Thursday, September 07, 2017

Over Coffee, Late in the Morning, at Phogg’s Grill

“You smell bad,” said Johnny Murdock to Connor.

Sergeant Connor had just stepped inside the front door of Phogg’s Grill. He stopped in mid-stride, looked around the interior of Phogg’s Grill for support but finding none, sniffed his sport coat.

“Yeah,” he said, “ode due pine studding accented with a fine ordure of singed fiberglass.” He enjoyed his joke for the moment. “Don’t you think?”

“How’d that happen?”

Connor politely ignored the two other customers and general background noise of Phogg’s, secured himself heavy porcelain mug, and following that helped himself to a cup of the free coffee of the day (Kona Craft Dark Roast). Connor the cop was not easily transformed into Connor the coffee expert. Connor dabbled a couple of drops of creamer in the cup and stirred it with the blade of his butter knife.

“Don’t you ever use a spoon?” said Murdock. “Did you miss that lesson at the dining table with your mom?”

“Buddy, my mom got me started doing this. I don’t know why. It was just a kooky thing she did.”

“‘Kooky’? Did you say, ‘Kooky’?"

“Yeah, so? It’s old fashioned. Like you and me. Huh?”

Murdock snorted and smiled. He and Connor were not close buddies. Not overly friendly to each other but they did respect each other’s profession. Connor the cop, a small town cop, who had over the years arrested his high-school pals, delivered the bad news to his life-long neighbors, been to automobile accidents of horrific chaos only to discover a friends’ or acquaintances’ child in the rubble, still was sane enough to get up in the morning and do the right things. Murdock just didn’t ever expect Connor to smile. Sometimes smiling was a dishonest comment.

Murdock had simply existed. He had gone from job to job, from career to career, for over twenty years or more until finally making a living, a good living, as a man who would help you with your inquiries about a spouse or employer or employee or girlfriend or boyfriend. Without any particular effort on his part, his older female clients seemed to outnumber all other clients by three to one.
Both men were of average looks and weight. Murdock dressed a tad nicer with a tie and belt and socks that matched. Connor dressed for the day’s unknown. When he could, he ditched his sport coat. A long time ago non-uniformed cops were expected to be respectably dressed. He was. He was finally getting annoyed at having to wear a sport coat in August. The new fashionable vogue for modern, hip, male detectives was a badge on the belt and an automatic on the hip, white shirt, and tie.

Murdock didn’t dress well but dressed better than average with better than average manners and upbringing. He knew to take off his hat when he ate. He knew to keep his nose out of the plate. He knew to say “Yes, Sir,” and “No, Ma’am” like he meant it. He showed an old-fashioned respect for the older folks. He remarked one time that they’d been through what he still had to go through and for that he was grateful.

It was an hour before lunch-time trade, a little after 11:00. The earliest arrivals would be either those who had skipped breakfast or those facing a long afternoon with no hope of a nap. Or those bored by 11:00 in the morning and wanted nothing else but to eat. Phogg’s lunch special was on the board (meatloaf sandwich w/ pickle, tomato, lettuce and potato salad) which Murdock was thinking of ordering once he finished his coffee and a pass through the newspaper. He had read it once at breakfast but again a second time at lunch for no reason other than to read the paper as if this were the act of a gentleman. He had arrived here a few minutes earlier, ventured a romantic “Hello” to Lola LaVentura, the lovely and consummate chef and bartender whose shop this was, and settled into a corner seat to the left of the front door where the front wall met the partition between the restaurant and the bar, and enjoyed the next moment watching the next customers walk in and then Connor commanding the view from the doorway. At the moment there wasn’t much to command.

“So,” said Murdock. He twisted his coffee mug moving the handle from one side to the other and then for no apparent reason twisted his coffee mug moving the handle back to its original side. “What happened?”

“You’re just dying to know, aren’t you, partner?”

“I guess I could see if it is on the evening news. Would they interview that gorgeous redhead that is now in the ranks?”

“Wrong there, pal. She quit.”

“Quit? Why?”

“Didn’t like all the blood. Went off to Virginia to college. Again.”

“Didn’t like the detective type? Wanted a college man?”

“Probably. She was more trouble than she was worth.”

Murdock opted to not inquire about the woman’s worth. He sat patiently, chin in hand, twisted his coffee cup one more time.

“So,” said Connor. “Want to know what happened?”

“Not any more,” said Murdock. Then he smiled.

Connor let out a sigh and said, “Dude decides to break into this man’s garage about daybreak today.”
“Broad daylight? That’s brave.”

“Dude is neighbor to the man who owns the garage. The man who owns the garage had already left for surgery at med-center.”

“Oh, that’s cruel.”

