The Last Dance Chapter Four
There were three airports servicing the metropolitan area. The largest of them, out on Sands Spit, flew three direct flights and six connecting flights to Houston on most weekdays. The airport closest to the city flew nine direct flights and eleven connecting flights. Across the river, in the adjoining state, direct flights went out virtually every hour, starting at 6:20 a.m. Twenty-one non-stop and connecting flights left from that airport alone. Altogether, a total of fifty flights flew to Houston almost every day of the week. It was a big busy city, that Houston, Texas.
Starting early Wednesday morning, the tenth day of November, twelve detectives began surveillance of the check-in counters at Continental, Delta, US Airways, American, Northwest, and United Airlines, looking for a Jamaican with a knife scar who might be headed for either Houston-Intercontinental or Houston-Hobby on a direct flight, or on any one of the flights connecting through Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, Atlanta, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or Philadelphia. None of the men boarding any of the flights even remotely fit the description Harpo Hopwell had given them.
There were still a lot more flights going out that day.
“Who’s in charge here?” the assistant medical examiner wanted to know.
Ollie merely gave him a look: he was the only person here with a gold and blue-enameled detective’s shield pinned to his jacket lapel, so who the hell did the man think was in charge? The only other cops at the scene were a pair of blues, both of them standing around looking bewildered, their thumbs up their asses. Did the man think uniforms were now handling homicide investigations?
Or maybe the man had forgotten that he and Ollie had worked together before. Ollie could not imagine this; he did not consider himself an eminently forgettable human being. Did the man work with detectives as fat as Ollie every day of the week? The man had to know that the fat detective in the loud sports jacket was the one in charge here. Or was he pretending not to know Ollie because he didn’t want Ollie to think the only reason he remembered him was because he was fat? If so, that was stupid. Ollie knew he was fat. He also knew that behind his back people called him Fat Ollie. He considered it a measure of respect that nobody ever called him this to his face.
“Oh, hello, Weeks,” the ME said, as if noticing him for the first time, which was tantamount to suddenly noticing a hippopotamus at the dinner table. “What’ve we got?”
“Dead black girl in the kitchen,” Ollie said.
The ME’s name was Frederick Kurtz, a Nazi bastard if Ollie had ever met one. Even had a little Hitler mustache under his nose. Little black satchel like some mad doctor at Buchenwald. Wearing a rumpled suit looked as if he’d slept in it all this past week. Had a bad cold, too. Kept taking a soiled handkerchief from his back pocket and blowing fresh snot into it, the fuckin Nazi. Ollie followed him into the kitchen.
The girl lay on her back in front of the sink counter, the knife still in her. This was going to be a real tough call. It would take a fuckin Nazi rocket scientist to diagnose this one as a fatal stabbing. Nobody had yet taken the knife out of her because rule number one was you didn’t touch anything till the ME officially pronounced the vie dead. Ollie waited while Kurtz circled the body like a vulture, trying to find a comfortable position from which to examine the dead girl. He put his satchel down on the floor beside her, and leaned over close to her mouth, as if hoping to catch a shimmer of breath from her lips. Ollie was thinking if the girl was still breathing, she’d be sanctified before nightfall. Be the first black saint from this city. Kurtz placed his forefinger and middle finger on the side of her neck, feeling for a pulse in the carotid artery. Fat Chance Department, Ollie thought.
“Reckon she’s dead?” he asked, trying to sound like John Wayne, but succeeding only in sounding like W. C. Fields. Ollie sometimes tried to do Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, and Robert De Niro, but somehow all his imitations came out sounding like W. C. Fields. He didn’t realize this. He actually considered his imitations right on the money, and often thought of himself as the man with the golden ear. Kurtz knew sarcasm when he heard it, however, even when it came from a fat dick who neither looked nor sounded like a cowboy. He didn’t answer Ollie. Instead, he put his stethoscope to the girl’s chest, already knowing she was dead as a doornail, to coin a medical phrase, and went about his examination pretending Ollie wasn’t there, something difficult to do under any circumstances. A voice from the bedroom doorway startled Kurtz, echoing as it did his own earlier question,
“Who’s in charge here?” Monoghan asked.
Same stupid question from another jackass who should know better, Ollie thought. In this city, the detective catching the squeal was the cop officially investigating the case from that moment on. Detective Monoghan, his partner Detective Monroe, and various other detectives from the Homicide Division were sent to the scene of any murder in their bailiwick, to serve in a so-called advisory and supervisory capacity. The reason for their existence was that this city was a bureaucratic monolith that cost more to run than the entire nation of Zaire.
In this city, ten people were necessary to do the job of one person. What this city did was hire high school drop-outs, put them in suits, and then teach them how to greet the public with blank stares on their faces. In this city, if you needed a copy of, say, your birth certificate or your driver’s license, you stood on line for an hour and a half while some nitwit pretended to be operating a computer. When he or she finally located what you were there for, you had to go over to the post office and stand on line for another hour and a half to purchase a money order to pay for it. That was because in this city, municipal employees weren’t allowed to accept cash, personal checks, or credit cards. This was because the city fathers knew the caliber of the people who were featherbedding throughout the entire system, knew that cash would disappear in a wink, knew that credit cards would be cloned, knew that personal checks would somehow end up in private bank accounts hither and yon. That’s why all those people behind municipal counters gave you such hostile stares. They were angry at the system because they couldn’t steal from it. Or maybe they were pissed off because they couldn’t qualify for more lucrative jobs like security officers at any of the city’s jails, where an ambitious man could earn a goodly amount of unreportable cash by smuggling in dope to the inmates.
