Lots of it.
I could smell it as soon as I slipped inside the door, that dark metallic taste at the back of my throat that makes me salivate, makes me want to spit the way you do when you’re drunk and you’re trying not to puke.
Instinctively, I had slipped over to one side when I came in, so I wouldn’t be silhouetted in the doorway against the dirty yellow light from the hall. Now I stood motionless and listened while my eyes adjusted and probed the near dark around me. An intermittent reddish glow blushed against the window, the neon sign from Clancy’s Bar across the street. Off to my left a clock ticked softly. A blade of light from the kitchen cut the place in half. I could hear my sister there, sniffing and sobbing.
This was going to be bad news.
Alex lay on the kitchen floor, a spreading pool of blood for a pillow. Her arms were spread wide like Jesus on the cross, and one leg crossed the other at the knee, as if she’d been sitting and someone had pulled the chair out from under her.
There was a dime-sized hole in her right temple, and a substantially larger hole directly opposite, leaving very little of Alex in between. Her Beretta was over in the corner, by the fridge. A 9mm.
Kay was sitting at the table, which had been knocked askew. Broken dishes littering the linoleum. Dinner had been on them, now splashed across the floor. Chicken and rice with mushrooms. Kay pressed a wadded-up Kleenex to her nose, staring at Alex’s body. She had been crying hard. There was blood around her nose and mouth, and a mouse was taking shape under her left eye.
I knelt beside Alex and lay my fingertips against her neck. It was obvious she was dead, so I don’t know why I did that. Maybe I didn’t want her to be and I was hoping for a miracle. But the miracle fairy was fresh out. Alex’s jacket was sprawled across the back of a chair that was now tipped over. I took it and draped it over her face.
That broke the spell, and she looked at me like I was about to give her the answer to a riddle. I didn’t. I don’t have many answers.
I got some ice cubes from the fridge, wrapped them in a striped dish towel, and pressed it against Kay’s cheek.
“Want to tell me what happened?” I said.
“It was an accident,” she said. “She didn’t mean to do it. She didn’t mean it. She was threatening to do it. You know how she is. She was saying it and the gun went off. But she didn’t mean it to. You know how she was.”
Yeah, I knew how she was.
She was nuts.
Dark, brooding, perverted nuts.
I kind of liked her.
Alex kept her brown hair in a butchy short “pixie” cut, had a fuse even shorter, and mirthless blue eyes like a Siamese cat out for the kill. A chipped front tooth, capped in gold. Lots of ink.
The first time I met her, she had fed me cheap booze and asked me if I had a girlfriend.
“Nobody in particular,” I said. I was doing the hum-and-strum on the coffee house circuit of the folk scene, and one of the perks was pussy. Chicks fell my way like maple leaves in autumn, and I became quit a rake. I had more than I could use, rarely wanting for sex, and hardly ever fucked the same chick twice.
“Smart,” Alex said. “You got that mojo workin.’ Fuck ‘em all, kid. That’s the way to go. How about if I watch watch you pound some slit sometime. What do you think of that?”
I told her I wasn’t sure.
“Well, think about. You’re a cunt-hound just like me. Ain’tcha? We could have some fun, you and me.”
Alex was a dog-groomer by trade, at least enough of a trade to have a plausible source of legal income for the IRS. Underneath that she was a Jill-of-All-Crimes. Had run with a biker gang for a while, an outfit called “The Outlaws.” Not very original, but very descriptive. Ran drugs, hard drugs, not grass. And guns. She had beefs for burglary, auto theft and assault.
As much a misogynist than any man I ever met, by her own account she had participated in a number of gang rapes. I don’t know whether she was a “bike dyke” because of her attitude, or adopted the attitude because she thought it was masculine. You know the way female impersonators tend to go overboard on the feminine symbols — huge tits, ultra high heels, and tons of make-up, turning themselves into cartoon caricatures of women? Alex was like that. Trying so hard to be what she thought was masculine, that she turned herself into kind of a joke. She had to out-curse, out-drink, and out-sleaze anything with two legs and a dick.