“Yeah, well, it got really interesting. Mr. Break-in dude busts the lock on the door which was alarmed but the alarm was off. Don’t know why. Too late to worry about it. Apparently dude had not really coveted his neighbor’s property much or might have to known about the alarm. Inside he finds little of value and he is not smart enough to understand what he has found. To cover his tracks he started to pour some gasoline underneath the man’s 1967 Austin Healey, a classic worth bunches. Unknown to this poor sap the car has had some problems and one of those was a grounding problem.”

“Oh, oh.”

“Where the story goes strange is our garage owner is also a man with a checkered past. On the wall, behind Dude, is an assortment of manhole covers several of which are five or six feet up on the wall.”

“Manhole covers? Stolen? Collected?”

“Would seem an odd collection but no, these are all classic covers from various years used by the city. Tailor made. Purposely different just to keep a nice look to the sewer system, I guess. Ask the guys at Public Works. I don’t know.The gas goes up in the man’s face. Fire chief says it was like an explosive cloud. Our accident prone suspect is caught away from the doors, in danger of inhaling a fireball. The inside lights up like a Roman candle. Too much paint. Too much gasoline and solvents. Just the right amount of oxygen, and poof, he’s scorched, trapped, and scared. The building goes up like a ball of dryer lint.”

“How long did it take for the fire department arrive?”

“I hear someone with lawsuit on their mind?”

“No. But I remember hearing about one for that same reason.”

“That the fire was in the alley didn’t help. Truck got turned into the alleyway and then stuck so they had to man-handle the hose up about halfway up the block. God, that looked like a lot of work.”

“Didn’t save the man or the garage?”

Connor shook his head.

“Are you kidding?” Connor said. “The wall probably barely supported itself let alone some crazy reason to hang manhole covers on it. He wasn’t about to dig his way out from under a couple of hundred pounds of iron. The only thing left was the foundation and half-dozen manhole covers.”

“Anything left to the Healey?”

“I couldn’t tell you if it made any difference.”

“And the garage owner?”

“The manhole covers are all numbered, on the bottom. Did you know that? I helped the robbery boys take the inventory. Damn things are heavy. We served him with an arrest warrant for the manhole covers as soon as he came out of surgery. Made his day.”

“I wonder what his surgery was for?”

Connor just smiled and took a big drink of his coffee.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017


It was time to get the shaggy look trimmed up. In my retirement one thing that changed was I stretched the time between haircuts. So at times I am a little bit ragged around the ears. The hat hair seems to get worse but I don’t mind. Over the cooler months it feels good. Over the warmer months it has to be trimmed back.

My barber likes to mow. He likes to mow his yard. He likes to mow my hair. He even mows my eyebrows which tickles. But mostly, he is a gentleman and a scholar and we have some very interesting conversations.

Most people think all we talk about is golf or politics. They think that for a reason, of course. I found quite by accident that we’ll talk about anything as long as it’s clean and fun but not politics.

One time, I don’t know how, funeral practices came up in the conversation. The tale went something like: Have you heard of this practice?

Which practice he was referring to I couldn’t tell.

“What?” I said

“Have you heard, I know you know all this kind of stuff, but have you ever heard about going to a graveside and sort of reburying someone by putting pieces of blacktop and concrete on the grave?”

“Never," I said. "Someone must have really wanted to make he or she never came back to life. Must have read too many stories about people in the old days that weren’t really dead but got buried anyway.”

I hadn’t heard that particular tale but I was glad I did. I was in the middle of writing a story and there was a scene with a graveyard and since this was a detective-fiction it needed, it called for, it yearned for such a weirdness as someone who further buries someone just to be sure they don’t come back.

Today at the shop wasn’t much different. I had gone in on a Wednesday after lunch. The shop was almost empty. One of the barbers was just finishing up with another gent so I was next and not ten minutes later the second barber comes in from lunch break. The third barber was on vacation. A golf match was on the television. The paintings along one wall and the fish mounts on the other wall did not seem to ever go together. Maybe that was why they were on different walls.

We got to jabbering about food. In particular, kraut. I don’t know how we got there. Usually we start with polite stuff like “What do you think of this weather?” But somehow we worked away towards some kind of food that I don’t recall talking about and ending up with sauerkraut. The path probably had something to do with gardens then farmers market then longed-for favorite foods. Or maybe it something the wife cooked yesterday that was like what my mom used to make but my sister didn’t like and then it was served at a family meal and he found he liked it!

That was me, I thought. When I was a kid, if I can remember rightly that far back, my mom couldn’t get me to eat kraut on a bet. I apparently have changed.

I think I started eating kraut on corned beef a few years ago for something different from other than another variety of ham or beef or turkey sandwiches and then made the slide to adding kraut on hot dogs. At the farmers market (back when it was a tent city) there was a food cart with the most delicious hot dogs that I found could be genuinely enhanced by sauerkraut. Don’t ask me how it got started because I don’t remember but I was glad it do. 

