Feeding the Eels

Feeding the Eels started a long time ago (in blog years), just a little bit of silliness to help a vague acquaintance with a Google-bombing project. It was fun to write, though, and soon after I posted another episode, and another after that. As time passed the style of the story evolved from a parody of the noir genre to an homage. It’s still a cliché-fest, but an honest one.

Along the way new episodes have become rarer; sometimes it will be months between episodes. Partly that is due to the increasing complexity of the story, which makes it more difficult to spew out. The good news is that I have at last introduced all the factions I carelessly mentioned in the earlier episodes, and now we can start thinning them out.

Before you start you should be aware that writing stuff like this is what I do instead of watching television, and I use about as much of my brain to do it as you might use on a rerun of Gilligan’s Island. (Well, I suppose I use a little bit more than that, but you get my point.) The story is published here without the benefit of planning, serious proofreading, revision, or any of the other tools that lead to readable prose. There are bits I’m quite pleased with, but there are plenty of others that really could use a good edit. Mostly what I see when I look back over the old episodes are missed opportunities.

One part of the tradition is that when I finish one episode I invent a juicy title for the next, something to write to. It is the only planning I do; as I sit down to write I really have no idea what is going to happen next. A couple of titles have been particularly troublesome, and I have had to devote multiple episodes to get anywhere near something that fits. “Reunion by the River” has proven more troublesome than most. Continuity is also an issue; one of these days I’m going to have to read this thing myself.

If you like the voice you find in this bit of silliness, I encourage you to click the links over in the sidebar to read a few things that have had the benefit of considerably more review and polish. They’re all short stories, so there’s no commitment required on your part.

Note that the titles for these episodes will look extra-cool if you install the font Maszyna. It’s free for non-commercial use, so give it a try! I have been looking for a font that will give the story text itself a more typewritery feel, and some come pretty close but just aren’t quite flexible enough.


Episode 1: The Last Bottle

Note: This episode is really quite different than those that follow later. I was tempted to go back and edit this one to make it fit better (and to make the protagonist more appealing in general), but I decided that wouldn’t be true to the spontaneous nature of the story.

It was just after noon on a Tuesday that was muggier than most Tuesdays. It seemed like the city itself was sweating. The oscillating fan on my desk wasn’t; it was turned away from me with the haughty air of a woman pretending that she was above such foolishness. But I knew better. I could have reached out and turned her toward me, but that would have been a victory for her. I could wait. Sooner or later she’d turn back; I was willing to sweat it out.

My last bottle of rye lay empty on my desk, squeezed of its last drop, and not even Vishnu was going to fill it back up. Not with whiskey, anyway. I brushed the cobwebs off the phone and buzzed Alice. She sounded surprised to hear from me. “How much we got in petty cash?” I asked.

“You’re out of liquor already?” Alice never understood that it was the whiskey that helped me think; it was the cornerstone of my practice. Without the whiskey there would be no fourth-floor office on the corner of East 55th and 2nd, there’d be no phone, and there’d be no Alice in the front office getting paid to paint her toes.

“Just answer the question,” I grumbled.

“There’s twelve bucks, not counting what you owe me in back pay.” She kept bringing that up. There’s no satisfying some dames.

Twelve clams. Good thing I’d been drinking the cheap stuff. I hung up the phone and stood, my knee protesting. It had never been the same since Iron Hand Flannigan and his goons had introduced it to Mr. Lead Pipe. I have to agree with the doctors about heavy metal poisoning. I wasn’t sorry when they pulled Flannigan out of the river with assorted plumbing augmenting his own. I picked my hat up off the floor by the hat rack and mashed it onto my head.

By the time I opened the door Alice had the dough ready. She’s a good kid, really. I had rescued her from a pataphysics recovery group out in Portland and taken her under my wing, so to speak. She was wearing a nice little polka dot outfit that was very easy on the eye. She had nice gams, too. “Thanks, Doll,” I said.


“What is it, Sweetheart?”

It came out in a big blubbering gush. “I can’t go on this way, not getting paid with Ma in the hospital and they’re about to throw us out of our apartment and oh God I don’t know—”

Jesus, Sister, settle down.” Dames. They just can’t deal with their problems calmly and rationally. After that display, I couldn’t get to Jake’s for a highball fast enough. Fortunately she buttoned up before I had to slap her. “Listen,” I said, talking fast so I could get down to the bar, “everything will be OK. We’ve been through worse, you and me.”

“No, we haven’t.”

“That must have been one of my other secretaries then. But it still applies. Come on, Doll. Buck up.”

Of course she turned on the waterworks then. “I don’t know why I’ve stayed with you so long!”

Honestly, I couldn’t help her on that one. Secretaries for me are like bottles of whiskey; they never last as long as I want them to. It wouldn’t be long before Alice was gone; I could see the signs, I’d danced this number before. I’d already read this chapter, seen it in the tea leaves, gone round this block. It would be too bad; she smelled real nice.

It was getting stuffy in there. “We’ll talk about this more when I get back,” I lied. I beat it for the street and the cool secrets of Jake’s.

Tune in next time for: Encounter At Jake’s!

Episode 2: Encounter At Jakes

As I left the Phelps Building the sun smacked me in the face like a gorilla swinging a preheated frying pan. There was no shade to be found in the stone valley between the blank-faced buildings as I beat it up 2nd Avenue. As I crossed 57th Street I thought I was going to leave my shoes behind in the melting asphalt. Halfway up the next block was Jakes.

It was a blessed relief coming out of the murderous day into that cool sanctuary. I left my hat on the rack by the door and tried without success to sop the sweat from my face with an already sodden handkerchief. The bar was quiet despite the row of the usual derelicts and bums lined along the rail. Jake saw me come in and set me up with the usual before I managed to grope my way through the darkness to my stool. “Whadaya say, Charley?” he asked.

“I’ve got to get out of this town,” I said.

“Sure, sure,” said Jake. He went back to spit-shining the glassware with a marginally clean cloth. The booze would kill anything he left behind.

“I mean it, Jake. I just need one score and I’m packing it up. West. I’ll go out to San Fran and set up there. Living’s good out there.”

“You ever been there?”

“Course I’ve been there. You know where else is nice? Seattle. Lots of fine dames in Seattle.”

“I couldn’t live there with all that rain. It’d drive me crazy.”

“You been outside today?”

Jake poured me another. “You ain’t going nowhere. You’re stuck here like the rest of us.”

“Not me, bub. I just need one good one to put a little dough in my pocket and I’ll write you from Frisco.”

“Sure, sure,” said Jake, and he moved to serve one of the stiffs down the bar.

My eyes had adapted enough that I could survey the usual suspects propped against the mahogany bar. About the saddest bunch of rejects and losers you’ll ever see. I don’t know how I ended up there so often. Still, the booze was cheap. There was something different today, however. An odd feeling that didn’t belong, like someone had opened a window in the back room that opened onto a meadow of wildflowers in their riotous color fed by an icy mountain stream. Something that told of another place, beyond the sweaty stink of run-down men in a broken gin-joint somewhere in midtown. The others at the bar were glancing my direction in nervous anticipation. I glared them back into their own drinks.

The scent got stronger. I heard the sound behind me just as I caught motion in the corner of my eye. I spun around, ready for anything.

Anything except what I found there. “Mr. Lowell?” she asked in a soft, breathy voice with just a hint of Kentucky. I sit facing the door, so she must have been there the whole time, in the shadows of one of the dim booths along the back wall.

“That’s right, sister.”

“May I buy you a drink?”

I have a saying. Never say no to anything free. “All right,” I said. I have another saying. Nothing is free. There’d be payback, I knew. Looking at this lady I was willing to pay the price. I had no idea at the time how steep that price would be.

That she was a lady there was no doubt. She had more class in her little finger than all the rest of us in the bar combined. She was dressed in a sleek black number that hugged her graceful contours like a coat of silk paint. Her hair was long and fell in waves as dark as her dress except where they reflected the feeble lights in the bar. She looked at me, one eye lost behind those raven tresses, the other a bottomless pool in the dim light, her eyebrow a perfect dark arch against her porcelain skin. She smelled like wildflowers and money. She smelled like San Francisco. A cigarette hung unlit from her full, deep red lips. I produced a match and did the honors. When I was done I discovered a fresh drink waiting for me. The good stuff.

She breathed a plume of scented tobacco over her shoulder and fixed me with her gaze. “Mr Lowell,” she said, “I need your help.”

Tune in next time for part one of: The Widow’s Tale!

Episode 3: The Widow’s Tale – Part 1

I watched her as she wrapped her lips around the cigarette again. The tip glowed cherry, bathing her pale skin momentarily with the light of the fire that burns down below. Fair warning, if you’re into that Sunday School stuff. The glow faded but my feeling that this was not going to be an ordinary job stuck with me like a long needle just brushing the skin at the base of my skull. Best to move forward then.

