"Okey. Alright, no crime, no fraud, no floater." Levine tugged at his lip. "Got ya nervous, though, huh Mr Jerrah?"
"A mans prudence does not reflect his nerves."
"Yeah ... whatever's best!" Smoke curled from the PIs mouth, his forehead wrinkled and eyes swung from me to the grubby window overlooking State & Broad. "Dame's a foreigner, huh ... "
"Who is not?"
"Well yeah, Ibn-Ali, ya got ta come from somewhere ..." One impudent Samuel J. Levine with whom I have this afternoon the misfortune to consult bounced up from his oak rocker and walks to the window. Rain pounds against it - dirt clings as if welded to the glass. "... and we all end up wherever we are. I take this case for a simple missing persons ..."
I laughed casually. "Hahe! Yes, you may take it that way."
"This way, that way I thought you guys invented zero? Now ... how much money did you say this female associate carried - was that foreign too?"
"Her passport is French, I believe. She carried no hard cash, as you say - that would be foolhardy, and as to a source of the money? Certainly of no concern to you. Discretion in this matter I assume - your brother-in-law Mr Davidson assured me ..."
"Saul-the-bastard can blow-a-balloon." The PI fastened a long stare at some trifle below, turned cheeks squinting and blowing smoke-rings. "Yeah, yeah I got it covered like the KKK got sheets, and a mouth like a steel-trap brain. Savvy?"
Reliable - I nodded. For a man who spoke camel-driver, and whose office resembled an almshouse more than a business Levine could be relied on ... Certain of it! From my leather case I removed a parchment folder thin and overused, and useless except for the photo. I placed it on the desk. "Savvy? Understand? Oh I do understand ... and trust you do as well. You will make inquiries this very afternoon?"
Levine stood motionless, blinking at the folder then at me. "What about the womans companion? He need ta powder a nose also."
"Security, Mr Levine ... as I believe an un-necessary precaution, but ..." I tapped a Gallois from
its case and lit it. The gold inscription caught my eye:
TO JERRY FROM BEN: TIS THE DRUG SINGING NOT HE WHO CONSUMES IT
Ha! A drug, yes: each man must choose - I smile blowing a thin stream of smoke toward the window. "Yes, security ... the man one Larry Liptchs. You may know him as another of your ... your local thugs. A North Charleston investigator less subtle than yourself ... more attuned to protective services."
"Liptchs! Yeah, I know the mug. Two strong-arm convictions - should be four, but the schmuck got the best mouth-piece in Charleston." Levines face brightened, as a mans face will seeing an old foe, and he shuffled to the desk opening the folder and fingering through the contents. Rodent-like, sniffing each page like cheeze in a rat-trap and mumbling ... "Some looker, huh ... those eyes would give a rattlesnake bad blood - let's see ... three days reserved at the Omni, car rental, what's this? The Fort Sumter tour, must be a history buff. Plane ticket first class to Vancouver. Dame must like the fog ..." Levines head bobbed up. "That's all?"
"She is a courier, Mr Levine not a mistress."
"Courier, mistress ... even a cats meow got a deeper throat."
Impudent ... irritating, I thought. "Perhaps you expected a report from her therapist ... a Jungian I believe ... or another from her priest? A last confession -" I quickly wrote a check, slipped it under an ink-stained blotter and rose. Dust shook from my trousers. "You have my card, Mr Levine, and my cell phone number." I scratched in my public-key and looked over. "I trust you have the ability to make secure calls ...?"
"Scrambled - eggs - yeah sure who wants ta be sunny-side up?"
"Then I may expect such a call by, say 8-PM?"
"Sure - tomorrow, next day ..."
"This evening Mr Levine ... investigate with vigor, and with may I suggest a sense of urgency. I'm certain the check will cover all unforseen expenses."
Levine palmed it. "Lots a' zeros in that check - Jeeeez ... This evening? Heh wait-a-minute I got clients I got a dame I got ..."
Moving toward the door I waved my hand. "You have a brother-in-law with temper most foul." Hinges creaked open.. "A kind Jew and just, but merciless with those serving poorly."
"Heh, Ibn-Ali ya got ta tell me nothin' about that, but waittttttt a second, maybe a minute - look - Mr Jerrah ya didn't say Saul-the-bastard got knickers down. Ya said missing person. Ya said no crime. Ya said ..."
"... and a good afternoon to you, Mr Levine."
The elevator raced down from Levines fifth floor office. Charleston elevators are known for it, and the Allreed Building is no exception. It left me lightheaded. First floor lobby was awash in Charlestons legal community. Floating dregs - I recognized those my lawyers had trounced and their hunted look. I did not recognized a gravel voice shooting across stained marble at me from the coffee vender.
