Duke was nowhere around when he got home.
He’d tried Amy’s number from a phone booth not far from the cop-shop. Getting no response, he tried again after getting off the bus, at the booth down the street. This time her room-mate Sandy answered, but didn’t know where she was or when she would be back. Taking a message, she was cool and a bit short with Mark. He had the impression that her and Amy weren’t exactly the best of friends, they were merely splitting the rent. The apartment was rent-controlled, otherwise they never would have been able to afford it. They’d sublet it from someone going overseas but planning to return. The lady might have been busy or had someone with her, he conceded. She didn’t owe him anything, that was clear.
Amy didn’t owe him anything either.
The front room smelled a bit like dry rot or something, and he opened the windows to let some air in. He was lucky to find a couple of beers in the fridge and there was bacon and eggs. A nice, simple meal, he put four strips of bacon in his cast-iron frying pan and set the heat low. Adding chopped onion, he quickly sliced a small potato very thin and put that in the pan beside the bacon. He would have to watch it. Without a kitchen table he was just hanging about, beer in hand, checking out his rooms and wondering what the hell came next in his sorry little life.
He stood at the windows, watching life on the street below.
The cops would have spoken to everyone in the building, anyone who would open the door, essentially. They would have no way of knowing who Amy was. The thoughts of them giving her a rough time were not pleasant. Duke didn’t know her last name as far as Mark knew, although it might have came up in conversation when he was out. Duke, on the other hand, would be avoiding the cops like the plague. Mark had this terrible feeling, the feeling that he really ought to be doing something.
He’d always hated being pushed.
Pushing back, especially when it was cops, might not be a very good idea. In fact, it was a very bad idea.
It was a good question, as to whether beer would dampen that spark of anger or fan it higher.
There was only one way to find out. Tipping the bottle back, he had a good swig as the bacon began to hiss and then to crackle.
It was going to be a while yet.
Mark was just standing at the kitchen counter, forking the first bite of scrambled eggs into his gaping maw when there was a quick rap at the door and then Duke tried the handle and came in.
“Holy, shit, man. You are one hot property.”
Mark gagged a bit, as he’d put a lot of ketchup and vinegar on his golden-brown home fries.
“What do you mean by that?” Mark had bigger problems right about now, including his stomach, and there was, unfortunately, only one beer left in the fridge.
Duke stood there in the kitchen doorway, watching Mark, methodically and in a determined fashion, desperately trying to get a meal into his gut before something else bad happened to him.
He was standing, eating off of a plate sitting on the counter beside the kitchen sink.
Mark rolled his eyes over and gave him a long look.
“I’ll, uh, just wait in the living room. Oh.” Duke pulled a bottle of what looking like glue out of the back pocket of his jeans. “You’ll have to find another stick for the front window.”
Turning, he left Mark to eat in peace.
After a minute, his voice came from the outer room.
“A buddy of mine has an old TV. He’s getting a new one, a big colour set. He says you can have it.”
There had to be more to it than that. A kitchen table would have really been something, but he could live without it for a little while longer. A dresser for the bedroom, a couple of rugs or some carpeting would be nice. These were bad thoughts when you were already down.
Everything just seemed so impossible.
A free TV.
All you have to do is carry it five miles across the city and then lug it up the stairs. Plug it in and see if it works.
Any minute now, they’d trip over another body and then he’d just be in a whole heap of trouble.
“I’ve got your laundry, incidentally. It’s upstairs.”
Oh, yeah—the laundry.
Mark sagged a bit at the knees. He hadn’t been eating well, he hadn’t been sleeping well, and he’d been wound up for quite some time. Sooner or later a man had to crash and burn...three more bites and he was done.
That was the funny thing about food. It took a while to kick in. The beer, on the other hand, seemed to work instantly.
Mark came out after washing up. He sat on the far window ledge, watching as Duke glued the joints of the second chair. Mark had decided on using a wooden spoon to hold up the window, and a warm breeze promised much for the season to come. What it might be like up here in mid-July was another question.
“So. As you can imagine, I’ve got one or two things on my plate.”
Duke nodded, pleased with his handiwork. The chair he was on was a little more solid. He set the repaired chair down on a few spread-out newspapers, watching to see how much glue might ooze out of the joints. With a stool, he could have put it properly upside-down. Chairs with backs, they would be laying on an extreme angle.
So for, so good...
Duke looked up.
“Your number one priority is you and Amy.”
Mark wondered about that. The week-old newspaper gave him an idea though.
“What was the name of that dead hooker?”
“How the hell would I know?”
Mark nodded. It might not have even made the papers. While everyone in the building would have talked about it, no one would know anything at all—which never seemed to stop the gossip.
If it had been in the paper, the lady’s name might have been withheld pending notification of next of kin.
Mark couldn’t help but to think all of this was connected. Duke was right about one thing—Amy must have been wondering about him, and his part in all of this. His heart sank.
Of course—she’s avoiding me.
Dead hookers, dead landlords, dead building superintendents.
And it’s all connected to me?
There was that spark of anger again.
Like fuck it is, you stupid bastards...
“There must be a news-stand that keeps older editions for a few days.” He told Duke what he had in mind—information, any sort of information at all, might be helpful.