“What sort of help?” I asked.

She gestured toward the darkness out of which she had risen. “May we speak in private?”

I looked at the shlubs lining the bar. Not much danger there. Still, she was my meal ticket and the booze wouldn’t be too far away. I gestured for her to lead the way. Before she turned she called out to Jake, “Another Scotch for Mr. Lowell, and another Manhattan for myself. Not so much Vermouth this time.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jake said in the most polite voice I had ever heard him use. “I’ll bring ’em on over to ya.”

She flashed him a smile. “Thanks, Jake.” Jake smiled back. His face, surprisingly, was capable of the expression without cracking. She turned and swept into the booth in the farthest, darkest corner.

Among a certain type that booth is legendary. It’s the booth where Louie the Skunk shook hands with Precinct Captain O’Malley, giving Louie Control of a large slice of Midtown, the booth where Six Finger Frankie proposed to a dancer named Lorraine before she took off with Old Ed in Frankie’s car, and it’s the booth where Lumpy Gannett accidentally shot himself twelve times with his revolver. There’s a mystique surrounding that booth, and it repels those who don’t belong. Maybe the faint smell of corruption and blood speaks to some part of the human animal, pushing them away. If she noticed it she was unaffected.

I settled myself across from her in that booth and our drinks weren’t far behind. She sipped her drink delicately and nodded, dismissing the hovering Jake. I took a sip of my own hooch. “What can I do for you, Miss…?” I finally asked.

“Fanutti. Lola Fanutti. You may have heard of my late husband.”

The excellent Scotch turned sour in my mouth. Everyone had heard of Vittorio Fanutti. Until last winter when they hoisted his car from the icy East River with Fanutti still and blue in the back seat. The papers had carried it on the front page with lurid photos. Fanutti had walked the tightrope between legitimacy and the underworld; he had money and he was using the money to buy power. He planned to be mayor one day and what he wanted he usually got. People weren’t so worried about where a man’s dough came from in those days, as long as he spent it.

When Fanutti got hitched to a girl from out of town there was much talk but not much substance. She seemed to appear from out of nowhere, and the courtship was brief. The wedding was a spectacle, with all the big shots from the East Coast in attendance. Everyone wanted to know who the girl was. The rumor Fanutti denied loudly every chance he got was that she was a Contessa from the old country down on her luck. He denied it just often enough to make sure most people thought the story was true. I’d seen per picture in the society pages and I had heard that she was a real looker, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. She was a lady, all right, but she was no Contessa.

I sat across looking at Mrs. Fanutti and I knew I was out of my league. That the man had been connected there was no doubt. If she was coming to me that meant she didn’t want any of her former husband’s associates involved, which meant they weren’t going to be happy about whatever it was she wanted me to do.

I have two rules in life: know who the boss is and don’t make the boss mad. I kissed San Francisco goodbye, at least for another day. At least I’d gotten a couple of drinks out of her first.

“You’re about to tell me you can’t help me,” she said. The Kentucky in her voice got a bit stronger as the Manhattan reached her head.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I have a fondness for my shoes.”

“Your shoes?”

“Yeah, I prefer them to the cement kind. Especially when I’m swimming.”

“You haven’t even heard what I need you to do.”

“It doesn’t matter, sister. Not with the sharks you have swimming in your pool.”

“Please, Mr. Lowell. It can’t hurt you to at least have another drink and listen.”

I wasn’t so sure she was right, but she had a persuasive way about her.

Tune in next time for the conclusion of: The Widow’s Tale!

Episode 4: The Widow’s Tale – Conclusion

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

“Why me?” I asked.

“A mutual friend recommended you. Willy Gancek.”

Willy Gancek, a.k.a Willy the Weasel, was hardly a friend of mine. He was a two-bit punk with the temper of a rattlesnake and the intelligence of a hubcap. He was ambitious, the Weasel was, but he’d burned all his bridges long ago and was only now starting to realize it. That made him desperate on top of stupid. Just the kind of guy a savvy woman could suck in and use and ditch when the time came, but not the kind she could rely on for exercising good judgement. For that, she would have to find someone else, some sap too scared to be a criminal and too honorable to go completely straight. Me, apparently. “It was nice of Mr. Gancek to think of me,” I said. “I’ll have to send him a fruit basket.”

She smiled. “I believe he called you a washed-up hack who will do anything for a drink.”

“He’s smarter than I thought. For the record, though, a pretty face also works.” Hers was more than pretty, but there were some things I was not prepared to do, even for a drink. Dying was at the top of the list.

“Not very much smarter. He offered to drive me to France. He thought it was in New Jersey.”

My turn to smile. “You mean it isn’t?” I put my serious face back on and left my latest drink on the table, to prove a point. “All right then, Mrs. Fanutti, tell me what it is you would like me to do.”

She produced another cigarette and while I was fumbling for a light she said, “I want you to get me out of the pool.”

I struck the match and concentrated on holding it at the correct angle. She leaned slightly into the flame and took her time puffing her cigarette to life. “I’m sorry?” I asked when we were done. The fire had come close to my fingertips by then, but I wasn’t about to let go.

She looked at me through the thin trail of smoke rising from the tip of her cigarette. Turkish tobacco, I thought. Expensive. The kind used by people more worried about impressing those around them than enjoying the smoke. “The pool full of sharks you mentioned before. I want out of it,” she said.

“Have you tried asking them?”

“Believe me, there is no love between me and those people. They would be happier if I wasn’t around. But there are things I know that they would prefer I didn’t mention to anyone. While I am here, they can keep an eye on me.”

“There’s something they want from you, too, isn’t there?”

She seemed surprised that I figured out that a bunch of thugs who had no qualms about murder would need a reason to keep her alive. “Viti had a large pile of money stashed away. They want it.”

I wondered what the definition of large was among those people. Larger than my large, that was for sure. “And you know where it is?”

“If they thought I knew where it was, they’d have started cutting off my fingers already. But they think Viti will lead me to it.”

She hadn’t answered my question, but I let it slide. “That would be quite a trick from where he is.”

“You didn’t know Viti. He planned for this. Sooner or later something will turn up and lead me to the stash. They want to be there when that happens. He even told them that if anything ever happened to me they would never see the money.”

“So he bought you an insurance policy, did he? He must have known it wouldn’t last forever.”

“Of course he knew. He was a smart man.” From the tone of her voice I wasn’t stacking up so well in comparison. “He did it to buy me time to get away.”

“Which is where I come in.”

“I would like you to help me fake my own death. I will pay you handsomely.”

Somehow I knew she was going to say that. It all sounds so neat and clean; no one will look for you because they all think you’re dead. But it’s not so simple. First, there’s the money. Some of it is going to disappear and reappear somewhere else, and these people are exceptionally good accountants. Then there’s the people. Everyone in on the plan is a liability. Third, there’s the body. There’s got to be some stiff to put in the coffin. I could tell that she had been thinking about it for some time, and she probably thought she had the answers to all those problems, but the plan would be complicated, and somewhere it would go wrong.

“Better to just run,” I said. “Plan ahead, but don’t take too long. Get new papers. Get as much cash together as you can, buy a bus ticket and don’t stop until you’re in South America.”

She looked across the table at me. “It’s not that simple,” she said.

“You better make it that simple if you want to live.”

She suddenly seemed smaller than she had before. She had come in with a plan, some kind of fantasy that had given her hope, and I hadn’t even bothered to hear it. I wonder if she had told her plan to the Weasel, and whether he had encouraged her. She should have known right then that it was going to fail. “I—I need to think.” That wasn’t Lola Fanutti speaking, it was a frightened Kentucky girl a long way from home.

“If everyone did that I’d be out of business.” I tried for a reassuring smile, but I think I missed.

Her voice was rushed. She wanted badly to get out of there. “I’ll contact you again. We have to leave separately. They’re watching me. That’s why I didn’t come to your office.”

It didn’t matter; I was made. If they were watching her, they’d seen her come in here, and they’d seen me come in. She wouldn’t come in to a place like this for a casual drink and I was the only regular who could help her. Out there somewhere there was now a bullet with my name on it. When it would arrive I didn’t know but there was nothing I could do to dodge it. I hadn’t even accepted the job, but they wouldn’t bother to find that out. My only way out was to go to them myself and expose her, but I knew I wasn’t going to do that. I was well and truly fixed.

By the time she had finished paying Jake (“One more for Mr. Lowell”) she had recovered her poise. I watched as she swished her way out the door and into the bright furnace of the city. She could swish with the best of them, I’ll give her that.

Tune in next time for: Death in the Street!

Episode 5: Death in the Street

I finished my drink and braced myself for the heat outside. I stepped out onto the pavement, blinking the sun and sweat out of my eyes. As I turned up the street a figure approached me, little more than a silhouette against the blazing day. The figure stopped abruptly, standing up straighter, as I heard a sharp snap by my right ear. I was already diving for cover when the report of the gun reached me.