Or maybe, these were elements of her true self, and she hid behind butchiness as an excuse to indulge in them. Hard to know for sure. People have more twists and turns than the Comet at Riverview Park.
Either way, Alex enjoyed regaling me with detailed accounts of her lurid exploits. Like the time somebody had picked up some naïve little waitress, and taken her back to the gang’s digs. Alex had helped hold her legs open while a dozen Harley goons took turns using her, described in salivating detail each of their cocks, the girl’s squirms and moans, and how Alex had taken a turn fist-fucking her, “working on my uppercut,” she said. It was a game she particularly enjoyed. I wondered if she fisted Kay and did Kay enjoy it. We’d never done that. Maybe I’d ask her.
These days the “bad-ass biker bitch” was leading such a relatively tame existence she could stunt double for Debbie Reynolds. Working in pet shops. Selling a little marijuana. Doing a bit of pimping on the side. She booked tricks for Kay on occasion, but there were two other girls that were her main whores. To be fair, Alex took a much smaller cut than typical. She had several times offered to pimp for me, too.
“You’re cute,” she told me. “You’ve got that bad-boy-next-door look. You could make a fortune if you hustle.” By “hustle” she didn’t mean “hurry,” or luring suckers into billiard games. You don’t have to bottom,” she said. “You could just top. Be a dom top. Let ‘em suck you off, fuck ‘em in the ass. You fuck girls in the ass, right? Same thing — only you get paid for it.”
To be honest, I considered it.
I like sex. All kinds. I didn’t have any qualms about what, when, how or with whom. But turning fun into a business didn’t sound like my scene. So I passed.
I found the scotch in the cabinet next to the sink, poured Kay a couple of fingers and gave myself the rest of the fist. She took a sip, and shook her head slowly. “What am I going to do?” she said, maybe to me, maybe to herself.
Kay was older than me by half a dozen years or so, but somewhere along the road had switched from being my big sister to being my little sister. Despite her association with a variety of worldly and unsavory types, she had developed all the street smarts of a Nebraska choirboy. Our dad — let’s call him our mother’s husband — had molested her almost from infancy. I think she was adrift in the world looking for a strong “father figure” type to protect her.
“Did you touch anything?” I asked.
Kay shook her head “no.”
“Okay. We’re going to have to call the cops.”
Normally, I wouldn’t call the cops no matter what. There’s no situation so bad that it can’t be made worse by involving the police. But I didn’t know that yet. So I called the cops.
Cops are like sperm — there’s a one in 100 million chance that either one will turn out to be human being. But Kay got lucky. The cop was an old-timer. He took her statement, no muss no fuss, while the medics bagged up the body. They were in and out in less time than it takes to pitch a perfect inning, unless you’re playing for the Cubs.
That left us alone.
Kay, me and the mess.
First things first: I had to find someplace safe for Kay to crash. The nearest port of call was Rene’s apartment, up one floor.
Rene was Black, petite, mid-20’s, with huge brown eyes and a slight over-bite. She was so gorgeous that you’d never make her as guy, even if she flashed you that thick uncut dick she kept tucked up tight and taped while she was working.
I told her what kind of shit had just gone down.
“Oh, my Gawd, no,” she fanned herself. “That’s so fucking awful. Poor thing. You bring her right up, Jackie.”
I managed to get Kay upstairs, but she was barely-walking wounded. Shit like that can take all the juice out of you, and she was exhausted. I got her stripped down to her panties, and she curled up tight on Rene’s bed. I noticed some tiny blood spatters on her blouse.
“Don’t worry, Kay,” I said. “I’ll take care of everything.”
“I love you, Jackie.”
“Love you, too.”
I grabbed a blanket from the foot of the bed to tuck her in, but was temporarily distracted by the sight of Kay’s blue-flowered panties stretched tight across her ass, showing lots of butt cleavage. I liked butt cleavage. Especially Kay’s.
When I first moved back into the city, I had crashed at her place for a couple of weeks. We’d naturally shared the bed for sleeping the sofa being reserved for drunks and dogs. It was summer, and it was a hot one. Even with the window open and the fan straining it balls to blow us a breeze, it was sweltering. Kay could fall asleep quick as a mouse. When she rolled over, her back to me, she was sawing wood in seconds. Not me. Too damn hot to sleep. I thought it might help to jack off, and I appropriated her ass for my visual inspiration, remembering the time, when I was little, that she had introduced me to a wild variety of earthly delights.
