A Very Fine Garment Indeed – or – Thrift Store Theodore

Imagine a street with nothing but thrift stores. One right after the other, as far as the eye can see. I turn down a blind alley and a familiar smell hits me. A hand that seems to be my hand is pushing at the door to what I’m guessing is some kinda speakeasy. I breathe in the fumes as the door creaks open in front of me.

“Say, what’s the deal with all the thrift stores ‘round here” I ask the bartender.

Some guy who’s name I don’t know or even care to know answers the question for her.

“Always check where the garment came from” he says.

“That’s not what I asked buddy and besides, the question that I asked was not addressed to you. Maybe I’m just making small talk with tootsie here”.

I turn back to the bartender but she’s already walking away, off to the other end of the bar to pour another drink and break another heart.

“You know what I do?” the guy who’s name I don’t care to know says.

“When I see an article of clothing that piques my interest I first check the label, make sure it’s the right size. Then I take it on up to the counter. I hold the, let’s say shirt, in one hand and a dollar bill in the other, and ask, ‘ma’am, could you tell me the history of this here shirt’. They usually stall a little and require further prodding. ‘What I’m trying to ascertain here is did this shirt belong to a guy who was living at the time that he last wore this shirt but is now sadly dead?’ At this point they’ll try to give you some baloney about not knowing the full history of the garment. This is where you pull out another dollar bill. ‘Thing is’, you say, ‘I’m looking at this here shirt and I’m seeing a fine garment, a very fine garment indeed. No pinhole burns, no buttons missing, everything looks just dandy. And yet you’re selling it for a buck’. She’ll take the shirt off you, have a good look at it, end up agreeing with you, take your two dollars and delicately fold the shirt in a bag.”

“You don’t say” I mutter.

“Another thing you gotta watch out for is the smell. And you can never get that smell out. I tried everything. Cheap liquor, vinegar, cat litter…..no dice. Now, when you buy any kind of drapery at a thrift store you can’t tell how bad it smells ‘cause the whole place stinks. You need to take that sucker outside and give it a good long sniff. The golden rule is; The badder the smell, the longer the dude’s been dead.”

I look over at Tootsie at the other end of the bar. She’s talking out of the side of her mouth to some guy covered in tattoos across the counter and every now and then glancing over in my direction. I can’t hear what she’s saying but I know she’s saying something by the movement of her chest.

“I got a jacket once in a thrift store. Perfect piece of cloth. Looked new. Fit like a glove. Only when I wear it for the first time do I notice that it has a mysterious quality about it. I’m stepping out the door, I light a cigarette, I take a drag. Nothing unusual so far. Then I go to put the cigarette box and matches into my pocket and…………….No Pocket! I look down, there’s a pocket flap there but no pocket. I try the other side, same deal. Now I’m getting a little testy. I check the breast pocket, nothing there neither. Now why would somebody design a jacket like that?” he asks me.

“It’s a crazy world that makes no sense and there’s no point in trying to make any sense out of it unless you’re fixing on winding up crazy too. Jackets with no pockets, bars with no beer, dames with no name, I’ve seen it all buddy. There is not a thing you can tell me that will come as too much of a surprise” I tell him.

The guy who was talking to the barmaid stands up and starts walking over. Must be seven foot high. His frame blocks out the small amount of light that seeps through the tobacco and beer patterned curtains. As he gets closer I can see that the tattoos that cover his face and arms are not delivering messages of hope or words of encouragement. There is not a single term of endearment in any of it’s images or couplets, not a single one.

He walks right up to the guy who I don’t care to know the name of, lets call him Thrift Store Theodore. He grabs hold of him by the waist, lifts him up till they’re eyeball to eyeball and holds him there. He begins to speak.

“The dame behind the bar tells me you’re a little careless with the bar tab. As in you don’t pay. She tells me you owe her fifty eight bucks. And now you’re gonna have to pay me a hundred bucks on top of that as a service charge.”

“I Haven’t Got Any Pockets. I got nowhere to keep dough” I hear Theodore whimper behind me as a hand that is certainly my hand turns the handle of what I now know for sure is the door of some kinda speakeasy. I breathe in the fumes as the door creaks shut behind me.

Luigi Buys Some Shoes

Ok. So picture this. I’m walking ’round downtown looking to buy me some kind of footwear. There’s a shoe shop at 3 o’clock with a coffee vendor outside. “Black, no sugar. Say, you got any bourbon under the counter?” She don’t bite.

I keep walking down the street, in my old shoes. The reason I’m looking for shoes is there’s a surprising smell in my apartment. First I figure it’s the previous tenants discarded nachos, or maybe just a dead body. Then I realize the smell hangs around every place that I hang around. Wait, I know that smell. Mildew. Musk. Yeah, I had this once before. I carefully remove my left shoe and take a look under the hood. My sole’s got a hole in it. All the rain and dirt got trapped inside and now it’s emanating toxic gasses into my new apartment. I need new shoes.