Monoghan and Monroe were necessary to such a system.
Without two jackasses here to tell an experienced detective like Ollie how to do his job, the system would fall apart in a minute and a half. The Homicide dicks knew damn well who was in charge here. Oliver Wendell Weeks was in charge here. It bothered them, too, that in days of yore, the Homicide Division in this city had merited the measure of respect it now enjoyed only on television. Nowadays, Homicide’s proud tradition was vestigial at best. All that remained of its elegant past were the black suits Homicide cops still wore, the color of death, the color of murder itself.
Both Monoghan and Monroe were wearing black on this dismal November afternoon. They looked as if they were on their way to a funeral home to tell some Irish mick like themselves how sorry they were that Paddy O’Toole had kicked the bucket, poor drunken soul. The consistent thing about Ollie Weeks was that he hated everyone, regardless of race, creed, or color. Ollie was a consummate bigot. Without even knowing it.
“These two Irishmen walk out of a bar?” he said.
“Yeah?” Monoghan said.
“It could happen,” Ollie said, and shrugged.
Neither Monoghan nor Monroe laughed.
Kurtz, the fuckin Nazi, laughed, but he tried to hide it by blowing his nose again, because to tell the truth these two big Irish cops scared hell out of him. He guessed Ollie was of English descent, or he wouldn’t have told such a joke to two Irishmen dressed like morticians and looking somewhat red in the face to begin with.
“What is that, some kind of ethnic slur?” Monoghan asked.
“Some kind of stereotypical innuendo?” Monroe asked.
“Is she dead or not?” Ollie asked the ME, changing the subject because these two Irish jackasses seemed to be getting touchy about their drunken cronies.
“Yes, she’s dead,” Kurtz said.
“Would you wish to venture a guess as to the cause?” Ollie said, this time trying to sound like a sarcastic British barrister, but it still came out as W. C. Fields.
“Coroner’s Office’11 send you a report,” Kurtz said, thinking he could ace the Big O, but Ollie merely smiled.
“I can’t blame you for being so cautious,” he said, “knife stickin out of her chest and all.”
Fuck you, Fat Boy, the ME thought, but he blew his nose instead and walked out.
The Homicide dicks wandered around the apartment looking grouchy. Ollie guessed they were still smarting over his Irish joke, which he thought was a pretty good one, hey, if you can’t take a joke, go fuck yourself. There were enough personal items around the place – an engagement calendar, an address book, bras and panties in the dresser – to convince Ollie that the girl lived here and wasn’t just visiting whoever had juked her. The super of the building confirmed this a few minutes later when he came upstairs to see how the investigation was coming along. One thing Ollie hated – among other things he hated – was amateur detectives sticking their noses in police work. He asked the super what the girl’s name was, and the super told him she was Althea Cleary, and that she’d been living here since May sometime. He thought she was from Ohio or someplace like that. Idaho maybe. Iowa. Someplace like that. Ollie thanked him for the valuable information and his citizenly concern and ushered him out of the apartment. One of the responding blues told him the lady who’d phoned the police was in the hall outside waiting to talk to him, was it okay to let her in?
“What makes you think it wouldn’t be okay?” Ollie asked.
“Well, it being a crime scene and all.”
“That’s very good thinking,” Ollie said, and smiled enigmatically. “Show her in.”
The woman was in her late fifties, Ollie guessed, wearing a green cardigan sweater and a brown woolen skirt. She told Ollie that she and Althea were friends, and that she’d knocked on her door around two o’clock to see if she wanted to go down for a cappuccino.
“I work at home,” the woman said. “And Althea was home a lot, too. So sometimes, we walked over to Starbucks for cappuccino.”
“What is it you do?” Ollie asked. “At home, I mean.”
“Well, I teach piano,” she said.
“I always wanted to play piano,” Ollie said. “Could you teach me five songs?”
“I want to learn five songs. I want to play five songs like a pro. Then when I go to a party, I can sit down and play the five songs and everybody’11 think I know how to play piano.”
“Well, if you can play five songs, then actually you are playing the piano, aren’t you?”
Ollie hated smart-ass women, even if they knew how to play piano.
“Sure,” he said, “but I mean they’ll think I know more than just the five songs.”
“I suppose I could teach you five songs,” the woman said.
“Have you got a card or anything?”
“Don’t you want to know about Althea?”
“Sure, I do. Have you got a card? I’ll give you a call, you can teach me five songs sometime. Do you know ‘Night and Day’?”
“Yes, I do. You should understand, however … I normally teach classical piano. To children, mostly.”
“That’s okay, all I want is five songs.”
“Well,” the woman said, and sighed, and opened her handbag. She fished in it for a card, found one, and handed it to Ollie. The name on the card was Helen Hobson.
“How much do you charge?” he asked.
“We can discuss that,” she said.
“Maybe you can give me a flat rate for just the five songs,” he said. “Did she work nights or what?”
His change of direction was so abrupt that Helen actually blinked.
“You said she was home a lot,” Ollie said.
“Oh, yes. She worked nights. At the telephone company.”
Ollie hated the telephone company. He could easily imagine some irritated subscriber stabbing Althea Cleary in the chest half a dozen times.
