Statement No. 015:
Simon & Sammy Kohlvak
You ever witness an animal bust out of a trap? If he's any kind of aggressive creature, he cops one hell of an attitude. You get the full treatment—all fangs and claws and hiss. You could say I brought a real attitude back to the office. Bent out of shape plenty. Steamed. Riled. Ready to shoot first and skip the questions. All fangs and claws and hiss.
I have this tendency to get worked up whenever some punk tries to roll me. Especially in my own back yard. Lucky for him I had a job going. So I let him off with a busted nose and a limp that should last a good couple of days. He left me scratched beneath the left eye, my pants cuff ripped, and itching to take on the next mug who looked at me crosswise. Sure.
I felt burned as I let myself into the dark building and walked up the one flight of stairs. After six o'clock the joint goes as quiet as a wine cellar. The elevator runs, but the maintenance man secures the entrance and shuts down the main lights. That's the routine. The dim glow from exit signs and the small, deco lamps above the office doors cast a polka dot pattern on the polished, stone floor like glowing circles of satin varnish.
My footsteps slapped down the corridor and echoed back again as I marched to my door. The lock didn't give so easy, and right away I got the feeling I had company. I paused in the doorway. With the lights off and the blinds pulled shut, my office had the luminescence of a well. I heard nothing and saw nothing.
Unannounced, after hours callers are something I'm inclined to avoid. They're uninvited, unwelcome, and generally tend to promote bodily harm. Cutting out right then and there sounded like a legitimate option. Making a beeline for the stairs and calling for reinforcements—that's probably detailed in some police manual. Or maybe it's lesson eight available by post from the Private Investigator Mail Order Academy.
Reaching the .38 in my desk drawer clear across the office called for the razzle-dazzle of youth. I didn't like those odds. It'd be a hell of a lot easier just to reach in and hit the wall switch and throw a little light on the situation.
But I had none of it, see? On account of that attitude. You can only push anyone so many times, and I had reached my quota in the alley. I played it stubborn and marched straight to the banker's lamp on the edge of the desk.
A yank on the pull chain revealed this egg perched at the far end of the couch. He set himself on the edge, all the way up, his weight braced on the left hand cupping his knee. The revolver grasped in his right hand aimed at the general vicinity of my upper chest. The rod wobbled in his hand like it had a compulsive tick. The mug gaped at me like he'd just seen Casper.
"This better be good," I jeered.
That threw him. His face crinkled up and his eyebrows scrunched down above his nose. His tiny, close-set eyes blinked a couple times. He looked me up and down real good.
"You know you've got a tear in your cuff?" he said.
"So? You wouldn't be a tailor, would you?"
"And there's some blood on your face."
"Wish I could say the same."
He made this faint "harrumph" that I found irritating as hell.
"So what do you want?"
"I want you to take a seat behind the desk. But don't bother trying for any, ah, artillery. I've seen to it that you're out of shells."
It didn't take long to size him up—he didn't amount to much. Just a little fella. Shorter than average. Chalky face and hands, and beady, shark eyes. In the dim light he passed for 50. He wore brown everything, and the everything appeared oversized to the point of swallowing him up.
He looked about as much like a mad dog killer as I look like Eleanor Roosevelt. That meant nothing. I've seen the most squirrelly looking ginks who could shoot the tattoo off a sailor. I shook my head and stepped around the desk.
"You never can tell," I said.
"How's that? Never can tell what?"
"Never mind." I lowered myself into the desk chair. "So now what?"
"You're going to behave yourself while I wait for a call."
"Ain't that a kick? I'm waiting for a call, too."
"Yes, that is a coincidence.
"I'd say that's a coincidence and a half."
"Later I'll put in a call to Ripley's."
"Now wouldn't it be funny if your call and my call had something to do with each other?"
"That would be rather droll."
"Droll, is it? I was thinking maybe even paranoiac."
"I can do without the conversation."
"Maybe you can, but I'm a very talkative fellow."
My, how he was getting annoyed. He rolled his shoulders and adjusted his collar and cleared his throat. The gun's muzzle dipped, then rose up in line with my face.
I said, "I haven't forgotten you've got the drop on me. At least for now. But I'm thinking you're not about to start blasting away just because I won't shut up. If you came here just to knock me off, you could have done that pronto. You could've drilled me as soon as I walked in."
"So maybe I'm not usually a tough guy. I won't hesitate to use this if I have to."
"Uh-huh. You trying to convince me, yourself, or the man in the moon?"
"Our proximity doesn't require the skill of a cracks marksman to hit the target."
"Just a certain nerve."
"I had nerve enough to make my way into your establishment. I had nerve enough to wait for you. I even had enough nerve to bring this sidearm."
"Bold words, bold words. So what's a sweetheart like you doing threatening a crummy P.I. like me?"
"I already told you. I'm waiting for a phone call."
"At this hour it couldn't be your dentist. And I can't imagine any broad would give you a tumble. Is it anyone I know?"
"You like to amuse yourself, don't you?"
"Sure, I'm a cut-up. A regular Joe E. Lewis. The Society's nominated me for Jocular Sherlock of the year. Next month I open in Atlantic City."
