Corpses Say The Darndest Things
Imagine, if you will, an all but washed-up private detective pursuing a uniformed cop down the street as fast as either of us could run. Yeah, we were a sight.
Not that it mattered to anyone. In The Windy City like any other metropolis, with a million people passing at any given time, few bothered to look and nobody put in a hand. No, sisters and brothers, I was on my own and chasing him for all I was worth. I'm the private dick. I could describe the sounds, the smells. I could name the streets, the twists and turns, the folks we almost knocked down, the things we ran around, jumped over, the vehicles that nearly hit us. What would be the point? We ran until I could barely breathe and wished the same for him and then some. We ran till he made a mistake.
He was passing two hookers, a skinny blonde with roots that matched her vinyl knee-high boots and a tall apple-bottomed girl the color of rich dark chocolate wearing gold and green zebra-striped spandex loitering near a deserted building on North Avenue, when he shouted and turned into an alley that I knew was a dead end. The sap. As sure as a frog has delicious legs, I had him. I passed the working girls myself, too fast to take real notice, turned the corner, and nearly collided with a dumpster that smelled like fish hell at low tide. The man in blue was just ahead. From one of the open windows above, as if pleading his case for him, the Electric Light Orchestra begged Don't Bring Me Down. Nuts to that. Sucking wind, my heart ready to explode, I leapt and landed on his back.
He couldn't just go down of course. Because luck is non-existent in my life, and good fortune only a fantasy, the cop took a header. I rolled ass over tea kettle over him onto the pavement and, as I still had a grip, he returned the favor. Garbage, newsprint, cardboard and, I'm sorry to say, gravel flew. I rang my own bell on an inconveniently discarded concrete block using the back of my skull as a clapper. A conjoined scream, our pain, my anger, his fear, went up like a mushroom cloud. Before the noise and dust settled, and despite my blurred vision and bleeding road rash, I scrambled to my feet.
He did too. Then he went for the holstered gun on his hip.
“Willie,” I screamed. There was no time to think, just enough to kick him hard in the groin. He collapsed like a marionette with cut strings and rocked on the ground in a fetal position. “No guns, Willie, ever,” I barked. “I hate guns.”
Then, and only then, did they show up.
By they I mean Detective Lieutenant Frank Wenders and his sidekick Detective Dave Mason, two more frauds passing themselves off as real cops; these paid by the city. Wenders, a few years short of retirement but ages past his sell-by date, belonged in New Orleans rather than Chicago. He was made for Mardi Gras. For him, every day was Fat Tuesday and he could chomp a king cake whole and never taste the baby Jesus. His shadow outweighed his partner. Speaking of which, Mason, who was too young for his promotion out of patrol, had not failed to make the worst of it. In no time at all he'd become every bit the jerk Wenders was, only stupider. Together they were always a day late and a dollar short; two scabs constantly picking at me.
“You… all… right, Blake?” Wenders asked. I thought I was breathless. He was huffing like a paint junkie. I nodded. (Okay, I was winded myself.) Between gasps, I pointed at the little man in blue, still suffering on the alley floor, and told the city boys, “For a sawbuck, tell you where he got the uniform. He looks better than your guys.”
Wenders gawped at the fake cop, balled up like a baby, cupping his package with both hands and whimpering like a whipped dog, and seemed to decide that (outside of Willie's white socks) he couldn't disagree with my assessment. The rest of the costume looked genuine. Still he frowned. Apparently he didn't need a wise-acre like me pointing it out to him.
As long as I had him annoyed, I kept going. “Frank,” I said, because the lieutenant loved it when I got chummy, “meet Willie Banks. Willie,” I told the whining slug on the pavement, “this is Detective Lieutenant Wenders. He'll be your arresting officer this morning.” The smoke rolled from Wenders' ears. Apparently he didn't need me introducing him to low level perps like we were all guests at a garden party either. He stared daggers at me then told Mason, “Scoop him up.”
The counterfeit cop went without resistance and only a little crying. The barely real junior detective followed behind yanking on the handcuffs and shoving him like he was less than human. As they reached the mouth of the alley, in a high, nasally voice, Willie shouted back over his shoulder, “Blake, take care of my car, will ya?”
That didn't help. Wenders looked at me like I was a bug. He shook his head in dismay (but not surprise). A lifetime ago, when I was a cop, the pre-lieutenant Wenders, along with the rest of the boys in the precinct, gave me a bad time because of my habit of picking up strays. My heart, to hear them tell it, bled all over for one scumbag after another. I couldn't say they were wrong and I don't pretend things have changed. Things never change.