Now, the last time I bought me some footwear I had to buy the box. I take the shoes up to the counter, broad tells me I gotta bring the box up to the counter too.
“I don’t wanna buy the box, I got plenty of boxes lady, I just need shoes.”
“Well, you need to take the box otherwise we can’t sell you the shoes”.
That was California.
This is England.
Not New England.
England, England.
They don’t put shoes in boxes, they ask you if you want a bag.
“No, I want a box. They’re shoes, put them in a goddamn shoe box.”

The Spectre Of Stoneythorpe

“I see you there with your banjos. Plucking away. Playing your sea shanties.”
It’s said that Slack Eyed Willie could see the past. Now, a lot of folk might say that when it comes to the paranormal this is the bottom of the barrel. But not Relentless Ritchie.
“What do you see Willie, what do you see?”
Ritchie was a history bore, liked to poke around old buildings. Talked to drunk guys in bars about a certain brick on a certain building on some street downtown. Most of them would say “yeah I know the brick you’re talking about” thinking this would bring an end to the matter, but it only made matters worse. Some folk even went so far as to quit the bottle just to get away from him.
“I see them there with their trumpets. Blowing away. Playing their marching songs. No, it’s not a trumpet. It’s a rifle. Somebody’s getting blown away.”
“Didn’t somebody get murdered in here once Luigi?” asks Ritchie.
I order another bourbon even though I’m still drinking the first. Next thing this joker is gonna say the place is haunted.
“I see him there, falling to the ground screaming ‘I’ll be back for you Smokey Joe!’”
“The Spectre Of Stoneythorpe!” says Ritchie. I knock back my first bourbon and start laying into the second.
“Back in 1788, long before it became a bar, this joint was owned by a certain diplomat, used to throw parties for visiting dignitaries and this and that. It’s said that at one of these parties a man was shot dead over some broad and that his ghost haunts these corridors to this very day. The bartender himself will tell you he’s heard doors slamming and deathly moans coming from the rooms upstairs.”
I’m about to put on my hat and leave when Slack Eyed Willie raises a finger and somehow stops Relentless Ritchie mid drone.
“What is it Willie. Do you see anything else?” he asks.
Slack eyed Willie takes a deep breath, stares into the distance and says:
“No. It IS a trumpet.”

Part 1 – Hello Mr Murdry

Three years have passed. Three long years of head scratching, whiskey drinking and dead-end leads. I’m sitting at the bar of Mama Belles. The proprietor pours me another sour mash. She has the face of a boxer who’s been through some hard times. She’s wearing a low-cut black dress and ill-fitting teeth. The phone rings, she picks it up, says it’s someone looking for me. Nobody knows I’m here, something ain’t right.
“Luigi O’Reilly?” the voice says.
“Maybe.” I give nothing away.
“Jack Murdry. Meet me at Barbie’s Hotel eight O’clock tonight. Don’t be late.” Then he hangs up.

Jack Murdry? Jack Murdry the casino racketeer, and maybe cold-blooded killer? Just when I stop looking for him he turns up. But how does he know where I am?

I swivel ’round on the bar stool scanning the scene, the red faux leather booths, the pictures of dead blues players hanging off the grimy walls. Nobody there. How Does He Know Where I Am? I walk slowly around the bar. Hidden behind a curtain there’s a pool table. A broad is playing pool by herself, cute, maybe 25, no one else around. Just her. She looks over at me and winks before potting the eight ball.
“Do you wink at every guy that walks in here?” I ask her.
“Only when I know I’m gonna pot the ball” she purrs.
“Do you know a Jack Murdry?”
“Ain’t never heard of him. Not too many folk come ’round here. Is that the guy you were talking to on the phone?”
“Maybe” I answer. She’s getting nothing.
“So, you work in this joint?”
“I live in this joint, with my mama.”
“Mama Belle?”
“The very same.”
“That’s swell. Say, what happened to her teeth?” I ask.
“Since the casino went bust we ain’t been able to afford fancy things like health insurance, or tooth doctors.”
“Them neither” she says. “Can’t afford nothing.”
“Is that why you’re wearing those jeans and that sweater?”

She doesn’t answer. We get talking about this and that. Asking each other questions, digging around. Then she glides over to the jukebox.
“What kind of music do you like?” I think for a moment.
“Jazz, sometimes jazz….but mostly jazz. Depends on my mood.” She puts on a record, walks back over and asks  “What brings you here anyways?”
“I don’t know, the darkness, the strange smell. The sign outside that says ‘Keep Walking’. And …. it’s a bar.”

