a little spin on the Spoon River Anthology -- apologies to Edgar Lee Masters
IN life I was the town drunkard;
When I died the priest denied me burial
In holy ground.
The which redounded to my good fortune.
For the Protestants bought this lot,
And buried my body here,
Close to the grave of the banker Nicholas,
And of his wife Priscilla.
Take note, ye prudent and pious souls,
Of the cross–currents in life
Which bring honor to the dead, who lived in shame
Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology
* * * * *
I slid a ten dollar bill sideways across the bar, under my index finger, and let it stop next to Wexler’s sweating glass of beer.
“What’s that for?” he said.
“Chase Henry. I thought you might know something.”
“For a saw buck? I don’t know fuck all about Chase Henry.”
“The ten just demonstrates my willingness to pay,” I said. “There’s more where it came from, if you have anything to say that’s worth a damn.”
“He’s dead,” Wexler said, and took the cash.
I knew I was looking for a stiff. But I was doing a favour for a desperate customer. Who wasn’t really a customer, because she didn’t have a dime. It was the sort of thing that suckers do. I placed another ten on the bar.
Spitz the bartender watched. It was starting to look like a crooked exchange. Stolen goods maybe. He knew me better, but he still didn’t want it in his bar.
“Street says he’s been dead for twenty-four hours,” I said. “His girlfriend wants the body. What do you have on that?”
“Check the morgue.”
Wexler was fat, slow and half shit face. I withdrew the bill this time, before his salami fingers could take it.
“All right,” I said, and put the ten under my empty glass. I made sure Spitz saw it, so he knew it belonged to him. Then I got off the stool.
“Chase is dead because he messed with Morley and Nicholas,” Wexler said. “That’s why even if I knew something, I wouldn’t say. He’s probably in the trunk of some junker under a bridge by now.”
“I’m just speculating.”
“What bridge would you speculate?”
It was June, 1 a.m. and warm. I took to the sidewalk. I didn’t mind walking the strip. There was a lot to learn there. And the neon made it kind of like Christmas.
Wexler was right. Chase Henry always messed with the wrong people. He was an able-bodied drunk, and he spent his sober hours looking for the cash to get bombed again. He could have got a job, shoplifted or boosted cars. But he thought he was too good for any of that. So, he played the brink, with some grisly characters. He cheated at horses and bet heavy on numbers. And he made like he was friends with Jake Morley – The Pope of Ghetto Road.
If I had a handle like Pope of Ghetto Road, I’d join the circus. But Jake Morley stayed close to home, and dealt heroin and cocaine. He had his hand-to-hands haunting the bus station and the YMCA with entry level bags of shit, getting the kids and the yokels just in from Donkeytown hot, hooked and ready to go.
Chase Henry had recently borrowed heavily from a shark name Victor Nicholas, and bought a quantity of junk from The Pope. He thought it’d be a sensible way to sustain his drinking habit for a while. Maybe he’d even go citywide if it grew lucrative. But what Chase Henry never considered was that The Pope of Ghetto Road would sell anyone a ton of shit. But he’d ice them if they ever tried selling it in his city.
It was a conundrum in answer to a question, like so many things street side. Where there were just bad guys and everybody else, and a switchblade snapped faster than a guy could panic.
Chase’s girlfriend was a skirt named Freda Taps. She lived on the street Jake Morley was named after. 10 Ghetto Road, at the Luxton Hotel. She’d always been a dope for Chase Henry. But then she was a borderline lush, herself. She tricked on the strip for a pimp named Oswald. The two of them were there tonight, talking when I showed up.
“You’re getting too fat for this,” Oswald told Freda. “Stick to the booze and lay off the Mulligan stew.”
He wasn’t what you’d expect for a pimp. Just a crewcut, tee-shirt and a pair of faded dungarees. But he liked to slap a dame around, and his girls were either money makers or dead.
“Some fellas like a girl who’s a little plump,” Freda said.
“Then where’s the dough?”
“It’s been slow.”
“It’s a dry night in June,” Oswald sneered, putting up a fist and pushing her against the wall. “Payday was yesterday. The Navy’s in town. Don’t give me slow.”
Freda dug around in her purse and pulled out a pitiful wad of bills. She handed it over.
“I’ll do better,” she said.
“I’ve heard that from every dizzy under achiever I ever managed. Don’t disappoint me.”
“Managed?” I said, coming up from behind. “You couldn’t manage to fall down the stairs.”
Oswald turned round, fast. I saw his hand go for his back pocket, where he kept his balisong knife. Then he realised it was me, and relented.
“What do you want, Clyde?” he said.
“Oh Billy,” Freda said. “How nice of you to happen by.” She was mighty glad to see me.
