Read an Excerpt
An Abe Lieberman Mystery
By Stuart M. Kaminsky
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Stuart Kaminsky
All rights reserved.
"Lieberman?" the woman said over the sound of the Cubs game from a radio.
When she had entered the T & L Delicatessen a few seconds earlier, the customers, six old men known to each other as the Alter Cockers, looked up and stopped talking.
Women of any kind were rare inside Maish's T & L Deli between the hours of ten and five, and it wasn't even two in the afternoon. And women like this just didn't happen into the place. They didn't even happen into this neighborhood. Oh yes, there were a few women who came before nine in the morning. Melody Rosen, Herschel's daughter, who clerked at Bass's Children's Shop down the street, often stopped for a toasted bagel and coffee. And Gert Bloombach, a sack of a woman who worked in a law office downtown, came by every Tuesday and Thursday at eight for a cup of tea and a lox omelette. And there was Howie Chen's granddaughter, Sylvie, a nice-looking girl with thick glasses, who came in once in a while, never ordering the same thing twice. They stopped on their way to work for coffee and a "What's new?" along with the neighborhood storekeepers, cab drivers, and an occasional cop.
The first of the Alter Cockers didn't really start coming in till around ten. The Alter Cockers were a clatch of old Jews and one old Chinese, Howie Chen. They had been given their informal club name by Maish and they bore it with pride, letting in a new member with reluctance and a long initiation.
"Lieberman?" the woman repeated to the overweight man, a somber-faced bulldog in a white apron behind the counter of the T & L Deli. Though the old men had stopped talking, the woman still had to raise her voice over the sound of an unseen radio.
Maish was too polite to stare at the woman. Besides, he had a reputation to uphold.
"Nothing bothers Maish," Syd Levan said whenever the mood struck him. "We should call him Nothing-Bothers Maish. A guy could come in here with three heads asking for lobster bisque to go and Maish wouldn't bat an eye. Nothing-Bothers Maish."
So, with the Alter Cockers looking at him, Maish had to honor his own reputation, but, the truth be told, he was bothered by this creature who belonged in a television ad for some make-up or bathing suit or diet cola.
The radio from nowhere blasted the sound of a crowd and the voice of Harry Caray as the woman waited for an answer from Maish, who seemed to have forgotten where he was. She looked around at the two old men at the counter, who smiled up at her more with memory than hope. One old man wearing a cap, none other than Herschel Rosen, nudged the other old man and said, "Which one?"
"Which one?" asked the woman.
"Which Lieberman?" said Herschel, the gnome, looking around for the approval of his cohorts as if he had made a brilliant play on words.
There were three booths. Four old guys, one of them Chinese, were in the first booth. The second booth was empty. A disembodied hand rose above the top of the third booth and motioned with a single finger to the woman.
Three minutes before the woman had entered the T & L, Ryne Sandberg had hit a double to drive in two runs in the eighth and Harry Caray had gone meshugah.
Abe Lieberman, as much as he usually enjoyed sitting in the heat of his brother Maish's deli, longed to be twenty minutes away in Wrigley Field, eating an Oscar Mayer, looking at the bare, tan shoulders and freckled backs of girls in the bleachers on their day off. It would have been even better to be thirty or forty years back watching Bill Nicholson or Hank Sauer swing on an underhand sidearm pitch from Ewell Blackwell and send it into the right-field bleachers.
It was no kind of August day to be in Maish's with the air conditioning out of order. Lieberman had both a fan on the table aiming at his face and a radio but the fan was tired and old and the radio sounded like it was suffering from Al Bloombach's asthma.
"I don't know about this, Davey," Harry Caray had said on the radio.
"Trillo's not a bad choice in this situation," assured Dave Nelson, who could always be counted on for a reassuring cliché.
"Not a bad choice?" Lieberman told Hanrahan. "He's the only choice Zimmer's got. He's the closest thing to a Mexican on that bench. I'm taking my grandchildren to the game Monday. You want to come? I'll get an extra ticket from MacMillan."
Detective William Hanrahan had grunted, smiled, and shook his head no. This morning Hanrahan glowed with confidence, his cheeks pink, his usually unkempt dark hair cut short and brushed back. His face, a handsome flat Irish face, was puffy. His short-sleeved blue shirt was soaked through with sweat, but his tie was neatly pressed. Hanrahan was working extra hard today to convince himself, his partner, and the world that he didn't need a drink.
While Manny Trillo was stepping to the plate, the T & L door had opened with a bang. There was no spring on the door. The unwary who pushed it too hard often found it bouncing back in their faces. The spring had been removed about two weeks earlier by a duo of repairmen who had never reappeared. Speculation among the Alter Cockers was that the duo were doorspring thieves making their way across the nation.
The woman, her red hair billowing out, had flowed past the lethal door and asked her question. Now she was standing in front of Lieberman's booth. She wore a tight white dress with little flowers or something embroidered across the low neckline, over which the tops of her breasts glowed like brown moons.
"Lieberman," she said.
"Valdez," Lieberman said.