"Heh yer Honor - gotch'r eXXpresso just fer ya!"
I did not recognize, nor had I seen the man before. Blond crew hair - a square flat face from which stuck a half-smoked cigar of uncertain vintage. My right arm shifted, to unlatch the 25-caliber PPK-automatic from its nest. Un-necessary I felt, but our Cheka demands such foolishness. Other faces raised, on the floor and ran off to exits like whipped curs ... those others that recognized me. I moved slowly to the merchant his heavy, military jaw held no secrets.
A white counter mug steamed bitter-sweet black. "Anatolian," the man grumbled and stuck the jaw back into a sheaf of newsprint.
For a moment I could have been home ... at the taste of coffee cultivated and bred old when the mans generations were savage. "And you know me," I asked? My face pleasant and blank. Assignment in Charleston requires I maintain a minor diplomatic position - generally obscure , but not concealed. Some men gather information as others women so I asked. "Even to the coffee beans?"
Ignoring the question crew-cut wiped a clean shaven chin. "Must be some heavy lifting, gets ya outa the wadi on a day like this."
"How do you say, the business of America is ..."
"No offence, Mr Jerrah," said the crew-cut and shoveling out the local paper pointed to a most unflattering, grainy and mistaken photo. Of my twin brother. "Too bad about the old Calif, eh Mr Jerrah? That's ch'er one tough A-rab ... no offence ..."
"None taken, and yes, a great sorrow. He died in Allahs grace as happily as he lived."
Crew-cut moved over, across the counter from me and smiled. "Must be yer brother gonna take the high-seat now, huh Mr Jerrah. Looks just like you!"
"Our mother felt he had stolen all our fathers strength." And my sister all his honor ... I dropped two more sugar-cubes into the brew and finished it. "And you sir, how do you come to this not-unimpressive knowledge?"
"I'm twenty year Navy. Ain't that's something huh? Twenty years and still walking." He rubbed scarred knuckles over his chin. "Fours years service in the Gulf of Aqaba. Between camels, palm trees, sand dunes and bloody kfir suicide attacks no offence I got ta learn a bit a' local history. And who made it." Crew-cut eyes narrowed. Yepper - the old calif sure was one ta invest smart, when the sand dunes got hot." Paper folded and dropped behind the counter and crew-cut winked. "Ya figur' the new calif yer brother gonna keep on buyn' up the Carolina coast? Maybe I should invest some ..."
"Issues most complex, and surely undecided." For a glance into my brothers heart I would give wealth untold ... and risk ... Back of my neck itched, where the new, broad-brim Panama settled in, and where a virgin wool turban most always covered scars. Also I winked. "I should say sir, you may own a generous share already." Fumbling my bill-fold.
"Nothin's ta pay. My pleasure, Mr Jerrah," crew-cut said lifting his palm.
"A prosperous day to you, then." Section of newsprint I tuck into a weatherproofed pocket,
bow politely and walk toward the brass exit doors. Rain pounded them like a typhoon pounds an
oasis. My Rolex buzzed; its emerald face reads 4-PM neither more nor less. It was Allahs pleasure
to advise again that a mans station determines neither a mans virtue nor his freedom. Out to
Broad Street I plunged amid a surge of secretaries chatting so loudly, painted and dressed so
vapid and scantily no whore in Saudi Arabia would allow herself beaten for such insult no matter
what the fee.
Ha! Fees ... as hidden as they are determined from the earths first turning. My eyes shift with the women to the end of an empty block. Fortune shines on me, Allah be praised for of fees due my adventure I have yet paid nothing. Hat brim pulled down and collar up I make for the harbor excursion terminal six blocks South, at the tip of Old Charleston Market. It is nothing I mumble to myself this meeting with a vulture at Fort Sumter. Nothing ... what bones he has picked it is everything. Rain fell as a white sheet tearing at my cape, and broken only by long jagged fingers of lightening. Water runs to the curbs and overflows. I make poor time; just as well allow thoughts of revenge fill me up like a street long abused ... and by the storm washed clean.
My hands - clean ... How perfideous my sisters slow thoughts ... before abandoning me. Her culture nothing - her blood and family thin - and her faith? From the beginning, did she have my brothers ear? How many years in Paris did she turn her collar against the true faith, untiring as the rain and against my agents plots. How well she used that time ... Yet now I find myself hurrying. Humidity sucks breath from my lungs. Sidewalk empty. The storm has washed autos from the streets, and of mercantile Charleston made a steaming silent grey carnival of metal ghosts. Hurrying, for great matters will be decided today - powers transferred and a nations rise or fall perhaps even my own all decided on the most simple of pretexts - a womans word. So retainers assure me.