I rolled to my left, hoping to dive back into the bar before the next shot found me. The other man stood improbably still, then slowly twisted and crumpled to the sidewalk. A single, clean bullet hole adorned his forehead. His face hadn’t even had time to register surprise as the high-velocity slug bounced around inside his head. As he hit the sidewalk the revolver he had been carrying under his coat clattered to the ground.

A woman emerged from a storefront and almost stumbled over the dead man. She looked at him with distaste until she saw the expanding pool of blood by his head. With a scream she ducked back into the store. The police were going to be here soon. I did not want to be anywhere in the vicinity when they arrived, but I didn’t think I had much choice. Someone must have seen me. It would be easier to talk to them now than explain why I left.

That left me with little to do except keep the corpse company. He had been a big guy, blonde, with that Northern European blockhead look. His hair was short and neatly combed, undisturbed by the violence just beneath its roots. The gun was a .38 Smith and Wesson, clean and deadly. I wondered what he’d been planning to do with it. I didn’t bother looking for ID. The cops would check, but I was willing to guess he wasn’t carrying any. “Who you working for?” I asked him, but he wasn’t telling. I tried another line. “Was that for me?” I asked, gesturing to the gun. I pointed to the hole in his head. “Was that for me?”

His blue eyes were staring straight into the sun. It was starting to bother me, the way he never blinked. I was considering going back into Jake’s when I heard the siren. The patrol car roared to a stop and two uniforms stepped out. I heard more sirens approaching. Anything else the stiff wanted to tell me would have to wait.

The cops were no different than the dead man. There’s two ways for a kid with some muscle but not much brains to get ahead in this city; he can join one of the local gangs, or he can become a cop. It comes down to the same thing either way. They have a boss who tells them whose skull to crack and they go do it. It’s a simple life, and a good living for those untroubled by scruples or the sanctity of human life. They looked me over and told me where to stand until someone with an IQ greater than 12 could come and talk to me. After that there wasn’t much for them to do but stand around looking important and threatening passers-by while the dead guy slowly cooked in the sun.

More squad cars rolled up, with a black sedan hot on their tail, Ed Hennessey hunched over the wheel, grinding his teeth and his gears, coming to a halt in a cloud of blue smoke. I had mixed feelings about Ed. He was a smart guy and a good drinker, but he was a reporter. I’d done some odd jobs for him in the past; once I had produced photos and an address where a priest was engaging in activities decidedly unholy. That story never hit the presses—most of those things don’t—but Ed gave me a nice bottle as a bonus.

I wasn’t enthusiastic about having my name in the paper connected to a story like this one, however. Things were complicated enough already, and having me connected with what appeared to be a straight gang hit was going to make it difficult with some of my usual contacts. I live in a gray world, a world of shadows, and the black-and-white of police cars and the bright light of flashbulbs would send my peers scuttling back under the refrigerator.

Still, if Ed thought I knew something, I’d be able to squeeze a couple of drinks out of him.

If I was ambivalent about Ed’s arrival, the cops were openly hostile. A sweatly-faced patrolman with more more swagger than sense was waiting as Ed unfolded his long frame from behind the wheel of the Chrysler. “You get right back in that car and blow on out of here!” the officer said.

“Hello, Charley,” the reporter called out to me, ignoring the policeman as he might an annoying little dog. “What’s the story here?”

“This is a crime scene,” the officer persisted.

Ed looked at the corpse and acknowledged the cop for the first time. “No kidding?” he asked.

“Stay back,” the cop said. “Stand over there.” He gestured down the sidewalk.

Ed came over and stood by me. He wasn’t making any new friends on the force by acting that way, but considering some of the things he had printed about the local constabulary I didn’t think he had much to lose. He had more he could print, and the cops knew it, or they might have opted to end his career early by making sure his fingers would never operate a typewriter again. A delicate balance of power. I knew he had the goods on them because I had helped him collect some of it. The cops didn’t know that. I don’t think they knew anyway.

“What happened?” Ed asked me, glancing at the corpse.

“Someone shot him,” I said.

Tune in next time for: The Devil You Know!

Episode 6: The Devil You Know

“Did you see it happen?” Ed asked.

“Half of it.”

“What? Which half?”

“The half where sunshine here got a bullet between the eyes.”

“C’mon, Charley. Help me out. I’ll make it worth your while.”

I looked at the man standing next to me. The skin of his face had a disturbing yellowness to it, dyed by the smoke of countless cigarettes. Even as I watched he took a heroic drag on his current victim, producing half an inch of ash, at the same time fishing a pack of Lucky Strikes out of his pocket for a replacement. His movements were awkward and jerky, as if each part of him acted on every idea long before he was even aware of the thought, and without regard for what the other parts were doing. His walk was little more than a controlled fall, and at any moment one foot might get the idea to go a different direction. His eyes were always moving, darting from point to point, afraid that something might happen while he was looking away. His mind worked the same way, skipping uncontrolled from thought to thought. Yet he never fell, and he rarely missed anything. He was an easy man to underestimate.

“I’d help you if I could, Ed, but I don’t know anything. I was just heading back to the office.”

“Uh, huh.” He didn’t believe me, but another thought had distracted him. “Which way’d it come from?” He was already staring down the street in the correct direction. More police were arriving, fanning out to go from building to building, looking for witnesses. I recognized Detective Hunt as he pulled up, and I knew I was going to be the center of attention soon.

“Over there.”

“Talk to you later, Charley,” he said. “Gotta talk to some people before the cops scare them too bad.” He was on his way. If I didn’t know better I would have thought he was avoiding the detective.

I barely had time to inhale before Hunt found me. “Mr. Lowell,” he said. “I understand you are a witness.” I didn’t like his formal tone. We’d played poker before. “Mind if we pat you down?” he asked.

I did mind. It would set a bad precedent. “It’s nice to see you, too,” I said.

He let me have my way, at least for the moment. “What happened, Charley?”

I told him everything, starting from the moment I left Jake’s. It didn’t take long.

“Anyone gunning for you, Charley? Made anyone mad lately?”

“Nobody in particular. Things have been pretty slow.”

“You think that bullet was meant for you?”

I shrugged. “It would be a hell of a shot to hit a guy in the forehead like that while he was walking, but it sure looks like that was the plan.”

“Why would a high-calibre marksman be wasting time on a chump like this?”

“Beats me.” Why would he be wasting time on a chump like me?

“I recognize this mug. He was one of Fat Angelo’s boys. Fresh off the boat.” Hunt lowered his voice a notch. “You know anyone mad at Fat Angelo? I mean, madder than usual?”

“Everyone.” Hunt well knew Fat Angelo had managed to stay alive by being astonishingly brutal with his rivals while kissing the asses of his superiors with grace and skill. More than one of those men had felt the kiss become a bite. The list of people who wanted Fat Angelo dead would have been a long one but most of them were already dead themselves. Now, it seemed, Fat Angelo was interested in me. I didn’t mention that whoever had killed this goon could easily have knocked off Fat Angelo himself. I was coming to an inescapable conclusion. The bullet that had killed this man had been to protect me. Having such a capable guardian angel gave me the chills. Angels are notoriously fickle in this town.

We exchanged pleasantries for a while longer, but neither of us had anything much to say to the other. Finally he had to let me go. “Don’t leave town,” he said. “I’ll have more questions for you later.”

Don’t leave town. I’d been trying to leave town for years and hadn’t managed yet. The city had wrapped me in its smothering embrace and it held me tight, a jealous lover clinging long past the time the magic was lost. I had tried to leave before, but had always been pulled back to the concrete and glass hive, the center of the Human Universe. “I’m not going anywhere,” I said.

“And Charley?”


“Be careful.”

I nodded. “I better get back to the salt mine.”

He hesitated. Last chance to come clean. Last chance for me to protect you. Last chance for the devil you know. “See you, then.”

I beat it back to the Phelps Building. I had a lot of thinking to do, so I stopped off for a bottle on the way back. It was going to be tough going back to rye after the smooth, smoky scotch I’d had at Jake’s, but I’d manage somehow.

Tune in next time for: When It Rains…!

Episode 7: When It Rains…

Alice was not alone when I got back to the office. There was a man standing on the far side of the room, as far from her desk as possible, whom she skewered with a venomous look for my benefit as I walked in. She didn’t like him.

I couldn’t blame her. He was a big man with a broad face, his heavy-lidded eyes almost bulged over a nose that had been broken more than once. His tailored suit was straining around the middle but it was the bulge from the shoulder holster that got my attention. One of his scarred hands was never far from it, as if he thought there would be a quick-draw contest. If there was, he would certainly have the advantage; my gat was in the safe in the next room.

“There’s another one inside,” Alice said. “Even worse. This one’s just stupid.”

