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Authors: Chester Himes

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BOOK: All Shot Up
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“It hasn’t been autopsied yet,” he said, adding with a grin, “got to take its turn like everybody else. It’s been a busy night—two asphyxiations from Brooklyn; one ice pick stabbing, also from Brooklyn; three poisonings, one by lye—”

Grave Digger cut him off. “You’re holding us spellbound.”

Coffin Ed took the bartender by the arm and shoved him close.

“My God,” the bartender whimpered, covering his face with his hands.

“Look at it, goddammit!” Coffin Ed flared. “What the hell you think we brought you down here for—to start gagging at sight of a stiff?”

Despite his horror, the bartender giggled.

Grave Digger reached over and pulled his hands from his face.

“Who is he?” he asked in a flat, emotionless voice.

“Oh, I couldn’t say.” The bartender looked as though he might burst out crying. “Jesus Christ in heaven, look at his face.”

“Who is he?” Grave Digger repeated flatly.

“How can I tell? I can’t see his face. It’s all covered with blood.”

“If you come back in an hour or two they’ll have it all cleaned up,” the morgue attendant said.

Grave Digger gripped the bartender by the back of his neck and pushed his head toward the nude body.

“Goddammit, you don’t need to see his face to recognize him,” he said. “Who is he? And I ain’t going to ask you no more.”

“He’s Black Beauty,” the bartender whispered. “What’s left of him.”

Grave Digger released him and let him straighten up.

The bartender shuddered.

“Get yourself together,” Grave Digger said.

The bartender looked at him from big, pleading eyes.

“What’s his square moniker?” Grave Digger asked.

The bartender shook his head.

“I’m giving you a chance,” Grave Digger told him.

“I really don’t know,” the bartender said.

“The hell you don’t!”

“No, sir, I swear. If I knew I’d tell you.”

The morgue attendant looked at the bartender with compassion. He turned toward Grave Digger and said indignantly, “You can’t third-degree a prisoner in here.”

“You can’t help him,” Grave Digger replied. “Even if you are a member of the club.”

“What club?”

“Let’s take him out of here,” Coffin Ed said.

Detective Tombs listened to the byplay with fascination.

They took the witness outside to their car and put him in the back seat beside Detective Tombs.

“Who’s Mister Baron?” Grave Digger asked.

The bartender turned pleadingly to the white detective. “If I knew, sir, I’d tell them.”

“Don’t appeal to me,” Tombs said. “Half of this is Greek to me.”

“Listen, son,” Coffin Ed said to the bartender. “Don’t make it hard on yourself.”

“But I just know these people from the bar, sir,” the bartender contended. “I don’t know what they do.”

“It’s going to be just too bad,” Grave Digger said. “What you don’t know is going to hang you.”

Again the bartender appealed to the white detective. “Please, sir, I don't want to get mixed up in all this bad business. I’ve got a wife and family.”

The windows of the small, crowded car had steamed over. The face of the detective couldn’t be seen, but his embarrassment was tangible. “Don’t cry to me,” he said harshly. “I didn’t tell you to get married.”

Suddenly the bartender giggled. Emotions exploded. The white detective cursed. Grave Digger banged the metal edge of his hand against the steering wheel. The muscles in Coffin Ed’s face jumped like salt on a fresh wound as he reached across the back of the seat and double-slapped the bartender with his left hand.

Grave Digger rolled down a window.

“We need some air in here,” he said.

The bartender began to cry.

“Give me a fill-in,” the white detective said.

“The one who got killed in the heist and the one we just saw are newlyweds,” Grave Digger said. “This one—” He nodded toward the bartender—“is Snake Hips’ used-to-be.”

“How did you dig that?”

“Just guessing. They’re all just one big club. But you got to know it. It’s like when I was in Paris at the end of the war. All of us colored soldiers, no matter what rank or from what army or division, belonged to the same set. We all hung out at the same joints, ate the same food, told the same jokes, laid the same poules. There wasn’t anything that one of us could do that the whole God-damned shooting party didn’t know about.”

“I see what you mean. But what’s the angle here?”

“We haven’t guessed that far,” Grave Digger admitted. “Probably none. We’re just trying to get all these people in position. And this one is going to help us. Or he’s going to get something even he can’t handle.”

