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When he stood outside himself—as he did most of the time, being an authentic objective—he compared himself to a house cat: ordinary, invisible, the most efficient hunter in civilization.
Others, uninformed, saw him differently. A girl he had taken to the movies told him he looked like Robert Taylor. That had pleased him, because he had liked Taylor ever since he'd seen Billy the Kid at the Capitol and had bought a wallet at Hudson's with a picture of the actor in it and torn it out and stuck one corner inside the frame of the mirror on his bureau. He consulted it from time to time as he combed his hair, straight back with a wave up front. Only his hair was light brown, not black, so he darkened it with old-fashioned pomade from a jar he'd bought in a barbershop. He was working on a pencil moustache like the one Taylor wore in Waterloo Bridge, but it was coming in red and he was thinking of shaving it off. Taylor was clean-shaven for Bataan, a war picture he couldn't wait to see, having read about it in Parade. He went to see nothing but war films since Pearl.
WJR predicted showers, but WWJ and WXYZ were sticking to partly cloudy. He despised indecision. Didn't they get their reports from the same U.S. Weather Bureau? He wondered if he should snap on a hat protector. The rest of the uniform was wool and absorbed water without spotting, but he was worried about the visor.
He took pride in the uniform. It was Army Air Corps, chocolate tunic with amber corporal's stripes on the sleeves, khaki trousers. It had been left in the closet of his last furnished room by the former tenant, who had been invalided out after Guadalcanal—shell shock, he supposed, or the man would never have forgotten it. The corporal was an inch taller and heavier through the chest and shoulders, but he had taken it to Schmansky Brothers' and had it tailored to his fit, selected a khaki shirt and matching necktie at Richman's, and gone to three shoe stores with his stamps until he found the right kind of brown oxfords in his size at Cancellation on Broadway. He applied Kiwi polish, spitting into the lid of the can, and buffed them with a horsehair brush until they gleamed like furniture on his feet. When he put it all on and looked at himself in the mirror, it was he who had been forced to leave combat after a fifty-caliber round had shattered his left tibia, whereupon a grateful War Department had assigned him stateside to sell bonds. When people asked him where his medals were he said he kept them in a safety deposit box at Standard Savings & Loan because he felt uncomfortable wearing them while better men were lying dead on beaches without a single decoration.
It helped that he was young and attractive, with a shadow of recent pain fluttering behind his clear brown eyes; but mostly he was convincing because he believed himself when he spoke. On those rare occasions when he did not stand outside himself, he could hear the thump of the mortars and chomping of the heavy machine guns behind their sandbags on the hills. The army psychiatrist who had interviewed him in the Light Guard Armory had diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic with persecutory patterns and delusions of grandeur, and stamped his file 4-F. Face burning with anger and mortification, he had gone home and written letters to FDR, MacArthur, Governor Kelly, and Mayor Jeffries denouncing the psychiatrist, whose name was German, as a fifth columnist. None of them had replied, but he was certain they were just being careful of the mails and had opened a file on the Kraut doctor.
The Free Press said partly cloudy, with scattered showers after two P.M. He expected to be back by then. He left the cellophane protector in the drawer and brushed the closet lint off the flat-crowned cap that made him think of a postman; he wished the army had come up with something more arresting, like the Afrika Korps. Hitler knew a thing or two about style.
As he turned to leave, his gaze went to the National Geographic map of the European Theater on the wall. He checked the paper again, the front page this time, and added another pin to the map. The navy and marines were pounding hell out of Pantelleria, an island the size of a decimal point sixty miles off the coast of Sicily, and the Italians were expected to surrender any time. The pin had a tiny paper American flag attached. He'd bought two packages of them at Woolworth's and intended to use them all.
The fat woman's name, he had found out, was Anna Levinski. She lived in the 2600 block of Dequindre in Hamtramck, one of those same-looking houses the Polacks had flung up five minutes after they stepped off the train. It had a peaked roof and a four-paned window directly above a plain front door, like a house in a picture drawn by a child. The first time he'd checked out the address he swore he saw squiggly brown crayon-smoke coming out of the chimney.
He'd gotten the number from the butcher at the Holbrook Market at Eight Mile and Dequindre, where she'd bought a six-pound pork loin, two pounds of sliced bacon, and a whole boiled ham, all in one visit. Total red points: 102. Elsewhere in the store she bought butter and eggs, paid for the whole shebang in cash with more ration stamps than he'd seen at one time since his last trip to the OPA, and drove off in a big green gas-guzzler of a Pontiac Torpedo four-door sedan—with an "A" card on the windshield, to boot.
