In the back of the dimly lit pool hall, the jukebox was playing loudly. Very loudly. Playing to an empty space. Playing to lost souls long since forgotten.
Playing Smuggler’s Blues by Glenn Fry. Appropriate, I thought, shoving hands into my trouser pockets and staring at the folded mass lying face down on the rickety looking table shoved rudely up against a wall. Fry’s song told a story about drug buys gone bad, sleazeballs, and creeps you wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
Creeps like Iggie Johansson and Mickey Mulligan.
Cops like us–my partner Frank Morales and me. Homicide detectives. Except we worked in the South Side Division while Iggie and Mickey worked out of Downtown. After that, there was nothing good to say about them.
Creeps. Sleazeballs both of them. Standing in front of us with smirks on their faces and toothpicks stuck in one side of the mouths. One had thick curly black hair slicked down by gobs of some shiny oil and dressed in a business suit that had to cost a grand or more. A Chicano pimp wannabe. The other had a butch flat top, beady little brown eyes and a big red pulp of a nose which had seen too many greetings from a hammy fist or two smacking into it.
Looking at Mulligan and his smirking grin I wanted to flatten his nose just one more time myself. It would have given me great pleasure. The only thing I could think giving me more pleasure was possibly putting a slug in him. One that’d wipe that smirk off his face permanently.
But not today. Not today.
The place we stood in was called Howard’s Lounge. It smelled of old urine and decades of the long forgotten smoking cigarettes as they tossed back shot after shot of cheap whiskey. A dead place for dead souls. Just a dive really–nothing but a long narrow room and a long oak bar stretching down one length of it.
The floor was worn through linoleum. Once white linoleum but now a dirty brownish gray. The wallpaper ancient, faded and peeling. The place was dark. Only three or four light bulbs hanging from long electric wires down from a high ceiling lit the place. Two of the three lit the green velvet tops of the six pool tables in the back of the place.
There were only five us in the entire place. Five of us–and one of us was very dead. His name was Jimmy Platt. A kid about twenty-two or twenty-three. Just a skinny, pimple-faced white kid who had an alcoholic mother and a druggie of a father he hadn’t seen since he was about six or seven. Just a good natured kid, for all his pedigree and upbringing, who liked to grin a lot and look for that quick score which would get him out of this section of town permanently. Sure, he’d have a few scraps with the Law.
Frank and I had thrown his skinny ass in a holding tank two or three times over the years. But nothing serious. Nothing that resulted in any major charges. Over the years we got to know Jimmy. Got to like him. Helped him out whenever we could. A kid we wanted to help. Wanted to see get his life together and make something of himself. He was someone we considered to be a friend.
Now he was dead.
Someone drilled him with a 9 mm in the back of the head at close range. Drilled him here in the pool hall. Drilled him sometime after closing time. Around four a.m. And interestingly, Iggie and Mickey were claiming Jimmy as their case. Which was odd since the pool hall was in South Side’s bailiwick and Jimmy lived just a couple blocks away from here.
“Well, well, well. Look what the sanitation department forgot to pick up,” Mickey growled his smirk widening as he pulled the toothpick from between his lips. “It’s the rich cop and his pet gorilla for a partner. How’ya doin, boys?”
Frank–who by the way, is built like the east side of the Rockies and has a distinct resemblance of a Neanderthal–hell, he might even be a Neanderthal–nodded and stepped up and almost into the face of Mickey.
“How’s the rash, Mickey? Is the medicine working?”
“What rash? What are you talking about?”
“You know,” Frank continued softly, almost grinning. “That rash on your pecker. I hear it’s tough to get rid of without surgery. That’s what you get when you start playing doctor with the girls on this side of town.”
“I don’t have a rash, you oversized monkey,” the smirk leaving Mickey’s lips as he stepped back angrily and stuck the toothpick back between his lips. “Who the hell told you two to come here and stick your noses into our case? Scram! This is our case. We don’t need a couple of jerks like you fucking things up for us.”
“Oh, we can’t help you fuck things up any more than they are,” I said, almost grinning. “In that department you two boys don’t need anyone’s help. No, we’re here because we have an interest in this case.”
“Says who?” Iggie grunted, dark black eyes peering at me with an almost bored expression as he rolled his toothpick to the other side of his lips. “What was this creep to you?”
“This . . . creep . . . as you call him was named Jimmy Platt. He was a friend of ours. A close friend. Got a call from someone telling us to come down here and check it out. Said something was screwy about his death.”
Iggie’s eyes narrowed as he reached up and pulled the toothpick from his lips. Of the two Iggie was the brains. And meaner. Mickey Mulligan was an irritating oversized fly who needed to be squashed with an open palm. But Iggie Johansson sadistic sonofabitch hiding behind a detective’s shield who knew how to work the system to his advantage. He enjoyed his work. And the rumor was he liked inflicting lots of pain on people he didn’t like.
Iggie didn’t like me one bit. Which was okay by me. I didn’t like him. In fact I was really hoping he would try to correct the problem.
But, dammit, I did say he had some savvy to him.
“What do you mean something is screwy?”