“Watch it, sister,” he growled.

Alice looked back at me. “You OK?” she asked. “I heard there was some trouble.”

That girl could hear cockroaches whispering secrets from across the city. “You don’t have to worry about me,” I said, but I was glad she did. “You know how it is: when it rains it pours. So who is it in there?”

“He didn’t give his name. He’s not a very polite man.” She raised her voice on the last part, to make sure she could be heard through the glassed door. “He said he had some work for you.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’d rather starve.” You gotta admire the spunk in that girl, even though it was sure to get her into trouble someday.

I didn’t want to go in there. I needed time to sort things out, just me and the bottle hanging heavy in my coat pocket. If you don’t stop and think sometimes you get sloppy. I took a breath. “Hold my calls, Doll,” I said. “And don’t antagonize this guy. If he’s as dumb as you say he might try to shut you up. It would cost him plenty, but morons are like that.” He took a step toward me, his face turning purple. “Easy, Boss,” I said, holding up my hands, “Just having a little fun”

“I don’t like your fun.”

“I didn’t ask you to. I didn’t ask you to come in here at all. If you’re going to stay in here bothering my secretary, then take your hat off and sit down like a civilized gentleman.” I gestured to the chair we used on the odd occasion when a client came in. We’d put them in the chair for a few minutes to make them think I was a busy man. He hesitated. “Take a load off, relax,” I said. “We’re all friends here.” The oaf had been taking orders all his life; all I had to do was sound like I was in charge and he buckled. The look he gave me said that he disagreed about us being friends. The chair groaned under his weight. I turned to Alice. “If he bothers you any more, tell him to wait in the hall,” I said.

I was just stalling, I knew. I was dealing with the insignificant problem, the one I knew I could handle, while the real danger waited in the next room. I could turn and leave, skip town and keep running the way I had told Lola Fanutti to run, but I knew that my best escape route included one more visit to the safe in the next room. I couldn’t turn yellow in front of Alice, anyway, even if yellow was the same as smart. I pulled out the bottle and shed my coat. A bottle of liquor in my hand would perhaps disarm my guest, and it was the best weapon I could put my hands on at the moment.

I turned and walked with what I hoped looked like confidence to the door and stepped through.

He was seated in the client chair, facing my desk, legs crossed, savoring a thin cigar. The smoke rose in a thin trail, feeding a layer of haze in the room that filled the cieling but stopped just short of the top of his slick black hair. If Lola Fanutti smelled like money, this man smelled like power. The kind of power that doesn’t even need money, transcends it, the kind of power that simply has to ask for what it wants and expects to be satisfied. If money is an issue, someone else will pay.

“Mr. Cello,” I said. He didn’t stand so I went straight around the desk and sat in my chair. It was subtly taller, but with Cello that didn’t matter.

I had never met Cello before, and I had never seen a photograph, but this couldn’t be anyone else. Presidents had kissed this man’s ass. He was about as close to a King of the World as there was likely to ever be. Sure, there might be some bankers over in Europe somewhere who were more powerful, but they would shun the title, preferring to remain “friends of the king”. Cello had been born in the Bronx, with nothing but a keen business sense and ruthless efficiency. He was the biggest shark in the pool. In the ocean. He’d managed to stay on top for a long time, even as the feds trumpeted victory over so-called “crime bosses”. The man sitting in my office was the boss of the bosses.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Lowell,” he said in an easy, conversational voice.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” I asked.

“Your secretary,” he said. “I like her. You are very lucky.”

“Sooner or later she’ll come to her senses.”

“When she does, give her my card.” He flipped a heavy white card onto my desk. It shone against the dingy oak.

“I don’t think she likes you.”

He laughed softly. “I need more people who are not afraid of me,” he said. “Which brings me to why I’m here. You have recently accepted a new client who I know very well. Better than you, certainly. I’m sure her story, while touching and plausible, was not entirely accurate. A complex woman, Mrs. Fanutti. One thing she likely told you is certainly true, however; she holds the key to vast wealth and power. Vast enough that even I find it interesting. The fact that she killed a man who was like a son to me motivates me further.”

“You’re wrong about two things,” I said.


“First, Alice is too smart not to be afraid of you. Second, I didn’t take the job.”

“Interesting. Perhaps I misspoke before. I need people who can be honest with me, even if they are afraid. Your… Alice? She has that courage. You said no?”

“I told Mrs. Fanutti that what she asked wouldn’t work.”

He smiled, and took a slow pull on his cigar. The smoke billowed in twin plumes from his nostrils, then slowly rose into the cloud above. “She is subtle,” he said. “You will work for her, and not because I say so. She will make you want to help her. I wish I had that kind of power over men.” He shrugged. “But that is woman, no? Let me tell you a little more about her.”

Tune in next time for: The Black Widow!

Episode 8: The Black Widow

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

“Drink?” I asked the man sitting across from me. I wondered how long it had been since he’d had to settle for the cheap stuff.

“Thank you, no,” he said. He gestured toward the bottle with his cigar. “But please help yourself.”

I swallowed the “Thank you” before it got out. I had been about to thank him for letting me drink my own booze in my own office. I hoped he didn’t notice my hand tremble as I poured myself a drink. Normally I don’t drink in front of clients, not before I have their money, anyway, but today had been anything but normal.

Like a cornered animal, I tried to take the offensive. “Do you know who pulled the trigger outside Jake’s today?”


I waited for him to elaborate, but apparently he was done. “Do you know who he was shooting at?” No answer. Cello quietly enjoyed his cigar. “Was it me?”

He exhaled a long plume of smoke. “quid pro quo, Mr. Lowell. I have come to give you information, after which you will owe me a favor. I wouldn’t want you to find yourself too far in debt.” He leaned forward and carefully tapped the ashes off his cigar into the ashtray there. A tidy man, Mr. Cello.

I didn’t like the idea of owing Cello anything. “Perhaps it would be best if you didn’t tell me anything, then.”

“I’m afraid that is not an option,” he said carefully. “You will hear what I have to say and you will do what I ask. You needn’t worry, though. I got to where I am by being able to find the deal in which everyone benefits. You need to hear what I have to tell you, and you will want to do what I ask.”

“I’ve been thinking of moving to San Fran. Maybe today’s the day.”

He smiled gently, almost sadly, and slowly shook his head. “It is no longer your choice to make, Mr. Lowell. Mrs. Fanutti has already decided for you. Would you like to know how I got my name?”

“How much would that cost?”

His smile was more genuine this time. A little. “This, Mr. Lowell, I will give you for free. It will help us work together if you understand a little more about me.” His cigar was little more than a stub, but he continued to smoke it rather than light another. A frugal man, as well. The smoke was filling the room now, it seemed, everywhere except where he sat. “The first man I killed was a musician,” he said.

“Don’t be telling me that. There’s no client-attorney privilege here.”

“Another man has already paid the debt to society for that crime,” he said. “The district attorney would not want the embarrassment of admitting his error.”

“I don’t know. That new guy, Jones, seems pretty gung-ho.”

Cello’s face clouded for just a moment before returning to its usual placid serenity. “As I was saying, Mr. Lowell, he was a musician. His instrument was breathtakingly beautiful. It stirred my soul just to look upon it, and I could hear its sweet, sad voice even as it lay silent next to the man. It was of no interest to the men I worked for at the time, so rather than allowing this work of art to languish in an evidence room or be lost to some meaningless inheritance I took it for myself. Every free moment I spent playing, often through my tears, and I became quite good. My associates found humor in this, and gave me my name. But they are all gone, now, Mr. Lowell, while I am still here. It is because of the cello that I have become what I am.”

“How’s that?”

“It has allowed me to keep my soul, Mr. Lowell, in two ways. One, through the beauty it creates, through the way I feel when I play it. Second, every time I play, I remember that man I killed. I remember his blood. He had been playing when I shot him. I hope to be playing when the bullet finds me.” He shrugged in a surprisingly disarming gesture. “A man has to have a passion, Mr. Lowell, or he will find his life has ended even before he dies.”

I poured myself another glass of passion. As I raised it I looked over the rim at the man sitting across from me, once again neatly cleaning the tip of his cigar stub in the ashtray, concentrating fully on his delicate task. I wondered how many messages were in that story and whether I would ever get them all. “I’ll be sure to catch you next time you’re at the Met,” I said.

“I’ll send you a ticket, should I ever play there,” he said, ignoring my sarcasm. “You can bring your secretary, Alice.” Finally he stubbed out the final remains of his cigar. “But I’m a busy man, as you are about to be as well, so I fear it is time to get down to business. You have probably already concluded that Mrs. Fanutti is not, in fact, an Italian Contessa.”

“Kentucky Contessa would be more like it,” I said.

