Crimes of the American Century
A Millennial Noir
On his 125th birthday in the last year of the second millennium, the world’s oldest detective, Simon Pickle, raindrenched, walked heavily on sneakers that made sounds like an upset stomach. He was pointed into a powerful wind that carried bomb-shaped drops horizontally. They exploded against his tight face, splattered over his balding head. He breathed water.
One of his hands held a stuffed briefcase of seal-black leather that glistened with wet. The other held the metal skeleton of a an umbrella stripped clean of its nylon canopy. The way Pickle’s rubberized raincoat (an odd-lot bought at a sizable discount) flapped its sleeves down over his finger tips made both the briefcase and umbrella frame seem less like appendages and more like replacement parts for a third-world robot. The long coat’s bottom brushed along glossy pavement, its top buttoned over Pickle’s blue lips. From inside the tent-like garment, he whispered against slimy fabric, “Look at yourself, Simon. Clown as hunter.”
Pickle searched for the numbers on the brownstones he passed. Some had no visible numbers. Some had small, shy digits, practically unreadable. A few had bold numbers shaped in brass or etched in cement. He knew the house he wanted would be among the unmarked anonymous. Elementary.
There it was, what had to be 288 Horatio (between 286 and 290 on the uptown side) a stooped Federal with a black iron gate. The house was set back from the street with enough room for a small garden; a few bushes, a cluster of bent Montauk daisies, a row of drooping hydrangea with color-drained blooms like withered brains.
The garden’s only surviving glory was a battered rose bush still blooming in September. So predictable, that wounded tangle, Simon thought while he stepped over a puddle where a few blush-colored petals lit by the glow from a parlor window floated like drops of blood. “They’re all alike,” he said to the wind, “all arrogant, childlike, inviting capture. They leave trails like Hansel and Gretel in the forest. Even the best of them hang out battle flags, paint targets on their bellies. Then why is the chase so endless? Why am I, a seasoned professional, still such a shmuck? What took me so long?”
Ten stone steps led up to a red wooden door carved with the image of a cyclops. Its bloated face clenched in a smile, looked down at Pickle through the rain curtain. Pickle stared back at the blank floating eye, an empty egg.
He reached under his coat to massage the holster of his ancient Walther P38. It was loaded with Glaser Safety Slug Blue’s, lead in liquid teflon, bullets that fractured on impact and spread shards like cancer. He smiled back at the grotesque guarding the door. “Be nice,” Pickle said. “Be uninvolved. This ain’t your war.”
He braced for a hard climb up the stoop using his elbow for leverage against a wrought iron banister. While his knees throbbed and his arches crackled, without warning, rhyme or reason, Pickle’s mind whirled back to his first major case.
NOVEMBER 3, 1909
TYCOON MURDER SHOCKS GOTHAM
NABOB GOES TO PIECES
Stephan Borpis of New York and Newport, empire builder, railroad magnate, silver baron, coal czar, was found by a parlor maid, his large body neatly sectioned and crammed into a toilet made of Italian marble, the stuff of cathedrals.
Borpis’ obituary read: That this man, for whom order and structure were the spine of life, should die in such a demeaning crumple is more than simple irony. There is a lesson in Borpis’ marvelous life and awful death that reaches beyond admiration, envy or even horror. Must we be reminded, yet again, that Fate has its ways, that dark demons fly through tiny crevices even into the grandest and best defended mansions?
Simon Pickle arrested a Lithuanian labor leader, Spignu Gonik, for that murder. A sweaty, hairy, arrogant creature who had been fired from his job at Borpis Tool & Dye and who was overheard vowing revenge, Gonik bolted when the police came to question him. It took five officers to batten his hatches.
Pickle, triumphant, was promoted for his excellent work in ferreting out Gonik but he had nagging doubts during and after the sensational trial. There were too many loose ends. For one thing, the perpetrator had witnesses who swore that he had been in a Philadelphia bordello at the time of the slaying, carousing and reveling, compliments of the house, on a chit signed by the deceased. In exchange for certain favors, Gonik said, involving contract negotiations. His dismissal, he claimed, was part of a scheme to cover his devious double cross of the workers he represented. Gonik insisted that he was marked for a management job at another Borpis plant in Idaho. The jury laughed at Gonik’s accented denials of guilt. The man’s best witnesses were whores. Pickle remembered how Gonik sizzled while he burned in the electric chair; his fat spattered on the warden’s face. Lights flickered across the tranquil town where the execution took place. Rest in peace.
Pickle mounted the second step. He felt a pang in his left arm. Angina or gas? What difference? Heart attack or fart attack, there was no turning back now. Besides, who died on his own birthday? The detective took a few deep breaths and this time encouraged his mind to drift toward another example of malevolence, the terrible assassination of an authentic genius, the inventor C. Crafton Poole.
OCTOBER 15, 1919
POOLE DRAINED — COPS STUCK
ACCIDENT, SUICIDE OR HOMICIDE?
C. Crafton Poole was an ascetic who practically lived in his laboratory. His astonishing work on the arcane properties of polymers galvanized industry. His startled corpse was found glued, face front, to a stained glass window that was the centerpiece of his private chapel.
At first the inventor’s death was ascribed to some bizarre accident. Then there was talk of suicide. Murder seemed unlikely since the man was universally loved. But murder was the final verdict. Poole was buried with pieces of that Tiffany window still stuck to his chin, nose and forehead.
Pickle got the case. The investigation zeroed in on one Emilio Sanchez, a smarmy, draft-dodging tango teacher with a limitless appetite for mature French wines and immature debutantes. On close scrutiny it became crystal clear that Poole’s young daughter, Acadia, who came out at the Junior League Ball that very year, was carnally involved with Sanchez. Acadia admitted that her father had caught them coupling in the very same chapel where Poole perished.
Pickle imagined the tsunami of rage that swept over C. Crafton Poole after the chemist learned of the illicit romance between the slinky Latin twirler and the dewy adolescent apple of his righteous eye. At the least, Acadia was being saved for better. Only hours before his death, Poole threatened to disinherit her if the unholy liaison continued, and there was some evidence that he had attempted to contact a brute nicknamed The Eraser to settle the Sanchez account.
Pickle was impressed by the courage and grace of the so-called TANGO MONSTER who spun himself around and around still singing of his innocence before falling into the lap of the electric chair. When the charge hit, his shaven scalp lit like a candle, saturated as it was with oils and unguents.
The smell of justice was high and sweet, as noted in the obituary: But which burned brighter or wafted a more refulgent odor? That glowing skull or the spirit of the victim? Because of his dedication and determination, C. Crafton Poole has made our lives so much better. In the fields of medicine, transportation, entertainment and production it is he who shines with a more enduring light and enjoys the final sweet essence of eternal glory. Pickle pasted that obit in his album along with the tabloid accolade, headlined, HURRAH FOR SIMON PICKLE — NEW YORK’S HOMESPUN HOLMES.
Still, Pickle was haunted by discrepant shadows in the prosecution’s argument. The tango teacher claimed that, when murder was done, he himself was being educated in the intricacies of the then-new dance, The Charleston, at the studio of one Madame Olga who testified for the defense. She produced receipts and an appointment book. But Olga had been the killer’s mistress for years and the jury discounted her words as pelvic perjury. For some reason, Pickle believed her.
Breaking the Poole case brought the detective more money as well as praise. Pickle proposed marriage to his childhood sweetheart, Hannah Flock and she accepted. They were married in Boston and honeymooned on Nantucket Island since Hannah claimed remote kinship with Herman Melville and had a keen interest in whales. While Hannah searched for old ship’s logs in the library, Simon sounded deep into his own depths trying to confront the unreasonable doubts that kept him restless despite his success. The image of Sanchez scraped at his mind.
On the third step, his head pounding, Pickle rested again. While waiting to regain his equilibrium he blinked and there was the comatose face of an expiring Alderman Tristano Alegretti, spurting blood like a garden sprinkler, his rotund body pierced thirteen times with an ice pick.
DECEMBER 5, 1929
BLOODY BOUQUET BLOOMS IN BROOKLYN
ALEGRETTI SUCCUMBS TO MULTIPLE WOUNDS
Each hole in the Alderman’s body had been filled with a white orchid. The city fathers gasped, then breathed easier when it was learned that the safe Alegretti kept filled with deadly dossiers of municipal sins had been ripped open and torched to ashes. Pickle and his team were responsible for that arson on orders from the Mayor himself after being assured that the destruction of the Alegretti Files, while certainly a happy convenience, had absolutely nothing to do with his mandate to ferret out Alegretti’s perforator.
With Pickle in the vanguard, Alegretti’s suspected killer, a bootlegger called The Flatbush Florist, was cornered and gunned down by the police in a greenhouse where he cultivated exotic plants. During the standoff, The Flatbush Florist proclaimed himself a patsy, insisting that he never had and never would allow himself to come in direct contact with any potential victim or employ a weapon as intimate as an ice pick.
The Flatbush Florist insisted everybody in the underworld knew he had a traumatic fear of malicious microbes and was famous for changing his white gloves even after turning a strange doorknob. His last words boasted that the only dirty work he’d ever done personally or pleasurably was with a golden trowel he got from Chicago Al Capone.
For tracking down The Flatbush Florist, Pickle received a commendation from the Mayor and another advance in rank. But in his heart of hearts, he believed the man innocent and nearly vomited when he pasted The Flatbush Florist’s obituary into his album: Perhaps the only virtue of the cobweb world of the blackmailer and bootlegger is that it is balanced like an aquarium where evil feeds upon itself, consuming its own droppings. In that black pool, where vile life forms twitch and swim, that sunless, moonless kingdom where mermaids weep rust, all meaning is twisted as writhing tentacles. Even an orchid, a flower as beautiful as a captured star, a lovely symbol of grace and delight in upper realms, becomes a pustule, a fungus in that dwelling place of scum and scurvy…
Simon sent copies of that obituary to his nieces and nephews who wrestled with the compromised morality of prohibition and the great depression. He had no children of his own to educate. He and Hannah had decided that there were enough mammals on this inhospitable planet without their producing another, a decision Pickle came to regret.
Now, at 125, he missed having the comfort of an adoring daughter and the pleasure of passing his badge to a sturdy son. The only birthday card he’d gotten was from the White House, signed, pro forma, by a President he hadn’t voted for.
Taking the fourth step was surprisingly easy for Detective Pickle except for some generic creaking of bones, a complaint of muscles and a brief spinal spasm. While he waited to get himself together, Pickle’s face was splashed by a liquid glob spit from the brownstone’s faulty drain. “Go ahead God, piss on me,” Pickle said. “I don’t blame You.” Through fog, he saw a flash of lightning tongue the city sky. The jagged bolt detached another fragment of memory.
AUGUST 22, 1936
MILLIONAIRE MUMMY MYSTIFIES
COPS KEEP FACTS UNDER WRAPS
It was on such a night that Pickle had been called to examine the mummified shell of Lyman Link in the basement of the headquarters of Link, Foxworth and Mimes on Wall Street. Link had been found by a boiler inspector on routine assignment. The broker had been bludgeoned, eviscerated and wrapped in enough ticker tape for a small parade.
Famous for shorting his shares in Bank Of The United States only days before the stock market crash, a trusted advisor to President Roosevelt, Link had recently announced his intention to build a huge estate in East Hampton, Long Island which would be filled with Egyptian art treasures, temples to beads, enough to rival the British Museum.