“People say you’re looking for Chase Henry,” Oswald said. “I hear there ain’t nothin’ left to find.”
“We know,” Freda said, looking down at her scuffed pumps. “But a fella deserves a decent send off.” She was fixing to cry, and said, “He paid the price for being a fool. He don’t deserve to end up in a shallow grave. A girl sure gets sick of being pushed around in this burg.”
“Yeah,” said Oswald. “And I hear it was you who put this dick on the trail. Maybe that’s why you ain’t got no dough tonight. ‘Cause you’re paying this bastard to find a dead body.”
“I’m working gratis,” I said. “And since I’m here, what do you know about it?”
“Nothing,” Oswald said. But he suddenly had the look of a pigeon. He knew something.
“I don’t wanna push a guy around, Oswald,” I said. “Especially on his own turf, but….”
“The Pope knows you’re nosin’ round,” he said. “There ain’t nothing you can do to me that he can’t, and in spades.”
“What about Nicholas,” I said. “Was he a player in this?”
Oswald went dumb. I could have slapped him, pushed him through a plate glass window. But why draw attention?
“You and me are gonna meet exclusively one night, Oswald,” I said. “It’s been coming for a while. But for tonight you can go home and fondle whatever little boy you got locked up in your closet.”
He remained mute. A good move on his part, in a lot of ways.
I’d been legging it most of the night, and realised that sources on the sidewalk and in the rummy joints weren’t going to cough. What Freda wanted really wouldn’t be such a burden to anyone actually involved. So, I caught a cab.
“25 Ghetto Road,” I told the driver.
“This time of night, mister?”
“You wanna live forever?”
“Nah, just to the end of my shift.”
He was looking at me in the rear view mirror. I pulled my coat open a bit so he could see the .45 in my holster.
“I’ll make sure you get out alive,” I said.
“Sure you will,” he said, pulling the arm down on the meter. He didn’t sound convinced.
There was nothing to set Ghetto Road apart from any other derelict part of the city, at 3am. To the eye, that is. It was more the feeling of menace, and potentiality. There were faces in the shadows here and there. And sometime the sound of a body being dragged down an alley, a stiffs heels bouncing off the cobblestones. And The Pope had his gorillas on lookout, of course.
But I was a familiar face. And no one in the neighbourhood wanted me dead, for the moment.
The driver pulled up to 25. It was an abandoned storefront. The Pope’s apartment was on the second floor. I tipped big and got out. He sped away.
At the door there was a big goon name Willard Brass. He was reading True Detective.
“Willard,” I said, greeting him.
“Billy Clyde,” he said, sort of bored, without looking up from his magazine. “I figured you’d show up here tonight. So did the boss. He’s upstairs.”
“Swell.” I went for the door.
“Hang on, Clyde,” Willard said. “Gimme the gat.” He held out his hand.
“But Willy,” I said. “It’s like a part of me.”
“Don’t call me Willy.”
This was the routine. Willard asked for my heat. I hesitated, and called him what his mother called him. He got indignant, and then I handed it over.
“Oil it and check the slide,” I said, putting my .45 in his big sweaty paw.
“Hang it out to dry, shamus.”
And that was it. I was now in one of the most undesirable addresses in town. I walked up the stairs, and was frisked by another goon named Buster Milk at the top. Then I went into The Pope’s apartment.
It was like any other apartment in town. Not where you’d expect a crime boss to live. There were even doilies on the furniture. The Pope’s girl took care of that. She was a skinny cokehead with a nervous itch, named Delilah.
The Pope was sitting in the kitchen, counting money at the breakfast table. He greeted me warmly. The wintry Victor Nicholas was sitting across from him.
“Billy, my boy,” The Pope said. Have a seat. Help me count todays take.
“I hear you’re looking for what’s left of that low life, Chase Henry,” The Pope said. “I guess it’s body night.”
“And you figure I’m the bum that waxed him?
“Ha!” The Pope put down a stack of tens and slapped his knee. “Yeah yeah. See, Victor. This is why I like this guy. Why he’s the only private dick in town I’d let up here. He never messes around with words. Straight shooter all the way. Aren’t you, Billy Boy.”
“Ha! There he goes again.”
“What makes you think we know about Chase Henry?” Victor Nicholas said. Then he bent over a marble slab on the table, and snorted a long line of white powder.
“Because he owed you. He didn’t pay his debt.”
“It wasn’t absolutely like that,” said The Pope. “We wanted the dope back, too.” He had another good laugh. Victor Nicholas smiled weakly, but his pencil mustache didn’t budge. “You see, it’s all business, Billy. Our man Victor, here, he’s the banker. He supplies the loan. Then I supply the inventory.”