He chuckled. “Yes, Kentucky Contessa. That is a very fitting label. Vic–Mr. Fanutti–met her while he was arranging the transportation of the quite good bourbon her father was producing. It was somewhat riskier but much more profitable to produce liquor in those days. Apparently Vic was quite swept off his feet by her. It seems he underestimated her. As did I. As did her father. She married Vic and was welcomed into the family. I shared a table with them many times and found Mrs. Fanutti to be intelligent and charming. Eventually she drove her father out of the business, which was fine with me as she proved to be an able business partner, more so than her father had. Eventually her father stepped aside gracefully, and enjoys a peaceful retirement. Her husband did not choose to be pushed aside so easily, and found himself in a car at the bottom of the East River.”

I tried to reconcile this story with the one I’d heard from a frightened woman at Jake’s. There was more to this, I was sure. I had no doubt that if I checked what facts I could in his story they would all be true. Half-truths are the best lies.

“She will be contacting you again. I will not ask you to accept her offer. I don’t need to. I would like you to call this number as you learn more about her activities. In exchange for this information, I will pay you well, and try to keep you alive when the time comes.” He tossed a second card onto my desk. It came to rest perfectly aligned with the first one.

“You want me to double-cross a client?”

“You can wait until she double-crosses you, if you wish. With luck you will still have time to call. Think of that number as an insurance policy, Mr. Lowell. If she never betrays you, you will never have to use it.” He stood, and his perfectly-tailored suit fell into place. I stood as well and still had the advantage of height. Neither of us were fooled into thinking that meant anything. I opened the door for him. He didn’t offer his hand and neither did I. “Good afternoon, Mr. Lowell,” he said.

I had a feeling we would never be on a first-name basis. “So long,” I said. I looked out and saw the big bodyguard stand, still keeping his distance from Alice. “Why did you hire such a dumb bodyguard?” I asked.

This time his smile was real, and cold. “Bruno is full of surprises, Mr. Lowell. I advise you to stop trying to find out what they are.”

Alice shifted her glare from the goon to the boss. As Cello passed her desk he paused and asked. “Do you like Opera, Alice?”

She was surprised enough by the question that she retracted her claws for a moment. “Uh, I don’t know.”

Cello nodded and followed his bodyguard out the door.

“What was that all about?” she asked.

“The opera? He’s a music lover, I guess.”

“You’re not going to be working for him, are you?”

“No.” Not intentionally, anyway. “It’s late. Come on, I’ll buy you supper.” That surprised her more than anything else that had happened.

Tune in next time for: An Unexpected Call!

Episode 9: An Unexpected Call

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

The diner on the corner was doing a brisk business but Alice and I found a booth and settled in across from each other. Rita was working, as always. While the city bustled and changed all around this place, nothing ever changed in here. When the Dutch settlers purchased Manhattan from the wrong natives they celebrated here over meat loaf and mashed potatoes, and Rita took their order. As we sat Rita didn’t even bother walking over to the table, she just looked over her hornrims at us and called out, “The usual?” I nodded. She had seen those first Europeans coming though the forest and had already decided what their “usuals” would be by the time they reached the door. I don’t think I ever heard anyone order in that place.

“Can I please have a malt with mine?” Alice asked.

Rita pursed her lips. She wanted to say no. “You want your coffee too or just the malt?”

“No coffee, thanks.”

Rita scowled and scribbled the order on her pad to pass back to the kitchen and turned to greet some other customers. Alice was toying with her silverware, looking at her hands. After a minute or so she said, “I know what you’re going to tell me.”

I hadn’t been aware I’d been planning to tell her anything, but I assumed she was right. She knew a lot more about me than I did. Once I thought about it, it was pretty obvious, though. After I paid for this meal, there would be no money left. The pay phone by the washroom door started to ring. No one paid it any attention. “Look,” I said. “You know better than I do that business is sour.” My mouth was sour as well. All the cheap booze I’d had that day was wearing me down. I thought back to the fine, earthy scotch I’d had at Jake’s, only a few hours ago.

“I can work for free for a while, ’till things get better.”

The phone hadn’t stopped ringing; it was starting to bug me. My nerves were delicate as the last of the barbarian rye faded, leaving behind a temple in shambles. “You know it’s no good, Doll. Things aren’t turning around. Not now. You need to find yourself a real job, so you can take care of your mother.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone moving toward the phone and sighed in relief. Alice was getting ready to blubber again. Twice in one day. That was good even for me. Next time I could afford a secretary I’d get her tear glands removed first. The pretty ones were the worst, and Alice was certainly one of those.

A man I didn’t know was standing by our table. Alice managed to stay buttoned up and I turned a red eye toward the visitor. “You Charles Lowell?” he asked. I didn’t answer; I just kept my eye on his hands, and I was ready to go for the gun I had in the holster under my coat. An afternoon like the one I’d just had would make anyone cautious. “Phone’s for you,” the man said, gesturing toward the corner. Alice looked up from her hands with surprise and hope. I was ready to tell the man shove off until I saw that look. I sighed and got slowly to my feet. “Try answering yourself next time,” the man muttered. I let it pass.

I was going to have to change my eating habits. I was getting far too easy to find by people I didn’t want to know. I tried not to guess who would be ruining my night. I picked up the reciever. “Lowell,” I said.

There was a pause on the other end and a sharp intake of breath. I could almost smell the wildflowers over the phone. “Mr. Lowell?” Her voice was more tentative this time, with a little more Kentucky in it. “I need to see you right away.”

“Listen, I told you before—” I cut myself off as I turned to look back at Alice. The food had arrived and she was working on her malt. She was watching me. I could hang up the phone right then, just walk away from all of them while I still had legs to walk with. If I did that, I’d never get another job in this town, or this country for that matter. Cello would see to that. If I hung up I’d be saying goodbye to Alice when I got back to the table. She was in a bad way.

“Please, Mr. Lowell. Just hear me out. I’ll pay you for your time.”

“Someone was shooting a gun outside Jake’s earlier. I don’t like loud noises.”

“I’ll pay an extra fee to compensate you for the risk.”

No amount of money was going to matter when I was feeding the eels at the bottom of the river. Alice was watching me still, hope giving way to concern. Concern for me. “All right,” I said.

She let out her breath. “A cab will be outside in five minutes,” she said. “Be waiting on the corner. He will ask if you are Mr. Jones. He knows where to bring you.”

“Can I at least tell my secretary where she can reach me?”

“I would rather not say over the phone.”

“All right.”

Her voice seemed to relax a little. “Mr. Lowell. Charles. Thank you. You don’t know what this means to me.”

“I’ll see you soon, Mrs. Fanutti.” I hung up and returned to the table.

“Who was it?” Alice asked.

I put the last of our money down on the table. “I’ve got to go,” I said. “I’ll see you in the office tomorrow.” I would if I was still alive by then.

Tune in next time for: Blood of the Saint!

Episode 10: Blood of the Saint

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

“You Mr. Jones?” the driver asked.

“That’s what they tell me,” I said. I looked back through the plate-glass at Alice, her mein a combination of hope and fear. One way or another, her employment prospects would be resolved by tomorrow. I got in the car. The upholstery was worn and stained, with what I didn’t want to know. It smelled of old cigarettes and stale desperation. “Where we heading?”

He didn’t answer; he just put the cab in gear and headed out into the twilight.

Traffic was light but it still took us a while to get there; we went by way of Central Park and the garment district. Not a particularly direct route. Eventually the driver satisfied himself we weren’t being followed and we headed down to the wharves, not far from where Vittorio Fanutti’s last ride had ended at the bottom of the East River. The cab pulled up next to a small warehouse. There were no markings; just a door lit by a solitary bulb. “End of the line, pal,” the driver said.

I nodded and got out. The car sped away as I regarded the door. Not much to do but knock.

I approached slowly, regarding the faces of the buildings staring back at me impassively. A dog barked somewhere, and others answered. Silence reasserted itself; my footsteps sounded like gunshots as I stepped into the pool of light. My knock on the metal door echoed like a 21-gun salute at a funeral. There was a pause, then the slit opened and a pair of dark eyes looked out at me. They regarded me unblinking for three seconds and the slit closed with a snap. I heard a bolt being pulled back and the door swung open silently. It was dark inside.

“You comin’ in or not?” a gruff voice asked.

I was on rails; there were only two directions to go: Forward and back. Back, the outcome was certain, and not good. Forward, though not certain, could be much worse. I stepped into the shadow.

“Got a gat?” the voice asked again. When the door shut behind me I could make out the outline of a man about my height but much wider.

“Yeah,” I said. I prepared to surrender it.

“Ever shot anyone?”

I stopped. “No.”

The gorilla snorted. “Her highness is over here,” he said. As my eyes adapted to the dimness I was able to follow the man across the warehouse floor between nondescript crates on one side and rolls of fabric on the other. We ended at an office door. “Don’t be stupid,” he said to me as he opened the door. Too late for that, I thought.