Our conversation got to going about eating kraut and which brands were better than others, when we first had kraut, and who made the best homemade and what goes best with it. I am not one to buy kraut at the store but apparently one brand is so good, apparently sour enough to make your jaws lock up!

I wish I could remember that brand name. It’ll be a month before I stop by for a hair cut and then I’ll have to remember to ask.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Malone Saves the Shady Lady

Perk Malone hadn’t visited “The Duck” very often in his years as a patrol officer or as a private investigator. The place had been there, for sure, he just never had the opportunity to grace it with his presence. But in the last couple of years he had, indeed, gone there, had a few beers, met a few people, and avoided the few fights. Generally. In Madison City, a fight, where the cops got called, resulted in a fine for the business and enough fines the business was gone. It was a contested ordinance, but it was still an ordinance.

Today was not much different than any other time. He and one other guy were at the bar. The oversized televisions were on, on mute, highlights of last night’s baseball games. The barkeep had propped the door open to let in some fresh air and it must have been working since the interior didn’t overwhelm with the smell or sweat, beer, or cigarettes. The Duck was two blocks from the interstate and it’s rumblings filtered through the open door, too, along with a draft of fresh spring air.

The other gentleman at the bar paid no heed to Malone and Malone returned the favor. It was a nice afternoon to have a cold one, even if it wasn’t a craft brew, and the place was relatively quiet and dark.

He had his chin resting in the palm of his hand, elbow on the bar when he sort of felt the presence of someone behind him and then next to him.

She let her knees slightly brush his hip as she slid onto the bar stool. Her name was Hazel something-or-other. He’d met her at the justice center, one time, when he was waiting to be called as a witness and she was waiting to be called to the DA’s office. Malone hadn’t quite understood what that was supposed to mean. He didn’t remember much about that encounter but he did remember she was bull-legged.

“Hey, sailor, buy a girl a drink?”

He smiled with his chin still in his hand and with the other hand waved the barkeep to bring the lady a cold, tall one.

“How are you,” she said.

“Good. You?” He could talk well enough with his chin in his palm.

“Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“Always, my dear. Always.”

Now he slightly turned his head to look at her. She was half brunette and half redhead, tanned, eyelashes the size of tent awnings, and eyeshadow that looked like something a five-year old might have applied, and one very obvious shiner under her left eye.

“I fell down the stairs,” she said.


“No, really, I fell down the stairs.”

“I believe you.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do. I do! Drink your beer.”

She wore a grey hoodie with the arms ripped off and faded blue jeans and tennis shoes. Her hair looked like it hadn’t been combed since winter solstice. She took a long slug of her beer. He had hardly touched his. She took out a crush-proof box of fags and a gold lighter.

“Nice lighter,” he said.

In Tennessee, if under-18-year olds were prohibited from the establishment then smoking was allowed. The Duck was one of those establishments. She didn’t look anywhere near 18-years old. More like 50, thought Malone.

“Thanks, it was a present.”

“You know,” said Malone, “I never did learn why you were at the jail to talk to the D.A.”

“Probably, because it was none of your business, sweetie.”

“Can I ask another stupid question? What does this oak leaf on the lighter supposed to mean?”

“I think it’s the brand name.”

Perk Malone nodded as if he understood. What he understood was different from how she might have interpreted his nodding. He knew, as did most of people in his line of work, as did most of the detectives he knew, that the oak leaf was a signature emblem for the area’s highest ranking importer of pills, marijuana, and women although the Mary Jane side of the business was about to get the kibosh from the legislature. His name was simply Ralph Rose. He was Caucasian, educated, locally born and raised, “free range” one attorney liked to call him, behind his back, but generally not a nice person.

The word was that Ralph Rose (nobody called him “Ralphie” either) did not take fools, women, or enemies kindly. Everyone was potentially an enemy which Perk Malone understood. His respect for Rose did not include kowtowing but it also did not include being foolish. But, for Perk Malone, one thing that had remained true for the years of the rise of Ralph Rose, Perk had never seen the man in real life nor could he recall seeing a picture of Rose. Also, at one time Ralph Rose had portrayed himself as some kind of Mafioso, dressing in a suit, talking tough and mumbling, letting hints drop he wanted to be called “Ralph the nose.” No one knew what to do about that and Rose’s nose wasn’t particularly interesting. It was just a nose. “Rose the Nose” was the inevitable very hush-hush joke.

For whatever reason, the woman now decided to leave. She picked up her purse, package of cigs, and headed straight for the door, not saying “Adios” or “Kiss my Grits” or anything. Perk Malone’s eye flowed from watching her hips wiggle to the old man at the bar as he turned, too, to leave, leaving a half-glass of beer on the counter, and Malone’s eye caught the brown of a pistol butt stuck in the man’s waistband of his grey slacks against a white shirt. Underneath he was dressed a little too nice to match the beat up sport coat and scruffy bearded look on the outside.