“Just that, lover boy,” Frank grunted, flexing his fists. The popping of his knuckles was very audible to all of us. “We talked to Jimmy day before yesterday. He seemed happy. Told us he was going to marry his girlfriend and the two were getting the hell out of this city. Now he’s dead. Executed by the way it looks. Looks screwy to me.”
Iggie’s blue eyes took in Frank’s scowl with a look sheer boredom in them as he stuck the toothpick between his lips again.
“Nothing screwy about this case, Frank. We got the call about an hour ago. As far as we can tell it’s a contract kill. Word is your friend was trying to put the touch on Nathan Brinkley. Apparently, he had some information which might seriously put a crimp on Brinkley’s gambling operations. Brinkly is not the kind of guy you want to mess with.”
Nathan Brinkley was a hood. A hood who had all of his sticky fingers deep into the pockets of just about every politician in the city. He was into gambling, prostitution, and the ever lucrative drug business in a very big way. He owned city politicians, state politicians, and some said even the governor. He owned a few cops as well.
Like . . . maybe . . . Iggie Johansson and Mickey Mulligan.
“Got any proof to nail Brinkley?” I asked.
Iggie shook his head no. As I knew he would.
“Witnesses?” Frank asked.
“So far, no one,” Mickey popped up with a smirk on his lips I wanted to slap off with a tire-iron. “Backdoor to this place has been jimmied open. Apparently, your friend broke in here trying to get away from someone. They found him in here hiding underneath the table and popped him in the back of the head.”
Frank and I both turned and stared at the fat nose.
“My, my, that’s good detective work Mickey,” I said softly. “Your investigation told you Jimmy was hiding underneath the table when the killers found him?”
A little color drained from the smirking goon. But before he could say anything Iggie jumped in.
“That’s what we think happened, Hahn. We don’t know for sure. But we figure if we find his girl she might give us some additional information. We’ll ask her just as soon as we find out where she lives.”
“We know where she lives,” Frank grunted, knuckles popping like the staccato bark of a machine gun nest again. “Two blocks over. Wilmont Arms. Apartment 50.”
“Well now, isn’t that sweet,” Mickey put in, the arrogant grin on his lips again as he turned and nodded at his partner. “Isn’t it wonderful what public education can do for the verbally challenged these days, Iggie? Just amazing.”
Jimmy’s girl was a young prostitute by the name of Mary James. She was a relative newcomer to the city. Which meant she wasn’t the strung-out, desperate drug addict most prostitutes on this side of town eventually became. How Jimmy and Mary hooked up was never explained. But they had and–miracles of all miracles–something clicked between the two of them. They fell in love. They became a team. Each worked magic on the other. And together they became better people. They wanted to change their lives. Wanted to marry. Wanted to have a family.
Wanted to be normal.
Wasn’t going to happen. Not with a 9 mm slug in the back of Jimmy’s head.
“Tell you what,” Iggie nodded and smiled. “We’ll go over and see if she’s home. Follow us over and we’ll talk to her. All of us. How’s that for cooperation?”
“Sure,” I said, nodding. “We’re all for cooperation, Iggie. We’ll be over in a couple of minutes. Frank and I want to look the place over first. You know, give you a hand in your investigation. Maybe we’ll find something you overlooked.”
Mulligan laughed, shaking his head.
“Yeah, right. I didn’t know you were a comedian, Hahn.”
Without saying another word the two men brushed past us and walked out of the bar. When the door closed behind him I reached inside my sports coat and pulled out my cell phone.
I nodded as I flipped the phone open and lifted it to my ear. It began ringing. And ringing. And ringing.
“They seemed too damn eager for us to follow them over to her apartment,” Frank said, a hand rubbing his jaw. “This smells, Turner. Really smells.”
I flipped the phone closed and dumped it back inside the coat. Frank looked and me and frowned.
“Betcha a hundred clams she’s dead already,” I said, feeling the grim fingers of certainty gripping my stomach and grinding it into a small knot. “They iced both of’em. What one didn’t know the other did. Jimmy found something nasty about Brinkley and told her everything. So both of’em had to be eliminated.”
Frank nodded in agreement and turned to stare at the door.
“Never wanted to pull my gun on anyone and shoot them, Turner. Never. Had to sometimes. But never wanted to. Tonight I want to.”
“Let’s go,” I said, shaking my head but not saying anything else.
I felt exactly the same way.
Out in the summer’s hot night air we walked to the ‘91 Chevy Z-28 Camaro rag top we were driving tonight–a car out of my collection–and started to get in. The night was pitch black, the heat was stifling, and the air was as still as a tomb. We were walking in a concrete and brick canyon of stillness and gloom and feeling a bit edgy. We were expecting almost anything. So as we stepped past the black hole of an alley opening between buildings to get the car we heard the rattle of a beer can being kicked in the darkness to our left.
My Kimber .45 semi-auto and Frank’s 9 mm Glock were in our hands before the beer can roll to a slow finish between us.
“Jesus, you two! But the goddamn cannons away before someone gets hurt!”