“And then you don’t let a guy sell it to pay you back,” I said.
“This city, and all its junkies, belong to me,” said The Pope.
“Murder can’t be proved without a body,” said Nicholas. “Why should we hand it over?”
“I’m no rat, you know it. Neither’s Freda. She just wants to give him a proper burial.”
“Uh-uh,” said The Pope, holding forth his index finger. “He was a deadbeat and a rotten drunk. Now he’s a dead deadbeat.” He slapped his knee again. “Dead deadbeat, get it? Ha ha! And deadbeats don’t get no proper burial. He stays where he is. Wanna beer, a little coke maybe?”
“Then we got nothin’ else to say to one another,” said Victor Nicholas.
“Looks that way,” I said, and got up to leave.
Then there was the sound of commotion at the bottom of the stairs, and we heard the shouts of Freda Taps.
“Let me up, Willard, you dumb mug.”
“No way, honey. The Pope don’t wanna see you.”
“Let me up there, you son of a bitch.”
The Pope went to the door and yelled down, “Let her up.”
“Should I frisk her?” Willard said. “I ain’t never frisked a broad before.”
“Just let her up,” said The Pope. “She ain’t gonna hurt no one.”
The Pope grabbed a bottle of whiskey and a glass from a cupboard, and sat back down. He was grinning when Freda walked into the kitchen.
“Have a seat, toots,” he said to her, pouring. “I got some whiskey here, for you.”
Freda hesitated and licked her lips.
“No,” she said, and pulled a revolver from her purse.
“Ha!” The Pope laughed once more. “We should’ve frisked her, after all.”
“At least checked her bag,” I said. “Now you’ve got to ice her, too. The bodies are stacking up.”
Freda looked at me nervously when I said this.
“I gotta gun,” she said, nervously backing into a corner. “I’m not the one getting iced tonight.”
Willard and Buster came into the kitchen. “Wadda we do, boss?”
“Nothin’,” said Nicholas. “For the moment.”
“C’mon, Freda,” The Pope said. “Sit down. We’ll talk. Ever had a hit of this?” He spooned out a teaspoon sized mound of brownish powder onto the table.
“No,” she said.
“It’ll make all your troubles disappear. I’ll fix you up right here.”
“No.” She was sounding frantic now, her eyes darting back and forth.
“Let Willard take care of her,” said Victor Nicholas. He was getting impatient.
“You stay put, Willard,” said The Pope. “We can work this out.”
“The hell you say,” said Victor Nicholas. “I’m not gonna be held hostage by a boozy whore.”
Nicholas got up from his seat, believing all the way that he could control the situation. He held out his hand.
“You’re not going to shoot no one, Freda honey,” he said. “Gimme the gun, sugar.”
“C’mon. Word is that that junk The Pope just spooned out for you is some mighty good shit. We’ll help you with it. You can stay over on the couch.”
Freda seemed to be thinking about it. She’d never taken heroin, but she’d been through a lot so far. Maybe a short vacation from it all made sense.
Nicholas recognised the look in her eye, the confusion and the ache. He stepped closer to take the revolver. And she fired.
The bullet hit him in the gut, and he went down. Willard and Buster charged and she got off two shots. Willard went down, but Buster was still standing. There was blood coming from his arm. He pulled his automatic and took a bead on Freda. And I picked up the whiskey bottle and threw it hard. Buster Milk got it in the head and fell to the ground.
The Pope got to his feet, pulling a gun from his shoulder holster. I cracked him one, across the nose and took his weapon.
“You were never good on the attack,” I said to him.
“Jesus, Billy,” he said. “You busted my nose.”
“Just tell us where he is,” I said. “Before the cops get here.”
“The cops get paid not to come here,” The Pope said.
“Good thing,” Freda said, and fired again.
The Pope looked stupid for a moment, standing there with a bleeding nose and a bullet hole in his forehead. Then he fell onto the table and scattered money and dope everywhere.
Freda walked over and shot Buster Milk in the head.
“Just makin’ sure,” she said, suddenly cold. Then she looked at me and pointed the gun. “Sometimes I wonder if you’re on the square, Billy Clyde.”
“Now’s your chance to put an end to your wondering. Pull the trigger.”
“Nah,” she said, and lowered the gun. “You’re square enough for my money.”
* * * * * *
They found Chase Henry’s body in the sewer line that runs under Ghetto Road. When the time came, Freda Taps had all the cash she needed to plant him decently. The Pope, in his current condition, wouldn’t miss it. There were flowers, a granite headstone and a hearse. And there was room for everyone in the large, rented chapel. But what made it all seem to work, in the end, was them burying Chase a few plots over from the loan shark Victor Nicholas.