I pass the Corsican at a flower shop on Cordes Avenue. Newsprint shows in my left pocket I would continue alone. The Corsican - a thick bodied, ignorant man and utterly faithful. He holds yellow roses left handed, right hand tucked into his blue peacoat. Had they been reversed someone follows me, or had roses been white I must waste an hour. Backup at the Ashley Marina. If orchids instead, then all goes as planned ... This craft well known to me - as this signal so dully proclaimed by the Corsican his life for mine ... and screams for me to flee!
Arghhhh ... I groan she has deceived me! My brain sworls images - it boils! Flee it cries ... from my dear sister, only her ... she trusts neither God nor man, and if she fears anyone I am he. Words from my brother if she speaks them bring only South wind and the locust. A daemon. Flee! Her message was to be unspoken, except by fiery hate in her heart and a bullet to my head. She vexes me, dare I less? Drunks stumble from an open doorway - a woman laughs out loud and beckons warmly. 'Away' - I push her and rush by ... Death I do not fear, or pain, but failure ... the PPK 25-caliber has come out from its holster smooth old leather oiled for the draw.
The weapon fits snugly in my left palm. An assassins weapon it fits me poorly - but should fortune shine may Allah guide its path to my sisters rotten heart. My heart is a racing stallion. Doorway to awning, I dodge across Market toward Tradd Street cobblestone, and the safety of Saul Davidsons restaurant. If safety lies there, for it also will have signs of its own ... Running cannot be accomplished - I damn the man. Liptchs. Who has never been lost, as a couriers guardian, but since birth lost as a man. A thug, a pirate and an assassin. Failed. At the next corner I swing south to East Bay - empty, straight and wide giving equal chance to him hunted and to his hunter. When has she last killed? In which Cities does blood run white! When have I not sent men to kill her? How has she not vexed me? It comes to nothing. Lightening rips over the harbor thunder rolling behind it breaking the bones of tall, black thunderheads as judgements do a careless man. I do not hear the shot. Its hot breath plucks at my collar, and chips stone from the storefront against which I stand. Stone fragments - they blood my cheek and the taste of salt comes to my lips. I drop to one knee looking across to columns on the old Customs House - to a crescent of white silk scarf top of the marble stairs. Wind whips it. A thin flash responds reaching toward me - the slug skipping sidewalk slate yards short. Shots I do not waste, at a ghost ... I cannot remain.
It is a bold chance to dart forward. Another slug nips my cape before I find safety in a line of trees - elms broad and low one-by-one they cover me. End of the street I cross from shops behind a stalled bus to a stretch of high brick wall. It runs south, length of the alley defended by overhanging live oak and behind them hide white brick mansions of Old Charleston. Where my sister will find no welcome for virtue has never there resided. Smoke billows from the gabled chimneys; wooden doors of rounded, thick oak locked against the City. I think what friends declare to a hunted man. Or woman ... has she truly spoken to my brother, and her actions speak his heart or ... thoughts twist like snakes after their own tails. Has she perhaps become outlaw with no home but her fantasies? Ha! She has missed her chance I think, and needing a form of action I follow the wall to East Bay and the waterfront. Charleston Harbor seethes under rain and fog and mist. An old couple buried in yellow slickers follow the stone walk as if each step lay another stone. Children naked except for shorts and T-shirts dash by them. A ships horn sounds. A lone Mercedes wallows west and I follow on the empty street toward Charleston Battery. My sister may die as easily as I do. Open yes - may butchery succeed where virtue fails. The plan lasts less than a block.
Another bullet shatters paving stones beneath my feet. It has come from behind. Wind has risen
and the rain slices sideways like so many knives and I must take cover. I stoop under the awning
of a gallery. Inside a crowd mills everyone drinking while art glues to the brick walls. Art.
Fearsomely ugly landscapes, of the Charleston dunes and its fishing craft and its slow-eyed
denizens - those who remain for the winter for most have a workman red tan on arms and legs.
The viewers do not - they are all most silent eyes and lips. Those eyes, they catch me. I whorl
about expecting my sisters cruel, black eyes.
Second sight I should leave to daemons. The Detective stands among wildly blooming magnolias
one block away. Under a live oak off-side he stands so silent the oak might have born him in the
downpour white Panama cascading water and trench plastered tightly to a thin frame. I can see
him only because so many eyes inside see nothing else. Neither heavy nor a trifle, this man ... Ha!
