This little tale is a sequel to yesterday’s story, How I Became a Detective. I hate to leave loose ends lying about, or whatever the metaphor is.
The Case of the Purloined Goldfish
The call came in at 2:35 on a Friday afternoon. My partner and I were jawboning about the up and coming weekend. My partner, Carl Peterson, has been a detective for forty years or so, both as a cop and private. Me, my name’s Herbert Walker. I’ve been a PI for a little over two years.
So there we were, in our office above the hardware store, talking about our big weekend plans. Carl said he was going to work over the weekend, going through the internet to try to run down a skip-trace we were working on. That wasn’t unusual, him working weekends and nights. He told me that, at his age, he has forgone the pleasures of the flesh. Or to put it in his words, “I’ve given up on women. The ones that would be interested in me are either buried or comatose.” Carl is seventy-two years old.
He asked me what hot spot I was going to hit that night. Of course, he was kidding me. Carl knew I was shy around women. I’m thirty-five years old, and though I’ve had a few dates now and again, I just don’t know how to talk to women. I don’t think I’m too bad looking. Many times I’m complimented on my blue eyes or my smile, but when that happens, I blush and murmur a weak “thank you” and then scurry home to lose myself in a good detective yarn.
When the phone rang, Carl grabbed it. His end of the conversation went something like this: “Private Investigations, Inc. (the name of our agency). May I help you? Yes … yes … no … you want my partner. Please hold a minute.”
Putting his hand over the mouthpiece, he thrust the receiver in my direction and said, “It’s some woman, she wants the genius that solved the McNally murder.” He was referring to our first case in which I got lucky and caught the murderer of our client.
Taking the phone I said, “Herbert Walker speaking. May I help you?”
“You most certainly may if you are the young man I saw on television.” To my never-ending chagrin, I had allowed myself to be interviewed by the local television stations once the case broke wide open. I’m still embarrassed about that, but Carl told me it was good for business.
When I assured the caller that I indeed was the person she was seeking, she asked if I could come and see her right away. “I’ve got a mystery on my hands and I’m sure you are the only one to solve it.”
I asked her name. “I’m Mrs. Gerald Lawless.”
I asked what her problem was. “I don’t want to go into it over the phone. You never know who might be listening in.” Obviously, I wasn’t the only one reading too many detective novels.
Seeing as how things were slow and I was thinking of cutting out early, I wrote down the woman’s address and told her I was on my way. When I hung up and showed the address to Carl, he said, “That’s a ritzy neighborhood. Don’t give her no discount. She can afford to pay the full ticket. Now get out of here, I’ve got work to do.”
That’s Carl, always looking out for our business. If it was up to me, we’d be charging fifty dollars a day, plus expenses. If it was good enough for Philip Marlowe, then it ought to be good enough for Walker and Peterson.
As I drove east toward Mrs. Lawless’ house, I thought it wouldn’t be so bad if I had a date that night. I love to read, detective stories in particular. But, on a Friday or Saturday night, it can get a bit lonesome thinking of the revelry going on that I’m not a part of. It was not so much the festivities; it was that I would like to sit and talk with a pretty woman. Tell her of my hopes and dreams and hear of hers. However, it didn’t seem to be in the cards for me in this life. So, as I drove, I mentally shrugged and wondered what Mrs. Lawless had in store for me. As it played out, she turned my life upside down—indirectly, that is.
When I arrived, I could not see the house for the tropical foliage, and my ingress was hindered by a large wrought-iron gate blocking the driveway. Looking to my left, I perceived what looked like a call box, decided it was, and pushed the button affixed thereon. After a minute, I was rewarded with a response. “Yes, what is it?” Not a warm response, but a response nevertheless.
“My name is Herbert Walker. Mrs. Lawless is expecting me.”
There were no further words from the box, but the gates swung inward and I proceeded forward. The driveway wasn’t long, and after about a hundred feet, it curved to the left where the house came into view. It was a modest affair, considering the neighborhood. There was a massive Cadillac SUV and an older Toyota parked in front. I pulled my heap next to the Toyota so it wouldn’t look so out of place.
As I made my way to the front door, I passed a small cement pond filled with goldfish. I dallied for a moment. I hadn’t seen a goldfish pond since I was a kid, and it evoked pleasant reminiscences of a bygone youth. Leaving my memories at the pond, I continued on. Before I could reach my objective, the front door opened and there stood an angel—an angel with a scowl on her face. She wasn’t beautiful in the modern super-model sort of way. But she was beautiful in the old-fashioned Norman Rockwell sort of way, which to me is the better of the two.
She had fair hair, green eyes, and if she would smile, I’m sure that too would be beautiful. From the bottom up, she wore high heels, tight-fitting slacks (if that is what they still call women’s pants) and a blouse (ditto). She was a couple of inches shorter than me, and I judged her to be about thirty-years old. I was so enthralled—no, enchanted would be a better word to describe my state of mind—that I stood there like the idiot that I am, with my mouth hanging open.
That’s about the time my angel said, “If you’re coming in. then come in. We’re letting the air-conditioning out.”
Without an avenue of retreat, I shut my mouth and entered the house, where once again I balled things up. “Mrs. Lawless, I’m Herbert Walker.”
“I know who you are. You announced yourself at the gate. And I’m not Mrs. Lawless. Just follow me, please, and I’ll take you to her.”
Without waiting for a reply, she turned and started down a hallway, with me in fast pursuit as her heels clicked on the Italian tiles. After a few steps, she abruptly came to a halt, so abruptly that I collided with her. Before I could manage an inept apology, she turned to me and in a soft, sweet tone said, “I’m sorry. I’m having a horrible day. Something has happened and through no fault of my own, it may cost me my job. So please forgive my actions up till now.” She stuck out her dainty little hand and asked, “Friends?”
Of course, we’re friends! Friends for life, is what I thought. However, I said only, “Sure,” as I took her hand and shook it. Though what I really wanted to do was pull her to me and kiss her. She had that kind of effect on me.
Before we could resume our trek, we were accosted by a young boy holding a model B-29 bomber. Making engine noises, he ran toward us; at the last possible moment before running into us, he did a pivot any NFL halfback would have been proud of and returned from whence he came. My guide informed me, “That’s Mrs. Lawless’ grandson. Sometimes he can be a handful.”
We finally made it to a room, a room that in my mind I called “The White Room.” The carpet was white without a stain upon it. There was a long sofa, white of course. And three chairs were situated in front of said sofa. Anyone want to bet on the color of the chairs? Between the sofa and the chairs was a coffee table that looked as though it was made of ebony. It was the only thing of color in the entire room. Opposite the sofa was a fireplace of white brick. It didn’t look like there had been any recent fires because there was no discernible soot. I thought: No respectable soot would dare show itself in this white, pristine room.
My escort told me to sit and make myself comfortable and that Mrs. Lawless would be with me presently. Before she left, I wanted to ask her name. But, as usual, I became tongue-tied and all I could manage was an ineffective “Thank you.”
A short while later, an elderly woman came in and announced, “I’m Mrs. Lawless, but my friends call me Jessie. Now sit down, young man. (I had stood upon her arrival.) I’m a tough old broad, no need for any of that stuff with me.” I liked her right away.
As we settled ourselves, she asked if I would like some tea. Tea? Where were we? In some Agatha Christie story? I declined the tea and asked her what her difficulty was.
“Well, it’s a complicated situation. You see, if my suspicions are correct, it can only mean that someone I brought to my bosom has betrayed me.”
Thinking this might be a case I could sink my teeth into, I asked her to continue.
“It’s just this … Mr. … I’m sorry, I seem to have forgotten your name?”
“It’s Walker, ma’am, Herbert Walker.”
“Yes, of course you are. Well, Mr. Walker, someone has stolen my goldfish!”
I liked the old girl, but really, perhaps she had entered her dotage, although I didn’t say as much. I merely said, “I saw the goldfish as I came in.”
For a moment she looked at me as though I might have been from outer space or had two heads. Then a light shone in her countenance and she said, “Oh, I know what you’re talking about. No, the goldfish of which I allude is a gold goldfish. I mean it is made of solid gold and was given to me by my husband on our fifth wedding anniversary. It’s not terribly valuable, maybe a few thousand dollars or so. But its sentimental value to me is priceless.”
I think she sensed that I needed more of an explanation, so she hurriedly added, “I’ll start at the beginning.”
“Yes, please do.”
“Well, first of all, I’m a widow. Jerry, that’s my husband, passed away ten years ago this June.”
I was hoping that I wasn’t going to have to endure a recitation covering the last ten years. I was spared; she got right to the point.
“I kept the goldfish here on the mantel. And when I went to bed last night, it was the last thing I looked at. And this morning when I came into this room it was gone! No one has been in this house except my son and his wife—they’re visiting for a few days—and my assistant. You’ve met her. Her name is Rebecca Myers. I asked her about the goldfish and she says she is as mystified as I am.”
At that juncture, I felt that I had to interject a thought or two. “I saw a small child a while ago.”
“That was my grandchild. His name is Charles; he and his sister are here with their parents. But they cannot reach the mantel. It either has to be my daughter-in-law, her name is Christy, or Rebecca. I know my son would not have taken it. I hate to think it might be Christy, but I have never warmed up to her.”
A question popped into my mind and I gave it voice. “Where are your son and daughter-in-law now?”
“They’re out for the day with Susan, that’s my granddaughter.”
“So you haven’t talked with your daughter-in-law yet about the goldfish?”
“No, not yet.”
It was becoming obvious that this wasn’t a case for a private dick. It was either a police matter or a family matter. I stood to leave, saying, “Why not call your son and ask if he knows where the goldfish is? Perhaps he took it to show someone. I assume they left before you awakened.”
She fidgeted in her seat and said, “I don’t need a detective to tell me that. I’ve already spoken with him and he knows nothing about it. And I do not want the police involved. Though I would like the goldfish back, I’d rather drop the whole thing if you can’t determine who took it. Of course, I’ll have to let Rebecca go. I just can’t take a chance if it was her.”
That last statement put me back in my seat. I couldn’t walk out and let that angel lose her job without at least giving it a shot. So I said, “I’ll speak with Miss Myers, it is Miss, isn’t it?”
“She is not married.”
With relief at that bit of news, I exhaled the breath I did not know I was holding. I continued, “I’ll speak with her and your daughter-in-law and see if I can fathom anything. Does Miss Myers live here?”
“No, she arrives in the morning before I arise and prepares my tea and toast; she has a key to the house.”
“What time do you expect your son and Christy back?”
“Not until dinner time, about seven or so.”
“I’ll speak with Miss Myers now and return at seven. Perhaps you’ll be so kind as to invite me to dinner. I think I can discern more at the dinner table by observing your daughter-in-law as we speak of the missing goldfish, which I assume, will be the main topic of discussion.” I then asked where I might find Miss Myers. I was told she was probably in the study and was given the appropriate directions on how to find it. I left Mrs. Lawless sitting in The White Room looking much like the lady of the manor that she was.
I didn’t think for a minute that Rebecca Myers had taken the dingus, but I had to go through the motions. And besides, I wanted to stand next to her and smell her perfume and look into those green eyes once again.
She was in the study, seated at a desk and going through some papers when I entered. I stood waiting for her to acknowledge my presence. Finally, she turned to me and said, “May I help you with something?”
Feeling awkward, I stammered, “I presume that you know why I was called here. It was to find the dingus, I mean the goldfish. Mrs. Lawless has, in her mind, narrowed it down to you and her daughter-in-law as the likely suspects.”
I had more to say, but interrupted me with, “Do you want to search me? Is that why you are here?
“I very much want to lay my hands on you, but not in that fashion.”
Where in hell did that come from? Did I say that? And if I did, did I say it out loud? And if I did say it out loud can I expect a slap across the face at any moment now? Those were my thoughts as I readied myself for the onslaught, be it physical or verbal.
However, nothing happened. Well, something happened, but not what I expected. She blushed and smiled at the same time. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
I threw caution to the wind (for once in my life) and said, “Oh the hell with it. I just wanted to see you before I left. I know you didn’t take the damn fish and that your job is on the line, so I’m coming back later to see what the daughter-in-law has to say for herself.”
At that point, I had to take a breath. I had spit all those words out like I was firing a machine gun. The words ran so close together, I doubt if she understood half of what I said.
Before I could think of any more inane things to say, she walked over and kissed me on the cheek, saying, “You’re cute.” Then she left the room, leaving me standing there like the mope that I am. I decided it was a good time to take my leave. I made it to the front door without being accosted by precocious children, grand dames, or beautiful assistants.
Once outside, I saw Charles, the grandson, playing with a plastic boat at the goldfish pond. He must have resigned his commission in the Air Force and enlisted in the Navy. Having once been a boy myself, I dawdled to watch as he displayed his maritime skills complete with suitable engine noises.
As I watched him, my eye caught the glint of a small object lying on the bottom of the pond. My attention was drawn to it because of the sunlight reflecting off of it. Removing my coat and rolling up my sleeve, I thrust my hand into the warm, algae-laced water. My fingers grasped what I was after, and lo and behold. I held the dingus in my hand!
Of course, my actions did not go unnoticed by the naval commander, and he asked, “What are you doing with Fred?”
“Fred?” I rejoined. “What do you know of him?”
The little monster proceeded to tell me. “Fred is my friend. He was lonely all by himself and besides, goldfish need water to live.”
“So you put him in the pond?”
He didn’t answer right away; he was intent on discharging depth charges or causing some other sort of mayhem. Eventually, he deigned to answer my query.
“I knew he needed water, so I put him in here this morning while I was waiting for everyone to wake up.” He added, “I don’t think Fred likes being out of the water. Maybe you should put him back in now.”
“Just one more question. How did you get him off the mantel?”
“I dragged a chair over and stood on it.”
Out of the mouths of babes! And I call myself a detective. Assuring Captain Nemo that I would take good care of Fred, I headed back toward the house.
My persistent knocking was finally answered by Rebecca. Keeping Fred firmly enclosed in my hand, I walked past her and went straight to The White Room, leaving her to close the door and follow.
Mrs. Lawless was still there and I presented Fred to her with these words, “Compliments of Private Investigations, Inc. I suggest you ask your grandson how it found its way off the mantel.” As Rebecca entered the room, she heard me say, “The only fee I ask is that you apologize to Miss Myers for having thought her capable of such an act.”
Without waiting for a reply, I turned and left the room, avoiding Rebecca’s eyes. I mean what was the use? She’s beautiful, I’m a klutz, and she wouldn’t want to have anything to do with someone like me.
I made it as far as my car before she caught up with me. “Just a minute, mister. Do think you can pull a girl’s bacon out of the fire and then run away without so much as a by-your-leave?”
I started to say that I was sorry, but she cut me off. “I want you to come to my place tonight so that I can make you dinner. I’m a very good cook by the way. Here.” She handed me a piece of paper that looked as though it had been torn in haste from a notebook. Upon it was an address and phone number. Continuing, she said, “I’ll expect you at eight.”
Being my old idiotic self, I told her that was not necessary and that I was happy to have helped out.
That’s when she raised to her full height and said, “I’m asking you for a date. What happened in there has no bearing on the matter. I had a feeling that if I waited for you to get around to asking, I’d be an old maid. Now don’t disappoint me. I’ll see you at eight.” She turned and quickly reentered the house.
I, of course, stood there with a stupid look on my face, but slowly the dim-witted expression changed into a broad—a very broad—grin. I almost jumped into the air and clicked my heels together.
When I got back to the office, Carl asked me if I had solved the case. He was being facetious. But when I informed him that I had indeed solved it, his manner became business-like and he asked me what fee I had charged. I told him that, for the agency, nothing. But that I personally made a score. He started to say something, but I forestalled further comment by saying, “Carl, old buddy, I think it’s about time I got married.”
If anyone feels so inclined, I’d appreciate it if you’d like my Facebook page. You can click on the button on the right side of the page, near to top. Thank you.
This one you can blame on Barb Taub. She got me to thinking about channeling Raymond Chandler. I tried and failed miserably. But here it is anyway. If you have any bitch, contact her at: https://barbtaub.com/ and leave me out of it.
How I Became a Detective
My name is Spade, Sam Spade. Not really … it’s Herbert Walker, and I am a PI, a peeper, a gumshoe, a shamus, a private dick. You know, a private detective, and I work out of Hollywood. No, not that Hollywood; Hollywood, Florida—although sometimes my business will take me as far afield as Fort Lauderdale. It’s just that Sam Spade, along with Philip Marlowe, have been heroes of mine since I was a little boy and first read of their dangerous exploits. I am unmarried and have no dependents. I have always been shy around women, so it was easier to go home after work and read a good detective novel than to go out and try to meet a good woman.