I check my watch, it’s 19:30. Barbie’s Hotel is maybe 25 minutes away. Before I leave I decide to ask the winking pool dame how she knows when she’s gonna pot a ball.
“Well, I just pick up on the aura of the room. Get a feel for the vibrations. If it feels right then it feels right.”
Aura? Vibrations? This dames crazy. But she sure has pretty eyes. I put on my hat and walk out onto the rainy street.

Barbie’s Hotel, 20:00 hours. I walk through the dimly lit lobby, up to the reception desk. The receptionist is a real doll, maybe 5″4, long blond hair, attractive cleavage.
“I’m looking for a Mister Murdry.” She tells me to go through the orange door, says everyone’s waiting in there.
“Everyone? What d’ya mean everyone?” She don’t say nothing, just points to a poster stuck to the wall at the side of me. I carefully lift my gaze out of her cleavage and turn my head to read it.

Murder Mystery Weekend – Barbie’s Hotel – 8 o’clock – Don’t Be Late.

That’s what the poster says, in a cruel comic sans font. My blood begins to boil. I turn my head back towards the receptionist. This time I look her straight in the eye.
“I said I’m looking for a Mister Murdry, I ain’t got time for games” I tell her firmly. Just then there’s a loud bang from behind the orange door, followed by a scream, then silence. I never like to stick around when bullets start flying. I stumble out on to the rain drenched street and make my way back to Mama Belles.

Midnight Stink

It’s midnight. The fog is thick. I move along the street like a cat on thin ice. There’s a certain menace in the air, a bad smell, something ain’t right here. A kid jumps outta the shadows asking me to go into the liquor store and buy him beer and cigarettes.
“Beat it Buster” I tell him, and walk on past. Then I hear him whistle behind me. Next thing there’s a whole bunch of goons in front of me. Can barely see ’em thru the fog. A lone street lamp bounces off the hand of one of the punks. He’s holding something shiny. A watch? No, too big. An iPhone? Wrong era. A flick-knife……?
My heart starts pounding and my blood runs cold like I’m in some kinda bad 80’s song.
A hand grips my shoulder tight. I try to turn around but…….

Part 2 – No Vacancy

The rain is coming down hard. I stumble past the pawn shop, past the tattoo parlor, turn down the dark narrow alleyway till I get to Mama Bel……. It isn’t there! My blood freezes. I look around. It was here only 45 minutes ago. Now……it’s gone! Did somebody steal it? There’s most likely blind rats scuttling about my feet, but I can’t see any. I can’t see anything. The darkness is sucking me into a void of nothingness, like the universe has collapsed in on itself and left me a shivering, muttering wreck. I take a deep breath, try to collect my thoughts. Be rational. Nobody steals a building. But there was something strange about that place, the phone call, the kooky dame talking about auras, her unflattering clothes. No, gotta think clearly. I decide to retrace my steps. I walk back down the alley, back out on to the street. I look to my right, the direction I’d walked from. Then I look left, there’s another tattoo parlor a little further down the street. I walk past it and turn left down the dark narrow alleyway to Mama Belles. Good thing I know how to remain calm in a crisis, a lot of folk would have gone crazy back there.

I ask to use the phone behind the bar. I call the operator. The operator sounds cute, maybe 30, heavy Chicago accent. She seems to be flirting with me, but I ain’t got time for that. She says she can’t give me any information on who phoned the number earlier. Another dead-end. I take my bourbon for a walk over to the pool table. Cutie winks at me, then pots the solid three.
“I figured you’d be back” she says.
“Something tells me that maybe you know more than you say you do and something else tells me that maybe you better start talking. Tell me about Mama Belles casino, the one that went bust.”
She gets up close to me, so close I can smell her perfume and feel her breath on my face. I’m thinking she’s gonna kiss me. I’m about to say “not here, not now, not like this” but there’s no kiss. She whispers “alright, alright. I’ll talk. First I need a drink.”

She disappears to the bar. I see her saying something to Mama Belle. Mama Belle nods her head, some kind of sense of relief sweeps across both their faces. She hands the winking pool girl a bottle of Rebel Yell and a glass. Winking pool girl walks back over to me with a heavy stride and plenty of liquor. She leads me to the darkest corner of the saloon. She flicks a switch on the wall and a wooden panel slides across silently, revealing a dark alcove of some type. I step inside. The room is lit by a neon sign propped against a wall. The sign reads: ‘No Vacancy’. She walks towards me. This time she’s gonna kiss me for sure. Her left arm stretches out over my shoulder, her face close to mine, I can smell her make-up. I draw both of my hands up to her head, brushing her hair back from her face to create a clear pathway to her burning lips. I blurt out “you sure are beautiful.” But there’s no kiss. She flicks a switch behind my head and the wooden panel door closes silently, and slowly. She sits down, opens the bottle, and pours herself a drink. I notice she has a bracelet on her wrist made out of guitar strings.