Wenders noticed the gun on the pavement and grunted as he picked it up. He didn't know much but he knew it wasn't his. Without thinking he held the weapon out to me. “Yours?” My vision was only just clearing, my head was still vibrating like a drum, and I wasn't in the mood. I growled and turned as if the weapon smelled bad. I couldn't help it. It was automatic like the kick after a quack taps your knee with a rubber hammer. Knowing what he knew, Wenders couldn't blame me. “Sorry,” he said. “Must be his, huh?” He tucked the gun in his belt (a trick with his gut). Then he took another swipe, “You know, Blake, you ain't Broderick Crawford. You gotta quit acting like a cop.”
I lit a smoke (which, truth be told, didn't help my dizziness) and blew it in his face. “You could say, Thanks,” I said, “for helping us get the guy.”
“You're not a cop anymore,” he said, pretending he hadn't heard me. “You're a lousy gumshoe.”
That wasn't nice but, then again, neither was Wenders. He rotated his girth and, trailing Mason and their phoney cop prisoner, walked away like the bovine he was. Always one to look on the bright side, I noted with thanks that he didn't raise his tail. “You're welcome,” I told his back.
There are three theories as to how the word gumshoe became a stand-in for private investigator. The first suggests the term was a tribute to the unflappable sticking power of the detective. Like gum, you can't shake us. The second says private dicks spend so much time poking around bad neighborhoods they end up with gum on their shoes. While neither of these are absolutely untrue, as to word origin they are highly suspect and probably half-baked. The third theory, the one that holds water if you ask me, says the name came from the gum-rubber soles on shoes worn in the late 1800's. They walked quiet and a gumshoe could sneak around. Handy if you wanted to avoid detection or take a run-out powder with somebody's stuff because, yeah, a gumshoe was a thief. By 1910 or so, and don't ask me how, I'm no historian, the term had come over to the other side of the law and from then on referred to those who quietly went about detecting crime.
Seventy years later (it's 1979 as I confess this to you), with shoe power all but replaced by high-tech security firms, personal computers, a Fotomat in every car lot, news eighteen hours a day, and a half-dozen law enforcement agencies holding concurrent jurisdiction over every inch of the U.S., the hard working private detective (and his gumshoes) had, like pre-Star Wars special effects and backroom book-making, gone the way of the dodo. With the exception, that is, of me.
My name, as you've already heard, is Blake. Don't ask about the first name. Yeah, I have one. No, I don't use it; and it's not because I want to be all private dick-ish. That name alone proves my parents were child abusers. My old man paid for his crime ages ago and is serving his sentence in the city cemetery with no possibility of parole. My mother, on the other hand, what with the world so full of Bingo parlors and people she's yet to annoy, has so far managed to push back her trial date. Some day I'll see justice done; enough said. In a modern Chicago, filled with agents, cops, and rent-a-cops, I'm still just a private eye. I admit, I've out-lived my time. As the eighties approach and the new age shoves the old out and over the hill, I still smoke, I drink before, during, and after business hours, I still think of women as dames though I rarely say it aloud. (While I often find trouble, I'm not as a rule looking for it.) And I still wear gumshoes. They're quiet, as comfortable as can be expected for a job where the only time you're off your feet is when you're knocked on your can, and they're handy for those times when it's necessary for a middle-aged, out of shape, throwback to a by-gone era of detecting on the mean streets to move fast, like that morning.
I headed, slowly and painfully, out of the alley but was stopped before I reached the sidewalk by the little blonde hooker. “Hey, Blake,” she exclaimed. “I thought that was you I seen running.” She was twitching like Howdy Doody, involuntary muscle spasms proclaiming her addiction. Fucking junk. Suddenly, it dawned and I could have kicked myself. I knew the girl, knew her well, but hadn't recognized her for the hell the street was beating out of her. She was still in her early twenties, but couldn't have passed for forty.
“You look awful,” I told her.
She took me in with her huge doe eyes and I can only imagine what she saw from her side; a thickening gut, thinning salt and pepper hair, a dirt and blood-caked, sweaty, dated suit of clothes hung on a rumpled knot-headed former cop that was now… What was I anymore? “You think you're Gregory Peck?” she asked. “Have you looked in a mirror lately?”