Pickle had been completely stymied by what seemed to be a perfect crime until, by sheer chance, he noticed a sultry scrubwoman, Lilly Marlene Schnitzer, wearing a gold ankh necklace that swung like a pendulum between her generous breasts. Such a woman might be expected to wear a heart-shaped pendant or a faux pearl but not an adornment more suited to the owner of a pyramid. Under questioning, the seemingly humble woman admitted to a long-standing affair with the TICKER TAPE MUMMY. Link had shared his bed with the mop and pail pusher for the better part of a year and had gifted her with exotic baubles like the ankh, but never gave her insider information on the market or, for that matter, any money beyond carfare home. Lilly Marlene Schnitzer’s salary was sixteen dollars a week. She’d tried to make ends meet by moonlighting as a marathon dancer but her left knee was arthritic. At first, Pickle was sure he had his killer.
Beyond obvious economic complaints, the lady had the oldest motive in the books. Smoldering jealousy. Link had been betrothed to socialite Cynthia Peltnagle the week before his demise. Their engagement was big news. Pickle had read about it on his way to the sports page. When Link gave her the ankh necklace, he told Lilly Marlene Schnitzer their affair was history. He wanted her out of mind and out of sight as soon as possible and promised to write a good reference. He did write a letter praising her skills, loyalty and dependability on his personal stationery. Her tear stains splotched the paper.
What clinched the case against the washerwoman was the gruesome discovery of Link’s innards in her ice-box. She claimed that the heart, lungs and viscera had been planted there. Schnitzer had always been a confirmed vegetarian and lover of pets. She cared for six cats and four dogs rescued from the city pound. She owned sixty goldfish, eleven canaries and three parakeets. Her diet consisted of wild rice and garbonza beans along with leafy green vegetables. True, her pets ate an occasional hamburger.
A pro bono attorney argued that, aside from all other considerations, Lilly Schnitzer was deeply in love with Lyman Link and could not have plotted against him. He made much of the fact that the accused lacked the sophisticated imagination necessary to conceive such a complicated crime. Lilly might kill with a broom handle, attempt to hide the body, but transform her paramour into a paper mummy after expert dissection? — never, not in a million years. The woman was knitting Link a sweater for his wedding present when the police picked her up.
That plea did not move the jury to mercy enough to counter the prosecution’s claim that Lilly Marlene Schnitzer was a vixen and a secret cannibal, though it set Pickle thinking. Link had antagonized a long list of investors and was not on the best of terms with his partners, friends or his fiancé’s socialite family. There was huge opposition in the Hamptons over his proposed estate which the old guard out there considered a terminal eyesore. The East Hampton Star published a letter calling the plans for Link’s home “a design for Cleopatra Street, not Georgica Pond.” There was no dearth of potential perpetrators.
Pickle made his point but the DA rushed the high profile case to trial and got his conviction for Murder One with mercy. Lilly Marlene Schnitzer was sent away for life and Pickle pasted another obituary into his scrapbook: Lyman Link, a gifted financier, a civilized and powerful citizen of our city, was blessed with a rare combination of acumen and vision. That he would engage in so tawdry an affair with an underling tells us he was plagued by a tragic flaw which is all too common — unbridled lust fanned by the seductive sensuality of the marginally employed. How could he not know of the envy, yea, hatred, his mistress carried in her heaving bosom? While he watched her bend to tidy up the detritus of his lush tower suite, he was enchanted by her seeming humility. This cultivated man who could read the vicissitudes of the slippery slope of high finance was blind to the invisible fury that boils and bubbles noxious suds in alien hearts. A man so well versed in antique traditions should have realized that in earlier “cultures” ingesting and digesting one’s prey was thought to transfer animal power to the diner. It is our misfortune, and his, that the belief persists in the primitive minds of society’s lowest echelons. Questionable policies allowing unrestricted immigration to our shining shores without adequate…
The obituary was convincing, Lilly Marlene Schnitzer might have brewed the poison and hoarded deadly confetti, she could have dispatched her ardent but callous lover and preserved his parts. She probably did. But Pickle was unconvinced. If she was to make midnight sandwiches of the power broker why would she poison him first? Pickle took credit for the catch and kept quiet on his wife’s excellent advice but that ankh swung in his dreams. The Link affair irritated his brain like a grain of sand upsets an oyster. Like an oyster, in time, Pickle surrounded his doubt with nacre and nearly forgot Schnitzer’s moist cow eyes looking up at the judge who sentenced her. But not entirely.
The fifth step up the unforgiving stoop gave Detective Pickle a pain that ran from his toes to his legs. He waited for the cramp to peak and ebb, breathing more sooty rain, listening to thunder booms mock Manhattan’s erratic heart. For a moment, he felt his age. Then he was younger.
SEPTEMBER 10, 1943
FRISCO COPS OVER A BARREL
PICKLE CALLED IN ON VINTAGE SLAYING
Pickle arrived at the Lachux estate in Napa Valley surprised to hear the California State Police apologize for the weather while he examined the naked body of Jeanette Lachux (a.k.a. the Chablis Queen) neatly placed in the center of a circle of thick candles. The weather seemed the least of their problems. But they kept assuring him that rain and fog were unusual phenomena at that time of the year. Pickle shrugged them off.
While he flew west, on loan from the NYPD, the crime scene was left untouched as a professional courtesy. Only the candles had been extinguished during his flight. They were re-ignited when Simon entered the death chamber. In candlelight, Lachux a most attractive woman in her forties, seemed peacefully asleep which indeed she was, albeit prematurely and eternally. The only visible signs of violence were a single neat hole from a 22 caliber slug dotted like a beauty mark over her heart and the spigot from a wooden aging cask inserted like a stubby cigar between her perfect teeth.
Pickle had never experienced such a neat crime scene. The Chablis Queen’s remains had been carefully attended. All blood stains were gone. Her hair was neatly combed, her cupid lips adorned with lipstick, her cheeks touched with a hint of blush, her closed eyes outlined with mascara. She was found ready to lay in state. Her killer was obviously anal, obsessive, considerate or all three.
Pickle’s first impulse was to look for an undertaker or a beautician as the culprit. But even as he scanned the body for subtle whispers of chaos and rage, before he could say anything intelligent, his presence became obsolete. An arrest was made.
The former owner of Lachux Vineyards, a woman named Hiroki Yashuna, was found sneaking through an arbor, her pockets filled with cuttings from rare Rabelais Royale white grape vines, coveted by makers of the finest champagnes. Yashuna had escaped from an internment camp for potential Japanese saboteurs just two days before the tidy carnage.
On its obituary page, The San Francisco Monitor wrote: Having triumphed over the ravages of prohibition and economic collapse, The Chablis Queen went on to rebuild her fortune. Last year, when the confiscated lands of our nation’s enemies were put on the block, she was quick to acquire choice acreage once owned by the Yashuna family, ideal, in the words of the Attorney General, for conversion to a landing strip where spies or invading yellow hordes, might easily find a nesting place on the American mainland. Instead of becoming a haven for the sons of infamy, that land was preserved for its intended purpose as a cradle for fine California wines. Only last week, in an exclusive interview with this newspaper, Miss Lachux spoke of how she planned to celebrate this year’s bumper crop, ready to share her bounty with residents of military camps, veterans hospitals and Gold Star Mothers up and down the state. Now the beauteous entrepreneur is herself mellowing to something rich and strange. Today she brews ambrosia with the angels. As Jeanette Lachux would be the first to say to her sneak attacker, “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!”
It took a jury only one hour to sentence Hiroki Yashuna to the gallows but she avoided one death by choosing another, hanging herself from a ceiling fixture with a lamp cord smuggled in her mouth from the prison infirmary. A frustrated Detective Pickle returned to New York unsatisfied that justice was done. The Chablis Queen had many enemies, including her parents, a brother and sister, five uncles, two aunts and several employees who had plenty to gain from her death. There were also ex-lovers of both sexes and many stockholders who felt compromised by her volatile mood swings and board room antics. But the Jap vine snatcher had no defense. She said she wanted the cuttings to plant a crop in her detention camp for reasons more sentimental than sensible. The soil wasn’t right for grapes. It was such a lame excuse that Pickle was actually swayed. It hadn’t helped that a Nip submarine shelled the California coast during the trial. Pickle considered his western adventure a waste of time what with Hitler’s U-Boats dropping off passengers named Hans und Fritz on Long Island’s beaches, and he certainly didn’t need to sweat over chopstick justice or the lack of it while America’s best and brightest were fighting a tough war on alien shores. He told himself, “the hell with Yashuna” and got on with his life.
The sixth step made Pickle gasp so hard his upper plate came loose. He pressed the denture back into place with his tongue. A huge thunder boom shook the city. He felt the blast in his chest. The same dissonance had roiled the air in Seymour Roff’s hotel room when they found the screenwriter slumped over his Royal Portable typewriter.
FEBRUARY 9, 1955
RED WRITER BLUDGEONED BLUE
IN TRUE-LIFE WHODUNNIT
The headline was catchy but inaccurate. Actually, Seymour Roff’s face glowed the color of a boiled lobster, ironic, Simon thought, since the writer had recently defied the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigating the infiltration of Commies into the movie business.
During his hearing, Roff, a quiet man who usually mumbled, had astonished the Committee by rasping raunchy songs about sullen farmers, miners with lung disease and the scorched children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When pressed to name names of fellow travelers, Roff recited a litany of familiar nursery rhyme and fairy tale stars like Humpty Dumpty, Jack, Jill, Bo Peep, Cinderella, Rapunzel and the dwarf, Rumplestilskin. The result was the immediate loss of a lucrative assignment to pen a sequel to Casablanca. His Hollywood career was instantly moribund.
Roff’s death was clearly murder; his head smashed into the typewriter’s keys by the weight of an unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. Pickle was questioning members of a convention of right-wing zealots, Brothers of the Powder Horn, who had the suite next door, when a hack director, Raymond Foster Wattle, came forward to confess. His motive, he said, was basic revenge since Roff had written a scathing review of his only feature film, Bivalve!: Attack of the Mollusks.
Pickle was dubious about Wattle’s confession since the self-described auteur was obviously a deeply troubled young man and a known cocaine addict. But the pathetic Wattle was willing and eager to trade life for a moment in the limelight. His mollusks did, in fact, enjoy a re-release and modest box office success during the media-nourishing trial.
Roff’s obituary was conciliatory, considering his leftist tendencies: When they found Sy Roff, an LP recording of Temptation swirled on its turntable, the needle thwacking back and forth over the laminated surface. So it was that the brilliantly gifted, but politically naïve scribe jerked through his limited days. His Academy Award winning dramas and comedies were inspired, his personal life and socialistic philosophy pathetic. But, oh, as they say on the Sunset Strip, how that man could scribble! We have lost a celluloid minstrel who…
A celluloid minstrel whose films were dependable aphrodisiacs, a generous partner in so many of Simon Pickle’s best back-seat seductions. Of course the obituary writer couldn’t come right out and say how many thighs were parted by Seymour Roff’s romantic dialogues echoing over the sound systems of countless Drive-In theaters urging, promising, assuring, pleading — moist, misty whispers that popped a million buttons on crisp, rayon blouses — lubricants that soothed a generation of hesitant female hearts — words that oozed like melted butter over hills and dales of warm popcorn.
Pickle didn’t believe the director’s confession, not for a New York minute. There were too many holes in his story. Not holes, canyons. Wattle told the court that, before he died, with his last breath, Roff recanted his critique of Bivalve! and gave the film three stars. That was doubtful since the original review was titled Disaster for the Old Shell Game. At least Wattle didn’t get the death penalty. His lawyer reminded the court that, bottom line, he’d killed a man who was an enemy of democracy, a practitioner of literary treason, a man who gave aid and comfort to the Politburo, who cleverly slipped Marxist propaganda into clever quips and soft exchanges between authentically American star-crossed lovers. Raymond Foster Wattle was confined to an asylum for the criminally insane. Some years later he made a jail house documentary, Schemers Reamers Dreamers, that got nominated for an Oscar. It lost.