“What kind of cheap punk buys a pretty dame like you a bracelet made out guitar strings?” I ask her.
“He ain’t no cheap punk. He used to be one of the finest guitar players in town.”

“Used to be.”

Hotsy Totsy Flim-Flam

She walks out from behind the bar with a pitcher of beer balanced on her head and steps slowly over to the young couple sitting at one of the booths over by the bagatelle table. The guy reaches up and carefully removes the beer from her head, places it on the table and slips her a note. She shimmies back over to the bar, smiling like a crazy person. She tells me the guy always tips her five bucks. Says she’s got a sweet deal going with the cats. She gives them a pitcher of blue moon for four bucks instead of ten, does her beer balancing trick, the guy slips her a tip. So they get a dollar off their bill and she gets to entertain the crowd. Her name’s Rosie, mid 40’s, long blond hair, blue eyes. A former Coney Island beauty queen. Used to put on raunchy shows for the troops, now she serves liquor to the disillusioned, the heart-broken, and the forgotten.
“What if The Snake finds out you’re screwing around with his profits?” I ask.
“Well, you ain’t gonna tell him now are you?” she says, placing her finger on my lips seductively.
“Not me. It’s just that he has a habit of figuring things out. And when he does he can be kinda ruthless. Remember what happened to one-eyed Joe?”
“One eyed”? she says. Her smiling face turning cold with fear. She quickly collects herself.
“He don’t care about this joint. He’s got his other business interests.”
She says business interests like she’s tryna get something out of her mouth that she doesn’t want in there.
“He uses this place as his own personal dive bar. Runs it at a loss. I could say more but I don’t think I oughta.”
I figure I’d better change the subject, and quick. But it turns out I don’t need to. The door creaks open and The Snake walks through it.

“I know somebody’s talking about me, I always know. Ain’t that right Luigi”, he says, grinning like a hyena as he shakes my hand. He turns to Rosie, still holding my hand like it’s the door of a refrigerator that he can’t remember the reason he had for opening.
“Luigi knows I know. But he don’t know what I know and he don’t know about whom”.
Rosie looks confused but being a pro mixes him a cocktail.
“Where’s Kitty” I ask.
“I don’t know” he says. He notices me smirking and straightens up.
“I guess she’s doing her nails or something. Dames huh?”
“Yeah. Dames” I answer.
“Say”, he says, “you remember Billy Twitch?”
I have to reach far back into my brain, past the Wild Turkey years. Out beyond Santa Monica. Across the high plains. The seagull that wanted to play war games with me on Miami Beach. Then I see a nervous looking guy sitting at the bar in some kind of daydream. Billy Twitch.
“Sure. How could I forget him” I say.
“You remember how he got all that inheritance money from an uncle he never even knew he had?”
“Yeah. Walked out of here, said ‘so long suckers’ and never came back. He didn’t even buy me a shot” I say.
“Well”, The Snake says, “looks like he blew all his dough and now he’s just a dumb, poor schmuck again.”
“Not a rich asshole anymore huh. Well ain’t that a doozie. Gambling?”
“No. Not this bird. He had the bright idea of opening a theme park. But not just any theme park.”
He takes another slug.
“So-So Land.” He moved his hand across an imaginary movie screen, highlighting the words as he spoke them like some kinda drunk conductor.

“That’s what he called it. No loud noises. No surprises. No big wheels or rollercoasters, nothing too exciting. Everything in the park was laid out in straight parallel lines. Exactly 100 cracks between the plain concrete slabs along each strip of pavement. All the rides were symmetrical. Problem was, nobody went to it. He kept pouring dough into the deal, telling everyone it was gonna take off and be huge. After a year of losing money he decides to put on live music at the park, try to lure some punters in. Nothing too crazy, just some light jazz. Rhythmically complicated. Give the kids something to count. He got some big names to play there. Johnny Blue played there one time.”
“The blues guy”? I ask.
“No. The jazz guy…. Jazz, blues. What’s the difference. The point is the whole thing was a big flop.”
The Snake walks behind the bar while Rosie’s juggling a couple bagatelle balls to amuse a group of sailors. He picks up a bottle of bourbon, opens it and pours a neat shot.
“Anyway, he’s gonna be here soon. Go easy on him. He’s had a rough ride”.
It’s at this exact moment that Kitty walks in the joint. She looks kinda happy about something.