I took her point and changed the subject. “Have you been eating?”
“I get by,” she said with a twitch.
I pulled a twenty from my pocket and pushed it into her shaking hand. “Don't smoke it up,” I told her. “Buy some food.” She nodded without looking me in the eye.
“Hey, Charisma!” The shout came from the other girl, her huskier, flashier co-worker, who'd moved their trollop shop to the corner across the street. “Who's the boyfriend?”
I looked from the loud one in the distance to the soiled dove beside me. “Charisma?”
“I found a book of names at the library,” she said with a shrug. “I'm trying it out.”
“Okay. But I'm still calling you Connie.”
She pecked my cheek, turned and, zigging as the traffic zagged, headed back to her girlfriend shouting “Love ya”' over her shoulder as she went.
As I watched her, skinny and street-worn, heading back into the hell that made up her existence, I shook my head and wondered at how lousy life could be. That led to thoughts of the crap week I'd had so far and to the dandy morning it had been. Like most ruminations of the past, these thoughts in no way altered the present and in no way put me wise to two vital facts: One, that though I had not fatally injured myself, the head shot I had just taken was the first of several I had coming over the next eleven days that would permanently scramble my brains and forever alter my future. And two, that one week prior, almost to the minute, a heavily guarded gate at the Stateville prison near Joliet had ratcheted open and disgorged my worst nightmare.
Smoke billowed in great gray swirls from the exhaust of Willie Banks' old Ford as I pulled it into the lot outside of my office. I suppose I should have been grateful, with the bald tires, shattered left headlight, dented green left and rusted blue right quarter panels to highlight the faded Madagascar Orange of the Mustang's original body, I might well have been pushing it in. With the things I let myself in for a sucker like me ought to have a hook in his mouth. Anyway, somewhere behind the smoke was the small red-brick two-story building I rented, and sometimes paid the rent on, on the near southwest side; the former campaign headquarters of someone running for something. It featured a vestibule that was too tight to change your mind in, an outer office for my secretary, an inner office where I thought great thoughts, met clients, and hid from bill collectors, and a one-room second floor filled with boxes of long-forgotten junk. Someday I'll hire a detective to see what's up there. Though I shut it off, Willie's car continued to cough. Finally the engine gave a great last gasp and shuddered to a halt. I sighed, grabbed an envelope from the seat beside me and, as beat as Grandma's rug, went inside.
Lisa was at her desk. That's Lisa Solomon, my secretary. When she stood she was a tall brunette drink of water. Sitting or standing, she was as bright as light, efficient as a well-oiled machine, and nearly as awkward as she was gorgeous. As usual, one long, boney hand scribbled madly on one of the piled papers on her desk while the other dug, equally as madly, into a bag of five and dime candy. I saw Lisa once when she wasn't eating; once. How she stayed so skinny is one of the world's great mysteries. She looked up when I entered, offered no discernible expression from behind her big owl-like glasses, but said, “You look like a lump of Grade A ground chuck.”
I gave the comment all the consideration it was due, meaning, I ignored it. “Willie Banks is in the jug,” I told her. “If his mother wants to spring him, and I would assume that's a big if, we should let her know.” I handed her the envelope. “Add that to the bill and remind her I don't take checks.” I tossed his keys on the desk. “Those are Willie's, to that wreck outside lowering the property values.”
“Is that what that was?” She glanced out the window. “I thought the Sydney ghost train rekindled.”
I ignored that too. “Ask her what she wants done with it. I'm going home and…”
Some detective I was. It was only then, from the corner of my eye, I saw the blonde sitting crossed-legged in one of the two chairs in my waiting room. The chair never had it so good and my eyes were feeling better about the day too. If Lisa was gorgeous but awkward, this dame was just gorgeous. She smiled and what could I do but smile back. Her smart, if business-like, skirt and jacket, in soft canary yellow, deserved attention but I couldn't supply it because her legs were hogging the show. Then she stood and, as if they hadn't caused enough trouble, the legs made a perfect ass of themselves. Outside of my aching skull I heard Lisa mumbling. “Huh?”
“I said,” Lisa said, “this is Gina Bridges.”
“Blake,” I said, taking her hand. I indicated the door to my office with my free mitt. “Please.” She followed directions like a champ and I champed to follow her. Behind me, under her breath, I could have sworn I heard Lisa ask, “Who do you think you are, William Holden?” I ignored that too.