Jacking off didn’t help.
So I decided to try again.
It was taking a little longer the second time, and I guess my machinations were less than subtle because suddenly Kay’s voice cut through the soft mattress squeaks.
“You need help?”
“No, I’m okay.”
“Are you sure? I need to get some sleep. I have to work tomorrow.” She rolled over toward me. “Why don’t you let me help you?”
Gift horse. Don’t look.
“How about a hot dog bun? She offered.
“Sure,” I said, and Kay rolled onto her stomach and slipped her panties down. I’m telling you, my sister had a beautiful ass. Full, round, soft. Shaped like an inverted heart. As sweet as any I’ve ever seen. I mounted up and nestled my cock into her butt crack, and started sliding up and back along it. Sweat served as sufficient lube.
I sort of wished I could be fucking her instead, but she hadn’t invited me and I would never be so presumptuous. The friction between her cheeks was just right. It was so just right that I didn’t want to hurry, but she was doing me a favor, so I let go. In a few minutes I shot all over her lower back. She reached over to her side table, snapped a Kleenex out of the box and handed it over to me. I wiped her off. Then, on a sudden impulse, I kissed the small of her back and she giggled.
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks. I owe you one.”
“Go to sleep.”
Like a rock.
Seeing Kay in bed now, curled up like that, I started to get a hard-on and I felt like shit about it. I swept the blanket over her like a magician doing the late show at Mr. Kelly’s.
Then I went downstairs to clean up the mess.
Judging from the way the blood was congealed, it had been while before Kay had called me, and by now several hours had gone by. Even under the best circumstances, blood is hard to clean up. The things I needed — bleach, rubber gloves, a ton of paper towels, etc., — Kay didn’t have in the apartment, and everyplace was closed now. If I had to wait until morning to go to the store for a cleanup kit, I’d be chipping blood off the floor with a chisel, half-inch at a time.
I decided to go over to Clancy’s and see if I could borrow what I needed.
It was strictly a neighborhood bar and grill. Cheap beer and free peanuts, to make you thirsty so you’ll buy more beer. The place was trying hard to impersonate an Irish pub, but missed the mark by twelve furlongs.
It wasn’t Clancy’s fault.
The place was dingy enough. And the walls were festooned with portraits of famous Irish pugilists, such luminaries of the sweet science as bare-knuckles great John L Sullivan, James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, Freddie Gilroy, Rinty Monaghan, Tom Sharkey, Ruby Bob Fitzsimmons, Jack Dempsey, and Jimmy McLarnin, John Caldwell, and the great-grand-daddy of them all, James Figg. A man of charming modesty, Clancy, included himself. There were photos of him winning the Golden Gloves as a kid, and as Regimental Heavyweight Champion from his Army days. Behind the bar, a stuffed leprechaun hung from one hand at the edge of the mirror, just above a tintype of John Reilly and a beer stein with two miniature flags planted in it — one Irish, one Mexican.
Clancy’s kept plenty of good Irish whiskey and Guinness stout in stock, and regularly booked Irish folksingers and fiddlers for his postage-stamp-sized stage. But the working class Poles, Czechs and hillbillies that comprised the bulk of the clientele, preferred Jack Daniels and Pabst Blue Ribbon and jukebox.
The dive veered a hair closer to the dream on St. Patrick’s Day when everybody’s fucking Irish, but by morning, Brigadoon would vanish and it was back to the normal fare.
“Hi, Jackie. Howya doon, kiddo?” said Clancy. “How’s K-K-K-Katie?” He meant Kay. I don’t know why he decided to call her Katie. Maybe he just liked that dumb fucking song. Right now there was something else at the k-k-k-kitchen door, on the k-k-k-kitchen floor.
“I need a favor,” I said, and laid out the tale.
A short time later, I clambered back to Kay’s apartment wrangling a mop and bucket, a bottle of bleach, and a bundle of rags. No rubber gloves, though.