"I like to leave them rolling in the aisles. Sometimes my line of work calls for it. On occasion my clients die laughing. I'd like to see you do the same, even if you didn't laugh."
"I prefer silence. Let it rest."
"Uh-huh. I just have to wonder why you think anyone would be calling you here."
"I have my reasons."
"No doubt, no doubt. But I think you're all wet."
"You should keep it in mind that if you provoke me enough, I'm liable to forget myself."
"I'd like to forget yourself, too."
"I'm liable to forget myself and pull this trigger. Such things can happen in the heat of the moment."
"Yeah, I'd probably find that kind of heat inconvenient. Then again, if I provoke you just enough, maybe you'll go running home to your mama. Or maybe you'll slip just enough to give me the chance to pistol whip you with your own gat."
"If you persist, I'll have to gag you."
"I'd like to see you try."
A trace of color showed in the jasper's face. His beady eyes squeezed narrow and his cheeks puffed out. The wrist of his gun hand flexed a couple times.
I said, "I'm going to have me a smoke."
"I don't want any smoking in here."
"So go on and shoot me."
I stared him down. Reached in my shirt pocket for a stick. Dug out a match from my jacket and struck it on the sole of my shoe. His frown deepened and the wrist flinched again as the flame engulfed the tip and I inhaled. I raised my face and blew a gray cloud towards the ceiling.
"Uh-huh." I patted down my chest and my stomach. "No holes."
"A man of daring do."
"Sure. I'm a regular Bulldog Drummond."
My visitor startled at the muffled, heavy clang of the elevator. He brought up the barrel of the rod and nudged his head. "That noise," he whispered. "What's that noise?"
"That there's called an elevator." A brief, whirring sound rose and fell, then gave way to another loud banging of metal. "You've heard of elevators?"
We listened to the light scraping made by the elevator door sliding open. Several sets of steps followed. I called it three, all in high heels. The quick clacking moved away from us, then faded out. I thought I heard a key in a lock and the shutting of a door.
My guest made a strained swallow and adjusted his neck. "I'd like a glass of water."
"How's about a bedtime story to go along with it?"
"I see you've got a water cooler."
"No, I don't believe I will. You get it."
"Your credibility has already taken a tumble. Now you're really pushing it."
"You get it for me."
"Now how's that going to look? Think it through from my side of things. There I am at the station house. I'm running through my story when this brawny, hard-as-nails sergeant plants a shoe on the edge of my seat, leans in real close, and asks exactly how it went. So I tell him, 'He held me at gunpoint. He made me get him a glass of water.' Now how's that supposed to sound?"
My visitor grew more timid by the moment. You could read it in the eyes that fell toward the floor. The shoulders and neck had collapsed. He didn't lean forward so much as he stooped over with a rounded back.
"You'll never get your enforcer union card at this rate." I pushed my chair back from the desk fast. He made no kind of response. I pulled myself up and crossed over to the cooler. I grabbed a small mug off the ledge of the unit and tapped the spigot. As I turned from the cooler, the phone rang. That woke him up, all right. He snapped his head towards the sound, then he snapped his head towards me. I found a dumb, glazed look in those beady orbs.
"This is your show," I said.
He pushed himself off the couch and stepped to the desk. His gun hand wavered, swinging first towards the blower, then at me, and then back again. Using his left, he rotated the candlestick and gently picked up the earpiece. He leaned forward and blurted in a low, breathy voice, "Yeah?"
He straightened up fast. The candlestick almost fell over from his tugging the earpiece. You ever see a look of absolute consternation? On this egg, it played like a double take. I couldn't tell whether the tinny voice coming through confused him, or if he just couldn't believe it. The squawking from the other end of the line kept up as he slowly replaced the earpiece on the hook.
I sauntered back to my office chair behind the desk. He caught himself and covered me with the barrel trained low. I put cup of water on the desk and took my seat. He staggered back and dropped into one of the straight back, client chairs.
"This does not make sense." He spoke to his gat, then winced in my direction. "This does not make any sense at all."
"Sure it does. Think about it."
"That was my brother."
"But it couldn't have been."
"You heard him yourself."
"I did. Yet it's impossible."
"Didn't you ever hear the one about eliminating the impossible in order to seek the truth?"
"But everything was arranged."
"Your brother and I sort of rearranged things. Right about now I expect your stooge in New York is getting a free ride in a paddy wagon."
He began to slump in his chair. The gun's muzzle rested on his thigh.
"You see, Sammy—it's Sammy, isn't it?"
A minute bobbing of the head confirmed it.
"You see, Sammy, your brother was way ahead of you this time. You haven't been fooling Simon any more than he's been fooling you."
"But he's a crook!"
"It takes a thief to catch a thief."
"But he's been robbing me. Ruining our good name."
"You're a fine one to talk, you are."
"You've been skimming profits for years. He knows all about it. How you purchase rocks at one price, record a higher price in the books, and then pocket the difference. How you've worked it with a couple different wholesalers. How they write you up phony bills of sale at an inflated price for a kickback. How much have you gouged your brother for over the years? Thousands? Tens of thousands?"