“I liked her a lot,” Helen said. “She was a very nice person.”
“Who you used to have cappuccino with every now and then.”
“Almost every day.”
“But today when you went down, you found her dead.”
“The door was open,” Helen said, nodding.
“Standing wide open, you mean?”
“No, just a crack. I thought this was odd. I called Althea’s name, and when I got no answer, I walked in. She was in the kitchen. On the floor there.”
“What’d you do then?”
“I went up to my own apartment and called the police.”
“What time was this, Miss Hobson?”
“A little after two. My lesson ended at two, I don’t have another one till four. So I came down to see if Althea wanted to come with me to Starbucks.”
“How’d you come down?”
“By the stairs. I’m only one flight up.”
“See anybody on the way down?”
“Anybody outside her apartment?”
“When did you notice the door was open?”
“Before you knocked or anything?”
“I didn’t knock at all. I saw the door standing open maybe an inch or two, so I called her name, and went in.”
“Thanks, Miss Hobson, we appreciate your help,” he said. “I’ll call you about the lessons. All I want to learn is five songs.”
“Yes, I understand.”
“‘Night and Day,’ and four others. So I can impress people.”
“I’m sure they’ll be very impressed.”
“Hey, tell me about it,” Ollie said.
“You got this under control here?” Monoghan asked.
“Soon as the technicians get here,” Ollie said. “What’s holding up traffic? Is the Pope in town or something?”
“You gonna tell a Pope joke now?”
“I only know one Pope joke,” Ollie said.
“Maybe this lady here can teach you four more,” Monroe said. “Then you can really impress people. You can play five songs on the piano, tell five Pope jokes, and maybe five Irish jokes if there are any Irishmen in the crowd.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Ollie said. “You know four Pope jokes, Miss Hobson?”
“I don’t know any Pope jokes at all,” she said.
“I need four more Pope jokes,” Ollie said. “I’ll have to get them someplace else, I guess.”
“Can I leave now?” she asked.
“You want some advice?” Monroe said.
“Sure, what’s that?” Ollie said.
“There are lots of Irishmen on the job. I wouldn’t go telling any more Irish jokes, I was you.”
“Gee, is that your advice?”
“That’s our advice,” Monroe said.
“You think telling Irish jokes might be politically incorrect, huh?”
“It might be downright dangerous,” Monroe said.
“Gee, I hope that’s not a threat,” Ollie said.
“It ain’t a threat, but you can take it as one if you wish.”
“Can I leave now?” Helen said again.
“Cause you know,” Ollie said, “I don’t give a rat’s ass about what’s politically correct or what ain’t. All I want to do is learn my five songs and my five Pope jokes, is all I want to do, and maybe in my spare time find out who stabbed this little girl. So if you got no further advice to dispense here . . .”
“Is it all right if I go?” Helen asked.
“Go already, lady,” Monoghan said.
“Thank you, Officers,” she said, and hurried out of the apartment.
“What if I told you I myself was Irish?” Ollie asked.
“I wouldn’t believe you,” Monroe said.
“Why? Cause I ain’t drunk?”
“That’s the kind of remark can get you in trouble,” Monoghan said, wagging his finger under Ollie’s nose.
“I once bit off a guy’s finger, was doing that,” Ollie said, and grinned like a shark.
“Bite this a while,” Monoghan said.
“Good thing the piano teacher’s already gone,” Ollie said, shaking his head in dismay.
“Who’s in charge here?” one of the technicians asked from the doorway.
“Well look who’s here!” Ollie said.
“Keep us advised,” Monoghan said.
You fat bastard, he thought, but did not say.
That Wednesday morning, at a few minutes past eleven, Arthur Brown knocked on the door to Cynthia Keating’s apartment.
“Yes, who is it?” she asked.
“Police,” Brown said.
“Oh,” she said. There was a long silence. “Just a minute,” she said. They heard a latch turning, tumblers falling. The door opened a crack, held by a security chain. Cynthia peered out at them.
“I don’t know you,” she said.
Brown held up his shield.
“Detective Brown,” he said. “Eighty-seventh Squad.”
“I already spoke to the others,” she said.
“We have a few more questions, ma’am.”
“Is this legal?”
“May we come in, please?”
“Just a second,” she said, and closed the door to take off the chain. She opened it again, said, “Come in,” and preceded them into the apartment. “This better be legal,” she said.
“Ma’am,” Kling said, “do you know a man named John Bridges?”
“No. Let me see your badge, too,” she said.
Kling fished out a small leather holder, and flashed the gold and blue-enameled shield.
“Excuse me,” she said, and went directly to the telephone on the kitchen wall. She dialed a number, waited, listening, and then said, “Mr Alexander, please. Cynthia Keating.” She waited again. “Todd,” she said, “the police are here. What’s your advice?” She listened again, nodded, kept listening, finally said, “Thanks, Todd, talk to you,” and hung up. “Gentlemen,” she said, “unless you have a warrant for my arrest, my attorney suggests you take a walk.”
There was something very comforting about being alone at last in the dead girl’s apartment. First of all, the silence. This city, the one thing you could never find anyplace was peace and quiet. There were always sirens going, day and night, police or ambulance, and there were car horns honking, mostly taxicabs, foreigners from India or Pakistan leaning on their horns day and night because they were remembering how fast their camels used to race across the desert sands where there were no traffic lights. Noisiest damn city in the entire universe, this city. Ollie much preferred the silence here in the dead girl’s apartment.