“Not before I get done with him,” the detective said. “My boss man wants him to look at some pictures in the gallery. Maybe he can identify the heistmen—one of them at least.”

“How long do you think that will take?” Coffin Ed asked.

“A few hours, maybe, or a few days. We can’t employ your techniques; all we can do is keep him looking until he goes blind.”

Grave Digger mashed the starter. “We’ll take you down to Centre Street.”

The detective and his witness got out in front of the Headquarters Annex, a loft building across the street from the domed headquarters building.

Coffin Ed leaned out of the window and said, “We’ll be waiting for you, lover.”

By the time they got back uptown, the windshield was frosted over with a quarter-inch coating of ice. Approaching headlights resembled hazy spectrums coming out of the sea.

They had a new dent in their right fender and a claim against their insurance company from the irate owner of a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce whom they had attempted to pass on a stretch of slick ice just north of the U.N. Building.

Coffin Ed chuckled. “He was mad, wasn’t he.”

“Can you blame him?” Grave Digger said. “He felt the same as Queen Elizabeth would if we tramped into Buckingham Palace with muddy feet.”

“Why don’t you turn off that heater? You’ve said yourself it don’t make nothing but ice.”

“What, and catch pneumonia!”

They had been tippling a bottle of bourbon, and Grave Digger felt sort of witty.

“Anyway, you might slow down if you can’t see,” Coffin Ed said.

“It’s nights like this that cause wars,” Grave Digger philosophized without slacking speed.

“How so?”

“Increases the population. Then when you get enough prime males they start fighting to kill them off.”

“Look out for that garbage truck!” Coffin Ed cried as they turned on two wheels into 125th Street.

“Is that what that was?” Grave Digger asked.

It was past three o’clock. They worked a special detail from eight until four, and this was the hour they usually contacted stool pigeons.

But tonight even stool pigeons had gone under cover. The 125th Street railroad station was closed and locked, and next door the all-night cafeteria was roped off except for a few tables at the front, occupied by bums clinging to bone-dry coffee cups and keeping one foot moving to prove they weren’t asleep.

“Going back to the case, or rather cases—the trouble with these people is they lie for kicks,” Grave Digger said seriously.

“They want to be treated rough; brings out the female in them,” Coffin Ed agreed.

“But not too rough; they don’t want to lose any teeth.”

“That’s how we’re going to get them,” Coffin Ed summed up.

Lieutenant Anderson was waiting for them. He had taken over the captain’s office, and was mulling over reports.

He greeted them, as they came in bunched up and ashy from cold, with: “We got a line on the private eye who was killed. Paul Zalkin.”

Coffin Ed backed up against the radiator, and Grave Digger perched a ham on the edge of the desk. The rough whisky humor was knocked out of them, and they looked serious and intent.

“Casper talk?” Grave Digger asked.

“No, he’s still in a coma. But Lieutenant Brogan got through to the Pinkerton Agency and got a fill-in on Zalkin’s assignment. The secretary of the national committee of Holmes’ party stopped by his office earlier last night and left him fifty grand in cash, for organizational expenses for the presidential election this fall. Holmes hinted that he might take the money home with him rather than leave it in his office safe over the weekend. You know he lives in one of those old apartment houses on 110th Street, overlooking Central Park.”

“We know where he lives,” Coffin Ed said.

“Well, the secretary got to thinking about it after he had left, so he called the Pinkerton Agency and asked them to send a man up to cover Holmes on his way home. But he didn’t want Holmes to think he was spying on him, so he asked that the man keep out of sight. That’s how come Zalkin was there when the heist was staged.”

“How long was it before the secretary left Casper?” Grave Digger asked, frowning with an idea.

“The agency got the call at ten-twenty o’clock.”

“Then somebody knew about the payoff beforehand,” Grave Digger said. “You can’t organize a heist like that in that length of time.”

“Not even in a day,” Coffin Ed said. “These men were pros; and you can’t get pros like ordering groceries. They might have had their uniforms, but they’d have to lift a car—”

“It hasn’t even been reported as stolen yet,” Anderson cut in.

“I got a notion these guns were from out of town,” Coffin Ed went on. “No local hoods would choose 125th Street for a caper like that. Not that block of 125th Street. They couldn’t depend on the weather to drive the ground-hogs in their holes; and normally on a Saturday night that block, with all its bars and restaurants, would be jumping with pedestrians. They had to be somebody who didn’t know this.”