Distracted by those memories, Pickle hardly noticed a pain that shot across his kidneys.
He shook away the renal stitch as he reached the seventh step. The rain abated to a drizzle. Pickle saw the outline of a full moon appear in the East fogged by cataract clouds. His own cataracts were ripening. The ophthalmologist said they would soon be ready for plucking. He sighed. Teeth, eyes, joints, glands. Too many parts, too many things waiting in the wings to cut a man down just when life was getting interesting.
A last streamer of lightning, a far-away thunder growl followed the waning storm out over the East River. The well-washed moon rolled through wads of fleece. Pickle’s mind rolled with the moon. It still amazed and depressed him that the same remote moon of his childhood, that fulcrum of fantasies, had been stomped on by feet of clay. It didn’t help that the night of the first moon landing, Apollo 11, they found Ursula Cron’s remains in the polar bear cage at the Central Park Zoo.
JULY 20, 1969
SLUM GODDESS, ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVIST
CLAWED BY ROGUE PARK BEAR
Once a beatnik poet who claimed status as Jack Kerouak’s first lover, later a Haight Ashbury hippie who championed LSD and painted herself half-black in a gesture of racial solidarity, Ursula Cron turned her energy to the Animal Rights movement. In transition, she had gained new fame as the author of a militant anti-feminist book, Sister, You Ain’t My Sister.
The immediate cause of death was from trauma inflicted by Rola, a mature female polar bear and long-time zoo resident. A coroner’s report determined that the victim had been heavily drugged and was probably unconscious for some time before she was forced between the wide bars of the bear cage by a party or parties unknown.
Cron was last seen alive at a generic Times Square rally condemning abortion, drugs, affirmative action and the gay lifestyle while strongly supporting abstention and the Vietnam war. That same night the square was jammed with masses who came to participate in what was billed as a Moon In waiting to watch astronaut Neil Armstrong’s “first small step” or cosmic pratfall if his tiny capsule crashed onto the Sea of Tranquillity. There was even a mini-demonstration protesting NASA’s assault on the heavens that drew a handful of crazies.
Suspects in the Cron case hung like stalactites from the roof at Howe Caverns. Pickle studied thousands of FBI surveillance photos. He viewed scores of videotapes made by TV crews. He sifted through the list of Ursula Cron’s most outspoken enemies, ranging from drug pushers to mink farmers. He grilled her friends, combed her diaries, x-rayed her family, skewered her lovers. He was getting nowhere until he discovered the victim’s former therapist, Benjamin Glick, a respected psychologist broken mentally and physically by Cron’s elusive zeitgeist. Cron had boasted openly of effecting his crack-up in a Village Voice article.
A search of Glick’s apartment in the Chelsea Hotel turned up strands of bear hair on his trench coat. Glick’s alibi was bizarre. He said the hairs came from a display of shamanistic sculpture at the Whitney Museum. There was such a display at the Whitney but no matching pelt in their exhibit. While expert witnesses clashed on the type of bear hair in question and argued over any positive match with hairs belonging to Rola, the revelation that Glick was involved with a clot of voodoo worshippers cost him dearly. After two hours of deliberation, the jury rejected a plea of insanity and found him guilty of manslaughter. Glick got 25 years to life with no chance of parole. Rola was shipped to a zoo in Cincinatti.
Pickle received more kudos for Glick’s capture but sensed another miscarriage of justice. The evidence was entirely circumstantial. Glick proved he had extended professional and social contact with one of the Whitney’s curators who had visited many Eskimo and Native American habitats searching for art. In those places, Glick argued, bear hair was as common as blubber or bison chips.
Ursula Cron’s obituary also bothered him, suggesting, as it did, communal sins that demanded communal, even global, expiation: Curious that a woman who chose to march to the strident beat of a different drummer should be singled out for the worst punishment, and that an innocent beast should be tainted as her heartless killer. Benjamin Glick, PHD, fed Ms. Cron to the animal executioner who acted out of instinct, not malevolence. Even so, was Glick more responsible than the mindless bear or were they both merely tools of larger forces? Should we all share blame for turning feral wrath against a true individualist whose controversial opinions fanned primitive fury within so many confused, confounded hearts? Did we demand the ultimate toll from a woman who dared cross the dangerous bridge that links opinions to attitudes, attitudes to actions, actions to extreme reactions? Does the beat of the different drummer incite even the best of us to inner riot — even surrogate homicide? Are we conspirators in this heinous…
Pickle did not like obits that editorialized, much less pointed fingers. The lady was murdered by a murderer. Period. But was Glick the murderer? A few strands of controversial bear hair and a voodoo doll seemed weak circumstantial evidence. If Glick had motive, motive alone is not murder. Pickle felt the itch of uncertainty even as flashbulbs singled him out as the man who solved the MYSTERY OF THE CENTRAL PARK MAULING.
Pickle made it to the eighth step as the boiling moon broke away from the meandering herd of cloud- lambs. We came in peace for all mankind. — Richard Nixon. Of all presidents to have his name left on that moon, engraved on a silver plaque paid for by tax dollars, Nixon, America’s worst disaster. Talk about injustice. It should have been Jack Kennedy’s name enshrined up there, a balsy name, a better memorial to that clever cocksman than any airport, launch pad, library or center for the performing arts.
Pickle chambered his Walther, enjoying the smooth click of cartridge into barrel. He was an easy target in that new moonlight, the proverbial sitting duck. It was not this monster’s MO to open fire, especially on his own doorstep, but who could say for sure? Pickle knew plenty about the unlikely behavior of trapped rats. Once an obstetrician snapped at him with birthing tongs after being charged with DWI. Sic transit. A long time ago Hannah made him a sampler that said You Never Know. It still hung in the kitchen.
Pickle found a silver pill case in his pants pocket, flicked it open and lifted out ten milligrams of Inderal. He swallowed the blue tablet using his spit for water then waited for his racing heart to quit jumping. The same drug that helped keep him reasonably vertical made his dick droop like a squirrel’s tail. Getting up in exchange for getting it up. More birthdays, more choices, more tradeoffs.
Pickle, taking a minute to let his thoughts meander, tried to conjure up his last good lay — when was it? A year or so after Hannah left him and moved to a retirement home in San Jose. But he couldn’t get a clear focus on the lady’s name or face. It was pretty good though, and she cooked a nice breakfast. He was still digesting her Canadian bacon when he got the call about the Felencrest murder.
JANUARY 23, 1978
LETHAL PAVLOVA KILLS NEWSMAN
MUSICAL TOY PLAYS FOR KEEPS
Forrest Felencrest, a young gray eminence, his name a household word around town, his chiseled face and silver-flecked Chia Pet hair familiar as a toothbrush, was found dead in a studio control room minutes after he finished delivering the eleven o’clock news.
His death was especially macabre. During the program, after reporting on the falling Dow, after sports, the weather and a bulletin on gasoline prices, Felencrest did a final feature about child-safe toys. One of those toys was a cute little ballet dancer encased in a bubble. She seemed harmless, but Felencrest warned his audience about the wind-up key which could be easily swallowed by a dumb kid with a taste for polished metal.
The dancer had other liabilities. Somebody inserted a wad of plastique explosive into her miniature motor. The explosion was probably meant to happen on-air when Felencrest demonstrated the toy in action. But the dancer twirled while a music box played Edelweiss and that was that. Felencrest praised the toy as an example of “a plaything that belongs in a child’s toy chest, not in an army arsenal. Salutary, sensible that you don’t need a barrel of Double A batteries to get her going. But there is that key, so be careful, mom and dad. The life you save may be your own moppet’s. ” Later, in the control room, the diabolical instrument blew with enough force to destroy the anchor man and two million dollars worth of cutting-edge equipment.
Forrest Felencrest was known to be a childlike man who once hosted a Midwestern kiddie show. He was obviously playing with the toy on his own time and smart enough not to suck at the key. Detective Pickle sighed when he read the obituary: One could say that innocence caused the death of this most respected journalist, or was it curiosity to know more about the mechanism that made the deadly ballerina twist and turn? We have been deprived of the charm and wisdom of a personality who somehow made the most complex news story comprehensible, who soothed crises by the very continuity of his presence, who always took time to temper trauma with a light touch, a dollop of humor. Forrest Felencrest sent us to bed believing in the possibility of tomorrow-morning glory. His calming…
Pickle had often watched Felencrest who had a cloying fondness for the word allegedly and a punctuating grin he used to transition in and out of commercials. He thought the obituary much too sentimental, probably written by one of the station’s public relations flacks. Maybe it was entrenched innocence that killed Felencrest, as the obit author noted, though everyone Pickle interviewed thought the victim a pretentious prick who’s dream was to host a more animated version of Nightline if Ted Koppel ever quit. In Pickle’s private opinion, Felencrest was more a mannequin than the bomb-rigged dancer who signed him off. But, asshole or not, nobody deserved to die like that.
Pickle got no breaks in the Felencrest investigation until an expatriate Iranian bicycle repairman, Rizza Sulman, was heard boasting about his role in engineering the lethal device. Under questioning the suspect claimed he was only trying to impress a Syrian belly dancer who worked at a Jersey City after hours club. The girl was stimulated by intrigue, Sulman said, and his little lie resulted in the greatest night of his life.
Media exposure is the terrorist’s best hope. If Forrest Felencrest had exploded during his live telecast, one can only imagine the conscious and unconscious damage to multitudes of viewers. At least we were spared that hellish vision. It is as if Felencrest knew that an off-screen explosion would be more considerate of his audience, though far less of a ratings magnet. He died during Sweeps Week, this man who, in his final hour, refused to live by the numbers. Fade out. Cut to a commercial. Life goes on. He would want it that way.
An FBI search of Sulman’s Newark apartment turned up many suspicious items including specialized tools and sophisticated electronic components but no explosives. Also, the place was decorated with pictures of Iran’s deposed Shah Palevi and Elvis Presley, not exactly a shrine to the fierce Ayatollah who lived to humiliate The Great Satan, affluent cesspool of lust, greed, bad jokes and dirty dancing.
While Sulman’s lawyer argued that the tools and electronics were used for building illegal pay cable converters, not weapons, and that the bicycle repairman was, in fact, “a royalist to the core,” the defendant entered a guilty plea with the understanding that the State Department brokered a deal in which he would soon be traded for a CIA operative held hostage somewhere near Damascus. The case was closed. So far as Pickle knew, the Arabs never came up with so much as a torn carpet for a Sulman exchange. His guilty plea bought him nothing but hard time. That left questions, serious questions to mull during more sleepless nights.
It was on a fine morning following one of those endless nights that a heavy lidded Pickle passed a church on Fifth Avenue that announced a coming Sunday sermon on its bulletin board: God Is Not A Serial Killer. He stopped in his tracks to ponder that one. Having turned 104, Pickle had become more concerned with God’s nature than he had been in his first hundred years. But instead of any religious insight or inspiration, what came to him was the first suspicion that the eight murders that gave him his reputation and left him a chronic insomniac might be linked.
It made no sense, there was no quick connection between any of those high profile crimes except that they were high profile. But the idea stuck fast. Was there a serial killer out there who struck, like clockwork, at least once every decade? What began as an impossible speculation became Pickle’s obsession. Instead of flailing himself with doubts, he thought about shaping a remote possibility into a tangible target. Cogitation was better than flagellation. Pickle got back his appetite along with a sense of purpose.
Taking the ninth step caused acute vibrations in Pickle’s temples and behind his eyeballs.
He slapped his head until the buzz subsided. The first time he’d experienced that symptom was in the executive suite of Flatland Press back when Ronald Reagan was President.