“Why don’t you try the library?” Duke had the other, better chair up-ended, judiciously squeezing out glue and letting it suck itself into the loose joints.
Mark’s mouth opened and then closed again.
Why didn’t I think of that?
They’d even had one at Bellevue, an oasis of relative quiet, possibly even sanity, in an otherwise barely-tolerable existence.
It struck Mark that he must be a very stupid man. Leaving the apartment and Duke (still hiding from Maude) to their own devices, he’d only gotten a few blocks before he realized that the dead lady in his apartment had to have came from somewhere.
The trouble with being in an institution, where every move was laid out for you and every worked according some strict clockwork routine, was that you quickly became mentally lazy.
There were a limited number of decisions to be made in each and every day, and once that was done there wasn’t all that much to think about. People deadened their minds as best they could, otherwise they simply couldn’t handle the lack of...stimulus. That was the word.
He slowed down, taking a better look around, becoming more aware of his environment. He had to let the denial go and really look. Somehow or other this had become his problem. It wasn’t like the cops were ever going to solve it. He doubted if they were looking very hard.
There was too much crime. Not enough in the budget and not enough time in the day. That was just the truth.
New Yorkers were surrounded by crime, that much was evident from the daily news.
There were one or two rather obvious hookers working a nearby street-corner. They usually had their turf, their street-corners and alleyways, where they habitually worked the world’s oldest trade. The point being was that they usually didn’t go too far. Not streetwalkers, anyways. Call girls, that might be something else. They had a place of their own or would make house calls
The had higher prices and in order to sustain that price, they had to exhibit some modicum of class.
Or something like that.
The woman in his bathtub hadn’t impressed him as having any class at all. One of the ladies caught his eye. She was fairly tall, with spiky blonde hair sticking straight up, a shiny red leather dress cut a quarter-inch below the business end. The shorter, younger girl was pretty, brunettte and yet hard-looking around the mouth and eyes, which were still humorous though.
The torn fish-net stockings and four-inch heels pretty much said it all. He wondered if there must be times when the girls actually enjoyed their jobs. It was said that they hated men, deep down inside. That was probably just, considering what Mark Jones knew about men, and all the things they said, and all the things they did. The girls would be seeing a lot of their customers at their worst, drunk, demanding and cheating on their lawfully-wedded wives. If nothing else, it would impart a certain cynicism over time.
Women didn’t know their husbands as well as they thought they did.
Not that he knew much about hookers, it was just an impression.
What would he tell them? How to go about it was a good question, and then he had it, or had something anyways. All he could do was try, and see how it went, and act accordingly. There were always more prostitutes in the neighbourhood. It wasn’t just these two.
Picking the older, more hard-bitten looking lady, Mark caught her eye.
“Hey, Mister, what can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for somebody.”
“Aren’t we all, Honey. What did you have in mind?”
He grinned in spite of himself.
“There’s this lady and I kind of liked her.” Mark did his best to describe his dead hooker, not so much the outfit, as the hair, the eyes, the style of makeup and the garish colours.
The younger one looked up at her friend.
Her eyes turned to him.
The older one gave him the bad news.
“That sounds like Jackie.”
“Yeah, maybe. Sure sounds like her. Where did you pick her up?”
“Oh, it was right around here somewhere. I was pretty drunk at the time.” He tried a disarming smile. “Yeah, uh, she had these streaks in her hair, and just the way it framed her face...”
He lamely described some kinky black shoes and stockings with lines up the back without getting too specific.
The lady nodded sharply.
“Well, I’m sorry. We got bad news for you, Bud.”
“If that’s her. If it’s the one I’m thinking.”
A cop car cruised slowly past, ignoring them as far as Mark could see, the car and his own image reflected in the windows behind the girls. It struck him that it was a place of business.
A restaurant, it was open and it was pretty public out there. Somewhere in his release papers it said something about consorting with criminals, if not whores specifically.
“If it’s Jackie you’re looking for, try the morgue.”
“Jackie? Yeah, that might have been her...” His shoulders slumped. “Something like that, anyways. So, she’s dead then?”
The lady nodded in sympathy.
“Uh, hmn. Sorry, lover.”
A car pulled in to the curb and the younger girl went over, to bend in, talk to the guys and have a quick look, a quick smell to gauge their alcohol consumption. They looked all right and they wanted the pair. They had money and they were in the mood to party. Mark couldn’t help but overhear some of it and then came a quick whistle.
“I gotta go, Mister.”
“So what happened? Do you know Jackie’s last name?”
“No last name. Not too many of us do. She was found dead over on Easy Street, some shit-hole little apartment.”
It was a like a quick punch in the guts.
Yeah, that’s where I live all right.
Her heavy scent washed over Mark as she sashayed past him doing her best to be like Marilyn Monroe, and for a lady her age, the rear view wasn’t bad at all. She bent over and worked her way into the rear seat with a couple of young Puerto Ricans, going by the look of it and the music on the car radio. The younger one was still cute, and that was a kind of tragedy that he couldn’t do much about. Some of them made a specialty of looking vulnerable. They all must have started off that way.
Mark turned and kept going to the library. If nothing else, he could check the back issues and then maybe have a minute to himself just to think for a bit.
(End of Part Fourteen.)
Thanks for reading.
Readers may like to have a quick look at Louis Shalako in paperback.