Chapter Five

The slam is no place to ride out a hangover--no hair of the dog, no java, and the big guy that smells like fish took my smokes two minutes after constable Phife locked the door on the holding cell. I would have slept, but a couple of filthy bums passed out on the benches and the floor was sticky as flypaper. Two opium junkies sang some kind of Chinese dirge that sounded like cats mating. I don't know how long I paced in front of the bars before constable Phife came back and yanked me out and shoved me into the interrogation room.

At least it was quiet in there.

I slumped on the battered wood stool, my head on the heavy table, the morning crushed me like a dead cigarette. I never liked Jean, but the sight of his brains spattered across the floral wallpaper still didn't sit well with me. Maybe I felt worse about Alice selling me out to the bluecoats. It was hard to tell, but I couldn't blame her.

I figured someone was watching from the other side of the mirror, but I didn't need to put up a front. I was shattered.

The metal door croaked open and the O'Callahan, the precinct's detective, parked his heavy hide on the stool across from me. He didn't dance around with the usual games, just cut to the chase.

"Did you rough up the lass in the cathouse?"

"No. She was that way when I got there."

"She says different."

I shrugged. Alice had her reasons.

"What kind of connection do you have with Jean Luc Lapin?"

"None anymore. One of your flatfoots gave him a case of lead poisoning."

"If you want to be a smart ass, I'll put you back in the cooler."

"He was a fence," I sighed. "Paid me pretty well. Haven't done business with him for years. I told detective Bryant already, I retired from that kind of work."

"Three bodies and a banged up moll? Sounds like you aren't out of business yet."

"Jean and your bluecoats were the only ones in the building packing heat. Do you think Jean and his gorillas eighty-sixed themselves?"

O'Callahan drummed his fingers on the table, his bloodshot eyes searching for something in mine. "Who beat up the lass?"

I stared at my hands.

"If you've nothing to say, I'll take her story." He lumbered out the door, but didn't close it.

Something smelled funny. O'Callahan didn't toss me around the room, didn't twist my fingers, didn't even raise his voice. The cops couldn't pin Jean or his goons on me; it was police lead weighing down the bodies. Beating up a prostitute was small potatoes. So, why didn't he finger me for the Cohen job?

An idea hit me so hard I almost fell off the stool. O'Callahan didn't know about the robbery! Bryant lied to me. I felt like someone had just shoved a jigsaw puzzle in my hands and a pistol in my face.

O'Callahan returned with a hand full of filing cards, constable Phife on his heels.

"Seems the lass has no story for me either."

Phife unlatched my cuffs.

"This investigation is still open, son." O'Callahan shoved a discharge card into my hands. "Don't leave town."

An hour later I had shambled around half the city and still couldn't work out the puzzle. Bryant told me the police were working a robbery. A lie. It hadn't been reported. Why did he want me to know about it? He told Jean I pulled the job and was holding the loot, so Jean was ready to rub me out. But how did Alice fit into it? I stumbled through Chinatown trying to juggle the pieces, the smell of egg foo yung and cabbage billowed out of the shops like a thick fog, and women bickered over their clicking mahjong tiles in the upstairs apartments.

Bryant must have rolled Cohen's shop last night, then gone back in the morning and taken the report so the precinct was still in the dark. With his connections, Bryant could probably leverage enough of the loot to retire in Mexico.

So he tipped me off about the job, and then what?

Alice called. "Someone's watching the house," she said.

And I came running. She was the only one who knew I was on the way to her place, but Jean was waiting there for me.

I got a sour taste in my mouth, and I needed something to wash it out. The old man in the corner shop knew me by sight. He gave me a bulk discount on rotgut, so I bought two bottles and headed up the hill to my hotel room.

The light was on when I opened my door. Alice perched on the corner of the bed, wet mascara trailed down her face and a furious bruise blazed across her forehead.

"Come back to finish the job?" I pulled the cap off the first bottle and took a long, burning pull of the cheap whiskey. I felt it clawing its way down my throat as I handed her the other bottle.

"I couldn't go through with it," she spluttered.

"You went pretty damned far."

"I called it off, Jake. I told the cops I wouldn't press charges."

"Jean was ready to ventilate me."

"I was supposed to plant a hot coin on you and rat you out to the cops. Bryant must have sent Jean. He was only supposed to send bluecoats."

"Thanks. I feel swell now."

"Look." She rummaged through her purse and pulled out a little card. "First class."

I gave the ticket the once over. Red-eye to Cozumel. I was right about Mexico. "You've still got time to make that flight."

"I told Bryant to take it without me." She sucked on the bottle and winced. "He's got enough loot stashed near the beach to keep himself knee-deep in whores. He doesn't need me." She took my hand and pulled it to her cheek. "But you do."

I heard someone running up the hallway, fast, then the door burst open. Bryant stood there, blustering like winter. The stairs must have worn him out.

"Should've taken my offer, Alice," he growled.

I stood up and squared off against him. "She's made her choice. Get lost, flatfoot."

"Is that so?" he chuckled and pulled the revolver from under his peacoat, aiming it square at Alice. "If I can't have her, you sure won't!"

Before I could think, I hit him in the face with the bottle. His nose flattened with a crack that made me flinch. He clawed at his face, and I grabbed the gun with both hands and threw my whole body against him. I had him pinned against the wall, but he was twice my size and wouldn't stay there long.

"Run, Alice!"

She hesitated for a second, then instinct kicked in and she scuttled past us and out the door. I could hear her heels clattering down the stairs.

Good girl.

Bryant finally got one meaty fist free and rammed it into my eye. I held onto the gun as I fell, and his hand bent in a direction it wasn't meant to. The gunshot sounded like God smacked his fist against my skull.

We both staggered apart. My ears felt full of bees. Bryant gaped at his gut, a red swath growing across the front of his shirt. He slumped against the wall, knocking over the hotplate, and sat there staring at me as the life bled out of him. Then he smiled--that toothy, rotten grin--and pointed the gun at me.

I didn't even hear the shot.

The End

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