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It was a day for pocket billiards, snow, and death. The snow came in the late afternoon, in fat, globular flakes that swirled in the eddies of the urban canyons, stuck to the rough brick of old buildings, and covered the streets in a layer of slush for cars to splash onto pedestrians. On the windows of Lefty's Pool Hall and Saloon in downtown St. Paul, they dribbled down the dirty glass and made mushy heaps on the sills, leaving crooked, wet trails behind them.
I was inside Lefty's at the time, shooting eight ball with Wide Track Wilkie. And while the hapless man on the street below was lost in a world of pain and despair, we were lost in the click of the balls and the smell of smoke and stale beer and the electric tension of money being put in harm's way.
Lefty's is an old-fashioned pool hall, a walkup flight above a not-quite- downtown street, with high ceilings and lazy Bombay fans and green-shaded hanging lamps. It has pool tables with real leather pockets and no coin slots, and snooker and billiards tables, too. And it has high, multi-paned windows. You have to stand on tiptoe to see anything out of them except the sky. It's an easy world to get lost in.
Wilkie likes eight ball, because it's slow and it gives him a lot of time to hustle side bets. I like it because it lets me get more mileage out of finesse than power, which means I can beat him sometimes. At snooker, I almost always can. At nine ball, never. He can sink the money ball on the break one time out of every six, and those are odds that I can't ignore. And I am nothing if not a believer in odds. So for our separate reasons, we agreed to play straight eight.
Back about a hundred years ago, in the shiny chrome city of Detroit, I worked for my Uncle Fred, a bookie and numbers man and the smartest handicapper I've ever known. He taught me that the secret to all of life is nothing more than being able to figure the correct odds. That, and knowing who the house is and always betting with it.
After he went upstate for the second time, I used his money to start a bail bond business, which I figured was as house as you can get. And I was doing okay, with more cash flow than any of Fred's games produced and none of the risk. But I forgot his second secret to life, which is never to be your own customer. I foolishly used my office to recruit some talent for a caper that went not at all well, and I wound up having to flee The Motor City for good. I kept my old name, Herman Jackson, since it's a common enough one, but I changed everything else. I started a new bail bond business and a new life in St. Paul. It's the capital of Minnesota, of course, and I suppose that makes it important, but I always think of it as an uneventful old shoe of a city, which was exactly what I wanted.
Now I spend my days quietly, playing low stakes pool in Lefty's and writing get-out-of-jail cards for small-time losers too stupid to stay there. I bet only the smart odds, and I spend a lot of time looking over my shoulder.
Sooner or later, I suppose, that had to change.
That afternoon, the odds didn't seem to matter. I was on a roll, and I had just dropped the seven ball with a long-green shot as soft and subtle as destiny's whisper, leaving the old timers in the place thumping the butts of their cues on the floor in muffled applause.
"Nice," said Wilkie.
"I thought so," I said.
"Yeah," he said, rocking on his heels and making the floor groan in the process. "Slicker than snot on a doorknob. It ought to make you feel so good, Herman my man, you forgive yourself in advance for missing the next one, which you are definitely going to do."
"I know. Look it over, man."
I looked. I had only the solid-colored black eight ball, the money ball, left to shoot, while Wilkie still had three striped balls on the table. But the eight was backed up in a corner, frozen against the end rail and totally hidden by the thirteen. In the other direction, down the table, there wasn't enough English in a whole bottle of Beefeater's to let me miss the nine and fifteen and do a two- cushion double around the far corner. I could do a deliberate scratch, without touching the eight, and stay in the game, but that would give Wilkie another turn at shooting, which was never a very good idea. For reasons I will never fathom, I decided to go down with style.
"Massé," I said.
"You can't be serious."
"Have you ever known me otherwise?"
"A hundred bucks says you can't make it."
I looked over the setup again. He was right; I couldn't make it.
"A hundred to my twenty," I said.
"Five to one? Are you nuts? I wouldn't give my sweet old grandma five to one."
"If I had your grandma shooting for me, I'd give you three to five. But you're so damn sure I can't do it, you ought to be willing to be a little sporting."
"Hey, I am a little sporting. I promise not to bounce on the floor while you're setting up to miss. Five to three, then; my hundred to your sixty."
"You bounce on the floor, and all bets are off." Wilkie is over four hundred pounds on the hoof. When his stomach rumbles, so does the earth around him.
"I said I wouldn't, didn't I?"
I looked at the shot again and made a few practice strokes. It really was a terrible setup. A mass is a bizarre shot where you actually stroke the cue ball vertically, as if you were trying to drive it straight down into the table. But you hit it off center, and it goes drunkenly spinning off, waltzing around the ball you have to avoid and back to the one you want to hit. Sometimes. It's never all that easy to do, let alone with exact control. And with the eight ball frozen against the cushion, this one had to be perfect. But for any event in the entire universe, there are odds. And if the odds are right, you have to play. That's another secret of life, which my uncle Fred did not teach me. "Four to one," I said, "nonnegotiable."