I wasn’t always a detective. I used to be an accountant with Monroe and Monroe until one day the FBI, DEA, and the IRS swept into our offices and led Mr. Monroe, along with the other Mr. Monroe, out in handcuffs. I was told that it was the culmination of a six-month investigation, and it was known that I was “clean.” So I was allowed to go my own way, which at the time was very satisfying news indeed. However, when things had settled down a bit, and I was able to ponder my future, I realized that here I was, thirty-three years old and unemployed. And there was no possibility of a reference, seeing as how both Monroes were being held without bail. I didn’t think a request to see them in their prison cell for the purpose of getting a reference would get me very far. I’m sure they had far more pressing concerns on their minds.
Then it occurred to me that it wasn’t the catastrophe I thought it was. In fact, it was an opportunity to do something I had wanted to do all my life—become a detective. So I went to bed with images of busty blondes and found diamonds dancing in my head as I fell into a restful sleep.
The next morning, I set about fulfilling my dream. My plan was to use my savings to get an office and advertise my services. Then I would just wait for the clients to roll in. However, before I even left the house, I remembered that both Sam and Philip were always being threatened with the loss of their license by some hard-nosed lieutenant on the force. If even back in the 30s and 40s there were detective licenses to be lost, then how much more cumbersome would it be to obtain a license today, considering the paperwork and the prolificacy of hard-nosed lieutenants. I was soon to find out.
Thank God for the internet. From the comfort of my rental apartment, I ascertained the requirements.
They weren’t too rigorous, but it would take a while to comply with them. Like two years! Yes, two years’ experience working for an agency or the college equivalent. And a surety bond! With my meager savings, that was out of my reach. I was in a hurry to start rescuing damsels in distress and taking care of the bad guys. I didn’t have two years to waste. What was I going to do? Bulldog Drummond would not have been dissuaded by these minor obstacles, and neither would I. The state would allow one to work as an investigator without a license as long as it was as an intern at a licensed agency.
Luckily, I was still at my computer. I went to the state database of Private Investigator licenses and made a list of those licenses that had not been renewed and whose last known business addresses were in close proximity to my abode.
I won’t bore you with the details, but I ran down a man who had retired years ago and was living in what we used to call a nursing home. Today they are called Assisted Living Facilities. His name was Carl Peterson.
When I inquired of the young lady at the reception desk if I could see Mr. Peterson, she beamed a hundred-watt smile in my direction and said, “Oh, Mr. Peterson will be so pleased to have company.” She got on the loud speaker and hailed a Miss Sweeny to the front. I was told that Miss Sweeney would escort me to Mr. Peterson and that I could await her arrival in the waiting area off to the right. Thanking her, I left to take up my vigil for Miss Sweeny.
She was a perky young thing, was Miss Sweeney. No more than eighteen and wearing a badge that proclaimed her to be a “Volunteer.” How nice. She zeroed in on me and in a breathless, sexy kind of voice (far too sexy for one of her tender age), she said, “If you will follow me, sir, I’ll take you to Mr. Peterson.”
I was tempted to quote Shakespeare and say, “Lay on McDuff.” But in the end thought better of it. After all, I was champing at the bit to get detecting and did not want to slow things up by explaining to this very nice young lady who William Shakespeare was. As we walked the halls, she told me Mr. Peterson was in the dayroom watching television with his friends.
When we entered the room, dayroom that is, I noticed that some of the inhabitants may have already passed on to the Great Beyond. A few of the conclave looked as though they hadn’t moved in a generation, but that was no concern of mine. I was there on business.
Miss Sweeney walked up to a man slouched in an armchair, not looking at the television that I’m sure had some inane program on, but staring at the blank wall before him. He was wearing pajamas under a bathrobe that was unfastened and hung open. He looked comatose to me, but Miss Sweeney bounced up to him and with a twinkle in her voice and, perky as ever, said, “Mr. Peterson, have I a treat for you! This nice young gentleman has come for a visit.”
If Mr. Peterson thought my visit a treat, he hid it well. Either that or whatever held his interest on the wall was more important to him than my miserable presence. He did not look at the comely Miss Sweeney as he said in a feeble voice, “Why don’t you all just leave me to die in peace?”
Miss Sweeney laughed as she said, “I know you don’t mean that. I’ll leave you men alone so you can talk boy talk. Then she left the dayroom, ignoring reality as most eighteen-year-olds do.
I stood there for a moment thinking that this had been a wasted effort and that I’d have to scare up another old codger if I wanted to work under an existing license. As I started to turn away, I heard a not-so-feeble voice say, “Where ya goin’, sonny? I thought you wanted to converse with me?”
Turning back, I informed my ill-mannered host that he had made it crystal clear my company was not wanted, and it was my intention to leave him alone to die in peace. With a short laugh he retorted, “That’s just an act I put on for the help. I’d be pleased to jawbone with ya for a spell. Hell, I ain’t got nothin’ better to do; this here wall lost its fascination for me a long time ago.”
As I looked around for a place to sit, he stood, cinching his bathrobe about him, and told me to follow him. “Let’s get us some fresh air; a body can’t breathe ’round here.” What was there to do but trudge after him? After all, I still wanted to be a detective.
He led me to an area encircled by three very large oak trees. It’s probably why they called the place Oakwood Manor. Under one of the trees were two concrete benches facing one another. Peterson pointed to one and politely invited me to sit down. By the time I had alighted, he was sitting straight and tall on the other bench.
“Well, sonny, what’s on your mind?”
The man who spoke those words was not the same man I’d met a few minutes earlier. His piercing blue eyes were focused and stared right into my own eyes. In fact, I had to avert my gaze; he seemed to be reading my mind. But that was silly. There was no way he could know why I was there. Looking in his general direction, but not into his eyes, I squared my shoulders and told him what I had in mind.
When I had finished, he said nothing. He just sat there with a thoughtful look on his face. Finally, he said, “So, you want to take a short cut? And what makes you so sure you could detect yourself out of a brown paper bag?”
Obviously this gambit failed, or at least it had with this individual. Rather than answer his pointed questions, I told him I was sorry for wasting his time and stood to leave.
“Hold on there, sonny. First of all, I’ve got nothing but time, so don’t let that worry you. And if you’re going to be a detective, you’re gonna have to have a little thicker hide on ya.”
Now I was confused, but I sat back down and looked earnestly at him (at least I hoped I had an earnest look on my face) and asked, “I don’t understand. Are you open to my proposal or not? I’ll pay you a percentage of my income if you will reinstate your license and allow me to work under it.”
“Yes,” he rejoined, “I heard you the first time.”
Then he smiled and leaned back, “What’s your name?”
“It’s Walker, sir. Herbert Walker.”
“Well, Herbert Walker, maybe we can make a deal. Detecting is not like Chandler and Hammett wrote about. There are very few long legged blondes involved—more’s the pity. Most of the work is skip tracing and background checks with an occasional missing person case thrown in for good measure.”
After a yawn and a stretch, he continued, “You’re going to need more than my license. You’re going to need the expertise I’ve accumulated in over forty-eight years of detecting both as a cop and as a private dick. So here’s my deal. I’ve got all the money I need. I’m only here because, a few years back, I fell and broke my hip and couldn’t take care of myself, so I went along with my daughter—who never visits me by the way—and allowed myself to be shuttled to this graveyard-in-waiting. And the first thing she did was finagled me into signing a Power of Attorney form when I was buzzed out on pain pills. Then she sold my house out from under me. I guess the only thing I can say for her is that she didn’t keep the loot; she deposited it into my bank account. So, money is not the problem. The problem is that I’m slowly going crazy. If you want a full partner, then you’ve got yourself a deal. It’s up to you.”
I had listened to his spiel with polite attention. What he said did make sense, but still I envisioned a solitary office. Then again there was “Spade and Archer.” Maybe we could work a deal.
He must have been reading my mind because he said, “My name is on the license. You can’t call it Peterson and Walker or Walker and Peterson. But I don’t give a damn what you call it just as long as I’ve got something to do. Why not call the firm ‘Private Investigations, Inc.?’ It’s classy, and no snoop from the state will come around asking why your name is on the firm’s letterhead.” The long and the short of it was we shook hands and became partners.
It took me a few days to find the right locale for our office. I wanted a walk-up office over a semi-seedy bar. I thought the atmosphere would be good for business. You know, give the aura of underhandedness so the underworld would more readily trust us. But try as I might, I just couldn’t find an office located over a bar of any sort, seedy or otherwise. So, I had to settle for a place over a hardware store. But there was a seedy bar half a block down the street.
It was one of those buildings built back in the twenties just before the land bust. The place had not been rented in a while. There was a fine film of dust over everything. And “everything” consisted of an old wooden desk, two file cabinets (empty), and two client chairs. There was one window that overlooked the street in the 25’ x 30’ room. There was also a bathroom/closet off to the side that one person at a time could fit into. But then again, how many people does one want in the bathroom at any one time. The office also had the additional benefit of having a two-room apartment next door. I thought it would be just right for Carl (we were now calling one another by our Christian names). It was a two-story building and the office and apartment covered the entire second floor.
By the time I found the office and signed a lease, Carl called me and told me we were in business. His license had been reinstated and the bond was in place. I, in turn, told him I’d pick him up the next day and bring him to the office and show him around. I didn’t tell him about the apartment because I wanted it to be a surprise.
The next thing I had to do was advertise our wares. Let people know we were around. I checked with the local newspaper, but they wanted $300.00 dollars a day for a little three-square-inch ad! After I hung up, I realized that I hadn’t thought of how the ad should read. The lady in the advertising department at the newspaper said a three-square-inch ad would catch the eye and was more apt to bring in business than an ad in the classifieds.
So, I set about designing something that Sam or Philip might have done in my place. What do you think?
Then I had to find a publication in which to place the ad that would not bust my budget. The deal I had with Carl was that he would take care of the license fee and the premium for the bond and contribute his expertise. I, on the other hand, would cover the rent, cost of advertising, and do most, if not all, of the leg work.
Now, I’m not much of a drinker, but I thought I should start spending time at the bar down the street. I had to start cultivating my underworld contacts and maybe, just maybe, I might get a clue where to place my ad so that the “right” people would see it. The right people being, of course, people in trouble with ne’er-do-wells.
Before I even went inside the bar, I saw what I was looking for. In a paper rack outside was a publication entitled “City Streets, The Dark Side.” I picked up a copy; it was quite hefty for a free paper. So, without further ado, I took said publication back to the office, opened it to the page that gave the advertising department’s phone number, and made the call.
I was informed I could have a three-inch-square, black and white ad for $75.00 for the week (they’re published weekly) if it was camera ready. If not, there would be an additional $25.00 one-time charge. It sounded fair to me, so I closed up the office and headed across town to place the first of what I thought would be many advertisements for our detective agency. I liked the sound of that, our detective agency.
I gave the girl at the counter the copy of the ad I had written by hand and waited for her to squeal, “Oh, so you’re a private detective!” But she did no such thing. Instead she was very business-like and made a suggestion that I not include the phone number. She told me that I may get too many inquiries of the not-serious sort. She said I’d be surprised at the time some people have on their hands with nothing better to do than harass innocent people. She went on to suggest that I use our street address in that it would separate the curious from the serious customer. I had to inform her that in our business our clients were clients and not customers. She smiled at that and said, “Whatever.”
We were in luck. The paper was coming out the next day and I had made the cut-off deadline, so the ad would be in the next edition. Now that I had taken care of that, all I had to do was sit back and wait to be inundated by people seeking our help. I went home that night and called Carl. After a short delay, he came on the phone and told me not to bother picking him up the next day. He was feeling a little under the weather. “It was probably the goddamn Salisbury steak we had at lunch. I can’t wait to get out of this goddamn place!”
I told him about placing the ad and that by this time tomorrow we’d have our first few clients. He told me to hold on, things didn’t work that fast. He said the ad may take months to bring in even one client. He went on to say that, in the next day or so when he was feeling better, he’d go to the office with me and make a few calls to some old cronies, see if he could scare us up a little business. He rang off with the admonition not to be disappointed if there wasn’t a crowd outside the office tomorrow when I got there. I told him I didn’t expect a crowd, but during the day someone would respond to our ad. And you know, I wasn’t that far off.
Of course, no one showed up the next day. But the day after that, there were four letters waiting for me when I arrived at the office. With trembling hands, I picked them up off the floor and carried them over to the desk as though they were a sacred sacrament. Once seated, I opened the first letter and a picture fell out. Must be a missing person case, I thought. Without looking at the picture, I put it off to the side for the time being. I wanted to read about the case first.
As I read the missive, my face must have turned a bright crimson, for the letter was obscene. Now my hands were trembling again, but for a completely different reason. Then I looked at the picture and could not believe what I saw. It was a picture of … of … I cannot bring myself to describe what I beheld. Suffice it to say that it was a portion of the male anatomy at full attention! I quickly dropped the picture as though it were on fire and brushed it and the letter into the wastepaper basket. Just someone’s idea of a joke, I thought. But no, the other three contained similar content, although only two had pictures enclosed.
Outraged, I collected the offending material, including what I had thrown in the wastepaper basket, and stormed out the door. What kind of publication had I associated myself with? I hadn’t bothered to read any of the articles; in fact I hadn’t even picked up a copy to see how our ad looked. I reached the bar and grabbed a copy from the rack and started to page through the vile sheet looking for our ad. As I progressed, I saw that the articles were prosaic in nature and quite harmless. Then, on the last page, there was our ad, down in the lower left-hand corner, surrounded by smaller ads in the conventional classified format, they were all in color. I liked the way our black and white ad stuck out, and for a moment forgot my anger as I stood there admiring that little three-inch advertisement. Then I remembered what caused me to pick up the paper in the first place and read some of the surrounding advertisements. I could not believe what I was reading. They were all of a sexual nature! How could my ad—our ad—be placed among such filth? Well, I was going to find out.
By the time I reached the paper’s office, I had calmed somewhat. I explained my consternation to the woman at the counter and showed her the page containing our ad and told her to read some of the surrounding ads. At that point, a small smile played across her lips and she asked me what kind of business I was in. “The private detecting business, naturally.”
She smiled again and said, “I think I know what happened. May I see the letters you received this morning?” I didn’t think she should see what I had read earlier and when she saw my hesitation she said, “Now, Mr. Walker, I must know all the facts if I’m to remedy your problem.” So I handed her the letters, but I held on to the pictures.
After reading the first two epistles, with that same slight smile, she looked up and inquired, “You mentioned pictures?”
My hand involuntarily went to the pocket that held the offensive images. Now she knew I had them on me. She stood there with her hand out, as though she were the teacher expecting the wayward student to spit his gum out onto her proffered hand.
Reluctantly, very reluctantly, I reached into my coat and withdrew said pictures. Once she had them in her hand, she gave them a quick perusal and, with her usual smile, placed them and the letters on her desk, saying, “I’ll dispose of these later; now, to correcting our little mistake.”
She explained to me what had happened. It seems the last few pages of their publication advertises things of an adult nature, and because of the wording of my ad, someone inadvertently placed the ad in the wrong section.
Of course, my first remark upon hearing that was, “How could anyone misconstrue so simple an ad?”
Shaking her head slightly, she said, “May I make a suggestion?”
I answered in the affirmative.
“Change Private Dick to Private Investigator and then we’ll place it in a different section of the paper … one more conducive to the clientele you hope to cultivate.”
“I don’t see how that can make a difference.”
“Mr. Walker, I’m the professional. Please take my advice and I think you will be pleased with the response you receive.”
Shrugging my shoulders, I acquiesced. And as I was walking away from the counter, I saw her pick up the pictures and approach one of her female coworkers; but I reached the door and was out of the building before I could see what transpired next.
Driving back to the office, I was feeling dejected because now I would have to wait another whole week before I could get to work as a detective.
In the rush to procure the office and get the advertising started, I had neglected one very important item. Namely, the “office bottle.” Both Sam and Philip kept a bottle in their desk drawer. I like to think it was bourbon, but neither of them specified their poison. So, on the way back to the office, I stopped at a liquor store and bought the cheapest brand I could find. I wanted a quart bottle like they had, but nowadays all you can get is a liter. I also picked up two small glasses. It would have been better if they were jelly glasses, but one cannot have everything.
Upon returning to the office, I entered the closet/bathroom and emptied half the bottle down the sink. I don’t drink hard spirits and I didn’t want a full bottle sitting on the desk. I wanted it to look as though I had just had a belt before the client walked in.
Then, without anything else to do, I put my feet up on the desk, tilted back in my swivel chair, and thought of cases to come:
I just had my second shot from the office bottle and it wasn’t even ten o’clock yet. This morning was dragging. I put my feet up on the desk and leaned back in my chair. It had been a long, hard night. I don’t like to kill, but sometimes it’s kill or be killed. The police had just released me after hours of questioning. The lieutenant let me go with these words, “Okay, Walker, I can’t pin anything on you this time. The DA says it was justifiable, but from now on, I’m keepin’ an eye on you and if you slip, it’ll mean your license.”