He sometimes felt if he hung around a dead person’s apartment long enough, he would pick up the vibrations of the killer. Get into his or her skin somehow. He had read a story once – he hated reading – where the theory was the image of a person’s murderer would be left on the person’s eyeballs, the retina, whatever. Total bullshit. But the silence in a victim’s apartment was almost palpable, and he gave real credence to the notion that if he stood there long enough, in the silence, the vibrations of the killer would seep into his bones, though to tell the truth this had never happened to him. Nonetheless, he stood stock still at the foot of the dead girl’s bed now, imagining her as he’d first seen her on the kitchen floor, knife in her chest, trying to feel what the killer had felt while he was stabbing her, trying to get into his skin. Nothing happened. Ollie sighed, farted, and began his solitary search of Althea Cleary’s apartment.
What he hoped he definitely would not find was her parents’ names. He did not want to have to call them personally and tell them their daughter was dead. He wasn’t good at such stuff. To Ollie, when a person was dead he was dead, and you didn’t go around wringing your hands or tearing out your hair. He couldn’t think of a single dead person he missed, including his own mothe and father. He guessed if his sister Isabelle died, he woul miss her a little, but not enough to be the one who got u and said some kind words about her at the funeral servic because to tell the truth he couldn’t think of a single kini thing he might care to say about her, dead or alive. Lik most living people, Isabelle Weeks was a pain in the ass She once told him he was a bigot. He told her to go fuel herself, girlfriend.
He had already looked through the dead girl’s addres book and appointment calendar, but he hadn’t found an; listings for anybody named Cleary. There were a fev names for people in Montana, which wasn’t either Ohi( or Idaho or Iowa as the super had guessed, but thes< weren't Clearys, and he didn't plan on calling somebody in Montana just to find out if they were related to ; dead black girl he didn't want to tell them about in th( first place. Her appointment calendar wasn't much help either. She probably was new here in the city, whicl maybe explained why she had cappuccino all the time with the lady upstairs who taught piano. Ollie woulc have to give her a call. Night and Day, he thought And maybe Satisfaction, which was one of his favorite songs, too.
He went to the girl’s dresser now, and opened the top drawer, looking for he didn’t know what, anything thai would tell him something about either her or whoever had been with her on the night she died. There were cops who went by the book, canvassed the neighborhood first, asked Leroy and Luis, Carmen and Clarisse did they see anybody going in or out of the apartment, but up here in Zimbabwe West, nobody ever saw nothing if you were a cop. Anyway, he preferred getting to know the vie first, and then getting to know whoever knew her. Besides, Ollie liked dead people much better than he did most living ones. Dead people didn’t give you any trouble. You went into a dead person’s apartment, you didn’t have to worry about farting or belching. Also, if the vie was a girl, you could handle her panties or panty hose – like he was doing now – without anybody thinking you were some kind of pervert. Ollie sniffed the crotch of a pair of red panties, which was actually good police work because it would tell him was the girl a clean person or somebody who just dropped panties she had worn right back in the drawer without rinsing them out. They smelled fresh and clean.
Being in her apartment, sniffing her panties, going through the rest of her underwear, and her sweaters and her blouses and her high-heeled shoes in the closet, and her coats and dresses, one of them a blue Monica Lewinsky dress, going through all her personal belongings, trying to find something, wondering what kind of person could have stabbed the girl it looked like half a dozen times and then left a fuckin bread knife sticking out of her chest, opening her handbag and rummaging through the personal girl things in it, he felt both privileged and inviolate, like an invisible burglar.
Carl Blaney was weighing a liver when Ollie got downtown at four o’clock that Wednesday afternoon. It was still raining, though not as hard as it had been earlier. The morgue and the rain outside both had the same stainless steel hue. He watched as Blaney transferred the liver from the scale to a stainless steel pan. Personally, Ollie found body parts disgusting.
“Is that hers?” he asked.
“Whose?” Blaney said.
“That’s all we’ve got here is vies.”
“Althea Cleary. The little colored girl got stabbed.” “Oh, that one.”
“What do you do here, you just go from one liver to another?”
“Yep, that’s all we do here,” Blaney said dryly. “So what’ve you got for me?” Ollie asked.
There was nothing Meyer liked better than to irritate Fat Ollie Weeks. The man was calling to talk to Carella, but Carella was down the hall. Meyer could not resist the temptation.
“Do you plan to sue this guy?” he asked.
“What guy is that?” Ollie asked.
He had never sued anybody in his entire life. He figured the lawyers of the world were rich enough.
“This guy who wrote this book with a lot of police stuff in it.”
“What guy?” Ollie asked again.
“This Irishman who wrote a book. You’re famous now, Ollie.”
“The fuck is that supposed to mean?” Ollie said.
“On the other hand, it does say in the front of the book that the names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously.”
“Wonderful,” Ollie said. “Tell Steve I called, okay? I got to see him about something.”
“‘Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons is entirely coincidental,'” Meyer quoted. “Is what it says. So I guess it is just a coincidence.”
“What is just a coincidence?” Ollie asked.
“His name being so similar to yours and all,” Meyer explained.
“What guy?” Ollie asked for the third fuckin time.
“This guy in this police novel written by this Irish journalist.”
“Okay, I’ll bite,” Ollie said.
“Fat Ollie Watts,” Meyer said, drawing the name out grandly. “Not that anyone ever calls you Fat Ollie,” he added at once.