End of Part 1

Part 2

“I guess she’s finished doing her nails” I say to The Snake. He turns his head around one hundred and eighty degrees. Now both of us are looking toward the saloon door. Walking a few feet behind Kitty there’s a sheepish schmuck. Head down, hands in pockets, no hat.
The Snake turns his head back around to face me and speaks out of the side of his mouth.
“Remember, no wisecracks, go easy on the kid”
Now he’s giving me a formal invitation.
“Don’t worry”, I tell him, “I don’t know a thing”
“Did he bite?” The Snake says to Kitty in a low voice as she gets up close to him.
“Like a crocodile in a sushi bar” she purrs.
Before I have a chance to figure out what’s going on Billy Twitch is standing in front of me, tryna get to the bar.
“I’d get you a drink but I figure maybe you don’t need a sucker like me offering you a shot when you can buy the joint wholesale” I say to him.
What he says next just about knocks me off the bar stool and kicks me in the head like bad whiskey. He says, in a matter of fact, casual, nothing to see here kinda way;
“Yeah, looks like I’ll be taking over the joint soon”. Bam! Just like that. Then he turns to Rosie and says, “get Luigi a bourbon, he looks a little pale”.
So he didn’t blow all his money. He must have had just enough left over to get screwed by The Snake. I guess I could tell him the place is losing money and fast, but who am I to go around bursting bubbles.
“I hear you opened up a theme park” I say as the bourbon arrives.
“Yeah, that’s right” he says.
“Straight lines, symmetrical rides, everything on time…. No litter, no loud noises, no lines to get in?”.
“You been there?” suddenly he’s interested. His eyes widen and he holds his glass still, mid-slug.
“No.” I tell him. “But I’ve been to Canada.”
“Alright, alright. What did I tell you about wisecracking?” The Snake asks.
“Where did Kitty go?” I answer.
There’s nobody in the joint that doesn’t know where Kitty’s gone. Rosie’s back behind the bar and now Kitty’s taken her place entertaining the group of sailors, ‘cept she isn’t using bagatelle balls.

End of Part 2

Part 3

One of the sailors is looking at Kitty the way no sailor oughta be looking at a dame who’s strolling out with The Snake. At some point, and that point may come quicker than he bargains for, he’s gonna find himself wishing he wore sun glasses for the occasion.
Luckily for him The Snake doesn’t see him and his lustful glare behind the bulking frame and hat of Billy Twitch and Rosie who now has her arms around Billy Twitch welcoming him back to the neighborhood and kissing him on the left cheek of his dumb face. A casual observer would think the guy had returned from some battle some place far away, but I guess he’s her boss now so she better keep him sweet and hope he doesn’t start checking the levels of the liquor bottles.
“I hear you open up a theme park” she says.
Billy Twitch starts telling her all about it, going into the kind of details a dame like Rosie doesn’t need to hear, and doesn’t care to know. He’s pitching the whole straight parallel lines dodge to her.
“Yeah I saw Rain Man once. Great movie” Rosie says, examining the underside of her finger nails.
At this point The Snake intervenes and makes a suggestion to Rosie that maybe she could think about fixing him a shot of bourbon as his glass seems to be empty. She disappears behind the counter and Billy Twitch bends down to tie his shoe laces, leaving a clear view of the bagatelle table. The sailor with the lustful eye and no sun glasses is now at the point where no excuse or apology will satisfy The Snake. I turn back around to see The Snake checking the horses in a local newspaper. Another lucky escape for the reckless turkey.
Rosie comes back over to schmooze some more with Billy Twitch. I start to feel a little sick and this time it isn’t from the week old fish that they call chicken at the late night chicken ‘n’ other stuff joint.
“So when are you taking over this here establishment?” she asks as she slides a hand around his waist and spreads her smile as wide as her ocean blue eyes.
“Oh that was just a ruse” he answers, laughing.
“A ruse?” she says, her hand drawing back to her protruding chest.
“A jig” he says.
“Yeah I know what a ruse is” she says, sounding just a little duped.
“Just a little flim-flam on Luigi” he says.
I turn around to see The Snake laughing harder than a guy who’s dame is playing bagatelle with a bunch of uninhibited sailors oughta be.
This time The Snake’s gone too far.
“Laugh it up” I tell him.
“That’s swell. Just swell” I add, before I settle in for the killer line.
“So tell me, if Billy Twitch isn’t the new owner of The Hotsy Totsy then just what kind of business was being discussed between Billy Twitch and Kitty while you were sitting in here pouring liquor into your fat grinning face?”
I lean back on my bar stool, waiting for his response. It comes quicker than expected.
“He’s setting up an online dating site for left handed folk” The Snake says, still laughing and unmoved by my incursion.
“You ever considered online dating Luigi?” asks Billy Twitch. I think about taking a pop at both him and The Snake. I set my glass down on the counter and give both of them the look of a man who’s not too happy with the current situation and is thinking about maybe doing something to even out the score. Before I get a chance to stand up I see Kitty walking over, she’s shaking her wrist and blowing some dust off it. I glance over to the bagatelle table. The sailor with the lustful eye and no sun glasses is lying flat out on the bagatelle table, he’s out cold. Two other sailors are leaning over him, slapping his face and pouring water on him.
He’s still out cold.