It was at that point in my musings that I heard the voice of an angel, “Can a girl get a drink around here?” I opened one eye and beheld her silhouetted in my doorway. She had more curves than a mountain road, and her legs … well they weren’t quite as long as the Mississippi, but they’d do.
Taking my feet off the desk, I straightened in my seat and said, “The bar’s open.”
She was standing with her left hand on a cocked hip. Her lip-gloss was bright red—blood red—as were her nails. She was dressed in black, the skirt ending at mid-thigh. Her shoes matched the dress; they were black and sported five inch heels. As I took all this in, she sauntered in my direction.
When she reached the desk, I pointed to the client chair and said, “Sit, Beautiful.”
While she settled in, I poured bourbon into the two glasses and handed her one. She took the glass without saying a word and looked at me from over the rim as she demurely sipped the amber liquid. I, on the other hand, downed the contents of my glass in one shot, placed it, empty, on the desk, and waited to hear her story. I did not have to wait long.
“Mr. Walker, you are the only person I can trust, and you are the only person who can help me. Please say you will!”
My reverie was interrupted at that point by a knocking sound. Someone said, “Are you the detective?” I opened my eyes to see her standing in the doorway. No, not the client of my dreams, this lady was in her seventies if she was a day, and she wasn’t much over five feet tall.
Shaking my head to dissipate the last vestige of the blonde, I stood and told my visitor that I was indeed the detective. She did not saunter towards my desk, but purposely walked up to me and held out her hand, “I’m Kathleen McNally and I have need of your services.” I shook her hand and asked her to sit down, which she did, and I did the same. Once seated, she wasted no time getting to the point. “Mr. Smith has gone missing and I need you to find him before he gets into trouble.”
Ah, a missing person case, I thought. Aloud, I said, “First of all, tell me how you found us.”
“I saw your advertisement in the free paper.”
“You mean you did not get the wrong impression?”
“How could I? Don’t you think I know what a private dick is?” Then she smiled and a blush came to her cheeks, “Oh, I see what you mean. I like glancing through that section, but I also read every detective novel ever written. Well, maybe not all of them, but enough to know what you were peddling.”
Thus ensued a lively discussion on the finer points of detecting vis à vis Sam Spade vs. Philip Marlowe. Then we talked about the writing styles of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. We even got modern for a bit and dragged in Westlake and Block. We went on as only two die-hard enthusiasts could, until simultaneously we came to the same thought—that it would be best to get down to business. She fumbled in her handbag for a while, as all women do, then she came up with a picture. Handing it to me, she told me it was a picture of Mr. Smith.
According to the picture, Mr. Smith was a young girl about sixteen with pretty features and long black hair. Noticing my quizzical countenance, Ms. McNally took the picture back and laughed as she looked at it. “This is a picture of my granddaughter. Her name is Cathy, she was named after me.” Then she added, “I have a problem with her that I think I’ll need your help on, but first let’s find Mr. Smith.”
“Yes, let’s find Mr. Smith, but it would help if I knew what he looked like.”
“How silly of me.” It was back into the bag, and before long she came up with another picture, which she handed across the desk. It was black and white. Not the picture, but the face staring out at me from the picture. Mr. Smith, it seemed, was a cat.
Holding the photograph in my hands, I turned it toward her and asked, “Is this Mr. Smith?” Hoping against all hope that she once again had pulled out the wrong photo. But no, it was indeed Mr. Smith. So, my first case was to be a missing cat? Please, God, no!
Mrs. McNally filled me in on the missing feline. “He disappeared two nights ago and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him since. And I’m very worried. You see, he’s not an outdoor cat and he doesn’t know of the dangers associated with being outside. You know, cars and dogs and so forth.”
With a sigh, I nodded my head in agreement that the world could be a dark and dangerous place for an indoor cat who found himself out-of-doors. But then I added, “I don’t know if my case load will allow me to take on anything new at the moment.”
And that’s where she got me. Not as my imaginary blonde had done, with sex appeal, but with a sniffle and a single tear rolling down her right cheek.
“You know what? Maybe I can give it a little time. Why don’t I come by your place tomorrow about noon and I’ll see what I can turn up. Who knows, he may show up in the meantime. The smile on her face should have been payment enough, but when she asked what my rates were, I had to think fast because I had given no thought to what I should charge, so I said the first thing that came to mind: Philip Marlowe’s fee.
“Fifty dollars a day plus expenses.”
She gave me her address and her phone number along with a check for fifty dollars to cement our arrangement. I knew I would never cash the check; however, it would look nice hanging on the office wall. My first fee as a detective!
Before she left, I reminded her that she had said something about needing help concerning her granddaughter. “That’s right. She’s visiting me for the summer. Her parents sent her down here because she was falling in with a bad crowd and they thought if she got away for a while, and if I could introduce her to some nice young people, the grandkids of my friends and neighbors, she’d come back a little older and wiser.”
So far I saw no problem, but then she continued. “It wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be. There aren’t very many young people where I live, in fact they’re non-existent. So, really, there was no one for her to associate with. Of course, once in a while, a grandchild of one of my neighbors would visit with his or her parents, but those times were few and far between.”
The expression on my face must have conveyed that I was starting to lose interest; hence, she hurried up and got to the point. “She’s taken up with a boy a few years older than she, and he’s not very nice. In fact, I’d say he was a hoodlum in training. He’s got her staying out late and it’s gotten to the point that she will not listen to me. If you can’t help, I’ll have to call her parents for one of them to come and take her back home. I don’t think I could get her to the airport by myself. She’s a willful young thing, and if she doesn’t want to go home, then she’ll have to be dragged onto the plane.”
“So, what is it you think I can do?”
“You can have a talk with the boy and warn him off like you detectives do. But you better be careful, he’s a mean one. You should probably bring your gat with you.”
“My gat? Oh, you mean my gun.” I didn’t think it was the time to tell her I didn’t own a gun and that, even if I did, pulling a gun on a teenager for the purpose of scaring him was, I’m sure, on some level, illegal.
We agreed to meet at her condominium the next day at noon. I walked her down the stairs and to her car, a massive 1970s Cadillac. Her eyes barely came even with the dashboard and she had to look through the rim of the steering wheel to see out of the windshield. Little did I know as she drove off that the next time I saw her she would be dead.
The next day I headed out bright and early to see Carl. I wanted to get his advice about the cat caper and see if he thought we should get mixed up with the granddaughter and the boyfriend.
This time I didn’t need an escort. The girl at the desk told me I could find him either in the dayroom or out on the grounds. I came upon him on one of the benches under the three oaks.
“Hello, Carl, I hope you’re feeling better today.”
“That’s good because I need your help. We got a client from the ad I placed, but I don’t know how to handle it.” I filled him in on Mrs. McNally and her two concerns, Mr. Smith and the granddaughter. When I finished, he did not look any too happy.
“Let me get this straight. You took money from this woman to find her damn cat? And by the way, what fee did you quote her?”
When I told him, he rolled his eyes and told me fifty dollars wouldn’t cover lunch nowadays. Then he gave me the advice I was seeking. Well, maybe advice is not the right word. It was more like he gave me my marching orders.
“The goddamn cat probably went out to get laid. When he gets his rocks off, he’ll go back home. Now, you go and see the old broad, give her the money back. Tell her you have your paid informants on the lookout for the cat and not to worry about a thing. Then get the hell out of there and come and get me. I want to see the office and I need to tell you a few things concerning the business—like, we don’t do missing animals!”
“I did turn her down at first, but she started to cry. What else could I do?”
“Jeeze Louise! Look Herbert, you’re a good kid, but you’ve got a lot to learn. Now get out of here. I’ve got to shower and get dressed. I’ll see you in about an hour.”
I left the place with my tail between my legs. I guess I did have a lot to learn, and I was lucky I had Carl around to teach me. But if all we were going to do was background checks and things of that sort, I wasn’t too sure I wanted to be a detective. However, it was too soon to think of that.
I got to Mrs. McNally’s condo a little early, but I didn’t think she would mind. It was only a single, three-story building and there was no guard gate or anything like that. I parked in front of the building in a space marked “visitors” and proceeded to the third floor via the elevator. Her unit was 317.
Presently, I found myself in front of the right door; it was slightly ajar. I knocked and the door swung inward. I called out, “Hello, anybody home?” No answer, so I took a tentative step into the apartment and repeated my query. Still no answer. Then I took the plunge and walked in all the way. It was quiet, too quiet (as they say in the movies), and that’s not all. The place had been tossed. Cushions were off the chairs and couch, drawers were pulled out and they and their contents were strewn about the floor. I was standing in the living room and as I looked downward and to my left, I saw a pair of legs sticking out of the doorway to the kitchen. Of course, they belonged to Mrs. McNally, and of course, she was dead. She had been brutally beaten to death. It was, or I should say, she was, not a pretty sight. And seeing as how she was the first dead person I had ever seen, I’m surprised I didn’t run out of the apartment screaming. But I didn’t because the only thing going through my mind at the moment was the fact that she was my client. I owed her something. Maybe I couldn’t find the cat for her, but I was damn sure going to find her murderer!
When Philip Marlowe came across a corpse, the first thing he did was look for clues, usually by going through the dead man’s pockets. Unfortunately, Mrs. McNally had no pockets in the house dress she was wearing. And, besides, I already had a good idea who the culprit was. The scene was set to look like a robbery, and maybe it was, as an afterthought. However, I didn’t think a thief would go to the third floor to do his thing when there were plenty of unoccupied apartments on the ground floor, and they all had two ways of getting in: the front door or the sliding glass doors at the back of each condo. The condos on the second and third floors also had sliding glass doors, but there was no access to them unless one brought a ladder or could fly.
As I stood there wondering how to play my hand, my eyes fell upon a small piece of note paper attached to the refrigerator, and on said paper was the word “Cathy” along with a phone number. It was then that I knew what I had to do, and I was going to do it alone. I needed no help from Carl or the police. A nice little old lady had been killed, and because she was, at the time of her death, still my client, it was up to me to bring her killer to justice.
I took the granddaughter’s phone number from the fridge and placed it in my pocket. It was time to get out of there before someone happened along. I didn’t want to talk to the coppers until I could hand them Mrs. McNally’s killer all wrapped up with a bow. I closed the door and made sure the spring lock locked and went downstairs to my car.
I started the engine to get the air conditioner going and then I just sat there thinking. After a few minutes, I pulled out my phone and dialed the granddaughter’s number. She picked up on the second ring. “Hello, Cathy, my name is Herbert Walker. I work for your grandmother; she hired me to help her pick out a new car that she wanted to give you as a present. I just picked it up from the dealer and I’m sitting in it right now. The reason I’m calling is that I can’t seem to locate her at the moment. She called me first thing this morning and told me the car was ready and that I should pick it up. She was supposed to meet me at her condominium at noon. I’ve tried calling her and knocking on her door, but she isn’t around. I know she doesn’t have a cell phone (I was guessing), so I was wondering if you might know where she is.”
That was a lot to say in one breath, but it was even more to take in from a stranger. When I finished, there was a silence for about ten seconds, then she said, “A new car for me?”
“Yes, it was supposed to be a surprise, and I know I’ve ruined it for you, but I’ve got an appointment in a little while and I have to drop this car off somewhere. If you don’t know where your grandmother is, can I leave it with you?”
“Wait a minute.”
She must have muted her phone because there was no sound, then after two or three minutes, she came back on and I could hear a male voice in the background, though I couldn’t make out what he was saying.
“How did you get my phone number?”
“Your grandmother gave it to me. I needed it for the registration. The car is in your name after all.”
This time she didn’t mute her phone and I heard, “It’s all right. He got it from Grams; he needed it for the registration.” I figured the boyfriend was leery of gift horses, even when they came in the guise of a new car. I also figured it was time to get the show on the road. Therefore I delivered the clincher. “I can either drop it off to you now, or it will have to wait until tomorrow. I’m going to be busy the rest of the day.”
That got her. “No, no! I’ve give you the address.”
I heard her ask the boyfriend what the address was where they were. After a little background muttering, she came back on the line and told me she was at a motel on Federal Highway and gave me the room number, the name of the motel, and the name of the closest cross street. As it turned out, I was only five minutes away (the boyfriend must have picked the place to be close to Cathy).
“Thank you, Cathy. I’ll be there within the hour.” I didn’t want her hanging out in the parking lot when I drove up. If she saw my car, she’d be disappointed.
It turned out to be one of those little places that were built in the forties and fifties before the Interstate Highway System. And after they lost most of their business to I-95, they became a little seedy around the edges.
I knocked and the door opened about a foot to reveal a kid of about eighteen or nineteen. His hair was long and almost to his shoulders. It appeared greasy and unclean. His face sported no facial hair and he was wearing a denim jacket with the sleeves cut off, dirty jeans, and black boots of the type favored by motorcyclists. He looked like a Hell’s Angel wanna-be, or as Mrs. McNally had so aptly noted, “A hoodlum in training.”
“What’d ya want?”
“Is Miss McNally here? My name is Walker. I spoke with her a little while ago.”
He was standing in the doorway, his left hand on the doorknob, but when I identified myself, the door flew inward to disclose Cathy who had been standing (or hiding?) behind it. Pushing the boyfriend aside, she asked in a greedy voice, “Where’s my car?”
“Before I can turn it over to you, I have to see some identification. May I come in for a moment?”
The boyfriend didn’t seem to think that was a good idea and remained blocking the door. But Cathy wanted her car, so she invited me in and said she’d get her driver’s license. The boyfriend reluctantly stepped aside, allowing my ingress.
Once inside, and as Cathy was rooting around in her purse, I held out my hand to “Marlon Brando” and said, “I’m Herbert Walker, glad to meet you.” He said nothing. He just stood there trying to look tough. Cathy was back before things got too awkward and placed her license into my outstretched hand, saying while she did so, “This is Darrell. He’s not in a good mood today; you’ll have to excuse him. Now where is my car?”
I handed her back her license and said, “It’s over on the other side by the office. I wasn’t sure where your room was located. The keys are in it, all ready for you to take it for a ride.”
She ran out of the room with Darrell and me following in her wake. As we walked, I noticed that Darrell’s hands, his knuckles in particular, were scratched and bruised. That was all I needed to know.
When we rounded the corner, Cathy was standing there with a perplexed expression on her face. She was looking at a wreck of a car. It had rust spots, dents, and a faded blue paint job. The car was mine. She turned to me and said, “Where’s my car?” And the unspoken plea was, “Please, please let this not be it!”
I feigned astonishment and exclaimed, “It’s not here! I probably shouldn’t have left the keys in it. I’m sorry, I’ll call 911; whoever took it cannot have gotten far.”
Before I got my phone all the way out, Darrell shouted, “No!” Cathy looked at him as though he had two heads. “What do you mean ‘no’? I want my car!”
In a calmer, more sedate voice, Darrell explained, ‘We don’t need any cops. The car’s insured, right?” The last statement, or question, was directed at me.
“Yes, of course it’s insured, but Cathy will have to fill out a police report to collect on the insurance. I’ll tell you what. This is all my fault for not taking the keys with me. I’ll contend with the police. You two go back to your room.” Cathy started to say something, but Darrell grabbed her by the arm and dragged her away.
When they were out of sight, I dialed 911 and, as soon as the operator came on the line, I said, “I want to report a murder.” Then I gave Mrs. McNally’s address and apartment number to the woman on the other end of the line. She wanted me to hold on, but I gave her my location and phone number, telling her that I was with the killer and as soon as they confirmed the murder, I would hand him over to the proper authorities.
Within minutes, two police cars showed up at the motel and I filled them in. Just as I finished, a call came over the radio telling the officers that the body of Mrs. McNally had been found.
Cathy and Darrell were taken into custody, handcuffed, and put in the back of separate police vehicles. I was told to follow the officers to the station, which I did.
It was getting onto about midnight by the time I was allowed to leave. By then Darrell had confessed, saying it was Cathy’s idea. He said Cathy wanted her freedom and the old lady (Mrs. McNally) was making her life miserable. Cathy said she knew nothing about anything. I’m sure the police will sort everything out. Right then I was too tired to worry about it. I had caught my client’s murderer and that was all I cared about.
In all the excitement, I had forgotten about Carl. I went to see him the first thing the next morning, hoping he wouldn’t be too angry with me for standing him up the day before. I was prepared for a good tongue-lashing at the least, but I was not prepared for the reception I received. He slapped me on the back and told me I was one hell of a detective.
“Thank you, but you’re not angry with me for not coming back yesterday?”
“What are you taking about? You put our little agency on the map with your great bit of detecting yesterday.”
“How do you know about that?”