"Remind me never to buy a used car from you. All right, against my better judgment, your lousy twenty-five bucks to my hundred."
"I've only got twenty on me, Wide. I told you that up front." And truth to tell, I shouldn't even be risking that. My cash flow situation just then was a disaster.
Wilkie groaned. "I'll carry you, Mr. High Roller."
"Nope." I shook my head while he looked as if he were about to blow a gasket somewhere in his vital machinery. "I never play for what I haven't got. You know that."
"Listen, Superchicken, if you—"
"Call the cops!"
All heads turned to a shapeless character in a dirty parka and watch cap, charging in the main door and screaming at Lefty, who was at his usual spot behind the bar.
"They killed a man out there!"
"Who did?" said Lefty.
"The hell difference does it make, who? Call the cops, will you? And gimmie a beer. And a shot, while you're at it."
Part of the crowd went to the windows and gave out a bunch of noises like, "awgeez," and "willya lookathat?" The rest of them headed for the door. I leaned toward a window.
"Screw that," said Wilkie. "Take the damn shot."
"Who's dead?" I said, looking over the setup with the eight again. It didn't get any better with further study.
"Looks like old Charlie Vee," said one of the voices at the window.
"Oh, shit," I said, and my shoulders sagged. "You sure?" I suddenly had a sinking sensation in my stomach and no interest in the game at all.
"Hard to tell for sure from here," said the voice. "He's messed up awful bad."
I put down the cue stick and headed for the door, leaving Wilkie to fume about the bet. The first shouts of anger and denial inside my own head were already drowning him out.
I didn't know if Lefty had made the phone call yet or not. When I passed him, he was pouring the drinks for the bearer of ill tidings.
"Friend of yours?" said Lefty. "The dead guy, I mean?"
"Customer," I said. At least, that was the short version.
"Always a bitch, losing a good customer."
I didn't bother to stop and explain it to him.
I don't generally look out the windows of Lefty's once in five years, but if I had done so ten minutes earlier on that day, I'd have seen it. I'd have seen them back him up against the wall and punch him in the chest and stomach until he gushed blood from his mouth and the strength went out of his legs and he sagged down against the bricks. I'd have seen when they pushed him all the way down, until he was flat on his back, and one of them stood on his chest while another one finished the job with a heavy boot. And when they spilled whatever was left of his soul onto the cold concrete, along with the addictions and nightmares he carried from the jungles of a distant, dirty war, I might have screamed. I might have. The sky was dim and gray at the time, but it was still daylight. I could have seen it all, and I could have screamed for him.
And I should have.
It makes absolutely no sense and does no good to say so, but I know I should have.
* * *
The wet, wind-driven flakes hit me in the face and insinuated themselves inside my open collar and up my shirt cuffs, reminding me that I had run out without a coat.
Across the street, there were a dozen or more spectators ahead of me, clustered in a semicircle about ten feet back from the body on the sidewalk. Gawkers, drawn irresistibly to the sight of violent death but still wanting to keep a certain sterile distance between it and themselves. From somewhere far away, I could hear the first sirens. I pushed through the crowd and had a look, instantly regretting it. The guy at the window had not been exaggerating about how messed up the dead man was.
The face was a deflated soccer ball, smeared with blood and draped in overlong gray hair. And the body shape was masked by the countless layers of old clothes that street people collect. At first glance, it could have been anybody. But there, unmistakably, was the threadbare khaki fatigue jacket with the faded sergeant stripes and the frayed Air Cav shoulder patch. There, also, were the thick-soled work boots, their brown leather daubed endlessly with black shoe polish, to try to make them look like combat boots, because Charlie couldn't get any real combat boots at the free store on West Seventh Street. And there were the big, once powerful hands, now cruelly deformed by arthritis, with a blue tattoo of a coiled cobra on the back of the right one. I knew all that well enough, and a good bit more. It was Charlie, all right. In some ways, he was still a complete mystery to me, but I knew him when I saw him, even in this sorry state.
Charles Victor was his real name, and yes, he did once have to go to Vietnam with that most unfortunate of handles. What they called him over there, I didn't know, but I imagined that he must have had to be one hell of a soldier, just to keep from being shot by his own people. He had a lot of stories, but who knew how many of them were true?
Whatever he had really done, he never got over it. I didn't know if he fit the orthodox definition of post-traumatic stress syndrome, but for my money, he could have been a poster child for it. In Southeast Asia, the war was over decades ago. People go there as tourists now. The war in Charlie's soul went on every day, and no sane person would go there, ever. He left the jungle, but it never left him. It was always sitting on his shoulder like a dark, leathery gargoyle, waiting to trip him into quiet madness and horror. If he was violent, I never saw it, but I did see times when he just wasn't present in the real world at all. Whether for that reason or others, he never held a regular job or had a home or a woman or wanted anything from life but anonymity and oblivion. And he finally got both of them, but as usual with him, he paid way too much.