The End

The Fixer

I’m sitting at the counter of Whiskey Pete’s when thru the smoke I see a couple silhouettes slip silently into the gas lit bar room. It’s been some time since I’ve seen Kitty and The Snake. The Snake walks up to me, I tell him, “been some time”.
“Eight years”, he says and sends Kitty off to powder her nose, telling her he’s got some business to discuss.
“Always business to discuss”, she mutters as she walks off thru the haze.
“I hear you’re looking for information” The Snake says.
“I’m always looking for information. Why don’t you narrow it down a little so I don’t have to tell you everything that’s on my mind.”
“I hear you’re looking to find the guy who came up with the ‘too cold to snow’ ruse.”
“Who told you?” I grip my bottle of beer by the neck and I ain’t letting go. Not for The Snake. Not for anyone.
“Let’s just say I’ve got ears and eyes all over this city, nothing worth knowing slips by me
“So have you got a lead on the guy who came up with the ‘too cold to snow’ ruse or are you just here to play games and waste my time?”
“Shuffling Sammy. Carpenter and small time gambler. Lost everything he owned in Reno. House, station wagon, wife, gambled it all away.”
“So where is he now?”
“Wait, I need a drink”. He orders a beer. I notice Kitty over by the jukebox talking to a couple business men types. Italian suits, silk ties. Kitty only picks the best. We dated once or twice. The Snake doesn’t know. I guess that one slipped by him.
The Snake slides his hand over the bottle and takes a slug.
“What about the ‘good workman never blames his tools’ jig?” I ask.
“Same guy” he answers.
“I need to find this punk”
“He upped and disappeared” says The Snake.
“Nobody just disappears” I tell him.
“Like I say”, a glint appearing in his oily eyes “nothing slips by me”.
I glance over to the jukebox. Kitty’s standing between the two businessmen. Each one has an arm around her waist. Her head rolls back laughing when one of them whispers something in her ear. The Snake keeps talking.
“Sammy shuffled off to the mountains to hide from everyone he owed money to, and his wife. Built a log cabin and started writing dumb sayings that made no sense, figured on making money off folk gullible enough to buy it. After a spell word got out and old wives would venture into the woods, pay him a couple bucks for one of his lines, hanging on every word. They thought he was some kind of wise mountain man” Suddenly everything starts to make sense.
“How about the ‘exception that proves the rule’ baloney?” I ask.
“Same guy”
Same guy. He sure has a lot to answer for.
“Yep. Same guy. Shuffling Sammy.”
“The ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ flimflam?”
“Same guy”
“The ‘leopard never changes it’s spots’ sting?”
“Same guy”
“A watched pot never boils?”
“You can’t always get what you want?”
“No, that one was Mick Jagger. Anyhow”, he continues, “he somehow made enough money from this scam to buy a new identity and move back to the city”.
“Got a name for this joker?” I ask.
“Yeah. Sammy Neptune. I guess he wanted something plain, something that wouldn’t give him away. He got a job at a raunchy hotel run by some kind of playboy with too much money and too little sense. This playboy hired him as a handyman and after a time made him his press agent. You can’t run a raunchy hotel without keeping the press sweet.”
“A fixer.”
“Yeah, a fixer. Well, things were going just swell till a body shows up in Sammy’s hotel room. A male body.”
“A dead one?” I enquire.
“No, a naked one, drunk but still breathing. Seems there’d been a party at the hotel the night before, the place was full of high society dames and press men. Some kind of promo for the joint. Went on till the early hours. Seems that Sammy got a little drunk and started blabbing. Told one of the high class broads all about the owners brothel business and money laundering racket. Well this broad, it turns out, was no ordinary broad. She was an undercover reporter fixing to dig up some dirt on the hotel owner. She sent another drunk guy to Sammy’s room, telling him it was her room and she’d be there shortly. She didn’t tell him she’d be bringing a camera with her. The next day the owner’s sitting in his office reading the morning papers. The headline on the front page of the Daily Dredge read: ‘Dirty Dealings at Raunchy Hotel’. There’s a picture of Sammy in bed with the naked guy. The owner goes looking for Sammy, smashing mirrors and knocking paintings off the walls of the hotel lobby. You could say he’s angry. He finds Sammy at the bar, trying to fix a hangover. He’s yelling at him, tells him he didn’t hire a PR guy to make bad news. Eventually Sammy calms him down, tells him he can smooth things over, says the papers will be talking about something else tomorrow. By next week nobody will remember a thing.”
“Nobody except you” I say.
“Nothing gets past me” he says, pointing to his left eye and squinting the other one. I look over to the jukebox. Nobody there. Just behind the jukebox, in the darkness, there’s a long leather couch. Let’s just say it was occupied and the two business men were no longer wearing ties.

