Witness

Usually it’s the fiery women who drag you into trouble, but this one was round faced and small breasted and of that age where a woman must choose between a nice face and a nice ass.  She had a nice ass. The face was overfull and heart-shaped like a February candy box, only it was late March. She chewed gum ferociously and kept the beer and shots coming for the millworkers after their four to twelve shift.  She was the only woman in this strictly cash bar but despite the rough crowd, every man there treated her kindly.

I liked her.  I liked her clean white bar towel and the gold cross that now and then peeked through the gaps in her button front shirt. I liked how she poured generously when she made my 7&7 and how she sounded sincere when she said thanks for the loose change tips the workers left her. And when she bent to wash beer mugs, I liked the motion of her best feature in the mirror behind the bar and felt embarrassed for staring when she caught me and happy that there was enough self-respect left in me to feel ashamed.

The place was nearly empty by one-thirty when she said last call.  I asked for another 7&7 and ducked into the men’s room.  By the time I had put on exam gloves, checked my piece, and emerged, the place was empty and my final drink was waiting. I took a long sip then spilled the rest on the bar. She moved quick as a toddler’s mommy to mop it up with her towel. When she looked up, I had my pistol trained on her. I pulled a tote bag from my pocket.

“Robbery. Empty the register then come around the bar and sit down at a table.”

She didn’t look scared or angry.  She just looked like she didn’t believe it was happening. But she did what I asked, which is good because you don’t want to shoot them behind the bar.  There will be blood that you can’t help walking through and that means you are leaving behind a witness and taking one along with you as well.

There was a Radio Shack security camera setup that fed into an ancient VCR under the bar. I ejected the tape and put it in my coat pocket. There was a cheap Brazilian revolver next to it. I took it too.

“Stand up and go into the ladies’ room.  Count to 500 real slow before you come out.” I said.  I wanted her get through the doorway before I shot. Blood spatters more than you think.

She looked at me a little longer than I liked. She wanted to believe me, to think that in five minutes she would open the restroom door and find me gone with her payday take. She wanted her life to resume with an exciting story to tell her friends. She pulled herself together, stood, a little shakily, and walked into the restroom. I meant to shoot her before she could close and lock the door. Her white shirt filled the sight of my gun and my finger was on the trigger.  I can’t tell you why, but I didn’t.  I let the door close behind her then I hurried toward the front exit. The restroom door slammed open and I turned back just as she fired.  She was shaking like a leaf, but the Taurus she held didn’t require accuracy.  A .410 buckshot load fired from a pistol spreads wide even across a barroom.  Two of the three balls hit me and the pain was blinding. I struggled to raise my gun as she steadied her hand and fired again.


The Thief at Christmas

Every Thanksgiving the Star-Ledger runs a calendar of community theater holiday shows.  There must be a dozen Handel’s Messiah sing-a-longs, just as many versions of The Nutcracker, plus the undisputed champ of holiday tearjerkers, A Christmas Carol.  These are the kind of shows that the whole family attends and in my line of work this means empty houses loaded with cash, gift cards, and brand new stuff that’s easy to fence.  Sure, you parents hide the stuff pretty well, but if your kids can find their presents, so can I.

What with your Cratchits and street urchins and all, A Christmas Carol uses a lot of kid actors.  Smart producers know that when you cast a kid, you sell seats to four grandparents, a slew of aunts, and maybe a few neighbors.  And a smart thief knows that the house with a kid actor will definitely be deserted when the curtain rises.  So I spend my December evenings checking out the productions and tailing parents back to their homes.  By Christmas Eve, which is like D-Day for  A Christmas Carol, I had lined up a half dozen expensive looking properties that were sure to be vacant until midnight if I know cast parties.

The first place belonged to Scrooge’s sister Fanny, a dainty little number who danced like a jackhammer and sang like one too.  It was with the greatest pleasure that I relieved her family of three cases of estate bottled Bordeaux and a pinochle deck of high end gift cards.  Next up, Turkey Boy- that’s the kid who Scrooge shouts to from the window after his night with the Spirits.  This adolescent must have been a wicked gamer because there were a dozen video games stacked up on a new gaming system.  I was doing Turkey Boy a favor since he obviously needed way less screen time.