But then, there's a lot of that going around. By rights, I shouldn't have cared. What was he to me, after all? A customer, and not a very big one at that. But there was another link there, not so easy to put a name on. Sometimes I had the feeling that his story, if I knew it well enough, would also turn out to be my own. And as with my own, I knew I hadn't heard it all yet. For the moment, though, I felt sick. And at least part of that sickness was called guilt.
"What about you? You see anything?" It was a challenge, not a question. The cop throwing it at me was fortyish, red-faced, big, and belligerent. His expression made it clear that I had damn well better have seen something, if I knew what was good for me. Otherwise, my presence on the street was an insult to the universe in general and him in particular.
"I just got here," I said, shaking my head.
"Yeah? Well, just get someplace else. The thing I do not need around here right now, is I do not need any more goddamn rubbernecks."
He had a point. So far, he was the only police presence at a scene that was drawing a crowd faster than the free bar at an Irish wake. If there had been any useful evidence in the fresh snow, the mob had already obliterated it or stuffed it in their pockets for souvenirs. Not good.
Down near the end of the block, there were still a few sets of distinct footprints, but even as we watched, a big, square-shouldered kid in a black nylon wind breaker and a stocking cap came around the corner and began pushing them into the gutter with a shiny new aluminum snow shovel.
"Now that's really sweet," said the cop. "Priceless." He looked over at me, as if he was waiting for some kind of reaction. When I gave him none, he hustled off to intercept the shoveler.
There was some conversation I couldn't hear, some pointing and shrugging and less-than-polite gesturing, and a baton poked in the kid's chest a few times. Finally the kid took his shovel and went back the way he had come. As he flipped the bird to the cop behind his back, I noticed he wasn't wearing any gloves. I also noticed that he hadn't been shoveling the whole sidewalk, merely the strip where the footprints had been. Or was that my imagination? The cop didn't seem to notice or care. He came stomping back to me, looking like Moses coming down off the mountain, with fire in his eye and heavy indictments on his mind.
"You know," he said, "after fifteen years on the job, I've developed a terrific memory for faces. You look exactly like the guy I just told to get his ass out of here." He must have had a circulation problem in his left hand, because he was rhythmically beating on his gloved palm with his nightstick now.
"I can identify the victim," I said.
"You said you didn't see anything." The baton came out of his left hand, and both it and he were suddenly at full cock.
"I didn't, but I know the dead man."
"Is that all? Well, it so happens that I also know him. That's why they call this my turf, you know? He's a bum named Cee Vee, a nobody, lives in a box down in some boofug Dogpatch ditch. And some cokeheads or meth freaks decided to punch his lights out and then liked it so much that they just couldn't stop themselves. Case closed."
"His name was Charles Victor," I said.
"The hell, you say. Now you can give me yours." He took out his notebook and flipped it to a page that looked like as if it was already full of doodles and phone numbers.
He started to write, and I peered over the edge of the pad enough to see if he had written Charlie's name, too.
"You're starting to piss me off, Herman Jackson. You want to know the remedy for that?"
"That's good, because—"
"Did you get the name of the kid with the shovel?"
"Jesus, you just don't take a hint, do you? He's a kid with a shovel, okay? Another nobody, also saw nothing. The guy that owns the hardware store around the corner gave him five bucks to shovel the walk, he says. Big mystery. You happy now? Get the hell out of here."
"Did you notice he wasn't wearing any gloves?"
"Your point?" He stopped writing, sighed, and gave me a pained look.
"Would you be out shoveling with no gloves?"
"No." He stuck the notebook back in his pocket and pointed the baton menacingly at my chest. "What I'd be doing, is I'd be over here trying to get rid of some smartass wants to tell me my job. Some guy who's about to get smacked for his trouble, he pushes it just a little bit farther."
"The detectives will be here in a little bit, also trying to tell me my job, and when they do, I do not want you around helping them. Got it?"
I could see I was arguing with a parking meter, so I stuck my hands in my pockets and started to go. "There is one thing the detectives are going to want you to have found out," I said over my shoulder.
I took three steps back across the street and was stopped by the handle end of the black baton, hooked over my shoulder.
"You got one shot," said the cop. "One. What are they going to want me to know?"
"There is no hardware store around the corner. There's nothing but the back doors of a lot of offices and a hole-in-the-wall shoe repair shop."
"Look, the kid said—"
"Wow, you don't suppose he lied to a cop, do you? Why would he do that?"
"Shit," said the cop. "Sam bitch! Listen, mister smartass Herman Jackson, you do not talk to the detectives, you got that? You do not." Then he spun on his heel and ran off in the direction of the now-shoveled street corner, shouting into his radio on the way.
Excerpted from Frag Box by Richard A. Thompson Copyright © 2009 by Richard A. Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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