I turned to work on Alex’s blood with hot water and bleach, and gave the whole area a good cleaning.
Then I did it again.
And then I did it again.
After the third time, only traces remained.
Fourth time was the charm.
Took me all morning.
Between rounds, I checked in on Kay. She was still asleep. Just as well. Rene made coffee. Offered me breakfast.
“No, thanks,” I said. “Just the coffee is great.”
“You have to eat,” she said. She had no idea what a cleanup job can do to your appetite.
“I’ll get around to it. Thanks for looking after her.”
“Tsk. Don’t be silly,” she waved a limp wrist my way. “You guys are like family.”
I thought about my fucked-up family and I had to laugh at that one.
It was a little after noon when the goon squad showed up. They arrived just as I was leaving. Three of them. They weren’t wearing their colors, but they were garbed in black leather and sported every other gangster cliché you can imagine. Heavy rings, the better to punch you with, my dear. Prison tats. Oddball facial hair. Definitely not IBM executives.
The leader of the pack was a light heavyweight with sleepy eyes and a Pancho Villa mustache.
“Alex home?” he asked.
“You just missed her.”
“Know where she went?”
“Well, where the fuck did she go?”
“The morgue,” I said.
“Are you fuckin’ with me kid?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Good. Don’t. What about her girlfriend?”
“Who?” I played dumb.
“She’s not here, either.”
“She dead, too?”
“Not the last time I saw her.”
“Where is she?”
“Can’t say,” I shrugged. I love lying with the truth.
“Bullshit,” mumbled one of the other goons, a guy with Elvis sideburns. “He knows somethin’, Rook.”
Rook waved him off.
“How’d you like to make a c note, kid?” Rook asked me.
“I wouldn’t be against it.”
“You find the girlfriend, you let me know.”
“And then what?”
“That’s none of your fuckin’ business,” said Elvis.
“Cool.” I told him. “Find her your fucking self.”
“Shut up, Ricci,” said Rook. Then, to me, he said, “Look, kid, I just want to talk to her. Alex had something of mine I need to get back. That’s all. No need to make it a big, heavy fuckin’ deal.”
Yeah Right, I thought. She borrowed your favorite book. That’s why you need these two bozos for back-up.
“How do I get in touch with you?” I asked.
“You know the Best Western off of Van Buren?
“Room 13.” He peeled a hundred-dollar bill from a roll he pulled from his pocket, ripped it in two and gave me half. “You get the other half when you call me. Make it soon. Real soon.”
“I’m on the case,” I said. But my subtext was “fuck you.” He missed it.
I didn’t mention the incident to Kay. Wasn’t necessary.
Alex had once drunkenly quipped that when she died she wanted to be cremated and her ashes shoved up the President’s ass. I sincerely regretted that I couldn’t arrange to fulfill her wishes exactly. But I could manage the cremation part.
The other chore to be done was to pack up Alex’s belongings. Kay had gotten her personal effects back from the cops — Kay was listed as her next of kin, which I thought was a little strange since they hadn’t been together that long, and I didn’t think Alex was the type to even think about such things. She traveled light. A few changes of clothes. A few pieces of jewelry. About what you could pack into a good-sized duffle bag and carry on a motorcycle.
The cops may have released Alex’s things to Kay, but I was the one who sorted them out. Got rid of the blood-stiffened clothing. She had a wallet — the kind you attach to your belt with a dog chain. $80 in cash. Driver’s License in the name of Alexandria Margaret Forsythe. Social security card. Voter registration card. Two pornographic polaroid photos of some chick — who wasn’t Kay — spreading a big smile for the camera. Bunch of keys on a ring attached to a big brass swivel snap. Barlow pocket knife. Some Kleenex. Half a pack of Camels. A pack of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, two sticks left in it. A Trojan condom. Wristwatch, Timex on a 2-inch wide leather band. A high school ring that couldn’t have been hers unless she fought in World War II. Silver pinky ring. Gold chain ankle bracelet. Lint.