The office was lit by a lamp on the desk and was almost as dark as the warehouse outside. She sad behing the desk, a trail of smoke streaming up from the neglected cigarette dangling from her languid right hand, forming a gray halo around her. She was dressed in a black and white number that enhanced her already considerable assets. She didn’t seem to notice my arrival at first, though she was looking directly at me. Gorilla closed the door and I made myself comfortable in the the other chair.

“I’ve had some bad news,” she said.

“First you should know Cello paid me a visit,” I said.

“Of course he did.”

“He wants me to double-cross you.”

“Of course he does.”

“I’d be stupid not to.”

“Or noble.”

“I’m not known for that. You should probably find another guy.”

“Why are you here, Mr. Lowell?”

“I need the money.”

“If you need the money, why are you telling me to hire someone else?”

“You’re paying me to come here tonight. That’ll let me square a couple of debts, and it gives me a chance to step out of this gracefully.”

“Mr. Lowell, I don’t want ‘another guy’, as you put it. That you are straightforward with me simply convinces me that you are the one I need. May I tell you a story?”

I leaned back in my chair. “It’s your dime, sweetheart.”

“Your transparent attempts to repel me won’t work, Mr. Lowell.” I wasn’t sure what she was talking about. She continued, “Do you enjoy wine?”

“I’m not what you’d call a connoisseur.”

She produced a bottle and a cork-puller. “If you could do the honors?” While I struggled with the gizmo she hauled out two glasses, elegant and graceful, and set them on the desk in front of me. I got the cork out with a minimum of bloodshed and began to pour. The wine was deep red and moved slowly. I stopped myself from filling the first glass to the brim.

“You’re supposed to smell it or something?” I asked.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” she said. I topped off the glass and filled the other one. She picked hers up and swirled it around carefully, but didn’t drink. I held off tossing mine back. “Wine and blood,” she said, holding her glass to the light. It felt like we were finally getting to the point. “The wine you’re drinking, Mr. Lowell,” — I hadn’t had any yet — “comes from Spain. It is a tiny village, known only for two things: This wine and an odd painting. Both are called ‘The Blood of the Saint’.

I dared to take a sip. It wasn’t bad, but I didn’t feel like I was in church.

“The painting was stolen some time ago. My husband was the thief.”

“Seems like that would be tough to fence.”

“He did not have it stolen to sell it again. He was interested in the work itself. There were stories that the painting held clues to the location of a tremendous treasure. Staggering amounts of gold and ancient artifacts, hoarded by a Moorish king. My husband paid experts to study the painting, but, as many before them, they could not find a pattern. Vic thought perhaps there were clues not visible as the painting hung on the wall. So he had it stolen so his experts could examine the portions hidden by the frame. He was right. A team of historians under his pay removed the frame and found more around the edges that helped them. All those men are now dead.”

“They found the treasure?”

“They drew a map. Vic died before he could do anything about it. I assume they told you I killed him?”

“That’s right.”

“That is ridiculous. Had I killed him, I would have done it in a way that put the secret into my hands directly. Instead I’m left to scavenge for it, as my only hope for survival. I wanted to run, Mr. Lowell; you convinced me of the futility of that. They think I have the map. They will not rest until they have it.”

“Where is it?”

“That is where I need your help. Mr. Lowell. Charles.” She reached across and touched my arm. “I just want to live. If I can offer Cello the treasure in exchange for my life, he would take it. You can help both of us, without betraying either, and we would both reward you handsomely. Please.” Her voice was a little more desperate, and a lot more Kentucky. “I’m frightened.”

“You said you had bad news.” That seemed to be the only kind of news lately.

“Yes. I had the painting in what I thought was a safe place. It is gone. In its place was letter saying if I continued to look for the treasure I would be killed. Someone doesn’t want it to be found.”

“Or else they don’t want the competition. So if you don’t find the treasure Cello will eventually kill you, but if you look for the treasure someone else will kill you.”

“That’s right.”

“And me.”

She caught me with her eyes, deep and black and mysterious. I saw the reflection of the lamp in each one, sparks of fire in an infinite sea. There was fear there as well. She set her glass down and leaning forward took one of my hands in both of hers. Her dark hair flowed over her shoulder in shimmering waves. “Will you help me?”

I was doing my best to say “no” when gunfire rang out in the warehouse. The sharp reports of a pistol were answered by the rattle of a tommy gun. Gorilla appeared in the doorway. “You’ve got to—” he was interrupted by another burst from the tommy gun and went down, spraying blood. More pistol shots rang out behind him. I dove behind the desk. Staying low I took Mrs. Fanutti’s arm and hauled her out the door opposite, wondering who I might meet on the other side.

Tune in next time for: Trapped!

Episode 11: Trapped!

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

We dove through the door as I heard bullets crash into the wall over our heads. Lola was clinging to my arm now, making it difficult for me to get my piece out of the shoulder holster. Not that it was going to do me much good against a tommy gun.

We were in an alley, the night black between the warehouse we fled and its neighbor a few feet away. More bullets tore through the wall behind us. The whites of her eyes shone in the blackness. “What should we do?” she asked.

My plan was a simple one—get as far from that place as possible as quickly as possible. I turned toward the mouth of the alley as a dark shape stepped around the corner and stood in silhouette against the slightly less dark night beyond the alley. Even if I could take that guy down there would be others. I started the other way and was lucky when the man waiting there decided to light a cigarette. No way out either end, and no way back. “In here,” Lola Fanutti whispered, crossing the alley. I heard the jingle of keys, quickly silenced. “This is one of mine as well.”

The gunfire died down. The man at the top of the alley didn’t move; he just peered into the inky blackness. It wouldn’t be long before someone came through the door we had just used, and it wouldn’t take long for them to figure out where we went. I wanted to smash through the door, but if it was like the one we had just used that would be difficult. If I failed, the sky would be falling before I got another chance.

“Damn it, damn it, damn it,” she began to mutter and I heard the hysteria creeping into her voice.

“You can do it, Mrs. Fanutti. Just take a breath and relax. They’re going to be careful stroming the office, especially if they want you alive.” Whoever they were. Me, they wouldn’t be concerned about one way or the other, as long as they got what they wanted.

The door opened with a soft click. “Call me Meredith,” she said as I slipped in behind her. I closed the door behind me and threw the deadbold as quietly as I could. In the silence of the warehouse it sounded like a lead pipe had fallen from the rafters. “My husband is dead,” she said in a voice that somehow didn’t echo, “I’m not one of them anymore.”

I stepped into the blackness but she put a hand on my arm. “This way,” she said, leading me toward the back, where I imagined there were large doors for loading cargo off the wharves beyond. As we moved through the shadows I heard someone test the door behind us. After a pause there came a crash and the sound of cursing. It wouldn’t be long now. I followed her as she groped her way as quickly as she could toward the door and freedom. We were almost there when someone outside tested the door, rattling the latch and calling something back to others. Too late. She turned back to me, her pale face seeming to hover over the black collar of her dress. Then she dropped to all fours and started groping around. I crouched down as well.

“There’s a trapdoor here somewhere,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t want to draw attention to the things we ship.”

The door we had come in flew open in a hail of gunfire. “Spread out,” a gravelly voice behind us said. “Find the lights.” Footsteps echoed through the building.

As I groped I felt the floor move beneath my knees. “Damn,” she whispered. “Something’s holding it shut.”

“That’s me.” I shifted and she swung open the trap, revealing a darker rectangle in the floor. She sat on the edge, dangling her feet into the nothingness, then turned to find the ladder. I followed as closely as I could without stepping on her fingers and pulled the heavy door shut.

“There’s a latch,” she said from below me. In the complete darkness it took me a long time to find the hardware and slide it home. I heard voices above, and footsteps crossed directly above me. When the lights came on I could see a thread of light around the square of the trapdoor. Carefully I continued down until my foot found solid floor. When I released the ladder it was like it had never existed. There was just me in the darkness.

I felt her hand find my shoulder. “I think it’s safe to light a match,” she said, almost in my ear. I dug one out and brought it to life, nearly poking her in the eye in the process. I shielded my eyes from the blinding glare and surveyed our surroundings. The room was square, the walls were bare stone sweating in the flickering light. The floor was stone and there was no door that I could see. There were a few crates lying around the perimeter with no plan or pattern. Lola’s—Meredith’s—face was lined with worry, showing a fatigue I had not seen on her controlled features before. The flame reached my fingers and I dropped the match, plunging us into darkness more profound than before. I felt her move closer to me in the blackness.

“Is there another way out of here?” I asked.

“No.” I felt her shiver, transmitted through her hand to my shoulder.

“May as well make ourselves comfortable, then.” I thought of the dinner I had left on the table next to Alice’s. She would have had it packed up to take back to her apartment for her mother. It would be there now, in the icebox, while she sat and wondered where I was. “I’m going to light another match so we can find a place to sit.” It flared to life with phosphorescent vigor and we moved quickly to one of the larger crates. It was a little small for the both of us, but neither of us wanted to sit separately. We both needed the contact in that terrible night.