"But what about him?"
"You mean Sammy the fence? I caught onto that one. Sure."
"So you know?"
"Yeah, yeah. It's not like I'm dealing with a couple of masterminds, here. You guys leave tracks like King Kong. I can imagine Simon started out small, almost innocent-like. A customer falls on hard times and brings in a piece. She's desperate and begs Simon to help her out anyway he can. So he gives her a little something, in cash. And she says please don't tell your brother—she's so awful embarrassed. So he keeps it to himself, sells off the piece for cash, and pockets the dough. Maybe even thinks nothing of it. Until someone else comes in selling another hard luck story. Then somebody else. And before you can say, "Tiffany and Company," Simon's running quite a little hockshop on the side. Then one day a total stranger approaches him with some hot ice. Maybe he even turned it down the first time or two. Then it just became too damn tempting. Maybe he saw his chance to get back at you, maybe he had it in mind all along."
"Oh, I'm betting Simon had it mind from the very start."
"I don't think you're in any position to cast any stones. You're both nothing but a couple of cheap crooks. And stabbing each other in the back."
"I didn't figure on anything like this."
"Uh-huh. That's as obvious as a dirigible."
The opportunity I'd been waiting for finally came. My office door flew open and Sammy automatically spun around in his seat. Minnie Murphy, cute as a bug, caught herself short the instant she spotted the gat in Sammy's hand. She looked at Sammy, turned to me, gawked back at the rod. Sammy looked down at the rod. Then he whipped around to face me, too late. The opportunity I'd been waiting for walked in and practically sat in my lap.
I used my left to fling the cold water into Sammy's face. As he flinched, I leaned over and caught him a roundhouse to the jaw. I catapulted over the desk, every bit as good as Douglas Fairbanks, and grabbed Sammy by the collar before his legs gave out. I jabbed him once in the gut, then cracked him one hard across the cheek with my left elbow. Sammy toppled sideways over a chair with the poise of a train wreck.
I retrieved Sammy's gat from the floor, shoved it in my jacket pocket, then grabbed at the twinge in my left shoulder. Minnie stood hugging the doorframe like a pole dancer. She gaped at the sprawled body gasping for breath.
"You can peel yourself off the woodwork, sugar. Show's over."
Minnie drew a deep breath. "That was swell!"
"Sure, kid. Sure."
"Jeepers. What'd I walk into?"
"More like what you broke up, doll. I'm much obliged. This here is Sammy Kohlvak, brother of Simon Kohl. Together they own Kohlvak Brothers Jewelry, the largest rock shop west of Michigan Avenue."
"I know Kohlvak's. Every girl knows Kohlvak's."
"They've also been taking each other to the cleaners, in a manner of speaking."
"I don't get it."
"I'll fill you in later, Minnie. What are you doing here? Ain't it a little late in the day for the secretarial pool?"
"It's not all nine to five, you know. City-Wide maintains some pretty spiffy clients, including a certain downtown retailer who requires after-hours inventory and cataloging. So there."
"What client is that, Min?"
"I'm not allowed to say. You understand."
"Oh, I get you. Client confidentiality."
"That's right." Minnie laced her fingers in front of her hips and carefully sauntered around Sammy.
"Is your shoulder hurt?"
"Just sore and stiff. An old injury."
Sammy rolled himself over, propped on an elbow. He didn't blubber one bit, but the shark eyes welled up with tears.
"Why'd you have to get involved? Why'd Simon have to hire you? How come I get the short end of the stick?"
"You're not getting the short end of nothing. The joke's on both of you. What Simon didn't realize going in, see, is that he put himself on the spot. In order to arrest whatever muscle you sent to hijack Simon, New York's finest has to check out the story all ways around. Imagine Simon's surprise when they discover the load of ice he's carrying. And without any proof of sale. Sounds like transportation of stolen goods to me. And that's just for starters. My guess is that right about now he's learning that anything he says will sound pretty foolish."
"So why turn me in? He's the real crook. He's the bigger crook. Simon makes out for a real, live gangster."
"If you two wanted to rob each other blind, I couldn't of cared less. But as soon as it spilled out beyond your store, that's a whole other jurisdiction. Besides, I get this kind of contemptible feeling for anyone who busts into my office and sticks me up."
"You're weren't even supposed to show."
"What do you mean, I wasn't—wait, wait. Are you trying to tell me that punk in the alley was yours?"
"Don't hurt me. Don't."
I hesitated. I actually took in the cringing creep sprawled before me and I hesitated. He appeared smaller somehow, like losing the roscoe shrunk him a size or two. He looked about as invincible as crockery.
My hesitation didn't last. I wound up and buried my shoe in his stomach. Sammy crumpled like cellophane. I ignored his retching as I returned to my desk. I fired up a smoke and turned to Minnie. She had clamped a hand over her mouth.
"Minnie? When you're all through being stupefied?"
She nodded without removing her hand.
"As an eyewitness, how'd you like the honor of ringing up the 18th?"
* The photograph displayed at the top of this page was taken by John Vachon as an employee of the Farm Security Administration, a federal government agency. For more information on the photograph, see http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998005468/PP/.