APRIL 16, 1986
BOOK SLAMS SHUT ON MEDIA MOGUL
PUBLISHER’S LIFE ENDS COLORFULLY
Ridley Smythe, the outgoing CEO of Flatland Press and architect of the company’s historic merger with Uberdingen Verlag, the German conglomerate, was found tattooed to death. Smythe’s rigid body had been adorned with elaborate artwork in the Art Nouveau tradition. Winged ladies, peacocks with flaring tails, exotic beasts and tangled vines dripping dew made his flesh into an Aubrey Beardsley retrospective…
Pickle was facing his own crisis at the time of the Smythe killing. A new computer downtown discovered that he was still alive and on active duty with the police department though he should have been retired in 1939. The story was picked up across the country. It came out that his benefits package was worth millions. WELL PRESERVED PICKLE FIGHTS COMMISH RULING; CLAIMS AGE DISCRIMINATION. Pickle refused to quit the force. With all the publicity, a compromise was reached. Detective Pickle was allowed to stay in play as a “special consultant.” His first consulting assignment, at his own insistance, was the Ridley Smythe debacle. After many patronizing smiles, and a City Hall press conference, the department indulged him.
It took Pickle five seconds to notice that the only unmarked spots on the Smythe corpse were narrow bands that circled each wrist. Before Smythe was bagged and tagged, Pickle learned from Flatland’s executive editor that Smythe always wore two watches, a gold Rolex Oyster and a platinum Piaget, set for the exact time in New York and Munich. Both were missing and probably stolen.
The immediate cause of Smythe’s death was anaphylactic shock, a reaction to the ink used for his bizarre decorations. Was this a case of premeditated murder or accidental homicide? In either event, there was evidence that Smythe was no passive canvas.
Working up a profile of the victim’s lifestyle, Pickle heard time and again that the publisher was an accomplished athlete, a health food devotee, a classy dresser, a respected gourmet and a serious narcissist. Smythe deplored the slightest blemish or mark on his skin; a bug bite was enough to send him to his dermatologist. It was hard to believe that a man who thought of himself as mobile sculpture would opt to blanket himself with graffiti. Besides, his taste in art ran to Deco, not Nouveau. He liked sharp angles.
Sure enough, Smythe’s autopsy detected large amounts of heroin in his blood. It was inconceivable that the same person who insisted that the cooler in his office be filled with imported Fiji Water would indulge in controlled substances. Pickle concluded that Smythe had been drugged, stripped and subjected to the tattooing while unconscious. Who would orchestrate such a grizzly crime? Ridley Smythe had no obvious enemies, kinky companions, or hidden history. He seemed a model citizen always listed in New York Magazine as one of the city’s power communicators. There was certainly a breakdown in communications somewhere along the way.
The inspiration that solved part of the Smythe puzzle came at the last minute. Pickle reacted to a particularly vivid dream in which he saw himself driving down a highway lined with billboards advertising the works of master painters, Rembrandt to Warhol. He woke in a fever, shouting, “You call yourself a cop? Bet on it. He’s signed!”
Acting on intuition, a court order in hand, Pickle halted the conveyor belt carrying Smythe on his last journey to a crematory oven. There was an outcry from family and friends, but close examination of the body detected the name Zeralda, inscribed in miniscule script, inside the little toe of Smythe’s right foot.
Pickle ordered the immediate interrogation of Flatland Press’ extensive stable of authors, illustrators and cover artists past and present, sparing nobody. One by one, Pickle grilled the creative team probing for particles of guilt, the DNA of conscience that flakes like shaved ice from the facade of the coolest perpetrator.
He learned quickly that at Flatland Press animosity was not in short supply. In addition to the usual lava of envy and jealousy, the German conglomerate that bought the company had ordered enormous reductions in staff and the cancellation of many book projects. There was talk that the master strategy for increasing Flatland’s profitability involved total withdrawal from print media ventures (exempting celebrity-focused autobiographies) with future concentration centered on things digital including CD’s, music videos and games.
Acrimony, yes, but for all their seething, the Flatland staff and freelance contributors seemed resigned and quiescent. They had been so battered and bruised for so long that the most obvious (and hardly suspicious) evidence of militant passion was a half-hearted shrug of drooped shoulders or the twitch of a limp lower lip. There didn’t seem to be a butcher in the crowd.
Pickle’s informers located Zeralda, a formidable creature who claimed to be of Gypsy heritage, in a Seventh Avenue tattoo and piercing parlor, Lobes And Flourishes. It turned out she was quite well known (and well thought of) in downtown adornment circles, easily accessible. Her work had worth; a Zeralda signature on a thigh, under a nipple or behind an ear, in the crease of a groin was considered added value.
Pickle confronted the young woman across the table of a stark, white room at the Fifth Precinct. Zeralda rattled her beads and bracelets as she quickly admitted to “doin” Ridley Smythe. She was obviously proud of her work and depressed that it seemed destined to translate so quickly to smoke. “He uz gorgeous nuf t’uv been stuft n’ mountid,” Zeralda said, smoking a small cigar and sipping espresso from Starbucks. “He uz a masserpeese.”
Her story seemed reasonable. An unknown client had cold called offering \$2000 cash to “rend m’ genius. Priddy good dayz rend.” She was told to meet her subject at Smythe’s office after normal business hours and to bring the necessary tools. A wide variety of inks and dyes would be provided and there would be no limitations imposed on her work beyond the mandate that she respect the Nouveau style. The caller told her that her “canvis” would be nude and unconscious since he was afraid of needles, etc., and that she had seven hours to effect his decoration. Her money would be waiting in a plain envelope on Smythe’s great desk, which it was.
Zeralda, cracking her knuckles, agreed with Pickle that the circumstances seemed suspicious. She thought it strange that she’d been chosen since her best fame was as an abstract expressionist, “B’ $2000 bugz z’ still $2000 bugz n’ wuz case sinario I fig’rd sum kin uv prakical joke.” Death was never part of the equation. If there was any question of mayhem she would not have accepted the offer and surely not signed the job with her real name. She made a fish face and asked, “D’I luk lik a putz t ya?” Pickle agreed that she did not. He said she looked to him like a woman of principal.
Pickle asked if there was anything peculiar she remembered about the caller. Zeralda snapped fingers and recalled that, when final details were worked out, the man on the phone said Danker Shone before he hung up. “He sownt lik a Cherman.” It also struck her as peculiar that when she entered the Flatland Press Building there was no guard in the lobby, nobody on the elevator, no receptionist outside Smythe’s office. “N’ boddy roun wen I com, n’ boddy roun wen I split.”
. The coroner called with a damning report that identified the inks and dyes in the Smythe mural as deadly, laced with arsenic. Pickle had Zeralda held as an accomplice to murder but without much enthusiasm. Bottom line, she had no interest in Ridley Smythe alive or dead. The elaborate artwork on the body was extraneous. With that amount of poison in the ink a single flower or maybe a skull would have finished the victim quickly enough. There was no need for a mural.
After a night of pacing and chewing through a box of Mallomars Pickle ordered that every book published by Flatland Press over the last five years be spread on a long table in a conference room adjoining Smythe’s office. Every author associated with those titles was commanded to assemble there at noon. Pickle’s strategy was challenged by his superiors. They conceded that the culprit would most probably be found among the dispossessed, the merger-fucked, considering those canceled books and broken contracts, but it seemed more productive to ferret among members of the Art Department considering the visual nature of the crime. While artists were frequently cocoons of violence the literati spent their time throwing verbal darts. These days the brush was mightier than the pen. The era of cantankerous authors, the Londons, Hemingways, Mailers, Cleavers, Thompsons was passé. Now women wrote most of the books. Women were agents and editors. Women bought the books. The feisty lions of the boys club were pulped to mulch. Even macho writers were eager to reveal their gentler natures and androgynous souls, not swing howling from trees.
But Pickle had his hunch and followed it. With the Flatland books displayed and the author’s gathered together, Pickle commanded that the writers circle the table in a continual loop. There were protests and guffaws but Pickle persisted. He watched them parade with the detached calm of a Kirkus reviewer.
After the fifteenth circling, one writer, Henry V. Tink, went into convulsions. He remained vertical despite suffering quake-like tremors and a siege of projectile vomiting. Taking a big chance, Pickle refused to call 911 or allow Tink to be comforted. It was only minutes before he confessed. “Look at the cover they put on my book,” Tink screamed from the edge of anguish. “A major novel. Called epic by the Sacramento Bee. What does the illustration look like to you, Detective Pickle?” Sensing opportunity, Pickle moved in fast. He snapped, “Like Mahatma Gandi molesting Godzilla.”
“Ridley Smythe did that to me,” Tink said, numbly. “He forced me into the New Age genre. You know what that is? Creation’s armpit. So I put him in the No Age genre. I gave him the cover my book deserved. Do you appreciate the irony? What goes around comes around.”
“Inka dinka doo,” Pickle said. He gave Tink a non-committal smile, read him his rights, cuffed him and led him out the door while the other authors applauded their colleague and vowed to stand behind him whatever it took to get an acquittal.
The trial was pro-forma; Tink said he was’t sorry and he went off to do his time. In exchange for her testimony, Zeralda was not charged with complicity in Smythe’s death or for “borrowing” the Rollex and Piaget watches.
Yet again, Pickle experienced familiar tingles of doubt. Henry Tink had motive, opportunity and imagination enough to mastermind mayhem, but his confession smacked as much of fantasy as it did of truth. Despite his eloquent protests, much of Tink’s mainstream work did teeter on the frothy New Age ledge. And Tink had always lusted after at least a modicum of mass market acceptance along with a MacArthur genius award. In a TV interview with Charlie Rose, played for the jury, the author once spoke of the “welcome embrace of the tasteless” as a cherished goal. Tink, as the TATTOO TERMINATOR gained clout. Flatland put his early works back into print.
Ridley Smythe was a link between the world of the gentleman publisher in the halcyon days when Word Of Mouth carried news of a worthy tome, and the brave new world of profit center publishing where a high-power press agent is more important than an author. In his novel, Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury wrote of a frigid society that burned provocative books to keep them from being read. Ridley Smythe must have faced the fact that in our society the way to keep books from being read is simply to publish them. But he pressed on despite falling revenues and a shrinking audience. Flatland Press was not exactly Microsoft . Smythe continued to champion Word Of Mouth as the way to sell books, a charmingly atavistic attitude in this inarticulate age of the truncated sound bite. But, with maturity, he came to realize the importance of catchy, glitzy covers to tantalize even the most reluctant browsers. Ironic that his death came at the hand of a disgruntled…
Was Henry Tink the type of man to leap the chasm between outrage and action? Was he a murderer? Or was he just another member of an endangered species smart enough to recognize his chance to hit the best seller lists? Was he just another Raymond Foster Wattle, the Bivalve director, riding a corpse to glory? Assassination was always a quick ticket to a kind of immortality. With supermarkets peddling gore at the checkout counter and web sites selling T-shirts direct from the Death House, anybody with a stiletto and a user-friendly victim could become a Movie Of The Week in a spasm.
Apprehending Henry Tink got Pickle a trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair, a cover story in Der Spiegel, and the offer to write his autobiography (he refused; he said his life was already an obsolete comic book. When they asked him to share the secret of longevity he said, “Don’t die.“) Still, he suspected he had the wrong man. And with new respect for his instincts he plied though his notes seeking an eyelash of connection between the cases that left him without that delicious sense of nourishment he got when he knew he had the right guy by the balls.
Pickle broke wind. It was the taco he ate for lunch. The little blast of air helped rocket him up to the tenth step. Looking skyward Pickle said, “Riding flatulence to infinity.” He giggled and coughed at his own whimsy. Years ago he often woke hysterical from ridiculous dreams. It drove his wife crazy. He would try to tell Hannah why he was laughing but the sleep jokes had no punch lines.