We sat in silence for a while, knowing nothing but the dank air and the warmth where our legs touched. We listened to the footsteps above and heard an occasional muffled voice. Once there was a gunshot followed by more excited voices and cursing. “You have any idea what’s in these boxes?” I asked quietly, still surprised by the loudness of my own voice in that small space.

“Bourbon, most of them,” she said. “Some Canadian whiskey. The machine guns aren’t coming in until tomorrow night.” I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. “We could try drinking our way out of here,” she said. That sounded like a good idea to me, but I didn’t say so. She shook again and I realized she must be cold; I took off my jacket and draped it awkwardly over her shoulders. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“No problem,” I said. “Happens to me all the time.” Obviously a lie, since I was still alive. “Not much to do but wait.”

After what might have been an hour and might have been three, the footsteps died down above. Still we heard occasional footsteps, pacing around the warehouse floor above. Meredith tightened her grip on my arm every time they came close, but my heart leapt into my throat when the heavy tread passed over the trapdoor and paused, stamping to test the acoustics.

Tune in next time for: The Cat’s Claws!

Episode 12: The Cat’s Claws – Part 1

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

My little .38 was a pea-shooter compared to the hardware the goons up above were carrying, but I pulled it out. “Get behind the crates as best you can,” I said to Mrs. Fanutti’s new incarnation as Meredith from Kentucky. She brushed against me as she groped in the darkness. Her wildflower perfume had changed when mixed with fear, adding a musky humanity to her appeal. She cursed softly as she barked her shin against a wooden crate.

We waited as whoever was above tested the sound of the trapdoor beneath his feet again — stamp, stamp-stamp — then slowly walked away. It had almost sounded like a signal. A minute later the faint rectangle of light around the door vanished.

I heard her trying to pry the lid off one of the boxes with her fingers.

“What are you doing?” I asked almost inaudibly.

“If I get this open we can make molotov cocktails,” she replied no louder.

“Even if you could open the crate without alerting the whole waterfront, fire’s not the best weapon in an enclosed space, especially when you’re throwing it toward the only exit.”

She stopped her efforts. “I suppose you’re right, but they may come in handy once we get up there.”

“The cops are bound to come sooner or later. We just need to hold out until then.”

“Cops are the last people we need. Who do you think they work for? Who do you think was my husband’s chauffer for his last ride?”

“In that case, I think it’s time we left this hole.”

“What if they’re still out there?”

“There’s always going to be someone out there, but I think that last guy might have been a friend.”

“I don’t think I have any left. Besides you, I mean.”

“Cello wants you alive long enough to get your map, and he wants me alive long enough to get the map from you. I don’t know who that was up there, but he found the trapdoor and didn’t even try to open it. Wait here.” Like she had anywhere else to go. “Don’t move until I give you the all-clear.”

Without the square of light around the trapdoor it took me a bit of groping to find the ladder in the blackness. I knew the general direction but I passed it on the first try, then got turned around a bit. Soon enough my outstretched fingers found the smooth wood and headed I headed up. I felt the planks pushing down on my hat. I reached up and the bolt was where I remembered it. Odd to have a bolt on this side except for contingencies exactly like this one, but then you would have another exit as well, wouldn’t you? The steel bolt slid in its groove silently. I lifted the heavy door just enough to peek out.

It was dark in the warehouse, but after the total blackness below I could see well enough. Nothing moved. It would have been easy enough to hide in those shadows, however, and there could be someone standing five feet behind me, just waiting to put a bullet into the back of my head. That kind of thinking doesn’t get you anywhere, though. Just ask General Custer. I pushed the door open a little farther to extend my field of vision. Still nothing. It was useless I knew, but I decided to move quickly in case there was someone behing me. Perhaps in the darkness I’d only be wounded by the barrage from the Thompson machine gun.

I took a few deep breaths and flung myself up the ladder, twisting to look back over the thick wood. I found myself sitting on the edge of the hole, losing my grip on the massive door and dropping it painfully on my thighs. I almost dropped my gun as well, but I was happy to have only bruises as I looked and found no one there. I sat as silently as I could, catching my breath. There was a time when that maneuver would have been easier. I lifted the door off my legs and hauled myself out. Below I could hear Meredith moving around. I hadn’t given her the signal, but it would just make more noise to stop her now. I pulled the trap the rest of the way open and watched the shadows as she emerged, my coat still draped over her shoulders.

We slid to a wall as quietly as possible and Meredith led me toward a door opposite the one we had first come in by. I was hobbling along pretty badly, walking like a constipated crab as I tried to work the kinks out of my bruised legs. There was a form lying near the door in a splash of moonlight from a skylight. I kept to the shadows but my escort gasped and stepped up to the corpse. She knelt by the dead man. “Mick,” she said. She put her hand in his hair and it came back dark and sticky. She looked up at me, her skin pale in the moonlight, her eyes lost in shadow. Her voice was eerily flat, the voice of Lola Fanutti. “Whoever did this is a dead man.”

I believed her.

Tune in next time for the conclusion of: The Cat’s Claws!

Episode 13: The Cat’s Claws – Conclusion

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

I had barely seen the motion on the far side of the warehouse when the .45 detonated with a roar right next to me. I turned in time to see a man flopping over backwards, arms flailing, his hat doing cart-wheels through the air. It was hard to tell in the low light, but it looked like part of his face was missing.

Lola Fanutti held the smoking pistol with confidence as she scanned the shadows for more of them.

“I hope that wasn’t a friend,” I said.

“If he knew me, he would have known to say something before stepping out like that.” She touched the chest of her dead friend, over his heart, next to his empty holster. She stood. “We need to get out of here.”

“I know a place we can go,” I said.

I reached the side door as she said, “Not the back room at Jake’s. Nothing personal, Mr. Lowell, but it is very easy to find you.”

I started trying to think of another place. “Up to now I’ve wanted to be found.” I flexed my aching legs and tried the door. It wasn’t locked. “Wait here,” I said, and stepped out into the alley. Over my head the sky was getting lighter. In the distance there was a siren; I couldn’t tell if it was heading this way or not. I stuck my head back in and was looking into the unblinking eye of a gun. I’m glad she hesitated a little longer this time before firing. “Let’s go,” I said.

We walked a few blocks and caught a cab, changed cabs, got out and walked a few more blocks to one of the little dive motels on the East Side. On the way over Lola handed me a respectable wad of cash.

The guy at the front desk didn’t bat an eye when we checked in. I signed the register with someone else’s name and we headed up the stairs. The room was small; the twin beds and the tiny writing desk took up almost all the floor space, making us walk sideways over the tattered rug. It was the kind of room used by unsavory people to do unsavory things. Hookers, junkies, and fugutives. Lola crinkled her nose at the musty smell that told stories of sex, blood, and vomit. It was already uncomfortably warm in there, residual heat left over from the previous day. If today was as hot as yesterday had been, it was going to be unbearable in that room. I tried the window but it was jammed or nailed shut. The bathroom was like the rest of the place but worse in every way.

Lola took the only chair in the room and sat heavily. I sat on the edge of one bed. Looking at the chair I wouldn’t have trusted it with my bulk anyway. She laid her bag on the desk with a heavy thud. That was a big chunk of iron she was handling so casually. As she allowed herself to relax fatigue overtook her and she sagged visibly. She rubbed her eyes and seemed to shed Lola Fanutti like a skin, somehow becoming smaller. She was Meredith from Kentucky once more. This dame changed personalities the way I change shirts. “Now what?” she asked.

“We’ll be safe here for a little while,” I said. “It’ll take them time to check all the hotels. By then we need to change the way you look. Different clothes, different hair. Alice can help.”

“What if they follow her? Can you trust her?”

I didn’t bother with the second question. “This won’t be the first time she’s done field work for me. There’s a phone on the corner. I’ll knock one-two-three, one-two when I get back. Any other knock, start shooting.” I didn’t think I needed to tell her that part.

I slid a dime into the phone and dialed the office. Alice picked up on the first ring. “Charles Lowell, Detective,” she said professionally.

“It’s me. Listen, doll, I don’t have much time—”


“Right. Listen—”

“I was worried last night. And then I heard about some shootings—”

She’d missed her calling, that was for sure. She scooped all the papers on a daily basis. “I’m fine. Meredith and I have to lay low for a while—”

“Who’s Meredith?”

“Mrs. Fanutti. Our new employer. I need you to get some things—”

“You call her Meredith?”

“You’ll meet her soon enough. We need a new dress for her, something that won’t stand out too much.”

“What size?”

“I don’t know. About the same as you, I guess. Maybe a little more…” I stopped myself.