How much sooner should I have known? First my sister, now the Detective. I curse my own
certainty sloppy as an Iraqi dog howling. But who will not learn from an enemy will surely never
seen his own end. This man ... I view him now as more of a compatriot. How long has he
watched? How long followed? How carefully planned for what must be my escape after the
Corsicans signal? He is a devil, this one - a compatriot. I wave.
We share a table. It has become so abstract I hardly know the man living it - from Levine to the Corsican and my sister to the Detective sitting across from me now - my virtue and strong right arm were to serve selflessly the calif Allah protect him. For this blood could spill, now my heart is frozen. I feign awareness, for this one speaking protects virtue all his own. He is a hammer ... I will not be his nail, but with suspicions he pounds away.
"Not starting a war, are we Jerry? A bloody stinkin' war? Won't fill the stinkin' harbor with filth! 'Cause if ya do bring a war from where it's natural to my City I'm gonna beat ya like a mallet beats a rams-head. Yer gonna be the stew, not the man who eats it."
"What a lion of a man you are, Detective ... truly - we should have met under heroic circumstances I say - alas in my country lions and wild rams were exterminated centuries ago ... together. Sheep! It is sheep we now herd - we, you and I and ..."
"Those old days, huh ... maybe - maybe ya finger on bringing them ta Charleston!"
I waver. "Nothing at all like that, Detective. Neither for us, nor ..."
"Pay him first, eh Jerry then don't see him for a month." The Detective picks away, as do policemen in all countries. "No messages, no reports, no results. That's what you're telling me?" His hand trades one empty bourbon for another. "I'd trade camels every hour with a man like that, but I wouldn't split red-aces against your black-five. Know what I mean Jerry?" I am cold. We sit in an American bar and drink poison. It is dark, and the overhead fan thumps loudly. Of my sister I think nothing ... and do not fear as she knows of this serious man. I have lit a Galois and DeLeon an American cigarette. We nurse them. We nurse what the other needs.
I say. "This man Liptchs was as you say a loner, Detective. A stolid man, of limited views, but those firmly held. He neither appreciated nor desired my attendance." My eyebrow raised. "As with others ..."
DeLeon tips back his Panama. "Stolid, limited ... real modest of him, and that's especially true when a man is cold stone dead!"
"So you have explained. A single shot to the brain."
We lean forward, faces inches apart not mallet and head, but two thin cold steel edges sawing ... "Yeah, real professional. Nobody would have seen him for days, currents the way they run that part of the harbor if a tour-boat hadn't run down the poor bastard. We pulled the body out at 6-AM." DeLeon frowned. "My breakfast and my wife were not pleased." "Such is a policemans lot. But look here. An execution at sea ... how brave for Charleston ..." "Na ... lungs were empty, no salt water so Liptchs was long dead before his killer dumped him." "Perhaps a mugging, then ..." "No go on that angle either, Jerry. We found his wallet and piece - more yards than Monica has dresses and a 38-Special, but not special enough for him. I figure he was meeting someone he knew." The Detective tipped back in his cane chair. "We found your card in Liptchs wallet."
So THAT explains his interest! A happenstance which conveys a harmless crossing of paths! Casually, I lean back also and smile. "I surely would meet no-one but a lover at 6-Am."
His chin jerks forward. "Bet'cha got that down."
"A matter of taste. So here we are ..."
DeLeon palms his battered, chrome lighter. "So here I am. Question is what were YOU doing heading for the tour-boat terminal in a rainstorm. Damnable weather even for the Holy City ..."
"You believe, do you not in fortune good and bad ... the luck-of-the-draw as cards fall ... or you believe in happenstance and in chance. So too with my mis-fortuned venture this evening. "
"I'll believe that when ya start drilling wells for olive oil."
"Or imagine that I had a ... a dalliance with one of Sauls casino staff ... a most entertaining selection of women many ignore ... "
"Not so novel when ya buy 'em ten-at-a-time from the Paris catwalks ..." DeLeons eyes gleamed. "Keep talking trash, and when my brains turns ta wax, Jerry ... then I'll see it that way."
"Perhaps you imagine more clearly than I know."
The Detective muffles a sly grin, and his eyes fix on me. "I see it like this, Jerry. Ya got miles a' brain-circuit lit. Somebody got a message for ya ... special delivery. Could in fact BE a message, simple, huh or could be banks drafts on some Swiss account even the CIA don't know ... or that message could have been ..." He listens as thunderbolts roll through City streets shaking even our bar table then drags on the cigarette. " Got a courier, got a message. How 'bouts a hot lead message, Jerry in a steel barrel say 25-caliber just ta keep it professional. Course you don't know which message gets delivered ..."