“They better not” Ollie said. “What do you mean, Fat Ollie Watts?”
“Is the name of a character in this book.”
“A character! Fat Ollie Watts?’
“Yeah. But he’s just a minor character.”
“A minor character?”
“Yeah, some kind of cheap thief.”
“Some kind of cheap thief!”
“Called Fat Ollie Watts!”
“Yeah. Pretty close, don’t you think?”
“Close? It’s right on the fuckin nosel”
“Well, no. Watts isn’t Weeks.”
“It ain’t, huh?”
“It’s even spelled differently.”
“Oh, is that right?”
“I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“On your block, Fat Ollie Watts ain’t Fat Ollie Weeks, huh? Then what is it?”
“Who the fuck is this guy?”
“Fat Ollie Watts,” Meyer said. “I just told you.”
“Not him The guy who wrote the fuckin book Don’t he even know I exist?”
“Gee, I guess not.”
“He’s writing a book about cops and he never heard of me? A real person! He never heard of Oliver Wendell Weeks!”
“Oh, come on, Ollie, relax. This is just another Thomas Harris ripoff serial-killer novel. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“Does this fuckin guy live on Mars, he never heard of me?”
“He lives in Ireland, I told you.”
“Where in Ireland? In some booth in a pub? In some stone hut by the side of the road? In some fuckin smelly bogl”
“Gee, I’m sorry I even mentioned it.”
“What’s this guy’s name?”
“I told you. Fat Ollie . . .”
“Not him,” Ollie said. “The writer. The fuckin writerl”
“I’ll tell you the truth,” Meyer said, grinning, “I’ve already forgotten it.”
And hung up.
The two men met in a bar at five that afternoon. Both were officially off duty. Carella ordered a beer. Ollie ordered a Harvey Wallbanger.
“So what’s this about?” Carella asked.
“I told you on the phone.”
“Some girl got stabbed . . .”
“Black girl named Althea Cleary. Eight times, according to the ME. Knife was still in her chest. Weapon of convenience. Matches the set in her kitchen. Thing that made me think of you was Blaney telling me . . .”
“I don’t know. How many Blaneys are there?”
“Two. I think.”
“Well, this was one of them,” Ollie said. “He told me the girl had maybe been doped. With guess what?”
Carella looked at him.
“Yeah,” Ollie said.
“Rohypnol. Hey, bartender!” he yelled. “Excuse me, but did you put any vodka in this fuckin drink?”
“I put vodka in it,” the bartender said.
“Cause what I can do, I can take it down the police lab, we’ll run some toxicological tests on it, see if there’s any alcohol in it at all.”
“Everything’s in it supposed to be in it,” the bartender said. “That’s a good strong drink you got there.”
“Then whyn’t you make me another one just like it, on the house this time, it’s so fuckin good.”
“Why on the house?” the bartender asked.
“Cause your toilet’s leakin and your bathroom window’s painted shut,” Ollie said. “Those are both violations.”
Which they weren’t.
“You’re sure she was doped?” Carella said.
“According to Blaney.”
“And he’s sure it was roofers?”
“What you’re suggesting is a link to my case.”
“By George, I think you’ve got it.”
“You’re saying because they were both doped . . .”
“. . . and later murdered, there’s a link.”
“Which don’t seem like too extravagant a surmise.”
“I think it’s a very far reach, Ollie.”
“Here’s your Wallbanger,” the bartender said, and banged it down on the bar.
Ollie shoved his chair away from the table and walked over to pick it up. Watching him, Carella thought he moved surprisingly fast for a fat man. Ollie lifted the glass, sipped at it, smacked his lips, said, “Excellent, my good fellow, truly superior,” and came back to the table. “It ain’t a far reach at all,” he told Carella.
“No? You’re saying the same person who hanged my guy may have stabbed your girl.”
“I’m saying there’s a pattern here. In police work, we call it an M.O.”
“Happy to inform,” Ollie said, and raised his glass in a silent toast, and drank. “There ain’t no vodka in this one, either,” he said and looked into the glass.
Carella was thinking.
“Questions,” he said.
“Do you have any evidence at all that Allison Cleary . . . ?”
“. . . knew John Bridges?”
“None at all. But they could have met.”
“Guy’s up from Houston, right? Out on the town, from what it appears, am I right? With a little help from his friends, he does a hanging, then goes out to play some cards on the weekend. Meets our little faggot friend Harpo, introduces him to his friends, too, here, pal, take these with you, they’ll help your sex life, tee hee. Meaning, if Harpo is ever bisexually inclined, he can drop a few tabs in a young lady’s drink, induce her to slobber the Johnson. Which is exactly what Bridges or whoever he is done two nights later to little Althea Cleary.”
“Where do you think they met?”
“Lady lives upstairs from her has cappuccino with her every now and then. Tells me the girl works nights for the telephone company. Okay, I’m prowling her pad, I find a social security card in her handbag. You want to know where she worked?”
“You just told me. The telephone company.”
“Yeah, but not AT. What I done, I checked the ID number on her social security card with Soc Sec Admin. Employer contributions on her behalf were made for the past six months to a go-go joint called The Telephone Company on The Stem downtown. Wanna go dancin, Steve-a-rino?”
The last plane to Houston that Wednesday night, a non-stop Delta flight scheduled to arrive at Houston-Intercontinental at 9:01 p.m., closed its doors at 6:00 p.m. sharp.