Perk Malone had always, and he would emphasize “always,” carried his 32-caliber five-shot in a holster. One, it was required by his license. But, two, he’d been around too many gunslingers who thought a heater in their pocket or belt was way too cool until it caught on in the stitching or belt loop or he managed only to grab the butt not the trigger guard which Perk had seen a cop one time draw his night stick and wallop some youngster across the forehead when the kid tried to quick-draw from his hip pocket only to grab a chunk of wood and not much else.

The two times Malone had used his pistol he knew to get up close, jam the barrel in to where ever you want to hit the man, and then pull the trigger. Both of them survived but both were still spending their nights and weekdays and weekends in west Tennessee courtesy of the state.

Perk Malone wasn’t sure what was going to happen, now as the man really seemed to follow the woman out the door, but he felt he ought to go check it out.

He’d just closed the door behind him, stepping into the sunshine, and breath of fresh air, when he heard the pop of a heavy pistol. A woman screamed, terrified, and then a man screamed, a wounded dog sound. At the back of the parking lot with only five or six cars (for four people), Perk Malone could see the blond head over the roofs. Not sure what to do he instinctively scurried to one side and came up on the man, sitting on the pavement, back against a car, a pool of blood already forming under him. The blonde stood, bent over, hands to her face, now silent screaming. The man’s hat had fallen over his face.

“Oh, God,” she said. “Ralph? No?”

She jumped as Malone approached.

“I didn’t do anything,” she was saying. “It went off by itself. I swear. Oh, God! He’s dying!”

Malone knelt down and put his hand on the man’s chest. His breathing was slow and his heart was hammering. Blood spurted from his left thigh. There was the faint odor of cordite and Malone could easily see the butt of the pistol still peeking out from the waistband. The man had obviously gone for his gun, managed to set it off, and drilled a hole through his upper thigh, the femoral artery, and now his life draining away onto the pavement. The man had a blank look on his face. Malone guessed that he was in shock already from the pain of the bullet and the heat of the discharge in a place where such discharge was not a common thing, but almost instantly his body began to shut down. He was past first aid and past a tourniquet. The next stop was last rites.

Malone grabbed the blonde by the arm and shoved her away telling her to get in her car and leave. Don’t look back, he told her, and don’t come back.

There in the sunshine Perk Malone watched Ralph Rose, Ralphie, Rose the Nose, die. He called 911 but by the time he got through with all the questions before they asked where he was or what had happened, Ralph Rose had pumped out most of his blood and the last was draining by gravity. His chest was still. His heart had stopped. Malone told the 911 operator she probably ought to also call the cops and medical examiner, too. She asked if he needed the fire department rescue squad. Had there been a wreck, were there other injured?

Malone thought about the “others,” not so much the girl, but anyone who had a run-in with Ralph Rose. It took him a moment to get his thoughts back to the parking lot.

He said, “No. No others. No wreck.”

There was nothing left to rescue.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Blonde in a Corvette

“It’s not mine,” she said.

That’s what they all say. It’s the boyfriend’s. It’s the husband’s. Or the ex-husband’s.

She had skidded to a halt in the parking lot of my church on a very brilliant, coolish, fall day. The sky was October blue, the leaves were beginning to turn, the air was cooling. Football weather. I was putting a second coat of paint on the front door when she rolled in. Our church fronts a fairly busy street. The railroad tracks are two house lots over, running perpendicular to the street, and this street was one of only three streets in three miles for crossing the tracks. So we got a lot of traffic. On Sundays, we don’t have enough congregation to need a cop to direct traffic but I have always stated that would be a good problem to have. Some day we would get to that level.

“You ever ridden in a Corvette?” she said.

The ‘Vette was new. I don’t know the models any more. Couldn’t afford one and so I knew as much about Corvettes as I knew about a Rolls-Royce. Except for one.

I stared for a moment if only because I was still taking in the scene. I was standing there in the sun shine, in a sleeveless Georgia Tech t-shirt and paint-dribbled bluejeans, roller brush in one hand and a rag in the other.

She was blonde. Always is. Riding with the top down and with no kerchief her hair was wind blown in every direction. Big smile, big hair. She had on a blue-on-white striped sailor’s shirt.

I hadn’t even spoken to her yet and she had already said the ‘Vette wasn’t hers. I guess I should have known it wasn’t. It never was.