Pickle checked his faculties, taking a fast inventory of functional arms, legs, hands, belly, ass, trunk, head. Everything seemed to be working well enough, give or take. Again he patted his Walther 38, loyal pet. He looked into the cyclops eye and grabbed for the metal knocker that served as its nose. Then he rapped and rapped again. Crunch time.
Pickle sensed movement in the house even before he saw a shadow waft past the parlor floor’s bay window. There was vague vibration in the stone steps under his collapsed arches. He heard footsteps pad toward the red door then a clicking of locks and bolts. A huge urge to retreat nearly made Pickle fall over backwards. It was a familiar sensation that alarm. The sensible adrenaline rush toward elsewhere. It went with the territory. Pickle conquered the shift to reverse early in his cop career, years before he saw his father’s face reflect in his own mirror. He braced and held his ground. The door opened slowly. Detective Simon Pickle had his first look at his nemesis, his Moriarty.
Ruben Blade, in a wool robe, stood gaping. He looked like a corn stalk after harvest. Tall, picked clean, withered, ready to crumble. Blade’s small head sprouted brittle brownish tufts. He didn’t seem to be armed; no scythe or shotgun in his hands, no bulges in the pockets of his orange wrapper. “Whoever you are, you’re in the wrong place,” Blade said with the sonorous voice of a radio announcer. “If you’re selling, I’m not buying. I am past my acquisitive years and damn glad of it. I don’t sign petitions. I don’t accept menus from Chinese restaurants. Fuck you and good night, Pickle.”
“You know who I am?”
“Why should I know you?” Blade said holding out his arms and cupping his palms.
“You called me Pickle. You said my name.”
“Pickle? Shit, did I say that? I knew you looked familiar. Don’t tell me. It’s coming back. I saw you in the News and the Post. On the TV. Wait. Yes. Detective Simon Pickle.
Am I right? Applause, applause.”
“Can we cut the nonsense? Move inside. And keep your hands where I can see them.”
“It’s a miracle I recognized you.”
“I’m wet and it’s cold,” Pickle said. His sinuses clogged.
“Wipe your shoes on the mat. I just had my floor waxed.”
Pickle slid between Ruben Blade and the door frame, dropped his briefcase and hung the dead umbrella on a hook. He unbuttoned his rubber coat, shook it off, and used the same hook. The hallway was nice and warm. A fire crackled in the parlor. Simon saw its yellow flickers, butterfly wings.
“Pathetic, Detective Pickle,” Blade said. “You look worse than your umbrella.. Nobody sane would write a policy on your life.”
“I’m not here to buy insurance or was that some kind of elitist attempt at intimidation?.”
“A threat? Of course not. Why would I threaten a public servant? It’s just that looking at what’s left of you I’m amazed you made it up my steps.”
“Over your moat and up the steps,” Pickle said. “Your drain pipe stinks.”
“Come in, sit down before you leave. Do you still have a stomach? You want some brandy?
“Brandy would be very welcome. And yes, I will sit. By the way, you have the right to remain silent, the right to counsel. The rest.”
“I know all that,” Blade said. “And I appreciate your telling me. But the information is irrelevant. I’m a respected senior citizen who never got so much as a parking ticket. I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re doing here. Do I see a warrant in your hand? Besides, you should know Ruben Blade does not have the right or the leisure to remain silent because they still pay him to express himself. Which is different from the Social Security and pension crowd, no offense intended. I don’t milk every man, woman and child in America out of precious tax dollars with entitlements. You take ice? Seltzer?”
“Do I need cramps and gas? Neat, please, in a glass not a paper cup, thanks in advance you devious bastard.” Pickle dropped into a red leather lounging chair using the arm rests to keep himself from tilting backward. He watched Blade limp over to a built-in bar, find a bottle of Remy Martin then carefully measure the elixir into two equal portions. Blade came carrying stemmed crystal snifters and held one out with an arm that could only bend part way. Pickle nodded, took a glass and waited.
“What do you want me to do, switch glasses?” Blade said. “Drink first?”
“Both,” Simon said. “If you don’t mind.”
“Why not? Paranoids are always welcome here. Didn’t you see my neon sign, PARANOIDS WELCOME HERE?” Blade switched glasses and sucked up an inch cognac. “Now tell me, to what do I owe this honor?”
“Honor? You cold blooded son of a bitch. Honor? Are we going to beat around the bush? Not much point. I’m here to arrest you for the brutal, premeditated murders of — Pickle pulled a pad out of his pocket and read — Stephan Borpis, C. Crafton Poole, Tristano Alegreti, Lyman Link, Jeanette Lachux, Seymour Roff, Ursula Cron, Forrest Felencrest, and Ridley Smythe. Did I miss anybody?”
“Who in hell is Jeanette Lachux?”
“The Chablis Queen? 1943.”
“Ah, yes, yes, The Chablis Queen. The one with the grapes. It’s funny. Sometimes I draw a blank but give me one cue and the whole story comes back. Same with movies. I see one scene and I can quote you a whole plot down to the smallest details. So what about that list you reeled off? Yes, I know those names. I go back a few years too, you know. Not exactly the crimes of the century but big stories in their time. Tragic stories. Unless I miss my guess, every one of those crimes was solved. By you. Great police work, congratulations. And you’re here to arrest Ruben Blade for murders you already solved? Isn’t there a statute of limitations or double jeopardy or whatever it’s called.? How can the same detective solve the same murder twice?” Blade coughed up phlegm. Pickle waited while he found a kleenex to spit in.
“Jeffrey Daumer, Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, Ted Bundy, that kind I can understand,” Pickle said. “I thought I saw everything. But you? Jesus H. Christ, no wonder it took me 90 years to get here, give or take.”
“Are you suggesting that I am some kind of hot shot serial killer? Is that what I’m hearing?”
“Not suggesting. Accusing. But you don’t know anything about it, right?”
“I know about serial killing. It’s an American art form like musical comedy and jazz. You could give credit to a few foreigners but America raised the standards. Some among us are serial killers. But me? Is my picture in the post office? What is it, Pickle, altzheimers?”
“You could save everybody a lot of trouble if you write out a confession.”
“A confession? You want it on parchment? Pickle, my life is a baby’s behind. Smooth, soft and legal. What’s the expression, beyond reproach.”
“Your life is a baby’s behind beyond reproach? I’m disappointed, Ruben. You’re straining for metaphors.”
“Do me a favor. Don’t address me by my first name. I’m tired. I have commitments. We call them deadlines but with you I’m afraid to use the expression.”
“Tell me something off the record. You sleep nights? No bad dreams?”
“I sleep nights, I take a naps in the afternoon. When I dream I still dream of chubby teen age legs swinging on counter stools like pendulums of lust. It never stops, does it? The other night I got a blow job from my kindergarten teacher. Her name was Mrs. Plotz. I’m watching her draw on the blackboard. Slowly it comes to me that she’s drawing my picture in white chalk, making those squeaking noises that drive everybody nuts. Then she takes the eraser and rubs off my clothes. I say to her Mrs. Plotz, pull up my pants but she lifts the whole picture off the slate and sits it, me, in her fat lap. Then the other kids…”
“Could you spare me the details, Blade. I’m not interested in your pretzel of a subconscious.”
“One thing I know, Pickle. Pussy is stranger than fiction.”
“Amazing to me, your kind of person. In a way I envy you. No conscience. No second thoughts. The soul of an anchovie or am I being too generous?” Pickle watched Blade rub the wrist of his bum arm. Maybe that gesture was an echo of remorse, some sign of recognizable humanity. “So, Blade, what happened to your arm? Tendonitis?”
“Forget my arm. I’m not pitching tomorrow. Two hip replacements, a knee, a triple bypass and that’s enough. Who cares about a lousy arm? Are you trying to ingratiate yourself?”
“I was curious. My ankles and elbows swell up on hot nights. I thought maybe you could give me some good tips on new medications.” Pickle jutted his jaw and locked eyes with his suspect. “So did you hurt the arm patting yourself on the back?”
“You’re lucky my rotweiller ran under a truck last month, rest in peace. A meat grinder. He would have helped you retire. They should have put you out in the pasture when beautiful still did the nightly weather report. You remember how they used to bend over for tomorrow’s forecast? It was always fair and warmer in the valley. Now we got meteorologists. They tell you it’s snowing in South Dakota. You know, Pickle, I invited you in because I wanted some company on a lousy night. Conversation. So what happens? You make venomous accusations, libelous charges. I am not amused. You’re emeritus, obsolete. Go away.”
Pickle blotted brandy from his lips while he watched Ruben Blade walk to the mantle, lift a bookend shaped like a cherub, buff it with a shirtsleeve. “Dust. You can’t get away from it,” Blade said. “Grime. Sludge. This city is a shmootz pile. It blows in through windows, sneaks under doors.”
”Shmootz is life,” Pickle said. “Take body dander. Now days, with genetic testing, a few grains from a dried epidermis can solve a perfect crime. Even after a year, a decade, a century. You saw what happened with Thomas Jefferson and the brunette?”
Blade kept rubbing at his bookend while he circled the room. You’re talking DNA? Tell OJ about DNA. Heh? Ladies and Gentlemen of the stupid jury, which of you good people doesn’t know that in a windy city particles from a killer in Brooklyn can fly out a window, blow across the river and contaminate a test tube in the Bronx? Are we talking reasonable doubt? So, have you reached a verdict? So fast? Not guilty! Excellent. Dismissed.” Blade circled behind where Pickle sat. “Shove your DNA up somebody else’s ass.”
“You think I can’t swivel?” Pickle said, twisting his neck around. “If you’re considering bashing in my skull with the cherub, think again.” Pickle pulled out his pistol. “Drop the angel. Put your hands over your head.” The bookend thumped to the floor.
“If I could put my hands over my head I would be in pig heaven,” Blade said. “My rotator cups don’t rotate. They still let you carry a gun? Boy am I going to holler about this.”
“Keep the hands where I can watch them, you twisted fuck.”
“Keep a civil tongue. And put away the cannon. You shake like Parkinson.”
Pickle holstered his Walther. “Between us, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure when I first
walked in here and saw you. It’s hard to look at a fossil in a bathrobe and think there stands an evil degenerate who does unspeakable deeds upon his fellow men.”
“Sexist,” Blade said, scoffing.
“All right. Upon his fellow men and women. An equal opportunity exterminator. But why, Blade? Why? Why? Were you an abused child?”
“Abused? I was a prince in my home. Adored. Indulged. Appreciated. They knew I was special from my first suckle. I never used a disposable diaper in my life. My parents, bless their memories, had a service. Cascade.”
“In those days there were no disposable diapers,” Pickle said. Everybody who could afford it had Cascade. I had Cascade. What happened to that company?”
“Disposable diapers are a major reason our generation runs rings around the new centurions. Filling a diaper was a big event. What you dropped got saved, picked up by a polite person in a white uniform. Not tossed in a compactor. We had importance, a sense of accomplishment that translated into the work ethic.”
“I don’t want to dwell on this subject,” Pickle said. “It only makes my question more relevant. Why would a boy with a sense of accomplishment, a loved child with a work ethic, turn away from all those advantages to inflict pain?”
Pickle watched Blade’s face change. The man was ready to get serious. ” I’ll try to answer your question,” Blade said, if you promise me on your mother’s grave that you’re not wired. And that you’ll tell me how you found me out assuming I am the alleged monster you think I am.”
“I’m not wired,” Pickle said. “I’m no Linda Tripp. As to how I found you, it wasn’t easy. I found you using the theory of the common denominator. Nine major killings. Nine cases supposedly wrapped up in ribbons. Nine splinters in my heart. I was never satisfied with the convictions. Something nagged at me.”