There were no Jamaicans on it.
A dive called The Telephone Company, Carella didn’t know what to expect. Maybe something on the style of the Kit Kat Klub of Cabaret fame, telephones on all the tables, numbered placards indicating which table was which, girls phoning from table to table, “This is table twenty-seven, calling table forty-nine. Sitting all alone like that. . .” and so on.
But when they got there at ten o’clock that night, the only telephones in sight were the house phone sitting behind the bar and a pay phone on the wall to the right of the entrance door. The joint was located on Lower Stemmler, all the way downtown, where The Stem became a narrower passage lined with meatpacking houses, the occasional restaurant, and an assortment of clubs featuring masturbaters in drafty dungeons; cross-dressers wearing smeared lipstick, high heels, and crude tattoos; raving teeny boppers in spangles and pinkish-green hair; pneumatic West Coast starlets thrilling to the big bad city or – as was the case here in The Telephone Company – an assortment of topless girls wearing thong panties and gyrating on a crescent-shaped stage.
The detectives roamed around like casual customers. Smoke drifted in bluish-gray layers in the beam of follow spots illuminating half a dozen girls slithering restlessly across the stage, eyes slitted, tongues wetting glossy lips, imitation sex oozing from every pore with each insinuating spike-heeled step they took. If a man signaled from one of the tables below the stage, a wink of the eye or a flick of the tongue acknowledged that the girl would join him on the dance break, to negotiate whatever suited his fancy behind the plastic palms in a back room called The Party Line. One peek into that room told the detectives exactly what was going on back there. A bouncer gave them a look, but said nothing to them.
A dozen or so men sat at tables below the stage, drinking, chatting among themselves, trying to look bored by the exhibition of all that flesh up there because demeaning these women was part of the joy of participation. Even the men who would never dream of taking one of these girls into the back room for actual sex knew that just sitting here while the girls displayed themselves was a way of telling them they could be had for a price – were, in fact, being had for a price, witness the ten-dollar bills tucked into G-string bands. The girls, on the other hand, perhaps to convince themselves they hadn’t already been broken by this city or the men in this city, told themselves that only a jackass would part with ten bucks to watch a girl bouncing her tits or bending over to spread the cheeks on her ass.
Here in the spotlight-pierced gloom stinking of stale cigarette smoke and sour sweat, over the deafening roar of music blaring from speakers on pillars and posts, the detectives introduced themselves to the man behind the bar, who told them he was Mac Gordon, owner of the club. Gordon looked to be some six feet, three inches tall. His eyes appeared blue, but who could tell in the near-darkness? One thing for sure, he had a red handlebar mustache.
“Did a girl named Althea Cleary work here?” Carella asked.
“Still does. Should be in any minute now.”
“Don’t count on it,” Ollie said.
“What do you mean?”
“She was murdered last night.”
“Holy smokes. And here I thought this was about some kind of violation.”
“What kind of violation did you have in mind?” Ollie asked.
“Well, gee, how would I know?”
Carella wasn’t here to throw a scare into the owner; all he wanted was information. Ollie, on the other hand, couldn’t resist being a fucking cop.
“You’re not thinkin of the hand jobs in the back room, are you?” he asked.
“I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, sir.”
“Fifty bucks a throw.”
“Not here, sir.”
“A hundred for a blow job where the jungle gets thicker?”
“I don’t know what jungle you mean, sir.”
“Back there at the very back of the back room,” Ollie said. “All them fake trees dripping moss and shit.”
“You must be thinking of some other place,” Gordon said.
“Yeah, maybe. You didn’t see Althea taking some kind of Jamaican back there last night, did you?”
“I sure didn’t,” Gordon said.
“Guy with a knife scar on his face?”
“Who did you see with her?”
“I believe she was talking to various gentlemen at various times during the night.”
“Talking to them, huh?”
“Yes, sir. And sharing an occasional drink.”
“Sharing a drink, I see. Did she happen to leave here with one of these gentlemen?”
“That is strictly against the rules, sir.”
“Oh, there are rules.”
“Yes, sir, very strict rules. None of the performers here . . .”
“Performers, I see.”
“. . . is allowed to leave the club with any of the customers. Or even to make arrangements to meet any of the customers outside the club.”
“How many girls you got working here?” Ollie asked.
“A dozen or so. Fourteen. Sixteen. It varies on different nights.”
“How many were here last night?”
“I would say ten or twelve.”
“Are they all here tonight? All ten or eleven of these girls?”
“I believe so, yes. I would have to check the time cards.”
“Oh, you have time cards, do you?”
“Yes, sir, this is a business establishment.”
“I’m sure it is. Find out which girls were here last night, okay? We want to talk to them. You got a nice quiet place where we can visit?”
“I suppose you could use my office,” Gordon said. “If you don’t mind the clutter.”
“Gee, that’s very kind of you, thanks,” Ollie said.
Carella wanted to kick him in his fat ass.
The girls ranged in age from nineteen to thirty-four. That was because Gordon knew better than to hire anyone under eighteen. The mayor’s vigorous anti-vice campaign notwithstanding, Gordon was running a virtual whore house here, lacking only genital penetration to qualify for full statehood. Five of the eleven girls, it turned out to be, were white. The remaining six were black. Some of them were experienced, some of them were straight off the train from Oaken Bucket, Minnesota. Nine of the girls were single. Two of them were married. Even some of the single girls had children. Three of the girls had worked in massage parlors . . .