Next I worked my way through the street urchins, who doubled as party guests at Old Fezziwig’s Christmas party. These urchins were living large.  I copped top of the line headphones, tablets, sweaters, and bikes that cost more than my overloaded van.  Best of all was a beribboned roll of fifties that some old school grandparent had tucked into a mantelpiece stocking.  For my personal use, I also took a caterers box loaded with a Christmas brunch for eight.

Last but not least was good old Tiny Tim.  She was a cute little kid – Tiny Tim is often played by a girl because as any Bob Cratchit will tell you, hoisting the average six-year old boy will put your chiropractor on speed dial.  Unlike the rest of the stage-struck brats, this kid was always happy.  By her perpetual smile, I figured she must have everything under the sun.

Actually, the house was practically empty and as cold as a tomb.  The family’s few possessions were all in just two rooms and the refrigerator was bare.  I shuffled through the mail on the kitchen table and saw notices of foreclosure, termination of unemployment benefits, and long overdue bills.  As a thief, I should have exited this wasteland posthaste, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the little tyke.  In a week or two, she and her parents would be homeless.  I was struck with a strange urge to help her.

I thought about the video games, the bikes, the clothes and realized none of that would do this little girl any good.  Where does a homeless kid set up their video console?  How many clothes can you have when it all has to fit into a backpack?  In the end, I could do nothing to change the path this poor kid would soon travel, but maybe I could give her a happy day.

From the van I took the food, a bottle of wine and the smallest sweater.  I arranged them on the kitchen table.  I folded the foreclosure notice around the roll of fifties and scrawled, “I see times are tough.  Hope this helps. God bless us everyone. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.”


Suspicion

Before I agreed to tail his wayward wife, I wanted to know Erroll Cunningham wasn’t the killing type. Actually, he was more the corporate type, smallish, forty-ish, and polite. He suspected his wife was cheating and he looked like the kind of guy you’d expect to be cheated on.

If you’re a private detective in Pittsburgh, you don’t get a lot of excitement. I mostly find people who skipped on a bond or had a fender bender three years ago. It’s a darn good living, but boring. I spend half my time on the computer and the rest making sure me and Uncle Sam get paid. So this was a treat, a chance to be a real gumshoe.

Mrs. Cunningham was a little younger than Erroll and fetching if not particularly pretty. Kind of chubby, sure, but in all the right places for a city full of old fashioned guys. She worked mornings at the gift shop at Carnegie Institute and spent the rest of her days either gardening or walking a hilariously ugly mutt around Schenley Park. I liked her.

I can’t say the same for hubby. When I emailed my invoice and reported that he had nothing to worry about, he was more than insistent. He was downright pissed. Hadn’t she been out of my sight sometimes in the park? What was going on in the museum? Maybe she had fallen for one of those dreadlocked art students or some macramé lesbian. As far as he was concerned, I had to try harder.

So I did. I was happy to bill the bastard and I was also afraid that if I didn’t reassure him, his wife might bear the brunt of his pointless suspicions. I borrowed my ex-partner’s dog and meandered around Schenley Park every afternoon. I struck up conversations at the museum shop and found her friendly but by no means flirtatious. In short, I wasted another week, and sent another bill and another detailed report.

I was expecting fireworks, but Erroll seemed coldly resigned. He listened impatiently to my summary of all I had done. He nodded dismissively when I assured him that his wife was faithful and he stiffened when I suggested counseling. Then he took an envelope from his pocket and slid it across my desk.

Inside were photos of me and Mrs. Cunningham, smiling as our dogs sniffed bottoms in the park, chatting across a counter, squeezing past each other in a narrow aisle. It seems Erroll had hired somebody to watch the watcher and he had been told exactly what he feared or maybe wanted to hear. Since I kept turning up with Erroll’s wife, I was the perfect guy to blame. I looked up into the barrel of a small automatic pistol.

Erroll had some choice words about honor and some creative descriptions for me. I listened, hoping he wouldn’t do any shooting until he had his say, but as he wound down, I played my trump.