“Too neat? Too tidy? Too easy? Was that it?”
“Too pat. I went over those cases with a fine tooth comb. Talk about diaper services, they don’t even make fine tooth combs anymore. If they do I never see them in drug stores.”
“Fine tooth combs? Try Bloomingdale’s.”
“I was stymied, I admit it. Aside from each victim being prominent, there didn’t seem to be a common denominator. One night I went though my album where I paste stories about my career. Why do I bother pasting down the stories? Do I know? Maybe someday one of my relatives will get curious. I sit reading through the news reports and the obituaries.”
“You saved the obituaries? Really?”
“Absolutely. Didn’t I notice that each of the obituaries was brilliantly written, perfectly structured, carefully thought out. Who could miss it? In fact, I was shaking my head over certain turns of phrase and nuances of insight when it hit me. The great ball of fire. The common denominator was the obituaries.”
“Fantastic. I’ll drink to that. I’m amazed the paper held up so well. They use the worst crap for newsprint. I have books of clippings that fall apart when I run my eyes over them.”
“My album is wrapped in saran. No air gets at it.”
“No air. Good. No air, no oxidation.”
“It was easy enough to check and find out who wrote all those obits. That you are the author of my Book of the Dead. When I had my denominator. I did more nosing. Every time there was a corpse, Ruben Blade was either in the area or not more than a few miles away in a city where he worked, a seminar he attended, a place he went on vacation, friends and family he visited on big holidays. Always near the scene of the crime. So opportunity was there. But motive? Not so obvious. Then it dawned on me. How could Ruben Blade write such gorgeous obituaries if there were no bodies to write about? Was it for the fame? Money? Am I close?”
“Not for fame. What kind of fame comes from writing obituaries?” Blade said. “The Nobel prize? A little notoriety in the profession. Maybe once in my life I got laid by a fan. For money? Forget it. You could make more writing poems. No, not fame or money. Only a psychotic would have those motives. I’m surprised at you for even thinking in those directions.”
“They had to be considered.”
“Try these motives. Self-satisfaction. Continuity. A legacy with focus. Every one of those murders was relevant. My common denominator is history. I had to make history to write history.”
“History from the viewpoint of an insane sociopath with delusions of immortality and no sense of compassion or restraint.”
“That’s what I said. History. Do you want the facts here? Or to pass judgments? Because if you’re here to play shame-on-me, forget it.”
. “Facts,” Pickle said, “yes. I want facts.”
“For years I sat at my desk and wrote obituaries about innocuous corpses. I never got the big assignments. They always went to writers with connections. You know how that works. The same in every field. I had to make my own luck. And I had to be shrewd, pick people who were worthy footnotes to the big picture. Significant, not stars but not just accountants or high school principals either. People who were time capsules, whose cells carried representative strands of 20th Century DNA. And I had to get there first with hot copy while the bodies were still warm. Remember I was freelance. A hustler. In business for myself. The competition for obituary space is cut throat.”
“So you cut a few throats to get some space?”
“There are obits and obits. The first team, the Kennedys, the Kings, the Monroes, the Garlands and Dianas, the etceteras and so forths, get the most play, no contest. But from the viewpoint of an obituary writer those verbal autopsies are strictly limited. Their lives are so public, so familiar, their eulogies are pretty much pre-determined. You don’t have much leeway for creative expression. On the other hand, the B-list is what interests a really serious obituary author. You get the chance to spread your wings and fly. You face
Death on an even playing field. You can call a scythe a scythe, get some important ideas across. I know it’s self-serving but all art is self serving even if its ultimate object is to serve others. You see, Pickle, it never really bothered me except now and then to live off the so-called leftovers. Because truth lies in footnotes, mixed in with the discards. It’s not too different from the FBI going though garbage. Not that I mean to equate the luminous, but not flashbulb-worthy, dear departed with trash. I use the garbage image in its best sense. Ask a seagull or a vulture about useful common denominators .”
“Why Stephan Borpis? Did he qualify as refuse?”
“Borpis? Circa 1909. My first whack. You’re making me nostalgic. I was some kind of stud back then. A scrotum with a pen. Burning ambition. High ideals.”
“I got the picture, Blade. The All American Boy. Back to Borpis.”
The thing about Borpis, he was quintessential, a perfect example of smug social order. And talk about ruthless. Please. He built his castle on babies with rickets. You know what Borpis paid his workers?”
“His decapitation? Was that about the minimum wage?”
“A juvenile conceit. I thought it was a good symbol for entropy. It was the hour for Borpis to be deconstructed. Even as a youth I was ahead of my time and Borpis was already behind the times. A little poetic license. Snip snip.”
“And Spignu Gonik, what about him? An innocent man died for your poetic license.”
“I felt bad about that until I realized symbols like Borpis exist in terms of their opposites. They’re in bed together. Is it my fault that a ying comes with a yang? When Gonik was executed the labor movement got a nice boost. Workers demonstrated from New York to Los Angeles. So if I felt bad in the beginning I came to realize that Gonik would have done the crime he burned for if he wasn’t taking fink payoffs to sell out his union.”
“Say I concede you Borpis,” Pickle said. “But C. Crafton Poole, 1919? A contributor to progress. A genius and a loving father. Glued to a chapel window? Explain that to me.”
“The gluing was an afterthought. A genuine inspiration. The 20’s were stuck in the birth canal roaring to be born. Poole was the obstacle. He liked the idea of a nice, static society. A stained glass sky was his idea of perfection, not fireworks, not an outburst of national energy, not a new American music. He had to go bye-bye And don’t hock at me about the tango teacher, Sanchez. He was plowing Poole’s daughter, Acadia, when plowing had consequences. He would have knocked her up out of sheer spite. If a jolt of electricity didn’t send him to Roseland-In-The-Clouds, Poole would have and you, Pickle, would have been forced to fry a spiritual man and genuine philanthropist. This way his memory is revered at least on college campuses. And an added plus was that when Sanchez made news everybody heard about the tango. I love that dance. I was never naturally graceful but still, the tango.” Blade tried a few sliding steps and managed to spin himself around. Pickle clapped his hands while shaking his head. “With Poole out of the way, the future was allowed to happen if you get my drift,” Blade said, dipping a phantom partner. “Eras are born bloody. It’s not my idea. Original sin is hardly an original notion but I would have thought of it if nobody else did.”
“What about 1929, Alderman Alegretti? How did he fit into your perverted patchwork quilt? Alegretei was a ten cent ward heeler.”
“Him I did for Gotham, The Big Apple, Bagdad On The Hudson. That Tamany Hall termite was gnawing at the base of my Woolworth Building, my Waldorf Astoria, my Madison Square Garden, my Brooklyn Bridge. What did you think when you found him with those orchids sticking out? Did you like what I wrote about how orchids are the flowers of hope for the pure at heart and flowers of death for the contaminated leeches who wriggle in the city’s underbelly? I forget the exact words. Was that strong stuff or what?”
“It was very forceful. Profound,” Pickle said. “I quoted that line to my late wife.”
”Fucking A forceful and profound, assuming you’re not being snide. Incidentally, were you involved with burning Alegretti’s blackmail collection? I figured you were.”
“Well, I’m not saying yes and I’m not saying no. I am saying that a lot of wives and children would have been hurt if those papers fell into the wrong hands.”
“Wives and children? The whole government would have collapsed like a Red Hook tenement. I wanted a look at that library. I tried like hell to get into that Mosler but I couldn’t figure the combination and blasting powder might have attracted attention.”
“Didn’t it bother you when we shot the Flatbush Florist? He was no priest but he was a human being. More O Positive on your hands.”
“I was surprised. I didn’t know about The Flatbush Florist before I read about him in the paper. It was no frameup. But as you just said, he was not exactly a Pope. So what was the loss? The irony was I had to pay double for my booze after his operation fell apart. Did I know he was the main source of name brand hooch this side of Philly? If I did, believe me, I would have skipped the orchids. The price of a martini doubled and only a few weeks after the market crash. My new year’s party cost me a fortune. It was a great party, though. And that obit got me a bag of mail. So who shot him, Pickle, you?”
“Who shot him. You shot him.”
“I guess I did. Everything is connected to everything else but not necessarily in that order. What’s the difference who shot him? He would have got shot eventually.”
“Lyman Link in 1936? Another example of you doing your civic duty?”
“The bastard got rich selling his stock short while he sold used toilet paper to little guys like me and you. Link represented the best and the worst of the capitalist system which I happen to believe in with a vengeance. I was a little obvious there wrapping him in ticker tape and taking out his organs. The missing parts were supposed to represent the guts he ripped out of honest middle-class investors who trusted that corrupt shithead and his tribe. I thought his murder was classic, a very good tag for that lousy decade. You know what the Depression did to us? It made Hitler for one thing. And folk songs. Without the depression there would have been no Nazis and at least a thousand less folk singers pissing and moaning about Barbara Allen and Joe Hill. So don’t cry for Link, Argentina.”
“You planted his insides in a poor woman’s ice-box. What did Lilly Schnitzer ever do to you or to me or anybody else?”
“Lilly Schnitzer.? I knew Lilly.” Pickle saw Blade’s eyes water. “She was my cousin’s best friend. I thought she would make a great patsy, a good subject for those damn folk singers, earn brownie points for every violated lady. Violated fiscally and sexually. But I swear to you, I never dreamed for a second you would get Schnitzer convicted. I mean, the woman told you she was a vegetarian. She was eating yogurt before the Armenians. Tofu before Budda. Meat in her ice-box? Come on. When the guilty verdict came in, I was devastated. You heard it here first. You like conscience, there it is. But I did make her famous. So Lilly pushes a pail inside a jail instead of a Wall Street chicken coop, so what else is new in the infinite scheme of things? She got security and the special private pleasure of the unjustly punished instead of eating brown rice in a fifth floor walkup with a rotten self-image. You ever read Stephen Crane? He wrote about what he called the guilt of failure. I gave Lilly the success of failure. Like they sell in church.”
“You know, Blade, I wish your modus operandi was as sloppy as your logic. I would have got you a long time ago. Would you mind stoking up the fire? Are you saving money on heat? Icicles are hanging from my prostate.”
“I like low temperatures. Cold makes me feel preserved. It’s healthier. But I am glad to accommodate you, Sir Galahad. I sympathize with a flat foot who is literally and figuratively out of circulation. You still got a prostate?”
“Just put on a log and do it slowly. By the way, that expression flat foot is an anachronism. It went out with Jack Webb and Dragnet.”
“Jack Webb, Sergeant Friday. Or was it Inspector? Jesus. I was trying to think of his name all last night. Jack Webb. I couldn’t dredge him up if you paid me. And I once met the man. He game me his autograph.”
“You met Jack Webb? I thought he had a charisma.”
“I met him in Lindy’s restaurant. He wrote his name on a napkin. And I don’t care what you thought he had or didn’t have, Pickle. Does that come as a shock?”
“Nobody cares what anybody else thinks in this day and age. That shocks me. Back a few years if somebody said to me Jack Webb has charisma it would have led to an honest discussion. Not now. OK, what about Jeanette Lachux? Was she one of your dumpster symbols or was it that you just happened to be in northern California and there was a full moon?”
“September, 1943. No full moon. Half moon. Pickle, please accept that there is method to my madness. Every one of my dispatches was calculated.”
“Dispatches? Nice euphemism. Very chic You must be a writer.”