I gave the Camels to some bum on the corner of Clark and Division, tossed away the gum and the condom and the Kleenex. I thought about hanging on to the polaroids, because whoever that chick was she was kind of cute and had a big smile, but I decided against it, and, with regret, tossed them away, too. The rest of the stuff I presented to Kay. Put it in a small cardboard box. She gave the $80 to Rene who refused it at first, but allowed herself to be persuaded to accept it.
I was most interested in the ring of keys, one key in particular. The other keys were identifiable: apartment, garage, car, etc, etc. But this one was different. It was a locker key. The kind like you find at the bus depot and wherein you can safely stash your stuff for a quarter. There must be a zillion lockers like that all over the city. Looking for it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack the size of Mount Everest. Unless you had a good magnet.
My magnet was Lupo. Of Lupo’s Hardware fame. On the corner of Third Avenue and Lincoln, kitty-corner from the big drugstore. Among his many less legal talents, he was an expert locksmith — a trade he’d learned, ironically, in the joint. He liked Gypsy jazz and drank expresso like it was kool-aid.
Lupo had taught me two important things: first, how to play chess, and second, that every lock has a code, a serial number. If you know what you’re doing, you can trace a key to a particular lock. With luck, even a particular location. I didn’t know the magic word, but Lupo did.
Not long after chatting with him, I was on the El train heading up toward Addison. You know, the Wrigley Field stop. There was a bank of luggage lockers there. Alex’s key opened number 21. Blackjack. Inside was a large gym bag with the Everlast logo and a pair of boxing gloves printed on the side. It was heavy. 25 maybe 30 pounds. I took it into a stall in the men’s room, unzipped it.
Jock? Sweat socks? Hand wraps?
Pretty little bundles of cash.
Old $20 bills with non-consecutive serial numbers, in inch-thick bundles with nice, clean bank straps. Purple straps. Marked $2000. But that couldn’t be right. A sheaf of 20’s that thick would be more than two grand. More like four grand. Based on a quick count of ten, I guesstimated there had to be at least fifty of them. I did a hasty calculation in my head. Had to be somewhere around a quarter mil in that bag.
I figured this was the thing of Rook’s that Alex had had. No wonder he wanted it back.
What was the story here?
Bank money? What bank?
Had Alex absconded with the loot?
Or was she holding it for them until the heat died down?
Was she going to fence it for them? Launder it somehow? No disrespect, but that seemed a little out of her league. I was curious but it was academic curiosity. I didn’t really have to know.
I called from a pay phone outside Suds ‘n’ Duds Laundromat.
“Is this Rook?”
“Half a C Note.”
“Whataya got for me kid? Got a line on the girlfriend?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “I owe you a refund on that.”
“Then whataya got?”
“Pictures of some dead presidents.”
The line was quiet a long time.
“Keep talking,” said Rook.
“I’d like to get your property back to you,” I said. “But this is a different deal than we originally made. I thought you might want to offer me a small recovery fee.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I have no idea what the going rate is. My agent gets twenty percent. How does that grab you?” I lied. I didn’t have an agent, and if I did, I sure as hell wouldn’t give him 20%. Unless he was also my manager. And got me drunk before I signed the contract.
“You got some balls on you kid?”
“What do you mean? I made you for a stand-up guy. Was I wrong?”
“You’re a smooth little motherfucker aren’t you?”
“I take it you’re not interested. That’s cool. Sorry to waste your time. ‘Bye.”
“Wait a fucking second. Hold on.” There was some rustling and humming like he had his hand over the phone. After about a minute he came back to me.
“Ten per cent,” he said.
Let the games begin.
I had started the bidding high with that 20%. Start high; negotiate down if you have to. Rook started low, negotiated up. We settled at 15%. There was just over 220 large in the bag so my end was about 33 thousand.
“So bring it over,” Rook said.
“Let’s meet in the middle.”
“Just bring it, kid.”
“No way. Public place or no deal. I’ll just keep the bag and blow town.”
“Okay, okay. Where?”
“I’ll call you back. Half an hour.”
“Yeah, okay. Call me in half an hour.”
“Cool, I said, and hung up. Then I called Lupo.