“Where it can sometimes get rough,” a girl named Sherry told them. “Because doin massage, you alone with the dude, you dig? It ain’t like here, where they’s a whole buncha shit goin on.”
When she laughed, she exposed a gap in her mouth where two front teeth were missing.
“Which is great for givin derby, hm?” she said, and laughed again, and covered her mouth with a hand on which there was a fake emerald ring as big as all Hong Kong.
None of the girls seemed nervous talking to two detectives. Carella and Ollie both figured Gordon was spreading some heavy bread among the neighborhood law enforcement types. Carella abhorred the widespread practice. Ollie considered it all part of the game, ah yes.
Two of the girls had worked the hostess circuit.
“This’s much better,” one of them said. “You never knows what you goan walk into when you take a hos’ess call.”
Her name was Ruby Sass.
“Mah whole name’s Ruby Sassafras Martin,” she said, “but I think Ruby Sass got pinch to it, don’t you?”
She was a black girl with bleached blond hair, wearing a bra top and G-string covered with sequins the color of her name. Silicone breasts virtually spilled out of her top, but she paid them no mind. Instead, she puffed on her cigarette and sipped at the drink the detectives had purchased for her. She told them she was studying drama and dance during the day, which they believed was as authentic as her blond hair. She also told them she’d seen Althea go in the back room with three different guys last night.
“Finely went home at two a.m.,” she said. “Approximate.”
“Meaning was she with anyone? What else does alone mean?”
“Depends on whether you’re president of the United States.”
“I’m not,” Ollie said.
“Didn’t think so.”
“Was she alone or wasn’t she?”
“Let me tell you something about this business, okay?” Ruby said. “Guys who come here, they don’t want all the hassle of arrangements or commitments, you comprehend? They make they business deal, whatever it’s for, and that’s whut it is. So Mac tellin us don’t meet no men outside, don’t take no men home with you, that happens ony like once in a blue moon, anyway. Like some college kid with pimples all over his face falls in love with one of the girls up there dancin, he keeps stuffm bills in her gadget, axes her to go the back room with him. Kid like that, he keeps comin back for more, you play him like a fish till he finely works up the courage to ax could he go home with you. Then you tell him sure, but that’s gonna coss you, honey. By then, he’ll go along with whatever you say, cause he is yours, darlin, he is completely yours. You play it right he’ll become yo own personal muff diver and pay you for the pleasure besides.”
“Does that mean Althea was alone?” Carella asked.
“It means far as I could see, Althea left the club alone. Whether somebody was waitin outside for her is another matter. But let me tell you suppin else bout this business . . .”
“We’re all ears,” Ollie said.
“Most guys I know – and this prolly includes you – they have sex with a woman, the next thing they want is to go home and go to sleep. Especially sex a guy pays for. You ever pay for sex?”
“Never in my life,” Ollie said.
“Didn’t think you had to, handsome fella like you,” Ruby said dryly, and sucked on her cigarette. “But even with a freebie, your average guy today, he don’t want to wake up the next morning with some beast in bed, am I right? Or even some beauty, for that matter.”
“I don’t mind wakin up with beauties in my bed,” Ollie said.
“Then you’re different from the average guy we get in here. The guys who come here don’t want commitment, you comprehend? It’s as simple as that. They come here, they get they pleasure, and that’s it. So are you tellin me that here’s a guy who pays for sex in a whore house – is what this is here, you know – and then still wants more an hour later? What is this, Chinese food?”
“You’re saying he won’t want more.”
“Is what I’m saying. If he goes in the back room with a girl, that’s usually enough to satisfy him.”
“What if he doesn ‘t go in the back room?” Carella asked.
“Then he’d be too fuckin timid to ask a girl to meet him on the outside. Besides, why would she?”
“Why wouldn’t she?”
“Cause first of all, we exhausted when we leave here two-thirty, three in the morning. We’re on that stage shakin our asses all night long, hopin to snare as many ten-dollar bills as we can, but what does that come to? A hundred bucks maybe? The back room is where the money is. If we catch a wink from one of the tables, we go sit with the guy for twenty minutes while he tells us the story of his life and all we’re thinkin is do I buy a ticket or not, you want a hand job, a blow job, what is it you want, mister? Without being able to say none of this out loud cause he might be a fuckin cop, excuse me.”
“You said Althea bought three half-hour tickets last night,” Carella said.
“Thass right. An’ if that’s all the time she bought, then whut the boys wanted was hand jobs. Tickets woulda cost her twenty for the half-hour, she probably charged fifty, sixty to milk ’em. When we’re doin more serious work, ahem, we usually buy an hour ticket for fifty bucks, charge the John a full C for it. What Mac does is rent space to us, you comprehend? The back room is space, that’s all. He lets us use his stage to advertise our goodies only cause his customers drink while they watchin us.”
“So if a guy went in the back room with Althea last night . . .”
“Yeah, it woulda been a hand job. That’s what we buy a half-hour ticket for.”
“Anybody follow her out? When she left last night?”
“Not that I seen.”
“Where were you when you saw her leaving?”
“Onstage. It was the last dance. The last dance starts at two. The place closes at two-thirty, three.”
“So she left before the last dance, is that it?”
“Guess she’d made money enough by then,” Ruby said, and shrugged again.
“How? You said a hundred is tops for G-string change . . .”