“Selections. Better? From the panoramic catalog. Each agonizingly considered and weighed against a high standard of prominence, relevance, culpability and general interest to the widest possible audience. I write for readers living, dead and unborn. The critics too but mostly for average men and women with inquiring minds. The Chablis Queen was a quintessential cunt. She not only involved herself in a conspiracy to steal choice vineyards from American citizens with slanty eyes, she fucked up her wines. Too much sugar. Not enough time for aging. No bite. Sweeten them up and it’s off to the market, jiggity-jig.”
“You couldn’t find anybody closer than California? Nobody in, say, Boston?”
“I wanted to make a statement outside the Northeast Corridor. I wanted a Western slant for variety. Everybody I got to write about came from the establishment. I had a yen for some action from Big Sky Country. There’s a little cowboy in all of us.”
“Montana is Big Sky Country, kimosabe. Not the Napa Valley.”
“Nit pick. Go ahead. At least Jeanette gave me continental scope. Murder with a continental drift. Good title.”
“Don’t get cute on me, Blade. How did you feel when we grabbed Hiroki Yashona?”
“Did I bomb Pearl Harbor? Are you trying to pin that on me?”
“Yashona’s family came over here before yours. Her kid fought with the Nisei Brigade in Europe. She bought enough war bonds to build a Flying Fortress. She had as much to do with Pearl Harbor as I did. And you must have known we’d nail some passing Oriental.”
“Listen, convicting that woman was a boost to the war effort. If she wanted to do something positive for the USA, she couldn’t have done more. Now they should give her reparations, the Medal of Honor. Fine with me. Then was a different time. Timing is everything. Location, location, location in history and real estate. You had to be there. Looking back, I could have written a less jingoistic obituary but I got carried away. You know how it is. One thing leads to another. And between us, my editor told me to skewer, roast and toast Tokyo Rose. It was nothing personal. Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. That’s what I wrote and that’s all it was. A fight song. In a way, pinning the murder on Yashona gave the whole case dimension. It’s as fresh now as it was fifty years ago. As for the Queen of Lousy Chablis, she was a hard choice in a decade when death was so cheap. I pushed myself to find the right person to zap. I went though a thousand names, maybe more. Obvious stuff. Generals, politicians, profiteers, bomb makers, spies, name it. Partly I settled on Lachux because she was convenient and partly because she was off-beat, a unique type, a female executive with a French name, a grape monger, exotic. An unexpected casualty of war. You know how many papers ran that obit? I still get letters from veterans and winos.”
“It is not easy slog through your mind maze, Blade.”
“Not for you, copper. Your breed is not famous for subtleties. But for some future kid writing his PHD thesis in Harvard, no problem. The case will become a classic of the forties. Wait. Watch when they do this surreal century’s definitive bio.”
“And the best candidate you could find for the 1950’s was a screenwriter?” Pickle said.
“Seymour Roff? That whole episode turned to a farce. I didn’t like Roff or his movies. Too preachy, too liberal, no question. But my point there was to shovel up some antagonism toward the crazy right wing scavengers who were ripping the entrails out of the constitution. Every evidence you found incriminated the neo-Nazis next door in that hotel where he died. I gave you guys a road map. You think using his typewriter to kill him was a fluke? No way. The statement was about freedom of speech. But then that prick director, Wattle, the Bivalve man, confessed and my whole purpose was clouded. I made the best of a bad situation. I salvaged what I could.”
“So you wrote an obit practically calling Sy Roff Joe Stalin? This advanced the cause of civil liberties?”
“When I saw that Roff died in vain I decided to use the twist that he was probably a pinko or commie. At least I made him sound like he stood for something besides higher taxes and handouts. There were no national headlines in a moldy screenwriter. But red baiting was solid gold. I didn’t go in for it myself. The thing I counted on was for you to grab one of the brown shirts down the hall. After you booked the wrong man, what was I left with? Go with the flow. So I went. You talk about regrets. I had it on my head that Bivalve was re-released. Members of my own family paid to see that piece of shit. Some of them even liked it. And I had to make Wattle a Cold War hero. I am not proud of the Roff affair but you own some of the blame. How could you convict a nebbish for such a nifty murder?”
“I didn’t convict him. A jury convicted him.”
“Sure, blame the jury. Can we get on to the next case?”
“Do you have indoor plumbing or do I have to go down the street and find a hydrant to relieve myself?” Pickle said.
“Through the blue door and turn right. How many times do you go in a day?”
“Including the night? Too many times.”
“The whole bladder scene is a disaster. I spend more time flushing than I do word processing. I tried those new drugs, the ones with the side effects, but all I got was the side effects.”
“You’re coming with me, Blade. Hands on your head.”
“The hands again? I have to watch you piss? You think I’ll run away? Why should I? You’ve got zilch on me. This whole conversation is a fantasy you had on your way to the nursing home.”
“Wait. You won’t be so pompous when they inject you with a lethal dose of side effects.”
On the way to the bathroom, Pickle said, “1969. Ms.Ursula Cron.”
“Her I enjoyed. Even the polar bear enjoyed her. And the guy you nailed, the shrink? On bear hair? Talk about flimsy evidence.”
“His name was Benjamin Glik. An accomplished analyst.”
“Yes, yes. Glik. I enjoyed that too. Every time I picked up the papers I got hysterical. Apollo 11. The idea of my species clomping around on the moon while people like Cron, Glik and Simon Pickle banged their heads together on the earth struck me as a terrific comedy skit. You wouldn’t need a laugh track.”
“Write me the skit. Make me hysterical.”
“First Cron stirs up the ladies and tells them to burn their bras, get hatchets to circumcise their boyfriends, grab the big jobs, raise consciousness instead of kiddies, write books complaining about lecherous uncles and daddies who sat watching football while their mammas cooked brisket. Next, she does a full 360, says the girls should come to the door wearing a cellophane nightgown when hubby comes home and give him a Lewinsky while he smokes a Cohiba. Ursula Cron drove a whole generation off the cliff. Every biological clock in America went spinning like bird eyes in a cartoon. Then she gets into the animal rights business. Love minks, pigs and chickens. Oh, and save some affection for lab rats. No more experiments. A bad precedent especially when you and I stand around waiting for Lourdes in a bottle. Any minute Cron would have turned against the animals the way she turned against liberated ladies. Every dog, cat and parakeets would have run for cover. Cron was a disaster. She milked the media like it was her personal udder. Did you know she owned a farm for organic vegetables that happened to be on a toxic waste dump in New Jersey? And half-interest in a company that makes goddess statues for the witch market, plastic Willendorf Venuses with basketball bellies and boobs like barrage baloons? And I hear she had a piece of a factory in China that makes coat collars from poodles”
“Well, the truth is I can relate to the feminist cause,” Pickle said. “And also to the cellophane nightgowns. It’s a complex issue. The mistake is to look for simple answers then force feed the public. As for animals, they do have rights. Where is it written that a few goons with big heads own the whole shebang? On the other hand, when it comes to responsible research… ”
“See, Pickle? You’re paralyzed by ambiguities. You should be on your knees thanking people like me. Doers. Problem solvers. The one you glommed on in the Cron case, that Glik, was another disposable diaper. The guest toilet is behind that door, there, but it’s a small room. I don’t know if there’s space for two of us.”
“Leave the door open. Stand outside. But stay in my line of sight,” Pickle said, unzipping his fly.
“That’s your equipment?” Blade said. “I’ll say this much, if Ursula Cron lost her cherry to that underachiever it might have changed her whole outlook.”
“I don’t enjoy low comedy,” Pickle said, washing the one hand he’d used while the other cradled the grip on his Walther automatic.
“I don’t think I would have singled out Ursula Cron as an archetype for the sixties,” Pickle said. “From the pill to civil rights, the anti-war movement, assassinations, rock music, a search for spirituality, a celebration of vulgarity — there was so much going on, so many role models, so many villains — why her?”
“I already told you I didn’t get first dibs on the big names. I picked Cron because she was there, available. Not the top of my list and not the bottom. A respectable compromise. And I leaned over backwards to be fair to her in that different drummer obit. I think they reprinted it in Cosmopolitan.”
The two men retraced their route to the living room. “You know what fractures me?,” Pickle said. “The way people like you think they’re doing the universe a favor.”
“There are no people like me,” Blade said. “That’s a genetic fact. And people like you?
Don’t you think you’re doing favors? You think you’re on the side of the angels? Bulletin. Angels don’t take sides. Why did you track me all these years? You could be in Florida getting skin cancer, screwing widows with purple hair and eating dolphins.”
“I’m not sure why you caught my attention. I can’t put it into words.”
“How many can write like I write? I caught your attention because I can put it into words. Somebody like, say, Frank Sinatra dies. We are wounded. A sincere obituary is a suture in the wrap of flesh that holds the body politic together. When the hole is left by premature death everybody is jolted. Scared shitless. Vulnerable to the dark winds. Pick your killer. War, plague, crime, drugs, a patch of black ice on a highway, the rip must be repaired. Call Ruben Blade, the artful tailor. He uses whatever thread is available at any given moment. Silk from the spider web that happens to hang in the corner of a particular time and place. My obits are tapestries. I don’t just make lists, follow chronologies. I deal in essences. All those years you were reading between my lines. If it wasn’t for my obits you wouldn’t have thought twice about those closed cases.”
“It could be true,” Pickle said. “You have a gift.”
“I’ll give you a quick education. There are two kinds of obituary authors. The domesticated kind is a craftsman who composes the obit in advance of the need. Did you know that every news organization has a stack of obits ready to go the minute a name drops? They’re kept like frozen food, updated once in a while. Hey, it’s a living. Boring but the pay is good, especially for TV. I was offered those jobs a million times. Fine for a flack. Not for somebody with a gift. Everybody ends up on a slab, it’s easy to get ready for the senior citizens to graduate. But Blade works like a battle photographer who lives off the moment. It’s harder and a lot more satisfying. The race is to the swift. I scavenge the unpredictables that catch the advance guys napping.”
“You think I get a notice in the mail before a perp sticks up a bodega?”
“You may be a good cop but you have to realize that my responsibility is to a higher authority than the police commissioner. What I do is deeply meaningful. I can make a difference.”
“I felt that way from my first pickpocket,” Pickle said.
“You chase down a few lousy killers and that’s the end of it. I play for higher stakes. Mine is a whole other ballpark. Once in a while a murder makes headlines. Every day obituaries are one of the best read sections in the paper, almost as popular as horoscopes. I’ll tell you why. The dead set standards. Their stories influence millions,” Blade said.
“What you’re saying is, for those who do the deep six, the good news is there’s life after death. The bad news is that it’s somebody else’s.”
“Go ahead, try to trivialize my message. You can’t deny that looking back is the way to the future. Hindsight is insight. My work gives aid, comfort, and guidance. A good obituary is easily worth ten thousand motivational lectures.”
“So is a good screw. It’s a stacked deck when the tailor who sews up the wounds is also Jack the Ripper.”
“Considering my contribution to the race, what if, once in a while, I go out and knock off somebody semi-substantial who happens to be a perfect paradigm? What’s the harm there? I knock off some marginal footnote who probably deserves it. The obituary I write is the resurrection and the life. Better than the life. I render carrion into stardust.”
“Did anybody ever tell you to bolster your ego, Blade? You shouldn’t sell yourself short.”
“Think about those gems of mine you saved to paste in your album, Pickle. That’s the reason they pay me the big bucks. Should I be humble? Don’t I know the gods appreciate the amazing fact that one of the kids can turn a phrase the way I can?”
“You feel appointed and anointed? You’re religious? You dare to talk about gods and angels? You expect to get wings?”
“Artists have certain dispensations,” Blade said. We enter paradise through a private gate.”
“Did you tell that to Forrest Felencrest in 1978 before his ballerina exploded? Did you explain your lofty position to Riza Sulman, the Iranian bike man who’s still waiting in Attica to be swapped for a camel?”
