Authors: Charlotte Carter
“But a group of black officers started a stink about it. We don't care what these guys say about the police in their songs. Shit, they got just as much right as anybody else to criticize the police. Just as much right to live. And just as much right after they're dead to have the killer caught and punished.
“I guess the brass got tired of us squawking about the whole thing. They put me on this special unit that works out of that substation on Twelfth Street. It's been six months now and we're getting nowhere, still looking up our own asses. Black people in this city have had it up to here with these killings and now a lot of groups are demanding action. That's too bad about your friend, but I gotta go along with Loveless on it. She was just unluckyâthe way Black Hat was just unlucky. Maybe you oughta sue that stupid doll.”
Leman Sweet, fighter for justice. I sat back, thinking it over. My goodness, life did still hold a few surprises. The situation held echoes of my encounter with Frank Loveless, the Bad Lieutenant. In both cases there was a cop who thought a lot of himself, a cop I didn't like or trust, but neither of them was anybody's fool. And I was damned if I could find any holes in their more than reasoned arguments.
Little Nan was not happy.
A nasty ploy presented itself to me then. Underhanded. Gender-based bullshit. Bad feminist Nan.
The notorious mantrap Aubrey Davis, my best friend, had helped take a little heat off of me back when Sweet's partner was killed and Sweet was making my life a misery. Leman had a pitiable jones for her and had in general made an idiot of himself. Not entirely his fault. Aubrey had that effect on guys and knew how to work it to full advantage.
“All right,” I said with a sigh. “What you say makes sense. But if you find you have a minute to give to the Ida Williams thing, would you give me a call?”
I hastily scribbled a phone number on an edge of the paper tablecloth and tore it off. “I'll be spending a lot of time at my friend Aubrey's apartment. You might recall meeting herâtall? kind of nice looking? See, Aubrey's a real collector of these dolls. She must've bought eight or nine of them from Ida in the past and she's so upset over what happened that she doesn't like to be alone at night.”
“This,” he said slowly, looking down at the paper, “is Aubrey's number?”
Oh yeah. I'm going to feminist hell.
Let Me Off Uptown
I looked down balefully at Dilsey and Mama Lou lying among the discarded Kleenex and junk mail in the wicker trash basket. I shook my head. Should I throw them away now, once and for all?
I reached for them, but then withdrew my hand. Might as well wait until the basket was full. Then I'd just toss everything, including those traitors, into a garbage bag and consign it to the big can downstairs.
I dressed in the gender-neutral downtown uniform: black jeans, black shirt, black ankle boots, long leather jacket. I was going for hyper low profile. I met my father for lunch once dressed like this and he had asked me in all earnestness what had happened in my life to make me want to look like Johnny Cash. I gave a minute's thought to wearing a tie, but then decided against it; it would probably just call more attention to those natural resources on my chest.
Sure, I wanted to make a few dollars, but that wasn't the chief reason for hitting the street that day. I planned to set up shop at 15th and Broadway, Ida's old cornerâjust hang over there and talk to some of the other street vendors. I figured one of them must have at least known where she lived. It also occurred to me that if her fellow buskers were as out of touch with the news as I tend to be, they might not even be aware that she was dead.
It was a market day, so there were hundreds of people about. Before opening my case, I wandered from one vendor's table to the other, looking lazily over their wares and chatting with any of them who felt like it. Even the Nigerian fellow with the musk.
I played a couple of numbers, starting with “Blue Gardenia,” which was one of my solos with Hank and Roamer. A few customers leaving the nearby electronics store stopped to listen and dropped a couple of dollars into my case. I did “Gone With the Wind” and “Street of Dreams,” then knocked off for a few minutes to drink a cup of hot cider I purchased in the market.
There was an older white guy who sold sunglasses, decent-looking but flimsy knockoffs of the designer brands.
An Asian guy who was displaying silver bracelets and rings.