Yes, I had ridden in a Corvette. In my younger days I had a friend who worked magic with a wrench. He’d married (if I could ever remember the details right) a ’65 StingRay bac kend with a classic ’63 Corvette front, like the one from the television show. Don’t ask me how he did it. What I also remembered was we took her out for a spin and it was probably a bit of luck we made it back home alive. I lived in Illinois then, in the flat, corn country, and we shot out of town headin’ south on a warm summer’s night, as they say, hauling the mail. It was a convertible and the interior (although I don’t which interior it was) was in good shape and all the right parts worked and we flew down the highway, straight and level for about five miles. I had to go out behind the garage to relieve myself when we got back home. So, yes, I’d ridden in a ‘Vette. Next question?

She had a big smile. Lots of teeth. Tanned face that looked a bit drawn perhaps from too many cigarettes. Her voice seemed strained and hoarse. But her attitude was cheery and light hearted. She struggled a bit to climb out the car. It was too low slung and she was too tall.

My mind shot back to wondering why it was young women never seemed to own the hot sports car or the big tall truck. Income? Social pressure? Maybe part of our culture demanded she earn the privilege to drive his car. I was glad my wife was not like that.

In the background noise I could hear the rise and fall of a police siren.

The young woman bounced on her feet. Giddy, like.

“You work here?” she said.

“I’m the pastor. So, yeah, I work here.”

I did my best to smile, being very warm from the heat and the work, and standing in the sun.

“I don’t go to church,” she said.

“Sorry. Any particular reason?”

“No. Just not my lifestyle, I guess.”

I wasn’t immune to other church goers, even some in my congregation, who saw church as a lifestyle. I sort of wished there was a better articulation but I didn’t argue.

“Nice color,” I said.

When you’re painting a door basic white a convertible in royal blue looks pretty spiffy. The sirens were getting closer but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Because this was one of the few railroad crossings made this a busy route for EMS, the cops, and the fire department. It was not unheard to have a siren go racing by in the middle of the prayer requests. I didn’t pay an overly amount of attention to the squad cars as they raced by us, this time, sirens in full throat, neither apparently noticing a blonde and a Corvette at the front of the church talking to a man holding a paint roller.

The blonde didn’t seem to notice the squad cars going by us. She continued to smile and I could see her lips move but couldn’t quite make out what she was saying. When I visit some of more elderly congregates who talk very quietly, I’ve learned to watch them talk and then smile and make an intelligent reply.

“Nice church,” she said.


It was still in nice shape and an attractive building for being well over 35-years old. Prior pastors and congregations had worked hard to keep it fresh and alive, inside and out.

“I should go to church,” she said.

“Wouldn’t hurt,” I said.

“I’ve done some things wrong, you know?”

“Who hasn’t,” I said.

“Would you forgive me?”

“Not my call, actually. But if you behave I reckon we’d let you stay.” I smiled by best pastoral smile. Oh, some days, I thought, some days, it would be so nice.

The two squad cars returned, one to each entrance to our parking lot. The officers didn’t jump out with weapons drawn. They didn’t shout orders or make demands. Almost casually they walked towards the the blond standing next to the Corvette.

“It’s not mine,” she said.

“Yeah,” said one of the cops. He was older, had all the braiding of a veteran cop. “We know.”

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Donahue Eats Brick


A young woman found him. She worked late at the Lazy Dog Tavern as a waitress and had taken this route before just because she didn’t usually meet strangers in the dark of one o’clock in the morning. The alley was lighted at the ends, of course, by the street lights and by the parking lot lights but the remaining stretch between the street and lot was dark. The city didn’t allow the dumpsters to be parked there just to reduce the number of hiding places for attackers or street bums. During the day the alley was moderately presentable and used by folks as a short cut.

Donahue had probably walked this alley day and night for more times than he could remember. He’d been in this office in the Jefferson Building for about 10 years and had never once been accosted in the alleyway.

There was always that first time.

Donahue’s view of the world, at the moment when the young woman came upon him, was a flat one, that stretched from his left eyeball, tilted 90-degrees from upright, out over the bricks and ruts of the alley. In a sepia tone view of the rolling landscape he noted for the first time the rise and fall of particular loose bricks and long groove of the previously-thought-of shallow rut. But, this turned-over world was upsetting too if only because he’d never quite so closely examined the alley’s deck.

The brick was cool, at least. He lay in a crumpled pile. He had one arm under him and one leg folded back about half-way. He could feel his knee sitting on a sharp corner of a brick and he could feel the slight trickle of blood from his temple and from his nose. And one foot felt cool as if he was missing a shoe. His breathing was slow and even. He’d been hammered, for sure, by pros, but purposely left in a reasonably good shape perhaps as if to indicate that he was lucky.

He was lucky the girl found him and even luckier she had the where-with-all to call 911.
Donahue’s brain took several long minutes to realize he was on his right side and the corner of the brick was poking him in the right temple and his right eye was half-open staring hard at another brick half-an-inch away. He could see the girl, standing off to one side, back lighted by the lights in the parking lot or were those street lights?
He was confused.