“Felencrest knows. Sulman will know. My belief is that the dead know everything. It might be that the ones who die naturally die because they get a sudden glimpse at the whole truth and expire from the toxic shock. But however they perish, every one in the graveyard understands the way things work. It goes with the territory.”
“So you admit to killing Felencrest and you think he understands and forgives?”
“Who said anything about forgives? Who forgives anybody anything? I don’t forgive my own mother for yanking a breast out of my mouth. But I do forgive myself for Felencrest. That stiff was a fungus between the toes of journalism. My profession, I remind you. News as entertainment. Crisis as an appetizer for sports. The man was more an anesthetist than a reporter. I thought the exploding Giselle was a neat extra touch considering the sad state of the arts in this country. In Felencrest’s case I suppose it might have been more sensible to use a plastic Rockette or a Barbie Doll instead of a classical dancer but economics play a part here. FAO Schwartz had a special on ballerinas. I knew her pink tutu would be irresistible to that martinet. She was a very sexy toy, a really attractive nuisance. Even Edward R. Murrow would have turned her key. As for the Iranian, another bit of tough titty, life’s a bitch. How could I know Sulman would go around taking credit for my blast? Besides, we needed a terrorist in ‘78 the way we needed a sushi assassin back in the forties.”
“Your ethics strike me as a little confusing,” Pickle said.
“It gave me joy that the Felencrest show, minus Felencrest, jumped to number one in the ratings. The network raised the price of commercials. There’s a kind of intrinsic capitalism in all events. One person’s subtraction is another’s addition. The New York City Ballet sold out its season, FAO Schwartz sold its last discount ballerina. Not every side effect is bad. I think things have a way of balancing out.”
“What are you trying to do,” Pickle said, “gentrify yourself in my eyes by spouting Pollyanna philosophy? It won’t work. To me you’re an efficient killing machine, a highly rationalized savage, an educated clot of rancid protoplasm that somehow got puked up on evolution’s beach. But for the record, I think, yes, there is a balance and when a load of dung like you tips one side of the cosmic scale somebody like me has got to push hard on the other side.”
“You and who else? You couldn’t match the weight of my accomplishments if you ate mashed potatoes and fried bananas for the rest of your life.”
“It’s nice you think so highly of yourself. So, in 1986, you must have farted diamonds over Ridley Smythe.”
“Hold it. Don’t tell me you classify Ridley Smythe’s beautiful murder as a crime. Even you must draw the line someplace. He took a lovely publishing company, a family business run practically by elves, and turned it into bilgewater. Did you know that Flatland Press published three books of mine? Anthologies of my best work.”
“I never heard of your anthologies. I never saw one in a bookstore or the library. Not in a yard sale. Not on a sidewalk. Never, not once did I see a person reading your books on a bus or subway or in a public crapper.”
“The reason you never saw my books is because Ridley Smythe didn’t believe in modern methods of promotion. With a little advertising…”
“So your motive was two-cents-plain revenge. The same as that Henry Tink who took the rap, the one who complained about his book jacket.”
“Pickle, don’t sell me short. My motive was clearly to trumpet the imminent death of the written word. Revenge, yes, the revenge of ink, that most sacred substance, the ambrosia of civilization. Using the tattoo motif as a weapon was a fabulous twist. And not one critic even noticed. Every writer from Homer down, every monk who ever held a quill should thank me for blotting out Ridley Smythe.”
“Then there it is,” Pickle said. “Nine human beings, sacrificed for your obituaries.”
“Wait. Tally in the nine innocents sacrificed on your altar of closure.”
“Worse. Eighteen lives lost.”
“Listen to yourself. There are six billion people on this planet and you’re fussing about a total of eighteen lives. And their legacy? A string of perfect pearls. When we’re dust and ashes, calcium chips and echoes, my obits will stand as models unto the generations.” Blade filled his glass and downed another inch of brandy.
“You’re forgetting a small detail. When your ghastly work is exposed the value of those nine perfect pearls will tank. They might as well roll under a rug or dissolve in a glass of Lachux Merlot. Your masterworks will end up demeaned, discredited, dismissed and abridged on some CD rom for adolescents with black fingernails.”
“It could happen that way, Detective Pickle. But art has a way of transcending the circumstances of its creation. Some of the worst sons-of-bitches produced the most worshipped culture icons. No different in the obituary business. I could have a happy ending on my hands.”
“Dirty hands to put it mildly,” Pickle said.
“You know, Detective, speaking of motivation, I am fascinated by yours. You had your cases solved, you pocketed medals, earned promotions and enough celebrity on your own so that somebody somewhere has already written your obituary which is, I am certain, salutary. Yet here you are, ready to compromise your own legend by dragging one of your few remaining contemporaries, your own flip-side, off to some dungeon. Considering that we’d both be glad to see a hundred again, probably without too many future prospects for glory, what’s in it for you? If I go down you go down in spades.”
Pickle scratched his crotch and leaned forward. “I took the perks, I admit it, but I paid a high price. All those years my bowels knew you were out there gloating. What it comes down to is I hate loose ends. You want a chuckle? They were planning to name a maximum security prison after me. Simon Pickle Correctional. On a beautiful piece of land near Sag Harbor, Long Island. A showplace. Now it won’t happen and I already miss it.”
“And how exactly do you expect to get any grand jury to indict me?”
“I told you. Modern technology. Did I mention that I saved scraps from every one of your escapades in a Bronx warehouse? There will be plenty evidence.”
“Technology. You know I still do my first drafts on a Royal portable. I use a computer, sure, but only for rewrites. I hate writing under glass. Maybe this isn’t my world. Maybe it is time to go. I have no last requests. No hot babe upstairs waiting for a last hurrah. So let’s do it.
“No hurry. It’s still drizzling. I have one question left. I’m sure you feel the pressure of the millennium. And we don’t have a body for the nineties. Is it fatigue? Fin de siècle?
Chronic depression? Or did I interrupt something?”
“None of the above. I’m having writer’s block for the first time in my life. There are about five hundred files upstairs driving me crazy. It’s not easy picking a target to close out this particular millennium. We’re dealing with the end of a very significant century.
Opera singers, rock stars, pollsters, jingle writers, infomercial producers, talk show hosts, a ton of actors and directors, doctors, lawyers, curators, artists, CEOs, MBAs, genetic engineers, editors, fashion designers. Naturally politicians though I try to avoid politicos. Too easy, too obvious. I have them all alphabetized, categorized, cross-referenced by profession, quirks, likes, dislikes, wives, mistresses, hobbies, the whole ball of wax. But I haven’t found the one I want. So whoever it was, you saved at least one life, maybe two since you would have scooped up the wrong perpetrator. Unless you have a suggestion.”
“So you haven’t decided,” Pickle said. “And you think I swallow that? You’ve decided. You decided on Ruben Blade. Could you of all people resist the temptation to write your own obituary? Who would you leave that job to? Level with me. What was your plan? To wait for me to show up here and make some dumb move so I kill you? Is that the scenario? Suicide by cop?”
“You’re very good, Pickle,” Blade said, letting out a long wheezing sound. “First rate. The A-team. You outfoxed the fox. I am dazzled and amazed.”
“I’m sitting here with a gun. So what are you waiting for?”
“I ran out of ribbon for the Royal. My obit isn’t finished. You can’t find an all-black typewriter ribbon in Manhattan. I had to write away to a stationery store in Iowa that stocks them for addicts.”
“And you didn’t expect me so soon.”
“Right again. I didn’t. I thought the way you slug along maybe I had a few more years. Always the optimist. So should I get my coat and hat? Do I need handcuffs?”
Pickle reached for his briefcase and opened the combination lock set on his birthday numbers. A pile of papers and photographs popped out like a spring. “Man to man, Blade, are you interested in copping a plea?”
“Are you asking me again to confess? You want a confession? Why should I confess? To beat the death penalty? Death is my best friend, the source of all blessings. I am his Boswell. You know about Boswell?”
“I’m not talking about a confession.”
“Then what’s the deal? Cop what plea? Are you making an offer I can’t refuse?”
“You can refuse,” Simon said. “You can always refuse. If you want to spend your declining years talking to a gnat in solitary.”
“You have my full attention.”
“Blade, I want you to browse though these documents and look at those pictures. They contain a capsule history of the life and times of Simon Pickle, Detective. I want you to check out the materials, ask any questions you want, then sit down and write me an obituary. You know I won’t settle for anything but the absolute finest work. As good as the ones you wrote for Borpis, Poole, Alegretti, Link, Lachux, Roff, Cronsky, Felencrest, Smythe and the one upstairs stuck in your Royal. And don’t remind me your typewriter is on the fritz. Use a pen. I want it in your handwriting.”
“A pen? You know the last time I used a pen? OK, say I use a pen. Then what?”
“Then I lock up my dossier on Ruben Blade with instructions to keep it locked for another millennium. I walk away and that’s the end of it..”
“You’d let me go? No small print in the contract?”
“No catches. I will make copies of what you write about me and mail them to the Times, News and Entertainment Tonight then go home and blow my brains out.”
“And steal my thunder? Scoop me?”
“No way. You’ll take your vitamins, hang around for as long as it takes, get your ribbon fixed, then find somebody else to get rid of you.”
“How do I know who? Maybe some up and coming obit writer already hates your guts and is busy making plans. Are we communicating?”
“It’s a tempting offer, Simon, if I may call you Simon, considering. And flattering.”
“Don’t thank me. I’m not proud of all this. But the idea of people reading your words about me is too seductive. Too tempting. Calming.”
Pickle shoved his briefcase across the carpet. Ruben Blade bent slowly to pick up the batch of papers, changed his glasses and began reading. Simon Pickle focused on a wall clock and watched time fly. Pickle fought to keep himself awake. Then he noticed that his prisoner was also nodding off.. “What’s the problem here? Eye strain? Diabetes?”
“The problem, Pickle, is that your life is a long yawn. For all the slam-bang heroics, there’s no story here worth more than one column, two inches. And nothing worth my craft. I’m astonished a man like you would presume…”
“What? What? Aside from more than two thousand cases solved, ranging from fraud to multiple homicide, there’s a beautiful love story.”
“Is there? Where?”
“In front of your nose. Me and Hannah. Married to the same woman for more than sixty years. The ups and downs.”
“You want a cake or an obituary? This is dime-a-dozen dribble. You don’t want me, you want Jackson Pollock. No. I’m sorry for obvious reasons, Detective, but I don’t see Ruben Blade material in this collection of scraps. A man without the courage of his convictions? I couldn’t write it and if I could nobody would print it. Besides, nobody can be married to the same woman for more than five minutes. Motion denied.”
“You’re being vindictive. Sulky. Silly. You know what’s on the line?”
“Not my lines. I’ll take my chances with a jury of my peers.”
“I could kick myself,” Pickle said. “It serves me right for coming out on such a rotten night. Show me a serial killer and I’ll show you an infant having tantrums. Where’s your telephone? I got to call the precinct.”
“There, on the table. A cellular. You didn’t think I’d have a cellular? You got to keep current. A literary undertaker is always on call.”
“Suppose I give you a few days to think things over,” Pickle said.
“I trust first reactions,” Blade said. “Accept it, you’re not usable. I have a responsibility not only to myself but to the young folks studying the profession at places like the New School. Did you know I teach a class? Some of my students have real spunk”
“You’re an exasperating person,” Pickle said.
“Is that the album where you pasted my articles? You mind if I flip through it while you make your call?”
“No, suit yourself,” Pickle said. “But don’t bend the pages. By the way, approximately how long does it take to get a typewriter ribbon delivered from — where was it?”
Copyright © 2000 by Harvey Jacobs.