An attractive black woman in her forties with a stack of hand-knitted wool hats.
I talked to them all during the morning and afternoon. None of them had had more than a nodding acquaintance with Ida.
The day wore on and I continued to play periodically. “What's New,” “Just Friends,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” and a few requests, including one from a white lady with infant twins in a double stroller, who asked for “On the Street Where You Live” and then didn't give me penny one.
Around four o'clock, however, there was a kind of shift change and a new group of vendors replaced most of the earlier ones.
Two college-age boys hawking the paperbound screenplays for old and new movies.
A gregarious old Irishman with ropes of fake pearls, three for five dollarsâI indulged in a trio of those.
A tall, well-built brother about thirty-five, who sold coffee table art books at wildly discounted prices. Upon arrival, he pulled out a boom box and began loading it with a Clifford Brown tape. I'd seen the guy before, I realized, plying his trade a little further uptown. It was summertime, if I remember right, and I'd looked his way twice owing to that torso of his, in a white fishnet undershirt.
It was not until I tipped an imaginary hat to him that he noticed I was standing there, set up to provide live entertainment. He smiled and punched the machine off. I played “Imagination” while he waited on a couple of people, and after I did “Out of this World” he applauded.
“You're not bad,” he said, walking up close. From his slow appraisal of me, boots to eyebrows, I gathered he was referring both to the sounds and the girl making them.
I gave him that appreciative look right back.
“You come around here a lot?”
“No,” I said. “What about you?”
“Two, three days a week.”
“You know, I see a lot of books for sale on the street these days. New books. You've got a fabulous selection of stuff here at less than half the price of the bookstore. I was just wondering, how can you sell them so cheap? I mean, where do you get them fromâa wholesaler?”
His only answer was one little smile.
“What about some coffee? A little lunch?” he said.
“Some other time. I have another nosy question for you.” I stopped him from speaking by holding up my hand. “Not about your business,” I assured him. “It's about the older woman who sells the dolls. You know who I mean?”
“Yeah. What about her?”
“Have you seen her lately?”
He thought about it for a moment. “No. We've had different schedules the last couple of weeks.”
“I was hoping to buy a couple of her dolls for my nieces. You have any idea where she lives?”
Again, the mysterious smile.
“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I was just wondering,” he said in a remarkable imitation of my voice, subtly distorted with coyness, “where do you get that
selection of bullshit?” He fluttered his bony hands girlishly in front of his face.
I am a sucker for long fingers on a man. Have I mentioned that?
I joined in his mocking laughter; I couldn't help it. “Okay,” I said, “you got me. How'd you know it was bullshit?”
“Malik,” he said, indicating the incense man. “He said the police were asking questions about Idaâbecause she had been killed. He told them he didn't know anything. I wasn't here when they came around.”
“Does he know anything?”
“I don't think so.”
“And youâdo you know anything? Specifically, where she lived.”
“Why are you really asking?”
“Because.” Boy, my witty repartee was awesome. “Because I'm trying to do right by her.”
“Little late for that. She's dead.”
“Let me worry about that. Trust me, I'm not just messing around. I've got a good reason for wanting to know â¦ What? Now what are you looking at?”
“What should I call you?”
“When can I call you?”
“You're gorgeous, Nan. But I guess you get that a lot.”
What was that sudden banging in my ears? Ah, just the old heartbeat.
“Well, do you?” I insisted.
“Do I what, Shorty?”
“Know where she lived.”
He then nodded ever so slightly at a dented taupe-colored station wagon parked at the meter across the way. “Ida had her sewing machine fixed once. I picked it up from the shop and brought it to her place.”
“Where was that?”
“Up on Amsterdam.”
“Remember the exact address?”
“If I think real hard, I might.”
That grin of his was making me feel like Little Red Riding Hood.