“You were all over the TV. And look at this,” he said as he handed me a newspaper. It was page one of the local section. It had the interview I had given that reported last night.
I guess I should have mentioned it before, but after the police told me I could go home, I was waylaid by the news media. I gave four, no, it was five, television interviews (one to a Spanish language station where my interview almost certainly came accompanied with subtitles). And I gave an interview to the reporter for the aforementioned newspaper. The same one in which I couldn’t afford to place an ad.
To tell the truth, I’d forgotten all about that stuff. I was dead on my feet and I agreed to speak with them because I couldn’t get to my car with them crowding around me. It was easier to give them a few minutes than to fight my way through.
Okay, I’ve prattled on long enough. When Carl and I got to the office, there were three people waiting. Each one of them wanted to hire our firm for various and sundry things. And I’m happy to report that no one wanted us to do a background check.
Carl grumbled a little about the office, but when I showed him the adjoining apartment and told him it was for him, he smiled and said, “Okay, kid, I was going to tell you we needed a computer, a fax machine, a land line, and hopefully a good-looking secretary. But we’ll play it your way for now. Maybe you can teach me a few things. You got any of those detective books I can borrow?”
And that is how I became a detective.
If anyone feels so inclined, I’d appreciate it if you’d like my Facebook page. You can click on the button on the right side of the page, near to top. Thank you.
He was dead when I got there. Dead as a doornail, deader than a dead fish, deader than Kelsey’s nuts, dead as … well, I think you’ve figured out the message I’m trying to convey here. The son-of-a-bitch was fuckin’ dead!
The door of the hotel room had been ajar, so I entered without knocking. Someone had bashed his brains in. No, that’s not accurate. Someone had bashed his brains out! They were oozing from the wound and congealing on the floor where he lay. His name is not important but, for the record, I’ll tell you. When he was breathing, he was known as Vinnie “Five Fingers” Diamonte. Now that he was no longer breathing, you can call him anything you want, which would have been a dangerous thing to do when he was among us—the living. He wasn’t called “Five Fingers” for nothing. (I’ll leave it to your imagination.)
I was sent by my boss, Tony Shivs, to pick up three hundred large from Vinnie. Now Vinnie was dead and I thoroughly searched the room, but there was no money to be found. You know whose fault it’s gonna turn out to be, who was gonna get the blame. Yeah, that’s right. Yours Truly.
Perhaps I should back up a little so you’ll know what I’m talking about. My name is Billy Irish. That’s not really my name, but it’s what the wise guys call me. My real name is William Michael Andrew Doyle. Andrew is my Confirmation name.
Through my girl, who was “connected,” I fell in with a crew of Italian-Americans. That’s what I called them to their face. When I was with my own kind (Irish-Americans or micks), I referred to them as wops and/or guineas.
Anyway, I’m getting off track here. I was an employee of Anthony “Tony Shivs” Salvintore, and I usually did as I was told. I was kind of low man on the totem pole because I’m not a wop. But that’s cool with me. Not being of Italian descent, there’s no way that I can be “made.” To be a made man, you’ve got to off someone … you know, kill a fellow human being, and that’s just not my style. I’m a gofer, a courier. It doesn’t pay well, but it beat working for a living. At least it did until I walked into Vinnie’s room and found him dead and the money I was supposed to pick up missing.
Making sure that I did not step on congealing brains, I stepped over the body and sat down in a nearby chair. I thought about my future, which, at the moment, did not seem very bright.
I knew that Tony, being the psychopath that he was, was going to think I killed the guy and stashed the moola. Because killing Vinnie and taking the money is exactly what he would have done in my place.
When he sent me there, he told me only three people knew about the pick-up and where it was to take place. And I was, as he phrased it, to keep my big yap shut. It was obvious that someone else was also privy to the information. But knowing that I was innocent of any wrongdoing didn’t mean shit. Yeah, eventually Tony would believe that I had not taken his money. But by then I would probably be missing a few digits (fingers mostly), and I’m sure I’d need a wheelchair to get around for the foreseeable future. So, as I sat there looking at the mortal remains of Vinnie “Five Fingers” Diamonte, the only thought going through my mind was what the hell do I do now?
If I disappeared, then there’d be no doubt as to my guilt. And I couldn’t go back without the money. I’d been sent to pick up a package and if I did not return with said package, then I was a fuckup. And I had heard the old bastard say on more than one occasion, “I ain’t got no room in my outfit for no fuckups.”
Sitting there staring at Vinnie wasn’t gonna help my situation any. So I figured I might as well test the water, so to speak. I got up, walked over to the phone—once again making sure I didn’t step in any brains—and started to call Tony. Then I remembered there would be a record of it, and once the body was found, the cops would be on Tony’s doorstep faster than I can write these words. Perhaps not that fast, but you know what I mean. Of course, Tony would give me up in a New York minute. Then I’d have Tony and the cops after me. So I wiped my prints off the phone and put it back down. I got out my cell phone and made the call I didn’t want to make.
I had been right. Tony was filled with sweetness and light. “That’s alright, Billy boy, as long as you’re okay. Why not come over and tell me all about it?” I knew that if he ever got his hands on me, I’d be lucky to hit the streets again with all my fingers. Hell, I’d be lucky to hit the streets again, period! No friggin’ way was I gonna walk into his lair, but I told him I was on my way and disconnected.
So that you get the full picture here, I’m gonna have to give you a little background info. The crew I was associated with worked mostly out of Miami Beach. Sure, the mainland entered into a lot of what went down, but we all lived and hung out on Miami Beach. Tony lived at Collins Avenue and 50th Street in the same building that Myer Lansky had lived in for ten years, and was still living in when he died. The building was a massive structure that had been built in the sixties, a real class place if your taste ran to garish and gaudy. My girl, Terry, and I also lived on Collins Avenue, but at 65th Street. Our place was a seedy hotel that had been built in the forties. Threadbare carpet in the halls, and the halls themselves were dark and dank. But we called it home. And for those of you who are not familiar with Miami Beach, it’s a long narrow island separated from the mainland by a body of water known as Biscayne Bay. Collins Avenue runs from the art deco district at the south end of the island to Golden Beach at the north end. The whole mess is eight and a half miles long and no more than a half mile wide. So if one needed to disappear, Miami Beach was probably not the best place to do it.
Okay, now back to my shit. The first thing I needed to do was get in touch with Terry and tell her to get the hell out of our room. I knew if Tony couldn’t get his hands on me, he would have no compunction about grabbing her in my stead.
No; actually, the first thing I had to do was get out of that goddamn room. Vinnie was starting to turn ripe, and how did I know some wise-ass hadn’t already called the cops (anonymously, of course). I called Terry as I went down the stairs—no elevators loaded with witnesses for me.
By the time I hit the street, I had Terry on the phone. I told her to ask no questions—like women love to do—and pack for the both of us for a few days out of town. “Be out of the room in ten minutes and wait for me in the bar across the street.” She asked no questions, and that is why I love her … that and a few million other reasons.
Vinnie had been ensconced in a hotel across from the airport on the mainland. Not that there’s an airport on the Beach, but I’m trying to be precise here. It should have taken me twenty minutes to get to the bar and to Terry. However, thanks to some damn broken-down piece of shit car on I-95, traffic was backed up and moved at a crawl. At the time, I cursed and fulminated about the goddamn traffic, but in hindsight, it was a godsend. It had given me time to think, which is something I had not been doing since I found Vinnie.
What I thought about was something Tony had told me. He said only three people knew about the pick-up. Him, Vinnie, and me. But that wasn’t exactly true; there was a fourth, Johnny Tits. Johnny was a breast man, hence the name.
Johnny was Tony’s bodyguard, a Neanderthal masquerading as a human being. He had been in the room when Tony gave me my marching orders. So, I’m sitting there in traffic thinking maybe Johnny might know who iced Vinnie and where the money disappeared to. I made up my mind to have a little talk with him before departing for parts unknown. But before I could do anything, I had to get Terry to a safe locale.
I finally got to the bar, double-parked, ran in, grabbed Terry and our bags, threw a Hamilton on the bar to cover her tab and tip, and got her into the car—all in less than a minute. We drove north on Collins Avenue in silence for a while before Terry turned to me and said, “Okay, when the hell are you planning on letting me know what the fuck’s goin’ on?” That’s one of the million things I love about her. She can get right to the point with no bullshitting around.
Considering that her health, if not her life, was up for grabs, I decided to be magnanimous and answer her query. “I’m in deep shit, baby. A job Tony gave me went south. There’s three hundred thousand smack-a-roos missing and I’m the fall guy.” Of course (and I don’t blame her), she wanted to know all the details. So I told her, starting with my finding Vinnie, sans brains, and ending with my epiphany concerning Johnny Tits.
When I had finished my narrative, I told her I wanted to talk with Johnny before we left town. That’s when she hit me (figuratively speaking) SMACK! right between the eyes. “What do you mean ‘leave town’? What are you? Some kind of pussy? I’m not leaving town!” Blah, blah, blah.
I told you I loved her, but sometimes … Hey! Did she just call me a pussy?
The upshot was, she tried to convince me that together we could find the money, get it to Tony, and everything would be cool. That broad can talk me into anything when she looks at me with those yellow-green eyes of hers.
I may be a pussy, but I’m not so much of a pussy as to drag my girl into something that could get her killed. If I couldn’t find out who offed Vinnie and took the money, and she was running around with me, then when (not if, but when) the shit hit the fan, she’d get splattered too. You married guys can relate to this: I said yes to everything she said while thinking how and where to ditch her while I took care of business.
As we crossed the causeway to the mainland, she was going on about what we should do first, which was run down Johnny. I love her, but only one of us could wear the pants in the family, and it sure as hell wasn’t gonna be her! Anyway, I knew of a motor court (yeah, right out of the 40s) where I could stash her until I either became her hero or she had to make my funeral arrangements.
Just in case some of you may not know what a motor court is, it’s kind of like a motel, but with individual, separate units, or rooms, if you will. At any rate, the place we went to was across from Gulfstream Race Track, a horse-racing establishment.
It was a real dump, and I think they got all their business from guys who lost the kids’ college funds at the track and went there to commit suicide. But it was just what I needed. I could pay cash and not have to show a credit card or ID. Tony’s pretty well connected; he had more than a few cops in his pocket, and I thought he might have one of them run down my card when I didn’t show up.
Once we checked in and Terry got all the bitching out of her system about what a shit-hole I’d taken her to, I told her to relax, I’d go get us something to eat and we could start our Nick and Nora Charles routine in the A.M.
As Terry will readily tell you, I’m a fuckin’ liar. If she was hungry, she could order a pizza. I was going to see Johnny. Tony always sent him home at six sharp every night so he, Tony, could have a private dinner with his mother. Johnny lived on a boat across the street from Tony’s place. I knew that and Terry didn’t, so there was no way she could follow me there. And just to make sure I was not bothered by her, I shut my phone off.
So it was back to the beach for me. I parked a block away from Johnny’s boat; I didn’t want anyone who knew me to see my car because by now Tony would have the word out that I was on the lam. And the sycophants that hung around Tony would have loved to make some points with him by bashing me over the head and delivering me to him in a cardboard box.
As I approached the boat, I saw Johnny’s car, so I knew he was around. Then I hesitated. What the hell was I thinking? If Johnny was the one who took down Vinnie, what chance did I have? I wasn’t even heeled. Then I remembered Terry calling me a pussy, so I squared my shoulders, stood tall, and did the dumbest thing I’d done in a long time. I knocked on Johnny’s door. I was kind of hoping there wouldn’t be an answer, and there wasn’t. So then I did the second dumbest thing I’d done in a long time—I tested the door. It was unlocked, and I went inside.
The lights were out. Maybe he went for a walk. Yeah, right. Johnny’s not the walking-in-the moonlight type. I’d never been on his boat before and I didn’t know where the light switch was. Do boats even have light switches? Maybe he used a kerosene lantern. As I was pondering those weighty questions, I walked further into the boat and tripped over a large obstacle lying in the middle of the floor, or was it a deck, considering I was on a boat.
As I lay sprawled on the floor/deck, my eyes became adjusted to the dim light coming in through the door. What I had tripped over was Johnny. Great! My second dead body of the day.
This, I had to ponder, but I couldn’t do it lying on the floor (I’ve decided to call it a floor). I got my ass up and looked to my right and saw a lamp on a table. I went over to it and felt for the switch, found it, and got some light in the room. I closed the door, and for the second time that day, sat in a chair and stared at a corpse.
I like to read. I’d rather read than watch TV, and I’d been reading Raymond Chandler recently. When his hero finds himself in a predicament like the one I was in, he always searched for clues. And he always started with the body. If given my druthers, I’d like to be with Terry at a fine restaurant, swilling down martinis while waiting for the sumptuous meal we had just ordered. I was getting hungry and I sure as hell could have used a drink right about then. But no one offered me my druthers. So I bent down and gave Johnny the once-over. He was lying face down, and there was a neat little bullet hole at the base of his skull, just above the neck. There was very little blood, which meant that he had died instantly. It looked to be the work of a .22, the gun of choice for professional killers. They always go for the back of the head.
Next, I turned him over so I could go through his pockets. I found only one thing of interest: He had Vinnie’s pinkie ring in his inside coat pocket. This was significant because if you knew Vinnie, you knew there was no way in hell he’d give up that ring. I don’t think he would have done so at the point of a gun. It was his pride and joy. He was always flashing it in your face and telling you about the three-carat diamond it housed.
After Johnny, I gave the room the once-over. His gun was lying on the table next to the lamp. I picked it up and gave it a sniff. It hadn’t been fired. It was a snub-nose .38 police special—a revolver. Johnny always said he liked it because it didn’t jam the way automatics are wont to do. (Of course, Johnny did not use the word wont.) I don’t know why, but I stuck it in the waistband of my pants and pulled my shirt out to cover it. Actually I do know why. There was a sicko running around killing people I know. I may not like them, but I knew them, and I’m one step behind him. If I kept blundering around, it would be only a matter of time before I blundered into whoever had iced Vinnie and Johnny.
Despite looking for clues, I was clueless. So, I sat back down and thought things over. I’m not the brightest bulb in the patch, to mix metaphors. But after a couple of minutes, a few things penetrated my thick skull. First of all, it must have been Johnny that did Vinnie; it’s the only way he could have gotten the ring. And second of all, the money was not on Johnny’s boat and probably never had been. The boat had not been tossed. Whoever killed Johnny came for the hit, not the money. It’s the only thing that explained why Johnny had only one hole in him. If someone wanted the money, they would have put a minimum of one into his knee to loosen him up. You don’t kill someone if they have info you want. And knowing Johnny, he’d take a lot of loosening up. He was dumb as shit, but he was one tough motherfucker. Johnny knew his killer. It’s the only way someone could get behind him with a gun—he was a pro. And Johnny’s gun was on the table, not in his hand—he knew his killer.
I had some more thinking to do, but I wanted to do it alone and without a dead guy with his half-closed eyes looking at me. So I hightailed it out of there, after wiping down any surface I touched or may have touched.
I wanted to walk along the water, but of course, the goddamn monstrosities like Tony lived in impeded my ingress onto the beach. Consequently, I walked up and down the sidewalk in front of Tony’s building. After about an hour of that shit, the pieces started to fall into place. It was time to talk to Tony Shivs.
Now we come to the crux of the matter. No, not the crux, but another one. I’ve been having cruxes throughout this whole goddamn story. This particular crux was that I needed a way to get into Tony’s building without being announced by the security people. But I had a plan.
I went back to my car and retrieved a baseball cap. It wasn’t much of a disguise, but it was better than nothing. What with video cameras everywhere nowadays, I thought it prudent not to make it too easy on any law enforcement personnel who, at some future date, might want to know who had visited Tony at nine o’clock that night. I went back to Tony’s building and walked down the incline into the underground parking garage.
The plan was, I would secrete myself behind a car near the door that led into the building; of course, the door was always locked. And then when an unsuspecting resident went through said door, I’d jump out before it closed. I would grab the handle and let it close almost, but not quite. I was counting on the person or persons to be too intent on getting up to their abode to notice what the door was up to. And guess what? It worked like a charm.
Okay, now I was in the building. I kept the hat pulled down low, kept my eyes on the carpet before me, and made my way to the elevator, hoping all the while I didn’t meet up with anyone. I didn’t. When I got outside Tony’s door, I took a deep breath and knocked.
“Yeah, who is it?”
“The doorman sent me up, sir. Someone left a package for you.”
I continued to keep my head down so that when he looked out of the peephole, all that he would see would be a teal baseball cap (Go Dolphins!). I did not want Tony answering the door with a gun in his hand, which he would have done if he knew it was me that had come a-calling.
