The Long Legged-Fly
His sick eyes slid in the light. He was wearing a corduroy coat over a denim shirt, chinos bagged out at knee and butt, legs too long, cuffs frayed. They'd all seen better days, clothes and man alike. Harry had always been a sharp dresser, people said; they even used the word natty. But now skag and his own black heart had got him.
"Carl?" His voice was an emphysematous whisper. Even now a cigarette dangled out the side of his mouth. It waggled up and down as he talked. "I got the money, man. Business as usual, right? Just like you said." A rumbling cough deep in his chest.
"No rush, Harry. Be cool, there's plenty of time. Let up a little, enjoy life." The yardlights were behind me and he squinted at the shadow moving towards him. Not that it would have made much difference. He didn't know me from Earl Long. "And anyhow, first I want to tell you a story. You like stories, Harry?"
Behind us, oil derricks heaved and rested, heaved and rested.
"Magazine Street. Ten-fifteen, Saturday night, about a month ago. There was a girl from Mississippi, Harry. And a party. And you. Any of this beginning to sound familiar?"
His eyes searched the darkness around him.
"I've been looking for you a long time, Harry. It took a long time to find you. A man like you, with your needs, he shouldn't be so hard to find."
He took the cigarette out of his mouth and threw it down. It lay there like a half-blind eye. I stepped out of the light and when he saw me, he was scared for the first time, really scared. Sweat popped out on his pale forehead. Old fears die hard.
"It's only a story, of course. Stories help us go on living. Stories can't hurt anyone, can they, Harry?"
I let him see the knife in my hand then, a leatherworker's knife.
"Big Black Sambo's coming to get you, Harry. Nigger's gonna carve you up like you did her. Nothing left for the pigs and chickens, not even enough for soul food."
His eyes moved. He knew escape was somewhere. But he also knew that like everything else in his life it was going to get away from him.
"Look, man, I don't know who you are, but you got it all wrong. You listen to me, it wasn't my fault. I just fix things arrange them, like that's all I ever done. It was those crazies, man. Goddam long hair and kraut van. They're the ones did that girl."
It tumbled out of him much as the world must have gone in: fitful starts, none of them connected; and underneath, everything blurring together.
I raised the knife and light glinted on the curved blade.
"Yeah, I know, Harry. Crazies on skag and smack feeding new monkeys, crazies on speed and booze and horse and the rush of a couple hundred dollars they just boosted out of some mom and pop's till. But who got the stuff for them, Harry? Who gave it to them and started the party? How much of their stake did it cost them? And whose idea to bring the girl into that?"
Fear lit his eyes like a torch. All around us oil derricks sighed, the last breaths of tired old men.
"Any of this beginning to sound familiar, Harry? You remember the way her face looked when you got through with her? Or how big you felt then, doing all that to the little nigger girl?"
He turned to run but fear tangled his legs. He fell. I let him crawl, a few yards. He was sobbing. Choking.
"You didn't even know her name, Harry." I walked up slowly behind him, got a foot under and flipped him over. He flopped like something not human, and his eyes rolled. I let him have a good long look at my face, all the things that were in it.
"Sleepy after your bedtime story?"
Blood welled out of his throat and soaked denim, corduroy, ground. His eyes looked like something you'd find under a rock.
I searched his pockets and got the money that was for the kid. Then I bent down and opened up his wasted belly with the knife.
"That was for Angie," I said.
Behind us, oil derricks shushed any eulogy.
I hadn't been to the apartment in three days, the office in four, so it was a toss-up. Finally, cruising down St. Charles, I decided the office was closer so what the hell. I went around the block a few times. All the parking spaces were filled. I finally pulled the Cad into a tow-away zone and raised the hood. Weak, but it might work. It had before.
The bakery was doing hot business, but upstairs it looked like everybody had moved out. There was something peculiar about that at two-fifteen in the afternoon. Then I remembered it was Labor Day. Maybe I'd have to do some work to celebrate.
I stopped in front of the door marked "Lewis Griffin, In estigations" (the v had escaped a year or so back; most days I envied it) and got out the key. There were a lot of notes tacked to the door I had an informal arrangement with the bakery for taking messages. I ripped them off, turned the key and went on inside. The floor was littered with mail they'd dropped through the slot. I scooped it up and dropped it on the desk with the messages.
There was a half-filled glass of bourbon and an almost empty bottle on the desk. I went to the bathroom, rinsed the glass, and finished emptying the bottle into it. Then I sat down to go through all the junk.
Most of it was just that. Circulars, subscription renewal notices, religious pamphlets. There were three letters from the bank that I was overdrawn and would I please at my earliest convenience drop by and see Mr. Whitney. There was also a telegram. I held it up, turning it over and over in my hands. Never liked those things.
I finally ripped it open and looked. There was the usual salad of numbers and letters that meant nothing. Under that was the message.
GRAVELY ILL STOP ASKING FOR YOU STOP
I sat there staring at the yellow paper. Ten minutes must have gone by. The old man and I had never been close, not for a long time anyhow, but now he was asking for me. Or was that just something Mom put in? And what the hell happened, anyhow? I couldn't see anything short of a train or howitzer ever stopping the old horse.
I got up and went to the window, taking the bourbon with me. I put it down in one gulp and put the glass on the sill. Down in the street a group of kids were playing what looked like cops and robbers. The robbers were winning.
I went back to the desk and dialed LaVerne's number. I didn't really expect to catch her this time of day, but she got it on the third ring.
"Lew? Listen, man, I've been trying to get in touch with you all week. Your mother's been calling me two, three times a day. I left messages all over this town."
"Yeah, I know, honey. Sorry. I've been away on business."
"But you always let me know..."
"Didn't know myself until the last minute." I looked wistfully at the empty bottle on the desk (good word, wistfully), wondering if the drugstore across the street would be open. I hadn't noticed. "But I'm back now and looking to see you."
"What is it, Lew? What's wrong?"
"Mom didn't say?"
"She wouldn't even have told me who she was if she didn't need something."
"My father's sick. I don't know, a heart attack, a stroke, maybe an accident something, anyhow. 'Gravely ill' was what she said."
"Lew. You've gotta go up there. Next plane."
"And what would I use for money."
She paused. "I've got money."
"Like the man says, Thanks but no thanks."
Another pause. "Someday that pride of yours'll kill you, Lew. The pride or the anger, I don't know which'll get you first. But look, it can be a loan, okay?"
"Forget it, Verne. Besides, I'm on a case." I was beginning to wonder why I had called her in the first place. But who else was there? "I'll call tonight, find out what's happening. And I'll be in touch tomorrow. Hang in there."
"You too, Lew. You know where to find me. Bye."
I put the receiver down and looked again at the empty bottle. Maybe Joe's was the place for me tonight. I looked at my watch. Maybe eight, nine would be the best time to call. Maybe they'd know something by then. Maybe they knew something already.
I threw the letters from the bank in the wastebasket and headed out the door.
When I got to the street, my car was gone.
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