Alice’s tone got a little icier. “More what?”

“Taller. We need some hair coloring, too. We need to turn a brunette into a blonde.”

“It’ll look fake.”

“As long as it looks different I’ll take it. I’m just hoping she can pass the first-glance test. If anyone really looks they’ll recognize her anyway.”

“Why is that?”

“Never mind. You know our emergency meeting place?”


“Go in the front, out the back and meet me where I knocked that guy’s tooth out.”

“How am I supposed to buy this stuff with no money?”

“Can you borrow any? I have cash now.”

“I’ll try. I’ll bring one of my dresses. They don’t stand out too much, apparently.”

“That’s a good girl. I’ll meet you in two hours.”

I hung up and looked around. The street was quiet; what traffic there was not acting suspiciously.

* * *

The guy at the desk snorted and shook his head when we came in. Alice glared at him. I had my hands full with the bags she had brought, but I managed to haul her up the stairs.

I knocked three and two and after a few moments the door unlatched and opened a crack. When she saw who it was she opened it further and we squeezed into the room. She set the gun back down on the table and turned to face us. The two women sized each other up. Meredith had been sleeping, it looked like. Her hair was wild and a few strands clung to her moist face and neck. Her dress was partly unbuttoned; she was holding it together with slender fingers. Her eyes still carried the dark circles of exhaustion. Meredith’s perfume was mingling with the other smells now, a strange combination of life and decay.

“You must be Alice,” she said and extended the hand that had held her dress closed. I studiously looked anywhere but there, but I was aware of pale skin and black lace. “Charles speaks highly of you.”

“Thank you. I’ve been with Mr. Lowell for a long time.” Alice was looking daggers at me. “He told me you needed clothes.”

“Yes, I need something plainer. Charles told me you were loaning me one of your dresses. I can’t thank you enough. I’ll reimburse you, of course.”

Dames. I moved to keep things businesslike before the claws came out. I opened up one of the bags and pulled out a navy blue number. “we don’t have all day,” I said.

“Let’s start with the hair,” Alice said. Meredith nodded and began to unbutton her dress further. While Alice tried to turn her toward the bathroom door I suddenly realized it was almost noon and I hadn’t had a drink yet. Now seemed like a good time for one.

“Where are you going?” Meredith asked. I had to climb over the bed to avoid squeezing past the two women.

“I’ve got some other business to take care of.”

“What if they come here while you’re gone?” She asked in a tiny voice. “I’m frightened.” She had more to worry about from Alice at that moment than all the crooks in the city. My secretary forcefully turned her and marched her into the bathroom. “Mr. Lowell will make sure you’re safe,” she said as the bathroom door slammed shut. It would be close quarters in there; I only hoped two people came back out.

Meredith’s fancy dress lay on the floor where it had slid off her shoulders and down over her round hips. The image of stockings over long legs as she disappeared into the bathroom was seared into my retinas. I really needed that drink.

Tune in next time for: Year of the Rat!

Episode 14: Year of the Rat – Part 1

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

I hadn’t had a drink since yesterday. I hoped I still remembered how. I shut the door behind me with some trepidation but more relief. If they found us there, there wasn’t much I could do to help anyway. Perhaps I shouldn’t have left those two alone with a gun, though. It’s just too easy to do something you regret with one of those things. Meredith was handy with a piece, no doubt about it, but I had to give Alice the nod in a fair fight. Of course, in an unfair fight she wouldn’t stand a chance.

I made my way out onto the street. It was hotter than the day before, if such a thing was possible. I needed some place dark and quiet to get my head wrapped around the situation, and some whiskey wrapped around my head. None of my regular places was safe anymore, but there are a hundred holes just like Jake’s, lacking only the barman’s gruff charm. I wanted to be very careful of who I ran into.

As I walked I considered. We couldn’t keep running forever. We wouldn’t last more than a few days if we kept playing the game by their rules. I needed to know more about the players.

In this city knowledge is better than money, and those who have it carefully guard it to maintain its value. People like me aren’t popular in this world; we are regarded as thieves since we spend our days finding information without paying the requested price. There are other sorts, however, who are disliked much more intently. Nobody loves the weasel, and the rat is universally despised. I needed a weasel now.

The weasels would tell you they perform a necessary function; if no information ever changed hands the whole system would break. I met one who compared himself to a stockbroker. I suppose the Wall Street weasels probably are just as bad.

The danger of trying to learn anything from a weasel is they are just as happy to sell information about you as they are to sell information to you. And most weasels were part-time rats. A rat I didn’t need. There’s a certain bravery to being a weasel, dancing the fine line of what your clients are willing to tolerate, but the rat lacks the ethic. The rat is looking for one big score and an early retirement. Most of them end up retired at the bottom of the East River with concrete overshoes. But still there are rats.

I thought about the weasels I knew and how I might contrive to run into one. In general weasels want to be found, so the steady weasels, the real pros, keep a fairly regular schedule. I made a choice and changed course.

I was sweating like a dog, damn near panting as well, by the time I had covered the blocks to The Bucket. I stepped into the darkness and groped my way down a flight of stairs and into the bar. It was a nice enough place, dark, quiet, a haze of smoke hanging in the air. You could have switched the line of mugs propped against the bar with the regulars at Jake’s and no one would notice – least of all the regulars themselves. A radio was softly playing mostly static and no one seemed to care.

At the far end of the bar was the man I was looking for. He saw me come in and his eyes got a little round but he didn’t say anything. He just got up and headed for a quiet table in the corner. I approached the bar. “Whiskey,” I said, “and another of whatever was in that glass there.” The barman nodded and had two glasses in front of me in no time. I paid in case I had to leave quickly, then took the juice over to where Jimmy Slick was waiting.

“Can’t say I’m happy to see you, Charlie,” he said.

“Why not?”

“You’re swimming with some big fish. If it weren’t for your friends I wouldn’t talk to you at all.”

“Tell me about my friends.”

He sat back with his gin and looked me over. “I can’t imagine why I possibly would.”

“You could do it as a favor to me.”

He didn’t even bother to laugh. He sat and tossed back the rest of his drink.

“Want another?” I asked.

“You’ll never get me drunk enough to help you.”

“I’m willing to try.”

“Fair enough.”

I went and got another pair of drinks. I had cash and decided to go top-shelf. Not for the booze so much – at least not the gin – but to show I had means and I was willing to use them. Jimmy Slick took a sip and nodded. “I’ve heard you’re on to something hot.”

I put my nose into my glass and smelled the graveyard smell of the highland malt. I took a sip and felt the vapors dance over my tongue. “Not by choice.”

He shrugged. “It’s like the Preakness,” he said.

“How’s that?”

“It’s a race, it’s probably fixed, and there’s a lot of betting. The biggest bettors are hidden behind elaborate smoke screns. Some are betting for you, most against, but most still want you in the race.”

“It didn’t feel like that last night.”

He nodded as if I had confirmed something he had only suspected before. “So what are you getting out of it, Charley?”

It was my turn to be the clam. Nothing’s free, but at least I might have something he wanted, besides just money. Money to a good weasel is just a byproduct. They loved the information itself. Perhaps we could do business. “I’m just trying to help a friend,” I said.

Jimmy laughed. “That’s a good one,” he said. He set his empty glass down, and dutifully I went for another round. I could get used to the good stuff, no doubt about it, and there was no reason to hold back now; either I’d be dead before the money in my pocket ran out or I’d be set. When I got back to the table Jimmy was ready. “What’s in it for me?”

I didn’t have a good answer for that. “There’s a lot of money for the winner,” I said.

“I’m not a gambler, Charley, I’m a trader.”

“I have nothing to offer except gratitude and money.”

“The gratitude of a dead man isn’t worth much.”

“Lots of money.”

“The promises of a dead man aren’t worth much either.”

“Come on, Jimmy. I’m not asking you to sell out your mother.”

“My mother wouldn’t kill me.”

“All right. Fine. I’ll find someone else to deliver my message.”

Jimmy Slick paused. “What message?”

I watched him, stonefaced. “You don’t want to get involved. I respect that. I didn’t want to get involved either. I did it to help a friend.” The scary part was that was true.

“Who to?”

“You know that better than I do.”

“I can deliver a message.”

I shrugged apologetically. “I’ve gotten you into enough trouble already.”

“A message isn’t trouble. I’m not ratting anyone out to deliver a message.”

“You don’t know the message,” I said.

Oh, but he wanted to. “Look Charley, you’re in up to your eyeballs. You say you’re doing it to help a friend. I respect that. Maybe you’re even telling the truth. I’m willing to take a chance.”

I looked over at Jimmy Slick. He was a weasel, and weasels could turn into rats when the moment was right. Still, I needed to know what he had, and the fastest way to his heart was though his curiosity. “All right,” I said, “Here’s the dope.”

Tune in next time for the conclusion of: Year of the Rat!