“We could just set the bowl on the porch,” Doris said.
“Sure we could. And the next kid who comes by will walk off with ten pounds of candy. Plus the bowl.”
“It’s just a shake-down anyway.”
“I’m not sure I follow, baby.”
“They’re eighteen years old, they think a costume is a baseball cap turned sideways. They mumble trick or treat like it’s a threat.”
“Well, it is.”
“I’m just saying I’m sick of it is all. ”
Another Halloween in Frogtown. I’m not saying Doris’s expectations are unreasonable, generally speaking. She’s thinking kids in bunny suits, fairy princess gear, cowboys and firemen and what have you. Norman Rockwell stylistics. We’ve got something else going on.
It’s the sniff of loot in the air. Enough sugar out there to kill off a football stadium full of diabetics. All you do is go knock knock knock, hold out your pillow case and say the magic words. Trick or treat. Sweet deal, especially if you’re a kid who doesn’t get too many sweet deals.
Once, foolishly, we figured we’d escape Halloween and take a long meal at a restaurant. We returned to find the oak in the front yard draped with toilet paper and egg yolk dripping down the siding. Some genius had scrawled, “Wear candee, Fatman?” in permanent marker on the front door.
Now I jump in with both feet. Jack O’ Lanterns on the front steps. Creepy dungeon sounds pumped outside via hidden speakers. A fog machine. Police tape lining the sidewalk.
I’ve got a monk’s robe that I wear, along with a pair of plastic bolts that I glue to my temples. I smear on some whiteface, rub mascara around my eyes and I’m good to go.
Doris has a Wicked Stepmother thing going on. Black cape, black dress that’s more R than PG. A lot of missing bodice fabric. “Love your costume,” I say every year.
“I know you do, Charles.”
I take this as an invitation to do a little fumbling around, to get into her costume, which she tolerates to a point, encourages even, until a little fist pounds on the door and Doris announces, “Tricks and treats for you later, Uncle Fester.”
Some things you can’t hide beneath a robe. Ask any monk.
“How late are we open?” Doris asks.
“Ten more minutes. Maybe twenty. There aren’t that many kids.”
Mostly they head for better pickings; the rich neighborhoods around Summit Ave. There you’re not talking about Bits o’ Honey and Sweet Tarts. It’s candy bars, and not necessarily Fun Size. The stuff of urban legends.
“What was that?” Doris asked.
I shrugged. “Sounds like somebody threw a pumpkin at the door.”
“You think you should check?”
“I’m trying to enjoy the holiday.”
“What if the candle is still burning?”
“Inside the pumpkin.”
“Say it landed in all those dried leaves.”
“And the whole house goes up in flames.”
“What a lot of imagination you got, baby.”
“Charles. Go check.”
I sighed. There is no point arguing with Doris beyond a point. She makes up her mind and only a fool stands in her way. I am not that fool.
I swept open the door so she could investigate. “You tell me, sugar. What do you see?”
Her eyes did something peculiar. Bulged. Popped.
I looked myself.
“Ha ha. That’s a new one. Somebody’s always raising the bar.”
A body in a dark suit was stretched out, face down, on the stoop. A knife handle stuck out of the middle of its back. Something like blood oozed around the blade.
“Okay, buddy,” I said. “You get an extra Snickers for this one.”
He didn’t move. I looked around for kids hiding behind a tree. I figured there’d be video posted on Facebook inside five minutes. Freaked out homeowner gets Halloween surprise.
I gave him a nudge with my foot. Still nothing. I bent down to get a closer look.
“Duke!” I said. “Duke Black! Okay Duke. You got me going, pal.”
We go back. We hung in the same playgrounds. Then our paths diverged. He went on to become that high-priced attorney you call when you’re guilty as sin. And I… well, it’s a long story.
I waited for him to jump to his feet. For a big guy, Duke is limber. Then he’d laugh in that deep, bottom-of-the-barrel way of his, pound me on the back and declare, “Ha! Got you, Fatman!”
“Okay, Duke. Joke’s over,” I said.
Doris knelt beside him. She put a couple fingers to his neck. “All the jokes are over for Duke.”
“What do you mean?”
“Duke is dead.”
Monday: He looks so natural
“You think we should cover him up?” Doris asked.
“We should call nine one one.”
“Sure. But it seems disrespectful, leaving him out in the open.”
“Yo, it’s Fatman,” a pack of hooligans called out. Except for my mother, Doris is the only one who calls me Charles. And my mother is dead. “Trick or treat!”
“Now what?” Doris said.
“Give me the candy bowl. I’ll head them off.”
She ducked in the house.
Too late. The kids were at the stoop.
“Mr. Man, good evening,” the tallest of them said. “You have certainly turned it up for Halloween this year! My goodness, that body almost appears to be real!”
“Yeah, almost.” I knew I was being played, but there’s only so much you can say to a kid who’s too polite.
There were five of them. They all had the same costume: a Cub Foods bag pulled over their heads with slits for their eyes.
“Here’s the candy, Charles,” Doris said.
I grabbed the bowl and stepped over Duke. “Tell you what, guys. Let’s just split this up and call it quits for tonight.” I shook the candy straight from the bowl into their pillow cases.
They glanced from me to Doris. “Mister Fatman, sir, have you no chill?”
“What about the other children, Sir Fats?”
“Dear Mister Fatster, our children are our future!”
We all had a laugh over that.
“We will take these as a favor to you and your bride, Mister Fathead, and distribute them at the rec center. Thank you as well, ma’am,” the tall kid said. “Mister Man, again, we appreciate you doing it quite large out here.”
“Stick to the treats, guys,” I said. “The tricks…” I pointed at Duke’s body. “They don’t always work out.”
“Just hope that thing’s a hologram,” the shortest of the bag boys said.
“Nobody flexing on Fatman, my dude!” My lanky pal then said to me, “Quite lifelike, Mister Fatness. Congratulations.”
“You get what you pay for.”
“You must have your cake up, then, certainly.” He held out a hand for me to shake. “We hope you two enjoy your evening.
Then they scattered as the first cop car pulled to the curb.
Tomorrow: Enter the wide-eyed law
“Fatman. What’s up?”
Roscoe hitched up his belt as he shambled up the walk. He was working against gravity. The slope of his belly, the weight of his Glock, plus the handcuffs, Taser, flashlight, ammo, God knows what else: the natural direction for it all was downward.
“So Sherlock Holmes wasn’t available, apparently.”
“I didn’t even hear that.”
Roscoe and I go back, too. He grew up in the neighborhood with me and Duke. Schooled at St. Agnes. Probably still has the knuckle marks in the back of his head to prove it. I made it a point to keep my nose clean. Yes, sister. No, sister. I certainly will, or, I certainly won’t. Whatever. Even then Duke had a knack for the artful reply that kept the good sisters at least partially baffled. But they routinely frog-marched Roscoe into the hallway for re-education. For the first few years he came back in tears. As he grew older the tears turned to a smirk. Needless to say, he ended up in law enforcement.
“Hey, Doris,” he said, beaming at her. “Great costume.”
“Same to you,” she said. Doris would flirt with a rock. That’s just how she is.
“Try putting your eyes back in your head,” I told Roscoe.
“Have I ever asked what she’s doing with you?”
“It’s been mentioned.”
Constantly. It’s one of the wonders of the world. I try not to dwell on it, but it’s like keeping your tongue away from a broken tooth.
“Anyway, what we got here?”
“You’re not going to like this.”
“A normal day on the job, what do I see that I like?”
I stepped aside so he had a view of the stoop.
I hadn’t turned off the fog machine. Duke’s body was partially obscured by haze. The sound track had reached the insane laughter section.
“This is all really touching, Fatman. Now what? You going to give me a candy bar?”
“Maybe you want to do something like investigate? That still part of your job description?”
“Yeah. Let me get out my magnifying glass and tweezers.”
Roscoe edged past me. “Nice job with the steak knife. And this blood stuff.”
He groaned as he got down on one knee. “Where you get this? Stiffs R Us?”
He poked at Duke’s body. “Wait,” he said. “You mean…?”
Roscoe leaned over to get a look at the face.
“Fatman, it’s Duke!”
“You think I don’t know?”
The eye you could see was still open, but Duke wasn’t taking anything in.
Roscoe staggered to his feet, lurched toward the bushes. He vomited loudly, then pulled out his radio and called for backup and an ambulance.
Tomorrow: A missing blade
“It’s like Christmas out there,” Doris said.
“What?” Roscoe cleaned himself up over our kitchen sink. I got a cup of coffee for each of us.
“All the lights.”
A fire truck, plus an ambulance and a half dozen cop cars blocked off the street.
“Duke would appreciate this,” Roscoe said.
“The law and order part, sure.”
“He was more on the disorder side.”
“He got a lot of guys off,” Doris said.
“A lot of guilty guys.”
“Whoever did Duke is gonna wish Duke was around to defend him.”
“Except for the part about paying Duke’s bill.”
“How much would you pay to stay out of prison?” I said. “What’s unreasonable?”
“You got a point there, Fatman.”
Roscoe took his coffee to the kitchen table. It’s a booth in a nook that looks out on the backyard. I can just barely squeeze in. Roscoe wasn’t doing much better. His running-down-the-perps days were behind him.
“Shouldn’t you be outside, investigating?”
“Nah. They got guys for that.”
Doris slid along the bench to the window. I perched on the edge beside her.
“Duke,” I said. “Jesus. Stabbed in the back. Who would do that?”
“A million guys,” Roscoe replied. “Guys who were so guilty, no amount of money they paid Duke would keep them out of jail. Guys who got off but their lives were ruined anyway. Guys who just hated Duke’s guts.”
“He was a likable guy.”
“You think so. I think so. Sometimes. But we’re remembering. Duke, the kid sitting in Sister Alberta’s class. Duke Black. Alphabetishly speaking, always right up in the front. Right where you can’t get away with anything, except he still got away with a lot. Me, caught every time. Sometimes I thought my skull would cave in. The way those nuns would zonk you. They must have had punching bags in the convent. I don’t see how you could do it without practice.”
“Duke wasn’t much for the rules.”
“Duke and the rules had a fine relationship. The rules did just what he wanted them to do. But with people? Not so much, not really. Argumentative, though you can’t hold that against him given the occupation. Arrogant, sure, but how can you blame him? Nobody like Duke.”
“He had his qualities,” Doris said. “The ladies loved him.”
“A certain kind of lady, sure,” Roscoe replied.
Doris cocked her head but didn’t rise to the bait. “Where are you going to start?” she asked Roscoe. Doris rarely lacks for an agenda. She’s a woman with bullet points, action items. Her trains run on time.
“I’m just a cop. Where would you start?”
“I’m just a wicked stepmother.”
“Great dress, by the way,” Roscoe said.
“Yeah, you said that,” I reminded him.
“Have I ever asked you, Doris, what you’re doing with this guy?”
“You said that, too. She’s heard it before. Trust me. It’s a mystery of nature.”
“It’s not so mysterious, Roscoe.” This accompanied by a look from Doris that made Roscoe’s ears go red.
“Yeah, listen to the lady,” I added.
“I…” He stopped. Silence. “You got some sugar for this?” Roscoe said at last.
“Over on the counter. Spoons are in the drawer next to the sink.”
The hardware on Roscoe’s belt clattered against the bench. He groaned as he stood, then limped toward the counter. He opened the drawer and stood there silently.
“All the spoons in the dishwasher?” Doris asked.
“It’s not that,” Roscoe said.
“What, you’re looking for the silver?” I said.
“You always keep your steak knives in here?” Roscoe said without turning.
“It’s the utensil drawer. Where should we keep them?”
“You know you’re missing one?”
Roscoe grabbed a knife from the drawer and headed for the front door.
Tomorrow: Sneaking up on a Miranda?
I followed Roscoe to the door. Another cop stopped me there, a kid who looked barely old enough to shave. But he was bulked up with a bullet-proof vest and who knows how many years of pumping iron. When he said, “I’ll have to ask you to remain inside, sir,” I didn’t quibble.
Roscoe stood over Duke. A photographer scuttled around the corpse. Cops went through the bushes with their flashlights. They had pulled the plug on the fog machine, but the spook track was still playing. Screaming, moaning, chains dragging over cement. Nobody seemed to notice.
I turned it off.
A few minutes later Roscoe came back inside.
“Let’s have a word, Fatman,” he said.
“In the kitchen, okay? This is between you and me.”
“You and me and me,” said Doris.
Roscoe sighed. “Okay.”
We settled around the kitchen booth again.
“You mind if I ask you a question?”
“What is this?” I said. “You sneaking up on a Miranda?”
“I’m talking to you, okay? You’re not under arrest. This is not an interrogation. I’m trying to do you a favor. If you’re not too thick-headed to recognize it. I’m trying to figure something out here.”
“We are, too,” Doris said. “A dead guy shows up on our stoop.”
“Yeah, well, it happens. Trust me. The thing about the dead guy is, he’s got a knife in his back, right? And the knife, in case you noticed, is the same as the knives in your drawer.”
“First marriage,” I said. “You get some nice stuff.”
Roscoe held up one of our steak knives. “Yeah, good knife. Sturdy. Quality handle. Cut a lot of serious meat with this kind of thing.”
“I don’t like where this is going,” Doris said.
“What are you saying?”
Roscoe massaged his forehead. “I’m not saying anything. I’m hoping maybe you’re saying something.”
“Like I stabbed Duke? Jesus, Roscoe. That’s like stabbing my brother. If I had a brother.”
“You read the paper, Fatman? People do it every day.”
“People do, but I don’t.”
“Speaking as your pal, it would be good if you had an alibi.”
Tomorrow: Who said you’ve got something to hide?
“You mind if I ask a few questions, sir?”
Roscoe disappeared into the swarm of police outside. Every cop on the force seemed to be in my front yard. They stood around in small clusters, like this was a cop reunion at which there happened to be a corpse.
“Sure, sure, come in. I got nothing to hide.”
“Who said you had anything to hide? Of course you don’t.”
He gave Doris a once-over, doing his best not to linger on the obvious. “Evening, ma’am,” he said.
“Doris,” she said.
“Robert Hutch. Detective.”
Nearly everyone looks like a kid to me these days. Hutch too, except that there was something else at work. He still had his hair, which he combed straight back, Dracula style. He was in the early stages of cop paunch. Mistrusting him came easy.
“Charles,” I said. “But if you call me that nobody will know who you’re talking about. On the street it’s Fatman.”
“I’ll go with Charles, sir, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Your momma raised you right, Robert.”
“Not really, but that’s a long story.”
“Looks like you’ve got quite a night ahead of you,” Doris said. “You sit down and I’ll get some coffee.”
“Let me turn on the fire,” I said.
I’ve got a little gas fireplace in the parlor. I hit the switch and the fake logs lit up. It’s a cozy room. A pair of leather chairs, a love seat, a couple lamps and a coffee table covered with magazines and books. It could be 1910 when you’re sitting there. There’s not even a radio.
“Go ahead, sit by the fire. Get the full treatment.”
Doris returned with a tray. She’s a distracting gal, which at the moment was a plus. She spent some extra time leaning over Hutch as she delivered his coffee. He couldn’t decide which way to look.
Doris and I settled on the love seat. She put a hand on my knee. “So, what can we tell you?” I asked.
“Just the basics for now.”
I told him about the trick or treaters. The thump at the door. Opening it up to Duke, dead.
“You knew he was dead?”
“I thought it was a joke.”
“A body on the steps?”
“It’s Halloween. It’s Frogtown. A lot can happen.”
“So you figured out it wasn’t a joke.”
“Doris felt for a pulse.”
“You’ve got medical training?”
“Experience. I can usually tell if a man has a pulse.”
Doris can say things in a certain way. Hutch did his best to keep a straight face.
“I looked and his eye was still open. There was blood on his lips.” She didn’t mention the knife.
“You knew the deceased?”
“We went way back,” I said. “Grade school.”
“You were friends.”
“Friends? I don’t know that Duke had friends exactly. He had people he knew. A lot of people he knew. But with Duke, everything was …”
“Business. He was your best pal, buying you drinks, giving you this or that. But you took it for an investment. For future considerations.”
“What are we talking about here exactly, Charles?”
“Duke was in the information business. He knew this. You knew that. He knows a little more than you do and he wins. Every time Duke wins his star shines a little brighter. Until eventually he wins just by walking into the room. He shows up and you lose.”
“You’re saying that made people bitter?”
“No, no, everybody loved Duke. Loved to be around him. He had stories. Every dumb crime in the last forty years, Duke had a monologue about it. He could have done stand-up, except that it would have paid bananas compared to what he was making. Every thug and gangster in the city, Duke had a personal relationship with him. Or her. Race, color, creed, it didn’t matter.
“But you know all that. You’re a cop. More than one guy on the force would have stuck a knife in his back. Which isn’t to mention the county prosecutor.”
Hutch shrugged. “Duke Black was a worthy adversary.”
“Duke kicked your ass, excuse me for saying. May he rest in peace.”
“Were you expecting him?”
“To show up dead on my stoop?”
“At your house. You invited him over?”
“We flew at different altitudes. Duke had a champagne and caviar thing going on. This is more of a beer-and-crackers operation.”
“You got no idea why he’d show up dead at your door?”
Doris gave me a look.
“I don’t have a clue.”
Which was not entirely the truth.
Monday: Shy of a lie
“You think they’ll find anything?”
“Can’t rule it out. But it’s not like it’s Sherlock Holmes versus Moriarty out there.”
A car with a loose muffler rumbled down the street. It stopped. The door squeaked open. A newspaper smacked against the sidewalk. “Will Duke make the front page?” Doris wondered.
“The question is, above the fold?”
I peeled off the plastic bag, scanned the front page. Lucky Duke wasn’t alive to see. I checked the B section. There he was, below the fold.
The mighty fall so quickly.
“So?” Doris asked.
“Just the facts. ‘Noted criminal lawyer Alphonse “Duke” Black dead in Halloween slaying. Found with a knife in the back in Saint Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. Clients included a collection of the city’s most notable criminal suspects dating back three decades, virtual who’s-who of high-profile perpetrators. Police say no arrests so far. But no shortage of suspects, allows police spokesman.'”
“Do they mention…”
Tomorrow: The long list of enemies
I settled my head on Doris’s lap. It’s a tight fit on the love seat but I made it work. She ran her fingers through what remains of my hair.In visual terms, I used to have more to offer. Hair, sweet Jesus, you could have grabbed a handful and lifted me off the ground. Of course back then you wouldn’t have been lifting quite as much.I was gangly, all elbows and knees. Then one thing led to another. Potato chips to beer, beer to brownies, brownies to pie ala mode. There may have been some marijuana in there, fueling these binges. I woke up one day and weighed, well, let’s not dwell on the particulars. I had become an impressive figure. The man, you could say, I was intended to be.Doris plucked a hair from my ear.”Ouch!”
“Don’t be such a baby.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Hair in your ears. Really, Charles. It makes you look like an old man.”
“I am an old man.”
“No, you’re not. Anyway, here’s another.”
“It’s for your own good.”
There’s no arguing with the woman. “Just warn me, okay?”
She went back to my scalp, thank God. The gas fire licked at the ceramic logs. I started drifting off.
“Charles,” she said. “Who killed Duke?”
That brought me back. “I don’t know, baby. Honest.”
“You got no idea?”
“It’s like Roscoe said. A thousand guys could have done it. Not to mention the women.”
“He had a reputation.”
“Always a new chiquita.”
“He was getting older.”
“I didn’t notice that the girlfriends were,” Doris said. This sounded surprisingly bitter but I let it pass.
“Myself, I like a mature woman.”
“Of course you do, Charles.” She slipped a hand under my shirt. “Considering the benefits.”
“I’m living, for one.”
“I’m not that vindictive.”
I’m not so sure, but I let that slide, too.
“Somebody living killed Duke, I’m not so concerned,” I said. “I mean, tough luck, shouldn’t have happened, nobody deserves, et cetera. But Duke threw in with some rough customers. He knew the wheels could fly off any of those guys. And when they do, well, you’re in for a crash.”
“But what if…?”
“Not really living?” I said.
“And the portal is open again?”
She grabbed a fistful of hair on my chest and tugged without thinking.
“I don’t see how they’d get out. Not so soon anyway.”
“That was a lot of concrete.”
“But what else do they have to do? Think about getting out. Settling scores.”
“Duke gave them a big score to settle.”
“So did we,” I said.
“I don’t know that the dead would slice it so fine.”
Tomorrow: Suspects above, suspects below.
The double-cross was Duke’s idea.
The trouble started, like so much trouble does, when the government swooped in to help us. The idea was to build a rail line from St. Paul to Minneapolis. Before it was over we had paid for a billion dollars worth of tearing up, digging down, taking this out, putting that up. Foundations cracked, buildings shifted, the ground moved beneath our feet.
Who knew how all that would play out?
You take the world to be what it seems to be. Sky above. Dirt and rock below. The works of man filling the space between.
Is it a surprise that it turned out to be more complicated than that?
Maybe there is a heaven up there, where fat little angels fly in circles. From personal experience I can tell you that there is a world beneath our feet where the not-quite dead exist.
They are not happy.
They believe — rightly, wrongly, who knows? — that if they settle the grudges left over from their time on Earth they will be satisfied. If they are satisfied they will become fully dead, which they trust would be a happier state of affairs.
Back to the rail line. All that digging and jouncing and foundation-cracking opened a portal to the underworld. The vengeful dead escaped through a fissure beneath Ivan’s Auto Repair on University Avenue.
Nothing that followed was pretty.
Ivan himself got crushed when one of the dead kicked out a car lift and dropped my Volvo on him. Next a local eccentric named The Colonel got stuck like a bug to his dining room table with a military saber from his collection. The dead then pitched a neighborhood psychic from a fortieth floor window. My guess is she didn’t see that coming.
That was just the start.
The cops did not rally behind the idea that the dead were on a murder spree. I stepped in to investigate. I’ve got a little trust fund and time on my hands. I am — people say this both as a compliment and an insult — a “neighborhood figure.”
Hence I came to the attention of the dead, many of whom had previously been neighborhood figures themselves. The dead tried to get me off their case by kidnapping Doris.
I did some negotiating in the underworld. The truth is, it’s tough to negotiate with the dead. They don’t have a long list of interests. Mostly it’s vengeance, vengeance, vengeance. That’s why I called in Duke.
As you’d expect, the dead had a top-notch legal team. Duke enjoyed the challenge. Duke and the dead’s lawyers harangued each other for what seemed to be days, though of course it was impossible to tell in the perpetual gloom of the underworld. When finally they reached an agreement, the dead insisted that I sign in blood, literally, for Doris’s return.
Duke promised the dead limited access to the topside for the purpose of settling grudges. But as soon as we got back to the surface, he commandeered a cement truck from a train-line construction crew. Lubricating the deal with a stack of Franklins, Duke dumped several tons of cement into the basement at Ivan’s Auto. Thus sealing off the portal from the underworld, despite our signed-in-blood agreement.
I pointed out that double-crossing the dead could be a bad career move if they ever got out again. “Fatman,” he said, “these are bubbles in the champagne of life.”
Too bad for Duke that his bubbles had burst.
The question was whether it was the dead who popped them.
Tomorrow: He’s back
(For the complete story on Fatman and Doris in the underworld, see last year’s serial novella, Fatman Descends.)
I told Doris she should call in sick, but she’s not a call-in-sick kind of gal. She works in collections. When Doris wants your money, you might as well just hand it over on the first call. She’s going to get it anyway. You can put her off, but you can’t win.
It’s not just a job with her. She features herself on the side of the angels. I found this tough to fathom in the early days of our relationship. I’d side with the deadbeats, suggest that they were gulled by unscrupulous operators into dumb purchases, bad loans.
“Did they ever hear about reading the fine print?”
“Believe it or not, baby, there are people who don’t read the fine print.”
“How about not being a sucker? Did anyone tell them about that?”
“We’re talking about people who don’t have anything. They want all the bright and shinies that everyone else has. They sign on the dotted line and they don’t think that much about tomorrow.”
“Well, I’m tomorrow.”
“I know you are.”
“A deal is a deal.”
“I never doubted.”
Duke’s double-cross of the dead left her in a moral quandary. The dead had kidnapped Doris, dumped her in a back-channel of their dank, gray world, left her eating Cheetos — the dead aren’t food snobs! — and squatting in the dust. But Duke made a deal with them and then at his first opportunity did the exact opposite. Instead of limited freedom they got tons on cement dumped on them. All for her benefit.
“Say they do a twist-off on me,” Doris asked more than once in the months following. “Could I really complain?”
A twist-off is the dead’s signature move, their emphatic method of settling a grudge. They twist your head off your body. One thing the dead are not is weak.
“Sure you could complain. What did you have to do with it? You were strictly in damsel-in-distress territory.”
“I have never been a damsel in distress.”
“Of course not. But still.”
She got up off the love seat, stretched her hands up over her head and then touched her toes. That’s a trick that is no longer up my sleeve. Doris is supple but she’s not spindly. She’s got things to hold on to.
I dabbed at the puddle of drool she left on my shirt. She’s a messy sleeper. It’s cute, sort of, but you’ve got to have a deep supply of pillowcases if you’ve got Doris in your life.
“I’ll call in for you,” I said. “Who expects you to come in to work if you’ve spent the night with a corpse and a bunch of cops?”
“I do. I expect me to come in to work.”
“Honestly, baby, you don’t look so perky. Go look at yourself.”
“They don’t hire me for perky. I’m on the phone.”
“Okay. Okay.” It’s pointless arguing with the woman.
She brushed, gargled, sprayed, dabbed. Then she stepped over what remained of the bloodstain on the stoop and was gone for the day.
Which accounts for why I was alone when Duke stopped by around noon.
I am a lunch-at-the-stroke-of-noon kind of guy, however much of an effort it is to wait until then. I roasted a chicken, mashed some potatoes, put together a salad. I don’t figure that a splash of wine is going to kill me, and anyway, how sharp does my thinking need to be? So I poured a tumbler of vinho verde, which in my opinion goes well with rosemary and garlic on seared chicken skin.
Since it’s lunch, I go light on dessert. A bit of chocolate, maybe an orange, strong coffee to battle the wine. Then it’s on to the afternoon, which is largely given over to planning dinner. When she walks in the door, Doris expects a glass on wine on the counter and the smell of a hot meal simmering on the stove. Given what that gal can do with a fork and knife, it’s among the wonders of the world that she’s not a size twenty.
I was carrying my dishes to the sink when I heard another smash against the door, the back door this time. I figured it was a bird hitting the glass. They do that sometimes. Except that this sounded like a pterodactyl.
I opened the door.
A figure in a navy pin-stripe suit with a knife sticking out of his back was splayed on the stoop.
I leaned in for the close-up and saw that it was Duke again.
Then his hand shot out and grabbed my ankle.
I couldn’t help but scream.
Before I shut my mouth Duke was on his feet. That well-deep laugh exploded from his expansive gut. “Ha ha. Gotcha, Fatman,” he said.
“Embrazo, amigo!” Duke exclaimed. He pulled me into his clutches. Though I was not completely at ease hugging a guy I took for dead, nonetheless I did what was expected. My hand got caught on the sticky knife still plunged into his back.
“Didn’t the cops take that as evidence?” I asked.