I readied myself as I heard the locks being disengaged. When the door opened an inch, I pushed my way through and said, “Sorry I’m late, Mr. Salvintore, but I got tied up.”
“It’s about goddamn time you got your mick ass here. And what is this package shit?”
“Just my little joke, Mr. Salvintore.”
“It ain’t funny.”
“No sir, I guess it ain’t.”
“It’s late. Where’s my three hundred grand?”
“As I said, I’m sorry, but things came up. I hope I’m not disturbing your mother.”
“Naw, she’s down in the card room playin’ canasta with them other old broads.”
Now that I knew his mother was out of the way, I drew the gun from beneath my shirt and pointed it at the son-of-a-bitch. “Why don’t you sit down on the couch, you fat, greasy wop. I want to talk to you.”
You should have seen the look on his face. It was almost worth all the shit he’d put me through since I started working for him.
He was moving slow, so I reiterated my demand and told him that, because his building was so well constructed, no one would hear the pop of the gun when I put one into his fat ass. He must have seen something in my eyes because he kind of wilted and meekly sat on the couch. I availed myself of a nearby chair.
Once we were both seated and relatively comfortable, I asked him a question I’d been dying to ask. “Where did the three hundred large come from?”
“Some guys up in Tampa sent it down for me to invest for them.”
“Okay, why send me to pick it up? Vinnie worked for you, he could have just driven it in. You didn’t need me.”
“Ah … ah …”
“What’s the matter, Tony? Nothing comes to mind?”
“No! That ain’t it. I thought it would be safer if you brought it in. No one would think that you had that kind of dough on ya.”
“Tony, you are full of shit! I’ll tell you why you sent me there. I was to be your patsy. You are a greedy motherfucker. You didn’t want just your ten percent for placing their money. You wanted the whole shebang. And when they asked what happened, you were going to give them me. And then I’d be hanging from a meat hook in some freezer until I told them where their money was. Which of course, I couldn’t do. So me and the meat hook would have been closely associated until they went too far and offed me.”
At that juncture, Tony’s right hand started to migrate a little bit. I knew he had a gun stashed between the cushions, and I was waiting for him to make his move. I let him get almost there and then I said, “Touch that gun and you’re a dead man.” His hand rebounded as though his arm was made of rubber bands.
I continued. “Now that we understand one another, why did you have Johnny Tits kill Vinnie?”
“Who said I did?”
I raised the gun, pulled back the hammer, and said, “Any more bullshit and I’ll shoot you in the foot.”
“Okay! Okay! Yeah, I had Johnny take care of Vinnie. Vinnie had to go anyway, he was skimming from me and he thought I was too dumb to notice.”
“Why did you kill Johnny?”
“How the fuck …”
“Were you going to say, how the fuck did I know you killed Johnny or how the fuck did I know he was dead?”
“Alright, you seem to know everything. Man, I thought you were just some dumb mick bastard.”
“Yeah, I know, and that’s how you played me. But tell me about Johnny. There’s no way he could have been skimming from you.”
I could see the wheels turning in his head. He was trying to figure my angle. He was also trying to figure out an angle for himself.
Finally, he said, “I can use a smart operator like you. And I don’t mean as a gopher. It will mean a big raise from what I’m payin’ you now.”
“We’ll get to that in a minute. Right now tell me about Johnny.”
“You’re right. I sent him to off Vinnie and take the money. The plan was to hang it on you so the wise guys in Tampa would leave me alone. But I’m telling you, if I had known how on-the-ball you were, I would have played it different.”
“I’m flattered, but why did you off Johnny?”
“The son-of-a-bitch wanted a cut of the three hundred large. He even hinted he’d screw the deal if he didn’t get a fair shake. I don’t take that kind of shit from nobody.”
“No, Tony, I reckon you don’t. Did you do it yourself?”
“Yeah, I just walked across the street after dinner. I always go for a walk after dinner, but this time I visited Johnny.”
It was getting late and I wanted to get out of there before his mother came back. So I thought I’d bring our little meeting to a close. “Where’s the money now?”
“Why ya wanna know?”
“I just want to see what all the fuss was about, and besides, I think you owe me a couple of grand for the aggravation you put me through today. We can talk about my new job tomorrow.”
The look on his face was priceless. He had weathered the storm. All he had to do was let me walk out of there with a few bucks and then he could pick up the phone and put a hit out on me.
“It’s on the table over there, in the shoe box.”
I went to where he indicated and took the lid off the box. There sure was a lot of money staring back at me. I turned back to Tony and said, “I’ll get the money tomorrow; you give me whatever you think is fair.” Then I looked out his sliding glass doors and said, “You sure got some view,” as I walked behind the couch still looking out the doors. When I got behind Tony, I turned the gun around, and with the grip hit him behind his right ear as hard as I could. He fell over onto the couch, but he wasn’t knocked out, only stunned. Moving fast, I picked up a throw pillow from the couch, placed it on the back of his head, stuck the revolver into the pillow, and squeezed the trigger. What do you know? It really worked. The shot could not have been heard from outside of the apartment.
I went to the kitchen and got a dish rag. I wiped the gun of my prints and threw it on the floor. Then I went to the box, replaced the lid, and tucked it under my arm. At the door, I used the rag to open and close it. I also used the rag for the elevator buttons and the exit door to the garage. Luck was with me because I didn’t see anyone on my way out.
When I was back in my car and on my way to Terry, I turned on my phone and called her. She had been trying to call me for a couple hours. The conversation went something like this:
Terry: Oh, Billy, are you all right? I was so worried. I thought Tony might have gotten to you.
Me: No, I’m fine. I just had something to take care of.
Terry: You mean you shut off your phone and didn’t give me the courtesy of letting me know if you were alive or dead? You son-of-a-bitch! I never want to see you again. Drop dead!”
It went on like that for a while and then she got real quiet, and I could hear her crying. It made me feel like a heel. But, I’m happy to report that I have been forgiven. I think the money may have helped a little. We’re in San Francisco as I write these words. We’ve just gotten married and we’re going up to Oregon to set up housekeeping. She wants to have lots of kids.
If anyone feels so inclined, I’d appreciate it if you’d like my Facebook page. You can click on the button on the right side of the page, near to top. Thank you.
I wake up every night ’bout midnight. I just cain’t sleep no more! I cain’t sleep ’cause my woman’s driving me crazy. I told my woman a long, long time ago she was gonna drive me crazy. To keep my peace of mind, I’m gonna have to kill her this night.
I’m walkin’ the dark and empty streets with gun in hand. I’m lookin’ for my woman.
If she’s with another man, I’ll kill him too.
Bye, bye little girl . . . tonight you die.
Bye, bye lover . . . bye, bye.
I see you through the window at Mose’s Place. You have on that red dress I bought you last year. You’re sittin’ with another man.
I ain’t got nothin’ to lose. I open the door and step inside.
The music, the cigarette smoke, and my sorrow assault me.
I know what I have to do.
You’re laughing at something he has said as I walk up to the table. You’re having a good time. I’m happy for you.
Bye, bye baby.
The first bullet takes off half your lover’s head.
I take my time with the next shot. I want you to know that you’re gonna die.
Times slows, I see the fear in your eyes. Your face is splattered with your lover’s blood. It goes well with your red dress.
Bye, bye baby . . . bye, bye.
Time for another one of my hitching adventures. This one is different. Someone I met along the way planted a seed, but it took twenty years to sprout. When it did, it sent me on a quest to discover the meaning of life. It took me another twenty-two years of visiting libraries, of perusing the shelves of bookstores. Twenty-two years of searching out, and finding, obscure books and writings from centuries past. Although a few pieces of the puzzle still elude me, I am content with the knowledge I have gained. I owe it all to a man by the name of Oracle.
“There is a chink, a nigger, and a cracker in that car; git ‘em out. Oh yeah, there’s also a kid in there.”
I was that kid. With those few words, one of the strangest and most profound adventures of my young life was about to take place.
Have you noticed that, nowadays, when you’re stopped at a railroad crossing and a train goes by, there are no more boxcars? It’s because the railroad companies have gone the way of the shipping companies—meaning, containers. The story I am about to tell could not happen today.
First, a little history lesson.
After the Civil War, or the War of Northern Aggression, depending on where your sympathies lie, some of the displaced men who found themselves still alive after the carnage and who had no home to go back to, took to the highways and byways. To earn their daily bread, they would offer to work for a day at the farms they passed. Before long, they discerned that if they had their own implements, work would come easier. Therefore, one by one, they started carrying hoes and soon they were called “hoe boys.” Now, English being the wonderful, beautiful, and living language that it is, it was not long before any itinerant man was called a hobo.
This is how the whole thing started. I was hitchin’ east on Old US Highway 90, but back then it was just “US 90.” I was in the desert of Arizona and the rides were not plentiful, to say the least. The last ride had let me out in the middle of nowhere; the only things resembling civilization were the train tracks and a few buildings about a hundred yards to the south. There was also a long freight train sitting on those tracks … there must have been a hundred boxcars or more.
My attention was drawn to one car in particular. All the cars were brown in color, except one about three-quarters of the way back. It was green and the door had been slid open. I looked down the road, saw not a car in sight, and decided right then and there to hop my first freight train. After all, it was pointed in the same direction I wanted to go. When I reached the green car, I threw my suitcase in and climbed in after it. For a moment, I did not see my traveling companions, but, as my eyes adjusted, there they were. Over in the far corner were three men: a black guy, a Chinaman, and a white guy. (Some of my terminology may not be socially acceptable today, but I’m writing from the perception of an eighteen-year-old kid back in 1968.)
The three men were sitting on wooden crates and they were all about forty years of age. The Chinaman had a wispy and sparse black beard about a foot long. He was a bit chubby, wore tan pants, a red flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his biceps. Brown work boots covered his feet. To his left sat the black man. He was thin and had grey throughout his hair. He was wearing a white t-shirt, black pants, and on his feet were black high top sneakers—US Keds. The white guy was also thin, had a big smile, and, though I couldn’t tell from that distance but found out later, he had piercing emerald-green eyes, and when he looked at you, you felt as though you had known him all your life. He wore blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a black t-shirt with a denim jacket over it.
If they were startled by my entrance, they were over it by the time I noticed them. The Chinaman had a hunk of cheese in his left hand and a small pocket knife in his right. “You want some cheese?” he asked.
After taking a moment to assess the situation, I said, “No, thank you.” I walked over to them, sat my suitcase on the floor, and sat myself on it—facing my three hosts.
After my butt hit the suitcase, the Chinaman said, “Where ya headed?”
“Miami … Miami, Florida.”
The white guy found his voice and chimed in. “Howdy, my name’s Jake, this here is Ying,” he said, pointing to the Chinaman. “And that sorry son-of-a-bitch over there is Samuel.” As Jake introduced him, the black guy smiled. They were obviously friends. Then Jake asked, “What might your handle be?”
“You can call me Andrew, Andrew Joyce.”
“Hold on there, partner. There ain’t no last names used around here,” advised Jake.
Ying cut slices of cheese and passed them around, then wrapped what remained in a blue bandanna and placed it in the pocket of a brown leather jacket lying on the floor behind him.
While they were enjoying their cheese, I asked if they were hobos. You’ve got to remember I was young, and this was my first encounter with men who “rode the rails.” I had always pictured hobos as looking more like the old Red Skelton character, Freddy the Freeloader. You know, baggy pants and patches all over his clothes. Maybe even a week’s worth of whiskers. But these guys were clean-shaven, except for Ying, and they were a lot cleaner and a lot better dressed than I was.
Samuel spoke for the first time. “An honorable and noble profession. What say you, fellow wayfarers? Are we indeed affiliated with those modern-day knights of the road?”
Jake said, “You’ll have to excuse Samuel. He gits a bit long-winded at times.”
“My bosom friend, Jacob, we have not answered the young lad’s query. His incertitude as to our status should be addressed,” declaimed Samuel.
“Kid, I told ya he was a son-of-a-bitch,” remarked Jake.
But before I could receive an answer to my perfectly legit question if they were hobos or not, we heard from outside the boxcar: “There is a chink, a nigger, and a cracker in that car; git ‘em out. Oh yeah, there’s also a kid in there.”
This is where we came in.
Before the “bulls” had a chance to stick their mugs into the car, my would-be traveling companions were gathering their meager belongings and heading for the door. I jumped up and scrambled after them. Just as we reached the opening, two men appeared. One of them, looking up at us, said, “Okay, boys, git off.” One by one we exited our little, and unfortunately temporary, haven. I was the last to disembark. My new buddies were already a few steps down the tracks by the time I hit the ground. I started out after them, but something held me back. It turned out to be a bull’s big hand wrapped around my left bicep. “Hold on, not so fast,” he ordered. Bull is slang for the railroad employees who were charged with throwing freeloading men off the trains.
When Jake saw that I was being detained, he stopped and turned around. The head bull yelled down the tracks, “This ain’t none of your affair. Ya’all just keep to ya own business and move along.”
Jake gave me a wink and continued on—leaving me behind.
When you’re eighteen, you think you’re all grown up and you think the rest of the world will perceive you as such. But as I write these words almost half a century later, I know how young I must have looked on that day. The man only wanted to make sure I was okay. As it turned out, the bull holding onto my arm had a son my age serving in Viet Nam. He asked about my family and where I lived. When I told him I was in touch with my mother frequently and that I was not a runaway, he smiled. He also told me ridin’ the rails was a dangerous business. “Not all the bulls are like me. Some, if they catch ya, will beat ya with a club. Some might even turn you over to the county sheriff if there’s a road needin’ work. It’ll cost ya time in the pokey. Ya see, some guys have an agreement with the local sheriff, so much for each hobo they turn over. Kinda like a bounty. Then the poor son-of-a-bitch is charged with trespassing and vagrancy. That’ll git ya sixty days.” He also told me that jumping off a moving train, even if it was going slow, could get my head busted wide open.
“Don’t worry, sir. This is my last time catchin’ a freight. From now on, it’s gonna be the thumb express for me.”
He said I was free to go and sent me off with a smile. After walking ten paces, I turned around; he was still standing there with that smile on his face, and he waved to me. I waved back and continued on to the highway. It was as empty of cars as it had been an hour earlier. I sighed, upended my suitcase, and sat down to get comfortable for what I thought was going to be a long afternoon.
About fifteen minutes later, the train started to move. At the first sound of those steel wheels turning on the tracks, my three friends appeared out of nowhere. One minute I was alone on the highway and the next there they were. Samuel approached and said, “We saw you with your thumb out. Have you given up your reservation for your Pullman berth?”
I must have looked perplexed because Jake interjected with, “He means, if ya still want to ride the rails, come with us.”
None of them waited for a reply. By the time I decided that it might be interesting traveling with those guys for a day or so, they were twenty yards ahead of me. I picked up my suitcase and ran to catch up. It was a momentous decision to follow those three hobos, but the short time I would spend with them helped shape and define the man I would one day become.
By the time I caught up, they had reached the tracks and were watching the cars go by. The train was moving slowly—one or two miles per hour. And as the green car approached, my friends started walking in the same direction as the train. When the car they wanted came abreast, one by one, they tossed their gear through the open door and hoisted themselves up and onto the floor. When all three were aboard, they stood in the doorway looking down at me. The train was now starting to pick up speed. Jake told me to toss my grip up to him, which I did. Then Ying got down on his knees and said, “Give me your hand.” I was running by then, trying to keep up. I stuck out my right arm and Ying grabbed hold of my hand and lifted my one-hundred-sixty pounds as though I weighed no more than a feather.
Once they got me aboard, we went back to the corner where the crates were and made ourselves comfortable. Samuel looked over at me and said, “Young traveler, I could tell from your hesitation you have not availed yourself of this means of transit before; you must be careful when alighting onto one of these chariots. I saw a man slip and fall beneath the wheels as he was trying to effect ingress onto a conveyance of this type. He lost both his legs. Furthermore, exiting while moving, no matter how slow, is difficult at best, and bone-breaking at its worst.”
Jake intervened with, “Don’t worry, kid, we’ll show ya the ropes.”
After that, no one spoke. Ying cleaned his fingernails with the knife he had used to slice the cheese. Samuel took a paperback out of his back pocket and started to read. Jake … well, I don’t know what he was doing. If I didn’t think it highly unlikely, I would have said he was meditating. Me, I got tired of sitting around and walked over to the door, sat down with my legs dangling over the side, and watched the desert pass by.
Jake eventually walked over and sat down next to me. He got his long legs dangling next to mine, but he didn’t say anything for the longest time. At length, he said, “You in a rush to git where ya goin’?”
I did not know where I was headed. I had told them Miami, but that wasn’t one hundred percent true. I was allowing myself to be blown along on the winds of chance. Like being picked up by someone who says to me, “I’m heading to New York to catch Janis Joplin at the Fillmore East and I’ve got an extra ticket. Wanna come along?” Things of that sort were always happening to me in those days. If nothing interesting turned up by the time I hit the east coast, I’d hang a right and head for Miami for a visit with the folks. So, my answer to Jake’s question was, “No, I’m in no rush to go anywhere, not really.”