The voice came out of the blackness of the alley. But there was nothing to see. It was nothing but a very black patch hanging in mid-air of a black night between the dark shadows of two run-down brick buildings. Yet we didn’t have to see. The voice had a distinct British clip to it and we were quite familiar with it. It belonged to the owner of Howard’s Lounge.
“Christ, Turk! “ I hissed, lifting the muzzle of the Kimber up and thumbing the safety on again before sticking it underneath my left armpit. “It’s not the time of the night to play peek-a-boo!”
‘Turk’ Buchanan stayed buried in the darkness of the alley and refused to step forward.
“Turner . . . Frank, you can’t let them get away with this. Those bastards did it. They killed Jimmy.”
“Turk, come out here and let’s talk,” Frank grunted, the Glock still in his hands but the muzzle down as he glanced to his left and right. “Iggie and Mickey are gone. They’re not going to see you.”
“Like hell! I’m not about to show my face. In fact, I’m leaving this place. Leaving the goddamn country, mate! I’m heading back to London tonight and you’ll never see my white ass again. Never!”
“Did you see them do it? Did you see them pull the trigger?” I asked, stepping close toward the alley opening. “If you did we have them. We can put’em away for a lifetime.”
“That’s just it, Turner. I saw nothing,” the Cockney accent clipped back in anguish. “I was in the back room opening some cases of beer when I heard the back door jimmied open. I didn’t stick my head out to see who it was. I turned off the storeroom light and hid behind some cases of gin. I heard Jimmy’s voice crying and pleading for his life. I heard a second voice just laughing. And then I heard the juke box start playing. I thought I heard a gunshot, but I’m not sure.”
“If you saw nothing, how do you know it was Iggie and Mickey?”
“Yesterday afternoon they came around asking about Jimmy. They seemed really interested in finding him. And the way they kept asking questions I got the feeling they weren’t asking as cops. They had other interests with Jimmy they wanted to complete.”
“You see Jimmy before he was popped?” Frank asked.
“Yesterday morning,” came the voice. “Early. The kid was hopping with excitement. Said he had tickets for Mary and him to get out of town that night. All he had to do was make a phone call and get the money. I said that was great. I liked Jimmy, Frank. I liked Mary. Both were kids who had bad things they didn’t deserve happen to them. Just kids, that’s all they were. Just kids.”
Frank glanced at me and nodded. I said nothing and half turned to stare down the dark empty street. In my gut I knew we were too late. Too goddamn late.
“You got enough to get out of town?” I asked, not looking at the black opening of the alley. “Need in cash?”
“Naw, I’m fine, Turner. But if you’d do me a favor, you could make arrangements to sell the bar and send me the cash.”
“Sure. Take care yourself, Turk.”
We left the darkness of the alley and climbed into the Camaro. It didn’t take long to drive over to the Wilmont Arms. When we arrived we found what we expected. Mary was lying face down in her bed dressed in nothing but a pair of sheer panties. Her legs were spread apart, her arms hanging off the edge of the bed. She had long blond hair. It fell like liquid gold down onto the floor. Scattered over the bed beside her were various prescription bottles. Sleeping pills and anti-depressants. All empty.
Iggie and Mickey were waiting for us as we walked into the bedroom and found her. Both had the looks of someone knowing they had pulled something over you and you knew you couldn’t do a damn thing about it. Their smirking faces almost got them killed.
“Well, that’s that, Turn. Case closed,” Iggie grunted, his smirk spreading across his lips as he handed me a crumpled piece of paper. “Nothing more than a murder-suicide. Mary’s the one who shot Jimmy. From what the note says she found him in bed with another dame. She tracked him down and found in at the bar at closing time. After she pulled the trigger she went crazy. Apparently she came home and decided to go to sleep. Permanently.”
I glanced at the note and then handed it to Frank. It was Mary’s handwriting. It would hold up in court. But it didn’t matter. The note was a lie. Mary would never do anything to Jimmy. She loved him.
“You expect us to believe this?” I asked, staring at Iggie and barely keeping myself under control.
“Don’t give a damn what you believe, Sparky. Like I said, case closed. We’ll just mosey downtown and start filling out the paperwork. See ya.”
For the second time that night they physically brushed past us and tried to move us aside. Neither of us budged. Turning, we watched them move to the apartment door and open it. Iggie walked out the door first. But Mulligan paused in the doorway, turned, and looked at us grinning. Lifting a hand up, he pointed a finger at me and clicked his thumb forward as if it was the hammer of a pistol. And then he left. We heard the sound of his laughter echoing in the hallway outside.
It took a few seconds to get myself under control. Frank’s breathing was slow and measured as well. But we did. Barely.
“Turner, you know they as much as confessed they killed both of’em. Iggie’s comment about Brinkley puts them right in the middle of this bullshit.”
I nodded, saying nothing, flexing hands into fists and staring at the apartment door.
“It ain’t over, pal.” Frank said softly, but not talking to me, as he stared at the open door of the apartment. Whispering in a soft hiss that could raise the hairs on the back of the neck of a corpse. “It’s a long way from over. We’ll be seein’ya soon. Very soon.”
I nodded in agreement. It wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.