“In consideration of everything else that is occurring at the moment, I don’t think that’s question number one,” said Duke.
“How about if I come inside? The neighbors might have some concerns.”
I held open the door, and got another look at the blood slick emerging from Duke’s knife wound.
“Just finishing up lunch,” I said. “You hungry? Thirsty?”
“Not anymore,” Duke said. He slid across the kitchen booth, grimacing when he got hung up on the knife. “Hmm. Not used to that yet,” he explained.
I tried to play this as just one more event in the day. Wake up. Make lunch. Eat. Meet with dead guy. “You’re looking good, Duke. Considering.”
“It hasn’t been twelve hours.”
“Still, your color. Not so bad, really.”
Duke got up and went to the mirror on the wall. He tugged at his nose, pulled his jaw from one side to the other. “I’ve had living clients who looked worse.”
“You don’t mind my asking,” I said, “what brings you by? Up from the underworld or what?”
“Fatman,” said Duke. “I need help.”
Monday: I’m on a schedule here.
“You need help, Duke? A good mortician, sure. Assuming you’re going open casket. Assuming you care. You’re dead.”
“Even a dead guy likes to look good. But that’s not why I’m here.”
Duke cracked his knuckles, then stopped to look at his hands, as if the sound surprised him. “Funny what works and what doesn’t. The joints — snap, crackle, pop, just like always. But I don’t think I’ll ever take a crap again. Not that I miss it. Talk about your non-billable hours. No appetite. Don’t need to drink.”
“That knife in your back bothering you?” I asked. “I could pull it out.”
“I don’t think you can. Or maybe you could, but my bet is it would reappear.”
“Seems like it gets in the way.”
“Yeah, awkward. But it’s not killing me. Anymore.”
“Where do we start, Duke? There’s a lot to talk about.”
“I should have brought the slide show. Sort of like a vacation trip. That what you have in mind?”
“Sorry, but everybody wants to know.”
“You don’t want to know.”
“No. Just not what it’s cracked up to be.”
“Death seems like a pretty big deal.”
“Sure, if you’re living. Then it happens and eh, you’re dead. It’s like my clients, the ones so guilty not even I could get them off. Your guy who’s never been to prison, scariest thing in the world, he’ll do anything to stay out. The guy who’s been, okay, back to the joint, he’s in, he’ll be out, he’s got pals there, the old gang, literally. Another stop on the train of life.”
“Yeah, but this is not another stop. It’s the stop.”
“So you believe. Go ask the Buddhists.”
“What, they’re right?”
“How should I know? I been dead twelve hours. Give me a break.”
“Still, you’re dead. You’re back. You’ve seen things. At least give me a taste.”
“I’m on a schedule. I got some business to conduct and I don’t have until the end of time.”
“I thought maybe you did.”
“One more popular misconception. Do me a favor, Fatman. Shut up for a minute, no offense. Let me explain.”
Tomorrow: The dead are an idea
“Okay, so I’m dead,” said Duke. “Knife in the back. Whamo. Lights out.”
“Why my door? You got thousands of doors in the city. What were you doing in Frogtown?”
“I was coming to see you.”
“Excuse me, Duke. I’m glad to see you. Living, dead, whatever. But when’s the last time you dropped by?”
He twisted his ear while he thought about it. “Maybe when we were kids.”
“That’s what I was thinking. Why last night?”
“I had visitors.”
Questions: not always the best way to get answers. People tell you what they’ve decided to tell you. The smart thing, sometimes, is to shut up.
Duke tapped his fingers on the table, distracted. “Those guys from the underworld. They wanted to talk.”
“The lawyers. Graydon. Pimlipper.”
They were the legal team from below. Duke went round and round with them, negotiating for Doris’s release. The hours weren’t billable, but nobody seemed to care. Doris and I huddled in the dust while they went on about access to the world of the living, terminations versus warnings and adjustments, total annual interventions. The usual lawyerly t-crossing. I wasn’t sure they’d ever stop.
“What did they want?”
“Take a guess.”
“Maybe they weren’t so happy.”
“They said if they got half a chance they’d carve me up like a pumpkin. Along with you and Doris.”
“They got you on Halloween. Perfect.”
“I don’t think so.”
“What’s to wonder about?”
“They weren’t really there.”
“Then who was?”
“What are the dead but an idea, Fatman?”
“You’re here. You’re telling me you’re not?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Pimlipper and Graydon, they were more than a dream but less than a house call. Something in between.”
“You’re saying they didn’t stick a knife in your back?”
“I’m saying I don’t know. My guess is, they’re still trapped down below. They can export an idea of themselves, but running a saber through the Colonel, dropping your car on Ivan — they can’t pull that off unless a portal is open.”
I stopped to try to make sense of that. Failed.
“Then why were you at my door?” I asked.
“The living got no patience. That’s one thing you can say for the dead. Everything takes as long as it takes.”
“That’s not really a relief.”
“Just listen to me,” said Duke.
Tomorrow: Dollars for Doris
“You sure you don’t want something to drink?” I asked Duke. “Glass of wine? Might do you good.”
“Forget it. I’m not hungry. I’m not thirsty. I haven’t pissed since yesterday. Considering the size of my prostate, it’s not like I forgot.”
“Still. It might settle you down.”
“Who says I need to settle down?” He gave me his Duke-for-the-defense glare. No point in arguing.
“You still didn’t say why you were at my door.”
“To warn you. That Pimlipper and Graydon might drop in.”
“You said they weren’t really there.”
“That doesn’t mean the underworld is shut down for good. Those are two cunning stiffs. They get halfway out today, who says they can’t get all the way out tomorrow?”
Instead of holding my eye he glanced down at his fingernails.
“What do you mean what else?”
“There was more.”
He paused. “Maybe there was. Can’t get anything past you, Fatman.”
“You can. You just have to try harder.”
“Premonition of what?”
“I had a feeling. That’s all I’m saying. I started thinking, what does it cost me to tune up the will? Nothing, really.”
“What do you mean, the will?”
“Last will and testament. That will.”
“What about it?”
“To the best of your knowledge, Fatman, do I have siblings?”
“No. You were an only child.”
“Thank God. Anyway. Wife? No. Kids? None that I know about. A few gals, but gold diggers when you get right down to it.”
“I don’t need the money. I got my own.”
I had an uncle who left me his farm out in Eden Prairie, the last stand of open land in the midst of a suburban wasteland. I stayed in the old farm house for a night and knew the Green Acres scene was not for me. Peace. Quiet. No, thanks. I sold the place to a developer. I live off the interest.
“Who’s talking about you?” Duke said. “Sure, you don’t need it. You got your Frogtown mansion.”
“What about Doris?”
“A gal should have her own little stash. Sure it’s all working out now, you and her. Though what she sees…”
I held up a hand to stop him. “It’s bad enough I hear this from the living. But from a dead guy?”
“It’s a mystery, Fatman. If you were Clooney, sure.” He paused. “You’re no Clooney.”
“I got my charms.”
“Doubtless. But well hidden.”
“What’s the point, Duke?”
“I left her everything.”
“Not exactly everything. A few bucks go to the maid, the butler, the paperboy. Plus the cook, my trainer, the lawn guy, the handyman, my personal assistant. Mostly, however, everything.”
I stopped to wonder why the idea of Doris loaded did not make me happy. We might not love every aspect of the world we inhabit, but that doesn’t mean we want much to change.
“How is this going to look? You show up dead on my doorstep with my knife in your back and the money goes to Doris? How do we explain this?”
“We’ve all had a few bad breaks lately.”
You think the dead would be past surprise, but Duke gave me a look.
“You mean she never told you?”
Tomorrow: Her complicated past
Did I believe a woman of Doris’s qualities had no romantic past? No, of course not. Did I do whatever was necessary to avoid thinking about it? Certainly! That was one more file in my things-I-don’t-think-about folder.
To wit: Will my heart stop ticking tomorrow? Will I be dropped by cancer? Will my savings be gobbled in the next, inevitable crash?
Was Duke smirking? Maybe he was. It was hard to tell. His usual expression is bemusement, a close relative of the smirk.
What did have to smirk about? I’m no Valentino, sure, but ditto for Duke. He runs fifty pounds heavy, and that’s a kind estimate. You could dress him in a circus tent. Then there’s the matter of the bald skull, the salami nose, those beady, scheming eyes.
My God, what did Doris see in him? Everyone says that about her and me. But really. I’ve got a heart! I feel your pain! I shut up now and then and let you get a word in edgewise!
In fairness to Duke, he is loaded. I’ve got my little stash. It’s enough to finance a Frogtown life. Cute bungalow, but there’s a dealer who works the corner. Convenient to downtown, but also convenient to street hookers and slumlords.
I would prefer to be more generous than I am. I know that my, oh, thriftiness is not an endearing characteristic. But I come from flinty people who lived with the expectation that even if today was tolerable, tomorrow could be immeasurably worse. Therefore, prepare, conserve, husband. Squeeze pennies until Lincoln’s eyes bulge.
Duke was more of the Midas type. He turned Jacksons into Franklins. He lived with the certainty that he could give away a hundred today because a thousand would walk through the door tomorrow.
Question is, who dumped whom? Did Doris tell Duke to take a hike, or did he find her — in some unthinkable, impossible, idiotic way! — inadequate?
It took me less than a heartbeat to entertain the thoughts above, plus a few more that I’m ashamed to admit to.
Okay, so I’m not ashamed.
To reduce this to its basic, primate level, I was pained — pained in the my-head-hurts, I’m-swept-by-nausea, my-very-dick-is-feeling-
Let me reduce this to a single word.
I said, “How much did you leave her?”
“It’s not like a number in an account. It’s property, it’s stuff that goes up and down. Office buildings. Bitcoins. Mutual funds. Art. It’s going to take a platoon of accountants to square this away.”
“I’m guessing now. Thirty mil. Give or take five or ten, maybe more.”
He shrugged. “I haven’t been following the business page since I croaked. But yeah, sure, maybe. You should have married her when you could, Fatman. Assuming. Now? The pre-nup’s gonna be a killer.”
Tomorrow: She’d be nuts to marry you
I know a couple lyrics from a couple thousand songs.
Such as: Will you still love me tomorrow?
If, say, your baby just inherited thirty million bucks.
“When will she find out?” I asked Duke.
“You mean, ‘Is there still time to get hitched before she finds out?'”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“As her counsel — not that I am, but you put aside the mortality issue and I’m still a member of the bar — I’d advise her not to enter into any relationship that compromises her financial autonomy. In short, she’d be nuts to marry you, Fatman. Nonetheless, to your point. Get me in the ground. Find the will. Get the executor off his ass. Might take a couple weeks for her to figure out she’s loaded.”
“Truth is, I don’t need the money. I got enough.”
“Ha ha. That’s a good one. Enough. You got a couple thousand a month you pull from some raggedy-ass account. Great. Better than the neighbors. You’re the bullfrog in a small pond. But you’re still a frog. Doris is going to be a princess. Plenty of characters going to think they found her glass slipper.”
“I felt better when you were alive.”
“I did too.”
“How long ago was this? You and Doris.”
“Don’t go making yourself miserable, Fatman.”
“I’m asking for a timeline, not a sex tape.”
“Before you met her. Before you knew she existed. She’s still something. But back then…?”
“I’ve seen pictures.”
“Sure, pictures. I’m talking about… she walked in a room, time slowed down. The air got heavy.”
“You’re laying it on a little thick.”
“I’m underselling, pal. I don’t mean to rub your nose in it, Fatman. You look at it from her perspective. Recalling sex you had with somebody who’s now rotting away. A lot of contradictions there.”
“Among the problems.”
“You’re telling me.”
Duke disappeared into his own thoughts. At least that’s what I figured. Maybe his brain clicked off sometimes, being that he was dead. Maybe he ran out of juice and needed to recharge.
The clock above the refrigerator ticked off the seconds. Sleet chattered against the window screens.
“I’m having a cup of coffee,” I said to break the silence. “I don’t suppose you…?”
Duke waved me off.
“As I was saying, Fatman…”
“Let’s give Doris a rest. Already this is more than I want to think about.”
“No, no. Something else. I need your help.”
I put the kettle on the stove. “You ask me, you’re beyond that.”
“It’s not so simple.”
“I left directions. The whole deal at St. Agnes. High Mass. Clouds of incense, bells, choir, orchestra, Knights of Columbus to carry the coffin, the complete bucket of crap.”
“One thing I don’t want. I don’t want to be another version of Pimlipper and Graydon. I don’t want to be stuck down there with the eternally pissed-off dead.”
“You can avoid it?”
“That’s why I’m here.”
Monday: Rules for the dead
“Okay, Duke, you’re here. But I’m guessing right, the medical examiner thinks you’re there, on a steel table downtown. For all I know he’s weighing your liver right now.”
“It’s complicated. No need to get hung up on details. For our purposes, I’m here. Frankly, I think I’m more here than there. The Duke on the slab isn’t talking back.”
“Excuse me, Duke. I got to wonder if I’m dreaming.”
“You only get so far questioning the order of the universe, Fatman. I’m here. I got business to conduct. Let’s stick with what we know for sure.”
Duke brushed at his suitcoat. Bits of leaf and grit were stuck to the pinstripe wool. “Jesus, I’m a mess,” he muttered.
“What do you need from me?”
“Here’s my understanding. This can go two ways. One is, I get my loose ends tied up. The important ones anyway. The people I loved, they know I loved them. The people I didn’t? I settle those scores. I close out the books. I’m dead. Next stop, judgment. Or nothing. A little fuzzy. Might be some wiggle room there.”
“Where’s this coming from? They got HR in the beyond?”
“Why do we know to breathe? I know. That’s the important thing.”
“And if your ledgers aren’t square?”
“I leave a mess and I’m like all the rest of them in the underworld. Not quite living, not quite dead. Can’t rest until you’ve settled up. Can’t get out to settle up. Classic Catch 22.”
“Plus,” I reminded him, “you got guys, you give them half a chance, they dump tons of concrete down your rat hole. Guys who keep you trapped forever in the underworld.”
“I should have done what instead? Let them keep Doris for eternity? Leave those lunatics free to settle their so-called scores?”
“Just an observation. That you promised one thing and did another.”
“Not for the first time.”
“You don’t want to get stuck with them down there. Is that the deal?”
“I’m sure we could work something out. But I’d rather be dead. In the one hundred percent dead sense.”
“You working on a schedule?”
“How’d they settle on that?”
“Biblical deal. They had Jesus on the same time card.”
“Lucky they don’t have you wrapped in sheets with a stone at the door.”
“I don’t know how long this suit’s going to hold up.”
“What’s the beef you’re settling?”
“You kidding me? My beef? I got a knife in my back. It’s your classic who-done-it situation.”
“I don’t see how I fit in.”
“We need a plan, Fatman.”
Tomorrow: The usual suspects
“You got three days to find the guy who killed you. We’re already half-way through day one,” I said to Duke. “You need help or a miracle?”
“One thing I need is a positive attitude.”
“I like that in a dead guy,” I said.
“I’m starting to wonder if I came to the right place.” He pushed himself out of the kitchen booth.
“Okay, okay. Sit down. Let’s figure this out. I’ll get some paper. We’ll make a list. Guys who wanted to whack you.”
“Better grab a ream.”
I got a legal pad and settled across from Duke. He drummed his fingers on the table.
“You got to stop that. Time’s passing. I get it.”
“Alright.” He squirmed in his chair, tried to reach around to the knife in his back.
“That thing bothering you?”
“Not as much as you’d think. I’d give it a wiggle maybe, if I could reach it.”
“You want me to try?”
“Seems kind of personal.”
I got up. The blade was buried to the hilt, just to the left of his spine. “Nice job, whoever did it. Looks like he nailed your heart.”
“You got to go, I’ll say this, it wasn’t a lingering death.”
“You hit your thumb with a hammer, that’s painful. This was more like getting a bank vault dropped on your head. Massive insult. Whole different category. Lots of lights going off. Sparks flying everywhere. Then nothing. For a while anyway.”
I reached for the handle, then stopped. “What about prints? Maybe I shouldn’t touch this.”
“You got a crime lab in the pantry? Anyway, it’s not the actual knife. No more than this is my actual body. My actual body, well… The autopsy. What a mess. I’m an idea. A representation. Sorry to go metaphysical on you, Fatman, but what we got here is a manifestation of a spiritual presence. Your basic not-altogether-friendly ghost.”
I grabbed the handle and gave it a jiggle. “How’s that?”
Duke groaned a bit. “That’s great, Fatman. Jesus. A little more up and down, okay?”
His chin dropped to his chest. He flattened his hands on the tabletop.
“I can’t tell you how good that feels.”
I shook the handle. I tried not to over-analyze what I was doing, but let’s say it raised some issues.
“Duke,” I said at last. “I got to tell you. The knife?”
“Yeah?” This came out as a gasp.
“When Roscoe was here? While your body was still on the stoop? He noticed that one of our steak knives was missing. He seemed to think it’s the one in your back.”
Tomorrow: You got an alibi?
Duke’s chin jerked up off his chest.
“That’s your knife in my back?”
“We’re missing a knife. Wüsthof. Quality blade. Same as the one in your back. Could be a coincidence.”
“That sound a little unlikely to you?”
“If I were a cop, yeah, sure.”
“I’m talking as a normally intelligent human being.”
“It raises some issues.”
“You got an alibi?”
“I was right here, handing out Halloween candy.”
“So you got a bunch of costumed kids knocking on the door. You know how to find any of them?”
“They were in costumes. How should I know who they were?”
“Doris was here.”
“Good! That’s great, Fatman.”
“I hear some skepticism.”
“She’s the beneficiary of my estate, she’s here in a Frogtown love shack with her unemployed boyfriend and guess who gets a knife in his back.”
“Duke, you don’t think…”
“In my career I saw a lot of things I wouldn’t have thought. You want to hear my number one rule?”
“I don’t know.”
“Here it is. People are crazy.”
“Sit down, Fatman.”
I dropped into the seat across from Duke. I felt like I weighed a million pounds.
“Look me in the eye.”
I did. For a corpse his color could have been worse. It was like he’d been popped in the face a week ago and the bruise was starting to fade.
“Now tell me neither you nor Doris shanked me.”
“If I had a Bible I’d get it out. I didn’t stab you. Doris didn’t stab you. Who did, I don’t know. But it wasn’t us. We were here, inside, together. It sounded like a tree fell against the door.”
He stared at me. The clock ticked on the wall. Sleet continued to rattle against the windows. I wanted to look away. I knew I shouldn’t. I felt like a germ under a microscope.
What Duke was looking for exactly I don’t know but at last he seemed to find it.
“I believe you,” he said. “If I’m wrong it won’t be the first time. I’m going with my gut, Fatman.”
“It’s an impressive instrument.”
“You should talk.”
“So where do we start?”
“We’re talking about half the world. Guys who got a gripe with me. Guys who got a gripe with you. Guys who got a gripe with Doris. Guys happy to set you up so you can dangle on a hook. And that’s just the living. Can’t rule out the dead. They got a more legit beef than the topsiders.”
“Doris and I don’t deserve this. We’re innocent.”
“You want to hear rule number two?”
“Nonetheless. Nobody’s innocent.”
Tomorrow: The pitfall of rational thought
“We’ve got to start somewhere,” I said to Duke.
“My worry is, we’re applying rational thought. This then that. Maybe we’re dealing with a nut case. Little birdy whispers in Mister Whacko’s ear and bang, I’m dead.”
“Except it’s my knife from my kitchen.”
“You’re at the front door, nut case sneaks in through the back, steals a knife, plants it in the first guy he sees. Me.”
“Maybe. But practically speaking? Sherlock Holmes doesn’t start out thinking that life is a series of meaningless events.”
“What if it is?”
“The clock is ticking here, Duke. Let’s compromise. Some of life is meaningless. Some is cause and effect. We’re going to act as if we’re in the cause and effect category. Unless you’ve got a better idea.”
“That’s why I’m here, Fatman. Maybe you’re wrong, but I respect your thinking.”
“Let’s start with your three top candidates. Guys where you’d say, okay, I don’t really blame them.”
“I’m not trying to insult you.”
“I’m going by category. Cop. Criminal. Nut. One each. Leaving aside the undead question for now. That sound reasonable?”
“Roscoe! Duke, that’s like saying your own brother pulled the plug. If you had a brother. Grade school, high school, all the time since. I just don’t think…”
“Don’t go sentimental on me. Here’s the deal. Roscoe’s old partner, Buzzcut.”
“Same. Married to Roscoe’s daughter.”
“Ginny. Sure. Cute kid.”
“Yeah, fun couple. Lot of stuff going up Ginny’s nose. In and out of treatment. Major capital requirements, keeping her tuned up. Owes money to half the dealers in town.”
“Including some of your clients?”
“Unfortunately. You remember Little Phil?”
“Fat kid in the fedora. Pink Town Car.”
“Same. Roscoe is on vacation. Buzzcut is working alone. Does a traffic stop on Little Phil. Rolling through a stop light, some crap like that. Searches the vehicle. Finds ten thousand in the trunk. Grabs the dough from Little Phil, Ginny pays off her dealers, everybody’s happy.”
“Except for Little Phil.”
“Buzzcut tells Little Phil that ten thousand is cheap compared to what gets unleashed if he breathes a word. Might have worked, except that Little Phil is a geeky dude. Those tiny video cameras? Phil has one in his trunk. Candid Camera for Buzzcut. So we make a deal. TV stations don’t get the video. Little Phil gets his ten thousand back plus interest. Then you got attorney fees. And future considerations.”
“A get-out-of-jail-free card, sort of. An informal deal, let’s say.”
“A lot of blame to go around here.”
“Exactly. Except since when does anybody blame themselves? Hard to say who Roscoe loves more. Buzzcut or his daughter. So instead of taking it out on either one of them, he blames me.”
“And he sticks you?”
“This isn’t paint-by-numbers, Fatman. I don’t have the whole thing laid out. But it seems a little convenient, doesn’t it? First copper on the scene. What, he’s just passing by?”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I still got criminals and nuts.”
Tomorrow: Killers! Get in line!
“What next?” Duke asked. “Nuts or criminals?”
“There’s a big difference?”
“Considerable, in my experience. Your nut might get wrapped up in crime, but it comes as a surprise. No plan. Guided by voices. A humble guy who’s overwhelmed. Crazy solutions to manageable problems. Whereas the type of criminal I got in mind, the world exists for no purpose other than to serve his interests. You got something he wants? It’s not yours, it’s his. He can’t understand why you’re standing in his way.”
Duke scratched at the back of his neck. He gave me a pained look and squirmed in his seat.
“You sure there’s nothing I can get you?” I asked.
“My skin, Fatman? It feels like a bad suit. Like I don’t fit in my body. We take a lot for granted on the day-to-day.”
“Maybe some coconut butter. Doris has a cabinet full of potions.”
“This isn’t an over-the-counter problem. Best thing, ignore it. Keep our eye on the prize.”
“I’m ready.” I tapped my pen on the legal pad ahead of me.
“Okay. Criminal. You remember Boom Boom Calhoun?”
“Used to run with that motorcycle club.”
“Gang is more like it. Los Locos.”
“Clubhouse on Western, right? They had a war with… who was it?”
“The BPMs. Beer, Pussy, Motorcycles. A colorful bunch in their own right. A sector that consumes a lot of legal services.”
“Which ones were your clients?”
“You can do that?”
“Common enemy. Their legal problems were with the government. Being how guilty they were, they needed top-end representation. Out of court, they had a beef, their first thought ran more to guns, not lawyers. Generally we worked things out.”
“What about Boom Boom?”
“I tell you the whole story on these guys it will take all day. Just write him down for now.”
I already had a column labeled Cop with Roscoe’s name written below. I added another column headed Criminal and put Boom Boom in his place. “So who’s our nut?” I asked.
“Halloween, on my way to your place, who did I notice?”
“Maybe this isn’t the time for Twenty Questions.”
“Lot of people jog.”
“In a sombrero. Wearing overalls. And flip-flops.”
“That narrows it down.”
“Eccentric, sure. But killer? That’s a stretch.”
“When’s the last time you talked with him?”
“Beyond how’s-it-going-Edgar? Never. But the guy looks like a lamb. Those big empty eyes.”
“Another client. His parents died, I was executor.”
“They could afford you? That little bakery did that well?”
“Of course they couldn’t afford me. The way it worked was, I walked in, the old man pinched doughnuts right out of the grease for me. Dropped them in powdered sugar. Burn your mouth, they were that hot. ‘For you, Mister Duke Black,’ he’d say. Never let me pay. When he asked I couldn’t say no.”
“The old doughnut trick.”
Duke shrugged. “It worked.”
“Not with Edgar?”
“Hard to make the paranoid happy. Edgar thought I was cheating him.”
“Jesus, Fatman. How about some respect? I cut my fee by two-thirds.”
“Not cheap enough?”
“We had words. His words were revealed to him via the Archangel Michael. Hard to argue with that.”
“Duke,” I said. “I talk to you, I feel I haven’t been living. The big feelings, people have them about you.”
“They’ve got feelings about you, Fatman. For example, Doris. That makes up for a lot. Not to mention you’re living.”
Monday: We leaving out the gold-diggers?
“Women,” I said to Duke. “You want a column for them?”
“We’re talking about a parade now, Fatman.”
“The majorette then.”
“I’m a man who loves too much. Was, anyway. That’s the problem.”
“Just a name.”
Duke tugged at his ear. A piece of it came off in his fingers. “Hmm,” he said, looking at it. “Guess I’ve got to be careful. You got a trash can here?”
“Under the sink.”
He pushed himself out of the bench. I still had trouble with the knife sticking out of his back.
“Jenny Litely,” he said as he returned to the kitchen booth.
“I took her for a society babe, not a homicidal maniac.”
“Who says it’s either-or?”
“She’s still married to…?”
“Leo. But Jenny is not a for-better-or-worse kind of gal and Leo has his problems.”
“You know how it is with fifth-generation wealth. They think, I was born rich, I must be brilliant. They believe it’s their native wit that gets them insider deals, invitations to sit on this board and that board. In Leo’s case, the museum.”
“He’s still on that?”
“Leo bought into one of those Madoff deals. Unbelievably great returns, year after year. The key word being unbelievably.”
“He got toasted.”
“He must have a couple million left in the mattress.”
“You live that kind of life, the millions don’t last. Especially if you got a sweetheart like Jenny helping out.”
“What’s this got to do with you?’
“I was mixed up with the museum myself. Their new theater space? The Black Box?”
“I thought Black meant the color.”
“A joke. A three million dollar joke, which is how much it cost to get my name on it. I ran into Jenny at the gala, the director’s lunches, that sort of thing.”
“Leo is what? Hundred and fifty?”
“Probably not a day over eighty.”
“And Jenny? Forty?”
“She’s been tuned up. This side of fifty anyway.”
“So you and Jenny…?”
“I thought she loved me for my soul, Fatman!”
Duke’s face twisted up. He stuck his fists into his eyes and moaned.
“Duke. I… I don’t know what to say.”
He pulled his hands back and slapped them on the tabletop. “Ha ha, Fatman. Really. The heartache wasn’t what killed me.”
“Waste all the time you want to waste. It’s not me staring at the underworld.”
