windbreaker.
"It's bad," he whispered. He held up red-stained hands. "Bad." His head quivered. His eyes blinked like Morse code.
"Look at me," I said. I repeated it, stern as I could without shouting. He brought his eyes up to mine. "I want you to telephone the police. Can you do that?"
"Do it. Do it now."
"Now," he echoed. He swiveled both ways, then took off like a gangly rocket.
I glanced to the side, swept that corridor between the buildings. A place of shadows. At the corridor's far end, cut off by a windowless building of brick, a small globe shone weakly above a doorway. Shades of gray and black saturated the rest of the passage. Stepping into the walkway felt like a game of high stakes hide-and-seek. I listened hard, peered hard. Something moved near that distant doorway, something a few feet in front of the entry. Something low to the ground. I continued carefully, slowly, eyes adjusting to the underexposed passage. That moving thing, that quivering blur, took shape. My pace quickened. The form turned into a body sprawled on the pavement just to the right of the rear door. I broke into a run as the face and figure became familiar. I reached her and knelt down. Stripes of blood streaked below the jaw line.
"Agnes," I whispered.
Agnes groaned, an ugly kind of grunt, and her eyes fluttered open. She stabbed out her hand and I caught it. Her grip was strong. I told her to hold on. I told her I'd get her help. Her fingers convulsed, my entire arm jerked in response. I'd steadied her arm before I registered the odd sound behind me: stride, scrape, stride, scrape, stride.
Imagine coming that far only to let a gimp get the drop on you. I gently laid Agnes's hands on the pavement and swung around. He shambled in and out of the pockets of darkness, a long, lean figure that bent forward with every lunge of his good leg and straightened out with every drag of his bad leg. He lugged himself along with the aid of a tall cane. As he entered the dim circle of light thrown by the door lamp he pulled up, no more than twelve feet between us. He reared up, showing off a perfectly cut suit of clothes—vest, derby and spats—all in the same remarkably gaudy, bright red.
"You the gumshoe been seeking me? Well, you find me, now. The name is Marcel Dupree." He spread his arms wide to augment the announcement.
"This some of your work, peddler?" I jerked my head towards Agnes. Her eyes had shut. Her breathing went shallow, but even.
"My, now," Dupree scratched his jaw. "So many accidents in this quarter. And the poor lady's throat so badly cut. A shame she can't tell us what happened."
"Never mind the dance, Dupree. We're both wise."
"Maybe so. And that is why I be looking for you, man. This my business. My people. But you try to make it your business."
"You made it my business, but I'm not going to waste my time drawing you a diagram."
"That's a pity, man. A mistake and a pity."
"I make a lot of mistakes. Sometimes my line of work calls for it."
"You talking strange, man. I don't like this kind of talk, and I tire of it." Dupree planted the cane in front of him with his left hand. He rested his right wrist across its knob.
"My name is Mr. Dupree."
"Dupree, peddler, trash. All the same to me. On my side of the city we throw out the trash."
"Then there is no more to be said, detective privé."
Dupree quickly withdrew the end of the cane to reveal a slim blade. Something out of a bad costume spectacle. He flourished the steel to catch an angle of light that glinted straight into my eyes.
I squinted. "How can there be nothing more to say when you haven't said anything yet?"
Dupree waved the blade above his derby. "Are those to be your last words, then, man?"
"No. I'd also like to say go to hell."
"But you already there, man. You have found your eternal damnation. Prepare yourself to die."
"This isn't The Bayou, peddler."
I reached quick between my hip and belt and pulled out my thirty-eight. I drew up the muzzle, aimed easy, and fed one round point blank. The slug speared the center of Dupree's chest, his body recoiled, but the damn derby defied some physical law and stuck tight.
As the echo of the volley faded down the corridor, a gurgling sound escaped Dupree's lips. He coughed softy. Two crimson bubbles formed over his lower lip and then oozed down his chin like Hershey's syrup. The sword fell to the ground with a clang and Dupree dropped to one knee.
"Aw hell, man" Dupree said.
I raised the muzzle one more time and finished off Dupree with a clean shot to the temple. His head spun, his limbs flailed and gave out, and he met the concrete like a wilting flower. The damn derby rolled clear, traveled five feet, and settled down like a manhole cover.
I listened for sirens. I heard the distant sound of traffic back on Garfield, like some muted breeze. I bent down to Agnes. Agnes was dead. I kept her company another forty minutes before the cops showed up.
I felt worn, beat. They'd pulled me in every direction and sucked me dry. The cops from the Third District interrogated me for hours. Two pairs of plain clothes ran me through the ringer until I barely knew my own story. Sure. The boys in blue didn't want me around, but they made a good show of it. They'd handled the likes of me before. None of it really mattered a damn to the cops in The Belt, anyway. They knew it. I knew it.
Jamaica propped up a no parking sign in the cool dawn light. I spotted her as I exited the station. A floor-length evening dress flowed out from the thick sweater wrapped about her shoulders. She hugged her arms around tight to keep out the chill. She made for an elegant vision parked outside the precinct house, a touch of class misfit. I recognized something defiant in her stance. Maybe she was just tired. Maybe she was just cold. Maybe she was a lot of things. I could have slapped her around.
I walked up to her close. The time was quiet. Dead quiet. She plucked two cigarettes from the pack in my pocket. She placed one between my fingers.
I said, "You take chances, lady."
She said, "That's everyday life in my world."
"If I wasn't so beat I'd throw you across my knee."
"Maybe another time, Mr. Detective." She almost smiled, but the expression died like the setting sun. "I'll miss Agnes."
"I didn't like Agnes one bit. But no one deserves to go out like that. None of them."
"That's the truth, Mr. Detective."
"You set me up, lady."
"I didn't see any other way to do it. I wonder if you can understand that."
"I understand it, all right. You figured you'd get to Dupree through me. You made sure of it. You told everyone and their brother. You figured if I actually solved the case I'd find a way to make it stick. If Dupree found me first and took care of me, then maybe someone up at City Hall would pay attention. Didn't it go something like that?"
"Something like that."
"I guess we all got a raw deal."
"What the hell else was I going to do?"
I gave her a stare warm as frostbite. "You know how I made out tonight. How'd you make out?"
"Don't go trying to turn me into some kind of cliche. All the little girls in The Belt— Her eyes teared up. She raised her chin. "All those little girls. Ain't none of them dream of this. Ain't none of us dream of this, Mr. North Side Detective. We don't wake up one morning and say, Momma, you know what I wanna be when I grow up?" She dropped her head.
I pulled out a match. I struck it. I lit the end of my smoke and took a pull, long and deep. I blew out the gray vapor and let the match drop. The flame died before it hit the pavement.
"Find yourself another match," I said. I walked away, wondering how the hell I was going to get back to my coupe.
* The photograph displayed at the top of this page was taken by John Vachon as an employee of a federal government agency. For more information on the photograph, see http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1997006689/PP/.