She wore death like a winter coat; and she hung it on the coat-rack by the door. You live as long in this business as I have, murder takes on a very particular perfume; expensive, most likely French. The kind that lingers after she leaves, staining the air with its heavy scent. With each rotten case that finds its way onto my desk, there's always that damn perfume with it. That, and a dead body.
Her legs entered the room before she did; and boy did they do it in style. No amount of thigh could hide the fact that she was a widow; recent, judging by the pale skin on her finger and the 3-weeks worth of holiday luggage she had under her eyes. They say grief ages you ten years, but poverty will put you in a ditch before you're thirty-five.
I put out my cigarette in a gesture of politeness. She seemed to appreciate it. Another would probably find its way to my lips before the conversation was over. You see, I'm addicted; not to the nicotine, but to the smoke. The aftertaste. The consequences of the habit.
God, I could have read her lines for her if she had handed me the script. The dame was a decent actress, to be sure, better than most. Emotive and subtle. She betrayed herself though; her crossed legs, shifting seductively between paragraphs; her hands clasped respectfully in her lap, her eyes earnestly following mine, straining for a connection; it's all far too perfect. Too rehearsed.
Her story was much the same as most in this city. Drugs, gangs, murder; not necessarily in that order. The three major players in any modern urban production. Her husband had been a policeman by the name of Mike Sullivan. The name rang a bell, but the tolling was drowned out by the funeral marches of a thousand other dead coppers, all "just trying to make a difference". If the mafia doesn't get you first, you eventually wind up just like everyone else; drunk, dirty, and dishonest. This city spits out good intentions like soggy tobacco.
Of course, she championed his innocence. Poor Mikey; poor straight-edge, dough-eyed Mikey. Four nights ago, he never came home. The folks down at the station refused to acknowledge that he even existed, telling her they'd lock her up if she kept asking after him. If only someone could bring justice to poor Mikey; find who did the job, and enact a swift and brutal retribution.
Poor Mikey indeed.
She was obviously hiding something, but I agreed to take the case. It had been a slow week; my evening plans involved winning a staring contest with the bottom of a whisky bottle. I took her details, and she disappeared back into the ether; or wherever rich broads with dead husbands go. I personally didn't care. The promised pay was more than generous, and my habits had a way of draining both my health and my wallet. The night was still young and naïve, so I donned my hat and coat, and ventured out onto the unforgiving streets.
When one desires information, there are two places to go. First is the police-station; grease a few palms and they'll let you in on a few local secrets. But the details are sterile; they lack any depth, like a hooker without a history. The second, and my personal favorite, is Fifth Street. A place where the best of the worst and the worst of the best collide in an explosion of sex, corruption and loose morals. An impenetrable stretch of debauchery, immune to all who seek its downfall. A guilty refuge to some, but a home to many. The information here was more elusive; but the hunt was always half the fun.
I decided to visit my old haunt, the Fat Cat Saloon. The kind of place that plays jazz Sunday through Friday, and harder jazz on a Saturday. The folks that frequented the joint were of a particular kind. Indulgent. The kind that nurses a bottle like a new-born. Liquor makes for strange drunken bedfellows, I'll tell you – and no-one embodies that phrase more than Louie Driskil. The man was a giant, with a face like a car crash and a personality to boot. He worked down at the old steel mill, but rumor had it he moonlighted as a hired goon, running violent errands for the underground's rich and powerful.
Him and I had a… working relationship. I kept the booze running, and he did the same with his mouth.
I spotted him at his usual table. He wore his evening suit – a sure sign he had just come back from a job. Judging by the empty bottle on the table, it had been an eventful one.
"Evening Louie. What are we celebrating?"
He didn't respond. I pulled a seat over, and set about offering him a cigarette. After a brief pause, he accepted with a nod.
The flame from the match briefly illuminated his face. Louie had scars where other men had wrinkles. After a brief puff, he returned his gaze to a vague point on the opposite wall, exhaling slowly through his nose, allowing the smoke to hang around him like a spectral motif. Something was troubling him.
I signaled to the barkeep, and he nodded. The sound of cold rocks clinking in a shallow glass seemed to convince Louie of my sincerity, and he spoke in a low growl.
"You want to know what I've been up to, don't you Frank? Where I've been…"
"Louie, old pal, I'm worried about you. Look at ya, you're practically sober. Something's definitely troubling you, and old Franky's here to set your mind at ease."
Strangely, he didn't smile at that. This was a familiar game to us. Each had what the other wanted, but neither wanted to give it up without a little foreplay. He had a wealth of insider information, and I left my judgement at the door and my wallet with the bartender. I often wondered if I was the only one Louie trusted with the details of his nightly errands. Didn't really matter in the end, I guess.
Jazz seems to bring out the melancholy in every criminal.
Louie's recanting of the past few hours was pretty standard, at first. Orders were to lean on a shopkeeper downtown, who apparently wasn't appreciative enough of the Don's protection. It was a pizza joint, and the owner had gotten a little cocky, having recently come into some money. A straightforward intimidation job. They had arrived at the joint a little early, him and two other guys, hoping to take advantage of any short-lived hospitality; and what would be outside but a black-and-white mobile? Now, Louie's no pushover, but only a prize meatball would get into more trouble than was necessary, especially with the cops. So, they decided to wait it out across the street.
Only then did I notice his hand was shaking. Whatever had gotten to Louie had gotten deep. It seemed like the alcohol wasn't a pleasure, but a necessity.
"We didn't even see it happen, Frank. We just heard the screaming… By the time we reached the window, it was too late. God…The blood, Frank. There was so much of it; it was leaking out onto the pavement. Everyone inside was dead. Now, I've seen dead before, Frank. Hell, I've killed before but this… this was something else. I couldn't even tell where one corpse ended and the others started. It was everywhere; the floors, the tables, the walls, even the fucking ceiling. The ceiling Frank!"
Louie's voice was becoming more and more urgent, his bloodshot gaze searching mine for some kind of relief from the horror he was unfolding. I moved back, alarmed, waiting for him to bust my chops for being so gullible. But he just kept staring, his ugly mug pale as plaster. After a couple of seconds something seemed to give, and he slumped back down his chair.
"We got out of there as fast as we could. They both went to tell the Don what we saw, and I…" He gestured to his surroundings, "Came to try and forget."
A couple of minutes later, I left the Fat Cat Saloon. It had begun to rain, and the party had since moved indoors. I pulled up my trench-coat to my ears. My insides were already numb; I hoped I could prevent my outsides from suffering the same fate.