“Okay, okay. I figured she was looking for laughs while she scoped out her next move. She’s a sweet kid…”
He paused at that.
“Not really. She a schemer. But she knew tricks she wasn’t practicing on Leo. Acrobatics. Hot yoga. We had some good times. Well, I had good times. Maybe it was work for her.”
“Did Leo know? Could be he’s your man.”
“Leo has trouble keeping track of his meds, let alone his wife.”
“I haven’t even mentioned the kids. Most of them older than Jenny. Whatever part of the family fortune didn’t disappear in the so-called investment deal, she’s blowing on shopping trips. New York, Paris, Tokyo. Plus the kids suspect Leo’s bed is not her only port-of-call.”
“Maybe it’s one of the kids.”
“They wouldn’t know which end of the knife to hold. Them, we’re talking sixth generation wealth.”
“I don’t feature Jenny as a hit gal. Wouldn’t she hire the pool boy to do it?”
“She’s hands-on. Get her fired up, there’s no stopping her.”
“So she trades you for Leo.”
“She said I was so much more vigorous. So alive. That I made her feel loved. I brought out the passion in her that had been buried so long. Et cetera.
“We had some quality sack time, but seriously? She smelled greenbacks, I smelled trouble. I told her I thought it was time to let things cool down, maintain at least the pretense of propriety.”
“What did she say?”
“‘Let propriety be damned.’ To quote directly. Her theory being divorce, remarriage. After a decent waiting period. Like ten minutes. I said I wasn’t on board.”
“You know how it is with these types. A little pinch of the lips. Narrowing of the eyes. It’s not like she shouted, ‘I’ll kill you, you prick!’ I figured there was going to be trouble. Not knife-in-the-back trouble, but something. A woman like Jenny is used to getting what she wants. When she doesn’t…”
Duke shook his head. He was quiet for a while. Then he said, “Fatman, you mind giving that knife a jiggle again?”
Tomorrow: Concerning the nature of reality
Duke went quiet again except for some moaning as I jiggled the knife in his back. He let his head sink to the tabletop.
Sleet collected in the corners of the windows. Most of the trees were bare. Hooligans left a pair of pumpkins smashed on the sidewalk.
“All Souls Day,” I said to Duke.
“Day after Halloween. All Souls Day.”
“That’s me,” he managed. “All soul.”
“Except you got a…what?…presence? Desires. I should hook this knife up to a vibrator.”
“Could you?” Duke wondered.
He let his head slump against the table again.
There was so much to think about that I tried not to think at all. Impossible.
“Sorry to mention it, Duke. You got enough on your plate. But your situation?”
“It’s forcing me to question… How do I put this? The nature of reality.”
“Sure. It’s a lot to bite off. A tumbler of Scotch might help. Some premium weed. Both. Not interested myself. But you, might do you some good.”
“Probably not. I got enough trouble working on this sober.”
Roscoe. Edgar. Boob Boom. Jenny. One as likely as the other. All the suspects based on Duke’s hunches. Half the town could have done it.
You put your hand on a knife that’s already in somebody’s back, it’s not so hard to wonder if you stuck it there yourself.Like this: Duke knocks on the door. I look over his shoulder. I ask him, Hey, what’s that on the sidewalk? He turns. I pull out my kinfe.
Like stabbing a watermelon, except the blade rests amid the pulsing mass inside poor Duke. He crashes into the open door.
A gasp. A sigh.
He slumps to the stoop. The knife handle sticks in the air, like the flag planted on Iwo Jima. Death wins the war again. Duke’s cheek droops against the concrete. I stare for a moment at the blood that pools around the handle. Then I retreat inside.
“Did you do it?” Doris asks. “It is done?” It representing everything we want, everything we refuse to call by its name. Murder. Murder and a pot of money.
Except it isn’t what happened.
Except that it seems real enough.
When a dead guy stops by to chat and now sits at the kitchen table, who’s to say what’s impossible?
At that Doris walked in the door.
Tomorrow: We’ve got company!
“Honey, I’m home!” Doris yelled. This started out as an ironic nod to Blondie and Dagwood. The joke evaporated long ago.
“Wait right there, baby.” To Duke I said, “Just stay put. I want to ease her into this.”
“She’s a tough nut, Fatman.”
I pushed through the swinging door. Doris was hanging up her coat.
“You’re home early.”
“Not too early for a glass of wine.”
“Coming right up.” I pecked her cheek.
She said, “That all you got?” Doris stepped on my toes to hoist herself up, then grabbed my wattles and kissed me. I don’t know what she was doing with her tongue. Counting my teeth, maybe. Playing hackysack with my tonsils.
“Good day?” I asked, once she detached.
“Reeled in sixty thou and thought, hey, give yourself a present, girl. Go home early.”
“Sixty thousand in bad debt?”
“Ten here, fifteen there. It adds up.”
“What are you telling them? You’ll murder their kids?”
“As if they’d care. It’s a trade secret, Charles.”
She was still on my toes. She grabbed my belt and leaned back. “Where’s that wine, baby? I’m thinking celebration.”
“Something you ought to know?” I said.
“What, we’re out of wine?”
“No, not that. We’ve got company.”
She gave me a suspicious look. “Company? Where you hiding them?”
“In the kitchen. He, not they. Actually, Duke.”
“Duke is dead.”
“Yeah, that’s true.”
Doris is a gal with a flexible mind. She doesn’t waste time adjusting to however unreal reality might be. “He’s undead?” she said.
“Not yet. He’s got three days to figure out who killed him.”
“Like a grace period?”
“If he puts it together he can just be dead. If he doesn’t, yeah, he’s undead.”
“Stuck down in the underworld?”
“That’s how it seems.”
“Sounds like something Pimlipper and Graydon cooked up. Those undead lawyers evening up the score.”
“It’s a little fuzzy. It’s not like Saint Peter handed Duke the manual.”
“Where is he?”
“In the kitchen.”
“I suppose we’ve got to help him.”
“Sure we do. One thing, baby. He left you some money.”
“In his will.”
“That’s sweet. I mean it’s tragic. But it’s the thought.”
“Maybe fifty million.”
That stopped her cold. She stepped off my toes and let go of my belt. Doris got a far away look. I tried to figure out what was going on behind those eyes. I failed.
She patted my stomach. Without looking at me she said, “We better talk to him.”
Tomorrow: Quantity, not quality
“Doris,” Duke said. “You’re looking good.”
“I’d say the same, but…”
“Considering. It could be worse.”
“You’re the glass half-full type. You were.”
My theory was, death is a simplifier. Looking at Duke I had to wonder. Something awkward was stuck between him and Doris. What, I couldn’t say.
“Fatman mentioned the will?”
“So it’s true, you can’t take it with you.”
Then, silence. The conversation bumped up against whatever was between them in the past.
“Should I leave?” I asked. Petulantly, you could say.
“Grow up, Fatman,” Duke said. “You think Doris wasn’t alive until she met you?”
“I don’t want to hear about it is all.”
Truth is, I didn’t have that much of a life pre-Doris. Sure, there were women. A few. But I was killing time.
Maybe love is all about endorphins, dopamine, the brain chemistry that one gal triggers and another does not. Maybe it’s spiritual, impossible to explain with science. Doesn’t matter. We’re talking about the difference between stumbling down a cowpath in the dark and cruising a well-lit superhighway. When I met Doris I knew.
She was holding a pool cue in a bar. She wore a black dress. She had pulled her hair back into a tight bun. She looked like a nun who had taken a very wrong turn. Severe, luscious, trouble. There’s more to the story, but that’s enough for now.
Duke said, “Major regrets, you die, you start adding them up. The fog clears. Among the most major of my regrets is…”
“Let’s stop,” Doris said.
“My head was like a beehive. The buzz of temptation. Quantity instead of quality.”
“When you were living we didn’t get anywhere, talking about this,” said Doris.
“I’m not living.”
“That’s my point. Charles says you’ve got three days.”
“More like two and a half.”
“Then let’s not waste time on the past.” Doris said.
I held out our sheet of suspects. Doris squinted as she read. “This is all you’ve got?”
“Where do we start?” she asked.
Duke stopped to consider.
“Fadilah,” he said.
“The psychic?” I didn’t add, Are you kidding?
“You got a better idea?” Duke asked.
To which the answer was, No.
Tomorrow: Her professional capacity
Fadilah. Her actual name was Tashandra Williams. I’d known her since she was in diapers.
She took over from her aunt, Leona, after the dead pitched Leona through the window of her forty-third floor downtown apartment. When Duke, Doris and I encountered her in the underworld, Leona was, like all the rest of them, rage-filled and bent on vengeance. Her appearance wasn’t great, either. Leona looked like what she had been: a big woman who hit the pavement at one hundred miles an hour.
I’m not a skeptic, I’m not a promoter. Leona had certain abilities. Maybe it came to nothing more than this: unlike most people, she listened to what you said. She stopped to think about the why behind the words. Then she stacked up all the whys and come up with a plausible, What’s next?
I hadn’t yet seen Tashandra in her professional capacity. Mostly I remembered her as a skinny kid in cornrows, all elbows and knees, skipping along ahead of Leona. Leona moved with the gravitas of a queen who had just survived as assassination attempt, to which Tashandra played court jester.
“I can drive,” Doris said.
“I’ll meet you there.” Duke didn’t move from his chair.
“You just appear?” I asked.
“Something like that. I’m still getting the hang of it. There must be rules but I haven’t figured them all out.”
“Can we watch?” Doris asked.
“That isn’t how it works. You go on ahead. I need to concentrate.”
Monday: Leave it to the professionals
Doris is an impatient driver on a good day. When she’s agitated, the whole world is in her way. She leaned on the horn a couple times before we hit the light at University Avenue.
“You’re a little worked up,” I said.
She didn’t take her eyes off the road.
“You want to talk about it?”
“I mean, it’s upsetting. The old boyfriend shows up dead. Suddenly you’re rich. You’ve got to figure…”
“Be quiet please.”
Sleet piled up in the street. The train rolled down the track ahead of us. We watched it. There were a few passengers. We stared at them. Some stared back.
Other people. They’ve all got their lives. Mine is as insignificant to them as theirs are to me. Ciphers. I felt Doris edging into that category. So much had changed in so little time.
Feed my heart to the dogs. It would be a relief.
Doris made the left at Victoria. She ran through the gears. We pulled up around the block from Fadilah’s. She’s in one of those old frame houses that managed to survive along the busy street. Everything else is piles of cinder block or brick, most of it Asian restaurants, or auto repair shops or nail studios. Not much to look at. Fadilah’s place was a mess of Victorian filigree that could have used some paint.
The sign stuck in the front yard read,
We parked on the sidestreet and walked around to the front. The sleet underfoot was like ball bearings. I took two steps and hit the pavement. My head banged on the cement.
Doris hovered over me. “Charles,” she said. “You can’t go killing yourself now.”
She seemed to spin around a bit. I had to blink a couple of times before she stayed put.
“Just help me up.”
“This is a bad start.”
“Let’s stay up-beat, baby. Leave the predictions to the professionals.”
Doris brushed off my coat. “You think Duke is going to show?”
“What else has he got on his schedule?”
We hooked arms and minced up the steps to Fadilah’s door.
Tomorrow: Pre-reality visualization
“Tashondra! You’re all grown up!”
“Mister Fatman, no disrepect, but please. Call me Fadilah. In case other people hear.”
“No problem. You’re trying to run a business here. Hard habit to break. I remember you…”
“I know. Everybody remembers me. One of my business development obstacles. That’s what they tell me at entrepreneur class. Expand beyond your comfort zone.”
“They got classes in this?”
“Not in psychic, specific, but you know, Mister Fatman, it’s just one more business. All your typical problems. Marketing, billing, customer satisfaction.”
“You change the place much after your mother, well, you know…”
“After she passed?”
“If that’s what you call it.”
My memory hadn’t kept up with the actual Tashondra. She was still tall and lanky, but filled out in distracting ways. She wore her hair in an Angela Davis halo that you don’t see much anymore, plus a closely-tailored dark business suit with a white silk shirt.
“I like what you did with the place,” Doris said. “Spiritual but not…”
“A cartoon. Took it down a few steps. Had to. Momma was so old school. That red velvet wallpaper. The crystal ball. Really. The clothes. Looked like she fell off a gypsy wagon. Can’t blame her. Give the people what the people want. Now, people looking for a professional relationship. They want your leather chairs, your antique Persian rug. Tasteful lighting.”
“But they still want to know the future,” I said.
“Pre-reality visualization, Mister Fatman. That’s what we call it now.”
At that Duke appeared.
Tomorrow: Better off undead?
I’ll say this for Fadilah. A dead guy materializes with a knife in his back and she did not scream, she did not gasp, she did not even blink. “Mister Duke,” she said. “I wonder what brings you by?”
“You know each other?” I asked.
“Mister Duke and my momma did a lot of business. Back when they were alive.”
“Leona knew things,” Duke said with a shrug. “A hundred bucks with Leona went farther than a thousand with some of the blockhead PIs I used to hire.”
“She had a lot of respect for you, too, Mister Duke,” Fadilah said.
“I don’t know she’s so happy with me these days.”
“That’s between you and her. You got time to sort that out is what I hear.”
“I got time and I don’t have time.”
“Maybe Leona didn’t get the same deal.”
“What deal you talking about?”
“I got three days to figure out who killed me. Actually, not even two and a half. I’m on the clock right now. I figure it out and I’m dead dead. I don’t and I’m down there with Leona. Waiting to escape. Nursing my grudges.”
“You sure that’s so bad? Might not be great but it’s something.”
“Why is everybody so afraid of nothing?” Duke said. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to us or talking to himself. Usually he spoke like he was addressing a full twelve-person jury.
“All the things you ever worried about, gone. The dandelions, the interest rate, the dripping faucet, all the world’s scheming babes — you don’t care. You can’t even begin to care. It is no longer on your docket. You’re not even a molecule in the blackness of space. You’re done.”
“You know that?” Doris asked. “You know that for a fact?”
“I’m saying I know. When you’re right you’re right and you know it.”
“When you were wrong you thought you were right,” Doris added.
Me, I’ve got a shades-of-gray mentality. I believe there are a hundred ways to be right, a thousand ways to be wrong, and often enough you don’t know which side of the fence you’ve come down on anyway. I wondered what point Doris thought she was making.
“You all got a lot of opinions,” Fadilah said. “But you mind I ask what brings you by? You want to engage my services, or you want to stand in the foyer and shoot the breeze? Don’t mean to be harsh, but I got a business I’m running here.”
Tomorrow: Only the chumps have change
“We’re here to do business, Tashondra,” said Duke.
“You don’t mind me asking? But you dead, Mister Duke. How you gonna pay?”
Duke patted his back pocket. Nothing. He swatted at the breast pocket of his coat. Nothing again.
“Everybody says you can’t take it with you,” Fadilah said.
“Fatman? Doris?” he said.
“What are we talking about here, Fadilah?” Doris asked. She squeezes a dollar hard.
“Usual rate is one hundred, one hour. Plus twenty-five each additional client. One hour minimum. Looks like a hundred fifty. Cash is best but major credit card is okay. Pre-paid.”
“What, you get people running out the door?” Doris wondered.
“Everybody don’t always like what they hear.”
I handed Fadilah a Visa card. Resentfully. Duke died rich, Doris would have his dough, and I ended up with one fifty on my plastic.
Fadilah ran the card. “Come with me,” she said.
We followed her single file down a narrow hallway. Cracked plaster met the beat-up wainscoting. The floor was speckled with the dull green paint that flaked off the walls.
“Lot of history back here,” Fadilah said. “At first I thought, freshen it up, girl. Make it yours. But you know, Momma Leona took it over from her momma, and before that I don’t even know. You got all those things been happening here, one generation on top of the next. Could be going back a hundred years. Could be more. Powerful things all coming down in this old room. I felt Momma whispering in my ear, Leave it be, child. You don’t want to mess where you don’t gotta mess, speaking in spirit terms. So I thought, yeah, let it be. What you see is what you see. What you feel deep down in your bones, now that’s something else.”
She opened the door and let us pass.
Tomorrow: You ain’t breathing, Mister Duke
Fadilah was right. There was a feeling in the room.
I got the same jolt long ago, wandering in the Andes. The bus stopped in a village at fourteen thousand feet. I was woozy from lack of oxygen. People streamed toward a squat church on the square.
It was a Catholic church, but what was going on didn’t get the Pope’s seal of approval. An open fire burned near the altar. The walls were black with smoke. There were flowers, flowers everywhere. A sheep or llama or some type of hoofed creature bleated for a while up front, behind the mob of people. The bleating turned into a gurgling, followed by silence. The air was thick with the smell of people packed shoulder to shoulder, and the perfume of flowers, and the woodsmoke that rose to the ceiling before it sunk again. Then the singing started, more like a chant than a song, in a language unrecognizable to me. I could barely breathe. Anyone with a single brain cell knew that something powerful was happening, something outside the normal understanding of how the world works.
“It’s a little bare in here,” Doris said.
“Yeah, you thinking crystal ball, big dusty rug, velvet curtains, maybe some spooky stuff on the shelf. Human skulls, crazy shit. Pentagrams, maybe look like they drawn in blood. The usual. What you got instead is this.”
“It works, that’s the thing,” said Duke. “You walk in not knowing what the real deal is, then you stand here and this is it.”
“For a dead man, you got enthusiasm,” Fadilah said.
If the floor had ever been varnished it was a long time ago. A round, spindly table stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by four mismatched chairs. An army blanket, thrown over a curtain rod, blocked the light from the sole window. Plaster that fell from the walls got left where it landed. The walls were like the inside of a lantern glass, smudged to sepia, darker toward the ceiling.
“No use us standing around, staring at nothing. You all take a load off and we’ll get down to business.”
Fadilah shut the door. We made a racket, pulling out the chairs in the empty room.
“We got to hold hands. That’s the way it’s done.”
We took hold of each other.
“You got some warm digits there, Mister Duke,” she said. “For a man who passed.”
“That’s what we’re thinking about?” said Doris.
“Calm down, honey. You be quiet now and breathe. In and out. Got to get it synced up.”
I fell into a rhythm with Doris and Fadilah.
“You ain’t breathing, Mister Duke.”
“Don’t really need to.”
“You want to try?”
Duke made some snorting noises. “I don’t think that’s going to work,” he said.
“Okay, we got to work around. Close your eyes. Shut your mouths. Stop your thinking. We gonna sit here ’til you do, so don’t make it cost Mister Fatman any more than it got to. You all imagine somebody hitting a switch.”
The churning in my head slowed. I can’t explain how it worked. This is the next thing to death, I thought briefly. Then everything went to black.
Monday: Cosmos ain’t on a time clock
I was at the bottom of a well. The voice came from a long way up.
“Snap to, baby.”
Doris slowly came into focus.
“When are we starting?”
“We’re done. It’s time to go.”
“Why didn’t you…?”
Doris put her face a few inches from mine and looked into my eyes. The rest of the room wobbled up and down. I focused on her eyes, the way you look out at the horizon if you’re seasick. You try to pick a point that’s steady.
Whether Doris was that point anymore I didn’t know.
She’s not a kid. She’s showing her miles. Crows-feet, some loosening in the eyelids, sagging and bagging. Still. She looks at me and I know I’ve been seen. Tell me what I wouldn’t do for her! I thought about Duke and his money — Doris’s money now. I wished I could make it all disappear. What good would it do us?
We had everything we needed. Cozy little roof over our heads. Quality grub. Wheels. Wine. The garden out back. What more did we want? What would fifty mil buy us but trouble? A bunch of good-time buddies with their hands out. Relatives appearing from out of the woodwork. The inevitable question about whether the money was hers or ours. A genius would give it all away, but has anybody ever been that smart?
“What happened?” I asked.
“You been gone on a trip,” Fadilah said.
“I don’t think I moved.”
“A big trip to the blackness.”
“That’s it. A pinpoint of light and everything else was…”
“Nothing. Ain’t that right?”
“You had a lot of say about it. All you did. Regular altar call here. Speaking in tongues.”
I looked at Duke. Usually he’s got a glint in his eye. He knows something you don’t. He knows a lot you don’t. Now he seemed like he’d been smacked in the head with a two by four. Dazed. Swimming in his thoughts, which were I guess darker even than mine.
“What now? What did we say? What did you see?”
“I’m still figuring.”
“How long is that going to take?” asked Doris. You can find more patient people, as I mentioned.
“We standing here at the corner of Living and Dead, and it ain’t like the bus that comes by runs on a schedule, you know what I mean.” Fadilah pulled her blouse back into place. She looked like she’d been wrestling in her clothes.
“I got things I seen, things I ain’t seen, things I don’t know yet what they mean.”
“What?” said Duke. “For one fifty Fatman ought to be hearing something more definite. We’re looking for direction here. I’ve got a schedule.”
“You got a schedule, Mister Duke. The cosmos don’t got much schedule. Whatever time it takes, that what it takes.”
Tomorrow: You got a complicated case
“Throw me a bone here, Fadilah,” said Duke. “You say we all jabbered. You must have some ideas.”
“No point muddying the waters.” Fadilah tucked in her blouse. She pulled her skirt back into place.
“When you plan on getting back to us?”
“When I make some sense outa this. You got a complicated case.”
“Why more complicated than anything else you got going?”
Fadilah rolled her eyes, which was an impressive procedure. Her pupils disappeared, Greek goddess style. “Most people, what they want to know is, will I be happy? My man love me? Am I gonna get better from this sickness or that? So what do I tell them?”
“What they want to hear?”
“Exactly. But what you got is a specific problem with a specific answer. Like, who put a knife in my back. And you got about a million people who maybe did it. No offense.
“So you come in here and lickety-split you want the truth. I got all three of you yappety-yapping. Don’t know what to take serious and what to ignore.
“Picture I get is, nobody’s behind you on the night of. Boom, you got a knife in your back. What am I supposed to make of that?”
Traces of spittle appeared now on Fadilah’s lips. She began to shiver and sweat.
“Everybody wants to think the past is the past and the truth is the truth but there ain’t nobody who really knows what either of those things is for sure. Might as well all be a dream. Maybe most of it is.
“I get this picture. Kids running this way and that, crazy on candy, screaming like banshees. I got all the things you saw that you don’t even know you saw. The things you maybe imagined and never even saw. Man blowing bubbles. Lady midget smoking a pipe. Dude in a sombrero.
“Then, Mister Duke, I got you in a tunnel of red that goes to black and I got a picture from the lady that I’m not going to even going to repeat in polite company and I got Mister Fatman picturing his own self putting a knife in you.
“And you want me to make sense of this on a schedule? On a schedule?! Nobody even behind you far as I see and you got a knife in your back and you dead, dead, dead before you hit the ground.
“Excuse me but yeah, I got some figuring to do, you don’t mind. I got a world of figuring because ain’t none of this makes no kind of sense at all.”
Fadilah took a deep breath. A shudder went through her. Her head dropped to the table.
“What now?” said Doris. “We call an ambulance?”
I put a finger on Fadilah’s neck and felt around for a pulse. “She’s still breathing. She’ll be okay.”
“It’s all part of the show,” said Duke. “She’ll be fine.”
“We’re going to leave now,” I said to Fadilah. “You get any ideas, give me a call.”
She moaned and grunted. Her head rocked back and forth.
The sleet had turned to snow. Big flakes fell. It was dark now. The train whooshed by. A single set of footprints marked the sidewalk.
“What next?” I wondered.
“I was living, I’d say let’s go get a drink. But I show up in public, people are going to have problems. What about your place? We need a strategy. ”
“I thought this was our strategy. Consult with Fadilah.”
“We need a better strategy.”
“Obviously,” said Doris.
Tomorrow: Forget the midget
“You want a drink?” I asked Doris.
“I want a bottle.” She let her head fall back on the love seat.
I turned on the fire. Flame licked the fake log.
“I’m thinking whiskey. A little ice.”
“How about nuts? Maybe some cheese? There’s a baguette, right?”
Doris doesn’t let much stand in the way of a meal. Or a snack. Why she’s not the size of a piano I don’t understand. She’s got appetites, let me put it that way. I made up a plate, brought her a drink.
The whiskey was gone in a heartbeat. “Charles,” she said. “What about another?”
I needed some time to think anyway.
Everybody figures they want to hit the jackpot. Quit the job. Stop worrying about money. Buy whatever junk you please. Except that everything changes.
For instance, getting Doris another drink. I’ve gotten her a couple thousand drinks over the years. I’ve put meal after meal on the table. Truth is, Doris can barely fry an egg. Her idea of cooking is to start an argument with her ingredients. It all goes downhill from there. She wonders why the recipe insists on, say, milk. What would happen if you left it out? Who says water wouldn’t be just as good? Then she puts the fruit of her labors on the table and is enraged. Why don’t they build some flexibility into these so-called recipes, she snarls. What kind of fascist writes this crap? And so on.
Now that she’s a multi-millionaire-in-waiting, what am I? Her Man Friday? She could hire a platoon of Top Chefs to fetch her bon-bons. A day ago she needed me. Now she doesn’t. I love plying her with this and that. I love to watch her eyes widen as she hovers over my pico de gallo with a freshly fried and salted tortilla chip in her hand. Ole! Now I can’t help but wonder. Am I a sucker? A replaceable sucker at that? Who’s to say George Clooney won’t be sniffing around in a couple weeks?
Okay, I thought. I’ll ask her. You. Me. Duke’s millions. How are we going to handle this? Your money or our money? Are we in this together or what?
By the time I got back from the kitchen Duke had appeared. So much for that conversation.
Tomorrow: Scratch Mister Bubbles
The way it worked is, Duke showed up in a corner when your back was turned. You didn’t see him come, you didn’t see him go.
He settled on the sofa, which wasn’t so easy, considering. He propped his elbows on his knees and leaned forward.
“I don’t know about the fire,” he said.
“What, too warm?”
“More the association.”
“I can turn it off.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
“I’d get you a drink, but…”
“Save it. No point.”
I tried to figure the look Doris was giving Duke. Couldn’t.
“You want to start with the characters Fadilah named?” I asked.
“You got a better idea? Plus, it was your one fifty. Might as well pretend we’re getting something for it.”
“I say we scratch Mister Bubbles,” Doris said.
“Who is Mister Bubbles?” Duke asked.
“Not a back-stabber. He’s a character. Local color. You go to a neighborhood meeting, it starts getting tense. You know, drug dealers versus vigilantes. Slumlords versus homeowners. He gets out his bubble pipe, blows bubbles. Tough to have a serious argument with bubbles floating around your head. He’s all about keeping the peace. If he put a knife in your back, you’re worse than your reputation.”
“I was worse than my reputation.”
“What about the midget with the pipe?” I asked.
“I doubt she can reach that high,” said Doris. “Anyway, I know her.”
“Another character?” Duke wondered.
“Maybe not in the same league. But yeah. Remember a few years back? Pimp beating a prostitute on Victoria? Midget gal gets off the bus at University, sees what’s up. Pimp doesn’t look twice at a midget with a pipe. She kicks him behind the knee with her Doc Martens. Drops him. Kicks him in the head a couple dozen times until the cops show up. She might have got a medal except the use of force seemed excessive even to the cops. They did a nice write-up in Women’s Press.”
“Violent tendencies,” said Duke. “I don’t see we should count her out.”