And Manny Trillo blasted one out of the park.
"Holy cow," shouted Harry Caray.
Lieberman leaned back admiring life, the Cubs, and Estralda Valdez, the classiest prostitute on the near North Side.
"Have a seat, Estralda," he said. "Can I get you something?"
"Something cold, no calories, viejo," she said, sitting down in the booth next to Lieberman. "Got to watch the waist."
She touched her flat stomach and looked at Sergeant Abe Lieberman, who motioned to the sad-faced man in the apron behind the counter.
Opinion was divided among the Alter Cockers as it was among the men and women of the Clark Street Station. There were those who thought the slightly dyspeptic Abe Lieberman looked exactly like a dachshund while the opposition claimed he resembled no animal more than a bloodhound, an underweight bloodhound perhaps, but a bloodhound nonetheless. Lieberman, it could not be denied, was not an imposing figure at five seven and hovering around 145 pounds. He looked a good five years older than his sixty years. Lieberman's wife thought his best features were his curly gray hair and the little white mustache, which she described as "distinguished." She thought her husband looked more like a lawyer or an accountant than a policeman. Maish, on the other hand, thought his brother looked like an undernourished Harry James. Maish had once told this to a young cop who asked who Harry James was.
"The band leader with the trumpet," Maish had explained. "The one who married Betty Grable."
"Betty Grable?" the cop had asked and Maish had given up.
Now Maish brought a pitcher of iced tea and a fresh glass for Estralda. He filled her glass and Abe's and looked at Hanrahan.
"Another coffee," said Hanrahan.
"Hungry?" Lieberman asked Estralda Valdez.
She shook her head no and Maish slouched away.
"What's his story?" Estralda said.
"Maish? Jealousy," said Lieberman. "He's my brother. You like baseball?"
"It's OK," she said with a shrug. "I like boxing."
André Dawson struck out to end the inning. Lieberman reached over and turned off the radio. There wasn't a sound in the T & L but the whirr and clunk of the table fan. Conversation, usually loud and blustering on topics ranging from baseball to the price of pastrami to past and planned trips to Israel, had ceased while ears with little tufts of gray growing from them strained to hear what this painted vision wanted with Abe.
"Let's get on with it," Hanrahan sighed, checking his cup to be sure there wasn't a last drop at the bottom before Maish returned to fill it.
"It's a hot day and the Cubs are ahead," said Lieberman. "Let's savor the rare moment, William."
Hanrahan grunted and waved at Maish who moved toward them with a half-full coffeepot.
Lieberman was in no hurry. He was reasonably comfortable in the little booth surrounded by the smell of kosher meat on the slicer, the sound of old men talking about nothing. He also knew that what Estralda had to say was important. She had told him it was, had asked to meet him outside of her territory, someplace safe where no one would be likely to recognize her.
Lieberman had decided that a good place to meet would be the T & L, which was only five blocks from his house and where the likelihood of anyone coming in who knew Estralda was nil.
Lieberman didn't want to hurry Estralda or himself. He had stayed up late watching a tape of Zoo in Budapest with Loretta Young. Bess had watched with him for an hour, then left, saying she was going to catch Koppel and then going to sleep. Lieberman had finished the movie and the last box of Tam-Tam crackers. By the time he got to bed it was almost one and Bess was snoring softly. Lieberman had slept four hours, a good night for him.
"What time is it?" Bess had said when he got up, rolling over and reaching for her glasses.
"Four-thirty," he had said.
"You getting up? You're taking your physical today?"
"That's tomorrow. Go back to sleep, Bess. I'll make your coffee," he said, leaning over to kiss her. She was asleep before he reached the bedroom door.
He had ground the coffee beans in the new little electric thing, put the hot water on, stuck the filter in the Melita, and read the Tribune while he waited for the coffee to trickle down. Lieberman liked the smell of coffee. Coffee itself he could do without.
He had called in to the Clark Street Station at six and Nestor Briggs had told him about Estralda Valdez's call. Lieberman had then called Estralda and set up this meeting. And now here he was looking at her, his most reliable informant and certainly the best-looking one he had ever had. If she had something to say, she could say it better at her own pace.
"I got a guy on the line who won't take no for an answer," she said, reaching air at the bottom of her second glass of iced tea. She played with the cubes with her red fingernails and paused. "I tell him we're through. I tell him really nice. Kiss him on the forehead. Tickle his cojones. Give him a good night, you know, but he's got a temper. I think he might turn up and get nuts. I'm pulling out, viejo."
"Give us his name and we'll have a talk with him," Hanrahan said as Maish returned with coffee. "You don't have to pull out."
"I got other reasons for wanting to get out," she said, touching her red lips with her even redder fingernails. "Besides, you don't talk to this one," she said laughing, her eyes on the fascinating rapidly melting ice cubes. "I got a deal for you. You watch over me tonight. I got money put away someone's bringing me. I clear out in the morning. When I get where I'm going in Texas, I let you know where to find my book of clients."
"Including the one who's chasing you out?" asked Hanrahan, two-handing the cup of coffee.