“That doesn’t help us much,” Anderson said. “If they’re from out of town, they’re long gone by now.”

“Maybe,” Grave Digger said. “Maybe not. If it wasn’t for this hit-and-run business, I might buy it.”

Anderson gave him a startled look.

“What the hell, Jones; you can’t think there’s a tie-in.”

Coffin Ed grunted.

“Who knows,” Grave Digger said. “There is something specially vicious about both those capers, and there ain’t that many vicious people running loose in Harlem on a night as cold as this.”

“My God, man, you can’t think that hit-and-run was done deliberately.”

“And then in both instances pansies were croaked,” Grave Digger went on. “Accidents just don’t happen to those people like that.”

“The hit-and-run driver couldn’t have possibly known his victim was a man,” Anderson argued.

“Not unless he knew who he was and what racket he was pulling,” Grave Digger said.

“What racket was he pulling?”

“Don’t ask me. It’s just a feeling I got.”

“Hell, man, you’re going mystical on me,” Anderson said. “How about you, Johnson. Do you go along with that?”

“Yep,” Coffin Ed said. “Me and Digger have been drinking out the same bottle.”

“Well, before you get too drunk with that mysticism, let me fill you in with the latest facts. The two patrolmen, Stick and Price, who thought it was a joke to report they’d been knocked down by a homemade flying saucer, have admitted they were hit by a run-away automobile wheel coming down Convent Avenue. Does that give you any ideas?”

Grave Digger looked at his watch. It said five minutes to four.

“Not any that won’t keep until tomorrow,” he said. “If I start talking to my old lady about automobile tires, as fat as she’s getting, I’m subject to losing my happy home.”

Chapter 8.

When Roman came to the castle standing in the fork, where St. Nicholas Place branches off from St. Nicholas Avenue, he stood on the brake.

Sassafras sailed headfirst into the windshield, and Mister Baron’s unconscious figure rolled off the back seat and plumped onto the floor.

“Which way did they go?” Roman asked, reaching for the .45 revolver that lay on the seat between them.

Sassafras straightened up, rubbing her forehead, and turned on him angrily. “You asking me? I ain’t seen which way they went. They might have went downtown for all I know.”

“I seen them turn uptown,” he argued, his cocked gray eyes seeming to peer down both streets at once.

“Well, make up your mind,” she said in her high, keening voice. “They didn’t go into the castle, that’s for sure. And you can’t set here in the middle of the street all night.”

“I wish I had the mother-raper who built that castle there in the middle of Harlem,” Roman said as though it were responsible for his losing sight of the Cadillac.

“Well, you ain’t got him, and you better get out the middle of the street before someone comes along and claims you has stolen this Buick.”

“We has, ain’t we?” Roman said.

The bump had revived Mister Baron, and they could hear him groaning down on the floor behind them. “Oh God... Oh Jesus Christ... Those dirty bastards...”

Roman slipped the car in gear and drove slowly down between the rows of brick-fronted apartment buildings on St. Nicholas Place.

The castle, somebody’s brainstorm at the turn of the century, stood at 149th Street; above were the better-class residences for the colored people of Harlem. Roman was unfamiliar with this part of town, and he didn’t know which way to turn.

Mister Baron gripped the back of the front seat and pulled himself to his knees. His long, wavy hair hung down over his forehead; his eyes rolled loosely in their sockets.

“Let me out,” he said, moaning. “I’m going to be sick.”

Roman stopped the car in front of a red brick building with a fluted façade. Big new cars lined the curbs.

“Shut up!” he said, “if it hadn’t been for you, I never would have run off after hitting that old lady.”

Mister Baron’s mouth ballooned, but he held it back, “I’m going to be sick in the car,” he blubbered.

“Let him out,” Sassafras said. “If you’d listened to me, none of this would have happened.”

“Get out, man,” Roman shouted. “You want me to lift you?”

Mister Baron opened the curbside door and polled to his feet. He staggered groggily toward a lamppost. Roman jumped from the other side and followed him.

Mister Baron clung to the post and heaved. Steam rose as though he were spouting boiling water. Roman backed away.

BOOK: All Shot Up
12.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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