“Well, me and the boys thought we’d extend an invite for you to tag along with us for a while. Kinda’ show you the way of the road. Teach you things that took us time—a whole lotta time—to git through our thick heads.”
I turned my head to look at this man I had met only an hour earlier and informed him that I had been on the road for over a year and had learned a few things along the way. He just smiled and said, “Boy, there are roads and there are roads. If you’re not interested, then I’ll bother ya no further.”
“Hang on, Jake, you’ve got me wrong. I’d be honored to accompany you three, and I thank you for the invitation. I just wanted you to know that I’m not entirely wet behind the ears.”
“Okay, Andrew. It’s Andrew, right?”
“Why not come over and sit with us, and we’ll talk.”
When we got back to Ying and Samuel, Jake nodded at them. Well, at Ying anyway. Samuel still had his nose in the book he was reading. As we sat down, Samuel looked up, so I had a chance to ask him what he was reading. “Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. You ever read it?”
“Yeah, about a year ago. I liked it. I also read East of Eden, but I just didn’t get it.”
Samuel looked at me and slowly shook his head. “I understand. I read Eden when I was your age. And like you, I did not appreciate the writing or the storytelling. May I suggest you reread it in a few decades? I think you will have a whole new take on it once you have some life under your belt. But we were discussing The Grapes of Wrath. This is my third reading. I love this book; it is writing at its finest. But what I love most about it is the last page. When Rose of Sharon bends over the dying man … you remember? … the man who had not eaten in a week or more? He had given what little food there was to his son. Well, when she kneels down to his prostrate body, unbuttons her shirt and starts to give him the milk that was intended for her baby who had been stillborn less than a few hours before … damn! That got to me.”
I noticed that he was not speaking in the affected manner he had used earlier. He must have read my thoughts because he said, “You’re wondering why I’m not speaking like Mr. La De Da any longer, aren’t you?”
“I guess so. You do sound different.”
“I only speak that way around strangers, never with friends.”
So, there it was. I had been accepted.
As we sat talking and looking out at the cactus plants and Yucca trees, their shadows shrank from their western side until they disappeared altogether, only to reemerge on the eastern side. A small, timid shadow at first, but as the day lengthened, so did the shadows of the cacti and the Yuccas. Soon they would be as long as their more substantial partners were tall. Then they would die for the night, only to be reborn the next morning.
When the shadows had gotten as long as they were likely to get, I asked what we were going to do about something to eat. Ying offered what was left of the cheese. I was mighty hungry by then, but if I was going to eat alone, I’d rather not. And as no one else spoke up and said that the cheese was a good idea, I politely thanked Ying and said I would eat when everyone else did.
Because the light was fading, Samuel had put his book away. He looked at Jake and asked, “What time you figure we’ll hit Lubbock?”
“I reckon we’ll be in just about suppertime.”
Samuel turned to me and said, “We’ll be leaving this comfortable abode in Lubbock. This train heads to Chicago from there. After a night to replenish ourselves and our stores, we’ll catch the 108 the next morning; it will be heading east to Dallas. Then the 310 to Little Rock, and after that, it’s old 19 to Atlanta where we’ll split up.”
I thought what I had just heard was amazing. How did this guy know the timetable of freight trains? Did freight trains even have timetables? So I asked, “How the hell do you know a given train will be there waiting for you when you arrive in a city?”
“Freight trains have a tighter schedule than passenger trains. There are goods on them that people have bought and paid for. And those goods have to get out to market for the railroad company’s customers to make a profit. If their customers don’t make money, the railroad doesn’t make money. If there are delays, companies will use the teamsters and their trucks to get their goods to market. So the trains are very dependable. And you shouldn’t hop a train unless you know where it’s going. That is your first lesson, my young friend.”
By then it had gotten dark. Jake and I sat in the doorway looking at the desert, the stars, and the lights of the small towns as we passed. I asked Jake what Samuel and Ying were up to. It was too dark inside the car. I couldn’t see into the corner that we had made our headquarters. “Knowing those two, they’re probably asleep. They can sleep in the damndest places and under the dangdest circumstances.”
I had been wondering what Samuel meant when he said they, or I guess now it was we, were going to split up when we got to Atlanta. So I asked Jake, “Don’t you guys travel together?”
“Sometimes we do, like now. Guys on the road are basically loners, but no matter how much ya like being alone, sometimes it’s good to have a partner to chew the fat with.”
I just had to ask, “Where are you going and where are they going?”
“Well, Ying is going to New York and Samuel will be staying in Atlanta. Me, I haven’t decided yet. We just ran into each other at the stop before we met up with you. We’ve known each other for a while now, but the three of us haven’t been in the same place at the same time for two, maybe two and a half years now. I ran into Ying about a year ago and we traveled together for a few days. But Samuel and I haven’t seen each other since the last time the three of us were all together.”
About then the train was slowing down, and Ying and Samuel joined us at the door. Jake stood and said, “We better get our gear.” We, meaning him and I; the others were standing there, grips in hand. After we returned, Samuel asked if I had ever jumped from a moving train. I had to admit that I had not.
“Well,” said he, “here are lessons two and three. Always leave the train before it gets into the yard. If not, the bulls will see you and then there’ll be hell to pay. Next, when jumping from a moving train, toss your grip out first. Don’t try to jump with it; you’ll need both your hands. Then sit down like you were before, with your legs outside, and place your hands on the floor on either side of your body and push off. It’s going to be hard to keep your balance, but after the first few times, you’ll get the hang of it. Just remember to push off as far from the car as you can. You don’t want to slip under any wheels.”
By then the train had slowed enough so we could jump off without killing ourselves. Samuel was the first to throw his bag out the door. Then he sat down and said, “Watch how I do it.”
After the three of them were on the ground, it was my turn. I did everything I was told but still landed flat on my face.
Once we collected our gear and got away from the yard, Jake informed me it was time to forage for some vittles.
“Did you just say vittles?” asked Samuel.
“He sure as hell did, I heard him,” affirmed Ying. Ying then added, “Okay, Mr. Vittles, you take the kid. Me and Samuel will meet you at the jungle.”
The foraging for food took the form of going to the back doors of houses and asking for a handout. I had done the same thing on occasion, but my modus operandi was restaurants, or more precisely a restaurant’s back door. Anyway, Jake said the best pickings were in the poor section of a town. “You never get turned down. Next are middle class neighborhoods. You stand a fifty-fifty chance in that neck of the woods. And last are the rich neighborhoods. Unless the cook answers the door, you might as well forget about getting anything outta that house. Ain’t it funny that the people with nothing are willing to share what little they have, while those with everything are afraid to part with even the slightest bit of what they have?”
Jake told the people we asked a handout from that I was his son and we were going to Florida to pick oranges. After hitting three houses, we had all that we could carry, so we headed for the “jungle.” Jungle, as in hobo jungle.
In the 1930s, during the depression, every town and city had a hobo jungle, usually on its outskirts. In those days, depending on the size of the town, the denizens of any given jungle could number anywhere from twenty to close to a hundred. However, in the late 60s, the number rarely exceeded five or six. In the jungle Jake brought me to, outside of Lubbock, Texas, there were eight of us. Us four and four other guys.
By the time Jake and I reached the camp, Ying and Samuel were already there waiting for us. It had been a good foraging expedition for all of us. A couple of cans of soup, a large can of baked beans, various portions of assorted chickens, both fried and broiled, a tub of homemade potato salad, and the piece dé resistance, a bottle of bourbon.
Jake asked, “Where’d you guys get the booze?”
Samuel put forth, “Don’t include me in Ying’s larceny.”
In his defense, Ying claimed an altruistic motive in procuring said booze. “You see, it was lying on the front seat of this Oldsmobile. Now if I had left it there, it may have been a temptation to the driver. He may have weakened and started drinking before he arrived home. He might have caused an accident, either from being distracted while taking a swig or after having become intoxicated. I think freeing that poor soul of temptation is my good deed for the day.” Jake shrugged, Samuel shook his head, and I just looked at the three of them and wondered what I had fallen into.
There was a fire going when Jake and I arrived. Sitting around it were our buddies, Ying and Samuel, and the four other gentlemen. There was Montana Jack, a lean and weathered cowboy, Stetson and all. And then there was Charlie, who was dressed in a business suit. The only problem was that it was two sizes too big for him and it was practically in tatters. Then there was Missouri Mike, fiftyish with a full head of white hair with a shock of black just off center on the left side. And last, and probably least, there was Frisco Pete. Yeah, I know, it sounds like a name a bandit would have in a “B” movie. But ol’ Frisco was a hippie. The funny thing is that he had never been to San Francisco; he was on his way there for the first time. Of course, he had the prerequisite long hair that hung down past his shoulders. (Something I had not seen before.) He kept staring up at the stars and saying, “Groovy.”
I know what you’re thinking, “What happened to Charlie? Why didn’t he have a colorful handle like the rest? Something like, ‘Cimarron Charlie’. The answer to your question is I don’t know.
After the introductions were out of the way, we settled down to partake of our collation. And I must say, after not having eaten all day, it was one of the finest meals I’d ever had. Of course, my traveling companions, being who they were, insisted that any of the others who were hungry should put on the feedbag and join us.
With the meal behind us, we sat around the fire like contented potentates of the East, rubbing our stomachs and scratching our butts. After a few minutes, Jake said to Ying, “Ya saving that bourbon for Judgment Day, or ya gonna break it out before the end of the century?” Ying smiled the inscrutable smile of the Chinese, reached behind him, and pulled out the bottle.
It was then that we heard the rustling in the woods. It came from behind us, and I turned to see, through the low-hanging branches of the trees, the light from flashlights—maybe two, maybe more—bobbing up and down. A low murmur accompanied the lights. A few seconds later, the murmur gave way to voices—men’s voices. And they did not sound any too happy. I got the impression they were not a deputation from Lubbock to present us with the key to the city.
All at once, ten armed men burst into the little clearing in which, until a moment ago, we were enjoying each other’s company and repartee. Most of the men were holding hunting rifles, but a few of them held handguns. The one thing all the guns had in common was the fact that they all, and I mean all of ’em, were pointed at us.
We just sat there staring at them, and they stared right back at us. I’m sure our mouths where hanging open. Theirs were not. Finally, after what seemed an interminable amount of time, one of the men stepped forward and said, “You there by the fire, stand up!” When we hesitated, he added, “I’m talkin’ to you hobos over there. All of you git your asses up!” I looked over to Jake for some kind of guidance. He looked me in the eye and gave me one of his famous shrugs, then he stood up and the rest of us followed his lead.
When we all were standing, the gunmen fanned out behind their leader to form a semi-circle before us. Once his men were in place, the head asshole felt it was time to give his little speech.
“We don’t want your types in our city. We keep clearing this place out, tellin’ ya not to come back, but here ya are again. Ya’all just won’t listen.”
It was then that ol’ Frisco, the hippie, decided to play his ace in the hole. “Excuse me, sir, but I’ve never been here before.”
The leader turned to Frisco and said, “Shut your mouth!” He started to turn away, but stopped in mid-turn and did a double take. He was looking at Frisco’s long hair. He told his men to keep an eye on the rest of us and walked over to Frisco and said, “Are you in one of them Beatle bands?”
I reckon the guy didn’t want or expect an answer. He looked Frisco up and down a few times, then turned to the rest of us and announced—while holding a bullwhip up the air with his right hand, “Well boys, we’re gonna’ teach ya’all a little lesson this time. One of you is gonna hug a tree and take a few lashes from my friend here, while the rest of ya watch. Ya gittin’ off easy this time.”
He dropped his arm and continued, “Now let me see, who’s it gonna be?” His eyes, lighted by the fire and reflecting the flames, looked evil. But I suppose his eyes would have looked evil buying his child an ice cream cone down at the corner drug store.
He looked at each one us in turn. When he came to me, he said, “What are you doing here, boy?” Before I could answer, Jake stepped in front of me and said, “He’s my son. His ma died this spring and I’m taking him to see his grandmother. He just enlisted to fight in Viet Nam. He’s gotta report in three weeks. I lost my job at the plant, so we had no money for a bus; that’s why we’re here.”
The guy responded. “I didn’t ask for no life story.” But you could see that Jake’s bullshit had had an effect on the stupid fuck.
After the exchange with Jake, the guy continued his perusal of the rest of our conclave. Then he came to Samuel. And oh, how his face did light up! A broad smile played across his lips as he intoned, “Boys, I think I found me the perfect candidate for our little lesson tonight.”
And then from out of the crowd behind him, a voice rang out, “Hey, Dick, can’t we hurry this along? My wife says I’ve gotta be home by nine to watch the kids. She got an auxiliary meetin’ tonight.”
At that point, two things went through my mind. One, what a perfect name for the leader of this bunch … Dick! If I wasn’t so scared shitless, I would have laughed out loud. And two, what auxiliary did that guy’s wife belong to? The Klan’s?
It was about then that Jake figured he better do something, but it sure wasn’t anything I could understand. He leaned into me and whispered, “Follow my lead, keep ya yap shut and do what I tell you without hesitation and don’t ask any fool questions.”
Dick told his men to grab hold of Samuel, though he used a pejorative rather than Samuel’s name. Three men laid their guns against a tree and approached Samuel. To his credit, Samuel did not back up or give even the slightest indication of fear. Two of the men grabbed his arms, while the third tied a rope to his left wrist. They then led him over to a large tree. The trunk was about ten feet in circumference. They put Samuel facing the tree, placing his arms so that they encompassed the trunk as far around as they could go, and then tied the free end of the rope to his right wrist. So this is what Dick meant by “hug a tree.” The men stepped back to admire their handiwork. Nodding their approval, they retrieved their guns and rejoined the other assholes.
That was when Jake went into his act. He cleared his throat loud enough to get Dick’s attention, took a step forward and said, “Excuse me, sir. I happen to agree with you and your methods. My son and I are heartily sorry for intruding into your fair city. If we had known which way the wind was blowin’, we would never have stopped here for a rest. But seein’ how my boy is about to go off and fight those Godless Commies in the defense of his country, do you think you might spare him the sight of this necessary, but still vexatious, act you are about to perform?”
Of course, Dick didn’t know what vexatious meant. Jake later told me that he used the word because he couldn’t think of another word for horrific, and he didn’t think Dick would have appreciated that particular word.
Anyway, after mulling it over, ol’ Dick decided to be magnanimous and granted us permission to leave. When told we could go, Jake again leaned into me and whispered, “Get your case and the bottle of booze. Use your case to hide it. I don’t want anyone to see it. Hurry up, we don’t have much time.” He picked up his bedroll and started for the road that ran by the camp. As he passed Ying, I saw him wink. He was moving so fast I had to run to catch up. When I came up next to him, I asked if we were just going to leave Samuel there to be whipped. “I thought I told you not to ask any fool questions,” was his only reply.
When we got near the road, we ran into two pickup trucks. “This is what I wanted to see,” said Jake. He opened the door to the closest one, and while taking out a pocketknife he said, “See if the keys are in the other one.”
“Yeah, they’re here.”
“Okay, kid, we got to move fast if we’re to keep Samuel’s suffering to a minimum. Push that truck out onto the road. Once there, start her up and drive about a quarter mile towards the town. Then pull off to the side into some trees, but keep her facing the road. Be ready to take off in a hurry. And keep the lights off. Now give me that bottle of booze.”
I stood there and watched him open the knife. He slit the upholstery and pulled out the stuffing, then unscrewed the top off the bourbon bottle and poured the contents onto the seat. As he lifted his head out of the cab of the pickup, he saw me. “You still here?”
Taking the hint, I went over to the other truck, put it in neutral, and started to push it towards the road. Halfway there, I turned to look back to see what Jake was up to. I was just in time to see him light a match and throw it into the cab of the pickup.
Whoosh! The goddamn thing caught on fire. But that was all I had time to observe. I had my marching orders and I was determined to carry them out to the best of my ability. Later I learned what happened while I waited in the truck down the road.
After Jake had a good fire going and there was no chance of it going out by itself, he ran back to the camp. He got there just as Dick had administered the third lash to Samuel’s back. As his arm came back for lash number four, Jake called out that there was a pickup truck on fire down by the road. That stopped Dick in mid-motion. His arm fell to his side and he went over to Jake and asked, “What did you say?”
“I said there’s a truck on fire down at the road. Just as me and my boy were coming out of the woods, we saw three white boys climb into another truck and hightail it out toward that county road. Then, as we got even with the other truck, flames leapt out at us from inside. She must have a good burn going by now.”