She didn’t get any closer than she had to. She could see he was alive and moving in pain, a body trying still to protect itself even though the attack was over. She had seen enough horror shows to know two things: never, ever back up in a dark alley or hallway; and never get within arm’s reach no matter how dead the guy looked.

He’d been ambushed. Caught unawares like some amateur, play-time P.I. Two of them. From behind without hardly a hint of the rush. One with a punch like a hammer. He’d hit Donahue hard enough, Donahue bounced off the wall. Reflexively, Donahue had thrown a wild right hook that missed and only opened him up to a punch to the ribs. The ambush was just about over that soon. A kick to a knee. A hard smack to his chin. A quick stomp on his hand and they were gone. But the lights had stayed on, for the most part, and the hand stomper had worn a very old pair of wingtips that even in the bad light he could tell really needed a re-dye. He had wingtips but they didn’t look as bad as that pair.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Steele Bends


Derek Steele stared at the 45. In the hot, white spotlight from overhead he could see a trace of gun smoke leak from the muzzle, and he could see a wisp of smoke from the ejector slide. Steele looked down to his right side and inspected the hole his sport coat. The most recent round from the 45 had yanked his coat to one side and burned a hole in the cheap polyester-cotton blend ugly coat.

Crap, he thought, and I just got this coat from Goodwill.

He slowly looked behind him and saw where the second-most-recent round from the forty-five went. It was buried in the chest of his business partner, Jesus Jones. Jesus Jones had a surprised look on his face, slumped as he was across the vinyl and chrome sofa. It was the best they could do for office furniture. A small dribble of drool was forming in the crease of his lips. The bullet had plowed into Jonesy dead-center in the middle of his tie, an especially ugly and garish paisley tie now darkened with powder burn and blood, through the shirt, and shattered Jonesy’s breast bone, drove shrapnel and bone through his heart. His shirt front was soaked with blood. Jonesy might not have died right off but he was certainly dead now.

Steele carefully returned his look at the gun. He could see the dull-black 45 and the slender white hand that held it and the bright-red finger nails, and the slim wrist, and most of a forearm, covered with fine hair, and then see nothing as the arm left the light.

His face, his eyes, stung from the heat of the blast. He was about ready to mess in his pants, he thought, and he desperately wanted a drink of water. For the moment his hearing was gone.

Derek Steele was scared.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

47 Across

The job was easy enough. Take a few pictures. Collect the evidence. Donahue had done it before, he was proud to say, in all kinds of light and conditions as if he were Ansel Adams or somebody. The few clients that visited his office noticed that in fact he could take some very fine black and white photographs. Not bad, they seemed to express in a few words, but dropping the implied, for a private detective.

Donahue worked for several attorneys in Madison City. There was Mike Fisher who specialized in corporate “work” and Hamby “Hump” Martin who seemed to always steer the stranger divorce cases Donahue’s way. And then J.P. Norman who seemed to like to send Donahue chasing the cheating husband into every mean bar in town. There were several of those and Donahue had mad it a practice to visit Norman’s office to collect his fee before doing the job.

“Franc, ol’ pal,” said Hump Martin. At least he knew to call Donahue by “Frank” despite the spelling. Martin wasn’t quite able to complain about someone else’s name spelling. “Got a job for you if you are interested.”

The job was to take a handful of pictures of a husband meeting with a woman, not his wife, because, said Martin, said wife, believed, if fact she knew, that the man was cheating.

The man, whose name Donahue didn’t need to know, was going to meet his current squeeze at a local brewery. The brewery was tucked in the corner of a former department store itself the home of a nice downtown restaurant. Martin e-mailed a profile of the man and his wedding photo. He had short, grey-at-the-temples hair, long nose, close eyes, thin mouth. He looked handsome enough, thought Donahue, but it had been his experience that looks and love worked hand-in-hand as easily as polar opposites. But the face would be easy to recognize and just as easy to overlook if he were not prepared.

All he had to do, said Martin, as if reminding Donahue the location in the downtown relative to the rendezvous point which was supposedly set for seven o’clock sharp, was walk down the street two blocks, through the old department store building to the brewery and wait. Donahue was tempted to tell Martin that it usually wasn’t that easy but the size of the fee beckoned brilliantly. Apparently the irate wife had plenty to spend, so it was not going to be Donahue who talked himself out of job.

Six-thirty was soon enough for Donahue to leave for the brewery and establish himself in a corner of the room, there was only one room for customers, before the mark arrived. He would use his cellphone camera because it should look innocent enough out in the open. He also stopped by Jimmy Bogart’s newsstand at the bottom of the staircase in his building, just as Bogart was closing and bought one each of the three local area newspapers.