Watching the house, he'd learned she was married to a foreman at Dodge Main, a hulk with small ears and a dented black lunch pail who inspected engine blocks for the M-4 tank. The couple had no children, but they liked to throw a party once a month, hoarding stamps so they could serve delicacies to other line workers and their wives and listen to the Tigers on the radio. The husband was probably a saboteur, passing on blocks with fissures that split open on the first steep hill, stranding the crews out in the open for the first German 88 to get them in its sights while the wife made sure their bunkmates went hungry and couldn't fight.
When he stepped outside himself he didn't really believe that. Then he knew that they were what they seemed, a pair of hoarders who lived on rodent fodder and shank's mare for weeks at a time so they could show off for their friends one night. Such practices caused shortages at the front, where a can of K rations and a bit of powdered egg were as important to victory as gasoline and ammunition. They might as well be saboteurs. Just thinking about them made him walk faster, as if by getting there five minutes sooner he might save the life of some dogface who would never know he existed.
He made himself slow down. Sole leather was blood in time of war, and anyway some 4-F shirking cop seeing a man running down the street in the uniform of his country might shoot him for a deserter. Irony of ironies.
Walking up the narrow strip of concrete in Hamtramck, rough and porous as bread, he unbuckled the straps that secured the flap of his briefcase. It was plain tan leather, double-stitched, with cardboard-reinforced dividers, a close match to the dispatch cases carried by army couriers, $12.98 at Saks. He knocked.
He heard feet shuffling from the back of the house, the tiny squeak of the hinged lid being lifted away from the small glass peephole. He was all house cat now, beneath the surface; all his senses were on end. He gave the fat woman on the other side of the door a full second to take in the uniform, then snap open the lock. She didn't disappoint him.
"Yes?" Strong accent. She might have been in this country thirty years, but she wouldn't have much need to practice her English in that neighborhood.
Standing close to her for the first time, he was surprised that her head barely came to his epaulets. She'd seemed so imposing giving her order at the butcher counter. Her graying hair was tied back in a bun, tightly enough to smooth the creases in her face. It was a pretty face despite the fat, or perhaps because of it. Younger-looking than the gravity of her carriage suggested.
"Good morning, ma'am." He touched his visor, smiling his Robert Taylor smile. "Corporal Adam Kolicek, United States Army Air Corps." Her face smoothed out further at the sound of the name. "I wonder if I might interest you in a subscription to Boys' Life or the Saturday Evening Post. I'm selling them for the war effort."
"No boys in this house," she said.
"The Post, then. I have some samples." He took out November 29, 1941, and April 11, 1942, both Rockwell covers. Older women loved Willie Gillis.
"Mr. Levinski likes Argosy." She raised herself a little, trying to peer down into the briefcase.
He tilted it toward him. "No, ma'am, just the Post and Boys' Life. Fifty percent of the subscription price goes to feed and clothe our men fighting overseas."
"How much is it?"
"Just two dollars. That's sixty cents less than the price at the newsstand."
She mopped her hands on her apron. He was confident of her decision. Hoarders always felt guilty.
He stood in a tiny dark living room crowded with overstuffed furniture. The usual portraits in glazed oval frames hung on the papered wall above the heating stove, opposite a large wooden and ceramic crucifix looking down on the sofa. A floor-model Zenith gleamed in a corner under an embroidered shawl. Uncovering, he tucked his cap under his arm.
She asked him to wait and shuffled down a narrow hallway lined with more pictures, an ornate wedding certificate in a plaster frame with cupids. He watched to see which doorway she went through. It would be the bedroom, where the valuables were kept.
The place smelled of old meals, heavily seasoned. He thought of all the meat that had been consumed there while American flyers were starving in Nazi POW camps. He laid his cap on the radio and twisted the knob. The tubes warmed. "Trickle, trickle, trickle, trickle, nickel, nickel, nickel, nickel." The Pepsi jingle.
She came back clutching two crumpled bills in her fist. She frowned at the radio.
He smiled, embarrassed. "Hope you don't mind, ma'am. My wife works at Ford Willow Run. She expects me to keep her up on One Man's Family."
"You are married?" She smiled for the first time. It made her almost beautiful.
"Next week's our anniversary. I shipped out the day after the ceremony." He reached inside his case and took out an order form, grasping the stainless-steel handle inside as he did so and bringing it out behind the sheet.