"Including," said Estralda, "but that's one name won't do you any good. And I told you. I got other reasons for getting out."
"Whole thing won't do us any good," said Hanrahan. "No offense, señorita, but what can we do with the names of a whore's clients?"
"Could get you a big promotion or thanks, borrocho," she said. "You let the Johns on the list know you're tearing it up and they make you both chief of police."
"I'm too old to be chief of police, Estralda," said Lieberman. "You really think this guy is dangerous?"
"I know it," she said, pushing the glass away and looking at Lieberman. "But even if he wasn't, it's time for me to get somewhere warm. Winter's not that far, you know?"
"We'll miss you," Lieberman said.
"I'll miss you too, viejo," she said. "I've put a few dollars away. Maybe I can go back home and start a fingernail-painting shop or something."
She turned and looked over her shoulder out the window. Lieberman turned to see what she was looking at but there was nothing outside but passing cars, the sky, and the empty lot across the street where they'd torn down the Walgreen's last year.
"What about Escamillo?" Lieberman tried. Escamillo Silk was a boxer, a middleweight with a big smile and a little promise if he could stay away from coke. Although he was married and living with his wife, Silk, whose real name was Leon Cascabella, liked to wear Estralda on his arm and Estralda liked to be seen in public. Since she couldn't advertise, being with Silk was good business. She had a nose for business. And maybe Escamillo had something else to offer.
"Can't count on him," she said. And she was right. "We're not, like, that together, you know? Besides, I don't want him knowing I'm pulling out. I'll be gone and maybe a week from now he'll notice. You got to get to my place before midnight," she said.
She looked out the window again but this time Lieberman knew she wasn't looking at something that was there. She was seeing something or someone she couldn't shake.
"This guy gets off work at nine-thirty this week," she said. "He could come any time till one in the morning, maybe later."
"We'll be there quarter to nine," Lieberman assured her.
"There's a motel across the street with a Chinese restaurant," Estralda said. "You can see the front entrance to my apartment building and lobby from it."
"We can see better from the lobby," said Hanrahan.
"And you can be seen better," she said. "I don't want no trouble with the condo committee. I gotta sell that place. I been real careful. Cops sitting around the lobby ... I don't need it. Besides, you can see my window from the Chinese place. You can't see it from the lobby. Just be near if I need you. Give me a call when you get there. It's OK any time before nine-thirty. You got my number."
Lieberman looked at Hanrahan, who gave an enormous put-upon sigh, and nodded. Lieberman conveyed the nod to Estralda even though she couldn't have missed it.
"Then that's it," she said, standing and giving Lieberman the full view with capped-teeth smile. "You don't believe I'll go straight in Texas, do you viejo?"
"Why not?" asked Lieberman.
"Maybe I won't," she said with a sigh, straightening her tight dress as she stood. "I'm all I got to sell. We don't stay young forever and don't live forever, none of us, verdad?"
"Lady," Hanrahan said, "what are you pulling here? We all know you could pay some street junkie four bills to have the guy knocked off."
"No," she said with a laugh and took a step toward the door. "If I went around paying to have every crazy I link with killed, I'd go broke and we'd be ass-high in bodies. Be on time, viejo."
"We'll be there," Lieberman said, and she walked out special for the Alter Cockers, slow with memories. The phone behind the counter was ringing before she reached the door. Maish took his time answering and didn't pick it up till Estralda was out of sight and the Alter Cockers were beginning their post-Estralda critique.
"We don't need her book, Abe," Hanrahan said, shifting in the booth and turning the fan so that it would hit him too. "I figure we're lucky if half that story about the John is true."
"Let's say we're giving her a farewell present. We owe her," said Lieberman.
"Abe," Maish shouted. "For you."
Lieberman got up slowly, knowing the warning ache of arthritis in his knees was inevitable after sitting in one position for an hour.
"Who's the girlfriend, Abeleh?" asked the old man at the counter in the cap.
"Maish," called Harry from the Alter Cocker table, "give Bess a call. Tell her her Abe is gallivanting with Rita Hayworth's daughter, Princess ..."
"... Caroline," Howie Chen supplied.
"Jasmine," said Syd Levan, who looked a little like Nikita Khrushchev.
"Abe?" came a woman's voice on the phone.
"You got me, Louise," Lieberman said.
"Call just came in," said Officer Louise Jackson. "José Ruiz's son saw Del Sol in the Chapultapec Restaurant less than an hour ago."
Emiliano "El Perro" Del Sol was known to have beaten Sylvie Estaban nearly to death with a telephone for talking while Julio Iglesias was singing on the radio. El Perro was reported to have cut the throat of one of the Varga brothers for accidentally stepping on his shoes. More than one person Lieberman knew had been in the Dos Hermanos bar the night El Perro beat into pleading senselessness two construction workers who had dared look at him while he was painfully and slowly composing a letter to his mother in Panama. El Perro was the leader of the Tentaculos, the tentacles, the gang that believed it owned North Avenue.
Excerpted from Lieberman's Folly by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 1991 Stuart Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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