“So anyway, Sammy makes a few calls, things start settling down. Seems like the heat is off. He’s in the hotel lobby, putting pictures back up on the wall, cleaning the glass from the floor, making the place look like it oughta. He’s hammering a nail into the wall when somebody calls out; ‘Sammy Neptune?’. It’s a reporter walking thru the main door, into the lobby. A camera flashes, Sammy loses his grip on the hammer and it flies out of his hand towards the reporters head”.
“A dead reporter?” I ask.
“Lets just say he went kinda quiet and hit the ground pretty hard”
“Not good for business” I interject.
“Not good for anyone. Sammy gets hauled off to the county jail. The hotel owner gets some high rolling lawyer on the case. The lawyer tells Sammy to say the hammer was faulty and snapped while he was driving the nail in. So a few days later, in the courtroom, Sammy tells the judge it was a cheap hammer, broke clean in two, says it’s a shame the guy was standing there when the head flew off, just a dirty, stinking shame. But the judge isn’t buying any of it. You know what the judge says?” he asks me. “Not a clue” I say. He takes a good long slug of beer, looks me straight in the eye and says in a half whisper, “The judge says ‘a good workman never blames his tools’, bangs his gavel on the desk without killing anyone and sends Sammy off to death row.”

Kitty saunters back over, looking a little worn but with a smile on her face. “Did you close the deal?” The Snake asks her.
“Don’t I always?” she says, sassily. The two of them walk out of the joint the same way they walked in. I figure I don’t need another beer so I order a coffee. I watch the pot till it boils.

Part 3 – The Casino Racket

We used to have a jazz night in here. Jimmy would come down, making the most soulful sounds you ever heard. Well, one night he was about to play, he was tuning up his guitar when some country picker walked over and said something to him. Jimmy just froze. I was standing at the bar, I saw his soul die with my very own eyes. Nobody knows what was said but afterwards he played a couple tunes, sounded terrible. He was playing the wrong notes, singing the wrong words. He’d lost it. Just like that. He put his guitar back in its case and never played it again. A few days later he gave the guitar away to Johnny Blue.”
“The blues guy?”
“How many guys do you know called Johnny Blue?
Anyways, he didn’t come in here again. I saw him a few months later at a dime store. I asked him how come he don’t play no more. He said the guy had cut off his connection. See, the thing with Jimmy is he used to think he had some kind of connection to dead blues players. Like they were speaking through him when he played. It was some kind of spell and whatever that guy said to him it broke the spell.”
“Sad story” I say, looking at her legs and thinking how pretty they must be underneath those jeans.
“So you don’t have a jazz night any more?”
“No. It started to get too much attention. Me and Mama Belle are trying to keep things nice and simple, don’t want too many folk finding out where we are if you know what I mean.”
“The casino?”
“Yeah. Witness protection.” She knocks back her drink and pours herself another one, then noticing my glass
is empty she fills that up too.

Everything was going just swell till a big enterprise moved into town. They started buying up stocks in all the casinos, pulling all kinds of stunts to drive them into the ground. They tried intimidating us, sent in gamblers to make trouble at the tables. Trying to give the place a bad name, drive the customers away. Then one day a body showed up, and it was a dead one. It was behind one of the poker tables. We were being framed. We decided to call in a favor from a local cop. He knew what the corporation’s game was, but he told us there wasn’t a damn thing that could be done about them. They were too big, too powerful. So he helped us get out. We split in the dead of night. Took all the cash, loaded up the station wagon and drove out across the desert till we became invisible.”