In honor of Alex, I set the meet for Bickerdike Square Park over on Ohio Street. High noon, just like Gary Cooper. In the parking area. It was a Wednesday, so the place wasn’t exactly crowded, but there were enough potential witnesses around to deter hasty behavior.
I got there at 11am and scoped the place out. Three Harleys roared in at a hair before noon. I made them wait until 12:15, then stepped out into the sunshine with the bag.
I set it on the pavement near Rook. He knelt down, unzipped it, and poked a finger in amongst the green.
“It was 223K,” I said. “I rounded it down in your favor. I took out thirty-three as we agreed. Count it, if you want.”
Rook stood up, and, quick as a snapping turtle, seized my arm. He had a grip that could turn walnuts to dust.
“Suppose I want to re-negotiate?”
“Sure,” I said. “Talk to my lawyer.”
I gave a nod toward a van that was parked a short distance away under an oak tree. “Lupo’s Hardware” was painted on the door. The window was open a crack and you could see the muzzle of Lupo’s rifle, with the fat sound suppressor attached, peeking out. I had been careful to stand clear of the line of fire and Lupo had an easy shot, if it came to that.
“Motherfucker,” muttered Rook. It might have been a compliment. “Who the fuck are you, kid?”
“I’m the guy who got your money back for you. So we’re square, right?”
“Yeah,” he drawled grudgingly. “We’re square.”
And then we started to go our separate ways.
“Hey, wait,” I said. “I almost forgot.”
I handed Rook that torn half of a c-note he’d given me.
A deal’s a deal.
I paid Lupo $3000 to back me up. I kept 5 grand for myself.
That left 25 large.
Some people sing because they’re happy.
Some people sing because they can’t afford a gun.
Kay was alone in Rene’s living room when I let myself in.
Not because she was happy.
She was a good singer, though. Did I mention that? Strong voice. Sounded a lot like Patsy Kline, and she knew some of Patsy’s material, too.
“Crazy…” Kay sang, “…for thinking that my love could hold you; I’m crazy for trying And crazy for crying; And I’m crazy for loving you….”
I let her finish the song before I made my presence known. I figured she needed it as a catharsis for the emotional mauling she’d taken, not just from Alex’s death, but from Alex’s life, too. It’s like they say about opera: a guy gets stabbed and instead of bleeding, he sings. Also I enjoyed listening to her, even under these circumstances, she could wail. Especially under these circumstances. Sometimes I wish we could have gigged together or something, but that’s not the way the cards were dealt.
“Great song,” I said. “Willie Nelson tune.”
“Alex didn’t like country music at all,” she whispered. “Wouldn’t listen to it.”
“Too bad.” Tell you the truth, I wasn’t much of a country fan myself. A lot of it’s complete crap — but so is a lot of rock, and pop. Nevertheless, there are some great country writers. The afore-mentioned Mr. Nelson for one. Hank Williams, Sr., for another.
“Listen,” Kay said, “Thanks for…No. ‘Thank you’ doesn’t cover it. I’d be completely fucked without you. I don’t know how to thank you for being here for me.”
“I can think of a way,” I said, and shame on you, you dirty-minded bastard. I handed Kay the 25K in a large manila envelope. She peaked inside.
“Holy fuck,” she said like she just seen the world’s biggest cock and it was aimed right at her. “Jackie, what the fuck did you do?”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist,” I told her, and immediately wished I’d chosen a different metaphor. The thought of her panties in a twist had the predictable effect on my dictable parts. “I’ve been saving up a little bit out of my allowance every week.” That comment from the far left field of some alternative universe, made her smile.
“I don’t get it,” she said.
“Yes, you do, I told her. “Get it the fuck out of here. You always said you’d love to go out west and do something with horses, right? Oklahoma? Go. Fucking go to fucking Oklahoma. Get away from this cesspool. That’s 25K. Not a fortune, but enough to get started, if you’re smart, and you’re smart. Go. Kiss this fucking place good-bye.”
“What about you?”
What about me?
Hell, wrote George Bernard Shaw, is a place made for the wicked and the wicked are very comfortable there. Much the same could be said of Chicago. In short, it’s my kind of town.
“Kiss me good-bye, too,” I said.
It was our last kiss.