“Mr. Cunningham, there is just one problem; I’m gay. I’ve been out for years. I am the past chair of the Southside Gay Issues Support Group.” I slowly and calmly opened a desk drawer. “Look at this brochure. Whose picture is on the back with the board members?”

Erroll just sort of deflated. I asked him, quite calmly, to pay me and get out. He wrote a check for what was due with trembling hands and departed.

I was expecting, or maybe wishing that he would go home to his ordinary and totally charming wife and appreciate his ordinary and totally satisfactory life. I was thinking, or maybe hoping that his suspicions had simply died of embarrassment.

The following day’s news led with the story of a corporate manager who shot a cut-rate PI in a downtown high rise and then leapt from the window to his own end. The blood smeared note he left on the scene made it clear he died satisfied he had finally, in spite of tricks and misdirection, found the man who was seducing his wife. Mrs. Cunningham could offer no explanation.


Young Jessup

Old Jessup was lying in a well, if hurriedly finished casket made of yellow pine cut from his own property, and sawn at his own mill.  However, the whiskey that his heir poured for his neighbors was store bought and expensive.  Young Jessup and his lady were used to Philadelphia society, and wanted to bring some elegance to the old plantation, to sweep away the simple furnishings and the pervasive presence of his flint hard father.

This would require money, and obtaining it without crippling the plantation was the chief concern.  By the time the old man was in the ground  Young Jessup had contracted a slave dealer and arranged the auction of all negro children between 5and 15. The two or three younger than that would make good play companions for young Thomas, his son. As a courtesy, he himself told Martha the cook that her boy Cato would be sold.  After all she was a house servant and had practically raised Young Jessup after his own mother died.

“How did poor Martha take it?’ Mrs. Jessup asked as she prepared young Thomas’ porridge.

“After considerable weeping and pleading, I offered her a good thrashing and told her she should find a good strong buck and have another.”  Young Jessup expected flat soufflés and burned bacon for a month or so, but it was a necessary sacrifice.

Martha cut a square of cloth from her own bed sheet and with a length of black thread saved from making old Master Jessup’s shroud she embroidered the fishhook symbol that was branded onto cattle and timber and hogsheads of whiskey, on every product of the Jessup plantation. In spite of her fine hand for sewing, she made the J rough and angular with an odd break in its long tail. She called her son Cato to her and tied it around the boy’s neck.

“I made you a kerchief.  You can use it to shade you from the sun or to carry any food you find along the way.  And remember, wherever that slaver sell you, show the colored folks this sign.  Anybody know the Jessup sign is likely kin to you and might help you get set up right.  Remember the things I taught you and that my Ma and Pa taught me.  The buckra got the whip but we got all our ancestors knowledge to help us if we just remember it. ”

The slaver auctioned twenty-three children that day as Young Jessup oversaw the proceedings from astride his bay hunter. That evening Martha went to the stable for some fresh straw for her mattress.  She stopped by the hunter’s stall and plucked seven long hairs from the grooming brush that hung on the stall door.  Back in her tiny cabin she carefully chopped the hairs until they were almost a powder. She remembered her father speaking of his early life on the Volta River.  It seemed that in Ghana any man who killed a leopard was obliged to present the head to his chief.  This was because the whiskers, if chopped very fine, made a powerful poison.  He believed that the hair of a horse’s tail was much like a leopard’s whiskers.

The next day young Thomas ate his porridge heartily but by evening he was clearly not himself.  By midnight he was crying and clutching his belly.  By the time the doctor arrived at noon the next day, his diapers were a bloody mess and fever was building.  The doctor declared it cholera and banned the anxious parents from the sickroom.

“I’m sorry, Young Jessup,” the doctor helped himself to some excellent Philadelphia whiskey. “Cholera in a child his age is nearly always fatal.  But you and the missus are young and, God willing can make another.”

Martha sat by the dying baby’s side, offering what comfort she could and hoping that when Cato was older he would see that the design on his kerchief was not the Jessup J, but a drinking gourd pointing the way north.