“She’s a cream puff,” Doris said. “The deal with the pimp, it pushed some buttons for her. Abuse issues. Her Doc Martens had a mind of their own, that’s how she put it. Unless you spent your time punching out prostitutes, she wasn’t coming after you.”
“Who does that leave?” Duke asked.
“The sombrero dude.”
“You know this guy too, right?”
“His family ran a bakery on University,” I said. “Old school. Doughnuts, long-johns, bismarks, that kind of thing.”
“Stop, Fatman,” Duke said. “You’re making me wish I was alive. That place. When we were kids. Roly-poly German guy and his wife?”
“Yeah, yeah. She ran the register, he worked the back. Covered in flour. Carried the fresh doughnuts out on big steel trays. Your lucky day if you walked in when they were fresh out of the grease.”
“Winter days,” said Duke. “Half inch of ice frozen to the windows. The smell of that joint, Jesus. If you could put it in a bottle.”
“What would you call it?” Doris said. “The Fat German’s Bakery? The ladies aren’t lining up to put that behind their ears.”
“The flowery stuff is wasted on your average guy.”
“Perfume, it’s for other women. They know men are dead to the senses. At least you’re really dead. You’ve got an excuse. Charles actually notices.”
“Yeah, Fatman is a paragon.”
Duke tugged at his shirt collar. Something always seemed to be pinching or binding. “Tell me about the guy in the hat.”
Tomorrow: He worries me, that boy.
Re: what is normal?
A rich old babe who totes a teacup yorkie in her purse, feeding it from the table at a three star restaurant, talking to it as if it were one of the family: is she not nuts? Except that you cut the wealthy a few miles of slack. She might never have done purposeful work in her life, might be six generations removed from the robber baron who made the dough, might all but have a tail at this stage of the game, yet you assume, because she pulled up in a Mercedes, that she is not smack out of her mind. If you are the head of a foundation with a budget to make, you solemnly nod your head as she trots out dizzy theories concerning this and that.
Different story for the man in the sombrero.
He was in his fifties by now, delicate, gangly, fresh-faced, with clear blue eyes that could just as well have opened a portal to outer space. He covered his face with a layer of zinc oxide. There were things out to get him. He needed protection.
We all saw him in the streets, running, running, running, no matter the season. Sure, a lot of people run every day. However most of them do not run in Mexican sandals and a sombrero. When he passed me on the sidewalk I’d nod. “Yo, Edgar.” Edgar Schlaminski.
“Fatman,” he replied, as though checking me off a list. I didn’t ask why he was running. He was running from things that were after him. There were a lot of them.
Decades ago, back when his parents were alive and the bakery was a fixture on University, his father pulled me aside and said, “Fatman, maybe you talk to my Edgar?”
He handed me a fresh doughnut without giving it a thought.
Sugar dropped like snow on my jacket. “Sure,” I said. “Of course. About what? Why? Not that it’s a problem, but…”
I was maybe ten years older than Edgar. We knew each other but we weren’t pals.
Schlaminski the Elder shrugged. “Maybe he respect you. That’s what I think. You are a substantial young man.”
I was indeed substantial even then. Schlaminski held a platter of pastries. I pointed to a cake doughnut and raised an eyebrow. “Sure, sure,” he said. “Eat!”
“You talk to Edgar about, ahhh…” He stopped.
“Maybe you can fill me in a little more.”
I finished the doughnut. I was young then. I could have eaten a couple dozen. It was all I could do to stuff my greasy hands in my pockets.
“He worries me, the boy. He is, what you say…?”
Monday: How many times you gonna live?
Schlaminski the Elder wasn’t a native speaker, but then Shakespeare might have found himself at a loss for words to describe his son.
“Just go talk to the boy,” Schlaminski said at last. “Maybe you have an idea.”
This was in the days before there was a therapist on every corner. We all knew Edgar was odd, but that struck us like any other fact. Sun comes up in the east. Thunder follows lightning. You didn’t think there was much you could do about it.
“When?” I asked.
“Why not now?”
“Where is he?”
Schlaminski nodded toward the stairway. They lived above the bakery. “Here,” he said, handing me the platter of pastries. “Take this.”
I climbed the flour-dusted stairs.
The door was open. I stepped into a tidy parlor. Floral wallpaper. Doilies on the chairs. Violets blooming on a table near the window. Heat from the bakery ovens rose through a floor grate.
I heard him coughing in a room down the hall.
“Edgar, it’s Fatman. I got doughnuts.”
Nothing. I finished a doughnut. He still hadn’t appeared.
“You don’t come out I’m going to eat all them.”
“I’m sick of doughnuts.”
“Don’t break my heart, Edgar.”
“You finish them.”
I gave that some thought. There were at least a dozen on the platter. “You trying to kill me?”
“I’m trying to write.”
“What you writing?”
He opened the door. Greasy hair hung over one eye. He was still in his pajamas. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days and smelled like a hamper of dirty clothes.
“You want to know what I’m writing?”
I had a couple inches and a few dozen pounds on him, but he made me nervous.
“Sure,” I said.
“Okay. Come in.”
He shut the door behind me and turned the lock. The walls were covered with shelves stacked with notebooks, each of them labeled with a pair of dates. Beginning and end.
“What you got going on here, Edgar?”
“A library. Here. Take a look.” He reached up and grabbed a volume. He handed me the open notebook. The pages were filled with tiny cursive script.
”Go ahead. Read.”
His handwriting looked like ants crawling across the page. Orderly but unintelligible.
“Maybe you ought to read it to me,” I said. I handed the notebook back to him.
He took a couple steps toward the window, where the light was better. “December seven, nineteen seventy four, eight fourteen am, Pearl Harbor Day. Looking out the window. On the street, a cat. Three gray birds on the wire. Newspaper blows down the street. Bus stops. Eight sixteen am. Fly caught in spider web between the windows. Six people wait for bus. Eight eighteen am. Radio from the …”
“I think I get the idea, Edgar.”
“It’s my life.”
“Everybody’s life is sort of boring. Don’t feel bad.”
“I’m trying to remember. Nobody can remember everything.”
“Who wants to remember everything?”
“How many times you think you’re going to live, Fatman?”
“Once will probably have to do it.”
“What’s the point if you forget it all?”
“The interesting stuff you remember.”
“So you believe.”
“And if you forget…?”
“You might as well not be alive.”
“You write down every bit of trivia, you might as well not be alive. You could go out, do something worth remembering. Pick up a girl. Have a beer. Get a decent meal. Write about that. A few sentences, you’re in, you’re out, you’re ready for the next thing. The next real thing.”
“You’re saying this isn’t real?”
“Maybe it’s not so meaningful.”
“Who’s to say what’s meaningful?”
“Yeah, okay, you’re right. If it’s meaningful to you, sure, scribble away. But you’re worrying people. Your dad. He sent me up here. He wants me to do something.”
“You’re doing something. So. It’s meaningful?”
“No. It seems pointless.”
I still had the tray in my hand. I broke off a piece of doughnut covered in powdered sugar. Schlaminski was a genius; his pastries were like a drug.
“You’re not going to pick up girls or hang around in bars, treat yourself to a pastry anyway. Your old man, he’s the Leonard Bernstein of doughnuts. Show a little respect. By the way, you got any milk?”
“Leave me alone.” He put his notebook back on the shelf. Edgar sat on his bed. He pulled his knees up to his chin and buried his face.
“So, you had a good chat?” his father asked.
“You talked sense at the boy?”
“He’s not so interested in sense.”
Schlaminski tugged at his nose, which wasn’t a small job. “He kills my heart, this boy. Are we put on Earth for a purpose, Fatman? If so, then what is his purpose? Can you tell me that?”
“That smart I’m not,” I said.
Tomorrow: Odd odor for an idea.
“And the night I croaked, Edgar was there?” Duke said.
“He went running past.”
“He doesn’t really run,” Doris added. “It’s more a shuffle. The sandals.”
“The sombrero doesn’t help either.”
“You think somebody was wearing an Edgar costume?” Doris asked. “Mean, but funny, sort of.”
“Definitely an inside joke.”
“I don’t see why he’d have it in for me,” Duke said.
“I don’t know Edgar needs a reason. Not the way you or I might need a reason.”
“Maybe we make a housecall,” Duke said. “The personal approach, that could shake out the truth. Especially when the corpse asking the questions is the guy you killed.”
“Innocent until proven guilty, right?” I asked.
“Technically, sure. But who’s not guilty?” Duke laughed, which set loose an odor, something like freshly-turned dirt.
“For an idea, you got some odd smells coming off you, Duke,” I said.
“What isn’t complicated?”
“You know where he lives?” Doris asked.
“Same place. He kept the building after his parents died. Rents out the ground level to a nail salon. He’s still upstairs.”
“I’ll meet you there.”
“You need the address?”
“Don’t worry,” said Duke. “I’ll find it.”
Tomorrow: Lots of sniffing around.
Doris got behind the wheel. It’s easier on me to let her drive. Not easier on the rest of the world, since she’s got a lead foot and a heavy hand with the horn. Generally speaking, you are not driving fast enough for Doris. Her language as she’s strangling the steering wheel is, let’s say, colorful.
“You think Edgar’s the guy?” Doris wondered. “Jesus, these lights last forever,” she muttered. The train sped past. It ate her up to see other people get places when she wasn’t.
“Could be. I doubt it. Not much cause, considering the effect.”
“But as you said, no telling what seems like a reason to Edgar.”
“I don’t mind the world making no sense. But as a story it doesn’t work.”
“We’re going to die before this light changes.” She made the left against the red. We shot down University Avenue.
I don’t bother to comment.
With me, a lot goes unsaid. If there’s a bush, I beat around it.
“You feel like you won the lottery?” I asked.
“Do I feel different? Is that what you’re asking, Charles?”
“A lot could be different. You don’t need to work anymore. For one thing.”
“I need the money in hand before I quit my job.”
“You could be living on Summit Avenue.”
“I don’t know I’m that kind of snot bag, honey. All of a sudden it’s the pool boy, the cleaning lady, the gardener, the cook. You might as well be coaching a basketball team.”
“Lot of people going to be sniffing around.” I tried to sound casual. Something caught in my throat.
“Charles. What are you getting at?”
“I’m wondering. Ever since we’ve been together, people ask, what’s she doing with him? Sure, I joke about it. But it gets to me. And now?”
She didn’t answer as quickly as I wanted. I heard grinding of the mental gears.
Doris turned onto St. Albans to park since all the slots on University got whacked when they put in the train.
“Oh, Charles,” she said finally. “It’s only money.”
Given it was maybe fifty million bucks, I did not figure only was a word that applied.
Tomorrow: You get much company?
The snow and sleet that covered the sidewalk glinted under the street lights. If you don’t mind six months of cold or filthy, frozen slush piled beside the sidewalk, then the place has its charms. The sharp smell of acetone from the nail salon drifted into the street. Beside the door leading to the upstairs apartment was a hand-lettered card in a brass frame that read:
Doris stabbed the buzzer with a gloved finger. We waited. She punched it again.
“Who is it?” Edgar called.
“It’s Fatman, Edgar. You remember me?”
“And Doris. You know. Red hair. I used to come in the bakery. Your dad called me Firecracker.”
Edgar opened the door as far as the security chain allowed. He peered around the door’s edge.
“Fatman,” he said. “I don’t get so many visitors.”
“You make them stand on the street and talk through a crack in the door I can see why.”
“You want to come in,” he said. It was a statement more than a question.
“What do you think?” Doris said.
He opened the door.
“Maybe you’ve got a cup of coffee?” Doris tucked her hands under her crossed arms.
Edgar turned and walked up the stairs. We followed.
A trail ran through the dust on the steps. Mother Schlaminski would die again if she had to see this. Edgar held open the door for us at the top of the stairs.
Except for the hygiene level, the place was unchanged. Same fussy wallpaper, same doilies on the arm chairs. Edgar’s diaries now covered the living room walls as well.
“You get much company, Edgar?”
For that I got a what-the-hell-are-you-even-
Before Edgar could reply, Duke walked in from the kitchen.
“Who are you?” Edgar said. “How did you get in?”
“You don’t know who I am?” Duke said. “You sure about that?”
“Why should I know who you are? You’re one more guy in a suit.”
Duke turned around to show him his back. “Unlike most guys in a suit, I also got a knife in my back.”
“Halloween is over.”
“Maybe. But this isn’t a costume. More like a permanent condition. Go ahead. Give it a jiggle.”
Duke edged toward Edgar, knife handle first. “Go on,” he said. “No need to be shy.”
“Let’s not start that again,” I said to Duke.
“Just a little one. Go on.”
Edgar grabbed the handle and gave it a gentle shake.
“Come on, Edgar, put some muscle in it.”
When he did, Duke groaned.
“Okay,” I said. “That’s enough. Jesus.”
“What’s your problem, Fatman?” Duke said.
“I thought we were on a schedule.”
“As far as I can tell, it’s the one pleasure I’ve got left.”
“Nonetheless. How about we get down to business?”
“Edgar,” said Duke. “Let me explain my problem. Somebody stuck this knife in me last night. Left me dead on Fatman’s stoop. You with me so far?”
“Usually people say I’m the crazy one.”
Tomorrow: Suspicion can get in your way.
“The knife. Real. Right?” said Duke.
“Maybe it’s on some kind of harness. You got it strapped on,” Edgar replied.
“You’re suspicious. I like that. Your average guy, he believes everything you tell him.”
“Your average guy lies to you just for fun,” Doris said.
“Doris is in a tough racket,” Duke told Edgar. “Collections. She’s a sweetheart really.”
“Your average guy thinks the truth is a joke,” Doris said to Duke. I wasn’t sure what she was getting at.
“We’re getting off the point. Which is, for starters, I’m dead. Poke around,” Duke said, stretching his neck. “See if you can find a pulse.”
Edgar pushed a couple fingers up against Duke’s neck. He probed from Duke’s ear to his adam’s apple.
“Nothing. Am I right?”
“Maybe you’re one of those yoga masters. You can control this stuff.”
“As I was saying, Edgar, I like a suspicious guy. But you can take it too far. Beyond a point it gets in your way. Try this. Look into my eyes. Take a hard look.”
Edgar did as he was told.
“Those look like the eyes of a living person? Something’s there. Or not there. The spark of life. You see yourself alive in the eyes of others. Isn’t that how is works? You look into my eyes and what do you see?”
“I don’t know,” said Edgar.
“Death. You feel it in your bones.”
Silence. Then, “Okay. Let’s say you’re dead.”
“While we’re at it, let’s get back to the fact that somebody killed me.”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
“You’ve got enemies? You owe people money?”
“People owe me money. And sure, I got enemies. Anybody who’s been alive ought to have a few. I got a lot. I was really alive.”
“I don’t think I have enemies.”
“That’s not our problem right now, Edgar. My problem — our problem — is, somebody wanted to kill me.”
“I don’t see why this is my problem.”
“Normally it wouldn’t be. But we got reports, Edgar.”
“Reports you were in the vicinity. In the area where I got stabbed. People saw you running by.”
“How did they know it was me?”
“A guy in overalls, sandals and a sombrero. Sound like you?”
“That could describe a lot of people.”
“Where? In Mexico?”
“Actually, you don’t see that many sombreros in Mexico,” said Doris. “Remember when we were there, Charles?”
“I think we’re getting distracted, babe.”
“Back to the basics,” said Duke. “Halloween. You were out. Is that right, Edgar?”
“Okay. I was out.”
“More of a jog.”
“Jogging. So you left your house and turned which way?”
“Don’t you have to read me my rights?”
“Do I look like a cop? I’m not even alive, for Christ’s sake. I’m just trying to ascertain some facts here.”
“I don’t have to talk to you.”
“That’s true, Edgar. You don’t have to talk to me. But I have other resources.”
“What do you mean?” He looked at me and then Doris, as if we could help him.
“Even if you’re not totally accepting the fact that I’m dead, which I am, but anyway, the dead have powers.”
“You keep saying that.”
“I’m asking you as a consideration. An act of courtesy. Instead of busting directly into your brain.”
Monday: Ain’t no knock-knock joke.
“Busting into my brain?” said Edgar. Duke got his attention with that. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t have to ask to find out what you’re thinking. That’s what I mean.”
“Really?” I’m not ashamed of my thoughts. Not all of them anyway. Sure, some aren’t fit for public consumption. There are things I wouldn’t tell you to your face. “You can read people’s minds?”
Duke gave me a stern look. “For the purposes of our conversation now, let’s say that’s true.” He turned to Edgar. “Don’t make me do things I don’t want to do.”
“Okay. Okay. Halloween. Same as usual. Down to the street. Turn right. Past the bank. Past the fire station. Down to Lex, then another right. Over the bridge, right on Front, along the cemetery. Through the gate.”
“You run through the cemetery?”
“Creepy,” Doris said.
“Nobody bothers me. Unlike staying at home.”
“Tell us the truth and we’re gone,” Duke said.
“I do a couple laps. There’s a hole in the fence. I’m through that, over the tracks, across the mall.”
“Past the mosque?”
“You got a problem with Muslims?”
“None at all. So then…”
“Down Milton, turn on Charles.”
“Past Fatman’s house. That’s what you’re saying.”
“I got habits.”
“I thought you were a lawyer.”
“Not a psychiatrist.”
“Excuse me. I’m wondering who stuck a knife in my back.”
“You’re a jerk but I didn’t do it.”
“You still keep your diaries, Edgar?” I asked.
He gestured at the notebooks that snaked around the room. “What does it look like?”
“Why don’t you get out the entry for Halloween?”
“Those are my private thoughts.”
“You showed me once before. You remember that? It wasn’t so private. You did this. You did that.”
“Then you’ll leave?”
“Sure we will,” said Duke. “We’re not accusing you of anything. More like we’re eliminating suspects.”
“There’s a difference?”
“Jesus, Edgar, just get the book, okay?” Duke snapped.
Tomorrow: Monsters in the street.
I followed Edgar as he shuffled down the hall to retrieve his diary.
We passed the bedroom that his parents had occupied. The bed was made. Lace curtains hung in the window. A lamp on the bedside table put out a low-watt glow. It was like the room where Tolstoy died, untouched since their deaths. Old man Schlaminski went first, killed by a clogged-up heart. A broken heart took Mother Schlaminski a couple months later.
Edgar caught me at the doorway.
“What you doing, Fatman?”
“You mom and dad, they were decent people, Edgar. I was just thinking that. You were lucky you had them as long as you did.”
What was going on behind those blue eyes I have no idea. I could have been looking into a hole cut in a frozen lake.
“Let’s read this and get that creep out of here,” Edgar said.
We headed back to the parlor.
Duke and Doris were arranged hip to hip on the sofa.
Edgar could have been a school kid standing in front of the class. He put his heels together and held the book ahead of his face. He squirmed without moving his feet..
“You want the whole day?”
“How many pages is that?” Duke asked.
“How about the evening hours, say eight through nine?”
Edgar flipped through the pages. “I’m guessing. I don’t write by the hour.”
“Just give me something here, Edgar. Unless you’d rather I read it myself.”
He cleared his throat. “Night. Moon. Sliver. Leaves dead underfoot. Step step step. Monsters in the street.”
“What?” said Duke.
“Also, angels. Pirates. Clowns. Ghosts. Candy on the sidewalk. Kids. Kids. Smash. Pumpkin. Candles. The smell. Fire of leaves.…”
Edgar went on in this vein. A few minutes can be a long time.
“Stop,” Duke said finally. “Sorry Edgar. I run out of steam easy. A lot of people say that about me. No patience. You were just out jogging around.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Another day. Same as usual.”
“They’re all the same.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be. I’m not.”
Duke put his hands on his knees and pushed himself upright. “Have a good night, Edgar.”
“What’s next?” Doris said.
Tomorrow: World’s Unfriendliest Bar
Doris and I stood alone on University Avenue. Duke was there and then he wasn’t.
“How does he do that?” Doris wondered.
“He’s not the only guy who isn’t here,” I said.
Used to be that Frogtown’s streets were occupied. Not by people you wanted to know, unless you were a crack head, a dealer, a prostitute or a john. Then the bottom fell out of that economy. The dealers who weren’t imprisoned either wised up or wore out. Ditto for the crack heads. Now the light rail track forms a wall between one side of the street and the other. You can fire a cannon down the sidewalk and not run much risk of hitting anyone. The emptiness leaves you wondering if you missed the memo about the end of the world.
The breeze picked up as the snow and sleet stopped. Snow drifted down the abandoned street. Awnings flapped. My nose, which is not a delicate instrument, felt like it was being cut off my face by the wind.
“What are we doing?” I asked Doris.
“I don’t know. Waiting for Duke?”
“We don’t have to wait here. He can show up wherever.”
We headed back to the car. Doris slipped her arm through mine. Her touch reminded me of the simple old days, back before she was an heiress in waiting.
Have I mentioned how we met?
There’s a bar down the street from my place. You walk into the joint and every head turns. This is the old white guard, people who have watched the waves of immigrants crash on Frogtown’s shore. First it was the Vietnamese, then the Hmong, then the Africans, the Somalis and Ethiopians, all of them taking their turn to open restaurants, clothing stores, tailor shops, nail salons, groceries. Next it will be the Iraqis and the Afghanis, and who knows after that. All of them with their impenetrable languages, their garb, their customs which you now have the opportunity to contemplate.
No problem! You ask me, all men are brothers. I’ve had some entertaining nights in the Hmong bar on Dale, bending elbows with Blong, Chou, Bee and the rest of the guys. Most of them barely crack five feet, and where they put the alcohol is anybody’s guess. They approach drinking the way they approach work. They don’t leave the job half done.
I’m getting off the point here.
On the night I met Doris I walked into the the bar down the street, endured the inevitable gawking and glaring, grabbed a stool, arranged my girth, and motioned for a beer.
Tomorrow: She shouldn’t have been near the joint.
The bartender — need I say? — was an old white guy. He looked like he had recently died. He filled a glass and set it down before me wordlessly.
I noticed a woman running the pool table. Everyone noticed the woman running the pool table. Doris, of course. There was a lot stuffed into that package.
The hair: a flame-colored tangle. You could lose a couple hands in there. The eyes: you know they’re sizing you up, sorting out fools in less time than it takes to blink. The lips: like plumped up pillows on a well-made bed. The overall effect being one of mischief, a short fuse, trouble come calling in a couple dozen different ways.
Sports babble drifted from the televisions. The ambience was basic sullen drunkedness. Not much in the way of idle chatter. From the pool table: Tick. Click. Whack! Doris did not have a delicate touch.
The argument started the way these things do. People say alcohol is the cause. In my opinion it goes deeper than that. What brings you to a place like the world’s unfriendliest bar? Loneliness plus laziness. You’re sick of listening to the clock tick at home. You’re short on the ambition that would take you to a place with music, or art, or dance. To disguise the lame nature of your choice, a beer. Why not one more? Maybe a game. Pool will do. Coins on the table. Grab a cue. Chalk. Wait. One more beer. Finally, you’re on.
And you’re up against a female who might as well be an alien. She’s like the police decoys who used to work the neighborhood in john stings. So nicely put together. So enticing. So out of place. Is it your lucky day, Mister John, or are you a moron to believe it can be so? The answer being B, not A. A lot of men get that wrong.
Thus Doris. I didn’t know her name then.
Her just-beaten opponent skulked off toward the bar. Next up! This one wore a stained t-shirt with ripped off sleeves. Unlaced work boots. A homemade tattoo on his bicep that was hard to make out. Maybe a human skull, maybe a baked potato.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Break.”
Tomorrow: One more won’t kill anybody.
Tick. Click. Whack! An explosion.
Brute strength: there’s a lot to be said for it if you need to move a ton of bricks. If you want to put a ball in a little hole, however, there are better tools.
Thonk, thonk, thonk. Doris ran the table, put away the eight ball, batted an eye and said, “Next up.”
“What’s your name?” Doris asked.
She looked him over. It took a while. “Jimmy, we got people in line here,” she said at last.
“One more won’t kill anyone.” He offered a menacing grin at a kid leaning against the wall with a cue stick in his hand.
The kid shrugged. “I got time.”
“Okay,” Doris said.
Rack, break, boom, nothing, Doris: thonk thonk thonk. The same.
“Okay,” said Doris. “Next up.”
“Jimmy. I think you’re done.”
“I’m not done until I say I’m done.”
“I seriously doubt that.”
“No one ever taught you how to mind your tongue?”
“I’m sorry, Jimmy. I don’t think I heard you.”
“I said, you got a lot of attitude for such a little thing.”
“I’m trying to understand. Is that a threat?”
“I’m telling you what’s on my mind. You feel threatened, that’s not my problem.”
Most people don’t confront a bully, especially one the size of a refrigerator.
I suppose that explains why Jimmy was caught so flat-footed.
Doris clobbered him above the ear with the heavy end of the cue. Probably Mickey Mantle swung a bat harder. But that’s like making a distinction between getting hit by a truck and hit by a train. In practical terms it doesn’t matter that much. Jimmy, briefly, put on a stunned expression. Then blood began to spout. His eyes rolled back.
After Jimmy hit the ground, Doris turned to the bartender. “You want to call the cops?” she asked.
“Maybe I’ll call his wife.”
“That’s better or worse?”
“Hard to say.”
“You still want to play?”
The kid with the cue stick had to think about that.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“Sure, let’s play. I bet you’ve got a better attitude than Jimmy.”
“I do, ma’am.”
“You can call me Doris,” she replied.
She let him take a few shots, chatted him up a bit, acted like it was a game. It wasn’t, but still. It was nice of her to pretend.
Monday: You got good balance for a big man.
Jimmy snorted now and then from the floor.
“You think we should call an ambulance?” somebody asked. “That’s a lot of blood.”
“You always get that with a cut to the head,” the bartender said. “His old lady’ll clean him up good enough.”
“Maybe we should move him at least.”
“He’s out of the way where he is.”
We all went back to doing what we were doing. Drinking. Mostly not talking to each other. I glanced at Jimmy. He blinked, swatted at his pocket and made to reach inside it.
What he had in there I had no idea. Nothing, maybe.
I slid off my stool, walked over to him, put a foot on his wrist and settled down on it.
As I’ve mentioned, my weight is not inconsiderable. Something snapped beneath my foot.
Jimmy growled, cursed and passed out again.
Doris looked over at me from the pool table. “You got good balance for a big man,” she said.
“He was going for his pocket.”
“If you say so,” she said. “Thanks.”
I stood there for a while with Jimmy’s arm beneath my foot, watching her.
Doris went back to her game. Eventually Jimmy’s wife appeared, along with a wiry young gentleman who looked like he knew a thing or two about crystal meth.
“Jimmy,” she bellowed. “Can you hear me?”
“I brought Wade along. We’re going to take you home.”
He groaned again.
They got him on his feet and dragged him out the door.
Doris sat down next to me. “Let me buy you a drink,” she said. “For services rendered.”
A while later I said, “Let me buy you one. For the show.”
When she asked I gave her the name on my birth certificate.
“Charles,” she said. “Charles. I like a big man, Charles.”
“Lucky for me.”
No need to go into the details concerning the rest of that night. Let me say that the memory is a treasure, a wonderment, proof of God’s mercy and kindness. This world may not be just, but that cuts both ways. Sometimes, I admit, we get more than we deserve.
