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.’”


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