Behind us, a swinging door leads to a room of noisy, drunken fools who must mix food with their swill. I watch the doors reflection. Through it a waitress stumbles interrupting, with tumblers of alcohol. "Wild Turkey straight up for ya, Lieutenant DeLeon and fer yer palsy ..."
Her voice sounds like donkeys braying and her hand shakes. Drinks spill. I sniff mine, having requested old brandy she provides swill ... I taste it. "A fine vintage, madam, my compliments to the cellar."
She sniffs . "We ain't got no cellar. I'll tell bar-angle ya complained ..." and trundles away.
DeLeon grunts, bites at his drink like a hungry man. He is a danger. I say. "Secret messages ... again how brave of the Holy City to provide them. So of course you say I intended this very afternoon to receive that message."
"Not so fast, Jerry. Ya got more slick than motor oil. Sure, you were making a pick-up, but ya covered yer ass beforehand. First with the thug Liptchs, and then ... miss my guess with the slimeball PI Sammy-the-Mole." DeLeon rolled his eyes over the bar-room ceiling a pastel of dancing, nude nymphs. So like Charleston in its fantasies and so like the Detective to disapprove.
"On the contrary, Detective ... I employed Mr Levine to determine the ... tardiness of Mr Liptchs - a most concerned behavior on my part."
"Concerned? I'd call it cover-my-ass!" The Detectives eyes fastened on the dancing brass nude center of the bar floor. "Way I see it you used Liptchs as the go-between for the message. Like the kings food taster ... what's poison, what's goat cheese. Then report back ta you. Know what I mean? But I think more. If Liptchs found poison he was supposed ta drop who-ever carried it down a hole ... pull the plug ... erase the stain ... make bodies float in the harbor."
I laugh. "Ha! Perfidious, illegal activity - all of it no doubt."
"Yeah, and that's only for starters. What I think is ..." the Detective hunched over and pulled at his drink ... "Liptchs found poison, but got his own plug pulled."
"For which suppositions you have proof ..."
"I got blue sky, white ankles and wet feet. I got ten pages a' report ta fill. I got lamb-shanks on the table and baloney in my ears - I should open a deli."
"For that Mr Levine may provide assistance."
"Yeah ... Sammy, well ... He's double cover for you, Jerry. If the message was as bad as I figure maybe Sammy was supposed ta find Liptchs' body. Provide an alibi, another layer of foozle that makes you out the good-guy."
"Merely a prudent mans concern. So any reasonable listener would believe, and so a lawyer can easily convince any judge."
"No question about that, Jerry. Yer safe as a cobra in its mothers coils."
"Cobras are snake killers, Detective. So, I am not detained?"
"No, I ain't gonna bust ya - no reason ... yer free as a swamp mocassin."
"Justice becomes an innocent mans freedom. Is that not the American way?"
"Innocent my ass. Just because water runs through cheesecloth doesn't meant it don't like cheese. Get my drift?"
"Perhaps, then another time, detective ..."
"Another time, another case, another message ..." His eyes drift to the chair on which I spread my drying cape. "Got some moth-holes in the woolens, eh Jerry? Maybe some a' that message and some poison got closer than ya figured."
I laugh. "Ahhh ... a tailors concern, to end such a brave, exciting story ... messages, couriers, covers and poison. A rainy night story that I will grant you, Detective." I sip the brandy and like a cobra it bites at my tongue. "And surely, with such an imaginative construct you have some idea as to the nature of this ... this message."
"No idea, Jerry." The Detective pushes up in his cane chair and stands. "Way beyond my simple Holy City mind to imagine what snakes around an old country like yer own. Culture was corrupt a thousand years, in your digs before we found bear-skin shorts." He walks toward noise at the swinging door. "Oh yeah ... guess somebody lost a photo ... we traced it back to footprints Liptchs had left on the Fort Sumter mud." DeLeon fishes a pocket, removes and flips it like a flying frond of palm to the table. "Some corruption's so old I can't imagine ..." he says and walks away through the doors. They swing shut, like the past, certain and like the future noisy and uncaring. Like an old photograph.
On the table it lays crumpled, glowing as hot pokers glow in a fire. Allahs mercy I cannot look at
the photo. My sister has left them before, in debris of attacks old and failed and despised as if
seeing her again smiling I should denounce my work. I not she, watching a photo of children at
peace, she and I.