Tomorrow: Tu casa es mi casa
Uh. A little distracted there. Oh, the simple old days, when Doris and I minded our own business in my Frogtown love shack. I cooked what she wanted, when she wanted it. She needed a drink? Bottoms up! Not to mention the oil dribbled on her little piggies, rubbed between her toes, spread over the soles of her feet, this going on for hours, until she mumbled, “You can stop, baby. Really.”
Best not to think about that.
Try not to.
I parked the car, opened Doris’s door. She said, “All I want is some sleep.”
“Let’s get inside. Maybe a little taste of Glenlivet.”
“Get thee behind me, Satan.”
“Don’t go all biblical on me, baby.”
I opened the door. Duke sat at the kitchen table.
“You take the scenic route?” he asked.
“Duke,” I said. “I know it’s been rough. The murder. The stress. Clock ticking and all of that. But this is our home. You ought to knock.”
“Tu casa es mi casa, right?”
“It’s the other way around.”
“A technicality. Plus time’s wasting. I don’t have forever. I had seventy-two hours. Now it’s not even forty-eight.”
“I got to go to work tomorrow. Which means I need some sleep,” said Doris.
“You never have to work again. Call in sick. Quit. Buy the company. None of it matters,” said Duke. “You’re free.”
“I’m not free until I’m free. I don’t go to work, I don’t get paid. I know that check is coming. All these millions, so far it’s just talk.”
Doris gave me a peck on the top of the head. “‘Night, Charles,” she said. “You ought to get some sleep, too. You can’t think if you don’t sleep.”
She left us alone in the kitchen.
“She’s a hard-headed woman, Fatman. Not entirely reasonable.”
“You want to pick your battles.”
We thought about that for a while.
“So, scratch Edgar,” I said.
“Why would we do that?”
“Were you listening to him? That catalogue of non-events. ‘Smell of candles. Fire of leaves.’ All the rest of it. Unless you’re saying he bored you to death and the knife was frosting on the cake.”
“What I’m saying is, who tells the truth? That’s what he told us. What he actually did, we don’t know.”
“Why would he stab you? Name a single reason.”
“Because I’m successful and he’s in some loony tunes library of his own creation. Because I had everything I ever wanted and he’s had nothing he ever wanted. Because he sits in his dead parent’s house while I drove a BMW and wore Italian suits. Jesus, some days I could have killed myself. You know how we grew up. Lard and sugar sandwiches, for Christ’s sake. Patches on our pants. I looked in the mirror sometimes and wondered, Who is that jerk? The answer being, a different guy. A new man. I was Edgar, I could stick a knife in my back. No problem.”
“Where do we go with that?”
“Without any further evidence, nowhere. I’m hypothesizing. I’m constructing a possible reality. In the light of what we know. Though we’re basically in the dark.”
“What’s our next move?”
“Why don’t we talk to Roscoe?”
Tomorrow: Who says we need a plan?
“You want to get in the car or you want to appear?” I asked Duke.
“You know where Roscoe is?”
“Maybe his house. If he’s working, who knows.”
“Let’s try the house. I’ll ride with you. We can chat. You got bucket seats in this heap, right?”
“Leather. Luxury automobile.”
“Yeah, back when? Nineteen ninety seven?”
“Ninety six. It’s dependable.”
“Fatman. Tell me this. What in life is truly dependable?”
“Okay, most of the time it works.”
“You say so.”
Duke climbed in. He arranged himself so that the knife handle was in the space between the two seats. His head ended up on my shoulder.
“Like I’m on a high school date,” I said.
“Cozy.” Duke put his hand on my thigh.”You don’t mind if I…”
I slapped his hand. It felt like a piece of putty.
He laughed. Hollow sounding, but a laugh. “Ha. Can still get a rise out of the Fatman.”
I turned on Sherburne Avenue. Roscoe’s house was west of Dale, behind the bank. “Aren’t cops supposed to live in the suburbs?” Duke asked. “A little rough here.”
“His parents’ house. Same deal as Edgar. They died, left him the place. Been here all his life. Can’t imagine living anywhere else is what he says.”
“It takes that much imagination?”
“For Roscoe, yeah. He’s still got his mother’s Hümmel collection on the sideboard. All those big-eyed porcelain kids.”
“Too much of a momma’s boy. Couldn’t find a woman who wanted to compete.”
“This a neighborhood or a nuthouse?” Duke said.
“Little of both.”
The dusting of snow buried most of the litter. Street light reflected from the snow stuck to the bare tree branches. Kids had worn away the sod in most of the yards, leaving patches of dirt behind the chainlink fences. But now, briefly, the yards were spotless, white. You don’t mind navigating sidewalks that people are too lazy to shovel, you could say this is the best time of the year. Nobody sitting on the curb, nursing a forty. Too cold to stand around arguing in the street. The illusion of tranquility.
I pulled up outside Roscoe’s house. His dad worked at the rail yard that used to be at Minnehaha and Dale. The shops got ripped down decades ago, but the little houses the workers built for themselves are still standing, sort of.
A light shone behind Roscoe’s front window. Roscoe had shoveled his sidewalk, which made him an overachiever on his block.
“What you think?”
“He’s home,” Duke said.
“Okay. You know. So what’s our plan?”
“Who says we need a plan? We knock on the door. We invite ourselves in. Roscoe gets us a drink because that’s the kind of guy he is. We sit on the couch. Talk about whatever. Wait for him to ask, ‘So what brings you boys by?'”
“Yeah, he might have some questions about what brings you by. Considering.”
“So far, Fatman, people seem understanding. They’re accepting of the dead from what I can tell.”
“You give people a chance, they get used to anything.”
I turned off the engine. We knocked on Roscoe’s door.
Tomorrow: The Doubting Thomas maneuver.
“Halloween wasn’t enough? You celebrating Day of the Dead now, Fatman?”
Roscoe looked boozy and bleary. His t-shirt could have used some bleach. “Good costume on your buddy,” he said.
“No costume, Roscoe. It’s me, Duke. In the flesh. Sort of.”
“Right. And I’m Alan Funt. Duke is dead. Maybe you should think twice, dissing the deceased.”
“Roscoe. You’re supposed to be observant. This look like a mask? I’m not Duke, who am I?”
“Old white guys. You got your three basic types. Your skinny guys with the gray beard. Fat guys in Carhartts and baseball caps. Fat guys in suits. You, pal, are category three. Fat white guy in suit.”
“Wipe the liquor out of your eyes. Take a look.”
Roscoe struggled to focus. His gaze shifted slowly back to me. “You ought to wear a suit, Fatman. You’re screwing up my categories.”
“It’s Duke, Roscoe. You’ve known him since forever.” To Duke I said, “Show him the knife.”
Duke sighed. “The Doubting Thomas move. Okay. If I must.”
Duke turned around.
Roscoe squinted at the blade. “I don’t have my glasses,” he said.
“Go ahead, give it a tug. You’re a professional. You know something about stabbings, right?”
“I’m a cop, not the coroner.”
“Still. Give it a wiggle.”
Roscoe grabbed the handle and twisted. As always, Duke groaned. His eyes rolled back. As a type of pornography, this would have been better left undiscovered.
Roscoe put a finger to the glistening patch of blood around the blade. He crossed himself and said, “Mother of God. Holy shit. The dead will live, their corpses will rise and those who dwell in the dust will shout for joy.”
“Jesus, Roscoe,” said Duke. “You mean all those years at St. Agnes you were listening?”
“It’s like water on rock. Stuff gets in the cracks. I wouldn’t say I’m shouting for joy. My opinion, best the dead stay dead.”
“How much you been drinking, Roscoe?” I asked.
“A little. Not so much.”
“Takes the edge off?”
“I got a lot of edge.”
“You’re taking it well, the dead living and all of that.”
“What am I supposed to do? Get out the garlic and crucifix? Things are what they are.”
“I can work with that,” Duke said.
“Might as well sit down,” Roscoe said. “What you want? Beer? Wine? Hard stuff?”
“Okay, beer,” I said.
“What about your pal?”
“Really, Roscoe. We go back. Call me by my name.”
“Sure buddy. What you having?”
“Nothing. Since I been dead, nothing. No eating. No drinking. Nothing.”
“Cheap date, right, Fatman? Come in the kitchen. No point walking back and forth.”
“When your parents pass, Roscoe?” I asked.
“Mom, nineteen seventy nine. The old man six months later.”
“You didn’t change a thing.”
Sure, if you were a historical re-enactor. A fluorescent fixture buzzed on the ceiling. Boomerang-pattern Formica. Harvest gold stove. Avacado refrigerator. Dark fake-wood cabinets. Microwave the size of a steamer trunk.
“Takes me back,” I said.
“The good old days. When dead guys stayed dead.”
Roscoe handed me a can of Hamm’s.
“They still make this?”
“Sure they make it.”
Duke drummed his fingers on the table.
“What,” said Roscoe. “Dead guys got a schedule?”
“Truth is, yeah, we do.”
Tomorrow: Eternity with those characters?
“I had seventy two hours to figure out who killed me,” Duke told Roscoe. “Right now, I got…” He pushed back his French cuff to check his Rolex. The hands were stuck at eight forty seven — the minute he got stabbed.
“You got the time?” Duke asked.
Roscoe glanced at the clock on the stove. “Five after eleven.”
“Less than forty two hours.”
“Into the underworld. For keeps.”
“Tough crowd,” said Roscoe. “Considering what a mess they made when they got out. That psychic tossed from the high-rise. The Colonel stuck to the table with his sword.”
“You’re forgetting Ivan,” I said.
“Oh, yeah, the mechanic. They dropped your Volvo on him.”
“I never got the car back from impound,” I said.
“Evidence.” Roscoe shrugged. “That’s the way it goes.”
“Settling scores. That’s all they think about, the dead,” Duke said.
Roscoe emptied his glass. ”I got a couple dozen scores I wouldn’t mind settling.”
“You want that to be the only thing on your mind when you open your eyes in the morning?”
“Who says it’s not?”
“You think it’s going to make you happy, getting even. It’s what the lawyer racket is all about. You win your case, you settle your score, somebody goes to jail, you get a suitcase full of money. You think that makes people happy?”
“More or less. From what I can tell. Good and evil, sorted out, everything in its place. Same with the cop business, except for the cash.”
“You want to know the truth, Roscoe? There’s a box in everybody’s head and we all want to keep it filled. The grievance box. Soon as you empty it out, you got to fill it up. People love to feel aggrieved. They can’t get enough of it.”
“Death didn’t brighten you up, pal.”
“You don’t have to die to figure this out. The grievance industrial complex, it was my bread and butter. The lawyers, the judges, the investigators, the court reporters, the clerks and law librarians, the paralegals, the BMW salesmen.”
“The BMW salesmen?”
“Where would they be without lawyers?”
“They’re not living off cops.”
“My point is, justice and happiness are not the same thing.”
“You came all the way back from the dead to tell me that?”
“It’s not that far. And no. I’m here to figure out who killed me.”
“I thought you weren’t interested in justice.”
“I’m not interested in eternity in the underworld.”
Monday: The truth sets you free. True or false?
“Maybe it’s a trap,” Roscoe said. “Maybe the point isn’t to figure out who did you in.”
“The truth sets you free, right?” Duke replied. “Though I’ve got my doubts.”
“You’re dead regardless. You less dead if you figure out who stuck Fatman’s knife in your back?”
“Hold on,” I said. “We don’t know it’s my knife. It’s a knife like some knives I happen to own.”
“And you’re missing one, right?” said Roscoe. “Kind of an odd coincidence, wouldn’t you say?”
“Odd stuff happens all the time.”
“Yeah, maybe the knife fairy has a treasure chest of Wüsthofs and she sprinkles them around. One just happened to end up in Duke’s back.”
“This is why people hate cops, Roscoe. It’s the cynicism.”
He grabbed the bottle of Beam from the table and poured himself four fingers. “As I was saying, suppose you forget about who done you wrong? You’re dead. You got some time on Earth, who knows why. Maybe you should use it to consider your life. Set some things right. Finding the guilty, hunting him down, it’s a lot of negative energy.”
“Who am I talking to here? Timothy Leary?”
“Why do you think you escape the underworld if you find the guy who did you? You get a memo or what?”
“You know some things after the lights go out. Why I don’t know. But I know. Is this crazier than anything else? You’re nothing. You’re born. All of a sudden you got needs, desires, opinions. Consciousness, more or less. Depending. And then, whammo, nothing again. The strangeness of it, Roscoe. That’s what I’m talking about. Why not the underworld? Why shouldn’t there be a way to escape it?”
Roscoe knocked back half his bourbon. “Maybe the point of finding who shanked you is to forgive him or her. Why not eliminate the unnecessary work? You don’t need to know who did it to make your peace. Put out an all-points forgiveness.”
Duke seemed to consider this. He squirmed in his chair. Then he tugged at his lapels to rearrange his suit.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“You mind giving that handle a little shake, Fatman? It doesn’t feel right.”
“Since when does a knife in your back feel right?” Roscoe asked.
I sighed. Twist, gasp, groan. “How’s that?” I asked.
“Just a little more.”
“Let me get a camera,” Roscoe said. “Looks like a new niche for gay porn.”
“Someday you’ll be dead, Roscoe,” Duke said.
“No argument there.”
Duke pulled himself up straight in his chair. He fixed Roscoe with his not-quite-living eyes and bored in as if he could look inside Roscoe’s skull. Back when Duke was alive this was an intimidating move. Now it was something else again.
“Roscoe,” he said at last. “I wonder. You got anything else to tell me?”
Tomorrow: It’s nothing personal. Well, actually, it is.
“What you mean, do I got something else to tell you,” said Roscoe. “What else you think I got to say?”
Roscoe did an imitation of sobriety. He only slurred his words slightly.
“Excuse me, Roscoe. Nothing personal.” Duke paused. “Well, it is. You get stabbed, you do take it personally. What I’m saying is, I can understand.”
“Some days, I could have murdered myself.”
“I don’t get this.”
“Of course you don’t.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean, you’re not me. You get up in the morning, you look in the mirror, what you see?”
“A guy who needs a shave. A guy who needs more sleep.”
“A guy who grew up to be a cop. You wanted to be a cop, what, all your life?”
“Sure. My dad was a cop. My uncle was a cop. Half the family, cops.”
“Your reach, your grasp, same thing.”
“No real contradiction between how you were raised and what you became.”
“The family business. Except we didn’t own it.”
“Lucky for you. Imagine paying the settlement every time some knucklehead gets thumped by the coppers.”
“But me. Different deal. The old man was a garbage hauler.”
“Sure. I remember.”
“Honest work, somebody’s got to do it, so on and so forth. Still. He gets home on a summer day, it’s not like he’s been bathing in Chanel Number Five. Garbage juice. You get splashed, you’re a human landfill. The crap he’d bring home. ‘Too good to throw away! Can’t believe the things people toss!’ The backyard looked like a lunatic hoarder had taken over. Which was a fair description. Nuts. Or to be slightly more understanding, the product of his environment. Grew up poor. Died poor. Except he had so many possessions we needed three thirty-yard dumpsters to settle his estate.”
“This isn’t news, Duke. I remember.”
“Sure.” Duke closed his eyes, remembering himself.
When his eyes stayed closed I started to wonder.
“Duke!” I said. “You still with us?”
Roscoe grabbed his shoulder and shook him.
“What?” Duke said. His eyes popped open. They didn’t focus at first.
“Your dad. Your old house,” I said.
“Oh yeah. You haven’t had a reverie until you’re dead and have a reverie. Wow.”
“I can wait,” I said.
“How you wanted to kill yourself, you were saying,” said Roscoe. “I don’t get it. What you got to be unhappy about?”
“Okay. Let me fill in the blanks.”
Tomorrow: Isn’t he special!
“Fill me in, said Roscoe as he shook the cubes in his bourbon. “I love to hear about the problems of guys with too many women, too many cars. More money than they know what to do with. Go on, break my heart.”
“You wake up, Roscoe, there’s no contradiction between how you were raised and what you are. Whereas…”
“You want to haul garbage, you can find work. Even dead. Plenty of room in that industry.”
“I’m saying sometimes I see myself the way the old man would see me. Standing there in his crapped up overalls, holding junk he yanked from a garbage can. A broken lamp. A vacuum without wheels. Treasure! Just needs a little attention! And now will you look at Mister Silk Stocking lawyer. Doesn’t own a wrench. Wouldn’t know how to sharpen a saw. Standing there in his Italian shoes and his Italian suit, billing three hundred dollars an hour. Makes more in a week than I made in a year. Isn’t he special?”
“Duke, your father’s dead for what? Thirty years? He’s not giving you much thought.”
“Maybe he’s waiting. In the underworld.”
“True. Can’t rule that out. Given the evidence. Nonetheless. He had his life, you had yours.”
“It had its contradictions.”
“Maybe you’re focused on the wrong ones.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s not the money, it’s the morality. Your life was based on milking scumbags.”
Duke gathered himself up at this. “Everyone deserves the best…”
“…lawyer he can buy,” said Roscoe. “Everybody innocent until proven guilty. Lawyers are a necessary instrument of justice. We leaving anything out?”
“A few things. But don’t let me interrupt.”
“You represented guys so guilty you wouldn’t put their own mothers on the jury. Guys who paid you with blood-soaked bills. Money from drugs, from murder. That’s what you’re wearing on your back. A suit of bloody rags. The pictures on your walls, they ought to be portraits of the innocents your clients slaughtered. One thing about your being dead, Duke. Some knuckleheads who ought to go to prison are going to end up there. Assuming there’s not another genius like you waiting in the wings.”
“Sounds like you take it personally.”
“I didn’t stick a knife in your back, if that’s what you mean. But maybe I don’t hold it against the guy who did.”
Tomorrow: Sharing a coffin
“Now what?” I asked Duke.
We were back in my Volvo. Duke arranged himself with the knife blade between the bucket seats. His head ended up on my shoulder.
“Maybe this would be easier if you leaned forward,” I said.
“The seat belt won’t reach.”
“You need a seat belt?”
“The warning chime will drive us nuts.”
“Buckle it behind you.”
“No, this is good.”
“It’s like sharing a coffin, you want to know the truth.”
“Why go negative? We’re talking. We’re working together. We got a project here, Fatman.”
“True. But you’re still dead.”
“What’s the difference? My heart’s not beating, okay. I’m not breathing. Don’t need to eat or drink. Sex? Not really interested. Anyway, most gals wouldn’t go for it.” He stopped to think about this. “A few, maybe. There are some characters out there. In my experience. But you look at it from your point of view, did you ever care about my lungs? We shared thoughts, we compared notes. We communicated. We’re still doing that. So what if I’m dead?”
“People see it as a barrier.”
“People! Most people, you put death in a package, you get a celebrity endorsement, you buy an ad at Superbowl halftime, they’ll line up to hand you their credit card. New and improved! Gluten-free death! That’s most people for you. I thought we were operating on a higher level.”
“Okay, okay. Stay where you are.”
“I got to get some sleep,” I said.
I keep regular hours. Breakfast at seven, lunch at the stroke of noon, dinner at six thirty. Bed by ten.
“We got work,” Duke said.
“Don’t you sleep?”
“I don’t know. Not yet. It doesn’t seem necessary.”
“There’s the difference between you and me.”
“To name one.”
“You want me to drop you off somewhere?”
“I like the companionship, Fatman. Wandering around the city, dead, I don’t know. Sounds bleak. I’ll go home with you.”
“Nothing’s going to be happening there. Doris is already snoring. I’m right behind her.”
“Snoring, yeah. A bit of a drooler, too, as I recall. She used to look so innocent in the morning with that trickle of drool running down her cheek.”
I let that pass. It was enough to know that Doris’s accounts would be stuffed with Duke’s money. I didn’t need to hear about the rest.
I parked, then waited while Duke worked his way out of the car. In the kitchen I asked, “Can I get you anything? A book? You want to watch a movie?”
“You’re in my position. Last hours on Earth. As far as I know. There’s a movie you want to watch? A book you want to read? Seems, I don’t know, paltry, doesn’t it?”
“I’m up at six thirty. I’ll see you then.”
I heard him pacing. For a while it sounded like he was rearranging the furniture. I fell asleep.
My bladder isn’t what it used to be. If I make it until two without a trip to the bathroom, I’m lucky. I woke up, stared at the ceiling, hoped I would fall asleep again. Didn’t. Got up.
There was Duke, standing in the corner of the room, eyes wide open, watching us sleep.
Tomorrow: You want sordid, I’ll give you sordid.
I nodded at Duke. He nodded back. The dead are not easily embarrassed. I thought of telling him to stand in another room, but I didn’t want to risk waking Doris. How would she come down on this? Shrug and fall back to sleep, or go volcanic?
I don’t claim that I know Doris inside and out. I’m not sure Doris knows Doris inside and out.
I went to the bathroom and got back into bed. I tried to ignore Duke, as much as you can ignore a dead guy staring at you from a corner of your bedroom. Eventually I fell asleep. I woke at six thirty, as usual. Duke was gone.
I smelled coffee brewing.
I put on a robe and slippers.
In the kitchen I found Duke, pushing the plunger down on my French press.
“Finally,” he said.
“What happened to not eating and drinking?”
“This is for you, pal. For Doris if she ever wakes up. You want toast? A couple eggs?”
“I can get it.”
“I’m not contagious. Sit down.”
Duke put a cup of coffee ahead of me.
Doris shuffled in. She’s not what you would call a morning person. Her hair was a mess. She wore a ratty blue robe and pink fuzzy slippers.
“Coffee?” Duke said.
She mumbled something. Duke set down another mug.
“We got cream?” Doris asked.
Duke sung a few bars about how she was the cream in coffee, the salt in his stew, his necessity, he’d be lost, et cetera. He put the cream on the table with a flourish.
“How come the liveliest person in the kitchen is the deadest?” Duke asked.
“How come there’s so much talking at this hour?” Doris wondered.
“We got business to take care of.”
“I’ve still got to work.”
“Don’t worry. I took care of it.”
“What do you mean, you took care of it.”
“I called in sick for you. Said you were too ill to talk. You won’t be in today for sure. Maybe not tomorrow.”
“I am not.”
“How am I…”
“You could buy the company fifty times over and still have money left. A day of work is not as important as…”
“I told you this before. When I have the money in hand I’ll stop worrying. Right now all I have is a promise. Which is not the only promise you ever made to me.”
“That was different.”
“You want to explain how?”
Doris was awake now. A flush spread up her neck and across her cheeks. A thermometer stuck in boiling water, that’s what came to mind.
“You want to clue me in?” I asked.
“Why don’t you tell him?” Doris said.
“Ah, we had a misunderstanding. Matrimonially speaking.”
“What?” I looked from Duke to Doris and back again.
“She believed I proposed.”
“‘Will you marry me.’ That sounded like a proposal. In English. Maybe you were speaking a different language. Maybe I’m too literal minded.”
I wondered if Duke would end up with two knives in his back. Looking at Doris, I also wondered if she knew more about how the first one got there than she let on.
“It wasn’t my finest hour. I said that already. More than once.”
“You were spending some fine hours. But not with me.”
I put down my coffee cup.
“Before we go on,” I said, “maybe you should explain what this is all about.”
“Sure,” said Doris. “You like sordid, you’ll love this.”
Monday: Pants. Ankles.
“We really got to go into this again?” Duke asked. “It was bad enough while I was living.”
“Not so bad, I think,” Doris said.
“I’m trying to make it up.”
“The short version, that’s enough,” I said. “No need for the last detail.”
“Duke and I ran in the same circles. Your bad debt and criminal crowd, some overlap there. Not a society bunch. But money, everybody had money. Everybody loved a party.”
“The parties, Fatman,” Duke said. His eyes went misty, remembering. “Liquor flowing like the Mississippi. Coke. Weed. You name it. Dancing until the sun came up. The women. As if beautiful women were the only kind God ever made. Which is where I met Doris.”
“That party with the guy running for governor,” said Doris. “The guy caught fondling the teenager in the pool. That’s where we met. Figures.”
“That crowd, you get rough spots,” Duke said. “Judges and lawyers, public officials, now you ask them, they weren’t there, they didn’t inhale, their pants were never down around their ankles. Lucky for them the cellphone video didn’t exist. Your rich and powerful would be the broke and indicted.”
“Anyway, we drank, we danced, we did this and that…” said Doris. She had a far-away look.
“Really, baby, the thising and thating, I don’t need to hear.”
“We had some good times is what I’m saying. In fairness.”
“Better than good,” said Duke.
“Next thing I know I’m on my way to Isla Mujeres. Swinging in a hammock. Sunrise on the beach. I was a kid. Easily impressed.”
“All due respect, you were never easily impressed.”
“I didn’t seem like it.”
“I tend to go with Duke here, baby,” I said.
“Regardless. One thing leads to another. Isla Mujeres, Paris. Paris, Duke’s penthouse. I moved my things in crummy boxes.”
“I said, ‘Throw it away, sugar, throw it all away. We’ll buy new stuff.’ Of course that didn’t fly.”
“Money. It was all new to me. I was a pretty face.”
“You had other features,” Duke said.
“Can we get back to the story here?” I asked.
“We’re standing on the balcony. City stretched below us. Sun going down. Glass of champagne. Mister Romance gets out a tiny velvet box. Engagement ring. Diamond the size of an ice cube.”
“I don’t know I specifically said, ‘Will you marry me?'”
“Maybe we could get a transcript. But on the basis of the evidence. Man hands over hinged box. Inside, big diamond ring. What was I supposed to think? You wanted to do my taxes?”
“I’m saying it was a misunderstanding. I’ve got faults, sure. I’ve been too generous, and more than once.”
“Yeah, that’s your big problem. People don’t understand your willingness to give of yourself. In so many ways.”
“As I was saying, a misunderstanding.”
“Let me tell you how this so-called misunderstanding got straightened out,” said Doris.
“We really got to go through all this again?” said Duke.
Tomorrow: I opened the bedroom door and there…
You know about the chickenpox conundrum. Scratch: yes! Near-orgasmic relief. Scratch: no! Scars, scabs, infection. I wanted Doris to shut up. I wanted her to go on. Not that my opinion mattered. No stopping her now.
“The diamond on that ring,” she said. “People told me, ‘Keep that hand in your pocket, sweetheart. Somebody gonna cut your finger off to take that thing!’
“I was Cinderella. Considering what I came from.”
“Old news, Doris. No indoor plumbing. Strangling chickens with your bare hands. We’ve heard it,” said Duke. “But look in the mirror, will you? A face like yours, women would pay millions.”
“I’m telling you how I felt. Like I won the lottery. Like my prince had come.”
“Maybe we can move the story along is what I’m saying.”
Duke sighed, which is saying something for a guy without functioning lungs.
“I tell the gals at work and they can’t get enough. Every detail, they got to know. Down on his knees? Really? Wearing a suit? A nice suit and he gets down on his knees? Wool or polyester? Rug on the balcony or cement?
“I thought they were as happy for me as I was. I was climbing over the prison wall. Escaping. Of course the prisoners don’t want anybody else to escape. I didn’t know that yet.
“The girls said they’re taking me out. Big celebration. They’re buying this time. After I’m hitched to Mister Money Bags I can pay them back. I call Prince Charming, tell him I’ll be late, no need to wait up, just pray I don’t come home with nasty tattoos.”