That was all he had to say. The vigilantes stopped pointing their guns at Ying and the others and ran through the woods from whence they came. Ying told me they were steppin’ and fetchin’ big time and he laughed at the memory of it.
Jake still had his knife open and in his hand. He went over to cut Samuel free. Before he had cut halfway through the rope, Ying was there with his own knife, cutting the rope at Samuel’s right wrist. Jake got through the rope first and said to Ying, “He’s free, we can take care of that later. Let’s git the hell outta’ here.” Jake helped Samuel while Ying gathered their gear. They found their way to the truck in which I was waiting. By the way, just as a matter of note, by the time Ying and Jake were helping Samuel out of the camp, our four compatriots were nowhere to be seen.
I did ask Jake why he said white boys had started the fire and stolen the other truck. His answer: “So they wouldn’t go messin’ with no black folk or hobos who may be passing through their shit-hole of a town.” That was Jake; one minute he was sounding like the dumbest hick the good Lord ever made, and the next he was using words like vexatious and thinking three steps ahead of the rest of us.
The upshot was this. We drove the stolen pickup back to the freight yard where Jake, Ying, and Samuel got out. I was told to ditch the truck at least a mile from the yard and walk back. We hid out in an abandoned shed until our train was ready to leave. During the night, we attended to, or I should say Ying attended to, Samuel’s wounds. He had some Chinese shit that he said would fix Samuel right up. And it did. The next day, the rips in his flesh did not bleed through his shirt. When the train started to move, we ran to it and, one by one, jumped on board.
As we pulled out of Lubbock, Texas, I was thinking that nothing in my life would ever be anywhere near as exciting as the previous night had been. But I might have been wrong.
Because we had not slept the night before, we spent that day’s wayfaring in repose. The floor was hard, but surprisingly clean. I awoke in the late afternoon only to find that the others were already awake and sitting at the door watching the world go by or at least that little part of it that was known as western Texas. I joined them, and as I was sitting down, I asked, “So what’s for breakfast?”
“We’ll be there in less than an hour. Then we’ll forage before going to the camp,” answered Jake.
Samuel added, “Hopefully, Ying will remove temptation from some poor soul’s car again. I sure could use the help of some spirits. My back is hurting something awful.”
Ying looked at Samuel, “I’ll see what I can arrange.”
And that was it. None of us spoke until we got to the outskirts of Dallas. Then Jake said, “Okay, boys, time to detrain.”
Of course, I fell flat on my face again, but no harm done. I stood up and dusted myself off and said to no one in particular, “I’ll get the hang of it if it kills me.” Well, I’m still here, but I never did get the hang of it.
The first neighborhood we came to after having left the train was a good one for cadging food, if not an entire meal, or so I was informed by Samuel and seconded by Jake and Ying.
We split up as we had the night before. And as we had the night before, I played the part of Jake’s son. Once we had all the food we could carry and were on our way to the camp, Jake told me the “son dodge” was the best. He had never gotten food so easily, and he asked if I would travel with him, at least until I lost my youthful appearance. He was kidding on the square, but I was noncommittal nevertheless.
When we reached the camp, Ying and Samuel were nowhere to be seen. However, there were other inhabitants milling about. There was also a raging fire, about three times the size of the one in Lubbock, and sitting around the fire were six men. As we walked up, they gave a brief nod, but went right back to talking among themselves. Also at the fire, ensconced upon a throne of an old La-Z-Boy type recliner with the white stuffing showing through rips and tears in the fabric, sat an old black man with a full head of white hair. When Jake saw him, he whispered under his breath, “I’ll be goddamned!” I asked Jake who the guy was, but received no reply, probably because he was already three steps ahead of me, hurrying on his way to the man in the chair. Not knowing what else to do, I followed Jake.
When we got closer, I saw that the man’s face was gaunt; he looked downright emaciated. His cheeks were hollow and his cheekbones seemed very pronounced. His head sat upon a thin body and he looked to be about six feet tall, but it was hard to tell because he was sitting down.
When Jake reached the man, he said, “Hey, Oracle! It’s me … Jake.” I was right behind Jake and that is when I observed the most remarkable thing about the man called Oracle. As he turned his head in Jake’s and my direction, I saw that he had not iris nor pupil in either eye; there was only white showing. The man was blind, totally blind. It was an eerie sight indeed. If not for the broad smile upon his face, I’d say he looked like one of those zombies in a “B” movie from the 1950s.
Jake reached out his right hand and laid it on the man’s shoulder, saying, “How ya been, old stick?” I didn’t know if he was referring to the thinness of the man’s body, or if “stick” was a term of endearment.
Oracle kept his smile, nodded his head, and exclaimed, “Jake, you old shit-kicker. When did you blow in?”
“Just got here. You been here long?”
“Me and Marvin been here two days. Probably leave tomorrow. We’re headin’ for sunny California.”
“Oracle, I want you to meet a young protégée of mine. I’ve been teaching him the ways of the road. Well, with a little help from Ying and Samuel.”
“Are those shit-kickers here too?”
“Yeah, they’ll be along presently, but this here is Andrew. He hasn’t even hit his majority yet and he’s out hoppin’ freights.”
Oracle extended his right hand. I did likewise, and we shook hands. “Glad to meet ya, Andrew. Any friend of Jake’s is a friend of mine.”
I verbalized the same sentiment by saying, “Same here.”
After the introduction, Oracle invited us to have a seat and take a load off. Then he said, “Marvin’s out cadgin’ us some eats. Why don’t you fellas join us?”
Jake replied, “We just came in from a foraging expedition of our own, we’ve got plenty.”
Eventually Samuel and Ying walked into the camp. When they saw Oracle, they had the same reaction that Jake had. They rushed to him, shook his hand, and shot the shit for a few minutes. Then it was time to eat. Ying and Samuel laid their plunder next to our plunder, and I must admit, the four of us made quite a haul that night. We were discussing what to eat and what to save for the next day when Marvin walked in. Of course, it was a repeat of when Jake had first spied Oracle. It was old home week. It was then that I found out who the hell Marvin was. When introduced to him, I was told that he was Oracle’s traveling companion. You see, Oracle was in his sixties and Marvin was about thirty. They had hooked up more than a dozen years earlier when Marvin was a skinny teenager who had just run away from home and didn’t know the ways of the road, and Oracle’s sidekick at the time had just been hit by a highballer out of St. Louis, killing him instantly—leaving Oracle without a set of eyes. They’d been together ever since.
Ying was the chef of the outfit. As he opened cans and put them next to the fire, making sure to turn them every once in awhile so both sides would heat up, he laid out the already cooked food, like chicken, and the slab of meatloaf that Jake and I got from a very nice lady who flirted with him as she wrapped the meatloaf in wax paper. Jake extended an invitation to the other men congregated around the fire. His offer was politely declined. I think they were too busy passing a bottle of rye between them to stop for something to eat.
When Jake noticed the rye across the fire, he said to Ying, “That reminds me. Any luck in the booze department?”
Ying looked up from his culinary duties and informed Jake that, to date, he had never let him down and he wasn’t about to start. “Look under my coat over there on the log. You’ll find an almost full jar; I was going to surprise you after dinner.” Jake walked over to where Ying had indicated, lifted his leather coat, and there on the log sat a mason jar—you know, the kind they put up preserves in. It had a rubber gasket and metal hinge that secured the lid. This jar was about nine inches high and held what looked like water. As Jake held the jar up to the light of the fire, he asked Ying, “Where cha get it?”
Ying’s answer: “You don’t want to know.”
Jake walked to where I was sitting and sat down on his heels. He flipped up the metal hinge, removed the top, and inhaled deeply. “I must say, a mighty fine bouquet.”
Turning to me he asked, “Andrew boy, you ever had any shine? You ever have any sweet mountain dew?” I had to inform him that I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. “I’m talkin’ about moonshine, boy. Nectar of the gods.”
“Well, if that’s what you’re talking about, then no, I’ve never had any moonshine.”
“Well, Andrew my friend, you are in for a real treat. It’s best enjoyed after dinner because to partake beforehand you won’t want any dinner. However, seeing as how you’re a cherry, take a swig, it’ll get the gastric juices flowing.” He handed me the jar, adding, “Make the first one small; it’ll set your throat afire.” Of course, I’m thinking that I’m cool; I’ve drunk 151 proof Wild Turkey bourbon, so this watery-looking stuff can hold no surprises for me.
I didn’t take a small pull as advised. It’s funny that, when you’re eighteen, you have all the wisdom of the world. You know everything. But as the years pass, that knowledge gets whittled down until you’re as ignorant as the rest of humanity. So, knowing all, I gulped a mouthful of 190 proof liquor. I reckon you all know what happened next. It burned all the way down and exploded like a mini A-bomb in my stomach. I then started coughing and choking. If not for Jake being ready for just such a contingency, the jar’s contents would have been lost. But just in the nick of time, Jake took the jar from my hand and saved me from spilling the precious liquid onto the ground. All had a great laugh at my expense—even Oracle and the six guys swigging rye on the other side of the fire.
Ying prepared our spread, Marvin prepared his and Oracle’s, and they both rang the dinner bell at the same time. So, when my coughing and the accompanying laughter subsided, we all sat down to a meal fit for a king. That is, if the king liked beans, cold chicken, meatloaf, and raw carrots.
I sat next to Oracle while we ate, and he started asking me questions about my life. After we had exhausted all the small talk, he asked what had precipitated my going on the road. I told him it was something inside of me that I had always, for as long as I could remember, wanted to know what was at the end of the road. I told him that as a kid, I would see a train of boxcars sitting on a siding and have the urge to jump into an empty one and ride the train to wherever it was going just to see what was at the end of the line.
He asked me if I had ever read On the Road by Kerouac. When I answered in the affirmative, he asked what I thought of it. Before answering, I asked him if he knew the story. With him being blind, I couldn’t ask if he had read it. Well, he looked right at me with those sightless eyes of his and said, “I read the damn book. Does that surprise you?” It sure as hell did. Then he explained that he had read it in braille, you know, the raised dots. I don’t think it’s in use anymore, what with audio books and all.
“There are books,” he said, “in braille in almost every library. Usually when we hit a town, Marvin and I search out a library and we’ll spend the day there reading. We can’t check out any books because we’re not members of the community, but we’re both fast readers and we both love books. And if we’re in a small town with no books in braille, Marvin and I will sit in a corner of the library and he will quietly read to me. But tell me now; what was your take on Kerouac’s Road?”
“I guess when it came out it was quite scandalous. But I found it rather boring. I’ve been on the road, hitchhiking, for more than a year and a half, and I’ve had more adventures, been in more weird and bad situations in a week than he experienced the whole time he was ‘on the road’. And it’s no wonder; he took a bus everywhere he went! I mean, how are you going to meet people and get into their lives if you’re sitting on a goddamn bus? He should have called it On the Bus.”
When I finished speaking, Oracle let out with a good belly laugh and said, “I guess great minds do think alike. That was my take on the book also. I kept waiting for something exciting to happen. I had to stop reading it three-quarters of the way through.”
And so it went; we ate and we talked of books. It was because of Oracle that I read Tolstoy, Mailer, Dostoevsky, Hesse, and countless others that he said I should check out. He also told me of the ponderous books that would be a waste of time. Authors like Nietzsche and Balzac. “Stay away from Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Honoré de Balzac,” he advised. “They’re more long-winded than I am, and that’s saying something.”
Of course, I knew of Nietzsche and Balzac, but this guy knew their full names! Oracle was a well-read and intelligent man who spent his life in the pursuit of knowledge. You and I should be as well read and as intelligent.
By the time we had finished eating, the other members of our little assemblage, the guys with the rye, were somewhere out there in the darkness. They had finished their drinking for the night, probably because the bottle was empty, and had gone off to find a place to sleep, away from the fire and the scintillating conversation. Ying was breaking up a wooden crate and throwing the wood on the fire to build it up when Samuel asked Oracle to tell us a story.
I think I should digress for a moment and tell you what I learned of Oracle the next day as we were Little Rock bound. Of course, Oracle was not his real name. I never did learn the name he was born with; I don’t think anyone knew his appellation. But here are the pertinent facts: Oracle was gifted with Second Sight. He could tell a man’s past, having just met him. He knew the secret desires hidden within, and more often than not, he could foretell the future. I guess they didn’t call him Oracle for nothing.
Oracle had an amazing track record when it came to seeing into someone’s future. In fact, he was so good at it, he had stopped relaying the information he saw in his visions. I learned that when he had a vision he was not blind. He saw colors. He saw rainbows. He saw the faces of the people his vision concerned.
Once it was known that his predictions were right most of the time, men tended to alter their lives in anticipation of the event prophesized. Oracle told me it was not his intention to influence the lives of men. So even though he still had visions, he kept them to himself unless it was a vision like the one he told us about that night.
The fire lit Oracle’s face, illuminating the white in his eye sockets. I sat spellbound as Oracle told us of the entity we know as God, and the creation of this universe. There is no such thing as death. “We are immortal, we are gods!” said he. It was a good tale for the fact that the things he spoke of that night so long ago have stayed with me. The things I heard that night propelled me, later in life, to go on a journey—a journey of discovery. It took me twenty-two years and a lot of time in a lot of libraries. This was before the internet. But I finally came to an understanding about life, and I owe it all to Oracle.
When he had finished speaking, Oracle sat back in his chair, tilted his head skyward, and sighed. I, on the other hand, sat in front of the fire with my mouth open. It was late by then. It was time to hit the hay.
As we got up and made ready to bed down, Oracle said to Ying, “Ying, my friend, there is a bad moon on the rise; please take care of your yellow ass.”
The next morning we said our goodbyes to Marvin and Oracle. And as I shook his hand, Oracle confided in me, “When you’re my age, you will write of your youthful adventures. In one of your stories, I will be mentioned; make sure you tell your readers how handsome I was.” And then he laughed. Because, at the time, I had not been told of his Second Sight, I said to him that I did not expect to make it to thirty, let alone sixty. He just smiled and said, “You just might make it if you keep your nose clean and play your cards right.”
We jumped the 310 to Little Rock and settled in for the last ride the four of us would take together. 310 refers to the number of the locomotive, not the time of departure. How those guys knew the numbers of the trains is beyond me. The numbers of the diesels were not painted on the front as they had been in the old “steam” days.
The only thing of note to report about our trip to Little Rock is that the train pulled onto a siding where we sat for three or four hours. The delay kept us from getting into Little Rock until it was too late to knock on any back doors, so we pooled our meager resources and sent Ying to the nearest liquor store. We had decided to drink our supper that evening. Or they had, and I just went along. When Ying returned with a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag, we set out for Little Rock’s hobo camp.
As we approached, we saw no fire through the trees and heard no voices. “Looks like we got the place to ourselves,” announced Jake.
There was a full moon, so we had no trouble finding wood with which to build a fire. Once we got it going, we sat around passing the bottle of Jim Beam among us. As Ying tilted his head back to take a deep pull from the bottle, he hesitated and said, “You guys think that moon up there is the one Oracle meant?”
“If it is, you better pass that bottle over here before the motherfucker falls on ya,” exclaimed Jake.
Just then I heard a voice behind me. “Well, well, if it ain’t my old friend Ying Lee.” My butt came about three inches off the ground because there was not supposed to be anyone there.
Ying stopped looking at the moon and handed Jake the bottle before he said, “Nick Testa, what the fuck are ya doin’ here?”
“Just lucky, I guess. I’ve been lookin’ for ya, pal. Where ya been hiding?”
By now, Jake and Samuel were on their feet and moving to the voice behind me, which prompted me to finally turn around. What I saw was a man about five and a half feet tall, with maybe three or four day’s growth of beard. He was wearing an old dark blue suit, no tie of course, and he had in his hand the biggest goddamn pistol I have ever seen. They’re all big when they’re pointed in your general direction.
As Jake and Samuel started for him, the man Ying had called Nick Testa raised the gun and swung it from side to side, telling them to stop where they were if they didn’t want a piece of the action. Ying chimed in: “Hey, Nicky boy, this is between you and me. Let’s leave others out of it.”
It was about that time I decided to stand up also. In effect, the guy had us covered. Why he was holding a gun on us I knew not. However, I did know that it did not bode well for my friend Ying once I looked into the man’s eyes; they were filled with hate.
Before we get down to the nitty gritty, allow me to fill you in on what I later learned. The whole confrontment was because of something that happened either three or four years—depending on who was telling the story—prior to the night in question. Samuel swore it was three years, and Jake was just as adamant that the nexus to that night happened four years earlier. Regardless of the time frame, this is what brought Nick Testa and his gun to our campsite that night forty-seven years ago.