The evening was warm. The hill country of east Tennessee had been fortunate to have an early-summer rainy spell and that cleaned the air and made walking in the evening ever more the delight. Traffic was light along Main Street in front of Donahue’s office in the Jefferson Building. Main Street ran one way, towards the same direction as he was walking but here in the middle of the week, early evening, even with the college in session, half of the curb-side parking was empty.

On his side of the street all the store fronts were occupied. One was a new age emporium that sold some fairly interesting dress accessories, or so he’d been told by the women who ran the beauty salon on the first floor of his building, and there was a new taco place (making it three in the two block downtown) who he had not tried yet. Tacos seemed to be the rage lately. On the edge of the downtown were two more places that specialized in tacos. He wasn’t a taco affectionado but he didn’t dislike them either. There was also a wedding dress shop along the way that had been here long before Donahue set up shop ten years ago. In the middle of the block was coffee/sandwich shop that doubled as a music venue which after a couple of years in business seemed like it ought to make a go of it.

But across the street was almost like a different downtown. There were three storefronts in a row that looked like either they had been bombed or forgotten. One, in the middle, had been renovated and made ready to rent but no one would probably want to have the other two for neighbors. The first had a timber scaffolding holding the facade in place. The city had sued for demolition but the owners dumped about fifty-grand to start work instead of losing a demolition suit and then that stopped and the ball went back into the city’s court. The other had a plywood wall storefront except the roof line was about two feet higher than the plywood which allowed the weather and the pigeons to wreck havoc inside. He could look through the gap and see an open window at the back of the building which fronted, of course, the street a block up. Despite sometimes full parking lots later in the evening, particularly on the weekend, the downtown still had it problem spots.

What he also liked was the city’s continued faith in planting trees in the big concrete planters. During the winter the bare trees made the downtown seem really dead but in the summer when the greenery began to show up the downtown looked like a decent place to go have a bite to eat and a beer. Which was maybe why the mark had chosen the place he did. It served cheap, crazy beer.

Cheap crazy beer. Not this manufactured-mass produced cow piss that was so overwhelmingly popular in the dark bars. The nation’s beer habits had declined steadily and then changed its preferences almost over night catching, certainly, the local distributors off guard. It certainly also had revived Donahue’s interest in something different to try and experiment with. His taste buds had been reborn.

Donahue licked his lips as he walked along the street. He could see people going in and out of the various businesses. The billiard parlor, known for its exceptional hamburgers, was busy. The music venue next to it, though was having a tough time lately. The punk scene was notoriously fickle. About as fickle as the beer drinkers.

At the corner, he stopped and studied for a moment all the changes and some of the non-changes in the downtown. The corner opposite had been a bank and then a data processing center. Now it was up-scale condos but only three-quarters full, he knew. The price was out of his range but people seemed to like living in the city itself. There was one, store-front-wide, grocery just down the street. No pharmacy. Not many neighbors as he knew neighbors with dogs and cats and yards and kids playing in them. He liked hearing the kids shout and holler and chase each other. That was what kids were supposed to do, weren’t they, and the dog joining the fun not knowing or caring whose side was chasing or being chased.

But also, on the other corner was shop that seldom seemed to not have tenants for long. The facade was polished black and pink granite that nowadays and in that spot, looked out of time and place if not downright ugly. From his own experience of renting his office he knew that landlords were notorious for not wanting to do much of anything until cornered. At least his landlord, who Donahue had made it a point many years ago to investigate, and maybe having a private eye for a tenant spooked the landlord, they got along famously and the several tenants in the building had seldom changed. Mostly Donahue was concerned that Jimmy Bogart might someday be forced out. He and Jimmy had become friends. Jimmy was born with above average birth defects but had managed by guile and effort to at least be able to sale newspapers and smokes and snacks in the building. Someplace along the way Franc Donahue had  discovered Jimmy was a long lost relative of a friend of the landlord and that helped, too. The city’s handicapped re-employment efforts helped. Now Jimmy enjoyed his status as Franc Donahue’s sentry!

The light changed, Donahue crossed the street, took the first door to the right and entered the wooden floored lobby of the old department store.

At the back of the building on this floor was a local brewery. Not a commercial beer in the place and thank goodness, he thought. Despite some of the stranger brews, most were variations and personal tastes of the folks than ran the shop. For a buck he could get a four-ounce glass of beer. Tonight he’d have to order four, at least, four bucks on the expense account, too. A blond ale. Some kind of peach cream that sounded positively awful, a locally named stout, and a wheat-oak blend stout that sounded more like wood stain than beer.

Donahue bought himself a sampler of four for four dollars. He didn’t know if he’d have to nurse these all night or go for seconds or thirds and walk back to the office sloshed. But the sample of four might have amounted to one full pint. He was gettin’ old and not ready to admit it.