"You were wounded?"
"Yes, ma'am, in the leg."
"Such a terrible war."
"Yes, ma'am." He leaned down and propped the briefcase against the base of a pedestal table, shifting the handle to his other hand at the same time. Holding it behind his leg, he gave her the form, unbuttoned the flap of his left breast pocket, and uncapped his fountain pen one-handed.
She held the form close to her face, moving her lips as she read. Then she took the pen, spread the sheet on the table under a lamp with a fringed shade, and filled in the blanks, bracing herself with her left hand on the table, the bills pinned beneath the palm. She drew a horizontal line through her sevens.
While she was signing her name he stepped behind her, curled his left forearm across her throat, and pulled her back into an arch, all in one movement, like a cat springing onto a high shelf. He crossed the hand holding the bayonet to the left side of her abdomen and slit her diagonally from pelvis to clavicle.
She filled her lungs, but her mouth flooded with blood and the cry came out in a pink bubble. Her body shuddered and began to sag.
He lowered her gently, backpedaling to lay her on her back so she wouldn't bleed onto the floor where he might walk.
"Trickle, trickle, trickle."
He switched off the radio, used the end of the shawl to wipe the knob, then cleaned the ten-inch steel blade with the order form and wrapped the form around it, clean side out. He put bayonet and paper back in the briefcase and found the pen and capped it and returned it to his pocket, buttoning the flap. Then he went down the hall to rifle the bedroom for the hoard of ration stamps while Anna Levinski finished dying.CHAPTER 2
"It's the study of the mind."
Canal rolled his eyes, so eminently made for rolling. Zagreb was convinced he never wore dark glasses because his eyeballs bugged out so far they'd touch the lenses. "I know what psychology is," Canal said. "I'm asking how it applies to the present situation."
They were standing near the third-floor landing in the California, a residential hotel on Hastings in Niggertown. A grubby plaque on the ground floor announced that Theodore Roosevelt had stopped there in 1907. It didn't say he'd stayed. Zagreb was pretty sure the old Rough Rider had taken one look at the lobby and charged straight from there to the Pontchartrain. He didn't believe any establishment could deteriorate this much in just thirty-six years. It had been at least that long since anyone had replaced the dead flies in the bowl fixtures.
"This pimp used to work for Big Nabob." He tipped his head toward the door at the other end of the hall. "You can't grill him in his own dump. That'd be like interrogating Dick Wakefield at Briggs Stadium."
"Wakefield's One-A, I heard."
"Who gives a shit except Wakefield? You can see my point."
"Sure. That's why we take the pimp downtown."
"That's no good either. It's like his second home. If you looked in the basement you'd find his handprints in the cement. You've got to see it from his point of view: Four big white guys bust down his door, cuff him hard and pull him out. He thinks he's headed downtown, only when it's time to turn right we go straight and then turn left. Drag him up to a little room in some stinking hole he's never been in."
"We don't know that. Maybe he brings some quail here, bangs her every Saturday night in that same room."
Zagreb lifted and settled his hat; letting the exasperation out. "The point is we aren't playing by the rules. Not even the unwritten ones. So what else aren't we doing? Up to now the worst he expects is we haul him down to the furnace room at Thirteen Hundred and strip him and bounce him around the coal bin. Could be we're going to shove him out a window instead."
"He won't like that. Spooks are scared of heights."
"You don't want Eleanor Roosevelt to hear you talking like that."
"Fuck her and fuck FDR. I'm voting for Dewey."
"I thought all you Polacks registered Democrat."
"I ain't a Polack. I'm Ukrainian."
"No kidding. My mother was born in Bulgaria."
"Who gives a shit except your mother?" Canal grinned, rare event. "I get where you're going, but it don't make sense. If you want to grill a jig outside his backyard you don't use a hotel room in jigtown. Why not take him up to Grosse Pointe?"
"Rent's two hundred a month in Grosse Pointe. You want to feed that kitty?"
"I don't know why we're feeding this one. The department should pay."
"The department doesn't know about the California. If they found out they'd make us get rid of the room. Our conviction record takes a nosedive, the papers stop writing about us, the commissioner breaks up the squad like he's been wanting to do ever since he got in, and the next thing you know you and I and McReary and Burke are freezing our peckers off walking Griswold in January."
"That happens I join up. At least I'd get combat pay."
"Not to mention a Kraut potato-masher in your shorts."
Excerpted from Jitterbug by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 1998 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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