“Well, a hundred, a hun’twenty …”
“Okay, and if she got fifty for each trip to the back room . . .”
“Sixty be more like it.”
“Okay, that netted her forty on each trip. That’s a hun’twenty plus the G-string money comes to two-forty. What time do you girls start?”
“If she left at two, that was five hours,” Ollie said. “Divide two-forty by five, you come up with forty-eight bucks an hour. She coulda made more workin at McDonald’s.”
“You consider forty-eight an hour good wages?”
“Most nights we do better.”
“If two-forty was all she’d earned last night, why’d she leave half an hour before closing?”
“Maybe she was tired.”
“Or maybe she’d arranged for somebody to meet her outside and take her home,” Carella said. “Is that possible?”
“Anything’s possible,” Ruby said.
“What’d these guys look like?” Ollie asked. “The ones who went back with her.”
“Who knows what any of these creeps look like?”
“Any of them look Jamaican?”
“Whuf s a Jamaican look like?”
“This one was light-skinned, with blue-green eyes and curly black hair. Around six-two or -three, broad shoulders, narrow waist, a lovely grin, and a charming lilt to his speech.”
“If I’d seen anybody like that aroun here,” Ruby said, “Fda axed him to marry me.”
That Wednesday night, the airwaves were full of stories about Danny Gimp and his two murderers. Slain stool pigeons do not normally attract too much attention. Unless they’re killed in a place as public as a pizzeria, in broad daylight, during a week when television was panting for something sensational to captivate the no imagination of the ever-salivating American viewing audience. The hanging death of a nondescript old man in a shabby little apartment in a meager section of the city was nothing as compared to two bald-faced gunmen striding into a pizzeria during the breakfast hour and blazing away like Butch and Sundance, albeit one had been black.
In a city divided by race, even the racial symmetry was reason for jubilance. For here, if nowhere else, a black man and a white man seemed to have worked in harmonious accord to rid the earth of that vilest of all human beings, the informer. Danny Gimp, unremarkable and unregarded while alive, became in death something of an inverted martyr, a man made suddenly famous by his extinction. In a world where wars were given mini-series titles, Danny and his two bold slayers stepped out of reality into the realm of truth made to seem fictitious, achieving in the space of several days a notoriety reserved for mythical bad guys and their destroyers. Killers though they were, The White Guy and The Black Guy had slain The Rat. One would have thought, from the interest generated on television, that once the salt-and-pepper assassins were apprehended, they’d be awarded medals and a ticker tape parade down Hall Avenue.
That Wednesday night, all five networks featured stories about Danny Gimp, the black and white shooters, and the similarly hued pair of detectives – Brown and Kling – who had responded to the call. The talking heads on the cable channels, babbling away on shows joining in their titles the words “pizza,” “shootout,” “terror,” “confrontation,” and “ambush” in various unimaginative combinations, endlessly debated whether a police informer was truly a “rat” as the term was commonly understood, why illegal guns seemed to proliferate at such an alarming rate in American cities, and whether it was politic or merely politics to have a black-and-white in detective team investigating a case involving a black and a white shooter.
Thursday came and Thursday went.
So did Friday and Saturday.
And all at once it was a new week.
In days of yore, the police department used to run a lineup every Monday to Thursday morning. Detectives from squads all over the city would gather in the gymnasium at headquarters downtown, where the Chief of Detectives paraded any felony offender arrested the night before. This was done solely to acquaint the people in law enforcement with the people doing mischief in their town, the premise being that the bad guys would continue being bad all their lives and it was a good thing to be able to recognize them on the street.
Nowadays, lineups were held only for purposes of identification, the suspected perp standing on a lighted stage with five innocent people, two of whom were usually squadroom detectives, the victim sitting behind a one-way mirror hoping to pick out a winner. But there was also another type of lineup, and it took place on television news programs whenever the tapes from hidden surveillance cameras were shown. On the five o’clock news that Monday night, the surveillance tapes from the pizzeria cameras were run for the first time, revealing in all their glory the two bold gunmen who had sprinted into the place and sprayed it with bullets. Danny Nelson’s assailants were identifiable chiefly by race, but otherwise blurry to anyone who didn’t really know them. In any event, no one came forward.
In a brilliant public-relations move, however, Restaurant Affiliates, Inc. – the company that owned the Guide’s Pizzeria chain – now posted a $50,000 reward for any information leading to the capture and conviction of the two gunmen who’d shot up their fine establishment on Culver Avenue. That RA, Inc. seemed more interested in the damage done to their place of business than to the untimely demise of Danny Nelson went unnoticed by television viewers and newspaper readers alike. Informers were admittedly the scum of the earth, the campaign suggested, but public places should not be submitted to wanton violence. Linking pizza to after-school sports and public prayer, the TV commercials and newspaper ads called for swift apprehension of the culprits and stricter gun control everywhere in this wild and woolly nation. In conjunction with the police, an 800 line was set up and strict confidence was guaranteed any caller. A newspaper columnist wryly commented that Charlton Heston had stopped eating pizza in favor of a Japanese dish called Shogun Sushi, a weak pun on “shotgun,” but this was the afternoon paper. The column caused no end of amusement among the executive types up at RA, Inc.
Still no one came forward.
In a bit more than three weeks’ time, the Danny Gimp case passed from intense media scrutiny to total oblivion.
Thanksgiving Day seemed almost an afterthought.