Donahue found himself a spot in a corner, in a niche, where a wide-angle view took in the entire room. The place was lighted by tall windows to the south, but during noon time shadowed by the building across the alleyway. That building across the alleyway was a rebuilt office turned into modern downtown living, too, and it was also maybe three-fourths full. Here in the evening the drinking room had a cool glow to the walls and tables and mixed chairs. He wasn’t alone, either.

Another man was seated alongside the serving bar, his back to the room, but it wasn’t the mark. This man was bull-necked and wearing a shabby long-sleeved shirt in the summer time. He had on shorts and hiking boots with socks that didn’t match. Homeless, perhaps. Or just thirsty after a warm day. Donahue had worn mismatched sox. One time he even wore mismatched tennis shoes. They were both black and he’d dressed in the dark one morning, in a hurry. At least that was his excuse.

On the table he set his newspapers and phone and the four tall shot glasses of his beer. He hadn’t thought through exactly how he was going to take pictures but the plan was to prop his cell phone between two glasses, set it on 60-second timer and then ignore the scene. He would concentrate on his crossword puzzles and not look at the phone once it was shooting. At least the idea worked, sort of, back at the office. Set on shooting once a minute, no flash, Donahue could photograph all night. Fifteen minutes to go. Fifteen wasted shots but now was the time to find out what worked.

Donahue leaned the phone against the four-ounce cups, aimed between, satisfied he had a wide-enough angle to take in the whole room. He rustled his three newspapers gathering up the crossword puzzles and then finally took a sip of one of the beers. He sat back, pencil in hand, not doing the puzzles, waiting at least until the mark showed up. The TV was on, replaying last year’s Super Bowl game, the room felt small, the man in the shorts at the table by the serving bar moved so little Donahue could have easily said the man was either asleep or dead. Donahue wanted to present himself as nothing more than the furniture. It occurred to him that the mark could easily become suspicious and leave immediately. His experience had been that the men were leery of public places and the women wanted it.

Donahue ran through one crossword puzzle quickly doing all the easy clues first. Halfway through the second the mark showed up at the door. The server waited patiently as he checked the room either for his date or his wife. But, neither, just some hapless looking fellow in clothes that needed matching and needed washing and some guy in a sport coat and hat drinking a lot of beer and working the crosswords.

The man about town, the husband about to make a terrible mistake, or perhaps he had already made one, ordered a pint of dark ale. Paid cash, Donahue noted. No electronic trace there. At least the man was cautious to a point. But, by now he had his picture taken.

Donahue was stumped for the moment on “Capp’s child,” five-letters.

The mark sat nearly out of camera range, back to Donahue, staring out the tall window. Minutes passed. Photos were taken of the same unchanging scene. Donahue had a flash of thought about how many photographs he’d have to delete! A problem for tomorrow.

In the door, now stood a tall red-head. Porcelain skin. Bright-red lipstick. Long skirt, jacket, big hat, big purse. Showy, to a fault. She was used to getting looked at and she liked it. Donahue liked it, too. So did the mark, obviously, turning and rising to greet her with a hug and a kiss, in between shots. Donahue’s luck might change. And then again, it might not. He didn’t look at his cell phone. The photographs didn’t have to win awards. They had to only convince the judge or the husband.

They chatted. Giggled. Smiled. Had fun. Donahue nursed his beers. An hour wore on. Donahue was getting  hungry but still had not completed any of the three puzzles. It wasn’t his night for crosswords. Ninety minutes later, ninety photographs later, one full bladder later, eight four-ounce beers down the hatch, Donahue was almost glad to see them leave. He was stumped again, this time at five words for “reaper” with an “e” in the second letter. All he could think of was “deere.”

Nature called just after the couple left. Coming back from the bathroom (unisex, warm water, beer advertisements plastered on the walls) Donahue didn’t pay much attention to the siren as it came down the street next to the building.

A second siren ought to have gotten his attention but the bartender, a she, had stopped by to chat and clean up and Donahue wasn’t likely to pass up a chance to talk to a pretty young woman even if she was married. Business was good, she was saying, craft beer was the in-thing although she, like everyone else betting on the revival of the downtown, hoped it would continue some unspecified long time.

The third siren, going away from someplace got his notice finally, but by the time he walked out into the night even that was now in the near past. He was halfway down the block to his office when his cellphone buzzed in his coat pocket. It was Hump Martin asking where was Donahue.

“Well,” said Martin, “ the case just took a turn for the worse. You for hire? Got another job, if you want it?”

“How’s that?”

“My client has just been arrested for gunning down her husband and a red-head. Not two blocks from the rendezvous point.”

Well, thought Donahue, forty-seven across, five letters, second one was an ‘e’, could have been ‘death.’”