“Maybe I’ll get a breath of fresh air,” said Duke.
“Don’t leave for the good part.”
“Maybe I know where this is headed,” I said.
“Of course you do. Isn’t that the best kind of story? Where all your suspicions are confirmed?”
“Sometimes people like a surprise.”
“Do us a favor, Doris. Bring it on home,” said Duke.
“Remember The Little Wagon? Journalists’ bar. Minneapolis. The kind of joint where the barmaids congratulated you on the correct use of the subjunctive. Our office was around the corner.
“Happy hour. Cocktail weenies in a steam tray. Chicken wings. One round, two rounds, three rounds, then who’s counting. I don’t feel so good. Cocktail weenies swimming in tequila sunrises. The girls call a cab, Mary Beth jumps in with me, says she’ll make sure I get to the door. A legit concern. Off to the penthouse.
“I stab the door with the key. Mary Beth holds me up. The door opens and we both fall inside. Mary Beth lands on me, which is like getting pinned by a beluga. I say to her, ‘Let me just tell Duke I’m home. He’s in bed.’ Which strikes us as hilarious. We laugh and laugh.
“Of course Duke is in bed. Of course he is doing what he is doing, which has nothing to do with sleeping. And everything to do with a girl whose ankles are up around his ears. It’s Lucy, the tramp from accounting. Surprise. The whole deal was a set up.”
“You made your point,” Duke said. “You made your point quite a while ago. Don’t you see that’s why I’m here? To square things away. Make them as right as they can be. I could have gone a lot of places for help.”
“I don’t really think so.”
“Okay. Maybe not. But still. This is going to work out for you.”
I stared into my coffee for a while.
Then Doris said, “What’s our plan?”
Tomorrow: Cost-Benefit Department, Venereal Division
“Wait,” I said. “I got a question.”
Doris and Duke looked up, as if they were both surprised to see me there. Betrayal: it gives birth to the strong emotions, no matter which end you’re on. Doris grabbed her robe and pulled it tight around herself. She looked at me and I saw tears. Whether these were tears of rage or grief I couldn’t say.
“What?” Duke said.
“I don’t get it.”
“What’s not to get?”
“Doris on the hook. Wedding bells ringing. Why mess it up? One girl more or less, what difference could it make? What was she? Number four hundred and fifty seven? Your cost-benefit analysis, it doesn’t make sense.”
Duke slipped off his dead Rolex and spun it on his index finger.
“We’re different people, Fatman. You’re the guy in the cave, tending the fire. I’m the guy with the spear, taking down the mastadon.”
“You’re the guy with the gun, shooting himself in the foot.”
“Try to see it from my perspective.”
“The Great Inseminator point of view,” said Doris.
“I’m not saying I was right or wrong. I’m explaining myself, okay?”
“Try to be honest about it.”
“Who wants honesty?”
The answers being, no one and never. Spare us the whole truth and nothing but. Portions thereof, sure. The flattering parts. But the exact totality? Who needs to get crushed under that weight?
“I grabbed what was there,” said Duke. “That girl, Jesus, I don’t remember her name. Maybe I never knew it. I saw in her what she saw in me. An opportunity. Perfect for each other, for that moment.”
“Then why give me the ring? Why get me started on a happy-ever-after fantasy?” Doris asked.
“You think anyone’s mind is orderly?” Duke asked. “You think I can’t believe two contradictory things at once? I’m not even getting started at two. Why do I want the girl? Why do I take a fresh strawberry from a bowl? Because it’s sweet. Because it calls up memories. Because it raises the question, What’s the best strawberry I ever had?”
“Sure. Hot summer night. Roscoe and I stole them together. Stuffed them down until we were sick. That was some vomit.”
“Please.” Doris pushed her coffee cup away.
“Life is messy is what I’m saying. You get perspective, once it’s over.”
Tomorrow: Another bargain with the devil
“I’m gonna watch the sun come up,” Duke said. “Not that many chances left.”
“Let’s not go negative,” I said. “We got time.”
“You want a coat? A hat?”
“I’m not cold, I’m not warm. All that’s over. For now.”
Duke stood on the deck, staring toward the Capitol. The sky turned pink behind the bare branches of the ginko trees. The fruit had turned yellow and dropped to the sidewalk, where it crushed into a stinking mess.
“You coming with us?” I asked Doris.
“Sounds like Duke decided I’m sick.”
“You could say it was a mix up.”
“They’ll think I’m a flake. If I’m in line for his money, he’s right, it doesn’t matter whether I show up.”
“You think that’s real?”
“Maybe. Probably. He’s trying to set things right. In his way. Which was never strictly logical.”
“What’s the logical part?”
“Charles, I’m telling you this because you asked. Maybe you don’t want to hear.”
I didn’t, not really. ”Go ahead,” I said.
“Once he got his pants back on, he said I was the love of his life. The only love of his life. He begged me to reconsider. I’m talking tears, Charles. Blubbering. A real mess.”
“You believed him?”
She banged a spoon inside her coffee cup, stirring. She shrugged.
“Despite the girl in your bed?”
“Duke Black can believe a hundred contradictory things at once and his head isn’t anywhere near exploding. He could believe he loved me more than he would ever love anyone again. And he could believe that while he shtupped some tramp from my office who showed up while I was gone.”
“And you agreed to marry him.”
“Charles, I’m not saying I made one hundred percent sense either.”
“What was the sensible part?”
She stopped to consider. An eternity, for me.
“It was exciting, being with Duke. People hate him, they love him, either way he’s happy. He’s a figure in the world. You’re with him, you’re a figure, too. You’re on a stage and the lights are on you. You’re interesting. Even if you’ve never been interesting before in your life. You love him for that. And you hate him. He’s the show and you’re an accessory.”
“You never told me.”
“The complicated emotions, Charles, they’re hard to explain. With Duke, you know you’re making a deal with…” She stopped for a long while.
“What?” She stopped.
“You float higher. Because you’re losing the weight of your soul.”
Both of us were quiet for a while.
“But you’re going to be loaded. Assuming.”
“Yeah,” Doris said. “You think it’s a gift or an obligation? Will he ever really be gone?”
Duke stood still while the light from the rising sun smacked him in the face.
“I got to ask. You didn’t put that knife in his back. Did you?”
“I thought about it more than once.”
She patted my hand and got up from the table.
“No. It wasn’t me.”
I wanted to believe her.
Tomorrow: Lift these scales from mine eyes!
The sun was up above the trees now. Duke was still on the deck. He held his arms out like he was walking in the dark.
I opened the door. Duke seemed to be admiring the sunrise. There was a lot going on. A purple haze toward the horizon. Then a layer of rose and pink, and deep blue above, with the moon floating around up there too. The clapboard steeple of the church across the way turned gold in the light. You could figure God was in His heaven, if you went in for that sort of thing.
“Nice morning,” I said.
“Help me, for Christ’s sake!”
“I can’t see a thing!”
Duke still had his hands stretched out, like he was doing a zombie walk. He staggered toward the edge of the deck.
“Stop!” I said as he pitched into the yard.
I slid across the snow-glazed planks in my slippers. Duke was down face-first in the sleet and snow from the night before. The knife handle still stuck from his back.
“Duke, hold on, I’m coming.”
I lowered myself off the deck slowly. Grass and gingko berries stuck through the snow. I got a hand in Duke’s armpit and pulled him upright.
“Jesus, Fatman. Am I okay? I’m blind. I’m covered with these stinking berries.”
“What do you mean, blind?”
“What does it usually mean? I can’t see. I came out here, everything was okay. Sun comes up. Not bad for Nature. Then it’s like somebody hit the dimmer switch.”
“Let me take a look.”
I grabbed his chin with one hand and brushed away the snow on his face with the other. Duke blinked a few times, as if that might help.
“Hold still,” I said.
I waved my hand in front of him. He stared straight ahead. People talk about the light in someone’s eyes, that sparkle of wit. I had noticed it fading in Duke’s eyes. Now it was gone. A cloudy film covered his pupils.
“Can you see anything?”
“Shapes. A few shades of gray. That’s it.”
“Let’s get you inside.”
I led him around to the steps and back into the kitchen. I turned off the light, thinking that might help.
“A little. Maybe.”
“You got any ideas? What this is about?”
“How should I know? Paul on the road to Damascus, it’s the opposite.”
“You’re losing me.”
“Didn’t you pay any attention in school?”
“The mumbo-jumbo, it never appealed.”
“Paul, smitten from his ass. The scales lifted from his eyes. Washes his sins away and so forth. Except the other way around.”
“What you want to do?”
“I’m going with my gut here, Fatman. Put me in a dark closet. Shut the door. Give me a couple hours. Get me some sunglasses.”
“What about the time? You’re on the clock.”
“The wheels are coming off here, pal. My resources, I got to use them wisely.”
I led Duke to the closet next to the front door. I pushed aside the coats hung there to make room for him.
“You want a chair?”
“I can stand. It’s all the same.”
He stood like a soldier at attention, his hands at his sides and that absence in his milky eyes.
“Give me a couple hours,” he said.
“I’m shutting the door now.”
I wondered what I would find when I opened it.
Monday: Behind the closet door
Doris wore Doc Marten’s and a black leather jacket. She was ready for something.
“He’s in the closet.”
“He went blind.”
“So he’s in the closet?”
“He thinks it might help.”
“Why what? Why did he go blind or why is he in the closet?”
“He was watching the sunrise, staring at the sun.”
“He’s not a vampire.”
“Who knows what’s on his high-risk list? Maybe it was the sun. Maybe something else entirely. Anyway, he can’t see.”
“Standing in the closet is going to help?”
“Baby, I don’t know. I don’t think we can take him to a doctor.”
“I know. He knows. It was his idea, the closet.”
“Wouldn’t be his first dumb idea.”
“Not our call.”
“So we just sit around and wait for him to come out?”
“You got a better plan?”
Doris gets a lot across in a glance. She drops her head slightly and fixes you with a look that communicates complicated ideas. She’s frustrated, sure. Also disappointed. Maybe, actually, a little disgusted. By the random nature of life. By the fecklessness of men in general, by Duke and perhaps me in particular. She’s a take-charge gal who wants to stick to the agenda, dot a couple hundred i’s, cross every t in the book and get it all done before lunch.
Instead, this. Staring at a closet door.
“You want a cup of coffee?”
“Jesus,” she replied.
“I take that for a yes.”
“How about a couple eggs and toast? As long as we’re killing time.”
After the eggs I broiled a couple grapefruit with brown sugar and butter. Next I whipped up some corn bread. Doris, as I mentioned, is a woman with appetites. She gets distracted, which can be a good thing.
We were on to another pot of coffee when I heard the closet door open.
Duke lurched down the hallway. He banged into the wall, straightened himself out, blinked furiously, took a few more steps.
I grabbed him by both arms and pulled him toward me. “Look at me, Duke,” I said.
Bright-eyed wasn’t a term that applied. Less dead was more like it. He stared at me. I fought the urge to look away.
“You can see?”
“Better. Good enough.”
“Is it going to last?”
“Last? What lasts? I’m coming apart here, Fatman. Look at this.”
He tugged at his thumbnail. It came off like the petal of a flower.
“You want to keep going?”
“I have a choice?”
“We can stop. You can rest. You can wait until…”
“No, Fatman. It’s not an option. It’s…”
I waited. He looked like he was drifting off. “What? It’s what?”
“Like dying. This isn’t a choice anymore.”
Doris grabbed my arm.
“You got sunglasses?” Duke asked.
Doris pulled a pair of RayBans from her jacket. “Here.”
He slipped them on. She brushed a crushed gingko berry from his lapel.
“Those things smell awful,” Doris said.
“I don’t know that it’s all the berries.”
“One more reason to get going. Where?”
“Boom Boom, I think,” said Duke. “Boom Boom.”
Tomorrow: He used to run with Los Locos.
“I’ll ride with you,” Duke said.
He walked like he had rocks in his shoes. The pasty skin, the Ray-Bans over the failing eyes, the knife in his back: a lot was wrong with Duke.
“What we got so far?” Doris said as I pulled away from the curb. “Nothing?”
“Not nothing,” said Duke. “We got a feel.”
“Feel for what?”
“The hostility. Edgar hates my money. Roscoe hates my success.”
“Hate is a little strong,” I said. “Not as in hate-you-enough-to-kill-you.”
“Fatman. All due respect. What do you know about people hating you enough to kill you?”
“I missed that in my life.”
“There’s worse,” Duke said. “Nobody wants to pull the plug on you, maybe you’re not trying hard enough.”
“You don’t get murdered, you’re a failure?”
“Im not criticizing.”
We drove another half block in silence.
“Okay, I am. What’s life without the big emotions? I’m talking passion, Fatman. Tears. Rage. Screwing others. Saving their asses. Love. Sex! Life is a glass, you can fill it with anything. Skim milk! Glenlivet!”
“Calm down, Duke,” Doris said. “We don’t know how much gas you got left.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Right.” He let his chin settle on his chest.
“Boom Boom,” Duke said after a while. “There was a passionate guy.”
“You remember him in his prime?”
“His prime? I remember him and Los Locos. The Eighties.”
“The brains of the operation. Inasmuch.”
“Clubhouse on Western. Always a dozen motorcycles lined up at the curb.”
“I had a retainer deal. Couple thousand a month to take their calls. Had to insist they pay in cash.”
“Instead of what?”
“Coin of their realm.”
“Then he bought the Black Widow.”
“Great re-po location,” Doris said. “Mister Deadbeat drives up. Figure a beer every ten minutes. Wait an hour, jack the car. No muss, no fuss. Taxi time.”
“I thought maybe you had moved on from that.”
“Yeah. But I miss it. Sometimes. What’s money but a bunch of numbers? You jack a deadbeat’s car, you feel like you’re doing something real.”
“Reality,” said Duke. “Seems a little vague right now. In light of…”
He shrugged, waved his hands. “Everything.”
“What isn’t crazy?” I said. “Take your worm, to name one example. Cut it in half, instead of one dead worm you got two living worms. How is that sensible?”
“This feels different.”
“Tell it to the worm.”
I turned onto Minnehaha. We were closing in on Dale before any of us spoke again.
“Boom Boom, call him what you will…”
“Homicidal maniac seems fair.”
“I’m looking forward to this. Gusto. He had it. I ever tell you how he shot up my car? Him and Deadhead.”
“The Deadhead in the underworld?”
“Before he killed himself.”
“An accident. The ricochet.”
“Give a moron a gun and stupid things happen. Boom Boom I thought was smarter. Nonetheless. I’m on 94, here comes a motorcycle with a fat white guy and a skeleton hanging onto his belt.”
“And they shot up your car? How did that start?”
“Enthusiastically. They both had guns.”
Tomorrow: The logical reason?
“Boom Boom and Deadhead shooting at you? What’s the motive?”
“Might as well ask why the weather is. You’re living in the world of reason, whereas Boom Boom…”
“Okay. Boom Boom and his pals had a pharmaceutical business. Crank, Ecstasy, weed, coke. Plus related industries. Money laundering, assault, murder, theft. With your typical concerns on the side. Do-gooders picketing the clubhouse, calling license numbers into the cops. City inspectors writing tickets for missing garbage can lids. Noise complaints. What have you.”
“Good for you, right?”
“You never come out on this stuff. A criminal case, the client looking at decades in the slammer, sure, you make some dough. But nibbled-by-ducks harassment, you can’t charge enough. You’re up against lifer bureaucrats. They got more time than God.
“Everything Los Locos got going — murder, mayhem, underage girls, you name it — and what it comes down to is excessive police service. Like a hangnail in the middle of a hurricane. Too many calls, they seize your property. Los Locos’ clubhouse gets seized.”
“They get a different clubhouse, right? What’s the problem?”
“Turns out motorcycle gangsters are sentimental guys. Lot of history in the old clubhouse. Drunken fights, gang rapes, extortion, ODs, hilarious drug trips. When the city changed the locks and boarded the windows, they took it hard.”
“What beef they got with you?”
“Guys like Boom Boom, they don’t figure they have a hand in creating their problems. It’s all about what others do to them. Boom Boom thinks he paid me a bucket of money and still they lost the clubhouse. Overlooking the fact that I mostly kept him and his buddies out of prison. Where they belonged.”
“But guns on the freeway?” said Doris. “That seems…”
“Extreme? You put two armed, cranked-up fools on a Harley Davidson going seventy miles an hour and what thereafter is extreme?”
“They shot or just waved the guns?”
“Shot. In consideration of the broken glass. But you give the steering wheel a crank and next thing, you got a motorcycle skidding across two lanes of traffic. You got knuckleheads tossed up in the weeds. Alive, sort of. But with pins, traction, and plenty of rehab in their future.”
“You call the cops?”
“Bad for business. I brought Boom Boom some flowers in the hospital. Black roses. We had a chat. I thought he understood.”
“Maybe not,” Doris said.
“This was years ago. But still. We got matters we could discuss.”
Tomorrow: Stakeout at the Black Widow
Duke had his head on my shoulder as we closed in on the Black Widow.
I watched Doris in the rear view mirror. Of course I wonder what she’s thinking. Mostly it’s been casual curiosity. The actual texture of Doris’ thoughts: I choose to believe they are generally accepting, tolerant at bare minimum. Beyond that, I don’t need to know.
But now? Tomorrow she could be Midas-level wealthy. I could be Mister Formerly Acceptable. Her thoughts might be undergoing tectonic shifts. She met my eye briefly, looked away again.
“Don’t get too close,” Duke said. “Park in the grocery store lot.”
“What is this? A stake out?”
“Maybe. For a while. We see who comes, who goes.”
I pulled up between a pair of Camrys at the Asian grocery on the corner. We got a view of the side and back doors.
“Maybe you should try sitting up straight,” I said to Duke. “We’d attract less attention.”
“Don’t worry. This is good.”
“What? You uncomfortable?”
“A little, yeah.”
“You’ve got to get in touch with your feelings, Fatman. Is it the guy-guy thing, fear of intimacy?”
“More that you’re dead. It’s creepy, sort of.”
“You’re a protected class?”
Time passed. Fifteen minutes. A half hour. Nothing much happened. People gathered on the corner. A bus came. They got on. At the Black Widow, nothing.
“This is the best use of time?” I asked.
“You got a better idea?”
“Maybe I’ll go inside, get a cup of coffee,” I said.
As I reached for the door, Duke said, “Wait.”
A black Suburban with tinted windows pulled up in the Widow’s lot.
“There,” said Duke.
The door opened. The guy who slid out wore his hair in a scraggly ponytail. He pulled a cane from behind the seat and stabbed at the asphalt a couple times, as if he didn’t trust it to stay in place.
“What,” said Doris. “This is a bar or adult daycare?”
“That, my friends, is Boom Boom Calhoun. The years have not been kind. The motorcycle accident. The liver damage. Hepatitis C. Maybe some dementia. But then how would you know.”
“I’m having trouble seeing a homicidal desperado here, Duke.”
“A sick, old snake is still a snake,” he replied.
Boom Boom limped inside the Black Widow.
“Let’s wait a minute,” said Duke. “Let him get comfortable.”
A few minutes later I spotted a familiar figure in a sombrero jogging up to the Widow’s door. Edgar hit the doorbell, waited, stepped inside.
“What’s that about?” I asked.
“Look again,” Duke said.
A black Crown Vic parked beside the Suburban. Roscoe emerged. He too rang the bell and disappeared inside the Widow.
Tomorrow: Certainly crazy, probably armed.
“Boom Boom, Roscoe and Edgar all happen to be in the Widow?”
“The unusual suspects,” said Doris.
“What do you figure? We go in and sweat them all?”
“You never get an honest answer from a gang,” Duke said. “You talk to them one by one, let them trip themselves up. They’ll all lie, but what are the chances they tell the same lie? That’s how you start.”
“And we say what?”
“You’re overthinking. I say, ‘Hey Boom Boom, maybe you heard, I’m dead.’ An ice-breaker. We get him talking. We get out a net to catch the lies.”
“This is going to work out, Charles,” Doris said.
“Baby, I admire your certainty. We know he’s crazy. He’s probably armed. I can think of some ways this goes bad.”
She grabbed my shoulders and squeezed. “Relax, Charles,” she said. She’s got tricks, techniques. She pinches here, presses there. My mind goes blank and all that’s left is a dull buzz.
“You got a beautiful thing going here, Fatman,” Duke said out of nowhere.
I could barely make my mouth move.
“What every man wants, whether he knows it or not, you got.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. What’s she doing with me.”
“Give yourself some credit, Fatman. You got qualities. Not so much in the Clark Cable department. But you are who you are. You’re reliable. You’re conscientious. You worry. You’re the kind of guy who will sit here outside the Widow and worry on my behalf. Who does that anymore?”
He turned to Doris. “Am I right or what?”
She took a beat longer to answer than I might have liked and when she spoke her answer struck me as somewhat vague. “Charles has many qualities,” she said.
“Exactly. That’s what I mean. You got qualities, Fatman.”
At that the door to the Widow opened. Edgar came out first. Something bulged in his pocket. He looked right, then took off left at a jog. A minute later Roscoe walked out with a bag in his hand. He drove off in his Crown Vic.
As Roscoe turned the corner Duke pulled his head off my shoulder. “Okay. Let’s hit it,” he announced. He pulled himself out of the car and limped toward the Widow.
Monday: Five versions of Death.
I pressed the buzzer beside the door of the Black Widow. Nothing, then a burst of static.
“What you want?” A voice crackled over the cheap speaker.
“Boom Boom! It’s me, Duke Black!”
“I doubt it.”
“I can understand that.”
“I saw the obit.”
“That’s not wrong, as far as it goes.”
“So you’re dead.”
“Yes and no. Dead in terms of not breathing, not eating. Your normal bodily functions, yeah, I don’t have them. But I get around. You talk to me, I talk to you. The same old Duke in a lot of ways.”
“I thought I was rid of the same old Duke.”
“It’s a complicated world, Boom Boom.”
“How do I know this isn’t a trick?”
“You want me to say the secret password? How about the name of that sixteen year old? The one you said lied to you about her age? Angelique Scronmeister, right?”
“I don’t know what’s going on here.”
“You don’t have to know what’s going on, Boom Boom. You just have to open the door.”
“What if I don’t?”
“I’m asking you as a courtesy. As we agreed, I’m dead. You think I need you to open the door? Death doesn’t need an invitation.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. The door buzzed. Duke jerked it open. A long, steep staircase led to the second floor. Boom Boom stood on the landing with a pistol in his hand.
“Good to see you, buddy,” Duke yelled up. “Armed I see. Some things don’t change.”
“Things that pay off, for instance.”
“You die, it’s a comfort to think the world goes on the way it has. Makes you think, really, you’re not missing so much. Might be more interesting being dead.”
“You saying that for a fact?”
“Haven’t been dead that long. I can only say so much. But on the evidence to date, you got pluses and minuses. Don’t need to eat, which frees up time. Then again, I enjoyed a meal. I got this Zen detachment thing going on. Liberating, I suppose. But to be realistic about it, I enjoyed wrestling with the world. I wasn’t a Zen kind of guy.”
“I never noticed you had a problem with the material world,” Boom Boom observed. “The money. The babes. A snoot full of quality blow.”
“I’m on a different plateau now. For better or worse.”
“This your posse?”
“You know Fatman? His fiancé, Doris?”
“By reputation. The underworld caper. If you believe that.”
“No problem either way,” I said.
“You going to invite us up, or we going to spend all afternoon shouting at each other?”
Boom Boom tucked his pistol into the back of his pants. “Sounds like I can’t stop you.”
Tomorrow: Technically it’s not limbo.
“Nice office you got here,” Duke said.
“Defendable. Might be important in your line of work.”
“Never liked people sneaking up on me,” Boom Boom said.
“I were you, I wouldn’t either,” Duke said.
The stand-out features in Boom Boom’s office were a pair of heavy steel doors. One led to the stairway that opened on the street. Another I assumed was a connection to the bar. Both had steel bars that dropped into heavy duty brackets, like a medieval castle. The sole window could be closed off with metal shutters. Boom Boom had a short-barrelled shotgun propped in a corner, behind a scarred oak desk covered with piles of paper. VHS porn lined the shelves.
“Go ahead, have a seat. What can I do for you? Not so much, I’m figuring. Considering. Usually the dead don’t need anything.”
“I’m in limbo here. Not really living. Not completely dead.”
“That’s not limbo, technically speaking. Limbo is for your unbaptized dead babies.”
“I never took you for a theologian.”
“Even if you’re not listening, some things stick. A cave full of dead babies waiting forever.” Boom Boom shook his head.
“Maybe we should move this along,” Doris observed. “In consideration of the time.”
“The dead got a schedule?” said Boom Boom.
His ponytail I already mentioned. His hair was somewhere between gray and yellow. He had a rearranged look, like he had been in an accident and the parts were pounded roughly back into place. The eyes didn’t quite line up. The nose tilted toward the window. Healthy wasn’t the first word that came to mind. But his fingers looked like tree roots. If he wrenched a chunk from the oak desktop with his bare hands I wouldn’t have been surprised.
“Yeah, the clock’s ticking,” Duke told Boom Boom. “I had seventy-two hours.”
“To do what?”
“Find out who killed me.”
Something flickered over Boom Boom’s lips. Amusement maybe. ”You don’t say.”
Doris noticed it too. “This is funny?” she said.
“No, no, course not. You don’t make it, what happens?”
“Into the underworld. With your old pal, Deadhead. Locked up, usually. Hoping for the day when there’s a breech, when you can get out to settle old scores.”
“What’s wrong with that? The waiting, sure, that’s bad. But settling scores?”
“Not my idea of eternity. Dreaming of revenge. Better to be at peace, don’t you think?”
“You want me to be honest?”
“Take a shot. See how it feels.”
“Happiest moments of my life, settling scores. Bringing justice. Say a guy thinks you’re a sap, he doesn’t have to pay you for five thousand bucks worth of crank. Talking theoretically.”
“You try to be reasonable. You offer him options. Extended payment plans. Opportunities to work off the debt. He says basically drop dead, excuse the language. Maybe you have the boys bring him by the office, you explain the situation in a straight-forward manner. He still doesn’t understand. You got to exercise the arts of persuasion.”
“Okay, we get the point,” said Doris.
“I’m trying to say something about my life here.”
“Maybe you think I’m a therapist,” Doris said. “I’m not.”
“I didn’t think you were a therapist. I’m thinking…”
I held up a hand. If Boom Boom finished the sentence odds were high he’d have a boot in his mouth and several fewer teeth. Doris, provoked, is not subtle. Plus she has training.
“Back to the matter at hand,” I said. “Duke’s got…” I checked my watch… “maybe thirty-two hours left. We don’t know how they figure daylight savings time.”
“I’m just saying…”
“Don’t,” said Doris.
“I got serious questions, Boom Boom,” said Duke. “Questions about the knife in my back.”
Tomorrow: Say I’m squatting in the underworld dust…
“I’m supposed to know about the knife in your back?” Boom Boom said.
“I’m not an angry guy,” Duke said. “The world, I accept it. I don’t feature myself brooding for eternity, thinking, if only I could bust out of the underworld, stop by Boom Boom’s joint, maybe rip his lungs out.”