The three of them, Jake, Ying, and Samuel, were headed west, just south of Detroit, when the train pulled into a yard, or siding, I forget which. The point is the train stopped. It was in the early morning hours and they had been asleep. They were awakened by the sound of a suitcase being thrown into the car and slamming onto the floor. The suitcase was soon followed by the dark figure of a man. They thought nothing more of it and tried to go back to sleep. Now, the thing is, there had been a mattress in the car when my three future friends climbed on board. It must have been brought there by an enterprising hobo. It was only wide enough for one, so Samuel took out three wooden matches from his shirt pocket and broke one in half, then putting them between thumb and forefinger, told the other two to choose. The one ending up with the short match would get the mattress. Long story short, Ying won the right of a comfortable night’s sleep. When the intruder climbed into the car, he found Ying lying on the mattress and kicked the souls of his shoes.
When riding the rails, or when in a hobo jungle, you always sleep with your shoes on, it becomes second nature because if you don’t, they’ll very likely be gone when you wake up. Anyway, Ying ignored the first couple of kicks, hoping the guy would just give up and go to his own corner and go to sleep. But that didn’t happen, so finally Ying raised his head and said, “What do you want?”
“I want you outta my bed.”
Ying sat up and informed the man that there must be some mistake. By then, Samuel and Jake were propped up on their elbows, watching what was taking place in the dim light. When the man repeated his demand for Ying to vacate the mattress, Ying politely asked, “Would you please say that again?” But before the man could utter a word, Ying lashed out at him with his right foot, connecting with the man’s left knee.
The guy went down hard, all the while yelling and cursing. Jake said his howling was so loud, they thought it would bring every bull within miles to their car. When the man hit the floor, even though the light was dim, Ying recognized him and said, “Nick Testa, is that you?”
“Goddamn it, Lee. You likely broke my knee!”
It turned out that they had worked together for a summer at a fish cannery in the Northwest. But they never did like one another or, as it was explained to me, Testa did not have any use for Ying. To quote Samuel, “He’s a racist son-of-a-bitch!”
The train started moving about the same time the two old comrades-in-arms realized they knew one another. At that juncture, Ying raised himself from the bed, stood over Testa, and said, “I’ve got to get my beauty rest, and with you here, I wouldn’t be able to close my eyes for fear of waking up with my throat cut from ear to ear.” He grabbed Testa by the back of his shirt, and dragged him over to the open door Testa had just come through moments before.
When they got to the opening, Ying said, “Here, let me help you. Let’s see if you can stand on that leg.” He reached down, and taking hold of Testa under his arms, raised him to a standing position.
Ying: “How’s that?”
Testa: “It hurts like hell.”
And with that, he pushed Testa out of the moving car. Then he kicked his suitcase out after him.
Now back to the ranch, so to speak. When we left off, Testa was holding a gun on us. More so on Ying than the rest of us. He told Jake and Samuel to move down next to Ying, which they did, though very slowly. He finally acknowledged my existence by saying, “You got no part of this, boy. If you want, you can leave now.”
You know it never entered my mind to leave. Those guys were my friends. The time I had known them did not matter, the depth and commitment of the friendship was what mattered. “No, thank you. I’ll stay with my friends,” was the only response I could give and still be able to look at myself in a mirror.
Once we were grouped together on the other side of the fire, Testa took a few steps in our direction. It was then that I noticed he walked with a limp. He stopped about ten feet in front of us and said, “Mr. Lee, I have something to say to you.”
Ying said to be quick about it. “You interrupted my drinking, so get on with whatever ya got in mind.”
“Always the chink wise-ass, ain’t ya, Lee?”
Ying shrugged his shoulders and stared at Testa. I saw no fear in his eyes.
“I’ve been carrying this hog-leg Colt since our last meeting. You crippled me and threw me off a moving train. And I aim to get mine back. Now you other fellas just stay outta this. It ain’t no concern of yours. I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if you interfere.”
He stopped speaking for a moment, took a deep breath, smiled and said, “Mr. Lee, if you’ll please, take two steps forward.” Ying did not hesitate. Without looking at any of us, he took first one step, then another, but he did not stop there. He rushed Testa and when he was five paces from him, Testa fired. He got off two shots before Ying collided with him and they both went down.
Before they hit the ground, Jake and Samuel were there. Jake wrestled the gun from Testa’s hand and slipped it in his belt. Samuel hit Testa three or four times, right in the mouth. Me? I was frozen in place.
When I could move again, I walked over to where Ying lay on the ground. Testa was out cold, but no one paid him any mind. Jake and Samuel were kneeling over Ying. He was flat on his back, looking up at us. He had a smile on his face. He also had two bullet holes in his chest. He looked at Samuel, then at Jake, and finally at me. When he saw the horror in my face, he winked at me. Then he died, his eyes still looking at me, but not seeing me. None of us moved for a few minutes. Jake closed Ying’s eyes, and Samuel took his arms and folded them over his chest. I was the first to turn away, and when I did, I saw that Testa was gone.
I hurriedly told the others, but got no response from either of them. When I insisted we should do something, call the police so they could pick him up and get an ambulance to take Ying somewhere, I was told by Jake, “No, we take care of our own, first Ying, then Testa. He can’t go anywhere. There are no trains leaving at this time of night. They don’t start until 4:00, 5:00 a.m. We’ve got a few hours to catch up with Mr. Testa.”
When I countered with, “Maybe he’s hitchhiking out of town, or walking.”
“No, he’ll stay off the streets. He’ll be thinking we’ve set the cops on him. He’ll hide out until he sees the first train moving, then he’ll catch it. And then we’ll catch him.” That was it. End of discussion.
“First we need tools to bury Ying. You two prepare him. I’ll be back,” said Jake as he walked off into the darkness.
The fire was getting low, but because of the full moon, we had no trouble seeing what we had to do. Samuel told me to get Ying’s bed roll, which I did. After I handed it to him, he unrolled it and spread it on the ground next to Ying. He looked up at me and said, “Help me lift him onto the blanket.”
I had never touched a dead man before. Well, I had, but that’s another story. Ying was still warm to the touch, so it was more like he was sleeping. Once we had him centered on the blanket, Samuel started to wrap him in it.
I asked him to wait a moment. I went over to the fire where Ying had been sitting, looked around for a moment, saw what I was looking for, and brought it back to where Ying lay. I lifted the half-empty bottle of Jim Beam so Samuel could see it and asked, “Think Ying may want this to help him on his journey?” Samuel agreed. “Damn good idea, kid.”
Just when I’m feeling pretty good about myself for having thought of such a brilliant scheme, Samuel asked me, “Don’t you think it would last longer if the top was on the bottle?”
I hadn’t noticed. I went back and looked for the cap, found it, and gave it to Samuel. He smiled and said, “It’s okay, kid, we’re all a little shook up.” He secured cap to bottle, placed it on Ying’s stomach, and clasped his hands around it. As he finished wrapping and tying the blanket, Jake returned.
He was carrying a shovel and a pick axe. “Got these at that construction site down the road, had to break into their tool shed.” He handed me the tools, then he and Samuel picked up Ying and carried him to a thicket of oak trees. In the center of the thicket where the roots would not be as dense, they started digging, first Jake with the pick, and then Samuel with the shovel. Back and forth they worked until they had a hole, or should I say grave, about three and a half to four feet deep. It was six feet long. I know because Jake paced it off.
With me watching, they lowered Ying into his final resting place. When Samuel started to fill in the grave, I said, “I want to do something. Let me fill it in.”
“Sure, Andrew, but pack it in hard, and whatever dirt is left over, spread it around so that the ground is level. Jake and I will gather leaves to hide the fact that any digging went on here.”
After the leaves were spread and the place looked as pristine as it had before, Jake said, “I need a drink. Where’s that bottle?”
Samuel and I looked at each other before he said, “It’s with Ying.”
“Right where it should be. Well, if I can’t have a drink, let’s go and see Mr. Testa,” said Jake as he picked up the pistol he had taken from Testa.
When we got to the yard, we squatted down in the shade of a shed, out of the moonlight, and watched the idle trains. We knew, or Jake and Samuel knew, that Testa was not too far away, doing the same thing. I asked Samuel, “Suppose he’s already on a train?”
“That isn’t likely. “He’d be afraid the bulls would see him and chase him out of the yard or worse yet, turn him over to the police. No, he’s hiding and waiting, just like us.”
We had no more than an hour to wait when the train in front of us backed up to couple with a line of cars, maybe eight or nine. When the cars had become part of the train, and as it started its forward motion, we saw a solitary figure run out from behind a building and jump into one of the boxcars that had not yet passed us.
“That’s it, gentlemen, we’ve got us a train to catch,” said Jake as he stood watching the car we wanted come our way. He had been absent-mindedly playing with the pistol, but now he stuck it in his belt and headed for the train. Samuel and I followed.
Jake was the first to jump on, next Samuel, and lastly me—as usual. By now, I could get on a moving train by myself and without too much difficulty. But it was still a struggle. By the time I flopped onto my back inside the car and lay there a moment to catch my breath, Jake had backed Testa up to the front wall. As I got up and walked towards them, I heard Testa say, “… and you were there, you saw it. He rushed me. I was only gonna scare him. But when he rushed me, I was in fear for my life.”
Jake looked over to Samuel and expressed his doubts as to the veracity of Testa’s story. “I think he’s a lying sack of shit. What do you think, Samuel?”
“I agree and concur wholeheartedly,” responded Samuel.
No one asked my opinion.
Because of the full moon, the ambient light inside the car was enough for me to discern the terror upon Testa’s face.
Just when I thought, What are they going to do now that they’ve got him? four shots rang out, the sound reverberating in the empty boxcar. The first one went into Testa’s forehead, not quite right between the eyes, but pretty good shooting nevertheless. The next three, as he lay on the floor … those went into his chest. Then I heard clicks as the spent chambers revolved to the firing position.
Jake stood over the dead man, right arm outstretched, pointing the gun straight down at the body and continued to squeeze the trigger until Samuel came up next to him and gently eased the gun from his hand.
“You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever killed a man,” whispered Jake.
They dragged the body over to the open door and we waited until we were crossing a river. Samuel took hold of Testa’s wrists and Jake his ankles and they swung him back and forth, counting one, two, three. On the count of three, they flung him out the door as far as they could. They wanted him in the water, not on the side of the tracks. It was my job to throw out the gun, which I did without screwing it up.
We did not know where we were headed. Jake figured we were going in a southeasterly direction. We wanted off as soon as possible. We did not want to be caught in that car because of all the fresh blood on the floor. That would take some explaining.
We ended up in Tallahassee. Samuel still wanted to get to Atlanta, so he said he was going to catch a freight headed in that general direction. Jake had a woman down in Bonita Springs and was thinking of spending the winter with her. Until then, he thought he’d pick oranges. The picking season was less than a month away. Me, I had had enough of boxcars … and travelling … for the moment. I was going home to Mother.
We said good-bye to Samuel at the yard, then Jake and I hitched together as far as Orlando where we said goodbye. We both lied and said we’d meet up on the road at some future date, knowing that was highly unlikely. At least I did, because I knew right then and there that my boxcar riding days were at an end.
When I tell of one of my youthful adventures, I do so as though I’m sitting at a bar and relating my misdeeds to the guy sitting next to me. That is all well and good, but when it comes time to put my words down on paper—that’s a bitch. I haven’t the foggiest idea where a comma should go. My syntax sucks, and if I had a nickel for every word I leave out or extra word I put in, I could quit this writing racket and get a real job.
I want to give a shout-out to my friend and editor, Emily, who runs Sunrise Editing Services. Without her, my stuff would remain unreadable.
I recently posted a few of my hitching adventures. Some of you may have read them. Today’s story took place about five years after I got off the road. I was twenty-seven years old. Every word is true, though some of you might find parts of it hard to believe. That’s okay. It was my life, and I lived it.
Ellen’s Long Shot
Ellen Long was beautiful. Ellen Long was hip. Ellen Long was my lover, and Ellen Long could sure get herself into big trouble for such a little girl.
I do not remember how I came to know Ellen Long, but I do remember it was shortly after our first meeting that we were in bed devouring each other’s bodies. For a couple of wonderful months, we ran together and made love together. And I must admit, I was smitten. Although once I got to know her a little better, it was obvious that it was not going to be a long-term relationship. I took my cues from Ellen Long and I decided to enjoy her while I could.
To give you an example of her way of thinking, which was very progressive, two days after a weekend in which we locked ourselves on my boat and did nothing but drink and make love, she called me to say she was having trouble recuperating from the intensity of our weekend sexual adventures. She then went on to inform me that she had told her sister the gruesome details and seeing as how she was going to be out of commission for a few days, would it be alright if her sister came over that night. It seems the sister wanted to find out what all the fuss was about; well, that was the first of five women Ellen Long sent my way.
With that sort of attitude, it’s no wonder the relationship lasted only two months. However, once the sex stopped, we remained close. We had no choice. I drank at whatever bar she was working. At least I was assured of a decent drink.
Every time Ellen Long had a new lover, I heard about it in great detail. There was the time she told me of the guy who was flying her to England. My only comment: “Make sure you get a round trip ticket.” Wouldn’t you know it? She calls me a week later and says, “I’m stuck in London, can you send me an airline ticket?” I make sure there’s one at the airline counter within the hour. I didn’t hear from her after that for about a month. No phone call to say I’m back. No call of thanks. Nothing.
I finally ran into her at a bar we both frequented and the first thing out of her mouth was the fact she had a new love. She went on and on, telling me of his great beauty, his gorgeous skin, etc. After a few minutes of that, I started calling him “Pretty Boy” to myself. At that point, I had had enough of her crazy loves, so I feigned business elsewhere and excused myself. I should not have been so hasty. If I had waited around and met Pretty Boy, I might have averted the defining moment in Ellen Long’s and my relationship.
Fast-forward two weeks.
The loud, insistent ringing of the telephone brought me out of a sound sleep. I looked at the clock next to the bed … 4:07 am. Putting the receiver to my ear, I heard, “He’s going to kill me; he just tried to throw me off a roof!” It was 1978, a time before cell phones, and the person on the other end of the line was Ellen Long. In a whispered voice, she told me she had been riding in Pretty Boy’s car, and he became enraged when she told him she did not want to see him anymore. He then drove into the parking area of an apartment complex, pulled her from the car, and dragged her to the roof of one of the buildings.
Ellen Long was a bartender; she’d had plenty of experience dealing with drunks, so she thought she could handle this nut. It wasn’t until he tried to throw her off the roof that the seriousness of the situation struck her and her training in dealing with angry people kicked in. She somehow convinced him that everything would be all right, and if he would allow her to first find a bathroom, she would then go wherever he wished.
On the way down from the roof, the first door she knocked on was answered—as luck would have it—by a nice little old lady who had no problem letting two strangers into her apartment at 4:00 o’clock in the morning.
Once inside the apartment, my Ellen could not tell of her predicament without putting the nice little old lady in danger. And by now the nut was mollified enough to allow Ellen to leave his sight, though he stood guard at the door as she went to the back of the apartment where the bathroom was located.
Instead of going into the bathroom, she slipped into the bedroom, picked up the phone, and called me. She didn’t have the exact address, but gave me the intersection of two streets and asked me to come to her rescue. I was half out the door by the time she got around to asking for help, the length of the telephone cord the only thing keeping me from being all the way out the door.
As I got behind the wheel of the car, a voice in my head said, “She gave you the wrong location. The place she gave is miles from where she is. She is on the opposite side of the island” (Miami Beach). I then had a mental vision of her location.
Starting the car, I decided not to go where Ellen Long told me to go. Instead, I went in the opposite direction. When I got to the place I believed her to be, I saw Ellen and Pretty Boy standing alone in the parking lot of the complex. She expected me, he did not. She calmly walked up to the car and said, “Hello.” Like we were meeting accidentally in the middle of the day, and not the early hours of the morning. She then introduced her “friend,” and while his attention was momentarily diverted in my direction, she ran around to the other side of the car, dove through the open window into the passenger seat, and yelled, “Get out of here!”
It took Pretty Boy half a half a second longer than I to realize what was happening, and that half of a second was all we needed to effect our get-a-way. The only thing he could do at that point was grab onto the side-view mirror, and scream incoherent fulminations as loud as he could. Though slight of stature, he was so enraged, he had the strength to tear the mirror from the car and throw it at us as we sped away.
As I drove her home that morning, she told me I had arrived just in the nick of time. She had stalled him as long as she could and he was about to drag her to his car as I drove up. (Just in the nick of time? What would have happened to Ellen if I had not listened to that voice telling me where to go? What would have happened if I had gone to where she had directed me?)
After that morning, I never saw Ellen Long again, except once about a year later, for a few minutes, in a real dive of a bar. She was with friends, and we were both genuinely glad when we saw one another. After saying hello to me, she turned to her friends and said the following: “This is Andrew. He saved my life.”
I had finally made an impression on Ellen Long.