His dirty double entendre was my cue, but I wasn't ready with my line. I needed to come back with something enticing but not filthy enough to get me jumped right there on the street. Damn, my brain wasn't working right. Come on, nitwit. What would Aubrey say now? I didn't know! But then, Aubrey would never be questioning a man about a murdered woman's address.
I did the best I could: “Hmmm â¦ What can we do to get you thinking
I'm sure if we put our heads together, we'll come up with something.”
He gave up the address.
“Are you sure you're telling me the truth? That's really where she lived? Because there is no Ida Williams at that address in the phone book.”
“I swear,” he said, “that's it.”
I took my ballpoint out of my shirt pocket.
“Now,” he added, “if we can play a little poker here, I'll tell you why you didn't see Ida Williams in the phone book at that address.”
“Yeah. You know, raise the stakes.”
“To what?” I asked, my voice steely.
“Dinner. Instead of lunch.”
“Done. Tell me why she's not in the book.”
“When I delivered the sewing machine, the name on the bell wasn't Williams. It was Rose. Alice Rose. I figured Ida lived with a friend or maybe she was a sublet.”
“Excellent,” I said, writing the name and street address down.
“You like spicy food?”
“Not at all,” I said. “I'll call you.” I handed him the pen and paper so that he could write down his name and number.
He handed them back. “Howard? You do
look like a Howard.”
“I owe you big time, J.”
“That's okay, Smash-up. There's nothing I like better than calling in favors. And this gumball owes me big time, too.”
Justin and I stood just outside a cavernous no-name bar on Amsterdam. Foreign territory to me. I knew Manhattan below 34th Street like the back of my hand. I knew parts of Harlemâfellow musicians' apartments, the Studio Museum, a couple of bars, and of course the faded glory of Sugar Hill, where Aubrey had once lived in a glamorous sublet. I even had some familiarity with a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn. But the Upper West Sideânorth of Lincoln Center and south of Harlemâwas not my beat.
J and I were waiting for Lefty. Not that that was the gumball's name. I didn't know the gumball's name yet. Only that he was one of many less than upright characters from Justin's worldâand Aubrey's world, if one is to be honest about it. Low-level wise guys and coke dealers, strip club employees, fixers, bartenders who also acted in porn movies or ripped off warehouses in their spare time. Lefty was from that world.
He drove a damn pretty car, though. Pulled up in it a few minutes after we arrived.
“You're sure this guy knows what it is you want him to do?” I asked as we watched the driver approach.
“That favor he owes you must be a motherfucker.”
“A little matter of an alibi. Let's just say it made about twenty-five years' worth of difference in his life, and leave it at that.”
“I'm leaving it even as we speak.”
“You can pay me back too, Smash-up. And you don't have to break no laws to do it.”
“My boyfriend Kenny wants to take us to lunchâa crab cakes and champagne blowout.”
“That's all I have to do?”
“That's all. Favor repaid.”
“I'm there, buddy.”
Once he got up close, Lefty wasn't such a bad-looking white guyânot a gorilla at all. The ponytail was a mistake, but not, as it was with some men, a capital offense. He was on the short side; Justin and I both towered over him.
Lefty wasn't very polite to Justin. His jaw tight, he nodded perfunctorily at him and refused to meet his eyes while Justin was reciting Ida's address.
“Got it,” he muttered. “Let's go.”
“Just a minute, you rude thing!” Justin ribbed him. “There's a lady present. This is my friend Thelma. Thelma, this is, uh, Mark.”
“Mark” may or may not have been Lefty's real name. But Thelma as an alias for me? Puh-leeeze. Thanks a lot, Justin. Why not Shaneequa?
Mark barely looked at me, obviously eager to be somewhere else. But then, when he finally turned his eyes in my direction he did a double take.
I could see him seeing me without my blouse, writhing up there on that stage under all the blue and orange light-bulbs.
“Nice to meet you, Thelma. You work at Caesar's?”
“No,” I said, “but I'm thinking about auditioning. I've got an act with a live chicken.”