“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.
“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.
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…!