“You’d have to get out.”
“True enough. But it happens. Look at the mess Deadhead made when he busted loose.”
“Deadhead. That’s one crazy dude.”
“You betting I wouldn’t be?”
“Like you say, you always been reasonable. Overpriced, but reasonable.”
“When I was living. My view is, we think we know who we are, but we never know who we’ll become. Can’t see the future, Boom Boom. All of us, victims of events. Sitting in my office, up there in the clouds, looking out over fifteen or twenty miles of real estate, Italian wool covering my butt, pretty girls bringing me coffee, money rolling in by the wheelbarrow load, sure, I was a reasonable guy. You talk to me, I talk to you, we meet somewhere in the middle. Maybe more my end of the middle than your end of the middle, but that’s why I didn’t come cheap. Say instead I’m squatting in the dust in the underworld, still got a knife in my back, suit hasn’t been cleaned for years, no coffee babes, no money, no good-things-of-life, I’m still reasonable? Philosophical? I don’t know, Boom Boom. Maybe I’m consumed by frustration and rage. Maybe I’m looking to settle old scores.”
“You’re saying I’m the guy who stabbed you?”
“I’m exploring that idea.”
“This hurts me, Duke. We had our beefs, no denying. The money I paid and still they tore down the clubhouse. That wasn’t right.”
“Sometimes you got to look within, Boom Boom. I know this isn’t a popular idea. We all want to blame somebody else for our misery. We all want to feel persecuted.”
“Who wants to feel persecuted?”
“You kidding me? Everybody. All the time. The major religions, what are they based on? Persecution. Martyrs. They didn’t get any respect yesterday, which is why they’re burning you at the stake today. Justifies everything. So basic I can’t believe I even got to explain.”
Doris reached over and patted Boom Boom’s gnarled hand. “This is like a get-out-of-jail free card. You tell us what happened. Duke finishes up the story of his life. He finds out how the story ended. You tell the truth and he’s free. He’s not in the underworld. He’ll never bust out. You got nothing to worry about. Best deal you’ll ever get.”
“Trouble is, it wasn’t me. Duke, you know that. Unless this is another one of your double crosses.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Doris asked.
Boom Boom looked to Duke. What passed between them I can’t say.
“I didn’t do it. Except for Duke, nobody I know was there when he died.”
“Tell us this, Boom Boom,” Doris said. “Our top three candidates. You. Roscoe. Edgar. All three of you in this room a half hour ago. You want us to believe that’s a coincidence?”
One thing for career criminals: they can manufacture a lie without missing a beat. “We got a book club.”
That was entertaining. Something like a grin twisted Boom Boom’s lips too.
“Sure. Crime. Procedurals. We got an interest. Your Elmore Leonard. Your Walter Mosley. More on the literary end. I order the books. Amazon. Used. Couple bucks each. Roscoe, Edgar, those guys are no good with computers. They pick them up from me.”
“I’ve been in this type of business for a long time,” Doris said. “And that is the most…”
“Fascinating is a word,” I offered. “Fabulous. Fantastical. And that’s just a few of the Fs.”
“Yeah. Others could apply.”
“Believe it or not. I don’t care. It’s the truth. I didn’t stick a knife in Duke’s back. Far as I know, neither did Roscoe or Edgar. Maybe,” he said to Duke, “maybe you got to look within. As you were saying.”
To that Duke offered no reply.
Tomorrow: Dead don’t get a manual.
I got the heat going in the car, not that Duke cared. He set his head on my shoulder again.
“I don’t see where we go from here,” I said.
I waited. Duke did not reply.
You never really get comfortable with a corpse leaned up against you. No body heat. No sound or motion of breathing. Duke’s eyes were wide open. I watched to see if he’d blink. He didn’t.
“We screw up the time?” I asked Doris.
“What do you mean?”
“Duke. I’m not sure he’s here anymore.”
“He’s got more than a day left.”
“Assuming. It’s not like he got a guarantee.”
“He seemed sure.”
Doris grabbed his shoulder and shook it. “Duke,” she said.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I’m supposed to know?”
“We wait I guess.”
Time passed. The sun made its low arc across the southern sky.
People came and went from the grocery store lot.
“What do we do with him? I mean, if this is it,” I asked Doris. “His actual body, it must still be in the morgue. We set whatever this is on a park bench, does he just disappear?”
Now Doris wasn’t talking either. I looked around. A thin stream of drool ran down her chin. I settled back in my seat. I might have dozed off myself.
When Duke gave my thigh a hard squeeze I snapped back.
“No. Just me.”
“You were saying. Where do we go from here?” Duke acted as if he hadn’t missed a beat.
“It’s almost dark. We blew the whole afternoon.”
“I’m sinking, Fatman. I figured seventy-two good hours. I didn’t plan on the wheels coming off along the way.”
“Nobody told you anything?”
“It’s more like a ghost whispers in your ear. They don’t hand you a manual. You and Your Dead Body or whatever. You get a feeling. Not a hundred percent accurate, obviously.”
“A feeling,” Doris repeated.
“I haven’t been dead a half dozen times before. I’m figuring this out, okay?”
“You want to sit here and explore our feelings?” Doris said. “Or you want to move on?”
“I’m not sure about that,” Duke said.
“I explored my feelings about you enough for one lifetime.”
“Give me a break here. We had our moments.”
“I could leave,’ I said. “You two could settle what you need to settle.”
“That was settled that long ago,” Doris said.
“So we reopen the file,” said Duke. “Allow some room for reconsideration, baby.”
“The name is Doris.”
Duke sighed and sunk against my shoulder. The car’s heater whined. Bits of sleet bounced off the windshield.
“All right,” Duke said. “Let’s try Fadilah again. Ask her to open a line to the underworld.”
Monday: I handed the psychic my credit card.
“Pleasure to see you again, Mister Duke,” Fadilah said. “Wondered how long it would take.”
“Looking good as usual, Fadilah. You got a timeless quality. The physical package, maybe thirty-five. But the eyes. Old as Eve.”
“Too bad your living men don’t put it so pretty. Sorry to say, Mister Duke, you looking rough yourself.”
“Apparently the dead got a half life.”
Fadilah wore a well-tailored business suit with a white shirt, same as before. She had a few inches on both me and Duke.
“Just guessing now,” Fadilah said. “You aren’t getting anywhere.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Duke replied. “We made the rounds. Had meaningful conversations. Gathered information. Which we’re weighing.”
“You got so much, maybe you want to tell me why you’re here.” She had excellent teeth, set off by her dark skin and lipstick the color of blood. Sardonic was probably the word for her grin. ”You want coffee?”
“Same with Momma Leona, from what I understand,” Fadilah said.
“You got a line in to Leona?” Duke said.
“That’s putting it a little strong. We’re not yapping on the phone. More an intersection-of-consciousness deal.”
“A feeling?” Doris asked.
“Like she’s here but she’s not here.”
“You think she might have a clue?” I asked. “Assuming you can… intersect?”
“Not like it’s ordering pay-for-view on HBO, Mister Fatman. More like the weather. Maybe it snows, maybe it doesn’t. Can’t set your watch by it. Only one way to find out.”
I handed her my credit card.
She went to a desk in the corner and swiped the card. “Two hundred, Mister Fatman.”
“Wasn’t it a hundred?”
“You’re wanting the contact-the-dead package this time.”
“Don’t sweat the nickels and dimes, Fatman. A hundred bucks to Doris, that’s gonna be loose change.”
“A hundred bucks to me is still a hundred bucks.”
“Relax, Charles,” Doris said.
Fadilah handed back my credit card. “Let’s step into the back room,” she said. She flipped the door sign so it said Closed. She locked the door and turned off the lights.
Duke followed her. The blood oozing around the blade in his back looked like it was drying.
Tomorrow: Another way of being stabbed.
“Go ahead, take a seat,” Fadilah said. We were at the rough table in her back room.
“You got a feel here,” Duke said. “That time-is-stopped feel.”
“Like I said. My momma got it from her momma and nobody changed a thing. The plaster wants to fall, it falls. The walls crack, they stay cracked. We got an understanding.”
“With what?” Doris asked.
Fadilah gestured vaguely toward the ceiling. “Whatever makes the sun come up in the morning and go down at night. The forces of nature. The organization of this world. What you see and don’t see and what you can’t never even begin to guess at. I’m talking about everything. That’s what we got an understanding with.”
“Sounds like you got your bases covered,” Doris said. If Doris can’t put a hand on it she’s not interested.
Fadilah tapped her watch. “Might feel like time has stopped, but truth is it’s marching right along. You got an hour on your card, Mister Fatman. I’m ready when you are.”
“Here’s the problem,” Duke said. “I got the living, they got some beefs with me. More suspects than time, unfortnately. I got the dead who maybe got a faulty understanding of my motives. They don’t step outside their dead bodies and wonder what the world looks like to anybody else.”
“That’s the world for you,” Fadilah said. “Living and dead.”
“Amen. The living, you can find them, explain, apologize, try to make things right. That’s bad enough. The dead, a whole different story.”
“You got that right,” said Fadilah.
“The normal guy, he’s stuck, dealing with the dead. To name just one example. There was a girl.”
“Here we go,” said Doris.
“A little slack here, okay? Nursing student. Still had those white dresses back then.”
“Please,” said Doris.
“Fatman, those dresses. You remember. Excuse me, ladies. Kind of a jack-in-the-box deal. You turn the crank, the door springs open. Pop goes the weasel.”
“What are you talking about?” Doris said. “Memories? How they work?”
“What? No. I’m talking about getting that white uniform falling to the floor. Anyway. Sweet girl. We had a little thing. I moved on, maybe she didn’t. Should have called her. Didn’t. Another case where things are more important to somebody else than they are to you. You got obligations to another human being but it slips your mind.”
“You’re surprising me now,” Doris said.
“Maybe my heart is deeper than you think.”
“True about everybody,” Fadilah said.
“Saw her again a couple years later. She said, ‘You should have called. You should have let me know.’ There I am, the man who unleashed a couple million words at a couple thousand jurors, no idea what to say. The look in her eye. Not grievance so much as disappointment. That she had been diminished. Another way of being stabbed, left dead. I should have thrown myself at her feet.”
“Not for the first time,” Doris said. “But why wallow in it now?”
“She’s dead, that’s my point. Stroke, bang. Call the hearse. Now that grievance is moved to a place where, how do you set it right? You live long enough, you got your situations with an army of the living and an army of the dead.”
“Everyone who ever walked through the door, that’s why they’re here,” Fadilah said.
“Exactly,” Duke replied.
Tomorrow: We got a post-logic situation.
University Avenue was dimly visible behind the sheer curtains in Fadilah’s waiting room. A train swept past. Snow swirled over the asphalt. Doris stood at the window with her back to me.
“You know what I think?” she asked.
Let’s just say a reply was unnecessary.
“We been led around by our noses, Charles. Something isn’t right.”
Nobody enjoys being thwarted or deceived, but Doris is not your average nobody.
“Baby, we started with a body on our stoop. From there we went to talking to a dead guy in our kitchen. The somethings that aren’t right, it’s a tall stack by now.”
“Fadilah knows something. She doesn’t want us to know.”
“No argument there. But what?”
“Like you say, it’s a tall stack. I don’t know.”
“I hate not knowing.”
“Baby, I never doubted.”
We listened to the traffic. The radiators hissed and clanked. I took Doris’s hand and traced along her fingers. I know a few tricks. Acupressure. Poke here, poke there. You open the interior valves and things start to flow.
Doris closed her eyes. Her breath came more slowly.
“This will be over,” I said. “One way or another.”
“You think Duke is going to figure it out?” She sounded like she was about to drift off.
I shrugged. “He ends up in the underworld, that’s a tough break. Either way, Duke’s going to be gone. More or less. We’ll be dealing with the leftovers.”
“I know you do, Charles.”
“That it will change everything.”
“It’s only money. It can change the things we want it to change.”
“We can decide what we want, what we don’t want. We can examine our lives.”
“We want to do that? The unexamined life, it was working out.”
“That’s you, Charles. Mister Be-Here-Now. It’s still the Sixties for you. Que sera sera and all that. Maybe this is liberation from the plodding. We make some decisions. Get somewhere.”
“Who says I want to be liberated? Who says we aren’t somewhere right now? All the stupid little things I want to say I say. All the stupid things you want to say, I listen to them. That’s what happiness is.”
“It’s stupid little things I say to you?”
“Not one hundred percent, baby. But how profound is anyone? One percent profundity rate, that gets you in Einstein territory. So what if love is a wallow in the ordinary?”
“Maybe you got to take the romance up a notch, Charles.”
Fadilah’s heels clicked on the old floorboards. She led Duke back into the room.
“I do believe we are done here now,” Fadilah announced. “The rest is up to Mister Duke.”
How to read what was behind his dead eyes I didn’t begin to know.
Tomorrow: Time stops.
“You want to ride with us?” I asked Duke. He walked like he had gravel in his shoes.
“Maybe we should get you a walker,” Doris said.
“I’m dead. I’m not old.”
“Still. You fall, you going to get up again?”
“Let me take your arm, okay?”
Doris and I each took a side. Duke latched on to my arm. Whatever was happening with his legs, he still had a fearsome grip.
“How much time we got?” Duke asked.
“Check your watch. You figure it stopped when you died?”
He pushed up his sleeve to reveal the dead Rolex. “Eight forty seven.”
“Okay. We got daylight savings time in there. We don’t know how they play that in the underworld. Say you got twenty six hours, tops.”
Duke checked his watch again.
“Damn,” he said. “The hands just fell off. Twelve thousand dollar watch and the hands fall off?”
“What you mean?”
He held up his wrist. The gold hands had fallen to the bottom of the bezel.
“What’s the message here, Duke?”
“My bet is it’s those pricks Graydon and Pimlipper.”
“The lawyers in the underworld?”
“You did double cross them,” Doris said.
“I had a choice? They would have kept you in down there forever.”
“You told them you’d keep the portal open. Then you filled it with cement.”
“What was I supposed to do? Let the door open so those guys could come and go? They would have been settling their stupid grievances all day long. Total blood bath.”
“Not their point of view.”
“Anyway, they’re chumps sitting in the dust.”
“Maybe this is from higher up,” I said.
“Vanity of vanities, Fatman. Dust to dust. Et cetera. The big guy making the same old point. Could be.”
“Your feet hurt?”
“Nothing hurts. My feet don’t work so hot, but they don’t hurt.”
“Maybe you just want to appear. Not bother walking.”
“That takes a lot of energy. Which I don’t have.”
“Okay. Let’s get to the car.”
Fadilah lost her parking when the light rail went in. My car was around the corner. We had another half block. It seemed like a couple miles.
I held the door for Duke, tucked a hand under his armpit to steady him as he eased into the seat. He took his usual position with his head on my shoulder. An odor came from him now. I had some trouble getting the ID on it at first. Then it struck me: the smell of a fresh-dug hole in black dirt.
“You tell me where we’re headed,” I said to Duke.
In reply, nothing.
“Duke, where to?”
He didn’t move, he didn’t breathe. All that came from him was that faint whiff of the grave.
“Now what?” I said to Doris.
“No point in driving around with…” She searched for the word. “…this.”
“We go home?”
She shrugged. “It’s supper time.” Doris takes her three squares seriously.
“Duke’s clock is ticking.”
“He’s not hearing it. You can’t wake him up.”
“What do we do with him?”
“Pull into the garage. Leave the side door open. When he comes around he can let himself in. Or…”
I waited. “Or what…”
“We can figure that out when we need to.”
Tomorrow: Where my eyebrows?
“You hungry?” Doris asked. “I could make…hmm…”
She pulled open the refrigerator door and pretended to take stock. We both know this is a sham.
“…grilled cheese sandwiches…or…”
She has no intention of cooking anything ever. Now and then I call her bluff. “Yeah, sounds great, baby,” I’ll say. Then she’ll work her magic.
For Doris the stove has one setting: incinerate. She cranks up the heat, throws some butter at the skillet, slaps down a few pieces of bread with cheese and waits for the smoke detector to go off.
At this point, depending on mood, I might say, “You had a long day, sugar. Why don’t I take over?” Or maybe I’ll let her proceed to the scorched bread and unmelted cheese stage. And she might say, “Would you?” Or, “No, I’m doing it now!” Meaning, “Next time don’t be a sap. You’re going to eat this thing!”
I handed Doris a glass of wine and said, “You sit down and be beautiful, baby. Let me take care of you.”
She gave me a pat above the belt. “You know how to do it right, Charles,” she cooed.
I whipped up a little something. An omelette. Goat cheese and tarragon inside. A dusting of chives, course black pepper. On the side, chunks of yam browned in butter with a maple syrup glaze. A petite salad. Avocado. Tomato (good for the prostate!). Another splash of wine.
“There you go, honey.”
“Honey?” she said. “If we had corn bread, sure, but no, I don’t think so.”
You put a fork in Doris’s hand and she’s got a one-track mind.
“Term of endearment. The honey part.”
She gave me a blank look.
Half way through the omelette she slowed down enough to say, “Something’s not right here, Charles.”
“Too much pepper?”
“No. Duke. Fadilah. Boom Boom. Everything.”
“Not arguing. But specifically?”
“We’re not any closer to settling this.”
“Not true. We know about their book club.”
“As if that’s true.”
“Just because it’s crazy doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
“Those looks. Lot of looks going on. Boom Boom and Duke. Fadilah and Duke. I feel like we’re in a play and we’re the only ones who don’t know our lines.”
“What do we do?”
She poked at her plate. “Play it out. See where it goes.” She poked some more. “I hate seeing where it goes.”
I know she does.
“Maybe he’s done.” I said. “Maybe we go out to the car in the morning and there isn’t anything there. Would that be better?”
“We started this. I want to finish it. Whatever it is.”
“The best thing, get some sleep. Nothing we can do now anyway.”
Doris drained her glass of wine.
I was cleaning up the dishes when I heard the door rattle.
Doris sighed. I opened the door.
“I woke up alone in the dark and I thought…”
Duke looked relieved.
“We didn’t know what to do with you. We figured…”
I stopped. Something was off. Wrong, but subtle. When you’re talking about a two-day old corpse, the fine distinctions can be tough to recognize.
“Your eyebrows, Duke. Your eyelashes.”
He put a hand up to his brow. He shrugged. “It happens. Not mission critical.”
“Sit down,” I said.
“Doris and I been talking.”
“We get a feeling…”
Before I could finish, Duke went blank again. He was still standing, but that was it. No movement. No breath. His lips parted, as if ready to speak, but all his eyes said was No Sale.
I looked at Doris. “We might as well get some sleep,” I said.
Monday: He’s no parrot.
I never sleep through the night. Classic old-guy problem. Wake up. Consider my bladder. Think I can ignore it. Can’t. Shuffle to bathroom. Return. Churn briefly. Fall asleep. Repeat.
I woke up. Opened an eye. Looked for Duke in the corner. Was relieved not to see him. Stuck my head in the kitchen on the way back from the bathroom. Duke stood there in that state of suspended animation, eyes wide open in the gloom. We left a night light on for him. For all I knew he could see in the dark just fine. Then again, maybe he was looking now at an eternity of dark.
Doris was still drooling on her pillow when I woke up for good. I headed to the kitchen in my slippers.
“Duke,” I said.
In response, nothing. There was no evidence that he had even blinked since the night before.
I got some bacon going, floated four eggs in the bacon grease, dropped bread in the toaster, sliced a couple oranges, loaded the french press. As the toast popped up, Doris appeared in her ridiculous a.m. get-up. Fuzzy slippers, shapeless blue robe, tangle of hair and swollen eyes. At this hour she does not spread sunshine all over the place.
She glanced at Duke. “Maybe you should put a towel over his head,” she said. “It’s a lot to take, first thing.”
“He’s not a parrot.”
“Turn him around at least?”
“Just sit down. Look out the window.”
Clots of snow drifted from the low clouds. Peaceful, sort of, in the way that it hides the messy details. The litter, the sagging roofs, the rusting cars parked on the street, all the relentless decay otherwise so evident, briefly disguised. I thought about setting Duke on the porch to let the snow do its job on him.
I put a plate and a cup of coffee ahead of Doris. I don’t expect much from her at this hour.
After she knocked off her eggs she said, “He’s got twelve hours left. Maybe.”
“Until he comes around, I don’t see what we do.”
“If he comes around. What’s our plan B?”
“Plan A, plan B, it’s all the same. We wait.”
“One thing I hate…”
“Let me get you more coffee, baby.”
We read the paper. We watched the snow fall.
Around ten, Duke shook himself. As if he had not missed a beat, he said, “Jen. Jen Litely.”
“Where you been?” I asked.
“The tunnel of light, you heard about that?”
“Malarkey. My experience to date. Not white. Paisley. Black light. Total psychedelia. Like Timothy Leery is God. Frightening. Peaceful. Excuse me for going mystical on you, Fatman. But transcendent. The ego dissolved. One with the cosmos and so forth.”
“Sounds…groovy. You think it lasts?”
Duke took a few lurching steps toward the door. “Do I need to mention? We don’t have all the time in the world. Let’s find Jen.”
Tomorrow: Zombie town it’s not.
“You really think Jen bumped you off? I don’t feature that as society-babe style.”
Duke arranged himself in my old Volvo. His head was on my shoulder again, with the knife handle in the gap between the seats. Doris sat in the back.
“You mind giving the handle a shake?” Duke said to her.
She sighed. There’s not much Doris does half way. She grabbed the knife handle. The car rocked as she worked the blade. Duke’s head flopped around on my shoulder. He made sounds that frankly I did not care to hear.
“Thanks,” he gasped.
I pulled the car out of the garage.
“How much you know about society babes, Fatman?” Duke said.
“You get distracted by the chintz. The four sets of forks. The greenhouse behind the mansion. But a gal like Jen, she takes care of the necessities while keeping up appearances. Steely, that’s the word. Put a knife in your back? If that’s what the situation demands, sure, no problem. Pull on the white gloves and get it done.”
“So we find her,” said Doris. “We chat. She tells us nothing. Makes up some dizzy story. Gives you a look. We leave. We got nothing. He said, she said. You done her wrong. She done you wrong. How’s it going to be different than Roscoe or Edgar or Boom Boom?”
Duke said nothing for so long that I wondered if he had drifted back into that tunnel of paisley light.
“Maybe it’s not so simple as we think,” he said. “You got your habits of mind. The law racket, what’s it about? Us versus them. Guilty. Not guilty. Adversarial. Whereas…”
“What?” said Doris.
“You were a stone. You were gone.”
“I was there. I was somewhere else. Both things at once.”
“Zombie town. That’s what it looked like.”
“Doris, please. I’m trying to tell you something. It’s not all about who put the knife in my back. It’s reconciling. Settling the books. Understanding the debits and the credits. Seeing the big picture. Accepting the complexity.”
“I thought this was a who-dun-it. Not a we-all-dun-it.”
“I’m working that out.”
I glanced at the rearview mirror. Doris crossed her arms over her chest. She greets ambiguity with a scowl.
“Where do we find Jen?” I asked.
“What’s the time?”
“Eleven,” Doris said.
“The rec center? You kidding me? Saint Paul Athletic Club I’d believe.”
“The pool. They got that moss-filtration system. Organic, sort of. Easy on the skin, she says. A woman of her age, that’s a big deal. Worth mixing it up with the masses.”
“You say so. Just try to stay with us until we get there.”
“To be straight with you, Fatman, the other side has it’s appeal.”
Tomorrow: It floats.
“Not them again,” I said as I pulled off Lex into the Jimmy Lee lot.
“Shouldn’t they be in school?” Doris asked.
“Yes and no,” Duke said.
“What’s that mean?”
“Yes if they’re actually kids. No if…”
“You get a feeling about them?” I said.
“How we supposed to feel?” Doris wondered.
“Funny how they show up. Like they’re part of this deal.”
“Take it from me, Fatman,” Duke said. “You can’t worry about everything you don’t understand. Not in this situation.”
“Everything I don’t understand. Which is everything.”
“Help me out of here, will you?”
Duke maneuvered the knife in his back around the seats. I opened his door. Doris held up my overcoat for him. We brought it along figuring he could wear it like a cape to hide the knife in his back.
“Honored guests!” the tallest kid called out from inside his black hoodie. The five of them stood beside the rec center door.
I lifted a hand in a luke-warm greeting.
“Again, Sir Fats, we wonder what brings you and your associates our way?”
“Lads,” I said. “How about we deep six the irony?”
“We have our style, sir.” He sounded offended. It was hard to tell.
“Doubtless, gentlemen. You mind if I ask who you represent?”
“More what than who, sir.”
“With your permission, Señor Grande, I need to go big on you. Huge even.”
“You sure you kids shouldn’t be in school?” Doris asked.
“Your loveliness, school does not require our attendance. You could say we are hall monitors. Of a type. We represent… how to put it?”
“The ineffable,” said the smallest of them.
“Vocabulary points,” said Doris.
“The package is not the product, ma’am,” the little guy said.
“Chill, my brother. No need for contention. Say we’re guides. Though we don’t guide exactly. More like, we watch. We monitor your progress.”
“What progress?” Doris asked.
“Not always clear in the moment. Revelation has a schedule of its own.”
Duke took this in quietly. He pulled my overcoat around himself as if suddenly chilled.
“Anyway, you and your posse attend to your business, Mister Fatman. Not our job to distract.”
He pulled the door open and waved us through with an elaborate gesture. When I looked back again they were gone.
To the kid at the counter Duke said, “Three for the pool.”
“He’s got it,” Duke said, nodding at me.
“Eighteen? For a public pool?”
“No time to quibble,” Duke replied. “Just pay the man.”
“What happened to serving the people?” I asked.
“Way you all look,” the kid said, “you could use some exercise. Him especially. Should be double for him.”
I followed Duke to the locker room. He stashed his shoes, rolled up his trouser legs and padded across the slick tiles. Doris waited for us beside the pool. A school of swimmers flailed at the water.
“The humidity,” said Duke. “Normally I’d say it’s good for the skin.”
“Feels like everything is going slack.”
“Let’s make this quick. You see Jen?”
“Give me a minute. This isn’t so easy.”
Duke stood with his toes hanging over the edge of the pool and squinted at the expanse of water.
“Damn,” he said.
“I think my dick just fell off.”
“Jokes, Duke,” I said. “This isn’t the time.”
“How’s your dick fall in the pool?”
“That’s it, there,” said Doris, pointing at a pink nub bobbing in the water.
“I wasn’t using it,” Duke said. “But still…”
“We can’t just leave it in the pool,” Doris said.
At that a swim-capped head rose from the lane at our feet. She stopped and peered at us through her fogged up goggles. Then she yanked them off and said, wide-eyed, “Duke Black? That can’t be you.”
“Jen,” he said. “What a pleasant surprise. You mind handing me my member?”
Tomorrow: The enemy-to-friend ratio
“What?” said Jen. She pulled off her goggles. Her gaze was in the steel-cutting category. Blue lasers. She focused on Duke and I wondered if he would dissolve.
“I’m missing a part. Over there,” Duke said, pointing.
Jen looked down. I expected disgust but what I saw was indifference. With the back of her hand she swept Duke’s flesh, if it could still be called that, into the pool gutter. It bobbled away in the current.