Her voice trembles slightly as she relives the tale. Her speech quickening, her words a torrent of painful memories. Her eyes are black but her soul is a mysterious shade of gray. I could fall for her, right here, right now.
“This place was a hotel when we got here. But we didn’t want folk coming and going, sniffing ’round, taking pictures. So we turned the rooms into apartments and rented them out to college students.”
“After a spell we started to forget about the casino. Then one day I picked up a newspaper. The headline read: Luigi O’Reilly Pokes Around Casino. I started reading it. It was Mama Belles casino alright. The story said you were about to crack the case wide open. Had a lead on a Jack Murdry. There was a photo of you next to the article . That’s how I knew who you were when you walked in earlier. Sorry about the phone call.
“You made the phone call?”
“Luigi O’Reilly? Jack Murdry here” she says in a deep voice, deeper than a dames voice oughta be. She starts laughing. She looks even cuter when she laughs. Her entire face lights up, brighter than any neon no vacancy sign.
“Meet me at Barbie’s Hotel eight O’clock tonight. Don’t be late” again in that eerily deep tone. She laughs again. I can almost feel the muscles around my mouth give way to a smile, maybe even a laugh of my own, but I resist.
“But How did you make the phone call? You were in this bar the whole time.” She reaches into the pocket of her jeans, pulled out a rectangular metal object.
“I used my phone” she says casually. She’s got one of those modern portable telephones. She’s really something.
“You’re really something” I say.
“I know” she says, “I sure am.”
“You sure are. I don’t even know your name. You have a name?”
“Beauty” she says.
“You sure are” I say. No need for any other words. But I find some anyway.
“What kind of messed up, crazy world do we live in that a pretty dame like you is holed up in a joint like this?”
“I’m not a dame”

Part 4 – So Long, Mr Murdry

“I’m not a dame.” And then silence. The kind of silence where you can hear your own heart beat and distant clocks ticking. After the last time I thought I’d never be fooled again. The guy back in Frisco. Walked like a dame, talked like a dame, well….you know the rest. My thoughts race in a million directions, quicker than good whiskey. She sure looks like a dame. But she’s wearing jeans and a man size sweater. She’s wearing a bracelet. But it’s made out of guitar strings. Dames don’t play guitar. She spoke on the phone in a deep voice, saying she’s Jack Murdry. JACK MURDRY.
“What?” She looks confused. She’s not the only one.
“What d’ya mean you ain’t a dame?”
“I mean nobody uses words like dame any more. You gotta have a little more respect for women than that. I ain’t a dame, a broad, or whatever else you wanna call me. I’m a 21st century woman and I stand on my own two feet. I got too much dignity to let you walk in here and call me a dame.” So she is a dame. I begin to relax.
“I beg your pardon ma’am” I say sincerely. But she doesn’t stop there. This broad sure can talk.
“I don’t know what happened to you, what made you like this. Maybe you been through some hard times, maybe somebody broke your heart, but you gotta let go, start living in the now. Go where your heart leads you.”
“Save the daytime T.V talk sister. I don’t go in for that kinda stuff. When you’ve seen as much misery and pain as I have you kinda tighten up. It kinda focuses the mind. Tell me more about the casino.”
“Well it’s like I said, we got out just in time. Everybody knew who was behind it and….” A song called blue jeans starts playing, a tinny, static noise that seems to be coming from her hips. She really is something. She stops talking and reaches into the pocket of her jeans. It’s her telephone.
“It’s a text. From Jimmy. Says he’s on his way over” she says, surprised. She pushes some buttons on the device and puts it back in her pocket. She starts talking about Jimmy again. My mind began to wander. Every now and then I interject with a ‘poor kid’ or ‘tough break.’ But I’m beginning to daydream.

I picture a scene on the back of my eyelids:

I’m walking out through the door of Mama Belles, out onto the street where a crowd of reporters has gathered. Dictaphones thrust in my face, cameras flashing all around. A nasally voice kicks off the proceedings:
“Say Luigi, so you finally cracked the Murdry case. How did you do it?”
“It wasn’t so hard” I answer, casually. And other reporter, cigar hanging from his mouth, wearing a flat cap.
“Tell me what makes you tick Mister O’Reilly.”
“Dames, broken dreams. Discarded cigarettes on abandoned railroad tracks…..”

When I open my eyes I’m still in the neon lit room, and Beauty is still talking. I ask her to tell me more about the casino. She says there’s nothing more to tell, no point sniffing around. It’s too big. The corporation owns everybody and everything in the town. I figure it’s time for me to go. She calls me a cab from her device. I finish my drink and she reaches behind me to flick a switch. The wooden panel slides open silently. I put on my hat and step back into the bar. Jimmy’s standing in the doorway. Beauty introduces us. I figure I’ll wait for the cab out on the street. Before I leave I turn to Jimmy and say…
“Listen kid. Take a tip from me. You can’t leave jazz and jazz can’t leave you. Nobody gets out of this thing alive. You gotta go where your heart leads you.”

The rain has eased off, replaced by a damp smell and bugs in the warm sticky night air. I stand at the end of the alleyway thinking things through. Maybe Beauty was right. Maybe it’s time to forget about Mister Murdry, murder mysteries, and the whole stinking, rotten game. Maybe I won’t see Beauty ever again. I could tell myself she was just another dame. “She was just another dame” I mumble under my breath. A car rolls down the street and pulls up to the kerb. As I step from the alleyway toward the cab I hear a guitar tuning up.