“I don’t think you need it, Duke.” She took another close look at him. “You don’t look so good.”
“I’m dead, Jen.”
“That’s what I hear.”
“You don’t seem surprised,” Doris said.
“I’m surprised he lived as long as he did. Given the enemy-to-friend ratio.”
“Nobody seems much surprised,” Doris continued. “Boom Boom, Edgar, Roscoe. The dead are a part of your day-to-day?”
“Have we met?” Jen asked. She climbed out of the pool.
Duke did the intro. The gals made a quick appraisal of each other. Jen looked like she worked the pool hard every day. Only a nitwit would pick a fight with her, but then you could say the same about Doris. Jen tugged at her swim cap. She was a blonde with a lot of hair.
In Duke’s description, I was “an associate.”
“Duke has so many interesting associates,” Jen said, lingering on the word. She grabbed a towel and wrapped it around her shoulders.
“I was thinking we could chat,” Duke said.
“I’m short on time, Jen.”
“Looks like it.”
We moved to a corner back from the pool. Duke appeared deader than usual standing next to Jen.
“No hard feelings,” Duke began.
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“I mean, if you stuck this knife in my back.”
“What are you talking about?”
Duke shrugged off my overcoat and let it fall to the floor. He turned around to give Jen a view.
“I read the paper. Don’t the police generally remove the evidence?”
“It doesn’t pay to get hung up on the technicalities here, Jen. I’m here, I’m there. I’m here and there. The morgue. The pool.”
“This isn’t the first time I’ve wondered what’s real about you, Duke,” she said.
“What’s real about anyone, Jenny? What about you? Society matron or…”
She laughed, winked at Doris and patted Duke’s arm all at once. “We had a few moments,” she said. “Good and bad. Not all of them appropriate for the society pages. Sorry to say, Duke, but it looks like the good moments are mostly over for you.”
“More complicated than you think. The flesh is weak, but the spirit? I feel doors opening. Revelation. Tranquility. Words fail.”
“That’s a first,” said Jen.
“I’m past blaming. Innocence and guilt, I don’t care. It’s about knowledge. Finding who did it. Knowing why. Coming to an understanding.”
“That’s quite a change.”
“Death does that to you.”
“You used to inhabit a more…hmmm…physical plane.”
“We don’t need to get into all that now,” Doris said.
“Much as I would like to reminisce, Jen, Doris is right. I got a time problem. Six, maybe seven hours left. Then…”
“Who knows? A blank slate. A black hole. The River Styx. The Pearly Gates. None of the above. No way to tell. Before then, I need to figure out who put the knife in my back.”
“You think it’s me?”
“The thought occurred.”
“I’m insulted, Duke. I’m a knife-in-your-chest type of woman. If I did it, you’d know. There’s some work I wouldn’t hire out.”
“I told Fatman as much.”
She fixed me with those eyes. What she meant to get across wasn’t clear, but it felt risky to look away.
“Now Duke,” Jen said, “if you want to hear reasons why someone would want to put a knife in you, I can help you there.”
She pulled a hand out from under her towel and held up her index finger.
“One. You always had to come out on top. You win, someone else loses. Life isn’t that kind of game, Duke.
“Two. You buy yourself affection. The big meal. The big ring. The spotlights shining. You’re big and in comparison everyone else becomes small.
“You going to have enough fingers?” Doris asked.
“This is the Cliff’s Notes version. Three. The greediness. Nothing was ever enough. One Mercedes? Why not two? A bottle? Why not a magnum? Some people step lightly. Others clomp around like Bigfoot. Which one do you think you are?
“Four.” A blotch of color rose from her swimsuit and up her neck.
“I think I get the point. Me versus the world.”
“Exactly. The question for you, Duke, isn’t who killed you. It’s why did so many people want to. Finding the actual killer seems beside the point.”
Tomorrow: A detour on the way to…
“Not much help,” I said.
We stood outside the rec center. My socks got wet in the locker room. Duke didn’t care about that but I did.
“Yes and no,” Duke replied. “Like being at an honest version of your own funeral. Instructive. Except your typical dead guy wouldn’t be counting the hours.”
“You die, you shouldn’t have to worry about time,” I said.
“Let’s stop thinking about it then,” Duke said. “Let’s take a drive.”
“You serious?” I asked.
“The rest is up to me,” said Duke. “So I’m told.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Don’t worry. Let’s get out of here,” he said. “Take in some nature.”
“I don’t see how that helps.”
“You don’t have to worry about it, Fatman. Not anymore.”
I started the car. “Which way?”
“Summit Avenue. That makes sense.”
“I don’t see how.”
“Charles,” said Doris.
“You’re sure you’re okay?” I asked.
“Of course I’m not okay. I got a knife in my back. I died a couple days ago.”
Not to mention that he looked worse by the minute. His skin had gone to gray. The signal to his extremities seemed to be going out over bad wire. He lurched.
Duke leaned his head against my shoulder and sighed. “Let’s go past my place. Your place, Doris, if you want to keep it.”
We rolled along that line-up of old robber baron joints, piles of brick and stone built by characters who stripped the forests, built the railroads, bought low, sold high. They came to roost here, in not-so-cozy palaces where you could billet a couple platoons and still have room left over for the help.
“Slow down,” said Duke.
“Which one is it again?”
“There.” He pointed at a brick castle. A couple turrets, a crenellated parapet, a front door that could have held off a prolonged assault: home sweet home.
Snow kept falling from the low clouds.
“Pull over, Fatman. Let’s take a walk through.”
“You’re calling the shots.”
“Not really, but no need to dwell on that. Go ahead, park under the porte cochère.”
“The side of the house,” said Doris. “Under the roof.”
I wasn’t inside the place and already I felt over my head.
Duke put his thumb on a scanner beside the door. Lights blinked, things beeped and clicked. The door popped open. A hallway light went on automatically.
“What you think?”
“It’s a lot to take in.”
“You actually want to know?”
Where to start? With the fat little angels carved into the ceiling beams? The rugs no doubt hand knotted by Pakastani children? The dining room table on which you could dissect an ox? What about the fireplace, big enough for a cord of firewood? Great spot for an auto de fe!
“Maybe it’s a little… I don’t know… vast? It worked for you?”
“Worked, yeah, I suppose that’s the word. It was a job, being Duke Black. Entertaining. Fundraisers. Keeping the skids greased, the wheels turning.”
“Looks exhausting. The dusting alone.”
“I had people. You should keep them on.”
“People? How many?”
“Exactly? Christ, I don’t know. You’d have to ask my man.”
“I have to ask your man to find out how many people we got?”
“Somebody has to. You, Doris. Probably Doris. I’m not sure this is your deal, Fatman.”
Monday: Enter the chamber of regret.
“Come upstairs,” said Duke.
You could have driven a jeep up the stairway. It was carved with climbing vines and flowers, plus birds and squirrels, mice, unidentifiable bugs.
“Who built this place?” I asked.
“Timber baron. Wiped out most of northeast Minnesota. Blanking on his name.” He took a few steps. “Blanking on a lot now.”
He looked at me. What I saw in his eyes was frightening.
“Let’s make this quick.”
We reached a balcony that overlooked the vast parlor. The last of the sun entered through a skylight.
“Here,” he said. “The master bedroom. You remember?” he asked Doris.
“Hard to forget,” she said.
Too bad about that. “Wait,” I said. “There was a penthouse. Where Doris caught you with…”
“Pied-à-terre,” Duke replied. “Love nest. This was always the main unit.”
“Who was the architect?” I asked. “Paul Bunyan?” The king-size four-poster, the tannenbaum-ready fireplace, a sofa and a pair of chairs, a desk, a couple dressers, side tables, footstools: you name it, it was somewhere in this sea of a bedroom.
“Why the home tour?” I asked. “We don’t have better things to do?”
“I don’t think so,” Duke said.
Doris stared at the bed, like she hadn’t seen it before.
At first I noticed only that like the stairway it was carved with vines and blossoms. But instead of blossoms, rendered with surgical precision were…
Well, no need to get into the exact, familiar details. In the end we are all children and at heart we hate to share.
A Venus was carved on the center panel of the headboard. I moved in for a closer look.
It was Doris.
Doris leaned in. “Duke,” she said. “When did you…”
“I don’t know if I should be…”
“You don’t have to be one thing or the other. You can leave it, you can sell it, you can chop it up for toothpicks. It was for me. A remembrance. A reminder. It’s yours now.”
I couldn’t decide whether to look closer or to reach for the anti-bacterial soap.
“Flattered,” said Duke. “You could be flattered. You want to know when my clock stopped? My clock stopped when it ended between us.”
“I don’t think your clock ever really stopped, Duke. I saw you in those society fundraiser photos. Attorney Duke Black with model What’s-Her-Name. Duke Black with local darling Tina Von Roundheel. You weren’t drowning in tears.”
“I had a life to live. Time doesn’t stop. Until it does. It wasn’t the same. That’s what I’m saying.”
“I can leave,” I said. “You two got things to settle, settle up. If I’m standing here, however, you got to have some respect.”
Doris looked up at me. She opened her mouth, started to say something, stopped.
“‘I’m sorry, Charles,” she said at last.
Sorry not being a word that often drops from Doris’s lips, she caught me by surprise. She took hold of my elbow and squeezed.
“I’m trying to explain myself here, Fatman,” said Duke. “It’s not about you. It’s about me. My ticker is winding down, buddy. Whatever I got to leave behind, it’s got to be now. I’m telling you something about my soul. What was trivial, what was deep and real. There was nothing more real than this. Can you have the decency to listen?”
We stood there silently together, all of us lost in our thoughts.
“Okay,” Duke said finally. “One more thing.”
Tomorrow: Not quite the River Styx
“Wish I had time to stop by the office,” Duke said.
“Yeah, I know.”
We were headed west on Summit, toward the river.
“Most people, they’d be happy to be done with the office,” I said.
“Look out the windows, I could see North Dakota. You’re never lord of all you survey. But I could pretend.”
“You going to tell us what Fadilah said?” Doris asked. She was in the backseat again.
Duke turned slightly to face her. “I’ll get to that. I need…” He stopped.
“What?” said Doris.
“A better setting. Not in a rattletrap automobile. No offense, Fatman.”
There wasn’t any point in rising to the bait.
At Duke’s direction I turned on River Boulevard and took it slow through the curves that follow the Mississippi bluff.
“You want to pick it up a bit, pal?” Duke said. “You’re not taking grandma back to the nursing home. I don’t have all the time in the world.”
I sped up enough to keep him quiet.
I turned on the drive that led down to the river. The headlights caught the bare branches of the trees as we descended. The road was dusted with snow. No one else had driven down this way. The river was another strand of black in the dark.
I parked on the edge of the empty lot. The headlights hit the far shore.
“Let’s get out,” said Duke.
“It’s cold out there.”
“Fatman. Don’t argue. I’m never going to ask you to do another thing.”
I wasn’t so sure about that, but I did what he asked.
Duke led us toward the edge of a drop that looked over the water. He staggered as he walked. I grabbed one of his elbows. Doris took the other.
“You going to be okay?” she said.
“Okay?” Something rumbled in his chest as he considered. Laughter. Fear. Both most likely. “In the sense of your normal living person, no. For a guy who’s been dead three days? Yeah. Maybe. I’m on the edge of something here. We’re going to see. I’m okay, I’m doomed, who knows?”
Duke lifted up his arms. Into the darkness, to the extent that he was able, he roared, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury!”
Tomorrow: You knew all along?
“Duke,” said Doris. “There are no ladies and gentlemen of the jury. You know that, right?”
“I’m summing up.”
One of his eyelids twitched. He shivered.
“You cold?” I asked.
“No, it’s not that. I… I don’t know.”
“Why are we here, Duke?” said Doris.
“I’m making it up as I go. It’s like the rest of life, except we’re talking minutes instead of years.”
“We’re giving up on solving this?” I asked. “The killer, we don’t care?”
“There wasn’t anything to solve. There never was.”
Doris grabbed my arm. I looked at Duke, then at the river beyond and the far shore in its clot of shadow.
Finally Doris said, “You knew all along who did it?”
“Let’s walk upstream,” said Duke.
“Go ahead. Lead the way.”
“Give me a hand, will you? My feet aren’t working so hot.”
Doris and I each took one of his arms. He wobbled through the snow-crusted leaves along the river bank. We didn’t get far before he said, “Okay, good enough.”
Bare cottonwoods towered over us. The clouds were breaking up now. A few stars poked through.
A tree had fallen beside the path. “Let’s sit,” said Duke. “I’m out of steam.”
I brushed off the snow. We sat facing the water. I waited for him to start talking again. He leaned his head on my shoulder. “Duke,” I said.
He stirred, lifted his head. “Yeah, okay, you don’t have to yell. I’m right here.”
“Nothing to solve,” said Doris. “You’re going mystical on us again?”
“There’s nothing to solve because… this is a lot to explain. I hope we got time.”
“Because I knew all along who did it.”
He went quiet again.
“Duke,” Doris said. “Stop fooling around.”
“Okay. Jesus. You never had any patience.”
He stopped again. He gasped.
Tomorrow: “The guy who killed Duke Black was…”
“You’re looking at him,” said Duke. “Duke Black killed Duke Black.”
He stared out at the dark river.
“You mean that figuratively, right?” I asked. “As in, the things I did got me murdered?”
“Mostly I’m a literal guy.”
“You stuck a knife in your own back? I don’t even see how you do that.”
“I ever tell you about a client of mine, one of Boom Boom’s pals? Suicide with a pistol. Shot himself twice in the heart. An automatic. But still. Commitment. That’s what we’re talking about.”
“Commitment or no, I don’t get it.”
“Unlike you, Fatman, I’m not a stiff old geek. Yoga for years.”
“You always were…flexible,” said Doris.
“Ashtanga. You should try it, Fatman. Reach around to my back, no problem. Held the knife there, then slammed my back against your door. Bang. Skewered. Dead.”
We both looked at him. Something funny was happening with Duke’s lips. A smile, electrical misfires, it was hard to say.
Questions swarmed. Before I could get started Doris jumped in.
“Why?” she said. “I don’t begin to see why.”
“It was Pimlipper. Treacherous old prick. When we were negotiating in the underworld.”
“He convinced you to kill yourself?”
“We made a bet.”
“You’re not serious.”
“He was talking about forks in the road. The scuttlebutt about the alternatives. On one hand, the underworld. On the other…”
“This isn’t one of those harem of virgins deals I hope?“ Doris said. “Some jihadi fantasy?”
“…on the other, the high road.”
“Maybe that’s not the word. Pimlipper got going on the grandeur of eternal emptiness. Peaceful. Powerful. Dark. Water to the ocean, into the vastness, all of that. The clarity of the cold, the purity.”
“That sounded better than the joint on Summit? A line up of Jen Litelys?” I said.
“You had to be there. Pimlipper was the top man in his day. He told you black was white and you stopped to think about it. Pimlipper said the only thing I didn’t have was nothing.”
“I’m not following.”
“Think about it. That house. The staff. You turn your back for a minute, you got bricks falling down around your ears. Contractors. Workmen. Silver service walking out the door. And that’s the house. We’re not talking about the vacation property, the boats, the cars.”
“I thought you had a plane.”
“Don’t get me started on the plane. Don’t get me started on the office. Investigators. Secretaries. The accountant, the web guy. The IRS. The financial adviser. The buildings, the tenants. Christ. This is the last thing I should think of right now.
“You want the money because it will set you free and the next thing is it’s the opposite. You’re working for the money. The money is your boss. With the money comes the Jenn Litelys. All of them with their needs, their expectations. Ten thousand bucks here, ten thousand there, you don’t notice, it’s just numbers, except that there’s an idea attached. There’s a question.”
“Why are we here!”
This echoed off the water and the bluffs. “Jesus, Duke, take it easy,” I said.
“What was the bet?” Doris asked.
“Pimlipper said I didn’t have the balls to find out which way I’d go. That I was floating along in my unexamined life.”
“That’s an observation, not a bet.”
“This was the deal. I do myself in on Halloween. Big holiday for Pimlipper and his pals. Cosmic understanding was how he put it. I achieve that before the Final Determination…”
“His term. I should have asked a few more questions. But you get the drift. I figure things out, the elevator’s going up. I win. It goes down, Pimlipper steps aside and I’m top litigator for the underworld.”
“Sounds more like a trap than a bet,” Doris said.
“The dead bastard, he has all day to scheme. Anyway, next thing I knew he had me signing in blood.”
“You were sick of it, why didn’t you just give it all away?”
“Fatman,” Duke said. “You’re disappointing me now.”
Tomorrow: The perfect Duke Black moment.
“How many years you think it would take to give away everything I got?” Duke said. “I’m not talking a Frogtown flophouse and junker automobile, Fatman. These are serious assets.”
“You set up an offshore account, stick a couple thousand bucks in your pocket, you book a flight to Uraguay. Forget about the rest.”
“Tell that to the IRS. They want their cut served on a platter.”
“You hire a team of lawyers.”
“That sounds like peace?”
“So you stick a knife in your back instead?”
“Since when have I been a moderation-in-all-things guy?”
“This is a perfect Duke Black moment,” said Doris.
“Why the huffy tone?” said Duke
“Is there something wrong with living your life? Being grateful for the things you’re given? The money isn’t good enough for you. The things that money can buy aren’t good enough. I wasn’t good enough. Who do you think you are, that you never can settle?”
“I told you I was wrong about you. Here, let me get down on my knees and tell you again.”
Duke threw himself off the bench. He wrapped his arms around Doris’s legs and buried his face in her lap.
“I was wrong I was wrong I was wrong,” he said.
“Stop it,” Doris said. She kicked him away.
Duke landed on his side in the snow and leaves. He groaned, then slowly pulled himself up onto his hands and knees.
“Jesus, Duke.” I helped him back onto the log. “Sit down.”
Doris stared straight ahead.
“I’m trying to set things right here. It’s what I have left,” said Duke. “You could try to meet me halfway.”
“I don’t want to be a prop in your show,” Doris said. “Again. You can’t even die without turning it into a performance.”
“You could have some respect for the stiff who’s turning you into a queen.”
“Did I ask you to?”
“It’s too late to do anything about it now. The wheels are in motion.”
“It’s mine whether I want it or not.”
“This is another deal you’ve made for me. Tough luck if I don’t like it.”
“Who doesn’t like thirty million bucks?”
“Doris,” I said. “Duke.”
“This isn’t your battle, Charles.”
I knew better than to reply. We sat in silence. Some kind of animal chattered in the brush.
“Okay,” Doris said at last. “We’ve got questions to answer. We don’t have much time. Assuming a single word of this is true.”
“Go ahead,” said Duke. “Ask. That’s why I’m here.”
Monday: Why with the lies?
“Why the lie?” Doris said. “Why did you run us in circles?”
“You look at it the wrong way, sure, it doesn’t make much sense.”
“There’s a right way to look at manipulating your friends?”
“Consider the motive.”
“To play me and Charles like puppets?”
“Give me some credit.”
“For what, exactly?”
“Wanting to be with you. Trying to settle.”
“Most people,” Doris said, “they would pick up the phone. Invite us to dinner. We’d eat, we’d talk, we’d start nodding off. Charles and I would promise to return the favor. Maybe we would, maybe we wouldn’t. That’s what most people would do. Most people would not stick a knife in their own back, claim it was murder and drag us along on a phony hunt for a phony killer.”
“Most people!” Duke spit out the words. “Since when am I most people?
“Most people! They count the days until they retire. Then they wait to die. They gobble their pills, they tell you about their aches and pains, they grouse about Social Security and they roll into their graves. Most people.”
“This isn’t a courtroom, Duke. No one is paying you to create a straw man. It’s not Duke Black versus the normal person. It’s not an argument. It’s the end of your life. Period. No appeal.”
“It is an argument,” Duke said. “Everything is an argument. I pick up an apple, I’m arguing against the orange. I do thisand it’s an argument against everyone who ever did that. I chose not to dodder into old age. I chose not to be a shriveled, yammering fool in diapers. I’m taking a chance on understanding my death instead of letting it fall on me. Iam making a case.”
“Oh, of course you are. Duke Black is conducting an argument with the universe,” Doris declared. “Because Duke Black does not have the humility to accept his fate. Wealth is oppressive. Life is oppressive. If it’s what the normal person must accept, then Duke Black will not accept it! Pimlipper didn’t make a bet with you. He just buried you in your own hubris.”
Duke turned to me. “This isn’t going the way I figured.”
“Maybe that’s not surprising,” I said.
“I tried to go through my life lightly, Fatman. You know what I mean?”
“Sorry, Duke. We’ve walked heavy on the earth, you and me both.”
“But playfully. Appreciating the joke in it. Most people…”
“There you go again.”
“Don’t see the humor.”
The clouds broke and the moon came out. The light landed on the water and shimmied there. We could have been lost in the woods. Not that either of us cared to be in such a place. That went double for Doris. The cold crept into my bones.
“I don’t know how much longer I can sit here,” I said.
“You don’t have to. Not much time left,” Duke said. He leaned his head on my shoulder again. I felt his muscles twitching against me.
Tomorrow: The final chapter.
“Duke,” I said.
He jumped a bit.
“No. Drifting. Like dreaming. Except more…”
I lost him again. “What? More what?”
“Deep, Fatman. That’s all I can say. Deep. Right here. Now. My life, the memory of it. At a thousand miles an hour.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Wait. One more thing.”
“I don’t know. It’s like talking when you’re high. Doesn’t work so hot.”
“Boom Boom and Edgar and Roscoe. Why were they together at the Widow?”
“It’s too late to joke.”
“You’re telling me.”
“The four of us. For years. Mysteries. Procedurals. The classics. Crime and Punishment. The Trial. P.D. James. Conan Doyle. Henning Mankell. Nesbø. You name it. Professional interest, me, Roscoe and Boom Boom. Edgar, he brought the paranoid perspective. Helpful. Sometimes. Sometimes just nuts.”
“They were acting?”
“Participating. Living the fiction. Ten thou each to play the part, but that’s what friends are for.”
“A joker. For me. She’d do anything. I mean that.”
“This is beyond crazy.” Whether Doris was more angry or confused I couldn’t say. “Manipulative. Self-aggrandizing.”
“Yeah. Sure. But memorable. Right? Talk about it for years. Duke Black did not go gently. Sucked you in, left you puzzling. You will not forget.”
“Everybody will be forgotten,” said Doris.
“Some more quickly than others. I’m doing what I can.”
“What about the knife from our drawer?”
“The one in my back? Roscoe broke in and grabbed it a couple days before. Years on the force. He’s got skills. I figured it was a touch. Get everybody up on their toes.”
“Why, Duke?” Doris asked. “Why did you drag us into this?”
“There has to be more.”
He put a hand on Doris’s knee. “I loved Fatman. In a way. You don’t believe it, but I loved you. You never know what’s in the heart of anyone else. You can’t imagine. What they remember. What they forget. You don’t know how important you are, how insignificant you can be. I wanted a chance to explain, to balance the scales. With money. With time. Like this.”
“This was crazy,” said Doris.
“Sue me. It’s what I could imagine.”
“Who wins the bet?” I asked.
“You or Pimlipper?”
“No way to know,” Duke mumbled. “Not yet. It wasn’t so much of a bet. More of an exploration. A trip I was willing to take. Pimplipper happened to be there. I appreciated his line of patter, professionally speaking. But what he did was, he turned on what was already inside me. I’m an explorer, Fatman. Not of some stupid mountain or slimy river. My territory is death.”
He lifted his head off my shoulder. The effort cost him. Duke twisted toward Doris and leaned in to kiss her forehead. Instead he landed hard against her head. Duke was shorting out. Doris put a hand on his and sat still as he settled against her.
“Jesus,” Duke whispered. “This is something. This really… Ah… If you knew…”
I looked at him. His eyes darted behind the closed lids.
I grabbed his shoulder and squeezed. “What, Duke? If we knew what? What is it?”
“I… I… I…” he said.
I wasn’t altogether surprised when those five kids appeared in their black hoodies. They kicked through the dead leaves and snow in high-tops that gleamed in the moon light.
“Gentlemen,” I said.
“Sir,” said their leader. “Ma’am.”
“That’s all? No jibes or jokes?”
“The time for that is past,” he said. His voice had changed. The street-brat mockery was gone and in its place was Charlton Heston-style Old Testament gravitas.
Duke still leaned up against Doris.
“What do we do with him?” I asked.
“Duke Black’s hour is upon him.”
“We can’t just leave him here.”
“The remains of Duke Black are not your concern.”
“You’ll take care of it? I never asked. Who are you guys?”
“We are who we are.”
“Not no rap group, that what you mean,” said the shortest, still willing to yank my chain.
“Duke. Which way is he headed? Up? Down? Can you say?”
“Duke Black goes where he must.”
“That’s a little indefinite, fellas.”
“In general you know not neither the time nor the place. Duke Black knew the time. He was up by half.”
“Figures,” said Doris.
The tallest of them took Duke’s head. The others grabbed an arm or a leg. They lifted him as if he were weightless. Then they carried Duke on the path that led upstream.
Doris and I watched until they disappeared in the darkness.
Now that Duke Black is on his way to his eternal reward, let me thank you for taking the time to read Duke Is Dead. It’s been a pleasure for me, especially when readers felt compelled to put fingers to keyboard and let me know their feelings about the latest installment. The new world of publishing has its consolations. Routine interaction with readers is high among them.
Which is not to say that these exchanges were always what I expected. The question that seemed to occur most frequently to both male and female readers was, How do I meet a gal like Doris? Sorry, folks. There’s only so much a part-time novelist can do for you.
However, if you are wondering how you’re going to start the day without Fatman, Doris and Duke, allow me to suggest alternatives.
I’ve written other novels that are available at low, low everyday prices both at Amazon.com (for Kindle or for many other devices via the free Kindle reading app) and at Smashwords.com (for Kindle and most readers, tablets and phones known to man).
These eBooks include:
Mermaid in Vegas: A mobbed-up Vegas casino boss captures a mermaid, then builds a display tank for her in an exclusive club where the regulars include Frank, Dean and the rest of the Rat Pack. Urged to action by his firecracker wife, casino detective Tom Blinder reluctantly undertakes a rescue mission.
Valentine’s Cafe: The God of Love opens a restaurant. Trouble — romantic, political, sexual — ensues.
Darkest Desire: The Wolf’s Own Tale: Wolf has a problem: his desire to eat children makes him an outcast among his peers. When he encounters the Brothers Grimm in the forest, they offer him a cure. Are they sincere, or skilled manipulators? Wolf decides to take a chance.
Thereafter: Based, oddly enough, on a true story of a house flipping couple whose relationship takes an unsettling turn when the lady of the house comes to believe that their new home is haunted.
The God of Love Will See You Now: Three short, short stories concerning the unreliable interventions of the God of Love, Victor Valentine. Available free, but only at Smashwords.
You can also find out more about these works at AnthonySchmitz.com.
In all likelihood, the final portion of the Fatman trilogy will be available starting on Halloween, 2015. Tentatively titled The Needle’s Eye, it will follow Doris and Fatman as they contend with sudden wealth, trouble in Frogtown and the relentless scheming of the dead. Stay tuned.
Again, my sincere gratitude for your interest in Duke Is Dead.
Warmest regards — Tony Schmitz